Monday, 14 May 2012

On The Good Samaritan

On 13th May, 2012, I was honoured with invitation to give a the Mulligan Sermon at Gray's Inn.
It's an endowed sermon dating back to the 1920s and has been graced by a number of Christian heavy hitters over the years.
I was the first Jew.

The sermon is to be given on the lectionary of the Parable of the Good Samaritan which, for a lawyer, has a special resonance in that the lead decision in the single central text in all tort law, Donoghue v Stevenson also seems to engage with Jesus's question to the lawyer in the the Gospel of Luke, 'Who is your neighbour?'

Mulligan Sermon – May 2012

On Insufficiencies And Neighbourliness


To my host, Rt Rev. Michael Doe. I am grateful for your hospitality, your bravery indeed, willing to hand over a pulpit, on a prestigious Lord’s Day to a representative of another faith. An outsider in a society of good Christian worshippers, a Samaritan in the midst perchance?


To the Treasurer of this honourable society, Sir Michael, formidable barrister, formidable judge, inspiring father-in-law, doting and loving father and pappa. Thank you for putting my name forward to give this address.


The invitation to give the Mulligan Sermon is a gauntlet thrown down by James Mulligan, one-time Treasurer of this Inn. It’s an invitation that seems ever more daunting as the roster of extraordinarily eminent, and let it be said seemingly exclusively Christian, speakers have taken their turns at this pulpit on this occasion. It’s an invitation to be inspired, and hopefully to inspire, based on a conversation between Jesus and a Lawyer. Indeed there may be two different conversations, or even three. But I shall concentrate on the most famous version, the parable of the Good Samaritan.


I’m a Jew. For me, reading the tale for the first time I’m struck by its love of what I call Torah – the Hebrew Bible.

The Lawyer asks Jesus, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

Jesus asks the Lawyer, What is written in the Torah, how do you read it?

The Lawyer responds – Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might.

It’s a verse from the Torah – it forms part of the first Biblical passage any Jewish child is taught. I know it by heart.

Veahavta adonai elochecha, bchol levavcha, bchol nafshecha, uvchol moadecha.

And, the Lawyer continues with another verse, And you should love your neighbour as you love yourself.

Another verse from the Torah I know effortlessly

Vehavtah lreacha camocha.

Clal Gadol BaTorah teaches Rabbi Akiva. For Akiva, perhaps the greatest of all Rabbis, this verse is the single irreducible foundation of the entire Torah.

It’s warming to encounter my own scripture held so close to the heart of another faith tradition.

But the Torah, the Hebrew Bible is held insufficient in Christianity.

Only rarely is it even referred to as Torah or Hebrew, it’s usually referred to as Old. Old as in outdated, superseded by shiny New Good News.

The Hebrew Bible, the Torah, my Torah, is deemed insufficient, lacking.

So be it, I’m not here to engage in supercessionary claims. But I am deeply interested in the challenge that makes one feel personally, or in terms of our values and norms insufficient.


I stand before an infinite God finite and mortal. In this relationship I’m always going to fall short. I am insufficient. To me the faith encounter is the encounter of insufficiency.

It’s good to be confronted by one’s own insufficiency. It’s good to have the foundations of a cosy life rocked, once in a while, especially in a House of God.

I believe it is only in the investigation of the nature of insufficiency that we come to understand ourselves in relation to others.


So I want to share, if I may, two insights into insufficiency that come to me as I read this conversation, a conversation that seems so to have motivated and inspired the most famous decision in tort law.


A First Insufficiency

In my first journey into this realm of insufficiency I want to read this story not as a Rabbi, but as a partial insider to the world of law. As a child I read too many Rumpole books and watched too many LA Law episodes and for a number of years harboured the dream of becoming a barrister. Those dreams took me to Cambridge University where I spent three years reading law.

There is little I remember of any of it, I usually refer to my time as a law student as my three year sentence. But I did spend just enough time doing mini-pupillages and the like to have this sense of a barrister’s existence.


Bundles wrapped up in pink string would arrive and more often than not the question would be the same – am I, some concerned client would ask, going to be liable for this? Is this my problem? Or do I not have to worry about it.


There is a wonderful image in one of Douglas Adam’s book, Life the Universe and Everything. An alien from a faraway galaxy wishes to hide a spaceship at Lords cricket ground. The problem being that the spaceship is too large to be hidden under a tarpaulin. The solution is simple, if sadly only mythic - A Someone Else’s Problem field. Once enclosed in a Someone Else’s Problem field, Adams explains, everyone walks merrily past the spaceship; blind to the presence of a hulk of metal replete with guidance fins, rocket engines and escape hatches. Adams knows that as soon as a problem becomes someone else’s we no longer pay it attention.


