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Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Burden and Blessing of Being a Jew

There are moments when I suddenly get a glimpse of how counter-cultural Jewish ritual and synagogue life actually is. Take the weekly reading from the Torah scroll. Reading that parchment text, written lovingly by hand according to special rules, is not the same as reading it from an iPad – handling that scroll reminds me how far away (emotionally, practically, intellectually) is that ancient world out of which those Hebrew texts come.  The texts have never changed – but everything else has.

After 2500 years, how is it possible – is it indeed possible? - that the values of that long-disappeared world rooted in the agricultural and village life of a small God-fearing Middle Eastern tribe are connected to us today in the globally inner-connected, urban, sophisticated (or so we like to think) technologically-driven world we live in, where religion is just another life-style choice?
Yes, these ancient Hebrew texts have been foundational in different ways to three great religious traditions, but when we hear – as we did this week - about laws for damage to livestock, or damage to crops, or laws about suppressing magic, or laws relating to the seduction of virgins (Exodus 22 and 23), we know we are reading about a long-gone world, where how people lived and thought and behaved were, we imagine, very different from our own.
It’s not that legislation about animal welfare, or food production, or a fascination with magic and superstition are not still part of our world – far from it – let alone emotionally-charged questions around sexuality and the relations between men and women (just ask Lord Rennard): all of these aspects of life are recognisably contemporary and still filled with moral and ethical choices, just as they were in days gone by.
But it still requires an imaginative leap, or an effort of will, or both, to link the world of then with the world of now. Then suddenly a verse leaps out at you, transcending time and space: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).  
We know this comes 36 times in the Hebrew Bible. It is like a chorus, a repeated refrain in the Biblical symphony. ‘You shall not oppress a stranger – someone who is different from you – because you know what it is like from your own history, your own story, your own collective experience, to be treated badly just because you are different’. Perhaps the repetition is because it is so difficult to adhere to. And that it keeps slipping out of sight.  Or perhaps the repetition just reminds us that this is the cornerstone of Judaism, its belief in justice, in social justice.
But when we stumble across it in the midst of the oxen and asses and virgins, suddenly all that gap between Middle Eastern life of three millennia ago and 2014 disappears. Because we recognise that there is a human reality to suffering, and oppression, and victimisation, that is universal and timeless.  There is something lodged deeply in the human heart, the human psyche,  that has always wanted, and still wants,  to reject people not like ‘us’ – those who look different, speak differently, think differently, act differently. As well as something in the - in some - human hearts that recognises that this isn’t right, it isn’t just, that we are – or should be, or could be – bigger than that, better  than our meaner selves, our more frightened selves, our more narrow-minded or callous selves.
The Hebrew Bible recognises the universal nature of this inner battle in the human heart and soul – between our capacity for empathy and generosity and kindness, and our capacity for selfishness, and mean-spiritedness, and turning our back on others not like ‘us’. It recognises – it keeps coming back to - this timeless inner human battle and tries to nudge us towards our better selves, that part of us able to care for others, that part of us that knows that kindness and generosity might not always be what we feel, but that kindness and generosity are nevertheless how we are meant to act if we are to live together – and thrive - in any society. 
We don’t really need a Holocaust Memorial Day to remind us of the centrality of this message. Germany in the 1930s is still a cultural memory for Jews, when a whole society became caught up in the delusional state of mind that believes the exact opposite of what the Hebrew Bible insists upon. It was a state of mind that considers that the stranger, the outsider, is a threat, a danger – and whether the so-called outsider is a Jew, or a Jehovah’s Witness, or a Quaker, or Romany, or mentally handicapped, or a homosexual, or  a communist – the fascistic mental world that dominated  the 1930s (and we still hear echoes of it today – only the ‘other’ might be Romanian or Bulgarian), this mental world  says that ‘you’ are not connected in your humanity to ‘us’, we don’t want you here, we don’t want you living with us; we cannot tolerate you in your difference so you need to be oppressed, we need to institute laws that oppress you, discriminate against you, make your lives intolerable. And  in Germany, eventually, the ‘final solution’ to difference: maybe it’d be better just to get rid of you completely, kill you off.
