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Sunday, 21 December 2014

Hope in Dark Times

When they rebuilt the main synagogue in Cologne after the War, there was much discussion about which Biblical text to use for the inscription on the outside of the building. In the end they decided to use the words from Zechariah that we read in our synagogues on the Shabbat in the middle of Hanukkah: ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts’ (4:6).  

It’s one of Judaism’s great prophetic sentiments – filled with the wishfulness, the hopefulness, that we could live in a world where force, aggression, warfare, violence do not penetrate into every crevice of our lives, are not the ill-fated routes through which change takes place, are not the deep background throb resonating through society, generation after generation. One can see how, after the destruction wrought both by force of arms and murderous brutality in the Second World War, that quotation might have appealed to those looking for a message to take into the future.

The quotation though does contain an irony. The prophet voices this semi-pacifist wish about how change might happen  - ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit’ -  in the name of Adonai Tzeva’ot, the ‘Lord of Hosts’. But Tzeva’ot refers to battalions, battle line-ups: Adonai Tzeva’ot is the God of war, the God that inspires people to fight, to take up arms, the God that fighters often believe is on their side, because their side is right and godly and the enemy are godless evil-doers who refuse to see the light.  

So we are given a prophetic text that has a tension built into it. A God is associated with the fantasy that aggression is the way to solve problems is made to say, ‘No, no, it’s not through might, military aggression, or through mis-use of power, force, that you are to proceed, ki im b’ruchi, but through My spirit, through the breathe of life with which I animate you and all of being’. It is as if the prophet suddenly intuits that the God who has in the past sponsored aggression on His behalf is now dis-arming himself - is saying, as it were, ‘No, I’ve got this wrong: I need to draw on, and you need to draw on, something else within Me, within you, something on the side of life, something creative, the divine ruach that was there from the beginning of time, the spirit of life that the Genesis story talks about as being present as Creation itself takes place, ‘hovering’ over the waters as darkness is dispelled and light is brought into being.’ (Genesis 1:2)

This pivotal prophetic verse is planted in the middle of a dialogue between the prophet and the divine messenger, the malach, who prompts him throughout the Book of Zechariah into new understandings. On this occasion we have the imagery of the menorah, the gold candelabrum in the Temple, and its lamps, and – like ‘someone wakened from sleep’, the text says (4:1) – the prophet has his eyes opened, and he’s moved to wonder: ‘what is this symbol really about?’  

And in a moment of enlightenment, of illumination, he sees the menorah and its lights in a new light, a new realisation: ‘If God breathes ruach through all of life, all of humanity, including oneself, it can make no sense to attack or kill other human beings in the name of that God, for those others contain the spirit of God within them, just as you do.’ This is a breakthrough moment, a new religious consciousness, coming through the prophet, in the form of a dream or a vision or whatever it is that happens within the psyche of Zechariah. A moment of understanding about the divine that, more than 2000 years on, many so-called religious people just can’t grasp, or live in the light of.  

Here we are, in the middle of our Festival of Light; and here we are, in the middle of a world that can seem to get darker and darker, month by month, sometimes week by week: just this week we had the Sydney cafe attacks, and the Taliban’s callous slaughter of schoolchildren and their teachers; and over recent months we’ve had those tit-for-tat murders by Arabs and Jews in Israel and the West Bank; and then there’s been the barbarism of ISIS, not only the gory videoed beheadings, but the ongoing (largely unreported) murders of Kurds in Iraq, as well as Sunni civilians, and Sunni tribesmen – and these are their own Sunni co-religionists who are being killed, for not being God-fearing enough. Or devout in the so-called ‘right’ way.  And we light our candles and quote ‘Not by might, nor by power’ – knowing that we still live in world saturated in aggression, in which might and power, in the name of religion, in the name of a God who is thought of as going into battle for our point of view, is a frightening and toxic element in so many places.  

 And lest you think I’m concentrating mainly on Islamic aggression - and I've passed over the latest atrocities from Boko Haram, of mass murder and kidnapping  - we also saw this week – from the country which has ‘In God We Trust’ inscribed on its banknotes – the publication by the US Senate of the report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme after 9/11, which details the systematic torture of suspected terrorist detainees, in at least one instance to the point of death.
This was a programme run not only by the perversely labelled ‘intelligence community’ but one that relied heavily (as Physicians for Human Rights put it) ‘on the participation and active engagement of various health professionals’ – doctors, psychologists – ‘to commit, conceal and attempt to justify these crimes.’ Men and women for whom that patriotic song ‘God Bless America’ presumably provides a suitably comforting background cover story to justify the unjustifiable. (That song, by the way, is one of the more ambiguous Jewish gifts to America – it was originally written by Israel Beilin in 1918, with the lyrics revised in 1938. You might know him better by the name he took on, Irving Berlin.)  

