Saturday, 20 February 2016

A Guide to Jewish Life - Part Two - Love

Last week I gave the first of what I hope will be a three part series of sermons trying to get at the heart of what it means to be a Jew.

I talked about belief - to be more specific a rational supernaturalism - that celebrates the scientific achievements of mankind while still valuing that which cannot be open to rational solution - while still believing in that which is beyond scientific exploration - while still believing in belief.
I had some wonderful feedback, thank you. And also this very good question, 'yes,' said a loyal member, 'that's all very good, but how do you get from there to Shabbat and Kashrut?' I hope, in part to join those dots today.

I want to talk about love, as the next step in underpinning Jewish life, specifically a very Jewish sort of love. There are, in fact, three commandments to love mentioned in the Torah.

V'ahavta et Adonai Eloheicha - And you shall love Adonai your God - that's from the Shema.
V'ahavta et Reicha Cemocha - And you shall love your fellow as yourself - that's the verse Rabbi Akiva, no less, considers the single greatest principle underpinning the entire Torah.
And V'ahavta et haGer - And you shall love the stranger - the single more repeated verse in the entire Torah.

A whole lotta loving. Actually our sister Synagogue, New North London, has these three obligations up in stone on the wall surrounding the ark. It's an impressive site.

I'm going to leave the obligation to love the stranger for next week. Today I want to focus on the twin obligations of loving God and loving one's fellow. In particular, I'm interested in the connection between them.

One the one hand these two ideas, loving God and loving one's fellow seem radically disparate. God is the force beyond all measurement, beyond all constraint of particularity and form. And humans are - breakable, fallible and ephemeral.
But I believe these two ideas are more than linked, they are the equally the necessary outcome of the greatest idea in Judaism.

If I was to be cast ashore on a desert island and given one Biblical verse to take with me, it would be the verse that speaks of the creation of all humanity in the image of God - Btzelem elohim. It's such a radical notion. There's a smart commentary in the Etz Hayim pointing out that all kinds of Ancient Near East religious traditions considered the King, or Pharoah as an embodiment of God. But The Torah goes far, far further - all humanity contains this spark of divinity within. Each of us here, and those not here, the men, the women, the powerful and the powerless, each contain that spark of the creative source of life. How extraordinary is human life. It's such a radical notion, will underpin the value of human rights, democracy, any liberation movement you care to name.

And if we, each of us, are refractions of Divine, containers of Divinity expressed as finite existence - then the command to love God and the command to love one's fellow become more than related.
Certainly it's not possible to claim to love God while treating humanity - any human - poorly. I would say that the reverse is equally true. If you place humanity at the very heart of your every action and motivation then you embodying what it truly means to love God. Certainly the best advice I could give to anyone professing atheism, to anyone unsure about this whole God thing is don't worry so much, concentrate on loving your fellow and let the magic of the utterly profound nature of our existence seep in slowly. The best way to become religious is to be loving.

Moreover, there is something in the loving of either God or our fellow that when we successfully love either God or our fellow we are in some sense protecting and celebrating that which is within us. We are images of God and when I love my fellow I'm loving a cousin, I'm celebrating a commonality, I'm celebrating that which brings us together.

So what do I mean by loving, what does it mean to love God, or our fellow?

I spoke a little about this on Yom Kippur. Loving, certainly as the Torah understands the term isn't an emotional reaction. Judaism cares little for our private emotional state. Loving means acting in a caring way. There's an insight in another of my desert island pieces of Torah, a passage in Talmud Sotah (14b) where the Rabbis are working out how to fulfil the Biblical obligation to 'walk in way of God,' what the Christians would call imitatio dei - how to behave in a godly manner. They come up with a list of Divine accomplishments that are most remarkable for their being least remarkable.
Just as God gives clothes to Adam and Eve as they are exiled from the Garden of Eden, so we are called upon to give clothes to the unclothed. Just as God visits Abraham as he recovers from circumcision, so we are called upon to visit the sick. Just as God comforts Isaac on the death of his father, so we are called upon to comfort the bereaved. Just as God buries Moses we are called upon to bury the dead. Nowhere is there a suggestion that we should resurrect the dead, split the rea, heal the terminally ill. Rather we are called, in that lovely Yiddish phrase, to be Menschen - to be a human through simple acts of kindness, offering basic support and comfort. Loving means acting.


