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Sunday, 29 March 2020

The Virus Within Us - Update

My mother grew up with stories of her father’s experiences in the ‘Great War’ (what later became known as World War 1): he served in the British army in India. There’s a family photo of him with his regiment enjoying the Passover hospitality of the Sassoon family – the Sassoons built Bombay’s [now Mumbai's] cotton mills and made a fortune from the textile business, much of which they ploughed back into philanthropic endeavours in India and the Middle East. 

My mother’s interest in her father’s wartime experience was mirrored in my own curiosity about her experience during the Second World War. ‘What was it like? Where were you evacuated to? Was there bombing near your home (there were shipyards nearby)? Was it frightening? What did you do for all those years?’

Born in 1953, I grew up with stories about ‘the War’ (unlike many Jewish families in the UK, we had no direct family links to Holocaust losses, though a very close friend of my mother had a number tattooed on her arm). And in Manchester, ‘the War’ was still very near at hand: bombsites weren’t cleared for many years, so the evidence was around and obvious even to me as a child when we went, by car or bus, from our home in the suburbs into the city centre. 

I never really thought I would live through such a time myself – a time about which future generations will inquire, with distant curiosity or wide-eyed astonishment: ‘You mean you couldn’t go out of the house at all? What did you do all day? Where did you get food? What was Zoom? Did people you know die? Was it frightening?’  

Here in the UK we are still, it seems, in the foothills. There’s a long slog ahead – many months, maybe a year. People still talk about ‘getting back to normal’ - and I can understand that talking like that may be a necessary narrative, a comforting fantasy. As if life will resume – at some time in the not too distant future – and we will pick up with life where we left off. It’s a narrative of hope, of wishfulness, that manages to skip over the lonely choking deaths, the mass graves, the funerals where nobody is allowed to be present except the rabbi, or the minister (and the camera). It’s a story without the civil unrest which may yet emerge, or society’s underlying toxic divisiveness. It’s a story of solidarity, of generosity, of the better angels of our nature; of community support, of collective belief that care and compassion and mutual support will triumph over selfishness and greed and fear. 

And maybe it will. Maybe crisis will bring out the best in the human spirit. There are wonderful examples of it all around. But I’m not holding my breath – to use a phrase which has taken a darker turn in recent weeks – that this benign, uplifting spirit of support and co-operation will prevail as events turn more deadly. 

Even in so-called ‘normal’ times, fear generates aggression in us. But when the fear we feel is fear of death – what happens then? Ten days ago, when ‘social distancing’ had first been advocated – and I prefer to describe this health practice as ‘social spacing’, because to survive this collective crisis we need an ethic of closeness not distance – I was in the supermarket and as I went to pay at the till I brushed momentarily against the arm of a man’s coat. I would have thought nothing of it – but he leapt back (literally, not metaphorically) several metres with a look of complete panic and horror on his face. As if he’d seen the devil. Which I guess he had, from his perspective. 

In ages past, I thought to myself, was this how a leper was treated? Was this how ‘the Jew’ was seen? (That’s an archaic, atavistic thought). But I felt I was the bearer of something that threatened life itself. Or rather: I felt as if I was being experienced as someone who threatened life itself. And I have been wondering since then: was this just an aberration, someone perhaps already suffering from some kind of social phobia, or paranoia? Or was it a straw in the wind? 

The next day, wandering with my wife on a beautifully sunny spring morning through a thinly-wooded open space in a country park, where the paths had disappeared and there was just a leafy covering on the ground, but plenty of room to wander wherever one wanted, a woman with dogs approached from behind a tree, saw us about 10 metres away and, pulling her scarf rapidly round her mouth, shouted angrily “Why can’t people keep a distance?”. Another straw in the wind?

Fear corrodes the soul. Fear is the acid in which solidarity dissolves. Fear grips our hearts and attacks our compassion and generosity of spirit.  

Those of us alive today, of whatever age, have never experienced anything like this invisible, deadly ‘plague’. To orientate myself I find that I search for narratives of those who have lived through plague times in years gone by. Such descriptions are – and are not – useful. What can I learn, for example, from Daniel Defoe’s narrative of the plague that ravaged England in 1665? Written at the time but not published for nearly 40 years it takes us back, inevitably, to a world very far from our own – and yet disconcertingly familiar. Let me share a few paragraphs of it with you, and conclude this blog with some reflections on it:  

Great were the confusions at that time…when people began to be convinced that the infection was received in this surprising manner from persons apparently well, they began to be exceeding shy and jealous of every one that came near them. Once, on a public day, whether a Sabbath-day or not I do not remember, in Aldgate Church, in a pew full of people, on a sudden one fancied she smelt an ill smell. Immediately she fancies the plague was in the pew, whispers her notion or suspicion to the next, then rises and goes out of the pew. It immediately took with the next, and so to them all; and every one of them, and of the two or three adjoining pews, got up and went out of the church, nobody knowing what it was offended them, or from whom.

