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Saturday, 9 November 2019

The Jewish Story is a Universal Story: on Genesis 12, Kristallnacht and the Fall of the Berlin Wall

In the annual cycle of readings from the Torah, the Jewish story could be said to begin this week. Earlier stories - the mythic narratives of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, the Tower of Babel and the diversification of languages – all these tales are universal, there’s not a Jew in sight, the Hebrew people don’t yet exist; these stories are the backdrop to the drama to come; the storytellers are creating, narrating, a prologue to set the scene for the arrival on stage of the first ‘hero’ (as it were) of this particular, peculiar story of the Israelite community that Jews today find themselves heirs to. 

At the end of the sedrah we read last week, set in Ur of the Chaldees – it’s in southern Iraq – we hear over several verses about a large family dynasty:  husbands and wives, sons and daughters, all named, the details lovingly recoded, the ages when they give birth, how long they lived, a family history of information only, no stories, no personalities, nothing to distinguish one person from the next, one generation from the next. Someone called ‘Abram’ is mentioned, but he’s just part of a list - he could be anyone, no one would know him from Adam, so to speak. He has a wife, Sarai – and there’s only one tiny piece of biography added, en passant: she cannot conceive, she has no child (Genesis 11:30). There seems no immediate significance to that – though later we find out that it’s crucial. 

But the story moves on, Abram moves with his father and family from Ur, towards Canaan – no reason is given, economic migrants probably, people have always moved from land to land, it’s an ancient story – and they settle along the way, before they reach their intended destination, in Haran – it’s in southern Turkey – which is where Terach, Abram’s father, dies. 

And before we can draw breathe, in our next paragraph, the beginning of this week’s sedrah (Genesis chapters 12-17) - but remember that the sedrah divisions are later than the Torah text, they are produced when the rabbis got to work dividing up the text for weekly readings – suddenly our unfolding story takes off in a completely new direction. Abram hears a voice, receives an insight, is opened up to something extra-ordinary. His father has died - and it’s as if that space opens him up to be receptive to something that comes to him about what he needs to do now.  

The Hebrew (12:1) is brilliantly expressive but enigmatic – lech l’cha: ‘get up and go’, ‘go for yourself’, ‘go, for your own sake’, ‘go towards your real self’ (as the midrash has it), ‘go, journey, into your Self’, as the Hasidic masters interpreted it, psychologically. Lech – verb; le – preposition; cha – pronoun. But lech l’cha  is more than the sum of its parts: it’s a pun, a play on words, generating a rhythm, which involves a repetition and a moving forward – “go, go on!” 

What the divine voice reveals, invokes, becomes a prototype for Jewish history, personal and collective. On one level, life is a journey: we have no choice but to ‘go, go on,’ – even if we don’t always want to journey ‘into ourselves’, we do keep on going. And historically, this has been our fate: we have survived, we go, we go on. Stubbornly, joyfully, defiantly, thankfully, fearfully, crazily - we keep on going.

How does the verse continue? “Go, go on, from your homeland, from your family of origin, from your household” (12:1) – the Jewish story from Abram’s time onwards has been a story of journeying, geographically: mayartzecha, ‘homelands’ left behind over again over the  millennia. 

And then u’mi’moladtcha,  ‘families of origin’ departed from – socially or economically or politically or spiritually, sometimes huge transformations in one generation, from rags to riches, from religious to secular, from no formal education to doctorates and Nobel prizes, dizzying transformations in a single generation, ‘go for yourself, go for your own sake’, it’s been the guiding mantra of Jews, particularly in modernity, families of origin left far behind. 

And then u’mibayt avicha, ‘leave your household’, ‘your father’s house’: maybe the hardest leaving of all, not just to leave the shelter of the  family home, but to recognise emotionally, or pragmatically, that your parents are not the only sources of wisdom, the only guides to truth, or love, or how to live in the world; you sometimes have to break with them, separate from them, as you move towards ‘your real self’, lech l’cha: journey towards who you really are - which is not a mirror of your mother, or a clone of your father. That can be the hardest, most painful, leaving of all. 

And the Hebrew text speaks to all these levels of leaving – homeland, family of origin, parental ways of living. And Abram hears, realises, intuits, that if he can do this extraordinary physical and emotional and spiritual set of leavings there is another land waiting for him; “the land that I will show you” (12:1). It’s Abram’s first test, to trust this voice, to follow this voice, where it will lead him. 

But the voice does not stop there. Abram hears something more, realises something else, intuits how much is at stake – this isn’t just a personal journey, it’s part of a larger story, it’s foundational for our Jewish story. Without it Jews would not still be gathering to hear this tale told again. This absurd and grandiose vision is presented to Abram as trans-historical. Our storytellers increase the stakes, they raise the bar up to the heavens, they broaden the narrative to embrace humanity itself, beyond the horizon of time. 

‘You’ll become a great nation, renowned throughout the world, and you will be a blessing - but being a blessing and carrying a destiny will bring to you both blessings and curses, people will love you and hate you, yet ultimately the world will be a better place for your existence, your going-on-being, and all the families of the earth will come to realise that they are blessed because of what you are and carry and represent and live out.’  (12: verses 2-3, my paraphrase). 

This is our myth, this is our sacred story, our grandiose fantasy - and our storytellers introduce us to it in these verses through this character, Abram, from Haran, by way of Ur of Chaldees, whose migration will become part of the living saga of the Jewish people through all our migrations. It’s become part of our psychic DNA, this extra-ordinary tale, fantasy, narrative. 

And what do we make of it? In a way, we have no words with which we can reply to it. Like Abram. No words. No response. No dialogue. “Va’yelech Abram…” – “And Abram went…” (12:4).  Actions speaking louder than words. Actions speaking instead of words. Because what was there to say? Lech, he’d heard : va’yelech, and he went. There was nothing to say. 

So the Jewish story, our sacred journey through time and history, begins in obedience, and in silence. And maybe in bafflement – who knows? Obedience to the Word, submission to what is revealed, intuited, understood in a new way.  The arguing came later: all the words, all the questions, all the complaints, all the dissent, all the struggling with the Word, all that wrestling with angels and strangers, that all came later - it’s part of our story too, part of the sacred story. But this week we read how the journey starts: in vision, in promise, in separation, in journey, in silence, in submission, in hearing the heartbeat of Jewish life: ‘be a blessing, become a blessing…'

Let’s jump now two thousand years, more (countless years more): if this was a film, say by Stanley Kubrick, our next scene follows straight on, a jump cut from mythic time into history. November 5th, 1938. It’s a Shabbat, and the sedrah of the week is Lech l’cha, read in synagogues that day throughout Germany, along with everywhere else that Jews gather to hear their sacred texts. These same words, this story of leaving homelands, and families, and homes – who knows how those words resonated in people’s hearts in Germany in autumn 1938?

 Four days later, during that week of Lech l’cha, on November 9th (81 years ago today) paramilitary forces and civilians attack synagogues and Jewish-owned shops, houses, schools, hospitals. An orgy of looting and violence sweeps through Germany, Austria, Sudetenland -  267 synagogues destroyed; 7,000 businesses vandalised or closed down; 30,000 Jewish men rounded up into concentration camps. 

