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Friday, 25 September 2009

Rosh Hashanah - the New Year

A man is walking on a tightrope. From below, he looks like a speck of moving dust, or perhaps a bird hovering over the city. He can hardly be seen. But someone is there. A man is walking on a tightrope – and he is a quarter of a mile off the ground. It has become an iconic image. Step by step, smiling, he moves, attentive and graceful, between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre on a wire an inch thick, less than the width of this book in my hand. Back and forward, step by step, with a sensation of limitless freedom. It is 1974.

The French tightrope walker Philippe Petit wrote a book about his art, A Walk In The Clouds. And you may well have seen the wonderful documentary about him, Man On Wire. And when in the film you see this person, alone on the wire, balanced between movement and stillness, defenceless against sudden gusts of wind, one step away from death – strangely, you do not think of death. You think of life – how fragile it is, how precious it is, and how wonderful it might be to walk through life like Philippe Petit on his high-wire, taking hold of his life and living it ‘in all its exhilarating immediacy, in all its joy’, moment by moment. (cf. Paul Auster, The Red Notebook, Faber & Faber, p. 98).

This evening we pause on our journey, our high wire act – though we don’t usually think of it like that as we make our way through the world, striding along confidently , but every step just a heartbeat away from death. Or worse. We think the ground is solid beneath our feet. We like to feel secure, to avoid too many risks, or at least to take what we think of as manageable, insurable risks. We like to feel in control. But this evening as we pause, as the old year dies and the new year comes into being, comes to life; as we pause at the cusp between what’s past and what’s to come, our unknown (and unknowable) future, we can stop for a few moments and ask ourselves: How do we live our lives: fearless – or fearful ? one step at a time, paying attention to the moment, or in a headlong rush?

Rosh Hashanah is known by many names. Yom Ha-Zikkaron, the day of Remembering; Yom Teruah, the Day of waking up; Yom Ha-Din – the Day of Judgement, with the scales balancing our deeds, weighing up our lives, what has substance and what is ephemeral. And although we stride resolutely through these days together, in community, they are still here for each one of us, individually.

And they are called, these ten days, the Yomim Noraim – The Days of Awe, because they are about the most wondrous and poignant realities: what it means to be a human being, fragile, dependent, fallible – Man On Wire, Woman On Wire - so insignificant in the vast scheme of things and yet so significant. For no-one like us, like me or like you, has ever existed before, or ever will. And does this have any meaning, this uniqueness that each of us is with our own special amalgam of doubts and insecurities, our worries, our foibles and guilt, our sadnesses and failures, our frustrations, our loneliness and secret sorrows as well as our great need for connectedness and belonging and security and hope. What does it mean to be a human being, full of astonishing consciousness and creativity, alive on a small precious, precarious planet on the edge of the universe? What does it mean to be suspended over the void, like Philippe Petit, our bare and naked mortal selves, flesh and blood and mind and heart and spirit, and we have to make the best of it we can, moment by moment? On our own, and sometimes with each other. Huddled against the darkness, the abyss. Is this it? Is this all there is? The gravity-defying high wire act we can life?

Or is there something else as well, something we can turn to, turn towards? After all, we began this service with the words ‘In the twilight of the vanishing year we turn to You...We come into Your presence together with all other holy congregations of Your people’ (Machzor p.131). Are we on this dizzying journey through life alone? Or is there some kind of presence, or energy, or awareness that we can become aware of, attune ourselves to, a presence that we can come into, or let come into us? Something that sustains us, nurtures us, keeps us going when all seems lost, when we feel we are going to fall (into a depression or a bad mood, or feelings of hopelessness or resentment or inadequacy) – is there something that holds us up, that keeps us alive and breathing, breathing moment by moment, literally inspires us? Is there something else? Can we feel the wire, as thin as a finger as broad as an ocean? Can we trust it will support us as we inch our way forward? Impossible to believe in and yet we’ve come this evening seeking it – tentatively, maybe reluctantly, quizzically, shyly – we have come here this evening for something that helps us touch the mystery, helps us touch, and be touched by, that which supports us all in this perilous adventure we call life.

