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Saturday, 21 December 2013

"Mandela'd Out"?

The first time I heard it, it took me by surprise. It was on the Thursday morning – less than a week after his death and three days before the funeral:  “Oh, that’s enough..I’m Mandela’d out..."  Too much attention paid, too many news hours, too many anecdotes and reminiscences, too much hyperbole, too much sanctification, too much sentimentality, too many politicians and celebrities jumping on the media bandwagon... ‘Mandela’d out’.  So it goes, so it goes...

So has everything been said now?  Is it time to move on? And consign Mandela to history, or legend, or some uneasy fudging of the two? Are we ready, as 2013 stutters towards its end, are we ready  to close the book on Nelson Mandela, leave him be in his place of rest, in the family graveyard alongside his parents and three of his children? Are our faces already turned away, scanning the horizon for the next new newsworthy thing? Maybe. Maybe that funeral, that curious mixture of the personal and the political, the tribal and the military, the fragments of Christian liturgy filled with hope for the end of days set against the landscape of Africa, where human life began, maybe that was the last chapter of this saga and we can all breathe out now that Mandela is finally at peace in his place of rest.
But I’m still musing on what that signified, that some people were feeling ‘Mandela’d out’ after less than a week. I know that wasn’t the mood at the Finchley Reform Synagogue when we held an evening that week for people to come and talk about Mandela and South Africa, about what it felt like to live under apartheid and what it meant to fight against apartheid, there or here.
Our gathering - we called it a ‘commemoration of the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela’-  didn’t attract a huge number of people, a couple of dozen maybe;  but it was a privilege to be there and listen to people’s stories, whether it was the sickening feelings of living in a racist regime, or the experience of imprisonment, or the inspiration that Mandela had generated, with his decades of perseverance, his belief that justice must in the end win out over injustice, his ability to allow some deep humane quality in him – a spiritual quality, I suppose – to transcend bitterness, or the wish for revenge, to show generosity, to act with restraint. This meant something, something noble and profound, to many of those who came and shared their thoughts and experiences. Who were definitely not feeling ‘Mandela’d out’.
Don’t we need to know, in an era of cynicism and duplicity, don’t we need to be reminded, that there is such a thing as a deeply moral, compassionately human politics?  That one person’s actions, and beliefs, can make a real difference, a difference for good?
But that ‘Mandela’d out’ reaction – and I began to hear it quite a bit as the week went on – needs an explanation, or at least it needs to be reflected on. Because I don’t think it was just an inevitable reaction to the 24/7 television news culture we live in, where the images and pundits were inescapable, and  we were flooded with Mandela stories and newspaper supplements everywhere we went. I do wonder if it was something more subtle than that, maybe more unconscious, something about the challenge Mandela’s life presents to our own lives.
Because one could have a response to his life like that voiced by President Obama, in that remarkable speech he made at the memorial gathering, when he talked about something stirring in him when he first learned as a student about Mandela’s struggles and it “woke me up to my responsibilities to others and to myself”, he said, and although, “ I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be a better man. He speaks to what’s best inside us.”
And I think that is true. The narrative of Mandela’s life does give us glimpses of what it means to live true to one’s deepest values, the best, most humane, parts of ourselves. Because yes, he was a warrior, and there was something in him as hard as steel, and of course he had his flaws, but there was also a kindness, a  humility, a wry sense of humour, and above all that gift, his greatest strength perhaps, that he knew how to make peace, how to heal wounds. “Who is strong?” asks Rabbi Eliezer in a 8-9th century CE text: “Someone who is able to turn their enemy into their friend.” (Avot de Rabbi Nathan 23).
And this is part of why he was inspirational for many. And yet, at the same time, there may be  something almost unbearable about seeing this potential. It could be something that (paradoxically ) we might want to turn away from, something that unconsciously stirs in us to say, ‘Well, I could never be like that, I could never live like that, holding fast  to those demanding  standards of what it means to be human; I can’t act with that much kindness, I can’t turn my enemy into my friend, I can’t overcome my  bitterness, my sense of unfairness, my inner hurts’  – and if this uneasiness is going on inside, it can quite quickly translate into the feeling, ‘Oh I’ve had enough of all this praise, all this news, all this attention on the man and his heroic qualities.  I’m just “Mandela’d out”. Give me a rest’.
And what we want a rest from, I’m suggesting, are the reminders:  ‘You can be better than you are, kinder, more generous, more compassionate’. We might not feel we can, and it might be painful to be reminded of it day in day out for a week and more. That’s how we do become ‘Mandela’d out’.
Because we do know just how hard this is – to turn enemies into friends. This isn’t turning the other cheek, it’s not a masochistic adherence to suffering. It’s acting in a way that can transform the feelings in other people, aggressive feelings, into something more benign. And I’m not sure how good we Jews collectively are at this. We are more used to keeping our enemies – or those we see as our enemies, which isn’t the same thing – keeping them at a distance, keeping an eye on them; we’re more accustomed to that aggrieved stance than the hard and humbling work of trying to turn them into friends. We are good at paranoia, not so good at reconciliation.
But one of the things that did come out during that evening was people’s pride in  the Jewish contribution to the ANC and South African politics. You will probably be aware that many, the majority, of Mandela and Walter Sisulu’s  white South African colleagues were Jews:  not necessarily, not usually, religious Jews, but secular Jews who were nevertheless steeped in the Judaic ethic, the Biblical ethic, of support for the oppressed, the outsider, the stranger. Jews who had grown up with the Exodus story that we began to read today in the synagogue Torah cycle, with its archetypal narrative of a liberation struggle, with a leader who becomes the representative voice of his people, who goes and speaks truth to power, as Moses does when he says to Pharaoh, “Let my people go”.
This narrative  has inspired oppressed and victimised people the world over, through the generations: it’s a narrative that inspired William Wilberforce as an evangelical Christian to embark on a twenty-six year campaign against the British slave trade until he guided the Slave Trade Act through Parliament in 1807. And it’s a narrative that Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel shared in the era of the American civil rights movement. And it’s a narrative that fed into anti-apartheid movements, either in its Biblical  ‘Let my people go’ formulation; or in a secular guise, in the language of human rights.
And Mandela always acknowledged that Jewish contribution to the liberation struggle, even though of course there were many Jews who supported the status quo, who were unable or unwilling to live out the highest ethical values of Judaism.  Because those ethical values can be deeply uncomfortable, deeply discomforting of how we live. Who wouldn’t be unsettled by those demands? For the Hebrew Bible, just like the New Testament, presents us with a bias towards the weak, the vulnerable, the oppressed, and a God for whom justice is a primary passion, a God who demands that his people, individually and collectively, incarnate justice as foundational for their being-in-the world. A God who is not on the side of the strong, but pleads with his people, over and over again, to resist the injustices committed by the powerful against the powerless.
This is the beating heart of Judaism – and it has nothing to do with traditional religious rituals and practices. It’s about ethics and morality, and those Jews who aligned themselves with Mandela and his colleagues, defending them in courts, and supporting them when imprisoned, and advocating their cause over the decades, risking their lives, sometimes giving their lives for the cause of an oppressed people, these were Jews living out the core ethical values of Judaism – whatever their overt relationship to their Jewish faith was or wasn’t. And while we can take pride in those who did this - maybe be a bit in awe of those who did this – it might make us wonder if we have the courage in us to fight injustice when we see it, because it can be very hard to do it. It is much easier to look away.
This is why I am not feeling that it’s quite time to be ‘Mandela’d out’. In relation to South Africa, we can see how fragile Mandela’s legacy actually is. A bloodbath has been avoided thus far, but there is still much political turbulence there, large inequalities between classes, and between rich and poor, there are problems of corruption, deep political rivalries, and the challenges of  reconciliation that have not gone away - some might say that they have hardly begun to be faced.
We look around us and it hard to see where that ancient vision of justice  is being enacted in the political realm. It is rare and difficult to live in the light of that vision, to live up to the demands on everyday life that this vision asks of us. The Middle East, for example, has no Mandela figures to look to. There is no Palestinian Mandela, and there is no Israeli de Klerk. And it was a Jew who assassinated Israel’s last best hope for reconciliation, almost 20 years ago now. Because Yitzchak Rabin was on a journey from warrior to peacemaker, there were those in the so-called ‘religious’ camp who saw this as treachery, and so he was murdered for it. And what we have now on the Israeli political scene can make us cringe when we compare it to what true greatness of moral leadership is. Netanyahu couldn’t even afford the plane fare to attend last week’s events. It was shameful.
We don’t really need reminding about the injustices of today, and the places where that moral voice needs to be heard – whether it is in relation to the 3 million Syrian refugees enduring terrible hardship in neighbouring lands, or the 6 million Syrians internally displaced (ie half the population are no longer living in the homes they had three years ago), a humanitarian disaster ‘over there’, safely out of sight if we want it to be. Or on our own streets of Barnet, where homelessness has increased by 60% in this last year, as has child poverty, directly as a result of a compassionless ideological assault on those who often were already leading lives of quiet desperation.
When we look at any of this (and who can bear really to look at it?), do we want to know about it? That there are half a million people in the UK relying on food banks and emergency food handouts this winter in order to feed themselves and their families?  Isn’t this also shameful? And where are the Mandela-like voices and actions speaking against injustice, against inhumanity, against unfairness? But no Mandela, no Moses, is going to come and say ‘Enough – this has to stop. This has to change’. We all want heroes to come and do this for us. We all want salvation to arrive from somewhere else, outside of us. But the hard lesson is that no one is going to come along and sort it out. It’s down to you and me, if we can bear it.
The miracle of the burning bush story that we read today (Exodus 3) was not that the bush was burning without being consumed. The real miracle was that an ordinary person, Moses, in the midst of his daily life, shepherding the sheep, turned aside to see what was happening: “And Moses said: I will turn aside now, and look...” (Exodus 3:3).
That turning to face what is  happening is the moment of decision. That freedom to say: ‘I will look at this’. That strength to say: ‘I will respond to this’.  That life-changing moment when we say: ‘I cannot ignore this. It is going on in front of my eyes. And it isn’t going away’. And when that choice is made, in the midst of our own lives, to turn aside from what we are busy doing, and look, and acknowledge the conflagration – “the bush was still going on burning” -  and respond actively to it (as Moses does in the narrative), when we do this (if we can bear to do this) then we stand on holy ground  (Exodus3:5).
May the example of Nelson Mandela  - and Moses – offer us hope: hope that in a fractured world, a world still beset with inequalities and strife, we can lead our own small lives inspired by a larger vision of what is possible. To live in dialogue with a religious tradition means that each one of us is called to task. Mandela’s vision was that ‘what is’ can be transformed into ‘what should be’. May we each find the strength to stand on holy ground and live out that ancient call of the prophets : ‘Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream...’ (Amos 5:24).

