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Sunday, 31 May 2015

On Forgiveness

I expect you may have seen, either on TV or in the newspapers, that recent historic 13 second encounter between Prince Charles, his ever-so-English cup of tea balanced precariously in his non-outstretched hand, shaking hands with Gerry Adams the current President of Sinn Féin.  I wonder what you made of it, this handshake, this moment of – what was it? was it reconciliation? – at the very least, a moment of what appeared to be a convivial tête-à-tête rapprochement  between the symbol of the British monarchy and the symbol of Irish Republicanism.

As well as the word ‘reconciliation’, the word ‘forgiveness’ was floating in the air amongst the commentariat – but I felt rather confused by the talk of forgiveness and found myself wondering, puzzling over, who was supposed to have forgiven who, and for what exactly?
What we know is that Gerry Adams had requested the contact with Charles, prompted by the Prince’s four-day visit to Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the meeting took place the day before Charles attended and spoke at the church in Country Sligo near to where his godfather and great-uncle Lord Mountbatten had been murdered by the IRA in 1979.
What we know too was that in 1979 Adams had been an open apologist for the murder – even if he has always denied the allegations of former comrades that he was on the IRA’s decision-making army council when the Provisionals put a bomb on Mountbatten’s boat which killed not only their intended target but Mountbatten’s 14 year-old grandson as well as another local teenager and an additional guest.
Apparently, in the private conversation that took place after the public handshake – and we only have Gerry Adams’ account of this – Charles (who is still, we recall, nominally Colonel-in-Chief of the Parachute Regiment responsible for the deaths of Bloody Sunday in Belfast in 1972) had expressed ‘regret’ over the lives lost in the Troubles. In a rather syntactically convoluted sentence that Adams shared with the press afterwards, the former terrorist stated: ‘Both he and we expressed our regret for what happened from 1968 onwards. We were of common mind and the fact that the meeting took place, it obviously was a big thing for him to do and a big thing for us to do.’ (Note the royal ‘we’ in the anti-monarchist Adams’ mouth – maybe this is Irish humour, I don’t know, but the irony shouldn’t be lost).
Well, ‘big thing’ or not, thirty-five years on from the murder, something significant did occur in this meeting, but it is hard to say exactly what it was. The situation is complicated by Adams’ steadfast refusal to detail his precise role in the Troubles. It makes talk of acts of forgiveness hard to swallow. Particularly if you come at this from a Jewish perspective.
Because there’s a basic  principle in Jewish ethics which says: ‘If a wrong-doer makes amends – confesses their sin and asks for forgiveness – it is the duty of the injured party to forgive them.’ This is the halacha – Jewish law. Forgiveness is dependent upon the person who has done wrong taking responsibility for what they have done – that’s what ‘confessing their sin’ implies – and having the humility and the courage to ask for forgiveness. If this happens, then it is the duty of the injured party – in other words it’s their responsibility (whatever they might feel about it) - to offer forgiveness to the wrong-doer.
So from this perspective it is clear that Gerry Adams – who has neither confessed to involvement in the crime, nor asked to be forgiven (because of course he’s done nothing wrong in his eyes) – hasn’t merited Charles’s magnanimous gesture. Maybe forgiveness was in Charles’ heart – it’s not of course for me to say – but somewhat mealy-mouthed joint ‘expressions of regret’ from Adams seem to miss the mark. I hope that’s not too jaundiced a view, but there just seemed to me something asymmetrical and askew in this supposed historic handshake.
Would it be too cynical to suggest that at the root of this meeting was Adams’ political concerns, an attempt to woo the Irish electorate prior to next year’s elections to the Dial, the Irish Parliament?  Particularly as they are falling behind in the polls to Fine Gail, trying to lay the ghost of the past can only help Sinn Féin win over sceptical voters. Prince Charles may have been demonstrating some true nobility of character but his open-heartedness also serves the political interests of Adams and his Sinn Féin colleagues.
But as we know, former terrorists who come to lead their countries are not exactly a rare species.  Israel has a rather undistinguished track record in this department. Menachem Begin was commander of the Irgun when they blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946, killing 96 people. Yitchak Shamir was the head of the Stern gang who carried out a string of assassinations prior to Independence. And Ariel Sharon was found indirectly, but personally, responsible for the Sabra and Shatillah massacres of Palestinians in 1983. None of this bloody history stopped these men becoming Prime Minister. Yasser Arafat made a parallel transition from terror to statesmanship.
The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 was accompanied by multiple terrorist acts – including the murder of the royal family. And 25 years later Stalin – steeped in the blood of his own people – was the resolute ally of Churchill and Roosevelt in the fight against fascism. VE Day could not have happened without him. And of course, famously, we remember Nelson Mandela. It wasn’t until a vote in Congress in April 2008 that Mandela, then 90 years old and a Nobel Peace prize winner,  was taken off the US terrorist list so he could visit the country at the invitation of President Bush.
But what’s all this got to do with us? Whether the Prince Charles/ Gerry Adams meeting involved forgiveness or not, the theme of forgiveness is still a real issue much closer to home: anyone who’s ever been hurt in a relationship, anyone who’s ever been let down, or abused, or betrayed, anyone who’s suffered mockery or humiliation, anyone who’s been wronged in a relationship – and this must include all of us, whether it is as a child with their schoolmates, or at work, or in business, or in friendships, or in a marriage – all of us know what it is to be the injured party.
All of us know the pain, the distress, when we have been wronged – by our peers, or by strangers, by colleagues, by our parents, or our children, or our partners. The hurt can be physical, or it can be emotional, or it can be mental, psychological. Or it  can be all of these. This is the stuff of everyday life, the hurt we inflict and the hurt we endure, the hurt we receive. We know it well, too well. And we know too how hard it is – when we are feeling injured, have been  bruised, damaged,  have suffered through someone’s actions, or lack of actions – we know how hard it is to forgive.
Why should we forgive, we say, when they haven’t suffered too? Why should we forgive, when they haven’t acknowledged our hurt? Why should we forgive, even if they have admitted their wrongdoing? Why should we forgive, just because they ask us to? As if it’s the easiest thing in the world. When forgiveness is one of the hardest things in the world. One of the hardest.
I still haven’t forgiven some people, for some things. I know this. And I see myself as quite a forgiving person. But some hurts still stick stubbornly inside, and some angers and resentments, and I can’t forgive, or at least I haven’t managed it yet. And I don’t think I’m alone in this – the recognition that to forgive is very hard work. So although Jewish teaching says it’s our duty, if we are the injured party, to forgive – it doesn’t tell us how we are supposed to do that.

