Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Shannah Tovah - Exit Through Gift Shop

The way out of the Giacometti exhibition at the Tate leads through the Gift Shop. Of course it does. There, in amongst the catalogues and postcards, was armature wire.

I had never really thought about armature wire before. It lurks beneath and provides a structure for all that gets laid above. And the artist shapes it to form the base for all they wish to express. It’s a perfect metaphor for this sacred time. This is our armature wire moment, our chance to shape and reshape what lies beneath. Do we want to build our lives as taller in the year to come, or do we position ourselves more dynamically? On what scale are we creating our year? Perhaps it’s the time to live more broadly, perhaps it’s a time to take more care of ourselves or those intimately connected to us. We sing of our lives, on Kol Nidrei, as if we were clay in the hands of the potter, but we have the power to shape our future - if we take it.

Sculpture isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s difficult to get the underlying shape right. Sometimes placing the clay on the scaffold leads to an undesired end result. But there’s wisdom in the understanding of the Kol Nidrei prayer that suggests the purpose of introducing Yom Kippur with a prayer which disregards ‘all vows’ is that this should free up our dreams, even our promises. We should wish for wonderful things, and if we can’t pull off all we wish for ... Kol Nidrei - it’s OK. So shape, reshape and form the armature wire.

It is an enormous privilege to work with so many lay and professional members and colleagues to share these days with you all. I look forward to it immensely. Do join us, perhaps make a particular effort to join us for Maariv services, tonight and tomorrow at 6:30pm, second days services and Tashlich. It’s a time to immerse. And may the year that comes bring sweetness and blessings to us all,

Shannah Tovah,

Rabbi Jeremy

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Encounters with Giacometti - Standing in the Last Room

This is my final encounter with Giacometti in this Ellul season (well more or less). The full series is here.

The picture is of the last room of the exhibition that has just closed at the Tate Modern. We’ve been stripped back, pulled apart and generally forced to confront our fragility in the most vivid way imaginable. And now this. 

The curatorial notes - as is so often the case in last rooms - tell the story of the death of the artist. Giacometti died as a result of bronchitis in 1967. But the sculptures are not of a man slipping gently into the good night. They are giant - maybe 12ft tall, but more than that they have a stability and a power, almost a pride. Two are  - in yogic-speak - in tadasana - mountain pose.

In the summer of 2006, I was teaching a series of classes on leading Rabbis of the twentieth century. I was, of course, planning to teach on Rabbi Louis Jacobs, founding Rabbi of New London. And then Louis passed away. The Shiva took place on the night I was due to teach that class and I was invited by Louis’ children to give the eulogy (which you can read here. I concluded with this extract from my first Rabbi’s work, Tree of Life;

“The correct Jewish response to suffering seems to be expressed in the rule that when a mourner rends his garment in grief at the death of a near relative, he should do so while standing, not while sitting. As Dr Hertz puts it, ‘According to ancient Jewish custom, the ceremony of rending our garments when our nearest and dearest on earth is lying dead before us, is to be performed standing up. This teaches, meet all sorrow standing upright. The future may be dark veiled through the eyes of mortals … but hard as life’s terms may be, life never dictates unrighteousness, unholiness, dishonour.’ If this interpretation is considered too homeletical, the rule about standing upright might have been intended to denote a rising to the tragic occasion.”

We should rise to the tragic occasion. And this last room does that.

As seems to happen so often, when one starts to see a motif twice, it starts to appear everywhere.

The heart of last week’s Torah reading is a list of 98 curses, as black as you could imagine. The opening verse of this week’s reading is ‘You are standing, today.’ Rashi suggests that these two passages appear next to one another since having heard these curses the children of Israel turned green. And Moses comforted them saying, ‘You are standing here today - despite everything that has gone - you are still capable of arising.’ The Hebrew word used, for standing, is not the prosaic word Amad, it’s the rarer word - Nitszav - which suggests a willful strength, a spiritual verticality - the sort of standing tall a wheelchair bound person can do every bit a well as one with use of their legs. Trust Hebrew to have a word for standing existentially strong in the face of ... everything.

