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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 ( - 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:]

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