I will bless those that bless you and curse those who curse you” (12:2) – they knew back then, those ancient storytellers, that the Hebrew people, the Israelite community, the Jewish community, carrying this vision, would attract both blessings and curses, both admiration and appreciation, and envy and hatred. How did they know that? They couldn’t know. And yet they did know. Abraham’s journey begins, symbolises, a history of journeying, Jewish journeys through the millennia, bringing blessing, attracting curses, generation after generation. 

Jump cut. 51 years exactly, November 9th, 1989. The week leading up to Lech l’cha, and Germany, risen from the ashes and the shame, but now divided, has news that transfixes the world. News about journeys, and leaving homelands and families of origin.

In the early evening of November 9th, 1989, an East German government spokesman, following an autumn of political protests about travel restrictions,  told a press conference that East Germans would soon be free to travel into West Germany. Asked when, he hesitated and then, to the shock and amazement of the press corps, said ‘From now, immediately’. 

The Western press reported that the border had opened – it hadn’t, they were wrong – but when people started gathering in large numbers in Berlin on both sides of the border (and remember it’d been closed since 1961 and you’d be shot if you tried to cross it), the officials were overwhelmed by the crowds and around 11.30 that night passport checks by the guards were abandoned as people just flooded through, and in the next 24-48 hours – over Shabbat Lech l’cha itself, in fact – the first pieces of the hated wall were pulled down. ‘Go, go for your own sake, go: leave your land, your family, your home…’.

The Jewish story is a universal story as well. Jewish history and European history are intertwined in unbreakable bands of steel; or better, bands of silk, knotted together so they can never be undone, and their colours and textures just merge into a profuse riot of dense and vibrant patterning.  

Thirty years later, as the anniversary of these events is marked – on this fate-filled Shabbat of leaving and journeying and blessing and cursing – we are now able to see that this opening up to the West was also a source of pain for many; millions moved for a better life, millions more lost their jobs, their security, their sense of who they were - it brought a curse as well as a blessing, and not just in Germany but in Poland and Hungary and may of the former lands where communism had held sway. And the rise of right wing nationalism in Europe, that once more threatens Jews, is just another turn in the wheel of history. 

So Brexit or no Brexit, it may be worth remembering, as our Torah returns to the symbolic point of origin of the Jewish story, that our diasporic Jewish story is also, so much, a European story: that we are part of Europe in deep and knotted ways and that shared peace, shared trade, shared security, shared scientific and cultural and educational projects, shared values, should not be sacrificed on the altar of some ideological illusion that insularity is somehow better than solidarity.  

And as our Jewish community in the UK goes through its current paroxysm of fury, and tears itself apart over what to think about the Labour party and antisemitism, who to vote for, who not to vote for, our Torah text reminds us that we have known from the very beginning of our story, our history, that some will curse us, but that that should not deflect us from our mission, our purpose, which is vehyeh bracha – “be a blessing” (12:2). Nothing more than that is required – but also, nothing less. “Be a blessing”. 

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, November 9th, 2019]

                                                       Something else...

For those interested in the current debate in Anglo-Jewry about how Jews 'should' vote in the forthcoming election I have written a short piece in response to a somewhat provocative suggestion from a colleague:

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Saving the Planet, One Arrest at a Time

I want to say a few words about the actions of my friend and colleague Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, who was arrested this week, on the first morning of the festival of Sukkot, as part of the Extinction Rebellion protests in London. As the video below makes clear, it was a peaceful and principled protest, a willingness to sacrifice personal well-being and comfort for the sake of an ethical cause – and to do so on behalf of all those who have a deep concern about the environmental emergency we face collectively but, like myself, can’t or won’t put our own bodies on the line to help raise awareness of the fire raging in the attic while we watch TV in the lounge.

We exist on “the only planet where Life has found/ a land of milk and honey” (Harry Martinson, Aniara). And this appreciation of Life, in all its manifold and divine flourishing – human, animal, natural – has always been close to Jeff’s heart. The first sermon I ever heard Jeff give demonstrated this. Literally demonstrated it. I was a young teenager in Manchester, and the small Reform community that my parents had helped to set up (they were migrants from Orthodoxy) had invited a young rabbinical student from the Leo Baeck College to lead services for the Jewish New Year. Services were makeshift, in a rented hall with uncomfortable chairs.

For his sermon, Jeff was accompanied by a long thin leafy branch of a tree or bush – in my mind’s eye it has small blossoms on it, but as it was autumn this may not be the case. (But let the blossoms stand  as symbol of something that happened within me that day).  He held the branch in his hand, turning it over, running his finger along it, and back again, and hesitantly, slowly, after a long initial silence, Jeff began to talk about the Life within that branch, the extraordinary miracle of natural life in trees and plants, life on the planet, the mystery of it (beyond any scientific understanding), the ways in which growth flowed through nature (and human nature), how the Jewish New Year was a celebration of ‘the birthday of the world’, a poetic image for a celebration of, and gratitude for, Life itself, in all its richness and superfluity. Or words to that effect.

He brought a branch of a tree into the synagogue and talked about it! Hard to convey now, more than 50 years later, how extraordinary this was, how unprecedented, how bizarre, how divisive (what kind of craziness is this?), and for some (me) – how electrifying this was.  Gratitude for, awe for, the Life energy within the natural world? This natural world all around us was a channel for the divine? (Hadn’t Wordsworth spoken of this? But a rabbi? With a branch on his hand?).

And so, now, it is that passion, that commitment to the sanctity of the natural world and the environment we inhabit, that unabated commitment to speaking about what really counts - what it means to live in a finely-tuned and precious world – it is that same passion that brings Jeff, now Emeritus Rabbi of Finchley Reform Synagogue, to his latest demonstration-sermon, on the streets of London.

The action in the video is the sermon, the demonstration: a sermon accompanied this time by a lulav and etrog, the symbols of this seven day festival of Sukkot - symbols of the fertility of nature, the fragility of nature, demonstrations of the ancient Jewish awareness of the preciousness and precariousness of Life on this planet.

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Should Religious Leaders Avoid 'Politics'?

It used to be said that when rabbis speak to their communities, they shouldn’t be ‘political’. Avoiding politics, they should talk about something more ‘spiritual’, more edifying, more…rabbinic. Maybe about Jewish values, or Jewish ethics,  things that the Torah focuses on – like, erm…care for the outsider, love of the stranger, concern for the poor and the marginalised in society, social justice, legal and illegal business behaviour, the avoidance of intemperate language in families and in communities; how to look after one’s fields, and animals, trees, the soil and the natural habitat, the environment. Stuff like that. 

And of course there is plenty of material like that – that flows out of the Torah’s moral vision, which is based on, rooted in, the extraordinary, revolutionary notion that there is something of the divine in each human being - humanity made ‘in the image and likeness of God’, as the Torah puts it with typical poetic and imaginative richness – a moral vision that embraces the natural world too, as part of the ongoing creative activity of Adonai, the One and timeless source of all that exists. 

Well, I hope you can see what a nonsense this is in reality, that rabbis shouldn’t be ‘political’. Because all those themes surrounding Jewish ethical and moral responsibilities are of course deeply political. The way in which the social and environmental policies of a country are arranged, the legal arrangements for people to get justice (or not), the economic policies and priorities of a government  that effect the living day-to-day reality of everyone in a society – do they increase the gap between rich and poor or reduce it? – the way a country tackles hate crimes, and prejudice and discrimination: all of these everyday tangible concerns of successive governments, the bread-and-butter stuff of politics -  although it’s not often articulated as rooted in a moral or ethical vision - this kind of politics does of course have a large ethical dimension and therefore is something that Jewish tradition – and rabbis - will have a view on.  

