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Saturday, 31 December 2016

Rabbi Lionel Blue z”l 

What I remember most vividly was the cauliflower soup. It was the first time I’d been on a Retreat with my fellow rabbinic students from Leo Baeck College. So I’m going back 40 years or so. It was a cold, November day, in a rather austere, ramshackle Christian priory in Sussex that Rabbi Lionel Blue had taken us to. That first morning we practised sitting in silence – such a hard thing for Jews to do. Lionel suggested half an hour to start with – to be quiet, see where our minds went and whether, beyond the chatter in our heads, we could hear anything else.  

This was hard to do at first – it was such an alien concept, so ‘Christian’ to my provincial Jewish mind. But we trusted Lionel, or at least I did: he was one of my teachers, and a different kind of teacher from the more academically-oriented teachers I was used to at Leo Baeck College. He had something else to teach, something that came out of his own lived experience, his own struggles with faith, his own struggles with life. 

He spoke of his God as a friend, as a conversation partner, as a voice that did not always tell him what he wanted to hear but that was available if he, Lionel, allowed himself to listen. Lionel’s God seemed to accompany him on his journey through life, provoking him, re-assuring him, comforting him, nagging him, reminding him of the things that mattered in life, giving him a perspective on what really counted, helping him understand how something that seemed to be important in the heat of the moment could turn out to be trivial in the larger scheme of things. Lionel’s God helped him discriminate – as Lionel might say - between God’s point of view which was infinite and ours, which is always limited.   

Because we were trainee rabbis we were very keen to discuss the idea of God, to swap theological insights - but we weren’t very good at moving out of our heads towards our hearts. But for me Lionel’s retreats were a highlight of my time as a student rabbi because they allowed time to focus on experience and exploration and not just on thinking and knowing, or pseudo-knowing.  

It’s not that Lionel was not a thinker – on the contrary. Around that time I went to a conference where Lionel was one of the speakers and his theme was post-War European Jewish life; and I remember how he spoke for an hour without notes and gave a brilliant survey of how Jewish life was being lived in Germany and Holland and France and Italy and the UK. It was a stunning tour de force, a vivid, detailed portrait - and he concluded with one thing which has stuck in my mind ever since.  

That what the experience of the War had taught Jews - should have taught Jews - wherever they lived in Europe, was not to put their trust in political parties or economic theories: that ‘boom and bust’ was always going to be the pattern of history – and that if Jews trusted in material things, hoping they would last, hoping that they could gain security from what was in the end transient, they would always come unstuck, or  come to grief. That to be Jewish meant trusting in what you couldn’t see, couldn’t count, couldn’t measure, couldn’t hold in your hands – it meant trusting in the spirit. This was what it meant to live in a tradition with a God you couldn’t see. Judaism was an education in trusting the intangible.  

Lionel had a first-class mind – you might have forgotten that if you just heard his often whimsical, folksy contributions to  BBC radio’s ‘Thought for Today’. He just recognised that he couldn’t rely on the mind, the intellect, alone to get him through life. He was after the inner experience contained within all those clever theological words that we LBC students were bandying about that chilly autumn day.   

But back to the cauliflower soup.  Lionel had disappeared at some stage during the afternoon and by supper time - with an economy of effort and more than a soupçon of unrehearsed love – he produced a giant tureen of the most heart-warming, rich, smooth, creamy, flavoursome cauliflower soup that you could imagine. His soup spoke more eloquently of the spirit than all our high-flown rabbinic waffling. This was food for - and from - the soul.  It tasted, so to speak, of heaven.  

For Lionel, the preparing and cooking and eating and sharing of food was a primary medium for spiritual self-expressiveness. He built a lot of his Jewish thinking around the kitchen. He taught how the cupboards and cabinets and drawers of the Jewish home contained the artefacts of Jewish spirituality: the candlesticks and bread covers and wine cups for Shabbat, lying neglected during the week, were capable of transforming secular time into holy living when the hour was right.  

In his first book – which was arguably his best (To Heaven With Scribes and Pharisees, 1975) – he’d written how: ‘in the cupboards [of the Jewish home] holy and secular meet and jostle, there is no strain, for all things can be transformed if they are turned to God. Cocktail cabinets and the kitchen drawer are the sacristy for the liturgy of the home’.    

Indeed for Lionel any gathering of convivial souls, where food was honoured, was a form of secular transubstantiation: God made present through the bonds of family, friends, guests, brought together to celebrate the joys of sharing food, hospitality, intimacy and laughter.   

Like many people who have pockets of pain tucked away, Lionel used laughter a lot in his teaching. Humour was an essential ingredient in his repertoire – but when he wanted to he could move from laughter and a lightness of being to seriousness and thoughtfulness in the twinkling of an eye.  

But he never pontificated. When I heard him talk over the years I almost never heard him addressing the large themes that rabbis often find themselves speaking about – politics, the environment, social justice, Israel, communal Jewish politics, world events. He usually focused on the human, the local, the small scale, the personal, on individual acts of kindness and generosity he’d witnessed, on people’s relationship to animals, to their actual neighbours, to the everyday joys and sadnesses of family life.  

He spoke about conversations with people he’d actually met: for many years when I lived in Finchley I’d see Lionel in the High Street, stopping or getting stopped every few yards, talking to someone  - they might be well-dressed or a vagrant, it never seemed to make a difference, he treated them the same - and sometimes people were talking to him and he was listening, and sometimes he was talking to them, but he had time for all of them, old and young, rich and poor, he never seemed hurried. It never seemed to me as I watched him – and I did watch him – as if he had his own life to live. It was as if he saw these  random meetings and conversations as his life – his own life was not separate from this – these were the encounters, the meetings, that mattered, that fed his own life, that were his life.  

The stuff that happened to him every day was the religious material of his life: this is what he learnt from; and this is what he taught about. That a random, overheard remark going down the Finchley High Road could change your life – it was like an angel speaking in your ear. No, not ‘like’ an angel, it was an angel. A message and messenger from the Divine. This was a piety both simple and profound.  

