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Monday, 28 December 2009

Jews and Christmas

I find this is a strange time of the year if you are Jewish. What are we Jews to do on Christmas Day and Boxing Day? As Diaspora Jews we are obviously a minority within a larger culture: a culture which is nominally Christian but is also devoutly secular and devoted (with a fundamentalist’s fervour) to our dominating belief-system, the cult of consumerism.

So what stance do we take up to what is going on around us? Is it Christmas lunch with kosher turkey? Is it a day to be with family, like any other yomtov of our own? Is it a day to be one of the millions going on-line to buy a little happiness in the sales? Do we have a tree, for decorative purposes, and tell ourselves that it is after all just a Victorian invention? Is it a day to volunteer to help others, eg ‘Crisis at Christmas’, helping out so that others can have a break? Perhaps we flee the country, to get away from it all? Or do we just ignore it? How do we locate ourselves on these days?

Inevitably our response to this is personal, and it may change from year to year. We discussed this on Shabbat morning during the service at Finchley Reform Synagogue, and it was interesting to hear that , with a couple of exceptions, there was a general feeling of rather laid-back good cheer about these north London Jews’ response to Christmas. Almost as if it was the most natural thing in the world that Jews should feel at home in this celebratory holiday period.

It may be that Christmas time for Jews illustrates just how much we are fused into the larger culture of our native land: Christmas lunch has become as little to do with Christianity as Santa Claus - so if we do have some kind of gathering we are illustrating that our identity is mixed, complex, mongrel. This now is who we are: Jews who are far removed from the intolerance of those in the yeshivah world of Jerusalem whom I studied with many years ago who were very denigratory of Christmas day – they had a contemptuous and derogatory phrase for it (yoshkie’s birthday), and they wouldn’t even say the word ‘Christmas’; in that world it’s the custom to study specific extra texts on December 25th as a kind of psychic counterweight to the alien religious forces at work. So it was clear from our discussion on Shabbat morning that we aren’t like that.

But nor are we so secularised that we partake of all the jollity and celebrations without a second thought: we probably don’t see ourselves, in Jonathan Miller’s celebrated phrase, just as ‘Jew-ish’ and able to join in with it all like the millions of non-Christian secularists.

It is a curious vocation being Jewish. It is made up of so many strands of feeling and memory, of choices made and choices rejected, and whether it is something we were born into or have freely adopted, our sense of Jewishness in each of us is, I’m sure, large and capacious, filled with conscious and unconscious material, some of it rich and nurturing, some of it probably shabby and worn-out. We are, in Walt Whitman’s wonderful phrase, ‘stuffed with the stuff that is coarse and stuff with the stuff that is fine’ (from Song of Myself). And we can enjoy that, our multifaceted, hybrid Jewish identity.

This multi-layeredness is, after all, rooted in our history. Just think of our many names. Our Biblical texts illustrate how we started off as ‘Ivri/m – Hebrew/s – a word meaning ‘outsiders, nomads, strangers, wanderers’. The root is the word avar, meaning ‘to cross over’ – Abraham the first Hebrew in our mythic tales (Gen 14:13) crossed over the Jordan (and the Euphrates) on his way from Nahor to Canaan, impelled by his divine mission. And this is who we became: wanderers though history, through countries; and crossers of boundaries, not just geographical, but also cultural and intellectual. Jewish creativity and innovation, in the sciences and social sciences, in economics and psychology, in art and music and literature, is a testimony to some almost innate psychological capacity for thinking ‘outside the box’, as we say it now - crossing over and beyond the established thinking into new areas of thought and discovery. This is Jews as ‘Ivrim’- boundary-crossers.

But we are also bnei Yisrael – the children of Israel – and we know the folk etymology of that word Yisrael: the patriarch Jacob renamed as a ‘wrestler with God’, a ‘struggler with the divine and for the divine’. And we carry this name in our soul as well. The spiritual struggle to enact the values of our tradition and faith – this is also who and what we are.

And then we are Yehudim, Jews, named after the character we focused on in this week’s Torah sedrah, Judah (Yehudah). (Genesis 44:18 – 45:14, from sedrah Va’yigash). We aren’t called ‘Josephites’ – in spite of Joseph being the key character who carries the story of the people from Canaan into Egypt, linking the patriarchs with the Exodus narratives where the group of families become a real people. Without Joseph the divine mission would have reached a dead-end. And Joseph would have been the perfect character to give us a collective name because it is Joseph who is the first real Diaspora Jew, living as a stranger in a strange land yet achieving great prominence in the secular world – second only to Pharaoh in power and influence, he was chancellor of the exchequer, prime minister and minister for agriculture all rolled into one. He could have taught how to remain true to one’s religious roots yet integrated into one’s adopted culture. I’d have been happy to be called a ‘Josephite’.

But it’s Judah, the fourth oldest of the brothers, who becomes the one to give his name to our people. His older brothers are written out of the picture, de-legitimizing themselves from taking on the mantle of peoplehood. Reuben sleeps with his father’s concubine; Simeon and Levi commit a massacre at Shechem – the text is unsparing in showing how incestuous desire and murderous revenge are endemic human qualities. Jacob’s offspring are an unruly and unbecoming bunch.

And it is left to Judah, the one who was originally averse to killing Joseph and suggested he was sold into slavery instead, to redeem the situation. He becomes the brother who is prepared to sacrifice himself for Benjamin – in order to protect his aging father from the devastation of losing Benjamin as well as Joseph. ‘It’ll kill him’ says Judah, several times over – a statement of real imagination and empathy. This transformation in the character of Judah is an extraordinary piece of storytelling. "Callousness is replaced with concern. Indifference is replaced with courage and self-sacrifice." (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)

And so he takes his place in the psychic structure of our people when we are later named Yehudim – ‘Judahites’, as it were. Historically, it was the tribe of Judah that dominated the southern Kingdom after the Assyrians conquered the north of Israel, and they who survived the Babylonian exile. We get our other name, after Ivrim and Yisrael from him: Yehudim, Jews.

So we are multiple in our Jewishness, even in our names. And it is this multiplicity that we bring to these strange days in our calendar, our calendar which is not our calendar. During these days it is as if we are suspended between two worlds, or rather have a foot in two worlds. Maybe that is true the rest of the year as well, but at Christmas time it can really come home to us as we negotiate a pathway through the sentimentality and inanity of the festivities and all that bullying bonhomie that is forced upon us through the airwaves and the newspapers and the shops.

I feel sorry for real Christians in a way – they have their noble and rather wondrous story colonised by all the kitsch and the consumerism. But that assault on the real spiritual core of a religious festival is something I recognise too at Jewish festivals: do multiple presents for the children and scoffing doughnuts really sum up the essence of Hanukkah? Are the new hats and outfits really the spiritual meaning of Rosh Hashanah? Are the debates on the correct consistency of the matza balls what Pesach now symbolises? Silly examples, I know, but they point towards a more serious issue: how to find a language with which we can now talk about the things that matter in our own religious tradition.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

'Whose Oil Is It Anyway?'

It started as an old soldiers’ holiday. They’d gather year after year, at the darkest time of the year, winter solstice time, and tell their stories, speak of their heroism. They were a group of religious zealots, fiercely nationalistic – and they had waged a guerrilla campaign against their enemies, the Graeco-Syrians, who were occupying their land. Much blood was spilt, on both sides, but they were tough, ruthless – they’d had a cause, a cause they were prepared to kill and die for. Eventually they took the Temple in Jerusalem back into their own hands and re-dedicated it to their God, the God of Israel.

And even though their victory was short-lived and the land was eventually re-occupied - this time by the Romans - the memory of that famous victory against the odds lived on. The stories were told and re-told, passed on, elaborated and embellished along the way. And the message was clear, passed on from generation to generation in those early years, 22 centuries ago: with enough faith and guile and bloody-mindedness – anything is possible.

And this is Hanukah, which of course we celebrate now in a way that goes to some lengths to suppress its original message. Because we aren’t going to be very comfortable with a holiday that commemorates an uprising by a bunch of religious terrorists who refused to accept the dominant assimilated culture of the day, with all its decadent values, its worship of the body and the material world, all those naked statues and philosophic discourses about how to build democracy. We aren’t keen to glorify religious fanatics who are prepared to kill in the name of their faith.

We’d rather think of Hanukah as basically a children’s festival, a time for jollity and presents and greasy foods, a rather sentimental festival of candle-lighting and dreidels and doughnuts. A bit like Christmas but spread out over 8 days and with baby latkes rather than baby Jesus.

But it isn’t only us who might want to downplay the origins of the festival. The rabbis in the Talmud were exactly the same. We are in an honourable tradition of repressing the truth. They too were deeply uncomfortable with celebrating a short-lived military victory – even if it was done in the name of God. They were so uncomfortable with it that they showed their own ruthlessness by suppressing in their writings any mention of the fighting and the force of arms. We reconstruct the history from external sources and the historian Josephus not from mainstream Jewish religious texts.

The Talmud has almost nothing to say about the festival. It just asks – in a tractate about Shabbat observance - the slightly anxious question: ‘Mai Hanukah? What is Hanukah?’ – as if there is some doubt or confusion about it: which indeed there was, if only in their own minds about how to talk about it. And they answer the question by recounting the story which we are familiar with – about the re-dedication of the Temple after it had been defiled by the Greeks, with the single cruise of oil lasting miraculously for 8 days.

This was ‘creative’ of them. It takes a kind of brilliant imaginative chutzpah to turn a military victory into a Festival of Lights based on a fable; and then link the celebration to the prophetic text from Zechariah that we still read, with its key refrain, the declaration in the name of God that the Jewish nation, the Jewish people, will succeed ‘Not by might, nor by power – but by My spirit..’ (Zech 4:7).

And in a parallel kind of sleight-of-hand the rabbis of old eventually instituted the prayer that we read after the candle-lighting: ‘Hanerot hallallu...’ . See if you can spot the subtle revisionist spin: ‘We kindle these lights to commemorate the wonders, the heroic acts, the victories, and the marvellous and consoling deeds which You performed for our ancestors through Your holy priests in those days at this season...’ (Soferim 20:6, mid-8th century). Do you hear the manipulation of history here? It is classic PR spin. (Alistair Campbell, eat your heart out).

