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Tuesday, 27 October 2009

On Outspokenness

I’ve spent the last several weeks, off and on, writing a series of reviews for various journals (the Jewish Quarterly and the weekly Catholic journal, the Tablet). I’ve been able to look at the extraordinary life and work of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the relationship between Jewish philosophy and western culture, as well as consider a Jungian analyst’s views on Israel’s problematic psyche and recent history.

Reviewing is always fun, whatever the content (or even the quality) of the book under review. It gives me an opportunity to immerse myself in another person’s world-view - and this often help cast new light on my own inevitably restricted thinking and subjective perspectives. (This of course is particularly true of fiction). Reviewing also provides an opportunity to discover what I actually think about a topic - because writing requires a self-mining into areas of thinking and feeling that are not necessarily immediately available within the conversations and demands of everyday life. To have to describe and comment on someone else’s thinking and writing helps me sharpen my own wits and refine my own thoughts. Reviewing allows me the space to craft my own vision in response to someone else’s. It is an opportunity for discovery and self-discovery.

But I am always aware when reviewing that someone else has sweated blood to get their thoughts down on paper. So I try to be generous in my responses – or at least not too savage. This is not always easy. Authors are often lazy, incompetent, careless or muddled – and as a reviewer I try to find ways of saying this without being too cruel. I know full well from my own attempts to place words next to each other , one after another - in sentences that make what we like to think of as ‘sense’ – how easy it is to write in ways that are lazy, incompetent, careless and muddled. So I try to temper my judgments with a modicum of compassion for the struggling author.

Since I started writing this blog I’ve appreciated the Comments that (sometimes) appear below – whether they correct me about factual errors I’ve made, or upbraid me for misguided judgments or opinions. This vigour of debate is life-affirming. It is also very Jewish, the culture of argument – not argument for argument sake, which is wearying and dispiriting – but arguing ‘for the sake of heaven’ (l’shem shamayim, as the Mishnah says, 1800 years ago). I was reminded of this while reading Brian Klug’s ‘Offence: The Jewish Case’ (Seagull Books, published in collaboration with Index on Censorship), an essay-length text that speaks forcefully of how ‘Judaism in its depths cries out for outspokenness’.

He defines an ‘argument for the sake of heaven’ succinctly, as one ‘conducted not for its own sake or for the sake of winning but with a view to a higher purpose, such as truth, justice or peace.’ And he links this ethic of truth-disclosing outspokenness with the prophets of Israel, who ‘gave offence to ruler and people alike, discomforting them to the core.’

This sets the bar pretty high, but he is right to do so. We are the heirs to the prophets. It is my view (and I say this as someone who has occasionally caused a degree of passing discomfort to readers or listeners) that we have a moral and religious responsibility to speak out with as much discriminating passion as we can muster on those subjects that come to our attention and demand a response - ‘discriminating’ in the dictionary sense of ‘to use good judgment or discernment’, in other words to have a commitment to attempt to separate out what is true and just from all the compromises, fudges, and hypocrisies that we all fall into, knowingly and unknowingly.

Truth can be frightening (as well as complex) and it is not always welcome - because it can expose us to our own moral shortcomings, or emotional inadequacies, or our own failures to think things through fully and carefully and dispassionately. Truth may well cause discomfort – because it reveals to us what can feel unbearable: our emotional or mental dishonesty, our helplessness, all the ways we hide from facing how things are.

This is one of the reasons why a Jewish culture of debate and discussion would always be in opposition to censorship of words and ideas (and images). Holocaust-deniers may be absurd or odious or deluded figures, their views may even feel threatening or dangerous, but I wouldn’t want to censor their words. Just rigorously expose them – through facts or ridicule (and both if possible).

But the urge to censor comes hand in hand with the wish of all authorities – political, religious, professional – to present themselves in the most favourable manner to a wider public and often to themselves. ‘We would never censor – we just want to shape opinions and avoid controversy and present ourselves in a winning manner by selecting what we tell and what we withhold. Surely there’s no harm in that?’

No harm, except to the truth of things – which is rarely simple and sometimes uncomfortable. Particularly for those in power, or with vested interests in controlling their image in the eyes of others.

