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Monday, 25 May 2009

‘Trust In The Wilderness’: a few thoughts on religion and politics

I see that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has followed my lead this weekend. Together with the Archbishop of York he issued a statement on Sunday urging people not to "shun the ballot box" in the forthcoming European and local elections because of their disillusionment with the state of politics in the UK – and thereby hand a greater percentage of the vote to the BNP.

My own thoughts on this are included within a sermon, below, which I gave this past Shabbat at the Finchley Reform Synagogue ( in London. (I say 'sermon', but it is more in the nature of an extended riff on the section of the Torah we began to read this weekend).

Predictably, Nick Griffin of the BNP has responded to the Archbishops' expression of Christian values by saying that "the Church should stay out of politics" – which is a radical failure to understand that ‘true’ religion is always political because it speaks of how people should, or could, live together; and the kinds of relationships between individuals and between groups that are desirable; and how you cannot claim to be in a relationship with God-oriented values and ‘truth’ unless those values are reflected in the inter-personal human domain.

The people who worry that clergy are stepping outside of designated or permitted areas on which they are allowed to speak - stepping outside of ‘religion’ – don’t realise that to hold a ‘religious’ world-view means that everything and anything is open to be thought about and commented on, because there is no area of human thought or human activity which lies outside of the arena of the divine.

There are always those, in every generation and in every culture, who want clergy to stay in their box, keep their remarks focused on safe subjects (that don’t effect anyone). This isn’t the Jewish way – or at least it’s not my understanding of the Jewish way. I take my cue from, amongst other places, the second paragraph of the Aleynu prayer, recited in every service. It is forward looking, utopian, impossible to imagine becoming a reality – but as an aspiration towards a transformed society, a society pursuing values of integrity, justice and compassion, it offers daily inspiration in the politico-religious work of building a better society: it hopes for a time when ‘All shall accept the duty of building Your kingdom, so that Your reign of goodness shall come soon....’

‘Building Your kingdom’ translates for me into the politico-religious work outlined above, a society pursuing values of integrity, justice and compassion. What a daunting vision to have! No wonder that those in power, or seeking power, may quake when religious leaders speak of what might need to happen to move from here to there.

Sermon FRS 23rd May 2009

‘Anyone who doesn’t make themselves open to all, like a wilderness, cannot acquire wisdom and Torah’. (Midrash, Bemidbar Rabbah, 1:7).

Bemidbar – ‘In the Wilderness’: a year and a bit out of Egypt and the old ways of life are fading memories, there’s bitterness but also nostalgia for how it used to be (in spite of the hardships, and the bruises to body and soul that never go away); there is also the experience of new freedoms, and there have been some extraordinary events participated in and witnessed – the thunder and lightning at Sinai was dramatic but it has come and gone (and with it that glimpse into another reality, another way of being together as a people, another way of thinking and feeling and believing); oh, and that nasty incident with the Golden Calf has been conveniently forgotten. But, most of all, overwhelmingly, the rigours of the desert are beginning to feel like fate. What are they doing in this wilderness? Where are they going? How long will it take? Whom can they trust, when all is doubt and uncertainty?

Can they trust their leaders? Or rather, their leader? The man with the stutter, born of the tribe of Levi, who has led them thus far in his self-appointed task: the shepherd who became a freedom fighter, claiming to be appointed by his unseen God, that ancestral memory and present reality, food comes every day, as if by magic, or is it just nature? (the manna, tasting like coriander, appears with the morning dew) and Moses says this is evidence that the Holy One of Israel is present, the Eternal One who is taking care of us every day, though we never see him, we never hear him – though there is a Cloud by day and a Pillar of Fire by night and Moses tells us that these are signs of his presence, that we can trust this peripatetic divine force who leads us though the wilderness, but for how long? And where are we going? And how long will it take? And who can we trust, really?

