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Wednesday, 26 December 2012

'Drawing near' - pathos and tears

Vayigash alav Yehudah: ‘And Judah draw near to him...’ (Genesis 44:18). How can three Biblical words hold so much pathos? They come as we approach the culmination of the ‘novella’ of Joseph and his brothers.

Joseph has manipulated his brothers into bringing down to Egypt their youngest sibling, Benjamin, and has then sent them away laden with food but with his silver drinking-cup hidden in Benjamin’s sack – the perfect pretext to have the brothers hauled back in front of him and accused of theft. They can return to their homeland, he says, if they leave Benjamin with him as his slave.

When Judah then steps forward to can imagine the situation from his perspective: Benjamin is about to be detained by the powers-that-be, the mighty Pharoah’s right-hand man, Zaphenath-Paneah (41:45)  - it means ‘God speaks and lives’ or ‘ Creator of life’. This is the nightmare scenario that their father Jacob had feared: the loss not just of his beloved Joseph, all those years ago, but the loss too of the other child of his favourite wife Rachel, the youngster Benjamin. The loss of children being a painful and tragic theme in our minds in these recent weeks.

Though are we allowed to say, when we see President Obama’s tears, when we feel our own tears, when we feel moved by the human response of the most powerful leader on the planet, when we see the pain transparently there, heart-felt - are we allowed to say, are we allowed to think, ‘and what about the other children’:  the dozens and dozens of children killed in Pakistan by the drone strikes ordered by the President. ‘Collateral damage’ of the war against terrorism. The ugliness of the phrase, the euphemism, hiding the lack of tears for those families, the lack of a press-conference for those children, death arriving for them out of the clear blue morning skies, the world ending with a bang and a whimper. Can we ‘draw near’ to this, to compassion for these families, to tears for these children?

 ‘And Judah drew near to him’ – we read the words and we can marvel at the storyteller’s artistry, using language to open up our sensibilities, our sensitivities. Because yes, it is a portrait – we see it as if in a film, or a work by Rembrandt  – Judah steps forward and physically approaches the Egyptian prince, the brother in disguise, the brother he does not know is his brother. He approaches him. But in this ‘drawing near’ we also hear something else, an inner movement, because in taking this step forward Judah is also getting close to something else, something long buried, from his past: his role in the selling of Joseph. You remember that when the storyteller describes how the brothers tore off the coat of many colours from their much-hated younger brat-of-a-brother, Joseph, they threw him in a pit and wanted to leave him there to die, but it was Judah who had said:  no let’s not leave him to die, here are some merchants passing by, Ishmaelites, let’s not kill him, we can sell him – and that of course is how, in the story, Joseph reaches Egypt. 

So we realise this is also a metaphor, ‘And Judah drew near to him’, an image that is speaking about some psychological change in Judah:  for as he approaches the brother he does not know is his brother, the whole story about brotherhood comes tumbling out; the whole history of the failures in brotherhood is there in his long speech (verses 18-34), as he recognises – explicitly and implicitly - that the favouritism of his father was real, and that it had consequences not only for Jacob but for all of them; that their sense of solidarity as family had never been there at the beginning, that they had been consumed with jealousy and envy, and their hatred had been murderous; but faced now with the unfolding of time and a situation where another brother, Benjamin, could be sacrificed - they could have just left him and gone home and spun their father another story - Judah doesn’t repeat history, he changes it. Judah ‘draws nearer to him’:  he reaches a new understanding of the significance of family ties, family responsibilities, he’s protective towards his father and to his youngest brother; he is getting closer to living out brotherhood, where feelings of rivalry are able to be held in check and something else we might call empathy, or concern, or even love, are able to be felt and acted upon.

He ‘draws near’ to this new depth of maturity - and offers to exchange himself for Benjamin, to sacrifice himself. And we are moved to hear this, because we recognise the transformation in feeling of the character, of Judah, and we recognise in ourselves that such changes of heart can happen, such acts of self-sacrifice are possible, that this is something that we each have the potential for – the overcoming of destructive, hateful feelings in ourselves and the expression of our more generous natures, our better selves.

And this takes us into the heart of our text, and the beating heart of those opening three words of the sedrah: Vayigash alav Yehudah: ‘And Judah draw near to him...’  Because there is a Hasidic reading of this which realises that the word ‘alav/him’ doesn’t actually say who it refers to. We think of it as ‘him’, Joseph. But the Hasidic reading asks ‘To whom did Judah draw near? Whom did he approach? He approached, drew near, to himself, his real self, his potential as a self, as a human being.’ He reached into the person he was meant to be, could be, and stood forward and spoke openly, fearlessly, the truth he knew. This was what he ‘drew near’ to, got close to: his authentic self - reflective, compassionate, caring, self-sacrificing.  

And it is seeing this that undoes Joseph (45:1). He can no longer hide himself from his brother, his brothers. His pretence  of keeping them at a distance can’t be sustained, his manipulations, his long-term game of cat-and-mouse, his charade of acting the high-and-mighty overlord of Egypt, and he makes himself known to his brothers, and his grief is so strong, his sobs so loud, that they piece the very walls in which this meeting of brothers takes place. More tears, more grief - not about loss and death, but about loss and life. The losses within life: the lost opportunities, the lost love, the lost compassion, the lost family feeling, the lost companionship, the losses, the losses of life; the losses we are responsible for, and the losses we aren’t responsible for, but have to bear anyway.

The Torah tells its story of the family drama that underpins the whole collective saga of exile and Exodus and wandering and deliverance. The Jewish story. The story of the ‘family of Israel’. But when we read the extraordinary narrative in these later chapters of Genesis, we recognise that although it is telling a story about a particular family, it is not just our Jewish story, it is a universal story. That’s part of its power – as everyone from Thomas Mann to Andrew Lloyd Weber intuited - that it reaches beyond the tribe into the hearts of all who hear it. For the emotions are universal. The dramas of family life are universal. Rivalry and hatred and envy are universal. Loss and grief is universal. The tears of the Pakistani mother and the American mother, the Palestinian father and the Israeli father, are universal.

The Torah tells us our story, but tells it so that we have a vision that goes beyond ‘us’, beyond our tribe, our history, our nation, our suffering -  and helps us glimpse a world where brotherhood/ sisterhood is real – fraternit√© - and where reconciliation with the other, the one we used to hate, is seen not just as a pious wish but as an innate and universal possibility. 

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, December 22, 2012]

 

 

 

Monday, 10 December 2012

"And a man found him wandering..." - a story about a story

You don’t know who I am, my name that is. No-one bothered to record it. Sure, you read about me, but I’m anonymous, I’m just – you might say – a character.  Just another character. Merely  – and this is what hurts – a ‘narrative device’. But without me – and I am just a poor man and my story’s seldom told – without me you would not be listening to this story. Can you believe that? No, probably not.

No-one ever believed me, even then, when I kept telling them that the Jewish story depended on me. That had I not been there that day, wandering, confused, trudging the fields, looking for God knows what – meaning, purpose, the right words (you know, the old questions, the eternal questions) – if I hadn’t been there that day, if I hadn’t bumped into him just by chance - I suppose it was by chance, but how are we supposed to know? - if I hadn’t come across him, who was also wandering in the fields - by Shechem it was, but it could have been anywhere, it could have been in Finchley, or Berlin, it’s that kind of a story - if I hadn’t met him that day when he was lost and confused (he knew his brothers should be there but they weren’t, I knew they weren’t),  if I hadn’t come across him that day (though maybe he felt he’d come across me), if that meeting hadn’t happened, this is what I mean to say, if this encounter had not occurred – the rest of the Jewish story could not have unfolded as it did.

No-one thinks about that, wants to think about that:  the chance encounters, the random events, the serendipitous happenings, how much is down to luck, how randomness rules, how two pedestrians were knocked down by cars in 1931, either, or both, could easily have been killed, Winston Churchill in New York, Adolf Hitler in Munich. It was just my luck – and yours , for good or ill – that I was there that day and made the first move, though it was out of character for me, but I did it, approached this stranger and opened up a conversation, and opened it up with such an inviting metaphor of a question: “What are you looking for?” And his response, well, it warmed my heart, because it seemed to come from his heart “I’m looking for my brothers”. It seemed to take him by surprise, to hear himself say it, there was a quizzical look for a moment, as if he heard himself speak a truth he’d been hiding from:  he was searching for connection to his brothers, it was as if he’d been missing something all those years, privileged child that he was.

Perhaps it was a turning point, of sorts, that conversation. It set him on the right path, or at least a new path. And I was left to reflect on what it meant for me, that I was the one upon whom the whole story seems to hinge.

For Joseph met his brothers, because of me, because of that strange meeting. Whereupon – and maybe he cursed me for it at the time - he was thrown into the pit, sold into slavery, taken to Egypt, he had his adventures and misadventures, thrown into the prison, raised up again – it’s  a great story, all about money  and sex and power – and I was the link in the chain, though no doubt by then he’d forgotten all about me, but without me he would never have been in Egypt, never have become Pharoah’s right-hand man, never have brought his father and his brothers to Egypt, there would have been none of that subsequent collective drama, none of that slavery and freedom and desert wanderings, none of that revelation and journeying to a Promised Land, none of that conquest and grim and joyous adventure of Jewish living, century after century, millennium after millennium, no People of the Book, no chosen people, no Marx or Freud, no Kafka or Woody Allen, none of it  would have happened, no Nobel prizes, no Hollywood, no Holocaust, if that day, that particular day, we had missed each other in the fields:  he wandering, searching after his brothers, me wandering too, just a humble man, a nobody, no distinguishing features, no history, no story, no depth of character, just doing my own thing on that day, like you do your stuff every day, nothing special, except on that day I told him what I had heard.  I was always a good listener, I just reported what I had heard, overheard – it wasn’t snooping, just curiosity, just being open to hear what was going on around me, I just said to him, when he asked about his brothers, I guessed who he meant – how did I know who those shepherds  were? how did I know they were his brothers? – but I knew, I just knew, call it intuition, call it fate, call it the unconscious, call it ‘God’ if you want to, if you need to, but I knew when he asked about his brothers, I knew where they were pasturing, I knew I had seen them and I knew where they had gone, I heard them say it: Dothan.

