Follow by Email

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]


  1. Superb! Wish I'd been there! I'm now spending huge amounts of time on modern (frustrating) technology - see

  2. Thank you very much for those powerful observations.