We Jews have this extraordinary mythology, story, a way of seeing the world: we have created a period of time to reflect on these questions, questions about our lives that we know are short and fleeting and without significance until we fill them with significance. We’ve created this New Year and along with all the other names we give it, we say that it celebrates ‘the birthday of the world’ – yom harat olam - not the birthday of the Jewish people mind you, nothing so small-scale and ethnocentric as that. No, we take it upon ourselves to celebrate ‘the birthday of the world’ - which means a day, two days, to remember that we live on a planet that has a history, a past, that started in unimaginably powerful explosions of densities of matter and energy, unimaginable heat and chaos and eons of cooling and congealing and forming itself into rock and water, carbon dioxide and nitrogen and hydrogen and oxygen and all the rest in multitudes of combinations and re-combinations, and the slow, slow evolution of a planet, with a special state-of-the-art air-conditioning system that allowed the slow, slow evolution of microscopic life forms and photosynthesis and the slow, slow evolution out of the seas, onto the land, millennia after millennia, primitive life, evolving – Richard Dawkins is of course right to emphasise, over and over again, this is what happened, this is how it happened, the infinitely slow evolution of slime into life, sea creatures, land creatures, apes, creatures that had hands and legs and fingers that could hold objects – what a glory! – and millennia pass and then – and it is like a miracle, we can describe it without understanding what it means - like a miracle there is us, tribes of us with our migraines and our iPods, us, able to reflect on it all, tell stories about it all, create a new year to celebrate it all, wonder about it all, wonder about our part in it all, our role in it all. Our responsibility in it all.

Because we gather here this evening for many reasons – Rosh Hashanah is about many things, it’s about getting the honey cake recipe right, and making sure the kneidlach aren’t like cannonballs, it is about family recipes and family gatherings and remembering those who are no longer with us; and it’s about friendship and community, and tradition. It’s maybe also about duty or habit – but underneath all these there is something else that brings us here, I think, brings us together: a sense of gratitude and feeling of responsibility. If we are here and have what we call life, and everything is not just random, it must have a purpose.

And there must be something that sustains it all, that keeps the whole show going. We have come to call this something God, Adonai, The One who is, That which Is, and this is what we turn to in these days of Awe. ‘We come into Your presence’, we let this presence come into us, the awareness of life, mysterious, unfolding moment by moment, as we breathe, in and out, and sense there is a spirit that animates us and all of being, that keeps us on the wire. This is the daily miracle, that we daily forget. And what it means – and this is the great Jewish contribution to human development – it means that we carry a sense of responsibility: that how we live, with each other and in the world, makes a difference. A difference to this unfolding drama of life on earth. By the way, this doesn’t mean you have to believe in a Creator, or a Designer, and I’m not speaking about ‘intelligent design’, because there is nothing intelligent about nature ‘red in tooth and claw’(Tennyson), or supernovae, or tsunamis or cancer.

But I’m talking about the ways in which we are drawn here this evening, in spite of our doubts and confusion, because we sense and want to sense the sustaining power that underlies and animates the universe and us within it, and this sense (which doesn’t necessarily make rational sense and doesn’t need to) this deeper sense in us blossoms into a sense of responsibility for what happens in this complex, inexplicable turmoil of a life on planet earth.

We sense that we aren’t in charge - but we can make a difference. And we come because, in spite of all our unbelief, we still believe, as Jews, that we have a job to do. That we Jews have a purpose and a destiny. Life can be crushingly unjust but we are capable of acting justly. Life can be unspeakably cruel but we are capable of acting with compassion and generosity. Life can be harsh and meaningless but we are capable of relieving hardship and creating meaning. That’s our purpose, our destiny, what we are doing here.

