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Monday, 28 December 2009

Jews and Christmas

I find this is a strange time of the year if you are Jewish. What are we Jews to do on Christmas Day and Boxing Day? As Diaspora Jews we are obviously a minority within a larger culture: a culture which is nominally Christian but is also devoutly secular and devoted (with a fundamentalist’s fervour) to our dominating belief-system, the cult of consumerism.

So what stance do we take up to what is going on around us? Is it Christmas lunch with kosher turkey? Is it a day to be with family, like any other yomtov of our own? Is it a day to be one of the millions going on-line to buy a little happiness in the sales? Do we have a tree, for decorative purposes, and tell ourselves that it is after all just a Victorian invention? Is it a day to volunteer to help others, eg ‘Crisis at Christmas’, helping out so that others can have a break? Perhaps we flee the country, to get away from it all? Or do we just ignore it? How do we locate ourselves on these days?

Inevitably our response to this is personal, and it may change from year to year. We discussed this on Shabbat morning during the service at Finchley Reform Synagogue, and it was interesting to hear that , with a couple of exceptions, there was a general feeling of rather laid-back good cheer about these north London Jews’ response to Christmas. Almost as if it was the most natural thing in the world that Jews should feel at home in this celebratory holiday period.

It may be that Christmas time for Jews illustrates just how much we are fused into the larger culture of our native land: Christmas lunch has become as little to do with Christianity as Santa Claus - so if we do have some kind of gathering we are illustrating that our identity is mixed, complex, mongrel. This now is who we are: Jews who are far removed from the intolerance of those in the yeshivah world of Jerusalem whom I studied with many years ago who were very denigratory of Christmas day – they had a contemptuous and derogatory phrase for it (yoshkie’s birthday), and they wouldn’t even say the word ‘Christmas’; in that world it’s the custom to study specific extra texts on December 25th as a kind of psychic counterweight to the alien religious forces at work. So it was clear from our discussion on Shabbat morning that we aren’t like that.

But nor are we so secularised that we partake of all the jollity and celebrations without a second thought: we probably don’t see ourselves, in Jonathan Miller’s celebrated phrase, just as ‘Jew-ish’ and able to join in with it all like the millions of non-Christian secularists.

It is a curious vocation being Jewish. It is made up of so many strands of feeling and memory, of choices made and choices rejected, and whether it is something we were born into or have freely adopted, our sense of Jewishness in each of us is, I’m sure, large and capacious, filled with conscious and unconscious material, some of it rich and nurturing, some of it probably shabby and worn-out. We are, in Walt Whitman’s wonderful phrase, ‘stuffed with the stuff that is coarse and stuff with the stuff that is fine’ (from Song of Myself). And we can enjoy that, our multifaceted, hybrid Jewish identity.

This multi-layeredness is, after all, rooted in our history. Just think of our many names. Our Biblical texts illustrate how we started off as ‘Ivri/m – Hebrew/s – a word meaning ‘outsiders, nomads, strangers, wanderers’. The root is the word avar, meaning ‘to cross over’ – Abraham the first Hebrew in our mythic tales (Gen 14:13) crossed over the Jordan (and the Euphrates) on his way from Nahor to Canaan, impelled by his divine mission. And this is who we became: wanderers though history, through countries; and crossers of boundaries, not just geographical, but also cultural and intellectual. Jewish creativity and innovation, in the sciences and social sciences, in economics and psychology, in art and music and literature, is a testimony to some almost innate psychological capacity for thinking ‘outside the box’, as we say it now - crossing over and beyond the established thinking into new areas of thought and discovery. This is Jews as ‘Ivrim’- boundary-crossers.

But we are also bnei Yisrael – the children of Israel – and we know the folk etymology of that word Yisrael: the patriarch Jacob renamed as a ‘wrestler with God’, a ‘struggler with the divine and for the divine’. And we carry this name in our soul as well. The spiritual struggle to enact the values of our tradition and faith – this is also who and what we are.