Of course it is easier when someone who has done us wrong admits that they have – ‘confesses their sin’ to use that old-fashioned language I quoted before. Or if someone actually has the courage to ask for forgiveness. But that doesn’t always happen. Maybe they can’t. Or maybe they are no longer here to do it. And then, we might want to forgive, we might want to be released from old hurt, an old grievance, an old wound we still feel – but we just can’t find it in us, how to do it, how to forgive.
And then, perhaps all we can do is try to forgive ourselves. Forgive ourselves for our inability to forgive others. Can we at least do that? Maybe that’s the clue to being able to forgive someone else for the hurt or wrong they have done us. We have to be able to forgive ourselves – for being so weak, so sensitive, so fragile, so uncaring. We have to be able to forgive ourselves for our common, shared human frailties; and inadequacies. We have to be able to forgive ourselves for all the times we fail to live up to our ideals, all the times we don’t act from our generous and compassionate selves, for all the times we are mean-spirited and selfish and cruel, we have to be able to forgive ourselves for all the times we fail to live from our better selves.
And if we can do this work, this inner work - and it is psychological work and spiritual work, and it never ends – if we can do this work as best we can, then we might be able to begin to forgive others who have also failed to live out their better selves and have caused us the hurt and harm in the first place.
The beginning of forgiving others is learning to forgive oneself. Both are hard work, but it’s what being human is all about.
[based on  a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, May 30th 2015]


Monday, 4 May 2015

Re-thinking Blasphemy

Sometimes – perhaps more frequently than is comfortable (but why should we expect to be comfortable?) – the Torah texts we read in synagogue are rather daunting. They challenge our contemporary sensibilities. This week, for example, we read about the stoning to death of a ‘blasphemer’; and this leads to the famous injunction that a person who injures another should be able to seek restitution ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ (Leviticus 24: 10-23).

