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Sunday, 22 February 2009

On ‘The Rules’ and ‘Disasters’...

Sunday 22nd February


So Shimon Peres has asked Netanyahu to form a government in Israel. As I asked in my last blog, will this make any difference in regard to the great issues still facing the nation, the need for justice and peace?

This week’s sedrah was Mishpatim - ’The Rules’ - when the Exodus text records the responsibilities of the Israelite people (individually and collectively) to adhere to certain standards of conduct as part of their covenant with the divine. The purpose of their being an Israelite community in the land of Israel was in order to build a just society. That was the point of the nation. That was the justification for their being in the world: to see if they could model a just society. Against the odds, against the grain of crooked human nature, against the tendency of societies to be dog eat dog, for human competitiveness to overshadow human compassion, the Jewish people were to justify their existence - and specifically their existence in their own land - by attempting the extraordinary project of trying to create a just society.

And justice wasn’t an abstract idea. It meant specifics, it meant the nitty-gritty of everyday life had to be penetrated by a value, an attitude, a stance – justice. For example, as our sedrah says (Exodus 22:20): ‘You shall not wrong a stranger, or oppress them, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt...’ – our morality is always rooted by the Bible in our history, and our long memories of the pain of oppression – and then in the next verse it immediately goes on: ‘You shall not ill-treat a widow or orphan...’ (22: 21).

There is a recognition here that every society has its haves and have-nots: some people manage, and others need help. It’s what happens. Life unfolds, stuff happens. Your spouse dies, your parents are no longer around, you move country and become a ‘stranger’. It could happen to any of us. It has happened to many of us. It will happen to most of us. Help is always needed – and the Jewish task (individually and collectively) is to provide it. It is ‘The Rules’. It’s what justifies your existence as a Jew. And within the Bible’s frame of reference, it is what justifies the presence of the Israelite people – now the Jewish people – in the land of Israel.

And if they don’t? If they break ‘The Rules’? Our text goes on, and it makes uncomfortable reading, it goes on in the next verses: ‘If you do mistreat them, I will heed their cries...and My anger will blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives will become widows and your children orphans’ (verses 22-3).

And you don’t have to be a believer in a punishing God, or even a believer in a divine Being at all, to recognise here a poetic description of the ways in which a society that fails to adhere to basic principles of human justice ends up in disarray, with the suffering bleeding into all its citizens. It’s a dramatic picture of how haves can become have-nots in the twinkling of an eye, and how deprivation and disaster follow selfishness and injustice as night follows day. When a society corrupts its basic morality, no-one is immune to the losses.

I fear for the well-being of Israel. I fear for its security, its physical security – who will next wield ‘the sword’, creating widows and orphans? – but I fear too for its inner security, its soul, corroding day by day in the long agony of its inability to grasp its true destiny as an enabler of peace and justice for all who live on those poor, precious, disputed tracts of land.

I fear for them, and I fear too for us , for as the rabbis of old used to say, ‘All of Israel [ie all Jews] are sureties for each other’ – the destinies of Israel and the Diaspora are bound together closer than we might like to think. What Israel does - the leaders they elect, the policies they espouse - reflect on all of us. This might be unfair, this might be illogical, this might be prejudice – but it’s how human nature works.

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I find myself in this blog juxtaposing disparate themes, a kind of uncensored free association of ideas and preoccupations. So what I want to write about next seems to have no relationship to what has gone before. But of course that’s not true. (Because everything is connected to everything else). But what the relationship is I will leave you to decide. Like a collage, the blog assembles different strands of thought – and the bigger picture takes time to emerge. And each ‘viewer’ (ie reader) will see the picture differently.

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At Finchley Reform Synagogue - www.frsonline.org - we have acquired a new book after it was reviewed in the Progressive Jewish journal MANNA. Its title is ‘Disaster Spiritual Care: Practical Clergy Responses to Community, Regional and National Tragedy’ and it is edited by an American rabbi and an American Baptist minister. I was interested to have a look at it because MANNA’s reviewer suggested it contained useful ideas to help communities think about, and plan for, responses (practical and spiritual) to traumatic collective events that have a major impact on congregants. The July 7th 2005 bombings here in London are an obvious example.

