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Sunday, 10 June 2018

Lessons from Philip Roth


There is one sentence that I keep in mind when I’m thinking about sermons. I say ‘keep it in mind’ - but that’s not strictly true, it’s not a conscious decision. On the contrary, it’s more true to say that this  sentence haunts me, shadows me, nags at me, won’t let me go – and because it could end up persecuting me, I long ago decided I’d rather befriend it, have it as my travelling companion, to let it guide me (inspire me even), but also if need be to warn me.

Have I captured your curiosity? ‘What is this extraordinary sentence?’ I’m  giving it a big build-up, I know: like a storyteller, one might say. I will let you in on my secret – though it might come as a bit of an anti-climax. I’ll have to risk that.

First though, I want to put this sentence I’m talking about – it’s a Philip Roth sentence - in its context. Ever since some of his first stories were published in 1959 in the volume Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth’s work was (in his own words) “attacked from certain pulpits and in certain periodicals as dangerous, dishonest and irresponsible”. He was accused by various Jewish leaders, and rabbis, of creating “a distorted image of the basic values of…Judaism”, of “being anti-Semitic and ‘self-hating’”, “tasteless”, of “offering ‘fuel’ for the fire” of anti-Semites, and so on.  When he spoke at Jewish events at that time, he’s said that invariably there would be people who’d come up to him afterwards and say: “Why don’t you leave us alone? Why don’t you write about the Gentiles? Why must you be so critical? Why do you disapprove of us so?” “This last question”, he says, “asked as often with incredulity as with anger” (p.50).

I am taking all this from an essay Roth wrote in 1963 called ‘Writing About Jews’ [in Philip Roth, Why Write? Collected Nonfiction, 1960-2013] in which he describes some of these responses to his early short stories. He writes:

“It is difficult, if not impossible, to explain to some of the people claiming to have felt my teeth sinking in that in many instances they haven’t been bitten at all. Not always, but frequently, what such readers have taken to be my disapproval of the lives lived by Jews seems to have more to do with their own moral perspective than with the one they would ascribe to me: at times they see wickedness where I myself had seen energy or courage or spontaneity; they are ashamed of what I see no reason to be ashamed of, and defensive where there is no cause for defence. Not only do they seem to me often to have cramped and untenable notions of right and wrong, but looking at fiction as they do – in terms of “approval” and “disapproval” of Jews, “positive” and “negative attitudes toward Jewish life – they are likely not to see what it is that a story is really about” (p.51).

In other words, Roth is saying that his Jewish critics misunderstood what he was doing when his stories contained Jewish characters: they were poor readers, in effect. “It is not my purpose in writing a story of an adulterous man”, he writes, “to make it clear how right we all are if we disapprove of the act and are disappointed in the man. Fiction is not written to affirm the principles and beliefs that everyone seems to hold, nor does it seek to guarantee the appropriateness of our feelings. The world of fiction, in fact, frees us from the circumscriptions that society places upon feeling; one of the greatnesses of the art is that it allows both the writer and the reader to respond to experience in ways not always available in day-to-day conduct…Ceasing for a while to be upright citizens, we drop into another layer of consciousness. And this expansion of moral consciousness, this exploration of moral fantasy, is of some value to a man and to society.” (p.51-2)

Let’s think about this for a moment. He’s saying that reading works of fiction allows an expansion of our “moral consciousness” – this is a very significant claim: that literature helps us imagine other people – their joys and struggles, their life dilemmas, their victories and defeats, their passions and heartaches. It helps expand our sense of what it is to be human. This is what fiction does. And poetry, one might add. Non-fiction can do this too of course, but I am focusing here, as Roth did in his career, primarily on the way that fiction can help sensitise us to complexity, and the emotionally and spiritually layered nature of moral issues; in other words stories, well-written, can make us larger moral beings rather than narrow ones.  

All of this essay, by the way, was written years before Roth became an international name with Portnoy’s Complaint (in 1969)a novel which was in part his pent-up fictional riposte to all those years of being told how ‘tasteless’ he was, how he was portraying the Jewish community in such a  bad light to the goyim. It was if in Portnoy’s Complaint he was saying ‘You think the fiction I’ve been writing is tasteless? Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet…’ 

I came to Philip Roth’s work relatively late, in the mid-1980s, prompted by a friend who encouraged me to overcome any prejudices I had about him – and I did have some - and just read his Zuckerman books; and so I did read start reading them and I was captivated. He was writing about life - about desire and death and human folly and human vulnerability and human ambition - in a way I found compelling. And it was during this period that I came across the sentence that has steered me, and goaded me, ever since.

It’s at the very end of that 1963 essay ‘Writing About Jews’, which he concludes with this remark: “The question really is, who is going to address men and women like men and women, and who like children. If there are Jews who have begun to find the stories the novelists tell more provocative and pertinent than the sermons of some of the rabbis, perhaps it is because there are regions of feeling and consciousness in them which cannot be reached by the oratory of self-congratulation and self-pity.” (p.64).

That struck a deep chord with me; and there’s a lot packed into Roth’s words that have particularly stuck with me. Firstly – and this is actually the prelude to the sentence that I want to speak about - if you are going to offer your thoughts in the public domain, whether it is in writing or in speaking, you need to address people as adults, not as children: so you don’t talk down, you don’t patronise, or condescend, but assume that the audience is able to take your words and think about them. This may sound obvious but I’m not sure that it is. Addressing people as “men and women” means granting people a kind of basic respect: a belief that they, like you, are thoughtful beings, capable of holding two or more contrasting ideas in their minds, for example, and a belief that people are able to reflect with some degree of fairmindedness on what you are offering. Yes, they may well have feelings about what you say – people may not like what you say, but you don’t avoid saying difficult things for that reason.

‘Able to reflect’ of course is not the same as ‘prepared to’ – and one knows that people are not always able to listen open-mindedly or open-heartedly: that people listen with prejudice and judgment and criticism and envy and a whole range of emotional responses that can get in the way of listening to what you are saying; but in Roth’s terms, addressing them as “men and women” means speaking to the best selves you know people can be, not the worst selves – so, hopefully, not pandering to people’s prejudices and emotionality.  

By the way, I think you should also talk to children in the same way as to adults: that is, without condescending to them or patronising them. I don’t believe in hiding from children the complexities of life, they know that anyway: you might just as well validate their experience rather than deny it or over-simplify it or, worse still, cover over something because you might find it hard to talk about, things like sex or death (two of Roth’s major themes, by the way). So in that sense I  don’t go along with Roth’s splitting things into ‘you should talk to people like adults not like children’. But I get what he is saying, it’s a kind of shorthand way of talking – and dare I say, a touch of laziness on his part.  

But the next point Roth makes is the key one I want to focus on: that what draws people in is storytelling; people find stories “provocative and pertinent” - by which I understand him to mean intellectually thought-provoking, imaginatively thought-and-feeling provoking, and relevant to their own experience, pertinent to the joys and troubles and moral dilemmas of their own lives. And that when you are in the presence of a good storyteller, when you are engaging with well-written fiction, this is what people are drawn to – it reaches regions of feeling and consciousness’ that, in Roth’s view, sermons can’t reach. Of course Philip Roth never heard one of my sermons but I forgive him for that: anyway, he was talking about the kind of sermons that were common fare in 1950s America, that he describes, in a somewhat provocative, and more-than-slightly condescending way as ‘the oratory of self-congratulation and self-pity.’

