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Sunday, 26 October 2014

On 'Heretics' and Other Renewers of Religion

The name of Mohsen Amir-Aslani probably doesn’t mean anything to you. He was executed recently, aged 37, in Iran where he’d been imprisoned for the last nine years. He’d been leading sessions reading and interpreting the Qur’an but had been found guilty of heresy and insulting the prophet Jonah. He had interpreted Jonah’s story in the Qur’an as a symbolic tale - rather than as the Iranian religious authorities required, a literal account of a man who’d spent three days in the belly of a giant fish.
I share this event with you in sorrow rather than anger, not in the spirit of a polemic against the wickedness of Iran, or the intolerance of Islamists – there’s a noxious superabundance of that kind of rhetoric as it is. But my sadness is not only because of the needless death of one more human being in the name of so-called ‘religion’, but because of what it tells us – as if we didn’t know – of the dangers involved in reading religious texts the wrong way. What do I mean by ‘the wrong way’?
If you are dong heart surgery, or defusing a bomb, there are manuals filled with very precise details of what you need to do so as not to kill the patient, or blow yourself up. Although there is a human element in both procedures - you can do both carefully or carelessly and the results might be very different - there is no doubting that the words on the page detailing how you are supposed to proceed have to be understood literally and followed to the letter if things are to go well. Interpretation, improvisation, around the text is not forbidden – but it’s not advisable if you want things to go smoothly, because those are texts which are written, and ask to be read, with  precise attention given to the plain meaning of the words. There are right and wrong ways of reading how to proceed in an operating theatre or while dealing with an unexploded bomb.
We know that much blood though has been spilled, over the centuries, by those who believed that religious texts, religious narratives, had to be read as if they were life-and-death instruction manuals. The belief that they were - and that you had to read them as if they were - is part of the tragic history of all the monotheistic faiths. ‘I believe that this book contains the truth because my religion tells me it is so; my religion tells me that it is so because it has a book that says it contains God’s truth’ – this is the circular logic of fundamentalist thinking and it’s a virus that has infected, and continues to infect in various ways, Islam, Christianity and Judaism.  
When Galileo was hauled before the Inquisition in 1633, accused of heresy because he was arguing for the Copernican view that the earth moved around the sun – that the earth was not the central celestial body around which everything revolved – one of the texts used against him was from the Biblical Book of Joshua, which contains a narrative where the sun is ordered to stand still. In the sacred logic of the Inquisition, you’d only command something to stand still if it has been moving. Therefore the sun must move round the earth, not the other way about. That had to be true because the Bible is a holy book that only contains the truth and Galileo’s heresy is clear when he arrives at a view of the world contrary to what is inscribed in scripture.
That the Bible contains elements of storytelling that draw on Middle Eastern myth and legend, as well as wordplay, puns and all the ingenious literary inventiveness of their human authors, was a heresy in Christianity at that time, as it still is in certain strands of Christian thinkin; as it still is in many strands of Islamic thinking; and is even the case in specific parts of the Jewish world to this day. The Jewish fundamentalists on the West Bank stake their claim to Palestinian land on their reading of the Hebrew Bible. The Torah states that God gave the land to the Israelite people and their descendents for ever – and although the boundaries of the land vary from text to text in different books of the Bible, such contradictions are irrelevant to a world view that is not all that different from those Iranian so-called ‘religious authorities’ – that the texts are divinely given, and they are true in a literal manner.
And even though literal interpretations of the Bible were always in Judaism played off against allegorical readings and homiletical readings, and mystical readings, even though the plain meaning of texts was always only one of four different parallel modes of reading and interpreting that all texts inspired - a way of thinking about texts that made the narrowing down of texts to only one meaning theoretically impossible – in spite of all this richness of what the tradition calls ‘midrash’, this midrashic imagination in relation to texts as vehicles capable of multiple meanings seems quite absent from Jewish fundamentalist discourse about the land of Israel: the boundaries of that land and who should live there. This is a betrayal of Jewish thinking - not the first time in Jewish history it’s happened, but the latest incarnation of it and the one with the most harmful and destructive consequences attached to it: for the Palestinians in their daily lives; and for the Jewish people in multiple ways, not least the integrity of their soul.
