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Saturday, 28 March 2015

Holiness : Then - and Now

In days gone by rabbis would use the Shabbat before Passover to deliver a long sermon on the importance of a thorough observance of all the many intricate details and laws of the forthcoming festival. (Traditionally they only gave sermons then, and on the Shabbat between the New Year and the Day of Atonement).

And these laws were almost endless: laws about cleaning the house of hametz (leavened food), laws about what foods can and can’t be eaten, laws about how the seder has to be done, laws about making everything adhere to the highest standards of kashrut. Holiness was in the detail – and the rabbi took it upon himself to instruct his community on how to enact that holiness in the home -  and then the men would go home and make sure their wives did it...
Well, those days are I think long gone, at least in non-Orthodox communities:  not just the patriarchal attitudes, but the stance of the rabbi in relation to the importance of strict adherence to the fine-grained details of the various laws that have accumulated around the festival about what must and mustn’t happen.
For progressive Jews, there has been a distinctive change of focus in relation to holiness. Traditionally, there are two categories of law. The first was called beyn adam la’makom – ‘between a person and their Maker’ – and they were all the ritual laws around food, Shabbat observance, daily practices of prayer-life, the clothes one wore, all the details of festival celebration: no aspect of life went unregulated in terms of ritual. And all rituals were designed to create a life of holiness. Progressive Judaism still pays attention to this category – through with less obsessionality than in the past. But a much greater emphasis is placed now on enacting holiness within that other traditional category of Jewish tradition beyn adam l’chavero – ‘between a person and their neighbour’, in other words in the realm of the inter-personal.
So those aspects of the divine that are connected with justice and compassion and generosity, that we have it in our power to do, to enact, to live, have come much more to the forefront of our thinking as a locus of holiness. How we relate to people – family, colleagues, community, the wider UK community we live in, the world community we live in – this is the forum where we make choices to follow (or not) Jewish teachings about righteousness and charity and care for others; where we try to follow the divine vision of how we are to relate to each other, neighbours and strangers alike, Jews and non-Jews alike.
The idea that holiness adheres to precise attention to ritual law, to doing specific and distinctive rites and practices that only Jews do, goes right back of course to Biblical Judaism. We are reading over these weeks,  in the annual cycle of readings from the Torah, from the book of Leviticus. The laws concerning the priesthood and the sacrificial cult take up a whole book of the five books of Moses - the middle book Leviticus - as if to say: this is the centre of religious life, holy living. And we still read those texts today, even though once the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 70 CE, that  whole world disappeared, never – we hope! – to return. We are left to make of it what we can, to interpret it, or re-interpret it in ways that might connect to our lives today, even though the Temple is no more and Judaism  moved on, transformed by the rabbis into a far more inclusive religion where everyone has their own relationship to God unmediated by the hierarchy of priests with all their sacrificial rules.
Yet the dominance of that kind of religious practice - focused on the observance of precise details of ritual law - still acts as a gravitational force in our thinking about holiness. Consciously or unconsciously it makes us believe – or feel - that holiness is centred on Jewish ritual law of one kind or another. Priests and sacrifices may have gone, but the specific foods you eat still counts in God’s eyes, as does whether or not all the letters in the scroll can still be read clearly within the mezuzah on the doorposts of your homes.  
But what would it feel like, look like - our Jewish lives - if holiness was weighted in the other direction, the inter-personal domain?  If it was about our relationships to each other? If it was about ethics, how we spoke to and about each other, how we behaved with each other, how we acted towards those we lived with and amongst, and those who live far from us, whom we might never meet but who might be looking to us for support and aid and assistance?  
What if Pesach/Passover was a time when at seder night, or during the seven days of the festival itself, as we eat our unleavened bread, the bread of affliction we call it (Deuteronomy 16:3), we really took that message of affliction to heart and saw how the purpose of the festival was to sensitise us to those who are still afflicted, still oppressed, still living in situations of un-freedom?
Sure, this festival is one where the national narrative of the Jews is stressed – we were slaves and then we became freed from bondage, freed to serve God rather than human despots; with the exodus from Egypt the beginning of that extraordinary mythic narrative of a people bound together by a shared experience of liberation, followed by revelation, followed by the long journey into the promised land; this great story of peoplehood which we tell over and over again, as we forge one more link in this glorious chain of memory and history and survival of a tribe who became a people who became a nation, indeed a distinctive trans-national community of shared values – of course Pesach is about particularism, it’s about us, our particular Jewish identity and the celebration of that particular identity.
But Pesach/Passover is more than that. Because as we eat our bread of affliction, that symbolic food doesn’t just point inwards, to our past and our history, it points outwards, it points towards the vision of Judaism that says we Jews have a mission, a purpose in this world, and it is beyond ourselves. Jewish survival is not for its own sake. It’s not a destination for the Jewish journey. It’s  a means to an end. And the end, or the aim, is to bring the values and ethics of holiness into the world, the larger world. There is that traditional phrase, from the prophets, that Jews are to be a ‘light to the nations’ (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6). Our particularism is only one part of the story. The other part of the story is our universalism.
Particularism is about survival and continuity and distinctiveness. Universalism is about what it is all for, it’s about purpose. And our purpose is to model and enact holiness beyn adam l’chavero – ‘between a person and their neighbour’. And in our world today, everyone has become our ‘neighbour’. It is only in our own times that we can begin to glimpse the inter-connectedness of all of us on this fragile planet, where all our fates are inter-meshed, where poverty and affliction and slavery in one part of the world has knock on consequences for our lives (and all of these plagues are here in London, and the UK; I’m not naive about this, they aren’t split off from us in some far off lands we can’t even place on a map, they are literally round the corner). 
So when we eat our bread of affliction, instead of complaining about how tasteless it is, how bored we get with it, how it gives us constipation, or the opposite, maybe we can reflect on what the purpose of this act of holy eating is really about, what it’s message to us really is.
Which is to alert us to the need to enact, in our own small way, the mission and vision of Judaism. Which includes addressing those living with affliction, and oppression and lack of freedom. And you don’t have to look far to find causes to support, charities to give money to, issues where your voice can make a difference.  There are so many places where attention needs to go – it might be about the homeless in the UK , or contributing to food banks, it might be about supporting refugees here or abroad, it might be through London Citizens campaigns, or Amnesty, or World Jewish Relief, or Oxfam, or the New Israel Fund.
As you taste that bread of affliction this year, as you crunch on it joyfully or resignedly, here is something else to chew over as it goes down. Are you going to put your money where your mouth is? Are you going to lend a hand practically? Are you going to commit yourself to something new this year as part of your holy living? Because that is where holiness is now, for us, and you can be enacted through tzedakah, money; or tzedakah, acts of tzedek, righteousness. You are free to choose what your new forum for holy activity is. What you are not free to do is pretend that the point of Pesach/Passover is just to make sure that you only eat foods with the right labels on them, and then you are done.
A last few words about one charity in particular that I have developed a  connection to this year. It’s partly for family reasons, but that’s not the point. If you want a new charity to become involved with, if only financially, and you can’t come up with something on your own, have a look at the work of World Jewish Relief  They have a campaign at the moment in relation to their ongoing work with  the Jews of Ukraine and on their website they have a message from their Chair who has just come back from a visit to Zaparozhye in eastern Ukraine where they have been working for the last 15 years. And his report is both heart-breaking and inspiring. They work with Jews and non-Jews there, though their priority is the Jewish community – they have been addressing poverty, repairing homes, finding jobs, helping build up a sense of Jewish community in a remarkable way. But the civil war has had disastrous consequences – there are now a million displaced people in Ukraine. And WJR is looking after 300 internally displaced Jews in Zaparozhye, housing them, making sure they have enough to eat, looking after their welfare, providing medicine (the cost of which is prohibitive), re-training them.
But they can’t address the fears of a young father for example, who fled his home and who is too scared to register for employment in case he is conscripted into the army. "We did not want this conflict. We can't believe it has happened. It was fight against men who, a year ago, were your neighbours in a war for which you feel nothing – it’s intolerable”. Zaparozhye – a European city of 700,000 a couple of hours from Kiev - has received 100,000 refugees in this last 18 months, it’s put an unsustainable pressure on resources, the local currency has been devalued by 300%, and for WJR’s on-going clients life is becoming quite dire.
Pensions and disability allowances barely meet utility bills. Food, especially healthy food, is ever more expensive and, without help those who need medicine simply can’t afford it. These are the descendents of those Ukrainian Jews we are happy to read Hasidic stories about, those dead Jews safely confined to the pages of storybooks and nostalgia. But some of WJR’s clients - Jews in 21st century Europe - will die unless the charity supplements what they receive, which helps buy the medicines that keep them alive.
Anyway, it’s not my intention to create guilt feelings, and what I’ve said is only one side of the story because the Chair also reports on the extraordinary work being done by the inspirational leaders of the Jewish Community Centre there, which WJR built and supports, and is bursting with life and activity, with a strong sense of Jewish tradition and heritage; it’s involved in pioneering work with the disabled and other disadvantaged groups, and is also an active participant in civil society contributing expertise and commitment that others benefit from. The JCC is the only building in the entire region that has disabled access and they are active participants in campaigning to improve conditions for those with disabilities in a place where disability rights are, as the Chair says, in the dark ages.  This is what it means to be  a ‘light to the nations’.
So, in brief, if you are looking for a way this Pesach as you eat you bread of affliction, to do something from the heart, to do something heart-warming - rather than just suffering from heartburn – send them some money, take out a standing order. Or find another charity to support. Holiness isn’t in some remote realm away from daily life, it isn’t confined to the minutiae of Jewish ritual observance, it’s in the down-to-earth everyday choices we make to enact the vision of Judaism beyn adam l’chavero, between us and our neighbours, known and unknown, near and far, Jew and non-Jew alike.  
I wish you a healthy and productive Pesach.

[loosely based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, March 28th 2015]

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Jealousy - Human and Divine

I want to think with you about jealousy. Can there be anyone reading this who hasn’t felt it? Anyone who hasn’t experienced the pain of feeling excluded, feeling that others have got something going on between them that you aren’t part of? That someone else is preferred, rather than you? ‘Jealousy in the heart makes one’s bones rot’ (Proverbs 14: 30) – jealousy is corrosive, once it gets inside you it’s hard to get rid of it.

Shakespeare, famously, created a  whole play around it: Othello. And a character, Iago, who sets up Othello to feel jealousy in relation to his wife Desdemona  - and then (and we are appalled and fascinated by the cynicism and irony of it) has the chutzpah to warn the Moor:  ‘Oh beware my lord, of jealousy. It is the green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feeds on’ : i.e. jealousy is a monster that makes vicious sport with the victims it devours...Of course it is Iago, as well as jealousy itself, that is such a monster.
And we see Othello tearing himself apart with jealousy, creating such murderous feelings in him that he ends up killing the woman he loves. It’s  a terrifying play, but one that we are drawn to and relate to because jealousy is a universal emotion, one we all can recognise has been at some stage roused in us, even if it isn’t a constant companion (though it might be).
Jealousy of course often comes up in couples, between partners about other relationships – jealousy is always about triangles. But it can be between siblings over who is a parent’s favourite, real or imagined. The Torah is full of those kind of stories of sibling jealousy, Genesis in particular. And feelings like this can last a lifetime.
Or jealousy can be between friends -  who is closer to who. In all sets of relationships jealousy is waiting , green-eyed monster that it is, to rear its ugly head. We so much want to be special, to be chosen, to be the one and only one – for someone, for anyone – it’s a desire of the heart from our earliest months and years, and the frustrations around this basic human instinct are always available to be stirred up in us, to ‘make our bones rot’ – to make us feel rotten, as we might say.
We are just built that way, it seems – some people feel it stronger than others, some people are more haunted by it than others, but for some it can feel unshakeable,  well nigh unbearable,  once we are in the grip of it. Because it is omnipresent in our natures, you can feel – should feel – very blessed if that monster is only a rare visitor to your heart and soul.
The fantasy of not having competitors for our love interest’s affections - a mother’s love, or a father’s love, or a partner’s love – is very powerful. We might profoundly wish that jealousy could be exorcised from our emotional lives – but ‘dream on’, as they say, because jealousy is here to stay, it’s part of our humanity. And it’s so powerful a psychic reality that – and this might surprise us – God also feels it, it seems. According to the Torah it is fully present as a divine reality as well as a human one.
But what on earth – or in heaven – does that mean? what are our Biblical storytellers getting at when they describe even God, the Holy One of Israel, as being consumed by this bone-rotting, dementing emotion?  Not just consumed by it but, as we read in our Torah portion today (Exodus 34), defined by this emotion of jealousy. It couldn’t be stated more clearly: ‘Don’t worship another god’, says the Holy One, ‘ki Adonai kana sh’mo, for the eternal One, his essence, his name, is Jealousy’ – and then as if you haven’t got the point already, it repeats it: ‘he is a jealous God’ - el kana hu (Exodus 34:14).  
This isn’t the first time we find God’s jealousy spoken about in the Torah. It’s there at the very beginning of the Ten Commandments.  God gets straight down to business: ‘I am the God who brought you out of the land of Egypt – you shall have no other gods but me, you shouldn’t make any graven images of them...’ And He goes on about this at some length – no images, no likenesses, nothing should remind you that I, Adonai, am in competition for your affection. It’s all slightly obsessive, as if there’s some kind of insecurity in  God that keeps bursting through: ‘...don’t worship other gods, or serve them, for...’ – and then it’s said straight out, ki anochi Adonai Eloheycha el kana’ (Exodus 20:5): ‘...for  I the Eternal your God am a jealous God’. This scene is set at Sinai, where God reveals Himself – but perhaps reveals more about Himself than He is consciously aware of, so to speak. (Does God have an unconscious?).
So by the time we get to our sedrah, we shouldn’t be that surprised to hear this repeated - about God’s jealous nature – though here it’s spelled out even more starkly. This jealousy is part of his very essence. So what are we to make of this? We rabbis in our sermons usually prefer to talk about those other qualities, earlier in the chapter: the God of compassion and lovingkindness, long-suffering  and merciful – Adonai, Adonai, el rachum v’chanun...(34: 6-7), all those emotions which we are encouraged to find within ourselves and live out from within ourselves, all those divine qualities that reside within the human heart.
But jealousy – what are we supposed to do with that divine quality? Can jealousy ever be benign? Something to cultivate in ourselves, like those other qualities? Bible translators are sometimes uncomfortable with this theme of jealousy: the one we use in our synagogue fudges it: ‘ must not worship any other god, because the Lord (Adonai), whose name is Impassioned, is an impassioned God.’ (Etz Hayim p.542).
It’s true that kana can mean ‘zealous, ardent, passionately involved’ – but it’s main meaning is jealousy, the kind of jealousy that attaches itself to sexual possessiveness. And you can see that association in the text when three times in the next verses the narrators introduce the image of ‘whoring’: it’s a nakedly provocative image, metaphor. ‘You have a covenant  - brit - with Me, Adonai’, the text says (34:10), so when you enter your promised land you have to destroy all the altars and pillars and reminders of other gods and goddesses - otherwise you will form a relationship, a covenant – brit – with them, and whore after their gods (v.15); and it spells out the process whereby Israel’s God will be betrayed: your men will lust after the women of the land of Canaan who will be ‘whoring’ after the deities they know, who will make you Israelite men ‘whore’ after those local, pagan deities. (The casual misogyny of the text - the power of women to lead men astray – we just note in passing).
But this text shows what it means to have a jealous God: possessive, insecure, anxious that in His invisibility and His essentially enigmatic nature, He just isn’t going to have the presence, the reality, the attractiveness of all these other competing deities for His people’s affections. “You must have eyes only for Me. You must have ears only for Me. You must have hearts dedicated only to Me” – this is the lonely, demanding Voice we hear in this text. “I have chosen you. Now you have to choose Me, be faithful only to Me”. The God of Israel implicitly presents Himself – the narrators present Him – as if God were Israel’s husband and lover : it’s  a metaphor picked up and made explicit by both Hosea and Jeremiah later in the tradition.
The more you think about it, the more painful this relationship seems. This green-eyed monster within God torturing him with images and fantasies of betrayal. But I suppose we need to ask: is it only fantasies, imaginings, as it was with Othello? Or is God’s jealousy necessary? Is it understandable? Is it congruent with what goes on in the psyche of the people of Israel? Does the construction of and worship of the Golden Calf while Moses is away from the people on Sinai suggest that the Holy One of Israel has good cause to feel that He isn’t that special in the eyes of His people? That they have other gods they have their eyes on, other sources of authority they’d rather dedicate themselves to, prostrate themselves in front of? What other gods might the Israelite people prefer to follow, the Jewish people prefer to listen to, than their difficult, demanding, elusive God?
We know the idols we follow very well. We might not think of them as idols, but they are the modern equivalents of those old gods with their altars and pillars and sacred groves: what do we value, where do we put our faith, our belief? We’ll each have our own anthology of idols, and causes where idolatry is in play: we believe that money will make us feel secure, or the stock market, or a political party, or nationalism, or the State of Israel; we believe that science or technology will sort out the environment; that more CCTV cameras will make us safer, or more GCHQ hoovering up of communications data will protect us; that better laws on health and safety will help us to lead happier lives; that nuclear weapons make us able to sleep safely at night; we believe in inevitable social progress, or put our faith in medical advances, or ethnic identity, or the civilising value of the arts, or the practice  of religious traditions – so many gods we put our faith in, though we never think of them as gods, they seem real and here and this-wordly.
Whatever mix we construct for ourselves, we each have our pantheon that is in competition with Adonai – The One Who was, is, will be: the animating spirit of the universe. No wonder Adonai  is so jealous: His people are always chasing after security and meaning in one place or another - the names of the gods and idols change but the process is as old as the hills.  
For those who attend to the Torah’s challenging message, we hear how the Jewish people are bound into a covenant with a demanding, peripatetic, unseen divine Presence who won’t let them go, but who then has to suffer dementing levels of frustration, jealousy, at His beloved people’s inability to stay focused on that special relationship. We are so easily seduced, the other gods are so present, so attractive, they make emotional and rational and psychological claims on us. How can we resist?  We can’t resist – they have colonised our minds, our thinking, our believing. Who has the energy, the will-power, to say no to the easy truths and easy lies-masquerading-as-truths that we are daily bombarded with?
There are many, many wondrous and beautiful and uplifting and life-enhancing things in our world, that we can enjoy, that we can nurture, that we can help create – the godly is around us and within us. But we have to sort out which of the aspects of our world are godly, are fragments of Adonai incarnated in our world – and which aspects of our world are the old idols and other gods in new names and in new disguises. Does it matter whether we can do this work, be engaged in this never-ending spiritual and psychological work, of sorting out which is which?  We intuit that it does matter, somehow, to the well-being of our own lives to be involved in this spiritual journey;  and, as our Torah, shows, it seems too to matter to God, the Holy One of Israel, that we keep Him in mind.
God needs to feel special, just like we need to feel special. So maybe our spiritual work is to give Him a bit more attention; the Torah’s promise is that it will probably do us good to do that; and it will do God good too, as it were, so that his jealousy doesn’t end up destroying the ones he loves - out of a mistaken Othello-like belief that we are no longer faithful.  

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, March 7th 2015]