And that’s what I told him and that’s where he went and that’s where he found them. And the rest, as they say, is history, or saga, or myth: the story of the Jewish people, with me the link in the chain, an anonymous link to be sure, but I’m there – ‘vayimza’ehu ish, a man found him’ (Genesis 37: 15) - my claim to fame, just a small actor in a larger drama, but I played my part, I listened to what was going on, I reported it truthfully, straightforwardly, and the story passed on, the larger story in which I played my role, humbly, simply, it’s what anyone would have done, helping a wandering Jew, a person in distress, a person who didn’t know what to do next, you would have done it too, wouldn’t you?  you would have taken your part, your role, in the unfolding drama of everyday life, of sacred life, you would have been able to be the lynchpin of history – though you didn’t know it at the time – you would have seen that this is not grandiosity, this is not an inflated sense of your own importance,  this is not thinking the world revolves around you, it’s just seeing that actions count, that giving directions to someone who is lost, any day of any week, is taking part in a drama, a story, much bigger than we can ever know. (The texts of our lives mirror, intersect with, the texts of old). It’s the smallest things we do, that history never records in our name, that make a difference.

Life turns on these moments. It’s staggering, this story, this way of seeing the world. When we think we don’t matter, when we think the individual doesn’t count, that the tides of history sweep on regardless of the individual, regardless of each of us, then suddenly we see: no, it’s not like that, it’s all about us, you and me, in our anonymity and our everyday lives where each action can tip the scales, can shift the balance, can alter the unfolding narrative of life on earth. What a responsibility. What grandeur.

I learnt it in Shechem, I learnt it in that place, where I shouldered responsibility – you know of course that Shechem means 'shoulder' – on that day when Joseph approached me ( and I knew who he was of course, everyone knew him with his fancy coat and his dreamy looks, he was unmistakable, unmissable, no wonder the stories they told revolved around him), on that day I suppose I was chosen to play my part in the sacred drama. I didn’t know, of course, just how much was at stake. We never do.

But there I am – inscribed in the good book, the book of life. And you don’t need my name, and I don’t need you to know my name. It is enough that you think of me each year, when you read this tale, this fable, this story of our lives, your lives. It’s enough you think of me. Think kindly of me. And think kindly of yourselves. My time has gone. It’s you now. Your turn to be in Shechem , to shoulder responsibility, to take your place in the unfolding drama, the sacred drama. It’s your turn now.

[Sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, December 8th 2012]midrash

Thursday, 15 November 2012

The fog of war

To live these last few weeks in southern Israel must have been hellish. The uncertainty of when rockets would arrive, the anxiety about safety, the anger about exposure to Hamas aggression. Nothing new perhaps, but an intensification of a barely tolerable situation. Jewish hearts empathise with the distress and the fear. (Just as Jewish hearts empathise with the on-going nightmare of the innocent victims and refugees of the near-by Syrian civil war; and with the Palestinian civilians amongst which the Hamas militia despicably hide, so we are led to believe, weaponry and missile-launchers).


And yet the latest response by Israel is distressing too, as the cycle of violence and mutual bloodshed is escalated to a dangerous and deadly new level, the consequences of which remain fraught and unpredictable. And one does not have to be a cynic to wonder: why now? Why has the government of Israel decided this is the moment to launch a major defensive/aggressive operation against Gaza? Just like Operation Cast Lead four years ago, it comes - with such unruly co-incidence - just months before an election. The calculation must be that this Operation will be over well before the January date when Netanyahu will again be seeking to present himself as the man to keep Israel secure in the face of its enemies.

And one does not have to be a cynic to wonder: why assassinate Ahmed Jabiri now? One only has to read Gershon Baskin (who helped mediate between Israel and Hamas in the deal to release Gilad Shalit) in Ha’aretz, which reports (November 15th) that ‘hours before Hamas strongman Ahmed Jabari was assassinated, he received the draft of a permanent truce agreement with Israel, which included mechanisms for maintaining the cease-fire in the case of a flare-up between Israel and the factions in the Gaza Strip’. Senior officials in Israel knew about his contacts with Hamas and Egyptian intelligence aimed at formulating the permanent truce, but nevertheless approved the assassination. “I think that they have made a strategic mistake," Baskin said, an error "which will cost the lives of quite a number of innocent people on both sides."

And one does not have to be a cynic to wonder: what’s with this Operation’s name, ‘Pillar of Defence’? This is the English ‘translation’ – useful for media purposes because of its obvious emphasis on ‘defence’ - of the Hebrew phrase being used in Israel, Amud Anan: a Biblical term used to describe how God, as conceptualised by the authors of the Torah’s mythic saga, was present in the desert wanderings of the Children of Israel, guiding and leading them through the 40 years of their journey to the ‘Promised Land’. In an early appearance of the phrase in the narrative, just after Israel have left Egypt, we read : “The pillar of cloud… moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel.” (Exodus 14:20). So the ‘pillar of cloud’ is like a defensive shield; and in a midrash on this phrase (quoted by the commentator Rashi) we read that ‘the Egyptians shot arrows and catapulted stones at them, but the…cloud caught them”.

One can only be in awe at the chutzpah of appropriating this Biblical term and its traditional resonances as the name for a military operation to stop the contemporary missiles raining down on Israel. Awe or shame. For this, consciously or unconsciously - and I don’t know which is worse – makes the current escalation of hostilities into an act akin to a ‘holy war’. What defended the people in the stories of the tradition was the Holy One of Israel. The implication of this phrase being used in its current context is that the role of the divine has now been replaced – or enhanced? - by the military apparatus of the State. To appropriate this language is a kind of sacrilege – a hillul hashem – but of course no more so a desecration of the divine than each side’s shedding of innocent blood.

And, finally, one does not have to be a cynic to recognise that as well as Israel’s adeptness on the military front, it is becoming increasingly slick at the propaganda war. Briefings from the Israeli Embassy have flooded my inbox in the last 48 hours, as well as from the Movement for Reform Judaism and the Board of Deputies. Synagogues and their members are being offered plenty of verbal ammunition with which to defend Israel’s cause, and in the days ahead we will no doubt be bombarded with multitudes of words to justify the State of Israel’s actions in this latest tragic cycle of bloodshed.

And meanwhile, the Holy One of Israel weeps, helplessly watching as the ‘pillar of cloud’ – which protected the people of Israel only in their wanderings, and disappeared once they entered the ‘Promised Land’ – becomes the synonym for the very fog of war. A 'pillar of cloud': a cloud so thick, so dense with the acrid smoke and fumes of battle, that the image of the people of God as a ‘light to the nations’ is blotted out.

Or so it seems.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Pictures of Who we Are

It is one of the most breathtaking sentences in world literature: Va’yitzar Adonai Elohim et Ha’adam, afar min ha’adamah, va’yipath b’apav nishmat hayyim va’yehi ha’adam l’nefesh haya (Genesis 2:7). Let me try and open out the verse that we read this week, as we begin again that great annual cycle of reading from the Torah.


“The Eternal One, Adonai, who is multiple, Elohim...”, experienced in multiple ways, “...formed/crafted...” - va’yitzar - the word is used of a potter shaping clay – “...the human being, humanity, dust from the ground...”; and this profound link is established between adam, humanity, and adamah, the earth beneath our feet: we ‘groundlings’ share something deep and resonant with the fabric of the planet – “...and he blew into its nostrils the breath of life...” : so a second profound link is established, between the divine energy that animates all of being, and us, filaments of being, human carriers of, representatives of, divine being breathing itself in us, through us – “...and so it was that, so it is that, humanity became/becomes a living soul, soul-filled life...”

It can take our breath away, this majestic description of how we were/are breathed into being. Every breath we take, a minor miracle: a reminder of the wondrous nature of being alive, and yet how fragile it all is, as the High Holy Day liturgy has so recently reminded us – “like a cup so easily broken...like flowers that fade...like a dream that fades away...”

This is us, fragile, dependent, vulnerable. And the imagery goes back to the these opening chapters of this extraordinary prose poem that is so embedded in our consciousness, this religious myth of creation, of origins, a way of picturing who we are - bound up with the earth and earthly life, and at the same time bound into the Eternal One, who breathes existence into being, so that we are linked – if it is only the atoms within our bodies – to all that was and is and will be. Carbon atoms from the very beginning of the universe are grafted into us – I don’t understand that, at all, it is just as much a mystery, a mystery story, as the Biblical account. It is hard science, the fact of carbon atoms from the creation of the universe being present in us, but it is still beyond my understanding.

I had a strange experience last week, reading the paper. I glanced at the obituaries and I saw (as always) a name I didn’t know, Dominic Hibberd. My first thought was that it was an interesting name. And the obituary started by saying he was the world’s leading authority on the life and work of Wilfred Owen, a poet I’ve loved ever since I was at school where I first studied Owen’s poetry. And as I skimmed through this article – and I was really skimming, because I wasn’t that interested in this man or his life – my eye caught the line that said that he had graduated from Cambridge, and then in the 1960s taught at Manchester Grammar School. And then I thought: Mr.Hibberd! Like unearthing an old penny that’s been buried in the garden, the cobwebbed memory returned. Mr. Hibberd had been my English teacher at school, one of them anyway, and I don’t know if he taught me Wilfred Owen, but I had not thought of him, ever, for well over forty years. Why would I? The abyss of the past had swallowed him up, and I guess he couldn’t have been a very good teacher, for he left no trace on my conscious mind, except his name.