This immediately filled everybody's mouths with one preparation or other…some perhaps as physicians directed, in order to prevent infection by the breath of others; insomuch that if we came to go into a church when it was anything full of people, there would be such a mixture of smells at the entrance that it was much more strong, though perhaps not so wholesome, than if you were going into an apothecary's or druggist's shop…

 Yet I observed that after people were possessed, as I have said, with the belief, or rather assurance, of the infection being thus carried on by persons apparently in health, the churches and meeting-houses were much thinner of people than at other times before that they used to be. For this is to be said of the people of London, that during the whole time of the pestilence the churches or meetings were never wholly shut up, nor did the people decline coming out to the public worship of God, except only in some parishes when the violence of the distemper was more particularly in that parish at that time, and even then no longer than it continued to be so.

Indeed nothing was more strange than to see with what courage the people went to the public service of God, even at that time when they were afraid to stir out of their own houses upon any other occasion... This was a proof of the exceeding populousness of the city at the time of the infection, notwithstanding the great numbers that were gone into the country at the first alarm, and that fled out into the forests and woods when they were further terrified with the extraordinary increase of it. For when we came to see the crowds and throngs of people which appeared on the Sabbath-days at the churches, and especially in those parts of the town where the plague was abated, or where it was not yet come to its height, it was amazing… 

There’s the self-imposed ‘social distancing’; the fear of contamination; the wish to “prevent infection by the breath of others”, even those who appeared healthy; the flight to the countryside by those who can.  The most obvious difference though is in the need for religious folk to continue to meet with their co-religionists. Or is it so different? In the current crisis many synagogues and churches are continuing with technological solutions to the problems of self-isolation by streaming  services and activities through a variety of platforms. Perhaps in these times now when real contact is impossible, mediated community contact becomes even more important for many. 

(Questions about God, and prayer, I will leave for a future blog – in’shallah)

In decades to come – for the rest of the 21st century - we will be judged by how we responded to this crisis: will it lead to a re-evaluation of what really matters – interconnectedness of societies, peoples  and nations; care of the marginal and vulnerable; preserving the quality of the air we breathe and the environment that all humanity shares;  global economies focused on the highest standards of health care and education and justice – or will it lead to a descent into selfishness (personal and national) and the squandering of the greatest opportunity for transforming the fundamental values of civilisation that modernity has ever been presented with? 

I hope you and your loved ones keep well in these perilous times.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

The Virus Within Us

“From now on it can be said that plague was the concern of all of us. Hitherto, surprised as he may have been by the strange things happening around him, each individual citizen had gone about his business as usual, so far as this was possible. And, no doubt, he would have continued doing so. But once the town gates were shut, every one of us realised that all were, so to speak, in the same boat, and each would have to adapt himself to the new conditions of life.” (Albert Camus, The Plague, 1947). 

Yes – as if we didn’t know this before, that we are all ‘in the same boat’, Planet Earth – the arrival of Covid-19 has forced us into a new awareness of the interconnectedness of all of us with each other, and with all life forms on earth. 

And if we are not yet carriers of Covid-19 we are nevertheless all carrying the coronavirus. Because the virus is inside us, in our heads: we are carrying it in our thoughts, it is incubating and mutating within us. Nobody can escape it, it is contaminating our mental well-being. It is causing fear, panic, anxiety for our loved ones, concern for our health, concern for our livelihoods, sometimes concern for our lives. 

We are struggling to get our heads round what Camus names as “the new conditions of life”: holidays cancelled, trips abandoned, meetings postponed, plans thwarted, stocking up on products, self-isolation, ‘social distancing’, a dread about the future with the awareness that this is only just beginning…

I seem to veer between two poles in my thinking. The first is that this will be – as the dulcet tones of the official chief scientists paraded before us daily on our UK screens calmly portray it – an inconvenient but temporary health crisis that the country will be well able to manage if the public take suitable precautions. Though it is hardly reassuring when these precautions - soothingly and rationally presented on one day - segue seamlessly into quite different soothingly and rationally presented precautions the next day.  Like magicians whose skill is not to let you see how the trick works, the official TV faces of scientific knowledge present their magical thinking with sincere and serious panache. 

