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Thursday, 16 December 2010

‘Any Human Heart’

“Never say you know the last word about any human heart”. The words belong to Henry James, and that last glowing phrase was borrowed by the novelist William Boyd for the title of his 2002 novel, ‘Any Human Heart’. I haven’t read the book but I have been watching the TV adaptation of it over the last few weeks (it’s out on DVD later this month if you missed it).

I won’t spoil the story for those who don’t know it, but its interweaving of the themes of memory and desire, regret and appreciation, betrayal and commitment, through seventy years and more of the protagonist’s life was portrayed with great delicacy, pathos and humour in the TV adaptation. It’s rare to see a work that manages to capture visually the way in which fragments of our life from childhood onwards are still alive and resonant as our lives move on - how memories from decades ago can be as vivid as (or even sometimes overlay) our experiences in the present, how past and present can merge as we look out at the world. And the drama of the central character negotiating his way through the vicissitudes of history and chance, love and loss, had something profound too to say about the role of luck in our lives – good luck and bad luck.

But essentially the story speaks of the mysterious, unanalysable nature of what it means to be a human being. Thus the simple, complex, power of Henry James’ words “Never say you know the last word about any human heart”. That sentence is the antidote to any tendency we might have to think we can really know other people, that we can sum them up, define them, be certain about who or what they are. They are always more than we know. Just as we are always more than we know. For we are more than our means to know gives us to know.

I love Walt Whitman’s great burst of sentiment, wonderment, and pride (perhaps arrogance) in his triumphant poem ‘Song of Myself’ when he cries out at one point ‘I am large. I contain multitudes.’ This notion of a plural self, a self of multiple parts and attributes, a self of internal dissention and concatenation and creative interplay between the strands of thinking and feeling and physical liveliness that we all contain – this is an idea central to my understanding of why working in depth with people as a psychotherapist is one of the most privileged professions that exists. The possibility of discovery of hidden parts of the self we didn’t know about, or the freeing up of trapped parts of our self that have got stuck, or the rescuing of discarded or abandoned threads of our lives – all this emerges from the notion of the ‘human heart’ being large, capacious, multiple.

Just as it emerges too from the Jewish and Christian notion of us being made b’tzelem Elohim ‘in the likeness of God’ – for what does that mean other than that we (like ‘God’) are multiple and made up of countless aspects of ‘what is’? From compassion to rage, from a sense of justice to outbursts of hatred, from a capacity for deep love to a silent withdrawal from any more involvement, and so on and so on...we mirror the divine Being with the multiplicity of our human Being.

The WikiLeaks saga has reminded us of what we already intuitively knew: there’s always another story going on that we don’t get to hear about. But what’s true in the world at large, the world of politics and global events, is also true more personally, of our own lives. “Never say you know the last word about any human heart” – not your own, not another person’s. Until our last breath, there may still be surprises in store...

Thursday, 25 November 2010

On Being (Feeling) Posthumous

In a recent conversation I suddenly heard myself say that I was feeling ‘posthumous’. It just came out – as words do – and it puzzled me, surprised me, and in a way upset me. I’m not sure what I meant – though that isn’t an unusual experience – but it did feel on the one hand a bit melodramatic and maudlin, and on the other hand somewhat understated.

Posthumous’ – ‘occurring after death’; ‘published after the author’s death’; ‘born after the father’s death’. None of these three definitions seems to fit what I was thinking, feeling, intuiting. And yet I won’t give it up, this glancing knowledge of something I don’t yet fully know - as if glimpsed through the corner of my eye, or at the edge of a mirror, or in a dream. You try to look, to see it full on, but it’s already gone. Do we dismiss that moment of elusive knowing – put it down to imagination, or tiredness, or melancholia, or however we are accustomed to rationalise away our intuitions – or do we pursue it, track it, let it lead us where it wants us to go?

I pull down a few books from my shelves and find that the Roman lyric poet Horace has the line Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume,/ labuntur anni in Book 2 of his Odes: speaking of the futility of hoarding up treasure, he has his narrator lament ‘Alas, Postumus, Postumus, the fleeting years are slipping by...’

So this - it appears - is what is going on, alas. It’s about growing older. (And I seem to have needed a two-thousand year old poem to help me understand it.) And together with this now immediately mundane bit of self-knowledge, there’s the suggestion that it’s time to distribute the treasure – or at least not to save it up for some mythical future...

Feeling posthumous is about having lived a certain number of years and having had a certain range of experiences and having gained a certain amount of understanding – and yet recognising that the world has moved on, is moving on, will move on, and all that treasure inside becomes redundant (or I fear it will) in the light of what that transformed world seems to value. I don’t watch all those popular TV shows with dancing celebrities and avaricious home-improvers and super-chefs and royal weddings and aspiring wannabes competing for fame. That’s not the ‘reality’ (so-called) that moves or intrigues me. And I don’t do Facebook or Twitter or own an iPad (or even an iPod) and my mobile phone doesn’t let me go online or pick up my emails on the go. I still use a camera with the sort of film inside that needs to be sent away to be processed. I can’t keep up, in other words, with the 21st century.

I seem to be more interested in what went on a century ago than what happened last week. For example Kafka’s Diary entry for ‘10 o’clock, 15 November [1910]’ which reads, in its entirety, ‘I will not let myself become tired. I’ll jump into my story even though it should cut my face to pieces.’

I suppose that blogs have replaced diaries in the 21st century. But ‘jumping into my story’ is still an aspiration for any writer. Kafka’s self-lacerating prose is heart-rending, arresting, unsurpassed in its precision of feeling and its capacity for observation and self-observation.

16 December [1910]. I won’t give up the diary again. I must hold on here, it is the only place I can. I would gladly explain the feeling of happiness which, like now, I have within me from time to time. It is really something effervescent that fills me completely with a light, pleasant quiver and that persuades me of the existence of abilities of whose non-existence I can convince myself with complete certainty at any moment, even now.

All the energy and glow and dizzy speediness of youth, all the media-driven drawing-to-our-attention of the ephemeral and superficial, all that ersatz immediacy and manufactured relevance – it leaves me far behind in its breathless rush away from what is deeper, truer about our human situation: our personal fragility, our inner richness, our only-ever-partial self-knowledge, our lack of control over our destinies, our dependence on each other – in other words, the stuff of poetry, and literature, the stuff of the Bible, all that wisdom that can only be gleaned, if at all, over time and with experience.

All that stuff the irrelevance of which I can convince myself with complete certainty at any moment, even now. A conviction that leads me to feel posthumous.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

“And she looked back...” (Genesis 19: 26) – A Woman’s Story

He was a good man, my husband, even if he did like a drink or two. He wasn’t a religious man – not like his uncle, Abraham (though , admittedly, Uncle Abraham was a one off) - but he cared about people, particularly outsiders, like himself. We’d come to the city years before - even though it had a terrible reputation (Genesis13:12-13). Everyone in the Valley knew about Sodom – it was violent, corrupt, lawless. There were no-go areas at night, and even during the day it wasn’t safe, certainly not for a woman – it was bad, like New York in the 70s, or parts of Jo’burg or Mexico City today...there always have been places that bring Sodom to mind, godless, fear-filled cities where men and women struggle to survive with their humanity intact. God knows, an impossible project it feels sometimes: to live the right way when you are surrounded by greed and trickery and the violence simmering on the streets, in cities that lack compassion, where hope is all burnt out.

Our city was brutal, life was brutal – but did it deserve what happened? Did Hiroshima? Or Dresden? Were there not 10 good people to save it from itself? Not even a minyan of innocence, of uncorrupted souls ready - like my husband – to offer hospitality to strangers, to take in the immigrant, to protect those seeking temporary shelter, asylum, for whatever reason? There must have been ten – or do the guiltless always suffer with the guilty? Is this the iron law of life, that suffering comes to all, that a tipping point is reached in every society when the Messiah can no longer come, when the forces of brutality (or indifference) overwhelm the good there is, sweep away the hope for better things? How much brave, careless rhetoric does it take for a society to implode under the weight of its own contradictions? The powerful flaunt their might with cold calculation, the blameless are trampled underfoot, the poor scatter like dust, and quiet lives of misery grow silent like the grave: is Sodom always our future, as well as the past? God knows, I certainly don’t.

I told him it was no place to bring up a family, but Lot wouldn’t listen. My husband was a good man, but he was a stubborn man. He’d chosen this place, his uncle had been very generous, had let him choose west or east, Canaan or the fertile Jordan valley (Genesis 13:10-11). And Lot – yes, a good man, but a man of simple tastes who saw only what was in front of his eyes - my husband Lot saw the well-watered plains of the Jordan valley and thought ‘Head east young man’, not having seen all those old movies that knew that west was best, west was the future – is always the future - over the horizon, beyond the vision of the moment. So – though I told him I was scared, for us, for the family – he landed up there, in god-forsaken Sodom, “Twin-town: Gomorrah” (which was worse, if truth be told, a real hell-hole if ever there was one).

So Sodom it was, and we settled there and lived as people live, doing business, raising a family, struggling to make ends meet, helping each other out. We were close-knit as a family – we had children and they grew and they married young and then my two youngest came along, girls: I loved them more than words can tell, they came so late, you see. And it was a moment of madness I’m sure - but he could be impulsive like that, any of us can, but what with his stubbornness , his impetuous belief that he knew what’s right while others are always blind, and what with the strain of those hours when we were under siege in our own home and the mob at the door, baying for blood - those two men whom we’d taken in, given shelter to, they were under our roof, our protection, and that is a sacred responsibility, to protect the stranger and Lot believed in that, he really did, even though he wasn’t pious and certainly didn’t hear voices telling him what to do like his Uncle did, but he believed in certain values, that he thought of as unconditional, and I believed in him believing in that - so that when they came to drag out the two visitors – and there was something strange, hallucinatory, about them that I can’t put my finger on, but that doesn’t really matter because they were our guests, you know, our guests – whoever they were, whatever they were – so my husband in that moment of madness told the crowd: take my girls, but don’t take my guests. As if that wasn’t also a sacred bond – his loyalty to the family.

