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Thursday, 11 February 2010

First anniversary: Listening to what’s there...

This blog is now a year old. A baby blog, crawling its way - I find I’ve just written ‘scrawling’ - into homes near and far. I hope the scrawling - ‘to write awkwardly, hastily or carelessly’ my dictionary says, so some truth there from my unconscious - has nevertheless been enlivening for you who read it.

I’m told these postings go on too long, sometimes: we are not used to reading at length on the screen. I can only empathise, and apologise. Thought is discursive – my thought is discursive – it seems not to like straight lines with neat building blocks of well-honed ideas that assemble themselves into definitive statements. I can write like that, if need be. But I prefer the organic, associative, free-floating form of narrative, that unfolds idiosyncratically and ‘By indirections find directions out’ (Hamlet, act2, scene1). Expansiveness of narrative discourse as a metaphor for the rich inner world – ever-expanding, bifurcating, alive to the impulses of the moment – that each one of us contains.

From Obama to Samuel Beckett, from Israel to Haiti by way of Berlin and Prague, the blog has led a peripatetic life these last 12 months, wandering from sermons to poetry to politics via films and plays, anti-semitism and climate change – and looking back I see no unifying theme or abiding preoccupation. No more than a wish to let you eavesdrop into one man’s confusion about how to make sense of life when there is a superabundance of stimuli straining to make themselves heard within the din of daily living.

I hope you keep posting your Comments where there is space at the bottom of each blog. Other views lend vitality to the enterprise. Emails too are welcome. We are, or have become, a kind of ‘virtual’ community – by courtesy of Google, and by virtue of your shared interest in (or passing curiosity about) my stumbling attempts at crafting sentences which try to offer a personal perspective on stuff that comes into my line of vision.

And in that attempt to generate meaning from amidst chaos and randomness, there has been (from time to time) the wish to bring in a Jewish angle of vision. I see the Judaic tradition as containing certain resources that offer another point of view, another perspective on events in the present. ‘Unless one has the past in the present, one can’t understand oneself’ the Guyanese writer Wilson Harris has said. That resonates for me: I think that’s true individually and collectively.

And I feel fortunate in having access to a way of seeing that is rooted in that ancient mode of knowing that suggests we are held within a form of being, a form of life, that unfolds moment by moment within us and around us, an immanent ‘presence’ (for want of a better word) that both sustains us and cajoles us towards ways of being human in which our creativity, our compassion, our sense of justice and mercy can outweigh our destructiveness.

In the language of the tradition, this is the realm of the ‘divine’, of ‘God’ – the force that generates all that is and sustains it in being, that is being. Jewish tradition personifies this as a Being. As if ‘being’ is a personality, a character in a cosmic drama being played out here on earth. But once we start to think of it in this way – the numinosity of being as, in essence, a personality - we are falling away from the tradition’s own revelatory understanding of ehyeh asher ehyeh – the words that the storytellers in the book of Exodus put into the mouth of the character they call Adonai. This ‘God’ character says that ‘His’ name is ehyeh asher ehyeh : ‘I will be what I will be’. So if you have to have a name for the unnameable fluidity of being and becoming in which we are all bound up – and Moses is portrayed as saying, astutely, ‘Look, the people need a name, they think concretely not abstractly!’ – then ‘I am what I am and I will be what I will be’ is as good a ‘name’ as you are ever likely to get.

The prophets of Israel tried to articulate their hopes for the people from this perspective: a vision of how people should treat each other, grounded in the seemingly impossible-to-enact hope that one’s care for others should become as important to you as one’s care for oneself. It is not out of arrogance that one places oneself in that line of tradition. For me, it feels that developing this perspective on life is almost an existential necessity, a grounding in something more substantial than my own passing whimsy or the latest modish intellectual fad or theory. It may mean a life of constant failure – but at least it has the consolation of being a failure rooted in a vision that matters, that offers a stay of execution from nihilism and meaninglessness.

The Hebrew Bible is (for me) a unique repository of fragments of wisdom, often contradictory, often baffling, often disagreeable, but still texts filled with insights into the nature of being human – and ways of telling the story of being human, with all its vicissitudes – that I value above all other texts. It allows me to listen in to contemporary events with ears attuned to eternity (as Abraham Joshua Heschel might express it).

And it allows me to read the most supposedly ‘secular’ of modern texts – poetry, prose, sociology, psychology, anthropology, scientific literature – and trace connections between the angles of vision of the Jewish tradition and the angles of vision of the present. One can read Samuel Beckett - ‘Fail. Fail Again. Fail Better’ - with eyes thousands of years old. Moses was not allowed to finish his task. His was an education in failure: leading a ‘stiff-necked’ and constantly complaining people on a journey into the unknown. The promised land is always over the horizon – utopia is endlessly deferred - and life has to be experienced and lived now, attuned to the present moment. And the Judaic task came to be understood as listening to the present moment with ears attuned to eternity.

This last Shabbat I spoke in my community about a verse from Exodus we’d just read:

‘Now! If you listen very carefully, really listen, attend to My voice (V’ata, im shamo’a tish’m’u b’koli ) and keep my covenant, then you will be a treasured possession to Me... and a kingdom of priests and a holy people’ (Exodus 19:5-6). Jewish distinctiveness, purpose, destiny - it all depends upon learning to pay attention to the Divine Voice. (The Hebrew uses the verb shema, in a doubled, intensified form). That kind of listening is, as they say, a big ask. First inwardness – then action. First reflection, mindfulness – then outer behaviour. First attentiveness - then the covenant of practice and the commitment to holy living.

And to do this knowing that no promised lands are achievable. But the journey - ah, the journey, that ‘fortunately, is a truly immense journey’ (Kafka) - that’s where our all our consolations and satisfactions are to be found, and where our innate rebelliousness is played out: the journey in the wilderness, and the stories we tell about it. Or the journey in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’:

They spent the day there, sitting among boxes and crates. You have to talk to me he said.
I’m talking.
Are you sure?
I’m talking now.
Do you want me to tell you a story?
Why not?
The boy looked at him and looked away.
Why not?
Those stories are not true.
They don’t have to be true. They’re stories.


  1. Congratulations on your first year.

    Nick Kramer

  2. Hi Howard,
    stay peripatetic, and keep sharing your cases of confusion, and stay this discursive,
    love, Jan

  3. Do keep writing. Yes you do ramble on! But I like to know that others wrestling with the same problems as me without becoming cynical and bitter. So I shall keep reading (even if I do skip a bit).