Can we trust this man, Moses, and what he says to us? For he is the Speaker. He claims to speak to God. He claims God speaks to him. He is the authority for the House of Israel. He holds in mind the laws, the practices, the collective history of the tribe, the House of Israel. He is the voice of tradition and the voice of memory and the voice of what it is permitted to do and what it is forbidden to do. And all defer to him. For he is the Speaker : to the people and for the people. But if we can’t trust him, this Leader, this Speaker, whom can we trust?

Incidentally, if you want to have a tiny picture of the kind of ceremonial and ritual life that the Torah describes in such achingly elaborate detail - in the book of Leviticus especially, but also in parts of the book of Numbers – the details of a highly structured cult organized around the repetition of rituals which must be done in precise and regular and ordered ways – if you want a window into that role of elaborate symbolic ritual in the life of a culture, then you could do worse than watching something like the annual State Opening of Parliament or just the daily ritual of the Speaker of the Commons in the procession that starts each parliamentary day as the Speaker makes his way into the Chamber of the House (it’s our national Tent of Meeting, but not portable), and he is preceded by a badge messenger (wearing a badge), who is followed by the serjeant at arms, who is bearing a mace, who in turn is followed by a train bearer, who – yes, who guessed this – has the role of bearing the train of the serjeant in arms. (I know this sounds like Gilbert and Sullivan). And they are followed by the chaplain to the House and others with predetermined roles and responsibilities, all is special clothes just like the priests in days of old.

(I don’t know if the columnist Jonathan Freedland was conscious of the links to our Torah texts or not when he wrote this week: ‘All the flummery and archaic language should be shrouds parliament in a cloud of mystique, opaque to all but a select priesthood’).

But where were we? Yes, Bemidbar – ‘In the Wilderness’. Those years of wandering and wondering that the Torah describes offer us several themes which intersect with our own lives and our own situation. Because the questions of the Torah text are our questions too: Where are we going? How long will it take? Whom can we trust, when all is doubt and uncertainty? Questions of trust are very much around in the news this week – the publication in Ireland of the Ryan report into the decades-long systematic abuse of children in the Catholic church and Catholic orders has given a devastating insight into the ways in which power corrupts and religious authority turns perverse, and destructive of human well-being.

And closer to home, these failures in trustworthiness of those on whom we rely, often necessarily rely – whether it is MPs or governments or bankers or financiers around the world – these individual and systemic failures are not just dispiriting, they are disturbing, anxiety-provoking. Who of us can really say they feel more secure now, more hopeful about the future, than we did a year ago? We are in the wilderness, and the journey ahead is unknown and frightening.

The Book of Numbers goes on to describe the growing rebelliousness of the people against their leaders – the figure of Korach, who led a rebellion against Moses and his leadership, is the great symbol of this defiance of authority and authority figures. And I imagine we will see aspects of this here in the UK – there will be revolts in the Labour party, there will be revolts against all the major political parties in the European elections next month - because there is a spirit of anger that has been released by this fiasco of the MPs' expenses, combined with the global economic turbulence, and some of the feelings released are quite ugly (you only had to watch Question Time 10 days ago, or listen to phone-ins, to hear Korach alive and well and living in Grimsby and Basingstoke and, no doubt, Barnet: ‘Who do you think you are? Are you better than us?’).

I’m not of course saying that any questioning of authority figures nowadays is like Korach – that would be ridiculous – for authority (secular or religious) always needs to be open to question . But when Moses stands up against Pharoah’s authority we all cheer – a revolution is around the corner and history is written by the victors. But Korach is a different kind of symbol of defiance of authority – the texts show how he is motivated by personal issues, envy and competitiveness and a lust for power, but also fear. Korach is a symbol of the ways in which, when times are uncertain and there is no clarity about the collective journey a group are on, authority figures do get attacked. And often out of unconscious fear.

