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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]

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Light in Dark Times

When do our eyes light up?

Usually it’s joyful experiences – a good conversation with a friend, being in love, singing in a choir, being surrounded by nature, the birth of a child, a grandchild’s first words, watching a sunrise or viewing a distant galaxy;  seeing something, or hearing something, that raises our spirits – a piece of music, a theatrical performance, a moment of sporting brilliance – we each have our own cluster of experiences that (as the saying goes) ‘brings light to our eyes’.

Does the Torah bring light to our eyes? Does it lift our spirits? Maybe not so often?

I have been thinking about ‘light’ this week, literal light and metaphorical light, because the weekly portion of the Torah starts with the following sentence:

It’s one of those Biblical sentences that are both plain, down-to-earth descriptions of an archaic, no-longer-existing ritual - part of a Judaism that has been defunct for 2000 years – and a sentence that is packed with compressed possibilities, metaphors, symbols: imagery that lights up the imagination, that one senses can speak to our lives in a way that on first reading doesn’t appear to be the case at all. 

In the portable tabernacle – an image of the Jerusalem Temple projected back in time by the Biblical narrator to the desert wanderings of the children of Israel – Aaron the High Priest, and his family, are to be responsible for a lamp, which is to be lit regularly, and kept alight from evening to morning (verse  21).

The phrase ner tamid at the end of the verse is a familiar one to us: it’s what we call the light in the synagogue that is keep alight continually, and we translate it in our modern context as an ‘everlasting light’, an ‘eternal light’, a ‘perpetual light’. But that’s a development from the Biblical phrase - which as one can see from its context, means a ‘regularly lit light’, and one that is kept going as a tradition through the generations (verse 21).

I think that this synagogue symbol is rather taken for granted these days, which is a bit of a shame. We just accept that it is there: we don’t tend to use oil; it’s electric; nobody has to maintain it, or even switch it on. It’s just kept on. It’s part of the furniture. And yet it is the only remaining living link we have to that whole vast system of worship from the days of the Temple, 2000 years ago. It’s part of an unbroken chain of tradition of there being a light at the heart of the sanctuary, a symbolic image of the divine, an image of God’s presence in the midst of the people, flickering but eternal.

We don’t keep it in our homes but in our synagogues, which the rabbis called a mikdash me’at, a ‘small sanctuary’ - a replacement for, yet an echo of, the original mikdash, the sanctuary of old, in Jerusalem, where the people gathered.

In early synagogues that have been excavated in the Middle East, the ner tamid was placed on the western wall of the synagogue – that is, the wall opposite the ark which houses the Torah scrolls. (The ark is always eastern facing, towards Jerusalem). We don’t know why those early synagogues placed it where they did - maybe to distinguish it from the original Temple light?

 But gradually, by the medieval period in Europe, the ner tamid had migrated to being next to the ark, or above the ark, where it still can be found; and that’s because this eternal light slowly became associated not just with God’s presence, but with that other living incarnation of God’s presence that we have, the Torah, which is kept in the ark. Because it is the Torah that, as the Psalmist put it, ‘enlightens the eyes’ – literally “makes our eyes light up/shine”  (Psalm 19:9). 

So if the idea of ‘God’s presence’ is a bit of a mystery to us, or is a question, or a doubt, we still have the ‘light’ of Torah, the enlightenment that comes from Jewish tradition’s foundational text. But what else can we catch glimpses of in this sentence? “The children of Israel shall bring…olive oil, clear/pure, beaten, for the light, so as to cause a lamp to be burning, regularly (tamid) What flashes up in our mind, our mind’s eye?

Pure olive oil. What’s that about? Why does the light need to be, for the sanctuary, pure olive oil? Oil was also produced from sesame seeds, flax, or animal fats. But no, it had to be oil from olives, and zach – ‘clear/pure’. And how do you make it clear? By crushing it with a stone press, hence katit – ‘beaten/crushed’. 

Can one sense something going on here, just beneath the manifest surface of the text? Is this just pragmatic details? Or are there some ideas latent in the imagery? As so often, the midrashic tradition opens this out for us: it reminds us that, unlike other liquids, olive oil doesn’t mix with other liquids. If you try to mix it, it doesn’t lose its separate quality as olive oil. I don’t know if this is true or not. I doubt that the rabbis of that period were the ones who did the cooking. But the rabbis would never let facts get in the way of a good symbol – or a good interpretation.

When they thought about olive oil not mixing with other liquids, those ancient sages thought: ‘Ah, that’s just like us…just as olive oil remains distinct when you try and mix it with other liquids, so too the community of Israel remains separate in the midst of the other nations’. (Which shows that those rabbis of old were filled with wishful thinking, just as rabbis of today might be).  

The rabbis of that era (3rd – 7th century CE) were already alert to the ways in which the Bible itself links the community of Israel to olives. The prophet Jeremiah describes Israel as a “flowering olive tree, fair, with choice fruits” (11:16). So this fertile, symbolic imagery connecting olives, olive oil, and the people themselves is already there waiting to be pressed into service by later generations. 

And then there’s that extra word the Torah texts adds: that the oil has not only to be ‘clear’, but to produce pure oil the olives have to be katit – ‘beaten/crushed’. Of course that’s how you make clear olive oil - you have to crush the olives. But the word ‘beaten/crushed’ - when it is found in the context of olives as representing Israel - well, the word is heaven-sent (as it were) in adding another dimension of meaning for the later rabbis reading and responding to this text.

Like olives, they say in the midrash, Israel’s destiny too is to be ‘beaten and crushed’. In other words 1500 years ago, the rabbis are already reading their texts with the full weight of history on their backs, in their hearts – the history of post-Temple exile, oppression,  fragmentation across the whole of the Middle east and North Africa and the Mediterranean.