At the end of the Amidah on weekdays is Tachanun - a space for a personal petition - we sit, resting our head on our forearms, in a gesture of complete supplication, and pour out our fears and needs. At the end of Tachanun we stand for a Kaddish. But, stunningly, the instruction to ‘stand’ comes before the Kaddish itself, and just as we recite this line, ‘And we do not know what to do’ It’s Rabbinic chutzpah at its finest. If you don’t know what to do if the mortal condition feels too dark and hopeless... STAND. Trust the Rabbis to instill in us the ability to find strength in a fragile world.

This kind of standing tall is not a rejection of the fragility of our existence. It is a response that both accepts and responds with pride to our own mortal condition. It’s a glorious response and sometimes the only response with which we are left. Giacometti got this absolutely right.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Are We Never Coming to the Kernel - Giacometti's Small Sculptures

In my mind’s eye, I see Alberto Giacometti sat before a model and a mighty slab of clay. Slowly he pulls away at the slab in search of something true - something irreducible. As he continues to peer at his model he continues to peel away until, like the wonky table shortened by shaving down first one leg then the other and so on, all that is left is one tiny scrap of a grasping at the truth.

Looking at these characteristic often tiny sculptures reminds me of one of the great images in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Our hero, now old, has spent a life in search of his true self and finds himself in a field of onions. He begins peeling away at the skin of the vegetable;

“Here's the passenger layer, scanty and thin;-
Next underneath is the gold-digger ego;
the juice is all gone - if it ever had any.”

He keeps on peeling off what in Kabbalistic terms we call Klippot (literally husks) in search of the irreducible truth of his existence - the Ikkar. But to no avail.

“There's a most surprising lot of layers!
Are we never coming to the kernel?
There isn't one! To the innermost bit
It's nothing but layers, smaller and smaller.”

And he throws the layers and, his life’s work, away.

It turns out this isn’t, as a matter of record, how Giacometti, records his intent, in these tiny sculptures. But in these posts, I’m after religious insight, not academic verisimilitude. And certainly, Giacometti did a great deal of searching for truth, and a great deal of peeling back the layers of falsity. I’ve also seen photos of the floor of his studio - there’s a lot of Klippot discarded on the floor. Bear with me.

The problem, as it so often seems to be, is looking in the wrong place. You can’t find irreducible truths of existence in the bones and flesh of humanity. The bones and the flesh of humanity are Klippot in their entirety. Our true essence is other than material. The point is most powerfully made in an awesome passage in Talmud Niddah, where the Rabbis discuss the embryo in the womb; “There are three partners in creation,” they record, “The father, the mother and the Holy Blessed One.” The father and mother provide the white stuff and the red stuff - the flesh and bones - and God provides that which cannot be seen and cannot be touched, “the spirit and soul, the luster of the face, the eye’s sight, the ear’s hearing...” I’m not making a point about evolution or biology, but religion. Religion is a training in bringing attention to the non-material, it’s a space to reflect on what cannot be seen and held by a lump of clay.

Perhaps this is at the heart of Judaism’s wary relationship with sculpture - it’s too easy to present clay as if it does capture a true divine essence - that would be an idol. But since clay can never capture ultimate truths any such presentation would, by necessity, be a deceit. Cue the Marxist theoreticians who would tell us that such presentations are designed by the bourgeoisie to extract obeisance from the workers. But religious insight is not found in clay. At all. It’s found in ‘not-clay.’ To find religious insight you can use clay - for me art is a great pointer in the direction of deep truth, but ultimately we need to transcend all material, corporeal stuff. A person needs to open a space in which to feel the contribution of that third partner in creation - God. 

And it’s not just clay that is a problem.