This, of course, seems to be the fate of the man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. The gospel goes out of its way to tell us that both the priest and the Levite who pass this man, beaten and left for dead, ‘see the man,’ but they deem him, surely, someone else’s problem. It is as if synapses tripped in the retina fail to fire in the brain so they walk on by, oblivious to the Someone Else’s Problem before them.


The Someone Else’s Problem field analysis seems, to my eyes, to suggest an understanding of the question of the lawyer, the question that provokes Jesus’ parable. The lawyer, we are told, ‘wanted to justify himself’ so he asks Jesus who is his neighbour. He wanted to justify himself. It’s an odd turn of phrase. It might be that, in these august halls, the appeal to justice is obviously praiseworthy, but it doesn’t strike me this way.


To me, as an escaped lawyer, the phrase ‘he wanted to justify himself’ doesn’t seem to be about an appeal to lofty claims of fairness. Rather it seems the question of the typical barristers’ brief. The question, ‘To whom am I liable?’ carries the inevitable corollary, ‘To whom do I owe nothing’ – whose suffering is ignorable, what suffering can be deemed someone else’s problem? This, surely, is how Jesus accepts the question. The supposed neighbours in the parable, the Priest and the Levi fail and the supposed non-neighbour, the outcast, is awarded the prize of being the most neighbourly. The parable rejects any notion of an objective category of neighbour into which a person, Rabbinic Jew or Samaritan alike, falls ab initio. There is only someone who acts to take notice of another person’s suffering – they are a neighbour. And people who fail to take act – they fail the test of neighbourliness.


In fact, read this way the parable is entirely at odds with Lord Atkin’s famous test of neighbourliness in Donohue v Stevenson, legally compelling as it is. Atkin says that the key question is, ‘who then, in law, is my neighbour?’ He answers his question with an ab initio test designed to create categories that exclude and include. The key locution is ‘in law.’ In law it may be sufficient, and even necessary, to create ab initio categories, to exclude certain people from the category of being neighbours. But as a matter of religious behaviour, as a matter of decency and holiness that cannot be. Jesus’ point seems to be less that everyone is automatically included in the category of neighbour and more than there is no such thing as neighbourliness until a person acts to take notice, until a person allows the other person’s problem to become their own concern. We are all potential neighbours to one another, we fulfil the obligation to love our neighbours when we act to show love to anyone and we fail in this obligation when we walk on by anyone.


Applying Lord Atkin’s test will determine your liability in a human court of law, but in the Court on High, before the Judge who sees all and knows, in Jeremiah’s phrase, the inner workings of kidneys and hearts, we stand liable for failing to become a neighbour when the opportunity presents itself.


That’s the first insufficiency – the insufficiency of a legally brilliant mind which excludes liability – the insufficiency of hiding behind a legal test which categorises suffering as someone else’s problem.


A Second Insufficiency

The second insufficiency I want to share with you is an insufficiency in the lawyer’s first response to Jesus’ question, ‘what is the principle concern of the Torah?’ It’s an insufficiency that discoverable in my Rabbinic study.


This game, ‘what is the principle concern of the Torah,’ is well known in Rabbinic circles. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, loving one’s neighbour is considered clal gadol b’torah – the principle concern of the Torah by no less a figure than Jesus’s contemporary Rabbi Akiva. Akiva goes as far as to forsake even the command to love God, so important does he hold to the centrality of loving one’s neighbour. But in a central ancient Rabbinic text, Sifra, Akiva’s claim is rejected.[1] Another Rabbinic figure known as Ben Azzai suggests another verse. Ben Azzai’s verse  (Genesis 5:1) is less well known.

Zeh sefer toledot adam beyom b’ra elohim adam bidmut elohim asa oto.

This is the book of the generations of Adam - humanity. On the day God created humanity, God made humanity in the image of the Divine.

This is the book of the generations of Adam - humanity. On the day God created humanity, God made humanity in the image of the Divine.


Now that’s a strange choice for a central principle, at first glance. For one thing it doesn’t tell us to do anything. But there is something very special here.