Of course there is an innate tension between outspokenness and nuance. And truth is often multiple and nuanced. Situations are rarely black-and-white, as a couple of you pointed out in response to my last blog on the Jewish Chronicle and Michal Kaminski. But what I enjoy about writing a blog (and I hope the reader can tolerate) is that unlike a review – where I think one has a duty to offer a personal response that is informed, thoughtful and measured rather than a bulimic rant – I allow this blog to be a genre where I don’t have to be too protective of my audience, where I don’t have to hold back from feelings and thoughts that I might otherwise hesitate to share. (You can always skip it, or unsubscribe).

I do try to be accurate when it comes to facts, and nuanced when it comes to opinion, but I also enjoy the freedom of self-expressiveness that comes from knowing this isn’t scholarship or academic research. It’s writing as an art form, like composing a piece of music, or sculpting a living form out of inert matter. In other words, it has aesthetic and spiritual designs on its audience. And if ‘designs’ seems too consciously knowing, or even manipulative, let’s just say that this form of writing is more about offering fresh angles of vision, or lifting one’s spirits, or inspiring simple pleasure, than anything else.

Which doesn’t mean that the subject matter is not sometimes about issues of real seriousness. Unlike a sermon, or a book review, the blog (as I think of it) offers the opportunity for discursive outspokenness about what happens to stir my heart or soul or conscience – whether it is about Israel, or politics, people or poetry. And although I find myself still engaging, inevitably, in acts of self-censorship as I write - which is perhaps cowardly, but is probably wise – I feel myself to be writing within a tradition of Jewish self-expressiveness, the Jewish love affair with language and the word, the Jewish knowledge that according to the Kabbalistic mystical tradition, God created the world with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and that we are all combinations of letters in the mind of God, endless outpourings of divine articulation - ‘and God says...and God says...’ - and that our words can have a power and an intelligence that derive from a source we cannot control.

We are spoken, and spoken through.

Friday, 16 October 2009

A Small Scandal at the Jewish Chronicle

So, after all the moral self-examination of the High Holy Days, the recognition of ‘our’ failures, individually and as a people, it’s back to business as usual. There is a small scandal afoot in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle and I want to offer some thoughts about it.

Let me share with you a letter I have sent to the paper, which (rather surprisingly perhaps) they have published, albeit in a slightly edited version. It outlines the story so far.

So now we know where we stand. The editor of the JC has been recruited to defend [ that phrase was of course edited out by the JC] the Conservative Party’s alliance with the Polish nationalist MEP Michal Kaminski. Critics of this alliance, including the Labour Party, are ‘Eurofanatics…resorting to the smear tactic’ (October9th).

Martin Bright, the JC’s recently appointed political editor, after an extended interview with Kaminski is clear that ‘Dismissing concerns raised about Mr Kaminski as Labour smears is just not good enough.’ Oh, to have been a fly-on-the-wall at this week’s Editorial meeting.

On 20 March 2001 Kaminski gave an interview to the nationalist Nasza Polska newspaper in which he stated that Poland should not apologise for the murder of the Jews of Jedwabne until Jews apologised for ‘murdering Poles’ during the Soviet wartime occupation of Poland. If Mr Kaminski and his supporters choose to forget, deny or misrepresent his stated views - and are dulled to the moral vacuity of his words – that is one thing, sadly unexceptional when political ambition makes such sleight-of-hand commonplace. But for the editor of this distinguished newspaper actively to collude with and promote this chicanery marks a new moral low for the JC and represents a disservice to Anglo-Jewry.


Let me sketch out some of the background to this surly complaint of mine. The leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, will soon be this country’s Prime Minister. (This is barring some last minute intervention from the Holy One, Blessed Be He, on behalf of the Labour Party – which one has to admit is unlikely, as God has not previously been known to be a Labour supporter (despite rumours to the contrary), although He does, it is said, have a concern for the poor, and an interest in the education of children). Cameron has recently switched his party’s allegiances in the European Parliament, so that British Conservatives now sit within the ‘European Conservatives and Reformists Group’, a collection of far-right nationalists and xenophobes.

These include Roberts Zile of Latvia’s Freedom and Fatherland party, who support the annual (unofficial) parade in Riga honouring the conscripts and volunteers who fought for the Latvian Waffen-SS - among them men who’d already participated in massacres of Jews. An equally unsavoury colleague of the British Conservatives in Europe is Michal Kaminski of Poland’s Law and Order party (motto: ‘Poland for Poles’), who is now head of the grouping in which Cameron’s 25 European colleagues sit.

