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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]