But if you read those sermons now, and such sermons are by no means unique to America, or to the 1950s, we can recognise what he’s talking about. “Self-congratulation” refers, to my mind, to all those sermons that tell us how wonderful the Jewish people are - all those Nobel prizes! – all that wonderful Jewish philanthropy and ethical high-mindedness; or how wonderful Israel is, making the deserts bloom, our cutting edge technology: you know - all that PR stuff. And ‘self-pity’ – well, we are good at that: Jews as eternal victims, the world hates us, poor little beleaguered Israel, all that anti-Semitism flooding through Europe or behind the chintz curtains of middle England: we almost take pride in our capacity for self-pity, the rich profusion of forms in which it comes. We certainly joke about it. ‘How many Jewish sons does it take to change a lightbulb? It only takes one, but don’t worry about it, I’ll just sit here in the dark’. If there was a Nobel prize for self-pity, we’d walk away with it every year.

I hope you can see what I’m doing now: I’m doing what I learned, one of the things I learned, from Philip Roth. I’m beginning to move into a narrative/storytelling mode; and also one of his gifts was in using humour to make serious moral points.

I do try to avoid “self-congratulation” in my sermons and writing, and “self-pity”. I don’t think I always succeed in this, because it’s very easy to slip into, like comfy slippers - it’s simple and tempting, but it’s also lazy and manipulative. ‘Look how wonderful we are’ is ‘feel good’ stuff for sermons, and sometimes we do just need to feel good about ourselves, individually and collectively: but it’s always only part of the truth of things, and sometimes only a very minor part. And ‘poor us’ is also, paradoxically, a kind of ‘feel good’ form of speaking, because self-pity is comforting, it’s like wrapping oneself up in a warm duvet on a cold winter’s night. To feel that the world’s against us, and that’s how it always was and is and will be, can offer a paradoxical form of pleasure - even if it avoids the complexity of how we are experienced, the huge range of responses through time (and today) to Jews and Jewishness. And maybe ‘poor us’ is perversely pleasurable because it avoids the messy complexity of real life, real experience.

Anyway, Roth has been a touchstone for me as I think about what I am doing when I write or when I speak. One of the things I learned from is that if you find the right ‘voice’ to speak in, you can explore even the most difficult ‘regions of feeling and consciousness’. He was the master craftsman of narrative art who acted as a guide to me in the moral seriousness of literature. He helped me understand story as argument, story as exploring moral dilemmas, commitment and betrayal, “uncontrollable longings, unworkable love…exhaustion, estrangement, derangement” , and the rest (p.381), and in his last decade of writing produced a series of works exploring in a profound and moving way the vital topics of the second half of life: ageing, illness and the inevitability of death.

I know that many women readers have found his work hard going, and some refuse to engage with it at all: accusations of misogyny have dogged him from the beginning. And it’s true that his female characters sometimes lacked the complex inner turmoil of his male characters – maybe that’s why he never received the one award that eluded him, the Nobel Prize for Literature – but many of his characters are wrestling with universal human concerns rather than solely male concerns, so if you have turned your back on him, for whatever reason, give him another try. Try ‘American Pastoral’ where Roth explores America’s political turmoil of the Vietnam years, a book which contains a beautifully loving evocation too of the Jewish Newark he grew up in. Or try ‘The Plot Against America’ with its counterfactual exploration of what happens in America in the 1940s when a right-wing demagogue captures the presidency and the fascistic takeover leads to the gradual exclusion and then persecution of one ethnic group: not Muslims but Jews. In the era of Trump, of course, this novel from 2004 has taken on an eerie prescience.

Roth had his finger on the pulse of our times like no other novelist. I’ll really miss him. But I will continue to re-read him, the ruthless intimacy of his fiction and the discursive intelligence of his essays. And I hope to be able to use the spirit of his gifts to continue to inform my own work with a minimum of self-pity or self-congratulation. 

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, June 9th, 2018] 

Sunday, 6 May 2018

On 'Spiritual Adventure'

I want to share with you a text I came across this week from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s wonderful last book ‘A Passion for Truth’ - delivered to his publisher just a few weeks before his death in 1972. If I tell you that it is a parallel study of two towering religious figures of the first half of the 19th century, the Hasidic leader Menachem Mendl of Kotzk, who lived in Poland, and the Danish Christian mystic and theologian Soren Kierkegaard, one of the forefathers of existentialism, (neither of whom knew of the existence of the other)  - well, hearing this it is possible you might feel yourselves having to work hard to stifle a yawn.

But I can assure you that such is the brilliance of Heschel as a writer that he creates a fascinating and very accessible drama out of the lives and ideas of these two figures, showing how they were each wrestling with similar religious questions and issues, though in completely different contexts.

What they were both aware of – and found themselves battling against – were the ways in which religious experience becomes institutionalised, how an individual’s possibility of engaging with the divine becomes bogged down in tradition and ritual and repetition, how religious formalism and religious institutions can become a barrier to religious experience, rather than a vehicle for it.

Heschel was accustomed in his books to divide his thoughts up into short sections, each with their own ‘headline’. The section I want to share is entitled ‘Against Trivialization’, and starts as follows:

The Kotzker apparently felt that overemphasis on strict adherence to patterns of religious behaviour tended to obscure the individual’s relationship with God. He never questioned the validity of the traditional pattern and regarded living by the Law as essential. Observance as a matter of routine, however, he considered odious.  

So: observance of the law and the traditions of Judaism is central, ‘essential’, for Reb Mendl, but observing as a ‘matter of routine’ is ‘odious’: strong language from Heschel. Although Heschel stresses that Reb Mendl is halachically observant, the emphasis of his religious stance is not on mere repetition of rituals or prayers, but something else.

Let’s see what else:

What appalled the Kotzker was the spiritual stagnation of religious existence, the trivialization of Judaism. He scorned praying by rote. In opposition to the traditional preference for verbose recitation, he pleaded for brevity, even taciturnity. He dared to teach that the preparation for prayer surpassed prayer itself in spiritual value and found a basis for this reformative principle in an ancient tradition: ”One should not stand up to say a prayer save in a reverent frame of mind. The pious of old used to wait an hour before praying in order to concentrate their thoughts upon their Father in Heaven.” (Berachot 5:1). One would expect the phrase “while praying” to appear at the end of the sentence, since the goal is concentration in prayer. The intention, however, is to teach us that concentration should precede the act of prayer. Preparation for prayer is valuable in itself, perhaps more so than prayer itself.

Let’s unpack this: first there are the powerful phrases Heschel uses to describe what the Kotzker set himself against – ‘spiritual stagnation’ and ‘the trivialization of Judaism’. And what’s an example of that? : ‘prayer by rote’. And then Heschel illustrates the radical nature of what the Kotzker was teaching by quoting how the Rebbe used a traditional text from the Talmud as the basis of his ‘reformative’ stance: the tradition of having a period of reflection or meditation before a service starts, a quiet personal time before the collective prayers. It’s interesting to see Heschel describe this as a ‘reformative principle’. Implicitly he is raising the question: Does our tradition, our prayer life, need “reforming”? Have we got our priorities wrong? Maybe we have. Because ‘preparation for prayer is valuable in itself, perhaps more so than prayer itself’, (i.e. the fixed prayers of tradition). How threatening an idea is that?!