When the wilderness is barren and leaders don’t seem to know how to take us into our promised lands, and no short cuts are evident, and the way ahead seems fraught with dangers – it’s at uncertain times like these that scapegoating becomes prevalent (there’s a way in which Michael Martin has been a scapegoat, a ritual sacrifice offered up to the wrathful gods of public opinion); it’s at uncertain times like we are going through now that witch hunts begin, and the blame game speeds up, and a nation’s dormant bloodlust begins to stir. The holier-than-thou finger-pointing at others, for their greed, their dishonesty, their fudgings of the truth, their hypocrisies – which are real, but it makes us feel so much better about ourselves if we can attack others’ failures, ‘out there’, because it saves us the effort and the pain of some introspection and self-examination to look at our own failures ‘in here’, our own failures to live up to the ideals we have about how to live and how to behave.

And this spirit of angry blame-seeking is dangerous. It degrades the texture of our society, its capacities for tolerance and harmony – and it is potentially dangerous (if I’m going to be ethnocentric for a moment) for us as Jews here in the UK. I don’t need to remind you to use your vote at the June 4th European election coming up: it’s been well-publicised, by the Board of Deputies amongst others, that the BNP are seeking to gain a foothold (and the money that goes with it) in the European Parliament, through their percentage of the forthcoming vote . And whatever disillusion you feel about any of the parties you might usually vote for, your vote on the 4th will make a difference. (Vote Green if you are fed up with the others!).

We are in a situation where we can – through the blessed freedom of living in a democracy and having a vote – be an active participant in a small way to the Talmudic statement: ‘Happy the person who performs a good deed: that may tip the scales for them and the world’. Is it a mitzvah to vote? I don’t know, but it is an act of holiness to act in a way that keeps at bay, tries to keep at bay, the forces of destructiveness in the world. And the BNP are a nasty and hate-filled mob. And they aren’t going away.

In unstable times it may not take much to reach a tipping point where the forces of brutality and envy and vindictiveness find room to express themselves in our society. The children of Israel were organized for battle as they prepared to cross the desert, as they faced the wilderness. There were real enemies there and real battles they had to face – Og king of Bashan, Sihon the Amorite, Amalek. It would be best to be forewarned: our story is not over, and our history and Jewish mythology and texts still have much to teach, precious resources, giving us much food for thought, like manna every day, nurturing us in the wilderness as we face the future in the only way we can, walking backwards looking at where we have come from, where our journey has led thus over the generations, searching the past for clues to the future.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

‘Does Poetry Matter?’

The recent appointment of Carol Ann Duffy as the new poet laureate generated a flurry of publicity. Most of this, of course, was about the person, not the poetry: first woman to hold the post, first lesbian, first born in Scotland to take up the role...and so predictably on. We could not expect anything different – the cult of personality is the dominant national trope and has the media in its clammy, celebrity-fixated grip.

This media response, as well as a new film, Little Ashes - concerning the life and execution (aged 37) of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca - has set me wondering about the ways in which poets have mattered (or not) in recent times. (And I suppose that, for me, ‘recent’ stretches back a hundred years or so).

The film, directed by a friend of mine (Paul Morrison), revolves around the relationship between Lorca and Salvador Dali - their early careers overlapped and each was an inspiration for the other - and as well as being beautifully photographed the film contains a sensitive and nuanced portrait of the poet by the Spanish actor Javier Beltrán.

Hearing some of Lorca’s poetry within the film returned me to my bookshelves – and the realisation that I had never taken the time to become acquainted with his work. Which has meant that I’ve missed out on a poet of rare sensibility, and that great gift of capturing in words those fleeting, tangled, half-thoughts and evanescent moods that lap on the furthest shores of our consciousness but which we may never fully dwelt upon, or even recognise as part of us – until we come upon them unexpectedly, written on the page, and then, with a gasp of recognition, feel we’ve known about forever.

Every Song

Every song
is the remains
of love

Every light
the remains
of time.
A knot
of time.

And every sigh
the remains
of a cry.