Perhaps we can start with the insufficiency of Akiva’s verse – love your neighbour as you love yourself. This verse is fine if you are capable of deeming a poor naked man, beaten and left for dead on the side of the road as your neighbour. But if you can walk past such a person and we all walk past such people all the time, the verse is useless - insufficient. Similarly the importance of loving a neighbour as we love ourselves is weakened for anyone who does not, after all, love themselves very much. A person, a junior barrister, for example, may well get quite used to being abused and mistreated at the hands of a mighty QC. They might even feel that this sort of treatment is, in some misguided sense, an acceptable gesture of fondness. And so, on attaining silk themselves the once abused will surely replay the abuse, treating their own juniors as they themselves had become comfortable being mistreated. This, after all, is loving the other as we love ourself – treating the other as we become accustomed to being treated. That is also insufficient.


Of course the lawyer suggests a second verse; balancing the love of the neighbour with the love of God. Of course loving God is important. But a person can imagine themselves to be deeply committed to loving God and not realise that God wants them to stop when they pass a naked, beaten and left for dead man on the side of the road. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the twentieth century Rabbinic leader, noted this danger when, in the context of the American Civil Rights Movement, he railed against those who considered it possible to proclaim a love of God while still treating Blacks as slaves. ‘You cannot,’ insisted Heschel, ‘worship God and at the same time look at man is if he were a a horse.’


This is the genius of Ben Azzai’s selection of a verse which stresses the creation of all humanity – Adam – the name of the first human, in the image of God. Now you are in trouble trying to walk past the victim of a mugging, even if you don’t consider them your neighbour. When you walk past a human lying by the side of the road you are, whether you like it or not, walking past the image of God, encoded in bruised flesh and broken bones.


It’s not that Jews don’t relate to the notion of God encoded in human flesh, it’s just that we hold every human being to be so blessed, the Christian, the Muslim, the widow, orphan, stranger and slave.


Why, ask the Rabbis (Mishnah Sanhedrin 5:4), did God create every human being from a single primordial human – a single Adam. To teach, they answer, that no-one can say my father is greater than your father, for we all have the same father. When we focus on the creation of the first Adam in the image of God we realise we are all cousins here together, you and me, Christian and Jew, man and Samaritan alike.


It’s not only that Ben Azzai’s verse combines the two majestic verses of the lawyer – the verse that commands love of God and the verse that commands love of a neighbour into a singular prior textual citation, it’s that Ben Azzai solves the insufficiencies of an over-preoccupation with loving neighbours as one loves oneself. It’s not about who is and who is not a neighbour. It’s about all humanity. It’s not about how you personally might wish to be treated, it’s about treating everyone as if God’s awesome creative might is buried within them.


Try walking past a beggar on the Strand when you see God’s image in their eyes, scruffy beard and dirty fingernails.


Without a parable like the tale of the Good Samaritan, a parable which bends the sense of neighbour far beyond Lord Atkin’s test, far beyond a straightforward sense of the term, a verse like ‘love your neighbour’ is insufficient certainly when compared to a verse like Ben Azzai’s insistence on the creation of all humanity in the image of God.


So this is the second insufficiency – an over reliance on teaching that all we have to do is love God and love our neighbours as we love ourselves. For the central principle of the Torah is a commitment to see all humanity as created in the image of God. For if we focus on Ben Azzai’s verse we are driven beyond self-love and beyond the selection of who we deem to be, or not to be, our neighbour.


A first insufficiency – we must not hide behind categories which allow us to reject the suffering of others as someone else’s problem. Neighbours are people we act to help and if we want to love our neighbours we need to act lots and exclude little.


And a second insufficiency – there is a deeper religious truth than the centrality of loving neighbours. There is the religious truth of the creation of all humanity in the image of God. It is not possible to exclude any human from making a call on our love and energy for to do so is not only to miss that everyone is our cousin. It is to miss that in abstaining from helping another sufferer we walk by a broken image of God.


But there is also perhaps this. By bringing the heretical outcast into the centre of religious insight Jesus waves a flag for the importance of listening to teaching from outside our own faith constructs. It’s insufficient for Jews to rely only on Jewish truths. It’s even insufficient, I would dare claim, for Christians to rely only on Christian bearers of truth. To truly stand before God we need to make space for Samaritans in our midst. And Samaritans come in all shapes and sizes. For the greatest insufficiency of all is an arrogance to suggest that our own eyes can see all the truth there is.


Ad kan, as the Rabbis would say.

That will do for today.


Rabbi Jeremy Gordon

New London Synagogue

[1] Sifra Kedoshim 4:12

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