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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 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]