Monday, 29 February 2016

A Three Part Guide to Jewish Life - Part Three - Otherness

This is the last of a series of three sermons where I am trying to set out the heart of my Jewishness; what I think is and ought to be the heart of our Jewish engagement here, at New London Synagogue.
Let me bring those of us who might need a little refresher, a sense what I think we've covered until now.

Two weeks ago I talked about belief. I tried to articulate a rational supernaturalism where we celebrate everything scientists have found out about this Universe, how it came to be, how it works and how we come be part of this story while celebrating also those parts of this Universe that are beyond measurement and double-blind peer-reviewed scientific review - the nature of love, the very existence of anything rather than nothing. I talked about fostering a sense of radical amazement and practising gratitude as a way of sensitising ourselves to this underlying nature of our existence.
Last week I spoke about love, about how acknowledging our very existence should place us in the habit of loving the God who has created all this and also our fellow human beings who hold in their very essence the image of the Divine. I suggested that even the most apparently love-less alleyways of our faith can and indeed should be understood as acts of love.

I've a couple of outstanding pieces from last week's business I want to return to this week. Last week I noted that the Torah obligates three kinds of love, a love of God and one's fellow - that I dealt with last week. But also a love of the ger - the stranger. I'll have more to say about that today. Secondly, I suggested last week that many of these apparently love-less areas of Jewish life are really trainings in love. Let me pick up that point now.

Odd Mitzvot in Judaism, not wearing Shatnetz - garments of wool and linen, not mixing milk and meat and the like are a training in observance, allowing us to see things and the inter-relation between them and the creator of all things more closely. We are being trained to realise that milk comes from cows, not bottles. The point I made last week is that by becoming more observant we have the chance to make decisions to be better, better consumers - say - of clothes or meat. We become sensitised to the notion that our actions count and that there is a difference between acting well and acting wickedly. And now what?

The problem is that people can do a whole lot of observance and still be brutish. Punctilious observance of the laws of Kashrut, or Shabbat or Shatnetz guarantees no level of decency in behaviour. It's a problem recognised by Nachmonidies[1] who seems to have coined the term naval bereishut hatorah to refer to a person who misbehaves even though they are technically fulfilling each of the black-letter commands of the Halachic system.

We are called upon to live with an underlying ethical approach that is both shaped by our observance, but also becomes ever more apparent at the edges of the observances we are commanded to perform. Once the black letter of law comes to an end what we do at that point is a revealing of our underlined ethic approach to the world; an ethical approach that has both shaped us and been shaped by the practices we have been observing along the way to this point.

Of course, the ethical underpinning of our lives influences us at every step, even if we don't recognise it, even if we are doing the most straightforward things we are in a million tiny, unconscious ways revealing our ethical approach.

So what is the heart of the ethical underpinning that should be at the heart of our Jewish existence? It's the third of the commands to love, the single most emphasised idea in the entire Torah - the command to love the stranger - the ger.

The ger, in the Biblical mind, is the non-Jew who comes to live among the Jewish people in a Jewish state where they have no land and, therefore possibilities of economic survival are slim. They are the most fragile, most poor and most weak members of society. In possibly the most stunning moment in the Torah we are given a precise reason to love the ger - the stranger - 'ki gerim hayitem beretz mitzrayim' - for you were gerim - strangers - in the Land of Egypt.

Nachmanides suggests this reason for this repeated claim; Don't imagine that your status as the landed, secure and powerful is so secure. Once upon a time the Egyptians were in charge and you were oppressed, now you are in charge, don't think that I, God, can't roll the dice again and you will find yourselves back underneath the power of others. It’s about more than an attempt to make us humble and gracious for what we have, it’s the ultimate test of whether we understand what it means to be decent  don we respond as a master in a better way than our masters behaved to us when we were slaves? When God tells Abraham that his descendants are to be oppressed and beaten by others he couldn't have imagined the awful catalogue of abuse and hatred suffered by the Jewish people through the generations. But our experiences of being on the receiving end of oppression can never justify our own oppression of others, in fact, the contrary is the case. Our experience of oppression can perhaps only be justified as sensitising us to the awfulness of anyone being oppressed.

We must love the stranger for we were strangers. We must love those who are different to us, and especially those who are less secure than we are, for we have a profound understanding of what it is to be different and insecure - as insecure as a Fiddler on the Roof.

The third tenet in this journey into an understanding of our Jewish identity is otherness. How do we treat otherness when, as Jews, we meet it, as indeed we must meet it all the time?

We are on the territory of the great 20th C French Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas was obsessed; the word is not too strong, by the face-to-face encounter - a phrasing he adopts from the Torah where God and Moses meet Face-to-Face. A face to face encounter is a test, successfully encountering the other face-to-face involves recognising the radical otherness of the other. He's French he writes like this. It involves recognising the extent to which the other person's fate is bound up in the decisions we make. When we encounter another face-to-face we realise that the other is profoundly different to us, different likes and fears that demand respect. We can't just subsume their interests and desires into ours, for they are different to us. More than this, when we encounter the other face-to-face we realise that the other - when we look into their eyes is terribly fragile, mortal. 

We are all just a thin veneer away from being strangers, our surface comforts covering a deeper level of fear and emotional fragility, just as our skin provides a thin protection for out mortality and physical fragility.

For Levinas, the face-to-face encounter is the ethical moment in our lives, the moment when we make decisions about how to treat others; and, in particular, the weaker and the more fragile.
It's much easier to walk past a beggar on the street when we don't have to look at them face-to-face. It's much easier to treat someone with cavalier disdain by email than in a face-to-face encounter.
But if we can become brave enough to encounter others face-to-face, honestly, if we can allow their difference from us and their fragility to shape our actions we can become ethical.
And now, I think, all this training in appreciating otherness in milk and meat and wool and linen in the thousand ways in which a Halachic life sensitises us to the nuances of difference make more sense. They are training in the ultimate encounter with otherness and difference. They are a training in how to respond to that difference recognising so much of what we. OK, I, have been on about these past three weeks.

Can we recognise difference and allow it, not wishing to suppress it as we have been suppressed so many times and in so many ways. Can we treat difference in such a way to as to reveal we understand that all humanity is created in the image of God, our fellow and the stranger alike? Can we love difference, and through that act of love reveal our love of God and our fellow?

Can our acts of love reveal an underlying belief in a creator who is worthy of our love, as we re-encounter again and again the radical miracle of our lives, as humans, healthy humans for those of us so blessed, Jewish humans perhaps most especially. And can we act in ways that reveal our gratitude for that with which we are blessed.

This is the Jewish task. This is the task for us at New London. I commend it to us all.

It’s a task that is worthy of our every effort for the obligation is great, but, I believe, the rewards equally so.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...