The second pole of my thinking – and, as I said, I oscillate between these thoughts – contains a cluster of much darker glimpses into a world twisted out of shape by the consequences of this plague. The stock market crash may be a prefiguration of a radical change to our social, economic and political realities. This global pandemic event, which is only just beginning, could mark this century in ways comparable to the ways that World War One inaugurated a century of profound dislocation, wars, revolutions and suffering. 

Of course that was not the whole story, but (consciously or unconsciously) we carry the memory of  20th century trauma in our psyches. Humanity saw into the abyss – the destruction of peoples, of cities, of the natural world – and the abyss is still there, even if we look away. Hiroshima, Auschwitz and the environmental destructions of the Anthropocene era are signposts into the chasm. They are the deadly hole in the heart of humanity. 

If borders close, businesses go under, pensions shrink, food supplies reduce, social contact is restricted, no amount of online activity (for those able to access it) will compensate for the losses to ways of life we take for granted. Governments are talking up the relatively short-term nature of the measures they are ‘suggesting’.  A few weeks, a few months. This is supposed to reassure us. I am not reassured. 

In the UK in this last decade we have been assaulted by austerity-sadism and torn apart by Brexit antagonisms –- so on one level Covid-19 could ‘bring people together’, as they say, the recognition that we are indeed ‘all in one boat’. But the UK’s psychological wellbeing is not in good shape, in fact it is quite fragile: witness the aggressions, the racism, the undisguised anger simmering under the surface and erupting online or in public. How well set up are we as a nation to follow recommendations about what we ‘should’ do in terms of self-isolation and distancing? How soon before a much more draconian approach will be implemented? And how will we fare then? 

When doctors face agonising decisions about who to help and who to let die in hospitals – and, like the God-stories of old, they will have to choose who will live and who will die– how well equipped are we, and the social fabric, to withstand and survive these ravages on our sense of fairness and justice? 

We are as yet much too close to events – which evolve day by day – to see anything clearly about what this virus will do to us, as individuals, families, communities, nations. We have no ‘outsider’ position from which to look at events. I have seen it said that this crisis will show us that concerted, collective action can make a radical difference to how a society behaves – a sign that the environmental crisis could be tackled by immediate radical changes of behaviour once the will is there and world acts together to avert disaster. Greta Thunberg’s message has fully arrived.

I have no sense of which of the two poles of my thinking will turn out to be nearer the mark. But my gut feeling is that these events – which, as I keep saying, are only just beginning -  will lead to profound, but as yet  unpredictable, changes in our patterns of life. 

Meanwhile I am trying to carry on with my work, my relationships, my thinking-about-things, with as much continuity as possible. But I do feel at odds with the prevailing narratives. This may be foolhardy, but there it is. For example, as I wrote to a colleague this week:
“in these fraught times when the impulse we are being told to follow is to self-isolate, create ‘social distance’, I am taking up the counterintuitive stance that we should retain as much as possible live connections between people for our own emotional and mental well-being - because our inner psychological and spiritual well-being is a powerful (not omnipotent) prophylactic in the safeguarding of our physical well-being. We know that good human contact has restorative and sometimes preventative benefits for our physical well-being, and we shouldn’t abandon the wisdom of what we know in this present ‘crisis’”. 

At the end of his powerful evocation in ‘The Plague’ of a city living with plague and forced into isolation – a metaphor for the German occupation of France during World War Two, but also a universal portrait of the bravery and selfishness of people when faced with radical disruptions to the continuity of their lives and wellbeing – Camus writes about the end of the plague and that “as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux [the novel’s hero, a doctor who treats the sick regardless of the risks to himself] remembered that such joy is always imperilled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves…”

I wish you all safe passage through these beleaguered times.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Seeing the Future in the Present: the Australian Fires and Anselm Kiefe

And still they burn. For more than a month now. They burn and consume everything in their path: trees, grasslands, homes, buildings, livelihoods. More than a billion animals, birds, fish and other lifeforms have been lost. And still the fires rage and burn. Even the rain cannot dampen their ardour. 