Although he ended up paradoxically as head of the Reform Beth Din, Lionel didn’t have much time for the Jewish religious establishment – ‘too much role playing’, he’d say - and he was a religious pragmatist: he thought that the only parts of religious tradition worth saving were the parts that you found worked for you - the rituals or prayers that spoke to you, or that you could use in such a way that God spoke to you through them.  

The rest of it, if it was all jumbo-jumbo to you – well, you should just ditch it and find something else that worked. That’s what I mean by a pragmatist. Find what works and use it – and if what works for you is a Quaker meeting or a Buddhist meditation technique, that’s fine: just use it. Be a magpie, take what you need. That’s part of what made him a great religious ecumenical figure. He could see the value in other religious traditions and didn’t feel the need to claim that his own was better, or more truthful.  

So, to come back to food for a moment, Lionel taught me how -- like the Mass or the Eucharist ceremony, the Hindu food offering to the gods, the Sikh kara prashad holy sweet, the Muslim shir kurma dessert at the end of Ramadan, and the Buddhists in Japan celebrating with red beans and rice -- Jewish food was also a route to holiness. And that anyone, sophisticated or unlearned, could make it part of their journey to holy living.  

So Lionel was a religious pragmatist. But he was also a sentimentalist, after a fashion. He wasn’t a nostalgist for some lost world of Jewish innocence or idealised shtetl life – growing up in the harshness and hard-headedness of the East End of London meant that he was immune to any  idealisation about the Jewish past. But he was a sentimentalist in that he believed – or wanted to believe, I could never quite work out  which – in simple truths about the innate goodness of the human heart. And about how God was his best friend. And a sentimentalist in his belief that a good story could take you a very long way in helping people overcome their fears and problems. And this was in spite of years and years he spent in therapy coming to terms with his own demons.  

And he did become a great storyteller, a great myth-maker, often about his own life. He once admitted to me that he was a mythographer: he wove personal anecdotes into religious material that he could then retail and re-tell. He’d found there was always a ready audience for this kind of storytelling. He told some stories about his formative experiences so many times that they were honed to perfection, but would still change from book to book, from interview to interview, tweaked to bring the best out of them for each occasion.  

This isn’t a criticism – I say it in admiration, and awe, and envy, for the gift he had of being the raconteur of his own life. He was a craftsman weaving a rich tapestry out of the fabric of his eventful and idiosyncratic life.                   

His pragmatism and sentimentalism were often there at the same time. On that first retreat I remember him saying apropos the soup: ‘Theologies alter and beliefs may die, but smells always remain in memory’. And there you have it – the essential religious understanding and the naked appeal to subjective feeling in one sentence. Maybe it was a quote from one of his books, or maybe it ended up in one of his books – but it doesn’t matter. He had a gift for turning experience into memorable language - you can almost always tell in our Reform liturgy the prayers that Lionel wrote. They have stood, and will stand, the test of time because they have a humanity to them, a truthfulness of feeling, that speaks to the heart and not to the head. Words mattered to him – almost as much as food.  

He knew that his legacy would not only be in the memories people would have of him but the words he’d leave behind. A few years ago I interviewed him for a celebratory volume for his co-liturgist Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, about their work together in Europe in the 1960s and 70s, when the trauma of the Shoah was still heavy on the ground, and it became necessary to build a new European Jewish consciousness out of the ashes of destruction. Lionel wanted to see the text of the interview before it was published, to read it and edit it, to shape it as he wanted the story to be remembered - which of course I let him do, even though by that time, because of his Parkinson’s, he could hardly hold in his hand a pen to do the editing.  Words mattered. How you told the story mattered. The truth was in how it was told not just in what was told.  

What would Lionel make, I wonder, of the mess we are in now in Europe, as one annus horribilis ends, and another year breaks onto the shoreline in front of us? He’d probably have a joke to cheer us up, or at least a good story. Maybe the story I first heard him tell during that Retreat, that speaks of where we are and how we need to go about facing our futures. He called it Heaven and Hell.  

It’s the story about a rabbi who wanted to see both heaven and hell. He fell asleep and dreamt that he was standing in front of a door, that opened into a room; and the room was prepared for a feast. A table was set and at its centre lay a great dish of delicious hot food. Guests sat around the table with long spoons in their hands, but they were crying out with hunger and wailing in pain: the spoons were so long that, however they distorted themselves, they could not get the food into their mouths. Unable to nourish themselves, they cursed  God the author of their plight.  And the rabbi awoke, knowing he had seen hell.  

But he fell asleep again and dreamt that he was standing in front of a door, that opened into a room; and the room was prepared for a feast. A table was set and at its centre lay a great dish of delicious hot food. Nothing had changed and he was about to cry out in horror. Then he saw that the guests had smiles on their faces, for with the same long spoons they were reaching out across the table to feed each other. And they were giving thanks to God the author of their joy. The rabbi awoke and he too blessed God who had shown him the nature of heaven and the nature of hell. And the chasm – just a hairsbreadth wide -- that always divides them.


[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, 31st December 2016]


Thursday, 24 November 2016

The Arc of the Moral Universe – and How we Deal with Loss

President Obama was fond of quoting Martin Luther King’s hope-filled maxim: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’. King himself was borrowing this - from the American Transcendentalist and Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker (1810-1860). Whatever its source – and we can hear within it an echo of traditional Judaic hopefulness – I have always had faith in this notion that over time societies on this planet are moving, can move, will move – with struggle, with regression, two steps forward, one step back – towards a more developed (i.e. more humane, more self-aware, more compassionate) relationship with each other. A faith that the pursuit of justice will lead collectively – over time - to more justice.  

Not that justice somehow arrives by itself, but that it is made out of all the moral, social, political actions of countless individuals, generation by generation. In spite of knowing that the 20th century saw something approaching 200,000,000 government-determined deaths in various wars, genocides, victimizations, internal oppressions and other conflicts, I never gave up on the faith, belief, hope that ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’. But I am now beginning to think of this hope as a necessary illusion – a deep wish, rather than a clear-eyed appreciation of the destructiveness that always lurks in the human heart. A destructiveness with the toxic potential to overwhelm human creativity, compassion and millennia-old wishes for an end to injustice.  