And I can’t forgive him for that moment, that gesture, that offering, I really can’t – though I can see how he felt he had to do something to keep the mob at bay, to keep them from entering our home – they would have raped us, killed us, it had happened before, it’ll happen again – so we were at their mercy and none of us would be here to tell this tale, I think my husband figured, if he didn’t do something, offer them something - but the girls, how could he do that? You see - you do see, don’t you? - in times of war and insurrection, in times of terror, in times when chaos is the only law – people, sometimes, have to make terrible choices, terrifying choices: pray you will never have to make such choices. And don’t judge him for it, for you were not in his place and the rabbis said ‘Do not judge a person until you have been in their place’ (Pirke Avot 2:5) – or that’s what I have been told those rabbis said, later, much later. Only I can judge him, my husband Lot, because I was in his place, I was there, petrified with fear.

I was cowering behind my sons’-in-law - they were salt-of-the-earth types but useless lumps in a crisis - and somehow the moment passed when the two strangers whom we were holding in sacred trust as our guests, they did something - I couldn’t see what, they had this strange calm in their eyes, like the moment when all goes still before the storm breaks - and the crowd backed away, blind to how vulnerable we all were – and Lot realised the end was near and that we had to flee because no good would come of this, it had all gone too far: this city had reached its point of no return. Zero hour. Lot just knew, or maybe the two strangers told him – I’ll never know for sure – but the next thing I know we were packed and running, Lot and me and the two girls – and we left the rest of the family there, they wanted to stay they said, and it all happened so quickly, there was no time to think and we had to leave them , it tore me apart, I had to leave the others, but I had the girls and we went, that night we went, in a rush, a panic, we just left, and the tears were burning my eyes and I couldn’t bear to go on, and I knew I had to go on – as women in war have always gone on, beyond the pain, beyond the calculations, into the fear, into the animal instinct to survive, to live while others die, you see others die and you have to go on, because there is breath in you still, and you can’t go on, but you must go on, and you want to die, but you want to live – and I had to turn and look, I had to see what I was leaving behind, I had to see if I could see the rest of my family, the fruit of my womb, my other children, grown up now, but still my children, and their partners, my family, whom I loved: how could anyone bear to leave without looking back, looking to see what was happening even though I knew what was happening - because I knew what was happening – how the city was aflame, how the sulphurous lawless hearts of the inhabitants of Sodom had exploded into a raging inferno of destruction, that they were being destroyed, all of them, they had destroyed themselves really and now the city was aflame, and the fire and the smoke consumed them all, a conflagration like no other – though I see there have been others. It was a holocaust of suffering like no other – though I’m told there have been others.

Wouldn’t you have looked too? A last glance, a last chance to see what has been, and how it all went wrong, how it all got lost.

It’s legendary, this epic place of terror and violence. ‘The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah’ – how easily it rolls off the tongue, but it should make our mouths bitter in the burnt-out telling, we should taste the dust and the ashes, our tongues should shrivel in the heat of our fuming rage that it ends like this. I stood rooted to the spot, watching, the end of my family, the end of an era, the end of my hopes for the future. Dust and ashes, and there I was – motionless, transfixed by all the suffering that we are heir to, motionless, like a pillar, all hope abandoned, emptied out like a salt-cellar bled of salt, a grieving heap of salt, spilled out, lifeless, no movement, no movement ever again, my eyes fixed on the devastation, long gone, still here, still to come. God knows when it will ever end.

That’s it. That’s my story. What you waiting for? You don’t need to know anything else. You don’t even need to know my name. I am Lot’s wife, that’s all. I am no-one. And I am every woman who has ever suffered the loss of what was once treasured but is forever gone. The girls understood, they knew what they had to do, they knew that they had to carry some hope into the future, that they had to give birth to the future, that it was about survival. They didn’t look back, they looked forward. You call it incest, and look askance. But they called it getting on with life, rebuilding, renewing hope, giving birth to hope. And they did it with wisdom and they did it with love and I bless them for it, for out of Moab there came Ruth; and out of Ruth there came David; and out David will come our salvation - but only God knows how it will ever end.

(Sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, October 23rd)

Monday, 11 October 2010

"Should we ban the Rabbi?"

I recently attended a wedding where I was seated next to a seemingly mild-mannered older member of the Jewish community who – as the evening wore on – became increasingly keen to convince me that Islam was a dire threat to my existence: that the Qur’an was a hate-filled toxic book, that Islamic texts indoctrinate Muslims to despise Jews, that Muslims in the UK and in Europe will not rest until everyone is living under sharia law. You may find it hard to believe, but I didn’t find this diatribe entirely convincing.

I have learnt long ago that once someone has fixed in their mind a particular prejudice or irrational piece of thinking, rational counter-argument and the deployment of logic cannot dislodge it. And as someone who isn’t interested in ‘argument for argument sake’ I rarely bother to engage in these kind of conversations. Judaism might historically have been rooted in a culture of debate and disagreement, but ad hoc discussions with those whose minds are already made-up are a waste of time: I don’t find them in any way enjoyable or life-enhancing.

I was reminded of this recent encounter after reading about the antics of a certain Rabbi Nachum Shifren, who – according to the Observer newspaper - will be visiting the UK later this month to address the right-wing proto-fascist group, the English Defence League. It seems that the EDL are positioning themselves to take over from the British National Party as the voice of white English protest – with Muslims and Islam as their main focus of hatred. The BNP may well be a spent force – I happened to see Nick Griffin on the tube on a couple of occasions recently, and each time there was certainly a glum, hangdog look about him as he sat there staring vacantly into space, then taking a shifty look around him before returning to whatever passes for introspection in a man who has seen his dreams of power evaporate over this last year.

But the EDL are a growing force and are forging connections with the right-wing American Tea Party organisation - who seem as filled with paranoia and craziness as their Christian fundamentalist counterparts. The EDL’s invitation to Rabbi Shifren comes out of these contacts. (Although he does have a rabbinic title, I note from his scary but illuminatingly titled website that his ordination comes from Kfar Chabad in Israel, a detail omitted from his more recent public website – yes, seriously –

His overblown and paranoid rhetorical approach to issues is evident in the Observer article, where he is quoted as saying: ‘The Jewish community is paralysed with fear, exactly what most radical Muslim agitators want. The people of England are in the forefront of this war – and it is a war. One of the purposes of this visit is to put the kibosh on the notion in the Jewish community that they cannot co-operate with the EDL, which is rubbish.’

Well, I for one am not ‘paralysed with fear’ – but I am concerned that Shifren is coming to this country to stir up trouble in a Jewish community that does have (as my wedding companion illustrates) its ambivalences about Islam and its anxieties about Muslims. I cannot honestly believe that Shifren will find much sympathy amongst Jews here for his wish that they seek common cause with the thugs and hooligans of the English Defence League. But he could do a lot of damage to Muslim perceptions of Jews in this country. His blatant Islamophobia is abhorrent and racist – and it won’t perhaps surprise us (though again this isn’t mentioned on his website promoting his run for the US Senate) that he is a member of the West Bank settlement Kfar Tapuach, which has a reputation for extreme anti-government militancy and where Israeli police recently arrested a member for allegedly killing Palestinians.

In a recent article he offered an example of his discerning rabbinic wisdom as follows:

“The rule that we in the West refuse to acknowledge is simply that to the muslim, whoever is perceived as strong, will be feared and will survive; and whoever is seen as weak, irresolute, or wavering, will be despised and will be vanquished... This will be a hard bullet for America to bite, but we are at war with Islam! Those who deny this are quislings or fifth-columnists — and very often, university professors and chancellors... The muslim onslaught is at the gates; they are weary of our self-indulgence and they abhor our eroding social mores and valueless culture. They are sharpening the long knives, knowing that their time will come shortly.”

Ah yes, those long Muslim knives – close kin of the Jewish ones we use to kill Christian children for the blood we need to bake matzot.

And on his website designed for his attempt to gain a seat in the US Senate we find a xenophobic anti-Muslim invective that makes it understandable why the English Defence League will be welcoming him with open arms:

“Here's something to think about the next time you are watching some American institution being obliterated by suicide bombers or some other assault designed to vanquish our nation:
Where were you when
• Taxi drivers in San Diego blocked an entire sidewalk while they rolled out carpets and bowed down to Mecca?
• Dearborne, Michigan is forced to endure the horrific blasts from ubiquitous mosques dotting the city, FIVE TIMES DAILY?
• Harvard University spends public money on foot baths for use before Muslim prayers?”

There is much more in this nauseating vein in his published remarks – and it is hard to believe that all of this is not an incitement to hatred. I normally find myself passionately defending the principle of free speech – even for views which appal me. But in this case I have begun to ask myself the question: if this surfing rabbi is headed in our direction on a tide of noxious effluent that is promoting hatred towards Muslims, shouldn’t the Board of Deputies be petitioning the Home Secretary to ban Rabbi Shifren from entering the UK just as they have petitioned on other occasions for the banning of certain extremist Islamic hate-mongers?

You can’t ban someone for the shame they will bring on the bruised good name of Judaism – but incitement to hatred is something else.

Monday, 13 September 2010

The Invisible Gorilla and the Jewish Question

Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris were two Harvard psychologists who in 1999 devised a very simple experiment. They asked students to watch a video of 6 students , three dressed in black, three dressed in white, passing a basketball to each other. The task was simply to count the number of times the players in white passed the ball. So not too complicated (even George Bush could have done this) – how many times was the ball passed by players dressed in white?