Nobody who has followed the news from Australia these last weeks, as the old decade ended and a new decade begun, can have failed to wonder: ‘Is this the shape of things to come?’ Are we seeing here a message from the future encoded in the present? We know the climate crisis is teetering on the edge of irreversible catastrophe. Whether through fire or flood, the continuity of life as we know it is threatened. In Australia the fires have created toxic air pollution – an immediate threat to human health. The whole scenario feels – here’s a useful word - proleptic: ‘the representation of something in the future as if it already existed’. 

The Nazi book-burnings in 1933 – of ‘subversive’ (often Jewish) literature – was proleptic: “Where they have burned books they will end up burning people” was Heinrich Heine’s (1797-1856) haunting, prophetic intuition. Heine’s German and Jewish sensibility, which allowed him to think into the present moment as if it were a passageway to the future, raises the question which any writer, artist, thinker, any sensate human being, might ask: can we know the future by being fully immersed in the present? 

The Biblical portrait of Moses at the burning bush – a bush that “burned without being consumed” (Exodus 3:2) – is a picture of someone seeing the future in the present: Moses intuits in that vision the indestructible nature of his oppressed tribe, the Hebrew people. But to see deeply he realised he first had to “turn aside and look” (3:3).  The challenge is always not to turn away, not to avoid looking. 

Those Australian fires, still burning, force us to look. And what we can see, and have been seeing over these last weeks, is not just a possible vision of apocalypse, the destination of the decade ahead. But a vision of a split in the human response to such events. At one and the same time, as people were dying in the fires, and hundreds were fleeing to and camping on the beaches, and the country was mobilising their rescue - at the very same time, as New Year’s eve approached, the Sydney authorities, a bare few miles from these events, was refusing to listen to a 300,000-strong petition to cancel the traditional firework festivities, broadcast around the world. The show had to go on. Entertainment, spectacle – commercial interests too no doubt – were judged to be more important than respecting and adjusting to the unfolding tragedy. So people partied while others – just up the road - lives in peril, were facing the loss of everything they had.  

And this choice seems to be equally proleptic: why not keep on as we always have done, as disaster confronts us? Let’s focus on the fireworks as the fire works its way across our land. This kind of cognitive dissonance – a refusal to know, to think into, what we know; a refusal to see, to see into, what we glimpse out of the corner of our eye, or sometimes what is visible in plain sight – this capacity for a kind of internal psychological splitting does not bode well for our future on this planet.

Next week the Australian Open tennis championship will go ahead in spite of players’ concerns about smoke pollution from the nearby bush fires affecting their breathing. “The safety, well-being and health of the players is our top priority” say the organizers (well, they would say that wouldn’t they) – but the show must go on. Over and over again within these recent events in Australia we can see the power of human denial in play. 

History is full of examples of the tragedies that occur when there are those who cannot see – or choose not to see – what is unfolding in front of their eyes, our eyes. Occasionally someone comes along who is able to give representation to this through one medium or another. The German artist Anselm Kiefer – surely the most significant visual artist of our times? - is perhaps one such figure. Born as Hitler was about to be defeated, his whole oeuvre developed in the shadow of the cataclysmic events of 1933-1945. His latest exhibition in London – it can be seen at the White Cube in Bermondsey until January 26th – is no exception to this fate, no exception to his choice to confront us with what it means to live in a world where humane values can disappear. 

His paintings and installations in this current exhibition are monumental in size and ambition. Many have a savage and epic beauty, particularly the scenes of burnt vegetation that recede to the horizon, barren landscapes filled with real branches, twigs and straw, in which no human being ever appears. The only sign of so-called humanity are axes strategically and compellingly positioned amidst many of the desolate, post-apocalyptic landscapes, their rusted blades attached to branch-handles, relics of what human beings have left behind. Relics and symbols. The axe cuts down and creates, destroys and renews, attacks and defends. Every culture and civilisation, back to mythological times, has read something into the axe.  

The devastation in Kiefer’s art is thrilling, overpowering. His work is, in the true sense, awesome: it induces the fear and wonder that reside within awe. His work shows us: something awful has happened. But what has happened is also proleptic: his work is a vision of what is to come. Or what we fear is to come. As the fires burnt still in Australia and the landscape there comes to resemble Kiefer’s bleak, provocative compositions – you can’t take your eyes off them, they linger in the mind and fertilise the imagination – we begin our new decade with trembling spirits, in the knowledge that, despite the forebodings and proleptic signs, the future is not yet settled. It’s all still to play for. 

