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Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Pesach and the Joy of Questions

As I understand it, Judaism is a religion of questions.

Actually, I’m not sure why I say ‘As I understand it’ when this is a pretty commonplace observation. The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, says it in his excellent commentary on the Haggadah (p.105) which I’ve been perusing this week. And you will find this notion - of the centrality of questions - affirmed by many Jewish teachers and authorities. So being Jewish means allowing and nurturing our capacity to inquire, to wonder, to ask questions. Which can be all fine and dandy – until you start to ask questions.

My last blog, raising some questions about the Community Security Trust (the CST) who do such sterling work on our behalf, seemed to rustle a few feathers (see Comments below the last blog entry). My questions seemed to elicit an intemperate and rather abusive response. But then questions can be unsettling. They can unsettle the status quo, they can risk revealing what others might want to conceal – or perhaps they merely provoke anxiety about where such questioning will end up.

Ironically, the questions I found myself asking were prompted by an initial misunderstanding on my part about a previous Comment left on this blog. (Skip this paragraph if this is becoming tediously self-referential – it’s just that I do believe in transparency). A suspicion was raised in my mind, and I found myself wondering about the CST and the role it plays within the Jewish community. Yet my misunderstanding - and the vituperative response it elicited - are a perfect example of how we live within a hall of fairground mirrors where traces of paranoia within us all become magnified and distorted and however well we monitor our own responses, we can never be sure what the reality is. We are continually projecting our own personal antagonisms outwards and experiencing them directed at us in amplified and malevolent forms.

I leave readers of this blog the freedom to read the interchanges in the Comments and come to their own judgement on my questions in relation to the CST. But I’m more interested here and now in the wider implications of the rage my questions provoked.

What we do know is that while anti-Semitism is real, our aggressive feelings towards the experience of being abused or hated means that we can never see clearly what is happening ‘out there’, because our view of ‘out there’ contains bits of our own disowned, unacknowledged hatreds - parts of ourselves that we might not even be conscious of, or would be shocked to discover are aspects of our psychological makeup. So the issue about the strength of alleged and real feelings directed against us as Jews is never simple. Or, to put it another way, it is certainly more complex than those who see things in black and white wish to know about.

And how does all this relate to Pesach?

Pesach, as we know, is about freedom. That’s our mantra, anyhow.

Freedom from fear and freedom to live in safety.

Freedom from injustice done to Jews and freedom to protest against injustices done by Jews.

Freedom from want and freedom to work towards a world aligned to our highest Jewish values.

Freedom from our slavery to the material pyramids we build and freedom to explore the spiritual richness of our tradition.

Freedom from worry about our planet’s survival, and freedom to recognise that the time is running out and our fate is in our own hands.

And all these freedoms rest on our freedom to ask questions. Indeed the Judaism I treasure is rooted in refining our questions, different kinds of questions.

Like the wise child’s question, ‘What are all these laws and customs we follow...?’ – wanting more information, more detail, more understanding about the wisdom of the tradition.

Like the wicked child’s question which gets such a harsh response, but is a genuine question: ‘What is this service, this work you are engaged in: what does it mean to you?’. What a great question! What an unsettling question - ‘What are you doing it for?’ It’s a question that disturbs the status quo, that shakes our complacency, that provokes the listener to examine themselves, to re-examine what they might have taken for granted, to ponder on their motivation, their assumptions, their unthinking acceptance of ‘well, it’s just what we do’. Such questions often provoke a rebuke – but only from those with a narrowness of mind and fear in their hearts.

Then there’s the straightforward child’s ‘What is this?’ – a question born of wonder, and curiosity, a question rooted in innocence and an openness to life, a question unafraid of exploring the as-yet unknown, the mystery of being unfolding moment by moment...

My Judaism is one in love with questions, enamoured by all the questions the Haggadah puts into the mouths of the four children, who are all within us.

Including the fourth child – the ‘one who does not know (how) to ask’. For sometimes we forget that we are allowed to ask; or we have forgotten how to ask; or perhaps we don’t know what we want to ask. And to such a child as this – and we all have this aspect within us, a part of ourselves that has become mute, or maybe has never been allowed to speak out - our Haggadah says, ‘ata patach lo', “you are to open yourself up (to this inner muteness)” – and give it a voice. Give voice to what you have not been able to give voice to before now.

Each year, Pesach opens up this possibility. So let’s find our voice this year – what are the questions we have never asked? What are the thoughts we have never given voice to? This is our inner freedom, this is what we celebrate. What a divine liberation this can be: the courage to discover our questions, the freedom to voice our hopes, our doubts, the freedom to discover how little we really know. And also how much we know, if we are given the chance. Hag Sam,e’ach