And when I read about him - an only child, bullied at public school (Rugby), short-sighted, slight of build, ‘a shy and diffident man’, his obituarist said, ‘so quietly spoken that it was sometimes hard to catch what he was saying’ - I could imagine how daunted he might have felt in front of a class of rowdy grammar school boys. And we knew nothing of him or his life – he was gay, it turns out – as we knew nothing of any of our teachers’ lives. (Not even their first names). And yet he had this passion for Owen, and he dedicated his life to an academic career working on Owen’s life and poetry.

And I’m sharing my thoughts about this because I have been thinking this last week or so about how unknown people are to us, not just when we are children, or adolescents, but throughout our lives. We think we know people, but I wonder if we really do, even people close to us, they may have hidden parts, they will have hidden parts – whether it about their sexuality or their love of poetry, or chocolate, or any one of a thousand other things that we will never know, private things, secret things. We are a mystery to ourselves half the time, let alone being a partly-closed book to others who know us, or imagine they know us.

This is especially true of course about people in the public eye, whom we know at second hand, or think we know, through the media, TV, films. But this is a fantasy we have, because of course most of their lives are hidden. But then we seem to be shocked when something different from the public persona is revealed, and we see they are something else. Not something else instead – that is the mistake it’s easy to make – but something else as well. Jimmy Savile did a huge amount of good, he was renowned for his charity work. But he was something else as well. Something hidden from the public eye, or rather – as these things often are - hidden in plain sight. Everyone knew about his sexual predilections, it seems, but everyone also didn’t know what they knew. Or chose not to know what they knew.

Just like – a different example from this last week – the cyclist Lance Armstrong, with an extraordinary public image as a sportsman who battled with cancer, survived it, wrote a best-seller about it, won the Tour de France a record 7 times, a sporting phenomenon - yet now revealed to have a hidden life, a systematic drugs taker and bully of others to take performance-enhancing banned substances. A life hidden from the public eye, but again, hidden in plain sight.

Or take the banking scandals of the last few years that have precipitated this ongoing economic disaster – systemic acts of wrongdoing, dissembling, fraudulent practices: hidden vices yet in plain view for those with eyes to see. And some did.

It’s a story as old as history, as old as the creation of adam from adamah, the story of how our earthly being gets split off from our divine being. And it happens to all of us, the way we split off parts of ourselves and hide them from the eyes of others, and even from our own eyes.

And in our verse in Genesis there is an extraordinary gesture towards this in the first word of the verse – va’yitzar, “and he fashioned/formed/crafted”. The verb is written with an extra letter, an extra yud, that isn’t necessary: it’s redundant, and yet it is there, and it is a mystery why it is there, it’s in plain sight, but something is hidden in it. And it allowed the rabbis of the midrash an opening to articulate a profound insight into the human condition, because they said there needs to be two yuds because humanity, and each human being, contains two inclinations: the yetzer tov, the inclination towards goodness, and the yetzer ha-ra, the inclination towards evil. Each letter yud of this verb in Genesis chapter 2 about the forming of humanity represents one inclination. And we have both incarnated within us, breathed into us. They are in every breath we take, they are in constant tension within us, goodness and perversity, creativity and destructiveness. This is what it means to be human. We live with both, we are both, we need to keep both in view when we think about ourselves, when we think about other people.

And that is difficult to do. Because we don’t want it to be true about ourselves, or about others, this inner dividedness, this inner tension between acting in godly ways, with our goodness and compassion, and acting in life-diminishing and destructive ways.

And we can see this played out in the public domain all the time. Whether it is bankers, or the police, or clergy, or judges – we want our authority figures not to be earthly beings, not to have hidden lives. We want the security of knowing we can trust what we see, what he hear, we want to be able to rely on the constancy of others, we want undividedness in people, we don’t want to think about ourselves or others caught inside this eternal tension between the two yuds, our two yetzers. It can be too unsettling to hold in mind our own and others’ inner polarity.

(And we also have the opposite phenomenon of loving to see the flaws in others exposed. The British take a perverse delight in pulling down idols from the pedestals on which we have put them. Perhaps if we can brand them as sinners, flawed human beings, we don’t have to look at ourselves and our own flaws and failures: they can carry all our transgressiveness for us.)

Yet this is who we are, this is how we are made, this is what it means to be human. We are not machines to be programmed to always behave in one way. Part of that vulnerability, that fragility, of being a nefesh ha’ya, a living being, a soul that is alive, is that we are plural beings. “I am large, I contain multitudes”, said Walt Whitman in his famous poem, ‘Song of Myself’. Part of being human, part of being conscious as a human being, involves learning about the multitudes that we are, that each of us is. That is spiritual work, it is psychological work - and for Jews, it is religious work as well. Our texts keep pushing us towards this work, keep telling us that we need to engage the better parts of ourselves, our compassion, our generosity, of passion for justice, our capacity for love. But if we are to live out those better parts of ourselves, we need to know the forces in us that pull in opposite directions, that block that inner divinity being enacted.

And the work never ends. For it is, fortunately - as Kafka reminds us in one of his parables - “...it is, fortunately, a truly immense journey”. Another breathtaking sentence from world literature.

[based on a sermon at Finchley Reform Synagogue, October 13th 2012]

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Seasonal Thoughts

As autumn gathers its mists and mellow fruitfulness, my thoughts are still with this extraordinary summer we lived through. And I have - a seasonal Jewish theme - a confession to make. Although I love sport, I was an Olympic sceptic.

I resented the horrendous amount of money it was costing, no expense spared at a time when there are distressing degrees of economic hardship being suffered around the country, reductions in care services and health provision, increasing numbers of kids coming to school hungry – three food banks are opening up every week in the UK, Save the Children campaigning for the first time in this country for what they are calling a ‘humanitarian crisis’ in Britain – and meanwhile all these billions being spent on a few weeks of escapism. It felt, I confess, like a kind of madness, a collective derangement of values. Or like the band playing gaily on, distracting the guests while the Titanic was sinking.

For those interested, the full range of my pre-Olympic scepticism is in my May blog. I intuitively felt then - and still feel now, in spite of what I want to say here – that in years to come historians will look back on the summer of 2012 in the UK and see it as a final outpouring of joyful enthusiasm before the disintegration, an idyll before the storm, like we look back to those golden Edwardian summers of one hundred years ago, 1912, 1913, and a generation basking in the glory of Britain ruling the world - yet standing, unbeknownst to themselves, at the edge of an abyss.

Who of us can know? History never repeats itself, but it can help us deepen our thinking, it can add to our reflectiveness, during this season for reflection. After all as we were revelling in all those golden moments over the summer, 100,000 square kilometres of Arctic ice were disappearing every day, an unprecedented and catastrophic loss, the consequences of which - in flooding, storms, drought, food shortages - we will still have to face in the years ahead. That’s what I mean about the edge of an abyss – but of course news from the Arctic hardly got a mention during our feel-good golden summer.

I do accept that some of my pre-Games scepticism was probably misguided – for what we now know is that something else happened, quite unexpectedly. Once that torch began to weave its way around the country, building an enthusiasm in participants and onlookers alike, and generating stories along the way - torch-bearers with various hardships and disabilities and problems they had overcome, with individual stories of courage and tenacity, or dedication to a cause - as the stories were told, we saw again the capacity of the human spirit to triumph over despair.

One saw lives of integrity and spiritual dignity - and all this flowed into Danny Boyle’s chaotic, wondrous, exuberant polemic of an opening ceremony, all that dazzle of industrial revolution and suffragettes and Trades Unions and Great Ormond Street Hospital, all that multi-media showmanship that he orchestrated : and then the moment when I realised something new was opening up, something unheralded, unprecedented – the Queen’s “Good evening, Mr. Bond...” – pitch-perfect, as one might expect from a consummate performer. But a moment that symbolised – in all its surreal playfulness – that the psyche, the soul, of the nation was being shaken up, stirred in a new direction (or should that be “shaken, not stirred”?).

And so over those weeks we discovered, encountered, the best parts of ourselves as a nation – all those 70,000 and more volunteers, all that generosity of time, and that spirit of helpfulness in the stadia and on the streets, all that spontaneity of human contact – people talking to each other on the tube! – we seemed to discover that enjoying each other in all our diversity rather than fearing others because they are different, all those small moments of human contact, personal connectedness, rather than a habitual avoidance of contact - we discovered this genuinely made us feel better about ourselves, it enlivened our spirits.

And this isn’t saying anything about the soul-stirring activities of the sportsmen and sportswomen, in this extra-ordinary summer for British sport. Whatever else happens in the years to come, those historians in the future will always look back to these weeks we have lived through, and 2012 will be seen through that glow of nostalgia that time adds to triumphs of the past, like 1966 in football, times when the nation’s spirit, psyche, is formed, and re-formed - just as I grew up with people harking back to the Dunkirk spirit and the spirit of the Blitz, experiences that people live through and contribute to, which historians can deconstruct but that become part of a nation’s mythology, the story it tells itself about who and what it is.

