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Monday, 17 November 2014

Loss, Mourning and the Illusion of 'Closure'

The name Martin Perl almost certainly won’t mean anything to you, as it meant nothing to me before I came across it a few weeks ago in an obituary. I’m quite drawn to obituaries, to see a description of the shape of a life, to see how much suffering and success and drama is packed into a life, to see the marriages, the awards and achievements, the disappointments, all packaged up in 750 words. A whole life - it could be any of us - the decades unfolding and speeded up, and in less than five minutes it’s over. We know that the smooth narrative of an obituary is a form of storytelling, fiction-making:  it gives us the facts, the outer life, it can give us the flavour of a life – if it is well written – but inevitably it misses the essence of a person, who can never be summed up like this, because we all always more than the descriptions of us can ever contain.
Martin Perl won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1995 for his discovery of the tau lepton - ‘a heavy version of the electron’. (I am now much the wiser). His story in some ways is very familiar – born in Brooklyn, New York, son of Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement, served in the American forces in World War II then made his way through college in that huge wave of assimilated American Jewish life that penetrated into every area of achievement in post-War America: in literature and the arts, in all the sciences, and the social sciences, in medicine, economics, linguistics, these second-generation immigrant Jews were everywhere, often transforming their disciplines, or inventing new ones, and the Nobel prizes and Pulitzer prizes duly followed. No area of culture or society was untouched by this phenomenon. I think of as a particular version, historically-localised, of Jews carrying and enacting the Abrahamic blessing: ‘through your descendents shall all the nations of the earth be blessed’ (Genesis 22: 18).
Experimental particle physics is almost always a collaborative team endeavour and Perl was certainly part of such teams, but he was known as an individualist. His philosophy was summed up by his son who said about his father - and it was this that most caught my eye in the obituary - “He always advocated that you should look at what the crowd is doing and go in a different direction.” Pushing forward the frontiers of any discipline, in the sciences in particular, but also the humanities and the arts, or in religion, needs that capacity to ‘go in a different direction’ from the crowd.
I often think of this quality of going in a different direction to the majority as something ingrained in Jewishness, which in its origins was counter-cultural – the idea of one God was a radical breakthrough in thinking at the time, the notion of a creative force flowing through life and revealing moral and ethical laws; and Judaism, once it developed, always fostered dissenting and multiple opinions about its sacred texts, prizing new readings and fresh insights;  and historically the Jewish people have until recent times been a community that has chosen to, or has been forced to, go in a different direction from majority cultures, Christian or Islamic; and so on.  ‘Going in a different direction’ seems part of the blessing and burden of Jewishness.  
And yet nowadays within the Jewish community - particularly in the UK - this oppositional stance can be quite hard to maintain. Put your head above the parapet in relation to injustices in Israel, or same-sex ceremonies, or in opposition to brit milah, or (in Orthodoxy) to women’s participation in services, or any highly emotive issue (and Jews can be highly emotional about absolutely anything down to how you should pronounce left-over Yiddish words – do we suffer from tsores or tsurus? and do we deal with it by noshing something or nashing something, something like a bagel, or is it baygel?), nowadays if you take up a stance by going in a ‘different direction’ from the crowd, just wait and see what opprobrium you can attract.
I was thinking about this during this last week  in relation to the temporary art-installation that was set up at the Tower of London to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Great War, which seems seem to have spoken so directly to so many people: the moat filled with 888,246 red ceramic poppies, one for each of the British and Commonwealth deaths in that long and bloody and in many ways senseless conflict. Millions have visited it over these last weeks  – but anyone daring to criticise this project, anyone who has ‘gone in a different direction from the crowd’ has been pilloried in the press for their views.
For example Jonathan Jones, a respected and always-interesting commentator on the arts, found this instillation ‘fake, trite and inward-looking’. He was concerned firstly that it was too narrowly focused, too  nationalistic, because it didn’t acknowledge the huge losses suffered by other nations and peoples; and secondly  that it managed to ‘prettify’ the horrors of war: it failed in his view to convey anything of the reality of the mud-and-blood toxic futility and fearfulness and degradation of the trenches. Provocatively, he suggested an instillation that filled the moat with bones and barbed wire might have been a more disturbingly eloquent statement than the sentimentalised banks of poppies that people flocked to see.
I’m not taking sides in this, but his dissident view has helped me think more deeply into this question of memorialising loss, and how we do it personally and collectively. Cultural products that are ‘fake, trite and inward-looking’ often do have mass appeal. The Nuremburg Rallies would be a good example. It is easy to stir the emotions of groups by appeals to nationally-sanctioned stereotypical  images, or lofty words, or stirring music.