It feels as if in recent months my self-delusion has begun to get ruthlessly exposed. After Brexit, and now Trump, and as I see the waves of anti-foreigner, populist aggression swirling through the UK and the rest of Europe, I am beginning to wonder at my own naivety. We seem to be spiralling back towards periods in history when the darker side of human nature expressed itself more forcefully then the generous, creative side. Has it always been this way, and I just didn’t want to see it? We will have to keep our eyes – and hearts – open in these next few years.  

These thoughts have led me to think - not for the first time of course, but this time round with an added seriousness - about loss. How do we manage loss in everyday life? Loss of a job, loss of a loved one or friend, loss of money or something we value, loss of a relationship, loss of a pet, loss of an opportunity, loss of one’s looks, loss of an election, loss of hope? Losses are all around us. They are part of the fabric of life.
All losses challenge us emotionally. How do we respond? Do we become angry or bitter? despairing? sad? do we feel resigned, or accepting? Do we express these feelings - or cover them up? Do we try and compensate for the loss, or do we spend time mourning what has now gone? These are the challenges that life brings us, for loss is a shared and universal human experience.
And all losses involve some loss of hope: hope for continuity, hope for love, hope for security, hope for a future brighter than the past. For hope is inbuilt into the human psyche – but the reality of loss can attack that hopefulness like  a kick in the stomach, like a thief in the night. Loss can make us suddenly feel very vulnerable. We realise that our fantasies of being in control, of controlling our lives, are just that – fantasies, wishes. Losses, of whatever kind, are painful and unwelcome reminders of how little control we have of our own lives and what might happen to us.
As with all the emotional realities that we face as human beings, the Hebrew Bible offers its own insights and perspectives. This week’s sedrahChayai Sara (Genesis 23 - 25:18) – begins with loss: the death of the matriarch Sara at the legendary age of 127. This is narrated matter-of-factly: ‘Sara died in Kiryat Arba – that is Hebron – in the land of Canaan’ (23:2). No other details are given. And this is always an opportunity for later commentators to add their own colour to the monochrome text.
Some linked Sara’s death to the Torah text that immediately precedes it: the trauma of Isaac’s near-sacrifice by his father Abraham. So she dies of shock at hearing the news – or of heartbreak. One midrash has her dying of shock on receiving a false report that Abraham had killed their son at God’s command. (Compare Facebook’s  notorious false anti-Clinton news reports planted by Trump supporters before the election).
One modern commentator, Aviva Zornberg, speculates psychologically about how Sara, although she knew that Isaac had survived, could not bear to live any longer in a world as unreliable, unpredictable – and threatening – as the world she found herself in, where questions of who will live and who will die seem to hang so fragilely in the balance. A world where one is confronted with how little control we have, as I suggested above, over what might happen to us, or to those we love.
Perhaps in recent times we too have got in touch with these deeper feelings -after a terrorist attack. Our vulnerability is exposed and there is a horror not only at the deaths and the suffering, but at the randomness of who will live and who will die.  It could be any of us. Sara’s death, in our mythological narrative following the near-murder of her son, opens us up to these disturbing, maybe unbearable, thoughts. And we recognise too that there is a long back-story to narratives about a God who commands murder. Or rather: there’s a long and bloody history of people who believe that their God commands them to kill others in the name of that God.  
So Sara dies and Abraham weeps for his loss (23:2). And then he gets on with life. He negotiates for a burial plot for Sara, and having bought a plot of land from the local inhabitants he proceeds to bury her (23: 3-20) and then sets out, through the servant in charge of his household, to find a wife for Isaac, their son (chapter 24). 
The long chapter that describes this search for a wife is a tour-de-force of Biblical storytelling – and it ends with this poignant sentence: ‘And Isaac brought her [Rebekkah] into the tent of his mother Sara and he took Rebekkah as his wife and he loved her and Isaac was comforted after his mother - acharei  imo’ (24:67). We might expect ‘after the death of his mother’. But no, the word ‘death’ is absent. We know this is what it means - but the narrator-artists who composed the text have chosen to suppress the word. Through the absence of this word ‘death’ in the text, the narrators provoke us into thinking about it. It is hidden in plain sight.
By looking away from it at the last moment, what does this missing word  - ‘death’ - reveal? Some people – was Isaac one of them? – wish to deny the reality of death. The fantasy is that if you don’t mention something it’s as if it hasn’t happened. After all, he’d been through his own near-death experience. Was the immediate loss of his mother too much to bear after his own trauma? So is the absence of the word ‘death’ pointing to a denial of reality?
Or is it the opposite - a way of speaking about how the loss was healed? Does the comfort he had received when Sara was alive metamorphose into the new comfort he found with Rebekkah? Is the pain of the death of his fiercely protective mother erased through the love of a good woman? Does giving and receiving love heal our losses?
There is no hint in the Torah of what Sara’s death meant to Isaac. But we sense from this concluding verse how present Sara was for him as he takes Rebekkah  into his mother’s intimate space, her tent. And through the intimacy with her – ‘and he loved her’ – he does find comfort for the loss he has suffered. More human connectedness, more closeness, more intimacy – this seems to be one way, the Torah intuits, of managing feelings of loss, dealing with the pain.
Perhaps we don’t have a good enough, rich enough, vocabulary to talk about what we do with the experience of loss. I just used the words ‘managing’ the loss, ‘dealing’ with the loss – but that is too business-like, too bureaucratic a language to evoke the powerful  and subtle stands of feeling that death and loss evoke in us. Some people want people around them, some people want to be left alone. We each will find what route is right for us.  
One thing I do know is that the modern jargon of talking about ‘closure’ after a death is quite unhelpful. This idea of ‘closure’ is now prevalent in the aftermath of any injustice or painful event. But it can be coercive to expect it for oneself - or to have others expect it of you. ‘Have you had closure yet?’ has become a modern mantra - but it promotes an illusion.
‘Closure’ came into contemporary thought from American social psychology. It originates in a 1993 paper from Arie Kruglanski about people’s desire for a clear and definite answer to their life questions - and their aversion to ambiguity. Kruglanski developed what became known as the ‘Need for Closure Scale’ - but this concept of ‘closure’ was gradually transformed from something descriptive of what people wished for into some kind of ideal about what they should have. Psychological health however is about being able to manage ambiguity, not-knowing, uncertainty – without collapsing into the straightjacket of false certainties.
What Kruglanski’s work spawned is a pseudo-solution to a universal problem. ‘Closure’ is a flawed belief that assimilating grief and losses and death into our lives is a process that can be closed, finished with. Jewish tradition however recognises that losses are real, and lasting: they will happen to you and me, they happen to all of us, and the work of mourning can last a lifetime. Isaac didn’t have ‘closure’ about his mother’s death when he and Rebekkah married. Like Abraham his father, he got on with life. We have to learn to live with our sadness, our regrets - or sometimes with our lack of sadness, or our relief, or whatever it is that emerges in the wake of a death. Our reaction to loss and death is always going to be particular to us. We are allowed to be idiosyncratic.  
Sigmund Freud once wrote a condolence letter in which he put his finger on something crucial. His own daughter Sophie had died in 1920 when she was 27, and nine years later, on what would have been her 36th birthday,  Freud wrote to a colleague, Ludwig Binswanger, whose son had just died:  ‘we will never find a substitute [after a loss]. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else. And actually, this is how it should be, it is the only way of perpetuating that love which we do not want to relinquish.’
Freud gives us permission to keep on loving what has been lost for as long as we need to. Someone else – or something else – may come along and take the place of what has been lost. But it will be something, or someone, different. And that is how it should be.
And I am left to ponder on what happens after one experiences the loss of hope contained in that inspirational text: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’? There can be no substitute – but what will take its place?