And then we are Yehudim, Jews, named after the character we focused on in this week’s Torah sedrah, Judah (Yehudah). (Genesis 44:18 – 45:14, from sedrah Va’yigash). We aren’t called ‘Josephites’ – in spite of Joseph being the key character who carries the story of the people from Canaan into Egypt, linking the patriarchs with the Exodus narratives where the group of families become a real people. Without Joseph the divine mission would have reached a dead-end. And Joseph would have been the perfect character to give us a collective name because it is Joseph who is the first real Diaspora Jew, living as a stranger in a strange land yet achieving great prominence in the secular world – second only to Pharaoh in power and influence, he was chancellor of the exchequer, prime minister and minister for agriculture all rolled into one. He could have taught how to remain true to one’s religious roots yet integrated into one’s adopted culture. I’d have been happy to be called a ‘Josephite’.

But it’s Judah, the fourth oldest of the brothers, who becomes the one to give his name to our people. His older brothers are written out of the picture, de-legitimizing themselves from taking on the mantle of peoplehood. Reuben sleeps with his father’s concubine; Simeon and Levi commit a massacre at Shechem – the text is unsparing in showing how incestuous desire and murderous revenge are endemic human qualities. Jacob’s offspring are an unruly and unbecoming bunch.

And it is left to Judah, the one who was originally averse to killing Joseph and suggested he was sold into slavery instead, to redeem the situation. He becomes the brother who is prepared to sacrifice himself for Benjamin – in order to protect his aging father from the devastation of losing Benjamin as well as Joseph. ‘It’ll kill him’ says Judah, several times over – a statement of real imagination and empathy. This transformation in the character of Judah is an extraordinary piece of storytelling. "Callousness is replaced with concern. Indifference is replaced with courage and self-sacrifice." (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)

And so he takes his place in the psychic structure of our people when we are later named Yehudim – ‘Judahites’, as it were. Historically, it was the tribe of Judah that dominated the southern Kingdom after the Assyrians conquered the north of Israel, and they who survived the Babylonian exile. We get our other name, after Ivrim and Yisrael from him: Yehudim, Jews.

So we are multiple in our Jewishness, even in our names. And it is this multiplicity that we bring to these strange days in our calendar, our calendar which is not our calendar. During these days it is as if we are suspended between two worlds, or rather have a foot in two worlds. Maybe that is true the rest of the year as well, but at Christmas time it can really come home to us as we negotiate a pathway through the sentimentality and inanity of the festivities and all that bullying bonhomie that is forced upon us through the airwaves and the newspapers and the shops.

I feel sorry for real Christians in a way – they have their noble and rather wondrous story colonised by all the kitsch and the consumerism. But that assault on the real spiritual core of a religious festival is something I recognise too at Jewish festivals: do multiple presents for the children and scoffing doughnuts really sum up the essence of Hanukkah? Are the new hats and outfits really the spiritual meaning of Rosh Hashanah? Are the debates on the correct consistency of the matza balls what Pesach now symbolises? Silly examples, I know, but they point towards a more serious issue: how to find a language with which we can now talk about the things that matter in our own religious tradition.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

'Whose Oil Is It Anyway?'

It started as an old soldiers’ holiday. They’d gather year after year, at the darkest time of the year, winter solstice time, and tell their stories, speak of their heroism. They were a group of religious zealots, fiercely nationalistic – and they had waged a guerrilla campaign against their enemies, the Graeco-Syrians, who were occupying their land. Much blood was spilt, on both sides, but they were tough, ruthless – they’d had a cause, a cause they were prepared to kill and die for. Eventually they took the Temple in Jerusalem back into their own hands and re-dedicated it to their God, the God of Israel.

And even though their victory was short-lived and the land was eventually re-occupied - this time by the Romans - the memory of that famous victory against the odds lived on. The stories were told and re-told, passed on, elaborated and embellished along the way. And the message was clear, passed on from generation to generation in those early years, 22 centuries ago: with enough faith and guile and bloody-mindedness – anything is possible.

And this is Hanukah, which of course we celebrate now in a way that goes to some lengths to suppress its original message. Because we aren’t going to be very comfortable with a holiday that commemorates an uprising by a bunch of religious terrorists who refused to accept the dominant assimilated culture of the day, with all its decadent values, its worship of the body and the material world, all those naked statues and philosophic discourses about how to build democracy. We aren’t keen to glorify religious fanatics who are prepared to kill in the name of their faith.

