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Monday, 19 December 2011

Hoban, Hitchens, Havel

We can be sure that the three of them never met: Russell Hoban (born of Jewish parents, who died last Tuesday, 13th), Christopher Hitchens (born, he discovered late in life, to a Jewish mother, died on Thursday, 15th), Vaclav Havel (who died on Sunday, 18th). But they meet now, in the imagination – and wherever literary souls go after death. (That snort you hear is Hitchens’ derision – the author of God is Not Great who believed in neither gods nor an afterlife nor any journey of the human soul that wasn’t filled with opposition to the status quo, to false hopes and sentimental piety, to putting our trust in any authority other than our own hard-won, rigorous and sceptical intelligence).

The Grim Reaper has harvested a rich crop this week: Hoban, a writer whose visionary fictions lodge in the psyche - in Riddley Walker (1980) he created a fully-imagined post-apocalypse feral England where language itself had mutated into barely recognisable forms of self-expression; Hitchens, polemicist and contrarian, scourge of mediocrity and hypocrisy and all those enamoured of the certainty of their causes (Henry Kissinger; Mother Teresa; Islamic – and Jewish, and Christian – fundamentalists); and Havel, the Czech playwright, dissident and political prisoner who became President of his nation with a belief that the spiritual, moral and intellectual domain of human life was as significant for human well-being as our material and economic achievements.

All three knew how to live, to live well, that is to say to live fearlessly, open to the exploration of ideas -“Explorers have to be ready to die lost” (Hoban) - and language: what it can do to us and for us: “Language is an archaeological vehicle...the language we speak is a whole palimpsest of human effort and history” (Hoban); “I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions” (Havel); “Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and - since there is no other metaphor - also the soul”(Hitchens).

Part of living well for these three truth-seekers was knowing how to enjoy the ‘simple’ pleasures. They each knew how to drink, how to smoke - “when I don't smoke I scarcely feel as if I'm living. I don't feel as if I'm living unless I'm killing myself” (Hoban) – and how to make their personal relationships even more complicated; but also how not to take themselves too seriously: “Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not” (Havel), “Your favourite virtue? An appreciation for irony...The struggle for a free intelligence has always been a struggle between the ironic and the literal mind”(Hitchens).

Strange then that Hitchens saw religion in such a literal, Dawkinsesque way. In recent years he became more and more resolute in his implacable opposition to it, claiming that it was the 1989 fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie following publication of The Satanic Verses that “completely committed me. It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humour, the individual, and the defence of free expression”. (How is it, I wonder, that for me religion belongs in the latter grouping?)

In the last decade Hitchens became a leading voice in the so-called ‘new atheism’: “The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.” I find myself in sympathy with the ethical and emotional heart of this, but as I read it I find myself thinking that Hitchens is failing to see that he is indeed articulating another kind of ‘creed’, although he explicitly denies this – “Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith”.

I find it curious that such a rigorous and often sophisticated thinker should hold to a picture of religion that is so naively literal-minded. His rigid stance suffers from an internal contradiction, for it fails to meet the definition of what he characterises as his own intellectually free approach: “We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.” And yet my own post-theistic religiosity is built upon, amongst other things, ‘science and reason...free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake...’

I suppose that for Hitchens, religious radicalism would be a contradiction in terms. Nevertheless my soul (to use the metaphor that even Hitchens finds himself calling upon) is stirred over and over by the bracing clear-sightedness of much of Hitchens’ writing : “The only real radicalism in our time will come as it always has — from people who insist on thinking for themselves and who reject party-mindedness...We have the same job we always had: to say that there are no final solutions; there is no absolute truth; there is no supreme leader; there is no totalitarian solution that says if you would just give up your freedom of inquiry, if you would just give up, if you would simply abandon your critical faculties, the world of idiotic bliss can be yours.”

Hitchens didn’t do humility – he had no time for it, there was too much else at stake. No holding back. Just a constant outpouring of sinuous prose and impassioned speech to convey as lucidly as he could his brilliant (and sometimes foolish) thoughts. So, at 62, an untimely loss – and yet for me, the death of Havel is the saddest of this week’s sad losses.

On one level, Havel’s philosophy of life overlapped with Hitchens’: “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility” – though the word ‘meekness’ marks out Havel’s own distinctive spiritual territory. And Havel’s wisdom - “There's always something suspect about an intellectual on the winning side” – serves as an implicit rebuke to Hitchens’ decision to align himself with the Iraq war and the American neo-conservative jihad (or in George W. Bush’s terms “crusade”) against what Hitchens termed, with typical rhetorical relish, “Islamo-fascism”.

Havel’s vision never succumbed to the instinct to make humanity the pinnacle of all creation: “As soon as man began considering himself the source of the highest meaning in the world and the measure of everything, the world began to lose its human dimension, and man began to lose control of it...The exercise of power is determined by thousands of interactions between the world of the powerful and that of the powerless, all the more so because these worlds are never divided by a sharp line: everyone has a small part of himself in both.” There is both humility and grandeur here.

I first came across Havel’s thinking when I read the remarkable series of letters he wrote from prison in the early 1980s to his then wife Olga, written at a time when his country was suffering from the bleakness of Communist oppression, and he was gaining some prominence as a leading Czech dissident. “The noble title of "dissident" must be earned rather than claimed; it connotes sacrifice and risk rather than mere disagreement” (Hitchens). Reading these texts from one of the founders of Charter 77 I found myself in the presence of someone who seemed to emanate great spiritual resourcefulness and insight. Encountering them helped me clarify my own thinking about the spiritual and religious necessity of ‘living with questions’ rather than too quickly attempting to offer answers.

Here - 6 September 1981 - is an example of what resonated with me then, and still speaks of a rare sensibility, the loss of which I mourn today:

“For me, the notion of some complete and finite knowledge, that explains everything and raises no further questions, relates clearly to the idea of an end – an end to the spirit, to life, to time and to being. However, anything meaningful ever said on the matter (including every religious gospel) is remarkable for its dramatic openness , its incompleteness” – it is this that shows Havel is a more subtle reader of texts than Hitchens – “It is not a conclusive statement so much as a challenge or an appeal...which never...attempts to settle unequivocally the unanswerable question of meaning. Instead, it tends to suggest how to live with the question...The question of the meaning of life is not a full stop at the end of life, but the beginning of a deeper experience of it. It is like a light whose source we cannot see, but in whose illumination we nevertheless live – whether we delight in its incomprehensible abundance or suffer from its incomprehensible paucity.

“Ultimately, being in constant touch with the mystery is what makes us genuinely human. Man is the only creature who is both a part of being (and thus a bearer of this mystery) and aware of that mystery as a mystery. He is both the question and the questioner, and cannot help being so...”

I know that my own life has been enriched, enlivened, in multiple ways by my contact over the years with all three of these wise men. And that - though the Festival of Lights is upon us - the world seems suddenly smaller, less luminous, without them.

Zichronam livracha: may their memory be a blessing.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

“Auf Wiedersehen, England”

Brentford Town Football Club have a German manager, Uwe Rösler. Last week they visited my local club and the match had the usual level of tedium and occasional drama and in the end ‘my’ team won (a penalty shoot-out). I should have left feeling suitably elated – but I didn’t. What I took away from the game was the shock of hearing the home supporters engage in a series of abusive comments at the opposition manager that ranged from the xenophobic to out-and-out racism.

Most of this invective was done under the habitual English guise of humour – ‘banter’ – but it seemed to me that the echo of those mock-German accents culled from decades of post-War UK cinema , TV and tabloid headlines – ‘ve have vays of making you play’ – and the crude barking of stereotypical phrases like ‘Jawohl’ when the manager shouted to his players, betrayed an ugly and unthinking anti-German malice that would not have been tolerated against players of any other ethnic origin, or indeed against managers of any other nation. Supporters can sometimes be rude – in a friendly or unfriendly manner – against opposition managers, but this was something else.

That it happened during the same week that Europeans – including the British - became even more aware that their collective economic fate now lies in the hands of Germany is probably just a co-incidence – anti-German feeling is a regular, sickening feature of populist English culture. But as I slowly digested the debacle of David Cameron’s performance in Brussels a few days later, my mind kept going back to that evening at Barnet Football Club where I witnessed this longstanding English prejudice in all its nakedness and shame.

I would suggest that this anti-German feeling is fuelled by deep unconscious envy. Germany’s post-War economic recovery and social transformation was impressive enough, and then in 1989 it took on the unprecedented financial, social and psychological task of integrating a divided nation. Its work ethic, its technological achievements, its ability to integrate several millions of immigrants with relative success, its capacity to make an honest accounting of, and restitution for, its national crimes – all this is evidence for the way in which Germany has become a stable, mature and self-reflective success as a nation and the dominant democracy in Europe. (And they are also rather good at football: much more successful over the years – in spite of 1966 – than England, and maybe it is this above all that, at least in the popular imagination, the English can’t stand, and leads to such crude mockery and contempt).

Contrast Germany’s success as a country with the UK story of post-War decline – the dissolution (and destruction) of our manufacturing industries, our loss of control over the old Empire, the contraction of our military capabilities, the perpetuation of class divisions and glaring inequalities, the coarsening of public discourse...add to the list yourself. It seems we have yet to make a true reckoning of our decreased stature and significance in the world. In place of this truth-telling (and generations of politicians of all parties have colluded in this) we have a distorted and false picture of our collective national identity.

Our relative impoverishment – materially and in the quality of life, in the capacity to devise integrated transport systems, in social and health care, in education – is palpable whenever one leaves these shores and travels or spends time in what we still quaintly think of as ‘the Continent’, or – more tellingly – we islanders still think of as ‘Europe’. We might have joined the European Union in myriad practical and beneficial ways – but the Brits still haven’t joined ‘Europe’ in their minds. David Cameron has just acted out years of this systemic psychological failure to re-configure ourselves as a European country.