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Truth and Lies in a 'Post-Truth' World

We can feel the tectonic plates shifting. First came the challenge to Europe of the largest mass movement of people across borders since the end of World War II, a humanitarian crisis that has  become knotted into what right-wing press were already perceiving as the unravelling fabric of European life. Then there was Brexit and the challenge it poses to the future of the European Union’s increasingly shaky stability.

And now there is Trump – and this much-mocked businessman, TV reality star and egoist is about to destabilise further the post-War US-European network of alliances (NATO) and trade agreements in which our lives are embedded. Or so we have been led to believe: as yet, we have no way of knowing. Will rhetoric become reality?

We can see which European politicians have been celebrating his election win – Martine le Pen, Geert Wilders, Norbert Hofer in Austria, Frauke Petry of the Alternative für Deutschland. They all hope to capitalise on the nationalistic, anti-establishment and racist populism that Trump’s victory  represents. Economic despair may have given him millions of votes – but it is hard to ignore his anti-immigrant polemics as being a fundamental part of his appeal. His appointment  of Stephen Bannon to the post of Chief of Staff – a white nationalist with a penchant for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories – is a chilling choice.  
And then there is Putin, whose laughter at Trump’s success must be filling the corridors of the Kremlin. Thirty years after the historian David Irving’s Holocaust-denying ‘post-truth’ history we have entered the world of ‘post-truth’ politics.
Both the Brexit and Trump campaigns had no hesitation in offering lies to the public. Both campaigns recognised that once you dispense with truth, you have an astonishing freedom: you can say anything you want in the furtherance of your cause. Joseph Goebbels - Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda - made a career out of this freedom. He understood - and capitalised on - a psychological insight into our human susceptibility to simplistic statements that tell us ‘how things are’ or ‘must be’: “in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility, because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily".
This is how propaganda – and advertising – works: it speaks to our unconscious desires, or our  unconscious wishes for clarity, for some graspable ‘truth’ in a chaotic, unstable world. Goebbels statement is often quoted in its own distorted version:  "The bigger the lie, the more it will be believed." There is no documentary evidence that he said this, but in its simplistic form it has become what people think he said. Which is of course an unintended ironic confirmation that if something is distorted but then repeated often enough it becomes ‘true’.
This week’s Torah sedrah,  Va’yera (Genesis 18-22), is a helpful  one to reflect on in the light of these questions about truth and lies. The sedrah’s name is taken from the first word of the section: ‘And there appeared...’ – it alerts us to the themes that will unfold in the narrative that follows. The text will address what can appear before our eyes – and how we interpret what we see. And it will talk about what we refuse to see, the truths we can’t bear to see – and (in the story of Lot’s wife who turns back to see her city in flames) what we can’t bear not to see. It is all about sight, and insight – Biblical Hebrew does not distinguish between the two – and blindness, literal and metaphorical.  
Take the opening narrative. The text says that God – Adonai, the ‘Eternal’ – appeared to Abraham as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day (18:1). We the readers are given an omniscient overview of what is happening. But what does Abraham see? ‘He lifted up his eyes and he saw, and behold there were three people there.’ (18:2). Three strangers. And he greets them with generosity and hospitality. Like a Cubist portrait, the storytellers place the two perspectives side by side, or one on top of the other: the overview and then the view from the perspective of Abraham . This dual perspective opens up a radical piece of theology: you meet ‘God’ in the Other.
Millennia before Martin Buber developed his philosophy of I-Thou, in which our relationships with others become one of the ways we encounter the divine, the Torah offers us a story about seeing in other people the image of ‘God’. Abraham sees other human beings appear before him and he treats them with an open heart and a generous spirit – this is an encounter with the Eternal, the Eternal One.
And then we have a delightful turn of events, as the narrator gives us a picture – shockingly! – of a God made in our human image, a God who lies. How does God lie? One of these strangers tells Abraham: ‘When I come back next year, your wife Sara will have had a son’ and Sara overhears this (18:10). And the storyteller then reminds us that both Abraham and Sara were old, and that Sara no longer was menstruating (18:11). And then: ‘And Sara laughed (vatizchak)  inside herself and she said to herself: “Now that I am so old and worn out, am I to have such pleasure, with my husband being so old?”’ (18:12).
This is a very daring sentence from our narrator. It shows us Sara eavesdropping on the conversation between her husband and the guests, then it reveals an intimate detail from Abraham and Sara’s sex life. The more you think about it, the more remarkable it is, for the storyteller gets us the readers, the listeners, inside of Sara: the verse penetrates her , symbolically, and we find out what this news does to her inside of herself.
It’s the first time in the Torah that we find this key word, tzachak, a word which is to echo and re-echo through the texts and the generations – tzachak, to laugh. It will of course become the name of the son, Yitzchak, Isaac – ‘the one who laughs’.
But where is the lie, God’s lie? The next verse tells us that God says to Abraham: ‘ “Why did Sara laugh, saying, “Shall I really bear a child, being as old as I am?”’ (18:13). And there’s the lie. She says ‘he is too old’. But our narrator has God changing this, when he speaks to Abraham, into Sara saying ‘I am too old’.
So why does God tell this lie to Abraham?  A midrash suggests that God did it so that Abraham wouldn’t feel offended or hurt: in other words, to protect Abraham’s feelings (Baba Metzia 87a). And so important was this principle, that the Rabbis derived a maxim, a rule of thumb, that one is allowed to lie if it will hurt someone’s feelings to tell the truth straightforwardly and honestly (Ketubot 16b-17a). Why? Because to hurt someone’s feelings was equated by the Rabbis with the shedding of blood. There is an extraordinary Judaic sensitivity here towards an individual and their emotional life. The other person is  flesh-and-blood just like you, and has feelings just as real and sensitive as your own. Protect the other’s feelings as if they were as precious as your own.
And the Rabbis went even further than that. ‘When is lying acceptable?’ they asked. ‘Lying is also permissible’, they said, ‘if it is for the sake of peace’ (Yevamot 65a). (So if your partner says:  ‘Do I look good in this?’ – the answer is ‘Yes’).  
So on the one hand the rabbis in the Talmud stated that Emet, ‘truth’,  is one of God’s thirteen attributes – they used the famous text of  Exodus 34:3 as a reference. And they were unequivocal about this: ‘the Seal of God is Truth’ (Shabbat 55). But on the other hand in the real world they saw that there needed to be some flexibility about this. Lying ‘for the sake of peace’ can cover a broad spectrum: from international politics to personal relationships.
Jewish teaching does offer insight and guidance, and ways of thinking about all sorts of everyday situations - but it can’t give us an answer for a specific situation we find ourselves in. Only we are responsible for that. We have to judge and decide how to act, how to be, what to say, each time, every day, and the decision of today may not be relevant tomorrow. That’s part of the God-given burden of being human. 
We live in a world where it can be hard to sort out the truth from the lies. Dizzying amounts of information, opinion, propaganda, deception, distortion, fabrication  swirl though our daily lives. Who has the time, the energy, to sort out the truth from the lies? And yet I think of this task, of trying to stay attuned to what is ‘true’, to be part of the spiritual task of the Jewish people. In a week when Oxford Dictionaries has announced that post-truth is its international ‘word of the year’, our Jewish task seems to have become even harder – and even more important.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

