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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]

1 comment:

  1. A good sermon on a serious topic on a serious occasion.
    I appreciated it, and how I felt for the lady in the row in front whose elderly mother's mobile went off during it.
    Nick Kramer