So – taking a leaf out of George Orwell’s book, when he wrote that “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude” - I would suggest that ‘The opinion that sermons should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude’. 

But by now I am sure you are thinking – well I hope you are, I hope you are one step ahead of me on this – you’ll be thinking: “Well, when they say religious leaders shouldn’t be ‘political’, what’s meant is ‘rabbis shouldn’t be party political’”. As Hamlet famously soliloquised: “Ay, there’s the rub”.  One shouldn’t be party political. 

By the way, Shakespeare borrowed this phrase from the game of bowls, in which ‘rub’ – as in ‘drawback’, ‘obstacle’, ‘impediment’ – meant some unevenness in the ground, that hindered or diverted the free movement of the bowl. It might be useful to rehabilitate this term in the current circumstances of our political life as a nation, when we see the unevenness – not to say chaos – on the ground beneath our feet: each hyperactive day a new development, a new obstacle to the smooth running of ‘politics as usual’. One might say that Mr. Johnson is not exactly getting the 'rub of the green' at the moment: to lose one’s first seven votes in parliament as well as being humiliated 11-0 by the Supreme Court, well if he was managing a football team, the Club’s owners might well be asking him to ‘consider his position’. As in: ‘consider that your position is now vacant’. 

Actually, I’ll let you into a secret, I wasn’t going to talk about any of this in the synagogue today [Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year], straying into ‘party politics’. Like one recent notorious example, I was dithering up to the last minute about which way to go: I didn’t actually have 2 sermons prepared, one of which I’d bin depending on which way the wind was blowing, but then I’m not being paid 275,000 quid a year to pen a weekly column of waffle, piffle and prejudice;  but what I am paid to do, amongst other things, is offer you from time to time some considered thoughts on what our timeless Jewish values might have to say in relation to what is going on in our perplexing and fraught world: communally, nationally, globally. 

Because I know that many of us (in this community in Finchley, and wider) are feeling – if we haven’t become desensitised by the relentless barrage of news that arrives every hour – we’re feeling the maelstrom of disorder and uncertainty sweeping through the daily fabric of our lives, our livelihoods, the very air we breathe. 

We are caught up in all this whether we want it or not. And although you might hear me voicing some disobliging remarks about some of our political leaders – and don’t worry, I will come to Mr. Corbyn in a moment – yes, I am very aware of that old-school unwritten guideline about party politics; but I am also aware that it can be a dereliction of rabbinic responsibility and leadership to ignore what’s going on in front of our eyes and not call out politicians (in whatever country) when they cross red lines of legality, or racial prejudice, or just common human decency. 

And one of the reasons I do want to talk about political issues – and this dementing political, social, economic, and environmental mess we are in – is because of what it’s doing to us, how ill it is making us as a society. It’s making us emotionally unwell, and sick in body and soul, it’s hollowing us out. I see this every day not just on the news-feeds of knife crime and homelessness and food banks and austerity-produced deprivation and shortening life expectations around the country, but I see it too in my consulting room as a therapist: how people are suffering from the diseases and dis-ease of 21st century consumerism with its roots in capitalism’s necessary fantasy, promoted by almost all political parties, of endless economic growth and social progress. People talk dismissively about the ‘worried well’ going to see their therapists – but actually, whether you are seeing a counsellor or not, people are not worried well, they are worried sick. 

The way we live now is making us sick - not just metaphorically, but literally; and it’s generating a barely disguised (and in some quarters nakedly undisguised) aggression that is poisoning our land. Things are not working out the way people want them to in so many domains of life, and the Brexit furore  (as important as the issue is for the future well-being of  the country) is a cover story for a much deeper malaise.

People become angry when they can’t have what they want, whether it’s realistic or not. You see it in toddlers and you see it writ large in the House of Commons. People become enraged at being denied their wishes, or when their feelings about what they want – or feel they deserve, or feel they have a so-called ‘right’ to - become thwarted. Democracies across the globe are being transformed by the power of feeling. And it’s not just anger that is being released, but there’s resentment and fear - because we know in our hearts that all is not well in the world. 

The future looks perilous on many levels, which is why nostalgia for a imagined past when all was well (even though it wasn’t) becomes so powerful. And I think religious leaders do have a responsibility to talk about all this as our New Year begins, and we reflect on what needs to change, and how we might need to change, and how we, as Jews, might respond to where we find ourselves at this point in our nation’s history.   

None of us knows, of course, what tomorrow’s headlines could be, for ourselves, our country. That’s always been true, but in our increasingly speeded-up, interconnected, always-‘switched on’ world, with the  country’s current political crises continuing to cascade over us, it’s hard to keep up, even if we want to - and many people don’t want to, it can feel too unbearable to be exposed to the lying, the deception, the chicanery and corruption, the combustible rhetoric, the demagogic language, the polarising rhetoric, the demonization of the other, all this ugly and sometimes frightening stuff.  

We live in multiple worlds now: while the ever-changing local, national, international issues swirl round us, the timeless pageant of births, marriages and deaths goes on, all the personal stuff, our health scares and illnesses, divorces, job losses, emotional problems, everyday disappointments – all of that is woven into the tapestry of our lives (alongside the constant reminders of a planet heating and flooding and choking). 

And I think it can create inside us – all this hyperactivity - some very difficult, hard-to-manage, feelings: of nervousness, lostness, helplessness, emptiness; so that in a secret part of ourselves we feel we don’t know what we are doing, what’s happening, where we are going; we don’t know where hope is going to come from for the future:  our futures, or our children’s futures, or - God help them - our grandchildren’s futures?

We are all having to manage it, this febrile atmosphere that’s stalking the land, with its toxic mix of nationalism and populism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny - and yes, undercurrents of antisemitism too. And you’ll all have your views and opinions, and nothing I say will make any difference to how you cast your vote when an election arrives, as it will do soon in the UK. (I’m back to party politics).  

And unlike in America, where it’s illegal for rabbis to speak to congregants about how they might vote; and unlike in Israel, where the Haredi rabbis tell their followers who to vote for, and they do, and nobody thinks there’s anything amiss with that, you here would be shocked (I hope) if I – or any of the clergy here in the synagogue - directed your attention towards who to vote for. 

Still, I was shocked – and believe me it takes a lot to shock me - to hear that some of my rabbinic colleagues (not in this community I hasten to add) are thinking of writing to their congregants before the election and telling them not who to vote for, but who not to vote for: i.e. to cast their vote for whatever party would have the best chance in that constituency of defeating the Labour candidate, even if it goes against their normal political allegiance.

I don’t think I’m in a minority in thinking that’s a pretty problematic decision, if they follow through with it. It’s problematic for a variety of reasons - not least because I think it could well add fuel to the already smouldering anti-semitic fires that we know about, and keep an eye on. 

