Sunday, 13 September 2015

Rosh Hashanah II Sermon - Boing

Rebbe, said the Chasid, I have a problem,
              Tell me your problem my dear one.
My problem, dear Rebbe, is that I don't know if I want to come to the Synagogue to pray?
              Why is it, my dear one, that you don't want to come to the Synagogue to pray?
Dear Rebbe, it is that I find prayer very hard.
              And why, my dear one, do you find it hard to pray?
Dear Rebbe, I find it hard because I don't know if God is listening.
              And why, my dear one, is that a problem?
Because if God isn't listening, maybe there is no point to any of this?
              Ah, my dear one, what makes you think I am any different?

It's the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I'm amongst friends. So I want to ask a very big question. What exactly are we doing here - stepping out of the confines and opportunities of the rest-of-the-year world - draping ourselves in festive finery and rocking and shockeling when our belief structures are, how can I say it, unsteady on their feet? It's not a bad question. It's a question I ask myself.
Perhaps you have experienced the same thing I've experienced, every now and again? A sort of ambivalent envy towards a more literalist faith - the sort of faith that neither our Rebbe nor our Chasid  actually have - but the sort of faith that would - if we could only believe in it - justify our decisions to come to shul and lead us to pray as if our lives literally depended on the fervour with which we recite our benedictions.
It's an ambivalent envy because it's not purely an attractive tug. It's also a deeply unattractive one. It's not just that I don't believe literally and I can't pretend that I do, but more than that I distrust anyone  who espouses a literalist theology - I find such things dangerous as well as nonsensical.
So what do we have left, and is it enough?
I'll share what, exactly, I think I am doing here shortly, but I want to give a few kicks to the notion that a literalist theology is what we, as Jews, are should believe in, because I don't think it is.
We read some very special verses this last Shabbat;
These instructions I instruct you in today, they aren't miraculous for you and they aren't far away. They are not in the Heavens that you should say, who will ascend to the Heavens for us and get it for us. Neither is it across the sea. Rather this thing is most close to you, it's in your mouth and your heart. (Deut 30)
In Moses last great speech to the Children of Israel he doesn't call on them, on us, to lobotomise, to give up on our rational selves and seek to adopt something beyond our ken. Rather we are urged to feel the connection to Torah and Judaism from the place where we find ourselves.
It's not in the heavens, it's not across the sea. Rather it's most close to you.
I'm reminded of a wonderful poem of the Sufi master, Rumi;
              I've been wanting to know reasons
              Knocking on a door. It opens.
              I'd been knocking on the inside.
It's here - this religion thing. Not there.
The notion that Jews should suspend our critical faculties and go off after some voice that echoes from the heavens has undergone an enormous rethink, in Jewish thought, in the centuries since God's call to Abraham made that call in precisely that way. In the past millennia, time and time again, Rabbis have walked away from the literalisms of a over-simplistic theology. You are not supposed to listen to the story of Abraham offering up his son as a sacrifice and think, let me too.
One example,
The Talmud in Baba Batra[1] observes that since the destruction of the Temple there is no more prophecy and therefore Hacham Adif Mi Navi - a wise person is preferable to anyone professing to be a prophet. That is to say if a wise person advises you to do one thing, and a person, claiming prophecy advises you to do the other, you follow the wise person, not the person claiming prophecy. You distrust the claim made in the name of theological purity, theological certitude. Since the destruction of the Temple, since the dawn of Rabbinic Judaism we are taught to distrust theological literalism. That's not some newly reformed diluted-down affectation of Judaism, that's the Talmud.
I don't mean to suggest that religion is only following what our eyes tell us is right, or what we decide on any given Wednesday is the will of God. I'm not making the claim that the aim is to do whatever we feel like doing and call that religion. That's not the aim at all. I'm trying to do offer something between the literalist interpretation - that the will of God drops down from the heavens in such a way we can trap it, understand it and follow it blindly - and the entirely earthbound claim that the thing we call the will of God is nothing other than the internal machinations of our own mind.
Let me start here;
