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Sunday, 13 December 2015

Paris: 'Twixt Cup and Lip

My father was fond of proverbs, pieces of folk wisdom that served as substitutes for a more sustained conversation. ‘A stitch in time saves nine’. ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’. ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket’. ‘A bad workman blames his tools’. And – the one that I woke up thinking about today - ‘There’s many a slip ’twixt cup and lip’. For me as a child, these sayings took on an authority indistinguishable from his own. Yet looking back on them now, what strikes me is how they all, in varying degrees, encoded an attitude of caution in the face of the world. I never heard him say, for example, ‘In for a penny, in for a pound’ – which might have given permission for a more adventurous stance on life.

The climate change agreement signed in Paris is being hailed - by the politicians involved, and some environmental advocacy groups – as a ‘historic’ turning point in humanity’s use and abuse of fossil fuels. The intention of the agreement is clear: the commitment of all major nations – including for the first time China and India - to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions between now and 2030. But how will that translate into action? While every country is required to put forward a plan to cut emissions, there is no legal requirement as to how, or how much, each country must cut. What’s legally binding is that each nation enact legislation in relation to a low-carbon future, but what is voluntary seems to be the content of that legislation. ’Twixt cup and lip there’s an ocean of room for countries to slip away from the high ideals that have gained assent over these last few weeks.  
The agreement seems to be designed to shame countries into action through peer pressure: countries have to legally monitor, verify and report on what they are doing, reconvening every five years to publicly report on progress towards lowering emissions. One can only hope that that this agreement – ‘Climate Change Agreement In Our Time’ – is not looked back on in decades to come, as temperatures continue to rise, albeit marginally slower, as the equivalent of Neville Chamberlain’s infamous ‘Peace in Our Time’ agreement with Hitler in 1938.
As the festival of Hanukkah comes to an end, and one by one the last of the candles flickers and dies, the fable of the Temple oil sufficient for one day that miraculously lasted for eight days comes to mind. Jews have often used this legend as a symbol of the triumph of Jewish continuity in the face of forces that have sought to extinguish it. But maybe a more apposite reading of the story for our time would be to recognise that what would be truly miraculous – and worthy of celebration – would be if the nations of the world could find a way of consuming less and making what we have go further. But this would be a model – self-sacrifice in the service of a common good - that would overturn capitalism as it's always been practiced.
As long as the nations that are celebrating in Paris today are wedded to consumerism and growth – and as long as electricity, gas and oil companies have such a dominant place in the world’s stock markets – it is going to be very much business as usual. The Paris agreement is a triumph of presentation over reality. There is no pleasure in saying that, and it is probably better to have reached this agreement than to have repeated the failures in Copenhagen in 2009. But it is a consoling fable for our times, and in the depths of winter we cling to such fables, light in our darkness.
Our planet is still vulnerable and dependent – like the infant in the Christmas story which also speaks a universal truth at this season. Over these next decades we are going to find ourselves  ’twixt cup and lip – between the good intentions of Paris and the complex actions that are still needed, and which will have to be maintained over decades when the impact of already-existing higher temperatures will be leading to greater and greater devastation. This will require faith of a very high order. Until less becomes the new more, I am letting caution be my guide.    



Saturday, 14 November 2015

Art as a Response to Terror

The murderous attacks in Paris remind us – as if we don’t already know – that while 20th century secular ideologies spawned the death cults of Stalin, Mao and Hitler, 20th century religious fundamentalism has spilled into the 21st century with a technologically-savvy nihilistic death cult masquerading as a version of Islam.

Today I want to turn away, very deliberately, from this assault on the civilised values I treasure and share something uplifting for the spirit, something that speaks en passant of creative responses to war and terror and hatred. Every generation faces the challenge of making something beautiful, and of lasting value, in the face of the upheavals and horrors that are always with us.
If you haven’t already seen it, can I recommend a gem of an exhibition that’s on right now in Somerset House on the Strand in London? It is sponsored by the Ben Uri Gallery & Museum, and closes on 13th December, and it’s certainly worth an hour or so of your time. I want to say a few things about it because if you do visit it I can guarantee (I think) that you will come out of it feeling, in several ways, blessed. It’s called ‘Out of Chaos’ and celebrates a century of Jewish émigré life through some of the key works of the Ben Uri collection. 
The Ben Uri was founded as an arts society in Whitechapel in 1915 – so it is 100 years old and they are celebrating that through this exhibition. In just  half a dozen smallish rooms you journey through the last century of Jewish artistic engagement with British life and European history - and the whole of what the 20th century brought into being, for good and ill.
At the end of the 19th century there were already Anglo-Jewish artists here in the UK, exploring the themes of integration and identity; and they were joined at the turn of the century by European Jewish artists, men and women who came as immigrants to the East End of London and wanted to preserve and record Jewish traditions and Yiddish-speaking identities within this new environment. Out of this rich mix there arose the so-called ‘Whitechapel Boys’ – a group of Jewish artists who were at the cutting edge of new developments in artistic modernism. Jacob Epstein, David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, Isaac Rosenberg (who was also a poet, and died aged 27 in the trenches) were responding to the artistic and technological revolutions that were going on throughout Europe (especially in Paris), an era which overlapped with the traumas of the First World War.
I want to share with you a couple of paintings you can find in the exhibition in the second room which focuses on the themes of this period. One is Bomberg’s Racehorses (1913)

which was met with incomprehension and hostility when it was first seen. The Jewish Chronicle, then as now an occasional  bastion of unreflective prejudices, dismissed Racehorses as  ‘opposed to all that is rational in art’ because it displayed  ‘horses that could never possibly win races’. That’s true: the subject is as conventional as you can get, but the artist strips it of conventional detail and gives you the animals in a mechanistic whirl of frozen movement, a rush of stiff-jointed angles; these horses haven’t got four legs they have 20 legs.
Almost like a woodcut, one sees the influence of Cubism and Futurism, and of those famous photographs of horses in motion by Edweard Muybridge. What Bomberg produced here, as a precocious 22 year-old, is a dazzling avant-garde experiment in an age coming to be dominated by machines, the spirit of which suffuses the work.

Bomberg’s work influenced that of a second of those Whitechapel Boys. Let’s look at Mark Gertler’s Merry-Go-Round (1916).

