Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Apres Vous, A Jewish Ethic for Rosh Hashanah

Apres-Vous

 

Many of my favourite Jewish folk tales feature a Yetzer Ra and a Yetzer Tov.
A good inclination and an evil inclination.

These two inclinations perch, one on each shoulder whispering, cajoling, encouraging and dissuading their minions – us. They are the externalised voices of our soul.

But what is so remarkable – we don’t realise the Yetzer Ra is there.

The Yetzer Hara has become adept at lurking in our blind spot. We can’t hear its ministrations as it quietly persuades us we are doing just fine. No improvement needed here.

The Yetzer Hara has become expert at quietly persuading us that it is all someone else’s fault. I’m hardly to blame at all.

And the Yetzer Hara whispers that we are owed something by someone else; we’re always in the right.

It’s a remarkable achievement to persuade me of my own competency, blamelessness and sense of privilege without my being aware of it.

But the truth is that we have work to do for we are not good enough, we do shoulder blame and we owe more than we realise – all of us.

 

And so, if there is a central theme to these days it is this – can we unpick this sense of competency, blamelessness and privilege?

Can we spot the blandishments of the Yetzer Ra and thereby awaken our souls and our selves?

It’s not necessarily that we are abject, worthless sinners – it’s just that there is a more real, more meaningful version of our life awaiting more honest scrutiny.

 

Several days ago I busied my way up the concourse at Kings Cross underground station. It was quiet, only a few people were ahead of me all bustling along to catch their mainline trains. I could see a young woman approaching each person on the concourse in turn and being turned away in turn. As she set her sights on me I felt myself stiffen, I was preparing that shrug, the kindly ‘so sorry,’ as I too bustled past. After all everyone else was doing it. She was probably drunk or a drug addict. She was surely after money and her penury was clearly her fault, I wasn’t not sure I had any appropriate coins on me, I was running late myself. I was competent, blameless, it was my right. I’m sure we have all been there – it’s one of those encounters we Londoner experience too frequently.

 

But as she came close. She said this, ‘I’m hurt, can you help. It was my boyfriend’ And it was only at this point that I saw she was blooded and bruised. I had decided I wasn’t going to give her money before I looked to see her face or heard what she had to say. And I’m less interested in what exactly one should do in such an encounter, and more interested in that internal conversation – the flooding series of excuses and self-justification that steers a person past another human being – in pain.

 

Another case - the phone hacking scandal. In a panel debate on 'How Far Should Journalists Go?,' a former News of the World investigative journalist explained how he and the paper he worked for justified the hacking of phone records, medical records and the like. “Privacy is the place where we do bad things,” said the journalist, “in order to have a free and open society,” he went on,” you must treat privacy as the demon.”[1] If one believes privacy is the devil then hacking is angelic. All very convenient if you are under pressure from voracious readers and editors to produce sensational scoops. Wrong behaviour too easily justified.

 

And one more example – the riots. News coverage of the riots that ripped up High Streets in August featured rioters justifying thievery based on the notion that everyone else was doing it, or that there was some kind of right to have a flat-screen TV, or it was the governments fault, or the bankers, the bakers, the candlestick makers … anyone.

 

Easy, I know, to mock the absurd self-justification of outright criminality. But there is a definition of a person who sins against society deliberately – that person is a sociopath. The rest of us, normal sinners, you and I my friends, we specialise in self-justification – even when we act selfishly, immorally and even criminally. Well done the imperceptible Yetzer Hara, take a bow.

 

My theory is this; if we could train ourselves to spot the Yezter Ra lurking in our blind spot, we could detect the self-justifications for what they really are. We would know we could do better and we would do better. Today, tomorrow and on Yom Kippur I want to look at three ways we can spot our selfishness and our shortfallings, three things we should be seeing differently if we want to stop self-justifying our failures and lead us to a more holy way of life. I’m going to try and spell out a Jewish ethic of decency.

 

Today I want to talk about other people.

I don’t think we see other people properly. I certainly, too often, don’t see other people properly. I didn’t see the woman on the concourse at Kings Cross. The rioters didn’t see the small store owners whose livelihoods were destroyed and the hacking journalists didn’t see the subjects of their more odious invasions of privacy properly.

 

There is religious doctrine on the matter of how to see other people – a theology of humanity, if you will. Such a theology begins with the notion that human beings are created in the image of God – folded up in each of us is a glimmer of transcendence.

Such a theology would include the Rabbinic text which articulates the notion that a person who takes the life of another is considered as if they have destroyed an entire world.[2]

Such a theology of humanity would eventually settle down to consider the work of the French Jewish writer and thinker Emmanuel Levinas.

 

Levinas’ great question was this – where does moral behaviour come from? He suggested morality was born out of the encounter with another person. When you look at another person – really see them – suggested Levinas, you realise they are fragile. You realise the possibility of hurting them, wounding them. And it moves you. The more you see another person the more you feel obligated by being in their presence, by being part of their fragile life, by the awareness of how flimsy life is – ‘like withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.’[3] We just prayed that prayer together. It’s fine to acknowledge your own fragility on this day, but it’s more important to recognise the fragility of the other.