They read the text each year and recognise themselves in it : katit – ‘beaten/crushed’. But the light went on. The light of Jewish continuity continued to glow. We are talking about ner tamid, the everlasting light. And a thousand years after the midrash makes this imaginative link, the second Koznitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe ben Yisroel (1757-1828), plays with this same verse:

“It is written: ‘Pure olive oil beaten for the light’.  [What does this refer to?] We are to be beaten and bruised, but in order to glow with light”. (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Later Masters, p.177).

In other words suffering gives the Jewish people a power – and a destiny. Our role, the role of the Jewish people in the world, is to use our understanding of suffering in order to bring light into a suffering world. This is an old motif, Israel as the “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6), but in the early 19th century in a small Polish shtetl the Koznitzer rebbe gives voice to it anew, and with an eternal Jewish hopefulness. Our role is to ‘glow with light’ – whatever happens to us, whatever is done to us.

We still need that hopefulness, when we might feel sometimes that the forces of darkness are gathering around us:  Brexit, European populism and racism,  environmental catastrophe on the horizon, drought and flooding, wildfires out of control - the world can appear quite dark. We know this: hopefulness for the future of our country, our continent, our world, is being beaten out of us.

But when we return to our texts, our tradition, and root ourselves again in this unbroken chain of engagement with the words of old - “The children of Israel shall bring…olive oil, clear, beaten, for the light, so as to cause a lamp to be burning, regularly” – we are reminded that we are now the priests, the guardians of the light. That original role was to be enacted “throughout the generations”. Well, here we are, our generation, our turn: bearers of light, bringers of light, a heritage to make our eyes shine, light up. We bring what enlightenment we can, while we can. And then we wait, as Jews always have, to see where it gets us.  

[based on a sermon/discussion at Finchley Reform Synagogue, February 16th, 2019]

Tuesday, 25 December 2018

How "The Clock" Helps Renew Our Vision

Image result for apollo 8 photograph
 It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Fifty years ago, on Christmas eve 1968, the Apollo 8 spacecraft sent back to earth a photograph of the planet which should have changed forever how we see ourselves. That wondrous blue-and-white half-globe suspended in blackness, poised above the lifeless surface of the moon, could have helped us see the planet’s living fragility: our world, a lonely, miraculous presence within the vast emptiness of the universe. Hovering on the rim of our consciousness ever since, this picture of ourselves from ‘out there’ – Earthrise - could have helped humanity recognise that this is all we have; and that all differences of nation and creed, of belief systems and social arrangements, are transcended by a simple and complex truth: we are all fellow travellers destined to share this insignificant and yet precious planet - and try to make sense of our being here - until the end of time.
Image result for apollo 8 photograph

But time passed, and that momentary revelation went into eclipse.

Twenty years later, when the Cold War ended, the Berlin Wall came down, and the Soviet empire crumbled, there was another momentary sense of visionary optimism. Perhaps that old story of humanity’s progression towards greater freedom, equality and justice was not just a fantasy tale: the threat of nuclear war was lessening; democracy was in the ascendance, even if patchily; and the birth of the internet age offered hope for interconnectivity and creativity on a potentially global scale.

A more hubristic version of this eschatological optimism came from the American scholar Francis Fukuyama, who  suggested that ‘history’ had in one  sense ‘come to an end’: all countries would henceforward  progress towards liberal democracies and even bind themselves together in transnational arrangements (not unlike the European Union) dedicated to producing and consuming the good things in life.  

Happy days.

Three decades on, and we know where we are. Our blessed, vulnerable planet is struggling to survive; across the Americas, Asia and Europe, democracies are under siege; and lies and pseudo-facts threaten to engulf societies with a tide of misinformation that threatens us with a collective psychotic breakdown, swallowing up our fragile capacity to think and breathe. The novelist Saul Bellow’s inimitable phrase, now forty years old, about living in a ‘moronic inferno’ becomes closer and closer to describing our daily reality.

In such fraught times , keeping hope alive becomes a spiritual and psychological challenge. Where do we gain the resources, what do we need to sustain us, for the daunting mission of remaining fully human – creative, loving, generous, compassionate - in these perilous times?

I want to share with you one experience that has recently helped nurture me in these toxic times - that reminded me of our essential inter-connectedness, and our fragility, and our creative human potentialities.  I recently spent some time watching Christian Marclay’s extraordinary art-installation film The Clock. And I have no hesitation in saying that it is a work of genius. 

The Clock is 24 hours long, with no beginning and no end: it is a montage of literally thousands of sequences (around 12,000, I gather) from films that depict clocks and watches (analogue and digital), or reference the passing of time, brilliantly edited together to create an epic transpersonal, transnational drama of humour and pathos, excitement, tension and curiosity. Each of the 1440 minutes of the day is illustrated – sometimes with more than one clip – and the dialogue, music or soundtrack carry you inexorably on until you are immersed within an experience that is simultaneously (and paradoxically) that of losing track of time and yet having a heightened awareness of time and what can take place (and change) in a life from moment to moment.

Amazingly, you watch it in all in ‘real’ time – I arrived around ten to four in the afternoon and left around five pm, so that’s the section of the film installation that I saw. The time you arrive and the time you leave dictate the part of the film you see. Of course it’s fun for lovers of films, modern and classic, to spot the actors – oh, that’s Orson Welles, and there’s a young Dustin Hoffman, and a younger Maggie Smith, and magnificent Bette Davis, and now an older Dustin Hoffman…and, and, and – but that’s an almost incidental pleasure. (And frustration:  oh, there’s…what’s his name? and that’s  a clip from – erm, it’s on the tip of my tongue…too late).

At a deeper level this video installation is a timeless art work (it was assembled in 2010) because it is a profound meditation on the nature of time itself: the passage of time, minute by minute, defines our mortality. There are moments in the film that don’t need a visual reference to a timepiece to make us reflect on the transience of time - Laurence Olivier contemplating a skull, for example:  there are ways in which we become aware both of the slowness of time (waiting for a bomb to explode, or the murderer to strike) and of the poignant speed with which time flashes past, decades at a time: there’s a young Robin Williams, and there he is again (minutes - which are decades - later) just before his suicide; there’s Big Ben in all its old grainy Hitchcockian black-and-whiteness, and here it is in the 1960s shining in the sunlight in glorious (and artificial) Technicolour.

