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Sunday, 16 July 2017

Developing a Spirit of Independent-Mindedness

How would you feel if you went to a synagogue or church and the service was led by a robot? if the words and the music had been machine generated? (Some of you may already think you have such a figure in your community, but stay with me). You could programme a machine to lead services, to give sermons, Rabbi Google can teach you about Judaism even now. Your robot minister could listen and talk to you if you had a pastoral problem. Machines can do all these things already.

In Germany they have just unveiled a robot-priest in the Protestant Church called – can you guess? – “BlessU-2”. It has a touch-screen chest, two arms and a head. You can choose to be blessed in German, English, French, Spanish or Polish. You can choose a male or female voice. The robot pastor raises its arms, flashes lights, and recites the Biblical verse “May God bless you and protect you”.  If you want, you can press the screen and get a print-out of the words. In case of malfunction or breakdown, the Church has invested in a backup robot. ‘O brave new world, That has such pastors in it’ (as Shakespeare almost said).  

This may be the future - who knows? -  but the point of the church’s experiment is to provoke debate, which it has done. We all know – or think we know – the difference between a machine and a person, even if we sometimes end up treating other people as machines. But what does it mean to be human? We talk, casually, about the ‘human spirit’ but it is a mystery, this thing we call consciousness. The Book of Genesis tries to capture the extraordinary nature of what it means to be a person, to be alive, to be animated (that word of course is from the Latin ‘anima/spirit’). In the Biblical myth, the inanimate, as-yet-not-quite-human, Adam,  made of dust, inert matter, Adamah, becomes a nefesh chaya , a living being,  by having the breath of life breathed into it by the divine spirit (Genesis 2:7). That’s one, poetic, way of imagining what a human being is.

But in spite of all the amazing neuroscience and genetic understanding and the insights from biology and chemistry, and all the knowledge we have about what makes a human being human, what still remains elusive is the problem - the philosophers call it the ‘hard problem’ - of what consciousness is, what this human spirit in us is. I think this is going to remain a tantalising question for a long time yet: apart from these amazing neural connections up here in our heads, in this ‘three pounds of jelly’ as the great neurologist Oliver Sacks once called the brain, what is it that makes us an aware, spirited human being?  

Whatever this mysterious essence is, it does define the difference between us and a robot, however sophisticated a machine that is, however many millions of calculations per second it can make. We can live in awe of what humanity can now build. Our smartphones are smarter than us. That’s awesome. But it is nothing like the awe of what it is to be human, a living being.

Our Torah text this week describes the qualities of Joshua, Moses’ successor.  Moses is told “Take Joshua, the son of Nun, a man who has spirit/ruach in him, and place your hand upon him...and give him instructions in the sight of the whole community...” (Numbers 27:18-20). This is a bit puzzling if you think about it. Surely everyone has ruach in them – spirit. This is what makes them human – the spirit animating human flesh. The poetry of the earliest verses of Genesis (1:2) describes the spirit of God – the ruach Elohim – generating, animating, all of life, moving through all creation, breathing life into us too.

Ruach  means breath, and wind, and spirit. It’s tangible and it’s intangible, it’s the energy that keeps everything going and it’s a metaphor for the energy that keeps everything going. So what is the text inviting us to think about when it describes the next leader of the community after Moses as a person who has ruach, spirit, in them?
Remember that Joshua is the person who returned from spying out the promised land with a positive report, unlike the majority view of the 10 other spies who were frightened about their futures. They came back and said to the Israelites: we went there and we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, the cities are huge, the people are fierce, we’ll never prevail there, let’s get back to Egypt where at least we knew what the next day would bring.

But Joshua, along with Caleb, give a minority report:  they didn’t follow the consensus, the group-think, they are independent-minded, they offer an Obama-esque ‘Yes, we can’:  we can overcome the forces ranged against us.

We had that story a few chapters ago and now we arrive at the text where  Joshua is described as having spirit within him, ruach. So is it suggesting that this is what makes him a potential leader? That he’s not an automaton? that he’s not pre-programmed? that he’s not robotic?

Do we intuit here something vital being shown to us through these stories, these legends, about leadership?  The importance of being able to really think for oneself, not succumbing to one’s fears, not being an automatic machine-like follower of the views of majority opinion? Is it this spirit of independent-mindedness what makes you someone who can lead, who can inspire, who can animate others, breathe new life into them and stop them becoming petrified, stuck, robotic, soulless?