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, December 21st,2013]

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Jews as Time-Travellers

Some thoughts on Nelson Mandela will follow in this blog in a few days time. In the meantime...

You can wait for ages for a 50th anniversary – and then a host of them come along at once. A couple of weeks ago you couldn’t move without bumping into one. Those two great English writers CS Lewis and Aldous Huxley both died on the same day 22 November 1963: Lewis the Oxford don once described as “the best read man of his generation, one who read everything and remembered everything he read”, a Christian apologist and the author of the much loved and revered Narnia stories; and Huxley, the intellectual free spirit whose Brave New World is a novel that has come of age in our own times with its warnings about manipulation by the state, our innate conformity to what we are told is good for us, our submission to the powers-that-be as long as we are kept entertained.

But the deaths of Huxley and CS Lewis on the same day 50 years ago were swamped by another event, the 50th anniversary of which we have just gone through, an iconic event, that anyone of my age or older has etched inside them. One of those ‘where were you when?’ moments – you always remember where you were (like hearing of Mandela’s death). It’s certainly been part of my consciousness since I was child – and I can still see myself watching those black and white images on TV, not able to take my eyes away from what was happening.  It’s hard to believe five decades have gone by, to reach back in time and memory to recall the feelings and emotions, the visceral impact it had, and for some people has continued to have.  Our history was never the same again – that first episode of Doctor Who changed everything. (I think something else happened that weekend 50 years ago, but I forget what it is).
These days, of course, we can all be time travellers after a fashion. We might not have a Tardis, but we do have YouTube. I recently had the thrilling time-defying  experience of watching that first episode again – the first time in 50 years – on YouTube, and there I was at my computer screen now and pressing the control buttons and transported back to being a wide-eyed ten year old watching this mysterious story unfold.
What I hadn’t remembered was the title of that first series – An Unearthly Child – and looking back now I think that I must have (for reasons I won’t go into now) unconsciously identified with that notion of a child out of place.
What I do remember though is the intemperate, but ultimately benign, father-figure of William Hartnell as the Doctor, a curious hybrid of Shakespeare’s Prospero and the Wandering Jew. He even looked like the archetypal Jew, a shawled figure complete with a strange hat that looked like a large Yemenite kippah.
And when I listened this time to almost the first words he utters, I realised that quite possibly my 10 year-old self imagined that he was Jewish. “We are not of this race...”, he says to the two strangers who have stumbled into his Tardis, “we are not of this earth, we are wanderers in the fourth dimension of space and time...”.  Some very fertile seeds were sown there and then.
I think my early devotion to Doctor Who - and I did watch it religiously for about seven or eight years - was partly because I made a link, which I couldn’t have articulated at the time and was possibly unconscious, between these themes – “we are not of this race...we are wanderers in space and time” – and my growing awareness of, and curiosity and puzzlement about, what it meant to be Jewish.  And the fact that the Doctor kept facing enemies who were out to get him probably contributed to that subconscious thought that really he was Jewish. 
“Exterminate! Exterminate!” – the Dalek’s crie de coeur, as it were  - no doubt had an added meaning to a youngster growing up in a world beginning to acknowledge, and talk about, what had been done to the Jews less than 20 years before. Hannah Arendt’s soon to be famous (and infamous) book ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ – her reflections on the recent trial that had taken place in Israel and Eichmann’s execution – was published 50 years ago in the autumn of 1963. The themes of the attempted extermination of a wandering race were certainly in the air I was breathing as I emerged from childhood into precocious adolescence.
And although I haven’t really thought about any of this stuff in a considered way for 50 years, the reason I’m talking about this is that I realise that that sentence from the mysterious Doctor – “we are wanderers in the fourth dimension of space and time” – is a pretty good working definition of how the diaspora Jew in me still thinks about what it means to be Jewish. And not in a superficial TV-series kind of way but in a spiritual and psychological sense of felt inner experience.
Let me give you some examples of what I mean. When I read from the Torah on a Shabbat morning, the very process of reading the text opens me up to a kind of time travel. Firstly – before we even get to the stories themselves - the choreography of the service is designed around the Torah reading. It’s the climax of the Shabbat service, week in week out, when we bring out the scroll from the Ark (and we call it an ‘ark’ in homage to the ark of the covenant that the people carried with them in their wandering through the desert those 40 years, another elision of space and time);  and we parade it round in recognition that it belongs to all of us, we are links in a chain that stretches back into the distant past; and then the words are read or chanted in a kind of re-enactment of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Each week, each time we read from the Torah and hear the words, it is as if we are at Sinai again, that symbolic space where revelation happened, and happens, as we listen anew to the mystery of the words. This is time travel for Jews.
And we even have a Festival dedicated to this, Shavuot, when we celebrate the Giving of the Torah, when we re-live the experience, the saga, of a whole people receiving revelation, new understanding. Each year as we re-enact the story, and recognise that we live within a chain of tradition stretching back into mythic time, we glimpse, we sense, we intuit, that our very notion of time is a kind of fabrication - and that our true domain as Jews is the timeless.
This idea that past and present are interchangeable and that we as Jews are duty-bound to be time travellers comes up over and over again in our tradition once you start to look for it. Perhaps the most well-known example is on Passover Seder nights when, as we tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, we say the famous words: “In every generation it is a person’s duty to regard themselves as if they personally had come out of is not only our ancestors whom God set free from slavery, but us too along with them...”
On Seder nights, perhaps above all other nights, Jews become time-travellers, re-living the Exodus, tasting the foods, unleavened or bitter, telling the story of the far distant past, but then jumping a thousand years and overhearing the conversation of those five first century rabbis in Bnei Brak telling the story in their generation; and back and forward we go throughout the evening, time-hopping, at one moment we are in Egypt then we are off again into the Middle Ages and a time of oppression and fear – “Pour out thy wrath on the peoples who do not acknowledge you”  - and then we’re back in our Haggadah time machine and off we go into the future with Elijah’s cup and the hopes for a redeemed world in some distant time and space.
Even the siddur ( prayer book) we use is a kind of time-machine – we move from medieval prayers, back to the psalms from two and half millennia ago, forward to a contemporary poet, back to an 18th century Hasidic rabbi, then forward to a newly created bit of liturgy, then back to the Shema which is a piece Biblical literature. This siddur is our Tardis.
These last few weeks our Torah readings have focused on the Joseph narratives (Genesis 37 onwards), texts where this idea of Jews as “wanderers in the fourth dimension of space and time” feels particularly resonant. Because what else is the Joseph saga but a great literary exposition of the Jew as outsider, the diasporic Jew who finds himself or herself a stranger in a strange land, the immigrant who starts off in a lowly position (Joseph sold into Potiphar’s household) but makes good and whose very success leads to him being desired by those in power and yet resented. So he’s attacked, denigrated, brought low, but struggles with fate and rises again, (as Joseph does, to become Pharoah’s right hand man), and in doing so this immigrant assimilates into the ways of his adopted homeland, changes his looks, his ways, his language, changes his name – as happens to Joseph in our story.
And when we see how Joseph is portrayed as the economic mastermind  behind Pharoah’s throne, we can skip two millennia and we are in the world of the so-called Hofjuden , who were the ‘Court Jews’ in the 14th, 15th , 16th centuries, Jewish bankers who handled the finances of, or lent money to, European royalty and nobility. In return for their services, court Jews gained social privileges, including in some cases being granted noble status for themselves – just like Joseph.
So the Joseph story is not just a story about one revered  ancestor of the Jewish people, it is also a story enacted – like the good Doctor appearing in different historical periods – in the Middle Ages , or in the 18th and 19th centuries with the Rothschild family, or in our own time with George Soros, or Henry Kissinger : the diasporic Jew who appears, as if out of nowhere – and because of their facility with money or their intellectual gifts takes on highly visible responsibilities that are both appreciated by the powers-that-be, but that can be equally resented by the powers-that-be – or those who don’t have power.
Think recently of the attacks on Ralph Miliband – that foreign interloper coming here with his alien ideas and reaching positions of power and influence, the archetypal secular Jew, the Jewish dreamer of a better world, a world of transformed human relationships and an ethic of social responsibility, one of a long line of Jewish dreamers wandering through space and time, visionaries who see the world differently and so are admired and feared in equal measure. Every generation has its Joseph figures – interpreting, advising, adapting themselves to changing times and situations yet retaining the memory (as we saw in the portion today, Genesis 40) of their families of origin, and the long history of which they are a part.
This Joseph saga has been re-enacted over and again through time, across the generations, in every land where Jews wander through the ages. That’s what makes it a great story, because it speaks across time to us. It shows us, reveals to us, how the diaspora Jew, secular or religious, stands in a curious intimate-yet-distant relationship to society, and finds himself/herself  praised, denigrated, admired, envied - for the dreams they share, and how they interpret or comment upon the dreams of others.
Jews have eyes thousands of years old. That’s what happens when you are time-travellers. We see the present through the lens of the past, through the eyes of the Torah dream of protecting the rights of the outsiders, the orphans and widows and the marginal of any society; through the Torah vision of concern for the strangers, for ‘you were strangers in the land of Egypt’; we see the present travails of society through the eyes of the prophets of Israel, zealous in their passion for justice, fiery in their denunciation of injustice, unsparing in speaking truth to power. As time-travellers we carry this knowledge into every space and place we inhabit, into every era we land up – this is our gift, our burden and, for better or worse, it seems to be our destiny.
As the Doctor said, 50 years ago, “We are not of this race...we are not of this earth, we are wanderers in the fourth dimension of space and time...”
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, December 7th, 2013]

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Defending One's Father

I was going to write something about the furore surrounding the attack on Ralph Miliband - until I read Jonathan Freedland's article on it, which said all that needed to be said and expressed it much better than I could say it:
So any connections between those events and what follows, prompted by this week's Torah portion Lech L'cha (Genesis 12-17), are - as they say - purely coincidental.
It’s when they attacked my father for his beliefs that I really lost it. He was a good man, Terach, a true believer in the old gods. Without his wise counsel, and strength of character, I would not here today, here to tell my story, even though my story, my beliefs, differ so markedly from his.

