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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 Egypt...it 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]

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