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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.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

‘Colourless green ideas...’

Some fifty years or so ago the linguist Noam Chomsky famously conjured up a way of illustrating how language can be constructed into grammatically correct sentences – and yet be quite meaningless. ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously’ was the example he dreamed up. This is both funny and clever – and once you get the hang of it you could probably come up with your own examples.

I think often of this sentence. I think of it particularly when I listen to people speaking in public: politicians, economists, psychologists, religious leaders – anyone who puts themselves forward claiming to be able to tell us a truth, the truth, about how the world works, how human beings work, how God works, how high finance works...note how often someone is introduced as an ‘expert’ when real expertise may consist in knowing how little we know, how little we understand, how little sense there is in the unfolding and uncontrollable outpouring of life within which we are swept along like fallen leaves within a flooding stream.

There will be three 90-minute live televised debates in the next few months in the UK, featuring the three main political leaders who will be contesting the forthcoming General Election. I don’t know if I will be giving my attention to all - or any - of that torrent of words that will cascade over us. But I can tell you now that the one sentence you are most unlikely to hear within those debates is the simple and honest sentence ‘I don’t know’. Although most of us know that they don’t know – and they know we know they don’t know - they are not allowed to admit this. It would be (so we are told) political suicide.

Of course we can recognise in ourselves the deep wish for our self-styled ‘experts’ to ‘know’: it can make us feel secure that someone, somewhere , is in charge, that decisions taken in the political and economic realms will produce well-being and a sense of order, a sense that life is controllable, that randomness and chaos are not the forces that rule our unruly lives. This same regressed wish is part of what attracts people to certain dogmatic forms of religious belief – it can be comforting to believe that Someone is In Charge of the cosmos, and cares about us within it. Often no evidence to the contrary will shift this belief, so deeply embedded within us is the need to feel part of an ordered universe, one that does make ultimate sense – even if that sense is hidden from view.

I know from my own experience how easy it is – how seductive, and self-seducing it is – to construct sentences that seem to offer a glimpse of what is abidingly true. One can fall in love with one’s own rhetoric. And maybe there is no harm in such a love affair – as long as one holds in mind that it is but an arbitrary and subjective arrangement of words, spoken or written. A speech, a sermon, an article, a review – whatever the genre that my words take – I try to bear in mind that one’s artfully constructed philosophy or theology or psychology, however elegant, however becoming (and maybe particularly when it is elegant and becoming) is, in essence, a fiction, an artifice. Remembering this about myself helps me remember it when I listen to, or read, others. Call it benign distrust.

There is something quintessentially odd about language. It is our glory as a species – think of all the 5,000 and more languages we have concocted for ourselves over time. And at the same time – in a world in which if you could squeeze all the space out of atoms, the whole of the human race would fit into a sugar cube (see Marcus Chown’s Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You) – there is, alongside the glory of it all, the absurdity and indecipherability of it all.

If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction’ (Twelfth Night).

Our experts – be they political, economic or religious – make it up as they go along. Filled with passionate intensity they offer us their fictions as true beliefs, true descriptions of how the world operates. It may though be better for us – better for our well-being, our mental health – to turn to those who at least acknowledge that they are crafting fictions and who aren’t fooled into thinking (or fool us into thinking) that they are offering their audience anything but subjective narratives born out of the human imagination. As the Nobel prize winning novelist Orhan Pamuk put it in a recent essay:

It is by reading novels, stories, myths that we come to understand the ideas that govern the world in which we live; it is fiction that gives us access to truths kept veiled by our families, our schools, and our society; it is the art of the novel that allows us to ask who we really are’ (from ‘Other Colors: Essays and a Story’, 2007).

Note that key verb ‘ask’. For Pamuk, asking ‘who we really are’ - not answering the question - is what the artist does. Because answers have a deadening tendency – so often they shut things down – what we need (pace our political leaders) are stories that help us ask questions. Good questions can open us up to, maybe take us closer to, the heart of the mystery of being human. And that mystery may, in the end, defy language itself. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it: ‘Things aren’t so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered.

Or as Samuel Beckett expresses it, with the poignancy of a secular mystic struggling towards the construction of what he called a ‘literature of the non-word’: ‘More and more my language appears to me like a veil which one has to tear apart in order to get to those things (or the nothingness) lying behind it...’

Of course in that great mythic narrative we call the Kabbalah, ‘nothingness’ (Ayin) is the innermost ‘name’ of the divine. The rabbis of old knew both the power of language – and its limitations.