During the video a person in a full-body gorilla suit walked into the centre of the frame, pounded their chest and then walked off. They showed this video first in the US, then to people all round the world. The results were uniform. Fully half the people who took the test, in every country, when asked details about the video did not notice the person in the gorilla suit. Many of those, when shown the video again, protested that the video must have been rigged, doctored, faked, this second time. People who had seen the gorilla first-time round were incredulous – how could so many viewers miss something so obvious?

We of course fondly imagine that we would have been in that 50% who would have seen what was in front of our eyes. But Simons and Chabris – in their now famous ‘invisible gorilla’ experiment – had stumbled upon a basic lapse in human attentiveness. They called it ‘inattention blindness’ – the failure to see something obvious, in front of our eyes, when we have our minds elsewhere. (You can see this experiment on YouTube if you are interested – though you will, naturally, see the gorilla because you have been told it is there).

In their new book ‘The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways our Intuitions Deceive Us’ the authors describe a whole range of experiments to illustrate what they call our ‘illusion of attention’ – that is that we are often unaware of the limitations of what we perceive, not just visually (through our eyes) but in relation to memory, knowledge and perception. We think we see and experience the world as it is – but we are often distorting it, misapprehending it, or in various ways misinterpreting it. That we are subject to powerful illusions about how our mind works isn’t about stupidity, or arrogance – it is about something in us that is so immersed in our own subjective worlds, our own personal way of seeing and thinking, that we often just can’t look reality in the eye. And once we have an idea lodged in us it becomes very difficult to shift it.

They have interesting things to say about a range of issues like the MMR vaccine scare and hedge-fund meltdowns, where many of those involved were unable (not just unwilling) to change their way of thinking once they had decided how they viewed the situation. Although the authors don’t mention this, I think that climate change sceptics may fall into this category, although in relation to the environment a better guide to denial may be the poet T.S. Eliot’s words from Four Quartets: ‘human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality’.

I think that the ‘invisible gorilla’ experiment gives us plenty to think about. It can teach us the value of being more modest, more humble, less sure of the rightness of our thinking, more open to doubts about what we think we definitely know, perhaps more able to tolerate uncertainty. Perhaps it can point us towards appreciating the provisional rather than the definitive, the ‘maybe’ and the ‘perhaps’ of life rather than the ‘definitely’ and the ‘undoubtedly’. And the relevance of all this to our Jewish New Year should be obvious, for questions about attention and attentiveness takes us close to heart of what the High Holy Days are all about.

‘Give us courage to be honest with ourselves’ our liturgy says (p.131, Reform machzor) – and that simple statement encapsulates the major religious theme of these 10 days : honesty with our selves. And it is the most difficult work of our lives because ‘inattention blindness’ isn’t just a physical phenomenon it is also a psychological and spiritual one.

The call to be attentive, to pay attention to what is real and not illusory is, after all, at the heart of Judaism – and not just during these Ten Days. This is what the Shema is all about: Shema Yisrael, 'Hear, Israel' ... ‘Shema’ does mean ‘Hear’ but in the sense of ‘Pay attention’, ‘Pay very close attention’... And what are we to pay attention to? ‘Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echad’ - ‘divinity permeates all of being, and everything is connected to everything else’ (I’m translating loosely - but trying to tease out the inner core of this verse, this belief, this affirmation of Jewish purpose).

Morning and evening, day in day out, we are called to be attentive to what is really happening – in us, to us, between us, around us - and not retreat into lives of illusion and delusion. And it is a very demanding call, this call to hear and listen and respond to what is happening within us and in front of us: the injustices that need addressing, the people who need helping, the support that needs to be offered, to our children, our parents, our friends, our colleagues, our neighbours, and the strangers in our midst, who are everywhere, in every land. The world could die through lack of compassion, through lack of sustained attentiveness to what is real and what is really happening.

And I think that this question of paying attention to what is in front of us is getting more and more difficult. Because something is changing in our consciousness as we become more and more dependent upon and embedded within this huge world wide web of inter-related technology and electronic networking that has grown up around us, and between us, over this last decade. What does paying attention really mean now when at the same moment you can be online ordering tickets, and checking your email, and Facebooking, and talking on the phone, while also maybe watching some TV or listening to music?

How do you pay attention in a sustained way In the midst of this transformation in what is possible? What are you paying attention to? Although I’m a bit of a techno-phobe, and somewhat resistant temperamentally to this fragmentation of attentiveness, I am fascinated by what is happening. And yet at the same time I’m sometimes rather scared at the implications of this ‘continuous partial attention’ [cf S.Craig Watkins: The Young and the Digital: what the Migration to social Network Sites, Games and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means For Our Future] which is required if we buy in, literally and metaphorically, to this world. We might joke that ‘continuous partial attention’ is just multi-tasking, and that’s what the world demands now, and women might smile wryly and say, well you are just describing what it’s like to be an ordinary mother – who has to pay attention to the children, and write her reports and cook supper all at the same time... ‘and it didn’t do me any harm’. Well, maybe, maybe not.

Perhaps this latest technology-driven manifestation of ‘continuous partial attention’ is nothing very new and my concerns about what it is doing to the quality of our lives and our human capacities for attention, concern and empathy are misplaced. I may be wrong about what it is doing to our psyches and indeed the very structure of our brains (there’s growing evidence for these changes in our neural wiring) – I may be wrong about what is happening but I do know that it is addictive, it is the drug of choice of millions who wouldn’t touch cocaine. They don’t call Blackberrys ‘Crackberrys’ for no reason.

There is a drive, powerful and increasingly irresistible, to be always ‘on’, anywhere, anytime, any place – like the old Bacardi ad, but for real: go online, stay connected, sense that constant unfolding newness, the potential to be filled with new news. We can’t miss anything - and everything must have our so-called attention: so we skim and surf, and search, and become twitchier, and more pressurised and irritable, yet also more distracted, less able to concentrate for very long on anything (like a sermon of more than 10 minutes, or a blog that keeps on going), and less able to listen – really listen – to another person. Which is actually part of the essence of being human.

We are more focused on the present moment because more involved in what is happening now – but, paradoxically, less connected to each other in deep and satisfying ways. It is a thrill to be able to be in touch with the world in all its wondrous density and complexity – but does it lead us into ways of honesty and charity, does it support us in our weakness and fragility, does it hold us in our fears of illness and loss, does it protect us from despair and anxiety?

This Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Twittering online world is not going to go away very soon and of course there are many benign aspects of this inter-connectedness – but it is infiltrating our consciousness in ways we can’t see, and that I suspect are not benign for our fundamental well-being. (So for those who attend synagogue services, for example, it’s probably harder to sit there for extended periods where there are few distractions and no hyperlinks).

But what Jews have over these Ten Days is an opportunity for a different way of seeing, a different way of connecting: it’s a call to slow down from our somewhat manic lives, and to start to pay attention again to what really matters – what used to be called ‘the soul’, some essence of us that needs time and space, that needs to be nurtured, that needs attention, real devoted, devotional, attention.

These thoughts have been based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue as the New Year began. It wasn’t a sermon on the ‘elephant and the Jewish question’ (as the old joke has it), but ‘the invisible gorilla and the Jewish question’. And it puts me in mind of the 19th century Hasidic story about the disciple who approached his Rebbe and asked, "Rebbe, every time I turn around, I hear about new, modern devices in the world. So, nu, tell me, are they good for us or bad for us?"

"What kind of devices?" asked the Rebbe.

"Well, there's the telegraph, there's the telephone, and there's the locomotive."

The Rebbe stroked his beard for a while, then replied, "All of them can be good - if we learn the right lessons from them. From the telegraph, we can learn to measure our words: if used carelessly, we will have to pay dearly. From the telephone, we can learn that whatever you say here is heard there. From the locomotive, we learn that every second counts - and if we don’t use each one wisely, we may not reach our destination in life.”

And from the internet we learn what the mystics of old already knew: that Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad – that everything is connected to everything else, that we have the divine within us and that we are held within God's own Going-On-Being, so to speak.


Some people asked me later about the 'elephant joke'. Here it is: Four doctoral students — a German, a Frenchman, a Russian and a Jew — took a seminar requiring a paper about elephants. The German wrote about authority in elephant society. The Frenchman wrote about the love life of the elephant. The Russian wrote about sharing among elephants. And the Jew, naturally, wrote about the elephant and the Jewish question.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Why the Jewish New Year is frightening

So here we are again. The summer holidays are rapidly receding from memory and suddenly we are on the cusp of a New Year. I love and hate this time of the year, the Jewish New Year with its services and rituals and expectations and demands.

On one level it is all very familiar : the words of the liturgy, the music, the motifs, the heavy language of sin and judgment, guilt and forgiveness, it doesn’t change, year after year it challenges and provokes and I fight it and then submit to it, wrestle meaning out of it then avoid the meaning within it, I defy it and judge it then acknowledge its power, I question it, reject it, search it, listen in to it, turn it this way then that, while I am turned this way and that, turned and returned. Return – ‘Teshuvah’ – all this love and hate, probing and being probed, is – I suppose – what it is all about, returning to the hard truths and hard questions about my life, our life, our lives.

So it is familiar, yes, but also each year there’s the shock of encountering again a religious world that is so unfamiliar, so distant from our daily lives: a world that believes that these things truly matter. That how he live, what we do, what we fail to do – all the tiny decisions of our everyday lives and the larger choices we make, thoughtfully or carelessly, that they all count, and that they all matter not just for us but in a larger scheme of things. It can be a shock to hear again these traditional words and the belief system they contain. We are drawn in – but maybe a part of us always wants to flee from it, as just too strange, or too demanding, or too guilt-inducing...

Because in our hearts we aren’t sure that we really believe in all this anymore – that the world is ordered and governed as the traditional liturgy says it is. We might intuit that some of these things do matter, we may have an inkling that that there are truths buried deep inside these traditional words, but we aren’t sure any more. We may not know what we believe, what we really think and feel, about God and mercy and repentance and forgiveness of sins. We know that life is more complex, and more random, than the sometimes simple pieties we hear about in the pages of this book, as wondrous as I think this book is, our Reform High Holy Day machzor.