By the way, I would be saying this whatever the party being targeted:  I hold no personal candle for Corbynite Labour and some of his nastier and ignorant fellow-travellers. But in sharing this with you, more in sorrow than in anger, I want to use it to illustrate a deeper, more substantial point: for me it represents just how contaminated by emotionality and false consciousness our thinking has become - when even supposedly thoughtful Jewish leaders fall prey to this kind of polarised thinking, something quite upsetting, and frightening, is happening: rather than help people think about and manage their fears and anxieties about disturbing trends in the society around us – all that toxic swirl of  aggression, anger, hatred, victimisation, blame, some of the ugliest strands of emotion inside us that we know courses through public discourse and on social media – instead of helping us as a Jewish community contain our worries, our emotional distress, and retain or fortify our psychological and spiritual wellbeing, I think those kind of rabbinic messages can only stoke people’s fears, increase people’s anxieties, collude with our historically deep-seated impulses towards paranoid thinking. 

To which some might respond: but what if it’s not paranoia? As they say: ‘Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they are not out to get you’. To which I would reply: and yes, that’s exactly what the paranoid mind says, it’s always ‘them’, never me. But our job – and it’s not easy, but it is psychologically and spiritually essential – is to separate out the outward hostility (where it exists) from our conscious and unconscious hostility that we project outwards and then feel is being directed at us. If we don’t stay in touch with and control our own aggression, we will only ever feel it as being directed at us. 

The one thing we know is that we don’t know what tomorrow will bring; but unless we are rooted in, and work at staying rooted in, something timeless in our Jewishness, we are going to feel very lost, a bit demented sometimes, and perhaps sometimes feel we’re losing our hopefulness in life. And what do I mean by ‘staying rooted in something timeless in our Jewishness’? 

On Rosh Hashanah, as a new year begins when things are likely to remain chaotic and fragmented, disenchanted and polarised and fraught, we need to focus on what counts, what really counts: and what counts doesn’t change with the zeitgeist, with fashion, with the ups and down of political rhetoric. What counts – the machzor [prayer book] reminds us of this on every page – are compassion, generosity, lovingkindness, a passion for justice, a deep care for one’s neighbour, and for the stranger, the outsider. 

These are the values that are timeless, and this is what the meaning of Jewish survival is about – not survival for almost three millennia for its own sake, just another ethnic group to add to the rich mix of humanity; that’s not what our purpose is here in this world, to focus on our national or ethnic claim as Jews, but to bring into a lived reality these qualities which are at the heart of the Jewish story, the Jewish vision. We have survived not just in order to keep on surviving, but because we have a role; to be a spiritually alive Jew  means to be a blessing, to bring a blessing into the world through our actions, our everyday inter-personal behaviour, our ability to say, and to enact, that you – created in the image of the divine – have  value.  I have value, but you have value too. A value that we cannot put a price on. The divine spirit which animates all things and flows through creation and lives in me, is also in you, in the others. This underpins a religious vision, just as it underpins, in a disguised form, human rights legislation and our justice system and our care for the environment. 

Unless we keep rooted in this ancient (and yet still never achieved) vision, we will not survive. Unless as Jews, individually and in communities, we are committed to care, to kindness, to concern for those who are deprived of rights, to the impoverished, and the marginalised; unless we are committed to the well-being of life – human, animal, natural; unless we keep a steady eye on our vision, our Godly purpose, we will feel lost, confused, frightened, scared of the future. 

If we turn away from these values, turn inward, we will betray  our purpose and our destiny, our raison d’etre. And if we betray it, there will be nobody to fix things after us. And whether your commitment is through working with groups like Extinction Rebellion, or the Jewish Council for Racial Equality, or through the synagogue, or in random acts of kindness in individual relationships with people you meet, what matters is that you allow the timeless ethical demands and wisdom of our tradition to filter through you, so that you are agents of the change you would like to see. 

George Orwell once wrote that “In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act”. So let’s be revolutionaries. Our tradition calls today Yom Ha-Zikkaron, the ‘Day of Remembering’, and the truth is that for Jews there are two kinds of remembering. One kind of remembering - the lachrymose view of our past - is remembering the vale of tears we have inhabited because we have attracted hatred and hostility, over the generations: that’s an old story, always close to the surface, always waiting to snare us in its determinism, ‘remember what’s happened to us’. There’s  a truth there, yes, and we need to remember it – but without it colonising our minds. Because if it does colonise our minds, occupy all the available space with its haunting story of what has been done to us, there’s no room for the other remembering, the other truth, the other revolutionary act. 

And this second kind of Jewish remembering is to remember our vision, symbolised by the revelation at Sinai, of a new ethic of how to live together, how to create a society of well-being: a vision of inter-personal generosity, compassion, the fighting against injustice, the care for each other, and the care not just for those like us, but for those different to us.  Remembering the moral vision we have been given and carried for all these generations, in all its depth and richness and all its demands to be lived out, remembering this is the way forward, the way we keep hope alive in fraught times.

Keeping our eye on the timeless is no guarantee that we won’t lose our bearings in the face of the superfluity and bombardment of everyday life – but without it our sense of being lost and directionless will only grow. In the face of division, hostility, demeaning language, let’s be revolutionaries, let’s insist on the timeless truths we still hold close to our hearts. 

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, October 2nd, 2019]

Sunday, 22 September 2019

'These Terrible Times': Approaching the New Year with Paul Celan

Someone asked me last week if I was going to be speaking at the synagogue’s annual pre-Jewish New Year service (Selichot) and when I said yes, they said - in a tone I thought was slightly cynical (but also maybe a bit hopeful?) - ‘Well, in these terrible times, have you got anything uplifting to say?’ 

‘In these terrible times, have I got anything uplifting to say?’ Good question. I don’t normally think that my job necessarily is to be uplifting. (A sermon isn’t a bra). But I did sort of understand what they were saying. They were wondering, in these so-called ‘terrible times’, what is there that can lift the spirits? Where do we go to feel hopeful about our futures – personally, nationally, collectively on the planet? And how does that need for uplift relate to the self-chastening introspection that is at the heart of these approaching High Holy Days? 

As I thought about this phrase - ‘these terrible times’ - what came to mind (and this may be a psychological defence, I’m not sure, a way of protecting myself from some of the painful realities we’re currently going through) - what came to mind was a poem I recently came across. And I want to talk about this poem – its background, its themes -  and see where it takes us in terms of the spirit, our human spirit. 

The poem connects two of the greatest European Jewish writers of the 20th century, Romanian-born Paul Celan and the German poet Nelly Sachs. Celan, born in 1920, started writing poetry as a teenager, in German, was interned in the Czernowitz ghetto in 1941, survived various labour camps after that, lost both of his parents in the Shoah – his father to typhus following deportation, his mother was shot, too weak to continue in her labour camp – and having survived the War, found himself eventually in exile in Paris, where he lived until his death in 1970. He was just 50 when he threw himself from the Pont Mirabeau into the Seine.  

Nelly Sachs was almost 30 years older than Celan, and in 1940, as she approached her 50th birthday, she was about to be deported to a concentration camp, when – with the help of the Swedish Royal Family (a story in itself) - she escaped with her elderly mother to Sweden on the last flight there out of Germany. She lived in Sweden for the rest of her life, continued writing, in German, won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but suffered many mental breakdowns and hospitalisations until her death, also in 1970 - just a couple of weeks after her friend Celan, as it happens, on the day of his funeral.      

‘These terrible times’ of ours, indeed. 