The red poppy has been an established part of British culture since its adoption by the Royal British Legion in 1921. So was the use of the poppies in this latest art-work a manipulation of an image, a way of deflecting attention away from the brutal ugly reality of war by substituting a lyrical, aesthetically-pleasing  field of flowers to distract from the jarring horrors endured by those who died?; or was it a way of conveying something of the overwhelming nature of the event that was both a mass historical event but one participated in and suffered by so many individuals, each unique yet each part of a shared human reality? So many individual deaths – and this is what it adds up to, countless suffering as far as the eye can see, yet still each one, counted?
How do we face loss? We had a poignant example of this question in our Torah portion this week. After the long description of the negotiations that went on to find Isaac a wife (Genesis 24), Rebekkah and Isaac finally meet - and in the 67th and final verse of the chapter we read that Isaac takes Rebekkah into his mother’s tent, and she becomes his wife ‘and he loved her and Isaac was comforted, acharei  imo = after/for his mother’. We might expect ‘after the death of his mother’. But no, the word ‘death’ is absent. We know this is what it means - but the storytellers have chosen to hide the word: they make us think about the death through its absence. Is this saying something about Isaac’s wish to deny the reality of death? The fantasy that if you don’t mention something it’s as if it hasn’t happened? Or is it a way of speaking about how the loss was healed  – the missing comfort he had received from his mother morphing into the new comfort he found with Rebekkah?
We have no description in the Torah, not even any hint, of what the death of Sarah, his fiercely protective mother, meant to Isaac. But we sense in this final verse how present she was for him as he takes this young woman firstly into his mother’s intimate space, her tent, and through the intimacy with her – ‘and he loved her’ – assuaging the loss he has suffered. More human connectedness, more closeness, more intimacy – this is one way of managing the feelings of loss, dealing with the feelings of absence.

We almost don’t have a good enough, rich enough, vocabulary to talk about what we do with the experience of loss. I just used the words ‘managing’ the loss, ‘dealing’ with the loss – but that is too business-like, too bureaucratic a language to evoke the powerful  and subtle stands of feeling that death evokes in us. Some people want people around them; some want to be left alone. There are no right or wrong ways here: it is about feeling one’s way through.  
One thing I do know, and here I do go in a ‘different direction from the crowd’, is that the modern jargon of talking about ‘closure’ after a death – and the idea is now prevalent in the aftermath of any injustice or painful event – I think this can be a very coercive and unhelpful idea to expect for oneself, or to have others expect of you. ‘Have you had closure yet?’ has become a modern mantra; but, talking of trite and false ideas, this is one - because it promotes an illusion.
It’s come into contemporary thought from American social psychology and originates in a 1993 paper from Arie Kruglanski about people’s desire for a clear and definite answer to their life questions and an aversion to ambiguity. So he developed what became known as the ‘Need for Closure Scale’ - but this concept of closure was gradually transformed from something descriptive of what people wished for into some kind of ideal about what they should have. Whereas psychological health is actually about being able to manage ambiguity, not-knowing, uncertainty – without collapsing into the straightjacket of false certainties.
Maybe in 1993 Arie Kruglanski thought he was going in a ‘different direction from the crowd’ but what his work has spawned is I think a pseudo-solution to a universal problem, a flawed notion that assimilating grief and losses and death into our lives is a process that can be ‘closed’, finished with. Whereas Jewish tradition recognises that losses are real, and lasting: they will happen to you and me, they happen to all of us, and the work of mourning can last a lifetime. We have to learn to live with our sadness, our regrets - or sometimes with our lack of sadness, or our relief; indeed we must acknowledge whatever feelings, for good or bad, that emerge in the wake of a loss.
Sigmund Freud once wrote a condolence letter in which he put his finger on something crucial about this. His own daughter Sophie had died in 1920 when she was 27, and nine years later, on what would have been her 36th birthday, he wrote to a colleague Ludwig Binswanger whose son had just died:  “we will never find a substitute [after a loss]. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else. And actually, this is how it should be, it is the only way of perpetuating that love which we do not want to relinquish.”
And there was a man who knew what it meant to look at what the crowd were doing - and go in a different direction.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, November 15th 2014]




Sunday, 9 November 2014

We Need To Talk About Abraham

There’s a lot of pious nonsense talked about Abraham. Avraham Avinu: ‘our father Abraham’ –the original monotheist, the progenitor of the tribes that became the Israelite people, and the Arab peoples, and thus Islam; and – not to leave them out of the picture – the founding father of the third great and tragic religious tradition, Christianity. All three monotheistic religions have a dark and tragic thread entwined within them; and all three, as we know, trace themselves back to the legends surrounding Abraham, ‘man of faith’ – whatever that means. So, as Lionel Shriver might put it, ‘We need to talk about Abraham’.

