Friday, 29 July 2016

Pinhas and Zealotry Envy

Is it a good or a bad thing to kill a couple, a Jew and a non-Jew who are copulating together in-front of the entire community of Israel?

Actually, don’t bother with that one, it’s not really the question I am interested in.
I’m more interested in this question?

Someone has just gone and done it, just gone and killed the couple, are you relieved, pleased or horrified? Do you puff out a relieved sigh that you are not going to have to work out what to do about such a discomforting event, because someone has one that dirty piece of work for you?

And now the real question I am interested in; forget about Pinhas and Zimri son of Salu and Cozbi daughter of Zur and 600,000 Israelites marching across the wilderness. How do you feel about someone who solves the problems facing you with an act you might feel is too bold, too violent even, but an act that absolves you of the need to work out what to do about other people doing things you don’t disagree with?

Because this is the real question at the heart of the opening of this week’s Torah reading. And, come to mention it the real question at the heart of so much else that is going in the world today.

It’s a question that animates all kinds of movies and comic book series from James Bond to the Suicide Squad; the secret black ops assassin who goes around doing the dirty work so respectable politicians can keep their hands clean. And I think it’s a question that explains much of how w go about our lives. It might even have something to do with recent events in the American political establishment.

David Runciman, a political scientist at Cambridge coined the term ‘dictator envy’[1] to articulate the way in which we look at a complex problem and wish someone strong and powerful would just come along and sort it out. It’s not, said Runciman, that we actually articulate the desire to live in a dictatorship - but we harbour this desire that something would come along and save us the trauma of having to deal with complexity ourselves. We both want a dictator and we live in desperate fear of one. It might be that Runciman, who wrote that several years ago, might be proved wrong in the most important democracy in the world, it might be that enough of the population of that great nation might fancy having a dictatorially minded leader as to leave us all in a very dangerous place.

But let me leave, for a while, the world of the front pages and do some Talmud.
I think you can feel this ambivalence, the attraction and the fear, of the zealot in some of the key Rabbinic passages engaging with the story of Pinhas.[2] In the story itself Pinhas seems to be rewarded for his zealotry with a Brit Shalom, but, fascinatingly the word Shalom is deliberately written in a defective manner in the Torah


It’s the only broken letter in the entire Torah.
As if aware of the extraordinary irony of suggesting peace can come about by shoving spears through bellies.
Or what about the key Talmudic analysis of the story of Pinhas,

Talmud Sanhedrin 82a
Rav Hisda said: If the zealot comes to take counsel [about whether to kill in the case of cohabiting with an idolator], we do not instruct him to do so. What is more, had Zimri forsaken his mistress and Pinhas slain him, Pinhas would have been executed on his account; and had Zimri turned upon Pinhas and slain him, he would not have been executed, since Pinhas was a pursuer [seeking to take his life].

Rabbinically draw the seeming gashbanka of zealotry away from the situation.
Because we are not people of violence.
We are not people who believe in temper, in zealotry.

Our heroes, as Jews, are not men of violence.

הלל אומר הוי מתלמידיו של אהרן אוהב שלום ורודף שלום אוהב את הבריות ומקרבן לתורה:[3]
Hillel’s not advocating being a pushover. But he is advocating never resorting to anger, never resorting to violence.
There is a wonderful story about Hillel in the Talmud
תנו רבנן: לעולם יהא אדם ענוותן כהלל
[4]Our Rabbis taught, a person should be as slow to anger as Hillel.
They tell a story about two people who made a wager. Whoever can make Hillel lose his temper, the other shall give them 400 zuzim.
[and that was when 400 zuzim was a lot of money, you could buy a baby goat for 2 zuzim]
It was the eve of Shabbat and Hillel was washing his hair the man passed by the door of his house and called out ‘Is Hillel here, is Hillel here.’
Hillel got dressed and went out to speak with him.
‘My son, what do you want,’
‘I have a question.’
‘Ask your question.’
‘Why are the heads of Babylonians round?’
[you might, rightly, get the sense that this is not the most honestly pressing of questions, on the eve of Shabbat]
But Hillel replies, ‘My son, you have asked a great question – it is because they don’t have skilful midwives.’
The man left and waited and returned and called out
‘Is Hillel here, is Hillel here.’
Hillel got dressed and went out to speak with him.
‘My son, what do you want,’
‘I have a question.’
‘Ask your question.’
 ‘Why are the eyes of the Palmereans bleary?’
And Hillel, with immaculate patience answers and returns to his Shabbat preparations.
And the story repeats itself,
‘Why are the feet of Africans broad?’
And Hillel, with immaculate patience answers and returns to his Shabbat preparations.
The man continues, ‘I’ve so many questions, I’m only concerned that I might anger you.
Hillel gets dressed and sits before the man and says to him, ‘Anything you have to ask, ask.’
The man gives up, ‘Are you Hillel, the one they call Prince of Israel.’
‘Let there not be many like you, I’ve lost 400 zuz because of you.’

