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Friday, 20 November 2009

The White Ribbon

This week I saw a masterpiece. And I’m writing to urge you to see it. The German director Michael Haneke’s latest film, The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band), is a cinematic midrash rooted in the problematic Biblical verse about God ‘visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generations’ (Exodus 34:7).

I won’t describe the plot of the film. Just to say the following. It is a mystery story. It is shot in stark black-and-white. It is set in 1913, in Germany. And it is an extraordinary exploration, through visual and verbal storytelling, of the history of Germany in the 20th century – a history that is both specific, and yet has moral and spiritual resonances for every society and every age. Including our own.

I have not seen a film like this since I first saw Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’ (1957). (1957 is not, I hasten to add, when I saw it). Haneke’s film bears comparison with his Swedish predecessor’s masterly oeuvre of psychological, historical and family dramas. And fifty years from now, this film will bear witness – if films are still being seen – to the mental world that led to the Shoah.

This is not a film about the Holocaust – but it is like a hologram where you see through the narrative into the future. I thought I saw Auschwitz in one scene – but maybe this was my imagination. This is a drama where – as in life – indeterminacy reigns. The narrator’s voice-over at the beginning talks of the way in which he “could perhaps clarify some things that happened in this country”. The “perhaps” - Samuel Beckett’s favourite word - is telling. Hearsay and conjecture, the fallibility of memory, the self-serving nature of memory – all are at stake, and in play, as the film progresses.

Like a Kafka parable, like a Biblical narrator, Haneke reveals and withholds. Meaning evolves, is disguised, and finally (if at all) is created by us the viewers. This is storytelling unlike anything you will see from Hollywood. It’s soul - filled with love and brutality and the way they become confused - is European. The film may have won this year’s Palme D’Or at Cannes – but that isn’t why you should try to find time to see it. You should see it because you will be stimulated, provoked, enlivened – great art does that to us.

I don’t want to say much more about it – I know that my own experience when someone raves about something I ‘must’ see is that I’m invariably a bit disappointed. It never lives up the fantasy created by someone else’s excitement.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Thoughts on Lying and Laughter

In a week when our thoughts have been returning to those wondrous days of November 1989, when something that had not been foreseen suddenly came to pass – 'appeared' almost like a modern miracle, with the human spirit triumphing over the forces of oppression – it may seem strange to dwell not on our recent shared history but on an ancient tale.

I would like to share with you a sermon I gave last week at Finchley Reform Synagogue.

The congregation was quite small but I wanted to speak about the sedrah of the week, Va’yera (Genesis 18-22) - the word means 'and there appeared...'.

Traditionally one reads several chapters each week, working our way through the Torah on our annual journey through this most extraordinary text we call the Torah. As we read, we know that congregations around the world are all reading these same chapters. And that these narratives have been studied and chanted, read and remembered , for millennia. We are one small link in the chain. And what can we add to this awesome heritage? What can we learn today from these timeless texts?

I can never manage more than to think about a small section, a few verses, of the appointed chapters. I like to read slowly, carefully, and see what is there – on the surface and beneath the surface – and what these words of old have to say (if anything) today. They may not have the drama, the immediacy, of contemporary events. But sometimes they have their own drama, their own immediacy, their own capacity to open us up to the mystery and unpredictability of life.


Recently, the papers have been full of it. Would you lie to get your child into a better school? Of course you may not think of it as lying – just stretching the truth, or finding a loophole in the system. Or consider an accountant who offers you advice on creative ways of saving money, avoiding tax: it would not be suggested that you actively lie, just act in ways that gave you an advantage.

We teach (or taught) our children not to lie – that ‘honesty is the best policy’. (How often we reach for a handy, ready-made, off the peg, phrase like that when an issue is actually quite complex and our own thoughts are maybe a bit confused). But at the very moment that we become so insistent that our children must tell the truth, the very forcefulness of our insistence should give us a clue that something else is up, something else is at stake. When we insist that honesty is best and that lying is bad and always wrong, are we not perhaps lying to ourselves?

Because who can say, hand on heart, that they have never gained an advantage in a situation through dissembling the truth? That’s why we talk about ‘white lies’ – it lets us say that we have lied, but we make it excusable, we let ourselves off the hook. Whitewashing our lie allows us to feel a bit better about ourselves. We can admit to a white lie, because it is as if in our mind the word ‘white’ cancels out the word ‘lie’.