The immediate background to this poem is Celan and Sach’s first meeting in 1960 - their only meeting as it happens - after many years of correspondence, letters back and forth, Stockholm to Paris, Paris to Stockholm, letters about their mutual obsessions, passions, mental disturbances; about the Shoah, and Jewish history, about the fate of the Jews, about what they had witnessed and lived through and survived, all themes they were wrestling with in their writing, in their poems.  

By 1960 they had become very close, like brother and sister they both felt, but they had never met, until in May that year Sachs was to receive a literary award in Germany, and they agreed to meet. In Zurich. They would have met in the town where Sachs was to receive her award – it was just over the border from Switzerland - but she said she could not manage, could not bear, to spend even one night on German soil. 

How our pasts - personal, collective - can haunt us, restrict us, drain hope out of us. Past traumas, of different kinds, can shadow us to the end of our days.  Knowing this should make us cautious, diffident - at this time of the year especially - about any assumptions, too glibly held, of the possibility of inner change. Yes: change is possible. But, no: sometimes the past has a grip on us we cannot just shake off. The wounds are too deep. 

So Celan and Sachs met - at the Hotel Stork in Zurich. (Tripadvisor gives it a 4.5 rating:  now a ‘lifestyle boutique’ hotel,  guests appreciated ‘the views from the rooms over the lake’, and ‘the friendly, professional staff’). 

And they talked, these two survivors. And back in Paris a few days later, Celan wrote this poem.  You can see that Celan dedicates it to Nelly Sachs. 

It’s in German of course, but after the Shoah, because of the German language’s tainted, death-dealing associations, Celan in his poetry felt the need to break apart his mother-tongue – it was also literally, his mother’s tongue, the language they had spoken at home – and to re-assemble it in new ways, re-create it in a way that tried to almost alchemically cleanse it of its blood-soaked history of complicity in genocide: an impossible project, but a noble, almost a sacred, task – to craft, carve out, a new kind of German, fractured but honest, fragmented but searching, hesitantly, out of the ashes, for some kind of moral truthfulness. 

And Celan did, painstakingly, forge this new kind of poetic speech out the shards of the old, but once we read him in English, in translation, we find that he is often almost untranslatable. But what can we do? Here it is, we have to attempt the impossible – in this as in much else – ‘Fail again. Fail better’ (Beckett) – so I will give it here in translation, which I have stitched together from different sources, different attempts at rendering the feeling-world of one language, one person, into a language we can all share (the original German text follows).  

As an aside – and forgive these apparent digressions and deviations on the way, they are neither digressions nor deviations, but at the heart of what is  relevant here to the High Holy Days – when I speak about the possibility/impossibility of ‘translation’ I’m also asking: how can one person’s trauma ever be communicated fully to another person? 

We always stay outside the pain of the other, however hard we try to translate it into terms we know, feelings we understand. We can listen, we need to listen, it makes us human, to be open to the other – their story, their troubles, their pain – but we need also to have the humility to recognise that we don’t know how it is, for them. We can’t really ‘translate’ it, we can’t ever understand it fully – ‘Oh, I know just how you feel…I feel your pain’ I hear people say. That’s rubbish. We can catch a glimpse of it maybe, but our limitations are always shadowing us. The text from Samuel Beckett piece that headlined our evening is relevant here:  ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’. There’s hope for you.  If you want it.

Zurich, at The Stork

            For Nelly Sachs

Our talk was of too much, of

too little. Of You (Thou?)

and But-You (Thou?), of

how clarity troubles, of

Jewishness, of

your God.



On the day of an ascension, the

Minster stood over there, it came

with some gold across the water.

Of your God was our talk, I spoke

against him, I

let the heart that I had,


for his highest, death-rattled, his

quarrelling word –

Your eye looked on, looked away,

your mouth

spoke its way toward the eye, I heard:


don’t know, you know,


don’t know, do we?



Zürich, Zum Storchen

Für Nelly Sachs

Vom Zuviel war die Rede, vom
Zuwenig. Von Du
und Aber-Du, von
der Trübung durch Helles, von
Jüdischem, von
deinem Gott.

Am Tag einer Himmelfahrt, das
Münster stand drüben, es kam
mit einigem Gold übers Wasser.

Von deinem Gott war die Rede, ich sprach
gegen ihn, ich
liess das Herz, das ich hatte,
sein höchstes, umröcheltes, sein
haderndes Wort -

Dein Aug sah mir zu, sah hinweg,
dein Mund
sprach sich dem Aug zu, ich hörte:

wissen ja nicht, weisst du,
wissen ja nicht,

On Selichot we start this annual process of asking ourselves: ‘what counts?’ Celan meets Sachs on Ascension Day in the Christian calendar – it commemorates the story of Christ’s ascent to heaven – and the sun is shining,  and they see the reflection of Zurich’s great church, the Minster, mirrored in the water and they talk of other ‘ascensions’, as they each had already done in their poetry: of the screams of Jews ‘ascending’ to heaven; and the bodies of Jews, Klal Yisrael,  ascending’ in smoke into the skies over Europe. 

They came together that day and talked about Jewishness, about faith, about God, sharing questions, facing doubts - just as we do, the ‘Celan’ and the ‘Sachs’ inside of us at this time of year - wrestling with the God of history, and the God of tradition, and the God we doubt, and the God we don’t believe in, and the God we question, and the God we quarrel with: the ‘You’ in the poem (Du – intimate, dialogic, the language used to a beloved) and the ‘But-You’ (Aber-Du) : the struggle to believe in a You when we face a world of pain, upset, failures in our personal lives, our collective life as a Jewish community, problems in our country, on our scorched planet. ‘These terrible times’.  Aber-Du : ‘But where are You?’. 

No, we have no clarity, about any of this – we might wish for clarity, to see things clearly, the way ahead, for ourselves, our families, our world, but we can’t see the way ahead, there is no clarity, in spite of our wishes and prayers;  yet, Celan intuits, ‘clarity troubles’ - there are some questions where too much knowing, too much cleverness, gets in the way: we think we know better, we think we have life sown up, we think we’re better than ‘them’, we think we have the answers…But in this annual period for reflection and inwardness, we call all our certainties into question. 

Clarity troubles’:  we have to start again, we have to re-build, step by step, moment by moment, to find what we can rely on. For, as Celan says, in that poignant, heart-rending ending:  we/ don’t know, do we?, / what counts.’ 

And yet, hope does exist – Celan puts it at the epicentre of this numinous poem. ‘I/let the heart that I had/hope…’ In spite of everything he’d experienced, witnessed, questioned, doubted, refused to countenance, been unable to believe, hope was still there. It’s at the heart of their meeting, their encounter, their Begegnung – ‘All real living is Begegnung’, Martin Buber had written, ‘All real living is meeting’.  

In the poem the hope is - for what? It’s hope for God’s ‘highest, death-rattled…quarrelling word’ – quarrelling/wrangling (haderndes) is a key word for the poet, it echoes back to the Torah, where the people of Israel quarrel, against Moses and against God – the quarrel with God goes back a long way in our tradition – but also, crucially for Celan, the word goes back to the book of Job, where Job, from the midst of his suffering and, as the text says, ‘bitter of soul’, turns to God and says (10:2): ‘Don’t condemn me, let me know why you are contending/wrangling/quarrelling with me’ - ‘tell me what the purpose is of your quarrel with me’.  