But we still come - with our uncertainties, our doubts, our questions - because we also know that if we engage in this stuff something happens to us, in us – that some combination of the music and liturgy and the experience of community and the words the congregation exchanges with each other before or after the service, and even the words you hear from the rabbi (maybe), all these strands come together and we know that something about engaging in this annual journey does make a difference. Though we might be hard pressed to say what.

If these Ten Days do make a difference, maybe it is because during them we are – whether we want it or not – engaging with what is real in life, and a lot of the time during the year we might find ourselves running away from what is real. The High Holy Days asks us to spend time with what is really happening in our own lives – and that can be a scary thing to do. It is there right at the beginning of the preparatory Selichot our service: ‘Help be at one with myself, so that these precious days are not lost in pretence and self-deception. Give me the know myself as I am, a human being, sinned against and sinning...’ (p95). Self-deception is ingrained in human nature – that’s part of what it means to have an unconscious – and one of the manifestations of self-deception is that moment we all experience when we imagine that we don’t deceive ourselves.

What can be frightening about this time – and why so many Jews can no longer bear it, want to avoid it, or want to treat it dismissively – is that these High Holy Days expose us. We can’t escape the fact that we are asked to think about our lives, our successes and our failures, our creativity and our crookedness. These services can make us feel very vulnerable: because when we think about our lives we are aware of what goes well, yes, we are aware of our blessings – children, grandchildren, friendship, satisfying work, activities we enjoy, achievements – but we also become aware, maybe even more aware, of what might not be right in our lives: problems with our health, illness, the frailty of our bodies, problems about money, savings, how to pay the mortgage, anxieties about work or job security; we may become aware of the losses we suffer, friends who die, the death of parents, or a spouse; we may be experiencing loneliness, or the breakdown of a relationship, or the fragility of our emotional lives or insecurities in our mental state.

We may feel our lives are lacking in something – even if we don’t know what it is. We may feel that life is passing us by too quickly. We may be very frightened deep down, about dying alone, or dying in pain, we may be frightened about anti-Semitism, or the future of Israel as a democratic state we can be proud of, and as we read about 100 square mile chunks of ice breaking off the Greenland ice mass we may be frightened about the planet itself dying. Our fears may be focused on us, or out there. But you can’t go through these High Holy Days without at some moment or another – and maybe for longer – becoming aware of personal fears and insecurities, as well as collective ones. That’s why I say it can be scary to engage with – because these things are real – and the liturgy keeps bringing us back to what is real : ‘Help be at one with myself, so that these precious days are not lost in pretence and self-deception’.

Now of course it is possible to go through these days untouched by any of this – the paradox of the liturgy is that it can block access to what is real just as effectively as it can open us up to what is real. Although strictly speaking it isn’t the liturgy that blocks us, or prevents us going deeper, but something inside of us. Because you can say all the words and sing all the melodies and use them as a quite effective barrier against the reality of your life: you can perform them, like a ritual, and keep their essence far away from your heart and soul – or you can whisper them in awe and trembling, listen in to them, pay attention to where they are pointing, the reality of your own life, your unique and fragile and precious life.

But the promise embedded in the liturgy is that if you do allow yourself to be vulnerable and open to where the words lead you – the promise is that it is safe to do this. Our services are places where it is possible to be vulnerable safely – because they offer that private space, in the midst of the community. You are not alone in struggling with what is real, you are not alone as you reflect on what works in your life, and what doesn’t, you are not alone as you reflect on your values and the decisions you make. We are all in this together, even though we are each in it in our own way. But the value of community is that we are supporting each other in these personal journeys that the person sitting next to you might know nothing about, your family may know nothing about. We are not alone – even though it might often feel that we are.

And we are not alone not only because we are all in this together – but because the promise of these days is that if we do listen in to the words and we do follow where they are pointing there is a presence with us on the journey, that we are being held like a baby in the womb that has no knowledge of itself being held, that we are being held in what our tradition calls, rachamim: divine mercy. The Hebrew word for mercy, compassion, is - I’m sure you know - from the word rechem, womb. And it is one of the names for God.

And part of our work during these Ten Days is to listen in to this rachamim within us, this divine quality of care and acceptance and holding that says:

‘Yes, you fail to live up to what you know is best and you know is right; yes, you have done things that are wrong; yes, you compromise and you cheat (yourself and others), yes, you turn away from truth – but in spite of all this you are not alone, you have not been abandoned, because I who am rachamim live in you - in your capacity to have compassion on yourself. Don’t berate yourself for your failures; don’t hate yourself for your pathetic inability to live lives congruent with the values you give lip-service to, don’t hate yourself for what you do wrong. Have compassion for yourself – you are just another weak, struggling human being, trying to find the way in a confusing world. Find compassion for your suffering – because you do suffer. Find your compassion. Find Ha-Rachaman, the One who is Compassion. Find your compassion during these days – I give you ten days – you will find it, you will find Me. Find your compassion and you find Me.’

That is the promise of these days. And the work – and it is work - begins this week.

I wish you all a Shana Tova – a good New Year – and much strength for the journey ahead.

[Based on a text delivered at Finchley Reform Synagogue on Saturday night, September 4th]

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Dialogue in Germany

I’ve just returned from a week reading Psalms with German Christians. (How exciting my life can get!). But you’d be surprised what can happen when a group of 130 Protestants, Catholics and Jews -the Jews always in the minority - gather together annually to share study and prayer, good wine and good conversation, jokes, dialogue, creativity and the aspiration to live out Martin Buber’s belief that “All real living is meeting/encounter – Begegnung “.

The 42nd Jewish-Christian Bible Week took place in its regular venue of a Catholic centre in Osnabruck – it migrated some years ago from its original home in Bendorf, on the Rhine – and it has become a regular place of pilgrimage in my working year. Bible Week was the brainchild of Rabbi Jonathan Magonet - amongst others , including Rabbi Lionel Blue - and has always striven to find ways of bringing together Jews and Christians around the Biblical texts these two traditions believe, in different ways, they share.

The genius of the creators of this event was to recognise that dialogue between faiths can take place on many levels. There are many national and international conferences and seminars dedicated to the exchange of academic and theological understandings of different religious traditions, where set positions are debated and defended, information is exchanged, truth-claims are made or refuted...and people return home perhaps a little more knowledgeable but relatively unaffected by the discussion and exchange of ideas. But this Bible Week is rather different, for it places the shared text at the centre and helps people meet it and each other as equals, as partners in a process of personal discovery of what the Biblical texts mean to us today - as well as what they have meant to each faith in the past, and what directions they might point us towards for the future.

In the many years I have been going I have seen a transformation in what takes place in the daily study groups. When I first started to attend, at the end of the 1970s, the Jews (some of them at least) had access to the original Hebrew of the texts, but the German participants could only rely on translations. This meant that dialogue was an asymmetrical process. There had been a post-Shoah revolution in Germany in the Protestant Church’s attitude to Jews and Judaism - and this dovetailed with the final abandonment (in Vatican II) of the Catholic teaching that the Jews were guilty of being Christ-killers. This meant that Christians came to the conferences filled with shame and guilt, and seeking forgiveness from Jews on a personal level, as well as seeking to understand the traditions and texts of those whom they had persecuted for centuries. In those days the Jews would ‘explain’ the texts to the Christians, who had to learn to cast aside a range of prejudiced views about both Jews and the so-called ‘Old Testament’ texts.

But gradually this atmosphere changed and by the end of the 1980s - and it was even more striking when I returned at the end of the 1990s after a gap of several years - there was a whole generation of participants from Germany, young and old (i.e. those who had been around before and during the War and those born in the decades after it), who had patiently learn Biblical Hebrew and now came with their annotated Hebrew texts of the Bible alongside their German translations. This meant they were able to participate in conversations about the texts with a historically unprecedented knowledge of, and respect for, the Hebrew Bible. This was an extraordinarily moving development – and one that I think few Jews, particularly in the UK, have any understanding of even today.

And it was no longer the ‘Old Testament’ we were studying – for that description is of course a Christian one (though one often hears Jews using it too), because ‘Old’ assumes ‘New’, and the phrase ‘New Testament’ has a clear theological message encoded within it: that the Christian scriptures of the Gospels and Acts had come to complete God’s revelation; that the ‘New’ revelation had superseded the ‘Old’ one that was no longer relevant in its own right; that the ‘Old’ was just a stepping stone towards a ‘New’ and higher Truth. But by the turn of the millennium we were studying the ‘First Testament’ – and not only the pastors and theologians but many of the non-professional Christian participants, ‘ordinary’ Church-goers, had a knowledge of Hebrew that would be the envy of many congregational Jews.

The Bible Week has worked, somewhat systematically, through the Bible, and this year we reached Psalms 58-72. It is now a rather thrilling adventure to wrestle together, Jews and Christians on a much more equal basis, with texts that are foundational to both living faiths. Though sometimes the texts can be very challenging.

How do we now understand a psalm such as the one we read together, Jews and Christians, on our opening morning this year, that contains the lines:

The wicked are estranged from the womb onwards,
They go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies.
Their poison is like the poison of the serpent,
They are like a deaf adder
[what a magnificently strange image!]...
Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth...
The righteous person shall rejoice when they see vengeance,
They shall wash their feet in the blood of the wicked

(Psalm 58: verses 3-6, 10).

I won’t reveal here the multiple ways we grappled with this problematic emotional outpouring by the poet-psalmist. But the sharing of thoughts and feelings that this text provoked, the sharing of perspectives on the all-too-human but universal and omnipresent urge for vengeance – this sharing was done by young pastors and teachers working in Church settings, and those in middle age brought up under Marxism in the former East Germany, as well as older group members such as the woman who recalled (as if it was yesterday) her childhood memory of the way a neighbour had been led away during the War in the dead of night, never to return, and the silence around this event. And to take part in this sharing and offer my own perspectives, rabbinic and psychological, is a rare privilege – and it takes me back (and takes me aback with its power) each year.