This is the kind of text that gives the Hebrew Bible such a bad press in some quarters. It’s the sort of text that when you first hear it – let’s say you’re Professor Richard Dawkins (I know, it’s hard to imagine, but have a go) – you say to yourself, or you publish a book and say, ‘What kind of a primitive religion is this, stoning to death someone for blasphemy? And what kind of vengeful morality is this that says if you kill someone, then you have to be killed, or that whatever has been done to you justifies you doing it back to them in exactly the same way, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”? What kind of God do you people believe in that says this is the necessary and right thing to do, that this is ethical ? How can you follow, and praise - how can you worship - a God who wants you to engage in this violence? Aren’t you just using your imaginary God in order to justify your own worst impulses?’
The problem with this kind of knee-jerk dismissiveness is that it prevents you entering any further, any deeper, into the text. It is a form of prejudice - prejudice as in ‘pre-judging’ what something might mean, or be trying to say, or symbolise, or point towards. It’s an easy option and involves the unthinking condescension that believes that we are somehow morally superior to those who crafted these ancient narratives, or that we inheritors of the Enlightenment, such proud possessors of a finely-tuned intelligence, obviously have superior insights into life than those crude, unsophisticated storytellers in the long-distant past...
Jewish creativity never stopped elaborating on, and imaginatively adding to, the narratives - in the recognition that all texts have an endless number of ways of being understood; and that no one single way is ever the only and correct way. Judaism as a religious tradition always looked at its primary texts and said: ‘You can read it this way, or/and you can read it that way, or/and you can read it this other way; and you don’t have to choose.’ You honour the text by keeping on reading it and opening out the innate undecidability of meaning inherent in written texts. 
It can sometimes be hard for uninformed readers of these texts to recognise the ways in which when we read the Hebrew Bible we are dealing with a literary tradition consisting of narratives that were probably never intended to be read literally, that were already written with allegory and metaphor embedded in them, with their symbolic meanings hinted at in various verbal clues and cues in the text. (cf.  A.J.Heschel: ‘As a report about revelation, the Bible itself is a midrash’ : p.185, God in Search of Man). So for example in relation to that famous phrase ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ – which has so often been used historically as a polemic against Judaism and Jews, that Jews believe in revenge, that the Hebrew Bible advocates acting out one’s aggression, measure for measure, that if someone hurts you and causes you loss you are permitted, required, to cause them the same loss – that kind of literal, reductive reading of the text was not how Jews over the centuries actually read and understood this text.
They read it with an alertness first of all to the way the storytellers chose to frame it in a story about ‘Shelomit, daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan’ – names which in Hebrew are a kind of play-on-words:  the woman’s name (as the Biblical scholar and anthropologist Mary Douglas has suggested) can be translated ‘Compensation, daughter of Law-suit, of the tribe of Judgment’. Of course you don’t get that in our translations - but when you know what these names mean it creates for the reader a knowingness, a resonance, that reverberates into what follows.
So when we come to the sentence that describes an ‘eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ we are already primed to understand that within a society the concept of retribution/recompense  can’t be based on a tit-for-tat acting out, a sort of Lord of the Flies morality of the playground; retribution is removed from the realm of personal vendettas and blood feuds and placed within a system of justice: within Judaism this text has always been understood as being about financial compensation, legal compensation – that the value of what someone had lost had to be thought about and then honoured in a corresponding material or monetary way. The text is not there to be acted out literally, it’s to be interpreted symbolically. And there’s a world of difference between the two.
The rabbis of the Talmud and midrash – who interpreted these texts in the thousand years after the Bible was written – were always perfectly clear about this. They paid great attention to creating a system of justice and legal processes in order to bring the vision of the Torah into daily life. They were trying to refine people’s moral sensibilities. So sometimes they developed clues and hints and ideas embedded in the text of the Torah itself. But at other times they read against the grain of a plain meaning of the text, guided by an evolving sensitivity to the underlying moral vision of the Torah: a concern for the sacred nature of all human life.  All of which is to say that Judaism as an evolving culture came to depend on not reading texts reductively. The rabbis, interpreters, commentators,  were not, in other words, fundamentalists.
Because they knew, as we know, that if you read sacred scriptures from a fundamentalist perspective – that there is only one meaning, unchanging through all time – if you read and live that way, the likelihood is that your religion turns toxic. And all religions historically can become, and have become, and do become, toxic – that is anti-life, anti-humanity, destructive of human potential rather than creating more possibilities for fuller human lives.
