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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]






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