The rabbis here are doing two interlinked things: the first is familiar from Seder night, where Moses is never mentioned throughout the whole story of the exodus from Egypt. It is all done by God. So here too it says that these were marvellous deeds ‘which You performed for our ancestors...’ – how? – ‘through Your holy priests’. And this is the other aspect of their creativity. The phrase ‘Your holy priests’ might be correct in a narrow sense – Matthathias was a priest, which means that his sons were also priests, so Judah the Maccabee (who led the guerrilla forces with his brothers and is the main Hanukah hero) was also technically a priest too, all of them were - even though they couldn’t act as priests because the Temple wasn’t in Jewish hands. They were a priestly family – but without a Temple to practice in. Like the titled English landed gentry who lost their country estates and ended up living on relatives' handouts.

So when our liturgy praises this victory in high-flown language as one that was achieved by God through his ‘holy priests’, it’s a bit like saying that peace came to Northern Ireland through the democratic endeavours of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. (It puts me in mind of the American satirist and songwriter Tom Lehrer’s comment that political satire was made obsolete the day they gave the Nobel Peace prize to Henry Kissinger).

But still, this is a kind of inspired genius, this eternal Jewish creativity to reformulate the past in the light of current needs and preoccupations. And Hanukah has become a festival where the symbolic and metaphorical resonances now dominate the imagination. It has become a time to focus on the faith needed, individually and collectively, to persevere against the odds; a time to reflect on the motif of light in our lives (an archetypal theme) as we hope for the victory of ‘light’ over the forces of ‘darkness’.

The problem of course is that we always think our cause represents the ‘light’ – and those opposed to us are the forces of ‘darkness’.

As the world leaders gather during these fateful days in Copenhagen we can see this being played out powerfully in front of our eyes. The facts of climate-change as a human-made catastrophe in the making – like watching a deadly car-crash in slow motion – these facts have achieved an overwhelming scientific consensus. But the forces ranged against this ‘inconvenient truth’ are very powerful: the climate denial industry, which has no interest in establishing the truth about global warming, comes in many guises. PR companies and hired experts, representing the business interests of oil and coal, can and do co-opt scientists and politicians – mainly in the States but also here – to systematically cast doubt on the scientific consensus (see, for example, www.exxonsecrets.org).

This consensus – and I hear people every day hedging their bets about it under pressure from the media onslaught of the deniers - this consensus is as clear in its evidence-based view that global warming is man-made as is the scientific consensus on the link between smoking and lung cancer. Or HIV and Aids. Yet each side see themselves as representing the light – and the others as dwelling in darkness.

In Copenhagen they aren’t arguing the facts – they are arguing like Joseph and his brothers in this week's sedrah (Genesis 37): arguing over who will rule over whom, ‘we’re not going to bow down to you’, arguing over how much they have to gain and how much they have to lose. Copenhagen reveals the global sibling rivalry, all the envy and jealousy writ large, these never-changing human attributes. Will effective action be agreed? We don’t know. We can hope so – even if our hopes are shadowed by the knowledge that it all might be too little, too late.

But I think we can understand psychologically the arguments we hear in our newspapers and TV and radio, casting doubt on the evidence. Although behind the scenes these doubts are promoted for sound business reasons ('sound' in their own terms), they can touch a chord in us because - well, because the facts are all too painful to contemplate, too frightening to think about, too potentially disturbing of our settled and relatively comfortable lifestyles to come to terms with. Things will have to change. We will have to change. And we will need a kind of miracle to see us through. A miracle that this time round we hold in our own hands, a miracle we will have to nurture in our own hearts.

‘[we]spoke softly about disasters,
about what lay ahead, the coming fear,
and someone said this was the best
we could do now –
to talk of darkness in that bright shadow

(from Adam Zagajewski’s ‘At the Cathedral’s Foot’)

It is perhaps ironical that our festival of Hanukah is about oil. And how long it lasts. As if in a completely unconscious way, in an almost uncanny way, the rabbis of old had a revelation that even they did not understand the significance of. We have to learn to make do with less, they intuited. And they found a symbolic way to express this. We think we need a lot to survive - but we can manage with an eighth of what we imagine we need. That does require faith, and trust: what we truly need is with us already. It’s in us, this precious gift, ‘the light of God’ our tradition calls it, in the human soul, the spark of the divine in us, and generated between us in community.

It gives us the courage to face the darkness, to face the truth about our world, to see its fragility – our planet is like a flickering candle in the slipstream of time. Less is going to have to mean more. Less comfort, less security, less recklessness, less denial, less waste, less holding on to what we have, less accumulating what we don’t need. Hanukah teaches the lesson of less – one day’s worth of oil is enough to last. The miracle is not that it lasts. The miracle is when we believe that it can last, what we have. The miracle is that we can depend not on might or power but on the Spirit - and that we are given what we need day by day.

(Sermon FRS , Hanukah, 11 December 2009)

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Bearing the unbearable beyond Copenhagen

The topic is well nigh unbearable. It is omnipresent, unavoidable, inescapable. Except I suspect we do everything we can to avoid it. Even to write these words – or read them? – grips one with dread. Or boredom – the defence against the dread. A curious dread that slides away. I want to distract myself, with anything. With anything that will take me away from the headlines, nestling next to each other on the inside page of the Sunday paper like spiteful twin embryos wrestling in the womb of our future: ‘Western lifestyle unsustainable, says world’s top climate expert’ and ‘Warning over faster fall into new Ice Age’.

The chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that we need a radical change in values if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change. ‘Yes, yes', we think, ‘so tell us something new’. Well how about this? My eyes scan left on the page. The latest discovery by a team from Saskatchewan University that the last great disruption to the Gulf Stream - 12,800 years ago – took less than three months to trigger a massive plunge in temperatures across Europe. Melted Arctic glaciers from the end of the last Ice Age overflowed into the north Atlantic, blocking the Gulf Stream which regulates our temperatures - and Europe froze, suddenly.

Well it may be new but it’s probably not enough to convince climate change sceptics; or wipe the smirk off the face of Melanie Phillips on a recent BBC Question Time as she showed her contempt for the audience and their sheepish acceptance of the scientific consensus, which for her is just a huge scam, a secret conspiracy against us perpetrated by thousands of scientists around the world all falsely analysing their miniscule packages of data, all bound up in some fantasy world they have constructed, a science fiction world in which they are networking together to peddle us a story that has no basis in the evidence. So there we have it: it’s a mirror image of the Jewish World Conspiracy – this one is the Scientists’ World Conspiracy.

But this latest reported work from Canada reminds me of something I discussed as the financial meltdown was taking place last year: that maybe we were seeing - in the rapidity of the unravelling of the economic consensus, the speed with which banks went from secure institutions to toxic repositories of unregulated loans – maybe we were experiencing a foretaste, in this sudden global economic collapse, of what is to come in relation to climate change. That the foundations on which we build our daily lives and that seem so secure can be swept away in the twinkling of an eye. That transformations that shatter our accepted ‘reality’ can take place in weeks and days – not just in decades. And who can bear to live with that thought?

And we know that with climate change there is nobody inside or outside the system who can bail us out if that were to happen. Money can be printed and loaned. Temperature can’t.

But if you have read this far you will also know that there is nothing revelatory here. And nothing much new to say. We’ll all muddle along as best we can.
Meanwhile I want to share with you – hesitantly – something I wrote in 1988. I recently retrieved it from an old floppy disc (remember them?) and was shocked (and, perversely, sadly amused) to re-read it now. It is a sermon I gave that year at Finchley Reform Synagogue for the New Year. (I feel sorry for the community sometimes, having to bear with this kind of thing – so much easier for all concerned to be bland, anaemic , unthreatening).

The title was borrowed from Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ which had come out earlier that year. And the idea for a ‘fictional’ mode of story-telling sermon had been growing in me for a while - I was beginning to realise then (and I still think it), that ‘fiction’ can tell us truths in revealing and challenging ways that are both enlivening and memorable. They can lodge in us in ways that even the best-crafted 'normal' sermon cannot.

I offer you the sermon unadulterated, copied off my disc, complete with the bits that I now find a bit gauche. It draws on various sources, biblical, rabbinic and literary – and it is my commentary, my midrash as it were, on the events around Copenhagen.

Sometimes a commentary can precede a text, awaiting its occasion.

The Last Temptation of Noah
(Second Day Rosh Hashanah sermon, Finchley Reform Synagogue, September 1988)

Even before the Disaster I felt misunderstood. I only wanted a quiet life: to come home after work and relax and rest. After all - and this used to be my private joke, though it feels pretty grim now - that's what my name Noah means: rest.

Apart from my work and my family I couldn't really be bothered with anything else. I didn't have many interests, not even much ambition. I used to sit in the office during the day and dream of the journey home, opening the door, playing with the kids (when they were smaller), later on helping them with their homework. In the evening I'd switch on the TV in order to switch off my thoughts, those terrible thoughts that kept coming, waves of them, more and more insistently over the years. All I ever really wanted was a rest - from the pressures that we all suffered. Just a rest from it all: the bills, the relatives, the dinner parties. Rest: it was all I wanted. Honestly.

Oh yes, I was known for my honesty. Even those who didn't like me said I had integrity. They used other words too, which sounded good, words like 'upright', 'blameless', even (God help me) 'righteous'. But I never trusted them - not the words, not the people. Words had lost their solidity, their truthfulness, long before. In those days words meant their opposite.

When that TV presenter interviewed me (near the end this was, after I'd made all the fuss), he was the one who called me 'righteous'. But I could hear in the tone of his voice how he really meant 'self-righteous', how the compliment disguised the attack. And who knows, maybe he was right, maybe I did begin to feel a bit self-righteous. Because I did know what was going to happen. I wasn't taken in by all those words: freedom of opportunity, economic growth, individual choice...I could see what was going on, all that heartbreak beneath the surface, and what was going to happen if we didn't change. I did know it would end in disaster; but I didn't know just how bad it would turn out. I didn't, honestly...I can tell you don't believe me. It's all right - I'm used to that. Nobody ever believed me then, either. Before.

