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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]




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