This work – now in the Tate Britain - was originally owned by the Ben Uri until it was sold by them in 1984 to guarantee the gallery’s future. It was completed in the third year of the War and captures the nightmare of the conflict: the carousel (modelled on the one on Hampstead Heath) is frozen in motion, the fairground horses carrying uniformed soldiers and sailors and their sweethearts whirls round and round, the mouths of the riders wide open in an unending scream. D.H. Lawrence called the painting ‘horrifying and terrible’ – which it is: there is horror and terror etched into the faces of these riders caught up in a dizzying endless circuit – and thought it ‘the best modern picture I have seen’; and said that Gertler had given us a ‘real and ultimate revelation’.
It stands comparison with Picasso’s Guernica as a defiantly anti-war protest – at the beginning of the War Gertler registered as a conscientious objector, though he tried to sign up later but was declared medically unfit - and in some ways it strikes me as even more powerful that Guernica because it captures the glee and helplessness with which the participants are caught up in the action. The carousel evokes both the jauntiness of the mood in which soldiers set off to do their bit for King and Country, but also the machine-like mechanical nature of the conflict. The horses’ back legs are shaped like raised rifles, the clouds are like shells falling from the sky, the red, white and blue of the British flag glow as the excitement of the War becomes the fearfulness of war and the whirligig jollity merges into the frozen screams from which no-one can escape.
As Lawrence intuited, something new is being revealed here, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the artist was Jewish. This has always been part of the Jewish ‘mission’ – to look into a society from the margins and offer a commentary on what is seen. This is not always, as you can imagine, a popular position to take up. Gertler’s painting was still unsold at the time of his death in 1939. But now we can see that it is a masterpiece.
One of the things this exhibition does is to remind us of the enormous contribution Jews have made over the last 100 years to the cultural life of the nation. At a time when issues of asylum and the UK’s role in offering a welcome to refugees is at the forefront of the political agenda, spending time with some of the glories of Anglo-Jewish art , often created by Jewish immigrants and émigrés,  is a salutary reminder of what so-called ‘outsiders’ can offer their host nation.
Further rooms at the exhibition offer key works by a range of British and European Jews – from Chagall to Frank Auerbach, Jacob Epstein to R.B.Kitaj, Leon Kossof and Joseph Herman to Max Liebermann – exploring issues of identity and migration during the era of Nazi Germany and the post-War period. And there is some very powerful contemporary photographs by Israeli and British Jewish artists towards the end of the exhibition. 
Let me talk about just one work from the middle section of the exhibition, Joseph Herman’s ‘Refugees’ from 1941.

Herman was born in Warsaw in 1911 into a poor, working-class family. He became a graphic artist and in 1938 fled the rising tide of anti-semitism – first to Brussels and then, when the Germans invaded, he was able to get to the UK, to Glasgow where he learned quite quickly through the Red Cross that his entire family had perished in the Warsaw Ghetto. He’d already started a series of works on Jewish themes and these portraits of a disappearing world darkened to include pogroms and the destruction of the Ghetto.  He moved to London in 1943 where he held his first London exhibition together with a little known Northern artist called L.S.Lowry.
This painting, ‘Refugees’, was thought lost for over 60 years, and was re-discovered only after his death in 2000. It’s a haunting work and although you can see the spires of a lost moonlit snow-bound Warsaw it evokes a much wider east European story of displacement and exile - and is of course utterly contemporary. A family is on the move, carrying their bedding with them: father , mother, child and baby, their eyes wide with fear and panic. A universal story of upheaval and flight. The threatening nature of their unknown fate is symbolised by the huge cat squeezing the life out of the bloodied mouse. The cold indifference of the moon’s eye, picked up in the cat’s eye, looks down on one family - which stand for so many, then and now. It’s powerful, poignant, frightening, moving – Herman has created a deeply human work of identification with the oppressed, a humanistic and of course deeply Jewish portrait of suffering and exile and loss.
This capacity for human fellow-feeling became a dominant motif in Herman’s work: he eventually made his home in a Welsh mining village and made his name with his dignified and empathetic portraits of miners, which remain some of his best-known works.
There are nearly 70 works on show, taken from the Ben Uri collection, and each one deserves its own time and space. The Ben Uri has recently re-defined its purpose: it recognises that these Jewish themes of identity and immigration, of forced journeys and necessary integration, are part of a larger conversation in this country in which the rich contribution of immigrant cultures needs to be exhibited and celebrated. They have hosted in recent years exhibitions by African, Korean and Caribbean artists and they have a real vision of being (though they don’t put it this way) a source of blessing to other peoples, using the special nature of Jewish experience to enlighten, to educate, to inspire. If you go along to Somerset House I think you will leave this current exhibition moved and exhilarated, humbled and inspired. Don’t miss it.

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London on November 14th 2105]


Sunday, 25 October 2015

Abraham, Refugees and the Madness of Ethical Action

A  family leave their country of origin, they leave behind parts of their extended family, they leave the security and insecurity of their homes – they make the journey from their familiar surroundings to an unknown and distant land. The reach a temporary resting place but there is no respite there, so they move on. But still there are no resources available  – in our Biblical text (Genesis 12:10) it’s called a famine – so this migrant family have to move on, keep on going, facing the dangers that arise along the way, they have to keep on journeying until they find some sanctuary, some asylum, somewhere to lay their heads and start to build a new life for themselves.  

It’s an ancient story, it’s a universal story, and it’s an absolutely contemporary story. The story of Abraham the refugee that we read this Shabbat (Genesis 12) is the story we see on our TV screens, the story that dominated the headlines over the summer months, the story that is still very much a present and growing reality across Europe; it is the story of our times that hasn’t gone away, isn’t going to go away – even if it has dropped down the news agenda in recent weeks.  

Such is our craving for new ‘news’, that both the press and the 24 hour cycle of rolling TV and digital news have to keep manufacturing different stories to feed our appetite for what’s new and different - ‘breaking news’ is sexier than ‘heart-breaking news’ that goes on day after day, week after week. The media know that we suffer from what one might call ‘attention deficit disorder’ – that’s not a medical condition, it’s a spiritual disorder, a dis-ease of the soul. It  means it’s almost impossible now to stay focused on what matters, what’s really important, for any length of time: for more than a few minutes sometimes - maybe a few hours - certainly no longer than a few days. How many times a day, an hour, do we check our phones? Maybe we’ve had an email, a tweet, a WhatsApp message, something new on Facebook or Instagram. Something new. Think how we greet each other when we meet: ‘Hi, what’s new’, we say.  