This notion of independent-mindedness is complicated: I’m not talking about just being contrary, bloody-minded - just because you dissent from majority views doesn’t mean you are filled with the spirit of wise leadership.  I wouldn’t describe climate change deniers as independent-minded voices dissenting from the scientific consensus, but head-in-the-sand, and often self-serving, deniers of reality. Similarly, Brexiteer politicians dissenting from the extensive majority view of informed opinion and expertise, across many fields,  that says that leaving the EU will be culturally, economically and socially disastrous, a form of national self-harm – well, that spirit of independent-mindedness seems to some of us just delusional.

So the question is:  when do you dissent from a majority view? And when do you support a majority view? The point about independent-mindedness is your capacity to bring together in yourself thinking and feeling, to be able to research, and reflect , to listen with an open mind, to weigh up multiple possibilities, to ponder over inconsistencies, to allow doubt to be part of the fabric of your thinking. Like ruach – breathe, wind, spirit – this spirit of independent-mindedness  is always in motion.

It’s a gift to be animated by the spirit, and it requires work not to let your spirit atrophy, or go into eclipse. Sometimes it means learning from the wisdom of youth. And their directness: “Being religious means believing in a culture and a community that bonds over morals and values” – when I hear a young woman at her Bat Mitzvah sharing this thought I can see that she’s understood something that many so-called adults never understand: the recognition that being ‘religious’ is not about whether you believe in a divine being in some form or another, a god of one kind or another - that’s the majority view, the automatic view, the robotic view. No, being religious is about connecting yourself to a way of thinking and living, a culture, a heritage, committed to actions guided by moral values and ethics...

...the Jewish ethical stance towards justice is designed particularly to protect those who are vulnerable - who because of poverty or social status, or being an outsider, or a refugee, or marginalised in some other way, might not be treated with fairness or respect by the powers that be.  So, recent cuts in legal aid which mean citizens are denied access to justice, politicians who wish us to leave the European Court of Justice, government plans to scrap the Human Rights Act (rights developed after the atrocities of the second world war and designed to protect us all from oppression by holding the state to account) - all of these attacks on the principles of running a just society run counter to Jewish ethical principles...

...We have all witnessed recently the kind of horrors that can occur if a society fails to live out its highest moral and ethical principles – the fire at Grenfell Tower, with the burning alive of poor people just yards away from some of the country’s most pricey homes. We know this was not just, straightforwardly, a tragedy for those involved and their families, but a  terrible indictment of a whole set of current attitudes and shabby values: safety regulations are not a luxury, they are a moral necessity - but the mantra of deregulation fails to recognise that; in addition, the privatisation of lower-income property management means that people have to deal with unresponsive companies rather than local authorities whose officials can be voted out (and without legal aid any legal challenge to private companies becomes prohibitively expensive); also, if austerity means cutting housing officers and safety inspectors then you are putting money above morality; all of this is self-evident if you look at society through a Judaeo-Christian ethical lens.

Our sacred texts offer a perspective on these kind of issues that a society ignores at its peril: there’s a huge social inequality that runs through this country like an open wound and I don’t think you have to be a Biblical prophet to realise that a society that allows this to happen has lost its raison d’être and its very soul.

Leadership requires a spirit a independent-mindedness, an ability to avoid automatically following the populist view, the view of what Ibsen called ‘the compact majority’. How we each develop that capacity within us is a spiritual task. But without it we are lost.

[adapted and extracted from a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, July 15th, 2017]

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

New Rabbis, New Challenges: from Sinai to Kafka, and beyond

Last weekend I had the privilege, the honour, of addressing the graduating rabbinic students of the Leo Baeck College at the College’s annual Ordination service and ceremony. The ceremony is known as semikhah and is rooted in an ancient tradition of rabbinic teachers passing on authority to the next generation of students through a ceremony of ‘laying on of hands’. This rabbinic tradition is itself traced back symbolically to the way in which Moses appointed Joshua as his successor to lead the Israelite community (Numbers 27:15-23).

I received semikhah in 1980. (The rabbi who ordained me happened to be seated next to me on Sunday). That seems a world away in both time and in the ethos of the times, and when I came to think about what I wanted to speak about to the graduating class of 2017 ( four women and three men) I found myself thinking about the extraordinary challenges not just Jewish communities will be facing in the next decades, but challenges all of us in Europe will be facing. What will a new generation of rabbis need to find within themselves? These new Jewish leaders will be asked to teach in, and minister to,  communities in circumstances quite different, I felt, from the challenges rabbis have faced in the last 40 years. What follows here is an edited version of the address I offered the graduating class and the assembled gathering of family, friends and congregants who came together at West London Synagogue to celebrate this special occasion. I was grateful to the students for asking me. And grateful to the Leo Baeck College for acceding to their request.


