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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: ‘Poetry...is 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 poem...is 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.