 

A tale from the Talmud –

Rabbi Eleazar was ill and Rabbi Yochanan went to visit him, he saw Rabbi Eleazar was weeping and asked why he was weeping. Rabbi Eleazar replied: I am weeping because of this beauty that is will rot in the earth.

Rabbi Yochanan replied, ‘For this you surely have a reason to weep; and they both wept together.[4]

 

The biggest perk of my job is that I get the best seat in the house at a wedding. Under a Chuppah I watch a bride and groom cry, and I think, most often, they are crying because they understand precisely what Levinas meant – they get the fragility of it all.

 

Levinas calls this the ethical encounter, the moment when the fragility of another breaks in on our own fa├žade of self-sufficiency. It is the moment when we feel compelled to decency, called to relationship.

 

There is an apocryphal tale about the Professor of Ethics at some fancy University who didn’t seem to care about his students. Eventually a student challenged the master, ‘Professor, you teach ethics, but you behave so rudely.’ ‘What,’ responded the professor, ‘if I was taught geometry would you want me to be a triangle.’ Judaism just doesn’t work that way. There is no Jewish ethics which isn’t tested as we walk down the street, as we go about our work and as we come back home.

Jean Paul Sartre coined the phrase ‘Hell is other people.’ What he meant was that other people can compel us to present a false version of ourselves as we attempt to appear nice before them. Says Sartre this stops us being true to ourselves, it limits our self-actualization – whatever that might be. It may indeed by true that if we spend too much time worrying about other people’s view of us. But where Judaism would separate from Sartre is over the notion that worrying about ourselves is important, particularly. Naval gazing is not a particular Jewish goal. It’s fine to acknowledge your own fragility on this day, but it’s more important to recognise the fragility of the other.

As one of my teachers, Rabbi David Hartman, quoted in the name of his grandmother, ‘stop looking at your pupik, get off your tuchus and do something already.’ When we worry about other people we shouldn’t be worrying what they think of us, we should be worrying about what we can do for them. As the founder of the Mussar Movement, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, taught – ‘let the other person’s material need be your spiritual need.’

‘Apres-vous,’ – ‘You go first,’ says Levinas is the ultimate ethical utterance, placing the other person before me, serving their needs before my own is the mark of decency.

 

Another wedding story; I conducted a Chuppah this year for a couple who were observing the custom of not seeing each other on the days before the ceremony. They both came to Shul on Shabbat and they both decided to wait in the Synagogue so the other could go into the Kiddush and fifteen minutes later they were both still in the Synagogue, one downstairs hiding in the men’s section, the other in the gallery, hiding amongst the ladies’ seating. They were both waiting for the other to go first. That’s the stuff of a well matched couple. But ‘apres-vous’ is more than the mark of a decent spouse, it’s the mark of a decent human-being.

 

Good Jewish life isn’t lived by concentrating on self-actualisation – this, perhaps is one of the dangers of all this talk about Teshuvah as a private process. It is lived by concentrating on other-actualisation. It is lived in the space between the self and the rest of humanity out there, testing us, challenging us, discomforting us, jostling against us in the tube, waving their bruised faces up against us on the concourse and asking if we want to buy a Big Issue as we exit the station. The possibilities for ethical heroism or ethical disaster come every time we see another human being, friend or stranger, beloved or casual acquaintance.

 

When we fail to see the other person properly, we fail to spot the Yetzer Ra lurking in our blind spot. So I call on us all to look to see others this way and more clearly. I believe that this awareness of the fragility of the other can alert us to the self-justifying blandishments of the Yetzer Ra, the evil inclination that tells us not to worry, not to be swayed by the appeals of others, the evil inclination that stops us from being affected.

 

One last thought, especially for those amongst us who might think this ‘Apres-vous’ approach to the ethical life a little too self-effacing, a little too wet. It comes, again, from the founder of the study of Mussar – Jewish ethics – Rav Yisroel Salanter. ‘People say,’ said Salanter, ‘that only the fool gives and that the wise person takes. But they are wrong, it is more accurate to say it’s only the fool who thinks they are giving. The wise person knows they are taking.’

It’s only the fool who thinks they are giving. The wise person knows they are taking.

 

May we all have a year more filled with the commitment to Levinas’ ‘Apres-vous’. And may this year give to us in the measure in which we give to others.

 

Shannah Tovah,

A good, sweet year to all.



[2] Sanhedrin BT 37a, Mishnah 4:5 according to the Kaufman MS

[3] Untane Tokef

[4] Brachot 5b

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Shanah Tovah - Bring what you need. Leave behind what you don't.

 

 

It began with a conversation about mobile phones. Really there is no need for mobile phones in Shul. For those of us umbilically attached to these miraculous communications devices, Rosh Hashanah is a wonderful way to experience what happens when we limit our inter-personal conversations to those present before us. It’s also a good deal easier to guarantee your phone won’t go off in the middle of the most poignant moment of the services if you leave it at home.