Baruch Spinoza was, famously, excommunicated by the Amsterdam elders of his Sephardic community for teaching that God was identical with and equivalent to the order which governs the universe. He wrote about “God, or Nature”, and held that God was not transcendent, over and above humanity, but that God was a principle of law, the sum of all the eternal laws in existence; that God was inherent and imminent in all things, material and spiritual; and that intuition and spontaneous knowledge reveals the presence of God more than the acquisition of facts. In developing this way of thinking about Judaism he was giving a philosophical language and framework to what Jewish mystics had been teaching for centuries, a religion of radical immanence. But out of the mouth of, and the pen of, this young man, this outsider – he was of Portuguese descent – it was too much for the religious authorities of the day to accept.
But this excommunication was his liberation. He was free then to think his own thoughts and he developed  ways of thinking objectively about the Bible – about its historical background and its use of literary genres – that opened up a whole new historical-critical approach that fed into the Enlightenment critique of dogmatic religion based on inerrant holy texts. He made it possible for us to think about ways in which religious texts contain truths which are psychologically rich, morally true - or morally complex - to think about the symbolism of texts, to use texts creatively, imaginatively, not for their eternal claims to truth but as ways of helping us toward more life-enhancing ways of living rather than ways of living that are imaginatively impoverished, or intellectually reductive.
So we can read this week’s Torah narrative of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1-9) as a parable about human omnipotence and presumption – about the urge to have bigger and better, and the limitations of this way of thinking. Or we can read it as a parable about the problematic nature of having only one dominant language - whether it the language of fascism, or communism, or neo-liberalism: God looks down and says, as it were, ‘when everyone is united in one way of speaking or thinking there’s trouble ahead’. Mono-dimensional thinking breads fanaticism. The way forward is through multiplicity – many languages, many ways of thinking: pluralism. Babel, like Jonah, are mythic narratives: if they have truth in them it is not the truth of literalism but the truth of the imagination.
How often it is that it’s the so-called heretic, the outsider, who comes along and shakes up the tradition into new and interesting shapes, who liberates a religion’s imagination when it gets stuck, as it does – that’s what the Baal Shem Tov did in eastern Europe a hundred years after Spinoza, when he started that religious revivalist movement known as Hasidism (and he had probably never heard of Spinoza). That energy from the outside has stirred up Jewish thinking over and over again, often resisted by the powers-that-be (Hasidic leaders were often banned from preaching by their Mitnagdim opponents well into the 19th century). So, to adapt a phrase, blessed are the troublemakers, new interpreters, language players – they keep religion alive, fresh, on its toes. Blessed are the myth-rakers, myth-makers, risk-takers – they keep religion from going stale. They keep us honest.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, on October 25th 2014. Some ideas in this sermon are indebted to Alan Wall, who shared with me a text of his entitled 'Bad Reading Habits'; texts also consulted include Karen Armstrong's 'A History of God' and 'The Bible: the Biography'.]

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Three Films for Sukkot

Just  as the lulav that we use on the festival of Sukkot is made up of three different trees - palm, myrtle and willow - I want to reflect on three films I’ve seen in recent months, bind them together for this season – and see if I can  add in that exotic etrog element along the way. 
The first, Ida, is still on at selected cinemas in the UK. Made in exquisite black-and-white by the Polish-born director, Pawel  Pawlikowski, (who’s lived in England for many years and developed a successful film and TV career here), in  this film we see him returning to his historical roots. Set in his homeland, the film opens in a convent where Anna, a trainee nun, is shown immersed in the devotion and calm and austerity of the enclosed Catholic order which has been her world since infancy - having come there as an orphan. We see the rhythms of daily life and the contained stillness of Anna, and there’s little dialogue until Anna is told by her strict mother superior that she needs to visit her only relative, an aunt whom she has never met, before she takes her final vows freely, once she’s had some contact with the outside world.
Inside the convent there is a kind of timelessness, it’s an ordered and unchanging world, but outside we see a Poland grey and bleak, immersed in the rigours of early 1960s Stalinism, with material impoverishment intertwined with spiritual impoverishment – her aunt, Wanda, has been a local judge dispensing state-approved justice to the perceived enemies of communism, but is now a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, sexually amoral woman approaching her middle years and burdened, we gradually find, by secrets and regrets and an unassuageable pain connected with her past, and indeed the past of her country.
I am not going to give away too much of the plot, because I urge you to see this masterly gem of a film for yourself, but as the film proceeds you see how much of Poland’s past is buried (figuratively and literally) under the surface of daily life. Within the anonymous Catholic habit that Anna wears it turns out there is a young woman who has not known that she is Jewish – Ida Lebenstein, hidden after the murder of her parents during the War.