On July 10th 1941, the 300 Jewish men, woman and children of the Polish town of Jedwabne were herded into a barn by their Polish neighbours - not by the occupying Nazis – and then burned alive. A mini-holocaust within the larger genocidal savagery. When Poland’s president formally apologised for this crime in 2001, on its 60th anniversary, Kaminski was amongst those Poles who disagreed with the apology, a position he defended last week: ‘If you are asking the Polish nation to apologise for the crime...you would require from the whole Jewish nation to apologise for what some Jewish communists did in eastern Poland.’

In last week’s Jewish Chronicle Kaminski also says in his interview with the JC’s political editor that in regard to the Jedwabne pogrom: ‘I think it is unfair comparing it with Nazi crimes...’

So, the small scandal? This is the politician - lacking in moral insight and ethical reflectiveness, and with a previous history of anti-Semitic connections that he now denies - who is being defended by the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard, who has been recruited by the Conservatives to help dig them out of the hole, the moral abyss, into which they have fallen. And the editor is using Anglo-Jewry’s leading newspaper as a mini-fiefdom for this personal and political crusade.

How do you rehabilitate Kaminski’s public image? Pollard’s tactics are crude. Although the facts are incontrovertible, you have a job to do – so you defend your Tory friends’ friend by crying out ‘Smears!’ and then smearing those who express their concerns, be they Labour MPs or the President of the Board of Deputies. And Pollard’s trump card? Kaminski is a ‘friend of the Jews’ – and, in particular, a staunch ‘supporter of Israel’. So that’s all right then - and we can all breathe a sigh of relief. And sweep Kaminski’s moral juggling and Cameron’s error of judgment under the table.

This is so pathetic that I appal myself to be writing about it. And yet it does seem to matter to me that Anglo-Jewry’s representative newspaper - for all its faults and inadequacies - is being recruited for this disreputable campaign. In olden days one might have concluded by saying, in dramatic fashion, ‘The Editor Should Resign!’. But of course things don’t work like that any more. For isn’t it all just the cut and thrust of corrupted politics and the selling of newspapers and the unashamed self-promotion of the power-hungry?

It seems absurd in the face of this ‘business as usual’ political and journalistic mess to juxtapose it with this Shabbat’s prophetic reading, from the Book of Isaiah, where the Jewish community is reminded of its role as a ‘light for the nations’, representatives of a particular vision of justice and truth-telling:

‘All the nations assemble together, the peoples gather:
Who amongst them can speak about this, pay attention to what has happened?
Let them produce their witnesses and be proved just,
So that those who hear them can say: “Yes, this is true”.
Actually, you are My witnesses, says the Eternal One...’

(Isaiah 43: 9-10)

But then I suppose the prophetic voice always did seem absurd when brought to bear on the opportunism, power politics and moral delinquency of the day. It was always judged to be out of touch with what is ‘real’, for it offers a different perspective, a radical vision of truth far-removed from the delusional versions of ‘truth’ that we habitually construct. Meanwhile, Kaminski’s and Pollard’s versions of truth are self-serving and self-deceiving. And they need to be exposed.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

When the Wind Blows

As I write the winds are blowing and there are gales sweeping in from the Atlantic. It is the first day of the festival of Sukkot, the festival of impermanence, the autumn festival where the desert wanderings of the Israelites, the arrhythmic rhythm of encampment and journeying, following the peripatetic divine Cloud-by-day-Fire-by-night, are remembered and mythologized.

The makeshift sukkah constructed next to one’s home is a reminder of fragility in the midst of what we fondly think of as the solidity of our lives and achievements. Franz Rosenzweig captured the essence of Sukkot’s symbolism when he writes about the sukkah that it ‘serves to remind the people that no matter how solid the house of today may seem, no matter how temptingly it beckons to rest and unimperilled living, it is but a tent which permits only a pause in the long wanderings through the wilderness of centuries’.

In a week that has seen a devastating earthquake in Indonesia and a tsunami hit Samoa, this festival brings with it – in spite of its other title, ‘the Festival of our Rejoicing’ – a harsh undertow of fear and awe. The extent to which we are at the mercy of the power of elemental forces is sobering. And the ways in which ‘nature’ is effected by human actions and choices is of course now a preoccupying concern. Our futures are blowing in the wind.