Anyone can come and all are welcome – you can get further information about the Bible Week at which has an English-language section under the tab for ‘Jewish-Christian Bible Forum’.

This is my last blog for the moment – I will be resuming, inshallah, in September. Thank you for reading this year’s postings - and for your Comments, posted or spoken.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Torah Today

Sometimes I use a sermon to explore themes that trouble me, religious themes. Here is something I offered today, at Finchley Reform Synagogue:

How are we to read the Torah today? What is our relationship to it? What role does it play in our thinking about ourselves as Jews?

For 1800 years the texts of Torah were at the centre of Jewish life: they were seen as holy, inspired, having come to the Jewish people directly from Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu, the ‘Holy One of Israel, Blessed be He’. Jewish lives were guided by the words of Torah, controlled by their teachings, regulated by the instructions they contained and the concentric circles of commentary upon them that radiated outwards, endlessly, through the generations, interpreting, expanding, amplifying the godly purposes inscribed in the original holy words. For 1800 years these texts we read every Shabbat morning were at the epicentre of Jewish consciousness – and Jewish lives were lived, as Franz Rosenzweig suggests, as enacted commentaries upon the Torah, that ever-beating heart of Judaism.

The teachings of the Torah pulsed through the daily, the hourly, lives of Jews, wherever they lived, from Asia to the Yemen, from Bialystock to Berlin to Baltimore, for Torah min-Hashamayim meant Torah that was divinely inspired - and therefore had a commanding presence at all times, in every era and in every place where Jews found themselves in their long wanderings across the world and through the generations.

But can we say the same today, for us? Even to ask the question brings in its wake its own answer: I don’t think we can say the same is true for us. Nor has it been true for most Jews for several generations now. Our relationship to the Torah (if indeed we have a relationship at all) has surely become, I would suggest, radically different – and has become so because of what we think of as modernity, those multiple ways of thinking that have transformed our consciousness over and again during the last two centuries. Secularism with its distinctive ways of describing and interpreting our everyday realities has taken hold in our hearts and minds, and affects everything we do and are. The ways of thinking about human relationships and history, psychology and language and law, the ways of thinking about our planet and its evolution, about nature and human nature, the centrality of scientific and critical modes of thinking and the place of reason and rationality in how we think about ourselves and our society – our mental world view now is irrevocably different from 200 years ago, let alone 2000 years ago. And this of course includes the ways we think about religion and so-called ‘holy’ texts.

And all this – and obviously I’m only offering here an almost cartoonishly abbreviated, shorthand version of this process of modernity – all this huge transformation in thinking has profound implications for those opening questions: ‘How are we to read the Torah today? What is our relationship to it? What role does it play in our thinking about ourselves as Jews?’

I’ve been prompted to pose these questions today for two reasons. The first is historical: next weekend is the 200th anniversary of the beginnings of what was, in 1810, a new, progressive approach to Judaism. Next Shabbat commemorates the first progressive Jewish Shabbat service. It was held in Seesen, Westphalia – in present-day Germany. There was an organ and a boys' choir, and texts in German as well as Hebrew. The service was led by Israel Jacobson, the so-called ‘father of Reform Judaism’.

But of course questions about Jews’ changing relationship to Torah had been around for decades before that: they’d surfaced in the previous century’s Enlightenment era and a century before that Baruch Spinoza in Holland was already offering a philosophical critique of contemporary views about God and Torah. So that first progressive service 200 years ago was a milestone – but within a larger unfolding challenge to traditional thinking. And whether we know it or not, in the midst of the multiple transformations in Jewish life that have happened since then, we are the inheritors of that impetus that started in Germany to look for new directions in Jewish life, congruent with the times and the thinking of the times.

And the second direction from which I am asking how we are supposed to relate to Torah today comes from having to wrestle directly with the kind of text we heard today. For example, what do we do with a sentence like ‘Adonai spoke to Moses saying...Tell the children of Israel: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan you shall dispossess/uproot all the inhabitants of the land; you shall destroy all their images, and all the images of their images, and you shall destroy all their religious sites, and you will take possession of the land and settle in it...’ (Numbers 33:51-3).

When in March 2001 the Taliban dynamited the two great 6th century Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan there was, justifiably, international outrage at the desecration and destruction of a religious site, and it was seen as evidence for the atavistic medievalism of their form of Islam. But as we see, that kind of religio-cultural destructiveness is not rooted in medievalism but in Biblical texts such as the ones we still read today from our Torah.

And here you will probably want to protest that this is a bit unfair of me. That we are not responsible for the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam; and that we are not of a mind-set that would read these holy texts of ours literally, as telling us what to do today; that we are part of a tradition that always read our texts through the eyes of commentators - who would read the texts figuratively, or allegorically, or symbolically. So that, for example, when we read – in several passages in the Torah, in Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy - that we should take ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’, we understand this as the Talmudic rabbis understood it: that this principle is there to provide equitable financial compensation for an offended party, indeed that it restricts acts of retribution. Because in ancient times the punishment often far exceeded the crime, the Torah – says the rabbis – is not instructing us in retribution, but in mercy. It is asking us to transmute our natural aggression and wish for revenge into a passion of a different kind, a passion for justice.

So is this the approach we need to take when reading the Torah today – not to take it literally, but maybe symbolically or metaphorically or in some other way that goes against the grain of its plain meaning? So that when we read about dispossessing and uprooting inhabitants from the land, and acts of cultural desecration and religious contempt, are we supposed to interpret that as teaching the importance today of Jewish cultural distinctiveness, of taking pride in one’s own traditions and values, or the importance of uprooting alien ideas and values from one’s own Jewish world view? Or do we concentrate on thinking of it as a text to justify Zionism as a divine enterprise? I suppose if you were a certain kind of rabbi, or a certain kind of Jew, you might feel attracted to these kinds of interpretation. But even as I suggest these possibilities, I recognize how inadequate these kinds of interpretations are, how fraught with difficulties they are. That kind of interpretative approach towards a problematic text involves a reading against the grain of the text that’s going to leave some very nasty splinters of aggression in one’s soul, and possibly in other people’s lives.

Or maybe we moderns would prefer to see the text merely as a document that reflects its historical context, as a product of its own time and place in which life was nasty, brutish and short, and a tribe’s survival did require the utmost ruthlessness? Are we supposed to rationalize it like that? And in doing so insist that it in no way offers religious or spiritual guidance to us today – in Israel or the West Bank for example? But if we do that, what do we say to those who do want to read the texts more literally and less symbolically – that still want to settle and dispossess, and still despise others with the same vehemence as the God-figure portrayed here, still despise the other inhabitants of the land?

A new report out this week from the leading Israeli human rights group B’Tselem says that more than 42% of the West Bank is now under the control of Israeli settlers. Settlements take over private Palestinian land far beyond the settlements’ notional boundaries, in breach of an Israeli supreme court ruling that is blatantly ignored by those who will be reading these same texts today with, no doubt, a self-justifying smile on their faces. (I know that not all the settlers are religious, but I am making the point about how these texts still resonate today in powerful ways in certain parts of the Jewish world).

But to come back to us: can we still read these texts today in our progressive communities, in any non-literal, non-fundamentalist way, and feel content with our reading? Feel that we retain our integrity - and our humanity – by reading the texts psychologically or homiletically as I tried to do before? Or by contextualizing them, placing them in an ancient historical framework, and thereby de-fanging them of their poisonous and (let’s be honest) genocidal invective? Does that work for us?

How do we stay open to these texts – open in our hearts and minds? How can we stay open to hear the Holy One of Israel speaking still through these texts? That’s our challenge, our religious and spiritual challenge. This is what Judaism has always done, always tried to do, to stay faithful to a tradition of reading that says : through these texts, through these stories and narratives and laws, through the poetry and prose and legislation, through every sentence, every word, every letter, the divine Voice speaks to us if we have ears to hear and a soul attuned to eternity. Can we still do that, with texts like these?

I suppose we do have a choice.

We could just discard these texts, edit them out of our tradition, or out of our minds, and say: these are just human documents that betray the primitive mentality of their human authors, the limited moral and ethical imagination of their times, but we now have far outgrown these writers in moral and ethical imagination and the refinement of our sense of how to be human with each other - and particularly with those who are different to ‘us’. We can do that, turn our backs on all this uncomfortable invective and discard these texts as damaged goods and irrelevant to our lives.

But if we don’t want to do that, if we want to keep faith in some way with our history of engagement with Torah as containing inspiration and direction for our own lives, then we have to hold ourselves open, still, to these disquieting texts. Hold ourselves still and open.

And that might be a very uncomfortable, and a very unfashionable, thing to do. To stay open to listening in to the potential wisdom to be learnt and received from texts that on the surface strike us as utterly repellant. This is deeply unsettling – it means we have to dispossess ourselves of our prejudices, uproot our initial emotional responses. And it means we have to face something deeply paradoxical.

It is paradoxical to say on the one hand ‘These texts are hateful to me for what they seem to say and seem to imply, and hateful because there are those of my Jewish brothers and sisters who insist on reading them in ways that I find abhorrent; so yes, these texts seem to me truly noxious’ - to say that, and also to say ‘and I will still read them, and listen to them, listen in to them, await what they have to reveal to me, to us, in our days, await what the divine speaks through them, what the Holy One of Israel wishes to disclose now about land and possessiveness and images and otherness and uprooting and destructiveness ...’

To say both these things – 'these words are hateful to me and I need to keep on listening to them' – is, I would suggest, one of the central Jewish religious paradoxes of our times. But Jews have always loved paradox. And in wrestling in this way with these texts we remain true to the vision of old, the vision of Israel, Yisrael, the ‘one who struggles with and against and on behalf of the divine’. That is our job, our task, our destiny: the wrestling and the yielding and the resisting and the never-letting-go until the blessing arrives.