 

But then there are other things I should be leaving behind on Rosh Hashanah. George Clooney’s character in the film ‘Up In The Air’ suggests that we all carry around a backpack full of stuff that weighs us down. I disagree with his assessment of what should go in the bag, but I agree with his suggestion that the bag deserves a regular sort through and tidy out. The detritus of pretence, partial-truths and prevarications builds up over the years. Out they go. The mis-placed pride, the pain caused to others and the breaking of our promises to ourselves are harder to extract, but should also go. We face a new year. We hope our sins – red as crimson – shall become as white as snow. It’s a good time to work out what we want to leave behind. And a wonderful time to appreciate that which we carry with us into the year to come.

 

I’m excited to be finally here, on the cusp of this special time. It is a huge honour for me to be able to share this Rosh Hashanah season with our wonderful Chazan, Stephen, and all the community. For my failings I request your forgiveness and offer my own forgiveness in return.

 

May this year come to all of us in health and happiness and with much sweetness to us all,

 

Shannah Tovah Tikateivu, May we all be written for a good year.

 

Rabbi Jeremy

Sounds Jewish Podcast

For those who would like a little podcasting interest, I’ve contributed to the Guardian Sounds Jewish podcast on Rosh Hashanah, available at

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/audio/2011/sep/27/sounds-jewish-podcast-september-2011

You may also hear the voices of Chazan Jackie Chernett, Jonathan Freedland and the music of Lemez Lovas among others.

 

Friday, 23 September 2011

Water-Carriers and All

I contributed this week’s Masorti Reflection on the Parasha.

Cross posted from

http://www.masorti.org.uk/reflections.htm

 

Shabbat Nitzavim - Vayelekh

 

If you are reading this, in Shul or on-line, congratulations. You are one of the elite; preparing for the major celebrations of the coming days by engaging in Jewish life and study. In less than a week’s time we will be joined by a goodly number of Jews who have been preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur by …. well they won’t have been preparing themselves for Rosh Hashanah at all.

 

I remember once passing a Shtibel – a little basement Synagogue – on New York's Upper West Side on the Shabbat immediately before Rosh Hashanah just as one of the daveners emerged from their Shabbat morning service. We chatted, ‘How many people did you get today?’ I asked, ‘Oh, about seventy,’ came the response. ‘And how many will you get on Rosh Hashanah?’ I asked. ‘Oh, about seventy,’ came the response. It took a while for me to understand what he meant. Then I realised, it’s the kind of community where everybody always comes. They have about seventy people on the first Shabbat in March, the third Wednesday morning in April or the second Tuesday afternoon in May.

 

It would be easy, as ‘one of the elite’ slipping into our regular seat on Shabbat Nitzavim-Vayelekh, to feel that Rosh Hashanah belongs to us. We are the regular attenders and the Talmud frequently teaches ben tadir v’aray tadir maadif, -between regular and occasional, regular is preferred. But that would be a terrible error, especially in the run up to Rosh Hashanah. These are the opening words of the parasha read the week before Rosh Hashanah - ‘You are standing here today, all of you, before God, your bosses, tribes, wise leaders, officers, everyone of Israel, your children, your wives, your strangers; from wood cutter to drawer of water so you can enter into the covenant.’ (Deut 29:10-11).

For the most important moments in our national history and in yearly calendar we stand together, wood-cutters and elite alike. The machers and the twice a year attendees are deemed equally necessary for the success of the covenantal relationship between God and the Children of Israel. The same is true of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. How could we pray, in the words of the Kol Nidrei, ‘alongside the sinners,’ if we were all perfect (a fine hope that). The language of mutual responsibility shared by an entire people before God infuses so much of the liturgy of the upcoming days, from the Zichronot verses of Rosh Hashanah to the confessional recitations of Yom Kippur. We are all in this together.

So my request to the elite, reading this, is this - watch out for the wood-carriers and the water drawers, come Thursday morning. Wish them a Shanah Tovah, introduce yourself, make sure they feel comfortable in your community, even if you have never seen them before. This covenant, these coming days, are for us all.

Shabbat Shalom and a sweet and good year to all.

An Israeli Interruption


I wanted, on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah to write on matters affecting New London; our wonderful Slichot evening – scheduled for Sunday evening – and the Rosh Hashanah festivities of the coming week. But Israel has broken in, as it has a habit of doing.

Today there will, or won’t be, a vote at the UN on recognising a Palestinian State and diplomatic tanks are being lined up less, it seems, to debate the issue and more to disparage and blame one side or the other. I re-read the sermon I gave on Israel last year on Rosh Hashanah. Sadly not so much has changed. We are, I believe, still tremendously un-easy reading, listening and certainly speaking about Israel. The maps, sticking points and energies remain simmering a year on. That said, I do still believe in what I shared from the Bimah on Rosh Hashanah a year ago. I believe it, not only for Israel and her Palestinian neighbours, but for all of us who, a year later, find ourselves facing the very same maps, sticking points and energies that drew our attention a year ago in our interpersonal relationships. What is good for Israel is good for all of us.