You see, I worked in industry, middle-management. Yes, of course I was a professional - all our friends were. Agricultural and forestry equipment the firm made. When it expanded we went into animal feed, fertilisers, that sort of thing - quite a broad spread - even livestock eventually. We were successful too: public company, safe investment, high annual returns, particularly good Third World market, what with all the problems they kept having. I was responsible for overseas sales. Quite an irony really when you think about it, considering what happened.

I was able to laugh more in those days too. Earlier on that was. I used to enjoy having fun: a good party, that sort of thing. I don't think I ever entirely lost my sense of humour - but I kept noticing things I'd prefer not to have known about.

I'd read a report here, hear a programme there, bits and pieces of knowledge on the periphery of my consciousness. I tried to keep the knowledge at a distance, but it became harder. Things kept happening, kept forcing themselves on my attention.

First we had that string of warm years: '80, '81, '83, '87, '88 - the hottest since records began they said. It didn't bother me really: I was only worried about getting a bit of sun on our holidays. And where I went it rained anyway. But the statistics were global ones: it was beginning to warm up rather dramatically. Only a few degrees over a century didn't sound so much, but researchers in one country began to see the changes in plants and trees, and then another group at the other side of the world discovered that the world's beaches were eroding. These were just a couple of the warnings of the impending crisis.

I did mention it to a few people at work - after all it could have had implications for our sales - but they just shrugged and said that these kinds of reports are not reliable, they come and go, you know how it is...

And although I didn't really know how it was, it was easier at the beginning to change the subject and ask what home computer they thought I should buy. It felt safer ground.

But then the dreams started. All that water imagery, all that flooding, swimming, drowning, seas and swimming pools, struggling to keep afloat - every night a new variation on the theme. My analyst told me that this was archetypal symbolism: the struggle of the Self to emerge from the Sea of Consciousness. I changed my analyst. The next one told me it was about separation from mother.

And all the time I knew that something else was going on. It's not that they were wrong - but something else was going on, much bigger than me. Everyone had heard about the 'greenhouse effect', how carbon dioxide in the atmosphere acts like glass in a greenhouse, letting the sun's rays through to the earth but also trapping some of the heat that would otherwise be radiated back into space. We were burning all that coal and oil and gas, more and more of it, year after year - and the planet was heating up. Then there were those other gases: like the ones in those take-away cartons. Some firms changed them, others said the evidence was inconclusive (though of course ‘it merited further study’). But that still left aerosol sprays and even fridges - and I liked ice in my gin and tonic.

I really didn't know what to do. I soon knew though all the responses I'd get. The Chairman of the Board put it to me with his usual delicacy: what do you want us to do - grow our own vegetables? bicycle to work? light the office with candles?

The problem was that I didn't have any answers. I only had fears and questions and intuitions - and they wouldn't go away. But it was that presentation I did at the shareholders meeting that finally wrecked me. I spoke about the rainforests we were destroying (indirectly of course: our firm only sold the equipment); I gave them all the facts and figures, how the earth was such a fragile interconnected ecosystem (oh yes, by then I'd learnt the jargon), that what the inhabitants of planet earth were doing was quietly conducting a giant environmental experiment. Were it to be brought before any responsible local council for approval it would be firmly rejected as having potentially disastrous consequences.

At the meeting all this earned a variety of responses: anger, boredom, though a few people seemed rather subdued afterwards. Perhaps it was naive to expect anything more - after all I'd just bought a new car as well. I didn't want to change my lifestyle either. I was comfortable, I admit it. But we all were then - at least in the circles I mixed in.


Getting the push after that speech was actually a blessing in disguise. I devoted myself more and more to trying to get people to see what was going on around them all the time. I got involved with political groups, environmental groups. I started writing letters to The Guardian. I even spoke to religious groups (strange: the Christians were always more interested than the Jews).

I gave the same speech wherever I went. 'The climate that has allowed the growth of civilisation and agriculture - and to which all our crops, customs and structures are adapted - is virtually certain to disappear. The world will become warmer than at any time since the emergence of humanity on earth. This threatens to take place over the next forty years. Humanity will find it hard to adapt, particularly in a world fragmented by national boundaries and competing interests. Harvests will fail more drastically. the cities we live in will go under water.'

People began to hate me for what I was saying. They used to avoid me, fear me: fear what I was saying, I suppose. A poet had written 'Human kind cannot bear very much reality' and it was true. I didn't blame people - I couldn't bear it either. My wife began to catch me talking to myself. I was trying to keep myself sane, keep myself from the madness of knowing that something was inevitable - that was the word the experts used - unless we worked together. Funnily enough, I did have faith in humanity then. I believed that people could change, with help and encouragement. And groups of people working together - communities - could do a lot. But first we had to realise we'd taken a wrong direction, we had to turn from what's best only for ourselves, our family, our community, our nation.

Near the end I realised that we needed to pray too - though at first I was more sceptical about that. Religion had always felt a bit too cosy and comfortable: too much security was on offer. And I certainly had no security to offer anyone. I used to take myself off for long walks and look at the mess around me - the squalor, the poverty, the drugged ones, the violence, the neglect, the corruption, the decay.

I saw the goodness too, in people I met, the beauty in small things. I could see infinity in a grain of sand and feel eternity in an hour. But over all, on these walks, I felt the inferno, the 'moronic inferno' one of those clever Jewish novelists called it: the levelling down of contemporary life where people found themselves in that chaotic state, overwhelmed by all kinds of outer forces - political, technological, military, economic - which carry everything before them with a kind of disorder in which we were supposed to survive with all our human qualities. Who really had sufficient internal organisation to resist, let alone to flourish?

It wasn't possible to go on that way. And in their hearts and souls, people knew it. It wasn't just me: I really was just an ordinary person. In my generation I was nothing special. I knew it. Later on, long after the Disaster, when they told those stories about me, things got changed somehow. It was true that I became wholeheartedly committed to speaking the truth I experienced, sharing my vision of what I knew was going to happen. But if I'd lived in a less corrupt time, nobody would ever have heard of me. Even the rabbis acknowledged that, later.

I could never explain properly those intuitions I'd have when I was off walking. I just knew in the end that I had changed and that others could change too. It was very simple. I had an inner voice I just had to trust. Everyone had that voice deep inside them. It was obvious. But in those days so many temptations drowned out that knowing voice, so many possibilities of seduction away from our still and silent truth.

I once made a list, half-jokingly, of what I thought we needed to remember to be fully human, to be what we ought to be in this world. I jotted down seven things - it surprised me there were so few. I sent them on a postcard to a friend and she wrote back saying I sounded like some kind of religious nut. It sounded, she said - she was very cynical though - as if I was walking with God when I went off on my expeditions round town. I wasn't hurt by this. Well, not really. It stayed in my mind though, that phrase, 'walking with God'.

Later on, when they told those stories about me, they seemed to think it was a compliment: that somehow this was an uplifting, desirable experience for a person to have. Actually it was hell.

I'll tell you the list, but before I do I want to say that I've gone against most of them in my time. There were so many temptations then, not even a saint could have resisted them. And I was no saint. But I do know there are some things that just have to be. If we're going to make it through this time. And call it walking with God if you like.

First, there has to be a system of justice. Real justice allows a society to function and the individual to retain dignity. And a system of political and legal justice means that the disadvantaged are protected from abuse - the abuse from power, money or class.

Secondly: murder - it's not on. We have to deal with our violent feelings in some other way. And leading on from there, thirdly: robbery, theft, is out too. We have to find an alternative way of channelling our greed, and our envy of what others have.

Nor can incest be allowed. That wise professor from Vienna eventually uncovered just how much we do secretly want to express our sexuality inside our family. But we just can't have our mummy or daddy or children or siblings in that way. We've got to find someone else to do it with. And that reminds me of what happened after the Disaster. We were in such chaos. There was just our family, and my middle boy Ham did something to me which I can never forgive him for, that bugger, God damn him! But that's another story.

Yes, the fifth on the list is blasphemy. It's no use my letting rip like that. I still have to find a way of getting rid of this anger.

The sixth thing I listed I called idolatry. It was a handy word, it covered a lot of things. Actually I was thinking of all those adverts on TV, and all those colour supplements offering me happiness on every page. We were drowning in luxury in those days: so many divinely decadent choices. We knew it couldn't go on for ever but we worshipped production and consumption. I loved buying things - it made me feel so secure, so good about myself. Crazy, really, looking back.

Last on my list, number seven, sounds strange now, though at the time it made sense. I called it 'not eating flesh cut from a living animal'. You see I wanted something on my list that captured the essence of evil: that degraded the one who performed it and caused pain and terror to the victim. I suppose I could have chosen another image, another way to express this. Towards the end people came up with worse things, believe me.

Anyway, I thought out these seven things during my walks. Afterwards - after 'it' happened I mean - people saw them as the natural religious basis vital to the existence of any human society. I suppose I'm rather proud of that. They even called them after me: 'the seven laws given to the descendants of Noah'.

Right. I'm nearly finished now. I just want to tell you what happened in the end, when the Disaster came.

I saw it all so clearly: we'd reached the point where the rate of environmental change in my lifetime was going to be many times the maximum that our planet's eco-system could endure. There was no escaping this fate unless a radical transformation took place. One day I saw it all so clearly that I grew really desperate. I felt more hopeless than I'd ever done before. I felt closed in, with this great weight around me. I'd built it myself, this mental structure I'd constructed from all the evidence I'd gathered. It was like a vessel of doom I lived in. I was going crazy inside it. I was in complete despair.

I just wanted to be left alone. The understanding I had was too much for me. I felt hundreds of years old. It felt completely hopeless. I felt overwhelmed by...helplessness, that's the word: I was completely helpless, like a baby. I couldn't do anything more. I had no strength left.