You all know the parable, Kafka’s numinous midrash: 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. Each one of you has heard this call, this summons, addressed to you, when others may have heard nothing – or doubted your hearing of it - and it took you eventually on your journey to the Leo Baeck College, and into the rabbinate.
Kafka’s bugle (Trompete in the original) is a close relative of the shofar, present at the revelation at Sinai when the Israelite community, our people, learn of the moral and ethical vision that it has been their burden and destiny to carry and try to enact. And just as at Sinai when the call went out and tradition says that each person heard it in their own way, according to their own character and personality, each one of you has heard that collective call in your own way, interpreted it, wrestled with it, questioned it, inhabited it, on this path into the rabbinate.
So you are inheritors of both mythopoeic traditions – one speaking of a call addressed to all the Jewish people that each one of you has been developing your own relationship to; the other speaking of a call that only you alone have heard. This dialogue, and dialectic, between these two traditions – between Sinai and modernity - will form and inform your future careers.
So, attuned to that call – for they are, at root, a single call -  what are you each going to do with it? ’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.’  On one level of course you know your destination [the communities in the UK and Europe in which they will serve]...but of course, in reality, ‘away from here’, none of you have any idea about your destinations.
In the next 30 years, 40 years with strength, the timeframe (more or less) of your rabbinate, the world we have all grown up in, that you have grown up in and know, will increasingly come under strain. It’s been said that ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms can appear’ [Antonio Gramsci].  The signs of stress and fracture are all around us – the ‘morbid symptoms’.   
What resources will you have – intellectual, emotional, spiritual – what resources will you bring, to this morbidity when it breaks apart the familiar world we feel so settled  within? What kind of Judaic hopefulness will you represent, enact? How will you stay attuned to that ancient call of the shofar that in our tradition also announces the possibility of, the coming of, a time of messianic transformation for humanity on our fragile planet? How– attuned to that call – how will you help your communities respond to - and those you work with adapt to - what might happen? How will you support them through the enormous changes people are facing in the world of work? how will you help them through  ethnic tensions, societal tensions? How will you guide them through in the face of some of the dark human impulses that have recently come to the fore, from the small-minded and mean-spirited to the murderous?  How will you guide them through the consequences of the build-up of carbon in the air and nitrogen in the soil, the acidification of oceans and the desertification of once-fertile lands, as the Anthropocene age really takes a grip and globalisation and late capitalism increases the gaps between the haves and the have-nots?
Will you have the inner strength, the resilience, to resist colluding with the many modes of concealment of these realities, that prevent people taking effective action?
In these decades ahead the spiritual and Enlightenment values that you all embrace and embody in such an impressive way – open-minded, liberal, egalitarian, emotionally literate, intellectually clued-in – will come under pressure, we don’t know how severe, from regressive forces of intolerance and fear, communal rivalry and international conflict. What will you as Jewish leaders, Jewish religious leaders and thinkers, need to be saying? What are the Jewish truths that will keep you steady in a post-truth age?
How will you use the truths of Torah to inspire, to soothe, to heal - or to provoke – your communities? How will you help your communities keep their vision alive? their capacity to be attuned to the bugle’s call? How will you help them relate to the truths of Ha-Kadosh Baruch-Hu – the Holy One of Israel – one of whose names is Emet/ truthfulness?
‘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.’
If  - in spite of the last five years of intense study at the College - there are ‘no provisions’ that can be prepared in advance to help us cope with the vicissitudes of life and the dramas of history, then you are like the children of Israel in the wilderness who depend on receiving manna from the Eternal One. Nothing can save us, Kafka intuits - channelling his innate spiritual understanding of the Judaic story – 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. You have already found this out during your last 5 years together at the College – you do receive what you need, and often it is from each other, from the divine spark active in each other. What a resource! What a resource you have in each other – you know this, and I know that you treasure this.
I hope what I have said hasn’t daunted you too much! Remember that ‘it is, fortunately( es ist ja zum Glück), a truly immense journey’. What a wonderful sense of celebration, anticipation, hopefulness this evokes. That concluding phrase, and indeed the whole parable, is one of the great religious commentaries on the story of the Jewish people.
Today – fortunately! – you are taking your places in that story, the story of a people enamoured by stories, in thrall to stories, who still have a story to tell to the world, a story to live out. May you, ordinands of 2017, live it well. You have all our very best wishes as you set out.