To open to the possibility of religious insight a person has to put down the phone, stop checking social media, stop talking about the stock market, or the football or the latest cultural offerings. As a faith, we even make the call for a person to leave behind food and drink - for one day - to leave behind, truly, the material plane to which we are so tightly bound. To open to the possibility of ultimacy a person needs to sit, still, in silence or in response to the ineffable miracle of existence. That’s why there is so much sitting and responding to the ineffable in our faith, at this point of the year in particular.

To search for irreducible truths of existence in the material stuff of the world is to be like the drunkard who seeks their lost keys in the pool of light thrown by the streetlamp - since this is the only place where they can see. It doesn’t mean the keys are there. They almost certainly aren’t. 

Friday, 1 September 2017

Stubborn and Rebellious Son - Ki Tetze

How To Be a Jewish Judge - Part Two
Devarim 21:18-23
If a man has a ben sorar u’moreh (stubborn and rebellious son) who does not listen to the voice of his father and the voice of his mother and when they discipline him he does not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall seize him and bring him out to the elders of the city and to the gate of his place.  And they shall say to the elders of the city, this son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he does not listen to our voice, a glutton and a drunkard.   Then, all the people of the city shall pelt him with stones until he dies, and you shall burn out the evil in your midst, and all Israel will hear and fear.

Rashi, based on Sanhedrin 72b
The stubborn and rebellious son is executed on account of [what he will become in] the end. The Torah penetrates to his ultimate intentions. Eventually, he will squander his father’s money, seek what he has become accustomed to, not find it, and stand at the crossroads and rob people [killing them, thereby incurring the death penalty. Says the Torah, “Let him die innocent, rather than have him die guilty.”

Mishnah Sanhedrin 8:1-4
From when does a ben sorar u’moreh become a ben sorar u’moreh?  From when he brings forth two hairs, and until his beard grows around.  As it is said “ben” and not “bat”.  “Ben” and not “ish”.  Little ones are exempt.

From when is he liable?  From when he has eaten a certain measure of meat and drunk a certain measure of Italian wine.  If he ate in a ‘mitzvah gathering’ or ate the second tithe in Jerusalem, or ate non-kosher meat... if he ate anything that is a mitzvah or anything that is a violation of religious law, if he ate any food other than meat, or drank any drink other than wine, he does not become a ben sorar u’moreh, as it is said (Deut 21) “a glutton and a drunkard.”  And even though there is no proof of this there is a hint of it, as it is said (Proverbs 23): “Don’t be among the drunkards of  wine or the gluttons of meat.” 

If his father wants to and his mother does not want, or his father does not want to and mother wants to, he does not become a ben sorar u’moreh unless both of them want to. If one of them was maimed or lame or dumb or blind, he does not become a ben sorar u’moreh, as it is said (Deut. 21): “then his father and his mother shall seize him” – so they are not maimed.   “Bring him out” – so they are not lame.  “They shall say” – so they are not dumb.  “This son of ours” – so they are not blind.

From In The Land of Milk & Honey
They didn’t argue that God knew best, or that human morality was inherently unreliable.
They didn’t answer that we don’t have a choice – that “that’s was the Torah says and who are we to argue?” They realised that leaving our morals at the entrance of the Bet Midrash is not what learning Torah is about, that – to paraphrase the Kotzker – serving the Shulchan Arukh is not always the same as serving God.

David Weiss HaLivni
Even when the Rabbis altered a law, they never abrogated it. They retained the integrity of the law. They did not totally eliminate it. That was necessary in order not to impugn the Lawgiver with a lack of moral sensitivity which may undermine not only this law, but laws in general. Once one has formulated, as in the case of bastardy, mamzerut, the need for changing the law because of moral exigency, any subsequent change will be interpreted as an admission that initially there was no moral sensitivity, imputing to the Lawgiver a defective moral awareness.

Daniel Spitz, CJLS Responsum on Mamzerut
It is true that the rabbis in the past did not explicitly use morality as the basis for change or interpretation of a law. In explaining the Torah's statement "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," for example, the Rabbis of the Talmud offer ten separate hermeneutic proofs that the verse calls for compensation and not mutilation. Each is indirect and tenuous, which explains why so many are offered. Underlying the ingenious arguments is an implicit matter of conscience regarding the taking of body parts.