Immersing yourself in The Clock will change your perspective on the passing of time, and quite possibly change how you look at movies – and everyday life – in the future. You become aware just how often you register, inquire, need to know, hate to know, what time it is. How early it is. How late it is. You become alert to all the clocks and watches and phones and screens that cross your path, alert to how you fill your time, or how time fills you. How do we use our time? How does time use us?

Watching The Clock is the nearest experience you might ever have of living inside T.S.Eliot’s poem Four Quartets, where

“to apprehend/ The point of intersection of the timeless/With time, is an occupation for the saint -/No occupation either, but something given/And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,/Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.”

Where can you see – and surrender to - The Clock? In the UK it is at the Tate Modern, with free entry, until January 20th. It has toured around the world since 2010, and probably will continue to do so for as long and time (and humanity) endures. If you are outside the UK, find out when/if it is on. Seeing it – like seeing our fragile planet from outside ourselves – has the potential to transform your perception, to alter your consciousness (for the better).

One can wait a long time –- perhaps a lifetime - for such a moment to occur. And it can happen in the twinkling of an eye.


Thursday, 18 October 2018

“What Does It Mean To Be A British Jew in 2018?”

I was invited this week to be part of a panel discussion in my synagogue on the topic of “What Does It Mean To Be A British Jew in 2018?”

Other members of the panel took the opportunity in their allocated five minutes to explore this theme from a variety of perspectives: one portrayed the Jewish community in the UK as “riddled by fear and anxiety”, assailed by “never-ending hostility”, and  suffering the threat of diminishing numbers and a “crisis of meaning” in relation to their Jewish identity. Another panellist used the occasion to list the multiple challenges the community faced - internally, financially and externally –  and culminated his observations with a denigration of any Jew who remained within the “anti-Semitic Labour party” led by that renowned “anti-Semite” Jeremy Corbyn.  And so on.

I took a different approach to this question. What I said was the following:

“To me, being a British Jew in 2018 means that I’m concerned that in England and Wales on an average day there are 1400 sexual assaults on women; 25 hate crimes committed against gay and transgender people; 6 attacks on Muslims because of their religion; and between one and two reported incidents each day against Jews.  

It means I’m concerned about: the dire consequences of Brexit  for the social fabric of this country; I’m concerned about the 4.1 million children in the UK already living in relative poverty – that’s 30% of all children in the country – as well as the 5000 people sleeping rough every night: I’m concerned about the impact of bad housing on health, and the growing inequality in this country which leads to multiple forms of deprivation; and as a British Jew I’m concerned about the fractured nature of the social contract in this country, and the generation who will probably never own their own homes.

To be a British Jew in 2018 means I’m concerned about melting ice caps; immigrants left to die at sea, and that the world’s worst famine in a hundred years is about to descend on Yemen – up to 10 million are at extreme risk.

It means I’m concerned that there are fascists in power in Hungary, there’s been a significant rise of the far-right in Germany and Italy and the Czech Republic and France; and there’s more and more evidence of the proto-fascist leanings of some members of the Knesset and the legislation they have enacted, including the victimisation of NGOs working for civil rights and social justice within Israel.

It means I’m concerned about the durability of modern democracy in Europe over the next decade, upon which all of us depend. This is what it means to me to be  British Jew in 2018.

And it means something else too. It means having a dual focus: 1) looking with Jewish eyes thousands of years old at the long arc of history and the ways in which that ancient Jewish vision – articulated at Sinai and by the prophets – of a world in which justice and social responsibility defines the purpose of our being - it’s the sole justification of our continued existence, to be and bring a blessing to humanity – it means keeping one eye fixed on that.  

While at the same time – dual focus – it means: 2) keeping attentive to the questions: What is possible now? Where is holiness waiting to be enacted now? What is our responsibility today?

And keeping that dual focus means, lastly, resisting Jewish voices that focus relentlessly on the past – and, in particular, what has happened to us, our Jewish suffering; resisting voices haunted by, in thrall to, Jewish victimhood.

It means resisting backing into the future, walking backwards with eyes glued to what has already happened, whether it is in ghettoes or pogroms or Germany in the 1930s. That backward-looking orientation is a hopeless stance. Literally. It’s actually the abandonment of the Judaic vision of hopefulness, the vision of us having a religious and spiritual purpose.

And I refuse - intellectually, emotionally, spiritually -  to submit to that backward-oriented anti-vision.

That’s me, being British and Jewish, 2018”

Perhaps needless to say, not everyone in the audience was sympathetic to my remarks. But perhaps my favourite response was from a guest who said that he’d felt his hackles rise as I spoke, and that I was “living in a dream world”. Yes, I thought, someone has to do that. Someone has to keep alive the dream, the vision, of what it means to be Jewish, what the inner core of our being-in-the-world is all about. That’s what I thought - so that’s what I said.

I’m never sure how useful these kind of events are. At their worst, they are angry and polarising; there’s a breakdown of any meaningful communication, with people talking across each other - or bombarding each other - from within their own silos. At their best, they can offer new perspectives, or at least a small space for reflection, a space to hold up to the light our own precious opinions, attitudes and views, and see their flaws and limitations as well as their strengths. In an increasingly fractured and fractious world, we need such spaces for reflection, as many as we can find.  