His gods, my father’s gods, were gods that failed: they were the gods he’d come to know during his long life, learned to trust from early on, the gods of nature and of death, of the harvests and the seas, of fertility and the seasons; in Ur of the Chaldees where he was born he was ruled by the sun and the moon, and his gods were close to him, he found them living in the earth and he saw them daily in the heavens and in the patterns of the night sky, and he trusted in them, for they gave him life and they gave a meaning to death, they structured the rhythms he lived by, they were all he needed; and he took them with him on his great migration - it is described in the books (Genesis 11:31) - he took us all - myself, Abram; my wife Sarai; my cousin Lot – he took us away from what he’d known, and planted us in Haran, on his way to Canaan, where we were always meant to go, Canaan – his Promised Land. And there he died, and there he was buried, with his gods around him, gods that we the next generation  (or at least me, in the next generation) could see the limitations of, even though he believed they would always sustain a man, a family, in this world and the world to come.
And when the lazy, and the vicious, and the ignorant, attack his beliefs – which they do because they fear that I am like him, still clinging to the hopes of the past, when the gods were near at hand and helped us everyday – when they condemn him  with the immense condescension of posterity, it gets my goat, it really does. For although I don’t believe in his gods, and their powers to determine life, he taught me the values of faith, the importance of belief, of holding on to what one feels is true in the face of scorn and derision, of cynicism and fear. He taught me that to have a vision was important, to live one’s vision was life-affirming - and would give life to others. Without that vision of his he would not have left his homeland and planted himself in alien soil. And this courage of his I learnt – so that when I was called to move on, I was able to listen, to follow where I was led. I learnt that gift from him, my father Terach. So when they attack him for his beliefs, they attack me. Even though what I believe is different from what he professed.
For I was called – as is every child, in every generation – to build on the past, to forge a new vision, informed by new situations, new realities, and not to rely, not to put my faith in, the old ways of the old gods. I was called into something new – and, amazing to say, you read about it still. But it took me a long time to understand what it was all about – though I’m not sure I ever really understood, I’m not sure it’s understandable – all that talk of blessing and sacrifice, of being a blessing and being willing to sacrifice what is most precious to our hearts. I am not sure I ever understood who or what was calling me on, calling me out – it always came out of the blue, like a message in an invisible bottle, ‘open your eyes, see what is there, look into yourself, and look up from yourself, look at the stars, they are your family written into the future, your descendents, constellations of faith...’
And every step of the way, there was fear, fear and trembling, the fear of the unknown, the dread of what would be demanded next, and the deep dark vision of future suffering, the shadows haunting the blessing: strangers in a strange land, 'yiddos', not just once, but over and again through the generations, carrying that blessed/cursed covenant, seared to our souls. And all those old gods, separate gods for separate parts of reality – el and baal, mot and shaddai – different gods for different parts of life: somehow it dawned on me - or it was forced on me, sometimes it came like a revelation, a sudden vision, a clarity of seeing, of insight – I realised that they just couldn’t all be split up, the gods – the elohim -  they couldn’t all have an independent life of their own, but they had to be connected, they had to belong together, they had to One, Echad. The divine couldn’t exist sometimes here and sometimes there, but the divine was in everything, it really was One, and me with it.
This is why I lived in fear, trembling before the mystery of Being, the mystery that past and present and future is just our way of seeing, our way of being, but it is in essence all One, Echad. Who could live with this? It demands too much. And yet I found myself bound into a  covenant with it, a covenant with a new way of seeing, a new way of believing, a new way of being where my being resonated with the Being of the universe. Who wouldn’t be frightened of seeing the world this way?  
And it changed me, this new way of seeing. I started off as Avram, ben Terach: Avram, son of Terach; and I became Avram ha-Ivri, Abram the ‘one who crossed over’ – for I did cross a border, not just a geographical one but in terms of belief, from the old gods of my father to a new intuition about divinity, that everything was connected, everything was One. I became Avram ha-Ivri, whom you know as ‘Abram the Hebrew’. And from there to Avraham, the founder of faith, the founder of faiths – who could have imagined?   
It was a long journey for a boy born in Haran to a father who’d put his faith in the old elohim in all their dazzling multiplicity, a long journey to a new way of thinking about Elohim (same name, different way of seeing what it meant), a long journey to a new kind of faith, a faith not just rooted in nature but rooted in story, in history, filled with surprises, challenges, obligations, duties, a faith austere and joyful, fraught with uncertainty, shadowed by doubts, a faith my descendents began to think of as belonging to me, though it isn’t mine, it belongs to all of us. And this journey continues, the journey of faith of Avraham Avinu – ‘our father Abraham’ . So attack my faith, or my faithful ones (who may not even believe in me), attack them (subtly or not so subtly) and you attack me.  
I am Avram, son of Terach. Proud child of a father in whom I still have pride. As it should be.
[Sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, October 12th, 2013]



Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Secret Message of Sukkot?

As a long-time subscriber to ex-Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s weekly email about the Torah portion of the week or forthcoming festival, I usually marvel at how he always seemed to manage to promote the most benign face of Judaism, as if it was a holistic system with no flaws, no problems, no disturbing aspects to it. There is never a note of self-criticism about the religious tradition he is speaking about, not an iota of doubt about the unqualified goodness of Jewish teaching and Jewish life. It always reads and sounds beautiful and worthy – and it is always just slightly unreal, as idealised portraits often are.

My attention was caught this week by an innocent-looking sentence in his text for the current festival of Sukkot : “Sukkot is the only festival about which Tanakh [the Hebrew Bible] says that it will one day be celebrated by the whole world (Zechariah 14: 16-19)”. And he goes on to talk about Sukkot as a festival of insecurity, which it is. And the hallmark of our era, of the 21st century, he suggests, is that individually, communally, internationally we live with more and more insecurity. Sukkot, he’s saying, is therefore relevant to everybody, Jew and non-Jew alike. There is nothing wrong with this - it is a familiar rabbinic theme, a homiletic theme, at Sukkot, emphasizing the symbol of the sukkah (and its intrinsic impermanence) as a powerful reminder of the fragility of life. It is easy to write this stuff, talk this stuff, I have done it myself, I will no doubt do it again - it is what the festival points towards from a psychological and spiritual perspective.
But what caught my attention was this bald statement that “Sukkot is the only festival about which Tanakh says that it will one day be celebrated by the whole world (Zechariah 14: 16-19)”. Maybe I had known this at some stage in my Jewish education, but it still came as a surprise. 