This craving for the new – and it can be material goods, or personal experiences, or relationships, or in relation to the daily news - is a symptom of some kind of  malaise of the spirit. Of course we may not think of it that way, we may not consciously experience it as an affliction at all. But one consequence of our living in thrall to the next new thing is that the ongoing crisis in Europe risks becoming yesterday’s news. 

The greatest humanitarian crisis that we have faced in Europe in 70 years is no longer new news. Even over the summer it wasn’t new. Truth to tell, we know it’s been going on for a number of years now, the exodus of multitudes of men, women, children, from war zones and from famine and floods, from poverty and deprivation, in Africa and Asia, and – since the Iraq war and then when the Syrian civil war began – from the Middle East too. Dangerous, haphazard journeys in boats that sink, and container lorries that suffocate you to death: people risking their lives, and their children’s lives, not because they want to live on benefits at someone else’s expense but because they are desperate, desperate for the things we take for granted – food, medicine, shelter, freedom from the fear of random bombs, bullets, machetes, freedom from the fear of  rape or torture or state kidnapping and disappearance. None of this has gone away. But none of this is new.  

What is new, perhaps, is the walking. Tens of thousands of families, just like us, are walking, right now, through rain and mud and freezing conditions, from one European country to the next, searching for which border is open, and for how long, trying to find somewhere to rest their heads, some hospitality, some sanctuary, some hope for the future. And I don’t think people in the UK are suffering from so-called ‘compassion fatigue’ – because many citizens in this country (not all, I know) have reservoirs of compassion for these migrants, these refugees, for these vulnerable strangers who are fleeing war and deprivation and persecution in their countries of birth. We have as a nation the compassion; but we seem to lack, individually and collectively, the capacity to sustain our attention and keep focused on this crisis and what we can do about it.  

And there are things we can do. We are not helpless. Even though the scale of this crisis is enormous, there are practical things that can be done. We might despair of the niggardly, pusillanimous minimalism of our government’s response – 20,000 refugees over 5 years is quite frankly shameful for a country like ours with historically (by and large) such a strong tradition of welcome for those fleeing persecution; we can compare the UK’s official response not just of course with Germany’s extraordinary generosity of spirit but with Sweden’s response, who have taken in 85,000 refugees this year – that’s into a country with a population smaller than London . But whether or not one feels outrage about the UK government’s response, if you experience your own human concern and compassion, there are actions on a local level that you can commit yourself to. That can make  a difference.  

This week, for example, in the area where I live, Barnet Council have agreed officially to support the re-settlement of 50 Syrian refugees. That’s a pathetically small number – but it is something: 50 vulnerable human souls. This was after a campaign prompted by one of our local Progressive rabbis together with Barnet Citizens (part of  the charity Citizens UK), who together organized local GP surgeries and landlords and schools to commit themselves to working with and supporting 50 newcomers from those Syrian refugee camps. They did this together with other faith leaders, Christian and Muslim, and members of all three of the faith communities that acknowledge Abraham as a spiritual forebear.  

Religious leaders do have a role to play in this crisis. Back in September more than 80 bishops from the Church of England wrote privately to Mr. Cameron urging him to accept at least 50,000 refugees from Syria, and offering a range of services and support, including fostering children and finding accommodation – but in spite of stressing the urgent and compelling moral duty to act, they have basically been snubbed by the Prime Minister. But it was absolutely right that they wrote; and that they have made public their disappointment at the government’s refusal of their offer of practical assistance to help settle these refugees, assistance that would not have put a drain on the country’s resources. (Ironically, it would have been a fine example of the ‘Big Society’ that Cameron has said he’s so keen to promote. It’s hard not to be cynical when one sees such a blatant gap between political rhetoric and action, or the failure to act).  

Both the current Chief Rabbi and the last Chief Rabbi have also set out the moral case for action and both have encouraged the Jewish community to use World Jewish Relief ( ) as a conduit for targeted financial relief on the ground, where the efforts are going into providing medical help, clothing and shelter for vulnerable women and children in Turkey and Greece in particular. 

Money can make a difference of course. But so can campaigning and volunteering – look at to see local initiatives in London.  There are large reserves of good will and empathy around the country as well as an awareness that the response of politicians and the public will be judged by history. Winter is approaching and we can be bystanders to this unfolding humanitarian tragedy – or we can act.

If you feel you want to do something of real practical value then contact one of the members of Finchley Reform Synagogue, Holly Kal-Weiss (,  who two weeks ago went to Calais where there are several thousand men and women and children from war-torn countries – including unaccompanied children and pregnant women – crowded together in an unsafe camp on a small patch of wasteland. You may have seen the pictures on the news. But you won’t have seen the 1 toilet for every 70 people and the people boiling drinking water due to E.Coli. There are no major charities on the ground – just a grassroots movement of volunteers and some small local French charities. 