On Rosh Hashanah we remember – Yom Ha-Zikkaron – that it is all up to us. Remember from this last year, Obama’s presidential words – ‘Yes, we can’. You can’t get more Jewish than that. It is possible to balance on the wire, amidst the storms around us – whether it is illness, or loss, financial uncertainty, environmental uncertainty – and know, in the words of Gregory Solomon in Arthur Miller’s ‘The Price’: ‘Jews been acrobats since the beginning of the world’. We’ve learnt the high wire act of survival, of faith in our ourselves and our responsibilities, and we’ve learnt too – however daunting the task may appear, however unstable we feel in ourselves, or insecure as a people - we’ve learnt with Nachman of Bratslav : “Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar mo’ed , the whole world is a very narrow bridge, a very narrow wire, v’haikkar lo lefached klal, but the main thing is not to feel afraid”.

As the New Year comes into life, we treasure our being alive in it. And we look to the future, the next steps on the way, with hope, with confidence, with and even with a spring in our steps.

Sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London: September 18th 2009

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Approaching the New Year

Last Saturday night my community, Finchley Reform Synagogue, held its annual late night Selichot service. This is always held the Saturday evening before the New Year, and I’d forgotten just what a peculiar service it is. It’s like a mini-version of the High Holy Days, or a dream-version, that passes in less than an hour. Ten days worth of - and several hundreds of pages of - liturgy and melodies and introspection compressed into 25 pages. It’s the Edited Highlights version – the one that cuts out all the boring bits and gets to the action. And yet it’s really just an overture, a prelude to the main thing. I suspect that I can’t be the only one who has a tucked-away thought that wishes it was the main event: that we could look into ourselves just for that one evening, assess the state of our souls – what we do well and what we fail in – and then move on, back to our lives, our ‘real’ lives (as we like to think of it).

I had an allocated slot in the evening , and when I spoke (and this blog mostly contains a slightly adapted version of my ‘sermonette’), I acknowledged the way in which those gathered for the service probably were there because they wanted to use the event as part of their own religious journey - an opportunity for religious reflection, or spiritual deepening, or just a space in the year when they had the luxury of concentrating uninterruptedly for an hour on their life: their priorities, values, strengths and limitations.

And I mused about the work of Teshuvah, of ‘turning and returning’, that is the focus of this period of the year. Who knows how that work is to be done? And how can we know what will work for us? Maybe by the end of that evening the inner work might have been accomplished. Or maybe, I went on,

‘your teshuvah will be done slowly and in an a cumulative way over the next weeks. Or maybe the whole elaborate process will all leave you cold or irritated until you get to Neilah – and then a word or a phrase in the book (or from a rabbi, halevei) will suddenly hit home, will suddenly illuminate something, or stir something in you, right at the end – and only then you will know that the High Holy Days still retain their power, their mystery...

‘None of knows, can know in advance, what will make the difference this year – what will speak to us, what will be helpful in this annual process of turning, returning, Teshuvah, turning our lives over and looking at them again. None of us knows, because if this process is going to be real for us it can’t be controlled – we can’t decide beforehand what prayers will speak to us, what words of wisdom, what melodies. We can’t know in advance, we can only open ourselves to the moment, each moment, and wait and listen and try to catch what effect that moment is having on us...

‘According to Martin Buber, God, ‘the divine’, never stops addressing us, never stops speaking to us (though when he uses the word speaking, he’s using a metaphor – as the Hebrew Bible does). To say that God never stops speaking, is a way of saying that the divine is present all the time, like a great ocean of being in which we are tiny waves. The wave can’t see the ocean but can only exist because of the ocean. To say that God never stops speaking puts the responsibility on us to attend, (shema, “listen” Israel), pay attention – don’t switch off, don’t put your fingers in your ears because you can’t bear the roar and rushing of your life as it sweeps by: stop and listen. Be still and listen. And you may be amazed at what you hear. Parts of yourself you didn’t know were there: courage, honesty, a capacity to sacrifice or let go of something, a calm knowledge of your own worth, a realisation of what you really value, what’s really important to you. Who knows what might be in there if you really listened in , as the Shema suggests? It could change your life – radically; or by just a millimetre - some new spark of understanding or feeling that didn’t exist before, or you didn’t think existed before. That’s how God speaks – in these perceptions, these insights, these fragments of knowledge and self-knowledge that we may never speak about, never even have the words to describe. But that just happen in us, to us, if we are quiet and listen....