There are, I believe, three necessary pre-Rosh Hashanah responses to Israel, then as now.
Firstly, we may not despair, we are, particularly around this sacred time in the Jewish calendar, compelled to believe that change and healing – even if only partial healing - are possible.
Secondly, we must be prepared to admit fault. Too much blame blinds. The posturing that insists it is always someone else’s fault is anathema to this time of year.
Thirdly, we have to acknowledge the religious value, and necessity, of compromise. The Talmud counsels on how to divide a contested piece of cloth and explains who gets to go first over a narrow pass. ‘Compromise,’ states the Talmud in Sanhedrin 5a, ‘is better than a legal judgement.’

There is a terrible history, appalling acts of violence and destruction and one can so easily be drawn into a never-ending cycle of recrimination and accusation. But the path to peace is not this way. Let me end with a text I received this week in a package of material for Rabbis who wish to speak on Israel over the High Holydays edited, distributed and prepared by Israel’s foreign ministry.

Rabbi Eliezer said (Leviticus 19) “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”—therefore do not say: since I have been humiliated, let my neighbour also be humiliated! Know it is the image of God you would disfigure!
Genesis Rabbah 24:7

My sermon from last year is at
http://rabbionanarrowbridge.blogspot.com/2010/09/1st-day-rh-sermon-israel-and-other_11.html
The Israel Foreign Ministry resource guide is available via the website of Israel’s Embassy to the United States
http://www.israelemb.org/index.php/en/component/content/article/526

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah,

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Why Do We need Denominations

A response to the JTS Chancellor, Arnie Eisen’s very good question – Why do we need denominations.

His essay is at http://www.jtsa.edu/prebuilt/blog/denominations.html

 

I wonder if there is an analogy around questions of state versus private funding.

 

I want there to be safe roads to be everywhere for when I travel anywhere.

But I don't want have to pay per mile every time I get in the car and I want roads in areas where no private road builder would want to invest in building roads.

I want there to be a hospital with well trained medical staff for when I get ill.

But I don't want to have to get my wallet out as I lie on a hospital stretcher.

I want properly trained teachers with recognised qualifications in the schools where I send my kids.

But I don't want to have to school inspections myself. I don't have the expertise or the time.

 

I depute these tasks to the State and pay my taxes, despite the sense that there might be creeping inefficiencies and despite the fact that I might wish, at point of need, a different road plan or hospital design or educational oversight.

I commit to the larger, more ponderous, less perfectly attuned to my own desires, organisation – in these cases the State – because I want there to be a structure there and waiting for me and my needs when I am ready. It’s not a plea for communism, but an argument for the State to work out what we as a nation need that private organisations can’t or won’t provide well. And I feel the same things about Movements and denominations.

 

It's easy to find a freelancing post-denominational Rabbi to do a one-off pre-planned special; a marriage, a Yom Kippur service etc. – easy in, easy out. But I am prepared to commit to Synagogue community so there is something there for ‘the other 51 weeks,' if I need it – or if another member of the community I join might need it. I also commit to a denomination – a Movement – to do the things no single Synagogue community can provide; a Bet Din, training for the future and a Youth Movement where kids from my community can join with others. I expect denominational leadership to keep an eye on the horizon, pointing out challenges and opportunities down-stream, beyond my ability to see past my own immediate needs.

 

It’s always going to be cheaper and more immediately gratifying to serve my own interests with a non-denominational, non-community based Jewish identity. Committing to a denomination and a Movement is always going to take more commitment and more of a willingness to engage beyond self-gratification. But commitment and a willingness to suspend selfish desires are the mark of maturity, Hesed and courage. That’s why I’m a proudly denominational Jew. I’m neither Orthodox nor Reform, but I’m delighted for Orthodox Jews to commit to Orthodoxy and Reform Jews to commit to Reform, I don’t even begrudge the emergence of affiliated networks of ‘unaffiliated’ minyanim, I just think we should all be committed to a bigger communal vision than our own.

 

Memory or Amnesia

 

I am in the midst of a short adult education series on the relationship of memory and these upcoming days. Rosh Hashanah is less than two weeks away.

 

When we say that a people remembers,’ wrote the great Jewish historian Yosef Yerushalmi in 1974, ‘we are really saying that a past has been actively transmitted to the present generation and that this past has been accepted as meaningful. Conversely, a people “forgets” when the generation that now possesses the past does not convey it to the next, or when the latter rejects what it receives and does not pass it onward, which is to say the same thing.’

 

Memory is about being in a chain of transmission, it is intrinsically connected to meaningfulness and committment. It’s a tremendously provocative, and persuasive, definition and it reminded me of one of my favourite ‘Louis’ stories. Our founder Rabbi, in his autobiography, wrote of his experiences at his first Yom Kippur at the smart and fancy New West End Synagogue, having just left the more Heimish surroundings of Golders Green. It is the eve of Yom Kippur and and Rabbi Jacobs and the third Lord such-and-such are chatting before the service began.

 

‘Time was pressing and I suggested that we go into the synagogue for Kol Nidre. The Lord replied that he did not want to enter the synagogue for a while and that he would explain why after the service. His explanation was that his grandfather, the first Lord, although a very observant Jew, did not hold with the Kol Nidre formula and used to wait patiently in the foyer until this part of the service was over. His son, the second Lord, less observant and a little indifferent to the whole question would still wait outside because his father had done so.  The third Lord explained he personally didn’t understand what it was all about, but felt obliged to carry on the family tradition.’