There is a straight line from some of these texts - if you read them literally, without any process of evolving interpretation - a straight line from their brutality to the brutality of ISIS, and to the murdering of the so-called ‘blasphemers’ at Charlie Hebdo, and to the savagery of parts of the contemporary legal codes of Saudi Arabia and Iran and Pakistan, where people do get stoned, and hands of thieves do get chopped off, and eyes do get blinded.
Within parts of the ummah of Islam, the world community of Islam, there is a problem with literal interpretations of scripture; just as historically in Christianity the trial and persecution of witches, or pogroms against Jews, were based on ahistorical and literal readings of texts in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. And – because I’m an equal-opportunities critic of bad religion - lest you think I’m suggesting some kind of moral superiority for Judaism, I’m not. Because I can point in corresponding fashion to how the systemic mistreatment of Palestinians on the West Bank is rooted in, amongst other things, a literalist and highly selective reading of religious texts by Jewish fundamentalists.
All three of the monotheistic religions have strands of destructive thinking encoded in their DNA – they are all prone psychologically to splitting and projection, to attributing their darker impulses to the others, non-believers - or even people who believe differently within their own religion (think Wolf Hall) - they are all shadowed by fascistic impulses to dominate and suppress: women, homosexuals, those who believe differently, behave differently, think differently, who are not one of ‘us’...
People will ask: why should we trust these texts when they seem so antithetical to the values we hold dear? If by ‘trust’ one means ‘submit to’, then I’m on the side of the dissenters. We don’t have to ‘trust’ these texts, if trust means abdicating our critical faculties or our deeper human sensibility. When it comes to reading Torah, making Torah part of a living faith, we need to be trouble-makers, questioners of the status quo, disrupters of lazy assumptions about what texts ‘mean’.
When George Orwell in 1984 talked about ‘group-think’, and Henrik Ibsen in An Enemy of the People named as the real enemies of truth and freedom the ‘compact majority’ in any society with their unthinking repetition of the mantras of the hour, they were alerting us to the importance of the kind of independent thinking that characterises rabbinic Judaism at its best...
Try questioning in the UK today the alleged need for austerity and see what you get for your troubles. But blessed are the trouble-makers – as someone famous didn’t say, but should have – because inequalities and injustices go unchallenged when we stop questioning and start taking things on ‘trust’.
The Torah teaches that words have power – to hurt, and to heal. We know this from our own lives. I always think that the saying ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is completely wrong. Physical injuries heal, but we probably all bear the mental and emotional scars of things said to us that were deeply hurtful at the time and have never left us.
And the words of Torah can be used to hurt, to oppress, to justify the unjustifiable, to excuse the inexcusable, they can be used to sanction callousness and murder and hatred. And when they are, that is blasphemy. Blasphemy is using one’s religious tradition in ways that are antithetical to that tradition’s emphasis on compassion and justice and righteousness and peace, on charity and love and concern for other human beings and for the planet itself. From a Jewish perspective God is present in those qualities. The Torah is full of descriptions of God as representing and advocating compassion and justice and righteousness and peace - so when we enact in our lives those virtues we are bringing the divine into the world.
But the words of Torah need to be lived, they need to move from words into actions. It’s through actions that the words come alive and the divine is made present. The Hebrew Bible talks a lot about justice and compassion and loving the stranger, the outsider, the immigrant, the asylum seeker. The text we read in our Finchley community this week just didn’t happen to mention any of these things. Though there was one line that was easy to skip over: that you have to create a society that has one law that embraces both outsiders, strangers, and citizens alike (Leviticus 24:22). Nobody is outside the reach of the law – or the protection of the law.
Which is why the inclusion of the Human Rights Act within the framework of British law was such a significant advance – though it is under threat from those who still haven’t caught up with the moral vision of the Hebrew Bible. From this perspective too, the cuts that have been made to legal aid in the UK are morally wrong. To see these cuts only as a financial issue is, from a Judaic religious perspective, an ethical failure.
So: words have power. Blasphemy is when we use words to diminish, attack, denigrate other human beings – because in doing so we are attacking God’s creation. In this  sense we are all caught up in blasphemy. Because it can be hard to see the face of God in the stranger, the immigrant, the homeless, those who depend on the state to get by, those who are disadvantaged by fate or impoverished by circumstances. 
And we have all thrown stones – verbal stones – at our enemies. We are surrounded by a culture that loves to throw stones – the media is full of it, the Daily Mail couldn’t survive without it, internet trolling is vicious – hurt and more hurt, and we revel in it. Let’s not judge the Bible’s stone-throwing crowds too quickly. They are us. Just as the blasphemers are us, attacking the presence of God in others not really any different from us. These ancient texts have still got life in them.
[loosely based on the themes of a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, May 2nd 2015]