We’d rather think of Hanukah as basically a children’s festival, a time for jollity and presents and greasy foods, a rather sentimental festival of candle-lighting and dreidels and doughnuts. A bit like Christmas but spread out over 8 days and with baby latkes rather than baby Jesus.

But it isn’t only us who might want to downplay the origins of the festival. The rabbis in the Talmud were exactly the same. We are in an honourable tradition of repressing the truth. They too were deeply uncomfortable with celebrating a short-lived military victory – even if it was done in the name of God. They were so uncomfortable with it that they showed their own ruthlessness by suppressing in their writings any mention of the fighting and the force of arms. We reconstruct the history from external sources and the historian Josephus not from mainstream Jewish religious texts.

The Talmud has almost nothing to say about the festival. It just asks – in a tractate about Shabbat observance - the slightly anxious question: ‘Mai Hanukah? What is Hanukah?’ – as if there is some doubt or confusion about it: which indeed there was, if only in their own minds about how to talk about it. And they answer the question by recounting the story which we are familiar with – about the re-dedication of the Temple after it had been defiled by the Greeks, with the single cruise of oil lasting miraculously for 8 days.

This was ‘creative’ of them. It takes a kind of brilliant imaginative chutzpah to turn a military victory into a Festival of Lights based on a fable; and then link the celebration to the prophetic text from Zechariah that we still read, with its key refrain, the declaration in the name of God that the Jewish nation, the Jewish people, will succeed ‘Not by might, nor by power – but by My spirit..’ (Zech 4:7).

And in a parallel kind of sleight-of-hand the rabbis of old eventually instituted the prayer that we read after the candle-lighting: ‘Hanerot hallallu...’ . See if you can spot the subtle revisionist spin: ‘We kindle these lights to commemorate the wonders, the heroic acts, the victories, and the marvellous and consoling deeds which You performed for our ancestors through Your holy priests in those days at this season...’ (Soferim 20:6, mid-8th century). Do you hear the manipulation of history here? It is classic PR spin. (Alistair Campbell, eat your heart out).

The rabbis here are doing two interlinked things: the first is familiar from Seder night, where Moses is never mentioned throughout the whole story of the exodus from Egypt. It is all done by God. So here too it says that these were marvellous deeds ‘which You performed for our ancestors...’ – how? – ‘through Your holy priests’. And this is the other aspect of their creativity. The phrase ‘Your holy priests’ might be correct in a narrow sense – Matthathias was a priest, which means that his sons were also priests, so Judah the Maccabee (who led the guerrilla forces with his brothers and is the main Hanukah hero) was also technically a priest too, all of them were - even though they couldn’t act as priests because the Temple wasn’t in Jewish hands. They were a priestly family – but without a Temple to practice in. Like the titled English landed gentry who lost their country estates and ended up living on relatives' handouts.

So when our liturgy praises this victory in high-flown language as one that was achieved by God through his ‘holy priests’, it’s a bit like saying that peace came to Northern Ireland through the democratic endeavours of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. (It puts me in mind of the American satirist and songwriter Tom Lehrer’s comment that political satire was made obsolete the day they gave the Nobel Peace prize to Henry Kissinger).

But still, this is a kind of inspired genius, this eternal Jewish creativity to reformulate the past in the light of current needs and preoccupations. And Hanukah has become a festival where the symbolic and metaphorical resonances now dominate the imagination. It has become a time to focus on the faith needed, individually and collectively, to persevere against the odds; a time to reflect on the motif of light in our lives (an archetypal theme) as we hope for the victory of ‘light’ over the forces of ‘darkness’.

The problem of course is that we always think our cause represents the ‘light’ – and those opposed to us are the forces of ‘darkness’.

As the world leaders gather during these fateful days in Copenhagen we can see this being played out powerfully in front of our eyes. The facts of climate-change as a human-made catastrophe in the making – like watching a deadly car-crash in slow motion – these facts have achieved an overwhelming scientific consensus. But the forces ranged against this ‘inconvenient truth’ are very powerful: the climate denial industry, which has no interest in establishing the truth about global warming, comes in many guises. PR companies and hired experts, representing the business interests of oil and coal, can and do co-opt scientists and politicians – mainly in the States but also here – to systematically cast doubt on the scientific consensus (see, for example,

This consensus – and I hear people every day hedging their bets about it under pressure from the media onslaught of the deniers - this consensus is as clear in its evidence-based view that global warming is man-made as is the scientific consensus on the link between smoking and lung cancer. Or HIV and Aids. Yet each side see themselves as representing the light – and the others as dwelling in darkness.

