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Sunday, 22 February 2009

On ‘The Rules’ and ‘Disasters’...

Sunday 22nd February

So Shimon Peres has asked Netanyahu to form a government in Israel. As I asked in my last blog, will this make any difference in regard to the great issues still facing the nation, the need for justice and peace?

This week’s sedrah was Mishpatim - ’The Rules’ - when the Exodus text records the responsibilities of the Israelite people (individually and collectively) to adhere to certain standards of conduct as part of their covenant with the divine. The purpose of their being an Israelite community in the land of Israel was in order to build a just society. That was the point of the nation. That was the justification for their being in the world: to see if they could model a just society. Against the odds, against the grain of crooked human nature, against the tendency of societies to be dog eat dog, for human competitiveness to overshadow human compassion, the Jewish people were to justify their existence - and specifically their existence in their own land - by attempting the extraordinary project of trying to create a just society.

And justice wasn’t an abstract idea. It meant specifics, it meant the nitty-gritty of everyday life had to be penetrated by a value, an attitude, a stance – justice. For example, as our sedrah says (Exodus 22:20): ‘You shall not wrong a stranger, or oppress them, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt...’ – our morality is always rooted by the Bible in our history, and our long memories of the pain of oppression – and then in the next verse it immediately goes on: ‘You shall not ill-treat a widow or orphan...’ (22: 21).

There is a recognition here that every society has its haves and have-nots: some people manage, and others need help. It’s what happens. Life unfolds, stuff happens. Your spouse dies, your parents are no longer around, you move country and become a ‘stranger’. It could happen to any of us. It has happened to many of us. It will happen to most of us. Help is always needed – and the Jewish task (individually and collectively) is to provide it. It is ‘The Rules’. It’s what justifies your existence as a Jew. And within the Bible’s frame of reference, it is what justifies the presence of the Israelite people – now the Jewish people – in the land of Israel.

And if they don’t? If they break ‘The Rules’? Our text goes on, and it makes uncomfortable reading, it goes on in the next verses: ‘If you do mistreat them, I will heed their cries...and My anger will blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives will become widows and your children orphans’ (verses 22-3).

And you don’t have to be a believer in a punishing God, or even a believer in a divine Being at all, to recognise here a poetic description of the ways in which a society that fails to adhere to basic principles of human justice ends up in disarray, with the suffering bleeding into all its citizens. It’s a dramatic picture of how haves can become have-nots in the twinkling of an eye, and how deprivation and disaster follow selfishness and injustice as night follows day. When a society corrupts its basic morality, no-one is immune to the losses.

I fear for the well-being of Israel. I fear for its security, its physical security – who will next wield ‘the sword’, creating widows and orphans? – but I fear too for its inner security, its soul, corroding day by day in the long agony of its inability to grasp its true destiny as an enabler of peace and justice for all who live on those poor, precious, disputed tracts of land.

I fear for them, and I fear too for us , for as the rabbis of old used to say, ‘All of Israel [ie all Jews] are sureties for each other’ – the destinies of Israel and the Diaspora are bound together closer than we might like to think. What Israel does - the leaders they elect, the policies they espouse - reflect on all of us. This might be unfair, this might be illogical, this might be prejudice – but it’s how human nature works.


I find myself in this blog juxtaposing disparate themes, a kind of uncensored free association of ideas and preoccupations. So what I want to write about next seems to have no relationship to what has gone before. But of course that’s not true. (Because everything is connected to everything else). But what the relationship is I will leave you to decide. Like a collage, the blog assembles different strands of thought – and the bigger picture takes time to emerge. And each ‘viewer’ (ie reader) will see the picture differently.


At Finchley Reform Synagogue - - we have acquired a new book after it was reviewed in the Progressive Jewish journal MANNA. Its title is ‘Disaster Spiritual Care: Practical Clergy Responses to Community, Regional and National Tragedy’ and it is edited by an American rabbi and an American Baptist minister. I was interested to have a look at it because MANNA’s reviewer suggested it contained useful ideas to help communities think about, and plan for, responses (practical and spiritual) to traumatic collective events that have a major impact on congregants. The July 7th 2005 bombings here in London are an obvious example.

This American publication - written in the inevitable shadow of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina - contains essays by a variety of contributors, mostly Christian clergy, with a clutch of rabbis and imams thrown in for ecumenical balance. I thought I’d start with chapter 3 ‘Pre-Disaster Phase’, which sounded promising: ‘How to Prepare Your Congregation and Congregants through Co-operation, Collaboration and Community’. I thought there might be some solid ideas which could be utilised to help a community like Finchley have in place a basic framework if we are ever faced with a one-off tragic event that touched our lives directly – a bomb attack on the synagogue (hard to envisage, but who knows?), some biological/chemical attack in London that members were caught up in... the list isn’t long because even my vivid imagination is tempered by a rational awareness of the extreme unlikelihood of any event like these.