One of the things I love about my Jewish tradition – and particularly the texts of the Bible – is how the stories we read illustrate and illuminate themes like these, ordinary human situations, in interesting and subtle ways. We can see ourselves in the narratives. Our sedrah is called Va’yera – ‘and there appeared’: it is about what appears, what is seen, it is about sight, and insight. (The Hebrew does not distinguish between the two).

And one of the things we see in our text is that even God lies, sometimes. This is God whose name is synonymous with truth. Indeed one of God’s names is ‘Truth’ – Emet. So if ‘truth’ is one of God’s 13 attributes for the rabbis of the Talmud (Ex 34:3) and ‘The Seal of God is Truth’ (Shabbat 55), how come in our text God lies?

Let’s look at the story a bit closer. And let’s read it carefully. We are going to approach this divine lie in a circuitous way, as does the text. We read how these strangers arrive and Abraham greets them and feeds them and during the meal one of them says to their host: ‘When I come back next year, your wife Sara will have had a son’ (18:10). And Sara overhears this and the storyteller then reminds us that both Abraham and Sara were old and that Sara no longer was menstruating. And then the text says:

Va’tizchak Sara b’kirba – ‘and Sara laughed inside herself’

And then, parallel to her listening in to the conversation of the men, the storyteller lets us overhear the voice inside of her: ‘and she said to herself: ‘Now that I am so old and worn out (v’loti), am I to have such delight/pleasure (edna) ? – va’adoni zakayn, with my master, my husband, being so old, past it?’ (18:12). This is a very daring sentence from our narrator, first in showing us Sara eavesdropping on the conversation; then revealing this intimate detail from Abraham and Sara’s sex life. The more you think about it, the more remarkable it is, for the storyteller gets us the readers, the listeners, inside of Sara: the verse penetrates her , symbolically, and we find out what this news does to her inside of herself.

It’s the first time in the Torah that we find this key word, tzachak, a word which is to echo and re-echo through the texts and the generations – tzachak, to laugh. It will of course become the name of the son, Yitzchak, Isaac – ‘the one who laughs’.

Except that, as usual with Hebrew, words are never simple, they are layered, they can have more than one meaning. They can even (and this is one example) have meanings which point in different directions, perhaps in opposite directions. Because tzachak does mean ‘laughter’, but it also means ‘mockery’ – and how we think about the word and translate it will depend on the context in which it comes and the assumptions we bring to our reading.

Of course ‘laughter’ and ‘mockery’ are related. We’d make a distinction these days between ‘laughing with’ someone and ‘laughing at’ them. And we know there is a big difference between them - when we do it, and when we are on the receiving end of it. And we also know that laughter is a very complex emotion: sometimes it can be genuine pleasure, but it can also be defensive, a way of expressing embarrassment, or fear, or anxiety. It can be spontaneous or contrived, it can make us vulnerable (helpless with laughter), or it can be a way of expressing aggression. And, to make it even more complicated: we may consciously imagine it is one thing (a bit of fun) - but actually unconsciously it can be something else, its opposite. How many times have we heard someone say ‘Oh I was only joking’, and they want to dismiss something said as humorous, only for us to feel upset or wounded by it, not because we are too thin-skinned but because we have picked up the hostility hidden in the laughter, or the joke.

So when we read our text, our supposedly simple Torah story, we realise that there may be more going on here than meets the eye. Va’tizchak Sara b’kirba – ‘and Sara laughed inside herself, and she said: When I’m so old, so worn out, am I to have such enjoyment - when my husbands as old as that?’ Is this laughter with pleasure in the anticipation – or is this ironic laughter, scepticism, cynicism even? ‘Chance would be a fine thing!’

How do we read it? How are we meant to read it? Are we meant to read it just one way? Or are we meant to keep these different possibilities in mind as we read on? As if the storyteller’s art is to create in us a frisson of uncertainty. As if, at this moment of penetration into the character, this letting us overhear her thoughts, we the audience are being played with (tzachak also means ‘to play’ of course) – as if the narrator is saying, ‘I’m going to take you right inside my character and tell you, let you hear, what is going on – and you still won’t know for sure!’ And maybe this game the narrator is playing with us teaches us something profound: that we can never really know what goes on inside another human being. And even if we ask them, they might not know either, not really.