In Copenhagen they aren’t arguing the facts – they are arguing like Joseph and his brothers in this week's sedrah (Genesis 37): arguing over who will rule over whom, ‘we’re not going to bow down to you’, arguing over how much they have to gain and how much they have to lose. Copenhagen reveals the global sibling rivalry, all the envy and jealousy writ large, these never-changing human attributes. Will effective action be agreed? We don’t know. We can hope so – even if our hopes are shadowed by the knowledge that it all might be too little, too late.

But I think we can understand psychologically the arguments we hear in our newspapers and TV and radio, casting doubt on the evidence. Although behind the scenes these doubts are promoted for sound business reasons ('sound' in their own terms), they can touch a chord in us because - well, because the facts are all too painful to contemplate, too frightening to think about, too potentially disturbing of our settled and relatively comfortable lifestyles to come to terms with. Things will have to change. We will have to change. And we will need a kind of miracle to see us through. A miracle that this time round we hold in our own hands, a miracle we will have to nurture in our own hearts.

‘[we]spoke softly about disasters,
about what lay ahead, the coming fear,
and someone said this was the best
we could do now –
to talk of darkness in that bright shadow

(from Adam Zagajewski’s ‘At the Cathedral’s Foot’)

It is perhaps ironical that our festival of Hanukah is about oil. And how long it lasts. As if in a completely unconscious way, in an almost uncanny way, the rabbis of old had a revelation that even they did not understand the significance of. We have to learn to make do with less, they intuited. And they found a symbolic way to express this. We think we need a lot to survive - but we can manage with an eighth of what we imagine we need. That does require faith, and trust: what we truly need is with us already. It’s in us, this precious gift, ‘the light of God’ our tradition calls it, in the human soul, the spark of the divine in us, and generated between us in community.

It gives us the courage to face the darkness, to face the truth about our world, to see its fragility – our planet is like a flickering candle in the slipstream of time. Less is going to have to mean more. Less comfort, less security, less recklessness, less denial, less waste, less holding on to what we have, less accumulating what we don’t need. Hanukah teaches the lesson of less – one day’s worth of oil is enough to last. The miracle is not that it lasts. The miracle is when we believe that it can last, what we have. The miracle is that we can depend not on might or power but on the Spirit - and that we are given what we need day by day.

(Sermon FRS , Hanukah, 11 December 2009)

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Bearing the unbearable beyond Copenhagen

The topic is well nigh unbearable. It is omnipresent, unavoidable, inescapable. Except I suspect we do everything we can to avoid it. Even to write these words – or read them? – grips one with dread. Or boredom – the defence against the dread. A curious dread that slides away. I want to distract myself, with anything. With anything that will take me away from the headlines, nestling next to each other on the inside page of the Sunday paper like spiteful twin embryos wrestling in the womb of our future: ‘Western lifestyle unsustainable, says world’s top climate expert’ and ‘Warning over faster fall into new Ice Age’.

The chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that we need a radical change in values if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change. ‘Yes, yes', we think, ‘so tell us something new’. Well how about this? My eyes scan left on the page. The latest discovery by a team from Saskatchewan University that the last great disruption to the Gulf Stream - 12,800 years ago – took less than three months to trigger a massive plunge in temperatures across Europe. Melted Arctic glaciers from the end of the last Ice Age overflowed into the north Atlantic, blocking the Gulf Stream which regulates our temperatures - and Europe froze, suddenly.

Well it may be new but it’s probably not enough to convince climate change sceptics; or wipe the smirk off the face of Melanie Phillips on a recent BBC Question Time as she showed her contempt for the audience and their sheepish acceptance of the scientific consensus, which for her is just a huge scam, a secret conspiracy against us perpetrated by thousands of scientists around the world all falsely analysing their miniscule packages of data, all bound up in some fantasy world they have constructed, a science fiction world in which they are networking together to peddle us a story that has no basis in the evidence. So there we have it: it’s a mirror image of the Jewish World Conspiracy – this one is the Scientists’ World Conspiracy.