"A Plot Against America" - a Creative Response.

So now we know. After an epic journey of lies, insults and threats, in 2017 there will be a racist, sexist demagogue in the White House. The populist violence-in-the-human-heart  that led to Brexit has another victory. These are sad – and fearful – times for those who value reflection, the ethics of civilised debate, and a compassionate approach to our shared problems.

It seems it could be time to re-read Philip Roth’s prescient novel ‘The Plot Against America’ (2004), which imagines a fascistic US government suspending civil liberties and persecuting minorities deemed to be a threat to security. It’s  a book that had a predecessor in American literature, Sinclair Lewis’s  ‘It Can’t Happen Here?’ (1935) about the takeover of the American government by an unstable mix of far-right and populist forces. Imaginative literature might be the most useful resource we have right now to help us deal with feelings of helplessness, anger, or fear about our shared future on this planet.
I am reminded of Salman Rushdie’s words in 1989 when he went into hiding after he became the victim of the fatwa against him - and the populist violence it unleashed - following publication of ‘The Satanic Verses’: “Literature is where I go to explore the highest and lowest places in human society and in the human spirit, where I hope not to find absolute truth but the truth of the tale, of the imagination and of the heart.”
The rabbis of old also took this stance. They called their imaginative literature ‘midrash’. In this spirit I’d like to offer, in relation to this week’s Torah portion, Lech l’cha (Genesis 12 onwards), a creative midrash on the early life of Abraham. It re-works a text I've composed and offered before, but I hear the injunction lech l'cha (12:1) - 'go for your own sake, go into yourself, go towards yourself' - as giving permission, and encouragement, to keep on working at the things that matter, on the journey towards that impossible destination: a place of truth, a space that offers another perspective and antidote to a demagogue's lies, insults and threats.