And loving means taking these obligations seriously. If you love someone don't be slapdash, don't be rough and approximate. Take what you are doing seriously. I made the point last week in the context of the construction of the Sanctuary in the desert, the same point could be made regarding today's reading. If you want to be in serious relationship with God, take it seriously. Assume that it matters whether there are 49 poles in the sanctuary, or fifty. Assume that it matters whether one eats a cheeseburger or remembers to call one's mother Shabbat eve. Assume that if we aren't careful we don't get to call ourselves loving.

And here we are at the birth of the entire Halachic system, the entire apparatus of Jewish do-s and don't-s. It's an attempt to do the right thing when the desire to act in a loving way is felt. It's at the heart of the balance of Jewish do-s and don't-s that compel us to act in specific ways towards our fellow human beings and towards our creator.

Should we say a blessing before we eat food, of course we should, it's a taking of the fruits of creation and by inculcating within ourselves that spiritual discipline we condition ourselves to be aware of our place on this planet, we become increasingly aware of what we can and can't achieve of our own volition. And then the pursuit of detail takes over; what do we say before we eat this or that, what should we say after.

Should we give to this charity or the other, and how much should we give; these are all entirely genuine questions faced by the Halachic system - how do we balance up the competing claims of different humans, different refractions of the human image; some close to us, some further away.

There's a great legal responsum on whether and how we should treat the poshtei yad - the beggars on the street. There seem to be more and more of them, have you noticed? What if we don't like the fact they might spend the money on booze, or their dog, or their gang master? Complex this business of being loving to your fellow. Needs thought, needs working through. Thankfully we have just such a system of working these issues through - it's called Halachah.

The point is that it's not acceptable to be generally loving, generally nice. The point is that if we want to act in a loving way we need to be precise. Sometimes, I'll admit it, the pursuit of detail can blind. Sometimes we become so obsessed with detail that we lose the bigger picture - but the bigger picture is acting in a loving way.

Even those parts of the Jewish system that seem a long way away from this idea of love, I believe connect. Let me take the most love-less example of a Mitzvah I can find, Shatnetz - thou shall not mix wool and linen. Loveless, no? Well no, I don't think so. The prohibition of wearing Shatnetz is part of a series of obligations to hold different elements of creation differently. Don't eat meat and milk together, don't yoke an ox and a mule together, don't plant different kinds of plants together in the same field. They are attempts to get us to understand that everything is not the same. It's so easy to lose track of where the products we take for granted come from. Milk comes from cartons, no it doesn't it comes from cows; sometimes organically raised, sometimes bloated on chemicals. If we are paying attention when we walk into a shop and pick a carton off the shelf we can choose one decision over another. But if we only see clothing as something for us to use and not as a result of a process of manufacture, if we are blind, say, to the difference between clothing that comes from plants and clothing that comes from animals how are we supposed to care about the treatment of animals, or the wages paid to cotton pickers in Ukraine, or the working conditions of garment manufacturers in some awful factory in India that collapses under the weight of human greed - ours as much as the manufacturers. A strange Mitzvah, the very strangest Mitzvah is about awakening our powers of observance. As we observe it we become more observant, and the more we see, the more we understand, the more capable we become of taking care, of acting in a loving way.

The gift of having a system, the Halachic system, is that it gives us a headstart on so many of these issues. We don't need to re-invent the entire interplay of morality and ethics and compassion with our every breath and every bite. Instead, we get to observe Shabbat, keep Kosher, even wear non-Shatnatz clothing and we get to use these pathways of love to become ever more loving.

That the Jewish legal system.

A system of walking in the path of the Divine, recognising the image of God in all humanity and trying desperately to be worthy, trying desperately to understand the right thing to do in the ever more complex web of relationships, pulls and tugs that make up our lives.

It's easy, I know it's easy to lose track of the bigger picture, but the bigger picture is love. Love is at the heart of every call to action we know as Jews.

It's at the heart of what I call on us all to do today, and into the future.
Care more, love more, use our actions to demonstrate our commitment to value all humanity as creations in the image of the Divine, use our actions to demonstrate our commitment to value our creator and indeed, our very creation.

Shabbat shalom

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