 

Here is the question. Does the third Lord ‘remember?’ Is this a story of perpetuated memory or amnesia?

 

Part of the why I love this story so much is that it is clearly referring to one of the great Hasidic tales, one that ends Scholem’s masterful Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. Here is that tale, as told by Scholem.

 

‘When the [founder of Chasidism] the Baal Shem had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer and what he had set out to perform was done.

‘When, a generation later [his student] the Maggid was faced with the same task he would go to the same place in the woods and say, ‘We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayer – and what he wanted done became reality.

‘Again a generation later Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov had to perform this task. And he too went into the woods and said, ‘We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditation belonging the prayer, but we do know the place in the woods to which it all belongs and that must be sufficient’ and sufficient it was.

‘But when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task, he say down on his golden chair in his castle and said, ‘We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayer, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done.’’

 

A cliffhanger, again; is this memory or amnesia? The answer, like the fate of the Jewish people hangs by a hair’s breadth, as it always has done. ‘This is the position in which we find ourselves today,’ Scholem continues, ‘The story is not ended, it has not yet become history, and the secret life it holds can break out tomorrow in you or me.’  As we stand on the cusp of Rosh Hashanah I ask you to be open to secret life held within Judaism breaking out in you, like the Baal Shem’s fire. There are sparks and opportunities aplenty in these coming days to fuel a fire to burn through this time. Why not join me on Monday for the second, and concluding part of our journey into Jewish memory? After all you are already up-to-speed with where we got to last week.

 

Shabbat shalom,

 

Rabbi Jeremy

Saturday, 10 September 2011

9/11 One Year On & Ten Years On

Nine years ago I was asked by the UJIA to speak at the one year anniversary of 9/11.

Re-reading this talk, given to end precisely as the minute's silence in NY commemorated the fallen, I'm struck by its heat and some of the turns of phrase I no longer stand by. But I'm also how my own sense of un-ease around 9/11 has changed little this past decade.

May the memory of those killed be a blessing.

I’m a Rabbinical Student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. I’m also a Chaplain (both of these studies have been and continue to be generously supported by the UJIA), so when I found myself in New York on September 11th 2001 I volunteered with the Red Cross, offering support to rescue workers and later families who lost loved ones.

 

I was there, on the morning of September the 11th, in Manhattan, on the morning when it felt like the world was coming to an end.

I was there, on the evening of September the 11th, standing at Ground Zero smelling the acrid smells and, treading in the white ash of two hundred stories of crumpled and crumbled masonry. I stood there and listened to the pain of the firefighters who lost perhaps half their company in the attack.

I was there in the weeks and months after the attack, at the family assistance centre, where family members of those who had lost loved ones wandered aimlessly around a vast sprawl of stalls offering food stamps, death certificates, shiatsu massage and a place to sit and talk and feel like you were not alone in the horror of survival.

 

And now I feel queasy.

I feel queasy about my own hunger to be near the pain, why did I feel the need to go down there, to volunteer, to spend hours upon hours listening to the pain of those who had suffered?

Why in NY does it sometimes feel like a competition - who was closest to the horror, who saw the towers fall from their window, who knew someone who was killed, who, were it not for the intervention of some mysterious fate, would have been in a meeting on the 98th floor at just that time?

I feel queasy looking at the TV footage and reading the papers. Why the need for ‘new, never before seen photographs’ why the need for ‘footage from inside the towers’ shot by a camera crew who may, or may not have been filming at the expense of assisting with the rescue.

Even Yahoo!, the internet search engine has been transmogrified into a tomb for the day, the usual bright colours replaced by a swathe of grey.

But none of this moves me. It all seems vaguely fatuous.

 

There is an urge to get close to this tragedy, and I fell for it, as hard as anyone.

It is as if the attack of September 11th represents something ‘authentic,’ something real in our fabricated and insulated lives. As if the sight and the memory of people jumping from the upper floors of the Towers will in some way help us be more real. As if their death will give our lives more meaning.

 

Ernest Becker in his master-work - Denial of Death suggests that we are so scared of our own demise that we seek to hero-ise lives, our lives and the lives of others as a way of escaping our fear of our own fragility. The problem being that we forget that our lives are indeed fragile and our posturing counts for little.

We are now in the ten days of teshuva, a time for feeling and acknowledging our fragility, in the words of the Rosh Hashanah Machzor -

we are dust and our end is dust. Like a clay vessel easily broken, like withering grass, a passing shadow, a fleeting breeze, a vanishing dream.

 

But these days seem to be passing with the war cry of the seemingly immanent invasion of Iraq. Here come the cavalry, we are off to seek our own immortality, heroes one and all.

 

Sadly our pursuit of the heroic may be even worse than merely futile. This comes from the preface to Denial of Death,

‘Our desire for the best is the cause of the worst. We want to clean up the world, make it perfect, keep it safe for democracy or communism, purify it of the enemies of god, eliminate evil, establish an alabaster city undimmed by human tears, or a thousand year Reich.’

We transfer our own fear of death, our own fear of futility onto others, any others, niggers, homos, A-Rabs and of course the yid.