**
Yom Kippur has come and gone. The annual calling-to-accounts is over, and as in years gone by I found myself wanting to talk about both the futility and the possibilities encoded within it. My sermon at Finchley Reform (www.frsonline.org) was born out of magpie-like reading (particularly texts by the young American novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide earlier this year) and my own view that we need simultaneously on this day to take serious stock of ourselves yet not be too harsh on ourselves – a complex psychological task. We are capable of both massive denial about our blind-spots and failures to live well and honourably - and burdened by self-persecutory guilt about our perceived failures and inadequacies. How do we achieve anything like atonement (at-one-ment) when this is how we are?

Erev Yom Kippur 2009 - sermon

We are in trouble. Big and serious trouble. It might not feel like that at this moment, as you sit here, having left the comfort of your homes , maybe quite full after your pre-Yomtov meal, perhaps in a smart new outfit, and now you are here. And maybe you’re a bit less comfortable here, but it’s nevertheless not the worst of experiences you could imagine (I hope). You might be struggling a bit with the words of the book, you might even be thinking you’ll be glad when the whole thing is over and you can get back to what we undoubtedly think of as our ‘real’ lives come Tuesday morning. So the journey through these 24 hours might be meaningful or meaningless, it might be more an endurance test than a true soul-searching, but we can imagine that either way we’ll get through it, and over it, pretty much unscathed. And things will go on for us much as they were before this strange interruption in our busy lives.

We need to be honest this day, our tradition says, and so we should be honest and say, Yes, this is how it will probably be for us. By Tuesday morning the pious words will have dulled into a blur, and our pious (though possibly heart-felt) intentions will have dissolved like a dream that fades away.

And yet we will still be in trouble. Big and serious trouble. Because we know, in our hearts, that this life of ours, and this ’life-style’ – horrible phrase if you think about it, as if our lives are an extension of the fashion industry – we know in our more clear-sighted moments not only that our own individual lives are finite, and we will one day cease to be here (this is not news, though Yom Kippur perhaps brings it into focus; but we also know that our whole way of life – and this is the newer news – this way of life that we know and cling to and desperately want to see continue into the lives of our children and our children’s children, ‘to the third and fourth generation’, this way of life may also be coming to an end, towards an end.

In this last 12 months or so we have had a wake-up call. It’s been a shock to see the flimsiness of our economic well-being – turbo-capitalism in all its vast and energised magnificence quaking, collapsing in parts, like rows of dominoes, free-market fundamentalism falling in on itself, businesses going bankrupt, banks going bankrupt, jobs lost, work impossible to find, not just here but throughout what we fondly and maybe naively call the ‘developed’ world.

And yes we are hearing about recovery, and all the media are scanning the horizon for signs that life might be getting back to so-called ‘normal’; but it reminds me, this scanning the horizon, of those sailors in centuries gone by who crossed the perilous seas for weeks on end, months on end, and the provisions are running low, and fresh water is almost gone and they are desperate to see the shores of the new world, and they are anxiously scanning the horizon for landfall – and then, blessed relief! : ‘Land Ahoy’ – but when they finally touch shore it’s not the new world they have reached but some uncharted territory and they have been blown off course – thousands of miles off course and they are strangers in a strange land. And who will ever make it back? And it’s sickening, heart-sinking, after all that waiting and hoping. And so we await our return – to prosperity and consumption and these golden days of old, just a year or so ago. And maybe that’ll happen. Business as usual, with a few cuts here and there. But nothing you’d really notice. And if you believe that, or want to believe that, then I wish you well.

Because something in us knows (though we might resist this knowledge) that this mayhem we’ve witnessed is not just about the greed and irresponsibility of financiers or bankers – it is about a malaise in a basic philosophy of life in which we are all implicated. It is about a system of values that has come to place individual desires above the common good. It’s about a system of values that puts the private domain – what I want, what I think I need, what I feel I have a ‘right’ to – above the collective well-being.

In this country cheap credit and the housing boom made possible the private pursuit of self-expression and self-gratification as the content of a good life. Just think of the number of make-over programmes that you’ve been able to see on TV – you can transform your house, your garden, your career, your social skills, your intimate relationships, your body and physical looks... We’ve come to think of this kind of modern freedom of choice as liberating and empowering. We want to be authors of our own lives – and of course there are ways in which this kind of personal autonomy can be transformative and needs to be nurtured and supported.