It’s when they attack my father for what he believed in, that I grow really angry. He was a good man, Terach, a true believer in the old gods. Without his wise counsel and strength of character I would not here today, here to tell my story - even though my story, my beliefs, differ so markedly from his.
His gods, my father’s gods, were gods that failed: they were the gods he’d come to know during his long life, learned to trust from early on, the gods of nature and of death, of the harvests and the seas, of fertility and the seasons; in Ur of the Chaldees where he was born he was ruled by the sun and the moon, and his gods were close to him: he found them living in the earth and he saw them daily in the heavens and in the patterns of the night sky, and he trusted in them, for they gave him life and they gave a meaning to death, they structured the rhythms he lived by, they were all he needed. And he took them with him on his great migration - it is described in the books (Genesis 11:31).
He took us all - myself, Abram; my wife Sarai; my cousin Lot – he took us away from what he’d known, and settled in Haran, on his way to Canaan, where we were always meant to go. Canaan was his Promised Land, before it became mine. But he died there, in Haran, and was buried with his gods around him:  gods that the next generation  (or at least me, in the next generation) could see the limitations of, even though he believed they would always sustain a man and his family, in this world and the world to come.
And when the lazy, the vicious or the ignorant attack his beliefs - when they disparage him, as people do, with the immense condescension of posterity - that’s when I feel aggrieved. 
For although I don’t believe in his gods, and their powers to determine life, he taught me the values of faith, the importance of belief, of holding on to what one feels is true in the face of scorn and derision, of cynicism and fear. He taught me that to have a vision was important - if it is rooted in something other than one's ego: to live one’s vision was life-affirming, and would give life to others. Without that vision of his he would not have left his homeland and planted himself in alien soil.
And I learnt from this courage he possessed– so that when I was called to move on, I was able to listen, to follow where I was led (Genesis 12:1-4). I learnt that gift from him, my father Terach. So when they attack him for his beliefs, they attack me. Even though what I believe is different from what he believed, when the gods were near at hand and seemed to help him every day.
For I was called – as is every youngster, in every generation – to build on the past, to forge a new vision, informed by new situations, new realities, and not to rely, not to put my faith in, the old ways and the old gods. I was called into something new – but it took me a long time to understand what it was all about. I’m not sure I ever really understood. I’m not sure it’s understandable. All that talk of blessing and sacrifice, of ‘being a blessing’ (12:2) and being the bearer of an ‘everlasting covenant’ (17:7). What does it really mean?
I am not sure I ever understood who or what was calling me away from the old ways, calling me on into the unknown – it always came out of the blue, unexpectedly, randomly, the relentless unforeseen, like a message written into the sand beneath my feet:  ‘open your eyes, see what is there, look into yourself, and look up from yourself, look at the stars: they are your family written into the future, your descendents, constellations of faith...’
And every step of the way there was fear - fear and trembling. The fear of the unknown, the dread of what would be demanded next. And the deep dark vision of future suffering, the shadows haunting the blessing: that we would be strangers in a strange land, yidden, not just once, but over and again through the generations, carrying that blessed/cursed covenant seared to our souls.
People forget how painful this process was for me, how hard it was to let go of our old ways of thinking. But gradually it dawned on me - or it was forced on me, sometimes it came like a revelation, a sudden vision, a clarity of seeing, of insight – that all those old gods, different gods for different parts of life, separate gods for separate parts of reality (El and Baal, mot and Shaddai ), I realised that they just couldn’t all be split up, the gods – the elohim -  they couldn’t all have an independent life of their own, but they had to be connected, they had to belong together, they had to One, Echad. The divine couldn’t exist sometimes here and sometimes there, but the divine was in everything - it really was Echad, One - and that meant it embraced me as well.
This is why I lived in fear, trembling before the mystery of Being. The mystery that past and present and future is just our way of seeing, our way of being, but in essence all is One, Ethad. Who could live with this? It demands too much. And yet I found myself bound into a relationship with the One, the Eternal One, bound into a covenant with a new way of seeing, a new way of believing, a new way of being alive where my being resonated with the Being of the universe. Who wouldn’t be frightened of seeing the world this way? 
And it changed me, this new way of seeing. I started off as Avram ben Terach - Avram, son of Terach. And I became Avram ha-Ivri, Avram the ‘one who crossed over’ – for I did cross a border, not just a geographical one but a border of belief. I crossed over from the old gods of my father to a new intuition about divinity: that everything was connected, everything was One. I became Avram ha-Ivri, whom you know as ‘Avram the Hebrew’.
And from there to Avraham, the ‘founder of faith’, the founder of faiths – who could have imagined?  It was a long journey for a boy born in Haran to a father who’d put his faith in the old elohim in all their dazzling multiplicity, a long journey to a new way of thinking about Elohim (same name, different way of seeing what it meant), a long journey to a new kind of faith, a faith not just rooted in nature but rooted in story, in history, filled with surprises, challenges, obligations, duties, a faith austere and joyful, fraught with uncertainty, shadowed by doubts, a faith my descendents began to think of as belonging to me - though it isn’t mine, it belongs to all of us.
And this journey continues, the journey of faith of Avraham Avinu – ‘our father Abraham’ . So if you attack my faith, or my faithful ones (who may not even believe that I ever existed) - if you attack them, then you attack me. 
I am Avram, son of Terach. Proud child of a father in whom I still have pride. As it should be.




Sunday, 6 November 2016

On Rainbows and Other Moments of Wonder

What do you think when you see a rainbow? What do you feel? Do you say to yourself: ‘Oh, look at that fine example of the refraction and dispersal of light in water droplets?’. You may know that this is what you are seeing, but I doubt that you experience a rainbow in that way. I’ve noticed that people often stop what they are doing and look, gaze at it for a while. (Nowadays they also seem to instantly reach for their phones to take a picture if it). We stop and look at this natural phenomenon as if has some meaning. As if it is more than just an optical illusion (which it is) or a  temporary aesthetic experience of a beautiful aspect of the natural world. What’s going on?