Indeed the story goes on to dramatise that maybe Sara does not know what she really feels and thinks. It goes on, in the next verse – and here we come back to the lie, in case you were wondering where that theme had gone – ‘And Adonai said to Abraham, lama ze tzachaka Sara, why did Sara laugh/mock, saying, “Shall I really bear a child, being as old as I am?”’ (18:13). See how our text makes God into a liar. She says ‘he is too old’. But our narrator has God changing this, when he speaks to Abraham, into Sara saying ‘I am too old’.

And why does God tell this lie to Abraham? Well, why would you do it? To protect Abraham’s feelings – this is what the midrashic commentators in the Talmud say (Baba Metzia 87a). God did it so that Abraham wouldn’t feel offended or hurt. And from this verse the Rabbis derived a maxim, a rule of thumb, that one is allowed to dissemble, to tell the white lie, to avoid the full truth (however you want to put it) if it will hurt someone’s feelings to tell the truth straightforwardly and honestly (Ketubot 16b-17a). Because to hurt someone’s feelings was equated by the Rabbis with the shedding of blood - an extraordinary Judaic sensitivity to the individual, to the other flesh-and-blood human being with feelings just as real and sensitive as your own.

And if that attitude isn’t bold enough, truly attentive to the importance of inter-personal relationships and feelings, the Talmudic rabbis went even further than that. ‘When is lying acceptable?’ they asked. ‘Lying is also permissible’, they said, ‘if it is for the sake of peace’ (Yevamot 65a).

So if your partner says ‘Do I look good in this?’ – the answer is ‘Yes’

But that just illustrates what a can of worms the Rabbis open up through this permissive attitude towards truth-telling. Because ‘for the sake of peace’ can cover a broad spectrum: from international politics to personal convenience: ‘anything for a peaceful life’. Jewish teaching does offer insight and guidance, and ways of thinking about all sorts of everyday situations - but it can’t give us an answer for a specific situation we find ourselves in. Only we are responsible for that. We have to judge and decide how to act, how to be, what to say, each time, every day, and the decision of today may not be relevant tomorrow. That’s part of the God-given burden of being human.

But God’s lie in the text is not the end of the story. We have one more verse. For our heroine Sara has somehow been listening in again - and this time, remarkably, she seems to have overheard another conversation, she’s eavesdropped on God’s conversation with Abraham, because the next thing we read it’s as if she’s heard God asking Abraham ‘Why did Sara laugh?’. Because we read :

Va’t’hachaysh Sara laymor, lo tzachaki – ‘And Sara lied, saying “I did not laugh/mock”...’ (18:15).

That’s how it is often translated. But actually the text uses a word that means ‘deceived’ or even ‘cringed’. And the storyteller withholds from us who was deceived or what she was cringing from. There is no object for the verb. So we can read this in all sorts of ways.

Is the text saying ‘And Sara deceived herself...’ She thought she was laughing – but actually it was mockery? Or the opposite – that she thought she was mocking, being sarcastic – but deeper down she had felt real pleasure at what she had heard?

Or does it suggest that she cringed when she realised that God was being so protective towards her husband, more protective than she’d been in her own thoughts. We don’t know. We don’t know what is inside that lo tzachaki, ‘I didn’t do that, I didn’t tzachak’.

But we do know one thing: that she was frightened: ki ya’raya. She was frightened of all this talk about another child, at her age, at her impossible age. And none of it made sense, not the arrival of these strangers, nor the conversations she’d heard, nor the complicated feelings inside her, nothing made sense anymore. And at the moment of maximum confusion, where nothing made sense and fear fills her soul, she hears for herself, for the first time in her life, the divine voice addressing her directly. The end of the verse says ‘And He said: lo - No, no, no – ki tzachaka - it is all right, because you did have that experience - laughter, mockery, whatever it was - it is all right to have your feelings, inside you. There is no need to lie to yourself. There is no need to deny your inner experience.‘

What a gift this. The divine voice reassuring Sara about the acceptability of her experience. What a gift from our storyteller – to give us a text, so simple and yet so layered, so compact and yet so open, so clear and yet so undecidable. And to give us a God who cares about an old man’s feelings and the confusion in a woman’s heart. To give us a text and a God for whom lies and deception are acknowledged as part of the very fabric of life, and yet which leaves us to work out in our own lives where truth matters and where it matters less, where deception makes sense and where self-deception does not. A story of the generation of meaning within each generation.