There is a price paid, however, for only looking inwardly for the justification of change. The hermeneutic rules may fail to provide a comprehensive solution, as in the case of mamzerut. Preserving the system may begin to look more important than acting justly and halakhah may begin to look more like a chess game than a system of religious striving. In the words of Rabbi Gordon Tucker: “Halakhah is a theological legal system. Separating law from moral principle in such a system, as positivists would be wont to do, is to separate moral principles from God, and that is theologically untenable.”

Giacometti’s ‘Figure Between Two Houses’ (1950)

In this sculpture - perhaps a metre square - a sparkling figure makes its way between two dark ‘houses.’ It’s a mannequin for a large public work never commissioned. I’m not surprised. The sculpture strikes me as a terrifying call to account - I came from darkness and I’m heading back to darkness.

It should be filed with the shortest of all Beckett’s plays, Breath (1969). Faint light falls on a stage littered with ‘miscellaneous rubbish.’ There is a cry, the sound of a breath being taken in and the light brightens. ‘Silence and hold about five seconds.’ Then the sound of exhalation, the light dims, a second cry and curtain.

Or here’s the first century Rabbinic apercu that, for the sharpness of it its observation of the nature of our journey between the termini of existence, gives both Beckett and Giacometti a run for their money. “Akavia son of Mehalelel would say, ‘Reflect on three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you come, where you are going and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting. From where you come - from a putrid drop; where you are going - to a place of dust, maggots and worms, and before who you are destined to give a judgement and accounting - before the supreme ruler of rulers, the Holy Blessed One.’” (Pirkei Avot 3:1)

The emphasis on repenting our bad behaviour, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is probably overplayed. Meanwhile, the way in which these days are intended to bring us to recognise our fragility and mortality gets less attention that seems warranted. For me the ultimate liturgical moment of the great services of the High Holydays is not the lists of sins, but rather the awesome words of the Unataneh Tokef - we pass individually before our creator, like sheep before a shepherd, we are called to recognise that we are like grass that withers, like a flower fading, like a fleeting shadow ...
But for all this bleakness I’m not sure Rabbinic Judaism (or Beckett or Giacometti for that matter) considers life meaningless or irrelevant. Look again at the teaching of Akaviah son of Mehalelel. The point of considering our fragility and impermanence is to keep us from sin. Or, to put it in positive, and Latin, carpe diem - seize the day.

Giacometti presents the moments between the dark places in brightness. This is the life we have, we can make of it what we will. But the awareness of where we have come from, and where we will be going, need not - and indeed should not - make us feel depressed or helpless. Rather this awareness is a call to action, sober and utterly realistic, but genuine and all the more powerful for that honesty. We should all try and walk well, while we can. For this time we have is limited. Less than three weeks to go.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

A Journey With Alberto Giacometti - Part One - Reclining Woman Who Dreams

In the run up to Rosh Hashanah I am sharing reflections inspired by the sculptor Alberto Giacometti, whose work is currently on show at the Tate Modern. There is much, rabbinically, to disagree with or find offensive in his work, but I’m not going to do any of that here. Rather I’ll be sharing where these works of art have taken me as I turn my heart towards the work of this time.

I begin with ‘Reclining Woman Who Dreams.’

Here she is. Here I am. Stripped back to my most basic elements and dreaming.

It’s an abstracted naked form sculpted in white plaster (not the reddy-brown clay - with which Giacometti is more associated), then cast in reddy-brown bronze, but then painted white.

Giacometti is being pulled between two competing views of life. Are we best represented as red - bloodily vigorous (and to the Biblical mind the blood is the source of our soul) - or white - cadaverous and skeletal?

