Saturday, 3 May 2014

A Sermon on Levinas and Israel

We are coming up to 50th Anniversary of the foundation of New London Synagogue.

A Synagogue founded because of a theological question; who wrote the Torah where Synagogues at the time offered two possible answers.

God did it

Humans did it.

Louis did something more complicated than holding one pole or another.

Held both at the same time.

There are both human and divine hands involved in the creation of Torah, and not in a simple sense, where one verse is human and the next is divine, but that the two creative forces are part of the same singular effort.

In a world that wants everyone to be on one side or another, Rabbi Jacobs, and this community, was about finding a way to live in the space inbetween. Living not in black, and white, but in a full spectrum of the colours of the rainbow.


There’s another thing that happened over the foundation of the Synagogue,

Something about an honesty, saying difficult things, if they are true, regardless of how uncomfortable that may make us or others feel.


So I want to take inspiration from those twin strands of our DNA and talk about Israel, at this time of commemoration and celebration.


Specifically I want to do something a little complicated. Bare with me.

I want to share with you a lecture given by the French Jewish thinker and writer Emmanuel Levinas.

Hugely grateful to Rabbi Natan Levy for pointing the lecture out to me.

In the lecture, given in 1965 – in the months before of the 6 Day War, Levinas discusses a Talmudic passage.

And the Talmudic passage discusses a Biblical passage from the book of Numbers.


I’ll begin with the Biblical passage.

The story is that Moses and the Children of Israel have arrived at the border of the Promised Land. 12 spies are convened to scope out the land, is it good, is it bad, how easy will it be to conquer it.

The story, as of course many of us know, is that 10 of the spies suffer a failure of nerve. They think they will be unable to conquer the land. ‘We saw Nephilim there,’ they said, ‘and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers and so we were in their sight.’

And it takes Joshua and Caleb to redeem the situation.

Ad can the Biblical text


The Talmudic text from the Tractate Sotah does some very obvious things with the story.

How can it be that the spies knew the Nephilim in the land thought that the spies were grasshoppers, the Rabbis asked.

They imagine the Israelites hiding in the trees and the Nephilim  would look at them and call them grasshoppers.

And Levinas, speaking in the just before the outbreak of the 6 day war reads this piece of the Talmudic text in this way;

‘Didn’t someone say recently, ‘we are one hundred million strong to crush you.’ When Israel arms itself against its neighbours, pacificts ask: How do you know that your neighbours do not want to make peace with you, did they say so? Yes they did say so, they told us we were like grasshoppers. It’s a remarkable contemporary passage,’ Levinas goes on to say, ‘That way of taking human faces for grasshoppers.’

What he means is that Israel the contemporary nations has might forces ready to pounce, effacing the Israelites – denying their humanity by calling them – us – insects.

And if that was true in the time of the Spies some three thousand years ago it was true in 1966 and it still rings true today.

There are still those who consider us grasshoppers in the land.


But there is something else Levinas sees in the Talmudic passage, something very easily missed.

In standard commentaries on the Biblical story the spies fail.

They lack faith and are revealed to be worthless.

Levinas, through his close reading of the Talmudic passage sees something else.

Levinas suggests that as the spies head into the and, and see other people already in the land they suffer not a lack of faith, but a super-abundance of ethics.

The problem the spies have is two fold.

Firstly they worry about kicking the people who are in the land out of the land.

Secondly they worry that the only justification for kicking the people in the land out, is the certainty that the Israelite could live to a far higher standard of ethics, they worry that their conquest could be justified not by the reliance on God’s absolute gift of the land, but on the lived commitment to decency of their fellows.

And the lack of faith is not a lack of faith that the land could be, as a matter of military might, be conquered, but a lack of faith that an Israelite conquest would last – before, as Levinas quotes the Talmud, ‘the land will vomit [the Israelites] up as it vomited up the nation before then.


That’s a radical, counter-cultural, extraordinarily brave reading.

And again, in 1965, with the Arab armies already massing on Israel’s borders, what worries Levinas, what Levinas suggests the Talmud worries about, is not the physical ability to win a war, but the ethical existential challenge of being a military power.

It’s so much easier, he suggests, tongue in cheek, to remain in the desert.

It’s an extraordinary work, grateful to Rabbi Natan Levy, who directed me to it.

In this read the gift of Israel is no longer to be taken for granted.

The way Israelites have to behave in the Land of Israel is to be held to a higher standard than would be the case for other nations – and isn’t that the truth.

And there a successful presence for the people of Israel in the land of Israel depends not on military might, but on ethical behaviour, and in particular our refusal to efface, disregard the other – the nations who where there when we arrived in the land.


It’s all blisteringly contemporary in a week when – yet again – Israel and the Palestinians have featured so frequently on the front pages, effacing one another.


I want to be clear, Levinas is no lefty, bleeding hearted, liberal.

He was interned by the Nazis in Fallingsbotel Labour Camp.

And he was a lover of Israel, but a particularly sophisticated one.

Able to both love Israel, and have fear of the impact of a sovereign Israel,

He was able to side not on the side of black or white, but on the side of a complex relationship with the contemporary State of Israel, a relationship that understood the nature of the existential threat to the physical viability of the nation, but a relationship that demanded and challenged the contemporary State to live up a certain moral standard.

I found the article remarkable, and remarkably part of this hermentutic – this way of engaging with tradition and modernity that I calling characteristically New London.


To hold both sides of a complex argument Рwithout falling for over simplification or clich̩

To be prepared to difficult things, even if they bring criticism.


That’s the Torah of New London and has been for our last 50 years.

It’s how we should related to this community and how, in this week in which we commemorate the sacrifices made by so many so Israel can survive, and the miracle of its independence, how we should share our love and our concern also.


Shabbat shalom


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