Since February 24th my mental world has subtly shifted on its axis. As the BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet put it on Thursday, with her customary clarity and concision: “It’s been a month like no other - for Ukraine, for Europe, and for the world.”
A cliché it may be to say it, but we are seeing history in the making. We’re seeing images we haven’t seen in Europe for generations: we lucky ones, who never lived through war, might have been brought up on grainy black and white footage of ruined cities and populations on the move, but did not seriously think we’d ever see that kind of ‘history’ again, at least not so close to home. Yes, we’ve had Aleppo, and Grozny and Sarajevo - but they were not quite on our doorsteps: they were just far enough away not to penetrate our lives every day as this war has done, and is doing, bursting into our living rooms night after night.
‘A month like no other’ in a world of continuous change. We are being taken on a journey: destination unknown and unknowable. And, yes, that’s the human condition: the “only certainty is uncertainty” as Professor Eugene Heimler used to say, born in Hungary, survivor of Buchenwald, writer and therapist, friend of the Finchley community of which I am a part.
So given that all is flux, turbulence, chaos, uncertainty, what struck me this week, was whether or not it was possible to imagine that those involved in Jewish life have a kind of antidote to all that? Maybe not an antidote exactly, but we do have the possibility of a perspective, an angle of vision, at odds with all that unpredictability that’s part of the human condition.
Because we live with another cycle of life, a seasonal cycle - of predictability and regularity and engagement with what is unchanging in an changing world. And that is due to our connection to something that never changes - the Torah.
Whatever is going on outside us - however history is unfolding in all its drama and grandeur and degradation - when Jews meet at the Shabbat service we encounter something unchanging: this week it was the chapters of Torah called Shemini, the third section of the third book in our unchanging, unchangeable foundational text. This never changes. As if it’s eternal. When the Torah has been read we recite a blessing that acknowledges, with gratitude: chayai olam nata betochaynu - “You have planted eternal life within us”.
Is it the Torah that is eternal? Or the experience of engaging with it that puts us in touch with something eternal? Or both? However we understand these words, we sense we are guests invited into a mystery. Something timeless is planted within time - and within us who live, moment by moment, in time.
In other words we live, as Jews. in two worlds at once. Here we are rooted in a specific place, at a specific time in history, in our everyday world where wondrous and terrifying things happen, to us and around us. And we live in another world, the unchanging cycle of reading from Torah, week by week, year by year, century by century. It’s a cycle we connect to that never changes.
So we live in a world where everything changes, everything is uncertain - and in a world where nothing changes, just the chapters we read week by week, repeated year in, year out, a world where we know where we are and we know where we will be next week and the week after. This is our other world, unchanging, stable, consistent, reliable, reassuring, ‘eternal’. This is a gift: it allows Jews to live in two worlds at once.
It’s good to know this, or be reminded of it. And we shouldn’t take it for granted. Because it’s precious - and not everyone has it. It could help give us some kind of anchoring when we, or the world, feel adrift, in peril, tossed around by the storms and vicissitudes of history.
Yet living in this other world certainly doesn’t solve any problems for us. It doesn’t solve our problems because it’s not like magic or medicine. Indeed the perspective from this other world might highlight the complexity of the issues we face, here where we stand. It can make us giddy to view the world from the standpoint of the Torah, it can destabilise us as often as steady us.
This week’s chapters are a good example. They are part of that complex detailing of priestly rituals that fill the book of Leviticus. Chapter nine describes acts of purification and elaborate rituals for both the priests and the people: much blood is spilled as the animals are slaughtered in the prescribed manner, and many of us feel thankful that this is a world long gone. Since the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 70CE, we read these texts now only for their symbolic value (if we can find it). The chapter narrates how, when all the rituals were enacted, God was made present: “Moses and Aaron went inside the Tent of Meeting and when they came out they blessed the people va’yayrah chavod- Adonai el-kol-ha’am - and the presence/the substance/the glory of the Eternal appeared to all the people” (Leviticus 9:22-23).
But how do we understand that? Is it a one-off event? Or a promise? That through purity, through ritual actions - whether it is of a priestly tribe, or a kingdom of priests (the Israelite community) - God’s presence becomes manifest? What does that mean? What would that look like? How would we know? “The glory of the Eternal appeared to all the people”. How are we supposed to get our heads round that?
In the text it says that what the people actually saw was fire bursting forth and consuming the offerings on the altar. Is this the “glory of the Eternal”? Or a glorified barbeque? The people are told the former. We might just see the latter. What is going on? How are we to understand this fragment of eternal truth planted in our midst?
I am asking the questions in this to illustrate how we might have the Torah, our unchanging text, but the questions it raises are difficult and sometimes troubling. Because although we read them and ponder them, we don’t really understand what on earth, or in heaven, is going on. There are plenty of commentaries that seek to explain these texts - but I don’t trust anyone who tells me they do understand these texts. Because there is a mystery at the heart of them.
Reading this text this week, I puzzle over it (as usual) - but when we step back and draw breath, and look out around us, aren’t we tempted to say: how can we even speak about God’s presence and the glory of the divine when the bombs are dropping, at this moment, indiscriminately destroying, and “who will live and who will die” (as our Yom Kippur text puts it) is just an accident of fate? Random, arbitrary, unpredictable, macabre. Children escape and children are trapped underground, or perish in the rubble - isn’t it offensive to talk at all about God’s presence, or God’s glory?
And yes, clergy (of all denominations) and theologians will come up with all sorts of rationalisations and platitudes to supposedly explain the inexplicable. But I am guided here - in relation to these profound challenges to religious belief and traditional pieties - I’m guided by Rabbi Irving Greenburg, Brooklyn-born rabbi and Orthodox scholar, who has written extensively about matters of faith after the Shoah, and about how Jewish life and thinking have to be radically reformulated and reworked and re-thought after the trauma of the Holocaust. He once wrote “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children”.
That for me is the most important religious statement of our times - it cuts through all the garbage - and I return to it today because it’s a touchstone of humanity and decency and Jewish faith in our times. And, yes, it sets the bar very high, but it says to me that probably the most honest response, from a religious perspective, to Mariupol and the barbarities inflicted on Ukraine is silence. For no religious statement is credible in the presence of another generation of murdered children.
The only religious response is through action, not words, through forms of giving and doing: money, hospitality, campaigns to influence the UK government’s tortuous refugee policy - the bureaucracy for Ukrainians trying to get to the UK is still the ‘hostile environment’ of the last ten years.
You know the actions we can take - whether Jewish or Christian we draw upon the ethics of our unchanging texts: the compassion, the generosity to strangers and the dispossessed, and all the rest. We draw strength and inspiration from the vision of what is possible - while at the same time finding ourselves silenced by all that narrative exuberance about God’s presence and divine glory and ritual purification.
And, yes, I could say that the ‘rituals’ we now do involve us making our own ‘sacrifices’ - different kinds of ‘sacrifice’, of time and money and what we give of ourselves, and that this is how God is now brought into the world. Not from on high but through us. And I believe that is true, and I believe it necessary to say it, and to repeat it to our children - this is how Jews make God known in the world: through the fire in our hearts sparking us into life and action. Without that fire within, the Torah turns to ashes.
Maybe that’s as much as we can say. And the rest is silence.
[based on a sermon give on Zoom for Finchley Reform Synagogue, March 26th, 2022]