So I looked up the text he refers to and discovered that it comes from the traditional Haftarah [prophetic reading] for Sukkot, the one read in Orthodox synagogues but a text Reform synagogues don’t read. They have replaced it with a Biblical text describing Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple -  and when you look at the traditional passage you may get a sense of why they’ve abandoned it. 
Because the Zechariah text visualizes in uncompromising detail a future day when the nations of the world will gather together to destroy Jerusalem - “The city shall be captured, the houses plundered, the women violated...” (14:2) – and as a result of this (so the prophet  declares) God will smite Israel’s enemies with plagues so that “Their flesh will rot away while they stand on their feet, their eyes shall rot away in their sockets, and their tongues shall rot away in their mouths...” (14:12).
(We saw this, by the way,  at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so Israel’s undeclared threat of nuclear retaliation if they are attacked has a chilling pre-echo in the prophet’s words; but best perhaps not to venture too far in this direction in making links between texts and life, texts and history, and how prophetic texts might yet be enacted).
And there’s more like this in the chapter from Zechariah, including the same deadly fate for “the horses, the mules, the camels and the asses, the plague shall affect all the animals in those camps” (v.15). And then, the text goes on, if there any survivors amongst Israel’s enemies, “they shall make a pilgrimage year by year to bow low to the King Lord of Hosts, and to observe the festival of Sukkot. Any of the earth’s communities that does not make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to bow low...shall receive no rain...” (vv. 16-17).
And these are the verses - a text filled with retribution, humiliation, and the threat of further revenge and punishment of the nations – that Jonathan Sacks has turned into the benign, life-affirming  statement “Sukkot is the only festival about which Tanakh says that it will one day be celebrated by the whole world (Zechariah 14: 16-19)”. This is a new definition of chutzpah. A curse has become a blessing. It’s breathtaking.
Of course it’s no different from what rabbis do all the time, taking texts and using them for their own purposes, homiletic/sermon purposes – you really shouldn’t trust them , you know, these rabbis  – and we never show you, just as no stage magician would, how the trick is done, we just create the effect and challenge your disbelief. And of course what Sacks is doing has the best intentions, to help us think about the universal message within Sukkot. But this is the most brazen example I have come across in a long time of the appropriation of a Biblical text - or the misappropriation - to generate a message at odds with its original context and meaning.
And this leads me to a final thought - though I hardly dare mention this in case it spoils things for regular synagogue goers – about the text we use at the end of the Alenu. The Alenu prayer consists of two paragraphs, the first about the place of Israel, the Jewish people,  within God’s creation; and the second paragraph is about what is optimistically called ‘the hope for humanity’, a paragraph about the end of the worship of material things when prejudice and superstition shall at last pass away. The prayer  is filled with prophetic and messianic ideas about all people recognizing the divine within the world, and then, inspired by this, fulfilling the duty of building God’s kingdom here on earth.
And these two paragraphs conclude with two Biblical texts, uplifting and hope-filled words. The first from the Exodus narrative: Adonai yimloch le’olam va’ed: ‘the power of the Eternal  One will go on forever and ever’. And then the last words of the Alenu: Ve’haya Adonai l’melech al-kol-ha’aretz, bayom hahu yihiyeh Adonai ethad u’shmo ethad – “So it is prophesized: The Eternal One shall have power over all the earth, on that day the Eternal shall be One, and known as One”. What could be more all-embracing and awe-inspiring than that vision? Except that the context it comes from – you will have already guessed – is precisely this Zechariah text that I have been talking about, that Reform Jews have abandoned at Sukkot because its sentiments and message is so problematic.
In the midst of the prophet’s apocalyptic vision about God’s rout of Israel’s enemies, when the very land itself will split asunder, and the heavens themselves will be in tumult so that “there shall be neither sunlight nor cold moonlight, but there shall be a continuous day...of neither day nor night...” (vv.6-7) and, bizarrely,  fresh water will flow from Jerusalem back to the Mediterranean (v.8) - in the midst of this evocation of God’s nature-defying activity, there it comes, our Alenu verse: “The Eternal One shall have power over all the earth, on that day the Eternal shall be One, and known as One” (Zechariah 14: 9).
In other words a verse rooted within a hallucinatory picture of Israel’s God wreaking havoc on the land, and on Israel’s foes, a picture of semi-crazed destructiveness and reversals – it’s precisely this verse that the rabbis later picked up, picked out, to put into every prayer service, three times a day, every day of the year, as the culmination of hopefulness for our living in a transformed world, the millennial wish for renewal and change and an end to human suffering in society. The word ‘paradox’ could have been coined for just this. This is rabbinic chutzpah,  writ large.
And in its way it is quite wonderful. The creativity of this. The dark genius of raiding the tradition for words that can inspire, even if they originated in a context that aimed to terrify and threaten.  This mash-up of death-dealing Biblical text and prayerful yearning shows Judaism to be far more daring and transgressive than Jonathan Sacks allows for. The Alenu is a text haunted by savagery.  Yes, our religious belief and hope is for a world stripped of prejudice and superstition and the worship of material things. But our Zechariah text, slipped into the Alenu by our subversive rabbis  a millenium and more ago, is the ghostly reminder that this is not some fluffy, liberal aspiration based on a belief in human goodness winning out in the long run.
It is precisely the opposite: whether they were conscious of this or not, those ancient sages who composed the liturgy were pointing towards an awareness that to have a world transformed away from its enslavement to the material world, and a world devoid of prejudice and superstition, may involve as much destructiveness as creativity. It may lie beyond our power to achieve, it may need something to come along and overturn all we hold dear.
Is this the secret universal message of Sukkot? Or is this too frightening to think about? What plagues, what upheavals, will this take, in the decades and centuries ahead, to achieve a world that isn’t subservient to materialism, prejudice and superstition? Maybe what will be forced upon us is the realization  that we are all unaccommodated  guests in this world, not permanent owners of it. If everything we build that we think is solid and lasting is actually as temporary as the sukkah, as open to the elemental forces of nature and man as that fragile edifice, if that really is the truth of things, that the tides of history (and climate) can sweep everything away in the blinking of an eye – if this is a key Jewish awareness, born out of our history – how do we bring this unbearable message into everyday life? Is this the secret challenge of Sukkot? Is this what the rabbis of old were daring us to contemplate? That we are our own enemies – and much of what we hold dear may need to be destroyed before real change can happen? I hope this isn’t the secret universal message of Sukkot. But I fear that it is.