‘The liturgy is supposed to help us with this process of listening. Though I know that often the liturgy does a very good job in stopping us listen. So many words, so much repetition, so much language that isn’t our natural language. A difficult theology and a sometimes alienating text. The liturgy can be a stumbling block to this real listening. And I say that knowing, and having often said, that I also think this book, this machzor, is the jewel in the crown of post-War liturgical creativity. But it isn’t going to work for everyone, or not every year. If you find that happening – that the language of the prayers isn’t helping you - then just leave it alone. Use something else – the study passages or the poetry. Or bring your own poetry to the service. There is no one way of doing these days...

‘But there is, I’d suggest, one aim, one overall aim – to listen in to the voice of God in whatever form it is speaking to you. And the music too can help us with this. Sometimes, like the traditional words, it may get in the way but it’s there to help us on the journey, to get at something in us that isn’t verbal, that is pre-verbal or beyond words, that bypasses the mind and all our clever thinking, all the ways we use our minds to protect us from deeper perceptions, to protect ourselves from the divine within us and around us, the music of the spheres. Music can percolate down through all that mental activity in us and seep into our souls, move us nearer to our true selves...’


And then I took a slight risk in a Reform synagogue – one never knows what one will say that can lead to a broygus – I mentioned something I’d come across from another Anglo-Jewish religious grouping, the Masorti movement. Of course we aren’t rivals or competitors, but colleagues - though I know not everyone sees things this way.

‘I noticed that the Masorti movement this year in their advertisements have come up with an advertising headline that says : ‘The High Holy Days should open our hearts, challenge our values and extend our moral imagination’. And I reckon that’s pretty good as a framework to help us think about our work over these days. I take it as a kind of imaginative re-working of the traditional ideas of teshuvah, u’tephillah u’tzedakah being the key themes of this period : that teshuvah , our returning, is towards an open-heartedness that we know we are capable of but that gets battered and bruised in us, because we endure so many hurts along the way, so many disappointments, so many experiences of being let down or rejected, that our hearts shrivel, atrophy – without our being aware of it – and we lose our open-heartedness. So these days are an opportunity to discover again how to open our hearts...

‘And tephillah, prayer, is a challenge to our values because the language of prayer talks about the highest values to which we can aspire. It talks of a God who is just and compassionate with the power to transform - and this language challenges our de-valued values, our compromises and deceits and failures to live up to what we could and can be, it reminds us that these values we attribute to God are our values too – and that we are capable of being like God, of catalysing the divine in ourselves – our compassion and our capacity to fight for justice and our capacity to transform what is into what ought to be. This is who we are – and our tephillah can remind us about that...

‘And finally, ‘to extend our moral imagination’. That’s a great phrase. Tzedakah means ‘righteousness’, but here we can see the expanded horizon of what that could mean. Our moral imagination is the part of us that can embrace what it might be like to be another person, someone who is suffering or in need, whose situation may be very remote from us – and I don’t need to list the countless causes and world-wide issues (from poverty to oppression) where our money, our time, our letter-writing, can make a difference to the quality of life of another human being....


And I concluded by reflecting that

‘I’m sure there is more in this notion– ‘to extend our moral imagination’ - than what I’ve just outlined. But that’s the point of these days ahead: we have the time to reflect on all this, explore individually and in each other’s company, the power of these words and themes. I wish you a good journey over the next few weeks and look forward to sharing some of it with you in one place or another’.

