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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]