We transfer our dark side onto them and then we strike against them. Maybe it is our desire to pursue our own heroic agenda that causes, what Becker calls, a surplus of evil in the world.

 

So what is the purpose of standing here remembering September 11th 2001, I’m not sure we can rely on the vacuous notion of remembering in order not to let the errors of the past re-occur. In the last year I have seen precious few attempts to build bridges between different worlds and different world views.

Rightly or wrongly, the Arab world seems as angry with the West today as it was a year ago, if not more angry.

Who among us thinks there are less young men and women willing to give up their lives in a suicide attack this September 11th than there were last year?

 

We have responded to Sept 11th not with a introspective systemic attempt to understand and heal.

We have responded with fake bravado and name calling. I remember, perhaps worst of all, standing as one of 100,000 Jews outside the White House hearing Bibi Netanyahu plead for the world not to adopt a stance of ‘moral equivalence’ in comparing the actions of the Israeli government to that of the suicide bombers. And then in the next sentence he compared Yasser Arafat to ‘Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, the Ayatollahs and Osama Ben Laden.’ And the crowd cheered wildly.

 

We have responded to our fear of death by bolstering our own sense of righteous indignation. Frankly we are being foolish, we are learning the wrong lessons.

So what are the right lessons?

 

I want to offer three texts and three commentaries for our battered time,

One

kol yisrael aravim ze le ze - all Israel acts as a surety for one another- Sadly this text is not enough, not even close to being enough. In this global village we can no longer afford parochialism, even if our parish is as large as our entire people.

Each of us serves as a surety for the entire world whether we like it or not. My life is intricately wrapped up with that of a cocoa farmer in Ghana, a Buddhist monk in Daramasala and, much as I hate to admit it, a suicide bomber in the Gaza Strip.

 

Two

Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof - Justice, justice shall you pursue.

We must reject the possibly of reading this verse from Vayikra as calling for the pursuit of justice by any means necessary.

Rather, as Martin Buber demands  in Ten Rungs, we must understand the seemingly redundant repetition of the word tzedek to insist that Justice must be pursued by Just means only. The unjust means, employed to what we might dearly hope to be a just end, is and must be an anathema. If we act immorally or unfairly in our pursuit of what we perceive to be justice we give the lie to our actions. We give the lie to our proud and haughty claims to be the true guardians of peace and justice in the world. We become fundamentalists, blind to anything other than our goal.

Worse still, it is surely inevitable that our unjust means will cripple the vision of the just end we pursue. Acting unjustly will cause us to misunderstand and, even if we succeed in imposing our ends on the world, they will be surely be flawed and unjust, just like everyone else.

 

Finally

We must take seriously the notion of the fragility of the world and act, act honestly and humbly, but act anyway. In Hilchot Teshuva 3:8 Rambam states the following

 

Every person must see themselves as half worthy and half guilty.

And so too all the world, as if it were half worthy and half guilty.

A person sins one sin, behold they tip themselves, and tip the whole world, onto the scale of guilt.

A person performs one good deed, behold they tip themselves, and tip the whole world, onto the scale of merit.

 

Our actions, our futile, fragile actions, are capable of tipping the entire world to the scale of merit. While we cannot complete the work of redemption, we are not free to desist from trying.

 

One: kol yisrael aravim ze le ze is not enough.

Two: Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof means we must pursue justice justly.

Three: Our actions are capable of tipping the entire world, either for merit or for guilt.

 

We are shortly to stand in silence, after which I will offer a prayer for peace. It seems almost foolish to offer such a blessing in this time, almost a brahca l’vatalah – a futile blessing, but I refuse to believe that peace is not possible. This is a statement of faith, ani ma’amin even though there has been delay – I believe that those things that bring us together will triumph over those things that tear us apart. I believe in the perfect possibility of humanity – we are all created in the image of God. And I believe, to lift a liturgical note from the Passover Seder, that in the end the Holy Blessed One will triumph over the angel of death.

 

But for the next few minutes we shall stand in solidarity with those who lost their lives, those who mourn, those who are yet to lose their lives, and those who are yet to know the pain of that mourning.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Memories of 9/11, and other things

 

 

As many members will know I spent the night of 9/11 2001 at Ground Zero as a Chaplain. I have written up some of my memories of that night for the Jewish Chronicle this week.

 

For those of you who don’t receive the printed edition, you will be able to read the article on-line at www.thejc.com from Thursday evening. I will also be sharing some of what I consider to be the important Torah lessons from that horrendous time this Shabbat during the sermon.

 

Memory – the Hebrew root is ‘zachor’ – is a vital component of what it means to be a Jew. We remember creation, we remember Exodus, we remember Zion as we sit by the ‘Rivers of Babylon,’ we remember, of course, the Holocaust. Perhaps the focus on memory is at its most sharp in the context of the upcoming Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur season. As well as the call to remember our sins and failings in the past year we also engage in the Zichronot – as series of verses recited in the Rosh Hashanah Musaf service – and the Yizkor – Memorial service on Yom Kippur.