I am – as might be evident from some of these remarks – passionately pro-European; and so I consider Cameron’s ineptitude a symbol of a basic fault-line that runs through the UK’s national psyche. The jokey tag that has become so popular in recent decades as a mark of this country’s pseudo self-assurance – ‘Two World Wars and One World Cup’ – has come home to roost. The fact is that, in spite of its current difficulties, ‘Europe’ will continue to thrive and prosper without us. But the UK won’t (can’t) thrive or prosper without ‘Europe’ – there is only so long that a nation can sustain itself with fantasies of past greatness, delusions of self-importance, and the unconscious omnipotence that in a transnational global economy we can steer and save one part of the ship while the other decks are overwhelmed by the tides of history.

Angela Merkel may not have the right formula for rescuing the European economy, but Cameron’s proud isolationism brings to mind George Orwell’s insight that ‘The insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously, is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time’.

Call me a ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ if you like – the Soviet euphemism widely used during Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaigns in the 1950s as a way of accusing Jewish thinkers of lack of patriotism – but as a Jew whose soul is knitted to the historic vibrancy of life in Berlin and Vienna and Prague and Budapest, and all the rest of the countless places on ‘the Continent’ where Jews lived and thrived (and, yes, suffered) but contributed their unique intellectual heritage and giftedness to the general well-being of so many societies and nations, I have been hugely saddened by Cameron’s ‘little Englander’ stance. As a European British Jew in the second decade of the 21st century I still have a psychological and spiritual - existential - commitment to that transnational diasporic vision of the creative inter-connectedness of pan-European life.

And it is of course a rather extraordinary historical irony that it is Berlin (again) that must embrace its special destiny – this time round to lead Europe to a more hopeful future. But this time, if it fails, if the German-led European project fails, xenophobic nationalism (not just in the UK) is just itching to return. And who will history’s victims be, I wonder, the next time round?

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Jacob's Dream

The English poet Stephen Spender once remarked that “the language of a nation, embodied in its literature, is its spiritual life”. I think about these words each time we arrive - during the annual cycle of Torah readings - at the text that describes Jacob’s dream (Genesis 28:10-22). When it sometimes can feel that we live in an increasingly disordered and fragmented world, the twelve verses of this Hebrew text offer us a glimpse into another world: a world where meaning hovers within language, where we can rest for a moment secure in the knowledge that we are being held in the embrace of a consummate storyteller, a narrator who is able to conjure up a vision of eternity - of the ‘intersection of the timeless/ With time’ (T.S.Eliot) – just by placing one word artfully next to another. For me, it’s the jewel in the crown of Biblical storytelling.

It is of course – as are so many mythological narratives – a story about a journey. Our ‘hero’ – who we know is no hero - is seen setting out with purpose. He leaves Beersheva, and seems to have a destination in mind: Haran (verse 10). But we know – both because we have read our world’s mythic literature (Jason, Ulysses, Parsifal), and because we have lived long enough to discover that things rarely turn out as we intend – that geographical journeys can metamorphose into journeys of a different kind: inner journeys, that depend upon who – or what – we chance to meet along the way.

And no sooner has the journey begun than ‘chance’ does indeed turn up. ‘And he lighted upon/he happened upon/ he came upon by chance – va’yifgah – the place…’ (v.11). “Coincidence is not a kosher word”, that wily storyteller Isaac Bashevis Singer once remarked, intuiting that from a Jewish religious perspective ‘chance’ is never what it seems. Jacob chanced upon ‘the place’ – and three times in the verse our narrator emphasizes this ‘place’. It’s not just any place, but ‘the place’ where the Eternal will reveal itself.

Traditional commentators – being somewhat literal minded on occasions - wanted to identify the location of this ‘place’. Rashi suggests it was Mount Moriah - i.e. Jerusalem, the spiritual centre of the world, as it were. Others, basing themselves on the ‘chance’ equivalence in numerical value of the Hebrew letters for ‘ladder’ and ‘Sinai’, suggest that Jacob’s encounter with the divine occurs at that later-to-become-famous mountain of collective revelation. But a Hasidic interpretation moves us from geography to metaphysics: the thrice-repeated makom of verse 11 refers, it is suggested, to a meeting with Ha-Makom – which is one of the rabbinic names for God. ‘God is the place of the world’, said the rabbis, ‘but’ – and here’s a paradox – ‘the world is not God’s place.’ (Genesis Rabbah, Va’yetze, 68:9)

What this story hints at – no, more than hints at, what it quietly and subversively suggests – is that ‘happening upon’ God can take place anywhere, at any time. But what the story also dramatizes is that it happened to Jacob only when he moved away from home, from the familiar (and from his family), from the known, the secure, the everyday.

The text tells us that he lay down to sleep ‘because the sun had set’ (v.11). The detail seems superfluous - until we realize that when the sun next rises it is twenty years later, when Jacob wrestles with the stranger at the river Jabbok and we read ‘And the sun rose upon him at Penuel’ (32:32). So we know that are in the hands of a narrator who wants us to read symbolically and not only literally. Jacob spends 20 years ‘in the dark’ – he runs away from his brother’s anger, having stolen a blessing from Esau. He is the trickster, the ‘heel’ (it’s the root of his name, Ya’akov) – and he is running from the ‘dark’ side of himself, gaining much in the material world (along with two wives), but still on the run from much unfinished business at home and within himself.

We sense how the psychological is woven seamlessly into the narrative – and we sense too how impoverished we might be in separating out the strands of our own lives into ‘psychological’ and ‘spiritual’ and ‘emotional’ and ‘mental’, rather than marvelling at the boundryless superfluity of being that exists within us.

After the wrestling scene - where a blessing emerges and Jacob’s name is transformed to ‘ Yisrael’ , ‘the one who struggles with, and on behalf of, the divine’ - he re-meets Esau, and peace (of a sort) is made. But until then it’s one long night, during which he must struggle both with the deceiver in himself and with the meanings of the dream-vision he receives at the beginning of that long night of the soul.

And what a dream it is! Verbs in the past tense give way to participles and the immediacy of the present moment and we are in the dream:

‘And behold: a ladder standing towards the earth and its top reaching towards the heavens
And behold: the messengers of the divine ascending and descending on it
And behold: Adonai standing beside it…’ (verses12-13)

Inside the dream time stands still. The worlds of heaven and earth are held together in one numinous image: a ladder hovers between the two domains; it is – perhaps surprisingly - suspended between the two realms, it is standing not on the ground but towards the ground (artza) and its top is reaching towards heaven (hashamaima). It floats – like us – between earthboundedness and heavenly aspiration.

Then: all is in movement, in flux, the mal’akhim, messengers of divinity, ascending and descending, heaven and earth are interrelated, energy is moving constantly between them, the boundaries are fluid, between ‘here’ and ‘there’ there is ceaseless movement, a continuously flowing interchange: the medium of the mal’akhim represents the message, the spiritual (and psychological) truth - everything is connected to everything else.

And the third, consummating component presents itself in the dream space: the ladder which is standing, and the messengers of God which are moving, merge into the Eternal [YHVH] who is standing alav – ‘beside him’, ‘above him’. But also ‘beside it’ or ‘above it’ (the ladder). The Hebrew is delightfully ambiguous throughout these dream verses. We are being nudged away from literalism towards the multiplicity of being.

Similarly with v’rosho: is it the ‘top’ of the ladder reaching towards heaven? Or ‘his head’ reaching heavenwards? And the movement of the messengers/angels is described as ascending and descending bo – ‘on it’ (the ladder). But this pronoun also means ‘in him’ or ‘within him’. The language is both internally and externally referential. Like a Cubist painting that juxtaposes two competing perspectives of the same face to create a new possibility of perception, so our text keeps presenting this double perspective around which our attention must constantly hover.

Whether we think of the earthly and the divine, the material and the spiritual, inner and outer reality, consciousness and the unconscious – all those binary opposites with which we normally wrap/warp our minds – within this dream imagery our narrator subverts our normal dualistic thinking. And that’s before we even reach the verbal component of the dream…

No wonder Jacob is filled with awe when he awakes: what has been revealed to him is a spiritual truth that takes a lifetime to comprehend and explore and, hopefully, remain baffled by: the divine is always present – ‘I am with you’ (v.15).

Sunday, 30 October 2011

St.Paul's and the Crisis in Capitalism

The crisis is happening in a sort of slow-motion car-crash way. We all know it – and may feel powerless in relation to it. But it is a crisis.

I was down at St.Paul’s Cathedral early last week, spending some time there (mostly in the rain), trying to absorb what is going on, what this ‘Occupy London’ movement is about, trying not to let my mind be filled with how the media are representing it, but seeing for myself, talking to people, wandering round the site into the educational centre and the multi-faith centre and the media centre and the volunteer-run kitchens and the legal aid centre and the entertainment centre and the first-aid centre – I use the word ‘centre’ but actually I should say tent, because all of these centres of activity are under canvas, (well, polyurethane, to be accurate), but anyway, tents large and small, spread out higgledy-piggledy and yet in a curiously tidy way, around the Cathedral, with clear and safe access to and from the building for those who want to use it.

There seemed to be a lot of good-natured conversations going on that day, between camera-wielding visitors and those living there or just giving up time to be there – academics and lawyers, teachers and the unemployed, young and old, sober suits in earnest conversation with dreadlocks and grunge – discussions serious and jovial, with the great religious building providing a backdrop - and a silent commentary (apart from the bells) – on the social and political issues at stake for all of us, but being given specific attention by the inhabitants of these makeshift booths plastered with posters and quotations and lists of daily events, discussions and lectures and films on worthy issues like the dangers of deep-sea oil drilling or political oppression in South America or the implications of the savage cuts to legal aid in the UK.

It felt like a new hybrid, a cross between politics and street theatre, an on-going act of performance art that, like all art, wants to change the world – or perhaps, less grandiosely, just help us see the world differently.

Trying to see the world differently, trying to live out certain ethical values, is of course a Jewish preoccupation, a Jewish meshuggas, that stubborn refusal to accept the world as it is, a stubborn belief that we could live in better and more life-enhancing ways. During Sukkot there was a Jewish tent, a sukkah, offering hospitality; and on Simchat Torah dancing and song; and a Shabbat service is planned. Jews have been bringing their values into the mix – and they bring their humour.