And I am using words like the ‘human spirit’ and ‘soul’ not just as a paean of praise to Danny Boyle for his vision and chutzpah, or an expression of gratitude to Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah, and Paraolympians like Ellie Simmonds and David Weir, and all the rest of this golden generation, for thrilling us with their physical endeavours and triumphs. I am using words like ‘soul’ and the ‘human spirit’ because as well as the dedication of all those volunteers for the opening ceremonies and the weeks of the Games, so many of those athletes have their own personal story of sacrifice, and the commitment to overcome hardships and setbacks – particularly the Paraolympians – so we’ve had a summer filled with inspirational stories about what it means to be dedicated to a vision, what it means to have courage and tenacity.

And these manifestations of the human spirit, in the athletes and the volunteers, has been absolutely to the point for us over this last fortnight of the Jewish year, for this has been our season, within our Jewish story, to reflect on our souls and our human spirit. These are the days in the year when we ask these questions of ourselves as individuals and as a community: what is our vision, how dedicated are we prepared to be to work toward it, to live it out? How do we face the hardships of our lives?

How do we face loss and defeats and the struggle to overcome the odds? Where is our courage manifest? Our endurance? What are we committed to? Do we have the willingness to give up time for what we believe in? What sacrifices are we prepared to make – not just to fulfil person ambitions but to dedicate ourselves to others’ well-being? Are we prepared to volunteer our time for a cause, or some greater good? These are Jewish questions, ethical and spiritual Jewish questions – and they arise straight out of this extraordinary summer we have had.

Sportsmen and women came here from all over the world and showed us the best of themselves and we the host nation showed them - and we showed each other - the best of ourselves. And perhaps as a nation we surprised ourselves that we had in us such a lot of goodwill and generosity of spirit. But we did catch a glimpse of a different way of living together; and while the memory of this is still alive in us I have been thinking that in this season of Jewish reflection, we can reflect together on what it means, what we have just lived through, what it means religiously and spiritually.

And I want to say this as simply as possible. When we experience in ourselves, or in others, generosity or compassion or lovingkindness or a sense of fairness or a capacity to transform failure into success – in other words when we discover or encounter in our daily lives the better parts of ourselves, or other people – when this happens, we are encountering an aspect of what Judaism calls Adonai : God. Of course we often think about ‘God’, the divine – if we think about it at all - as somehow ‘out there’. That after all is how the Torah and the liturgy of Jewish tradition often pictures divinity. But there is a strong current of Jewish tradition that puts things the other way round. That all those qualities that we project out there onto the ‘Divine’ – generosity, compassion, lovingkindness, a sense of justice - they are the divine in us, sparks of godliness, and when we live them out, express them, or see them being expressed in others, we feel good, not in a superficial emotional sense, but in a deep, rich inner sense. A spiritual sense.

‘This is how life should be’ we think: where we help strangers, and give our time voluntarily, and can be trusted to keep a secret (as all those thousands of participants in the Opening ceremony were able to do and not put it straight onto Twitter). This generosity and trustworthiness and hopefulness is how life should be, we think, where nine-year old refugees who come to this country from Africa speaking no English can twenty years later achieve every ambition they might have.

When we live out these finer aspects of ourselves, or witness others doing so, we are encountering the divine within the world. Theologians talk about God’s immanence – and what they mean by that is the divine energy that animates all being, being present here and now, within us, between us, holding us, nurturing us, breathing itself through us. The spirit of God animating our human spirit. How different life might be, we sense, if we could live more of the time like this.

But we put up so many barriers to really understanding this; this knowledge is sometimes too much to bear. We harden our hearts to it, we put up barriers to our souls, and in our souls, we get sidetracked by our fears, our hurts, our selfishness, our defensiveness - we may have so much pain inside us we just can’t let go and re-connect with that deeper wellspring of goodness in us: our generosity, our compassion, our passion for justice - it is all in us, but how hard it can be to clear a route to our better selves, so my doubts on the way, so much frustration, or sadness, or despair, so we just can’t experience the divine spirit alive in us, in our souls. And yet it is there. That is the Jewish story we tell at this time of the year. That we are capable of returning to our better selves – and it is not straightforward, it is not easy – that’s why we have had 10 days to do it, those days of awe, of awesome possibilities for self-transformation. That’s not a sprint, it’s more like a marathon.

But we are in this game, in this story, together. And although the Holy One of Israel doesn’t give out medals – for we are not competing against others during these days, on the contrary we are using the support and presence of others to help ourselves - although we don’t get any medals at the end of it, there is a judgement made. It is a judgement about the spirit with which we took part: did we turn up and participate begrudgingly or open-heartedly? Did we listen to everything sceptically and with minds already made up about what’s possible in our lives, or did we take part with all our hearts and all our souls (b’chol le’vavcha u’vchol nafshecha), open to the possibility that we can do better, individually and collectively? To talk about God as Judge means to talk about that godly part of ourselves that knows just where we fail, just how little we care – as well as knowing the good we have done and the good we can do. That inner judge has moments of great clarity, and during these last few days we have made space for that judgement to take place.

A final thought. A story you may well have missed during this summer’s excitements. But it is a story that for me was as inspirational in its way as anything the Games could offer, and will have larger consequences for sure. You’ll remember the human genome project that finally, in 2003, was able to fully map the entire genetic sequence in each of our cells. Well, a consortium of scientists around the world – more than 400 researchers – have spend the last five years exploring why 98% of our genetic makeup, our DNA, seemed to be useless: ‘junk’ (to use the technical term). They could see the role of the 20,000 protein-coding genes, but the long stretches between them didn’t seem to have any value, or use, at all.

But what the Encode consortium announced over the summer is that this previously dismissed junk DNA is packed full of genetic switches that tell each cell in our bodies which genes must be switched on or off to make our muscles, our skin, our nerve cells, and so on. The implications for being able to understand, and then intervene in, cases of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, dementia, even ageing, are huge. And this is happened because that DNA material within us that had previously been dismissed as irrelevant has been re-examined. And what’s been discovered is that nothing is insignificant. It all has a purpose.

Within a decade or so, gene-switch medicines could transform life as we know it. They won’t make us more moral, more ethical – they won’t make us better people in that way, but they could enhance the quality of our lives in ways hard to imagine. Yet also within this coming decade or so, that Arctic ice may have disappeared - and who knows whether any of us, or our children, will be in a position to reap the benefits of those life-altering medicines.

We sense a strange, almost uncanny, race is going on – between human creativity and human destructiveness. And we are poised between the two. For that creativity and that destructiveness is not just out there, it is in here, in us. That’s what Judaism has always taught and it is what these last Ten Days of Awe have been about: which force is going to win out during this next year? - our life-affirming potential for making the world we live in a better place to be, or our equally strong capacity for causing hurt, for spoiling, for ruining other’s lives, our own lives, the life of the planet itself.

Just as there is no part of our DNA that is insignificant, so none of our deeds is insignificant. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we come to appreciate this uncomfortable, inconvenient truth yet again. And with full force. None of our actions is trivial. Everything we do is done – as the traditional phrase has it – ‘in the light of eternity’.

How we act, any of us, every day, brims with significance. There is a drama being played out within us, and within the world, between creativity and destructiveness ; which is why, as Judaism has always understood, what we do matters – that’s why compassion and love and fairness matter. They can tip the scales in favour of life, more life, fuller life. This is a huge responsibility and Jews (amongst others) have been talking about this and working on it and struggling with it - and fighting against it - for millennia, generation after generation. And now it’s our turn.

I hope this forthcoming year is a productive and creative one for us all.

[extracted and adapted from a New Year sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, September 18th, 2012]

Sunday, 16 September 2012

On the cusp of the New Year


As I move this evening into the New Year, 5773 in that ancient poetic tradition of the Jewish people, I think of the names this day of Rosh Hashanah has accrued to itself over the generations.

Yom Ha-Zikkaron – the Day of Remembering, the day we look back at the year now vanishing, moment by moment, along with our lives, and we recall what we have done and what we have failed to do, what has been significant and what has passed away apparently without trace – though do we not intuit that ‘significance’ is subjective, and deeply so, and that we may have no real perspective from which to view what has really mattered in all we have done, for good or ill.

Yom Teruah – the Day of Calling, the day we blow the shofar, eliding time, taking us back to mythic Sinai, taking us forward to the end of time when tradition says the shofar will again be heard - and we will finally be released from the burden and blessing of eternal Jewish hopefulness.

Yom Ha-Din – the Day of Judgement, about which no more need be said than Kafka’s unsurpassable words: ‘Only our concept of Time makes it possible for us to speak of the Day of Judgement by that name; in reality it is a summary court in perpetual session.’

May this be a year of peace.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Judaism and psychoanalysis

The great Jewish-American literary critic Harold Bloom once wrote that Freud's conceptual explorations of the human psyche "have begun to merge with our culture, and indeed now form the only Western mythology that contemporary intellectuals have in common" (1986). Yet a quarter of a century on from Bloom’s grandiloquence, the idea that any single over-arching narrative through which humanity can understand itself seems both dated and - fortunately - redundant. We are all, willingly or not, postmodernists now. 

As a rabbi and a psychoanalytic psychotherapist I find myself working within two intellectual traditions that offer contrasting (yet over-lapping) modes of story-telling as the means by which people can be helped to think about their lives and construct meaning out of what occurs. Psychoanalysis, like Judaism, is a vast meaning-generating system. Whether meaning lies within the unconscious or in God's hands (to use one of the anthropomorphised poetic images that the Judaic myth offers), both systems are conceptual enterprises designed to cajole us into viewing life as being composed of events which have meaning – or out of which meaning can be made. Both suggest that everything that we do and everything that happens to us can be thought of as part of a larger picture, of which we can only know a part. Both help us defend ourselves against the fear-filled alternative: meaninglessness.