Why are we lighting our candles? What are we doing? What are we saying? Each night an additional flame is lit, and in our homes this archetypal celebration of the triumph of light over the forces of darkness is being enacted. We know that the symbolism is universal. Every culture has its rituals of renewal and regeneration, often embracing the motifs of fire and light. There is, it seems, a deep human need to witness to the renewal of hope – in spite of the darkness around us, literal and metaphysical and moral. And maybe to spite the darkness. Diwali has passed, and Christmas is upon us, and we sense this universal need, around the winter solstice, to celebrate light and renewal. We are drawn into, seduced into, this symbolic realm: we deeply want reasons to feel hopeful when there is darkness around us.  

Hanukkah does offer us this hopefulness – but you have to work hard to get at it. After all, this eight-day holiday originates in a historic memory of an ancient military victory in a guerrilla campaign fought against foreign (Graeco-Syrian) occupiers. Against all the odds, a group of zealous anti-assimilationist Jewish religious nationalists took back the Temple in Jerusalem and re-dedicated it to their God - Hanukkah means ‘Dedication’. We don’t like to think of Judah the Maccabee and his followers as religious terrorists, because terrorists are always ‘others’, not ‘us’. But we have to struggle with this uncomfortable historical knowledge, just as the rabbis in the Talmud in later generations struggled with it: that it was through armed raids on the occupying enemy that the Temple was re-captured. 

The rabbis knew that Hanukkah began as a sort of old soldiers’ holiday – like an IRA re-union – but they gradually shifted the emphasis away from the role armed rebellion had played and highlighted certain spiritual values and ideals. ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit’ was their choice of text to be read in synagogues at this time of the year. And they promoted too the legend that we all now associate with Hanukkah, that when the Temple’s candelabrum (the Menorah) came to be re-dedicated, there was but a single flask of undefiled oil to be found, enough for one day only. And yet – a miracle! – it lasted for eight days, till fresh supplies arrived. 

So the Talmudic rabbis used this ‘wonder tale’ (German has an excellent term for these kind of stories: wunderm√§rchen) to justify the continued celebration of the ‘festival of lights’. It’s a typical example of rabbinic creativity – they suppressed Hanukkah’s militaristic origins in favour of its symbolic and metaphoric resonances: they stressed the faith required to persevere against the odds and to resist a dominant culture which had different values and priorities; they promoted the belief that sparks of divine light in us can outshine the darkness grafted to our souls; they dared us to have the audacity to hope that human goodness is more powerful than human destructiveness.   

And of course there are times when that symbolic flask of oil, representing the human spirit, does spark into life - and we see the divine qualities of care and compassion shining out. We saw it is Sydney during the week when one woman tweeted a message to her Muslim neighbour while the siege was going on, ‘I’ll ride with you’, because of a concern that there might be an anti-Muslim backlash. And that tweet was re-tweeted – and within 4 hours 150,000 Australians had offered this under the hashtag ‘illridewithyou’. 

People want to believe in something hopeful in dark times. We need this in order to keep us going. Witness the prevalence of the story about the unofficial Christmas truce in the trenches in 1914, the sharing of carols, the fraternising with the enemy, that legendary game of football (which probably never took place) - but as the director John Ford has one of his characters say in ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ : "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.  

Judaism is pretty good at that. We've been doing it for millennia. So let’s use the rest of Hanukkah – whatever its historical and legendary background – to enjoy its symbolism, and be inspired by its symbolism: let’s keep the divine sparks within us alight, living out the values that we know are God’s true values: compassion, care, love, generosity, righteousness. ‘Not by might, nor by force, but by My Spirit’. This remains our hope when all around seems dark.