 

This Monday, 12th and the next I will be sharing something thoughts on the nature of Jewish memory in preparation for Rosh Hashanah. As the great Jewish historian Y H Yerushalmi, most famous for his work ‘Zakhor,’ wrote, ‘memory is always problematic, usually deceptive, sometimes treacherous.’ As we prepare to give account of our year and indeed our very lives, I hope you will join me to consider, in the company of our Mahzor and great sages, quite what this journey into memory really entails. 8pm at the Synagogue. All welcome.

 

Shabbat shalom

 

 

Friday, 2 September 2011

Parashat Shoftim - Blinding Power of Bribery

Mai Ikah bein Tzedek v’Avodah Zara

 

The great professions have not had a good few years.

 

Politicians – I’m not sure they were ever so reputable – but last year virtually the entire political class of this country were exposed. Venally submitting expenses for – at worst - duck houses and double counting rents and mortgages – the sort of thing that made ‘ordinary’ people –tax payers who paid for these privileges - feel furious. I’m not picking on politicians – there are decent honest politicians, but there are those who lose track of decency and honesty.

 

This year it’s been the turn of the journalists – admittedly only journalists from one particular newspaper – to be exposed as liars and hypocrites. And again I’m not picking on journalists, there are most certainly decent honest journalists.

 

A couple of years ago it was the financial sector – not, of course anyone from Cantor Fitzgerald – perish the thought. But bankers, traders, dealers – the Masters of the Universe from years passed - have been put through their paces by an aggrieved populace. I’m not picking on bankers. There are decent, honest bankers.

 

And I’m not even interested in exempting my own profession from the sort of venality and criminality that seems to have struck so many professions these past years. It hasn’t just been in the Catholic Church that the sexual failures of clerics have been exposed. Rabbis too have been exposed in ways horrible and embarrassing.

 

There’s been a great deal of peeling back veils and many once mighty, once proud, pillars of society have been exposed. I don’t think any profession has been immune.

 

And it is all foreseen in the mighty parshah today – particularly in two key sections at the beginning.

 

Get judges, investigative officers. Give them the power to investigate and the courage not to be cowed or bullied into injustice.

And don’t take shachad – don’t take bribes, because bribes blind the wise.

Justice, justice you shall pursue.

 

This is how the parasha opens.

Have a judicial system, a system that pursues loftier principles than self-interest, a system that protects the decent weak person against the overbearing bully.

And then the Torah segues into a warning about idolatry – don’t erect any kind of false god.

I’ll come back to this point.

 

And then later in the parasha comes an extraordinary passage.

The children of Israel have been led through the wilderness by a prophet extraordinaire – Moses – touched with the gift of Nevuah – the ability to articulate the messages of God.

But prophets don’t necessarily make comfortable political leaders. Moses’ had a sharp temper and could harangue almost to the point of ranting. You wouldn’t want to send a Moses to the United Nations General Assembly. To fit in amongst the nations you want someone who could wear a proper suit, demonstrate a certain gravitas. So God tells the people, ‘when you want a King, at least appoint an Israelite – lo titein alecha ish nochri.’

 

And then come three warnings addressed to the people in terms of how they should limit the power of their King.

Lo yarbeh lo susim – He shouldn’t multiply his horses

Vlo Yarbeh lo nashim – He shouldn’t multiply his women

Vchesef vzahav lo yarbeh lo meod – He shouldn’t overly multiply his silver or gold.

 

The awareness that power corrupts is hardwired into the Halachic system. The awareness that as people become more powerful they are tempted by

i)                    material possessions – the horses

ii)                  sex – the women and

iii)                financial – the silver and gold –

Is totally understood.

It’s not a plea for poverty.

The key word is this series of warnings is the shortest – lo

He shouldn’t increase for himself

 

Says the Sifrei – raising enough for the needs of government is fine.

But don’t raise funds to line your own pocket at the expense of your people.

 

These are, for me, the most important passages in this week’s parasha – appoint judges and expose the workings of society to a judicial scrutiny free from the blinding temptation of bribery.

And place checks on those in positions of power – they shouldn’t succumb to temptation in the form of material possessions, sex or money.

 

Maybe it is that power corrupts.

Maybe it is that once in power opportunities present themselves, opportunities that are  simply not made available to the powerless.

Maybe it is that, once granted a position of power, a person can forget what they owe to others, concentrating too much on what other owe themselves.

Whatever it is, there is clearly something about the connection between power and the sort of behaviour that the parasha rails against that refuses to become obsolete some three thousand plus years after these verses were written.

 

So how do we deal with power, how do we deal with temptation, how do we deal with being – or trying to be – a decent professional pillar of society.

Maybe the anecdote is in the opening words of the parasha – the instructions to the judges.

Don’t take bribes – lo tikach shachad – Ki hashachad yaavayr ainei hachamim

don’t take bribes because bribes blind.

 

I want to read these verses broadly, not only about those people who actually sit as judges.

But to all of us who exercise power and who face the temptations of horses, wives and silver and gold – the temptations of material possessions, sex and money.

.

Lo tikach shachad – Ki hashachad yaavayr ainei hachamim

don’t take bribes because bribes blind the eyes of the wise.