But does poetry matter? Shelley wrote that poets are the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the World’ for they ‘actually advance the interests of Liberty’. And how do they achieve this extraordinary effect? (For if it were true we surely need to know, and pay heed). Akin to the belief of the sixties’ radical that the personal is the political, for Shelley the psyche of the poet acts as a conduit for larger forces at work in society : ‘They measure the circumference or sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit at which they are themselves perhaps most sincerely astonished, for it is less their own spirit than the spirit of the age’ (all quotations from ‘A Defence of Poetry’, 1821).

There is a way in which this Romantic notion that poets exert some exemplary moral power through their capacity to be alert - even if not consciously so - to the deep currents of their time and place sounds hopelessly naive to my 21st century ears. That is, until I recall my own youthful idealism; and remember that Shelley died at 29; and recognise that in his defence of the primacy of the imagination over ‘reason’ he was articulating a visionary belief that I lose sight of over and over again – and need to be reminded of over and again lest this occlusion within me becomes permanent. This vision insists that the spirit that animated the prophets of my own Jewish tradition is still available to those who attune themselves to its Presence.

Poets, wrote Shelley in that same electric essay, ‘are the priests of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.’ Poets, in other words, are the inheritors of the prophetic mantle of old – even if, like Shelley, they deem themselves ‘atheists’.

So from this perspective, poetry, it seems, does matter. And yet, on the other hand, who would be able to contradict W.H. Auden’s blunt disavowal in 1939 that ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’ ? In the so-called ‘real world’, poetry is just words. And as we all were taught, actions speak louder than words.

The pragmatist in us will insist, reading the daily news, that poetry can hardly matter in the face of the harshness of life. Yesterday (May 12) I read that ‘An estimated five [US] soldiers in Iraq try to kill themselves each day .’ Five? A day? And today (May13) I read the report of someone working in a temporary medical facility shelled in the supposedly safe ‘no-fire zone’ in Sri Lanka: ‘The most terrible thing that I have seen was when a mother had a bullet go through her breast and she was dead and the baby was still on the other side of the breast and the baby was drinking her milk...I was at that place where it happened.’

Does poetry matter? If poetry could emerge from the trenches of the Great War, from the gulags, from Auschwitz, then perhaps it still does. The wrestling with language for new ways of seeing, the salvaging of the human from asphyxiation by the forces of dehumanisation – poets go on working with words to see what they can do. (Except when the poet too is defeated by the task – let Paul Celan and Sylvia Plath be called as witnesses, let them remind us of that desperate host of 20th century poet suicides...)

So are we with Shelley – or Auden? Or both? Perhaps paradoxically, communist dictators and fascists alike seem to agree more with Shelley than Auden. Why else during the Spanish Civil War kidnap and execute the poet Lorca in 1936? Why else did Stalin hound his country’s greatest poet, Osip Mandelstam , to a premature death in a labour camp (1938)? And imprison and execute the great novelist Isaac Babel (1940)? And arrange the ‘Night of the Murdered Poets’ on August 12 1952, when thirty Yiddish writers and poets were executed by firing squad? Peretz Markish, Dovid Bergelson, Der who only had words to offer, their murders confirming Mandelstam’s bleakly ironic words: ‘Only in Russia is poetry respected – it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?’

Think of the BNP rounding up Seamus Heaney and Benjamin Zephaniah and Ruth Padel and Bernard Kops and Arnold Wesker and Elaine Feinstein and Simon Armitage and Paul Muldoon – and Carol Ann Duffy. And dispensing with them in one night.

To murder a poet for his or her words is a perverse form of honour. The totalitarian mind seeks to define and dominate reality: everything and everyone must be subservient to the Leader’s vision. But art – and perhaps poetry in particular – offers us an alternative reality, another angle of vision, another world to inhabit. That’s why , for dictators, it is so dangerous. It gives one room to breathe. It gives one room to think. And dictators cannot abide anyone having thoughts of their own, thoughts different from the Leader. (Twenty years ago, Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie was a contemporary variant on this theme).