But maybe we are discovering that unbridled individualism – disconnected from our sense of ourselves as part of a wider community to which we are responsible – such unchecked concentration on our own needs (or what we think are our needs) is actually isolating and disempowering and ends up being destructive. As the economic system that has sustained this model of individualism begins to totter, we see how brittle this way of life that we’ve bought into, literally and figuratively, how fragile and soulless it actually is. That it’s devoid of any real and substantial meaning.

We’ve caught a glimpse this last year of a truth that we probably can’t bear to look at for more than a moment. That what we consume will eat us alive. Consumption is now what we believe in – it’s where we put our faith. But whether it’s shopping our way to happiness, or investing in property, or the consumption of the earth’s resources, consumerism is not only a form of addiction, it is a form of idolatry, to use an old-fashioned word. (But on Yom Kippur we have a lot of old-fashioned words on display, so I might as well slip this one in as well).

Judaism has always maintained – and it’s a hard and demanding faith in this respect – but it is based on an idea that if you are putting your basic trust in what you own, what you can possess, what you can grab with your own two hands – if you put your faith in the material world, you’ve missed the point. That this way of thinking about our purpose here in the world is fundamentally askew. Yes, you can enjoy the material world, you can own and possess things of this world, you can and even should celebrate what you have, what you make, what you possess, be grateful for it – but don’t imagine it’s where your security comes from. Don’t believe in it.

That’s what that great Biblical line means - ‘You shall have no other gods before Me’ (Exodus 20:3) – it was a recognition very early on in our history, our faith, that the temptations of idolatry are always here and around us. But we never think it is idolatry. We just think it’s the way things are. Just how life is. ‘We aren’t idol worshippers’ we tell ourselves indignantly . ‘We are Jews – we don’t believe in idols’, that’s for primitive people, and we are sophisticated. We don’t worship new fashions, new looks, new cars, new technological gadgets, new holiday destinations, all the ‘just-haves’ that are dreamed up just for us ( and a million others) – this isn’t idolatry, it’s not cannibalism – it’s just personal choices, how our hunger gets satisfied. It’s how we want to live. ‘There’s no sin in it’, we say, colloquially, anxiously. Our anxiety betraying some deeper awareness in us.

It was the great Jewish teacher Franz Rosenzweig who described our modern dilemma – nearly a century ago now: ‘Names change, but polytheism continues. Culture and civilisation, people and state, nation and race, art and science, economy and class, ethos and religion – here you have what is certainly an incomplete list of the pantheon of our contemporary gods. Who will deny the reality of these powers?’ - and I think now we can add technology and the media – ‘No ‘idolater’ has ever worshipped his idols with greater devotion and faith’, he continues, ‘than that displayed by modern man towards his gods...a continual battle has been going on to this very day in the mind of man between the worship of the One and the many. Its outcome is never certain.’ (cf N. Glatzer, Franz Rosenzweig, p.277; also Sense of Belonging, p.207)

Eloquent words from a master teaching and thinker. But he’s got us in one paragraph.

You know, maybe we’re going to get lucky. Maybe this financial mayhem will prove manageable, maybe as the world leaders meet and deliberate in their G20 meetings and in Copenhagen in December they are going to be able to steer the huge super tanker we are on, steer it around divergent national interests and find ways of addressing climate change, and chronic poverty and disease, and ineffective global governance. Maybe they will overcome narrow agendas and populist temptations. Maybe.

Or maybe this wake-up call will be followed by falling deeper asleep. Maybe what we have glimpsed this past year will prove too frightening to face full on. Because we have seen how we collectively came to the brink of catastrophe - and found our way through this time. But has this been a warning? That when a tipping point is reached, and the dominoes begin to fall, the change is rapid and while it is going on, unstoppable. That things can get out of control very fast. And what if this last year’s collapse in the financial world is a pre-figuration of that other great drama of our times and our lives, the environmental and ecological problems we face?

Have we maybe had a picture of the way in which fissures and fractures that are in the system but undetected – perhaps know about by a few prescient souls (and there were some economists who clearly saw the dangers) but whose words were drowned out by the prevailing wisdom, the prevailing faith in the system, which was a pseudo-faith – have we had a warning picture of how climate change will one day tip over from slow and incremental into sudden and dramatic?