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue Sukkot morning, 19th September]

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Simon Schama and 'The Story of the Jews'

The historian Simon Schama’s 5-part series, ‘The Story of the Jews’, on the BBC promises to be a treat. Over the years I’ve seen these kind of documentaries come and go – I’ve even been involved in one – and I usually find them annoyingly superficial, or offering glib stereotypes of Jews, or just missing the point about the extraordinary richness and diversity of our 3000 year old culture and civilisation.

But what Schama managed to do, rather brilliantly I thought, was capture something of the essence of what it is to be Jewish. It is not, he insisted right at the beginning, the colour of our skin, or the languages we speak, it’s not the tunes we sing or the foods we eat; it’s not our opinions – for, he said, we are a ‘fiercely argumentative lot’; it’s not, he continued, the way we pray, assuming we do. No, none of these things are at the core of Jewishness according to Schama. What ties us together, he suggested, is  a story, a story we have kept in our heads and hearts, a story of suffering , of resilience, of endurance and of creativity.
I think this emphasis on story and storytelling is spot-on. In his opinion, there are two things special about the Jewish people: they have endured for 3000 years in spite of everything thrown at them. And they have an extraordinarily dramatic story to tell. And these two things, he thinks, are connected. These programmes seem to be exploring the ways in which we told our story in order to survive, so that in the end – as he put it – ‘we are our story’.
What I loved about this approach was the emphasis on story, and a tradition that lives with, engages with, is rooted in, the written word.  If you have a God who has no image or images attached to Him, to It, then what you have left is words. And once you have a religion that is based on words, and how words form stories, and how stories become the very fabric of the tradition – in other words once your identity as a people is fused with language and what we can do with it (and what it does to us), once a people is bound up with how words unfold on the page, or as we listen to them, then everything is open to interpretation, everything can be understood in various ways, in multiple ways. Because words are slippery and deceptive, they can reveal and they can hide, they can illuminate and they can obscure. They can point in several different directions at the same time. (And here Simon Schama is giving way to Howard Cooper).
I suppose if I had one quibble with Schama it would be his use of the singular and not the plural. ‘We are our story’ should really be ‘we are our stories’. Because I don’t think we have just one story that all Jews agree upon. In fact part of our fiercely argumentative nature is about just that: which story do we feel connected to? which of the many stories about Jewishness do we relate to? and which don’t we relate to? Indeed, can you combine stories? Or do they contradict each other? Let me open this out.
Is the story of Jewishness we choose the traditional religious story that takes  Abraham and his descendents through Egyptian bondage and liberation to the revelation of God’s word at Sinai and then on into the Promised Land? This is the Torah’s story – this grandiose, humbling vision of a chosen people with a mission to be a blessing to humankind through its commitment to living out a series of ethical principles revolving around justice and compassion and concern for the outsider and the vulnerable. And that a failure to do this does have consequences. This is one way of telling the story – with an unseen God, Creator of the Universe, King and Father and Judge for His people, a story that puts its faith in the Holy One of Israel as an abiding presence through the generations.
If you belong to a synagogue community then you are an inheritor of this way of telling the story: our liturgy is full of imagery and motifs taken from this story, it’s a way of telling the Jewish story that is rich and provocative - and often baffling to our modern sensibilities; and yet we are drawn to it, on Rosh Hashanah we return and plug in to it yet again, because something in us – however obscure – senses that there is something in this way of telling the Jewish story that touches our own lives, however far away we are in time and place from the texts and the world view that generated this story.
Telling the story this way creates a larger story in which our own lives, our own mini-stories, are lived out. It is like a container in which our own personal stories are held. Or a magnetic force field in which the fragments of our own lives create patterns formed by the unseen energy generated by the story. It reminds us that our own personal stories are part of a larger collective story.
But that isn’t the only story available, not by a long way. Because there is another story – what we might think of as the ‘secular’ story – that tells a very different story of Jewishness. This is a story that says: all this religious stuff is just mumbo-jumbo, it’s an illusionary fantasy story that isn’t backed up by any historical or scientific evidence.
Not only has science, through astrophysics and Darwin, given us a spectacularly different picture of how we got here than these old tribal legends, but there is no solid historical evidence for any of the legendary figures in the Bible, no evidence that the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt let alone had an Exodus, the whole story is a fiction based on wishful thinking; and this God-character is something that we can understand people wanting to believe in, like having a good parent to look after us, someone who has our best interests at heart, but it’s basically a product of our own fertile and child-like imaginations.
Indeed Schama starts his telling of the ‘Story of the Jews’ with the exiled Sigmund Freud, who was proud to call himself a ‘godless Jew’, a Jew who thought that religious belief was a neurotic product of unresolved psychological problems – but a Jew who was nevertheless obsessed with the question of what Jewishness was about, where it came from, what it meant, why it had endured. Even the so-called ‘secular’ Jew usually has very strong views on their Jewishness, feels passionately about some quality of their Jewishness, even if it is what they don’t believe in. There is hardly ever just indifference. It still matters. 
Secular Judaism tells a very different story from religious Judaism. It sees the Bible as  a human document, a compilation of texts bearing all the limitations of a worldview of 3000 years ago, with all the prejudices of that era about women,  all the prejudices about homosexuality, all the dismissiveness about people who are different from ‘us’. The secular Jewish story acknowledges that some of these old texts have some universal values in them – about justice and the importance of building a society based on concern for the poor and oppressed; social values, yes, but ones that certainly don’t need a God to sustain them.
And yet this secular story is just as vital and as fruitful and as essential to the story of the Jews as the religious story. Without the secular story our modern world would be, quite literally, unimaginable. Well, we can imagine it: it would be like Saudi Arabia. Because this secular and humanist Jewish story has fertilised the world as we now know it. It underpins contemporary thinking in every area of human endeavour. It isn’t just Freud, but Einstein and Marx and Kafka and Rosa Luxembourg and Oliver Sacks and Schoenberg and Hollywood –  but I don’t need to rehearse the multiple ways in which secular Judaism has for 200 years now flowed into the currents of modern life: politically, culturally, artistically, socially, economically, scientifically. The arts and the humanities, the sciences and the social sciences of the 20th and 21st centuries, rest upon the contributions of Jews who have departed from the first, earlier, religious story of Jewishness.
Actually one of the glories of the liturgy we use in our Reform synagogues is that through the vision of its editors it has assimilated into its pages of our religious story the insights of so many people who would not themselves share the religious version of the story; who in fact turned their back on it – often with huge relief. Maybe even converted from Judaism. I don’t think Reform Jews have always appreciated what a radical thing this was, the incorporation of so-called ‘secular’ voices within the pages of our prayer books. But we undervalue at our peril this amalgamation, this creative synthesis; and in an era of increased particularism where Jewish identity is being pressed into narrower and narrower shapes, this open-minded, integrative, pluralistic vision of Jewishness is at risk from the ethnic purists, the guardians of how the Jewish story should be told, those who would police what is ‘kosher’ Jewish self-expression and what is beyond the pale, and needs to be excluded from the traditions of the tribe.
