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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]

 

 

 

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Reflections on Simchat Torah and a Kafka Parable

And so we come to the close of the spiritual year. But this is a paradoxical closure – for it’s a closure in which the door to new beginnings is left wide open. On Simchat Torah – added to the end of the festival of impermanence, Sukkot - the slow, regular, week-by-week progression of the Jewish liturgical year, based on the cycle of weekly readings from the Torah, comes to an end.

We read the last verses of the Torah where Moses, a legendary 120 years old, goes up the mountain overlooking the so-called ‘promised land’, the land of Canaan, and before he dies he is allowed to look at the inheritance which has been promised to his people. ‘You can look at it, but you can’t touch it, eat from it’ – the message to humanity at the beginning of the Torah about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil finds its symbolic echo at the end of the Torah in God’s refusal to allow Moses more than a glimpse of what the whole wilderness journey has been leading to. He cannot enter the land. It is the next generation who will inherit the land. It is always the next generation whom we believe will fulfil our dreams of a better tomorrow. So the Torah ends on this bitter-sweet moment of loss – and hope deferred.
But on this festival of Simchat Torah, the pain of unfulfilled longing immediately segues into a new beginning. The opening verses of the book of Genesis follow on straight away and the holy drama begins again. ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth...’ Moses has died, but creation is renewed. The journey is over, we have failed to reach our destination. And the journey is beginning again, and all lies before us, waiting. “In my end is my beginning” (T.S.Eliot, Four Quartets).
When we dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah we are celebrating the return to the beginning, we are celebrating the renewal of our quest for a story that can give meaning to our lives. We are rejoicing in the unending journey of our people towards a destiny which can never be fulfilled. As Franz Rosenzweig puts it: “this close of the spiritual year is not permitted to be an actual close but must flow back into the beginning...the last word in the Torah gives rise to the first.” In the liturgical year, the spiritual year, we never reach the ‘promised land’. We are always journeying. The spiritual journey itself  – personal and collective - is our destination, our homeland.
The Jewish people, a people who have survived the vicissitudes of history, are a people on an endless journey through time,  a people whose sense of journeying is evoked in Franz Kafka’s incomparable parable:
I gave orders for my horse to be brought round from the stable. The servant did not understand me. I myself went to the stable, saddled my horse and mounted. In the distance I heard a bugle call, I asked him what this meant. He knew nothing and had heard nothing. At the gate he stopped me, asking: ’Where are you riding to, master?’ ‘I do not know’, I said, ‘only away from here, away from here. Always away from here, only by doing so can I reach my destination.’ ‘And so you know your destination?’, he asked. ‘Yes’, I answered, ‘didn’t I say so? Away-From-Here, that is my destination.’ ‘You have no provisions with you,’ he said. ‘I need none,’ I said, ‘the journey is so long that I must die of hunger if I don’t get anything on the way. No provisions can save me. For it is, fortunately, a truly immense journey.’
‘Fortunately’ – ‘es ist ja zum Gl├╝ck’ – what a wonderful sense of celebration, anticipation, hopefulness is evoked! That concluding phrase, and indeed the whole parable, is one of the great religious commentaries on the story of the Jewish people. A contemporary midrash to stand alongside the midrashim of old.
What thoughts come to mind as we ponder on Kafka’s parable? We have the destiny of the Jewish people not to be understood; and to have to rely on themselves. They are attuned to a call, a summons, that they alone can hear – Kafka’s bugle (Trompete) is a close relative of the shofar, present at the revelation at Sinai when the people learn of the moral and ethical vision they are to enact; the shofar that in the tradition also announces the coming of the Messianic age and the redemption of humanity. And the journey is always ‘Away-From-Here’,  away from the compromises and disappointments, defeats and suffering of everyday personal life, away from the empty promises and false solutions and unending conflicts of social and political life.
And if there are ‘no provisions’ that can be prepared in advance to help us cope with the dramas of life, then we are like the children of Israel in the wilderness who depend on receiving manna from the Eternal One - their lesson in dependence, their lesson on the hubris of believing that we can be masters of our own fate.  Nothing can save us, Kafka intuits – channelling his innate understanding of the Judaic story as portrayed in the texts of old – unless we are open to receive what life offers us day by day. This is the daily miracle – we receive what we need to keep us going. And we do keep on going – day after day, generation after generation. ‘For it is, fortunately, a truly immense journey.’
The Hebrew word torah is from the root y’r’h – ‘to point in a direction’. It’s used of an archer shooting arrows. Torah is not only ‘Law’ – forbiddingly revealed for all time, static and unchanging. Torah is about the direction we are called upon to move. It is the lightning flash of insight when we see the way ahead. It is what we hear when we listen in deeply to the call to our better selves, to enact moments of messianic hopefulness through our compassion, our generosity, our passion for justice. It is the moment of knowing how we have to act. On Simchat Torah we celebrate both the Torah of tradition – that creative wellspring of stories and legends, ethical teachings  and social responsibilities - and the ‘Torah’ of our own times, the teachings and wisdom of voices like Kafka, sometimes far from the mainstream of traditional Jewish texts, that nevertheless flow towards us and nurture our souls.
 