[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, December 20th, 2014]

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Israel, Racism & the Diasporic Imagination

Fifty years ago this weekend you could have heard a great sermon. You would’ve had to have gone to St Paul’s Cathedral to hear it, 6th December 1964, and you would’ve been one of 3,000 people gathered there. You would have heard the preacher build up slowly, softly, a low drawl to his voice, but with gathering momentum; and, as The Times reported, you’d have heard the tempo increase and the words coming ‘tumbling out in a flood of oratory. Biblical quotations rolling off’ the speaker’s tongue, who ‘was actor, poet and preacher all at the same time’.  (Those were the days).

Martin Luther King took his text from the Book of Revelation, in the New Testament, and although it is not one of his most famous speeches it contains all his distinctive themes about justice and oppression and the quest for freedom, that renowned fusion in him of religious vision and political passion, or maybe we can say religious passion and political vision, because for him political and social action was the arena in which religious ideals were to be enacted – he had a profoundly Judaic understanding of how the two are intertwined, necessarily.
There is of course a private domain for religious feeling, and spiritual experience and yearning – but the ways in which the personal dimension of religiosity is then enacted in the outer realm of action has always been foundational for Judaism as a religious culture. As this week’s Torah text reminds us, Jacob doesn’t just mourn the loss of his beloved Rachel, he sets up a pillar on her grave:  a public memorial although it is a personal, private loss (Genesis 35: 20).
And in this week in which the State of Israel has teetered on the brink of a truly alarming decision to change its basic laws to declare that its national rights would be extended only to Jews, it is worth re-calling King’s message, repeated by him countless times in various forms; that, as he put it, ‘God is not interested in the freedom of white, black or yellow men, but in the freedom of the whole human race.’ And perhaps even more pertinent now to Israel’s historical situation were his words that ‘We must not seek to rise from a position of disadvantage to one of advantage, substituting injustice of one type for that of another.’ Although he wasn’t talking at all about Israel as a state, that’s a prescient encapsulation of the whole drama of Israel’s short existence as a nation state, born out of disadvantage but slowly, gradually, and now to many eyes, ‘substituting injustice of one type for that of another’. 
The new laws which have been proposed – on hold now, maybe, because of the rebellion in the cabinet which has led Netanyahu to sack his dissenters and call an early election in March – are in direct contradiction to the democratic principles enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, that the state was to be ‘based on the principles of liberty, justice and freedom expressed by the prophets of Israel’ to ‘affirm complete social and political equality for all its citizens, regardless of religion, race or gender.’  The great irony of the proposed legislation is that it is being done in the name of Israel’s Jewish identity, but to deny national rights to the 20% of Israeli citizens who are not Jewish is in direct opposition to the Torah laws which state that you are to have ‘the same rules for yourself and the foreigner residing amongst you’ (Numbers 15: 15-16, 29). To promote the so-called Jewish character of the state in a way that is against both the letter and the spirit of Torah is breathtakingly hypocritical , to say nothing of morally crass.
We should be under no illusion that what will start by the downgrading of Arabic from its current status as an official language of Israel will not be the end of it. Although it is a historical analogy I am loathe to bring to bear here – because it can be misused by those who harbour a hatred of Israel - we do remember how the anti-Jewish legislation in Germany was instituted in stages during the 1930s: first of all came the barring of Jews from the civil service and various professions (1933); followed by quotas on Jewish students at universities and in the medical and legal professions; next came the Nuremberg laws prohibiting relationships between Jews and Aryans, and the holding by Jews of any public office (September 1935); in 1937 and 1938 Jews were forbidden to enter into Aryan areas – Rachel’s Tomb by the way is already in an Arab-free zone, it has a huge 12 foot concrete and barbed wire wall around the road leading to it in Bethlehem, and there is military security you have to pass through  to get anywhere near it (but I digress) - Jewish doctors couldn’t treat non-Jews, eventually Jews couldn’t own radios, go to public swimming pools... well, I don’t need to rehearse the way a country slips into racist and semi-fascistic legislation to manage ‘alien’ presences in its midst.  
One example of the pernicious atmosphere that is now present there is the recent arson attack, last weekend, on the Yad B’Yad bilingual school in Jerusalem, the only school in the city where Jews and Arabs learn together. On the wall, lest we are in any doubt about the mindset behind this, was spray-painted the slogans ‘Death to Arabs’ and ‘There is no co-existence with cancer’.