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Is there an "existential threat" to Jews in the UK? (on George Orwell, anti-Semitism and Jeremy Corbyn)

In the spring of 1945 George Orwell was having difficulty finding a publisher for his latest work. He’d written a novella entitled Animal Farm: A Fairy Story and had sent it first to his regular publisher, the left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz, - who rejected it - and then to several other publishers, including T.S.Eliot at Faber and Faber. Nobody would publish it, this allegory of the way cults of personality form and lead to dictatorship and terror. For these publishers, the fable - woven around a  thinly-disguised critique of Stalin and the Soviet Union - could not be allowed into the public domain. The  Soviet Union were Allies, and a key member of the alliance that were about to defeat Hitler and the Axis powers after six years of bloody and exhausting conflict.
Orwell however was undaunted. That spring, 1945, he wrote an introduction to Animal Farm confident that he’d soon find someone who would publish his work. He was right. Yet when Secker and Warburg did publish it in mid-August of that year, Orwell’s introduction was missing, for reasons that remain obscure.  So you are unlikely to have read his introduction, even if you have read at some stage in your life what became this internationally recognised classic tale, Animal Farm.
Here’s his introduction – or at least, here’s part of it:
At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was “not done” to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness.
In its way this is an amplification of the remark made by the playwright Ibsen sixty years before that in his play An Enemy of the People (1882): “The worst enemy of truth and freedom in our society is the compact majority”. Later on, Orwell developed this theme about how hard it is to go against prevailing orthodoxies, when he wrote in his novel 1984 about societies that succumb, willingly, or unwillingly, to what he termed ‘Groupthink’ - Orwell had a sure instinct about the ways in which societies can become dominated by hyper-conformity and manufactured consent, often out of deference to, or compliance with, the thoughts of strong personalities or leaders. People are persuaded – or bullied – into believing a strongly stated view, regardless of whether it is true or not. It becomes just what ‘we’ think. Or are supposed to think.
One more sentence from Orwell’s unpublished introduction – self-justifying, but understandably so - and then I’d like to connect these themes to some contemporary issues:  
If the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of western civilisation means anything at all, it means that everyone shall have the right to say and to print what he believes to be the truth, provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way.
That’s a very interesting proviso, isn’t it? – the right to say or print anything one believes to be true, provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way. I want to keep this in mind because the question of what ‘harms’ a community is a moot point.  It gets close to the nub of our current discontents and distresses in the Jewish community here in the UK. For we are being told, by people who should know better, that we as a community are being harmed ‘in some quite unmistakable way’.
Let’s be clear though what it means that people have the right to say or print what they believe to be true. It means Donald Trump has the right to tweet whatever fatuous, blustering and narcissistic remarks he wants – and each of us has the right, as do commentators anywhere, to mock, scorn, argue with, point out the inconsistencies and lies in, or just ignore, what he has tweeted. He’s not harming the rest of the American community – people agree with him or not – the harm he’s doing is more to the Office of the Presidency, and to the notion that there is a difference between facts and opinions (and that that difference matters), and not least there’s the harm he’s doing to the English language itself.
So what about Jeremy Corbyn? ‘Oh - Jeremy Corbyn’. What does he have a right to say, and what has he said that might have done harm to the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way?
First of all, obviously, he has the right to say that he abhors racism and anti-Semitism. He has a long track record supporting that claim - the problems that have arisen for some in the Jewish community revolve not around this claim but around him offering  support to pro-Palestinian groups, and solidarity with some who themselves have clear anti-Semitic views. That was enough, some three or so years ago, for the Jewish press in this country and some leaders of communal organizations to start a campaign to expose him as an anti-Semite himself. Until recently it’s been a campaign of slurs and innuendo and guilt by association but then came that revelation - gold dust - posted online by the Daily Mail, (who of course have no agenda of their own about Corbyn), about his remarks in 2013 at a meeting with the Palestinian ambassador Manuel Hassassian.
And yes, when you refer to a group of people in a room – or even if they aren’t in the room – as Zionists who despite “having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, don’t understand English irony” – then, yes indeed, that crosses a line. The implication of that is pretty clear: Jews are fundamentally ‘other’, alien, people who will never be truly English/British. It’s a classic antisemitic trope, and as my colleague Rabbi Alexandra Wright of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue wrote, his words were “indefensible, ill-advised and, no doubt, designed to rebuke and give maximum offence” – offence to those Jews who were at the meeting to argue with the Ambassador.
Was he aware when he said this, that this was antisemitic? Who knows? Unlike Trump, Corbyn is not an ignoramus. Stubborn maybe, but not stupid. But at the very least these comments revealed a clear moral blind spot - and this needs to be, as it has now been, called out.  People can be, and are, unconscious of, unaware of, their anti-Semitism. That’s not an excuse, just a reality. He may in private be horrified to realise, as we all would be, that he’s unwittingly given voice to a deeply pernicious and prejudicial view. I don’t know about Corbyn, and none of us knows, or can know.
I would suggest though, before we get too much on our high horse, that all of us can at times be unconscious of the potential offensiveness of some of our views and opinions. We are all capable of moral blind-spots. And if these things are ever exposed we feel shame and humiliation, sometimes too much to bear. We get defensive and, often, belligerent. And for politicians in particular this puts them in a truly unbearable position. Corbyn could never admit it, publicly, even if he felt it, that he’d got something seriously wrong in those off-the-cuff remarks.
But I’m not worrying about Corbyn’s soul – this is the time of the year, this period of reflectiveness and inward-looking heart-searching between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to focus on our own souls, not those of others. Part of our work at this time of the year is not to cast our eyes outwards and see the faults in others, but to see how what we perceive as faults in others reflect parts of ourselves we’d rather disown, or not know about. Where are we guilty of sins of prejudice? And stereotyping? of sins of hatred? of sins of disdain towards others? Let’s use Corbyn, in other words, as a mirror, as uncomfortable as that might be, to reflect on our own failings to live up to our ideals, our better selves; to reflect on the gap in ourselves between the vision of how we’d like to be, how we’d like to think about ourselves - and our failures to live up to those ideals.
I want to leave Corbyn for now, he will soon enough become just a footnote in the history of these decades. I hold no candle for him, by the way – I think his leadership on the gravest issue facing this country, the Brexit fiasco, has been quite hopeless. So don’t hear my remarks about him as coming from some Labour-supporting cronyism. I’m much more concerned about the witch hunt against him by elements within the Jewish community and the harm that could do to the well-being of our community, than I am concerned about one leader’s failures to be rigorous in his commitment to anti-racist views.
We know that the issue that has been concerning the community is wider than Corbyn – that it’s been about real antisemitism in parts of the Labour party, and the party’s relative failure to address this thoroughly and comprehensively.