Well, this is a long way from Carol Anne Duffy and her new role of nurturing our interest in poetry in all its capacity to move and inspire and provoke us, its capacity to offer us webs of words in which we see our lives anew, words which offer ‘an intense and impassioned power of communicating intense and impassioned impressions’ (Shelley). A bit, I suppose, like prayer used to do.

So, for all those for whom traditional liturgical prayers no longer work (or are no longer sufficient) - no longer help us connect our mortality and helplessness and impoverishment with our potential and our indebtedness and our creativity, no longer give us the strength to transform what we are into what we could be, no longer help us both to celebrate what we have and acknowledge the inevitability of loss – for all who, nevertheless, still look to words arranged on a page as sources of inspiration and comfort and hope, here is another form of prayer: a poem by our new poet laureate.


Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade I piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child's name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer -
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

(C.A. Duffy, 1993, Mean Time, London, Anvil Press)

Friday, 1 May 2009

Berlin and memory... and the enigma of walls

Before last week I’d only spent a few hours in Berlin. In 1969, on a school trip to the Soviet Union, we passed through the divided city en route to Moscow by train. All I recall from that brief encounter with the city was a visit to the Olympic stadium, eerie-because-deserted that day, yet familiar from those grainy black-and-white sequences from the 1936 ‘Jesse Owens’ Olympics; Leni Riefenstahl’s chillingly beautiful 1938 film of the Games, Olympia; and those triumphalist rallies in which Hitler bewitched his people into uncritical adulation of their nation and its leaders (and which of course involved the demonization of Jews, communists and other deviants) – staged mass gatherings that have left me with a permanent disquiet about the potential for crowds to be thrilled and manipulated by rhetoric and emotional appeals to lofty causes.

And although I’ve been to Germany on several dozen occasions in the intervening years - mainly to Jewish-Christian conferences and Jewish-Christian-Muslim gatherings - and have long admired the work that has gone into the deep, prolonged and painful process of German post-War self-examination, restitution and renewal, I had never had the opportunity for a visit to Berlin.

Of course, as a tourist, my impressions of the four days spent there are inevitably those of an outsider, an observer – but I console myself with the thought (the rationalisation) that sometimes one has a better view from the margins than from the centre.

And my abiding impression after this fleeting encounter with this great European capital is that Berlin is still a death-haunted city. Let me be clear – I loved the city, its cosmopolitan culture, its cafes, its coffee, its integrated (and cheap) transport system, its bold new architecture, its leisurely Sunday afternoon strolling by the river and sunbathing in the Tiergarten, its weekday sense of vibrant busyness yet without London’s aggressive pushiness. Indeed, although I have no German forebears, I felt curiously at home there.

Maybe this was in part because I could see how my spiritual heritage is partly rooted there: here was the seminary building (the forerunner of my own rabbinic college) where Leo Baeck taught until 1942; there, in the renovated Oranienburger synagogue which originally held 3,200 Reform-minded congregants, is a picture of Rabbi Werner van der Zyl (who ended up at West London Synagogue) preaching in 1937; and round the corner is the home of Rabbi Regina Jonas, the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi (in 1935), who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944.

So the city felt as if it has been part of my internal Jewish map for decades. Yet what I’m calling its ‘death-haunted’ quality came at me from unexpected angles.

Of course there are the Jewish deaths. But these aren’t hidden away. On the contrary – this is a city fully engaged in acts of memorialisation: from the names of streets recalling Jewish figures; to the plaques on walls where Jews lived, or worshipped; to the sculptured memorials in parks; to the extraordinary ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’, built by the American architect Peter Eisenman between 1999 and 2005 – a memorial site the size of Trafalgar Square in the very heart of Berlin, filled with 2711 slabs of grey concrete, into which you can wander, at first (when seeing it from the outside) imaging it as a graveyard of flat slabs, then entering into the midst of the site with its dipping, uneven ground, where pillars rear up 13 feet tall, and disorientation and dizziness dazes the senses...Berlin is recalling, is choosing to remember, that an enormous crime emerged from this land, this ground, this soil. The absent dead are everywhere.