‘Now is the Winter of our Discount Tents’ reads one banner [for my blog readers in other countries for whom English is not your first language, this is a rather delicious re-working of Shakespeare’s line from Richard III, ‘Now is the winter of our discontents’] - humour being one of the hallmarks of this gathering in the centre of London , along with civility and co-operation and a principled spirit of commitment not to inconvenience those who live in the area or work in the area or who have businesses in the area. It was all curiously tidy – not a scrap of litter and large recycling bins at the very centre of the encampment.

And the talk was of a range of issues – political and environmental and economic – and the commitment to try and create a particular form of community. And to my surprise there seemed a lot of respect, praise, for the church officials and workers who have been involved with them this last fortnight – this was even before Canon Giles Fraser’s principled resignation on Thursday – and, again surprisingly, what seemed a mutual respect (muted but apparent) between the police and the protesters. Though they say they are not protesters, but ‘resisters’.

And what they are resistant to is encapsulated in one of the largest banners on the site: ‘Capitalism is Crisis’ it reads; which as a slogan is rather simplistic, and makes it easy for us to be sceptical. But as propaganda for a cause it is quite effective, because it can provoke us to think more deeply, more rigorously, about what is going on in relation to the values we live by; and how we organise ourselves in societies; and the systemic failures we have to endure.

I don’t agree that ‘Capitalism is Crisis’: it might be in crisis but Judaism traditionally didn’t disparage wealth creation – it just insisted (regularly and rather boringly) that when wealth had been generated it needed to be distributed fairly, equitably, that spreading justice was a higher value than accumulating wealth, that charity was an obligation, that with wealth comes responsibility; that a society that neglected the poor, the widow, the orphan, the outsider, that deprived them of the means to live with dignity, that refused to listen to their cries for help, their needs, their well-being – that such a society where wealth was generated but not used for the good of all, that kind of society was – to use a traditional word – sinful. And, as both the Torah and the prophets intuited, such societies were doomed, would in the end be destroyed (from the outside), or destroy themselves.

I was very impressed by what I saw this week. More than impressed, I would say I was rather inspired. It is easy to poke fun at this gathering, it’s easy to be a bit scared (as I felt for moments) by the otherness of people, the way they look, the way they sound - you inevitably get people at these kind of open gatherings with a variety of mental health problems - but what was inspirational was the tolerance I saw, the kindness, the commitment to a laborious form of collective decision-making: meetings open to everyone at 1 pm and 7 pm each day with a slow process of listening and speaking and respecting different views until some coherent consensus was achieved – that’s a commitment to a particular kind of inter-personal respect; it’s a commitment that unites a secular belief in the dignity of the individual with a religious belief in the holiness of each human being.

And percolating through it all, what is inspirational is the passion on display for a different model of living together in community. And yes it is easy to be sceptical and dismissive of this as naive – or to condemn it, as a lot of the media and Tory MPs have done, as hypocritical because some of these people have a coffee at Starbucks, or charge their mobile phones there. But this smug moral point-scoring quite misses the point.

And the point is that all around the world this year, starting in Spain with the los indignados protests, there have been groups coming together, for one-off events or day after day – 400,000 in Tel Aviv in August on the streets demanding of the Israeli government a fairer ordering of society, prioritising jobs and homes and education and care of the elderly – people gathering in 900 cities world-wide this month, and they are not all saying ‘Capitalism is Crisis’ but they are all responding to global capitalism being in crisis.

This Shabbat we read the mythic Tower of Babel story, Genesis 11: 1-9. But a myth can contain powerful truth if you know how to read it right, if you listen in to its message, to what is hidden inside its fairytale-like exterior. And the Tower of Babel is a story that speaks about what is happening now, it tells us about a society that ‘had the same language and the same words’ and the people said ‘Come on, let’s all build a city with a tower that reaches to heaven’ – literally a skyscraper – ‘and let’s make a name for ourselves...’

And this is what we have done, more powerfully than ever before in the history of this planet – the same language, the same words, whether you in London or Berlin, New York or Brussels or Beijing: ‘globalisation, economic growth, free-market turbo-capitalism, deregulation, consumerism based on the manufacture of desire’ – this is what we have built over the last fifty years or so. This is the name of the game – and what a ‘name we have made for ourselves’.

You can go up to Hampstead Heath and look out over the city, this wonderful, awesome, awful city of ours, London, and you survey the thrusting Canary Wharf-Gherkin-Shardification of our skyline, all that glitter and glass and phallic cold steel – and you don’t have to be the God of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, to think: no good will come of all this, the omnipotent building and the idolisation of growth; and you don’t have to be the Holy One of Israel to think: who do these people think they are, playing god with people’s lives?

There is an extraordinary story in the Jewish tradition, a midrash about the Tower of Babel, where the rabbis said that the Tower had seven levels on its east side and seven on its west side: builders brought the bricks up one side and then came down the other. And if a person slipped and fell down and died, nobody paid any attention and the work went on. But if a brick fell down, everyone stopped working and wept: ‘OMG, they said – Woe is us! How, when, are we going to get another brick to replace it!’

So you don’t have to be a Marxist critic of capitalism to see what is going on in this story. Two thousand years ago the rabbis were aware that people were quite ready to put the projects of empire-building before care for people, for individuals. Building the brand becomes more important than the conditions of the workers. Profit margins take precedence over alleviating poverty. It’s a universal story and it has led us in our own times into a profound crisis.

But this time no God is going to look down and destroy the project and scatter the people and confound their language. We are the gods now – or think we are. Co-incidentally this Shabbat, because it was a new moon, we also read another part of our mythic narrative from the Book of Genesis, about the fourth day of creation, which describes the creation of the sun and the moon and the stars: it’s a story wrestling with the mystery of how did they come to be here, these celestial bodies, how did they come into existence? how is it that we live just the right distance from the sun – 93,000,000 miles – not too hot, not too cold, that we can live at all on the fragile surface of this tiny planet in the middle of nowhere? how can that be, how can that possibly be?

And we, who have become the gods now – or think we are – we have a universal language now, just like in the story of the Tower of Babel, and with this language of science and technology (on which of course the global markets now depend) we can measure the heat of the sun, and we can land a man on the moon, and we can see pictures in wonderful colour and awesome detail of stars being born and stars dying: we can do all this miraculous stuff, we have build a civilisation brick by brick, with information added to information, a world solid and towering and magnificent – and I don’t decry it, because I wouldn’t want to live in a world without penicillin or be operated on with a carving knife - so we have build this world with towers of knowledge and expertise; but we can’t yet care, we still don’t care, for those who fall off the edge, who depend for their homes and their well-being, and their very lives sometimes, who depend on the politicians and wealth-creators to devise ways of sharing it – more equally, more justly, more compassionately. If we can put men on the moon and capture the birth of stars, surely we can use our ingenuity to prevent one fifth of the children in this country living in poverty?

And those protestors, resisters, are saying: We can do this, if there is the will to do it, we can do things better, we can pay attention to those who fall off the project. And around the world there are many, many who fall off, who slip out of sight, who are exploited and abused and used for the sake of the Babel projects of profit and consumption. We can do it differently, we need to do it differently, and the challenge for the younger generation growing up in this world – and the majority of those I saw at St Paul’s were young (but then most people look young to me these days) – the challenge is to do it differently, to do it better. They are not going to have any choice – because the Tower is tottering, and when it falls, who will have the energy, the experience, the wisdom, to re-build on more secure foundations, on more deep-rooted human values?

Those people in those tents may be gone by Christmas, by choice or by eviction; this may be an ephemeral, a transient occupation of the space around St.Paul’s. But they will be back, in one form or another, here and abroad, they will be back because they represent something eternal, something very Jewish actually, a belief, a hopefulness – what use to be called messianic hopefulness - that we can do better than this. We can build a society, brick by brick: dignity, justice, generosity, compassion, care, companionship - these are the building blocks of real community and a good, a godly, society where people are more valued than profit margins, where sharing what we have is more important than share options. We can do it better.

[Extracted and adapted from a sermon given on October 29th at Finchley Reform Synagaogue]

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Thoughts on Impermanence

How much insecurity can you bear in your life? How much awareness of the randomness, the sheer contingency and unpredictability of life? How much do we want to be reminded of the fragility of our bodies, our minds, our social structures, the innate vulnerability grafted into the carefully-constructed fabric of our daily lives?

Religious traditions can seem to offer some respite from the unsettling reality of inhabiting bodies that gradually fail us, and societies where our sense of well-being is dependent on social, political and financial forces outside any individual’s control. Religions attempt to create – through a rich interweaving of communal and personal rituals, ethical practices, sanctioned behaviours and elaborate theological gymnastics – a meaningful world for believers to inhabit. They seek to keep existential terror at bay – the terrifying fear that life has no inherent meaning; is, in Thomas Hobbes’ words, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’; and that we avoid this fate more by luck than our own good judgement.

I offer these thoughts during this week-long festival of Sukkot. I find it hard to get excited by Sukkot when it is thought about solely as a late autumn ‘nature’ festival with the waving of the traditional lulav and etrog akin to an act of primitive ‘sympathetic magic’ where one asks ‘God’, as opposed to the gods, to bring rain in sufficient quantities to ensure the survival of your crops, and therefore of yourself. This might have given the festival a real existential edge two millennia ago; but it doesn’t justify it now.

However there are other customs which do speak to me. The questions that surround The central symbol – the temporary shelter, the sukkah, constructed next to one’s home, where one eats and sometimes sleeps for the duration of the festival – seems to me to be is an antidote to religious certainty: it opens us to a range of questions about our personal and collective need for security, and our fragmentary awareness that genuine security may not be achieved through attachment to the material world.

Made of organic materials, branches and leaves, the roof of the sukkah must be such that one can see through to the stars at night: as one looks up, and out, there is a dawning realisation of the impermanence and fragility of all we build and hold dear. We recall the origin of these ‘booths’ in the mythic narrative of the Israelites’ forty year journey through the wilderness towards a distant ‘promised land’. The Biblical story describes the temporary homes the people built – sometimes for months, sometimes for years – and their education into the reality of following the peripatetic divine force that always moved them on in ways they could never predict or control.

For me, Sukkot is a reminder that permanence and certainty are antithetical to a spiritual sensibility. The great German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, scribbling a new theology on postcards in the trenches of the First World War, saw the festival as symbolising something vital both for his diasporic people and, he intuited, something with a universal resonance: it ‘serves to remind the people that no matter how solid the house of today may seem, no matter how temptingly it beckons to rest and unimperilled living, it is but a tent which permits only a pause in the long wanderings through the wilderness of centuries’ (from The Star of Redemption).