I’m not na├»ve: I have no doubt that strands of real hostility to Jews exists in the UK – this is nothing new, it exists in all political parties and in all sectors of British society, from what used to be called the working classes through polite English middle class prejudices to the aristocracy and their longstanding contempt for interlopers into their ranks – think of the upper-class opprobrium heaped in the 19th century on men like Disraeli, the Prime Minister, and the Rothschilds; or of the common-or-garden antipathy towards Jews expressed by writers like T.S.Eliot and Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc and Graham Greene. Anti-Semitism has always  been part of the fabric of this country: always has been, always will be. But we have survived it and thrived, in spite of it all. And we’ll survive these latest shenanigans as well.
So why am I wanting to bring Orwell into all this current furore? What is he speaking about that is so relevant to us today? Well, sadly, it’s prompted by what I see going on around me: am I alone in thinking that it’s all become rather hysterical, all this talk about ‘existential threat’, this fantasy that British Jews are getting ready to pack their bags en masse and leave the country out of fear for their well-being and very survival?
What I am concerned about is the way in which an atmosphere has been created, led by some very prominent communal voices (rabbinic and lay) and by the Jewish press, an atmosphere and attitude that has become a kind of orthodoxy. As Orwell reminds us: At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it.
Well, it might be “not done” to say this, but I need to say it: it’s as if a virus has been let loose amongst us, and it is affecting our mental well-being, our capacity to discriminate the wood for the trees, our ability to think clearly about what is happening, to get a perspective on events. There are elements of hysteria in this, elements of paranoia, elements of attention-seeking, and I sometimes wonder – and I hesitate to say this, as if I’m breaking a taboo – I even wonder if there’s a strand of hidden feeling, a kind of unconscious wish, where we Jews in this generation can secretly compare ourselves to Jews in Germany in the 1930s, but this time make the story turn out differently: as a victory over the forces of evil rather than being annihilated by them.
Jews have always been haunted (understandably) since the events of the Holocaust by questions like: would I have had the courage to leave everything behind, leave family members, or all my material comforts and possessions? how would I have known what to do? what would I have done and when would I have done it?
An atmosphere has been stoked up over this last year or so, and particularly in recent months, with the strong subtext that there’s this unprecedented threat to the future safety of the Jewish community in this country. Comparisons with the 1930s are the most convenient historical peg for some Jews to hang their anxieties on to. So, I have heard people comparing Corbyn to Hitler – but this is  bonkers (as we used to say up North).
And to compare Corbyn’s ignorant remarks to Enoch Powell’s inflammatory speech of fifty years ago – which was made as Shadow Defence Secretary in the highly charged atmosphere of the arrival of thousands of Kenyan Asian British citizens and the debate over the 1968 Race Relations Act to outlaw discrimination – to make that comparison might be a piece of slick rhetoric but it is a wilful misappropriation of history. It was a reckless analogy. It hardly helps Jews in this country to be aligned in the public mind, as Lord Sacks did, with that wave of immigration that was stirring up ill-feeling and that Powell was addressing. That is not our situation as Jews in this country.
This is all terrible stuff to have to talk about, and for some it might be unbearable to hear it, or it may make you very angry. So when I talk about these things in public, I’m sorry if that is the response. But I feel a deep responsibility – as a rabbi, and as someone who has been thinking about these kind of issues, and the psychology of these issues, all my life - to try to throw some dispassionate light on all this rhetoric and drama that is being played out around us.  
Over recent years I’ve noted the number of speeches given by major British Jewish figures, rabbis and lay leaders, who go to conferences - often in other parts of Europe, or in Israel - or they give interviews to European or American newspapers, and they talk about Anglo-Jewry as being awash with fear for their survival, about to pack up and leave, suffering from existential dread - and this kind of hyperbolic language has now flooded into our communal discourse and it is ratcheting up our fears in ways that are just not congruent with our external realities.
Because when I look around me at the community I know best, Finchley Reform and at other synagogue communities across the religious spectrum in London, what do I see? I see dynamic programming, whether it is for Jewish learning or Jewish social action or interfaith work – I don’t know how it is outside London, but I get reports from Manchester or Brighton, Glasgow which certainly aren’t filled with doom and gloom – but what I can see across London is a vibrancy, a creativity, a freedom to innovate and explore Jewishness that isn’t only within religious sectors of the community, but is there in communal institutions like JW3 and the Jewish Museum, it’s in Limmud and its offshoots, it’s in the passionate commitment of workers in and supporters of a huge range of Jewish charities, it’s in festivals of music and cooking and the arts and film, it’s in the spread of Jewish schools, primary and secondary, it’s in a healthy sub-community of Israelis who have left their homeland to set up life here in the UK - no doubt for a variety of reasons, but surely not unaffected by having had to live for two and more generations being told daily by Israel’s leaders that they are under daily “existential threat” for their very lives. I see all that rich fabric of Jewish life.
And then I note how it’s Netanyahu’s language that has now contaminated British Jewish leaders’ responses to our own recent local manifestations of that-age old antipathy towards Jews. (So thank you for that, Bibi, that’s a great contribution you have made to our well-being).   
So what I see when I look around me - and in emails I get from people confused about what on earth is going on over these last six months, and when I talk to people about how they actually feel - what I see is not a community waiting to pack its bags, a community living with a sense of “existential dread”, but a community that is a leading European centre for Jewish life.
It was ironic – thank you Jeremy Corbyn, my sense of irony is fully developed, intact and robust, I can spot an irony at 100 yards – there was an irony for me over this summer, a sobering irony, that while all this brouhaha was going on here, I was at a conference of Christians and Jews in Germany. And listening to some of the pastors there, and to members of congregations, Catholic and Protestant - people who are wholeheartedly committed to their historical work of reparation for the sins of the past - when they spoke about issues they are dealing with in their local areas, and about their concerns about the rise of the AfD in Germany, a right-wing, anti-immigrant party who entered parliament for the first time in September last year and are gathering 20-30% support in the polls, a party behind the attacks on foreigners in Chemnitz last month, a party that joins in demonstrations with Nazi salutes, a party that is not as overtly anti-Semitic as other parties in Europe (in Hungary, in Poland, in the Czech republic) but only because Muslims make a more readily identifiable target at the moment, when I look at the rise of real anti-Semitic activity on the mainland of Europe, when I look at all that, I know that many European Jews still do remain vulnerable, more so in some countries than others. But that’s not the situation we are faced with.
As this New Year begins I’d like us to feel what a privilege it is to be able to live freely as Jews in this country at this time in our history, free to celebrate, free to be as expressive and creative as we want to be.  And free to critique and resist the ‘groupthink’ some in the Jewish community would like to impose on us, free to resist bodies of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question’.
I hope this New Year brings us all much fulfilment, joy, contentment, good health, and a renewed sense that – in spite of the problems the UK faces – as a Jew one can make  a real contribution to the well-being of this nation, and to our own community, local or Jewish. Let’s keep our vision clear, as individuals and as communities,  and continue to celebrate who we are, what we have - and the good fortune we have, the blessing we have, to be living in this place at this time in the long and glorious history of our people. 
 [based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, September 11th, 2018] 