If you are someone who is more concerned that your Eurostar trip will be delayed by these unruly strangers, then you probably won’t be interested in this, but Holly is part of that grassroots network of volunteers (see ) and she is going back there next weekend. She is looking for people to join her to help sort clothes in warehouses, to distribute supplies, to help build weather-proof structures – it is already cold and winter is on the way – she also needs doctors, nurses, first-aiders, people good at DIY, and anyone who feels they can offer the moral support just of being there in solidarity so that these desperate people do not feel completely abandoned. If you can spare a day, or two, next weekend she wants to get together four carloads of volunteers. 
She told me that people think she’s mad for being so passionate about this. Well these may be maddening times, it might feel dementing to see the UK’s feet-dragging response to this crisis, but we don’t as individuals have to collude with this. It’s far from mad to feel ‘I want to do something, I can make a difference, to one person, one family, one small group of fellow human beings in desperate circumstances.’ If this is madness then all of Jewish ethical teaching is a form of madness.
It would mean that all the talk in the Torah about love of the stranger, care for the outsider, compassion for the impoverished, the deprived, the marginalised, all that repeated emphasis on the Jewish responsibility to make a difference to the lives of others, all that prophetic pathos and rage on behalf of the disadvantaged and the poor and the vulnerable, that insistence on justice and righteousness, it would mean it’s all just an ongoing madness. Is that what we believe? Is that what we really think in our hearts? That ethical action is a form of madness?
Or do we think that enacting these qualities as best we can, however we can, is what it means to be Jewish, is the purpose of being Jewish? Isn’t this what it means in that sentence from the Torah we heard this week: that Abraham was told that his destiny, his family’s destiny, his tribe’s destiny, his people’s destiny was to be a blessing? (12: 2). This was to be their role in life, in history, through the generations. To strive to be a blessing, to bring a blessing to others, to act towards others so that, as the text goes on to say ‘through you all the families of the earth will be blessed’ (12:3).
The Jewish task of bringing blessing to others through our ethical actions is rooted in this text, the story of Abraham who left Haran - that happens to be in present-day Syria - and followed a voice, an inner sense of purpose, that started with those words that came to him as if out of nowhere: ‘Lech L’cha – get going!’ Can we still hear that voice today, the one that tells us ‘Lech L’cha, Get going...get on with it...’?
Actually this great call to action that Abraham heard can also be read in a different way: ‘Lech L’cha: yourself, go into yourself...’ It’s a call to make a journey that isn’t just geographical but spiritual and psychological: go into yourself! And when you do journey into yourself, see if you can find the compassion and the courage and the empathy for others which lives within you. And then see if you can act on it.
Jews know, historically and culturally, in their hearts and souls and bodies, what it is to be a refugee, what it is to migrate, how hard this can be. Jews have been migrants and refugees from Biblical times onwards – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, all were forced to move: the book of Genesis is  a book about migration, about flight; then the Exodus from Egypt created a generation of refugees, of wanderers, of people walking through scorching heat and freezing nights towards a distant promised land.
This is our story, and it didn’t end with the settlement of that promised land, because that only led to exile and diaspora and a scattering around the globe; and in every century there were expulsions and migrations, new beginnings in new lands. The Jewish story is  a story of wanderings: we know the soul of the newcomer because we have been newcomers so often through the  millennia; we know what it is to encounter hostility and we know what it is to encounter hospitality. We know the difference between scapegoating and sanctuary. And because we know all this in our innermost being we can bring a blessing to others who now face upheaval and dislocation and migration. This is our responsibility, our purpose, our destiny.
Lech L’cha: Go into yourself, and find the beating heart of your better selves. And call it the voice of God that asks this of you, or the voice of conscience – it doesn’t matter. What matters is finding a way to overcome cynicism and indifference and fear.  What matters is finding the good that you can do, the godly things to do, not in five years time but now, in the weeks and months ahead. 

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, October 24th 2015]

Sunday, 11 October 2015

On Creation, Chaos and Boredom

The Italian Jewish writer Alberto Moravia, born in 1907, had the dubious distinction of being singled out for abuse first by the Fascist newspapers - after the passing of Mussolini’s anti-Semitic racial laws in 1938 - and then, after the War, by having his novels placed on the Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books. The Vatican disapproved of the sexual content of his fiction – but they also disapproved of passages like this, from his novel La Noia (‘Boredom’): “In the beginning was boredom, commonly called chaos. God, bored with boredom, created the sky, the waters, the animals, the plants, Adam and Eve...”

The Roman Catholic Church may have found such sentences and sentiments objectionable – a bored God!, how scandalous, how subversive of faith, the words almost have the mark of the devil on them; but then his father was, after all, a Jew – but to Jewish ears such a playful fictional account is really quite unexceptional. Indeed it is almost normative – it is part of the concentric circles of imaginative response to the sacred texts that go by the name of ‘midrash’. And ‘midrash’ – expanding upon, playing with, responding creatively to, reading creatively into, the Torah is itself a holy activity.
What Moravia picks up from the Genesis myth is not only the creator God who creates the heavens and the earth, the animals and plants and humanity itself; in addition to this he alludes to the way that creation in B’reshit (Genesis 1:2) comes out of the midst of chaos, tohu va’vohu: ‘chaos and confusion’, ‘welter and waste’, ‘the unformed and void’ - this wonderful echoing, alliterative  phrase, untranslatable really, that evokes the act of creation as coming not out of nothing (ex nihilo) but out of some pre-existing space filled with potentiality but as yet without form, without coherence, without fixity, without boundaries, without formal content. A bit like any artist’s mind, any writer, any composer, anyone who creates something out of the flux and chaos of her or his inner world. 