Postscript: I came across the following luminous piece by Mark O'Connell after I'd posted my blog. It speaks for itself: 
"The most disturbing thing about the images of the fires is not that they might signal the end of the world, but that they might signal how the world will continue. That we might just get used to large parts of the planet being on fire, and even larger parts of it under water. And more disturbing still, that we might harden our hearts against the people who live and die in the floods and the fires. In this sense, above all, we are in danger, and we need to act immediately to survive". (The Guardian, 13th January 2020). 

Sunday, 15 December 2019

Families, Rivalries, Politics: Some post-Election Thoughts

I’ll been wondering where to start – how to think – in the immediate aftermath of this awful election result in the UK? 

And I decided to start where Jews traditionally start, with the Torah, with this text that has sustained us through the generations, through triumphs and tragedies. It’s where we root ourselves, steadying ourselves as we are buffeted by the winds of fortune and misfortune that assail us, individually and collectively. 

When I saw that this week’s allocated sedrah was all about the consequences of sibling rivalry – the archetypal tale about Jacob and Esau, and the fraught reverberations of that drama in the unfolding of the Jewish story - I couldn’t help think, ruefully, how our current political mess  is directly linked to exactly this theme. By ‘directly linked’ I mean symbolically and thematically linked. 

You know the Biblical story. In brief: how Jacob’s second-born status led him to manipulate Esau into selling his birthright, then cheat his way into getting the family blessing from his blind father Isaac. 

But let me take you back in time to a previous era in British history, a previous General Election. Let me take you back all the way to 2010. I know it’s remote now, lost in the mists of time. Gordon Brown – remember him? - was Prime Minister: he called an election, lost the election, and resigned as leader of the Labour party. 

Who would succeed him as Leader of the Opposition? Six candidates put themselves forward: Diane Abbott, Ed Balls, Andy Burnham, John McDonald, David Milliband, and his younger brother Ed Milliband. 

I met David Milliband once, it was (I think) before 2010: he came to the launch of a Jewish environmental group and when he walked into the room he had that rare quality, a natural and relaxed authority, a presence, a bearing that was at same time both self-assured and modest, almost self-deprecating.  His short speech, made without notes, was fluent, intelligent, completely to the point. It had moral authority and gravitas and a winning humour. He was a natural leader. 

In the Labour leadership campaign that followed Gordon Brown’s resignation, David Milliband had far more MP nominations than the other candidates.  And then in the second stage, in the knock-out system the Labour party use to narrow down the choices, he was consistently ahead in the first 3 rounds of voting.  By the time the final, fourth round, came, the choice had narrowed to the two Jewish brothers, David and Ed. In the final voting, David, the elder, had a clear majority of both Labour MPs and Labour party members. But Ed had the support of the big unions, and when all the votes were tallied, he had 50.7% and David had 49.3%. So the younger had supplanted the elder, as the deep imprint, the gravitational force, of Jewish history, appears to dictate. 

It was a shock result, and our tragedy, our current British tragedy, has emerged directly from that sibling rivalry. Because - if we can indulge in a moment of counterfactual historical thinking for a moment - most thoughtful commentators agree that with David Milliband as leader of the Labour party there was no way he would have lost to David Cameron in the 2015 election. Cameron was leading an unpopular Conservative-dominated coalition that was enacting the ideologically-driven cruelties of austerity - but he was still able to defeat charisma-less Ed Milliband. And you all know what happened next: the ill-conceived referendum and this story of national self-harm that we are still immersed in.   

There’s a book to be written – and a PhD thesis or two, no doubt – about how the psychological dramas of family life, particularly the rivalries between siblings, can become enacted in the public domain, often to disastrous effect.

For example: you may not have heard of the American 19th century actor Edwin Booth - he was a superstar in his day, the Al Pacino of his times, touring the country with his Shakespearean performances. He was incredibly in demand; and nobody had heard of his younger brother, who struggled for years in his acting career – his brother was John Wilkes Booth, and if that name rings a bell now it’s not for his acting, but because he finally manged to outdo his older brother for public attention by assassinating Abraham Lincoln. In a theatre, you might recall – John Wilkes Booth’s finest performance. 

Sibling rivalries – from Cain and Abel onwards – can be deadly. The book of Genesis is full of these stories: we’ll soon be reading in Genesis how Joseph’s brothers leave him for dead in a pit because they can’t stand the hatred he aroused in their hearts at their young brat of a brother’s presumption to superiority, a sense of superiority fostered – and this is one of the Bible’s beautiful ironies – by their father Jacob’s favouritism. 