Monday, 10 September 2018

Imagination and the Jewish New Year

As this Jewish New Year is born, I want to talk about imagination: our capacity for imagination. Because a New Year is an invitation to us to be imaginative, to extend our thinking, our mental wondering and wandering, to stretch our thinking beyond its habitual grooves and routines.

But as soon as I start to talk about our imaginations I feel I’m entering dangerous territory. Because we know what our imaginations can do: how our minds can become filled with fears, anxieties, apprehensions about everything from our bodily health to the health of the planet, everything from the material and mental well-being of ourselves and those whom we love, to the well-being of our Jewish community, or the very future of our country. Our imaginations can wrap themselves around these issues and cause us sometimes to feel anything from vaguely ill-at-ease to acute distress.

As we enter a New Year, tentatively, hesitantly, and think of – imagine – what these  next 12 months might bring, it’s easy for our imaginations (as we project forward) to run riot, but not in ways that are advantageous to our well-being. We can already, and do, let our minds run amok amidst the bewildering complexities of the world we live in; our imaginations become polluted – it’s not only that our brains become contaminated, literally, from the toxins in the very air we breathe - but metaphorically and just as perniciously, our minds and imaginations become polluted from the poisonous miasma that arises from that quagmire of news and information and opinion and analysis and rumour and scaremongering and recrimination and suspicion that fills the airwaves and the social media – and we inhale that stuff whether we want to or not.

None of us can insulate ourselves from the toxic vapours of the contemporary social environment in which we live and breathe – well, you have to work very hard  to keep yourself uncontaminated by these toxins, and by what passes for thinking in the communal and national and international spheres we inhabit.

The novelist Saul Bellow once described this hyped-up modern world of ours as a ‘moronic inferno’, and that was before the age of the internet and Twitter, and all the rest of our dementing 24/7 culture was even dreamed of.  

So if I’m going to talk about imagination, this remarkable dimension of what it means to be human, I’m very aware of its double-sidedness. And yes, I’m starting by acknowledging, as the New Year begins, the way our imaginations already gravitate towards worry, concerns, paranoia sometimes: about our personal lives, our health, our relationships, our financial situation, as well as our lives as Jews, and our lives as citizens of this precious kingdom, and world citizens on this fragile planet.

But I want to turn, deliberately, defiantly, almost counter-intuitively, I want to turn – a turn that is also a return -  to consider our imaginations as a source not of fear and suspicion and accusation, but our imaginations as a source of wonder, a space within us not of dread but of hope, a source not of anxiety but of playfulness and creativity and inspiration. Imagination not as a source of nightmare but of vision, and opportunity, and glorious possibilities.

Do you remember a time, when you were very young, when you would get fascinated by something in the world around you: it might be watching an insect move - an ant, or a butterfly; or how the sun refracted into the colours of a rainbow in a puddle; or wondering how the new baby got into mummy’s tummy – or how it would get out – or you’d be fascinated by the hairs on your grandmother’s chin, or by how exactly the microwave heated up your pudding,  or where snow goes when it melts. It’s the stage we all go through, if things go well for us growing up, the stage of ‘why’, (the bane of a parent’s life sometimes), ‘why’ this, ‘why’ that, ‘’, question after question, that endless curiosity, fascination, about the world around us.

It’s the stage of life when our imaginations really get going, not only around the things we observe, but around ‘imaginary’ things that we encounter in books and in stories, on TV and in films, and in conversations we overhear. Our imaginations become populated by realities that we create, and by the creations of others. We enter into a world of ghosts and giants, talking animals, cartoon characters that change shape, superheroes that fly, a world of magic spells and elves and angels and God and Mad Hatter’s tea parties.

One of the most problematic things you can say to a child is “stop imagining things” – when we should be interested in expanding a child’s capacity for imagination and wonder, because the world is a mystery and a constant source of wonder - but as life goes on we may well become dulled to the mystery and wonder and aliveness of this period of our development. Something of that capacity for imagination and wonder and curiosity becomes blunted in us, ground down by what we come to think of as ‘reality’; something in us that responded to the newness and exciting strangeness of what we saw and heard and thought gets calloused over. We learn to be ‘sensible’ – God help us. The glory fades, and the light can go out of our eyes.

And maybe as time goes on we vaguely feel that there’s something’s missing in our lives, but we don’t know what it is, we can’t pin it down. And then we one day, if we are lucky, or have some help, we find something, or something finds us, that puts us back in touch with these early glimmers of everyday wonder and helps us recollect and reconnect with something precious we have lost.

Maybe we find Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” where he recalls a time:

When meadow, grove, and stream,/The earth, and every common sight,/to me did seem/Apparelled in celestial light,/The glory and the freshness of a dream.

