Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Kol Nidrei - A Complex World

A Complex World
I had some time off over the summer, and did what every good Rabbi should do with some time off, and checked myself into Yeshiva. Astonishingly it's been 18 years since I studied at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, it's not that I haven't done learning since then, but there is something very special about having a run of time to pour through Rabbinic material in detail. And that's hard to squeeze in among the other demands of a congregational life.
The book I wanted to learn was, Meishiv Milchamah, the legal writings of the first Chief Rabbi of the Israel Armed Forces, Shlomo Goren. You might recognise this photo - that's Rav Goren, at the Kottel on the sixth day of the Six Day War. Rav Goren quite literally wrote the book on how the Israeli Army should be keep Shabbat and handle the demands of Kashrut - this is it. Meishiv Milchama also includes sections on dealing with the status in Jewish law of the wives of sailors, who disappeared in military service. Were it not for Goren's interventions these women would have been left in a limbo of being neither widowed, nor married. I enjoyed working my way through these sections, but the sections that originally drew me to the work were ones that attempted to articulate what it means for Israel's army to be holy. How do you balance the brutal, bloody demands of defending a country from existential threat with a commitment to the sanctity of all life? What is permitted in the name of self-defence either in anticipation or as retaliation? What responsibilities does Israel's Army have towards Palestinian non-combatants in occupied territories? And on; these are all questions Goren Wrestles with in Meishiv Milchamah.
I want, if you will join me, to take you inside one of Rav Goren's articles on the Lebanon War, back in the early 1980s.
In 1982 the Israeli Defence Forces invaded Lebanon, and began a siege on its capital, Beirut, in an attempt to bring to an end attacks on the northern Galil. Goren waded into the national debate with an article based on an obscure demand found in Maimonides' tenth century legal code, the Mishneh Torah. Maimonides demands that when a city is besieged an escape route must be left for those who wish to flee.[1] When I first heard of Goren's application of Maimonides' doctrine of the 'escape route' to the siege of Beirut I was stunned. A siege with an escape route seemed  as much use as a bucket full of holes. I read an article suggesting that Goren was driven by an ethical sense that compelled him to advocate having mercy even for Israel's enemies. In fact this was the article that inspired me to spend a summer reading Meishiv Milchamah. I was excited to see someone, actually someone known as a right-winger, a hawk, advocating this sort of merciful ethics.
So I went to Israel, and I got hold of the books and I read them, and in the books I found ... that it's more complicated than that.
It turns out that when you read Goren carefully it's not so clear that Goren is, in fact, motivated by an ethic of extending mercy towards even your enemies. In fact he spends a great deal of time discussing the possibility that the instruction to leave an escape route is merely, an eitzah - a piece of advice based on a Mediaeval conception of military siege best practice - a devar strategi - a matter of strategy - designed to weaken the determination of the besieged population who might, if deprived of an escape route, feel the need to fight to the bitter death. And if this is merely eitzah  - advice, a devar strategi, then, says Goren, it's up to the Generals of the day to decide if they want to follow this strategic advice, or other strategic advice from other quarters.
It was a deflating moment. I was looking for some kind of ethical beam of light to puncture the bleakness of so much that has emerged during and since the War in Southern Lebanon. I wanted a beacon of purity to shine into a world of military ethics I find challenging - and I thought I had one, but on closer inspection it turned out I was mistaken. I was deflated.
And then I remembered a poster that used to hang in the Synagogue of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I trained for the Rabbinate. It's an advert designed to encourage people to apply to the Seminary. In large print is this question;
Two people are crossing a desert, there is only enough water for one of them to make it. Who gets the water?
And then, towards the middle of the poster, in equally large print is this comment.
There is a simple answer to every complicated question... which is usually wrong.
And if you make it to the small print you will find out that the question about the water is discussed in the Talmud and that if you want to really know about what Judaism thinks should happen with this one bottle and the two desert wanderers, you should consider studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
It's an advert for a kind of Judaism prefers complex answers to complex questions. It's an advert that suggests that simple answers are likely to be wrong simply by dint of their simplicity. It's an advert that sums up not so much a specific approach of the Jewish Theological Seminary, but - I would claim - the reality of Rabbinic Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism distrusts the simple, it is, at its very core, a journey through nuance and subtlety replete with a deep understanding of complexity.
And in terms of my desire to find in Shlomo Goren's writings on war a beacon of morality, it's an advert that tells me that maybe there are no easy answers, no simple ethical solutions when it comes to war.
There is a simple answer to every complicated question... which is usually wrong.
When we encounter religion as children - even when I first encountered Goren - we want and we expect simples answers. Do good and get good, say sorry and get forgiven, read a book on the morality of war and expect to find simple morals. And now here I am - here we all are, grown up, at least a little bit, forced to confront the reality that Judaism just like life itself, is more complicated than that.