And I started to cry. It'd never happened before. After all I was a man. But I did, I broke down, in front of my family: all of them were there - my wife and my sons and their wives. And I wept and wept. Tears of bitterness. Tears of remorse. Tears of anger. Tears of grief. I cried and I cried and I just...floated away.

It's hard to describe now. The sadness just flooded out of me. It went on and on, all those years and years of frustration and pain trapped inside - it all welled up and spilled out. The tears just seemed to pour out of me - it felt like days - for the sadness of it all, and the pity.

The rest you know of course. It's history - of a sort. It's in the books, though I know people argue over the details. Nothing ever was the same again.

Though there was one helpful moment: when I saw that rainbow. Yes, I know it's only the reflection of the sun in moist atmosphere, but I'd never really looked at one before. Really looked, I mean. That one time though, soon after the Disaster, I saw those seven colours arched above me, translucent and glorious and shimmering. And I suddenly remembered the seven laws I'd jotted down on that card, and it was my conceit, I know, but I felt there was some connection between those seven basic norms for how we are to live together and those seven basic colours in which the world is enveloped.

There was a harmony at that moment: seeing how the natural world and our human world reflected each other's inner grace. And at that moment I knew, I knew as clearly as if I heard a voice speak it in my ear, I knew that this disaster could never be again. Not ever. It felt like a promise. If I were a religious man I'd call it a blessing. Never again - such relief, I can't tell you.

'While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest and cold and heat and summer and winter and day and night shall not cease'. The words just formed themselves in my head. It would never happen again. That's all there is to say.

Oh, I almost forgot. The last temptation of Noah. You want to know the very last temptation? It was after it was all over and we had to pull ourselves together and start again. That was hard. We didn't know where we were, where we were going, what we were doing. Everything had gone. We survivors felt so helpless so much of the time. And the hardest part was that we kept remembering how it'd been before: so comfortable, so secure - you'll never know. That was the worst part: I couldn't help but remember it.

I became very morose, self-pitying. I just wanted to forget, to forget how it'd been. And, I admit it, I started to drink. They never tell the story this way, but this is how it was. They always make me out as the father of vineyards and winemaking, but I'm telling you: soon I was drinking all the time - I just wanted to blot it all out.

And that was the last temptation: the temptation to blot it all out, to forget the knowledge I carried, the understanding I had, the lonely experiences I'd been through, the intuitions I'd borne all these years. I tried to drown myself in drink: another flood.

But it wasn't to be of course. It seems that my destiny is to remember, to remain aware. I never did get my rest. I learnt that death is the only release from the burden of consciousness. And that while I lived, my work was just given to me to do. It was wherever I happened to be.

I even wrote a poem about it towards the end. Someone else later took the credit for it of course - but then none of us is perfect. Are we?

To open eyes when others close them
to hear when others do not wish to listen
to look when others turn away
to seek to understand when others give up
to rouse oneself when others accept
to continue the struggle even when one is not the strongest
to cry out when others keep silent
to be a Jew
it is that
it is first of all that
and further
to live when others are dead
and to remember when others have forgotten.

Friday, 20 November 2009

The White Ribbon

This week I saw a masterpiece. And I’m writing to urge you to see it. The German director Michael Haneke’s latest film, The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band), is a cinematic midrash rooted in the problematic Biblical verse about God ‘visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generations’ (Exodus 34:7).

I won’t describe the plot of the film. Just to say the following. It is a mystery story. It is shot in stark black-and-white. It is set in 1913, in Germany. And it is an extraordinary exploration, through visual and verbal storytelling, of the history of Germany in the 20th century – a history that is both specific, and yet has moral and spiritual resonances for every society and every age. Including our own.

I have not seen a film like this since I first saw Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’ (1957). (1957 is not, I hasten to add, when I saw it). Haneke’s film bears comparison with his Swedish predecessor’s masterly oeuvre of psychological, historical and family dramas. And fifty years from now, this film will bear witness – if films are still being seen – to the mental world that led to the Shoah.

This is not a film about the Holocaust – but it is like a hologram where you see through the narrative into the future. I thought I saw Auschwitz in one scene – but maybe this was my imagination. This is a drama where – as in life – indeterminacy reigns. The narrator’s voice-over at the beginning talks of the way in which he “could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country”. The “perhaps” - Samuel Beckett’s favourite word - is telling. Hearsay and conjecture, the fallibility of memory, the self-serving nature of memory – all are at stake, and in play, as the film progresses.

Like a Kafka parable, like a Biblical narrator, Haneke reveals and withholds. Meaning evolves, is disguised, and finally (if at all) is created by us the viewers. This is storytelling unlike anything you will see from Hollywood. It’s soul - filled with love and brutality and the way they become confused - is European. The film may have won this year’s Palme D’Or at Cannes – but that isn’t why you should try to find time to see it. You should see it because you will be stimulated, provoked, enlivened – great art does that to us.

I don’t want to say much more about it – I know that my own experience when someone raves about something I ‘must’ see is that I’m invariably a bit disappointed. It never lives up the fantasy created by someone else’s excitement.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Thoughts on Lying and Laughter

In a week when our thoughts have been returning to those wondrous days of November 1989, when something that had not been foreseen suddenly came to pass – 'appeared' almost like a modern miracle, with the human spirit triumphing over the forces of oppression – it may seem strange to dwell not on our recent shared history but on an ancient tale.

I would like to share with you a sermon I gave last week at Finchley Reform Synagogue.

The congregation was quite small but I wanted to speak about the sedrah of the week, Va’yera (Genesis 18-22) - the word means 'and there appeared...'.

Traditionally one reads several chapters each week, working our way through the Torah on our annual journey through this most extraordinary text we call the Torah. As we read, we know that congregations around the world are all reading these same chapters. And that these narratives have been studied and chanted, read and remembered , for millennia. We are one small link in the chain. And what can we add to this awesome heritage? What can we learn today from these timeless texts?

I can never manage more than to think about a small section, a few verses, of the appointed chapters. I like to read slowly, carefully, and see what is there – on the surface and beneath the surface – and what these words of old have to say (if anything) today. They may not have the drama, the immediacy, of contemporary events. But sometimes they have their own drama, their own immediacy, their own capacity to open us up to the mystery and unpredictability of life.

**

Recently, the papers have been full of it. Would you lie to get your child into a better school? Of course you may not think of it as lying – just stretching the truth, or finding a loophole in the system. Or consider an accountant who offers you advice on creative ways of saving money, avoiding tax: it would not be suggested that you actively lie, just act in ways that gave you an advantage.

We teach (or taught) our children not to lie – that ‘honesty is the best policy’. (How often we reach for a handy, ready-made, off the peg, phrase like that when an issue is actually quite complex and our own thoughts are maybe a bit confused). But at the very moment that we become so insistent that our children must tell the truth, the very forcefulness of our insistence should give us a clue that something else is up, something else is at stake. When we insist that honesty is best and that lying is bad and always wrong, are we not perhaps lying to ourselves?

Because who can say, hand on heart, that they have never gained an advantage in a situation through dissembling the truth? That’s why we talk about ‘white lies’ – it lets us say that we have lied, but we make it excusable, we let ourselves off the hook. Whitewashing our lie allows us to feel a bit better about ourselves. We can admit to a white lie, because it is as if in our mind the word ‘white’ cancels out the word ‘lie’.

One of the things I love about my Jewish tradition – and particularly the texts of the Bible – is how the stories we read illustrate and illuminate themes like these, ordinary human situations, in interesting and subtle ways. We can see ourselves in the narratives. Our sedrah is called Va’yera – ‘and there appeared’: it is about what appears, what is seen, it is about sight, and insight. (The Hebrew does not distinguish between the two).

And one of the things we see in our text is that even God lies, sometimes. This is God whose name is synonymous with truth. Indeed one of God’s names is ‘Truth’ – Emet. So if ‘truth’ is one of God’s 13 attributes for the rabbis of the Talmud (Ex 34:3) and ‘The Seal of God is Truth’ (Shabbat 55), how come in our text God lies?

Let’s look at the story a bit closer. And let’s read it carefully. We are going to approach this divine lie in a circuitous way, as does the text. We read how these strangers arrive and Abraham greets them and feeds them and during the meal one of them says to their host: ‘When I come back next year, your wife Sara will have had a son’ (18:10). And Sara overhears this and the storyteller then reminds us that both Abraham and Sara were old and that Sara no longer was menstruating. And then the text says:

Va’tizchak Sara b’kirba – ‘and Sara laughed inside herself’

And then, parallel to her listening in to the conversation of the men, the storyteller lets us overhear the voice inside of her: ‘and she said to herself: ‘Now that I am so old and worn out (v’loti), am I to have such delight/pleasure (edna) ? – va’adoni zakayn, with my master, my husband, being so old, past it?’ (18:12). This is a very daring sentence from our narrator, first in showing us Sara eavesdropping on the conversation; then revealing this intimate detail from Abraham and Sara’s sex life. The more you think about it, the more remarkable it is, for the storyteller gets us the readers, the listeners, inside of Sara: the verse penetrates her , symbolically, and we find out what this news does to her inside of herself.

It’s the first time in the Torah that we find this key word, tzachak, a word which is to echo and re-echo through the texts and the generations – tzachak, to laugh. It will of course become the name of the son, Yitzchak, Isaac – ‘the one who laughs’.

Except that, as usual with Hebrew, words are never simple, they are layered, they can have more than one meaning. They can even (and this is one example) have meanings which point in different directions, perhaps in opposite directions. Because tzachak does mean ‘laughter’, but it also means ‘mockery’ – and how we think about the word and translate it will depend on the context in which it comes and the assumptions we bring to our reading.