In sensitising us to our transience, the festival invites us to think of those for whom unsettledness and transient living are the norm, not merely an annual religious ritual. The invitation of guests, strangers, ‘outsiders’, into one’s home is a habitual part of Jewish social living that receives a special emphasis at this time of the year. Hospitality as an everyday virtue takes on a deeper religious significance. My own synagogue – Finchley Reform Synagogue (www.frsonline.org) - is making itself available this winter, along with local churches, as a host venue for Homeless Action in Barnet, offering a cooked meal, a warm place to sleep, washing and toilet facilities, fresh clothes, conversation and breakfast for the area’s homeless.

Our guests will help us understand what George Steiner has called ‘an arduous truth’ that emerges from the mystery of Jewish resilience: ‘that human beings must learn to be each other’s guests on this small planet.’

[This is an expanded version of an article that first appeared in The Guardian on October 15th: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/oct/14/sukkot-festival-transient-living-guests?INTCMP=SRCH]

Monday, 10 October 2011

What's 'Appropriate' Supposed To Mean? - some thoughts on Yom Kippur

The New Yorker is a magazine famous, amongst other things, for its cartoons. They often manage to illuminate an aspect of contemporary life with just an image and a caption. Memorable cartoons do this – they are better than my blogs and sermons because they have pictures, and very few words.

One cartoon that caught my attention recently portrays the Devil – in whom, of course, we moderns don’t believe: ‘It’s getting much harder for me to distinguish good from evil’, laments the Devil, ‘All I’m certain about is what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate’.

This isn’t hilarious, but it strikes me as having a sly profundity. I’ve been struck for a long time now by how often those two weasel-words – ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ - come up in conversations. And not only in everyday informal conversations. You hear this language from politicians, from social workers and the police, from doctors, therapists, businessmen, teachers, TV interviewers, even the military. And yes, you hear it from liberal-minded clergy, those who might fight shy of offending congregants with the traditional Biblical distinction, basic to all monotheism (as even the Devil knows), the distinction between good and evil.

Why am I so disparaging about these words? It’s not because I don’t think it is important to think carefully about these terms ‘good’ and ‘evil’, but because almost every time I hear the words used what I really hear is someone using ‘inappropriate’ to mean “this is something I happen not to like”; and ‘appropriate’ to mean “that’s something we happen to approve of”. The word is invariably used in a deeply subjective way, while trying to give the impression of objectivity.

For example, when discussing how the synagogue to which I belong will be offering hospitality and a bed and meal to local homeless people one evening a week this winter (alongside local churches), someone complained to me: ‘But a synagogue is not an appropriate place for people to sleep’. When I expressed my puzzlement about this, it soon became clear that what they meant was ‘I personally feel uncomfortable about this, I feel a bit frightened, I would really rather not think about the fact that there are people living within a half mile of me who don’t have a home.’ But this mass of subjective feelings got covered up by the immediate use of the word ‘inappropriate’.

It’s a hand-me-down word, an off-the-peg word we often reach for to avoid really thinking about an issue, or doing the necessary work to uncover what might be a whole mixed range of our emotional responses. I think it’s often used as a way of hiding feelings; or as a substitute for thinking.

But what that New Yorker cartoon intuits is that in some quarters there has been an apparent cultural shift in recent decades away from the old certainties, the clear moral judgments you find reflected, for example, in the liturgy of the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur . This liturgy presents a simple binary opposition between good and bad, righteousness and sinfulness, what God wants from us and what God condemns. The cartoon though is pointing to the way that those simple dichotomies of old have fallen away, that there’s been a sea-change in our culture, and that a form of moral relativism has overtaken the old moral certainties.

There may be a deep confusion when we are thinking about goodness, truth, personal conduct, a society’s values. Once the rigidity of those traditional distinctions between good and bad is called into question, we have nothing left except subjective feeling, or the transience of whatever is deemed fashionably correct. But to hide all this subjectivity from ourselves we reach for the pseudo-objectivity of describing everything as either ‘appropriate’ or ‘inappropriate’.

And yet at the same time, those old polar opposites which have been part of religious thinking for millennia haven’t disappeared. On the contrary: you just have to glance at tabloid headlines, or listen to Question Time on BBC TV, to discover that ‘evil’ is still a regular part of popular thinking - even when people no longer believe in the religious framework where the concept originated. Evil has become secularized. And we fall back on the laziness inherent in believing we really do exist in a world of black and white choices and values.

There may well be a deep wish for the world to be securely divided up in this way – it makes life much simpler. But we know in our hearts that life isn’t simple; and that the traditional religious mind-set of simple moral absolutes is over, the days when we can talk in a child-like way about ‘good’ people and ‘bad people’, as if the world is divided, George W. Bush-style, into ‘evil-doers’ and the rest of us.

Although many of the narratives of the Hebrew Bible (like all great literature) show a remarkably sophisticated awareness of moral complexity, there are parts of the Bible (and much of traditional Jewish liturgy) where the thinking reflects the belief that the world is split into simple opposites. And yet one of Judaism’s great insights evolved out of, and away from, this dualistic tendency within the Hebrew Bible.

Because Judaism was, and is, an evolving civilization - one that grew more and more aware of the emotional and psychological complexities of life – the realization emerged early on that there is a battle that goes in within each of us between what the Talmudic rabbis called our yetzer tov and our yetzer ha-ra, our inclination towards goodness and our inclination towards evil. These forces, these drives, are in constant tension with each other inside us, and being human means living with that tension, wrestling with ourselves in order that more of our innate goodness shows through than its opposite.

In other words Judaism does not believe in original sin, it doesn’t believe we are born one way, or fated to be one way. It believes in the struggle within each of us to allow our creative capacities - our capacities for love and kindness and compassion and justice - to win out over our destructive capacities, our capacities for hurting others, for contempt and hatred and jealousy and envy. And because we are struggling with this, knowingly or unknowingly, every day of our lives, those ancient rabbis, in their wisdom, built into the Jewish year a period of time when one can concentrate on that continual ebbing and flowing between our creativity and our destructiveness. They suggested that the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offer this opportunity, the opportunity for teshuvah, which means change, return - return to our better selves.

It may be that we moderns are all, in William Blake’s immortal words, ‘of the Devil’s party without knowing it’ – because the Devil seems to have all the fun, and the freedom to wreak havoc, to be selfish, to be careless about what matters; and the Devil doesn’t have to feel guilty, or that he should try harder. But what Yom Kippur offers – for those who want it – is the devilishly difficult opportunity to assess if we are capable of changing this precarious balance between our capacity for goodness and our capacity for selfishness. Can we shift the balance between what is constructive and life-enhancing in us – and what is destructive and deadly?

David Brooks is a Jewish American author whose new book ‘The Social Animal: A Story of How Success Happens’, in spite of its rather slick and superficial title, has some important things to say about how our minds work, how we work, how our brains can take in 11 million pieces of information at any one moment - of which we are consciously aware of maybe 40, at most. And that most of the time there is a gap between the thoughts in or heads and the emotions and intuitions that actually guide how we experience the world. So we might have an idea like ‘More money – that’s what I need to be happy’ or ‘I need to work harder, earn a better living and then I’ll just feel happier and more fulfilled’. That’s what our heads might say. We might really believe it – or we might have been told we should believe it.

But inside us another voice we are less familiar with will be saying – and this is a voice nearer to the truth of how we really experience well-being – this quieter voice will be whispering: ‘Actually the relationship between money and happiness is very tenuous; it’s relationships, personal connections to other people that count - that’s what leads to real contentment’. And what David Brooks shows, with a mass of evidence drawn from neuroscience and related studies, is that joining a group that meets just once a month to do some activity produces the same increase in happiness as doubling your income. (And that is just as well – because none of us is going to be doubling our income any time soon, if ever again).

Beyond a certain minimum income, well-being is all about the number of people you associate with and how intimately you associate with them.

There are many ways to feel this kind of connectedness. I have a particular interest in synagogue communities, for all their problematic nature (they can drive you mad, if you let them). But community is also a place which can bring blessing to others, and into the world.

That might sound very grand, even grandiose. ‘We can bring blessing to others’ – but this is the promise encoded at the heart of Judaism, promised to Abraham in that mythic saga of chosenness, ‘through you all the peoples of the world will be blessed’ (Genesis 22:18). An absurd promise, an incredible promise, you’d have to be mad to believe it, it’s inflated and deluded – and yet Jews have believed it for generations, secretly in their hearts even when their minds wanted to reject it. Believed it and lived it. ‘We can bring blessing to others’, this is our purpose, our destiny, our mission, our rationale. We can be a blessing to others when the goodness within us emerges from the pain, the confusions, the doubts, the scepticism that is also part of what it means to be Jewish.

But first I think we have to learn to be a blessing to ourselves, to forgive ourselves our failings and inadequacies, our lack of moral vision, our lack of insight into what is truly important, our seduction by material values that don’t in the end make us happy. It can be hard to stop feeling guilty, feeling bad about our failures: we are often more cruel towards ourselves than to anyone else. Part of the work of Yom Kippur, as we ask for forgiveness, is to find a way to forgive ourselves.

These are difficult times we are living in. You don’t have to be told. You know it every day of your lives, every time you listen to the news, every time you lie awake at night worrying, every time you reach for your anti-depressants or the whisky bottle. Out there is the manic-depressive behaviour of stock-markets, the shortsightedness and greed of the financial sector, the growing unemployment, the growing gulf between rich and poor here and abroad, the endless impotent political game of blame and denial – our lives are bound up in a global system that is in deep trouble, on a planet that is itself in deep trouble.

So to talk about the role of forgiveness – of oneself, of others – might sound laughable. To talk of being a blessing, each of us developing our capacities to give and to love, might seem absurd and irrelevant in the face of the growing darkness around us.