This  week’s Torah portion is called Va’yerah, ‘And there appeared...’. It contains the stories in Genesis that follow Abraham’s change of name from ‘Avram’ – ‘High Father’, ‘Big Daddy’ – to ‘Avraham‘, ‘Father of multitudes’. They‘re the narratives (Genesis 18-22) that establish his status as foundational for the three monotheistic faiths. So who, or what, is Abraham? What is it that ‘appears’ to him, or with him, or in him, that makes him into a cornerstone of monotheistic tradition?
In these chapters – which are about ‘sight’ and ‘insight’, seeing and making something of what we see - there is, firstly, the hospitality, the openness to strangers: people appear, three strangers (chapter 18), and they are fed and sheltered. We see that generosity of spirit that seems a part of the archetypal mythology of the Middle East, a capacity to share and care that is ancient in origin and yet often seems so alien to the tribes of Britain today. Our pious politicians and their frenzied media masters are bound up in a sado-masochistic pact, the ongoing thrill of bondage to feeling pained and causing pain. They want to keep out the stranger from our shores - other Europeans, those from further afield, it doesn’t matter  - the latest manifestation of this being the decision to cut off the funding to help rescue those desperate enough to cross the seas in crowded rickety unseaworthy boats, braving the journey away from imperilled living towards the shores of Europe, these promised lands of salvation and hope, our streets supposedly paved with golden opportunities and easy lives. Like the people of Sodom and Gemorrah, some of our political so-called ‘leaders’ and their media hound dogs enact the antithesis of Abrahamic hospitality: ‘Let the strangers drown, pour d├ęcourager les autres...’

