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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]