This, for Celan, is where hope lies: that it might be possible to wrestle (or be given) a meaning, a personal meaning, out of our experiences - particularly our painful experiences, our sadness and disappointments, our failures to achieve our goals, our failures to live up to, or out of, our better selves. 

Over these weeks now, through the High Holy Days, we return to these themes: what can give us hope for this coming year? How do we work out ‘what counts’? I find in this annual journey that Beckett’s words are – paradoxically – a source of comfort, and hope. 

If we start by acknowledging that all this spiritual work is beyond us, that we will fail to achieve the goals we set ourselves, we will fail to be shining examples of kindness or courage or generosity or compassion or wisdom, that we will fail to enact the fantasy of what we could be – if we start with the reality of ‘failing again’, we can relax into who we really are with our inadequacies and weakness, our flawed humanity, and see what is possible, what might be possible, what we can realistically do better at in our lives, our relationships, at work, or in the family, or with friends.

The humility to know our limitations, that trying and failing is no crime, but part of what it means to be human, this is where we can start. ‘Failing better’ at life sounds a modest goal - but it can take some of the heaviness, the pressure, off, as we step into this High Holy Day journey.  

We aren’t living – as Celan and Sachs lived – in the abyss, the apocalypse. We have our own battles, yes, but we too can appreciate when the sun reflects ‘gold across the water’, we can look up and out and see wonder, see something that sings to us, that moves us, inspires us, touches us, softens us, or gives us resolve. 

That visionary gleam, that golden reflection, takes us beyond our small selves into something bigger. Poets have always recognised this, shaping words into signposts towards the beyond: 

And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things.

(William Wordsworth,  extract from: ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798)

[based on a sermon at Finchley Reform Synagogue, Selichot evening, September 21st 2019]

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Migration and Immigration: Tragedy and Necessity

The father’s black T-shirt was stretched out wide so that the little girl could climb inside and cling to him. They were both face down in the green-grey water. The child’s arm was draped around her father’s neck. She’d been clinging to him in her final moments. Their final moments. Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his 23 month old daughter Valeria drowned in the Rio Grande river, on the border between Mexico and the United States, some time on Tuesday night this past week. 24 hours later the photos of their lifeless bodies had criss-crossed the world, prompting shock and outrage. You may have seen the photos; or you may have blinked and missed this tiny fragment of the ongoing migration crisis on America’s southern border.

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” The words of the Jewish-American poet Emma Lazarus (written in 1883) are, famously, inscribed on the Statute of Liberty in New York harbour. They belong to an era long gone – not only in American history, but also in world history; an era – almost impossible to imaginatively inhabit now – when migration and immigration by those fleeing persecution or war or starvation, or seeking to better their lives, was  welcomed (or sometimes merely accepted, more or less) by host nations for a variety of reasons: economic, or social, sometimes even moral reasons.

Although there were periodic concerns about who might be entering one’s country, it was still a world where it was understood that others, born in one part of the globe, might want to, or need to, leave their homelands and re-build their lives, try to re-build their lives, somewhere else.

And this was understood because there was an awareness that human history is a story of continuous waves of migration, dispersal and wandering. An awareness that populations have always - for millennia - been on the move; that there has never been an age without continuous movement across borders, across continents, across mountain ranges and seas and rivers.

I like to think that Jews in particular are alert to, sensitive to, this story, not only because we have historically been a nomadic people, a diasporic people, moving across the face of the earth because of persecution, certainly, but also through choice, often economic choice and the wish for a better, more secure life. A life more secure if not for ourselves, then for the next generation, all those countless Valerias clinging to fathers and mother - our grandparents and great-grandparents - making those perilous journeys to new lands, each one a real or symbolic ‘goldene medina’,  where the hope was one could lay down one’s head (and one’s battered suitcase of family heirlooms, or Torah scrolls) and shelter from the dramas of history. For a while.

So yes, I like to think that Jews in particular have this story grafted to their souls, this empathy with the immigrant experience, because of our diasporic history of crossing continents, a history that was shared by religious and secular alike, a history that embraces the pious and the heretic, the believers and the non-believers, and all those in-between. An understanding of, and a sympathy towards, those who are forced to - or choose to - cross borders, seems to be psychologically and sociologically part of our cultural inheritance. But it is also part of our spiritual inheritance.

In our cycle of readings from the Torah we are in the midst of the book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Bible: B’midbar – ‘In the wilderness’.  Those 40 years in the wilderness, those years of desert wandering, is part of the foundational story, the foundational myth, of Jewish consciousness. This quixotic narrative is encoded within our Jewish psyches: that long journey away from the place of slavery towards the so-called ‘promised land’. Those in-between years, which stretch out for a lifetime. Some rabbinic commentators saw this as a punishment, which is one way of describing it - and is maybe the way we all feel when we are frustrated from getting what we want when we want it: someone or something is punishing us.

But then we in our comfortable lives – or at least more comfortable than were the lives of Valeria Ramirez and her parents – we aren’t always very good at tolerating disappointment, or waiting for our wishes to be fulfilled. Although I admit that 40 years is a long time to wait -though that is sometimes how long it takes to reach where we want to get to.

But the foundational narrative of the Jewish people – the Torah, the five books of Moses – is mostly set in the desert, in the wilderness. Almost three-quarters of the whole Torah, is located within, or describes, this story of wandering from place to place. It’s as if the storytellers are letting us know, in their own subtle way - as they so often do, not spelling it all out - that this is what most of your lives are going to look like: life as a journey, life as movement between places, and between states of mind - between slavery and freedom, between having your lives controlled by others and having the possibility of more autonomy, more ability to forge your own path, your own destiny.

We each have a promised land - though it may be that few of us ever reach it. We may picture a land flowing with milk and honey, set in some distant place, or set in the future – a little dream cottage in the country, or financial security, or a new relationship, or a life free from mental stress or physical pain – but most of our time is spent, like the children of Israel, schlepping from place to place in what can feel like a random or haphazard way, having to bear with what the next day brings. We do live in the wilderness. And we may experience it as a punishment.

But those desert years that the Torah describes are described as containing one special experience that was beyond the expected rigours of a normal desert journey. The people were fed every day with quail and what the story calls manna. When they woke up every day the manna was just there, waiting – except Shabbat, because that’s when the heavenly storekeeper had his day of rest and didn’t open up shop, so the children of Israel were told to stock up the day before.

And the thing about manna, so the rabbis of old said - those Jewish storytellers who spoke about the Bible stories and created stories about the stories, (we call those stories midrash) - what they said about the manna  was that it tasted like whatever you wanted it to taste of: chocolate cake, smoked salmon, salted caramel ice cream, lamb cutlets, (probably not bacon and eggs - but you get the idea).

Manna was storytellers’ fantasy food. The point of it was to help people feel grateful for what they received. Life might have been, life now might feel like, one long journey through a wilderness. But there are small miracles along the way, moments when we receive just what we need. For us, these daily miracles may not be food, though it could be, but we know it when we receive it:  something we really need and that we can’t give ourselves, that we are dependent on getting from the outside - a hug, a text, a phone-call, a job offer, someone’s loving gesture, things which fall into our laps like ‘manna from heaven’. These gifts which just arrive – though we can’t control them - make our long desert journey feel a bit more bearable. A bit more hopeful.