He’s not saying we can or should dispense with the words of tradition. But Heschel is saying, following the Kotzker’s lead: maybe we have our priorities the wrong way round - that what we might do before the formal prayers begin has a spiritual value in and of itself and maybe, (and this is the radical note), maybe that quiet time is  more valuable ’than prayer itself’.  What would our services look like if we followed that approach? They would surely be different.

Although he’s focused here on prayer, I just want to note in passing how Heschel’s greatness as a teacher is evidenced in that subversive phrase he slips in en passant: the phrase ‘the trivialization of Judaism’. Because in using that language he is inviting you to think: ‘and what else goes on in Jewish life and practice that is  a trivialization? where else do we concentrate on stuff that misses the point about our religion? that avoids the essence of religious and spiritual life?’ And I imagine these questions might resonate too for other religions.

We can each create our own anthology of things that we might point to as the ‘trivialization of Judaism’.  My list would probably be a long one but off the top of my head I’d think about: obsessionism about aspects of kashrut, or frenzied pre-Pesach cleaning, or substituting Zionism for Judaism as the heart of religious life, or seeing the Bar/Bat-Mitzvah party as needing more attention than the ceremony itself, or anything that prioritises ritual obligations at the expense of the ethical vision and inter-personal dimension of Judaism with its focus on compassion and justice. 

He continues:

In the Kotzker’s synagogue one could see the disciples with prayer shawls over their shoulders walking up and down the room, their lips hardly moving. They gave the impression that they had not begun to pray yet and were still immersed in preparation. They prayed quietly. Suddenly they would stop, take of phylacteries and shawls, join one another at the table, and consume a little vodka together…

Heschel brings to life a lost world, with a charming (and seductive) picture of weekday prayer - quiet immersion in prayer, each individual alone in community, together in community, and then: tephillin off, and time for a different connection to the spirit, sharing a drink together…

And how does Heschel bring this theme to a conclusion?

Even piety will not sustain the tedium of unlimited repetition. To preserve one’s commitment with the intensity of its first ardour requires more than obedience. Surprise, spiritual adventure, the search for new appreciation – all these are necessary ingredients for religious renewal.

Judaism lived because it was both a religion of finality, conclusive and irrevocable, and a faith of commencement, of inauguration. To act as a Jew, thought the Kotzker, meant to make a new start upon the old road. (quotations from ‘A Passion for Truth’, pp.92-3, Farrer, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1973).

So here’s the Kotzker’s recipe for religious aliveness, channelled through Heschel. Another way of saying that might be: here we have Heschel’s 20th century agenda for religious renewal – but a renewal programme utilising and  rooting himself in the spiritual tradition to which he was an heir. Heschel was of course born into a Hasidic heritage: his grandfather, Reb Abraham Joshua Heschel, who died in 1825, was the ‘Apter Rebbe’, the last great Rebbe of Mezbizh on the Polish/Russia border, who was buried next to Hasidism’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov, who came from that same village.

In this paragraph Heschel is teaching us what is required for an enlivened religious life: ‘Surprise, spiritual adventure, the search for new appreciation..,’ that is the search for new approaches to the tradition. These are the ‘necessary ingredients’ not just for one’s own spirituality and prayer life but for collective ‘religious renewal’. That’s what Heschel was after:  collective and individual ‘religious renewal’. And what a great trio of ideas he puts together here: ‘Surprise, spiritual adventure, the search for new appreciation…’.

Do the religious services we attend meet that demanding standard? Can they? Is religion even the best place to look? What is the antidote to what Heschel calls  ‘spiritual stagnation’? That’s a condition that might afflict any number of people - synagogue-goes, Church attenders, secularists, alike.  

Heschel speaks directly to some of my own preoccupations, including trying to keep on guard against the ‘trivialisation of Judaism’; and keeping myself (and others)on track, focused on, the elements of adventure, of surprise, of new approaches, in our eternal journey through the wilderness away from spiritual stagnation, towards spiritual richness, aliveness, new possibilities.

[adapted from a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, May 5th 2018]




Thursday, 29 March 2018

On Narrowness and the Resurrection of the Miraculous




I am emerging – trying to emerge – from my ‘narrow space’, my sense of constriction. Over the last few months some of you have contacted me: ‘Where’s your blog gone? We need something in these difficult times’ – so I realise I am not alone in feeling in Mitzrayim/Egypt, feeling the power of the mythic narrative of enslavement, the hard daily living of that existential condition that the etymology of Mitzrayim/Egypt evokes: narrowness, constriction, entrapment.



So the festival of Passover/Pesach arrives – and this year concurrently with  the drama of Easter: stories about suffering and despair followed by the miraculous transformation of life; when all appears lost, and yet new life, new possibilities, spring from the darkness. These stories offer the seductive framework of a narrative with which we can identify: they move us from  oppression and suffering to liberation, to a new sense of freedom. But is this what we experience? The undeserved arrival of the God of Surprises (as the Catholic spiritual teacher Gerard Hughes named it)? Are we that blessed? Are we that open? Is the myth still alive, and resonating?



I don’t know the answer to these questions. What I know is the narrowness – I have been trapped by my inadequacy in dealing with my dependence on technology (computer issues, internet and broadband issues, that world in which I am immersed and feels like an extension of my very self, so that my well-being depends on its smooth functioning); trapped by the body’s ageing, and the always present awareness of dependence on its own organic functioning, the taking-for-granted of physical well-being, until suddenly all is not well and although not serious, our common frail humanity is starkly revealed – and with it comes the helplessness, the powerlessness, and the question of who to turn to?



So I know the narrowness of living in Mitzrayim/Egypt. And I know too that we each have our own personal Mitzrayim/Egypt. But also that there is a sense that our personal entrapment and constriction and narrowing of horizons is mirrored in what we see around us: political and social forces that oppress people’s well-being – and the list can seem endless: the crises in the UK in the NHS and in social care and prisons and education, no area of life unaffected by the poverty of imagination, and the lack of generosity, and sometimes the systemic aggression, of the powerful and wealthy, as well as our ongoing national trauma of the narrowing of our future hopes because of Brexit.



And the concentric circles of concern, that ache in our bones, are known to us all: Europe’s increased populism and racism, and America’s; the destruction of species and natural resources and the air we breathe; Putin’s and Trump’s threatening grandiosity, and calculated (or impulsive) braggadocio, millions on the move, random terror, wars without end – our lives touched or not touched – but we can’t shut out what we know. The unthought known: Mitzrayim in us. The list is too painful to contemplate – but it all increases our sense of uneasiness, helplessness, fearfulness. It all adds up to our collective  Mitzrayim/Egypt.



In the mythic narrative that underlies the Pesach story of liberation, our storytellers took a bold gamble when they wrote: “And the Israelites were groaning under their slavery and they cried out, and their cries from the midst of their oppression rose up to God and God heard their groaning and God remembered his covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and God saw the Israelites and God knew.” (Exodus 2:23-4). Why was this a gamble? Because it means that every generation now wonder about their own oppression, their own inner experience of Mitzrayim/Egypt, their own “groaning” and “cries” (in whatever form they come), and they wonder: ‘What’s happened to the covenant? Does God any longer see and know what we poor struggling human beings go through?’.