Opening our hearts to family life and friendship and community - it doesn’t sound much, it might seem like lighting a candle in a storm; but our tradition suggests that this light we offer is how God becomes present in the world. Now, you don’t have to believe that - but it is an insight that has sustained our people for generations. Our goodness, our compassion, our acts of lovingkindness – these are fragments of divinity trapped within the chaotic, confused, messiness of our lives.

Our work on Yom Kippur is to consider how we can release and live out those divine fragments: can we return to the love we are capable of showing? can we renew our hope from amidst the wreckage of disillusioned lives? can we restore our confidence that random acts of kindness can lighten the darkness we see, can make a difference, can tip the scales, can help us inscribe our names in the Book of Life for the year ahead?

On Yom Kippur we open ourselves up, individually and collectively: we are reminded that we are flawed and fragile and yet have courage and strength grafted to our soul. We look around us and see other flawed and fragile and vulnerable human beings – we are all in this together. And we see how much we need each other, need each other’s help, need each other’s blessing.

[Extracted and adapted from a much longer (!) sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue on Kol Nidrei, the eve of Yom Kippur, October 7th 2011]

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Random Acts of Kindness – some New Year Thoughts

A few weeks ago when having supper with some friends the conversation turned, as it does at this time of the year (at least in my home), to sermons. I wondered aloud - slightly disingenuously – as to what was on people’s minds at the moment, what themes and issues were preoccupying them? What do we want – or need – to hear about as a New Year begins?

Are we wanting to be distracted from our concerns and worries and problems; or helped to find a different perspective on them? Do we want an escape from daily life -or do we want to confront things? Do we want to be challenged – or do we want to be entertained? Do we want to focus on celebration, on the ‘happy’ in the ‘happy New Year’ – or do we want to reflect on the question of ‘goodness’ (what it is, and what gets in the way of it) in the Hebrew greeting Shana Tova, ‘a good year’?

People offered various themes for me to consider. It was soon after the UK riots and everyone had a view about these; and I am sure there are some important things to say about the causal links that run between family dysfunction, economic deprivation, social impoverishment, and crime; and I suppose we could go on to reflect on how the lack of personal control involved in looting shops , and the breakdown of moral values it represents, is a mirror of recent scandals over MPs’ expenses, or the sanctioning of phone-hacking to steal information, or indeed the looting of public money by the banks. All that could make an interesting sermon, or blog, I’m sure.

As would an examination of related issues concerning the multiple and complex consequences of living in an age of feral capitalism, and how this whole deregulated free-market system has brought some of us much material security but has also led us to the edge of an abyss. I remember the morning of Rosh Hashanah three years ago, 2008, and coming to shul with the markets in turmoil and not knowing if there would be money in the ATM cash machines later in the day. We knew then - like in the Biblical dream - that the seven fat years, the golden years, were over ; and that the lean years were beginning.

Well,we are beginning to see how lean these years are going to be – and there can be few of us, Jewish or not, who aren’t starting this New Year without anxieties about money, or about employment, or about retirement pensions, or about the well-being of our children facing up to living in such crazy and anxiety-generating times. What makes this system feral is the wildness built into it, the naked greed and opportunism of a system that is out of control. And we know in our hearts that the politicians and the economists are whistling in the dark to keep their spirits up – and ours too, I suppose. So we begin this New Year with the savagery of the cuts in the UK beginning to bite into more and more lives.

We also talked that evening, inevitably, about environmental and ecological concerns and how hard it is to really engage with any substantial changes in our cherished lifestyles. Denial rules – I know it well from within myself: I also want my imported electronic goods; and to fly-off when I want to Europe and beyond. I don’t want my individualism thwarted by larger concerns – I want to be good and make moral choices about the food I buy, and the energy I consume, but sometimes the effort of it all is really daunting. And, I suggested that evening, sermons on this aren’t going to make any difference: I’ve been in the sermon business too long to retain any naive belief about the effectiveness of exhortations from any rabbi about how we are ‘supposed’ to live.

And that would be true too, I said, of a sermon on Israel and Palestine – another suggestion from a friend that evening. I think there are things to say about being Jewish at this time in the 21st century: what it means, how we express it, what the threats to it are - there are questions about anti-Semitism and whether this is a growing phenomenon or not (I have my doubts about this) and the way the on-going impasse in the Israel/Palestine conflict impacts on our feelings about being Jewish, as well as other people’s views about Jews.

So we had a stimulating conversation that evening and it helped me clarify what I wasn’t going to talk about in the synagogue community this New Year. And that left some space to think about where we do find ourselves.

Or how we find ourselves. Our selves. Because with all these preoccupations with what is going on in the outer world, the world around us, we can lose touch with our selves. There are hidden parts of us, all of us, secret parts, private parts – the feelings and thoughts we have that we may never share with anyone; or that we don’t even really know about, but may only glimpse for a moment, during the night, or on a country walk, or when talking to someone and something is illuminated that we might never have thought about before. We do lose touch with our deeper selves, our inner selves – what used to be called the soul, the essence of who we are. On Rosh Hashanah it is probably good to be reminded of the soul: that we have one, that we are one. The traditional Jewish liturgy takes it for granted that we have a soul - but we shouldn’t take it for granted. Because we forget – we forget to nurture it, to listen in to it, to pay attention to what it prompts in us, what it stirs us to do.

In Jewish tradition the soul, our soul, is an aspect of God. Our souls are how God is incarnated in the world. In Jewish thinking , the divine is in the human. How easy it is to forget this. How easy it is to be baffled by this. How easy it is to deride this. We have so many problems, we have so many distractions, we are so busy , that we lose sight of the essence, the essence of what it is to be a human being, to be alive here and now, on the cusp of a New Year. We have our worries, our troubles – our health, the health of others we love, the health of our finances, our relationships or lack of relationships; we worry about our children, or our parents, we worry about being too busy or not busy enough, there is loneliness, depression, multiple frustrations – and these are real and we need to work with these realities.

But on Rosh Hashanah and for the traditional Ten Days that follow, we become aware - we can become aware - of another reality. Because we have a soul, because we are a unique being, because we are each an unprecedented fragment of creation – that spark of divine Being that we are, is also a reality. We have eternity grafted into us. And on Rosh Hashanah we are invited to remember this, we are cajoled into glimpsing the eternity within us, as individuals and as a people.

Jews are the people who carry eternity in their souls, who have wrestled for millennia, for generations, with that eternity. What does it mean, we ask? How can we believe in an Eternal One, when we can’t even sense that spark of eternity in ourselves? Or – how can we believe in that spark of Eternity in our selves when we doubt there is an Eternal One who animates all of being?

But Rosh Hashanah challenges us to address this mystery once again. In the tradition this day has several names and descriptions. In the liturgy we read that today is Yom Harat Olam, ‘a day which is the birthday of the world’ - though that is a rather tame translation (or maybe I mean lame?) because it makes us think of this mythic, poetic picture of the world as 5772 years old when we know that it is 13.7 billion years old (plus or minus 0.13 billion, apparently – we now have a very precise age for the universe: ‘precise’, that is, to the nearest 10 million years or so).

But this phrase, idea, Yom Harat Olam, that we celebrate on Rosh Hashanah, means something much more profound. It isn’t talking cosmology, science, it isn’t talking literally – and it doesn’t really mean ‘birthday’ at all. Harat comes from the verb, then the noun, ‘to be pregnant, to conceive’, so a better translation of this traditional phrase for the New Year would be ‘today is a day the world is pregnant ‘– it is a day when something new is about to be born, to come into being, through us. ‘Yom Harat Olam’ – ‘today is a day for the conception of a world’. In these 10 days leading up to Yom Kippur we are being asked: what kind of a world do you want to conceive, what do you want to carry into this year ahead, what is waiting to be newly born and conceived of by you, by us?

We will each have a different answer to that question, but I’d like to suggest one thing we could conceive during these 10 days, one aspect of our souls we could express, and give birth to. I am going to suggest an experiment – I suggested it to my congregation on the eve of the New Year, Wednesday evening - that you conceive of yourself as being able to generate random acts of kindness.

So on each of these days, as an experiment, give birth to some act of kindness that you might not have otherwise done – something random, that just occurs to you to do. It may be planned but it might also be spontaneous: make that phone-call you have been putting off; take out that gift aid covenant you have been meaning to give to that charity; buy a copy of the Big Issue from the man you’d rather avoid outside Tesco; empty the dishwasher without having to be told to; put your hand on someone’s shoulder who needs it; give your seat up in the tube even though you are tired; open that door to the woman with the pushchair even though your hands are full and you are rushed and she looks a bit chavvy anyway. Random acts of kindness. The opportunities will present themselves, they always do. One random act of kindness a day – give birth to it. (It’s a symbolic birth - I promise you it won’t be painful). And I promise you too - it is the promise of the High Holy Days – that something will happen to you, in you, by the end of Yom Kippur.

This is what these days are for – to return to who we are, in essence, and what we are capable of: compassion, love, generosity, kindness, a passion for justice. The traditional liturgy keeps asking God to act this way towards us. What the texts rarely do is remind us that these qualities are the divine within us. Yom Harat Olam – today let us give birth to a world, a world of random acts of kindness. They will transform us as we do them - and they do transform our world.

[based on a sermon at Finchley Reform Synagogue on the evening of 28th September 2011]

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Prophecy in the 'Silly Season'

No-one knows who first came up with the phrase the ‘silly season’ to describe the month of August, that supposedly quiet month when nothing very newsworthy is supposed to happen and the papers are filled with even more frivolous items than usual. Punch magazine - of blessed memory - commented on the existence of the phrase in 1871 and the OED has a reference to it from ten years before that. But I think this year we can safely consign it to the realm of the no-longer-usable-except-ironically phrases that once evoked a sincerely-held belief but have long since ceased to be taken seriously, ideas like “children should be seen and not heard”, or “manners maketh the man”, or “saving for a rainy day”, or “workers’ paradise”, or “compassionate Conservatism”. (Anyone can play this game. Feel free to join in).

This summer one only had to go away for a few days and you came back to mayhem: the UK riots and looting, the global financial meltdown and your pension worth 20% less than before, mass murder in Norway - and that was on the back of the still on-going revelations about the hacking scandals and police collusion and the schadenfreude attached to the humbling of Murdoch & Son. England becoming world number one in cricket didn’t really compensate for August’s avalanche of events that were far from ‘silly’ – events that in different ways may touch, or disturb, or confuse us, with their brutality and randomness, their relentless assault on our senses, their savage mockery of any wishes we may retain of living in an ordered and controllable and meaningful world, a world of harmony and peace-of-mind.

