Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Apres Vous, A Jewish Ethic for Rosh Hashanah



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 façade 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

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