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Thursday, 23 July 2009

‘Why Seamus Heaney? But not JFS?’

Over the last few weeks, several of you have asked me if I am going to blog about the recent Court of Appeal ruling that UK Jewish schools are in breach of the 1976 Race Relations Act when, as they currently do, they select children on the basis of ethnic descent (ie in relation to a mother or father’s Jewish status, either through birth or conversion).

My answer has been consistent : No, I’m not.

There have been plenty of thoughtful and eloquent rabbinic and lay responses, many of which express concern about the state’s involvement in - as Rabbi Tony Bayfield put it - an infringement of ‘the fundamental right of the Jewish community to decide for itself the criteria for being Jewish’. (See Tony Bayfield’s cogent analysis at

But I do want to say something about my disinclination to write about the issues this case has raised. And this means I have to start somewhere else.

At one point in his essay collection Preoccupations, the poet Seamus Heaney asks himself the following searching (and self-searching) questions:

‘How should a poet properly live and write? What is his relationship to be to his own voice , his own place, his literary heritage and his contemporary world?’
When I read that I found myself reflecting on how similar those questions are to my own questions as a rabbi. Substitute the word ‘rabbi’ for the word ‘poet’ and you hear some of the big questions that preoccupy me.

What does it mean to live ‘properly’, as a Jew, as a rabbi? Is this about ethics and morality? Intellectual honesty? Emotional openness? Spiritual attentiveness? The search for existential meaning? The struggle for justice and righteousness in oneself, with others? The capacity to inspire? To care about others’ lives and struggles? It could be a thousand things - but it’s as if the ground shifts beneath my feet as I try to reflect on that question. It’s too big. I can’t hold on to it, it trickles through my hands like sand.

But whatever it means, Heaney connects it intimately, as a question, with writing. How should a poet properly live and write? As if the two are twin activities conjoined at the hip. And that linkage, I feel a deep affinity to. I suppose this blog, these last 6 months, has been testimony to that. I have found myself writing about many things I did not know I had any thoughts about – until I found out, through the act of writing for an unseen audience, that I did indeed have some thoughts, however haphazard (or hazardous) they might be.

And that leads to the question of ‘voice’. The quest to find a way of speaking – ie of writing – that is distinctive, and true to the deepest perceptions and intuitions that one finds lodged within oneself. A self-mining to discover what is there – be it gold-dust or fool’s gold. A dredging of the hidden knowledge and the quirky, idiosyncratic stuff of one’s life and preoccupations. Glimmers of meaning. Fragments of coherence from the midst of the chaos. If one is lucky.

There are writers one reads that one recognises instantly within a sentence or two. They have their ‘signature’, as Jacques Derrida put it, inscribed within their words, their cadences, their themes, their thought processes incarnated in language. I think – off the top of my head – of writers in different genres, such as Kafka, George Steiner, Paul Celan, Abraham Joshua Heschel. Nearer to home: Rabbi Jonathan Magonet and Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg and Rabbi Lionel Blue. All these ‘voices’ are unmistakable. A stance, an angle of vision, incarnated in prose, just words on the page, but breathing into being a distinctive, living, inimitable pattern of meaning and belief. This, I think, is what it means to have a ‘voice’.

Can one recognise one’s own ‘voice’? I know how shocked I always am to hear my voice, literally – on a recording, a tape, the radio, and so on. I don’t know it from the outside. I can’t hear it. And so it is with my writing ‘voice’ – I can’t hear it clearly, only (if at all) in snatches, like an overheard whisp of conversation floating in the wind; not even a conversation, more a phrase or two that suddenly becomes audible as one passes talking couples on Hampstead Heath.

But whatever this rabbinic ‘voice’ of mine is, it is linked in my mind to those other words that Heaney uses: ‘place’ and ‘literary heritage’ and ‘contemporary world’.

And for ‘literary heritage’ let’s read, for me as a rabbi, ‘religious heritage’. Though of course there is a large overlap here, for such a major part of my ‘religious’ heritage is itself a distinctive ‘literary’ heritage: from the Hebrew Bible through the Talmudic literature (with its amalgam of law and lore), to the medieval poets and philosophers, and embracing the mystics of the Kabbalah, and the Hasidic masters, and the scholars and theologians and writers of modernity: concentric circles of ‘Torah’, teaching, a ‘literary heritage’ stretching from Genesis and Yochanan ben Zakkai to Spinoza and Kafka, Freud and Buber, Philip Roth and Yehudah Amichai. “Our homeland the text”, as George Steiner once expressed it. Thinking about my complex relationship to that ‘literary’ heritage helps me get close to the heart of what being a Jew means to me – and from there, to what I understand being a ‘rabbi’ is about.