Of course ‘laughter’ and ‘mockery’ are related. We’d make a distinction these days between ‘laughing with’ someone and ‘laughing at’ them. And we know there is a big difference between them - when we do it, and when we are on the receiving end of it. And we also know that laughter is a very complex emotion: sometimes it can be genuine pleasure, but it can also be defensive, a way of expressing embarrassment, or fear, or anxiety. It can be spontaneous or contrived, it can make us vulnerable (helpless with laughter), or it can be a way of expressing aggression. And, to make it even more complicated: we may consciously imagine it is one thing (a bit of fun) - but actually unconsciously it can be something else, its opposite. How many times have we heard someone say ‘Oh I was only joking’, and they want to dismiss something said as humorous, only for us to feel upset or wounded by it, not because we are too thin-skinned but because we have picked up the hostility hidden in the laughter, or the joke.

So when we read our text, our supposedly simple Torah story, we realise that there may be more going on here than meets the eye. Va’tizchak Sara b’kirba – ‘and Sara laughed inside herself, and she said: When I’m so old, so worn out, am I to have such enjoyment - when my husbands as old as that?’ Is this laughter with pleasure in the anticipation – or is this ironic laughter, scepticism, cynicism even? ‘Chance would be a fine thing!’

How do we read it? How are we meant to read it? Are we meant to read it just one way? Or are we meant to keep these different possibilities in mind as we read on? As if the storyteller’s art is to create in us a frisson of uncertainty. As if, at this moment of penetration into the character, this letting us overhear her thoughts, we the audience are being played with (tzachak also means ‘to play’ of course) – as if the narrator is saying, ‘I’m going to take you right inside my character and tell you, let you hear, what is going on – and you still won’t know for sure!’ And maybe this game the narrator is playing with us teaches us something profound: that we can never really know what goes on inside another human being. And even if we ask them, they might not know either, not really.

Indeed the story goes on to dramatise that maybe Sara does not know what she really feels and thinks. It goes on, in the next verse – and here we come back to the lie, in case you were wondering where that theme had gone – ‘And Adonai said to Abraham, lama ze tzachaka Sara, why did Sara laugh/mock, saying, “Shall I really bear a child, being as old as I am?”’ (18:13). See how our text makes God into a liar. She says ‘he is too old’. But our narrator has God changing this, when he speaks to Abraham, into Sara saying ‘I am too old’.

And why does God tell this lie to Abraham? Well, why would you do it? To protect Abraham’s feelings – this is what the midrashic commentators in the Talmud say (Baba Metzia 87a). God did it so that Abraham wouldn’t feel offended or hurt. And from this verse the Rabbis derived a maxim, a rule of thumb, that one is allowed to dissemble, to tell the white lie, to avoid the full truth (however you want to put it) if it will hurt someone’s feelings to tell the truth straightforwardly and honestly (Ketubot 16b-17a). Because to hurt someone’s feelings was equated by the Rabbis with the shedding of blood - an extraordinary Judaic sensitivity to the individual, to the other flesh-and-blood human being with feelings just as real and sensitive as your own.

And if that attitude isn’t bold enough, truly attentive to the importance of inter-personal relationships and feelings, the Talmudic rabbis went even further than that. ‘When is lying acceptable?’ they asked. ‘Lying is also permissible’, they said, ‘if it is for the sake of peace’ (Yevamot 65a).

So if your partner says ‘Do I look good in this?’ – the answer is ‘Yes’

But that just illustrates what a can of worms the Rabbis open up through this permissive attitude towards truth-telling. Because ‘for the sake of peace’ can cover a broad spectrum: from international politics to personal convenience: ‘anything for a peaceful life’. Jewish teaching does offer insight and guidance, and ways of thinking about all sorts of everyday situations - but it can’t give us an answer for a specific situation we find ourselves in. Only we are responsible for that. We have to judge and decide how to act, how to be, what to say, each time, every day, and the decision of today may not be relevant tomorrow. That’s part of the God-given burden of being human.

But God’s lie in the text is not the end of the story. We have one more verse. For our heroine Sara has somehow been listening in again - and this time, remarkably, she seems to have overheard another conversation, she’s eavesdropped on God’s conversation with Abraham, because the next thing we read it’s as if she’s heard God asking Abraham ‘Why did Sara laugh?’. Because we read :

Va’t’hachaysh Sara laymor, lo tzachaki – ‘And Sara lied, saying “I did not laugh/mock”...’ (18:15).

That’s how it is often translated. But actually the text uses a word that means ‘deceived’ or even ‘cringed’. And the storyteller withholds from us who was deceived or what she was cringing from. There is no object for the verb. So we can read this in all sorts of ways.

Is the text saying ‘And Sara deceived herself...’ She thought she was laughing – but actually it was mockery? Or the opposite – that she thought she was mocking, being sarcastic – but deeper down she had felt real pleasure at what she had heard?

Or does it suggest that she cringed when she realised that God was being so protective towards her husband, more protective than she’d been in her own thoughts. We don’t know. We don’t know what is inside that lo tzachaki, ‘I didn’t do that, I didn’t tzachak’.

But we do know one thing: that she was frightened: ki ya’raya. She was frightened of all this talk about another child, at her age, at her impossible age. And none of it made sense, not the arrival of these strangers, nor the conversations she’d heard, nor the complicated feelings inside her, nothing made sense anymore. And at the moment of maximum confusion, where nothing made sense and fear fills her soul, she hears for herself, for the first time in her life, the divine voice addressing her directly. The end of the verse says ‘And He said: lo - No, no, no – ki tzachaka - it is all right, because you did have that experience - laughter, mockery, whatever it was - it is all right to have your feelings, inside you. There is no need to lie to yourself. There is no need to deny your inner experience.‘

What a gift this. The divine voice reassuring Sara about the acceptability of her experience. What a gift from our storyteller – to give us a text, so simple and yet so layered, so compact and yet so open, so clear and yet so undecidable. And to give us a God who cares about an old man’s feelings and the confusion in a woman’s heart. To give us a text and a God for whom lies and deception are acknowledged as part of the very fabric of life, and yet which leaves us to work out in our own lives where truth matters and where it matters less, where deception makes sense and where self-deception does not. A story of the generation of meaning within each generation.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

On Outspokenness

I’ve spent the last several weeks, off and on, writing a series of reviews for various journals (the Jewish Quarterly and the weekly Catholic journal, the Tablet). I’ve been able to look at the extraordinary life and work of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the relationship between Jewish philosophy and western culture, as well as consider a Jungian analyst’s views on Israel’s problematic psyche and recent history.

Reviewing is always fun, whatever the content (or even the quality) of the book under review. It gives me an opportunity to immerse myself in another person’s world-view - and this often help cast new light on my own inevitably restricted thinking and subjective perspectives. (This of course is particularly true of fiction). Reviewing also provides an opportunity to discover what I actually think about a topic - because writing requires a self-mining into areas of thinking and feeling that are not necessarily immediately available within the conversations and demands of everyday life. To have to describe and comment on someone else’s thinking and writing helps me sharpen my own wits and refine my own thoughts. Reviewing allows me the space to craft my own vision in response to someone else’s. It is an opportunity for discovery and self-discovery.

But I am always aware when reviewing that someone else has sweated blood to get their thoughts down on paper. So I try to be generous in my responses – or at least not too savage. This is not always easy. Authors are often lazy, incompetent, careless or muddled – and as a reviewer I try to find ways of saying this without being too cruel. I know full well from my own attempts to place words next to each other , one after another - in sentences that make what we like to think of as ‘sense’ – how easy it is to write in ways that are lazy, incompetent, careless and muddled. So I try to temper my judgments with a modicum of compassion for the struggling author.

Since I started writing this blog I’ve appreciated the Comments that (sometimes) appear below – whether they correct me about factual errors I’ve made, or upbraid me for misguided judgments or opinions. This vigour of debate is life-affirming. It is also very Jewish, the culture of argument – not argument for argument sake, which is wearying and dispiriting – but arguing ‘for the sake of heaven’ (l’shem shamayim, as the Mishnah says, 1800 years ago). I was reminded of this while reading Brian Klug’s ‘Offence: The Jewish Case’ (Seagull Books, published in collaboration with Index on Censorship), an essay-length text that speaks forcefully of how ‘Judaism in its depths cries out for outspokenness’.

He defines an ‘argument for the sake of heaven’ succinctly, as one ‘conducted not for its own sake or for the sake of winning but with a view to a higher purpose, such as truth, justice or peace.’ And he links this ethic of truth-disclosing outspokenness with the prophets of Israel, who ‘gave offence to ruler and people alike, discomforting them to the core.’

This sets the bar pretty high, but he is right to do so. We are the heirs to the prophets. It is my view (and I say this as someone who has occasionally caused a degree of passing discomfort to readers or listeners) that we have a moral and religious responsibility to speak out with as much discriminating passion as we can muster on those subjects that come to our attention and demand a response - ‘discriminating’ in the dictionary sense of ‘to use good judgment or discernment’, in other words to have a commitment to attempt to separate out what is true and just from all the compromises, fudges, and hypocrisies that we all fall into, knowingly and unknowingly.

Truth can be frightening (as well as complex) and it is not always welcome - because it can expose us to our own moral shortcomings, or emotional inadequacies, or our own failures to think things through fully and carefully and dispassionately. Truth may well cause discomfort – because it reveals to us what can feel unbearable: our emotional or mental dishonesty, our helplessness, all the ways we hide from facing how things are.

This is one of the reasons why a Jewish culture of debate and discussion would always be in opposition to censorship of words and ideas (and images). Holocaust-deniers may be absurd or odious or deluded figures, their views may even feel threatening or dangerous, but I wouldn’t want to censor their words. Just rigorously expose them – through facts or ridicule (and both if possible).

But the urge to censor comes hand in hand with the wish of all authorities – political, religious, professional – to present themselves in the most favourable manner to a wider public and often to themselves. ‘We would never censor – we just want to shape opinions and avoid controversy and present ourselves in a winning manner by selecting what we tell and what we withhold. Surely there’s no harm in that?’

No harm, except to the truth of things – which is rarely simple and sometimes uncomfortable. Particularly for those in power, or with vested interests in controlling their image in the eyes of others.

