Sunday, 2 October 2011

Second Day Rosh Hashanah - God and Ethics

Did you look in the mirror this morning?

What did you see?

Are you, in real life, a little greyer than in your mind’s eye.

A little chubbier, perhaps, or maybe there is a newly appeared wrinkle creeping across your brow?

I suspect many of us have a mental picture of our physical appearance that is a little smarter, a little more attractive, a little more polished than an external observation would allow. Actually we are the lucky ones. There are others here who look in the mirror and see something ugly – despite their beauty. When we look in the mirror we rarely see what is truly there.


I suspect the same goes for the mental picture we have of our character – many of us consider ourselves a little kinder, a little wiser, a little funnier than is really the case. And then there are those who see an undeserved emotional ugliness. We all view ourselves through subjective lenses. We all view distortions.


At the heart of Rosh Hashanah is this challenge – can you see yourself from outside yourself? Can you see yourself the way God sees you?


I spoke yesterday about interpersonal relationships - ben adam lechavero and how if we could place the needs of the other person before our own we could lift the quality of our life, improve us as humans living on this planet.

I spoke about Levinas’ phrase, ‘Apres Vous’ as the marker of an ethical, and holy, way of life.

Today I want to speak about another way to pull up our actions and improve our life, and that involves the way we relate to God. I want to suggest two ways in which we should understand God, two ways in which a relationship with God can lift us and improve us. The first is God as a reflection of our true selves.


The Rabbis talk about God as HaMakom – the Place.

Try this as definition of that Place.

God is the place where our actions matter. It’s the place where our actions are recorded and the quality of our good deeds and the failing of our misdeeds are laid bare.

God is the place where we gain few plaudits for money begrudgingly given to a charity in the hope of tax rebates and social acclaim.

God is the place where the private decision not to download, illegally, some pirated something is greeted with acclaim.

The Talmud notes that a person can feed their parents the sweetest foods and still deserve eternal punishment, and that a person can yolk an elderly parent to a millstone and still deserve eternal reward.[1] God knows the difference between what others might see on the surface and the truth behind our actions and inactions.

To see ourselves as God sees us is to accept that there is an objective view of who we might like to think we are. Our subjective selves might like to think we are entirely worthy – or entirely worthless – but today we are called to acknowledge a more truthful view. I believe this can help us live better.


Back to the riots – those outrageous pictures of hooded youths ransacking and looting with their faces covered by bandanas – thinking, perhaps, that they could escape opprobrium because no-one could identify them. God saw, God knew and God laughed off the disguise. A little bit of a sense of God the all-seeing judge would have gone a long way on the streets of Tottenham or Croydon.


Or what about the Newspaper executives busy suggesting they weren’t aware of hacking on their newspaper. God knows precisely what they knew and had those executives felt the presence of a Divine record that might have helped.


From the perspective of the heavens the hoodies and their bandanas and the newspaper magnates and their tortured testimony are revealed as little more than the trick of a small child who places their hands over their own eyes and tells their father – “you can’t see me.” I wonder the extent to which we all behave like this small child, imagining that no-one sees beyond our own superficial view of our self. I wonder the extent we all fail to realise the extent to which our actions and inactions are rendered clear and obvious to one prepared to see more honestly than our two year old selves.


The message is that someone hears when we curse the deaf person, that someone sees us place a stumbling block before the blind. Someone – the Ultimate One – records us when we mistreat someone who doesn’t have the ability to protest against our treatment of them. There is a record.


This is classic Rosh Hashanah Torah. We joined together, just now, in the Unataneh Tokef prayer; the one which speaks of a God who ‘judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; who writes and seals and counts and numbers and remembers everything forgotten.’

Don’t over literalise. Don’t become bogged down in a cartoonish characterisation of a celestial accountant. That’s not theology, in the words of Maimonides that’s rank foolishness.

To understand God, taught Maimonides, we first have to understand what God is not. God has no physical form, no ledgers, no quill pen, no ink-pool and the literal language of our sacred texts is there to open up our appreciation of the numinous, not narrow it down.

The reality is more abstract, more transcendent than our minds can grasp so we make little raids on the outer edges of reality – a bit like a judge, a bit like a prosecutor, a bit like a recorder … no single human word carries the totality of what we are supposed to realise on this day – and throughout the year.


The central point is that are to realise there is an account and that ought to be an easier idea today than ever before.

The idea exists in contemporary ecological discourse.