Historically, Jews have often been eternal optimists that this story still contains a timeless message of hope: that somehow, in ways we don’t understand, the divine energy that animates the universe is still in operation and oppression can and will give way to renewed life and openness and well-being. But we Jews are also skilled in disillusion – skilled in asking difficult questions about salvation. For we ask: so how does liberation happen today? who takes responsibility for it? are we waiting passively for salvation from some divine force outside ourselves? or do we have to liberate from within ourselves our own powers, our own capacities to transform hardship into hope, our own compassionate ability to see and know, our own passion for justice?



Are we ready to take the mythic narrative of the Exodus seriously enough to internalise it and recognise that this divine energy that the storytellers of old projected outside themselves in the service of an inspirational narrative of how liberation from oppression happens – this divine energy is an energy within us?



Are we ready for that?



We all carry a wound, deep and scary and scarring. It’s part of our modern condition. Jews are not alone in bearing the scars of the 20th century, the wounds of modernity. This wound is a universal spiritual trauma, barely recognised. That wound is being pressed on every day. We feel a pain, undiagnosed but present. From where, from whom, will healing come?



In 1965, in his poem ‘The Cave of Making’, the poet W.H.Auden wrote some lines – filled with wisdom and hope, shadowed with ambiguity - which are accompanying  me in these days that lead us into these shared festivals of pain and liberation, Pesach/Passover and Easter:



                                                                        More than ever

life-out-there is goodly, miraculous, loveable,

           but we shan’t, not since Stalin

               and Hitler,

trust ourselves ever again: we

          know that, subjectively,

    all is possible.



May this be a season when we resurrect the miraculous nature of being – in ourselves and for others.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Was the Balfour Declaration 'anti-semitic'? - an alternative view

The letter from Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s  Foreign Secretary to Anglo-Jewry’s leading representative was only three sentences long. But it set in motion a series of events which are still political dynamite today.  The letter from Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild, dated  November 2nd 1917,  is kept in the British Library. Little did they know that they were setting in play a conflict which seems more intractable now than at any time over the last 100 years.

On the surface the letter can seem uncontroversial. It starts with the sort of officialese language - formal and flowery - that is very much of its time: Dear Lord Rothschild, I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.

And then, the pleasantries dispensed with, the single sentence which has caused both celebration and dissent from the moment it was issued, containing as it does two promises, one theoretically backed by the British government, the other unenforceable because dependent on the good-will of the recipients of the first promise.

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

I want to look at the content of this famous/infamous sentence. But we should note first the concluding, third sentence, Balfour’s request to Lord Rothschild: I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation. And after these typed sentences, the author signs off in his own handwriting: Yours, Arthur James Balfour. Not ‘Yours sincerely’ or ‘Yours faithfully’, just the more honest, clipped ‘Yours’.

More honest because we know that Balfour was neither a faithful friend of the Jews; nor was he quite sincere in the sentiments expressed in this letter. He had been the Conservative Prime Minister at the time of the notorious Aliens Act of 1905, the legislation directly targeting Jews, restricting them from entering the country from Eastern Europe. So hardly faithful to the Jews. Nor sincere: what we don’t have in the letter is any hint about the background reasons why it was thought necessary to offer this declaration to the Zionist organisation at this particular point in time.

Remember it is 1917, the ‘war to end all wars’  has been rumbling on for 3 years and thoughts were beginning to turn in the Government to what would happen afterwards, and particularly in the Middle East, once the Ottoman empire had crumbled. A year before the Declaration, Britain and France had come to a secret agreement – the Sykes-Picot agreement - to carve up Turkey , Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq into separate spheres of influence, although they left undecided who would control Jerusalem and its surrounding territory.

Previous to that, Balfour had made a secret pledge to the Hashemite Arab leader, Hussein ibn Ali, that Britain would support Arab independence in Palestine once the Ottomans had been defeated. But the need to outsmart the French was paramount - and this included using Palestine’s strategic centrality to ensure smooth passage through the Suez canal en route to India. So the 3 sentences of the Declaration are just the tip of a rather large and irregularly-shaped iceberg. Britain’s post-war national interests are what the Balfour Declaration hides.

Plus there was the need to keep the Jews on side during the War. Balfour hoped that by making a promise of a Jewish national home in Palestine, the Jews of America and Russia, Britain’s wavering allies, would put pressure on their governments, in Washington and St.Petersburg, to stay with the war until total victory was achieved. Balfour’s words to his Cabinet are worth hearing: “If we could make a declaration favourable to such an ideal [i.e. Zionism], we should be able to carry on extremely useful propaganda both in Russia and in America”.

What’s fascinating about this is the fantasy of Jewish power and influence on foreign governments. As if Jews have some secret network of international influence with each other and thereby on the governments of the countries where they live. Do you recognise this fantasy? It’s a standard anti-Semitic trope, the most notorious example in that same period of history being the Russian ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ (1903), a fabricated text which described a Jewish plan for world domination. I’m not saying of course that the Balfour Declaration is some spooky shadow twin-sister of that Russian anti-Semitic text, but that behind the Declaration not only is there all that British diplomatic intrigue and political national interest manoeuvrings but also this fantasy that by offering British support for a future Jewish national home, Jews in the lands of Britain’s Allies would be able to exert pressure on their governments.

Balfour could have looked closer to home to see how odd this fantasy was. For the only person in the Cabinet who opposed the Declaration was himself Jewish, the Liberal MP Edwin Montagu. He thought Zionism was "a mischievous political creed", and that the Declaration was itself anti-Semitic. His concerns resulted in a change to the text, which added that last part of the sentence, that nothing should be done that would prejudice “the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”.

In a memo to the Cabinet – entitled Memorandum of Edwin Montagu on the Anti-Semitism of the Present British Government – he outlined his dissenting views on the forthcoming Declaration. It includes these paragraphs, which are worth dwelling on for they represented a real Jewish concern about Zionism, and indeed some of his thoughts remain remarkably prescient:

...I assume that it means that Mahommedans [Muslims] and Christians are to make way for the Jews and that the Jews should be put in all positions of preference and should be peculiarly associated with Palestine in the same way that England is with the English or France with the French, that Turks and other Mahommedans in Palestine will be regarded as foreigners, just in the same way as Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine. Perhaps also citizenship must be granted only as a result of a religious test...

...When the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens, and you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants, taking all the best in the country, drawn from all quarters of the globe, speaking every language on the face of the earth, and incapable of communicating with one another except by means of an interpreter. I have always understood that this was the consequence of the building of the Tower of Babel, if ever it was built, and I certainly do not dissent from the view, commonly held, as I have always understood, by the Jews before Zionism was invented, that to bring the Jews back to form a nation in the country from which they were dispersed would require Divine leadership. I have never heard it suggested, even by their most fervent admirers, that either Mr. Balfour or Lord Rothschild would prove to be the Messiah...

...I claim that the lives that British Jews have led, that the aims that they have had before them, that the part that they have played in our public life and our public institutions, have entitled them to be regarded, not as British Jews, but as Jewish Britons. I would willingly disfranchise every Zionist. I would be almost tempted to proscribe the Zionist organisation as illegal and against the national interest. But I would ask of a British Government sufficient tolerance to refuse a conclusion which makes aliens and foreigners by implication, if not at once by law, of all their Jewish fellow-citizens... 