Or we discover William Blake’s poetic vision, a state of mind and imagination in which we can “see a World in a Grain of Sand/ And a Heaven in a Wild Flower”.  Or we watch again that extraordinary moment in cinema history when Stanley Kubrick in ‘2001:A Space Odyssey’ shows us our ancestor the ape beating the ground with a stick, breaking up bones, and one bone flies up into the air and the slow motion of movement into the skies cuts to the vehicle in space somersaulting over and over - and our heart leaps in amazement and awe: ‘oh, this is us now, this is how far we have travelled in the blink of an eye, aeons long’. We are opened up in these moments to something beyond, or within, a way of seeing, a way of feeling.

Or we recall that last interview with that rascally playwright Dennis Potter, knowing he was dying, talking to Melvyn Bragg for Channel 4, and speaking about the blossom he could see from his window in Ross-on-Wye:

“…the blossom is out in full now…it’s a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it’s white, and looking at it, instead of saying ‘Oh that’s nice blossom’…last week looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There’s no way of telling you, you have to experience it, but the glory of it…the comfort of it, the reassurance…not that I’m interested in reassuring people, bugger that. The fact is, if you can see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it…”

This is what Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, can be for us: the time in the year we have been given to ‘cleanse the doors of perception’ – that’s Aldous Huxley’s phrase, borrowed from William Blake - and see the world anew. The High Holy Day machzor [prayer book] often refers to that text from Isaiah that precedes by two millennia all those other writers and artists I’ve mentioned: ki hinneni voray shamayim hadashim va’artez hadasha… – “For behold, now, I create new heavens and a new earth…be glad and rejoice in what I am creating” (65:17-18). “What I am creating…”– if you can “see the present tense……boy, can you celebrate it”.

Rosh Hashanah is our celebration of the present tense. So as we move into the New Year, and the new moon appears in the sky, and we are reminded through that – even if only subliminally - how our Jewish cycle of the year revolves around the ‘heavens’, we have this opportunity in these days, these ten precious days, to begin again this journey which depends upon our capacity to use our imaginations benignly, creatively. Can we regain some of that wide-eyed innocence and curiosity of childhood, that sense of wonder?

Entering these days is like entering some sacred space, separated out from that toxic environment I spoke about before, that is all around us. We can choose not to be contaminated, polluted, by what chokes that everyday world we also live in, we can choose to use our inner faculties of imagination and resourcefulness and really see what is there within us - and within our tradition, with all its dark richness.

And what’s in us, and what we need our imaginations to nurture, are things like our capacity for kindness, our capacity for compassion, our passion for justice, our ability to give of ourselves, our capacity to be honest with ourselves, and others, our capacity for self-sacrifice, and generosity (generosity of heart and our pockets), our capacity for tolerance, for tolerating difference, for not getting swept away by populism and cheap rhetoric, whether it’s in the Jewish community or the wider community.

I intend to address in a couple of days the theme of antisemitism, that everyone is grappling with at the moment (it appears) – but right now I’m talking about how to use our imaginations not for fearfulness and hysteria but for righteousness and reflection: reflection on our remarkable human capacity for recognising wondrousness and transforming what isn’t working, what isn’t right in our lives, transforming it into something more life-enhancing and life-giving.

And that work of transformation requires us to be imaginative, to use this divine strand of creativity within us, our imaginations. We have that capacity grafted to our souls and as the New Year begins we remember it again, we rejoice in it again, we renew our commitment to it again.

It may be true that, as John Keats wrote in a letter to his younger brothers exactly 200 years ago, “There is nothing stable in the world; uproar’s your only music”– that may indeed say something true about 2018 as well as 1818: so on one level nothing much has changed since then; but it is also the case that Keats was on to something vital for us today when he wrote in another letter: “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination”.

So as we move into and through these days, let’s remember and renew and rejoice in the holiness of our ‘heart’s affections’ – all that sacred work we do are capable of doing, in our relationships with each other and with the world around us. And let’s remember and renew and rejoice in our own personal and collective connection to ‘the truth of the imagination’. What a gift it is. 
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, Sunday evening, September 9th 2018]

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

On Being Found By What We Need

In the period leading up to the Jewish New Year I feel like an explorer who first has to set up base camp, as it were, in preparation for the expedition ahead of him. On a good day I think of what will follow as an annual adventure into the spiritual and psychological terrain of the so-called ‘Days of Awe’, the Yomim Noraim - an opportunity for reflection and re-evaluation during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).  It’s a time of potential renewal. But on a bad day, I’m reminded of the myth of Sisyphus, condemned to push the same boulder up the mountain over and over again: a thankless task.

The Selichot service, that takes place during an evening preceding the New Year itself, is an opportunity to check the route ahead, discover if we have the right provisions - even if we don’t quite know what provisions we might need – and maybe have a look at the maps drawn by those who have gone before us (which also seems to involve questioning whether their maps will be of any help for us). Some of us intuit that our journey – if we wish to take it - will require us to draw our own map rather than relying entirely on the routes that others have taken.

So, the questions for the evening circle around: what’s our route looking like this year? what provisions do we need? what resources can we draw on? This expedition is fraught work, filled with uncertainty and insecurity. At least initially. And who amongst us can claim to be an expert? At best we may feel like a willing amateur. And sometimes not so willing - for the resistance to this work can be strong.  

Over the years I’ve found it helpful to find a text to start me off – usually a text that might not seem an obvious starting place for a Jewish journey of inwardness: it might be something from Waiting for Godot, or King Lear, or a few lines of Seamus Heaney; even something from Alice in Wonderland has provided the springboard. I’m seeking out help to get myself deeper into the themes of the season. 