When we rise in the morning we dress up, we clothe our essential skeleton with an overlay which allows us to play the various roles of our existence. These clothes, masks perhaps as well, are what Kabbalists call Klippot - literally husks. These Klippot serve two functions; on the one hand they protect an inner fragile kernel, but this protection comes at the cost of distancing everyone we come into contact with, and even ourselves, from our essential fragile truth. Stripped of all of that, what do we have left?

Our dreams.

Theodor Herzl’s aphorism, ‘If you will it, it is no dream,’ suggests - in translation - a pejorative dismissal of dreams, not present in the Hebrew. Our dreams are the things that give meaning to our bony existence, they bring life and open up new futures to these dry bones. What Herzl meant - as we all understand - is the ‘unless we dream, nothing important will ever change in our lives.’ Our dreams are checks on the clothe and mask wearing - are we really doing what is really important? Without them we are but dust and ash.

Find time, this month, to lie back and dream. Allow this time to serve as an invitation to drop the masks, the clothes and even the fleshy-over-layers. Allow an encounter between the very bones of our existence and the hopes that elevate to that become that most precious of all creations - a human, please God, a Mentsch.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, 18 August 2017

On the appeal of Fascism - Thoughts on Charlottesville and Deuteronomy

David Runciman, a political scientist at Cambridge, coined the term ‘dictator envy’ to articulate the way in which those who wish to live in a democracy look at a complex problem and wish someone strong and powerful would come along and sort it out. It’s not, said Runciman, that we actually articulate the desire to live in a dictatorship - but we harbour a desire that something or someone could save us the trauma of having to deal with complexity ourselves.
I first came across the phrase ‘dictator envy’ in an 2013 article. I wonder how Runciman reflects on its creation today. It might be that last November the greatest democracy of our age gave in to the desire to have a strong leader ‘just come along and sort it out,’ in the process damning the democratic deficit such a decision left in its wake.
That certainly seems to be the appeal of the Alt-Right/neo-Nazi absurdities witnessed in Charlottesville. ‘They won’t replace us,’ the marchers chanted; prompting liberal voices to pour scorn on the simplicity of their mantra; ‘who’s the “they”?’ ‘Replace as what?’ Scratch the surface of the neo-Nazi rhetoric and it descends into either gross-oversimplification or such a democratic deficit as to terrify anyone who values human equality.
And so to the Torah; ‘If a prophet should appear in your midst, giving you a sign, and the sign, they spoke about, came to pass, if they call you to worship other gods, do not listen to the voice of that prophet.’ (Deuteronomy 13:2-4 abbreviated)
Accept, for a moment, that the Torah’s understanding of, ‘worshipping other gods,’ equates to the greatest of any sin (as Maimonides would wish us to do), and the point becomes clear. When a charismatic leader, or force, appears and seems to capture a moment - don’t listen to that voice when it’s a voice that leads one to a path of sin. Don’t be misled by charisma, apparently accurate prognostication, or even the successes of short-termism. The right and the good thing remains the right and the good thing even if the signs of the moment suggest otherwise.
Now, perhaps, revisit the notion of ‘worshipping other gods.’ An idol is the infinite rendered in finite form, the incomprehensible presented as comprehended. Idols are the simple solutions to the problems of a world we cannot fully understand. This is both the reason idols are wrong - as in doomed to fail, putting aside any moral or faith-based issue with statues of gods - but also the reason idols prove so attractive. Complex solutions to complex problems aren’t as sexy as a simple solution. That doesn’t make the simple solution correct. Indeed it might be that the simple solution can be immediately discounted simply because of its simplicity.
The answer has to be that we train ourselves to resist the appeal of the simple now understood as the idol. The answer, perhaps, lies in allowing ourselves to believe in the radical monotheism of our faith. We believe in a god without form, beyond our ability to control or even comprehend. True monotheism is, or at least, ought to be, a training in an existential humility. Faced with a complex problem, and the problems facing the Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville are the same complex problems that face all us, we need to train ourselves to abstain from the charismatic appeal that calls us towards evil. We need to resist the calls of the false prophet.
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