Sunday, 16 September 2012

First Day Rosh Hashanah Sermon - Act



There was once a ruler who wished to favour two subjects. So the ruler gave each a gift of flax and a gift of wheat.

One subject went home and kept the precious wheat and the precious flax safe and sound. We can imagine it in a box, in a cupboard, under the stairs.

The other subject went home and spun out the flax, wove it into cloth, dyed, cut and stitched the cloth and turned it into a magnificent garment. Then they took the wheat and winnowed it and ground it into flour and turned the flour into dough and the dough into a magnificent loaf.

And then the ruler called the two subjects back to the palace, with their gifts. And one set out with their flax and wheat and the other set out with their garment and their loaf.

You have to imagine the subject with the carefully preserved flax and wheat felt pretty good with their efforts. You have to suspect that they thought they were doing the right thing, a good job, but the tale pours scorn on their inaction. This subject is called foolish, ‘alas for their shame and disgrace’ – ends the tale

And it’s the second subject who is praised, called wise and venerated.[1]

It’s one of my favourite Jewish tales, actually it’s not just a tale. It’s a Rabbinic text at least a thousand years old, and probably far older. It’s a parable, a code to be deciphered and mapped back onto reality. The ruler is a reference to God. The subjects? They are us. The gifts of flax and wheat are understood to be the Written and the Oral Torah which we are supposed to study, work over, winnow, knead, cut and stitch back together. Perhaps more generally we can see them as the gifts that come with our creation – our birth or our entering a covenant as Jews. The recall to the palace is usually understood to be the moment of our death but let’s imagine this as a Rosh Hashanah story – let’s imagine this moment of being called back to give account is today. Rosh Hashanah – the day of judgement. What have we done with our flax and the wheat? We all have great gifts, in our creation as humans and especially in our life as Jews. Do we lock them in a cupboard to accumulate dust, or work at them?

The Midrash suggests you can’t be a good Jew by locking your gifts in a box in the cupboard under the stairs. Actually I don’t think you can even be a good human being by simply protecting what you have. If you have a gift, a blessing, you have to work at it, justify it, pay back a credit to pay off a debt. To receive is to accept an obligation to prove worthy. And these are obligations that are paid back in action.

I’ve been thinking about two major challenges to Jewish life, in the run up to this sacred time. One is a certain kind of liberalism that seems to be becoming endemic. The other challenge, which also threatens to overwhelm, is the challenge to Brit Milah. The challenges are, as I hope to share, linked.

The problem I have with a certain kind of liberalism is that it leads in the direction of accepting doing nothing as a reasonable response to the gift of life. The central question, in classic Liberal political philosophy, is, ‘what is the scope of things a person should be able to do without external interference?’[2] The default assumption is that this scope should be as broad as possible with any interference having to be justified. It’s as if we start off free of any obligation whatsoever and those demands that anyone or anything has the temerity to demand have to be justified. This sort of ‘what right do you have to make demands on me?’ is seeping into the contemporary conscious. It’s incredibly un-Jewish. It’s a philosophical approach that defends the right of the first subject to put his flax and wheat in a box in the cupboard if that is, after all, what they want to do. It’s an approach predicated on the supposed notion that no one and no thing should dare insist we work at our flax and our wheat. It’s an approach to life that can all too easily result in a nation of couch potatoes disavowing any sense of responsibility to help others, to pay back.

Judaism on the other hand, is so committed to a conception of life predicated on the importance of action, of paying back obligations picked up as a result of our very existence, that the idea of inaction is anathema. To be fair it might be a little more complicated than that. It is true that in the 1800s, under the influence of German Protestantism, some Reformers felt that action wasn’t important, that being Jewish could just be feeling but that’s the influence of German Protestantism, it’s not our essence. We are a collection of intellectual, spiritual feelings, but that we are also a people, a nation, a culture. With rites and rituals, we practice. We do things.

For me Judaism is a collection of tales and commands whose origins tumble back through millennia to a point where they are touched by God. These commands have held us in relationship with each other, our creator and our world for centuries as we winnow, weave, bake and sew them into the foods that sustain our souls and the clothing that protects us from the elements through time and across distance. Andrew Brown has suggested that religion is born from myths that make us dance. It’s the dancing, the observing and the engaging that justifies our lives. Intellectual assent and the theology are fine and dandy, but what really counts is action.