This American publication - written in the inevitable shadow of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina - contains essays by a variety of contributors, mostly Christian clergy, with a clutch of rabbis and imams thrown in for ecumenical balance. I thought I’d start with chapter 3 ‘Pre-Disaster Phase’, which sounded promising: ‘How to Prepare Your Congregation and Congregants through Co-operation, Collaboration and Community’. I thought there might be some solid ideas which could be utilised to help a community like Finchley have in place a basic framework if we are ever faced with a one-off tragic event that touched our lives directly – a bomb attack on the synagogue (hard to envisage, but who knows?), some biological/chemical attack in London that members were caught up in... the list isn’t long because even my vivid imagination is tempered by a rational awareness of the extreme unlikelihood of any event like these.

Would we need a sort of Emergency Group of Volunteers primed to offer, or co-ordinate, practical and emotional help? What resources, lists, phone-numbers might be needed? I thought this chapter might help think through some of these questions, and prompt others.

I read the chapter with mounting incredulity, and a kind of nauseous feeling that I couldn’t identify. I read: ‘Houses of worship and congregants must begin storing food for extended periods of potential scarcity...’ - [I noted the urgency of ‘must’] - ‘...Since no one knows the day or hour when tragedy will strike, how prepared would you be if it occurred during service and none of your members could leave the building to go home? How long could you provide food and water for the masses within your walls?’ [I noted, wryly, the anticipation of ‘masses’ of people gathered together for a service; and I noted, angrily, the overblown emotionality and fear mongering underlying the sentences].

I read on: ‘Individual families...need to store as much food as their living space will accommodate. It is advisable for them to store a year’s supply of food, if possible.’ [So, I noted, we are now in Mad Max, Hollywood territory, or was it white supremacists stockpiling supplies to guard against the day when the USA will be taken over by the evil ZOG, (Zionist Occupation Government)?]. ‘Encourage your membership to begin growing crops in their backyard, or on their window-sill if they live in an apartment...As stores run out of supplies, your congregants will be forced to buy on the street at scalper prices. Advise your members to hide money in various locations both inside and outside their house...Money can be buried in the yard, but remember to mark the spot...’ [Ah yes, it’s always good to mark the spot where one buries treasure, remember Humphrey Bogart in the 1948 classic 'Treasure of the Sierra Madre'? and Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in ‘The Shawshank Redemption?]

Do I need to go on? Unfortunately I do. Towards the end of this illuminating chapter there is a section on the importance of storing medications in a cool environment. And the 2 clergy authors of this particular chapter suggest something called an ‘ICE Buddy’ cool box, a trademarked product. At the end of the chapter, where one finds biographical notes about the authors, at the end of an impressive list of credentials about their degrees, and posts held, we read: ‘Reverend Lorraine Jones currently serves as a senior vice-president of design and production for ICE Buddy Systems, Inc., a company that designs, patents and markets emergency preparedness items’. And her co-author, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, happens to be ‘CEO of ICE Buddy Systems, Inc., a company that designs, patents and markets emergency preparedness items. ’

From which we deduce : there’s no business like the pre-Disaster business.

I’d wondered about the exhilarating relish with which this chapter described the forthcoming tragedies and disasters, the pathology of fear it whips up – and, once again the old adage ‘follow the money’ serves us well. There are deep vested interests at work in this book - none quite as blatant as this financial one, but others that I suspect are motivated by a Christian fundamentalism that anticipates Armageddon and for whom apocalyptic scenarios of disaster are expected imminently. And ‘devoutly’ wished for. And this is about devotion - for the return of Jesus to redeem humankind from its sinful state is actively prayed for, and disasters are imaginatively needed as part of the theology underpinning this worldview. You need wars, terrorist threats, hurricanes, tsunamis to arrive so that there is enough chaos for Jesus to be forced to return.

Not all of this book is infected with this sickness. But there is enough of it on display – and crammed in-between the lines – to be dismaying, and cast a dark shadow over what might be of value in its pages. (And there are things of potential value, though not much that common sense and an hour’s brainstorming might not come up with to meet our own situation).

But when I read in the next chapter a subheading ‘Strategic Planning: Disasters Will Happen – Get Ready’ and see that the author of this chapter, Reverend Naomi Paget, ‘is an FBI chaplain and crisis interventionist with extensive training and experience in crisis intervention in law enforcement...’, I realise that this book stands at the insidious cross-roads of religious and political ideologies that have contaminated the American mind with a doom-laden, persecutory belief in the inevitability of Disaster – ‘Disasters WILL Happen..’, remember...