It sounds a little too obvious

Most of us would realise that if we were a judge sitting in our private chambers considering whether to decide a particular case in favour of Bill or Ted, a brown envelope slipped under the door marked ‘bribe to decide the case in favour of Ted’ is wrong.

 

Reminded of story of student who returned their exam with a hundred dollar bill attached – and marked ‘a dollar a percentage point.’

The Professor returned the essay – and $56.

Those kinds of bribes are easily identified as wrong.

 

But Shachad is more than the brown envelope marked ‘bribe’. Shachad is that which blinds us to our wrong doing.

 

Going back to the MP expenses debacle of last year the most interesting piece for me was how long it took for the politicians to realise that there was something wrong with the kind of expenses they were submitting.

As the story first broke politician after politician would explain, quite patiently how everyone did it, they would explain that it was hard being an MP; you didn’t have job security, other people were paid more money and so on. And journalist after journalist and voter after voter would be flabbaergasted at the sheer effrontery – the blindness of these politicians. Why couldn’t they see that what they were doing was wrong?

I think it is because the expense system of the Houses of Parliament constituted a sort of Shachad – it perpetrated a sort of blindness

They were blinded to the errors of their ways.

.

I think the same thing happened with the journalists. At some level they clearly felt it was acceptable to hack into people’s phone messages – even a murder victim. They were capable of justifying their errors.

 

The same goes for bankers, and for despots. I think Mubarak and Gadaffi genuinely thought that the people loved them and their behaviour.

 

I think we all do it. I certainly do it. I am expert at justifying my failings in one way or another.

We all face temptation – usually the temptations of material possessions, sex or money – and we justify our succumbing.

It’s Ellul time – we are in the run up to the time when we need to be honest about our failures and our errors and the most difficult piece of that demand is the demand to admit that the things that we are quite comfortable justifying are really unjustifiable.

We blind ourselves to our failures to see the temptations of material sexual or financial excess as temptations.

We train ourselves to think temptations to sin are opportunities to do good.

That’s the greatest skill of the Yetzer Hara – the evil inclination – it’s to look like the Yetzer HaTov – the inclination to do good.

 

So how do we avoid Shachad? How do we avoid the sorts of bribes that don’t come clearly marked in brown envelopes?

For me it comes down to a belief in God.

I think it helps to have faith in God.

Particularly that very Rosh Hashanah style image of God who sees, knows and judges.

The God we pray to, most especially in the coming month, is a God capable of exposing our attempts at self-justification and denial as just that.

An all seeing, all knowing Other is a vital part of the religious approach to avoiding Shachad.

Without it we are left with our own sub-conscious acting as its own moral agent and, as Freud and so many others, have shown, our own sub-conscious is rarely open and honest.

Have there been dishonest people of religion, of course there has been. Going to shul doesn’t provide a cure-all, but faith in there being something which is beyond us and capable of seeing into our hidden byways and highways provides an external check on our self-blinding succumbing.

I think belief in God gives us a chance at seeing what would otherwise blind us – seeing Shachad that doesn’t come in brown envelopes.

I think that is why the parasha follows the demand that judges should do justly with a demand that no idolatrous image is erected.

Don’t confuse the one true, all seeing, all revealing God with a manmade idol that allows us to venerate the work of our own hands.

Don’t confuse justice with the temptations caused by Shachad.

 

If you don’t believe in God and you don’t think you need to believe in God in order to be a moral person, fine – you have to posit that external all seeing eye that is not blinded by your prevarications and flimsy explanations some other way. I’ll admit it’s possible, but I don’t know how to do that.

 

 We all face temptations to overly multiply our horses, our women, our silver and our gold.

And the point about these temptations is that we are blinded by them. Almost by definition we don’t see the ways in which we self-justify our failings.

We need an external judge – a judge who is not susceptible to bribery, a judge who is prepared to critique our failings and demand instead that we pursue justice.

This, I think is the message of this week’s parasha – and a message to serve us well in the run up to Rosh Hashannah.

Shabbat shalom and Shannah Tovah.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Guard your Gates

 

It’s the month of Ellul, already.

Rosh Hashanah is less than a month away (tickets for non-members can be ordered from the Synagogue web site). My mind is turning to the work of the season.

 

One remarkable feature of the long list of sins we recite on Yom Kippur is quite how many refer to things that we say. Lashon HaRa – evil language is both so easy and so pernicious, but that is only one of many sins listed in the Al Cheit prayer. We admit sins of scoffing, denying, lying, inappropriate conversation and on the list goes. There are other sins committed with and by the mouth – sins of eating and drinking.

Then there the sins of sight; the wanton glance, the haughty eye.

 

I was reminded of a wonderful Chasidic commentary on the opening line of this week’s Torah portion - Shoftim. ‘Judges and Officers you shall place on all your gates.’ The verse refers, clearly to the city, but Hasidic commentary presages Freud by reading every verse as being about the invidual. The ‘gates’ of the Biblical verse become the gates to our body – and, we are taught, there are seven; two eyes, two ears, nostrils and a mouth.

 

We are urged to police what goes in and what goes out of the gates to our selves. It’s tremendous advice.

 

Shabbat shalom,

 

Rabbi Jeremy

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