And we all need hope. Particularly in these fraught and disturbing times. Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his wife Tania had hope, they made their journey from Salvador towards their promised land, a long and hard and fraught journey, along with thousands of others, 100,000 a month, and they reached Matamoros, the Mexican city on the banks of the Rio Grande where they went straight to the American migration office to apply for asylum. The office was closed because it was a weekend - and anyway there are just 3 interview slots each week and there were hundreds of applicants in the queue before them. So you ‘do the math’, as they say over there.

And because you have to have hope, and the wanderings can go on for a lifetime, Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez decided to swim across the river, and he took his daughter on his back, leaving his wife on the Mexican side of the river, and in spite of the river being at its highest level for 20 years because of floods, he got his daughter safely across to the other side, the American side, and he left her there and started to swim back for his wife and, while he was swimming back to get her, his daughter left the safety of the shore and went back into the water, so he turned back in desperation and tried to rescue her and – well you know how the story ends, because you have seen the photos, just as you saw the photo four years ago of Alan Kurdi the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned off the Greek island of Kos, which galvanised a world-wide response, a twitch of conscience, though the drownings continue - as we know and don’t want to know - whether it’s in the Mediterranean, or the English Channel, or the Rio Grande.

This is the greatest humanitarian and ethical challenge of our era: the fact of, the inevitability of, migration, immigration, across the planet - and with the resultant rise of xenophobia and nationalism around the world, and various forms of retreat-behind-the-barricades populism on the rise close to home here in the UK, and in the rest of Europe, and beyond, we Jews should know, in our souls and in our hearts, which side of history we are on, or should be on.

This will be the greatest religious and spiritual challenge the Jewish community worldwide faces in the 21st century – how we respond, individually and as communities, to the fact that people always have and always will, want to, or need to, move: to leave ‘there’ – wherever ‘there’ is, and come ‘here’, wherever ‘here’ is.

We recall that in Genesis Abraham is described (14:13) as a ‘Hebrew’ – ivri – and this becomes the name of his tribe and his people. And although we don’t know the linguistic origins of this name, Jewish tradition has connected the word to the Hebrew verb ‘to cross over’. Jews are ‘boundary crossers’ in many senses – mostly metaphorical – but in our times it is sometimes useful to remember this in its literal sense. We have had to move physically across boundaries and borders for millennia – and so we have this deep identification with all those who need to, or choose to, make these perilous journeys today.  

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, June 29th 2019]

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Slavery Today

‘Freedom from slavery’ is a phrase that rolls off the tongue at Pesach (Passover) time. It’s central to the foundational myth of Jewish life. As the Haggadah we recite annually at seder night puts it : Avadim Hayinu… “we were slaves in Egypt and the Eternal, our God, delivered us from there…”.

We tell it again and again. We celebrate it over and over - not only at Pesach but in our daily and Shabbat liturgy: Mi’mitzrayim ga’altanu, Adonai Elohaynu, u’mi’bayt avadim p’ditanu  “From Egypt You delivered us, Eternal God, and redeemed us from the camp of slavery”. It opens the Ten Commandments: “I am the Eternal Your God Who Brought You out of the land of Egypt, out of the camp of slavery” (Exodus 20:1). There is no escaping it.

The reminder is insistent, relentless: ‘Be thankful you are no longer slaves…’

But why this repetition? Why is it so relentless? is this repetition only about collective memory, to keep alive our story,  our cultural heritage?  And to keep us grateful for the freedoms we have? I don’t think so.

I think the urgency of the repetition has another, more hidden, aim: it is not only to remind us to be grateful, but to sensitise us as a people to a moral responsibility. And what is that moral/ethical responsibility? It must be to remind us to be as dedicated to the liberation of those who are slaves today as we are dedicated to remembering our own origins as slaves. 

For slavery still exists. Not the slavery of shackles and transatlantic ships, but the modern slavery of 40.3 million victims of forced labour, forced marriages, sex exploitation and human trafficking (figures from UN’s International Labour Organization). Vulnerable, exploitable, exploited people – 71% are women and girls; 25% are children – form a global supply chain in the agriculture, construction, fashion, beauty and sex industries. Slavery is big business. Pharaohs large and small are raking in profits of around 150 billion dollars a year.

You might wonder what we, as Jews aware of the unethical dimensions of these practices, can actually do? What does our historical memory commit us to do, today? As well as supporting campaign groups like Anti-Slavery International (, you could be alert to where such practices might be happening a heartbeat away from ourselves - there are an estimated 13,000 people enslaved in the UK today. The Modern Slavery Helpline can be contacted on 0800 0121 700.

We should never forget that one of the purposes of our Pesach celebrations is to keep us alert to the reality that slavery is not only a historic crime from the past. It is an ongoing experience - but with no intervention from a liberating God. If God is to work in the world today God has to work though us. The task of freeing others from slavery is in our own divine hands.

In the past I often used to speak about the heart of Pesach as being about inner liberation: freeing ourselves from our own ‘narrowness’ (that’s what the word Mitzrayim / Egypt means): our narrowness of thinking and feeling, our narrowness of beliefs and opinions. It was important, I thought, to find ways of using the themes of the festival to look inwards – as the Hasidim of old did.

The Hasidic movement was always seeking to make the rituals and liturgy and texts of Judaism personal and existential – about our own life as a human being. This approach - and I have over the years borrowed freely from it, built upon it, developing a neo-Hasidic ethos and theology – this whole approach stresses the psychological and the spiritual dimensions of a festival like Pesach: the opportunities for personal change and development.

I still think it’s important to be reminded of this stance, this approach, to our Jewishness – the personal, psychological, the spiritual work that is integral to being a Jew – but I also think, more and more, that in a darkening world, being Jewish is also a political act: we need to keep alive the vision – in cynical and daunting times -  of a certain moral and ethical vision of collective life: how we live together in communities, in societies, in nations, on the planet.

So of course we can ask: ‘what are we enslaved to in our lives?’ I would never deny the centrality of this kind of question, it’s vital. But just as vital - if we are going to have a space in the future, in the generations to come, to ask this kind of personal question – just as vital is the external question (what I am calling the political question): how do we act in the world to reduce the real slavery that still exists?

It isn’t straightforward for Jews living in leafy bourgeois suburbs to know how to address the reality of this. It might be easier to think of freedom from slavery as inner work. But it isn’t enough. I don’t have answers to this question about how to act in the world in relation to these crimes – but I do know that I want to talk about these matters; and encourage you to talk about them, to think about them, to help move mountains about them: move mountains of disinterest and mountains of inertia and mountains of disdain.

The Jewish people is a visionary people or it is nothing. It has no purpose if it doesn’t stay focused on its vision that societies can be transformed and that the balance of creativity and destructiveness in the world, of love and hate,  can be shifted in favour of life, fuller life, liberated life, and away from narrowness and death.

Abandon this vision and we might as well all pack up and go home - for without this vision, personal Jewish life is just narcissistic self-indulgence, and collective Jewish life, community life, just becomes a feel-good social club, or part of the entertainment industry. And we’ve got Netflix for that. 
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, April 6th, 2019)

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Three Remarkable Women

I want to share some thoughts about three remarkable women, each belonging to a different generation, and draw attention to some of their thoughts about bringing up children, and the world of children, and what children need and want. 