You may already be thinking – based on the way I’m describing the ‘religious’ story of Jewishness and the ‘secular’ story of Jewishness - that this is much too simplistic a way of thinking about the reality of our multiple stories of being Jewish. Because the boundaries, as you suspect, are much more blurred. So we know, for example, there are so many Jews over these last generations up until today, all around the world, who have taken the key ethical message of religious Judaism about social justice, and the dignity and integrity of every human being, and they have built lives and careers around this ancient message. Because the Jewish passion for social justice does not depend upon belief in a liberating God, or a belief on the concept of a chosen people, chosen to bring this vision to the world.
Millions of Jews have over the last two centuries rejected all that – yet lived and died in order to keep faith with this vision: whether as Communists, as organisers of social action projects in London or in Africa, whether working for equality of blacks in the US in the 60s, or Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank in our own times. Over and over again, when you read the obituaries of seminal figures from  the world of economics and sociology and history and psychology and education and welfare you see that they came from Jewish families. Often religious families - but the religion has been rejected. Yet something has prompted them, impelled them, to follow the vision of the betterment of the world, or the improvement of human well-being, or the advancement of knowledge so that our lives can be enriched by new discoveries or inventions.
It is as if the ethical spirit of religious Judaism has infiltrated into their psyches unbeknownst to themselves, and the core Jewish values are then lived out in completely ‘secular’ lives. There is a mystery here, particularly this survival of the Judaic ethos of care and compassion in so many who have rejected the package from which it came, a mystery that gives us  pause, should give us pause, about our too easily labels – our superficial labels – about so-called ‘religious’ and so-called ‘secular’.
I’d venture to say that all those who gather in my own community, Finchley Reform Synagogue, think of ourselves as in part, or in whole, ‘secular’ Jews. That is to say they/we see the world through Enlightenment eyes which are educated in rationalism, scepticism, evidence-based thinking. We might be aware of the limits of these ways of thinking about the world - but they are still at the core of us. They are foundational. We might build onto them, graft into them, other ways of seeing, so-called religious or spiritual perspectives on life; but none of us , I would wager, sees the world through that ancient archaic religious prism of faith in an unseen power that has created the world, revealed the true way to the world, and will send a redeemer at the end of days to free us, the Jewish people, from our suffering. Secularism, thank God, is here to stay.
We could not survive without it, the world endures and thrives because of it. With our I-phones and Facebook pages and football devotion and TV habits we are secularists - and our Jewish story makes room for all of that. The glory of assimilation is that we can have all that and it seems – on the surface at least - entirely unproblematic. (What might be problematic  at a deeper level I will leave for another day).
So there is the religious story, and there is the secular story – with all the complications and crossovers I have sketched out. But they are essentially very different stories. And then there is another ‘story of the Jews’ I haven’t yet mentioned. And in our days it has become as compelling a story as the first two stories. And sometimes it is promoted as if it should be more compelling, more significant. And that, of course, is the story of the Jews in relation to the land of Israel. You can call it, in shorthand, the Zionist story. And when you tell the story of the Jews that way, you might ignore the religious story, you might ignore the diasporic secular story, and what you concentrate on is the Jews as a people who had no land of their own for two thousand years, Jews thriving and suffering wherever they found themselves scattered among the nations, until finally they achieved their goal, the aim of Jewish existence, possession of a land they could call their own - even though it wasn’t their own, even though it meant the dispossession of a native population (like in Bible times, paradoxically).
This story of the Jews is very well known. It is now inconceivable to think of Jewishness without it, even though it’s a story that has arrived relatively late on the scene, emerging glorious and blood-laden from the ashes of the Holocaust. It is, in its way, an experiment in how to tell the Jewish story, an experiment that is ongoing – ‘Jews belong in one land’, this version goes, ‘the so-called Holy Land, even if we reject the concept of holiness’, as the founders of the State did.
This experiment in telling the Jewish story, an experiment less than a century  young, is an experiment that says Jewishness is about geography - not spirituality, not ethics, not mission, not chosenness, but nationalism: being the same as everyone else.  About this experiment, maybe one can say - as Zhou EnLai said of the French Revolution when asked in the 1970s how he viewed it - about this Zionist experiment in telling the story of the Jews we too could say ‘it is too early to tell’ . Depending on whether you wear rose-tinted spectacles or not, you can say it’s going well, it’s the best, maybe the only, authentic Jewish story in town; or you might look a little closer and wonder a bit more: is this really where the 3000 year story of the Jews is to end up? Wasn’t Zionism supposed to put an end to the lachrymose Jewish story, the story that said that Jews would always end up hated and despised amongst the nations? That being Jewish would always end in tears?  Wasn’t the Zionist story supposed to displace the religious story and the diasporic secular story and create a new life-enhancing story: a homeland for Jews so they could be whatever they wanted to be - and live at peace with their own choices? This is a powerful way of telling the ‘The Story of the Jews’ – I’m sure it has a lot of mileage still in it, even though it seems a long way from Simon Schama’s vision of what it means to be a Jew, for his is a story (at least on the evidence of the first programme) in thrall to the word in all its intricate possibilities for the imagination and the spirit.
So I’ve sketched out three stories for us, which I hope has undermined Simon Schama’s brilliant take on ‘The Story of the Jews’. I’m sure you could add others. On another day I might say that this whole idea of ‘The Story...’ goes against something fundamental in Jewishness: the belief that there is always another interpretation; dvar acher, the Talmud says when it introduces yet another rabbi’s view: ‘here’s another way of looking at things...’
Because Judaism is plural. Jewishness is plural. Maybe there as many ‘Stories of the Jews’ as there are Jews. We will each tell the story in our own way, combining different aspects until we weave our own unique tapestry – multicoloured, filled with detail and texture.
“I am large, I contain multitudes” Walt Whitman the 19th century American poet once wrote, and that could be - should be? - the motto of the contemporary Jew.
Simon Schama is a beguiling and informative guide - and I am sure he is going to take viewers on a memorable educational journey. What he’ll give you though is his story of the Jews not ‘The Story of the Jews’ because, fortunately, there is no such thing as ‘The Story of the Jews’.
I wish Jewish readers of this blog a year when you can make your own discoveries about your ‘story of the Jews’ - and add your unique threads to this living tapestry which is still being woven after 3000 years. And for those readers of the blog who aren’t Jewish – I hope something in what I have said has illuminated why we are such a disputatious and contradictory people...