So, in the midst of this constant state of chaos and transformation it was a kind of relief to immerse myself again in a text from a different place and a different time, a Biblical text, and see what meaning could be wrestled from it to give any fresh perspective on all this daily uncertainty. Giving a sermon in community forces me to do that, to take seriously these ancient texts and see what can be salvaged for our times and our own contemporary states of mind.

When people come to synagogue I imagine that, amongst other things, they are looking to find some solace, or some sense of community, to find some sense of well-being, or comfort, or companionship, to find some respite or meaning, or some stillness of sprit - and I don’t know if they get that or not. What you are normally given in the service, in the liturgy, are a lot of words, words that seem to speak with such certainty – and yet we know how much uncertainty we have to live with, every day: every moment of our lives, really.

But if we probe underneath all that liturgical certainty – and this is particularly true of the Biblical texts we hear within our annual cycle of readings – we find some large questions being addressed that might intersect in interesting ways with all those uncertainties we live with.

Last Shabbat we read from the prophet Isaiah. The allocated text started at chapter 51 verse 12. And we know that these words from the prophetic school of Isaiah were words originally composed to comfort the community of Israel after its great loss – the destruction of Jerusalem and their exile to a foreign land. They are words which referred to a specific time and context – but, like all great poetry, the words speak beyond their original setting. They are words that transcend the situation of their original audience and relate to us too, speak to us in our situations, personal and collective. They are words that reverberate, that are pregnant with new possibilities.

The text opens : Anochi, anochi, hu m’nachemchem – “I, I, am He who comforts you all” – we hear into God’s soliloquy; or maybe it is a dialogue, because it immediately asks for a response: Mi at va’tiri mai’enosh yamut – “who are you, so frightened at the fact that people have to die? that each individual is made to fade like grass?”(51:12)

There is an ‘I’ - anochi - and it is so close to a ‘you’ – at – and between the I and the you there is the comfort, the possibility of comfort, m’nachemchem. So what stops us feeling the comfort, the comfort that bridges the gap between I and Thou? The text goes on to tell us. “You have forgotten Adonai osecha, the Ground of all Being who forms you” (51:13) – the verb is a participle, so better to render it “You have forgotten the One who is forming you now, at this moment” – you have forgotten this, that the Being of the Universe is in you, “noteh shamayim v’yosayd aretz” – “while at the same time is stretching out the skies and making firm the earth beneath your feet”. Suddenly we realise what an extraordinary piece of text this is! (Some might call it inspired).

Being unfolds itself moment by moment, within us and around us. This knowledge could comfort us. But we forget it. So is this why we come into community, back to the synagogue, on this first Shabbat in September? To be reminded? To be reminded that we are part of that great chain of Being, we are not cut off from each other, or from the natural world around us; nor are we cut off from that sense that our being alive here and now is a mystery, that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that the divine is an aspect of our being.

“But you are terrified” – our text goes on - va’t’fached tamid kol ha’yom, “you are always terrified, all the time” – “because of rage and feeling oppressed and feeling life is out to get you”. (All translations are interpretations, but I am trying to translate the text’s imagery into something which allows the metaphors to be accessible to our experience yet remain true to the essence of the original).

When we get into these states of mind – feeling frightened, oppressed, persecuted – this is because, the text intuits, we have forgotten who we are, how fragile and dependent we are. We have forgotten to look up to the awesome nature of the stars at night, forgotten to pay attention to the planet we inhabit. Forgotten that we stand poised, precariously, midway between the largest aspects of creation, universes without end, and the smallest particles of being, subatomic particles. We look out and we look in and we wonder what it all means.

And as we wonder, and as we remember, we hear the words of comfort: Anochi, anochi, hu m’nachemchem – “I, I am the One who comforts you” – ‘when you acknowledge your mortality, when you stop avoiding what it means to be human - that you will one day die - when you can face this without fear, without falling to pieces, the gap between us will disappear’.

August is never the silly season in the annual Jewish cycle – in August we are always reading from a particular selection of prophetic readings: the ‘seven Haftarot of consolation’ that come after Tisha B’av, when the destruction of the Temple is remembered. Last Shabbat was the fourth one in the cycle.

Destruction, exile, pain and loss – Judaism recognises that these are part of the very fabric of being, collective and personal. They occur over and over again. But comfort is still possible, consolation, a soothing and healing of our woundedness: this is also part of the very fabric of being.

This is Jewish realism, a prophetic hopefulness grounded in the vision of an I speaking to a You, a soliloquy we listen into - and as we listen, soliloquy is transformed into dialogue.

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue on September 3rd 2011]

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

On the Edge of an Abyss?

A brief blog on – not to be too apocalyptic about things – peering into the abyss. Perhaps I'm being alarmist, but am I alone in feeling a bit lemming-like as the days go on and the implosion of the world's financial regimes edges closer?

Is the battle that is being played out between Obama and the Republicans over America’ s debt ceiling just another wearisome round of political bargaining and macho posturing? Or is it for real this time? (It's easy to get jaded with the constant talk of financial insecurity and switch off). But with the Republicans refusing to allow Obama to reduce the budget deficit by a combination of raising taxes on a wealthy minority plus spending cuts – the Republicans want the axe to fall only on spending – the risk is that, in effect, the US will run out of money. I simplify, but (unfortunately) not a lot.

How do we know when what we read signifies something that really will impact on us – and when it is speculation, media-talk, or hyperbole? After the 2007 crash everyone was suddenly an expert, having known all long that the bubble would burst, that it was "inevitable". Yet although leading up to it there had been a few straws in the wind, very few understood that we were building palaces on a swamp.

But doesn’t it feel – or is it only me, maybe projecting some inner state of mind onto the outer world? – that a perfect storm is brewing?

We know the euro is in crisis, with a Greek debt default on the cards. I detect a degree of UK smugness here as we watch other European countries’ finances in perilous straits, as if our banks and national debt is somehow insulated from these transnational forces and the plucky British pound will ride out the storm. And if we add to that the suicidal intransigence of the Republican/Tea Party/Fox News triad, we face the prospect of the US defaulting on its debts – which will mean the collapse of the dollar and a global slump. This is the 'perfect storm' scenario in which we will all be swept up.

Too alarmist? I hope so. Though I fear not. Yet we can never know till later whether our intimations are pure fantasy, unconscious projections of split-off parts of the psyche – or whether our intuitions are grounded in another mode of knowing where thinking and feeling and a modicum of historical knowledge link up within us and offer up their semi-opaque understanding.

While we here in the UK remain transfixed by the criminality and obfuscations of Murdoch and Son, and the investigations into the knotted relations between police, press, NewsCorp and senior politicians, the bigger drama being played out in the financial world is just flickering at the edge of our vision. Yet who wants to look into an abyss when an old man’s dynasty is crumbling, Lear-like, and we can enjoy the Schadenfreude of the drama being played out live on our screens?

“How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!” (2 Samuel 1.25) - this week it is Murdoch et al. And some of us may rejoice – not only that corporate ruthlessness sometimes gets its comeuppance, but also glad that it’s not us being examined, probed, called to account. Yesterday was Murdoch's false-humble Day of Atonement. But the news from the God-intoxicated delusionists in the US, and the news from our reigning gods, the all-powerful, omnipresent financial markets, suggests that, sooner than we expect, it might be our turn to lament, like King David of old: “How are the mighty fallen!”

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Puzzling over 'The Tree of Life'

What makes a film religious? Does it need an overtly ‘religious’ theme – like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ or Pier Paolo Pasolini’s far superior The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)? What about Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments? Or the animated musical cartoon film The Prince of Egypt? Is Monty Python’s Life of Brian a religious film? Barbra Streisand’s Yentl? What about Fiddler on the Roof? We could play this game forever, but it seems to me that the category of ‘religious’ as a description of a film’s content or mood is such a broad-brush term that eventually it loses all meaning.

I am temperamentally more interested, anyway, in films whose ‘mood’ seems to be ‘religious’ rather than ones where religious themes in a traditional sense are the overt content. I think of a film like Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours: Blue (1993), bathed in the numinous, which explores in a deeply satisfying way the profoundest questions about love, loss and grief. And the marvellous meditative Korean film Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring (2003), suffused with the ethos of Buddhism, about the relationship between an old monk and a young boy.

These thoughts are prompted by Terrence Malick’s new film The Tree of Life, which has recently won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival and seems to have divided viewers (and critics) into those who think it is a religious masterpiece and those who think it is an over-long, pretentious and self-indulgent spectacle. Although one might think that it can hardly be both a visionary work of spiritual grandeur and a somewhat boring and incoherent failure, I found myself inclined towards both views at different moments during the 139 minutes Malick takes to offer us what is in essence an extended visual and poetic midrash on the Book of Job’s famous question: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations...?” (Job 38:4) – God’s response out of the whirlwind to a Job bereft of answers to the questions of human suffering.

Malick opens his film with this text – the second time in the last few years that a major US film has used the Book of Job as a reference point when exploring why bad things happen to ‘good’ people, with the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man (2009) being an oblique commentary on this universal theme. But where the Coen brothers used humour to explore these unanswerable questions, there is not a single light-hearted moment in Malick’s film. There is light aplenty – including extended sequences evoking the creation of the universe and the evolution of life on earth, with growing prominence given to sunlight and trees as pointing beyond themselves to some overarching meaning inscribed in creation – a meaning which is supposed to set individual human tragedy within a larger picture of grace and harmony. If this sounds abstract, it reflects Malick’s aspiration towards creating a visual and aural hymn to spiritual transcendence – a hymn embracing a counterpoint narrative threaded around an American family of mother, father and three boys, one of whom dies.

The narrative arc of the film is fragmentary, confusing, sometimes unsettling in its emotional brutality – one of Malick’s aims seems to be to offer a critique of the cruelty encoded within human nature and juxtapose this with the potential to experience life as a gift of divine grace. There were times watching this film when I glimpsed strands of Christian theology underpinning the narrative; and when I wondered if Malick was also playing visually, and through the storyline (such as it is), with the imaginative links between sons, sun, and Son (of God).