Yet I know that my Jewish heritage is larger than the ‘literary’. For Judaism as I understand it is not only a civilisational heritage of textual and inter-textual learning, an intellectual and emotional and spiritual resource, but it’s also a heritage of living. For although the Judaic relationship to literature and language and ‘the word’ is fundamental, constitutive of who and what we are (who and what I am), I see myself too as an inheritor of a heritage that is not only about the texts in books but is also about the texts of people’s lives.

Jewish celebration and Jewish suffering, Jewish poverty and Jewish self-betterment, Jewish devotion to practice, and Jewish revolt against practice, generations of women and men struggling to keep the flame of identity alive, struggling to keep themselves alive (and their children, for that was always where hope lay, if not for us, then something better for the next generation), but meanwhile, in the absence of the always delayed, and maybe imaginary, Messianic age, struggling to create a society brimming with justice and compassion and righteousness : this was a multi-generational historical heritage lived out in faith and in escape from faith, springing from faith and sometimes in opposition to faith. My heritage is composed of the stories of countless lives, in many lands and many eras, an unbroken chain of 40 generations and more, living out the daily consequences of a destiny inscribed in the texts but incarnated in the fine-grained texture of personal lives like yours and mine.

And as for ‘contemporary world’: well, I look back on these last 6 months of blogs and see how much I have been trying to engage with what goes on here and now, the litany of the daily news, and how to bring a ‘rabbinic’ and/or a psychological perspective (and can there really be a difference between these two?) on what we experience happening around us: politics, Israel, the environment, anti-semitism...

And this takes me back to Heaney and an earlier statement by him that poetry should be ‘strong enough to help’. Which doesn’t mean ‘the kind of strength that is supposed to come from reading books of an uplifting nature’; but rather the potential help from poetry’s ‘response to conditions in the world at a moment when the world was in crisis’.

Heaney calls this ‘redress’, a state when ‘the poetic imagination seems to redress whatever is wrong or exacerbating in the prevailing conditions’, offering ‘a response to reality which has a liberating and verifying effect upon the individual spirit...tilting the scales of reality towards some transcendent equilibrium...This redressing effect of poetry comes from its being a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances.’

I’m not sure about transcendent ‘equilibrium’- maybe too static an image? - but that statement about the poetic imagination is as near as dammit to how I think about the rabbinic imagination; and I know how far and how often I fail to get anywhere near that perspective of ‘redress’, the ‘glimpsed alternative’, the ‘revelation of potential’. But that’s what this struggle for ‘voice’ involves, for me.

Which is all a long way from JFS, and the travails that attend this recent ruling. But this blog today has attempted to articulate the background as to why I can’t respond to this case with the same fluency or intelligence as others. My affinities lie elsewhere, and while I admire and support those who are taking up the cudgels, I find myself letting those who have the interest, the ability, and the knowledge get on with it. They will articulate the issues far more cogently than I ever could.

Besides, I’ve never felt comfortable with the way Jews pressed to be included in the 1976 Race Relations Act. We aren’t a race. Nor are we an ethnic group. We are a people. A civilisation. A culture. Or rather: we are the product of many cultures, and have taken from, and outlived, many civilisations. We are hybrid and heterogeneous. In the Bible we are called Ivrim, Hebrews – literally, ‘those who cross over’: ie. ‘boundary-crossers’. Jews are a form of ‘faith community’, but it is a multi-faceted faith: of believers and non-believers, talkers and doers, machers and crooks (and of course,occasionally, machers who are crooks), held together by an indefinable inner sense of shared history, if not shared vision.

But we wanted the protection of the law in the UK, so we agreed to dim our stellar identity, truncate our complex mosaic of uniqueness, our essential boundary-crossing nature – and become an ethnic group. And no doubt we have benefitted from this over the years. But now the dormant, repressed truth is pushing its way back into consciousness. We never really belonged within the ambit of that Race Relations Act. And now we are having to deal with the consequences.

I'm expecting this to be my last blog for the moment – summer (so-called) approaches, normal service will be resumed in September, inshallah. Thank you for bothering to read thus far.

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