[This piece is 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 https://en-gb.facebook.com/paideiaFB/ ]




 

 

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Challenging our Assumptions about Learning and Liturgy - and What We Need to Help Us to Fly.

A few years ago a team of psychologists set up an experiment with some pre-school children. They gave the children a toy made of lots of plastic tubes. Each tube had something different about it. One tube squeaked when you touched it. One lit up. One tube made music. One had a mirror hidden inside it. With half the children, one of the psychologists came into the room and – as if by accident – bumped into the tube that squeaked. “Oops!”, she said as the tube squeaked. The children were then left alone to play with the toy. The psychologist-team watched to see what happened next. What do you think they observed?  

The other half of the children had a different experience. The psychologist came into the room and acted more like a teacher, picking up the toy and saying enthusiastically “Look at my great toy! Let me show you how it works” and then pressing the tube that squeaked, which of course it did. The children were then left alone to play with the toy, with the psychologist-team  watching to see what happened next in that group of children.
Although Rosh Hashanah is the time of the year when we are asking ourselves ‘what will happen next? how will our next year unfold?’, we don’t usually have any window, any vantage point, from which we can observe the action. We are in that sense like the children being tested to see how we respond to what life presents us with.  We are still as a people, the children of Israel, caught up in something bigger than we know, larger than we understand. Part of the religious work, the spiritual work, of this time of the year is to see if we can get a different vantage point onto our daily lives.
But back to the experiment. What do you think the psychologist team saw happening in the first group of children, the one where there’d been this ‘accidental’ bumping into the toy, which then squeaked?  That group, they found, began playing with the toy in all sorts of random ways, pulling, pushing, prodding, until  gradually they discovered all the functions of the tubes: the light, the music, the mirror. And the other group? Those children who’d been enthusiastically shown how the squeaking part of the tube worked – those who’d been deliberately taught, had their attention directed, by the experimenter – they played with the tube in a much more limited and repetitive way. ‘Squeak, squeak! Squeak, squeak!’ – they hardly ever discovered all the other things the toy could do. 
When I came across this piece of research – it’s from Alison Gopnik’s  book The Gardener and the Carpenter, she’s a Jewish professor of both psychology and philosophy at Berkeley, California - I have to say that I found it quite unsettling, disquieting. It seemed at first quite counter-intuitive.
Surely if you are just left to find things out for yourself, randomly, you could end up lost, bored, frustrated, distressingly all-at-sea. And if you are directed in your learning, your discovery of what’s in the world, by an enthusiastic teacher – can’t they open up things for you that you might never find by yourself, hidden wonders you’d never otherwise come across on your own? So this research seemed to undermine some basic assumptions of mine.
It is quite destabilising to think: have I got something fundamentally  wrong? will I have to think again about how I see the world, build it up again with different foundations? These are High Holy Day questions, I suppose – certainly they are pertinent to the self-examination we are encouraged to undertake -  but they weren’t questions I welcomed when I came across this peer-reviewed research.
But the more I thought about this experiment, the more I realised the truth embedded within it, and the more significant, profound, I found it. And still find it.
I thought back to my own childhood and realised just how self-directing my learning had been. I’d go to the local library and just take out whatever books captured my imagination. There were lots of books at home too, but I never remember being told, by either of my parents, ‘you really must read that’. They just left me to it - a sort of blessing in disguise, I now realise.  At secondary school  there were some texts that were set - novels to read, poems to learn - and I am grateful for those because, perhaps fortunately, they didn’t narrow my focus but made me realise how much there was to discover. But on the whole I can now see how free I was both as a child and then an adolescent to find my own way – and not just in literature and poetry, but in music and art and films as well. Looking back, I can see that I was embarked on a lifetime of exploring what interested me, allowing  randomness and serendipity and chance to do its work.
That lack of external direction has, I think, allowed me to be relatively eclectic and wide-ranging in following my own enthusiasms and not anyone else’s. (It has also meant that I have vast areas of ignorance). But what about studying to become  a rabbi? Obviously at  Leo Baeck College there was a huge amount of directedness that went on; historically, traditionally, there’s a strong voice of authority that says, like the one directed to that second group of kids, ‘Look over there, those are the texts that matter: Torah, Talmud, commentaries, collections of midrash, liturgical texts’.  In the past Jews – not just rabbis – were clearly directed where to go for wisdom. Certain texts were solid links in a chain of tradition stretching back millennia.
