Monday, 22 September 2008

financial markets and paradigm shifting

I received a touching e-mail from a congregant, a city man, returning from holiday this week,


Thank you for your E Mail. I returned from a few days away and since then I have been concentrating on the demise of the banking system as we knew , and didn't much love, it. I haven't had time to respond to the enquiry and shall do so shortly.


I have spent a good deal of the hours of darkness awake, this last week.

I wish I could say it has been preparing my soul for the spiritual task of the Festivals to come, but that would be untrue. Harry isn’t sleeping so well, so, armed only with the BBC World Service, I’ve listened to a lot of late night radio.

Late night reporting, from America in particular, has felt apocalyptic.


It is of course dangerous territory for a Rabbi and more important than that, it is surely, as Chairman Mao said of the French Revolution, ‘far too early to tell.’


As you will see in the newsletter, shortly to arrive through a letterbox near you, I’m presenting a major education programme on money in November. Hopefully things will have calmed down a bit by then.


But I feel this is something you have to address.

I’m interested in this notion of the demise of the old.

It may well be that when the dust settles we will be right back where we started, but there does seem the possibility that something has changed.

A paradigm shift.

The end of one way of doing business in the world.

That’s scary, dangerous.

And it is also something about which Judaism has plenty to say.


I wanted to look at how Judaism responds to paradigm shifts.


The central moment, the central paradigm shift of the Jewish people has to be the moment of the destruction of the temple. 70CE

In the space of a Biblical blink of an eye Judaism is transformed from a faith tied to its land, to a wandering diaspora.

From a Temple based priestly cult, to a Synagogue based rabbinically led combination of prayer and scholarship.

All of a sudden the entirety of the book of Leviticus, not to mention large swathes of Exodus become irrelevant, in terms of Jewish life.

And then the slaughter. At just one location, Gamla, the Roman attackers killed four thousand defenders of the city and five thousand threw themselves into the steep precipices of the hill-top settlement.

I’m pleased to say that things don’t seem to be quite that bad in the city.


Josephus, the great chronicler of these times is clearly writing in the belief that the Jewish journey has ended.

And here, he says at the end of his great work, Wars of the Jews, we shall put an end to this our history.

But, of course, as we know, Judaism did not die out.

And certainly there has been an impact on Jewish life of the destruction of the Temple.

We are a very different religion today than we once were, sacrifices are indeed no more, but there was no radical break.  Judaism evolved, rolled with the punches, ebbed, flowed


The key, at least in the eyes of the Rabbis, much of this was down to the bravery of one man.

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai who got out of a besieged Jerusalem, hidden, playing a corpse, in a coffin, being carried past guards who wanted to run the coffin through to ensure that no live body was within.[1]


Yochanan escapes Jerusalem and sets up a Yeshivah in Yavneh from which springs the entire corpus of Rabbinic Judaism.

Judaism, survives.

Josephus is not, of course, the first person to mis-diagnose the passing the Judaism.

Not the first person to imagine the unfolding of the narrative that began at Sinai will come to an end.


Two others – who made the same error.


Shabbatai Tzvi,

The great false messiah of Jewish life passed away in 1676. A the height of the furore that surrounded him he claimed the end of the world was coming – he claimed to be the Messiah. Thousands were convinced

“Everybody talked about having seen a pillar of fire. [read one contemporary account] To some it had appeared at noontime, to another at night, a thirds have seem the moon like red fire, to a fourth the heavens had been opened and he beheld a fiery gate in which there stood  a man in the likeness of Rabbi Tzvi with a crown on his head.’[2]


Tzvi had the classic prayer for the Government under whose graciousness Jews live, ‘may the one who gives salvation to Kings and dominon to princes’ abolished and re-written to bless himself, in much the same language.

Here was a new dawn, a paradigm shift.

That too was a mistake.

And certainly there has been an impact on Jewish life of Shabbatai Tzvi.

There are certain places of radical Jewish thought now, probably forever closed as a result of the catastrophe of Shabbatai Tzvi, but Judaism evolved, rolled with the punches, ebbed, flowed


And of course there is the horrific Museum planned, but never realised by the Nazis who thought that the end of the story had come.

They were wrong too.

The 1,564 Torah Scrolls which were intended to be the centrepiece of this horrifically misbegotten plan are shortly to be made, again, available to the public.

At Westminster Synagogue.

And certainly there has been an impact on Jewish life of Shabbatai Tzvi.

There are certain Jewish worlds gone forever as a result of Holocuast, and that is an unspeakable tragedy, but Judaism evolved, rolled with the punches, ebbed, flowed. Got on with it.


The point is this.

Jews don’t really admit to paradigm shifts.

We don’t really believe in the story every coming to an end.

Instead we believe in change, development.

If something isn’t working, allow it space to redevelop, grow.


It’s more than history, it’s also a guide to life.

An approach, most particularly at this time of year, to teshuvah.

Thursday night I was teaching Rav Kook on teshuvah.

Don’t let yourself be imprisoned by what you perceive to be dead ends, taught Kook.


Roll, ebb, use the twinges of pain to free, to lift to free and to evolve into something better, even out of the darkest corners.

Kook, like so many great Jews was a tremendous romantic.

In a world created by a good God,

In a human life created in the image of God.

Nothing is really that terrible.

And when faced with what might seem like the end of the world, the Jewish response is simply this, to respond.

To evolve, to roll with the punches, to ebb and to flow.

To allow ourselves to be impacted by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but steel ourselves with the bravery of Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai and go on.


Shabbat shalom


[1] Gittin 56a

 [2] Cited in G. Scholem Sabbatai Sevi p.418

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