The Tree of Life – the reference is of course to the Garden of Eden, where the etz hayyim in the middle of the garden is linked to the idea of immortality – is a film about mortality and how any of us can bear the knowledge that we will not live forever. It is a film about loss and lost souls and lost innocence. It’s a film that harks back to the Biblical myth’s ‘first family’ – man, woman, three sons, one of whom dies. It is a bold, brave and (for me) rather baffling film. I’ve never seen anything like it – and I’m not sure I’d want to again. Though I’d love to see a Jewish filmmaker take on the great themes: ‘Why are we here? Is there any overarching meaning to life on earth? What is the point of suffering? And why are Jewish men so useless at DIY?’

I would imagine that - pace the Coen brothers - a Jewishly-imagined ‘Tree of Life’ would inevitably be darker in tone: our theology, although it has messianic hopefulness incarnated within it, doesn’t offer too-easy reassurance about pain, suffering and death. But such a film might also be leavened with humour, that precious spiritual resource lacking in Malick’s hugely ambitious film.

Would I recommend The Tree of Life? It has fine acting, is beautiful shot, has a wonderful soundtrack, and is filled with visual metaphor and arresting images. You don’t want to take your eyes off the screen for a moment – and yet I left feeling unsatisfied and slightly annoyed, as if I’d been taken for a ride by a cinematic master who’d promised me the world in all its deep and tangy mystery but left me chewing on a mouthful of pious fudge.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

“For the sake of Heaven”?

It is a truism to say that Judaism is a religion of debate and argument – and that Jews have an almost genetic predisposition to dissent, disputatiousness and disagreement. There’s an almost stubborn pride in our capacity for argument, and a grim humour in our acknowledgment of ourselves as, in the Biblical image, a ‘stiff-necked people’ (Exodus 32:9).

In a famous text from the ethical treatise in the Talmud known in English as the ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ we find an attempt to distinguish between different kinds of argument:

“Every controversy which is for the sake of heaven will in the end lead to a lasting result. But one which is not for the sake of heaven will not in the end lead to a lasting result. What was a dispute for the sake of heaven? The dispute of Hillel and Shammai. And one which was not for the sake of heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company” (5:20)

On the weekend in the Jewish calendar on which we read the story of Korach’s rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16), I want to share some thoughts on what I see is the problematic distinction this Talmudic text outlines.

First some background. Hillel and Shammai were early first century rabbis teaching during the Roman occupation of Palestine before the Temple was destroyed in the year 70. Although the Talmud records only five differences of opinion between the two of them as individuals, they founded schools of thought and eventually there are more than 300 recorded issues on which the schools disagreed.

A few examples, the first about ritual law. How are we to light the Hanukah candles? Eight on the first night, decreasing to one on the last? Or the other way round? The school of Shammai said it was the former way, the school of Hillel ruled we build up the light over successive nights. Hillel’s argument won the day.

When it came to moral and ethical questions, Shammai’s position was usually stricter than Hillel’s: so the followers of Shammai believed only worthy students should be admitted to study Torah while the House of Hillel believed that Torah may be taught to anyone, in the expectation that Torah study makes a person worthy. Or in regard to the question of so-called ‘white lies’, the question was asked whether one could tell an unattractive bride that she is beautiful. (The rabbis were nothing if not sexist). Shammai said it was wrong to lie, but Hillel said that all brides are beautiful on their wedding day, which has become a kind of Jewish folk-saying.

In relation to divorce, the House of Shammai said that a man may only divorce his wife for a serious transgression, but the House of Hillel allowed divorce for even trivial offenses, such as burning a meal. That’s an example of where Hillel’s position might seem more lax in relation to law, more open, but only if you are male. For women, that apparent leniency of view was much more problematic. But the inherent patriarchal bias isn’t addressed in the sources.

Anyway, the point is that all of these kinds of disputes about moral and ritual law were seen by the rabbis of the succeeding generations as being, in the famous phrase, l’shem shamayim: ‘for the sake of heaven’. Disputes had a higher purpose than power or prestige or popularity. The rabbis knew that they were arguing about how to live their Judaism in times and circumstances very different from the past: they had the Torah, but they had to use their own creativity and imagination to interpret it and respond to it as if God had a stake in their decisions, as if God’s presence in the world depended on how they interpreted the tradition. This made it all ‘for the sake of heaven’ – they were trying to uphold the essential values of the tradition for new generations. They were trying to make holiness part of everyday life, and in that task questions of rabbinic ego or personality or rivalry were quite irrelevant.

Of course that Talmudic view – that Hillel and Shammai’s disagreements were ‘for the sake of heaven’ – is a wish, a pious hope. We know that on the ground things were as bloody and rivalrous then as the rabbinic world still is in some quarters.

One of their major areas of fierce confrontation was in their views about what Judaism taught about the relationship to the non-Jewish world, particularly about the Romans when they were occupying the land. The school of Shammai took up a stance in alliance with the Zealots, who were militantly opposed to occupation, and they decreed that all commerce and communication with the occupiers and those in surrounding countries who supported them should be prohibited. (Think Hamas). Whereas the School of Hillel was conciliatory and opposed violence. So contentious was this split that followers of Hillel were barred by the House of Shammai from praying with them. So much for arguments being ‘for the sake of heaven’.

While the Temple still stood, the belligerent view of the schol of Shammai was the majority view - and those that followed Hillel were as derided in Israel as are ‘Peace Now’ today. It wasn’t until a few generations after the catastrophe of the Temple’s destruction that the views of the school of Hillel gained the upper hand. Whereupon we find in the Talmud the view that whenever the House of Shammai had disputed the opinion of the House of Hillel, the House of Shammai's opinion was now null and void.

From that time on, the Jewish world evolved its view that Hillel’s opinions – often tolerant, open-minded, inclusive – took precedence over Shammai’s often narrower or harsher views.

Well, so much for the first part of our text, the arguments between Hillel and Shammai ‘for the sake of heaven’. We can see that beneath the smooth surface of the Pirke Avot picture, there is a maelstrom of factionalism and Jewish dividedness. It was as vicious as that which sometimes occurs between Orthodoxy and Reform in the diaspora today, or the Hasidim and Mitnagdim in the 18th century, or that which is poisoning the Jewish soul in Israel in the conflict between West Bank fundamentalists and Israeli doves. And there are echoes of that Jewish intolerance of what other Jews do all over the place, not least in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle. ‘For the sake of Heaven’ can cover a multitude of sins.

And so what about Korach and his rebellion? He’s the character the rabbis use to talk about an argument not ‘for the sake of heaven’. But just as the Hillel-and-Shammai side of the equation is not straightforward, neither is the disdain the tradition has for Korach. You see, I do have a sneaky admiration for Korach: he was prepared, after all, to stand up against the unelected leadership of Moses and Aaron and argue with their assumptions that they alone had access to holiness and to interpreting God’s will and mediating God for the community.

Korach’s rebuke has its own power: ‘You’ve aggrandized yourself’, he says, ‘you have set yourself up above us, but all of us here in the community are holy and God is as available and present to any one of us as he is to you two’(Numbers 16:3). Well, we might wonder on an initial reading, what is the problem with that? Korach is arguing that holiness is integral to the people, and the divine energy that the tradition calls God doesn’t need specialists to make itself present. It doesn’t need an Aaron and a priesthood. It doesn’t need a Moses with his moods and his solitary inwardness and his constant cozying-up to the Holy One of Israel. Isn’t Korach’s argument the argument of democracy, and of ‘people power’, isn’t it anti-totalitarian, isn’t it Aung San Suu Kyi’s stance against the Burmese junta?

In her Reith lectures which you can hear this week on BBC Radio 4, she quotes the sociologist Max Weber’s analysis of the three essential qualities for politicians: ‘passion, a sense of responsibility, and a sense of proportion’. Passion, she will say, means a passionate dedication to a cause, particularly if that involves a politics of dissent, dissent from the dominant power. Well, wasn’t Korach engaging in a politics of dissent?

He was certainly taking responsibility for the major disaffection that the Israelites felt, and that kept welling up in them as they schlepped endlessly through the wilderness.

I don’t know about Korach’s ‘sense of proportion’ – but then the Bible rarely does a sense of proportion in any of its characters: they are often slightly larger than life, as characters in literary sagas frequently are.

But the point I am making is that the rebel Korach’s complaint does have a seductive logic to it. Yet Jewish tradition is unreservedly hostile to him and what he represents. Let a former Chief Rabbi, Joseph Hertz, in his great commentary on the Torah, represent this traditional attitude. He comments on Numbers 16:3 as follows: ‘With the instinct of the true demagogue, Korach posed as the champion of the People against the alleged dictatorship of Moses and Aaron, the two brothers who usurped all power and authority in Israel’(p.639). So no room for doubt there. Commentaries of course try to keep their own dictatorial instincts firmly out of sight. And you don’t get to be Chief Rabbi by doing nuance, or deconstructing the authority of the authoritative and sometimes authoritarian texts.

But the bottom line is – according to Pirke Avot – that an argument like Korach’s is ‘not for the sake of heaven’. In other words, the rabbis believed it was an argument to further his own desire for power or prestige or glory. It was – to use contemporary language – ‘ego-driven’. It wasn’t about holiness. He was just using the language of holiness as a cover story for personal ambition. He was using religion – as so many have done through the ages and continue to do – as a stepping stone for personal gain and power. Passionate he might have been, but the Torah is unequivocal that passion alone is not enough. Korach might use the language of heaven – ‘all the community are holy’ – but his wasn’t an argument ‘for the sake of heaven’, it was for the sake of himself.

Yet that still leaves us with a basic question. How are we ever to know - in our own arguments, our own dissent from authority, our own disputes and disagreements (whether in our families, or at work, or in our synagogue communities, or in our communal Jewish politics, or in relation to Israel) – whether we are being like Hillel or like Korach? How do we refine our awareness, our awareness of our true motives - not our rationalized motives - when we are in disagreement? How do we learn to become self-reflective, and honest, about our deeper motives? This is a psychological task, a spiritual task, a religious task: discerning inside ourselves the strands of dispassionate wisdom worthy of a Hillel, and unraveling them from the passionate selfishness of our inner Korach.