But again, I was fortunate - another blessing in disguise - in that the teachers that I had at and around the College were not quite like that. Or it may be the other way round – that the teachers I found were not like that. The rabbis and teachers I gravitated towards seemed to have been the ones who, each in their own way, represented that first kind of psychologist-experimenter.
I am thinking of Rabbi Lionel Blue and Rabbi Jonathan Magonet and Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, each in their own very different-from-each-other idiosyncratic ways teaching how Jewish religious life is, in essence,  about exploration, about a journey of discovery in which the answers aren’t always given by the past; where in fact the asking of a good question, and the exploration of where it takes you, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, is central what it means to be Jewishly religious.
I had other teachers at rabbinical college, but they didn’t enthuse me in the same way. In retrospect I can see that perhaps  my mind-set had already been formed – a pre-disposition towards a certain stance in relation to learning, how we learn, where we learn, who we can learn from. Where you bump into things – “oops!” – and learn from that, rather than have your learning focused by someone else.
So I leant that wisdom could be found in engaging with Christian pastors and Scottish shepherds, Dominican fathers and atheist artists, displaced poets and Sufi mystics; and that the traditional advice given at the beginning of Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, asay l’cha rav – ‘Get yourself a rav, a teacher’ (1:6), was fine – and maybe important – as long as you didn’t restrict yourself to a too-narrow definition of who a teacher might be, or where new insights might come from.
All of which is to say that by looking back at my own journey I can now see that Alison Gopnik’s research experiment – and there’s a lot of other work that she and her colleagues have done that confirm her conclusions – seems to me to be on to something extremely significant about how learning takes place, what kind of direction is needed, and what gets in the way and limits a person’s development. But I still find her conclusions unsettling. Because I think the implications are far-reaching. I want to speak about two very different areas where the implications challenge, very directly, how we do things, how we think about things.
The first is parenting – which is a large part of the focus of her book ‘The Gardener and the Carpenter’. Gopnik puts it very clearly – in a sentence that might make many middle-class parents apoplectic with rage, and maybe fear : “Our job [as parents] is not to shape our children’s minds; it’s to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows.”
Explore all the possibilities – what, go to the local park unsupervised? choose for themselves what school they go to? what subjects to study? decide for themselves whether they do really want extra music lessons, or ballet, or to complete their Duke of Edinburgh awards? “A parent’s job is to help youngsters explore all the possibilities that the world allows”?!  What about exploring drugs? exploring sex? exploring the vast regions of the internet?  This woman needs to be locked up, we might be thinking, encouraging us to think about our parenting in the affluent West as too restrictive, as not conducive to our children’s well-being.
But if we can resist giving in to our knee-jerk reactions, we might create some space to think about the deep wisdom of what she is saying: that we might be getting in the way of our children’s overall well-being by eliminating the random, the serendipitous, by not letting them discover things for themselves - through their mistakes, and what hurts them, as well as what they might thrill to by being allowed to follow their own desires and passions. 
You can see all around us the results of the way children are often now being parented, and it is very painful.  I see it and hear about it every day in my therapy consulting room: an epidemic of self-harm, eating disorders, mental health problems, in girls especially; but boys too are much more fragile than their bravado would let us know about. All that educational emphasis on outcomes and test scores and all that parental emphasis on achievement and success – along with peer pressures and the relentless presence of social media sites – has created a perfect storm of un-wellness, of dis-ease.
As parents we might want to protect our youngsters from dangers, of various kinds, but what Alison Gopnik’s book does is provoke us into thinking about the ways in which unknowingly we become collusive with and part of the problem - rather than offering a viable alternative to it. Parenting should be more like gardening than carpentry, Gopnik argues – it is about creating the best conditions for what is there to be allowed to grow, rather than hammering away at our children to shape them into what we think they need to be.