But this latest reported work from Canada reminds me of something I discussed as the financial meltdown was taking place last year: that maybe we were seeing - in the rapidity of the unravelling of the economic consensus, the speed with which banks went from secure institutions to toxic repositories of unregulated loans – maybe we were experiencing a foretaste, in this sudden global economic collapse, of what is to come in relation to climate change. That the foundations on which we build our daily lives and that seem so secure can be swept away in the twinkling of an eye. That transformations that shatter our accepted ‘reality’ can take place in weeks and days – not just in decades. And who can bear to live with that thought?

And we know that with climate change there is nobody inside or outside the system who can bail us out if that were to happen. Money can be printed and loaned. Temperature can’t.

But if you have read this far you will also know that there is nothing revelatory here. And nothing much new to say. We’ll all muddle along as best we can.
Meanwhile I want to share with you – hesitantly – something I wrote in 1988. I recently retrieved it from an old floppy disc (remember them?) and was shocked (and, perversely, sadly amused) to re-read it now. It is a sermon I gave that year at Finchley Reform Synagogue for the New Year. (I feel sorry for the community sometimes, having to bear with this kind of thing – so much easier for all concerned to be bland, anaemic , unthreatening).

The title was borrowed from Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ which had come out earlier that year. And the idea for a ‘fictional’ mode of story-telling sermon had been growing in me for a while - I was beginning to realise then (and I still think it), that ‘fiction’ can tell us truths in revealing and challenging ways that are both enlivening and memorable. They can lodge in us in ways that even the best-crafted 'normal' sermon cannot.

I offer you the sermon unadulterated, copied off my disc, complete with the bits that I now find a bit gauche. It draws on various sources, biblical, rabbinic and literary – and it is my commentary, my midrash as it were, on the events around Copenhagen.

Sometimes a commentary can precede a text, awaiting its occasion.

The Last Temptation of Noah
(Second Day Rosh Hashanah sermon, Finchley Reform Synagogue, September 1988)

Even before the Disaster I felt misunderstood. I only wanted a quiet life: to come home after work and relax and rest. After all - and this used to be my private joke, though it feels pretty grim now - that's what my name Noah means: rest.

Apart from my work and my family I couldn't really be bothered with anything else. I didn't have many interests, not even much ambition. I used to sit in the office during the day and dream of the journey home, opening the door, playing with the kids (when they were smaller), later on helping them with their homework. In the evening I'd switch on the TV in order to switch off my thoughts, those terrible thoughts that kept coming, waves of them, more and more insistently over the years. All I ever really wanted was a rest - from the pressures that we all suffered. Just a rest from it all: the bills, the relatives, the dinner parties. Rest: it was all I wanted. Honestly.

Oh yes, I was known for my honesty. Even those who didn't like me said I had integrity. They used other words too, which sounded good, words like 'upright', 'blameless', even (God help me) 'righteous'. But I never trusted them - not the words, not the people. Words had lost their solidity, their truthfulness, long before. In those days words meant their opposite.

When that TV presenter interviewed me (near the end this was, after I'd made all the fuss), he was the one who called me 'righteous'. But I could hear in the tone of his voice how he really meant 'self-righteous', how the compliment disguised the attack. And who knows, maybe he was right, maybe I did begin to feel a bit self-righteous. Because I did know what was going to happen. I wasn't taken in by all those words: freedom of opportunity, economic growth, individual choice...I could see what was going on, all that heartbreak beneath the surface, and what was going to happen if we didn't change. I did know it would end in disaster; but I didn't know just how bad it would turn out. I didn't, honestly...I can tell you don't believe me. It's all right - I'm used to that. Nobody ever believed me then, either. Before.

You see, I worked in industry, middle-management. Yes, of course I was a professional - all our friends were. Agricultural and forestry equipment the firm made. When it expanded we went into animal feed, fertilisers, that sort of thing - quite a broad spread - even livestock eventually. We were successful too: public company, safe investment, high annual returns, particularly good Third World market, what with all the problems they kept having. I was responsible for overseas sales. Quite an irony really when you think about it, considering what happened.