Of course there is an innate tension between outspokenness and nuance. And truth is often multiple and nuanced. Situations are rarely black-and-white, as a couple of you pointed out in response to my last blog on the Jewish Chronicle and Michal Kaminski. But what I enjoy about writing a blog (and I hope the reader can tolerate) is that unlike a review – where I think one has a duty to offer a personal response that is informed, thoughtful and measured rather than a bulimic rant – I allow this blog to be a genre where I don’t have to be too protective of my audience, where I don’t have to hold back from feelings and thoughts that I might otherwise hesitate to share. (You can always skip it, or unsubscribe).

I do try to be accurate when it comes to facts, and nuanced when it comes to opinion, but I also enjoy the freedom of self-expressiveness that comes from knowing this isn’t scholarship or academic research. It’s writing as an art form, like composing a piece of music, or sculpting a living form out of inert matter. In other words, it has aesthetic and spiritual designs on its audience. And if ‘designs’ seems too consciously knowing, or even manipulative, let’s just say that this form of writing is more about offering fresh angles of vision, or lifting one’s spirits, or inspiring simple pleasure, than anything else.

Which doesn’t mean that the subject matter is not sometimes about issues of real seriousness. Unlike a sermon, or a book review, the blog (as I think of it) offers the opportunity for discursive outspokenness about what happens to stir my heart or soul or conscience – whether it is about Israel, or politics, people or poetry. And although I find myself still engaging, inevitably, in acts of self-censorship as I write - which is perhaps cowardly, but is probably wise – I feel myself to be writing within a tradition of Jewish self-expressiveness, the Jewish love affair with language and the word, the Jewish knowledge that according to the Kabbalistic mystical tradition, God created the world with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and that we are all combinations of letters in the mind of God, endless outpourings of divine articulation - ‘and God says...and God says...’ - and that our words can have a power and an intelligence that derive from a source we cannot control.

We are spoken, and spoken through.

Friday, 16 October 2009

A Small Scandal at the Jewish Chronicle

So, after all the moral self-examination of the High Holy Days, the recognition of ‘our’ failures, individually and as a people, it’s back to business as usual. There is a small scandal afoot in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle and I want to offer some thoughts about it.

Let me share with you a letter I have sent to the paper, which (rather surprisingly perhaps) they have published, albeit in a slightly edited version. It outlines the story so far.

So now we know where we stand. The editor of the JC has been recruited to defend [ that phrase was of course edited out by the JC] the Conservative Party’s alliance with the Polish nationalist MEP Michal Kaminski. Critics of this alliance, including the Labour Party, are ‘Eurofanatics…resorting to the smear tactic’ (October9th).

Martin Bright, the JC’s recently appointed political editor, after an extended interview with Kaminski is clear that ‘Dismissing concerns raised about Mr Kaminski as Labour smears is just not good enough.’ Oh, to have been a fly-on-the-wall at this week’s Editorial meeting.

On 20 March 2001 Kaminski gave an interview to the nationalist Nasza Polska newspaper in which he stated that Poland should not apologise for the murder of the Jews of Jedwabne until Jews apologised for ‘murdering Poles’ during the Soviet wartime occupation of Poland. If Mr Kaminski and his supporters choose to forget, deny or misrepresent his stated views - and are dulled to the moral vacuity of his words – that is one thing, sadly unexceptional when political ambition makes such sleight-of-hand commonplace. But for the editor of this distinguished newspaper actively to collude with and promote this chicanery marks a new moral low for the JC and represents a disservice to Anglo-Jewry.


Let me sketch out some of the background to this surly complaint of mine. The leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, will soon be this country’s Prime Minister. (This is barring some last minute intervention from the Holy One, Blessed Be He, on behalf of the Labour Party – which one has to admit is unlikely, as God has not previously been known to be a Labour supporter (despite rumours to the contrary), although He does, it is said, have a concern for the poor, and an interest in the education of children). Cameron has recently switched his party’s allegiances in the European Parliament, so that British Conservatives now sit within the ‘European Conservatives and Reformists Group’, a collection of far-right nationalists and xenophobes.

These include Roberts Zile of Latvia’s Freedom and Fatherland party, who support the annual (unofficial) parade in Riga honouring the conscripts and volunteers who fought for the Latvian Waffen-SS - among them men who’d already participated in massacres of Jews. An equally unsavoury colleague of the British Conservatives in Europe is Michal Kaminski of Poland’s Law and Order party (motto: ‘Poland for Poles’), who is now head of the grouping in which Cameron’s 25 European colleagues sit.

On July 10th 1941, the 300 Jewish men, woman and children of the Polish town of Jedwabne were herded into a barn by their Polish neighbours - not by the occupying Nazis – and then burned alive. A mini-holocaust within the larger genocidal savagery. When Poland’s president formally apologised for this crime in 2001, on its 60th anniversary, Kaminski was amongst those Poles who disagreed with the apology, a position he defended last week: ‘If you are asking the Polish nation to apologise for the crime...you would require from the whole Jewish nation to apologise for what some Jewish communists did in eastern Poland.’

In last week’s Jewish Chronicle Kaminski also says in his interview with the JC’s political editor that in regard to the Jedwabne pogrom: ‘I think it is unfair comparing it with Nazi crimes...’

So, the small scandal? This is the politician - lacking in moral insight and ethical reflectiveness, and with a previous history of anti-Semitic connections that he now denies - who is being defended by the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard, who has been recruited by the Conservatives to help dig them out of the hole, the moral abyss, into which they have fallen. And the editor is using Anglo-Jewry’s leading newspaper as a mini-fiefdom for this personal and political crusade.

How do you rehabilitate Kaminski’s public image? Pollard’s tactics are crude. Although the facts are incontrovertible, you have a job to do – so you defend your Tory friends’ friend by crying out ‘Smears!’ and then smearing those who express their concerns, be they Labour MPs or the President of the Board of Deputies. And Pollard’s trump card? Kaminski is a ‘friend of the Jews’ – and, in particular, a staunch ‘supporter of Israel’. So that’s all right then - and we can all breathe a sigh of relief. And sweep Kaminski’s moral juggling and Cameron’s error of judgment under the table.

This is so pathetic that I appal myself to be writing about it. And yet it does seem to matter to me that Anglo-Jewry’s representative newspaper - for all its faults and inadequacies - is being recruited for this disreputable campaign. In olden days one might have concluded by saying, in dramatic fashion, ‘The Editor Should Resign!’. But of course things don’t work like that any more. For isn’t it all just the cut and thrust of corrupted politics and the selling of newspapers and the unashamed self-promotion of the power-hungry?

It seems absurd in the face of this ‘business as usual’ political and journalistic mess to juxtapose it with this Shabbat’s prophetic reading, from the Book of Isaiah, where the Jewish community is reminded of its role as a ‘light for the nations’, representatives of a particular vision of justice and truth-telling:

‘All the nations assemble together, the peoples gather:
Who amongst them can speak about this, pay attention to what has happened?
Let them produce their witnesses and be proved just,
So that those who hear them can say: “Yes, this is true”.
Actually, you are My witnesses, says the Eternal One...’

(Isaiah 43: 9-10)

But then I suppose the prophetic voice always did seem absurd when brought to bear on the opportunism, power politics and moral delinquency of the day. It was always judged to be out of touch with what is ‘real’, for it offers a different perspective, a radical vision of truth far-removed from the delusional versions of ‘truth’ that we habitually construct. Meanwhile, Kaminski’s and Pollard’s versions of truth are self-serving and self-deceiving. And they need to be exposed.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

When the Wind Blows

As I write the winds are blowing and there are gales sweeping in from the Atlantic. It is the first day of the festival of Sukkot, the festival of impermanence, the autumn festival where the desert wanderings of the Israelites, the arrhythmic rhythm of encampment and journeying, following the peripatetic divine Cloud-by-day-Fire-by-night, are remembered and mythologized.

The makeshift sukkah constructed next to one’s home is a reminder of fragility in the midst of what we fondly think of as the solidity of our lives and achievements. Franz Rosenzweig captured the essence of Sukkot’s symbolism when he writes about the sukkah that it ‘serves to remind the people that no matter how solid the house of today may seem, no matter how temptingly it beckons to rest and unimperilled living, it is but a tent which permits only a pause in the long wanderings through the wilderness of centuries’.

In a week that has seen a devastating earthquake in Indonesia and a tsunami hit Samoa, this festival brings with it – in spite of its other title, ‘the Festival of our Rejoicing’ – a harsh undertow of fear and awe. The extent to which we are at the mercy of the power of elemental forces is sobering. And the ways in which ‘nature’ is effected by human actions and choices is of course now a preoccupying concern. Our futures are blowing in the wind.

**
Yom Kippur has come and gone. The annual calling-to-accounts is over, and as in years gone by I found myself wanting to talk about both the futility and the possibilities encoded within it. My sermon at Finchley Reform (www.frsonline.org) was born out of magpie-like reading (particularly texts by the young American novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide earlier this year) and my own view that we need simultaneously on this day to take serious stock of ourselves yet not be too harsh on ourselves – a complex psychological task. We are capable of both massive denial about our blind-spots and failures to live well and honourably - and burdened by self-persecutory guilt about our perceived failures and inadequacies. How do we achieve anything like atonement (at-one-ment) when this is how we are?

Erev Yom Kippur 2009 - sermon

We are in trouble. Big and serious trouble. It might not feel like that at this moment, as you sit here, having left the comfort of your homes , maybe quite full after your pre-Yomtov meal, perhaps in a smart new outfit, and now you are here. And maybe you’re a bit less comfortable here, but it’s nevertheless not the worst of experiences you could imagine (I hope). You might be struggling a bit with the words of the book, you might even be thinking you’ll be glad when the whole thing is over and you can get back to what we undoubtedly think of as our ‘real’ lives come Tuesday morning. So the journey through these 24 hours might be meaningful or meaningless, it might be more an endurance test than a true soul-searching, but we can imagine that either way we’ll get through it, and over it, pretty much unscathed. And things will go on for us much as they were before this strange interruption in our busy lives.