...I can easily understand the editors of the Morning Post and of the New Witness being Zionists, and I am not in the least surprised that the non-Jews of England may welcome this policy. I have always recognised the unpopularity, much greater than some people think, of my community. We have obtained a far greater share of this country's goods and opportunities than we are numerically entitled to. We reach on the whole maturity earlier, and therefore with people of our own age we compete unfairly. Many of us have been exclusive in our friendships and intolerant in our attitude, and I can easily understand that many a non-Jew in England wants to get rid of us. But just as there is no community of thought and mode of life among Christian Englishmen, so there is not among Jewish Englishmen.

More and more we are educated in public schools and at the Universities, and take our part in the politics, in the Army, in the Civil Service, of our country. And I am glad to think that the prejudices against inter-marriage are breaking down. But when the Jew has a national home, surely it follows that the impetus to deprive us of the rights of British citizenship must be enormously increased. Palestine will become the world's Ghetto. Why should the Russian give the Jew equal rights? His national home is Palestine. Why does Lord Rothschild attach so much importance to the difference between British and foreign Jews? All Jews will be foreign Jews, inhabitants of the great country of Palestine...
[For the full text of this remarkable document see: www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/montagu-memo-on-british-government-s-anti-semitism ]  

Of course, things have not turned out quite like that. Nevertheless I think it is worth recording, amidst all the celebrations in some sectors of Anglo-Jewry, a dissenting British Jewish voice who foresaw some of the complications attendant upon a national home for the Jews. Of course too, the events in Europe a generation after the Balfour Declaration made the moral, spiritual and political case for a Jewish national home incontrovertible. (The relationship between the Shoah and the establishment of the State of Israel is a topic in its own right, but I’m not going to dwell on it here). 

What I am going to highlight though is the tragic element within the Balfour Declaration, the element which spells out that the British Government supports the Zionist project “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. [Note too the absence of 'political' rights]. The British Government have had no power to enforce that understanding. And it is an understanding that I think we can recognise has not been honoured by either the waves of Jewish immigrants that came into Palestine in the 1920s and 30s or after 1948 by the State itself. One can see why, from an Arab or Palestinian perspective, this British commitment is a source of mourning and protest rather than celebration. It doesn’t even give those indigenous Arab  Palestinian communities the dignity of a name – they are just “non-Jewish communities”.

And this gap between high-minded declarations of intent and the reality on the ground is also there within Israel’s own Declaration of Independence when the State was established on 14th May 1948. The Declaration contains this uplifting moral claim:

The State of Israel will be open  for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development off the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights of all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will grant freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Apart from that first clause – it will be open  for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles – who can put their hand on their heart and say that any of the other proud aims of that paragraph have been enacted or achieved? When we measure all the undoubted achievements of the State, we are duty-bound too to measure the failures. We do this with a heavy heart – because it affects us as Jews wherever we are. Why should we in the UK have to build walls round our synagogues? Why do we need to employ security teams:  security for synagogues, security for Jewish schools and buildings?

Do we think any of this paraphernalia of security would be necessary now in 2017 if either the moral intent of the Balfour Declaration or the moral intent of Israel’s foundational document had been adhered to with steadfast faith and belief and commitment? A homeland for the Jewish people was supposed to normalise the Jewish condition in the world. Instead the State, sadly, tragically, has become a pariah amongst nations and we have to have CCTV cameras fixed to the walls outside our own building here in suburban Finchley. 
Let us hope, let us pray, that by the time the Jewish community celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration we can truly celebrate not just the resilience and survival of the Jewish people, but their capacity to enact in Israel, in Palestine, the “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel”.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, November 4th, 2017]

You may be interested in a film I contributed to on alternative perspectives on the Balfour Declaration: https://youtu.be/a2Y3Pllutjo

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Is Religion 'Post-Truth'?

Sometimes, during a synagogue service, something odd happens to me. I don’t know how frequent this is for others. One phrase from the texts, or just one word, jumps out of the general smooth surface of ‘blah’ that we are saying or singing and really catches my attention. Don’t misunderstand me – of course all the words we have in the prayer book are wonderful and thought-provoking and packed with meaning and relevance – but...you know what I mean. They can float by us, or we can float away somewhere else while they are happening.

So what I’m talking about is that moment, that occasional experience, when something pokes through the surface same-old, same-old, blandness and really captures my attention, my imagination. Like being at sea and suddenly a dolphin leaps out, playful and attention-grabbing. Or maybe like the glint of a shark’s fin – and one senses there’s danger there. Sometimes the words in our liturgy invite us in to play; at other times they might contain hidden threats: they can bite us, confront us, endanger our wellbeing or our complacency.

This year the word that keeps getting at me is a little word that we say quite a lot, whether in the Hebrew or in the English. It’s the word emet – true/truth. “Your word is true forever”, “It is true that the Eternal God is our Sovereign”, “It is true that You are the Faithful One...who rescues and delivers us”, “The sound of the shofar breaks into our lives. It shatters our illusions and we awake to truth”. Emet – dolphin or shark?
What kind of truth are these texts proclaiming, exposing us to?  do the truth claims hold up, or do they expose themselves to ridicule? “It is true that You are the Faithful One...who rescues and delivers us” – how do we, after the Shoah, get away with this? What kind of ‘truth’ is this, that we repeat day in day out, year in year out, during our services? What sense does it have? What sense do we make of it?

So, I’m setting my stall out right now. The ‘truth’ stall. There’s a lot of examples on display here, vying for attention. And I’ll come back to them. But I’m going to set out another market stall next to it. And let’s call this other stall by the term that during this last year was named ‘Word of the Year’ by the Oxford Dictionaries: yes, it’s our old-new favourite word: ‘post-truth’. Let’s have a look what’s on the ‘post-truth’ stall.  

You know what will come to mind first, I imagine. Trump and his ‘alternative facts’ - and the finger-in-his-ears, la-la land of his internal world which calls ‘fake news’ anything  he doesn’t want to hear. Many politicians – including not a few American Presidents (remember Nixon?) – bend the truth (which is sometimes complex), or avoid the inconvenient truths, but Trump is gruesomely fascinating in being the first one who seems genuinely to revel in lying. Which includes lying to himself - which we all might do on occasion, but he’s made it into a defining character trait. In doing so he’s creating a ‘post-truth’ presidency based on feelings (his own unregulated, erratic  and narcissistic feelings) rather than facts.

So Trump is an easy target. Our first exhibit on the ‘post-truth’ stall. I probably shares pride of place with that other phenomenon that possibly comes to mind when we think about what might be displayed on the ‘post-truth’ stall: Brexit and that notorious £350 million a week figure, on the side of the VoteLeave bus, that would be freed up for the NHS once we left the EU; or the perhaps more pernicious ‘post-truth’ claim by Farage and others that Turkey would be joining the EU in 2020 and this would allow 70 million-plus sexually-predatory Muslim terrorists into the UK.