Everything creative could be said to emerge out of unformed ‘chaos’. The traditional Jewish midrash contains one extraordinary story, fable, that talks about how creativity, God’s creativity, is essentially an act of improvisation, an experiment - an on-going experiment in which we, humanity, are participants, whether we like it or not. It tells of how God made 26 attempts to create this world, this universe : but all those attempts were doomed to failure. He tried and tried and tried again. The world as we now know it, says this midrash,  came out of the chaos of this earlier error-strewn wreckage (Genesis Rabbah 9:4). This might sound like the stuff of primitive science fiction. Or like a child trying to build a tower of bricks that keeps crashing down. But what this midrash is pointing towards -  the fragility and impermanence of creation – is, I think, psychologically and spiritually significant.
It’s suggesting, the rabbis are suggesting, that in regard to us and the world we live in, it could all end in failure. It could all – our so-called civilisation, and us, and this fragile planet – it could all collapse back into chaos and confusion, tohu va’vohu. At the end of the midrash, God is allowed a voice. He looks around and cries out, in hope, in anxiety: ‘If only this time it will last’. Of course this is our hope, and our anxiety, that the rabbis are giving voice to, projected onto the Holy One of Israel - that our lives, and the life of humanity, are part of a scheme of things that will last.
But in the midrash, which contains this profound awareness of provisionality, nobody knows if it will last; we don’t know what will endure, or how long, not even God knows. This midrash is deeply subversive: the rabbis are giving us a God that isn’t omnipotent or omniscient; this God is a participant with us in the not-knowing how things will turn out. Is life on earth a doomed project? We don’t know, we can’t know, nobody knows:  this is a picture filled with fear and trembling, with hope and wishfulness, but no certainty.
Of course what this ancient midrash gives us is actually a portrait of life as it is: individual life, collective life. This is where we are. Our everyday lives unfold within this crucible of uncertainty as to where it all will lead. What an adventure it is, life. What an experiment that we are part of. And none of us knows how it is going to turn out: for ourselves, for the world. ‘If only it will last...’
I fell in love with that sentence when I first came across it: “In the beginning was boredom, commonly called chaos. God, bored with boredom, created the sky, the waters, the animals, the plants, Adam and Eve...”
Boredom is such an interesting theme. I often hear people talking about being bored. And children often complain they are bored. ‘Boring!’ is one of the most effective arrows a child – or a teenager - can shoot out from their quiver of insults. But what do they mean really? What do we mean? If you dig a little, you might discover that contrary to what many people think, ‘boredom’ is not a feeling: it’s a kind of mood, a mood filled with frustration. It’s a suspended state of waiting for something to happen; a waiting  filled with frustration, or anger, that something/anything hasn’t happened yet. It’s a kind of restlessness of the spirit, a waiting for something to turn up that’s worth wanting.
In Moravia’s fictional portrait, God gets so fed up with waiting for something to happen that will interest him that he decides to take matters into his own hands, so to speak, and create something that will enliven him. I find that a useful model for ourselves – let me give a personal example.  
One of the things that happened to me over the years was that I became bored with conventional synagogue services. And by bored mean frustrated. To sit in a service and wait for something to happen – for something to turn up that’s worth wanting – was, in my experience, hugely frustrating. Why would you put yourself through that? Why would anyone? We know that many hundreds of thousands of Jews – but it is the same in Christianity – have decided it’s not worth putting themselves through the ordeal of waiting for something to turn up in services that’s worth wanting.
What was I waiting for, and wanting? I suppose this waiting was for some new insight to be born, or some transformation of feeling, or some fresh insight into myself or life or holiness or God; or waiting for some moment of stillness, some space where an answer or response might arrive within that endless sea of words flowing around me. 
Well, like the God character in Moravia’s fable, I got bored with being bored,  frustrated with so much frustration of the spirit, a spirit that wants to come alive, or more alive; and I realised I had to create something, something more expansive – if not ‘the sky, the waters, the animals, the plants, Adam and Eve...’, then at least something that embraced and could speak about anything under the heavens and on the earth, something that had human beings within it, something that had people at the heart of it. Not the texts of the tradition at the heart of our divine service but the texts of our own lives at the heart of divine service. A form of service that recognises and celebrates that our lives are a form of divine service, can become a form of serving the divine. Our lives.
Over the last twenty years or so at Finchley Reform we have been experimenting with ‘Alternative’ services. But like God in the midrashic fable, who is aware that the project of creating a world is provisional, and always at risk of failure, that is how it is with Alternative services: one never knows how it will turn out, what the unique combination of this group of people, at this hour, on this day, will create together, because each service is a new creation.
We always start afresh, there’s always a sense of beginning, beginning anew each time - in hope, in anticipation, in an awareness of our own wanting (we don’t always know what for), but a holding ourselves open to the new, the unexpected, what reveals itself moment by moment, as we engage with ourselves, with each other, with the texts of tradition and the texts of our own lives - and with the silence that holds us in its tender embrace. And this new 'creation' seems to work – whatever ‘work’ means – some of the time.
Of course what I also want to do, what I want to know, is how do we create this in our more conventional, traditional services - this spirit of creative aliveness? How do we create a form of religious service that is an antidote to boredom? I am open to suggestions.