We need to be honest this day, our tradition says, and so we should be honest and say, Yes, this is how it will probably be for us. By Tuesday morning the pious words will have dulled into a blur, and our pious (though possibly heart-felt) intentions will have dissolved like a dream that fades away.

And yet we will still be in trouble. Big and serious trouble. Because we know, in our hearts, that this life of ours, and this ’life-style’ – horrible phrase if you think about it, as if our lives are an extension of the fashion industry – we know in our more clear-sighted moments not only that our own individual lives are finite, and we will one day cease to be here (this is not news, though Yom Kippur perhaps brings it into focus; but we also know that our whole way of life – and this is the newer news – this way of life that we know and cling to and desperately want to see continue into the lives of our children and our children’s children, ‘to the third and fourth generation’, this way of life may also be coming to an end, towards an end.

In this last 12 months or so we have had a wake-up call. It’s been a shock to see the flimsiness of our economic well-being – turbo-capitalism in all its vast and energised magnificence quaking, collapsing in parts, like rows of dominoes, free-market fundamentalism falling in on itself, businesses going bankrupt, banks going bankrupt, jobs lost, work impossible to find, not just here but throughout what we fondly and maybe naively call the ‘developed’ world.

And yes we are hearing about recovery, and all the media are scanning the horizon for signs that life might be getting back to so-called ‘normal’; but it reminds me, this scanning the horizon, of those sailors in centuries gone by who crossed the perilous seas for weeks on end, months on end, and the provisions are running low, and fresh water is almost gone and they are desperate to see the shores of the new world, and they are anxiously scanning the horizon for landfall – and then, blessed relief! : ‘Land Ahoy’ – but when they finally touch shore it’s not the new world they have reached but some uncharted territory and they have been blown off course – thousands of miles off course and they are strangers in a strange land. And who will ever make it back? And it’s sickening, heart-sinking, after all that waiting and hoping. And so we await our return – to prosperity and consumption and these golden days of old, just a year or so ago. And maybe that’ll happen. Business as usual, with a few cuts here and there. But nothing you’d really notice. And if you believe that, or want to believe that, then I wish you well.

Because something in us knows (though we might resist this knowledge) that this mayhem we’ve witnessed is not just about the greed and irresponsibility of financiers or bankers – it is about a malaise in a basic philosophy of life in which we are all implicated. It is about a system of values that has come to place individual desires above the common good. It’s about a system of values that puts the private domain – what I want, what I think I need, what I feel I have a ‘right’ to – above the collective well-being.

In this country cheap credit and the housing boom made possible the private pursuit of self-expression and self-gratification as the content of a good life. Just think of the number of make-over programmes that you’ve been able to see on TV – you can transform your house, your garden, your career, your social skills, your intimate relationships, your body and physical looks... We’ve come to think of this kind of modern freedom of choice as liberating and empowering. We want to be authors of our own lives – and of course there are ways in which this kind of personal autonomy can be transformative and needs to be nurtured and supported.

But maybe we are discovering that unbridled individualism – disconnected from our sense of ourselves as part of a wider community to which we are responsible – such unchecked concentration on our own needs (or what we think are our needs) is actually isolating and disempowering and ends up being destructive. As the economic system that has sustained this model of individualism begins to totter, we see how brittle this way of life that we’ve bought into, literally and figuratively, how fragile and soulless it actually is. That it’s devoid of any real and substantial meaning.

We’ve caught a glimpse this last year of a truth that we probably can’t bear to look at for more than a moment. That what we consume will eat us alive. Consumption is now what we believe in – it’s where we put our faith. But whether it’s shopping our way to happiness, or investing in property, or the consumption of the earth’s resources, consumerism is not only a form of addiction, it is a form of idolatry, to use an old-fashioned word. (But on Yom Kippur we have a lot of old-fashioned words on display, so I might as well slip this one in as well).

Judaism has always maintained – and it’s a hard and demanding faith in this respect – but it is based on an idea that if you are putting your basic trust in what you own, what you can possess, what you can grab with your own two hands – if you put your faith in the material world, you’ve missed the point. That this way of thinking about our purpose here in the world is fundamentally askew. Yes, you can enjoy the material world, you can own and possess things of this world, you can and even should celebrate what you have, what you make, what you possess, be grateful for it – but don’t imagine it’s where your security comes from. Don’t believe in it.

That’s what that great Biblical line means - ‘You shall have no other gods before Me’ (Exodus 20:3) – it was a recognition very early on in our history, our faith, that the temptations of idolatry are always here and around us. But we never think it is idolatry. We just think it’s the way things are. Just how life is. ‘We aren’t idol worshippers’ we tell ourselves indignantly . ‘We are Jews – we don’t believe in idols’, that’s for primitive people, and we are sophisticated. We don’t worship new fashions, new looks, new cars, new technological gadgets, new holiday destinations, all the ‘just-haves’ that are dreamed up just for us ( and a million others) – this isn’t idolatry, it’s not cannibalism – it’s just personal choices, how our hunger gets satisfied. It’s how we want to live. ‘There’s no sin in it’, we say, colloquially, anxiously. Our anxiety betraying some deeper awareness in us.

It was the great Jewish teacher Franz Rosenzweig who described our modern dilemma – nearly a century ago now: ‘Names change, but polytheism continues. Culture and civilisation, people and state, nation and race, art and science, economy and class, ethos and religion – here you have what is certainly an incomplete list of the pantheon of our contemporary gods. Who will deny the reality of these powers?’ - and I think now we can add technology and the media – ‘No ‘idolater’ has ever worshipped his idols with greater devotion and faith’, he continues, ‘than that displayed by modern man towards his gods...a continual battle has been going on to this very day in the mind of man between the worship of the One and the many. Its outcome is never certain.’ (cf N. Glatzer, Franz Rosenzweig, p.277; also Sense of Belonging, p.207)

Eloquent words from a master teaching and thinker. But he’s got us in one paragraph.

You know, maybe we’re going to get lucky. Maybe this financial mayhem will prove manageable, maybe as the world leaders meet and deliberate in their G20 meetings and in Copenhagen in December they are going to be able to steer the huge super tanker we are on, steer it around divergent national interests and find ways of addressing climate change, and chronic poverty and disease, and ineffective global governance. Maybe they will overcome narrow agendas and populist temptations. Maybe.

Or maybe this wake-up call will be followed by falling deeper asleep. Maybe what we have glimpsed this past year will prove too frightening to face full on. Because we have seen how we collectively came to the brink of catastrophe - and found our way through this time. But has this been a warning? That when a tipping point is reached, and the dominoes begin to fall, the change is rapid and while it is going on, unstoppable. That things can get out of control very fast. And what if this last year’s collapse in the financial world is a pre-figuration of that other great drama of our times and our lives, the environmental and ecological problems we face?

Have we maybe had a picture of the way in which fissures and fractures that are in the system but undetected – perhaps know about by a few prescient souls (and there were some economists who clearly saw the dangers) but whose words were drowned out by the prevailing wisdom, the prevailing faith in the system, which was a pseudo-faith – have we had a warning picture of how climate change will one day tip over from slow and incremental into sudden and dramatic?

Those dust storms in Australia last week are an almost too convenient metaphor for a hellish vision of a society at the mercy of a sudden irruption of choking chaos into daily lives. And if we reach that point, no amount of ‘quantative easing’ is going to push back the rising tides or get us out of the mess. There will be no second chance to get it right.

And this is where we switch off. This is where we feel the need to fall asleep. We know all this, we say. Climate change, blah blah blah. The politicians will sort it out. Technology will sort it out. Well Barack Obama is only human (in spite of rumours to the contrary). Nor am I sure that faith in the great god ‘technology’ will sort this one for us.

So where does that lead us, today on Yom Kippur? This is a day that strips away our pretensions. Where can we hide? We are naked before the truth of things (‘Truth’ is one of the names of God in our tradition). If we worship money and possessions – if this is where we put our faith and what we think give our life real meaning and value - we will never feel we have enough. If we worship our body and looks – we will always feel ugly. If we worship power, like to dominate and be in charge – we will always secretly feel weak and afraid. If we worship our intellects, like to feel smart, be seen as clever – we will end up feeling stupid and fraudulent, always waiting to be found out and exposed. These are the kinds of worship, idolatry, that we just slip into, they become default settings in the psyche. And change is really, really difficult.

I do think though that Yom Kippur can easily make us feel more guilty, by heaping on us expectations beyond our human capabilities. Perhaps we have to start by acknowledging how little we can do, and sometimes how little we care about how little we can do. Perhaps what is needed of us today is a little honesty: about our smallness of vision, our limited compassion, our threadbare belief that any of these pious words we say today will make any difference to how we think and live, let alone how the world is. Perhaps the best we can do is struggle to expose lies when we hear them, and then strive for the preservation of some human values, if only in ourselves.

It’s so easy to hide. We have busy lives, lots of responsibilities – for family, colleagues; to friends or the community – how much time can we give to the great moral demands of our times? And yet maybe it is here, in the midst of our busy lives, that we have to begin. Perhaps we have to be quite modest in our expectations. Take the pressure off us so that we do not live so freighted by guilt, so burdened by all we fail to do. If we aren’t going to live completely swamped by the dominant, bullying ethos of our time, the ethos of individualism and personal autonomy, maybe we have to come back to our daily lives, and work at our attention and awareness , with discipline and effort, and find ways to truly care for other people, to make sacrifices, to have less so that we can be more. More compassionate, more altruistic, more self-limiting in what we consume and imagine we ‘must-have’.

In a myriad petty little unsexy ways every day there are small choices to make – and maybe that doesn’t sound grandly inspirational. Look after the people around you: in your family, at work, neighbours, our own community here. Look after yourself by giving more and taking less. Perhaps it sounds pretty humble stuff, small scale rather than grand gestures and noble ideals. Perhaps it is rather down-to-earth and humbling. No headlines in it. No 15 minutes of fame. But perhaps it’s where we start, today, tomorrow, and Tuesday morning. Perhaps. Samuel Beckett once said that his favourite word was ‘perhaps’.