There is a verse, early on in the Book of Numbers, when the Children of Israel are lined up in marching formation; each tribe, in the language of the Torah is arrayed tachat diglo - underneath their flag. At this point in the narrative,  certainly in the Rabbinic commentaries on these verses[2], there is a real sense of excitement. After so much waiting at Sinai the children of Israel are, at last, going to move on towards the promised land. And it's responding to this excitement that the great Chasidic teacher, the Sefat Emet, plays with the letters of the word diglo - their banner or their flag - and suggests, that the word should be read delugo - their jumping. Everyone is stood  tachat delugo - underneath their jumping. I know that phrase doesn't make much sense in the English. To be honest it doesn't make much sense in the Hebrew, but it's struck me very deeply since I first came across it, because it sums up, for me what I am doing today. I'm jumping, or to be more precise, I'm standing under my jumping.
Jumping is a strange thing to do with one's life. To jump is to point at the heavens and take off. We know that gravity will bring us down again, but we seek, nonetheless, this momentary escape. This is my version of the leap of faith. Jump up in search of the transcendent, knowing what it means to be earthly, knowing that what is beyond my leap. It's this double nature of jumping that appeals to me so greatly.
In part jumping is about throwing yourself at the heavens. You can't be half hearted in your jumping. You'll never take off.
But to jump isn't to misunderstand the nature of the human condition. No matter how high or elegantly I rise into the air, I'm still coming back down. In fact that's what makes jumping such fun; it's a kind of a dance between the rising and the falling. In religious terms, when I pray I'm not expecting to encounter God face-to-face, for a man-to-divine-being chat. I'm not expecting to receive some literal prophetic clarity. I'm not going to float off into the air never to return. I'm expecting to jump, to come down to land, and then to get on with the rest of my day energised, perhaps with a new perspective, perhaps with a new insight.
I do believe that there is something that is beyond my knowledge, I do believe that there is a realm that will forever be beyond human grasp no matter how hard we bang the sub-atomic particles together. I do believe in God. And I do believe, again, in a way I can never fully grasp, that there exists a thread that connect me, as a Jew, to God. I do believe that the pathways, of Jewish observance, observance of Shabbat, Kashrut and prayer are the best way I have of training, learning how to jump higher and for longer. And the more I train the more fleeting moments of insight I get, suspended momentarily in mid-air.
To be a Jew is to be a spiritual high-jumper. Jewish observance year round, prayer year round, is how we practice; lighting candles, reciting the Shema, avoiding Treyf and the like just as track athletes work on their Frosbury Flops or hops, steps and jumps. We practice, just as the real athletes practice, through the year so that on the most important of occasions we fly furthest. And if our training is effective, we can perhaps, in the most special of moments, succeed in brushing against the lowest levels of the heavens for a moment, but no higher, and only momentarily. This is my understanding of the nature of the human relationship with God.
This is my understanding of the strange phrase the Sefat Emet leaves us with when he flips around the letters of our verse to suggest that the Children of Israel stand, tachat dilugo 'under their jumping.' I'm both jumping and standing under my jump. I'm both escaping the plain of my day-to-day existence and rooting more deeply into it. I'm experiencing both polarities almost simultaneously - I'm standing under my jumping. Will you join me?
This is what I want to say today, jump. Know what it means to jump, and practice, practice jumping.
Is it enough for you - this jumping business - are you only to become more interested, more committed to a Jewish journey in the coming year if I offer not merely jumping, but actual flight - literal miracles, literal theology? Would it help, or hinder if I were urge you to suppress all rational faculty and accept that the things you are liable to read in the Bible literally took place?
Or maybe this jumping metaphor is already too much - too hokey, perhaps. Perhaps you are only interested in a Jewish approach made up purely of the rational and nice elements of Jewish life where any notion that there is a transcendental possibility seems to you ridiculous.
To the real wannabe literalists, I'm sorry to fail you. To be fair, this has never been a community for the adherents of literal theology and to you I hope you'll forgive us our blasphemies.
To the staunch literalists, I urge you to open you heart, actually I don't need even that. I just need to urge you to start jumping. There are few whispers of prayer left on this sacred day, but rumours of a marathon of prayer ahead. Jump in. Practice committing. Sing as if you mean to sing, stand silently with a commitment to standing silent. Profess regret for the failings of your past year as if you really regret them. And reflect on whether the jumping really helps, I believe it will.
Practice jumping. It's the easiest thing in the world, you've done it since you were children. We all have.
Know what it means to jump, and practice, practice jumping.
And in so doing may we all be merited to enjoy a joyous, healthy and bouncy year ahead,
Le'Shannah Tovah U'Metukah - A sweet year to us all

[1] TB BB 12a
[2] Bmidbar Rabba 2:2. I am grateful to Avivah Gottlieb-Zornberg whose book Bewilderments introduced me to this reading.

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