And inside the louche aunt who becomes determined to track down where Ida’s parents were killed and buried, is a woman embittered by the failures of her own youthful ideological commitment to communism,  a woman haunted by the unbearable knowledge that because of her commitment to the Polish anti-Nazi resistance, she’d left her child with her sister, Ida’s mother, only for the boy to be killed along with Ida’s parents.
As in Claude Lanzmann’s epic 1985 documentary Shoah, we are shown the post-War denial by those who took over Jewish homes and property about having any knowledge of anything to do with the past: although this film’s narrative is fictional, it is also a slice of history. Through the story of these two women (each isolated in their own way) we are seeing the story of a nation – it becomes a sort of parable – and it’s wonderfully done, with a Biblical economy of storytelling: sparse, fragmented, a national morality tale told, like the stories of Genesis, through characters interacting, where there is a certain indeterminacy of meaning, and gaps in the information provided, and moral judgements about good and evil are suspended or called into question, and yet the whole story hangs together in a psychologically true way.
We note the name, ‘Lebenstein’ – life is as hard as stone, as unyielding as the Catholic faith that both contributed through its theology to the anti-semitism of Poles, yet occasionally helped save them. And as unyielding as the communism that overtook post-War Poland, with Jewish enthusiasts for the state’s communist idealism taking up leadership roles out of all proportion to their surviving numbers.
Our sukkah, humble in its fragility and impermanence, stands in stark contrast to the monumental rigidity of ideological regimes, whether pre-Vatican II Catholicism or post-War Euro-Stalinism, both of which demanded a submission to authorities who thought they knew what is best for people. But the sukkah, open to the elements, is a reminder of our vulnerability - which is a truth about the human condition mirrored in a film that shows how the dramas of history also expose our human vulnerability. Between 1939 and 1945 Poland lost a fifth of its population, including 3 million Jews. Through the story of Ida and Wanda, the film shows us the human costs of this harsh history - but it’s crafted and filmed by artists who know that you can only speak of the true horrors and burdens of the past elliptically, glimpsing from an angle what is unbearable to look at full on.  
Ida is not another ‘Holocaust film’. And it’s as far from Hollywood as you can get. It’s a small masterpiece of narrative filmic art that’s not just about Poland and its history, but about universal questions of justice and indifference, God and godlessness, innocence and guilt, love and hate, meaning and meaninglessness, and how complex the relationship between these apparent opposites actually is.
My second film occupies very different terrain and is exactly twice the length of Ida’s pared down 80 minutes. But it’s equally wondrous. You may well have  seen it, or at least read about it: Boyhood by Richard Linklater, who made those three interlinked movies between 1995 and 2013, ‘Before Sunrise’, ‘Before Sunset’, and ‘Before Midnight’, each  with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy,  tracing the relationship of the couple over nearly two decades as the characters evolve from carefree youngsters in love with idea of love towards their middle years of adult complexity, discord and fragmenting hopes.
In Boyhood though, he has gone one step further. We watch a six year old child grow up into a college youth, twelve years of life unfolding scene by modest scene, without much plot, without much story, but filled with the intimate, everyday stuff of life: quarrels with his sister, a harassed working mother, her partners changing over time, step-children appearing then disappearing, changing technology, changing hairstyles, clothes, schools, music of each era from Britney Spears in the 1990s up till today, the craze for Harry Potter, the constant background growl of politics on TV, Clinton, the Iraq War, Obama.  Episodes from a life. 
But all the time that you are watching, although it’s a fictional scenario you are aware that it is the same actors evolving over time. Because this was Linklater’s vision. Like Michael Apted’s famous 7-Up documentaries here in the UK, tracing the lives of a group of British children from 1957 to the present, Linklater has done the seemingly impossible. He’s filmed a boy growing up, arranging for the cast to come together for  a few weeks each year, so although we know the actors are acting we also know that this is really them aging, year after year. And although you see it in the boy Mason’s parents, you see it most obviously in Mason himself as he grows in front of your eyes from boyhood to adulthood. Not different child actors, but the transformation over 160 minutes of 12 years of real life. And the pathos is in seeing the irreversible nature of time passing and people aging – and it sounds obvious, that we all get older year by year, and you might not think it would make a very compelling film, but it does (although I know some people found it boring).
