Follow by Email

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.


  1. I was drawn to your blog, not just by the topic of truth telling, but also by the distinction between different forms of arguing. This discussion arose on the ocassion of our silver wedding anniversary with my brother in law. He asked me if, after 25 years of marriage, we argued less. I said that most of our arguments have been rehearsed so often that we no longer need to go through them and can just say the first words e. "you never" or "you always" and the other person knows what follows. We have realised, also, that it is not so important to prove that we are right.

    But there are areas of argument for which there is a question mark. Are there issues about which it is better to stay Shtum in order to keep the peace, or should one speak out because it is l'Shem Shamaying? Is there anything to be gained in putting over a point of view that you know that the other person will never agree with?

    PS After your comment on bad writing I am a bit scared about sending this blog!

  2. There is of course another rabbinic maxim about the importance of "shalom bayit", 'peace in the household'. Traditionally, the expectation was that each adult memeber of a family sacrificed their individual 'needs' for the sake of a greater good: he peacefulness of the larger unit, the family that lived under the same roof together. In our more individualistic, therapeutic-driven age, where personal feelings trump anything else, such ancient wisdom tends to be scorned. But sometimes I think there is value in such disciplining of the 'I feel, I want' voice. the trick though is how to do it - and how to measure the cost. (Howard Cooper)

  3. I heard Brian Klug speak at a Jewdas event and really enjoyed his talk. Thanks for adding to my bookcase with a topic I've really been in need of learning more about.

    Adam Driscoll

  4. This is a very interesting post. I am not a Jew nor am I a religious person. I consider myself more of an agnostic deist than anything. But although I have rejected the Old testament of the Christians as well as the Torah as holy books, I do find that they contain a history that is worth reading. Most important, the morals and mores of the western world based on teaching of Torah.

  5. Good article! We will be linking to this particularly great post on our site.
    Keep up the good writing.

    Also visit my blog: