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Monday, 27 April 2015

Death by Drowning

Drowning is a terrible, terrifying, fate: the panic clutches your throat, you lose your balance, you hit the water, there are screams, confusion, you’re choking, struggling for air, spluttering,  gasping for breath, grasping at hands, bodies, nothing to be done, this is the end, you’re fighting for life, choking lungs, churning helplessness, no air, everything you’ve lived for, gagging, retching, nothing left, can’t breathe, this can’t be how it ends, this can’t be how, this can’t be, this can’t, this... Can’t.

“Waves of millions of people coming from north Africa seeking a better life in Europe, if that links a new common [European] migration policy then whilst on the one hand it may appear to be the decent thing to do, I think you’ll find overwhelmingly public opinion will say we simply can’t” (Nigel Farage, ITV News Ten, 20/4/15). ‘We simply can’t. Simply can’t. Can’t.’ Repeat it often enough and can’t begins to sound like cant.
Cant - ‘the insincere and hypocritical use of pious phraseology’. ‘We simply can’t’. Actually Farage in not insincere. He is sincere in what he believes. It just that what he believes happens to be toxic. Morally toxic.
I’ve been struck this last week about how many conversations I’ve had with people – or overheard people having – about last weekend’s boat disaster off the coast of Libya. There are not that many larger news events that actually penetrate our small daily worlds, our personal dramas and worries. But this one seemed to - that story and the pictures of 700, 800, 900 (we will never know) deaths. I’m aware that the phrase I just used, ‘boat disaster’, somehow anaesthetises the horror of the story. All those people drowned, terrified souls, men and women and children, many who’d paid their life savings to buy passage in a rickety wooden fishing trawler - out of their Egypt towards their Promised Land - and many others who were locked in the hold, being trafficked from their homelands to the fleshpots of Europe.
Somewhere inside us, this event has snagged on our imaginations. We haven’t been able to let it go – even though it’s been only one of several other boats that have sunk this last week, with scores more deaths, that have hardly been reported. The tides of news wash in and over us, and the tides wash out, but this incident is the one that sticks inside, that won’t leave us, flotsam snagging on our compassion, or our guilt, or our indifference, or our feelings of helplessness, or anger, or wish to blame someone for what happened.
Blame the boat owners fleecing their human cargo, blame the victims who wanted to better themselves at our expense, blame the Muslims who were rumoured to have been throwing Christians overboard, or blame those on the boat who rushed to one side of the vessel thus causing it to capsize (so it was their fault really), blame the European lawmakers and politicians who withdrew funds last year from maritime rescue missions: someone has to be to blame, we feel, and our righteous indignation gets stoked up – anything so that we don’t have to open ourselves up to the horror of death by drowning, anything so we don’t have to feel numb, wordless compassion, or (which is more difficult) act on our feelings of compassion.
Compassion – ‘feeling with’. How much impotent compassion can we bear to feel ? And how much shame can we bear to feel? Including the shame of it being our country’s Home Secretary who led the campaign to curtail the Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue mission last autumn with the extraordinary argument that if people know they will be rescued if they get into trouble at sea, it’ll only encourage them to come. Typical political cant, based on zero evidence. In reality numbers increased by 160% in the three months after the cancellation of this humanitarian programme.
Yet these are the strangers our Torah talks about, these strangers who seek our shores, who wish to live amongst us Europeans. And where is the generosity of spirit, where is the identification in this country with the outsider, where is this Judaeo-Christian ethic of concern for our fellow guests on this planet?
I have been wondering if one of the things this tragedy has stirred in us, and why it’s snagged in our psyches,  is the dim awareness – an awareness that we can’t quite articulate – that this horror story is not only about desperate Africans and others, whose names we don’t know, but that it’s carrying a message about all of our fates on this fragile planet. That our lives are far more interdependent than we realise. Certainly environmentally this is true, economically this is true, politically too, our telecommunications are global -  in so many ways we are bound together in complex ways with the world’s nations and economies and cultures. And one response to that interconnectedness – with all the problems it generates - is the retreat into nationalism and the little Englander xenophobic pieties of the UKIP-ers and those who swim in their wake. Let’s look after ourselves, and to hell with everyone else.
This attitude reminds me of the story told in the midrash of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai who said: “Imagine a group of people in a boat and one person takes an iron awl and begins to drill into the deck below him. The people around him start shouting, ‘What are you doing?’ and the person responds ‘Why don’t you mind your own business? I’m only boring a hole under where I’m sitting’” (Leviticus Rabbah 4:6).
The fantasy that we should be able to do what we want in our part of the boat - it’s delusional. Because in this world we are actually all in one boat together, even though we don’t want to believe that we are.  Yet we sense in dark - but maybe it’s clear-sighted – moments, that the boat might be sinking. But that’s unbearable to think about. Meanwhile, each person’s needless death diminishes us, each person’s story of economic impoverishment, or of persecution, or of the struggle to bring up a family in safety, each story prematurely ended, implicates us: it is not just the sea which is cruel, the traffickers who are heartless; we will be voting soon in the UK for political parties whose lack of a moral compass can shipwreck us; parties that can act in ways - on our behalf - which are the antithesis of the values of compassion and justice that we want to see enacted in our world. Values which could keep us all afloat for more than a mere generation or two.
Immigration is obviously a hot topic right now, it’s been simmering away for years, and now with the forthcoming election it’s high up the agenda. You’ll have your own views and I’m too long in the tooth to imagine that anything I might say would make much difference to how anyone thinks. The Daily Mail and the Times and the Telegraph - with their non-domiciled and plutocratic foreign-based owners steering our political discourse - are far more powerful in bending minds than I will ever be.
But when it comes to immigration, and asylum, a Jewish ethical view is fairly straightforward – it comes a remarkable 36 times in the Torah, far more than any other religious and moral requirement: active care for, care about, the stranger is at the heart of the Judaic vision, because (as we heard again in our portion this week, Leviticus 19:34) ‘you were strangers in the land of Egypt’. And even though Egypt was a long time ago, far off in our mythic past, you don’t have to go that far back in time to understand our identification with the stranger, the immigrant. There can’t be a single person reading this in the UK, I imagine, who isn’t either an immigrant themselves, or the child of, or grandchild of, or (at a stretch) great-grandchild of an immigrant into this country. This is who we are. So our Jewish ethical vision is rooted not only in our texts but in our genes, and our own family history. Even if you have joined the Jewish people relatively recently, I’d bet this immigrant story is part of your not-too-distant past as well.
But I know - because I'm not completely naive - that you can’t make government policy, national policy, around the simple dazzling moral clarity of compassion towards the outsider. I know there are issues about jobs and housing and the strain on resources, schools, the NHS, questions of cultural cohesion. But what I know too – and I’ve learnt it from Ira my Ukrainian cleaning lady, and from Lukas my Polish handyman, and from Tori my Romanian hairdresser, and from Roshan my Sri Lankan IT man, and from Marek who does his job on security here at the Finchley synagogue with such wonderful good humour and grace - what I’ve learnt from them is that they are contributing their skills and talents to our country, and they are paying their taxes, and like a few million other immigrants are making a net contribution to the economic wellbeing of the UK.
Immigrants who arrived in the UK after 1999 were 45% less likely to receive state benefits or tax credits than UK natives in the period 2000-2011. But of course we mustn’t let boring old facts get in the way of any prejudices we might have. You don’t have to be a dyed-in-the wool Guardian reader to realise there is something about the immigration rhetoric in this country that is just pandering to the ugliest aspects of our natures: our selfishness, our fearfulness, our intolerance.
The polls suggest we are in for an interesting few months politically. But when it comes to the polls I just remember the text we read today: lo t’nachashu, v’lo t’onaynu – ‘don’t practice divination, and don’t trust soothsayers’ (Leviticus 19:26). For which I read: ‘pollsters and spin-doctors’. The Torah’s vision suggests that our task is to keep our minds free of the cults around us; holiness means keeping ourselves on this demanding and difficult path of compassion and justice as best we can.
Distrust of the outsider, the stranger, is as old as human nature - about what they might do to us, or take from us, or how they might change us: what we might lose. The feeling or fantasy that the stranger is a threat to our well-being is almost hard-wired into our genes. Which is why the Biblical vision was and is such an extraordinary challenge to received opinion: care for the stranger, love of the stranger, compassion for the outsider – this required (and still requires) a revolution in human consciousness. And few of us are revolutionaries. But it just happens to be the Jewish mission, to make revolutionaries of us all, in our minds and in our hearts. 
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, April 25th, 2015]

Monday, 13 April 2015

What's the Problem with a Ham Sandwich?