Like the psychoanalytic myth, the mythologies and theologies of the monotheistic faiths involve strenuously creative attempts to deal with the potentially overwhelming, annihilatory anxiety of tohu va'vohu : the formless, chaotic black hole at the very beginning of Genesis (1:2) - which is analogous to (and a metaphor for) aspects of early infantile experience. Within the Biblical/Judaic myth, God fills the emptiness with creative activity, just as we have to fill our lives with acts of creativity (and love) to generate meaning in the face of the void.


One of my recurring hopes is that in my rabbinic work I might be able to help Jews grow up. For, emotionally and psychologically, many Jews seem to me to live in a pre-modern world, with infantile beliefs about God continuing to dominate thinking as if Kant and Kierkegaard and Freud had never existed. Immersed in inherited ways of believing and hallowed ways of behaving, such religious adherents - as well as their secularised co-religionists - continually romanticise and sentimentalise the Jewish past, or ‘tradition’, or ‘ritual’, or attachment to Israel, as ways of avoiding the anxieties and demands of the present.

Individually or collectively, this "compulsion to repeat" is, as Freud recognised, a resistance to remembering traumatic pain. This might be personal pain rooted in family life, or collective pain left over from the Holocaust. (I simplify: this is a complex topic). But what we end up doing is unconsciously re-enacting that unresolved pain in the present: in family life, in Jewish communal politics, in relation to the Palestinians.

Bringing psychoanalytic thinking to bear on the realities of Jewish life – helping people understand projection, splitting, displacement, etc - is an endless struggle against entrenched defensiveness and denial. For a rabbi it is sometimes, as any analyst will also know, a rather thankless task. And yet, as in the Biblical myth, revelations can occur. That there might be better ways to live; that compassion and forgiveness and generosity (towards one’s self as well as in relation to others) are not only prophetic demands on the community but personal qualities that can be nurtured and that can be transformative; that sustained attentiveness to, and the interpretation of, the unfolding mysteries and dreams of everyday life is a psychological and spiritual discipline: all this involves acts of faith. And, in particular, the faith that if we listen in carefully enough – “Shema, Yisrael” : “Hear, O Israel” (Deuteronomy 6:4) - “the pattern will emerge” (Freud).

As the New Year beckons, we begin to ask ourselves again - individually and colectively - about the patterns of our lives: what shape are we in? what motifs do we detect? what image will we leave behind?

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Seeing Ourselves from the 'Outside'

Last week, while reading the section of the Torah we have arrived at in our annual cycle of weekly readings - sedrah Balak, Numbers 22-24 – I was struck once again by the wondrous ingenuity of the storytelling. Anyone watching the BBC’s current productions of Shakespeare’s History plays will know what it means to be in the hands of a writer who can make language reveal both the subtlest details of personal motivation as well as the grandest of national visions (and the inter-relationship between them). In the text of the Torah we find ourselves in the presence not of a single literary genius (but who really knows? ) but a collective, collaborative act of narrative art that weaves a similar complex pattern of personal ambitions and fears that intersect with a ‘national’ story.


The story of Balak, king of Moab, and Bilaam the oracle-sayer, is told in one long, unbroken paragraph. It appears as part of the desert wanderings of Israel, who are approaching their Promised Land having defeated the Amorites in battle, and arrive at Jericho on the West Bank, the land of Moab. The sedrah begins with a description of Balak’s fear about these new arrivals in his land, these immigrants waiting, in his eyes, to take over his kingdom. He sets out to hire a famous figure, Bilaam, a practitioner of the dark arts, whom he hopes will conjure up a curse, put the hex on Israel. Basically, he’s outsourcing the job to another foreigner, from the East. (It’s like when you phone your bank and the bad news is delivered from India).

But Bilaam is reluctant to take on the job, until – and this is one of the extraordinary things about this text – ‘God’ intervenes, making known to Bilaam first, that these people are blessed and he shouldn’t take the contract offered, and then, as the story goes on, it is made known to Bilaam that he can go, but must only speak the divine words that will come to him when he opens his mouth. The Torah recognises that Bilaam does have the capacity for, the gift of, prophecy. Our story, so often focused ethnocentrically on God speaking to ‘us’, to the Israelites, here recognises that sometimes divine truth can come out of the mouths of non-Israelites, the so-called ‘goyim’ .

The story includes the Disneyesque fantasy sequence of the famous talking ass who is able to see more clearly than Bilaam what’s in front of his eyes - but eventually Bilaam finds a good spot to look down at Israel camped in the valley and he opens his mouth, and proceeds to bless them. This, as one might expect, makes Balak very angry (it’d be like hiring George Galloway to speak at a Palestine Solidarity rally and he launches into a speech about the miracle of Israel’s birth), so Balak suggests to Bilaam that there might be a better spot from which to do the cursing; but it happens again and Bilaam speaks a second blessing and not a curse. And then it happens again and Bilaam speaks the words that now open all our prayer services: ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkanotecha Yisrael – ‘how good are your homes, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!’ (Numbers 24:5).

One of the remarkable things about this narrative sequence is the way in which the Torah forces us to switch perspective. We are used to being immersed in our own story – Numbers is all about the Israelite desert narrative, the 40 years in the wilderness - but suddenly we find in ‘our’ story, a picture of how we are seen from the outside. The two characters are non-Hebrews. They don’t belong to ‘us’. But we are given the perspective of Balak, who fears and hates us; and then the perspective of Bilaam, who starts off with no fixed view but ends up admiring and praising us. And we are shown an aerial view of Israel, as it were, as Bilaam climbs up above the camped masses of Israel and looks down from above them and sees a foreign people that send him into raptures of poetry.

How are we seen by others? On the one hand there is fear and the wish to curse us, for us to be damned from the face of the earth. This is the external view of the anti-Semite, the Jew-hater. And then there is Bilaam, the poet, the wordsmith, the conjurer with language and the slippery arts of the soothsayer, who is inspired to praise what he sees from this great height. This is the philo-Semite, the lover of Jews. Our storytellers, Hebrew storytellers, in the middle of their narrative, superimpose on to ‘our’ story - it’s like a Cubist picture – the view from the 'outside', two views in fact, the view of those who are antagonistic to us, and those who admire us. 

Let me move these thoughts in a contemporary direction. Many Jews believe that the Balak-perspective is all around us – or rather, we fear that it is all around us. And there are those in Anglo-Jewry who are working hard to ensure that we never for one moment relax, never for one moment forget that the ‘goyim’ hate us. The Jewish Chronicle is constantly beating the war drums supposedly on our behalf, always vigilant for anything that they can find that might be construed as anti-Jewish.

We had a classic example recently with the artificially created furore over a simple GCSE exam question: ‘Explain , briefly, why some people are prejudiced against Jews’. It was in a Religious Studies paper, and pupils answering the question had studied a syllabus where they had explored the reasons – historically, sociologically, culturally, psychologically - ‘why some people are prejudiced against Jews’.

But then someone got hold of this question, surely a legitimate area of intellectual inquiry and examination, and suddenly the community is off again, on a witch-hunt: find the anti-semite. So first we have the spokesperson of the Board of Deputies - they are supposed to represent us – taking up the quite unintelligible position that a question about the origins and causes of anti-semitic prejudice, “has nothing to do with Jews or Judaism”. Go figure. Try writing that on your exam paper and you’d get 0/10. (Or maybe 1/10 – at least he didn’t write on both sides of the paper at once). You have to laugh at this stuff – otherwise you’d tear your hair out in despair.

But that wasn’t the end of it of course; because then the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is  commandeered, and finds himself having to take up a position. He has a lot on his plate, but amongst all his onerous responsibilities he was prompted to express the following view: “to suggest that antisemitism can ever be explained, rather than condemned, is insensitive and...bizarre”. From an Education Secretary you could hardly get a more anti-educational view. How silly of us to imagine that education is anything to do with the investigation and explanation of phenomena. If anti-semitism can never be explained, perhaps the many hundreds of volumes on this subject are now redundant. Think of the shelf space that could be freed up in school libraries if you got rid of all those histories and investigations of anti-semitism. You could fill them with Harry Potter.

And I can hardly bear to repeat the other view that the Jewish Chronicle offered us from the Headmaster of an Orthodox Jewish High School who was quoted as saying that education “is supposed to remove prejudices and not to justify them”. There’s a disturbing confusion here between trying to think clearly about a topic and justifying the subject matter under discussion. And the suggestion too that education is a form of covert indoctrination.

Yes, Jews know that there are people who fear us and hate us: always have been, always will be, the Balaks of the world. But we keep seeing Balaks when they are not there. They are figments of our own distorted imaginations, projections of our own aggressions. They may just be Bilaams, people with no innate prejudice, who if we invite them to come and look at us, to see who we are, how we live together, assemble together, may end up inspired to admire us, bless us, recognise our special qualities.

Bilaam looks at us from outside, yes, from up above, from the very top of where he climbs to. Sometimes, it is true, if you are at the top and you look down – if you are a Mr Murdoch or Mr Diamond, - you look: and you see nothing. (Like Manuel in Fawlty Towers: “I know nothing”). But Bilaam, at the top, looks and he sees and he speaks: words that are so wondrous that we repeat them still, in every service.

What an inspired choice by the rabbis who assembled over generations the liturgy we use, how inspired to begin the service with this Torah view from the ‘outside’, of us as a community. It is an encouragement to us, prompting to us to see ourselves as we have been, and often are, seen from the outside – as having goodness grafted into us – and not to imagine, over and over, that the world is always against us.