There is a sense of wonder. Perhaps of awe. We are taken out of ‘ordinary’ life and feel as if something special is being offered to us – if only for a moment or two. Part of our response to a rainbow may have to do with its transience. We know it won’t last. Do we sense that we are being shown something important about life itself: its impermanence, its fragility?
We may in the end be unsure what it is about a rainbow that we delight in. But we know that it is hard to be indifferent. It’s as if something is addressing us through this fleeting experience. Like a dream we can’t remember, its meaning seems just out of reach.
Judaism has its own mythology around the rainbow. This week we read the story of Noah, the survivor of the primeval environmental disaster the Torah calls the mabbul, the Flood. And when humanity has been destroyed and only Noah and his family remain, the sign that divine destructiveness will never again wipe out the human race or the earth itself is - the rainbow.
In a daring piece of creative storytelling, the narrators suggest that even God needs to be reminded not to let destructiveness take over. Human life is precious. Life on earth is precious. The planet is precious. “And it shall come to pass...when the rainbow is seen in the clouds, that I will remember my covenant which is between Me and you and every living creature, and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the rainbow shall be in the clouds, and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature...” (Genesis 9: 14-16). 
So the rainbow becomes an aide-mémoire for God. And because of this piece of mythic storytelling, the rainbow becomes a reminder for us. The covenant, the promise, has been handed on to us. The battle between creativity and destructiveness is a an ‘everlasting’ struggle not only in the heart of God, as it were, but in the human heart. The fate of the planet is now in our hands.
We know that the environmental crisis threatens the well-being of many millions of people, along with the natural world, and the animal world – so the rainbow reminds us of the fragility of all of life on the planet. It’s now in our hands. Can we keep faith with the covenant, the promise?  That this precious jewel in the crown of the created universe must never be ruined or destroyed?
How can we keep ourselves sensitised to the spiritual task we have been set (which is also a social and political task), the sacred destiny we have taken upon ourselves – to preserve and nurture this precious life on earth (and the life of the earth) that we so enjoy? Perhaps we need to be encouraged to appreciate moments of wonder, moments like seeing a rainbow. Perhaps we need to be helped to develop an attitude of what Rabi Abraham Joshua Heschel called "radical amazement" at the extraordinary richness and diversity and abundance of life that exists at every moment. Perhaps we need to refine our sensitivity to how much is wondrous in the unfolding life of the world.
This may be less difficult than we imagine. For we all know these moments of wonder. Moments when we feel as if we are seeing the world – or something in the world, or someone – for the first time. Moments when we become finely attuned to the rhythm and pulse of life. Moments when life is filled with ‘nowness’.
Holding in your arms your new-born child. Gazing awestruck at the stars in the night sky. That first glance across a room - eyes meeting - at a party you didn’t want to go to. Watching the sun set over the ocean. Walking in the mountains - experiencing the grandeur of the natural world.  Or just digging over the earth, appreciating the gifts of your own humble garden.
Listening to certain kinds of music, Beethoven’s late sonatas;  or singing Handel’s Messiah in a choir. Celebrating a life event in your family, or with friends – sharing moments of joy. Confronting the death of someone we love, or a stranger: bearing with the process, offering comfort and support. These moments of ‘nowness’ – what the medieval German Christian mystic Meister Eckhart called Istigkeit ‘is-ness’ - can come in all sorts of situations.
Through sharing food, or in sex, or through silence. Through doing a piece of work with precise attention to what is happening at each moment, the nowness of creativity. Through being fully engaged in helping someone in need, simple acts of compassion or generosity. Speaking in depth with another person, or  listening in depth: creating moments of intimacy, of meeting, of what Martin Buber calls Begegnung/  ‘encounter’. Alles wirkliche Leben ist Begegnung – "all real living is meeting/encounter".
We know these moments, they are precious, life-affirming – but none of them depend necessarily on belief in a divine ‘Being’ or on being part of a religious tradition. The most supposedly secular of hearts can still experience these moments of wonder, of nowness. What is important is to recognise them, appreciate them - and appreciate too that we have a responsibility to support each other and protect the planet so that such moments can be available for generations to come.
A rainbow is like a mini-revelation of a different dimension of reality, that is always with us, but also outside our grasp, beyond us, uncontrollable by us. The poet William Blake captured this, the potential for each moment to reveal something to us: ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite’. Moments of wonder come to us unexpectedly - they can’t be forced. And yet we sense that can hold ourselves open to them.
Judaism traditionally had a way of helping us keep ourselves open to moments of wonder, of nowness; of helping us nurture our ‘radical amazement’ about the grandeur and mystery of life. Of helping us feel gratitude. And therefore a sense of responsibility for the nurturing of life in all its forms. The rabbis of old developed  a series of b’rachot – ‘blessings’ – for such occasions: on seeing the wonders of nature; on smelling spices, or perfumes, or flowers; on eating fruit; on drinking wine; on hearing thunder; on seeing the sea; on seeing trees in blossom for the first time. And a blessing too on seeing a rainbow:
Blessed are You, our Living God, Sovereign of the Universe, You remember Your covenant and are faithful to it, and keep your promise.
[ This piece first appeared as one of a series of weekly 'Rabbi-in-Residence' pieces I am writing from September - November 2016 that are appearing in JEU, the online journal of Paideia: The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden ]


Sunday, 30 October 2016

Reflections on Order and Chaos in the Hebrew Bible - and the Shame of Calais

Watching, listening to and reading about the dismantling of the Calais refugee settlement this last week has been a disheartening, dementing experience. It seemed that chaos was the order of the day. Some brave souls on both sides of the Channel have been battling the callousness of the UK and French governments and insisting on the absolute priority of safeguarding the well-being of the children and youngsters gathered there – but that it is voluntary organizations and charities that are representing the necessary ethical commitment is a sad indictment of governments who can hide behind their assumption that many citizens have other priorities.  

In this they are aided and abetted by the raucous, demeaning aggression of the UK’s tabloid press towards these vulnerable youngsters, which allows the UK government to get away with shamefully small steps towards addressing the crisis. The hypocrisy of the right-wing press knows no bounds here – on the one hand children must always be kept away from harm, and danger and possible exploitation: the safety and well-being of children is regularly promoted as an almost sacred duty.  

On the other hand, this only applies to ‘our’ children. Other children – ‘foreign’ children – need to be left to fend for themselves and are not welcome here. There are times when the veneer of civilisation in which we paint our self-image is scraped mercilessly thin, and the ugly, raw blood and bones of our deeper, loathsome (actually, self-loathing) selves is exposed to full view.  

These thoughts this last week coincided with themes I’ve been reflecting on about order and chaos, and the relationship between these forces in our daily lives: our need for order, rhythms and the security of knowing how things might unfold – and the way in which these fundamental human wishes keep getting subverted by the forces of chaos and disorder that lie just below the surface of life; or indeed are present within the very flux of daily life.  

And I have been reflecting on these themes because this week Jews around the world began again the weekly cycle of readings from the Torah. And there, from the very beginning of this great mythic drama of Western consciousness, the Bible, we find a portrait of the dynamic tension between order and chaos.  

You know how the drama begins. ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’. It’s so familiar that we might not pause to wonder at it, this portrait of a Creator: a mysterious force giving purposeful form and imaginative shape to creation. An artist-designer-choreographer shaping and ordering a world which comes into being moment by moment. In a piece of magisterial story-telling the Biblical narrators offer us a picture of creation unfolding stage by stage in seven ordered and systematic stages. And we are the culmination of this divine activity: in this mythic, poetic story humanity is the purpose of creation. In this ancient text, in an act of extraordinary creative thinking, the Jewish people gave birth to the idea of something giving birth to the idea of us. 

