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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]

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