So we all know where the failure to heed the demand ‘You shall not oppress a stranger’ can lead if it isn’t foundational to how a society organises itself. Today’s secular language of human rights, of equality and justice, emerged out of this Biblical vision of how we are to live with each other in society. From those early books of the Bible onwards, through the prophets of Israel, up to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm and arm with his friend and colleague Dr Martin Luther King in Alabama in the 1960s, this passion for justice has been at the very core of authentic Jewish faith, Jewish life. Because without this vision, this ethical  demand, religion is hollow, religion is meaningless, religion is hypocritical.
The Taliban’s attack on Malala Yousafzai is an example of  where religion becomes perverse: when it attacks or oppresses other human beings for being the wrong gender, or sexual orientation, or belonging to a different religious tradition, or even a different variety of the same religious tradition: Sunni and Shi’ite, Protestant and Catholic, Orthodox Jews v Reform Jews. Religion becomes toxic when it loses touch with its central ethical core, the concern for someone different from me, and particularly the outsider, the stranger, the immigrant, the asylum seeker, the marginalised, the dispossessed, the poor, those who can’t keep up with the bustle and pressures of everyday life.
One of the most heartening things of the last 12 months has been the emphasis by the new Pope, Francis, on social justice as the cornerstone of Catholic faith. He’s turned away from issues about contraception and abortion and what people do in private and has re-focussed attention on the poor, the deprived, on the need for Christians of faith to live out in everyday life that bias towards the marginal and the outsiders that was at the heart of Jesus’ teaching, teachings which show just how faithful Jesus was to his Jewishness, just how rooted he was in the essence of the faith of the Hebrew Bible.
The election of Francis last year coincided with the election of ex-oil industry insider Justin Welby as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, who has brought a breath of fresh air into the Church of England with his critique of payday lenders such as Wonga; and his questioning of the power of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank: “It comes back to human flourishing and human fallibility. We need to recognise the latter, and design our institutions to contain it in order to ensure the former...The fallibility of human beings and thus of human institutions is a necessary part of understanding any governance structure and any centre of power. Power has to be constrained.”  
Judaism has absolutely no monopoly on the ethical demand that social justice should be at the heart of any society that wants to flourish, that wants to create the greatest sense of wellbeing for the greatest numbers.  That ancient vision has been taken on, and taken over, by all sorts of other religions and secular philosophies. But Judaism, the wellspring of that vision, needs to re-find its voice, and its spokesmen and spokeswomen. One of the sad things I found about the last Chief Rabbi was that in spite of his intellectual brilliance as a presenter of Judaism – a special ability to show to Jews and the wider public something of the richness and glory of Jewish faith, Jewish culture, Jewish civilisation - he never really spoke out on the ethical and moral  issues of the day. He had nothing to say on poverty and homelessness, nothing to say about the moral scandal of living in a society which is one of the most unequal in the western world, nothing to say about the economic assaults on the disadvantaged that have been going on these last few years.
Speaking from out of the beating heart of the Biblical and rabbinic tradition, he could have addressed from a religious perspective the class war that we are enduring, masterminded by the privileged, where the gap between rich and poor is growing ever larger.
Isn’t this the job of religious leaders – to offer an alternative moral vision to the dominant political ethos of the day, when that ethos contradicts the essential religious vision of the dignity and worth of each human being? But his failure is symptomatic of what the cultural critic Stefan Collini has described as ‘a wider unease at the very idea of  an unembarrassed appeal to non-economic human values in public debate.’ But without that appeal to other values we all become bystanders  to ‘the wanton mutilation of our life-sustaining social fabric by those who act as though balance sheets end all arguments.’ (Times Literary Supplement, January 17th)
The religious work of enacting  the moral vision, the Biblical vision, of how people should treat each other – with dignity and a radical concern for their individual well-being - is ethics in action. It is practical tzedakah – not ‘charity’, as it is often translated, but ‘righteousness’, right action:  doing the right thing, not the convenient thing. ‘Righteousness’ is a demand, , and it is easy to duck out of, or rationalise as not making a difference. But righteousness always makes a difference. Although we know how hard it is to be true to it.
It is always easier to look away, in large things and small things. Whether it is the ongoing agony of Syria, or the victimization of Palestinians or – closer to home – the attacks on the welfare state, or the demonization of the so-called ‘feckless’ poor or immigrants, all societies can let their better ethical and moral vision of human dignity go into eclipse. It happens slowly, slowly, until you realise it’s disappeared and your whole society has lost its ethical core. Though sometimes it happens in the blink of an eye, with one click on a computer keyboard, or with the stroke of a pen signing off on some further piece of life-sapping legislation by a politician or bureaucrat.