Every time we consume something we leave a carbon footprint behind. There is a record even if we cannot perceive it.

The same idea exists in contemporary discourse regarding chaos theory.

Every action we perform sets off trails of reactions echoing out from our initial endeavour into the distant corners of the planet, beyond our ken.

The same idea pervades our lives in this new digital world in which we live.

Every time I log onto my preferred news web-site I’m greeted by adverts for an on-line lighting store. They clearly know we’re refurbishing.

The things we do are recorded.


Again it’s not about a celestial filing cabinet, there is nowhere to go to see this great library of human record, it’s not that kind of a database. There is one extraordinary phrase in the Unataneh Tokef prayer – this prayer about the books. Vhotem yad kol adam bo it says. The seal of the hand of every person is in these books. The books are made up out of our deeds. The books don’t contain words. They contain us, we are part of them and they are part of us.


This idea is key. The books are us, the record and the recorder and the recorded are all bound up together. There’s no a heavenly accountant sitting in some celestial HMRC cubicle in Slough, there is instead a cosmos where God is folded through us, each of us, and then stretches beyond us.


If the first point about God is that Gold holds us to account, the second is that God is within us, part of us and on our side – God is intimate.

It’s difficult to explain, and harder still to understand, but we are, after all talking of God – it’s not always going to be simple.


The language of the accountant describes an external God, beyond and outside. That can anatomise us – make us feel spied on like a character in Orwell’s 1984. And that is not right; it’s certainly no way to talk about God. Rabbi Louis Jacobs always referred to himself as a panentheist; that is to say someone who believed God was both in everything and beyond everything. God is in me and beyond me. There is no God ‘out there,’ looking on like a Stasi agent. God is part of me, I contain godliness  even if godliness isn’t contained by me.


Rabbi Rami Shapiro, trying the express this panentheist sense of the Divine talks about the experience of going to Aspen and seeing colonies of Aspen trees; each ‘individual tree sharing a single root system with all the others.’[2] It’s not as if the roots are God and the trees are us. For God is in both the trees and the root system.

Rabbi Richard Rubinstein uses the metaphor of the ocean – God – and the waves – us to express the same idea. There is no way of separating out the wave from the ocean. It is, as the Kabbalists would tell us, all one – kula chada.[3]


‘We operate under an illusion of separateness,’ says Rami Shapiro, ‘we are like an aspen tree that refuses to accept its relationship with the root system and its fellow trees. We are like a wave of an ocean that insists it is other than the ocean [but] there is no possibility of separation. There is just the ocean waving.’

There is no God outside of us, there is just the ocean waving.


This, I think, makes this notion of God as judge and recorder less clinical and cold than the Big Brother notion of an externalised snooper. God is in our selves, God wishes for the best from ourselves. The holding to account I am talking about is a bit like the good friend who tells us we have hurt them. And because we have a relationship with this intimate friend we accept the critique. We know it to be grounded in truth and shared in our best interest. And we know that this intimate friend is not going to abandon us because of our failings because our friendship is predicated on what we share together – we are folded in on one another.


The externalised critique of the Divine, the God as judge imagery I shared in the first part of this sermon is balanced by this sense of intimacy, the interconnectedness of all things within God. Held together these two sense of God as a judge and an intimate are at the heart of how we should perceive God in our lives. Indeed they are frequently balanced against one another in our liturgy at this time of the year. Ki anu amecha, v’atah eloheinu – for we are Your people and You are our God we say on Yom Kippur before we confess our terrible sins. Adon Haslichot we sing dover tzedakot – Master of forgiveness, speaker of justice – the intimate and the judge balanced together. We will only allow an intimate friend to judge us because we only trust someone folded into our lives. We don’t want to be abandoned, but of course God isn’t going to abandon us – there is nowhere else for God to go.


This is the way I believe we should perceive God – as an external view, objectively recording our successes and failings, and simultaneously as an internal part of our own selves, folded through us. I think these two aspects of the divine can check us when we look in the mirror and see only how wonderful we think we are. And I think it can lift us when we look in the mirror to and see only failure. These two aspects of a relationship with God can lift us, improve us and help us live better lives. May they do that, and may we, in turn be granted the year of health and sweetness we long for.


Shannah Tovah

[1] Kiddushin 31a-b Rashi

[2] Rami Shapiro, Rabbi Rami Guide to God p.60

[3] ‘Only the ocean waving’ is Rami Shapiro’s line. Rubinstein’s image is in Morality and Eros.

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