So those of us who have always believed that Israel was both a historical and moral necessity get more and more frightened, more and more disturbed, more and more angry, when we see the erosion of core democratic principles being enacted or mooted within Israel. Ethnic transfer is now openly suggested by some parliamentarians – and who knows who will hold the balance of power come March?  and what would we do then, we Jews in the diaspora? Are there no red lines for us?
Does there not come a point when we Jews in the diaspora who still have a wish for, a faith in, the Torah’s vision for Israel being a ‘light to the nations’, a model for how to live in the world, where justice and compassion and righteousness are the guiding principles of society, does there not come a point when the nation state that carries this numinous name ‘Israel’ so degrades its Jewish values that we say ‘Enough’? Enough injustice, enough apologetics, enough name-calling any criticism as anti-semitism (or Jewish self-hatred), enough legalist attempts to justify the morally unjustifiable.
When do we say that only if the Jewish national project is a project congruent with the messianic spirit of those prophets of Israel mentioned in the Declaration of Independence will it be a project worthy of our unyielding love and our unbreakable support? Are we allowed to think that? To say that?
When I read the texts of our tradition, a sedrah like the one we read today (Genesis 32:4 – Genesis 36), which reminds us that the patriarch Jacob metamorphosed through his life from being a trickster, a ‘heel’ (the root meaning of Ya’akov), to this ambiguous, numinous name of Yisrael, ‘the one who wrestles with the divine’, ‘the one who struggles to bring the divine into the world’; and when I read how he fought with his brother Esau but eventually becomes reconciled with his brother after a lifetime of deception; when I read how to gain the name ‘Israel’ he wrestles with something, internal and external (the text can be read in different ways), a wrestling that leaves him with an injury, a limp - he staggers away from this encounter with a wound that he carries for the rest of his life – when I read this narrative, I recognise its power as a story that applies to each one of us as we journey through life.
Do we not recognise ourselves, battling with our demons, wrestling to enact our visions, our deepest beliefs, carrying the scars, the pain,  of life’s journey? For we can’t avoid the pain: Jacob is bereaved here in our text - and he still has all the tragedy  to come of his loss of his favourite son Joseph, torn to pieces by a wild animal, or so he thinks when his sons bring back to him the bloody coat of many colours; though the wild animals are his sons, or some of them. In this sedrah, chapter 34, Simeon and Levi massacre the men-folk of Shechem after the rape of their sister - who would be a parent of this bunch, born of four different mothers, the mothers fraught with rivalry, and the sons too?
And we think dysfunctional families might be a modern phenomenon; but they are our ‘First Family’, our mythic ancestors.  What a mess they were, what a mess they made of their lives, the Torah doesn’t hide it from us – yet through it all something is working itself out, some vision of formulating a way of being as a people, ‘a nation and a company of nations’ (35:11), who will inherit a  land – and this is where the individual story becomes collective – a land on which they are to try to live ethically, try to live having learnt from mistakes, trying to live in ways that reflect the divine spirit which animates the whole story, that spirit of El Shaddai, God Almighty, who speaks to Jacob here (35:11) but evolves too as the characters evolve, evolves into Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum v’chanum, erech apayim v’rav hesed  (Exodus 34:6) – ‘the Eternal, the  Spirit that animates all of being with the potential for compassion and grace and the capacity to bear suffering without retaliation and filled with love and kindness’. I think of all this when I read these texts, they are the underpinnings of Jewish identity, complex and ambiguous, but truthful to life in their complexity and ambiguities.
This is the vision that we in the Diaspora, we Jews who inhabit the faith of Judaism without committing ourselves to live in the land of Israel, or the State of Israel, this is the vision we try to stay true to, to uphold, try to live out in our own lives; and it’s the vision that we have to unashamedly insist that those who speak in the name of Jewishness in the so-called Jewish national home also uphold, and commit themselves to. Their failure to do so, and the continuation of the path they have set themselves on, does not bear thinking about. Though thinking about it we have to: thinking and speaking about it - the unbearable being what the prophets of Israel did find themselves speaking about, and warning about, much good did it do them; though they didn’t do it for their own good, but for the sake of the integrity of their people, and their faithfulness to the Holy One of Israel and that divine vision of how people are meant to treat each other in the down-to-earth realities of everyday life.
‘Substituting injustice of one type for that of another’ cannot be the way forward. Let’s hope, and pray, and find ways of ensuring, that our darkest fears, born out of our historical diasporic memories, do not come to pass in this Promised Land that threatens to become another Egypt.

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, December 6th, 2014]