I love that story, as hard as it is to live by.
Especially on the eve of Shabbat.
Because there is that piece of me that, on the eve of Shabbat, as I am trying to get a sermon finished and I get disturbed for the fourteenth time by a child with a question of ... dubious importance, there is a piece of me that wants to feel that the strong response is the right one.
There is a piece of me that wants to feel that it’s OK to react forcibly even to those I love, let alone the stranger.
But it’s not OK.
Here’s the task.
Ben Zoma used to say, who is a hero – the one who conquers their inclination to anger,[5]
Goodness it’s a hard bar to reach.
What with the provocations that life dishes up on a regular basis.
The provocations that come from acts of terror visited on La Promenade des Anglais or the Catholic Church of St Etienne de Rouvray and German wine bars and on the list goes. There are provocations so much more offensive than the daft questions of the man who wagered they could get a response from Hillel. But the response of peace remains the cooler response.
It remains the response that is suppresses that sense we have that it is OK to respond to violence with violence, the response of attempting to build peace through peaceable means is not even better because it is holy, it’s the only logical response that makes sense - if we strike back at those who strike us we all end up blind.

I’ve been Wofgang Ulrik’s biography of Adolf Hitler, who understood exactly the way in which people would get excited by a certain kind of strength and demagoguery, and used, that excitement in the most nefarious way. The theorist of leadership Ronald Heifetz[6] asks this question, in what way is Hitler a bad leader? After all he did, as the saying go, make the trains run on time, and he brought millions of people to a peak of fervour to defend him and even die for him. Heifetz nonetheless considers Hitler’s failings as a leader not simply the failings of lead in the right direction, but a failure to allow the complicated challenges of his time to be addressed honestly and profoundly. Instead Hitler provided ‘illusions of grandeur, internal scapegoats and brought his own nation to eventual disaster.’
Anger, zealotry and the suggestion that complex problems have simple solutions might look attractive at first glance, but they bring no hope, they bully, but they cannot transform a problem into a peaceable future.
A friend of mine, Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, ran a programme bringing Rabbis and Rabbinical students in Jerusalem into the West Bank to meet Palestinians.
One of the exercises she leads involves having all the Jews and the non-Jews stand around in a circle and various statements are read out.
If you agree with the statement that has been read you have to take a step forward.
And then you look at the other people who have also stepped forward
and then you pause and then you step back again.

On one occasion she read out the statement ‘I like vanilla ice cream.’
At this point two people, a Jew and a Palestinian stepped forward.
And they looked at each other, paused and then they stepped back again.
The next statement was, ‘I’ve lost a loved one in this conflict.’
And the same Jew and the same Palestinian stepped forward. And they looked at each other and paused and then they stepped back again.
And in that moment was heroism.
The ability to look another person – maybe a person who represents everything that we find most upsetting, most alarming in the world…
the ability to look that person in the face, pause, and then step back again.
That is what it means to be a hero.
The other kind of heroism, the tough guy heroism of Pinhas is really a failure.
It might be tempting, the fierce response. We might feel it in ourselves, we might wish for someone to come along and be fierce so we don’t have to do that nasty work ourselves.
But these violent responses and these responses which condone violence or are prepared to look the other way when violence is committed in our name, need to be conquered. We need to be ever more deeply sceptical of their possibility, and in doing so commit ourselves ever more to building a world of peace.
Shabbat shalom

[2] Sanherin 82a
[3] משנה מסכת אבות פרק א משנה יב

[4] TB Shabbat 30b-31a
[5] Avot 4:1
[6] Leadership Without Easy Answers

Friday, 22 July 2016

On the Tenth Anniversary of the Passing of Rabbi Louis Jacobs

This Shabbat we are celebrating the life and works of our founder Rabbi, Louis Jacobs, of blessed memory. It is the tenth anniversary of the passing of the single dominant scholar in Anglo-Jewry.
Louis was also my Rabbi, and the Rabbi whose treatment at the hands of the United Synagogue, resulted in the formation of New London Synagogue. I have the warmest memories of my teacher, of skipping down from the children’s services at Rosh Hashanah to hide behind the curtains in the sanctuary to hear sermons I didn’t understand - as a kid - but knew were special. Later, as my own understanding of Judaism deepened, I was able to understand quite how special the sermons, and so much else of Louis’ work, was - truly exceptional.

This year we are being joined on Friday night for a communal dinner by the Rev Dr Giles Fraser, who knows a thing about making decisions based on principles, even if they come with a significant personal cost. And on Shabbat I will be taking the opportunity to share from one of Louis’ less well known works, on Jewish Values. I’m delighted that, among our guests, we will be joined by Chazanim George Rothschild and Stephen Cotsen, who worked with Louis for so many years, and Louis’ son Ivor.

Ivor, among other things, is the mastermind of Friends of Louis Jacobs, a wonderful charitable endeavour keeping alive the scholarship, the stories and the message of our teacher, Ivor’s father. is a spectacular resource of articles by and about Louis, as well as videos and other information. It is most warmly recommended.

To leave the last word to Louis. We are involved in a precarious thing, trying to balance a commitment to tradition while embracing our place in a very fast-moving modern world. It can feel as though we, at New London, lack some of the clear cut language and positions of the fervent peddlers of atheism and the demagogic religious fundamentalists. Louis’ response to this challenge is perhaps best captured in this charming quote,
“I have sometimes yielded to the temptation, when challenged that my views are ambiguous, to declare that it is better to be vaguely right than definitely wrong.

Shabbat Shalom

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