Although we are now living – remarkably! - in an age that knows that the universe is 13.82 billion years old, the Judaic cultural imagination was never as interested in the question ‘when did it begin?’ as the questions ‘what is it for?’ and ‘how does it hold together?’ And these questions are revealed when we look carefully at the text – for this portrait of creation  is fraught with ambiguity. For how are we to read the opening sentences of the Torah?  

We immediately have a problem. The translation I offered above does not seem quite right: the influential Biblical commentator, the medieval scholar Rashi, looked at the grammatical form of the first word of this poetic text -- B’reshit -- and saw that it was not free-standing, but introduces a dependent clause: ‘In the beginning of ...’ . Rashi is reading close to the grain of the original Hebrew text, where there are no verse divisions: he suggests that the opening of the Bible should be read at one stretch, as a continuous thought. Something like: ‘In the beginning of God’s creation of heaven and earth -- the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the deep and an energy from God sweeping over the water -- God said: “Let there be light” and there was light’.  

So how did creation begin? According to this translation (and remember that every translation is an interpretation), the original creative process begins with God ‘speaking’: “Let there be...”  Rashi’s reading is thus in agreement with the author of the Fourth Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the word’. Existence is formed out of language. Here the Hebrew Bible distances itself from other contemporary Near Eastern creation myths. There are no divine genealogies or battles between the gods, no rituals to be re-enacted to ensure the supremacy of the national god. All of that is abandoned in favour of the ‘word’, the logos of John’s Greek text, the logic of the beginning - a beginning through speech. In this view of creation, time and chronology are subservient to language. ‘Time...worships language’, as the poet W.H.Auden once wrote.   

This view of creation as an ongoing act of articulation by ‘God’ resonates with the Jewish mystical tradition, which pictures the universe as being created out of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet: their continuing combination and re-combination makes up the substance of our being and that of the world. All of matter, including ourselves (our human ‘being’), flow from the original speech-act that emerged from the divine ‘Being’. Existence is the sum of the ongoing echoes, responses, reverberations from that original “Let there be light...”  (Genesis1:3).  

This is akin to the popular view of artistic creativity as occurring in a flash of inspiration, a moment of revelation. Suddenly everything is just there: the whole poem, the complete melody, the entire story. Yet although there are artists’ accounts which reinforce this view, they are in the minority.  More frequent are accounts of the creative process which suggest something very different takes place in the struggle to produce something out of nothing. And this takes us to a second, and radically different, reading of our creation story.  

Those who have come to the Bible through translations into English will perhaps be most familiar with the 1611 King James ‘Authorized’ Version. It begins with that familiar and bold declaration: 1) In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. End of sentence. That punctuation mark – not there in the Hebrew – creates a statement that stands as a kind of prologue, a headline, for the subsequent events. As if it were staying: ‘The following is the story of how, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’  

And then verse 2 provides, quite literally, a pro-logue: what existed before the logic of God’s speaking-the-world-into-being. This is not a creation out of nothing (ex nihilo), but creation out of the midst of a dark, primeval void: 2) Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. 3) And God said: “Let there be light”.  And there was light.’  

Suddenly we see the huge reservoir of potentially destructive forces that exist before God speaks. We have the ‘unformed and void’: tohu va’vohu  (‘chaos and confusion’ is perhaps a better translation). And ‘darkness’. And ‘the deep’ (or ‘the chasm’, ‘the abyss’). In our second reading we discover - with surprise? with anxiety? - that God does not create everything. For example, the ‘darkness’ exists independently, before the light. In this reading of creation there is drama, struggle, even a sense of improvisation. There is a deep insecurity about the whole enterprise.  

According to one fifth-century rabbinic homiletic commentary (midrash Genesis Rabbah 9:4), the world did not spring forth all at once from God’s omnipotent will, but 26 attempts preceded the creation. All of them were doomed to failure. The world as we now have it came out of the chaotic midst of this earlier wreckage. Does this sound like the stuff of primitive science-fiction? Perhaps. But this midrashic tradition of the fragility and impermanence of the creative process is spiritually and psychologically significant.  

For here humanity is an experiment. There is always the risk of failure and the return to chaos and nothingness. The uncertainty of every aspiring artist reverberates within this stream of mythic thinking. God’s anxious cry of hope at the end of the midrash - ‘If only this time it will last!’ - accompanies human history, and our own lives within in. 

Our first reading of the opening of Genesis invited us into a harmonious world of language, logic and ordered inevitability. Our second reading opens up the possibility that insecurity and impermanence is built into the makeup of the world and the fabric of our consciousness. Our first reading offers us a world  where things should make sense; where there is order and security. Our second reading offers us a world of ‘chaos and confusion’ – a world in which ‘darkness’ is the starting point and a sense of provisionality accompanies the unfolding of everyday life.  

The genius of the Biblical narrators lies in how they manage to suggest - in the few opening verses of their story, in the guise of an evocation of Creation - such diverse readings, interpretations, of life. They somehow intuited that we would spend our lives, individually and collectively, stretched out between our wish for order, rhythm, logic, security – and our awareness of how close is the ‘abyss’, how powerful are the forces of ‘chaos and confusion’, how ‘darkness’ is part of the fabric of life, how near we always are to a collapse back into tohu va’vohu. Calais this last week has revealed how close we are to this.  

That midrash is deeply subversive: the rabbis saw deeply into the ambiguity in the text and gave us a God that isn’t omnipotent or omniscient. Their 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. It is suggesting that in regard to the world we live in, it could all end in failure. It could all – our so-called civilisation, and us, and this fragile planet – be sucked back into the depths of  tohu va’vohu 

When at the end of the midrash God is allowed a voice and 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. The hope that our lives, and the life of humanity, are part of a scheme of things that will last.  

So this is how the Torah begins – opening up for us existential insecurity inside a supposedly ordered creation. How we manage that innate insecurity is a test of our humanity – do we bring ‘light’ into the world? Or do we let ‘darkness’ reign? We contain both, the potential for both. Which force, which energy, will win the day? For us, for our world.  

[developed from some thoughts shared at Finchley Reform Synagogue, October 29th, 2016]