‘All the community are holy’ – what a seductive phrase that is! It’s flawed only in the light of the Jewish understanding that holiness is never an achieved state. It’s always an aim, a goal, something to work towards in a lifetime’s dedication and struggle. The moment you think you have it, that you possess it – that you are it, ‘holy’ – you’ve lost it, lost sight of it. Yes, the potential for holiness is always here, it animates our lives; but it is always elusive – for an individual or a community or a nation.

This is the great Jewish adventure, the great Jewish paradox – the movement towards holiness, and the guarding ourselves from the hubris of ever believing we have achieved it.

[adapted from a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue on June 25th 2011]

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Torah Dreamers: a story for Shavuot

No-one knew what was happening. The old man had gone, up the mountain, up into the clouds. Someone said it would make no difference, he'd always had his head in the clouds. We were a sceptical people, even then. And time has not mellowed us. Neither time nor history. If anything we have become even more stiff-necked, because of our history and over time, more cynical about leaders who think they have the answers, think they have a hot-line to holiness, a route-map to the promised land.

Nowadays, don’t we always know better, we chosen people? Who needs the Law laid down from on high when, with our yiddische kop, we know so much already?

But on that day, no-one knew what was happening. He’d disappeared, up into the mountain, to meet old El himself, or newer gods, or trim his beard and think his lofty thoughts, or - who knows? – just to get away from us unruly rabble. Six hundred thousand of us, they said – but, nu, who’s counting? We’re storytellers, no? Mythographers, with license to tell it as we want, embroider here and there, true to the imagination - not like those number-crunching Levite accountants, pestering the old man with their worries about a desert journey without relief or benefits that anyone could see. About one thing though, we were sure: nothing good would come of this. The sun smote us by day, the moon chilled us by night, and death sung lullabies of Egypt in our ear.

The rumours began as soon as he’d gone, flashing through the camp like lightning, yet illuminating nothing except our fears: some said his heart was weak and he’d gone off like a wounded goat to die...others said he wanted to enslave us yet again, to a different god... then there were stories that he’d left in a huff after quarrelling with his brother...even that he’d been killed by the riffraff who’d joined our great escape...we had stories aplenty, but as usual we knew nothing.

The boldest amongst us predicted something else - ‘a moment of destiny’, the scribes insisted, ‘when the future will be revealed’. That was too glib for me, too pious: how could a nation’s fate be transformed through words alone, words narrated from on high by some unseen author(ity) dictating how things have to be? What chutzpah we possess to tell the tale that way, that we alone were called, that we must live the story to the end of days. But so it turned out - though at the time we only glimpsed the script in shadow, as if through a glass, darkly.

Actually, what remains in the mind’s eye is the weather. We'd left in a hurry, remember, in the springtime - overcoats discarded and umbrellas not yet invented - and here we were, six weeks out of Egypt, in the desert, high summer, and there was thunder and lightning and torrents of rain as if Shaddai himself was storming the heavens and then from out of nowhere a whirling and rumbling in our ears like the grinding of a titanic battle and on the third day trembling storms of dust, clouds of dust and sand, thick clouds of sand and smoke, in your eyes so they could not see, in your mouth so you dared not speak, in your ears so you couldn't hear yourself think, dust ascending as in a flaming furnace, the earth shuddering beneath our feet, our world afire, tumult in our hearts, and from all around a sound, reverberating, a sound pounding us, bonding us, a sound finding us, founding us...

But wait, we are not ready for that...

We who were left at the foot of the mountain - a great multitude of disparate souls yet bound together as if one family - for us, heaven assaulting our senses, there was a single desire, overwhelming, all-consuming: survival. How to protect ourselves from the quaking storm of the flaming furnace of unendurable heat? How to resist the looming mountain - seemingly alive and inescapable - held over our heads as if to crush us with its awesome gravity? How to endure the unendurable? The people waited, cowering, submissive, while the unbearable went on unbearably - as it does – the people waiting for something else to happen: waiting for death, or revelation, or someone to appear from offstage and - deus ex machina, as it were – restore some hope to our bewildered hearts.

Where was Moses? When would he return? Would he ever return? It was then that we realised how much we needed him. We were lost without him. Lost in the desert of course - some said we were at Sinai, others said Horeb, while a few refused to give the place a name at all, for we could have been anywhere – but we were also lost in another, graver sense. We were lost psychologically - a word we did not even know then, but have become familiar with since, during the long journey away from there to distant lands and cooler climes.

On that day we needed our leader more than we'd ever realised. But if we're honest, we can see how we've always needed a leader to follow, to obey, to tell us what to do, to take away the unbearable responsibility of personal decision. In this, we chosen people are no different from the rest. Moses or Mao, Vladimir Ilyich or Golda, in our hearts we crave a leader, strong and with vision, man or woman, someone who will protect us and inspire us, give us a sense of purpose and belonging. In all of us there is still the child, vulnerable, defenceless, who looks outside for help, for salvation, for security and answers. We were well-named in our saga - 'the children of Israel'. That’s us, still emotional orphans, still looking outside ourselves for someone to tell us how to live. But on that day he had gone - up the mountain, into the clouds.

It may be hard now, looking back, to appreciate what his shepherding had meant to us. You see, we owed him everything: our freedom, obviously; but more than that he was teaching us stuff, revealing new laws for new times, he was changing the way we thought. Everything was his doing, his inspiration, his creation. Remember that it was Moses who had broken our bondage to the status quo by challenging the all-controlling god-like rulers of our land - in the name of freedom, and justice. “Let my people go!” – the slogan captured our hearts and minds. The excitement of those days is impossible to convey. So long oppressed and now participating in what, even as it was happening, we knew was one of the great events in recorded time: the rise of a downtrodden people, a total break with a dishonourable past, and the promise - oh, so seductive - the promise of a new and enlightened society where a daily life of decency, compassion and comradeship would at last prevail. What a vision he had! Sheer inspiration. True, he could be frightening to behold – but he taught us how to live with one another in ways unenslaved by the past. No wonder some call him Rabbenu. We will never see his like again.

And the miracle of it is how, in different lands, in different ages, our story recurs: the myth humanity craves is re-created, the impulse towards justice and freedom keeps being renewed, as if it were an eternal spirit always alive within the human soul, a divine spark waiting to flare into being. The contemporaneity of the past: the vision of a society based on cooperation rather than competition. That’s what he gave us. That’s what we were given.

But on that day, the first time, there was only the huddled masses, and the storm within us and around us. And then we heard it. Each man, each woman, each child, alone, heard that sound. 600,000 and more, together, we heard that sound that pierced us and stilled us and silenced the storm around us and the quaking within us.

We had never heard that sound before - and yet we knew it, as you know it still. It was a call, a summons - primeval, insistent, yearning - a cry from deep within time, hidden in our memories, there from the very beginning, before the beginning, waiting to be heard, a sound primitive and immediate, stripping us bare, hollowing us out, hallowing us into peoplehood.

The sound of the shofar - though we only learnt its name later on, when we tamed its call and used it to proclaim our new moons and holy days, or rally the troops. A sound like no other sound. An unearthly sound. A terrible, forlorn sound, wrenching the heart out of us, wrenching the heart back into us, it went on and on, reverberating inside our skulls, beating against our eyes, forcing them to open, to open and see that this moment was destined to go on for as long as time endures, so that in every place this sound was heard, in every community the shofar sounded, it was but an echo, a memory, of that first time, at Sinai - or wherever - when God spoke (in a ‘voice’, the texts later said) but to us it was a sound, the sound of eternity vocalising the Eternal One - ‘I AM, Eternal, divine...’ - God’s shofar voice echoing ceaselessly within each human being: hear, return, remember, pay attention - this is the purpose of your life, your origin, your destiny. This is your Torah. I plant it within you.

This is what we heard. I was there at the beginning and I will be there at the end, alpha and omega, aleph and tav. I AM what I AM.

We all heard it. It came to shake our certainties, to unsettle our complacency, our too-comfortable understandings, our easy answers, our lazy presumptions. Farewell to surefootedness. That divine voice, carrying its message of liberation and hope into a world scared to receive it, scared because the voice seemed to promise so much. Who could allow themselves to hope such sacred promises could ever be fulfilled? We have carried this message of hope like a yoke around our necks – burdened by a revelation in which we also rejoice. It weighs us down, we try to shake ourselves free, but we are bound for life, bound to live in its shadow. Bondsmen yet again.

We received a vision in those days the like of which has, perhaps, never been seen since. It was a challenge to perfection, of a sort, a utopian dream of a society ordered under the rule of God, where human beings would overcome their egotism and vanity, their greed, their pettiness, their inability to see beyond the next milestone, and would create communities bounded in trust. The Torah - God's dream for us, and the embodiment of our dream of God. Its idealism has never been surpassed. And its idealism has never been achieved. The Torah announced an extraordinary experiment in human community: the earth is God's property which has been made available for all of us; it is not to be exploited for the enrichment of some to the detriment of others. And as servants of God we should not remain enslaved to any other human being or social system.

What an unattainable vision that was. Yet it reverberated through the prophetic books and echoes inside Western consciousness until this very day. That corrosive pressure to surpass ourselves, to ensure that the prophetic passion for justice and the absence of oppression is not only an ideal but is transformed into action here and now. The Torah dream remains magnetic. The Torah dream still summons us to renounce selfishness, worldly comfort and unbridled individualism, and merge our personal being into that larger vision of community.

It is said that at Sinai, God's voice split into 70 voices and 70 languages, so that all the nations should hear and understand. A universal message. And it spoke to each of us who was there - and were we not all there? - to each of us in our own private language, intimate and knowing, searching us through and through, claiming us for itself, inscribing within us an indelible hopefulness about what we might become. A terrible and blessed burden, that memory, that hope.

Some say that God’s voice at Sinai never ceased, never ceases. That if we stop a while and listen, really listen (shema, Yisrael), we can hear its echo still. That if we find a way of being still, we can hear its echo still. Well, that’s what they say, those storytellers of old, those dreamers - and who are we to disagree?

[Sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, June 8th 2011]