And this brings me to Brit Milah. Members of this Shul don’t need a First Day Rosh Hashanah sermon to tell them that the Germans, The Germans!, ought to be a lot more wary before they start arresting Rabbis for conducting Britot Milah – though of course they should. I wouldn’t even give over a Rosh Hashanah sermon to counter the emerging anti-milah ravings in the blogosphere – though so many of the arguments adduced are specious and if anyone really wants to know why, drop me an e-mail and I will send you a sermon I gave during the year on the subject. The point I want to make, today, is this. I don’t mind Protestant Germans thinking that German Protestantism is all about intellectual, private emotions and feelings. But I don’t want these people to confuse my Judaism with their perception of religion. And I don’t want any Jew being complicit in their confusion.

Of course if Judaism is only a religion based on belief propositions Milah only makes sense if you are a fundamentalist. But Judaism is not only about belief propositions.

Of course if Judaism is only a religion based on intellectual assent Milah will feel far too corporeal and in-your-face. But Judaism isn’t just about feelings and thoughts. It’s about what we do with the flax and wheat. It’s about actions.

Today’s Torah reading captures the point perfectly. Sarah and Abraham finally are blessed with a child. Abraham’s immediate response is Milah – vayamal avraham et Yitzhak c’asher tziva oto – and Abraham circumcised Isaac as commanded. He responds with action – a Jewish action, a commandment, an obligation. He doesn’t just think about being grateful and nor does he invent some new way of justifying this miraculous gift – he’s a Hebrew, so he responds the way Hebrews are called to respond. Considering Milah important isn’t about a theological intellectual thought process. It’s not a response based on whether we think God did or didn’t dictate this story to Moses. It’s about who we are, our identity, our culture, our sense of belonging. This is our dance.

So I have this to say to the authorities in Bavaria who want to criminalise ritual circumcision – know that this rips the heart out of who I claim to be, as a Jew. If you take the possibility of this action – this central, foundational action – away from me you are destroying my possibility of being Jewish in your jurisdiction now and into the future.

But since I don’t suppose there are any Bavarian legal authorities here today, let me instead share this with all of us. Particularly those of us infected by this German sense that one can be Jewish without the rituals, without the actions, without the discomfort and the ache and the nervousness that, frankly, many elements of Jewish practice – and certainly Milah – impose upon us.

Don’t be like the foolish subject. Don’t be scared of action. Action helps us understand things that no amount of thinking and talking can explain. Ritual actions – ancient, holy actions that are at the heart of the Jewish journey – have a power that is beyond words. I’ve been blessed to stand in some extraordinary places and do some extraordinary things, but nothing has helped me more understand the meaning of a gift received than the Brit Milah of our first son. Even now, some years later, there is a quality to that moment, that action, that moves me more deeply than I know how to explain. That’s the moment, more than the birth, more than the arrival of proud grandparents at the hospital, more than any of it, that made me realise the obligation and the responsibility I face as a parent, a Jewish parent.

It’s not just Milah, it’s the whole panoply of ‘Jewish do.’ I can’t explain intellectually or even theologically how Shabbat makes me realise and internalise the gifts of the week. I can’t explain how Kashrut redefines everything I feel about food and particularly meat. I can’t even explain, intellectually what it means to hear the Shofar today. I am, we are all, as Jews ‘ergetic.’[3] That means we come to understanding through action. You probably haven’t come across the word ergetic before – it was made up by a Jewish scholar of the history of knowledge who couldn’t find an existing word to describe a process he must have understood from his own Jewish life.

Don’t be afraid of action. We can’t simply think ourselves through life. Life won’t make sense until we live it. And only then can the actions begin the process of integrating themselves into our souls, justifying our lives and making meaning in a world where intellectual sophistry without action tends to nihilism and emptiness.

Don’t be afraid of ritual, Jewish, action. When you feel like giving thanks for the wages showing up in your current account - give tzeakah. When you feel you’ve worked hard this last week - light some candles on Friday night. Make Kiddush and turn off the television. When you feel a spark of connection to something Jewish in your heart and in your mind - come to Shul, daven. And if you are blessed with a son, a healthy son, arrange a Brit Milah. This is my request for us all this Rosh Hashanah – don’t be afraid of action, Jewish action most of all. We all have such gifts, kneed them, spin them, weave them into magnificent offerings, justifications for the gifts we have and lives we are blessed with. Challenge any thought processes or emotion that doesn’t inspire you to act, to do, to prove yourselves worthy. Just don’t become foolish subjects with flax and wheat in the cupboard under the stairs.

Our actions are the great justification of the gifts we receive. It is only through our actions that we take our place as decent Jews and decent human beings in this community and broader society. It is only through our actions that we merit the healthy, sweet year for which we crave.

Shannah Tovah and Ketivah Tovah.


[1] Seder Eliyahu Zuta, Chapter 2

[2] Pace Mills

[3] A. Funkenstein Theology and The Scientific Imagination  from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century (Princeton), 1986, pp 296-299.

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