I was able to laugh more in those days too. Earlier on that was. I used to enjoy having fun: a good party, that sort of thing. I don't think I ever entirely lost my sense of humour - but I kept noticing things I'd prefer not to have known about.

I'd read a report here, hear a programme there, bits and pieces of knowledge on the periphery of my consciousness. I tried to keep the knowledge at a distance, but it became harder. Things kept happening, kept forcing themselves on my attention.

First we had that string of warm years: '80, '81, '83, '87, '88 - the hottest since records began they said. It didn't bother me really: I was only worried about getting a bit of sun on our holidays. And where I went it rained anyway. But the statistics were global ones: it was beginning to warm up rather dramatically. Only a few degrees over a century didn't sound so much, but researchers in one country began to see the changes in plants and trees, and then another group at the other side of the world discovered that the world's beaches were eroding. These were just a couple of the warnings of the impending crisis.

I did mention it to a few people at work - after all it could have had implications for our sales - but they just shrugged and said that these kinds of reports are not reliable, they come and go, you know how it is...

And although I didn't really know how it was, it was easier at the beginning to change the subject and ask what home computer they thought I should buy. It felt safer ground.

But then the dreams started. All that water imagery, all that flooding, swimming, drowning, seas and swimming pools, struggling to keep afloat - every night a new variation on the theme. My analyst told me that this was archetypal symbolism: the struggle of the Self to emerge from the Sea of Consciousness. I changed my analyst. The next one told me it was about separation from mother.

And all the time I knew that something else was going on. It's not that they were wrong - but something else was going on, much bigger than me. Everyone had heard about the 'greenhouse effect', how carbon dioxide in the atmosphere acts like glass in a greenhouse, letting the sun's rays through to the earth but also trapping some of the heat that would otherwise be radiated back into space. We were burning all that coal and oil and gas, more and more of it, year after year - and the planet was heating up. Then there were those other gases: like the ones in those take-away cartons. Some firms changed them, others said the evidence was inconclusive (though of course ‘it merited further study’). But that still left aerosol sprays and even fridges - and I liked ice in my gin and tonic.

I really didn't know what to do. I soon knew though all the responses I'd get. The Chairman of the Board put it to me with his usual delicacy: what do you want us to do - grow our own vegetables? bicycle to work? light the office with candles?

The problem was that I didn't have any answers. I only had fears and questions and intuitions - and they wouldn't go away. But it was that presentation I did at the shareholders meeting that finally wrecked me. I spoke about the rainforests we were destroying (indirectly of course: our firm only sold the equipment); I gave them all the facts and figures, how the earth was such a fragile interconnected ecosystem (oh yes, by then I'd learnt the jargon), that what the inhabitants of planet earth were doing was quietly conducting a giant environmental experiment. Were it to be brought before any responsible local council for approval it would be firmly rejected as having potentially disastrous consequences.

At the meeting all this earned a variety of responses: anger, boredom, though a few people seemed rather subdued afterwards. Perhaps it was naive to expect anything more - after all I'd just bought a new car as well. I didn't want to change my lifestyle either. I was comfortable, I admit it. But we all were then - at least in the circles I mixed in.

Getting the push after that speech was actually a blessing in disguise. I devoted myself more and more to trying to get people to see what was going on around them all the time. I got involved with political groups, environmental groups. I started writing letters to The Guardian. I even spoke to religious groups (strange: the Christians were always more interested than the Jews).

I gave the same speech wherever I went. 'The climate that has allowed the growth of civilisation and agriculture - and to which all our crops, customs and structures are adapted - is virtually certain to disappear. The world will become warmer than at any time since the emergence of humanity on earth. This threatens to take place over the next forty years. Humanity will find it hard to adapt, particularly in a world fragmented by national boundaries and competing interests. Harvests will fail more drastically. the cities we live in will go under water.'

People began to hate me for what I was saying. They used to avoid me, fear me: fear what I was saying, I suppose. A poet had written 'Human kind cannot bear very much reality' and it was true. I didn't blame people - I couldn't bear it either. My wife began to catch me talking to myself. I was trying to keep myself sane, keep myself from the madness of knowing that something was inevitable - that was the word the experts used - unless we worked together. Funnily enough, I did have faith in humanity then. I believed that people could change, with help and encouragement. And groups of people working together - communities - could do a lot. But first we had to realise we'd taken a wrong direction, we had to turn from what's best only for ourselves, our family, our community, our nation.

