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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 surfingrabbi.com that his ordination comes from Kfar Chabad in Israel, a detail omitted from his more recent public website – yes, seriously – rabbiforsenate.com).

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.