And so, to all who have read this far (and even to those who haven’t , for it does no harm) I wish one and all a Shana Tova, a good New Year. I will be offering some more New Year thoughts, I hope, in the days to come.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

24 hours in Prague, 70 Years On

I am writing this on the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War. On September 1st 1939 Germany invaded Poland on three fronts and two days later Britain and France declared war. It is a truism to say that nothing was ever the same again - with approximately 60 million dead by the end of the war, how could it be? - and a cliché to reflect that we all still live in the long shadows of those devastating events: Jewish history, British history, European history recognises that the experiences of those war years, and their aftermath, are permanently fused into our consciousness.

As I grow older I find myself more and more aware of how decisively those six years in the midst of the last century have woven themselves into the fabric of my conscious and unconscious life: given time, I could trace the multiple ways in which the contours of my life - its intellectual, emotional and religious preoccupations and affinities, the professional work I do, the literature I’m drawn to, the art and cinema I value, the imagery of my dreams, the countries I visit – have lines of continuity with events that pre-date my birth by nearly a decade.

But I’m not going to indulge that autobiographical impulse here. Just offer one experience from this last Bank Holiday weekend, when I found myself in Prague conducting a tombstone consecration ceremony for a lady named Hana Kvardova , whom I’d never met.

In 1942, as a 12 year old girl, Hana had been incarcerated in Terezin (Theresienstadt), where she remained until the camp’s liberation in 1945. She was from the small town of Uhříněves, just south of Prague – and out of the several hundred Jews who’d lived in the town before the War, she was one of only five who survived the War to return home. (At the cemetery on Sunday was an elderly, stoutly-built woman, dressed in grey and holding a forlorn bunch of yellow carnations, who tearfully recalled the moment she waved goodbye to Hana as she was taken away on 12th September that year – the first day of Rosh Hashanah, as it happens).

As it happens.

During the late 1990s my community, Finchley Reform Synagogue – led by Rabbi Jeffrey Newman and some dedicated members of FRS - had established links with the town of Uhříněves. Some 30 years previously, a Torah scroll that had belonged to the pre-War Uhříněves Jewish community had been given to Finchley Reform, who had applied for a scroll to the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust (see www.czechmemorialscrollstrust.org) at the Westminster Synagogue. (After the war, the Trust had rescued more than 1500 Torah scrolls from the Jewish Museum in Prague where they had been deposited by the Nazis during their occupation of Czechoslovakia. The obsessional rigour with which the Nazis set about collecting and preserving for the future Jewish artefacts while simultaneously pursuing their annihilatory project in relation to real existing Jews involves an unassimilable irony that assaults the imagination).

Following the end of the communist era, some of the devoted non-Jewish citizens of Uhříněves had worked with astonishing determination to find ways of keeping alive the memory of their pre-War Jewish fellow townsmen and women. In October 2000 a group of FRS members visited the Czech Republic at the invitation of the Uhříněves Town Council. While there, they attended the unveiling of a memorial plaque - the result of close collaboration between FRS members and Uhrineves - on the exterior of the former synagogue building (now a double-glazing showroom).

Friendships and connections were forged, including with Hana, and contact has been maintained – I was asked to join an FRS group in June 2008 as an accompanying rabbinic presence, and had the humbling privilege of leading a Shabbat morning service for the group, who were joined by invited guests from the town and the Prague Jewish community. The service was held in the office-cum-showroom, which still retains the pre-War architecture of a shul, with alcoves clearly visible as well as the space where the Ark once was (and ‘our’ scroll once rested). Desks and computers were pushed aside, a rough oval of ill-matched chairs was formed, and after a gap of sixty-six years the old melodies and prayers filled the unfillable space. “Blessed are You, Adonai, who chooses His people in love...”