Near the end I realised that we needed to pray too - though at first I was more sceptical about that. Religion had always felt a bit too cosy and comfortable: too much security was on offer. And I certainly had no security to offer anyone. I used to take myself off for long walks and look at the mess around me - the squalor, the poverty, the drugged ones, the violence, the neglect, the corruption, the decay.

I saw the goodness too, in people I met, the beauty in small things. I could see infinity in a grain of sand and feel eternity in an hour. But over all, on these walks, I felt the inferno, the 'moronic inferno' one of those clever Jewish novelists called it: the levelling down of contemporary life where people found themselves in that chaotic state, overwhelmed by all kinds of outer forces - political, technological, military, economic - which carry everything before them with a kind of disorder in which we were supposed to survive with all our human qualities. Who really had sufficient internal organisation to resist, let alone to flourish?

It wasn't possible to go on that way. And in their hearts and souls, people knew it. It wasn't just me: I really was just an ordinary person. In my generation I was nothing special. I knew it. Later on, long after the Disaster, when they told those stories about me, things got changed somehow. It was true that I became wholeheartedly committed to speaking the truth I experienced, sharing my vision of what I knew was going to happen. But if I'd lived in a less corrupt time, nobody would ever have heard of me. Even the rabbis acknowledged that, later.

I could never explain properly those intuitions I'd have when I was off walking. I just knew in the end that I had changed and that others could change too. It was very simple. I had an inner voice I just had to trust. Everyone had that voice deep inside them. It was obvious. But in those days so many temptations drowned out that knowing voice, so many possibilities of seduction away from our still and silent truth.

I once made a list, half-jokingly, of what I thought we needed to remember to be fully human, to be what we ought to be in this world. I jotted down seven things - it surprised me there were so few. I sent them on a postcard to a friend and she wrote back saying I sounded like some kind of religious nut. It sounded, she said - she was very cynical though - as if I was walking with God when I went off on my expeditions round town. I wasn't hurt by this. Well, not really. It stayed in my mind though, that phrase, 'walking with God'.

Later on, when they told those stories about me, they seemed to think it was a compliment: that somehow this was an uplifting, desirable experience for a person to have. Actually it was hell.

I'll tell you the list, but before I do I want to say that I've gone against most of them in my time. There were so many temptations then, not even a saint could have resisted them. And I was no saint. But I do know there are some things that just have to be. If we're going to make it through this time. And call it walking with God if you like.

First, there has to be a system of justice. Real justice allows a society to function and the individual to retain dignity. And a system of political and legal justice means that the disadvantaged are protected from abuse - the abuse from power, money or class.

Secondly: murder - it's not on. We have to deal with our violent feelings in some other way. And leading on from there, thirdly: robbery, theft, is out too. We have to find an alternative way of channelling our greed, and our envy of what others have.

Nor can incest be allowed. That wise professor from Vienna eventually uncovered just how much we do secretly want to express our sexuality inside our family. But we just can't have our mummy or daddy or children or siblings in that way. We've got to find someone else to do it with. And that reminds me of what happened after the Disaster. We were in such chaos. There was just our family, and my middle boy Ham did something to me which I can never forgive him for, that bugger, God damn him! But that's another story.

Yes, the fifth on the list is blasphemy. It's no use my letting rip like that. I still have to find a way of getting rid of this anger.

The sixth thing I listed I called idolatry. It was a handy word, it covered a lot of things. Actually I was thinking of all those adverts on TV, and all those colour supplements offering me happiness on every page. We were drowning in luxury in those days: so many divinely decadent choices. We knew it couldn't go on for ever but we worshipped production and consumption. I loved buying things - it made me feel so secure, so good about myself. Crazy, really, looking back.

Last on my list, number seven, sounds strange now, though at the time it made sense. I called it 'not eating flesh cut from a living animal'. You see I wanted something on my list that captured the essence of evil: that degraded the one who performed it and caused pain and terror to the victim. I suppose I could have chosen another image, another way to express this. Towards the end people came up with worse things, believe me.