Jacob acted out with his children the very trait that had caused such disruption in his own family of origin. And if you think it’s only men who are afflicted with this kind of sibling rivalry, we have Rachel and Leah competing with each for Jacob’s affection. And so it goes on, generation after generation, with the Biblical mythic narratives forcing the reader to confront how intergenerational family tensions, and sibling hostility, are written into the larger history of a tribe or a nation. 

The Biblical storytellers knew that human history is the story of the psychodynamics of personal life, through the generations. They used the same word, toldot, for ‘history’ and ‘generations’. Life in families - between parents, between parents and children, between children and children – all this complex stuff constitutes the building blocks of a society. And they showed us the ways in which all the basic passions of emotional life come spilling out at some stage – within an extended family,  or later on, on a larger stage. Themes of envy and jealousy - who has more, who has less; themes of resentment and rivalry - who is owed what, who deserves what, who is entitled to what benefits or what status, or what rights, or what attention; these are all emotional issues that become societal issues and political issues. 

Ed’s younger-brother rivalry with his older, most charismatic brother had to be acted out – he was urged to stand aside, but refused. Just as the rivalry between Labour and the Lib-Dems in this election was too intense for them to agree on a joint strategy to step aside in certain seats for the good of the country. 

I would suggest - and I am sure this is a minority view, a view you will never hear discussed in the public domain – that only politicians who have worked through their own personal and family issues, including sibling rivalries, have the psychological strength and insight to make decisions in the political realm that are truly for the larger good. Unless you have come to terms with certain psychological dynamics in your own life, you will act them out in one place or another to the detriment of others. We see this all the time in politics. 

A final thought about this. It is one of the wonders of Biblical literature that our storytellers show you the naked truth about their characters, our mythic ancestors: they don’t disguise the murderous feelings, or the envy, or the jealousy, or the lust or possessiveness or anger of the characters. On the contrary, they insist on it, showing us how these feelings play themselves out through the generations for good and bad, with consequences that can be hurtful or benign, damaging or fortunate. You can’t predict as any story unfolds – just like with ourselves - how things will play out in a lifetime, or in the next generation. They emphasise the lived human reality in all its complexity and murky depths. But they also insist on something else. 

The Biblical authors are not just painting psychological pictures, they are also painting theological pictures. In these stories they are saying, overtly or in hints: ‘this is the way that God works in history’. God works through the toldot, the generations. God works through the characters’ own actions, or inactions, their own rivalries and jealousies; through whatever is played out on the human level the Bible dramatizes that something else is working itself through which is divine, godly, even if that isn’t known about by the characters. 

Often unbeknownst to themselves, the characters in the Bible are carriers of a divine story working itself out in history, through the generations. The Jewish story is carried that way, generation after generation. This is the Bible’s greatest, most chutspadik, most grandiose, claim: God is working out the Jewish story through human beings, through people like us. With all our flaws and defects, our lack of consciousness, our lack of self-understanding. 

But the question now is: that may be how the Bible views things, the interrelationship between humanity and divinity – but is it still real for us, as a way of thinking? Is it helpful still to think that there may be a bigger story working its way out through us? Are we still the vehicles, unbeknownst to ourselves, of a larger scheme of things? Or has that story run its course? Is God no longer present for us in that way? 

When one brother refuses to step down and let the older brother take over – when a kiss turns into a bite [rabbinic commentary on Genesis 33:4, based on a play-on-words between the Hebrew words for ‘kiss’ and ‘bite’] - history turns on that moment. In a secular age maybe this is how it now is – it’s all hard-biting politics and ego-driven showmanship, bread and circuses, deception and self-deception.

Has the divine spirit fled the stage, withdrawn into itself until it can find a human host to act through? A Mandela or an Obama or even an Angela Merkel, politicians (or a non-politician like Greta Thunberg) who can accommodate within their hearts and minds something of that eternal spirit that takes new forms in each generation but that we recognise through the traces that eternal spirit leaves behind:  the compassion, the kindness, the generosity, the selflessness, the passion for justice - the hallmarks of the sacred within the realm of the human.  

As the UK drives off a cliff edge, we still have a job to do, we People of the Book. “Turn it and turn it”, as the rabbis of old said, “for everything is in it” - if you know where to look, how to look. 

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, December 14th 2019]

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]