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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.

1 comment:

  1. We cannot trust Mr Speaker or our MP's, National or European. We cannot trust our media, our religious organisations and cerainly not our corporations and the banks.

    I am reminded about the story told by psychoanalyst James Hillman. As a parent he was playing that game we all play with our children. We stand at the bottom of the stairs, ask our child to jump and catch them with a squeal of excitement before they fall. After doing this a few times, Hillman failed to catch the child and let him crash to the floor. The lesson being, you can trust nobody not even your father.

    Buddha said "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agreees with your own reason and your own common sense".

    This is all very well, but how many of us have sufficient reason to assess what we read or see on TV.I do'nt. I cannot draw conclusions from many of the things set before me. I do not have sufficient knowledge or analytical power. So, who do I trust? Often and unreliably I have to resort to listening for a "feeling" about a subject. What, as often happens, if I can't "hear" this feeling? In the end I may take a leap in the dark and hope father is there to catch me.