These are obvious examples of ‘post-truth’ phenomena in our current landscape. But I’m sure anyone reading this you could add items to the ‘post-truth’ inventory. Because ‘post-truth’ claims have been around for a long time, almost as long as recorded human history - if by ‘post-truth’ we mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary now defines it: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

So the infamous Russian anti-Semitic pamphlet of 1903,'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion', describing a Jewish plan for global domination, would be a classic example of a ‘post-truth’ document; as would the blood libels issued verbally against Jews for the 800 years before that. Jews have particular historical reasons to be sensitive to, and to call out, ‘post-truth’ texts and claims. They are always dangerous to - and sometimes deadly to - someone’s wellbeing, individual or group.

The more you think about it, the more you can see how much we are surrounded by ‘post-truth’. The advertising industry used to be built on it – though there’s regulation now to mitigate some of the more slippery bits of ‘truthiness’. Newspapers are full of it, some more than others: I name no names - on this occasion.

But if we are thinking about what in our world relates to or denotes  “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, what about religion? With that definition the New Testament and the Gospels would be completely ‘post-truth’ documents  – naked appeals to emotion and personal belief. So what about (closer to home) the Hebrew Bible, the Tanach, the Torah – is this just another ‘post-truth’ text?

God making the world in 6 days? Adam and Eve? Truth or ‘post-truth’? The patriarchs and matriarchs - are they real historical figures (“objective facts”), or creations of the literary imagination of inspired national storytellers? The Exodus from Egypt of 600,000 Hebrew slaves, crossing the Red Sea; Moses receiving Torah at Sinai? Truth or ‘post-truth’? Are you shifting uneasily in your seats? I hope so.

Suddenly our two market stalls – truth and ‘post-truth’ – seem to be uncomfortably close together. In fact – interesting phrase: ‘in fact’ – what’s on display on them may be getting all jumbled up. We need to do some sorting out here. I’m not claiming that my perspective is the ‘truth’, by the way - but it’s not ‘post-truth’ either. Let’s just call what I’m saying provisional signposts towards what’s ‘true’. 

The fundamental point about the word ‘true’ or truth’ – and the word emet in Hebrew - is that it covers two rather different kinds of human experience. One kind of experience, and we are immersed in this, is about facts, reason, logic, the mind, scientific understanding, mathematical understanding. It is true that 2 + 2 = 4; the capital of France is Paris; Auschwitz was an extermination camp with gas chambers; penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928 at St.Mary’s Hospital here in London [although in the service of 'truth' it needs to be said that although he was the first to grow the culture of the mold involved, it wasn't until Howard Florey and Ernst Chain took up research on it 10 year later that it became available to be used for human immunization]; there was once a king of the Hebrew people called David who ruled from Jerusalem.   All of these are true – there is evidence of different kinds to back up their claims to being true. And a million other examples could be set out on our truth stall. 

But none of them in and of themselves offer meaning in our lives - and although some people are happy to live in a world just of facts and statistics, others of us are interested in questions of meaning and purpose: a world where we need comfort after someone dies, where we need hope when things look dark, where we feel there is value in our activities and relationships - a world of emotional and spiritual realities that are true, or that we hold are true, in a quite different sense.

I don’t want to live only in a world of information and rational thinking where meaning can be found through a Google search - as important as that world is: I wouldn’t want to live in a world without penicillin, without the know-how to make that and a thousand other medicines, the result of a hundred and fifty years of rigorous truth-searching in chemistry and biology and so on.

The modern world – the world of electricity and  technology and scientific endeavour – is a wondrous human achievement. It is truth-seeking, finding answers to questions of ‘what?’ and ‘how?’ But it doesn’t address our human aspirations and dreams, and our innate human questions about ‘why?’, our questions about meaning. Why did that person have to die? or leave me? Why does she seem more popular than me? Why is he more successful than me? Why am I always struggling, or on the verge of tears? Why do they always seem so happy? Why am I moved when I see others’ suffering? Why am I not moved when I see others’ suffering?

For those kind of questions – and there’s a million of them - we need another kind of truth-telling: the truths contained in stories, in art, in novels, in myths, in psychology, in poetry, in – dare I say it - in religion, all of which create meaning . This other kind of truth is not rooted in historically accurate information but in the truth of the human spirit and the more elusive aspects of human experience. These kinds of truths can’t be proven rationally or arrived at scientifically.

You can’t prove that love is a more creative impulse for human society than hate; or that generosity is more life-enhancing than greed; or that compassion is a sounder basis for building a meaningful life than cruelty. These things are true, I would say, (although you can always find counter-examples) - but they aren’t true in the way that 2+2 = 4 is true. These truths don’t belong to the world of ‘logos’ but to the world of ‘mythos’ – this is the ancient Greek distinction between two kinds of truth, two categories of truth. And if we confuse these two categories we can end up in a lot of trouble. In the history of religion people got - and still get – oppressed, persecuted and killed because of the muddle between ‘logos’ and ‘mythos’.

Nowadays the word ‘myth’ has lost its original meaning. When we say something’s ‘a bit of a myth’, we tend to mean it’s not true; it’s even come to mean that something is a lie. But it’s a real shame – and sometimes a tragedy – that ‘myth’ has lost its original meaning of a narrative or story that offered meaning to human life, that gave a perspective on values, that created a container, a framework, to help us think about the purposes of human life and family life and social, community life; ‘mythic thinking’ generated  narratives and stories that spoke about the daily dramas and dynamics of our lives, and the fragility of all human life, and animal life, and natural life on this irreplaceable, extraordinary planet, a cosmic speck in the universe.    

I think there’s a lot of confusion between these two kinds of truth - ‘mythic’ truth and ‘rational’ truth, if we use a shorthand. If you read the opening chapters of Genesis through the lens of rational truth, we can see that it is absurd, in the light of scientific knowledge, to believe that the world was created in 6 days. Some people of course do believe in that literal understanding of the text. But as a poetic myth, the story of how humanity emerged as part of an evolving process, stage by stage, which then moved generation by generation into family groups, then tribal groups, each with their own identity and purpose, and we trace how the Hebrew Bible’s ‘mythos’ develops its story with this small undistinguished  Hebrew tribe finding itself with a value system and a destiny to live out certain  values and be an inspiration and model for other tribes and nations – wow, this is another kind of truth-telling; and we find we are in the middle of a truth-creating story, a truth-revealing story, a story about meaning and purpose, in which we can, and still do, locate our own lives.

So that when we read in our liturgy now – the liturgy being the creation of generations of rabbinical writers who accepted that original ‘mythos’/truth-generating story as having something of value to shape their own lives – when we read the words they composed - “Your word is true forever”, “It is true that the Eternal God is our Sovereign”, “It is true that You are the Faithful One...” -then yes, our ‘logos’ mind can jump in and object ‘but this isn’t true, it’s not rational, it’s not scientific!’.We can get snagged on that part of us, like being in a wool jumper that gets snagged on barbed wire and starts to unravel - those internal (or external) ‘logos’ voices can pierce us and unravel our minds.

 But if our mythically-sensitive minds - otherwise known as our souls - wait a moment and allow the words in, allow them to breathe in us, to inspire us, allow their meaning-generating mythic wisdom to embrace us, hold us, then these words – words like “It is true that You are the Faithful One...”  - can cajole us, seduce us,  into inspecting our lives, and asking ‘what are we faithful to?’, ‘what do we value and hold dear?’