We never think about it as hammering away of course, we think it’s ‘being sensible’, ‘getting ahead’, ‘getting the most out of the opportunities you’ve been given’ - all sorts of rationalisations which our youngsters buy into, or react against, to their own detriment. Sometimes their problems appear at the time as they are growing up, sometimes it take years and then breaks out at college or university: counselling services in tertiary education are being overwhelmed with young people unable to cope.
We could widen this a bit. Beyond the current debates in the UK about grammar schools or the merits of faith schools there is a more fundamental malaise within the educational system in this country. Did you know that in Finland, which leads the world in terms of both academic achievements and reported well-being amongst school-leavers, they don’t begin to teach maths, reading and spelling until the children are seven years old?  Prior to that  classes are structured around creative play, storytelling, interpersonal and social skills and the role of the imagination in personal development. The UK has a lot to learn: to unlearn and to learn. (Gopnik’s work is a good example of the historical role of Jews in society – to offer a critique of the status quo, to challenge the prevailing idolatry in a culture). 
But I want to finish by bringing this back to ourselves as Jews on the High Holy Days. Because the other thing that unsettled me about Gopnik’s fascinating and passionate arguments is the implications for what we do in our synagogue services. She doesn’t talk in her book about the implications of her ideas for religious belief or practice, but it led me to think about it. That’s an example of her philosophy at work. I bumped into her work and then, in exploring it, I was  led to into quite other areas.
Because the model we have, in our liturgy and our services, is definitely the second route the experimenters took: ‘Look at this, children, see how interesting it is’ - that’s in effect what we who lead the services are saying to you. ‘Turn to page 31’, we say, ‘and we’ll sing this, or read that’. And you probably dutifully follow where you are directed. (Maybe I’m wrong and you are all secret explorers and drifters off. I really hope you are – and I am sure you’ll have heard me encouraging you to use this time to wander through the book, or follow where your mind takes you . But now I have Gopnik’s research to back up my intuitions!).
But if you do just feel an obligation to dutifully follow along, then  - if we think about that through the lens of Alison Gopnik’s work - what we are in effect doing is narrowing your choices and potential adventures  during these services, rather than expanding the possibilities of what you could find out and discover for yourselves if we took that different, first-experimenter approach. I think this is one of the underlying reasons why so many people are put off my formal religious services – and this may be true of Christianity as well as Judaism.   
So the question I want to leave with you with is this: how would Jews do services differently if we took a ‘Oops!’ approach to the liturgy? If we used the time to bump into things rather than be directed towards them? I’m sure our services would look very different and feel very different. Could we bear a service which wasn’t guided so rigidly from on high – and I’m not speaking about from heaven? A service where we left gaps of time for congregants to wander through the liturgy until they found something that caught their eye?  and then maybe, if they wanted to , have a conversation with their neighbour about what they had found significant in it? A service where we did just a fraction of the liturgy and then used it to see where our own thoughts, our own psyche, took us next?
Services like that might take us out of our comfort zone - but they would allow space for the unconscious to work, allow space for the ruach hakodesh, the spirit of divine energy within us, to breathe in us and enlighten us.  These would be services in the spirit of Shakespeare’s ‘By indirections find directions out ‘ (Hamlet, Act 2, scene1). They would be services where kavannah – inner attentiveness to what unfolds within us moment by moment - was given more space than keva, what is fixed and determined by tradition. They would be services that would - to use traditional language - allow God in.
Why don’t we try to wander, to digress, to use the words in our prayer books as springboards into deeper regions of our own soul and heart and mind. Can we make space for chance things to arise in our mind - random thoughts and associations – and follow them, see where they lead. See what can be discovered by bumping into words and images from these texts – allow oneself to be surprised , embarrassed, moved, gratified, ashamed, excited, whatever comes up. See what hurts, see what gives pleasure. Think of our services as an adventure playground and not a place where we have to dutifully tick the boxes of prayers read, songs sung, pages covered.
What kind of adventure playground do we want our services to be? At the moment we are too often like a butterfly pinned to a wheel: we are not only being cruel to ourselves, but we are stopping ourselves flying spiritually, religiously. I can’t believe that in our hearts we want that. But what do we want? What do our souls really need? I leave you with that question.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, October 4th, 2016]