Reading from the Torah scroll keeps our eyes open, and our hearts from hardening. Reading from the Torah scroll, we strengthen each other in keeping that ancient vision alive. Reading from the Torah scroll, we are reminded what it means to carry this strange burden – and blessing – of being a Jew.  
[loosely based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, January 25th 2014]

Monday, 20 January 2014

Looking Forward, Looking Backward - and Looking Upwards

“I try to avoid looking forward or backward, and try to keep looking upward” (Charlotte Bronte). Bronte’s mother died when she was five, so looking back might indeed have been painful – but her view was perhaps more likely to have been informed by her Christian faith. On first glance I was struck though by how counter-intuitively different this is from what one could call a ‘Jewish world view’.  

Judaism is filled with backward-looking. We are encouraged to do this all the time. We even have a day in the year dedicated to it: Rosh Hashanah, Yom HaZikkaron, the Day of Memorial, the day for remembering the past year, and looking back over it. Zikkaron, memory, remembering, looking backward, is a huge element in Jewish life, whether religious or secular. That is what the annual yahrzeit is for, keeping alive the memory of those we have lost; we have the memorial service yizkor on Yom Kippur and the pilgrim festivals; ritual life is structured round looking back, keeping memory alive.
Jews are the great people of memory, of looking back, of recording and counting and memorialising. It is there at every turn in the liturgy: “God of our ancestors”, “the one who redeemed us from slavery”, “renew our days, as of old”. Every Friday night when we say kiddush over the wine we come across that special phrase, inserted into many disparate liturgical texts, “zecher litziat mitzrayim”: ‘in memory of the coming out of Egypt’. The 10 Commandments – which are part of our Torah readings this week - begin with a call to look back: “I am the Eternal your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt”. This is a significant difference from the first commandment in the Christian tradition, which starts with our second commandment about not worshipping other gods. Our first commandment – and it is not even framed in the form of a demand - is to root yourself in the past, in the saga, the myth, the history, the multi-generational story of the Jewish people. All this seems far away from Charlotte Bronte: “I try to avoid looking forward or backward, and try to keep looking upward”. 
I’d go so far as to say that Jews are obsessed with the past: it can be the far distant past of the tradition, or the near distant past. The Holocaust is always sitting on our shoulder, and the mantra ‘Never Again’ is the so-called lesson to be learnt from that past: whether it is Jewish self-perception here in the UK, with the constant anxiety about anti-semitism (in other words a repletion of the past)  or whether it is Israeli politics which is deeply entrenched in a Shoah-dominated world view (or at least uses – some might say misuses- the Shoah as a rhetorical tool in its armoury), Jewish life is soaked in looking backwards, remembering its history.
Sometimes our view of the past is that it is soaked in horrors; at other times the looking back might be experienced almost as the opposite - as a golden age. People go misty-eyed at the world of yiddishkeit, an era when Jews were poor but happy; we are great nostalgists for lost worlds of community gatherings, family simchas, frum grandparents - it’s all myth-making but a lot of it still goes on, that harking back to earlier times. We are skilled at retreating from the complex demands of the present into stories: fables about Jewish life as it was, as we imagined it was, as we airbrush out the cruelties, the sadnesses, the divorces and the affairs,  the sitting shiva if someone God-forbid married out, the domestic violence (physical and emotional), or those who didn’t marry, or couldn’t conceive:  painful lives far from the cosy fantasy of generation following generation, each link in the chain filled with good memories. Jewish nostalgia suffuses the past  with a rosy glow. But it is  a cover-up job. That kind of nostalgia is a kind of backward-looking for the deluded. And I guess most of us Jews do it to some extent, but I have learned to try to treat it with caution.
And what about looking forward? Where does that figure for us? Where and how do we collectively look forwards? The texts we are reading in the Torah cycle at the moment will be dominated by one motif: the image of the journey to a promised land, the land flowing with milk and honey - a sort of nostalgia projected into the future; the garden of Eden renewed at the end of the journey, over the horizon, in the future, always waiting for us beyond the wilderness - but always just out of reach. And then there is the figure of the Messiah, who comes at the end of days, prayed for every day by the devout - the Messiah and the Messianic age being the most powerful  myths in the tradition that point us towards the future, keeping hope alive.