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah/New Year, Friday September 6th 2013]




Monday, 2 September 2013

King Lear and the Jewish New Year

In the midst of King Lear, the homeless and demented king finds himself wandering in the wilderness, an outcast battling the hardships of the heath in a raging storm. He stumbles upon  a wretched figure, ‘poor Tom’ -  it’s Edgar, son of Gloucester, in disguise – and Lear addresses him, in a moment of extraordinary empathy and self-recognition:

“Is man no more than this? Consider him well...Thou art the thing itself...unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal  as thou art” (Act 3, scene4).
I have been haunted by this text over the summer, and I am taking it with me into this New Year, and the annual period of reflection and self-examination that this season in the religious calendar prompts in us. I find this text wondrous - and yet it fills me with apprehension. And maybe wondrous because it fills me with apprehension. For as these Days of Awe approach, I feel I come to them ‘unaccommodated’ – not unaccommodated like Lear, without a home,  without a roof over my head; but in some deeper sense. I know I am - fortunately, blessedly  - accommodated in the plain sense of the word, unlike the 2 million and more people who have now left their homes in Syria as refugees, or the 45 million forcibly displaced people around the world who are literally ‘unaccommodated’.  
But still I am, I feel, ‘unaccommodated’, perhaps in the sense that Shakespeare is pointing towards: for what does it really mean  to feel ‘at home’ in the world? Do we feel  ‘at home’ in the world? Relaxedly, casually, gracefully, ‘at home’ in this fractious, tempestuous world? Do we feel we live in a world that gives us warmth and security and protection?  We recognise that we need our clothes, our homes, our heating, our beds, we need to be part of a society in which these can be available – but needing these things makes us dependent, it makes us vulnerable, we work so hard to ensure we have these kinds of security, but out the corner of our eyes we glimpse the fragility of it all, how it can be taken away by forces out of our control.
Stockmarkets crash, or illness strikes, or death claims someone close to us and we are left suddenly alone in the world, and if it doesn’t happen to us but to someone else, we may count our blessings - but we also might shudder at the randomness of it all, the ways (so many ways) in which our lives are not in our own hands. If Lear can be reduced to homeless nothingness, it can happen to any of us. The play makes us feel the storm raging against the paper-thin walls of what we construct around us as we try to feel secure and contained and content.

The tides of history may have been kind to us – but in our hearts we know they are tides. One moment you can be secure, ‘accommodated’ in the world, and the next day your world can be turned upside down. This is the ageless human story, and it is certainly the Jewish story. Feeling ‘accommodated’ in the world is often contingent on circumstances quite out of our control. It might happen more by luck than by any good judgement or cleverness from us.
So where are we ‘at home’? In our families? In our work? In our local community? In our religious/synagogue community? All these have the capacity to make us feel at home – but also the potential to make us feel unsettled or alienated. None of them have the quality of ‘at homeness’ as a given. All can let us down, just as the material world can let us down.
But maybe looking outside ourselves to feel at home is looking in the wrong place. Maybe we should be asking: do we feel ‘at home’ in ourselves? Can we rest inside ourselves? How often do we  feel distracted, on edge, ill-at-ease? We know so well how fragile things are inside us. Not just our body’s state, but our emotional state, and our psychological state. We know how prone we are to swings of mood, to pettiness, to irritation, to anger, to jealousy, possessiveness, envy... Are we ever really ‘at home’ with ourselves and in ourselves?
At this season I ask these questions of myself – or rather the liturgy of our tradition asks us these questions, sometimes in language we embrace and sometimes in language we flinch from. How often it reminds us in almost exactly Shakespeare’s words: “Is man no more than this? Consider him well” – and then offers us a  list: ‘a cup so easily broken... like grass that withers, like flowers that fade, like passing shadows and dissolving clouds, a fleeting breeze and dust that scatters, like a dream that fades away...’.  And we do approach these days as “poor, bare” creatures – ‘empty of good deeds’ we say in the liturgy. The dominant motifs of the prayer book are of our impoverishment, our inadequacy, our incapacities in the things that matter.
Of course this is only part of the story of what it is to be human, because we are also capable of the most extraordinary good deeds, we all have the potential for compassion and love and dedication and a sense of justice and altruism and sacrifice. This is also part of the human story, the Jewish story, and it is important that we hold on to the knowledge of these parts of ourselves as well at this season - even though the emphasis in the High Holy Days is on the other sides of our nature: our failures and wrongdoing and perversions of what we know to be right. We are innately two-sided, pulled between opposites.
This is what I think Shakespeare is alluding to when he describes us as “unaccommodated, poor bare forked creatures...”. Maybe this is my own imaginative reading, or creative mis-reading, of ‘forked’, but I hear, see, in that expression the reflection of what in rabbinic Judaism is termed the yetzer tov and the yetzer hara, normally translated as our capacity for good and our capacity for evil, or our ‘good inclination’ and ‘bad inclination’. But I think of that duality in a more expanded sense: as our ‘creative’ capacities in tension with our ‘destructive’  impulses.

Judaism acknowledges that we are ‘forked’ creatures, we human animals, and the whole of our High Holy Days revolves around that central drama of the two sides of our natures. We look back and wonder: where have we failed in this last year to live out the more benign aspects of ourselves? We look forward and wonder  - and pray - will this next year be one where we can transform stubbornness into openness, callousness into generosity, self-possessiveness into righteousness, a year where we can turn our hearts, inch by painful inch, towards the finer qualities we have incarnated in us?
(Forks in the era of Shakespeare were of course two-pronged: a beautiful example of one was excavated recently from the site of the Rose Theatre on London’s South Bank, dated exactly to Shakespeare’s times, 1592. You can see it at  
Over these next days between the New Year and Yom Kippur I’m going to be reflecting on this marvellous humbling description -  “unaccommodated, poor bare forked creatures such as we all are” – and looking at how often it is reflected in our liturgy. And not least in the image of Adonai  - the Eternal One - as our home, our only true home:  “Return to Me, and I will return to you” (Malachi 3:7). The prophet intuits God’s promise that the Holy One is our ultimate home - origin and home - an energy that animates all of being, including ourselves, a presence that accommodates us, that has room for us, that wants us nestled, housed, within its embrace, the wings of the Shechinah. This is the spiritual vision of ‘home’ that our Days of Awe offers us, the only home that is constant from age to age, from generation to generation.
I wish all of you reading this a good journey of return, of homecoming, in these days ahead.

[adapted from some thoughts shared at Finchley Reform Synagogue during the Selichot service on the evening of August 31st]

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Do we believe what we say?

I often find myself musing on what a strange business organised religion is. I only know Judaism from the inside - and then only from one particular angle - but I guess it might be the same for other faiths too. I lead services from time to time – and read from the Torah from time to time – but I’m always aware of the question: what does this look like from the outside?  

Regular ‘insiders’ might not really be aware  just how odd some of the things we talk about are. But someone coming from the outside - and that means people who aren’t Jewish and people who are Jewish but may have left it all behind after childhood, or perhaps never had a Jewish education at all – when you come in and experience what a Jewish congregation says and does and takes for granted, then you may well notice just how weird some of it is, how unsettling, how baffling, how disturbing, how puzzling. It may also be inspiring or illuminating; but whatever your experience, you are probably going to have lots of questions about what it all means, and how we have come to believe some of it, or whether we do believe some of it... 