[freely adapted from an introduction to the Torah, and a sermon, given at the Finchley Reform Synagogue, July 7th 2012]

Saturday, 16 June 2012

The Sense of an Ending
I have just caught up with Julian Barnes’s 2011 novel The Sense of an Ending and, somewhat to my surprise, a week after finishing it I still find myself turning it over in my mind. Not so much the plot, which is rather thin, but some of his treacherously simple sentences and some of his subtle reflections on memory, history, loss, and storytelling. Particularly the stories we tell ourselves as our life unfolds – and how we may have to revise them, re-vision them, in the second half of our lives:

“We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them.”

The novel illustrates – as many novels do – the law of unintended consequences: how small actions that we might forget about have larger ramifications that we may never (perhaps fortunately) know of; and how we see only one small fragment of the enormous web of being in which we are held. We spin our lives in one direction but the impact that might have on others is always unpredictable, and to a certain degree unknowable. This could be frightening if it weren’t so mysterious, and so filled with the possibility that the consequences we never know about could also be benign, life-enhancing, life-changing: that our capacity for unintended goodness is a large as our capacity for unintended harm. Of course we want to think that our capacity to be a blessing to others is larger than our potential to hurt them – but one of the things Barnes’s novel shows is that this may be based more on wishful thinking than on reality.

Near the beginning of the novel there are a marvellous couple of sentences as the narrator tells us what he is plotting to do - take us back to his schooldays, not out of nostalgia, but because in order to tell his story he needs “to return briefly to a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty. If I can’t be sure of the actual events anymore, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That’s the best I can manage.”

The novel illustrates the quietly devastating effect of this casual-feeling attempt at recall, with the hesitancy and diffidence of ‘briefly...approximate...can’t be sure...impressions...best I can manage’ set against the unexpected and stinging harshness of ‘deformed into certainty’, a phrase that brings us up short as we reflect on its wider provenance.

What aspects of our lives has time ‘deformed into certainty’? Stories we tell ourselves, and others, about how things were – but how do we really know? Often our memories are composed of old photographs, bits of cine film, or other people’s stories about us that we have taken on as a true account of ourselves. But as Barnes shown in the novel, memory is one of the most elusive aspects of our humanity. We remember things the way we want to remember things – not how they were. We have our secret agendas about how we want to tell the stories of our past – and sometimes the secret is not even known by us, (in other words, it is an unconscious process): we don’t even know we are misrepresenting, misconstruing, our past as we become more of a victim, or less of a persecutor, or some other ‘deformation’ of the truth of that irretrievable density of experience we call our past.

But it is not only personal histories that are ‘deformed into certainty’. National histories too become told in a particular way that bears only a partial relationship to the complexity of how things were: whether it is the Battle of Britain, the birth of Israel as a State, or the current political and economic crisis in Europe, competing and complex narratives have a habit of congealing into a fixed and definitive ‘certainty’. Facts are twisted into a shape that suits the teller; so, as one of Barnes’s characters puts it, “we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us”.

And it occurred to me too that this concept of “memories which time has deformed into certainty” is a wonderfully suggestive phrase in relation to the Bible, that repository of memory-transformed-into-language. The texts are crafted composites of memory and myth, legend and law, history, story, poem and song, twisted in certain directions – directions of certainty – by the narrators themselves, and then again by later readers. Though the narrators often allowed in more uncertainty in their storytelling than later readers could, and can, bear. But that is another story, for another time.

Meanwhile, Julian Barnes has written a short novel of deceptive simplicity that will play in your mind, and allows your mind to play. And what else do we want from a story?









Saturday, 19 May 2012

Ill-winds from Greece

I watch the news each day. I see the scene from the Temple of Hera in Greece where the Olympic torch goes out moments after it is lit, all the calculated and rehearsed ceremony at the mercy of larger forces, as if those ancient Greek gods are still at play, reminding us poor mortals of the hubris of imagining we can control events...After some moments of panic and uncertainty it is lit again and the whole charade resumes.

And then I see how that other ill-wind from Greece is sweeping its way across Europe trailing financial turbulence and anxiety in its wake. As the flame arrives, stock-markets plunge. But this time there are no quick fixes and the systemic problems in the home of democracy exposes our powerlessness in the face of the modern incarnations of those ancient gods: the financial markets, whose whims and wishes determine all our fates.

And we in the UK, as well as other member states of the European Union, are told we have to make sacrifices to the gods: and so we offer up our livelihoods, our pensions and jobs, our libraries, hospitals, schools, sometimes our homes, the welfare state that has protecting the vulnerable, as cut follows cut deep into the flesh and sinews of our social body. Because the markets must be appeased, we must keep them happy, at all costs. And we will be counting the costs for generations.

But meanwhile let’s distract ourselves with the Olympics, let’s celebrate the arrival of the flame onto our shores - that ancient ceremony that dates back to...well, Berlin in 1936 actually, when it was dreamed up as a way of connecting the capital of the new German Reich with the original games of classical Greece, whose culture Hitler so admired. Never mind, let’s not distract ourselves with history, let’s focus on the ‘Olympic spirit’: the way in which the original cost of the Games, forecasted seven years ago as £2.37billion will end up costing us between £12 and £24 billion – who knows? who cares? it’s the Olympics, don’t spoil the party spirit...

No, let’s not distract ourselves with the finances, let’s focus on the ‘Olympic spirit’: the ground-to-air missiles mounted on London rooftops; the fighter-planes on constant alert above the city of London; the warship patrolling on the Thames; the UK's biggest mobilization of military and security forces since the second world war including 1000 armed American diplomatic and FBI agents patrolling an Olympic zone partitioned off from the wider city by an 11-mile, £80m, 5,000-volt electric fence.

But never mind, let’s not distract ourselves with security concerns, let’s focus on the ‘Olympic spirit’: the steely grip of the corporate sponsors who have enlisted Parliament to issue legislation banning any non-official advertising from Olympic venues and surrounding areas - better not go there with a Nike T-shirt when Adidas are the official sponsors, you’ll have to strip off - as well as ensuring it will be illegal for a member of the public to broadcast or publish video and/or sound recordings from Olympic events “ including on social networking websites and the internet." In other words the ‘Olympic spirit’ ensures it will be a crime to post your pictures to Facebook. And so it goes on, everywhere we turn we see the corruption of an ideal and the brave/foolhardy British determination to carry on regardless. And let’s not start on athletes and drugs...

I do love watching sport – but forgive my cynicism about the Olympics. Will I be watching this ridiculous, and in some respects scandalous, distraction from what really matters? Probably I will succumb in part – but I will do so knowing that I am guilty of a hypocrisy I find hard to bear. For this is true ‘bread and circuses’ (panem et circenses), ‘bread and Games’, that Roman expression for the diversion and distraction of the public through the satisfaction of their shallowest desires. As a political strategy it is associated with the frivolity of the Roman Republic prior to its decline into autocracy. As the ill-winds from Greece presage the disintegration of the European dream, we can only pray – to gods old or new, it will matter not – that our democracies are strong enough to withstand the malevolent social forces waiting in the wings.

Monday, 16 April 2012

‘Why did you do that?'

I am haunted by the story. I can’t let it go, or rather it won’t let me go. This is what literature can do to you sometimes, great literature – the kind that tries to speak about how life is, in all its complexity and mystery, in all its unexpected moments of joy and pain, of sudden reversals of fortune, life in its shabbiness and its grandeur, the life that poets and novelists keep evoking and describing – arranging and re-arranging words on pages in the attempt to pierce the mystery of our being, the mystery of there being anything at all: it is the poets and the storytellers that keep reminding us that what makes human beings a unique aspect of the created universe is our capacity for language, for words, for using speech to communicate and to try to conjure up new ways of talking about who we are, what we are, why we are...

And this story in Leviticus, these few verses of an ancient text, seem to speak of something just out of our grasp. We feel that if we could really understand what is going on we’d hold in our hands, in our hearts, we’d hold in our consciousness, a moment of enlightenment. It we understood this text it would be like a revelation, a holy moment. We’d know the truth of something, how something really is and not just how it seems. We’d somehow know how the world really works – if we could but understand this simple story.

“And Nadav and Abihu, sons of Aaron, each took a fire-pan, and fire, and incense, and offered ‘strange fire’ before the Eternal, which they had not been instructed to do. And fire came forth from before the Eternal and consumed them and they died before the Eternal. And Moses said to Aaron: ‘This is what the Eternal says, these words: Through those near to Me, I will be sanctified; and before all the people I will be honoured’. And Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10: 1-3)

Two young men offer aysh zara – strange fire, alien fire, something that is burning and out of the ordinary, something unexpected and unpredicted and out of the range of what is known, something that runs counter to the rules set down from on high, from their parents and their God. They are not feeling constrained by what has to be, what should be done, what shouldn’t be done - there is a rebelliousness in them, a zeal, an enthusiasm, a passion – they want to connect with the divine in their own way, but what is it really that motivates them? Is it attention-seeking? Is it a prank? Is it anger at being part of a system that always tells them what to do, that demands obedience, that is filled with prohibitions and punishments and threats of more punishments? Is it a premeditated act, plotted together in secret for ages before? Or is it a sudden impulsive moment of dare-devilry – ‘I’ll do it if you do it, no you do it, no you do it, hell, let’s just do it...’

Who knows? – our storyteller isn’t going to tell us. Our storyteller is going to keep us dangling – for generation after generation – our storyteller knows that when they place this word next to that word, in this order, and create this sentence then that one, that we are going to be captivated till the end of days with a curiosity, with a desire to know, to understand, to delve beneath the surface of this brutal and dumbfounding story, to find out: why did they do it? Which is to say: why do any of us do the things that we do? What is the story we tell ourselves, or each other? What is the story we told our parents, or our siblings, that we tell our partners, or our lovers, or our teachers , or our friends – or whoever wanted to know: ‘why did you do that? How could you have done that? Couldn’t you see what would happen? Why did you do it?’