This book is part of Bush’s legacy to his country. There are deep strands of paranoia and psychotic thinking in the psyche of the American nation, and a book like this is a symptom of it. The book is toxic. It needs to be handled with care. You can borrow it from the FRS office if you are interested – and if you dare.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

More on leadership

Just two thoughts today that have been threading themselves uncomfortably through my mind this last week, knotting themselves together. They need to be separated out. They feel dangerous to be so closely juxtaposed.

1) Further to my last blog on Leadership - and if you haven't read it, it's time to catch up now, just click on to it on the right here - I've been reminded this week, as Israel limps towards a new government, of the thoughts of Nachman of Bratslav, that always thought-provoking 18th century Hasidic manic-depressive:

"There are so-called leaders versed only in superficialities and outward values. They cannot lead themselves, and evil impulse prompts them to lead others. They are not so much to be blamed as those who vote for them and support them. These adherents will be called upon eventually to give an accounting for their action."

Cynical maybe, and 'evil impulse' is perhaps quite strong for our contemporary temperament, but who doesn't recognise the grain of truth in Nachman's words? Both the lack of substance, of moral and emotional intelligence, in Israel's 'leaders' - and that there will one day have to be an accounting for the failures to move beyond the fears and prejudices of the past. Nachman may have been thinking of an accounting in the 'next life', but even if one doesn't believe in that, we still recognise that our failures live on and that although we may escape being held to account for these failures as individuals, as a society we reap what we sow.

2) I was amazed this week to read that in France there had never been official state recognition of the nation's responsibility for the deportation by the collaborationist Vichy government of the country's 76,0000 Jews between 1942 and 1944. Francois Mitterand, who'd been President from 1981-1995, had insisted that France "was never involved" in the mistreatment of its Jewish population (it was the Germans, you see) and it wasn't until Jacques Chirac in 1995 that a French head of state admitted the country's "inescapable guilt". In a court case this week, France's highest court has finally issued a ruling (in a case regarding financial compensation) that recognises the state's responsibility in the deportation of their Jews to Nazi concentration camps.

Given the amount of historical information that has been available for decades, this is extraordinary - until one realises that all nations have their own myths, and distorted self-images, and defensiveness about their own collective behaviour. Paradoxically it has been Germany - first as West Germany, and since 1990 a re-unified Germany - that has invested much time, effort and painful self-examination in the laborious process of truly 'accounting' for their past. But even in Germany this took years to do - decades, in fact - and whether it is an individual or a nation there is always resistance to looking at shameful or uncomfortable facts full in the face.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

On Real Leaders and Israel’s ‘Leaders’

Thursday February 12th

On Real Leaders and Israel’s ‘Leaders’

Abraham Lincoln was born 200 years ago today. And in the century and a half since his election as US President in 1860, how many great leaders of nations have the Western world seen? Leaders whose vision for their community, their nation, transcended the narrow parochialism of ‘my nation, right or wrong’? Or even transcended the short-term political pragmatism of ‘my party, right or wrong’? You can count such leaders on the fingers of one hand (and maybe still have fingers to spare). Perhaps Roosevelt in the US, Churchill in the UK, Konrad Adenauer in West Germany rebuilding a devastated land on new principles, Gorbachov in the Soviet Union, (Mandela if you add South Africa to this fictional entity ‘the West’)...Who else?

Leaders whose vision ends up being destructive of national interests and human hopes (and lives) are far easier to list. Because real vision, humane vision, a vision which holds true to ethical and moral values of a society grounded in justice and compassion and righteousness, is a vision that seems almost impossible to achieve in the face of innate human competitiveness, rivalry and hatred – endlessly played out both within a society and between nations.

‘Justice and compassion and righteousness’ are of course Judaic values – and the foundation of contemporary democratic societies. But while monotheistic religions are keen to propagandize about our potential for human goodness, they find it difficult to accommodate in their thinking our more destructive emotions: envy, jealousy, murderousness, possessiveness, stubbornness, and beneath it all the fear of our mortality, our small span of years, our fragile grasp on life, precious and unrepeatable.

Will President Obama become one of our handful of ‘great’ leaders? As we know, he comes to power at a time of unprecedented (I use the word advisedly) threats to the well-being of his nation, our nation, our world: the financial, ecological and environmental crises, the threats from nihilistic terror, the proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical devices that could wreak havoc to millions when wielded by those of malicious intent. It’s easy to be afraid if one looks at all of this full in the face. Yet it is easy too to look away, heads down, and get on with our lives as best we can. But this fuller knowledge, this knowledge of the larger picture, infiltrates our minds in spite of ourselves. Who is not haunted, in the secret crevices of the night, by the shadows cast on our world by the human potential (our own potential) for self-destructiveness?