But  I would say, and I want to turn this round, unless we notice and feel just how strange some of the words and ideas and themes are, just how unsettling it is to talk (for example) about a God  who, on the one hand, we say is to be thanked and praised, and yet who is characterised in our Torah portion today (Deuteronomy chapter 9) as a figure who gets angry, is punitive, who gets in an ‘almighty strop’, a character who is so fed up with the lack of gratitude from this tribe wandering through the desert, moaning and groaning and complaining everywhere they go, a God-character who is portrayed as being so enraged by the Israelites’ rebelliousness that he wants to wipe them off the face of the earth (the anti-Semite's fantasy). Moses goes off for 40 days and nights to commune with the divine and the people are so feeble-minded, so lacking in commitment and belief in the project at hand that they build themselves a golden calf, and start bowing down to that as if it is going to save them, love them, care for them. I mean how ridiculous is that: to put one’s trust in objects – we would never do that, would we put our trust in what we humans make with our own hands? - computers, technology, insurance products, banks - but I digress; unless we notice how disturbing this story is about this God-character getting so filled with destructive thoughts that he wants to annihilate his own people, whom he has just rescued from slavery, whom he has just schlepped out of Egypt with great and miraculous energy, unless we are disturbed, unsettled, provoked by all this – we aren’t taking it seriously 

Would it be too much to suggest that unless we recognise just what a challenge to our conventional rational Western thinking many of these Biblical and Jewish themes actually are, we aren’t living our religious life fully, maturely, authentically. If we just take these texts for granted then we aren’t engaging with our tradition in the way that it  actually demands of us.   

The Bible is the foundation stone upon which the whole of Judaism is built. Judaism is a 3000 year old evolving civilisation, with an extraordinary history of endurance and stubbornness – it’s just as well we are a ‘stiff-necked people’ or we would have disappeared long ago – a civilisation and culture build around loyalty to certain ideals and values, all of which we can trace back, one way or another to the Bible, to Torah. The Talmud, that huge multi-generational anthology of legend and law that was created in the centuries after the Bible was written, and that helped formulate how Jews were to live day by day, hour by hour, wherever they were scattered – that whole body of literature is rooted in, and develops out of, ideas and themes within the Bible. As does our prayer books, through the generations:  our liturgy always refer back to Biblical texts, themes and personalities. As does Jewish philosophy and Jewish ethical works, and Jewish poetry and Jewish storytelling from midrash right up to Amos Oz – always the Biblical tradition is underneath it all, the foundation stone upon which the great edifice of Judaism is built.  

Which is why we come back to it each week, reading from the first five books, in an endless cycle of readings. Judaism is a religious civilisation built on texts: on reading them, interpreting them, thinking about them, questioning them, arguing with them, dissenting from them. And sometimes we read about things we don’t understand, or don’t like, in the original texts...  

Take the Torah portion we read this week, where we find this character called God/Adonai - who after all does have a pretty starring role in the drama of the Bible (though there are books where he doesn’t appear at all as well as long tracts where he is absent from the scene). But the remarkable thing about the portrait of God in the Hebrew Bible is just how multidimensional it is, and this was the genius of the storytellers and writers of the Bible:  that they never allowed us as readers to settle in to one stereotyped image of divinity, of divine energy. They were quite unafraid of portraying God – who has no emotions because God isn’t a person - as experiencing all the human emotions: love, anger, jealousy, care, compassion, involvement, aloofness, indignation, regret, sadness, destructiveness, generosity, patience, lack of patience...or, as in the passage we read today, the storytellers portray God as a character filled with murderous fury, whom Moses can shame into changing his mind. 
‘God’ says he wants to destroy the Israelites. And the narrator (9:28) shows Moses seducing God out of his divine strop by saying: ‘Look,  imagine what the Egyptians will think of you if you destroy the Israelites now! They are going to think you couldn’t hack it, this liberation project, you were too weak to carry it off, or just too sadistic – you brought them out just to kill them off – this isn’t going to look good on your C.V, is it?’ And whether we think of this as shaming God, or seducing him, or humiliating him - or cajoling him like a child, ‘come on, let’s be friends’ says Moses – however you read it, there’s an extraordinarily dramatic role reversal as Moses acts the grown up, the adult, to this sulky, angry, God figure who is throwing another tantrum.  

The rabbis who commented on this text in later generation were sometimes a bit sharp, even derogatory, about Moses in this story. They thought that the way Moses is telling the story to the people puts himself rather too much in the spotlight – ‘you know, you Israelites, you owe everything to me,  it was me wot won it, I won God over, if it hadn’t been for me you would all be goners, you wouldn’t be here, the Jewish story would be over’. Not much modesty there in a religious leader, those later commentators suggested. I suppose Moses’ behaviour – or rather, how he is characterised - raises for us questions like: when do we need to fight our cause? and when do we need to submit to our fate? how much humility do we need in life? and how much self-promotion? when is it OK to tell our own stories with ourselves as the stars? And is it alright to rewrite history? (the details Moses gives in the Deuteronomy text are different from how the story is told in Exodus – we all edit the past, sometimes knowingly,  sometimes unconsciously, so which is it here?). 

The greatness of the Torah, and of the Bible as a whole, is that it implicitly makes us think about these questions, real life questions, human questions – but it doesn’t give us the answers. The Bible doesn’t tell us how to read this story of God and Moses, how to interpret it. And it doesn’t tell us how to answer the questions it raises about our own lives. But by its very existence, and by our engagement with it each week, the Torah  encourages us to take these questions seriously: the questions about the stories; and the questions about how the stories reflect on the stories of our own lives. 
And the Torah keeps the biggest question we can ask - the biggest religious question - alive every week: what on earth, or in heaven, is this God-character about, who appears in so many emotional states that we recognise from our own lives? That list I gave before is endless, and it is so often contradictory: a passion for justice (like us) and then actions that appear quite harsh or arbitrary or callous (like us); compassion that is boundless (just like we can be) and then withdrawal and silence (just like us). And so it goes on. I think there is a secret here, a mystery hidden at the heart of these texts. The Bible was of course written by men (and probably women) who had all these human feelings , and lived with contradictions between their feelings, just like us. They were people of immense creativity - who knew they were also capable of hatred and destructiveness. And this is how they pictured their God. They sensed there was an energy that animated the universe, all of life - human, animal, plant, the earth itself - some kind of ongoing, animating presence that filled all of being, was all of being; they sensed that this energy was outside them and inside them, and this energy connected everything to everything else. All was One.  

They called this energy by a myriad names, often portraying this energy as a personality, like themselves, with a thousand feelings. They had feelings, so it was understandable to think of God having feelings. So the divine energy that animates all of being, that is Being, was created in our image. But at the same time they realised, as they were telling this story, that  all these human emotions could change the world, that they could create a world of love and compassion and justice and generosity – or they could destroy the world, through rivalry, jealousy, greed, hatred. And they sensed that being human meant having all these divine attributes grafted into their hearts and souls.  “We are created in the image of the divine” they said early on in the Torah, in Genesis (1:26-27).
And gradually, as they told their story, through the Bible, these two perspectives became one. It was like the double helix of DNA – which they knew nothing about – the two inseparable strands of life inscribed in every verse of Torah. We are created in God’s image. And God is created in our image.  This is Jewish DNA – it is not genetics, it’s spirituality. It’s how we tell our story, the two perspectives threaded together. We have divinity within us. And God has all these human attributes projected onto him. And, as we remind ourselves every day, twice a day, morning and evening, Adonai Ethad  - it is all One.

 [based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, 27th July 2013]