It strikes me that it is the film equivalent of the text from Ecclesiastes that we read on Sukkot, that festival of rest amidst the desert wanderings: ‘For everything there is  a season, and  a time for every experience under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time for planting and a time for uprooting... a time for weeping and a time for laughing, a time for seeking and a time for losing, a time for silence and a time for speaking...’ But whereas there is a sceptical voice in that Biblical book that says ‘Yes, and there is nothing new under the sun’, Linklater turns that on its head and says ‘No, everything is new under the sun, every day of your life – if you have eyes to see it...’
Linklater has given us a master class in holding the everyday sacred, and in how life is lived holding the tension between, or veering off between, opposite experiences, as the Ecclesiastes  text evokes; but nothing is repeated - there is just evolution over time, and the chance to make the best of it we can, day by day, year by year, shaping our own lives and being shaped by life. It may not sound as if this amounts to very much as a film, but as Mason grows in front of our eyes - as in time-lapse photography - we accumulate moments that build into something deeply satisfying, joyous and life-enhancing.
Which takes me to my third film, which is perhaps the opposite of  joyous and life-enhancing: it is painful and kind of soul-destroying, but utterly necessary  to see. Certainly if you want to have any credibility when talking about Israel and its history over the last 60 plus years in relation to the Palestinians, then it is a vital document for our times. Over the summer - it was actually during the latest Gaza war - I caught up with the 2012 Oscar-nominated Israeli documentary The Gatekeepers. (As it happens, in the UK it’s on BBC2 this Saturday night, October 11th, followed by a Newsnight discussion).
Director Dror Moreh interviews six retired heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli secret security service, who speak with surprising openness, frankness, about the ways in which their concern for Israel’s security saw them in constant tension with the political leadership of the State, who consistently failed to make the necessary compromises and strategic decisions which could have led to a more peaceful co-existence between the people who share this tiny strip of land. The accumulating narrative of archive footage and military footage interspersed with these voices is disturbing, devastating – and the section on how the Shin Bet foiled Jewish terrorist plots to blow up the Dome of the Rock is hair-raising.
These men are not bleeding-heart liberals, ‘lefties’. They are men with blood on their hands:  hard, hard men, living with the ambiguities and complexities of real life, everyday life, dealing with Arab terrorists and Jewish fanatics, trying to find pragmatic responses to chauvinism, zealotry and the wilful self-righteousness of those who – for religious or political reasons – believe, know, they have right on their side, and want to force it onto others, even unto death.  We know all about Palestinian murderousness, but  I’d forgotten the rabid hatred in Israel that preceded the murder of Yitzchak Rabin, the one leader who was prepared to compromise for the sake of peace; the poisonous atmosphere in which he was harangued as a traitor, compared to Hitler, with the Shin Bet fearful for his security but unable to persuade him to wear bulletproof protection when he addressed political gatherings. History turns on such decisions, on the pride of a man, on the naivety of a man who couldn’t believe that Jews would murder their own prime minister. 
The reviewer of this film in Ha’aretz – who described watching it as like ‘a waterboarding of the soul’ – bemoaned the way that in Israel, following the release of the film, these six retired old men, aging men, ‘who were once considered heroes’ were now  being ‘labelled traitors, because they dare cry out that the emperor has no clothes’. Perhaps the most poignant moment comes near the end when one of them says, quietly, simply: ‘We win every battle, but lost the war.’  If you haven't seen it, catch it this weekend, if you can. It’s a necessary film, and one in a curious way that is linked in subterranean ways to the story of Ida, and the way history – and in this case the history of the years between 1939 and 1945 – is still alive and toxic and infiltrates daily life in often unseen ways, and  certainly reverberates in the Israeli psyche up till today.
Life is fragile – we say it again and again. It is at the heart of Sukkot. Life is transient, it’s open to the elements that rain down on us, and that can sweep us away.  And yet in the tradition we call Sukkot ‘Zman Simchatenu’ – ‘the season of our rejoicing’. Because life, with all its starkness and uncertainty, is also a blessing: like the etrog with the lulav, the wonderful smell lingers in our nostrils, and we can appreciate how, as our lives unfold moment by precious moment, year by precious year, joyfulness is also grafted to our souls. In spite of everything that is antithetical to life, we can and do experience wonder and goodness; there is, as Ecclesiastes says, ‘a time for wailing – and a time for dancing’. On this festival, may our souls dance to the beat of life.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, on the morning of the first day of Sukkot, October 9th, 2014]