Perhaps our salvation begins by recognising our smallness and our limitations. But better honest doubt and small gestures (of love and care, when we can) than grandiose schemes and crazed self-assuring noises about how things ‘have’ to be and ‘must’ be done...

We want to live in a world with simple answers and predictable consequences, a rule-bound universe where we are clear about cause and effect, right and wrong, ‘good’ and ‘evil’. We want pills to solve complex problems – personal or societal. We want magic and over-the-rainbow happy endings. (The decline of traditional religious belief has seen our human need for stories replaced with devotion to J.R.R.Tolkein and J.K.Rowling). We want to live in a re-enchanted world not a disenchanted world.

Jewish tradition – from the Bible through to the liturgy we read today – sometimes seems to offer simple narratives and clear and stark choices – ‘See, today, I offer you life and good, death and evil...I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse... Choose life! ’(Deuteronomy 30: 15/19) . We read this text on Yom Kippur morning. Yet only when we read these texts and listen to these stories with impoverished imaginations do we believe these words are simple, their meanings straightforward. Words are never transparent. They are like signposts, pointing the way forwards.

Our tradition does give us clues about how to live, clues but not solutions. The clue is ‘Choose life’ – but the solution, that’s to be found only in your heart. Today, Yom Kippur, we have the time and space to listen in to our hearts. We know the trouble we are in – and we know what we need to do. We know, we know. There is no magic – there is just mystery, and the adventure of doing what we know to be true.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Rosh Hashanah - the New Year

A man is walking on a tightrope. From below, he looks like a speck of moving dust, or perhaps a bird hovering over the city. He can hardly be seen. But someone is there. A man is walking on a tightrope – and he is a quarter of a mile off the ground. It has become an iconic image. Step by step, smiling, he moves, attentive and graceful, between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre on a wire an inch thick, less than the width of this book in my hand. Back and forward, step by step, with a sensation of limitless freedom. It is 1974.

The French tightrope walker Philippe Petit wrote a book about his art, A Walk In The Clouds. And you may well have seen the wonderful documentary about him, Man On Wire. And when in the film you see this person, alone on the wire, balanced between movement and stillness, defenceless against sudden gusts of wind, one step away from death – strangely, you do not think of death. You think of life – how fragile it is, how precious it is, and how wonderful it might be to walk through life like Philippe Petit on his high-wire, taking hold of his life and living it ‘in all its exhilarating immediacy, in all its joy’, moment by moment. (cf. Paul Auster, The Red Notebook, Faber & Faber, p. 98).

This evening we pause on our journey, our high wire act – though we don’t usually think of it like that as we make our way through the world, striding along confidently , but every step just a heartbeat away from death. Or worse. We think the ground is solid beneath our feet. We like to feel secure, to avoid too many risks, or at least to take what we think of as manageable, insurable risks. We like to feel in control. But this evening as we pause, as the old year dies and the new year comes into being, comes to life; as we pause at the cusp between what’s past and what’s to come, our unknown (and unknowable) future, we can stop for a few moments and ask ourselves: How do we live our lives: fearless – or fearful ? one step at a time, paying attention to the moment, or in a headlong rush?

Rosh Hashanah is known by many names. Yom Ha-Zikkaron, the day of Remembering; Yom Teruah, the Day of waking up; Yom Ha-Din – the Day of Judgement, with the scales balancing our deeds, weighing up our lives, what has substance and what is ephemeral. And although we stride resolutely through these days together, in community, they are still here for each one of us, individually.

And they are called, these ten days, the Yomim Noraim – The Days of Awe, because they are about the most wondrous and poignant realities: what it means to be a human being, fragile, dependent, fallible – Man On Wire, Woman On Wire - so insignificant in the vast scheme of things and yet so significant. For no-one like us, like me or like you, has ever existed before, or ever will. And does this have any meaning, this uniqueness that each of us is with our own special amalgam of doubts and insecurities, our worries, our foibles and guilt, our sadnesses and failures, our frustrations, our loneliness and secret sorrows as well as our great need for connectedness and belonging and security and hope. What does it mean to be a human being, full of astonishing consciousness and creativity, alive on a small precious, precarious planet on the edge of the universe? What does it mean to be suspended over the void, like Philippe Petit, our bare and naked mortal selves, flesh and blood and mind and heart and spirit, and we have to make the best of it we can, moment by moment? On our own, and sometimes with each other. Huddled against the darkness, the abyss. Is this it? Is this all there is? The gravity-defying high wire act we can life?

Or is there something else as well, something we can turn to, turn towards? After all, we began this service with the words ‘In the twilight of the vanishing year we turn to You...We come into Your presence together with all other holy congregations of Your people’ (Machzor p.131). Are we on this dizzying journey through life alone? Or is there some kind of presence, or energy, or awareness that we can become aware of, attune ourselves to, a presence that we can come into, or let come into us? Something that sustains us, nurtures us, keeps us going when all seems lost, when we feel we are going to fall (into a depression or a bad mood, or feelings of hopelessness or resentment or inadequacy) – is there something that holds us up, that keeps us alive and breathing, breathing moment by moment, literally inspires us? Is there something else? Can we feel the wire, as thin as a finger as broad as an ocean? Can we trust it will support us as we inch our way forward? Impossible to believe in and yet we’ve come this evening seeking it – tentatively, maybe reluctantly, quizzically, shyly – we have come here this evening for something that helps us touch the mystery, helps us touch, and be touched by, that which supports us all in this perilous adventure we call life.

We Jews have this extraordinary mythology, story, a way of seeing the world: we have created a period of time to reflect on these questions, questions about our lives that we know are short and fleeting and without significance until we fill them with significance. We’ve created this New Year and along with all the other names we give it, we say that it celebrates ‘the birthday of the world’ – yom harat olam - not the birthday of the Jewish people mind you, nothing so small-scale and ethnocentric as that. No, we take it upon ourselves to celebrate ‘the birthday of the world’ - which means a day, two days, to remember that we live on a planet that has a history, a past, that started in unimaginably powerful explosions of densities of matter and energy, unimaginable heat and chaos and eons of cooling and congealing and forming itself into rock and water, carbon dioxide and nitrogen and hydrogen and oxygen and all the rest in multitudes of combinations and re-combinations, and the slow, slow evolution of a planet, with a special state-of-the-art air-conditioning system that allowed the slow, slow evolution of microscopic life forms and photosynthesis and the slow, slow evolution out of the seas, onto the land, millennia after millennia, primitive life, evolving – Richard Dawkins is of course right to emphasise, over and over again, this is what happened, this is how it happened, the infinitely slow evolution of slime into life, sea creatures, land creatures, apes, creatures that had hands and legs and fingers that could hold objects – what a glory! – and millennia pass and then – and it is like a miracle, we can describe it without understanding what it means - like a miracle there is us, tribes of us with our migraines and our iPods, us, able to reflect on it all, tell stories about it all, create a new year to celebrate it all, wonder about it all, wonder about our part in it all, our role in it all. Our responsibility in it all.

Because we gather here this evening for many reasons – Rosh Hashanah is about many things, it’s about getting the honey cake recipe right, and making sure the kneidlach aren’t like cannonballs, it is about family recipes and family gatherings and remembering those who are no longer with us; and it’s about friendship and community, and tradition. It’s maybe also about duty or habit – but underneath all these there is something else that brings us here, I think, brings us together: a sense of gratitude and feeling of responsibility. If we are here and have what we call life, and everything is not just random, it must have a purpose.

And there must be something that sustains it all, that keeps the whole show going. We have come to call this something God, Adonai, The One who is, That which Is, and this is what we turn to in these days of Awe. ‘We come into Your presence’, we let this presence come into us, the awareness of life, mysterious, unfolding moment by moment, as we breathe, in and out, and sense there is a spirit that animates us and all of being, that keeps us on the wire. This is the daily miracle, that we daily forget. And what it means – and this is the great Jewish contribution to human development – it means that we carry a sense of responsibility: that how we live, with each other and in the world, makes a difference. A difference to this unfolding drama of life on earth. By the way, this doesn’t mean you have to believe in a Creator, or a Designer, and I’m not speaking about ‘intelligent design’, because there is nothing intelligent about nature ‘red in tooth and claw’(Tennyson), or supernovae, or tsunamis or cancer.

But I’m talking about the ways in which we are drawn here this evening, in spite of our doubts and confusion, because we sense and want to sense the sustaining power that underlies and animates the universe and us within it, and this sense (which doesn’t necessarily make rational sense and doesn’t need to) this deeper sense in us blossoms into a sense of responsibility for what happens in this complex, inexplicable turmoil of a life on planet earth.

We sense that we aren’t in charge - but we can make a difference. And we come because, in spite of all our unbelief, we still believe, as Jews, that we have a job to do. That we Jews have a purpose and a destiny. Life can be crushingly unjust but we are capable of acting justly. Life can be unspeakably cruel but we are capable of acting with compassion and generosity. Life can be harsh and meaningless but we are capable of relieving hardship and creating meaning. That’s our purpose, our destiny, what we are doing here.

On Rosh Hashanah we remember – Yom Ha-Zikkaron – that it is all up to us. Remember from this last year, Obama’s presidential words – ‘Yes, we can’. You can’t get more Jewish than that. It is possible to balance on the wire, amidst the storms around us – whether it is illness, or loss, financial uncertainty, environmental uncertainty – and know, in the words of Gregory Solomon in Arthur Miller’s ‘The Price’: ‘Jews been acrobats since the beginning of the world’. We’ve learnt the high wire act of survival, of faith in our ourselves and our responsibilities, and we’ve learnt too – however daunting the task may appear, however unstable we feel in ourselves, or insecure as a people - we’ve learnt with Nachman of Bratslav : “Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar mo’ed , the whole world is a very narrow bridge, a very narrow wire, v’haikkar lo lefached klal, but the main thing is not to feel afraid”.

As the New Year comes into life, we treasure our being alive in it. And we look to the future, the next steps on the way, with hope, with confidence, with and even with a spring in our steps.

Sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London: September 18th 2009