And we might have a story ready, or we might make one up, or we might have no words to offer – but that question ‘why?’ can have a dozen answers, a dozen so-called reasons, but they are only stories, more stories: ‘I did it because I was angry, I did because I was bored, I did it because I was tired, I did it because I was upset, or hurt; I did it without thinking, I did it because I thought you’d like it, or you’d be pleased with me, or you would love me, or you would stop loving me if I didn’t do it, I did it because it felt good, I did it because no-one was looking, or everyone was looking’... stories we make up, stories we believe in (or not), that try to answer that simple-sounding question: why did you do that?

Two young men offer aysh zara – strange fire, alien fire, something that is burning in them and it has to come out. And fire symbolises both what is creative and transformative – and what is destructive. And when these two men in this story offer their strange fire, and fieriness, there is no explanation, because no explanation is ever sufficient - because we are strangers to ourselves, aliens who think we know why we act but rarely take into account that actions are often prompted by the unconscious in us. We think we are rational and conscious and coolly calculating beings – but this story reminds us that this is just a fiction, another story, one we like to tell ourselves, a soothing fairytale of a story: ‘Oh, I did this because of that’, as if we were a mathematical formula, x plus y = z. I did z because of x and y. ‘I left him because he snored and always left the toilet seat up’. ‘I married her because she had beautiful eyes, and a father who was a millionaire.’ What a consoling fiction this is, that human motivation can be tracked down in this simple way, as if the mind and the heart and consciousness itself is just a refined computer-type programme waiting for us to de-code, or load up with more programmes that we can then act out. But what this short story reveals is that we are essentially a mystery: to ourselves, let alone to other people.

There were plenty of things I could have addressed this week, other than this nagging mysterious story, the one that won’t let me go. What about the sinking of the Titanic, 100 years ago? What an extraordinary story this has become in the British psyche: it’s become mythic, a story about class, and fate, and hubris and arrogance and bravery and cowardice and the randomness of who will live and who will die, and how the story the makers of that ship told about it in 1912 - and the captain and crew and passengers believed - that this was a ship that was unsinkable, what a story that was, what a fiction that was, how naive to believe in the stories we tell ourselves about how things are and have to be.

Or I could have addressed what’s happened to another storyteller, the grand old man of German letters, Nobel laureate Gunter Grass, 84 years old, for whom reading and writing – the habit of looking intensely at words – became the work of a lifetime, and now he’s been banned from entering Israel, to which he has a strong and loving bond, because he wrote a poem – in truth, not a very good poem – a poem in which he spoke about both Iran and Israel as having the potential capacity to act in ways “endangering/Our already fragile world peace”. Following which rather uncontroversial sentiment ,a huge storm of controversy has erupted around him – with knee-jerk reactions from the predictable sources : that Grass has voiced “deep-seated prejudice against the Jewish people” (i.e. he’s an anti-Semite) – that’s from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in the States; and from Netanyahu a helpful, diplomatic response that Grass is just an unreconstructed Nazi because he was drafted into the Waffen SS at the age of 16 towards the end of the War, and we aren’t going to take moral lessons from Germans anyway.

The power of words – they can explode in your face – a storyteller poet can offer his own alien fire and the next thing you know the wrath of the gods (or those who set themselves up in God’s place) falls upon him.

The power of words, of stories, of language – and who the stories are told to, and where they are told. What about the Habima theatre company of Israel, founded in 1905 and Israel’s oldest theatre group, who are due to visit London in May but are facing a boycott campaign? They perform all over Israel and they’ve done some performances in Ariel, in the West Bank; they have sponsorship from the government of Israel and a contractual obligation to go, but no actor is forced to perform there if their conscience dictates not to, and actors who choose not to face no sanctions from the company. They are due to perform their Hebrew language version of The Merchant of Venice, at the Globe during the London Shakespeare Festival. And as another storyteller Howard Jacobson has said in defence of their visit: "If there is one justification for art… it is that it proceeds from, and addresses, our unaligned humanity. Whoever would go to art with a mind made up on any subject misses the point of what art is for”. (Though I note that Jacobson has remained silent, as far as I know, about Grass).

Which stories are we allowed to hear? which poems are we allowed to read? which words are too strange, too alien, too fiery, too filled with burning indignation, too dangerous, to be offered up on the altar, in full view of the public?

In Leviticus, the story is told that something is offered, strange, alien, of burning intensity – and it is followed by death, and more words, as Moses tries to rationalise what has happened: he offers his own story, which you can take or leave. (It’s what you’d expect from a religious leader, a bit of pious gobbledygook to cover up the outrageous unpredictability of what life throws at us).

But the most eloquent response, the most poignant, the most pregnant with meaning and feeling is that of Aaron, who is suddenly a survivor: a survivor of the unaccountable way in which life unfolds, bringing death in its wake; and he stands there, in the presence of the non-rational, the awesome irruption of chaos into the order of the day, vayidom Aharon : and Aaron was silent.

And there is a gap in the text, a moment of suspended action: as we wait, as we join Aaron in his silence. Sometimes there are no words. Sometimes there is a moment when we realise that words are a cover-up, that there is something unutterable about life, underneath words, between words, and our storyteller gives us a glimpse into that larger silence in which we are held, beyond language, from which we have come and into which we will go. And we stare - with Aaron, through Aaron - into the abyss. And we hear the silence. And it is heartbreaking, this silence.

And it is also, potentially, heart-mending, this silence.

But that’s another story.

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, April 14th, 2012]

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

On Demagogues and 'God': some Pesach thoughts

He thought people had witnessed “something miraculous” – in the biblical sense of the word. “As a religious man I have to believe that there is some divine intervention in this...something sacred. Justice has been done.”

No, not Moses after the exodus from Egypt, standing exhausted on the far shore of the Sea of Reeds in awe at how events had unfolded, some combination of nature and the historical moment that would enter a people’s collective memory to become a legend told and re-told, elaborated upon, mythologised over the generations, each telling a re-collection of fragments of memory, each telling an elaboration, each telling adding weight and significance to that initial sense of freedom, freedom gained who knows how? who knows why? but freedom gained - and awaiting its narrators, its storytellers, its making-sense-of-it-all mythographers and poets...

No, this was Friday March 30th, in the early hours of the morning at the prosaic Richard Dunn Sports Centre in Bradford - and God’s intervention is claimed with a raucous and aggressive immediacy: “All praise to Allah!”, then the response, “Allah, Allah” - like a football chant - then the crowd-pleasing seduction of “Long live Iraq! Long live Palestine!”, and the jubilation spills out onto the streets as the ‘miracle’ is proclaimed. No, not Moses, but George.

George Galloway’s stunning bye-election victory has received a fair amount of media coverage. His capacity to tap into local issues to do with poverty and unemployment, and the local disaffection about the system of political patronage that seems to dominate Bradford politics, were part of his appeal. But stirring up racial and religious tensions and utilising his reputation as an opponent of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan came in handy too – as did the literature from his ironically-named ‘Respect Party’ that claimed that this Scottish Catholic was more of an adherent to Muslim principles than his Muslim Labour opponent: “God KNOWS who is Muslim. And he KNOWS who is not. Instinctively, so do you. [So you the voter, and I, George Galloway, are ‘instinctively’ in the same camp as God]...I, George Galloway, do not drink alcohol and never have. Ask yourself if the other candidate can say that truthfully...”

Although there are rumours that Galloway has in fact converted to Islam – he does seem to have a polygamous series of wives married in Muslim ceremonies – there’s no doubt he’s found a useful campaign strategy here: align yourself with God and smear your opponent as less religiously devout than you are. Galloway’s whole sickening mis-appropriation of the language and principles of religion – and particularly his megalomaniacal, self-deluding claim that his success was due to ‘divine intervention’ – seems to me an extraordinarily disturbing event in British politics. The media coverage seems to have passed over in silence these claims about the ‘sacred’ nature of the event. Perhaps they are more interested in the political dimensions of the election – or perhaps, not confident enough to judge a person’s theology, they see this language as just part of Galloway’s idiosyncratic personality. But I think we should pay a bit more attention to what’s going on here.

In The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoevsky put into the mouth of his character Karamazov the view – now much-quoted, and much-disputed – that “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted”. But it seems to me that the opposite is as relevant, and perhaps more dangerous. For we have seen on countless occasions that once you claim to have God on your side, then anything is permitted: whether it is the Crusades or the occupation of ‘holy’ land, honour killings or the burning of heretics, the suppression of women or beating the devil out of children, too-readily knowing what ‘God’ wants can lead to mayhem, cruelty and murder.

In the mouth of a demagogue like Galloway, the phrase “All praise to Allah” carries a vicious and frightening undertone. Galloway has paid court to some modern pharoahs, dictators like Sadaam Hussein and Syria’s Bashar al Assad – they offer him an image of his own perverse ruthlessness, so no wonder he finds himself in thrall to their power-hungry personalities – and this co-opting of Muslim religious language is his latest ploy in grabbing power for himself.

So as Pesach (Passover) approaches, I find myself reflecting on how we can liberate the language of ‘God’ and the ‘sacred’ and ‘divine intervention’ from those who cynically co-op it for their own selfish and egotistical needs. The Haggadah text famously downplays the role of Moses in the extra-ordinary Exodus events it describes: Moses only gets a glancing mention within the traditional ‘Grace after Meals’ – he is completely absent from the first half of the seder, where the people’s journey from slavery to freedom is described and celebrated.