And then there are the deaths of other Germans, victims of communism in its East German guise: the wooden crosses one finds in parts of the city memorialising those who died trying to escape into the West. Shot while attempting to cross the Wall, a Wall that divided neighbour from neighbour, brother from sister, parent from child – from 1961 to 1989 this city lived with its brokenness and the visitor can still see the ways in which the city’s two ‘halves’ have not yet healed together.

Only now, 20 years later - after the initial euphoria at reunification and then the years of amnesia, wanting to forget this wound - comes the growing need to remember the past, to build a memorial site that honours the dead, and tells the story, and allows the whole city to keep in mind the suffering that rigid ideologies will always cause.

People gather in groups, and singly, in front of the crosses, each plain white cross with a name, a brief story, and a date of death. Lives cut short by the need to escape from ‘here’ to ‘there’. And the larger story they symbolise is written invisibly at these sites – the power of the human spirit wishing to cross borders, to move freely, to re-connect with family or friends, or just re-connect to the hope for a better life. And the forces that nations regularly marshal against these human needs.

As the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall approaches – and of course Jews recall the curious game that history plays, for the Wall fell on November 9th, the anniversary of the 1938 pogroms of Kristallnacht – there is the sense that Berlin is actively facing and integrating this other tragic element in its recent history. This city, once again in thrall to a dominant ideology – corporate capitalism in all its (now rapidly fading) glory – is nevertheless able to keep in mind a higher truth : in the midst of life there is death. The space given over to memory and memorials is a mature and responsible acknowledgement of how death may be inevitable but killing is not.

Death comes anyway, but that we are the dealers of premature death for others is a hard knowledge to bear. But I know of no other city in the world that has done more to keep in consciousness this painful knowledge – that leaders, governments, fellow citizens have murderousness and brutality written into their souls.

It happened to be Yom Ha-Shoah while I was in Berlin, the day we Jews recall what was done to us. As always, It falls the week before Yom Ha-atzmaut, which we’ve celebrated this week, the day we Jews recall the ‘miracle’ of Israel’s (re)birth in 1948.

There are walls we build to keep people in. And there are walls we build to keep people out. But eventually all walls are defeated by the tides of history (let Hadrian’s wall, and China’s ‘Great Wall’, stand in for all the rest). As I stood in front of the decorated relics of Berlin’s twenty-eight year Wall, I could not help but think of that other Wall, ‘over there’.

And I recalled Professor Sari Nusseibeh of Al-Quds University, as quoted in the playwright David Hare’s recent ‘Wall: A Monologue’ (for full text see www. :

It’s like sticking someone in a cage and then when he starts screaming, as any normal person would, using his violent temper as justification for putting him in the cage in the first place. The wall is the perfect crime because it creates the violence it was ostensibly built to prevent.

A polemical and provocative observation, but one that I feel honour-bound to listen to, even while I want to argue with it (“But there was violence before...”). And I recall too the Israeli novelist David Grossman’s plangent and humane words about his country and its Wall:

Of course at the foundation of the state there was a tremendous sense of purpose, of building something together. But we squandered our chance to make the state permanent in 1967. Instead of using the conquered territories as leverage in negotiation, instead we became addicted to occupation. When a people have suffered as much as we have it’s not a bad feeling to be masters for once. And we became addicted to that feeling, like a narcotic.

Now we have terrible trouble imagining any other reality than the one we live in. You become habituated, you cannot believe there is another possible way of life. And so effectively you become a victim of the situation. And here, again, is the central paradox, the idea of Israel was that we would cease to be victims. Instead we hand our fate over to the security people, we allow the army to run the country, because we lack a political class with a vision beyond the military. Survival becomes our only aim. We are living in order to survive, not in order to live.

I want to begin to live. I want some gates in the wall.

Berlin was a reminder, is a reminder, that there is always ‘another possible way of life’ – if we have the imagination (and courage) to grasp it.