Anyway, I thought out these seven things during my walks. Afterwards - after 'it' happened I mean - people saw them as the natural religious basis vital to the existence of any human society. I suppose I'm rather proud of that. They even called them after me: 'the seven laws given to the descendants of Noah'.

Right. I'm nearly finished now. I just want to tell you what happened in the end, when the Disaster came.

I saw it all so clearly: we'd reached the point where the rate of environmental change in my lifetime was going to be many times the maximum that our planet's eco-system could endure. There was no escaping this fate unless a radical transformation took place. One day I saw it all so clearly that I grew really desperate. I felt more hopeless than I'd ever done before. I felt closed in, with this great weight around me. I'd built it myself, this mental structure I'd constructed from all the evidence I'd gathered. It was like a vessel of doom I lived in. I was going crazy inside it. I was in complete despair.

I just wanted to be left alone. The understanding I had was too much for me. I felt hundreds of years old. It felt completely hopeless. I felt overwhelmed by...helplessness, that's the word: I was completely helpless, like a baby. I couldn't do anything more. I had no strength left.

And I started to cry. It'd never happened before. After all I was a man. But I did, I broke down, in front of my family: all of them were there - my wife and my sons and their wives. And I wept and wept. Tears of bitterness. Tears of remorse. Tears of anger. Tears of grief. I cried and I cried and I just...floated away.

It's hard to describe now. The sadness just flooded out of me. It went on and on, all those years and years of frustration and pain trapped inside - it all welled up and spilled out. The tears just seemed to pour out of me - it felt like days - for the sadness of it all, and the pity.

The rest you know of course. It's history - of a sort. It's in the books, though I know people argue over the details. Nothing ever was the same again.

Though there was one helpful moment: when I saw that rainbow. Yes, I know it's only the reflection of the sun in moist atmosphere, but I'd never really looked at one before. Really looked, I mean. That one time though, soon after the Disaster, I saw those seven colours arched above me, translucent and glorious and shimmering. And I suddenly remembered the seven laws I'd jotted down on that card, and it was my conceit, I know, but I felt there was some connection between those seven basic norms for how we are to live together and those seven basic colours in which the world is enveloped.

There was a harmony at that moment: seeing how the natural world and our human world reflected each other's inner grace. And at that moment I knew, I knew as clearly as if I heard a voice speak it in my ear, I knew that this disaster could never be again. Not ever. It felt like a promise. If I were a religious man I'd call it a blessing. Never again - such relief, I can't tell you.

'While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest and cold and heat and summer and winter and day and night shall not cease'. The words just formed themselves in my head. It would never happen again. That's all there is to say.

Oh, I almost forgot. The last temptation of Noah. You want to know the very last temptation? It was after it was all over and we had to pull ourselves together and start again. That was hard. We didn't know where we were, where we were going, what we were doing. Everything had gone. We survivors felt so helpless so much of the time. And the hardest part was that we kept remembering how it'd been before: so comfortable, so secure - you'll never know. That was the worst part: I couldn't help but remember it.

I became very morose, self-pitying. I just wanted to forget, to forget how it'd been. And, I admit it, I started to drink. They never tell the story this way, but this is how it was. They always make me out as the father of vineyards and winemaking, but I'm telling you: soon I was drinking all the time - I just wanted to blot it all out.

And that was the last temptation: the temptation to blot it all out, to forget the knowledge I carried, the understanding I had, the lonely experiences I'd been through, the intuitions I'd borne all these years. I tried to drown myself in drink: another flood.

But it wasn't to be of course. It seems that my destiny is to remember, to remain aware. I never did get my rest. I learnt that death is the only release from the burden of consciousness. And that while I lived, my work was just given to me to do. It was wherever I happened to be.

I even wrote a poem about it towards the end. Someone else later took the credit for it of course - but then none of us is perfect. Are we?

To open eyes when others close them
to hear when others do not wish to listen
to look when others turn away
to seek to understand when others give up
to rouse oneself when others accept
to continue the struggle even when one is not the strongest
to cry out when others keep silent
to be a Jew
it is that
it is first of all that
and further
to live when others are dead
and to remember when others have forgotten.