 “Your word is true forever”:  how can God’s ‘word’ - that is God’s ‘mythic’ truths , about justice and compassion and lovingkindness and generosity and mercy – how can they help shape our lives, our vision, our daily actions? These values aren’t post-truths. Care for the stranger, the outsider, the homeless, the impoverished – this is written into our ‘mythos’, the story the Jewish people has been telling itself for millennia.

They are the signposts that can give us direction, provisional signposts maybe – yet  still they are signposts towards what is true. These words, these teachings are – as in the title of the new exhibition by the American artist Jasper Johns at the Royal Academy – they are “Something Resembling Truth”; at least until anyone or anything can point us in a better direction towards what is emet, “true forever”. But after two and half millennia I’m not holding my breath for that to happen any time soon.


[adapted from a sermon given on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah (New Year), at Finchley Reform Synagogue, September 22nd, 2017]

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Repairing What's Broken

I recently came across a delightful Japanese word, kint’suk’uroi – and realised how useful it was in helping me think about the themes of the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement. It’s the word used for the Japanese art of repairing with gold, so that a broken artefact becomes more beautiful afterwards than it had been before it was broken.

This is the period of the Jewish year when the themes of mending what’s fractured in our lives, repairing the damage we have done to others and to ourselves, are highlighted by the tradition. This is the spiritual and psychological  work of what the tradition calls the ‘Days of Awe’.   
Judaism has its own language for this of course. Teshuvah, we are told, means to return, to repair, to restore – we may have harmed someone close to us, hurt them: are we able to have the humility, the courage, to admit this, to address this, to try to put something right in a relationship. We may have harmed a part of ourselves wittingly, or unwittingly – our bodies, our souls, our values, our vision, our integrity, our confidence, they can get damaged, battered by the stresses of everyday life. What do we need to repair, what can we repair? – these are the questions we wrestle with as the New Year approaches.
And they are hard questions. But kint’suk’uroi sets the bar higher than that – it’s an idea not just of repair (where the cracks might still show), but adding something in to make it more beautiful than it was before. With a ceramic pot this might be possible, and we may be ‘clay in the hands of the potter’ (i.e. God) as one of our medieval penitential poems puts it, but what if we have had a falling out with a friend, or a neighbour, or someone in our family, or someone at work? Are we really supposed not just to repair the relationship but make it better than it was before, more ‘beautiful’, as it were? Maybe patching things up is the best we can do. It’s a question – the kind of question we struggle with at this time of the year. 
This concept of kint’suk’uroi reminded me of a parable from the Maggid of Dubno (1740-1804) which tells of a king who had a beautiful diamond that was accidentally scratched. No jewellers were able to repair it, until one craftsman came and promised to make it even more beautiful than it had been originally. And this he did by engraving a rosebud around the imperfection - and using the scratch to make the stem.
The Dubner Maggid was an itinerant storyteller, maybe he’d been to Japan and pinched the idea – it’s not likely though – but his story is certainly a close relative of  kint’suk’uroi . Though psychologically it’s also subtly different. There’s  a difference between covering something over, covering it up, so you can’t see what’s happened, and thereby enhancing the whole object (or situation ), making it more beautiful – and keeping the scratch, the wound, visible (conscious, one could say) and part of a new picture which emerges around it, which can be built around it.
If there’s been a breakdown of trust in a relationship and yet the relationship is important enough to want to maintain it, the hurt has to be aired, it has to be acknowledged and light thrown on it, and if things go well  that old hurt might lessen in its painfulness. But it may be better not to pretend it hasn’t happened. Ideally it can become part of the next stage in the relationship. “Do you remember that time when you did that? And how upset I was? Well it’s still there, I haven’t forgotten, but I’m glad that  we have moved on, built something else...”
But there is an art in doing this – building and repairing relationships – and not everyone is an artist. Or wants to be. There’s also pleasure in destruction, in smashing up crockery, in breaking things – and sometimes relationships, situations, need to be broken, or destroyed. Where there’s abuse or injustice, oppression, victimisation, or a psychological habit that persecutes us  – the energy needs to go into breaking what’s there, not repairing it.
So where does that leave us? Brokenness, repairing damage, letting the scratches, the hurts, the wounds show - or soldering something over them. These are the metaphors I find myself playing with as we start this annual pilgrimage once more. The soul’s journey of return, or renewal (teshuvah).
The other sentiment that kint’suk’uroi reminded me of is the saying by the  Kotzker Rebbe (1787-1859): “There is nothing as whole as a broken heart”. That’s a hard one. I’m not sure I can quite inhabit it. I’m not sure I believe it - or want to believe it. It sounds as if it could be a very profound spiritual or psychological understanding – or a very trite one. I’m not sure. Maybe it depends on who says it, and when . I know it’s not something I’d ever say to someone who was broken-hearted.
It’s so paradoxical  - “There is nothing as whole as a broken heart” – so counterintuitive: if you are feeling broken-hearted - if you have lost someone you love, or you have lost your home, or your homeland, or your work, or you are seriously, maybe terminally ill, if you are feeling completely bereft, broken - is it a comfort to be told by an outsider that, “There is nothing as whole as a broken heart”? Or would you want to hit them? I don’t know.
Yes, there is an integrity to upset, fully felt; distress that overwhelms the heart; grief that rends the soul – these pain-filled states of being, of mind, are real, unquestionably, our naked humanity and fragility exposed. There is an integrity to these experiences (and we hope, we pray, that we are spared too many of them in our lives), but we don’t feel “whole” when we are going through them:  we feel empty, and despairing, and hopeless and angry. We don’t feel “whole”  with our broken heart – we feel in pieces. 
I don’t know why I wanted to talk about this. Or why I am talking about this theme in this way. I intuit - or maybe I just hope - that something in what I am saying connects to some of you, connects to what you might have struggled with this past year, or be struggling with now in your lives.
I suppose I’m trying to dig down into an aspect of teshuvah, this word that we repeat over and over at this time of the year, like  a mantra, almost until it loses any meaning. I suppose I’m drilling down into it to see what the inner dimensions of this returning, repairing, might look like, feel like. Because however many times we say it or chant it - whatever harmonious  or plaintive melodies accompany it - it’s a word on a mission, it has designs on us:  it aims to pierce us, pierce through us, penetrate our defences, our rationalisations, our laziness, our callousness, break through our sclerotic hearts, the way we harden ourselves to the sorrows of the world, the sorrows of others, the sorrows in ourselves.
When we come into synagogue through security on these High Holy Days we just have to wave our tickets, they don’t ask us - as they do sometimes (bizarrely) at airports – “Are you carrying anything explosive?”. But if they did ask us that during these days – “Are you carrying anything explosive?” - we could say: “Yes. Yes we are. We are carrying words, words like teshuvah; and they are explosive, they are meant to be explosive, to set off chain reactions of thinking and feeling inside us; they are words that threaten (and promise) to change our inner landscapes - unless they do that, they aren’t doing their job, we’re not doing our job. The words can become duds, blanks. We become duds. We become blank. We can let it all wash over us, safe from the creative dangers of getting too close to the explosive nature, the disruptive potential,  of the words we read.
In these days when explosions are a live topic for us, it may seem strange to talk about the aim of these words as being to be explosive. But one of the questions of these times is about security: where can our security can come from in fraught times? And maybe over these days ahead of us now we can start to find our security in this re-engagement with our tradition, in re-connecting to the power packed into the language, the words of our machzor (prayer book); the security that comes from rooting ourselves again within our tradition that offers and promises the opportunity for change, for renewal, for transformation; the security of discovering anew that the power, the energy, that animates all being, that animates all of life, flows in us too - in our brokenness as much as in our hopefulness.
[based on a sermon given at Selichot service at Finchley Reform Synagogue, September 16th evening]

 

 

Monday, 11 September 2017

On Magpies, Sermons and Lego

I was invited to the Liberal Jewish Synagogue  a couple of weeks ago to lead a pre-High Holy Day workshop for rabbis on sermon giving. Somewhat apprehensively, I went along with a few ideas but not knowing quite what to expect.  As it turned out it was a lively morning – and I learnt a lot (I’m not so sure what they learnt).