And yet our own very Jewish ‘audacity to hope’ won’t let us succumb to despair: political vision that transcends inward-looking, short-term and self-protective actions could yet see us through. That, and our own human creativity in the endless struggle for justice and compassion and righteousness.

Rarely in my lifetime have I seen so much hopefulness being invested in one individual as I see invested in Obama. Inevitably we will be disappointed. But he carries our best hopes, and our sincerest prayers, into these next four years.

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And what of Israel’s leaders? Does it actually matter who ends up as Prime Minister? Livni may have won more seats, and on the surface is a more appealing centrist figure than the smooth-tongued Netanyahu. But she’s as tough as nails, like her father, and just as unlikely to lead Israel out of its nightmare as the slick, self-important, self-serving showman who has already served in the role and singularly failed to advance Israel’s greatest need: peace with its neighbours.

And because of Israel’s voting system, a form of proportional representation that leads to the ugly horse-trading necessary to form a viable coalition (“I’ll give you civil weddings if you give me tax exemptions, or a ministry to run”), the real winner has been the former nightclub bouncer from Moldova, the racist and crypto-fascist Avigdor Lieberman with his fantasies of an ethnically pure Israel.

His campaign slogan was ‘No loyalty, no citizenship’ and if he has his way, Israel’s 1.45 million Arabs will have to swear their allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state in order to be allowed to vote in their own country. It’s as if we were asked as Jews in the UK to swear loyalty to Britain as a Christian country, otherwise we’d have our right to vote (and State provision) taken away.

But really there were no winners in this election. Whatever combination of parties and personnel form the next government, the central dilemma facing Israel will remain unresolved.

This dilemma has been expressed bluntly by Uri Dromi, the spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments from 1992-96, as follows:

‘In order to remain both Jewish and democratic, Israel will have to pull out of most of the West bank and work tirelessly for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Anything else will doom Israel, in the long run, either to become an apartheid state or to lose its Jewish identity. In these elections, this strategic dilemma is barely on the table’.

Even the blessed Obama – Barack is Swahili, derived from the Arabic Baraka,’the one who is blessed’, the same root as the Hebrew ‘baruch’ and ‘beracha’ – even he will have his work cut out both to save the world and - even more daunting - save Israel from itself.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

In the Beginning...

Wednesday Feb 4th 2009

If you are reading this you must have the capacity for curiosity. This capacity is a gift, though you may not experience it like that. Curiosity as in ‘I wonder what that is...? Let me have a look...’ It starts in childhood: ‘what’s that? - why? – where are we going? – why? – when can I? – why?’ You know the sort of thing. Endless questions, as the mysteriousness of the world is explored, and also the mysteriousness of parents (who are the world, at the beginning).

Of course our curiosity can become blunted, deflected, dulled over time. Parents can do this to us – remember “Curiosity killed the cat” ? The mantra of any parent who grows weary (or scared) by a child’s innate curiosity. ‘Don’t ask questions – just do what I say...’

So – Mazeltov on having some curiosity left to click onto this rabbinic blog. ‘What is a rabbinic blog?’ you might wonder. Join the club. It’s new for me too. I see it as an opportunity to talk about what’s going on – serious and trivial – in a way that is lively. And maybe informative. I’d thought I’d focus on themes of Jewish interest - or themes of interest to Jews. Is that the same thing? But here I am talking about curiosity, so maybe a blog – unlike a sermon, or a newspaper editorial, or a journalistic essay – can be discursive and free-floating. A bit like how our minds work.

In the weeks and months to come I want to say some things about events that are unfolding in the world around us. I’m probably going to talk about Gaza and Israel; about the BBC; about Darwin and creationism; about the group called Independent Jewish Voices. (I’ve made a list, that grows daily). I will try to respond to stuff in the news that stirs our imaginations, or outrage. I’ll try to cast a rabbinic eye (whatever that means) on themes in the public domain, and offer a personal view (for what it’s worth). If you are curious, click on. You are welcome. If not, that’s fine. There’s plenty of other stuff to be getting on with that can be much more enlivening than one rabbi-psychotherapist-writer’s musings and thoughts.