And then we limp away, carrying the woundedness within us.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

The Great Distraction

Here we go again. And by ‘we’ I mean ‘we English’ – but also ‘we citizens of a planet whose most unifying creative passion revolves around semi-controlled tribal kicking of spherical objects’. Here we are again in our four-year cycle of collective mania about an event that has no meaning - other than the one we attribute to it. Like art or music – and religion – football can move some of us to tears (of exaltation or despair, wonder or rage), while leaving others indifferent, or puzzling over what all the fuss is about.

The World Cup is of course a great distraction from other slightly more pressing concerns: poverty, malnutrition, totalitarian oppression, environmental concerns, the fragility of the world’s economy. (As Professor Terry Eagleton says of the global obsession with football: ‘No finer way of resolving the problems of capitalism has been dreamed up, bar socialism’). It is perhaps the most obvious example of Juvenal’s famous maxim in his Satires that rulers can distract the populace from pressing issues of public policy – and the populace long, it seems, to be distracted in this manner – if it can offer them ‘bread and circuses’: ... duas tantum res anxius optat, / panem et circenses. As a recent translation puts it: ‘...only two things does the modern citizen anxiously wish for: bread and the big match.’ No doubt we will have the same again here in two years time with the Olympics.

But – before I get carried away with my awareness of football’s essential triviality in the scheme of things – let me state unequivocally that football can offer us, at its best, moments of transcendence and intimations of immortality. This has been expressed most eloquently by a player whose club used to sell replica shirts combining his playing number, ‘7’, and the single word ‘Dieu’. Eric Cantona was able to do things on a football field that nobody else had done, could do, or would do. So he knew whereof he spoke when he once said:

‘An artist, in my eyes, is someone who can lighten up a dark room. I have never and will never find any difference between the pass from Pele to Carlos Alberto in the final of the World Cup in 1970 and the poetry of the young Rimbaud, who stretches “cords from steeple to steeple and garlands from window to window”. There is in each of these human manifestations an expression of beauty which touches us and gives us a feeling of eternity’.

(He was also, as this quotation illustrates – and rather unusually for a footballer, need it be said – a rather cultured individual. But then of course he was French).

‘We English’ have to make do with rather less thoughtfulness from our players, and – sadly, inevitably, repeatedly - rather less culture on the pitch. Hopes are raised, hopes are dashed, as the English propensity to transmute dreams of glory into nightmares of farce plays itself out in its recurring cycle. But – looking for ‘the positives’, as modern-day managers are taught to say - our national game (and especially our national team) does offer fans the possibility of experiencing (repeatedly) some important psychological truths about human imperfection and fallibility and the inevitability of confronting loss. (We should thank them for that, if nothing else).

The catharsis we experience when we are finally released from the inner tension generated in some games between the excitement and hope for victory and the fear of imminent defeat is salutary. And defeat is, naturally, by far the most common experience for players and fans alike. Defeat is built into the structure of competitive sports in a particular way: only one team can win the Cup, only one player can win the gold medal. The rest have to face the poignancy of loss, the pain of mourning, of waking up the next morning knowing what might have been, but isn’t. It’s gone. Like a death, like the failed dreams in our lives, defeat scars the soul over and over again with the awareness that failure and loss are unavoidable aspects of our shared human condition.

And yet the football fan – even ‘we English’ – lives with a resilient hopefulness that we might experience moments that can give us what Cantona called that ‘feeling of eternity’. If not from our players and our team then another team and other players. The goal from the impossible angle, the visionary pass that opens up the opposition’s defence, the goalkeeper’s agile athleticism where the body twists and flies through the air, the fragile moments of individual skill on the ball – the co-ordinated movement of body and eye and mind – all these offer up the grandeur of the human spirit incarnated in spontaneous action. The human body becomes – as it does in ballet or sex or yoga – a vehicle for transcendence. We glimpse the recurring mystery of our being human. And we give thanks for what we receive. For such giftedness transcends race or nation and gives us a living image of the numinous to inspire our daily lives.

Decades ago, when the American philosopher George Santayana was asked what he meant by the word ‘religion’, he replied ‘another world to live in’. But when he said that he could not have anticipated how, for hundreds of millions of men and women throughout the world, what he meant by ‘religion’ would one day be displaced in the most immediate sense by organised spectator sports, and football in particular. The gods of old have been reincarnated in a new form, and from the slums of Rio de Janeiro to the steppes of Siberia via the pubs and sitting rooms of towns across the UK, the contemporary fan (from the Latin fanaticus, worshipper, of course) pays homage to his and her divine representatives on earth - as remote and yet omnipresent as they ever were.

(If they play any sport in heaven it must be football - though cricket is another possibility: if you have an eternity to spend, then five-day Test match cricket is a perfect time-filler, with angels and seraphim always on hand to fetch the ball when it is hit over the boundary ropes into the ether, and God himself the all-watchful Umpire whose omniscient judgement cannot be overruled).

Football is ‘another world to live in’. Let’s enjoy it while - if - we can. It will invigorate us for what really matters: the struggles - and inevitable defeats – we still have to face.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

“Another Fine Mess...”

Israel used to pride itself on its saikhel – that special combination of ingenuity, wily intelligence, common sense and low cunning that is a hallmark of what used to be called a yiddisher kopf. Honed through the generations as Jews learnt to defend themselves in an inhospitable world, it was the display of this kind of native intelligence that used to gain the admiration of Jews around the world when they saw it demonstrated by the State of Israel. Even Israel’s enemies were grudging admirers of Israeli saikhel .

Those days are long gone. Certainly for Israel’s enemies. But also for many of Israel’s supporters, as we see over and again the ways in which the State seems to keep making choices to its own detriment. The latest fiasco over the Gaza flotilla has caused upset and disquiet not only in the Diaspora but in Israel too: ‘If [defence minister] Ehud Barak does not resign, Israel will be perceived in international public opinion as a country in which not only does no one ever resign from his ministerial post, but also a country...that ought to be given collective punishment as a sovereign entity.’ Not some left-wing fringe view but that of Yedioth Ahronot, Israel’s best-selling, populist paper.

Intercepting an aid convoy in international waters...failing to ensure sufficient numbers were on hand to deal with what they should have known would be stern, and potentially violent, resistance...the lack of proportionality in defending themselves, using lethal force so that at least 10 passengers died and scores were injured: whatever the hostile intent of a minority of those on the lead ship the Mavi Marmara (and that there was malign intent from some seems clear), this catalogue of Israeli errors lead to a catastrophe. Obviously so for those dead and injured. But it’s also another catastrophic failure of Israel’s capacity to react to provocations with anything approaching saikhel.

Of course the flotilla was provocative, with its shrewd combination of humanitarian relief and PR opportunity. But what did they expect Israel to do in response to the flotilla after such a tight 3 year blockade of Gaza’s waters? ‘Oh, look: Turkish boats, Irish boats, mothers and babies, film-makers, Nobel prize-winners, the author of Wallander noch! ... how can we say No to these good souls? Do please go ahead and deliver your largesse...’ The organizers of the flotilla must have known it was never going to be plain sailing – and that quite likely it would end in tears.

The situation in Gaza is dire. Aid is of course desperately needed and Israel’s intransigence in relation to what it allows in and what it refuses is part of their ill-considered game-plan of retaining a major stranglehold on the territory combined with minor concessions – though to what end it all is for, who knows? What we do know is the bitterness of blighted lives, the hatreds stored up year-by-year, and the maddening emotional and mental turmoil of those who once loved Israel with an almost religious passion – but now feel dismay at what Israel wreaks, and despair at what Israel has become.

As so often the Book of Proverbs seems to capture - sadly,aptly - the mood of the moment: “A person is commended for their saikhel – but a twisted mind is held in contempt” (Proverbs 12:8).

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The Poetry of Revelation

In 1880 Matthew Arnold published an essay - The Study of Poetry - in which he wrote: ‘Most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry...’

Although in one way I find this statement rather absurd – with its grandiose assumption that the traditional truths incarnated in religious and philosophical ways of thinking would somehow fade away to be replaced by newly-revealed truths born of the human imagination in play with language – I nevertheless find Arnold’s thought quite seductive. It chimes with my own gradual religious and spiritual evolution from someone interested in the truth-claims of religion - the objectivity of religious ideas about God and goodness and sin and redemption and so on – into someone who is now far less interested in doctrines and dogmas and so-called ‘religious identity’ , and far more interested in the subjective nature of spirituality and personal religious experience.

This week we celebrate the fleeting early-summer festival of Shavuot – the day in the Jewish calendar when we recall the revelation of Torah to the assembled Israelites at Sinai. I admire and enjoy the narrative power of the Exodus texts which describe this ‘event’ – even though I don’t think of it as an ‘event’. For me this is not about history, not about facts. It is about the mythic dimensions of saga, a way of speaking about certain abiding truths understood by a particular people over time.

I appreciate the symbolic resonances, images and metaphors of a story that describes Moses separating himself from everyone, ascending a mountain and receiving new understanding, new ways of thinking about how to live and act, individually and collectively: how to be in the world. He receives ‘Torah’ – teaching, direction – ‘min Ha’shamayim’ – from out of the “heavens”, out of the ether, from that eternal Voice that reveals what is to be revealed.

And I have always cherished those teachings from later in the Jewish tradition that move us away from literalism about this ‘event’ towards an existential appreciation that revelation is always available, if we are prepared to listen (Shema, Yisrael...’listen, pay attention people!’). Martin Buber offers us the Hasidic thought : ‘Everyone of Israel is told to think of themselves as standing at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. For us there are past and future events, but not so for God: day in, day out, God gives the Torah’ (from Ten Rungs: Hasidic Sayings). In other words: revelation is ongoing and always happening now.