I grew up in a kosher home. Both my parents had come from traditional Orthodox backgrounds, so there wasn’t a question about this. We had separate dishes and separate cutlery for milchig and fleishig – milk and meat;  and the meat we ate came from a kosher butcher, though my mother would always wash it, salt it to remove the blood, then re-wash it, as was required by tradition, just one of that vast array of laws around kashrut that the rabbis of the Talmud, in their wisdom, developed as they took all the priestly legislation surrounding the sacrificial system that was no longer operative once the Temple had been destroyed, and transferred its stringencies onto the food laws in the home.
At mealtimes, we didn’t mix milk and meat, and although I can’t remember if we waited the full mandated 6 hours between eating meat and then eating milk products, there was definitely a gap. No ice-cream or custard after your Friday night chopped liver and roast chicken. It all seems a long time ago, that attention to the strict laws of kashrut. Over the years it gradually grew less strict:  I know that the separation of milk and meat crockery stopped at some stage; but my mother all her life would only buy kosher meat, though all that palaver over how to deal with the meat when it came home stopped, maybe when butchers began to sell it fully koshered, I don’t know.
For an early-onset fish-eating vegetarian like me the whole business seemed irrelevant, as well as archaic. Though I always retained, and still do, a recognition of the significance of the laws we read about in the Torah this week (Leviticus 11), about which animals and which fish are permitted and which aren’t. So I have never sampled the delights of a bacon butty, or pork crackling, or a ham sandwich, or oysters, lobsters, crab – in fact I feel some deeply lodged disgust for anything from the sea that doesn’t have those regulated fins and scales. It’s quite irrational that feeling, but it’s there. The atavistic belief, and feeling, that all those foods (and there’s no other way to say this) just aren’t Jewish.  And that to eat them, let alone enjoy them, is in some small but significant way a form of betrayal of one’s Jewish identity.
As I say, none of this is rational, and I am aware that it seems strange coming from someone who often speaks, as I did in my last blog, about the difference between laws beyn adam la’Makom, ‘between a person and their Maker’, and that other traditional category of Jewish tradition beyn adam l’chavero,  ‘between a person and their neighbour’ -  the realm of the inter-personal; and my belief that holiness resides much more in the latter than in the former, particularly for progressive Jews.
And the laws of kashrut, both Biblical and in their elaboration in the Talmud, are prime examples of laws between a person and their Maker. Nobody is harmed by eating a prawn cocktail or a McDonalds’ beef burger –these are Jewish laws that are described in the tradition as hukkim, laws/statutes, which have no explanation given (except ‘And God said...’) and no rational basis and don’t affect the social or moral fabric of society if they are ignored.
Yet the Torah is clear that these food laws are connected to holiness for the Israelite community. And the Talmudic rabbis clearly believed this and set out to regulate Jewish behaviour around food in an almost obsessionally behaviouristic way.
I suppose that if you think that the survival of your people as a distinctive and set apart community is itself a holy activity, then maybe it does make sense to put such an emphasis over the generations on these distinctive food laws. Because they have historically meant that Jews can’t mix with non-Jews in that most social of all communal activities, eating and drinking.
From the very beginning these laws have been bound up with a maintaining a separate ethnic and cultural identity. You only have to look at a well-known story in that early post-Biblical book, the Book of Maccabees – that’s the end of the second century BCE – where the Graeco-Syrians tried to force an old man, named Eleazer, to set a public example to his co-religionists by eating pork, or even pretending to do it, as a way of showing how integrated Jews could become to the dominant culture. But he refused, and died as a martyr.
The word holiness, kadosh, does mean ‘set apart’. So this concept of set-apartness begins with the foods themselves, and is then transferred onto the people. Obedience to these food laws, in all their multiplicity and with all their arcane detail, became a kind of badge of honour for the Jewish people, setting apart this people from the other nations of the world. The elaboration and perpetuation of the laws of kashrut had this pragmatic cultural function.  For better or worse.
Of course, over the centuries other explanations for these laws arose. Philo of Alexander, the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who lived in the generation before Jesus, explained the dietary laws as being there to teach self-control. Moses didn’t teach self-denial, he wrote, but wanted to discourage excessive self-indulgence. Pork was forbidden, Philo suggested, because it was one of the most delicious foods. Once you started eating it, he suggests, you’d never want to stop. The Torah of course has none of these explanations - what you see is latter commentators projecting onto the laws their own reasonings and rationalisations.