This of course runs counter to the Biblical narrative itself, where Moses’ hesitant-but-crucial leadership is highlighted within the story. But on seder night it is as if the anonymous compilers of the liturgy are making a discrete bid to de-legitimize any cult of personality. ‘Our story of salvation’, they seem to be saying, ‘is a story without a human Saviour’ – so our story is unlike that of Christianity, for example, the rival faith one feels they must have had in mind as they assembled the elements of the Jewish salvation story.

Freedom happens, they suggest, because there is a salvific force that enters into human events, perhaps when people least expect it. It comes, this force, with a power and an authority that sweeps people up in its force field, sweeps people along with what gradually – or suddenly – is experienced as a force of inevitability, unsettling the status quo, and reversing the prevailing dynamics of power.

Later on we might call it - our bards and poets might hymn it as - ‘God’s divine intervention’. Though at the time it was a mad scramble for survival and escape and taking the chance that came, the chaos of events, the lack of time to think, not even enough time to bake a loaf of bread, just the rising up in one’s spleen of the will to break free, the opportunism of the moment, when the society was reeling from one damned thing after another and death was all around and the powers-that-be were mourning their losses, and the wild-eyed visionary stuttering one and his shadowy, smooth-tongued brother said Now is the Time, the End-Time, ‘Let’s go, my people’ – though we might have got the words wrong in the confusion of the hour – but something stirred in our souls and we realised that we were not yet crushed unto death, our hearts were beating, still beating with the pulse of justice and the knowledge of injustices done and suffered, and we took our unleavened cakes of dough and at midnight – or thereabouts – we left our homes and our slave-lives and our Egyptian overlords, and broke free of our humiliation and broke free of our slavery to ‘it can’t be done’ and ‘it can never happen’, we broke free of our despair and our hopelessness, and some ancient spirit of defiance and hope breathed itself into our nostrils, we discovered again an animating energy we had forgotten we ever possessed, we found new life, like a grace flowing in our veins, and before we knew it we were away, away from there, on the journey, the truly immense journey, the journey we still are on.

And call it ‘divine intervention’ if you like.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Purim blog: ‘Who is Amelek?’

What would Judaism be without its prayers and its rituals? Would it be, as a Bar Mitzvah boy said recently in my community, ‘just a big social club’?

It’s true that without prayer and without ritual Jews would still be quite distinctive - we’d still be an ethnic and cultural group, we’d still have an identity. We’d be the people who invented the bagel. (And the people who decided to fill the bagel with smoked salmon and cream-cheese. We’ve exported that around the world). We’d still have our ethnic foods. We’d be the ‘chicken soup is as good as penicillin’ people. So there would be the food. And the humour of course. We do great jokes – because with our history we had to find some way of coping with the tears.

So we’d be a distinctive social club with great food – though everyone would always be on diets, because have you ever met a Jew who’s happy with their weight? Or for that matter how they look? Still we would be a great social club – though we’d have to have another social club nearby that we wouldn’t be seen dead in because they don’t do things the right way there.

OK. Enough Jackie Mason. He was also a rabbi who thought he was a comedian. (We can be quite bitchy too as people – quick to cast aspersions, to blame, to criticise – if kvetching was an Olympic sport, we’d win gold every time. We’re quick to criticise – and slow to admit we are ever wrong).

But of course it’s not just prayer and ritual that define Judaism. In fact some people might say, the prophets of Israel used to say, the essence of Judaism as a way of life isn’t prayer, and it isn’t Jewish rituals and ceremonies. It’s something else. It’s ethics. It’s how we act towards each other. It’s about righteousness and compassion and our passion for justice. It’s about giving to others – our time, our money (charity/tzedakah), giving our energy, our love, our empathy and care. We know all this.

So why does the Torah have to repeat 36 times the injunction to care about the stranger, the outsider, the ones who don’t ‘belong’? ‘That is your story too’, the Torah says, ‘you were once outsiders, strangers, in Egypt; you were once despised and abused because you didn’t seem to fit in, and you had come from somewhere else’. Is that so difficult to get our heads around? Our hearts around? It seems that it is.

Judaism is based on this extraordinary idea of human value, human worth, of uniqueness, preciousness, each person made (in that amazing phrase), b’zelem Elohim, in the ‘image of God’ (Genesis 1:27). It’s a beautiful and poetic image – the picture of human beings having divinity grafted into their souls. And therefore deserving of respect.

And it’s not just ‘us’, in our Jewish ethnic-cultural-religious club, it’s ‘them’ too – whoever the Others are, Poles or Pakistanis or Palestinians. Whether people love us or hate us, Judaism’s greatest challenge to us is: can we see the Other as b’zelem Elohim? In a sense we might say that hatred always involves a failure of imagination. And that includes self-hatred.

So this capacity to act with compassion and enact justice is the ethical and moral heart of Judaism – and without it we are just a big social club that’s given us Hollywood and Jewish humour and food that gives us heartburn. Of course you don’t have to be Jewish, or religious, to dedicate your life to acting with compassion and care, and fighting for justice. But Judaism as a way of life stands or falls on how well we can inhabit and live out its core ethical ideals. I repeat: we know all this.

So why is it so hard to keep on articulating it? And trying to live it out? I’m still mulling over, still stirred up by, what I saw and learnt on my recent trip to Israel with the British Friends of Rabbis for Human Rights (see February’s blog and www.rhruk.co.uk). On the one hand, Israel does receive a fair amount of critical attention in the media , and some of the perceptions sometimes seem unfair or inaccurate; and yet there are things going on there, within Israel itself and in the Territories, that don’t accord with the highest values of our Jewish tradition. When we hear about discrimination in Israel by the State against the Bedouin, or by Israeli rabbis against Orthodox women, or the authorities against Ethiopian immigrants, or Knesset legislation targeting NGOs and civil rights groups that are trying to defend human rights or promote ethical values, or we hear about the fire-bombing of mosques and the uprooting of Palestinian olive trees or the illegal building of settler homes on land to which Palestinians have documentary proof of ownership – when we hear about any of this we may (and probably should) feel uncomfortable, unsettled, disturbed.

And it matters to us not because we are ethically-sensitive people who might care equally about the bloodshed in Syria or the growing homelessness and poverty in the UK. It matters to us because we feel bound up in a particular way with the living out of Jewish life in Israel.

There is a rabbinic saying that " Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh " ‘all Jews are sureties for one another’ – we have a responsibility for one another, and one of the responsibilities we have is to stand up and say: ‘this act, this practice, this behaviour does not correspond to the highest values of our tradition, we can do better than that’.

That kind of ethical criticism and self-criticism has been in our tradition from the days of the prophets onwards. It’s not comfortable, either to do it or receive it, but unless we are just going to be a big social club, it is a religious responsibility. It’s much easier for us to see ourselves as the victims. We have generations and centuries of experience of that – real experience, tragic experience. It’s there in our minds, maybe at the back of our minds, maybe in the forefront - but unavoidable: the knowledge that hostility has been and is directed against us. That’s not news.

It’s even been grafted into our annual calendar: last Shabbat we read about Amalek, three verses from Deuteronomy (25: 17-19) which describe the way in which the children of Israel, wandering through the desert just after the Exodus from Egypt, were attacked in an unprovoked manner by the tribe of Amalek. These verses are always read on the Shabbat before Purim, our carnival festival when we read in the Book of Esther about the plan by Haman - described as a descendent of a later Amalekite king, Agag - to wipe out the Jews of Persia. A strange people we are – we commemorate an attempted genocide with a festival of frivolity, jokes and drink.

We call that pre-Purim Shabbat Shabbat Zachor , the ‘Shabbat of Remembering’. It reminds us of a grim reading of Jewish history : ‘there is always someone against us, remember that’. ‘Amalek’ is an archetype that is felt to exist in one form or another in every generation. And although this may be a necessary injunction – lo tishkakh, ‘Do not forget!’ (Deut 23:19), don’t forget there are always people who feel hostility towards us - it’s harder to remember something else: that ‘Amalek’ is not just the name for something outside us, but it is inside us too.

When I studied the Amalek text in Israel with some of the extraordinary rabbis and teachers who live there and are battling hard for an ethical Judaism to be enacted in daily life in that country they love, and many of us love, one of the things they all said, in different ways, and at different times, was that there is a battle going on, right now, for the soul of Israel and the soul of Judaism. There are forces around that go in the guise of nationalism or religion (or both), that are anti-democratic (their language, not mine) and contrary to Jewish ethical principles. The enemy, the 'Amalek', the one seeking to hurt and harm and destroy is not just the Other, it’s not about Hezbollah and Iran – that’s too easy to think, and react against. It deflects attention away from something else. No: 'Amalek', they suggested , is an internal experience, it’s part of us, it’s in us . It’s about the hatred and antagonism in Jewish hearts.

That’s hard to hear, hard to say. It’s like saying we Jews are our own worst enemy. We don’t want to know that, think that, hear that.

But it’s what the prophets of Israel kept on saying, and it’s what the modern inheritors of that vision, those brave men and women in Israel battling for civil rights and human rights, it’s what they are saying and putting their bodies on the line for, quite literally - because the aggression of not only Jew-on-Palestinian but Jew-on-Jew is a very real and present experience to them.

What they are saying, and it’s the message they wanted visitors like me to bring home, is that Judaism is not a social club – it’s a way of seeing the world that puts justice and compassion at its very centre. Nothing else can substitute for that. Not even bagels and smoked salmon.

[Extracted and adapted from a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, March 3rd 2012]