And although I’m a complete amateur in the ‘blogosphere’ (but learning the language) I understand that it offers you the opportunity to participate in a conversation, through your responses. I’m a great believer in conversation, informed conversation, attentive conversation. At its best it deepens our sense of ourselves and our sense of connectedness to others. And that can’t be bad.

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Thursday 5th February

Talking of childhood, I wonder how many of you caught a major news story this week - the ‘Good Childhood’ report? (You might be forgiven for missing it, sandwiched as it was between the media’s obsessional live reporting on Monday of the snow and the even more significant event of the day, the closing of the football transfer window).

The report was commissioned by the charity the Children’s Society, and produced by the independent Good Childhood Inquiry, which has spent the last few years on the UK’s biggest-ever investigation into childhood. (Full disclosure, as they say in reputable journalism: my son Rafi works for the Children’s Society, but that has no bearing, honestly, on the report being mentioned here). It is actually an extremely important piece of research, with some hard-hitting conclusions (the BBC, as Monday wore on, took to calling it ‘controversial’) about a subject that touches us all. A subject that is perhaps of special significance for us Jews, with our long tradition of placing children at the heart of our cultural and religious endeavour: “Repeat these words to your children...” the Shema tells us, the central prayer of our tradition reminding us that our cultural and religious survival depends upon the transmission of that culture to the next generation. We are a people who look to the future (while keeping our eye on the past, and where we have come from).

Anyway, co-authored by professors Richard Layard and Judith Dunn – Layard has the ear of government and wants ‘happiness’ to be taught in schools as a way of promoting the wellbeing of young people, an interesting idea I will save for another day – this report drew on contributions from 35,000 people in the UK and forces us to recognise that the experience of being a child or teenager in this country is an experience fraught with anxiety and pressure. Adults too are under pressure of course - and now more so than ever before with our huge slide into financial chaos - but it is part of a parent’s job to protect children from too much anxiety and pressure too early on in their lives.

And here the report suggests that many parents have taken their eye off the ball. What the authors call, in a snappy headline-catching phrase, “excessive individualism” in parents is seen as a root cause of many children’s problems. This is a parental attitude, they say, “which holds that our main duty is to make the most of ourselves. Too often this means being as successful as possible in what becomes a struggle of each against all”. I have little doubt that few people reading those couple of sentences recognise themselves in this description – and little doubt that the description is nevertheless accurate and apt. Self-awareness of our real failures is not that common a human quality. Self-justification often comes more readily. As Lionel Blue puts it at the end of our Yom Kippur liturgy, we think we have confessed our sins but we have probably merely rehearsed our minor failings.

The tabloid press (plus the Telegraph) predictably highlighted the way in which the reality of working mothers can affect the quality of life of young children in particular – in some ways the report could be read as dovetailing with a very conservative agenda on family values. But more significantly – and shockingly – for me was the divergence of views between parents and children over the central issue of the effect of parental disharmony on the well-being of their children. Only 30% of parents agreed with the statement that “parents getting on well is one of the most important factors in raising happy children” – but nearly 70% of children agreed with that. This shows a staggering lack of insight in parents about how sensitive their kids are to the dynamics of their parents’ relationship with one another. (Another important area of research was on the significance of fathering, whether in a 2 parent family or family led by a woman on her own).

In regard to 2 parent families, the authors conclude that “If parents gave more priority to maintaining their feelings towards each other, this would do more for their children than much of the rest of what they do for their children.” Buying more stuff, expensive holidays, materialism in general , doesn’t seem to be the answer to childhood and teenage anxiety and depression. The hard graft of self-awareness in relationships seems to be a key to children’s well-being.

There is much in this report that is of relevance to us as a Jewish community. Do we provide the space in synagogues to talk about these things? Should we provide the space? Our children’s Jewish education is such a concern, but is learning about the festivals and reading some Hebrew and even promoting social action and tzedakah enough? I think individual communities can be a major resource in giving our youngsters a sense of the values that really matter in life: sensitivity to others, compassion, honestly, a sense of justice, personal creativity – these are Jewish values that it is easy to write about but hard to nurture in depth in ourselves and our children. They take a lifetime and are never fully achieved. We need to learn too how to accommodate in ourselves disappointments and frustrations. This is Jewish spiritual work and we need each other to do this work. That’s what community is also about.

'A Good Childhood:Searching for Values in A Competitive Age' by Richard Layard and Judith Dunn is published by Penguin today.

NEXT WEEK - the 'rising tide of anti-Semitism': what's the reality?