Philo is particularly interesting because of the creativity with which he defended the tradition. So the ban on eating carnivorous birds and beasts, he suggested, was in order to teach us gentleness and kindness. In other words ‘You are what you eat’. The animal becomes a sort of symbolic model for your own behaviour. So why only animals that chew the cud and have cloven hooves? Because a person can only grow wise if they repeat and chew over what they have studied, and are able to divide and distinguish concepts into what is true and what is false. These explanations probably don’t convince us today, but they illustrate the ways in which from very early on Jewish commentators found themselves having to address the Torah’s silence on the reasons for these laws.
So what about the justification for the laws of kashrut that is most often trotted out by their modern defenders? The notion that they were given as health laws?  It was actually more than a thousand years after Philo that one begins to hear this argument, with Maimonides in the 12th century – who was a physician – opening up this kind of explanation/ rationalisation. He also picked up the earlier idea that it was in order to teach Jews self-control – and this meant conquering our animal natures.
But when he talked about kashrut as being to do with health, Maimonides didn’t know that tapeworm can be transmitted through pork, that rabbits carry tularaemia, that shellfish are prone to infection and spoiling. So it’s not clear what the basis for his health rationalisation was. No doubt there are some health benefits resulting from abstaining from some of these foods, but that was never suggested by the Torah, or the Talmud, as their intent.
A word or two about ‘eco-kashrut’. The word was coined in the late 70s by the traditionalist Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in the US, who went back to the original intention of kashrut – to do what is acceptable to God – and tried with his post-traditionalist community to think through what this might mean in our own contemporary world. So eco-kashrut asks whether an animal that has been slaughtered correctly  is eco-kosher if it has spent its entire life caged, or if it has been force-fed growth hormones. It might be slaughtered in the required ritual way, but does that make it kosher for us? Is ritual slaughter with a perfectly honed knife the only consideration that applies when it comes to holiness? That the animal has been slaughtered according to 2000 year old tradition?
Or take fruit and vegetables, that might be kosher in the narrow sense of the word, but are they eco-kosher if they have they been sprayed with chemicals that pollute the ground?  In relation to fish, I try to buy only sustainably-caught fish because the ecological issues around decreasing stocks of fish mean the religious questions today are not only about what kinds of fish are we Jewishly permitted to eat, but where they have come from and how they have been caught:  what is the larger picture of the marine environment that needs to be seen, within which my eating takes place?
This kind of thinking takes a much more holistic view of kashrut than the traditional view, but it is continuous with the tradition because, as Zalman Schachter intuited, if you believe that it is the Jewish task to try to attend to what God’s vision for humanity means today in terms of our attention to the details of everyday life, you have to expand your imagination, to think creatively, to seek out ways of living that are congruent as best as possible with compassion, and justice, and the avoidance of harm to animals, to people, to the planet itself.
So eco-kashrut extends outwards from food, in many directions. If you drink a cup of tea which may be kosher according to rabbinic law, is it kosher if it is served in a polystyrene cup that takes hundreds of years to decompose?  Is a household cleaning product eco-kosher if it pollutes when it flows down the drain? If the workers who have picked the coffee beans or the cocoa that end up in your moccachino have been underpaid, or exist in horrendous conditions in some far-off country about which we know and care nothing, is that coffee kosher? That’s where Fairtrade products at least help us feel we are eating in ways that might be at least a bit related to our ethical and religious values.
A rigorously thought-about progressive Jewish approach to kashrut ends up being every bit as demanding, paradoxically, as a strictly Orthodox halachic approach. Kashrut today involves much more than just checking the labels, or getting one’s meat from the right glatt-kosher shechitah authority. On which note: I heard recently about a  distinguished orthodox rabbi  from Stamford Hill who arrived in heaven and was greeted by an angel.
“Rabbi, we’ve prepared a special feast in your honor, with the best meats, and fish and cakes.”

“Who, may I ask, prepared the meat?” asks the Rabbi.

“Our finest chef, Elijah Manoshevksy.”

”And who, if I may ask, is the mashgiach, the rabbinic supervisor?”

“Why, it’s the Holy One, God himself,” replied the angel.

“Thanks very much,” said the Rabbi, “but I’ll just stick with the fish.”

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, April 11th 2015]