Would we need a sort of Emergency Group of Volunteers primed to offer, or co-ordinate, practical and emotional help? What resources, lists, phone-numbers might be needed? I thought this chapter might help think through some of these questions, and prompt others.

I read the chapter with mounting incredulity, and a kind of nauseous feeling that I couldn’t identify. I read: ‘Houses of worship and congregants must begin storing food for extended periods of potential scarcity...’ - [I noted the urgency of ‘must’] - ‘...Since no one knows the day or hour when tragedy will strike, how prepared would you be if it occurred during service and none of your members could leave the building to go home? How long could you provide food and water for the masses within your walls?’ [I noted, wryly, the anticipation of ‘masses’ of people gathered together for a service; and I noted, angrily, the overblown emotionality and fear mongering underlying the sentences].

I read on: ‘Individual families...need to store as much food as their living space will accommodate. It is advisable for them to store a year’s supply of food, if possible.’ [So, I noted, we are now in Mad Max, Hollywood territory, or was it white supremacists stockpiling supplies to guard against the day when the USA will be taken over by the evil ZOG, (Zionist Occupation Government)?]. ‘Encourage your membership to begin growing crops in their backyard, or on their window-sill if they live in an apartment...As stores run out of supplies, your congregants will be forced to buy on the street at scalper prices. Advise your members to hide money in various locations both inside and outside their house...Money can be buried in the yard, but remember to mark the spot...’ [Ah yes, it’s always good to mark the spot where one buries treasure, remember Humphrey Bogart in the 1948 classic 'Treasure of the Sierra Madre'? and Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in ‘The Shawshank Redemption?]

Do I need to go on? Unfortunately I do. Towards the end of this illuminating chapter there is a section on the importance of storing medications in a cool environment. And the 2 clergy authors of this particular chapter suggest something called an ‘ICE Buddy’ cool box, a trademarked product. At the end of the chapter, where one finds biographical notes about the authors, at the end of an impressive list of credentials about their degrees, and posts held, we read: ‘Reverend Lorraine Jones currently serves as a senior vice-president of design and production for ICE Buddy Systems, Inc., a company that designs, patents and markets emergency preparedness items’. And her co-author, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, happens to be ‘CEO of ICE Buddy Systems, Inc., a company that designs, patents and markets emergency preparedness items. ’

From which we deduce : there’s no business like the pre-Disaster business.

I’d wondered about the exhilarating relish with which this chapter described the forthcoming tragedies and disasters, the pathology of fear it whips up – and, once again the old adage ‘follow the money’ serves us well. There are deep vested interests at work in this book - none quite as blatant as this financial one, but others that I suspect are motivated by a Christian fundamentalism that anticipates Armageddon and for whom apocalyptic scenarios of disaster are expected imminently. And ‘devoutly’ wished for. And this is about devotion - for the return of Jesus to redeem humankind from its sinful state is actively prayed for, and disasters are imaginatively needed as part of the theology underpinning this worldview. You need wars, terrorist threats, hurricanes, tsunamis to arrive so that there is enough chaos for Jesus to be forced to return.

Not all of this book is infected with this sickness. But there is enough of it on display – and crammed in-between the lines – to be dismaying, and cast a dark shadow over what might be of value in its pages. (And there are things of potential value, though not much that common sense and an hour’s brainstorming might not come up with to meet our own situation).

But when I read in the next chapter a subheading ‘Strategic Planning: Disasters Will Happen – Get Ready’ and see that the author of this chapter, Reverend Naomi Paget, ‘is an FBI chaplain and crisis interventionist with extensive training and experience in crisis intervention in law enforcement...’, I realise that this book stands at the insidious cross-roads of religious and political ideologies that have contaminated the American mind with a doom-laden, persecutory belief in the inevitability of Disaster – ‘Disasters WILL Happen..’, remember...

This book is part of Bush’s legacy to his country. There are deep strands of paranoia and psychotic thinking in the psyche of the American nation, and a book like this is a symptom of it. The book is toxic. It needs to be handled with care. You can borrow it from the FRS office if you are interested – and if you dare.

1 comment:

  1. I think we do things a little differently.

    There is in fact a Jewish Emergency Support Service (JESS) in the UK set up in 1989 to plan for emergencies, inte alia to advise on jewish aspects and arrange for counselling to be available.

    Just because one's paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get one.