Those dust storms in Australia last week are an almost too convenient metaphor for a hellish vision of a society at the mercy of a sudden irruption of choking chaos into daily lives. And if we reach that point, no amount of ‘quantative easing’ is going to push back the rising tides or get us out of the mess. There will be no second chance to get it right.

And this is where we switch off. This is where we feel the need to fall asleep. We know all this, we say. Climate change, blah blah blah. The politicians will sort it out. Technology will sort it out. Well Barack Obama is only human (in spite of rumours to the contrary). Nor am I sure that faith in the great god ‘technology’ will sort this one for us.

So where does that lead us, today on Yom Kippur? This is a day that strips away our pretensions. Where can we hide? We are naked before the truth of things (‘Truth’ is one of the names of God in our tradition). If we worship money and possessions – if this is where we put our faith and what we think give our life real meaning and value - we will never feel we have enough. If we worship our body and looks – we will always feel ugly. If we worship power, like to dominate and be in charge – we will always secretly feel weak and afraid. If we worship our intellects, like to feel smart, be seen as clever – we will end up feeling stupid and fraudulent, always waiting to be found out and exposed. These are the kinds of worship, idolatry, that we just slip into, they become default settings in the psyche. And change is really, really difficult.

I do think though that Yom Kippur can easily make us feel more guilty, by heaping on us expectations beyond our human capabilities. Perhaps we have to start by acknowledging how little we can do, and sometimes how little we care about how little we can do. Perhaps what is needed of us today is a little honesty: about our smallness of vision, our limited compassion, our threadbare belief that any of these pious words we say today will make any difference to how we think and live, let alone how the world is. Perhaps the best we can do is struggle to expose lies when we hear them, and then strive for the preservation of some human values, if only in ourselves.

It’s so easy to hide. We have busy lives, lots of responsibilities – for family, colleagues; to friends or the community – how much time can we give to the great moral demands of our times? And yet maybe it is here, in the midst of our busy lives, that we have to begin. Perhaps we have to be quite modest in our expectations. Take the pressure off us so that we do not live so freighted by guilt, so burdened by all we fail to do. If we aren’t going to live completely swamped by the dominant, bullying ethos of our time, the ethos of individualism and personal autonomy, maybe we have to come back to our daily lives, and work at our attention and awareness , with discipline and effort, and find ways to truly care for other people, to make sacrifices, to have less so that we can be more. More compassionate, more altruistic, more self-limiting in what we consume and imagine we ‘must-have’.

In a myriad petty little unsexy ways every day there are small choices to make – and maybe that doesn’t sound grandly inspirational. Look after the people around you: in your family, at work, neighbours, our own community here. Look after yourself by giving more and taking less. Perhaps it sounds pretty humble stuff, small scale rather than grand gestures and noble ideals. Perhaps it is rather down-to-earth and humbling. No headlines in it. No 15 minutes of fame. But perhaps it’s where we start, today, tomorrow, and Tuesday morning. Perhaps. Samuel Beckett once said that his favourite word was ‘perhaps’.

Perhaps our salvation begins by recognising our smallness and our limitations. But better honest doubt and small gestures (of love and care, when we can) than grandiose schemes and crazed self-assuring noises about how things ‘have’ to be and ‘must’ be done...

We want to live in a world with simple answers and predictable consequences, a rule-bound universe where we are clear about cause and effect, right and wrong, ‘good’ and ‘evil’. We want pills to solve complex problems – personal or societal. We want magic and over-the-rainbow happy endings. (The decline of traditional religious belief has seen our human need for stories replaced with devotion to J.R.R.Tolkein and J.K.Rowling). We want to live in a re-enchanted world not a disenchanted world.

Jewish tradition – from the Bible through to the liturgy we read today – sometimes seems to offer simple narratives and clear and stark choices – ‘See, today, I offer you life and good, death and evil...I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse... Choose life! ’(Deuteronomy 30: 15/19) . We read this text on Yom Kippur morning. Yet only when we read these texts and listen to these stories with impoverished imaginations do we believe these words are simple, their meanings straightforward. Words are never transparent. They are like signposts, pointing the way forwards.

Our tradition does give us clues about how to live, clues but not solutions. The clue is ‘Choose life’ – but the solution, that’s to be found only in your heart. Today, Yom Kippur, we have the time and space to listen in to our hearts. We know the trouble we are in – and we know what we need to do. We know, we know. There is no magic – there is just mystery, and the adventure of doing what we know to be true.