[based on themes explored in a sermon given on Shabbat B’reshit at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, on October 10th, 2015]






Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Galileo's Legacy: Looking out, Looking in, at the Jewish New Year

In 1609 the Italian mathematician Galileo Galilei built his first telescope. He was using newly developed Dutch lenses, and within a few years his observations of the moon, the planets and the stars enabled him to confirm what Copernicus had worked out many decades before: the earth was not the centre of the universe, it was one planet among many that revolved around the sun. What Galileo saw through his telescope sparked a revolution in science and human thought.  And we still gaze in awe at the pictures of unimaginably distant phenomena that astronomy reveals to us.  

A decade after that first telescope, Galileo made a new discovery. By inverting the order of those same lenses he found that he could magnify not the world outside him, but the world of the very small. For the first time in human history it became possible to see the building blocks of human life, and to begin to discover the causes of diseases. But Galileo wasn’t particularly interested in looking down, and into the world around him – he was preoccupied with looking out.
He’d draw detailed pictures of tiny fleas - but he ignored the possibility that they might have anything to do with the plague that was ravaging Italy. For another 300 years countless millions died of the plague and preventable diseases across Europe because the cutting edge of science lay in observations through the telescope rather than the microscope. Perhaps this human tendency is understandable, it’s certainly historically and culturally very ancient: to look up and out, to try to penetrate into what’s beyond - rather than to look down , or deeper in, to look more closely at what’s beneath our feet, literally and metaphorically. So there was a cost to Galileo’s preoccupation with what lay beyond this world - humanity paid a price for focusing on the outer reaches of the skies rather than that interior world much closer to home. 
Nowadays, of course, the technology exists to look deeper into and explore the ‘nanoverse’ as well as the universe. And maybe that’s where cutting edge science is going in our era, with the Large Hadron Collider and the Higgs boson, and all that particle physics stuff that we’re told will lead through nano-technology (and also genetic engineering) to transformations in our world as enormous as those the Galilean revolution set in motion.
But meanwhile - suspended between the hidden vastness and remoteness of the universe and the hidden sub-microscopic particles of which we and everything are made up - here we are, on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year: the time in our calendar when the symbolism of our tradition encourages us to look in both directions at the same time. Maybe it’s a lost art, to look in two directions at once  – it sounds like a recipe for dizziness, or maybe a crick in the neck - but that’s what Rosh Hashanah is about. The liturgical poetry of the day reminds us ‘today is the birthday of the world’, and we celebrate a New Year with this strange counting we do in the Jewish calendar using both the moon and the sun to measure time.
The symbolism of this theme, the ‘birthday of the world’, sensitizes us to our small existence here on the planet, this mere speck in the universe, a cosmic dot that has come into being over aeons of time, evolving in all its chemical and physical and biological complexity, evolving life, infinitely slowly, from the primal soup through plant life, animal life, human life, evolution in all its mystery and grandeur, from protoplasmic slime evolving into us, in all our glory, in all our transient fragility. Each of our brains – that ‘three pounds of  jelly’ as the late Oliver Sacks once described it – each human brain contains 100 million neurons and 100 trillion synapses. That’s some awesome evolution we have gone through.
Today is the ‘birthday of the world’ – and we celebrate creation  and our ongoing existence in creation. We do look up, we look around, we look out – and we glimpse, we sense, that there is something incomprehensible about our being here, about anything so complex as us being here at all. And the imagery of the Jewish New Year encourages us to think about this mystery: our smallness, our insignificance within all of creation. It helps us to feel a humility in the face of the majesty of being. So that’s one direction we look at this time of the year.
But of course we also look in another direction. We not only look out, we look in. It’s the time of the year for the microscope as well as the telescope. The New Year also asks us to direct our attention inwards, it prompts us towards self-examination. It’s as if it says:  ‘given that we are here, alive, now, given that we extraordinary creatures do exist on this extraordinary planet in this extraordinary universe, how are we getting on with this job of being human:  what are we making of our lives?’
It asks us to put ourselves under the microscope and see what’s there: it asks us to look at our human qualities – how are they developing, where are they atrophied, which ones are healthy, where do they need treatment? Is our capacity for kindness flourishing? Is our capacity for love in need of repair? Is our capacity for generosity wearing thin?
In the poetry of our tradition, alongside the motif of  the ‘birthday of the world’, Rosh Hashanah is also called Yom Ha-Din, the Day of Judgement. For each of us. We adjust our inner lenses and look at the state of our souls and hearts. And this is private work, personal work, that we each do during these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur  - we do it on our own, though we also do it in a collective setting, and gain strength from each other in doing so. We recognise that our fates are intertwined with each other, as a community, as a people, the Jewish people – who are guests on this planet along with every other people. Although the process of  self-examination is personal, we acknowledge that we are all in this human predicament together.
So these are the days for looking inside, and making judgements about what we see. You don’t have to believe in some external deity who does the judging – you don’t have to take the liturgy’s imagery literally, in other words  – to see that there is an inner spiritual process being described in our tradition that has a relevance whatever we believe about the traditional imagery with its divine Being recording our lives in the great Book of Life. There is passion in this poetry - and like all great poetry it helps us sense that we live in two worlds: we live simultaneously not just in the physical, material world but also in another world, of spirit, of soul, of conscience, of intuitions and intimations, of  values and vision, a world of  meaning;  meaning that is not just dictated from on high but that we help create, help come into being.
The Jewish New Year asks the Jewish people to take upon themselves a self-questioning on behalf of all humanity. The chutzpah of this is breathtaking. The religious mythology of the day suggests that the well-being of the world depends on the self-reflective, self-judging efforts of the Jewish people. Arrogantly or not, humbly or not, we the Jewish people meet together on the New Year and insist on taking seriously a central spiritual and ethical question: how we are bearing up to this demanding task of being human? Fully human. Meaning: how well are we living our qualities of empathy, love, fellow-feeling, altruism, our sense of fairness and justice, all our finer, nobler qualities – are we expressing them as best we can, individually and as a people? or are we allowing ourselves to be dominated by those other qualities that are also part of who we are - our fearfulness, our possessiveness, our aggression, our cruelty, our meanness of spirit?
Judaism has long acknowledged that we are continually being pulled between these different sides of our being, between our creative divine potential and our destructiveness. And in these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur , if we are honest it sometimes doesn’t take too long under the microscope for us to see what’s eating away at our souls and our better selves.  Souls can grow sick, souls can become cancerous, as well as bodies. We know this - though we perhaps don’t want to know this.
On these days we cast a net into the depths of the soul and see what we pull up, what we can glimpse there: and sometimes we are shocked or shamed by what is lurking there, and sometimes we are dazzled by the light that we catch sight of.
Perhaps this year there is no better litmus test of the state of our souls than our response to the refugee crisis, the greatest humanitarian and ethical challenge of our time. Suffice it to say that if you listen to three different European leaders – Germany’s Angela Merkel, open-hearted, bold, generous, compassionate; David Cameron, timorous, calculating, uncomfortably at odds with the perhaps surprising groundswell of public sympathy in the UK, the wish to respond practically and magnanimously to the crisis; and Hungary’s Viktor Orban, self-righteous, xenophobic, racist, callous – when we see these responses played out in front of us, we might find elements, traces, of all those stances inside us if we look closely enough.
But at this time of the year, as we Jews reflect on the tussle inside us between righteousness and selfishness, we hope, and trust, (and yes, pray), that we can find and live out the finer aspects of our being rather than the shabbier parts. The pressures and demands of life can sometimes squeeze us dry but we each have reservoirs of goodness within us, and we can draw upon our compassion and empathy and sense of justice as we respond to this crisis that isn’t going to go away. It is our new reality – and the need to seek refuge, to find new homes (for one reason or another, to do with war or economic deprivation or the effects of climate change), the need to build new lives in new places, will be the story of the 21st century 
A word about World Jewish Relief  - who are co-ordinating Anglo-Jewry’s response to the crisis. There are many different practical initiatives going on up and down the UK, but it may be that your response is financial - and that is just as important. You may not know what else to do but you shouldn’t underestimate the mitzvah of donating: a donation through World Jewish Relief  ( will provide food, shelter, medicines and hygiene kits to refugees in Turkey and Greece who are fleeing war and persecution. In Turkey the organization has partners on the ground working closely with the 275,000 children who have had to cross over the Syrian border to gain some kind of safety. And in Greece, World Jewish Relief are working through the Greek Jewish community to help those seen as particularly vulnerable, mothers with new-born babies, providing shelter, blankets and medical support.  

Some people think giving money is an easy response, a way of relieving one’s  conscience. But I suggest that one shouldn’t judge this response too harshly. Yom Ha-Din, the Day of Judgement, says that if you can save one life, it is judged as if you have saved the whole world, certainly a whole world. And what an amazing thing that is for any of us to do. You can send money with the click of a button – and save a life. What a world we live in! As Jacob said when he awoke from his dream-filled sleep: Ma nora ha-makom ha-ze (Genesis 28: 17) – how awesome this place is!  

The poet Seamus Heaney once wrote: “The way we are living, timorous or bold, will have been our life” [from ‘Elegy for Robert Lowell’]. That gifted, convent-educated Roman Catholic Irishman, much missed, was never more Jewish than when he wrote that line: “The way we are living, timorous or bold, will have been our life.” It sums up the inner message of these Days of Awe.  

These ten days, these so-called ‘Days of Awe’, ask us to use, symbolically, our telescope and our microscope. We do need to look up, and out, and beyond ourselves – to really see this world, what it is and what it needs; and who is in it and what they need. We need to not be focused only on ourselves, individually, or even as a people, always asking ‘what’s best for the Jews’. We need to look out beyond the horizon of nationalism and people-hood. And we need to look in, to see the gifts and the creativity we have within us (and the harm we do when we fail to live out our better selves).  

There’s always a fluidity between these two positions, looking out and looking in. A dialectic. We move between introspection, which helps us see more clearly, and outer action, living more fully, more generously, in the world we see around us.  Looking in, looking out, looking out, looking in:  it’s as simple as breathing, as complex as breathing, in and out. This is our life, at every moment. The miracle of our being here, held in the being of the universe.  