And part of the way in which I believe we can listen into revelation now is - back to Arnold - through poetry. As the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney has said: ‘ a ratification of the impulse towards transcendence’. My heart sings to hear that – how often as a congregant in a service I find my thoughts moving away from the traditional language of devotion and towards the anthologised material (and particularly the poetry) that we are so fortunate to have in our various books of Reform liturgy, for Shabbat and Festivals and High Holy Days.

What a good poem does, for me, is offer a space to explore ideas, to play, to wrestle with the fullness and plasticity of words, a place to discover new ways of thinking, new forms of truth-telling. As the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, has put it: ‘A a place where language is most truthful. In the poem, more than any other literary form, you can’t lie.’ And we know that in the Rabbinic tradition one of God’s many names is Emet – Truth.

So, as I reflect on revelation, on where in the world truth is to be found, discovered, fashioned, re-fashioned – where on earth, or in heaven, we are now to listen in to the revelation of what is and can be – I find myself turning to a poet I have only recently discovered, Samuel Menashe, born in New York in 1925 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, and still mining a rich seam of spiritual ore/awe.

He offers us miniature poems, polished diamonds to treasure and handle and turn over in our minds. ‘Turn it and turn it’ - as the Rabbis once said of the Torah – ‘for everything is within it’:

Reeds Rise From Water

rippling under my eyes
Bulrushes tuft the shore

At every instant I expect
what is hidden everywhere

Friday, 7 May 2010

Election Blues

Rabbinic cynicism is as old as the hills. There’s a maxim from the second century text Pirke Avot – the ‘Sayings of the Fathers’ – that runs: ‘Be careful of those in power! For they do not draw anybody near to them except in their own interest: they seem like friends when it is to their own advantage, but they do not stand by a person in their hour of need’ (P.Avot 2:3).

So is this rabbinic warning cynicism – or realism? I’ve found myself – somewhat to my own surprise – rather gripped by the lead-up to this week’s General Election here in the UK. I haven’t followed in detail all the acres of newspaper coverage, nor have I watched much of the commentary on TV. But I tuned into the three live TV debates, and while lamenting the Americanisation of our culture (and the triumph of style over substance) that they represented, found them fascinating events as political spectacle – mini dramas of personal ambition and competitiveness masquerading as caring, compassionate expressions of concern for the collective well-being of the nation.

What confidence these men needed to display! Confidence that they alone can lead the country into a brighter, fairer, more prosperous future. Confidence that they alone have the answers to the complex problems besetting the country. Confidence that we will not think about the inevitable gap between rhetoric and the harsh realities of the policy choices that any party will need to make in these next few years.

These men depend upon what the social psychologist Leon Festinger (1919-1989) termed ‘cognitive dissonance’: our inability to tolerate inside us conflicting beliefs, thoughts or feelings so that we end up rejecting or devaluing one or more of these perceptions. So we may know in our heads that crime rates have fallen dramatically over the last decade – but if someone we know has been burgled, or we feel unsafe for any other reason, we will insist that the Government hasn’t done enough to cut crime. Or we may know that immigration has huge economic benefits to the county, and fills a variety of essential skilled and unskilled jobs in the UK, but if we resent the way the Polish shop on the high street has displaced our favourite cafe, then we will insist the Government must do something to stop immigrants ‘flocking’ here in unlimited numbers.

Yet a moment or two of sustained thinking will help us acknowledge that whoever is in power will face problems the magnitude of which daunts the imagination. The two most serious are environmental (about which we have heard almost nothing in the run-up to this election) and economic. Although we are not in the euro zone we see in Greece a society whose social cohesion is unravelling because the ‘financial markets’ – like the unseen amoral gods of old, indifferent to the suffering of real human beings – continue to determine our destinies wherever we live. And no major party has the courage to tell us that the only way we are going to reduce carbon emissions as a nation is through the draconian introduction of individual carbon rationing.

As the results still come in this morning it is possible that the tectonic plates beneath British politics are shifting – and a new era where co-operation and compromise prevail will have to emerge. Meanwhile it is going to be messy and fractious and somewhat inconclusive. Both major parties will claim the moral high ground and that they have a mandate to rule - and no doubt we will now be told by those parts of the media that like the pseudo-clarity of clear storylines (and obvious winners and losers) that Britain cannot tolerate such uncertainty.

But what I fear more than uncertainty is the self-righteousness of certainty. The rabbis of the Talmud knew that what really counts is who will ‘stand by a person in their hour of need’. What I fear is that as we teeter on the brink of further financial meltdown, we might be entering into another period of Government when entrenched ideology damns a further generation to economic and social despair, and that those in need – and it could be any one of us – are again neglected or abandoned.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Ashes and Dust, Dust and Ashes

Once again we see how fragile it all is. A volcano erupts in a far-off land – and the disruption to our well-ordered lives is immediate. Hundreds of thousands of UK citizens are stranded away from home, the skies of Europe empty, anxieties take off about the toxicity of the air we are breathing, schools and hospitals are unable to function, families are separated and lives are inconvenienced, there is annoyance and sometimes distress – and the vulnerability of our casual dependence on air travel is revealed in stark and discomforting ways. But nobody has died – this is not a tragedy.

The fantasy of omnipotence that modern life promotes – that it’s possible (within reason) to do anything we want, any time we want it – has been challenged over this last week. Through air travel and the internet and satellite communications technology we come to rely on the experience of inter-connectivity: that we live within a vast web of being in which we can be anywhere at any time, connecting to anyone, that goods and ideas and news and we ourselves can transcend the boundaries of locality and space. That we can (in effect) be like the gods of old - all-knowing, all-seeing, ever-present, not restricted by inhabiting a physical body that sets limits to what is possible. (Yet simultaneously we also become more and more dependent on basic resources like oil and electricity to keep the whole illusion going).

These last 20-30 years of extraordinary technological development is affecting our psyche in ways we still barely comprehend. As ‘virtual reality’ becomes integrated into our everyday down-to-earth reality, the boundaries of who we and what the limits are on what we can do are become blurred. This leads to deep inner confusion and disorientation – for our consciousness of what it means to be a human being is changing, subtly, indefinably.

Yet in the midst of this rapid transformation into new ways of living, old ways of thinking remain. I’ve been fascinated by the language used to describe the volcano’s activity. A few days into these events, I heard the journalist for Channel 4 News – usually the most solid and unmelodramatic of news outlets – open his report of the still-erupting volcano with a description of how "angry" the volcano still was; and then immediately his voiceover went on to talk about the effects this "act of God" was having on stranded tourists. And in the Observer this past weekend one commentator who had recently visited the volcano wrote of the privilege on a recent visit to Iceland of being in the presence of the volcano where he could "feel the breath of the beast and hear it stir".

Now of course all this anthropomorphism is on one level just journalistic colour – a reaching for a familiar metaphorical language to describe what is happening or being experienced. And yet it harks back to a way of thinking that suggests to me how thin is the carapace of rationality in which we wrap our consciousness.

We know volcanoes are not angry beasts and we know that they aren’t controlled by a vengeful (or playful )‘God’ – but perhaps we turn so quickly to this atavistic language because when a volcano does erupt, and the smooth ordering of our lives is radically disrupted, we glimpse how little control we have over the deep life of the planet; that the movement of mountains and seas and tectonic plates defies all our collective ingenuity as a species, that all our conquering of time and space and all our great civilisational achievements in science and technology fade into insignificance (and impotence) in relation to the random and meaningless activity of the planet’s own continual going-on-being.

At an unconscious level an event like this eruption puts us back in touch with an infantile helplessness that exists dormant within us all. And our language starts to reflect that mode of thinking – that our deep wishes for a safe and well-ordered, well-contained life are somehow under threat from powerful but arbitrary forces around us.

One of the unexpected consequences of the suspension of air travel was that many world leaders were unable to attend the funerals in Poland of those who had died in the catastrophic plane crash - this was a tragedy – near Smolensk on April 12th. The terrible echoing irony of the disaster hardly needs spelling out: the Polish President and nearly 100 senior figures in Polish society were on their way to Katyn to commemorate the Soviet massacre there of 22,000 Polish military officers and intellectual leaders during the Second World War. (The Soviets hid the crimes of Stalin’s secret police by blaming the Nazis for the murders, a lie that British and American governments colluded with after the War).

One of the deaths that I found particularly haunting to hear about was that of the sculptor Wojciech Seweryn who had campaigned for years for increased official awareness of Russian responsibility: his father had been murdered at Katyn in 1940 and he had joined this flight alongside the other Polish dignitaries in order to pay homage to his dead father’s memory.

Only silence is a suitable response to this. Or maybe - in extremis – Shakespeare’s extraordinary words from King Lear; ‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport'.

Let me finish by sharing with you parts of a letter sent by Rabbi Burt Schuman from the Progressive Jewish community in Warsaw, which offers a personal perspective on what this tragedy has meant:

Not only did we lose President Kaczynski and his wife on that fateful plane crash yesterday … but much of Poland’s political, economic, military, and diplomatic and religious leadership, including the chiefs of all branches of the military, the presidential chaplain and army chaplain, the deputy foreign minister and other foreign ministry staff, the president of the National Bank, the head of the National Security office, leaders of the Institute for National Memory, the head of the Olympic Committee, the civil rights commissioner, officials of the Ministry of Culture, the Deputy Speaker of the parliament, several presidential aides and former three members of parliament. In addition, the leaders of veterans’ groups, the last President of the Polish Government in Exile and several heroes of the Polish resistance also perished in that flight. Many of these individuals were people that I either I had met and conversed with or had seen at official functions, adding to my own personal sense of shock and grief.