Now I say that I ‘find a text’ but that isn’t strictly accurate; it’d be more true to say that it often feels that the texts find me. If I’m working in a congregational setting I don’t go looking for good texts to bring to the community, like a mother bird searching out some juicy worms for her fledglings; but something will come my way, randomly, unexpectedly, unplanned, in the days or weeks leading up to the Selichot service; and it’ll get me thinking, and it won’t let go of me until I’ve done something with it, until I’ve used it as a building block in the flimsy construction of words (otherwise known as ‘a sermon’) which I offer as a starting point as the community sets off on its religious expedition.

This year it occurred to me that the process I’m describing – of being ‘found’ by a text – might offer a clue to one approach to the themes and the work of the High Holy Days. Those themes are the same every year: teshuvah - returning, seeking forgiveness, repentance, renewal. This is the heavy-duty religious baggage Jews grapple with over these weeks. And this stuff comes with so many expectations, that we may need something that helps to subvert these expectations.

The expectations may come from community, or family, or the liturgy, or are just expectations we put on ourselves, about change and transformation. We are weighed down by beliefs about what we ‘should’ be doing, or ‘should’ be feeling: and these expectations can get in the way of just experiencing what happens to us (and in us) during these weeks. Our prior expectations and beliefs about what we ought be doing, or feeling, or thinking, can block us being open to what actually happens, moment by moment: what happens naturally, we might say.

So when I talk about texts ‘finding’ me I’m offering a model that might be helpful in a wider sense:  that the things we need (the words, the ideas, the hope, the confidence, the resolve, the ability to forgive ourselves, the ability to forgive others: whatever it is we need) - they find us. They find us if we are open to them. So what  I’m describing, struggling to describe - because it’s hard to put into words – what I’m talking about is a stance in relation to the spiritual and religious work of these days.

Maybe I can describe it as ‘wandering attentiveness’ – even ‘distracted attentiveness’; it’s akin to what Shakespeare described, incomparably, in the words he put in Polonius’s mouth in Hamlet: “By indirections find directions out”.

So, if I had to summarise what I am saying, it’d be something like: ‘What you need to help you on this expedition through the High Holy Days is waiting for you - but you don’t need to work too hard to search for it, or seek it out, because it will arrive, it will come to you – your job, the job of each one of us, is to wait and be open to see it or hear it when it comes, to receive it into our hearts, our souls’. But when I say it like that, it makes it sound almost too easy, or inevitable: too deterministic.

So I want to say it tentatively, hesitantly, because, as Franz Kafka understood and described, in our times there is no longer a “broad…smooth road” leading from, or to, “Mount Sinai”[i]; there are no straight paths to religious revelation, no certainties, no programmes that will automatically get you there, no practices or rituals guaranteed to lead to enlightenment or inner change.

There’s no single Jewish text or prayer that will open up a failsafe surefooted pathway to heaven. (Although it’s also the case that there’s no single Jewish text or prayer that might not, on one unforeseen occasion, suddenly speak to you in a new, unexpected way: a word, or a phrase, or an idea, can pop out of the text and offer you a new thought about some aspect of your life).    

But I know that for many people now, it’s not usually the texts and prayers of tradition that light the way. As Rabbi Lionel Blue helped us understand, what is revealed to us that we need on our own journey through life can come from all sorts of places undreamt of by formal Jewish tradition: it may be a conversation that we overhear in the supermarket, or a headline on a stranger’s paper on the tube, it may be something a grandchild says, or a remark from a neighbour we bump into in the street, it may be an act of kindness we witness that highlights how we’d like to be, or an act of cruelty that we see that reminds us of, maybe shames us about, what we too are capable of, and makes us resolve to live from our better selves.

It may be a piece of music we hear that is new to us that we experience like an oasis in the desert - or music that we hear as if for the first time after hearing it a 100 times before. It might be a scene from a film, or a moment in the garden, or a sentence from a book that’s been lying around at home and that we decide to pick up and we open it up and there’s a thought or a phrase that penetrates some outer layer of indifference in us, that stirs something in us, that makes us realise something about ourselves – that we are a better person than we judge ourselves to be in our harshest moments, or that we have hurt someone and we need to do something about it, or any one of a thousand small revelations that can piece us, and change us, just a millimetre. But that millimetre is everything. This is teshuvah, the teshuvah of small moments – which are huge.  

But the thing is that we can’t search out these unexpected moments of revelation in everyday life: they find us; they arrive; they are for us; it can even feel that they are aimed at us – like the call of the bugle in Kafka’s parable that he hears but the servant doesn’t. We can’t make these experiences happen - but we have to be open to hear them, see them, feel them, to think about them. That’s down to us. That’s our work: we are receivers of revelation, we are given glimpses into a deeper reality, signs of deeper truths about life: about our life.

And it can be so frustrating that we can’t create these moments, we can’t plan for them, we can’t control them. Because we may have a real wish to change, to be the recipients of new insights, new understanding – and our tradition encourages us to strive in that direction – but it can end up with us empty-handed and feeling flat or disillusioned or angry. And if that happens – and it does - it’s probably because we are working too hard, too determinedly, too consciously, when what we need to do is wait, wait without hope (as the mystics said), “for hope might be hope for the wrong thing” (T.S.Eliot, Four Quartets). Often we are hoping for the thing we think we want, rather than the thing we need. So this year I’m suggesting that in this frenetic world maybe we can try to wait - patiently, without too much striving - wait with what I rather inadequately described earlier as a ‘wandering attentiveness’. 

For me this waiting – when I can bear to let it happen - is done in the spirit of that  wonderful short text from Kafka, which reads:

It is not necessary that you leave the house. Remain at your table and listen. Do not even listen, only wait. Do not even wait, be wholly still and alone. The world will present itself to you for its unmasking, it can do no other, in ecstasy it will writhe at your feet.

That’s the promise of these Jewish ‘Days of Awe’, Yomim Noraim:  if we remain open and attentive, we will be given what we need.

[adapted from a sermon given on Selichot evening at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, September 1st 2018]

[i] Many people prowl around Mount Sinai. Their speech is blurred, either they are garrulous or they shout or they are taciturn. But none of them comes straight down a broad, newly made, smooth road that does its own part in making one’s strides long and swifter.