Let’s start back in the middle of the last century, in Italy, with Natalia Ginzburg, author, publisher, social critic, parliamentarian. She had a Jewish father, and with her Jewish husband Leone was part of the anti-fascist resistance to Mussolini in the 1930s; during the War they were forced into internal exile with their three children, sent to an impoverished village in Abruzzo, where he was eventually arrested, tortured and executed.

But she survived and began to write about everyday life, the experience of bringing up children to have humane values, and the complexities of surviving with one’s moral compass intact when times are difficult; in her fiction and in her essays she focused on the small, practical and ethical components of domestic life, and how to combine parenthood with a larger vision of building a better society.  She is representative of a very 20th century Jewish story.

In 1962 she published a book of essays called, rather modestly, ‘The Little Virtues’, in which she suggests what we should teach our children:

“I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one’s neighbour and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.”

That’s a powerful, even provocative, passage but uncompromising in its commitment to a hierarchy of values – psychological, moral and spiritual. I don’t think it’s necessary to agree with everything she says here - I think she underrates the value of tact, for example - but I think it’s always worth listening to these kind of texts, from women and men who have been tested in the crucible of history and have been able to distil some personal wisdom about life and its deepest values from circumstances that were so much harsher than our own more relatively pampered times.

To survive the painful dramas of history and still maintain the centrality of teaching children generosity, courage, a love of truth, love of one’s neighbour, self-denial, a desire not for success but ‘to be and to know’ – Natalia Ginzburg is the first of my remarkable women.

She died in 1991 aged 75 - and by the way that essay collection, ‘The Little Virtues’, has just been re-published in English, if you are interested.

In that year, 1991, my second remarkable woman was working as Associate Dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago and dating a dashing young civil rights attorney soon to be appointed by the University to teach constitutional law. He later went on to do…other things. And his wife tagged along with him. She, Michelle Robinson Obama, has recently published her autobiography – ‘Becoming’. It sold 3 million copies in the first month, so unless you have been living on Mars for the last year you will probably have registered its existence. On the very first page of her book  she says something really quite wonderful, but also in its own way provocative, about children. 

“One of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child is – What do you want to be when you grow up? As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.” Implicit here is an idea that the title of her book , ‘Becoming’, also hints at. That life is an unfolding of multiple possibilities, and a life well lived is one that is open to growth, change, development, changing one’s mind, changing one’s circumstances. It is a profoundly optimistic vision - and in that sense quite American - but the wisdom of that opening remark about what not to say to children (though we have all probably done it) is striking in its wish not to trap children into a cul-de-sac, a narrowness of thinking.

And it’s a reminder to the rest of us to question how often any of us might get trapped in one version of ourselves: we are a solicitor or a businessman or a mother or a husband or retired, as if our lives cohere around one part of ourselves and that is who we are. That way of thinking, Michelle Obama intuits, is a spiritual and psychological diminishment of the opportunities inherent in being human.

Any of you who saw her visit London’s Elizabeth Garret Anderson school in 2009, or a couple of months ago when she came back - and listened to the way she inspired those children with the possibilities for their lives - will have seen the importance of the message she carried to those youngsters about ‘becoming’ their best selves, in whatever shape that might be.

In her book she says that there’s no real choice, morally and spiritually, about the message she carries to youngsters:

“We have to hand them hope”, she writes, “Progress isn’t made through fear…It was possible, I knew, to live on two planes at once – to have one’s feet planted in reality, but pointed in the direction of progress…You got somewhere by building that better reality, if only in your own mind…You may live in the world as it is, but you can still work to create the world as it should be”.

It can be painful to read from the ex-First Lady this deep commitment to personal and societal transformation - a commitment that of course she shared with her husband – in the light of the aggressive bombast and self-serving fearmongering that now issues forth from the White House. (But that’s another topic, I’m not going into it now). Let me stay with the future-oriented optimism of Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming’.

By the way, ‘becoming’ is a good translation and understanding  of one Hebrew word threaded through the Torah, and that comes up all the time in our liturgy: Yud Hay Vav Hay, the four-letter special name for God, the divine energy that permeates all being, is made up, as I often remark, of parts of the verb ‘to be’: past, present and future tenses of the verb ‘to be’ – ‘was, is, will be’:  that was the revolutionary new understanding that developed in Hebraic consciousness 2500 years ago, that God was not a being, but ‘being’ itself.

You could translate Yud Hay Vav Hay (that we pronounce Adonai) as ‘being and becoming’ – God as a verb, not a noun. Each one of us, even if we don’t realise it, is a fragment of unfolding divine energy: while we are alive, we are always ‘becoming’. This is a way of saying that Michelle Obama’s moral vision of hopefulness, a vision that circles around staying open to ‘becoming’, has a deep spiritual core.

And the third remarkable woman? Another woman, young woman, with a vision. On the 20th August last year a 15-year-old schoolgirl started to sit every weekday outside the Swedish parliament building with a placard ‘School Strike for the Climate’. (It was in Swedish, but my Swedish is not what it used to be, so I’m translating). After a series of heatwaves and wildfires, Greta Thunberg  started a solo protest that her government were not fulfilling their Paris Agreement commitments to reduce carbon emissions. The rest of the story is becoming history: still-unfolding history.

She has inspired school children across the globe to take to the streets for the sake of their (and our) futures. By mid-February this year 70,000 youngsters in 270 cities around the world were joining in these weekly Friday strikes. And this coming Friday, March 15th, will see up to half a million youngsters out on strike around the world in a major co-ordinated day of action.

So far in a few brief months she has spoken to the United Nations, to the European Union in Brussels, at Davos – this young woman is not going away. Along with other new groupings like Extinction Rebellion in the UK, with its campaign for non-violent civil disobedience, we are witnessing an exponential change in campaigning on the most important political and ethical issue of our times. And when the story of these decades comes to be written – if there are people left to record our history – Greta Thunberg’s name will be writ large.

She speaks in a simple, direct way, but in a very different manner to Michelle Obama: in some ways she’s the opposite of Obama. At Davos for example Thunberg said: “Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people, to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.”

She’s a different generation from Michelle Obama, and maybe she’s right, as the prophets of Israel understood, that sometimes hope is not the message a people need to hear: sometimes it’s fear that motivates, fear for the future if we don’t change. “You say you love your children above all else and yet you are stealing their future in front of their eyes”. She’s uncompromising, this remarkable young woman. And it’s exciting and scary what might become of her. She exemplifies something that Natalia Ginzburg insisted upon in relation to the upbringing of children: “What we must remember above all in the education of our children is that their love of life should never weaken” (from ‘The Little Virtues’).

Ginzburg, Obama, Thunberg – three different generations, all sharing a profound love of life. But what Thunberg is challenging us with, we who also love life, is if there are to be future generations whose love of life will not be overshadowed by a desperate fight for survival and resources on a ravaged planet, then alarmism needs to become the new realism:  "To fail to be alarmed is to fail to think about the problem, and to fail to think about the problem is to relinquish all hope of its solution." (from Mark O’Connell’s review in the Guardian of David Wallace-Wells, ‘The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future’, 2nd March 2019).  

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, 9th March, 2019]