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, 2015; and themes inspired by a New York Review of Books review (9/7/2015) by Tim Flannery of ‘Life’s Engines: How Microbes Made Earth Habitable’ by Paul G.Falkowski]




Sunday, 6 September 2015

Approaching the Jewish New Year at a Time of Crisis

How can I talk about the themes of the Jewish New Year in these days we are living through? How can I talk about  preparing ourselves inwardly for the High Holy Days when there are children drowning in the seas that we go on holiday to swim in? How  can I talk about the importance of reflectiveness, of returning to our vision, our true values, when we are in the midst of this humanitarian crisis, when it is action that’s needed – by communities, by local authorities, by governments?

How can I talk about repentance, and false consciousness, about the need for personal change, transformation, when there are hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war and persecution and deprivation, when we see these images of trains packed with men and women and children, in stifling heat, setting off towards the West, anywhere in the West, then taken off trains by men with guns for processing in camps? No Jew can see this without a shiver of recognition. Of knowing: ‘they’ are us. So how can we have these images in our minds and at the same time talk about the journey of the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, and the role of prayer and inner change? How can we talk about ‘journey’ as a metaphor, when these families are journeying in rickety boats, and locked trucks, and now on foot, into Europe, across Europe? How can I do this?
Samuel Beckett comes to mind. The end of The Unnameable, and the last words of the novel: “where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.” Beckett – the indispensible guide to our human condition now, in all its fragility and vulnerability: “you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
So at this fraught time in European history, I’ll go on. At this time when the real moral voice in Europe is offered by Germany, who have already taken in 300,000 refugees and will be taking in a million refugees, maybe more, I will go on. For here we see how change is possible, collectively, nationally - when you see how Germany has transformed its collective ethos, has over many decades worked through its guilt and its shame, has engaged in heart-searching, soul-searching teshuvah so its leadership can, when history calls again, speak the voice of humanitarian empathy with the stranger, the outsider – and in doing so put our nation’s leaders to shame – when you see that change is possible, we glimpse something profoundly hopeful.
Change is possible, empathy is possible, the vision of the sacredness of life is possible to articulate - and enact, practically. This is what Germany is teaching us – along with all those local initiatives that have sprung up this week in the UK to offer practical help. That gives us hope, should give us hope, individually and as a community as we approach this time in our calendar when we focus on what needs to change in us, individually and as a society.  
In Judaism action and reflection go hand in hand. And there is much practically we can do in response to this crisis (please visit ).
But none of this is easy. Our emotional lives are finely balanced. Beckett’s see-sawing reflection says it, the competing voices in us are always in motion: “you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
In these difficult times – in the midst of this crisis which, in all honesty, we know has been going on now for some years, but has reached a tipping point over the summer, maybe even in this last week – ‘going on’ with some kind of hopefulness isn’t easy. False hopefulness is easy. Pious words are easy. Pseudo-empathy is easy. But facing up to where we are in a world where 60 million people have been displaced by war, conflict or persecution, this can make talking about the High Holy Days and personal teshuvah just sound crass. It risks making all ‘spiritual’ /’religious’ talk sound crass, or maddeningly beside the point.  
I am reminded of the German poet Bertolt Brecht’s 1938 poem, ‘To Posterity’ – Brecht was a refugee of course, from Germany. His poem  begins:

Truly, the age I live in is bleak.
The guileless world is foolish. A smooth brow
Denotes insensitiveness. The laughing man
Has only not yet received
The dreadful news.

What times are these when a conversation
About trees is almost a crime.
Because it includes a silence about so many misdeeds!
That one there calmly crossing the street,
Hasn’t he ceased to be at home to
His friends in need?

So, to speak with too much hopefulness in times like these feels ‘almost a crime’. But maybe it is a crime only if it colludes with our silence about ‘so many misdeeds’?  This is the time of the year when we do focus, allow ourselves to focus, on our silence, and on our misdeeds: on when we remained silent when we should have spoken out, on when our deeds, our actions, did not come from the better parts of ourselves; or when we failed to act, when we ceased to be at home to ‘friends in need’. When we failed to live up to the generosity and compassion and sense of justice that is grafted into us but which is hard sometimes (maybe often) to live out and express.
At this time of the year we return to our awareness that we have these deep moral impulses within us:  our generosity of spirit and of action, our compassion to those who have less than us, our inner sense that tzedakah - right action, righteousness - is something we can enact, that these divine qualities are grafted into our humanity. But it’s the time of the year in our calendar when we recognise too that we are often blocked from releasing these capacities within us: feeling them, living them. That they get atrophied, shrivelled up. And we are reminded that in the language of our tradition we call this blocked-upness 'sin' : this failure to live up to our vision, the failure to let the innate moral voice in us express itself - this is what Judaism calls ‘sin’.
Personal reflection and the hard psychological work of examining the state of our souls is something Judaism calls on us to do in these days ahead. We do it alone, but for some of us we also do it in community. That adds a dimension: we recognise that we not alone in having difficult stuff inside us that stops us expressing our better selves. We are all in this together, the drama of being human. We each have our own stuff to work on; but while we do this alone, we do it while also being held by something larger than ourselves. We do it in solidarity with others.
Can the personal spiritual work we do at this season make a difference? A last thought in response to this. After Beckett and Brecht, a third B -  a Jewish one this time, Joseph Brodsky, a Russian-Jewish Nobel-prize winning poet and essayist who lived through dark times, and huge hardships: born in 1940, he was forced out of the Soviet Union in 1972 (- another refugee -) because his poems were considered by the authorities to be too dangerous. This is the power of the word. The power of writing. The power of putting thoughts down on paper. Thankfully his words are still with us. And there’s one sentence of his that I think is relevant to our current situation: “The comprehension of the metaphysics of personal drama betters one’s chances of weathering the drama of history.” This is a sentence to chew over, to savour:  it’s a hope, it’s a kind of a prayer.
What’s he saying? Comprehending, understanding, the dynamics of our personal drama – all that unique complexity of how we think and feel, all that personal stuff we struggle with, and glorify in, or feel degraded by - focusing on that, understanding that, ‘betters our chances of weathering the drama of history’. The dramas of history can sweep us away in the twinkling of an eye. Jews know that better than most. The dramas of history are the big events in which our little lives are held: the waves can crash over our heads at any time, we can drown at any moment; and yet, Brodsky intuits, paying attention to the dynamics of our personal, individual dramas, can make a difference, can make all the difference.
Note though that it only ‘betters our chances’: there are no guarantees. Reflection, prayer, introspection ‘betters our chances’ of weathering what’s thrown at us. It’s a hope, a modest hope - that is, nevertheless, a real prayer for our beleaguered times.