You may, at this point have realised, that I'm not really giving a sermon about Israel and the complexity of defending a country surrounded by, and even pervaded with, enemies. Or at least it's not merely about that.
It's a sermon about what we think we are doing here as more or less religious Jews, both praying to be sealed in the book of life, and not really believing that there exists - up in the heavens - ledgers in which is written whatever fate lies in store for us this year. Our religious journey is complex, but that's OK.
It's a sermon about the world, a world where - let me return to the subject of my sermon over Rosh Hashanah - we might want to be more open-hearted in our welcome to refugees, but run up against complexities because of one reason or another.
It's a sermon about our relationship with our parents, or our children, or our work colleagues, who we would find it so much easier to love with a full heart, if only they would do more of one thing, or less of another. Ah these families are complex things.
It's a sermon about politics, maybe you want to support one party, but don't like their leader, or the other, but aren't sure their attitude towards the one issue you value more than any other is quite where you would want it to be.
Perhaps above all this is a sermon about what it means to be a Masorti Jew, feeling more comfortable in a place which eschews the appeal of the simple, but wrong, in favour of a more complicated view of the world. It's a sermon that says to those of us who can handle complexity in one area of our life - and that is surely all of us - be more at peace with complexity throughout a life. It's a sermon that wants us all to feel more at home in a Jewish community that contains, and even celebrates, these tensions and counter-tensions. It's a sermon about New London.
There is a story about a community trying to work out what to do about one of the strange calendrical situations that come up only once every several years. The Rabbi, who's not been so long at the shul thinks the community should do one thing, the Cantor who's also a little on the new side thinks the shul should do the other thing. Together they go to longest-standing member to see what happened last time the community faced the same problem. 'Last time this happened we did what I claim we should do,' prompts the Rabbi, right?' 'No,' responds the member, 'Not right.' 'So last time this happened we did what I claim we should do?' responds the Cantor eagerly. 'No, not that either,' responds the member. 'Then what did happen last time?' both clergy demand, exasperated. 'Last time this happened,' the senior member is forced to admit, 'The Rabbi and the Cantor disagreed, and we had a big old discussion about it.' That's my kind of shul.
Have I missed out that this is a sermon about the role of women in our services here? It's a sermon about that too.
This is a sermon about finding the nuanced, delicately poised uneven solution more attractive than the cast-iron clear-cut one in every part of our life.
We have a problem in this world, a problem of being seduced by the simple. Spin-doctors insist that we - the great unwashed of a society - are only capable of responding to the simple statements, repeated with sufficient frequency that we come to believe them by dint of their continual thudding against our eardrums. And they have, I'm forced to admit it, some pretty compelling evidence on their side. But it doesn't mean I have to like it. It doesn't mean any of us should accept it.

Particularly since so many of the failings of the world are due to our pursuit of over simple solutions to the complexities of our lives.
The notion that a claim is better because it is simpler, or that it becomes more persuasive simply by being repeated is one we should reject. Instead we should ... well what exactly? This is the problem with a world of complexity, we can find ourselves stilled, paralysed almost, and that's no good either.
Maybe there is a way out offered by one of my most dearly treasured verses, from the Book of Micah.
God has told you what is good and what God demands of you; only that you should do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.
I like this verse. It has its own complexities. First there is that weasel word 'only' - as if doing any one of doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God isn't enough we are called upon to do all three. But more than that, there are so many contradictions in the instruction. Doing justice and being kind are often incompatible. If someone has done something wrong, the just thing to do vigorously oppose it. The kind thing to do is to forgive it. But there is something in this triumvirate of doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly that coheres as a single response. Maybe the three legs of this verse serve as a kind of counterbalance on to the other. When we find ourselves getting too strict and disciplined - too much justice, maybe we should try to love kindness a little more and walk a little more modestly. When we find ourselves walking too humbly, we should look to act more boldly; loving more boldly and promoting more justice in the world more vigorously. When we think we've got all the answers, we should walk a little more humbly.
In this year to come we should take opportunities to embrace the complexities of our life, the vibrant spectrum of colour that emerges between the extreme polarities of a life lived in black and white.
The complex is to be welcomed. The balanced approach - do I need a little more kindness, a little more justice, maybe a little more humility - is the one which will mark out our lives for greater glory in the year to come.
And as such, I commend it for us all, for a year ahead of sweetness, health and happiness, a year of doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly.
Chatimah Tovah,
A good year to all,


[1] כְּשֶׁצָּרִין עַל עִיר לְתָפְסָהּ, אֵין מַקִּיפִין אוֹתָהּ מֵאַרְבַּע רוּחוֹתֶיהָ אֵלָא מִשָּׁלוֹשׁ רוּחוֹתֶיהָ, וּמַנִּיחִין מָקוֹם לַבּוֹרֵחַ, וּלְמִי שֶׁרוֹצֶה לְהִמָּלֵט עַל נַפְשׁוֹשֶׁנֶּאֱמָר "וַיִּצְבְּאוּ, עַל-מִדְיָן, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה', אֶת-מֹשֶׁה" (במדבר לא,ז)--מִפִּי הַשְּׁמוּעָה לָמְדוּ, שֶׁבְּכָּךְ צִוָּהוּ.

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