Old man Abraham, an immigrant himself, knew what it was to be a stranger in a strange land. And he knew what it meant to raise his voice when destruction was imminent; he was pulled in two directions, for he knew that the evil of Sodom and Gemorrah was real - but he knew too that God’s monomaniacal thinking had to be resisted, like any totalitarianism; that the evil was not only in the cities, but also in thinking that you should condemn a whole group because of the wrongdoing of  part of that group. So he starts to bargain God down: what if there are fifty innocent ones, 45, 40...?
For he recognises, and this is part of his greatness, he recognises that God is acting as a ruthless moral force that doesn’t see individuals but just sees the cause, the cause of ‘righteousness’ – and to hell, literally, metaphorically, with individuals, with the innocent who are to perish with the wicked. This ideology of moral righteousness has a deadly undercurrent and Abraham recognises it: from God’s certainty here in this text, to the Spanish Inquisition, to ISIS in Iraq and Syria is a straight line.
But Abraham is on the side of the individual who does not deserve to die alongside the guilty - though the innocent always die alongside the guilty.  Abraham is the human voice of conscience that holds God to account: ‘you can’t do this, you can’t condemn the group, the whole city, if there are individuals in it who are innocent’. And God, from the midst of his ruthlessness, seems to concede that Abraham has a point, as if he’s prepared to learn from his creation, so he half agrees with Abraham’s compassion and sets up a test for Abraham:  ‘how far will you go, how far will you bargain me down, how brave are you in your moral convictions?’ Almost as if God needs Abraham to teach him about compassion and justice.
So Abraham presses on:  what if there are 30 innocent, 20, 10? And God is thinking : ‘How far dare you go? Are you going to get me to save the world for the sake of just one innocent human being?  I will, of course, because you’re right - but do you have the courage to demand that I should care so much about life that I will spare this wicked world for the sake of one innocent man or woman or child? Dare you stake everything on the value of a single life?’ But Abraham fails – he fails to hold his nerve and defy God for the sake of the single human being. 
So he saves his own family, and moves on, leaving destruction in his wake. And he journeys on, for this is what he does, move on , restlessly, never pausing too long to reflect on what he leaves behind.  But as he moves on, with Sarah his wife, he is carrying the laughable knowledge that something extraordinary is still to happen, that a child will be born, when between them their time for bearing children is long over.
And as we read these chapters what appears to us is not history, but saga - a way of telling stories about how we got from there to here, from then to now; a way of telling stories which emphasises that continuity generation after generation is a marvel, a wonder: it makes no sense, there is no rational logic to it. We hear the storytellers spinning a tale in which the dramas of one family are the vehicle for the story of a whole people. Survival is a miracle.  Sarah gives birth when she is too old to give birth. This is laughable. She calls the child Yitzchak, ‘The one who generates laughter’. And we laugh at the absurdity of this tale, we become accomplices in the saga, we laugh at the absurdity of the tale of how Isaac, ‘Laughing Boy’, enters our national story.
And then our laughter turns to tears as we see Abraham caught up in the all-too-recognisable, all-too-human drama of Sarah’s jealousy of the other woman who has already given birth: Hagar, the Egyptian, the outsider, who has to be pushed out of the family into the desert to die with her son, Ishmael , Abraham’s firstborn son and heir. Abraham is shown as having the compassion to care about what is happening (Genesis 21:11): he’s very upset, he doesn’t want to do it; but – another test he fails – he doesn’t have the courage to stand up against Sarah’s fears, and protectiveness, and jealousy, and vindictiveness. He doesn’t stand up against the injustice in the family. ‘Just do what she says’, he thinks, he hears – he thinks he hears – ‘it’ll all turn out for the best’. But how are we ever to know that it’ll turn out all right if we turn our backs on injustice? What kind of a model is this for a religious tradition to have in its veins?
Yet the story – in that rich, dense, poetic prose that the Bible uses for its most dramatic narratives - reveals that the God who had been waiting for Abraham to bargain him into a corner and plead for the city to be spared even if there was only one innocent creature there, that God who destroys the innocent along with the guilty, unsettling us as he does so, disturbing our wishes for a God who is consistently on the side of life and of justice - that God is also the one who does, after all, care about the individual. Hagar weeps over her abandoned child, she weeps about her own desperate situation, she weeps from the midst of her own solitary state of having been abandoned , and in that typical Biblical twist while we hear the woman’s cries and see her tears, ‘God heard the voice of the lad’ (21:17). As if the child is an extension of her. As if the two are one, even though she has left him a distance away, to die. She cries out, but it is the unspoken suffering that God hears. Again we are unsettled, nothing can be assumed about this God. We can’t second-guess the divine.
So God opens her eyes – and our eyes – and Hagar sees the well of water that has been there all the time but that in her misery she has not been able to see; and life is preserved. And we see a miracle too, an everyday miracle that is in front of our eyes: that compassion is a quality that transcends ethnicity, that divinity is not exclusively the preserve of one people, one nation, one religion, that God’s care for the individual woman and child, for each human being, transcends tribe and race. This lowly Egyptian handmaid is held in mind by God, is seen by God, is cared for and responded to for she – representing all outsiders – is precious, is of infinite worth from God’s point of view, if not from ours. The story makes all this appear in front of our eyes in this sedrah that is all about sight and insight.
And then ‘after these things’ (22:1), the final test. How to convey that God is on the side of life, not death? Set up the ultimate test, dramatise the queasy boundary between sanity and madness by ordering  the execution of a child by his father – in the name of God - and see if humanity, Abraham, will see it through, or see through it. That’s the test. See if ideology, the ideology of obedience to the cause, trumps human feeling, compassion. Or whether Abraham can reach inside himself and find the deeper moral voice which puts the individual before the ideology. And it’s a close run thing.
Because Abraham goes all the way and prepares everything: the wood, the binding, the sacrificial space, the fire, all prepared with the cool, calm, logic of dedication to the cause, and the knife is raised to destroy the future because of an inability to see that God is testing him to find out if Abraham can think for himself, if he can utilise his own moral vision, his own conscience, his own humanity. ‘And Abraham lifted up his eyes and he saw, va’yahr...’ (22: 13). A moment of insight on which everything turned: God is on the side of life. Sacrifices may be necessary, but not sacrifices of people in the name of God.
Some might say that because Abraham even contemplated it, he failed the test. Maybe. But child sacrifice was the norm, it was the conventional,  ideologically sound practice of the times, so why wouldn’t people think – even Abraham - that their God would reflect the status quo? that God was on the side of tradition, as it were? But in the end this isn’t a story about the transition from child sacrifice to a different kind of morality. After all, child sacrifice still goes on: when children are victims of perverse religious ideology, murdered because ‘the devil is in them’; although it doesn’t need religion for a parent to kill a child, it happens the world over. For the story dramatises the reality that destructiveness is in every human heart, whether we acknowledge it or not, and it is always touch and go whether it is going to gain the upper hand. So child sacrifice happens, literally. And it happens symbolically: in trafficking and sexual exploitation, and economic exploitation. It’s universal, still.
The ‘binding of Isaac’ is a defining moment in the life of Abraham and his family. The news killed Sarah, the midrash says, and it’s true that we never see her again. And it traumatised Isaac, who carries the melancholia of a survivor all his life. And it ends God’s relationship with Avraham Avinu. God never talks to Abraham again. Or Abraham to God. And the texts don’t tell us who turned their back on who. Is God satisfied now that the new faith is secure in this family’s hands – now that he’s put the first two patriarchs through the most harrowing experience of their lives? Or is he disgusted that Abraham almost did it, without complaint, without a murmur: murder in the name of God? So does God withdraw from Abraham, in satisfaction, or in disgust?
Or does Abraham withdraw from God ‘after this things’? Does he find the whole enterprise of trying to understand and follow the erratic moral vision of the Divine One just too much for his poor old soul? Or does he withdraw into his memories and start constructing his memoirs, rehearsing the journey he’s taken, polishing his stories for the generations to come, editing and fabricating, weaving new fictions out of the dramas of his life.  “Abraham – Man of Faith”: catchy title, could make a best seller. Which indeed, for better and worse, it’s become.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, November 8th, 2014]