[extracted from a sermon given at the ‘Selichot’ service at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, on the night of September 5th 2015]








Monday, 31 August 2015

Oliver Sacks's Gift (In Memory:1933-2015)

The strain was beginning to show. In a smart London hotel suite, surrounded by a chaos of scattered papers, books, empty whisky glasses, Oliver Sacks was decidedly grumpy. No, more than grumpy: he was angry. January 1990: at the end of a week immersed in round-the-clock interviews about his latest book (Seeing Visions, on deafness), Sacks was faced with yet another publicity chore. I felt I was sitting with a man ready to explode.

He’d already spoken to the Jewish press in Bristol, he told me – I’d been commissioned by the Jewish Chronicle to interview him – and he didn’t know why he needed to speak to me. Neither did I. Maybe my helplessness touched him. Or maybe when I said I wasn’t a journalist, but a therapist and rabbi, something in him shifted, mellowed.
He spoke about (I asked about) his formative years – until the age of six he existed within the security of a north London medical family, his father a Yiddish-speaking G.P. in Whitechapel, his mother the first Jewish woman elected to be a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. In this Orthodox household “the Sabbath bride was welcomed in”, he said, “I always felt there was  a sense of mystery when I saw my mother’s hands hovering about the candles.”
War came, and evacuation to boarding-school, which  “cut me off from family and community and Judaism”. This “awful traumatic period in the countryside between ’39 and ’43” seemed in retrospect - this is a man who chose from the mid-1960s to spend 50 years of his life in twice-weekly psychoanalysis – to have generated in Sacks a great capacity for empathy with his patients, particularly those “subjected to forces and deprivations which threaten to overwhelm them. I think I had something of this myself...’evacuation syndrome’ is second only to ‘concentration camp syndrome’ in its capacity for severe psychic damage.”
After the War, “friends and science were crucial for holding me together. I developed a  strong passion for science – which seemed to be in a realm above human caprice and uncertainty.”
The scientist who kept, he said, a Bible by his bedside peered at me through his gold-rimmed spectacles and smiled, then shrugged half-apologetically: “I – alas! – am the only member of my family who is illiterate in things Jewish...I don’t feel particularly Jewish, or English, or white, or particularly anything else.” I didn’t comment that this self-disclosure about Jewishness sounded conventionally, familiarly, ‘Jewish’ to me. Yet something about his sudden diffidence didn’t ring quite true.
Looking back, I wonder if it was what he wasn’t speaking about that gave rise in me to that doubt: his homosexuality, such an important dimension of his emotional life but in 1990 not yet acknowledged publicly. In his recent memoir On The Move: A Life Sacks recounts how his mother reacted when, aged 18, he confessed that he preferred boys: “You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born.” For the rest of her days she never again mentioned his sexual orientation. Nevertheless – or maybe one can say ‘therefore’ – “her words haunted me for much of my life”, he writes.  
Sacks’s reputation as a writer-neurologist was built on a series of books, case-histories, combining careful observation, extraordinary empathy and a translucent prose style: Awakenings – on patients ‘awakened’ by drug treatment from decades-long trance states, his autobiographical A Leg To Stand On, chronicling the psychological after-effects of a broken leg; and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, where, like Freud, he transformed clinical descriptions into literary art. All these texts explored the margins of human experience: they were “narratives of survival and transcendence of the soul battling against terrible odds. The imprisoned and pressurised – but battling and triumphing – soul is something which inspires me”, he said, “and makes it possible for me to work in the depths of chronic hospitals.”
But this sense of a man who knew about the soul’s inner struggle was also palpable in the room: “I feel I have to struggle to survive myself” he said, disarmingly, “I’m conscious of...” – and he hesitated – “...terrible forces in me...Clinically, personally, politically, one is confronted with monstrous impulses and destructive forces, and it is very dangerous to underestimate their strength”. The history of the 20th century – and the on-going barbarism in the daily news – is testimony to the sobering reality of Sacks’s words.
But his writings didn’t venture into the overtly political. His life’s work – his gift – was to find a way of entering into his patients’ inner worlds not as a detached clinician but as a fellow human being, and to find a form of words to describe the experiences being suffered or endured or just lived with. His patients weren’t interchangeable ‘patients’ – they were people, no two alike, even though a diagnosis might make them seem to be suffering from the same condition. “Medicine is in danger of treating the patient as an ‘it’ rather than a ‘Thou’”, he told me: Sacks was the Martin Buber of the medical world. He wasn’t interested in a patient’s diagnostic ‘conditions’ but in the unique lived experience of each person and the core of creative potential that each particular person might be able to unearth within themselves.
The human brain – “this three pounds of jelly”, he once described it  – was a source of endless wonder to Sacks. And as I sat there with him on a wet January morning in a swanky London hotel room, watching him impatiently fingering his dazzling striped braces worn over a T-shirt proclaiming (in Norwegian) support for Tourette Syndrome sufferers, Sacks suddenly burst out laughing: “Being alive and being conscious is fucking extraordinary”, he said, and this sensitive and passionate and spiritually alert Jewish doctor seemed to relax into his deeper self: “The central feeling for me, and the motivating feeling, is wonder and the sense of the mysterious. Beyond all the problems there’s always a sense of the immeasurable and the immense. The sense and concept of eternity is something which I sometimes have, and often need – and which all of us need. The spirit is undervalued and forgotten in a way that impoverishes life. The need for praise and gratitude and thanksgiving and appreciation seems to me central. I don’t know whom to give thanks to, but I have an impulse to praise.”
As my time with Oliver Sacks drew to a close he found himself reminiscing about childhood: “A feeling of peace, and relief from the quotidian and the daily, would come on Friday evening. I used to have a vision that the Sabbath was not simply terrestrial, but a cosmic event, that the universe rested and paused every so often. The feeling of peace is essentially a religious one – certainly something which is easy to lose – especially when you have twelve interviews a day...”
Sacks was a humanist endowed with a profound religious sensibility. A secular Jewish mystic. His gift was to find a way of making real, in his writing and his clinical work, what it means that human beings are created ‘in the image of God’ (b’zelem Elohim: Genesis 1:27).
Zichrono livracha - may his memory be a blessing.