… these leaders were en route to the Katyn forest at the invitation of the Russian government to observe the 70th anniversary of the hideous massacre of tens of thousands of Polish officers, among them approximately 900 Jewish officers … As Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has eloquently stated this is the greatest tragedy t o befall post-war Poland… Many in our community lost close personal friends. Moreover, the Jews of Poland have lost a great friend and advocate in President Kaczynski’s who not only spoke often and eloquently about the Jewish contribution to Polish history, on many occasions, including commemorations at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial and this past summer at the 65thanniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto this past summer… Moreover, he demonstrated that support in deeds as well as words as in his financial support for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and his visit to Israel on the heels of the Second Lebanon War…

A bit of perspective on evennts does not, I suppose, do us much harm.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

'Crisis? What Crisis?'

It is obvious that the Catholic Church is currently immersed in controversy and soul-searching. Accusations that a small number of clergy, in several countries, have in the past been guilty of sexual abusing children and other vulnerable young people are serious sources of shame for the Church. And the extent of the cover-up of these crimes is also coming to light. But this material is hardly new. It joins a larger body of evidence that within hierarchical, authority-laden institutions – be they religious or secular, be it staff in care homes or teachers in public schools or adults in that supposedly benign institution we call ‘the family’ – violence and cruelty can be (and always has been) perpetrated by authority figures against the weak and the powerless.

Priests and nuns may have a vocation, or may be seen by others as having some special ‘sanctity’ attached to them – but they are (of course) as psychologically complex as any of the rest of us. In my experience, the battle in the human soul between our creative and destructive impulses, our loving and hateful feelings, is never over for anyone. And in spite of what people might want from their clergy, ‘religious’ figures are not exempt from instinctual human desires and conflicts.

So on the one hand this latest furore about the Catholic Church is part of a much wider picture about the corrupting nature of institutions where authority becomes authoritarian. And this is as relevant to Orthodox Jewish institutions and families as to Catholic ones. And I dare say there are Muslim equivalents. But abuse of power in religious settings seems to shock us more – perhaps because the rhetoric of monotheism is full of words like love and compassion and justice.

Yet we really shouldn’t be shocked. When a religion has at its centre an authority figure – otherwise known as ‘God’ – who Himself doesn’t like challenges to his authority – "You shall have no other gods before Me" – then we can predict trouble ahead. Those who see themselves as speaking in God’s name have a potent image to draw upon when they say ‘Do what I tell you’. To think you are speaking in the name of an all-powerful deity is a dangerous belief to hold. It can justify any action you take. If God is always right and I am acting as God’s representative here on earth then it is easy to find oneself caught up in an (unconscious) omnipotent fantasy that I am always right.

So this identification with a divine power who is uncompromising in saying what is right and what is wrong – and in dictating what is forbidden and what has to happen – this unconscious identification will be used to ‘justify’ cruelty and terror and transgression. Whether it is sexual violence or domestic violence or institutional violence, this enactment by individuals of their own instinctual need to exercise power mirrors – and draws upon - monotheism’s own strands of hostility, aggression, and intolerance of dissent . And all monotheisms contain plenty of that kind of stuff, mixed in with the more benign strands of faith that believers love to quote.

So I’m never shocked by evidence of crimes by so-called ‘religious’ people. It so happens that in his career the present Pope, Benedict XVI, has been rigorous in investigating cases of clergy who have been accused of sexual abuse. But what is new on this occasion is the way in which these current accusations – of crimes and the cover-up of crimes – has been taken up by the world’s press. They now have a perfect weapon with which to beat an institution that ‘preaches love but practices abuse’ – as if all priests are secret perverts. This is never stated openly but is the subtext to much of the reporting I have read. It’s as if there is almost a kind of schadenfreude at work: ‘You claim to be so holy and good, but look at what you are really (about time!) it’s our turn to hold you responsible, to make you feel guilty ...’

Is this the revenge of the secular press (whose own authority is fading in the internet era) on the enviable religious authority of the Church? Is a secret, maybe unconscious, battle taking place – can the power of the print media bring down the power of the Church?

Take, for example, a recent article headlined ‘Pope’s preacher says attacks on Catholics are like antisemitism’(the Guardian, April 3rd) At an Easter service at St.Peter’s - attended by the Pope and other Catholic leaders - Father Raniero Cantalamessa had quoted a letter he’d received from a Jewish friend – note this, from a Jewish friend – which contained the remark that ‘The passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt reminds me of the more shameful aspects of antisemitism.’ This had caused, so it was reported, a storm of further controversy amongst Abuse Victims’ groups and Jewish representatives, particularly in Germany, whose shock and horror at this remark were duly recorded.

Now I may have some lack of moral imagination here, or a real failure of moral intelligence, but I am rather puzzled by this reported outrage. What the ‘Jewish friend’ seems to have been pointing out was that just as antisemitism is stereotyping and prejudice expressed against a whole group, so the current antagonism being expressed in the media towards the collective authority of Catholic priests and the hierarchy of the Church and the person of Benedict himself and the institutional practice of celibacy, etc , etc, is a form of prejudice - for it condemns the group, the collective institution and its ways of life, for the crimes (and sins) of some individuals.

So isn’t the analogy of antisemitism rather a useful one? Yes, it might be rather ironic from a historical perspective for a leading Catholic to use this particular analogy. But isn’t Father Cantalamessa’s inference a legitimate, benign and even illuminating perspective? - that a form of collective scapegoating is happening in the attacks on the Catholic Church that is similar in its psychological mechanism to attacks on Judaism as a religion or Jews as a collective group?

Sadly, a Catholic spokesman felt the need to issue a statement afterwards saying that the preacher wasn’t speaking as a Vatican official and that such comparisons ‘lead to misunderstandings and is not an official position of the Catholic Church.’ The problem is that for those who are so minded – the intolerant, the insecure, the paranoid, the self-regarding narcissist - anything someone else says can ‘lead to misunderstandings’.

Maybe silence is, after all, a virtue to be cultivated.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Pesach: Memories Are Made Of This...

It’s that time of year again. No matter how distant a Jew is from their heritage, no matter how secularised or alienated or acculturated, can there be anyone who does not recall, from the deepest recesses of their mind, those words of tradition that are sung or chanted, mumbled or muttered on this night: Ma nishtana ha-layla ha-ze - ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’

Something about this festival of Pesach - Passover – has lodged itself in the Jewish psyche. Deeper than questions of religious belief or unbelief – did the exodus from Egypt really happen as the Bible says it did? does a God who is concerned with the fate of a group of immigrant slaves really exist? does any kind of divine force exist or is it all legend and superstition and infantile yearning? – deeper than these doubts and questions something else stirs up at this season. Family memories begin to arise from the hidden recesses of our consciousness.

Memories of grandfathers chanting the prayers in an alien tongue, white tablecloths and dishes brought out only for this night, the bitter-sweet taste of haroset, arguments round the table, benign bedlam, everybody with a different Haggadah, the over-excitedness of tired children, the gaps at the table of relatives no longer here, the displaced seders during the War, the silence about the Shoah in the post-War seders, celebrating the seder communally on Kibbutz at long tables with hundreds of others, the search for the afikoman, the rewards and treats and shushing, the waiting for the songs, the disputes over the tunes, opening the door for Elijah and the cat walks in, or a relative home from distant parts. Memories - sentimental or enraging, tear-laden or embittered – wrap themselves round the seder night.

This is the night when we tell our story, our history, our great mythic narrative of liberation from slavery – and this is the night when, in the midst of telling a collective story, our own personal link in the chain comes alive, as we recall seders gone by. Seder night is when Judaism comes home, literally.

At no other time of the year does Jewish tradition so take over our personal lives, as individuals and families. The New Year and Yom Kippur do have their home dimensions (as of course does Shabbat) but the High Holy Days are largely celebrated (if that's the word) in the synagogue – if they are marked at all: primarily inner and reflective, they are easy to avoid, to dip into, or opt out of altogether. But Pesach seems to resonate in a different way - partly because for those of us born Jewish it is part of our earliest layers of memory in a way that Rosh Hashanah and the Day of Atonement are probably not.

If this is so, it is a small victory for the tradition – because so much of the seder ceremony and Haggadah narration focuses on the need to instruct the next generation, to tell it to the children, to induct the younger generation into the collective mythic history of the tribe. The seder is in effect a psychodrama : you eat the symbolic foods which link you to the ancient tales, you drink the ritual four cups of wine, you keep hearing the motif of four (the Four Questions, the Four Sons/Children, the Four Cups) – as if even ordinary numbers have a deeper meaning, a deeper link to history and tradition – there is communal singing of songs that might not make much sense but cause laughter in the adults...It all adds up to an evening that enacts a group mystery into which the children are to be inducted, whether they want it or not, whether they understand it or not.

The story contained in the Haggadah tells of the survival of a tribe, a people – the ‘miraculous’ survival of a people, through the generations, through history, a people who chose to gather each year to tell of their miraculous survival as a people. The Haggadah tells of a group of rabbis in Bnei Brack – five of them, so before the number symbolism was developed! - gathering in secret to tell the story two millennia ago. So far away in time - and yet already the need to tell the story, the miraculous story of liberation and survival. And we join with them on Seder night – telling the story of their telling the story – passing on to the next generation this story about storytelling, and the vital role of storytelling in the survival of the people.

It is a night when thankfulness is possible – and when other questions emerge. What is this survival for? Is it survival for its own sake - are we like the Armenians, or the Aborigines, with a collective identity and history and set of cultural traditions? - or does Jewish survival have a further purpose? The story we tell suggests that the answer, perhaps disquietingly, is yes: survival in and of itself is fine, we can appreciate what it means, but it is not the end of the story.

The story of our liberation from past oppression points towards a task, a responsibility. We know what this is. On this night we remember that we have a destiny as well as a history. Slavery and oppression are always with us – whether it is women and children sold into degradation and bondage or Palestinians oppressed by policies that humiliate and dehumanise, we live in a benighted world where the work of liberation is as urgent as ever.

May this Pesach help us recover our awareness that we belong to a people whose story only has meaning if it leads to action, to renewed commitment to others who still await their own liberation.