Consider too those phrases we read this week from chapter 19 of Exodus:  “You shall be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy people”, a “treasured possession” (19:5/6) – they are thrilling, daunting, challenging words. But they point forwards. Yes, they make us feel special, wanted, important in the scheme of things; they are part of the foundation of how Jews have thought of themselves over the generations, part of that complex and fraught and disputed sense of ‘chosenness’, they speak about Jews as distinctive, as incarnating something different  from other peoples, a difference with a meaning, a difference with a demand, a task, a requirement: ‘you have a job to do in the world: to bring holiness into the world through how you live, how you live with each other, how you act towards each other, and how you live with others, who are not part of ‘you’, the strangers, the outcasts, the marginal: how you live with those who are like you and how you live with those who are different from you, and how you live with the rest of creation, with animal life and with nature with the planet itself. All this – how you live, the choices you make – make you into a ‘holy’ people’.  Holiness isn’t a given: it’s work, it’s something to be achieved, enacted, in everyday life.
In other words, ‘holiness’ is a movement towards the future. It’s not about what you did yesterday, it’s not about congratulating yourself on what has been achieved: it’s about now, and tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow. It’s about something that is always just coming into being, that waits to be brought into being, by us:  it’s a restless, ceaseless, reaching into the future – to the next thing that needs to be done – a striving after acts of love and justice and kindness and compassion, a striving done in the sure and certain knowledge - paradoxical knowledge - both that this is what is required and that you can never achieve it, you can never rest on your laurels and say ‘job done’, ‘now we really are a holy people.’
Atem tihiyu shall be a holy people” the Torah says (Exodus 19:6) – not “you are” such a people  – Jews face forwards, aware of what needs still to be done, aware of incompleteness, of the task ahead. We are a people who look forward, our faces turned towards the future - as well as a people who, for better or worse, look backwards.
So what is Charlotte Bronte getting at? What does it mean not to look back or forwards but upwards? I think this is more than a simple expression of piety, a way of talking about that traditional picture of looking to God, who is pictured as ‘above’ us. Because she isn’t a using metaphor about space. She is talking about time: ‘looking back’ and ‘looking forward’ is about time. So what might it mean to ‘look upwards’ as a way of orienting ourselves in time?
Again, I turn to our Exodus text. Because there a strange quirk in how Exodus 19 begins. This, we remember, is the lead up to the moment of divine revelation at Sinai, when a whole people are standing in the divine presence. And the text begins: In the third month (on the third new moon),  after the children of Israel came out of Egypt, ba-yom ha-ze, on this day, they came to wilderness of Sinai.  It doesn’t read ‘on that day’ – a day long gone, a day in history, a day that belongs to looking backward in time. But ‘on this day’. This is when the revelation of the divine happens:  it is not in the past, nor is it is not in some far off day in the future; it is on this day, today. I’m drawing on a Hasidic reading of this text, and Martin Buber’s reading of the text, both of which draw our attention to the presence of God, of the Eternal, here and now.
The promise of the Torah, read in this way, is that if we hold ourselves open in the present moment to what is unfolding now, on this day hold ourselves open  to what occurs to us, and in us, and between us – then there is a meeting, an intersection, of timelessness with time, and the Eternal One whose name is “I am” – ehyeh – is with us and in us and connecting us.
Exodus 19 verse 5 could be said to continue this theme: If you listen, listen and keep on listening [the verb is repeated for emphasis] to my voice, then you will be, become, my special treasure...  The call is for attentiveness, listening. That’s why we need some silence in our lives, and in our services, opportunities to listen to what is above us, around us, all the time – but that we might miss if we are continually looking forwards or looking backwards. Too much time spent in the past – or too much time seeking the new, looking for the next new thing – both miss the drama of spiritual life, which is happening all the time, at this moment. The revelation of the divine, of divinity, is always now, on this day. It is, so to speak, now or it’s never.
So thank you Charlotte Bronte for pointing the way, giving us the clue, counter-intuitively, to avoid too much forward looking and too much backward looking. And encouraging us to look upward, and outward, and become aware of the wondrous nature of existence, the dizzying tumultuous richness and grandeur of life on earth, unfolding moment by precious moment.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, January 18th 2014]