I did not meet Hana Kvardova on that occasion, but did meet her childhood friend, Libuse Votavova, who had been instrumental in searching out her old Jewish friend, who was living in impoverished circumstances. Libuse had then contacted the Jewish community in Prague on her behalf and helped her find refuge in the Jewish Old Age Home in Prague. She had also been deeply involved in Uhříněves’s work of reparation for the crimes committed against its Jews during the Nazi times. These bare facts fail to convey the emotional resonance of this history: one human story that stands in for a collective story of loss, the death of thriving communities, the struggle of survivors for decades afterwards – and the integrity of some non-Jews in recognising the need to make restitution, to honour those who lived and those who died, and to keep memories and stories alive.

Last Sunday, as we gathered in the beautiful tree-shaded Jewish cemetery in Prague – not the old cemetery in the city centre that all the tourists visit, but the late 19th century one slightly further out in the Zizkov district – I made my way to the far end of the cemetery, past the 40,000 gravestones and the monumental slabs of ivy-strewn marble inscribed with assimilated Germanic names of bourgeois Czech Jewish families who must have imagined that their art deco tombstones and mini-mausoleums would be visited by family members for generations to come.

So much for our capacity to imagine what the future holds, for any of us.

Passing reverently by the grave of Franz Kafka, buried with his parents, (and his three sisters who died in the Shoah), I came to the spot where Hana Kvardova was buried last year. We had a simple ceremony in English, Hebrew and Czech, with my words of introduction and explanation ably translated by Libushe’s grand-daughter Klara. (Last year, Klara’s friend Iva had translated for me at our Shabbat service – and both had the gift of conveying to those assembled the spirit of my words as well as their outer meaning. Thus - as it happens - the Jew is dependent on the non-Jew to help bring fully into being what the Jewish soul carries. There is a mystery and paradox here that would need a Kafka to describe).

Klara’s grandmother spoke powerfully about her old friend Hana and it felt like a chapter was closing – for the participants and Uhříněves itself. Those there to witness this small (but huge) event included old friends of Hana from the town, members of the progressive Prague Jewish community with which Finchley has links, and representatives of Finchley Reform who had helped organize (and pay for) this symbolic yet very real event. At the small reception after the consecration, I approached an elderly lady who had been resting with her stick on the arm of a young woman some distance away in the shade while the ceremony had been taking place. I wondered who she was and why she had kept her distance. She was Hana Fuchsova, and this was her grand-daughter. As a Prague Jew – and she proudly told me she was one of the last remaining of that pre-War German speaking Czech Jewish community to which Kafka also belonged - this Hana too had been in Terezin; and she’d been present at the unveiling of the plaque in 1990.

As we talked – with her grand-daughter Helena translating – she told me fragments of her story: about the boy she’d met before the War, then re-met and married in Terezin. Married? – I wanted to make sure I’d understood this – Yes, married, with a rabbi performing the ceremony. She couldn’t remember his name (in my imagination I wondered if it could have been Leo Baeck, who’d been sent from Berlin in Terezin in 1942). Her husband had been transported to Auschwitz but had survived and returned to Prague after the war. They picked up their life together, had a family – including Helena’s father, who inevitably married a non-Jew and of course together brought up children with no knowledge of Jewish life. A not unfamiliar story in central European post-War families.

As an aside, I asked Helena if she knew all this, and she acknowledged that some parts of it were new to her. So, as it happens, I found that I was facilitating a conversation that helped transmit a family story, a history, a life. So many gaps. So many absences. So much silence. But at that moment I knew why I was there.

So it is that the non-Jewish world needs the Jew - has always needed the Jew - in order to bring to light, to make known, the full richness and complexity of being. The paradox of mutual dependence, and inter-dependence – and all the passionate feelings of attraction and hatred and envy, on both sides, that this unconscious dependence generates.


And in that Prague cemetery, and during that brief ceremony that I’d travelled to Prague for, just for the day, I had a sense that although in so many ways in our own technologically-saturated age we are impossibly distant from those war years, in other ways they are with us still, haunting us still. Nothing is ever over.


...Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night...
...Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return...
...Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out
The music must always play...
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good...
...Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie...
...We must love one another or die...


(from W.H. Auden’s September 1, 1939)