At one point I asked my colleagues what they thought was the point of a sermon? What’s its aim or purpose? They came up with an interesting list: comfort, hope, provocation, challenge, a space for personal reflection, providing a Jewish map/framework for thinking about an issue, an opportunity for learning, to stimulate curiosity, to stimulate change, to begin a conversation.  

Afterwards, it occurred to me that there seemed to be things missing from that list: there was nothing about God (as if it’s almost a taboo subject) or spirituality (though that begs the question as to what we might mean by the spiritual); nothing about offering people a way of making meaning out of tragedies, personal or collective; or just helping us to cope with the everyday battles and bruises of lived experience; nothing explicit about Jewish values (though maybe that was implied in some of the list); and, at a different level, nobody spoke about the sermon as entertainment.

Entertainment as ‘a  performance that offers pleasure, diversion or amusement’ (Longman dictionary). I think that’s an underrated aspect of sermon-giving. I’m not talking about entertainment as frivolity, as lacking in - or an avoidance of - seriousness of purpose, but unless it is a form of pleasure, of stimulating pleasure in the listener – and that could be emotional or intellectual  pleasure - I’m not sure why we’d bother with it. Either rabbis or congregants...

I think of sermons as a kind of play - it’s like being a child with a whole heap of Lego pieces, you can make anything you want. I remember when my son was young he used to have those Lego sets where you could build a castle or a spaceship: you’d get all the pieces, and instructions on how to build what was pictured on the box, but when you’d done  that and had the satisfaction of ‘getting it right’, it was much more fun to mix the castle pieces with the spaceship pieces and make your own imaginary constructions. And the more boxes you had the more intriguing could be the designs you could make. There was no limit to what you could do – the only limits were self-imposed ones originating in the limits you put on your own imagination.

So here’s an image to play with: sermon-giving is like playing with Lego – the pleasure is in bringing different sets of ideas (and images) together. I talked a bit in that workshop about how I see myself as a magpie. My eye is caught by, I’m always on the look-out for, things that I can use for sermons. Because I’m not really interested in straight-out-of-the-box building to an existing design. That’s not very creative or satisfying, for me. I’d rather be a magpie, and pick up lines of poetry or songs, quotations from the newspaper, biblical verses, jokes, ideas from novels, from TV characters, from films, from exhibitions in galleries, from a conversation I might have with someone, or something I overhear or see in the street, stuff that floats up from the unconscious when I’m taking a walk, or a shower. We are all bombarded all the time by stuff that comes at us, as well as things we go out deliberately and engage with, it’s all the stuff of life, randomly generated, the kaleidoscopic chaos of everyday life.  I am happy to make use of any of it, to play with it and see what I can shape it into – for my, and others’, entertainment and stimulation.

But  when I ‘play’ with this material, I am aware that there is also a concentrated seriousness at the heart of it. I might even call it a moral seriousness. Because although I appear to be writing right now about how I build a sermon, out of bits and pieces, what I am also talking about – what I am really talking about - is how we all construct a life for ourselves, brick by brick, day by day.

The question underlying what I’m saying is something like: how do we each build our life? what are the values we assemble, the beliefs we utilise, the ways of living we cobble together, the ways of doing things we learn, the ways of finding meaning and purpose  we seek out? For example: what parts of our family history do we treasure and integrate into our lives?; and what parts cause us grief and we can discard? What happens if things in the past that we don’t want – old hurts, grudges, grievances, fears - still stick to us, like pieces of Lego that get jammed together so we can’t prise them apart and build something new? what do we do when our options seem lessened? 

We are all building our lives out of the ‘boxes’ around us. There’s the box called ‘what our parents gave us’, boxes called ‘what our schooling and education gave us’ and ‘what our life experience taught us’ and ‘what our disappointments taught us’ and ‘what our successes taught us’ and ‘what our relationships taught us’; and religious or Jewish boxes with values packed inside,  like generosity, kindness, lack of ostentation, righteousness in all its multi-coloured forms? And we are all making up our lives as we go along from how we assemble the bricks. We are limited only by our imaginations.

We are all constructing patterns of meaning, though someone from the outside might look at what we are building and wonder : ‘What is that supposed to be?’, like I sometimes used to do with my son: but he had his story about what he was building. And one of the worst things you can do for a child is to tell them they have got it wrong because what they have put together isn’t the same as the picture on the box. Similarly with an adult. Other people might not recognise what you are building – how important is that to you, that it should look like what’s on the box?

It’s different if a child is frustrated because they want to follow the instructions and can’t; or they can’t find the right pieces because the ones they are looking for have got all mixed up with pieces from other boxes, and they need help sorting things out. Then your job might be to patiently sit with them and help them sort things out – this belongs here, that belongs over there, where can we look for that blue round bit? Ah, it’s hidden over there.

Similarly with an adult. Help might be needed to sort things out. To work out what belongs where. Because we all have, one way or another, assembled our lives from all sorts of bits and pieces of experience and knowledge and desire and hardship - and fragments of wisdom accrued along the way. And we may not be sure what we have achieved, what we’ve built. In this Hebrew month of Elul, the for reflection before the High Holy Days, we are encouraged to give some more sustained attention to what we have fabricated out of our lives. What do we value? What might we have overlooked? What might we might want to change, or re-design?

 It’s a month when we can be on the look-out for new pieces to build into our lives, and on the look-out too for bricks that are stuck together, that are stuck inside us, that we might want to pull apart. It’s a month to be magpies, to find things that you want to gather in to yourself, add to your life: it might be a story, or text, or a film you have been meaning to see; it might be in a relationship that you want to develop; or a call that you have been waiting to make; it might be a project of work, or study, or volunteering you might want to explore; it might be  a holiday you have been putting off, or a health check.

So – a month to be magpies. Or be like the prophet Isaiah. We read a text in the synagogue this week (Isaiah 60:1-14) which contained the wonderful, numinous words : “Raise your eyes and look about: everything can be gathered together and comes to you...” (verse 4 – my translation). You build your life out of what comes to you - the transient, the fleeting, the contingent, the serendipitous - along with what you seek out: love, meaning, adventure, security, joyfulness...everything can be ‘gathered together’.

And then Isaiah, the great poet/prophet, goes on say: “As you behold what is there, you will glow, your heart will throb and thrill...” (verse 5). What an amazing promise!  Paying magpie-like attention, gathering in what is there, will allow you to 'glow', will make your heart ‘throb and thrill’. A promise to take with us as we come towards our Days of Awe, as the Jewish New Year approaches.

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, September 10th, 2017]