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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]