Friday, 23 September 2016

Parshat Ki Tavo - The Stuff You Can't See

Imagine, with me, a cartoon strip.

First frame
A bunch of Ultra-orthodox Jews standing beside the road,
Holding up a sign, ‘Turn Back Now Before it is Too Late’

Second frame:
Car after car screeching by with one pausing just long enough to open a window to castigate the religious nutters.

Third Frame
Car after car crashing off the end of a defective bridge, sending passengers crashing to their death.

In the last frame the Rabbis are shrugging their shoulders and suggesting, one to the other, that maybe they should change their sign to ‘Bridge Has Collapsed.’

The problem with the Rabbis’ first sign, of course, is that it doesn’t make everything explicit.
It relies on something hidden, elusive, undeclared.
We, in our contemporary society aren’t well trained in picking up on the truths taught by elusive claims.
Particularly when these elusive claims come dressed in religious garb.
We like our truths made most explicit, and preferably without any kind of religious overlay.

It’s not very fashionable, these days, to talk in religious language.
Particularly the stark language of a parasha like Ki Tavo.
Richard Dawkins and co. have captured the academic high ground with a claim that religion is a delusion and if a truth claim cannot be pinned down and measured exactly, with double blind tests, repeatable under scientific control, no weight should be given to its claims.

In a fascinating extract in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper, John Cornwell, director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Cambridge University tells a story of interviewing the author Graham Greene – a self-declared Christian.
Greene explained that reading scripture he was struck by the truth of the language he was encountering and it was this language that enabled him – and this is such an interesting turn of phrase – enabled him to doubt his doubt about religion.
‘Doubt his doubt’
I want to encourage us all to develop our own ‘doubt of doubt’ about the value of religion.
To doubt that religion really has no voice in this world, entranced as it seems to be by books about atheism and the sort of blinkered approach to science that denies the validity of that which can’t be pinned down and measured, like a butterfly under a microscope.

Because, much as I love science, and even much as I love many of Richard Dawkins earlier works on evolution, I don’t share with him, and the other evangelical atheists, the sense that we need to be able to see everything, to measure everything, pin it down and subject to scientific validation, before we can assent to its value.
I want to make the opposite claim.
I want to make the claim that it is precisely that which we can’t see, that we can’t understand, that we can’t reproduce under laboratory conditions that is truly important.
It’s the stuff that we can’t see that provides answers to the really important questions of our lives –

It’s a lesson I learn from reading the Bible precisely because the Bible is more than anything else a treasure trove of vital truths hidden from the worlds of scientific testing.

Let’s take the anathema, at the heart of this week’s parasha.
The people are arranged on two mountains and are asked to curse those who commit particular sins and assent to these curses with an ‘amen’.

Cursed be one who insults his father or mother and all the people shall say amen.
Cursed be one who moves his countryman’s landmark and all the people shall say amen.
Cursed be one who misdirects a blind person on their way and all the people shall say amen.
Cursed be the one who subverts the rights of the stranger, the orphan and the widow and all the people shall say amen.
Cursed be one who commits certain sexual infidelities and all the people shall say amen.
Cursed be the one who strikes down his fellow in secret and all the people shall say amen.

What fascinates me about this list of sins, is what unites them.
Ibn Ezra suggests that all the sins in this list are committed in private, hidden from public scrutiny.

The misdirected blindperson, the moved landmark, the bribe, the sexual infidelities, perhaps most obviously.
And then one needs to know a little about the Rabbinic understanding of honouring one’s father and mother – every story told by the Talmud about honouring one’s parents refers not to obnoxious teenagers and middle aged parents, but middle aged children and their ageing parents.
The examples given in the Talmud are of fathers who fall asleep on the pillow under which the Jeweler keeps the key to his safe and of aggressive slipper wielding mothers who whack their sons about the head demonstrating what contemporary psychiatrists would recognise immediately as gently psychotic dementia.
When the Bible talks about protecting parents the Rabbis understand this to be about protecting those who are hidden from public.
I don’t know who else caught the report, commissioned by Help the Aged that found 68% of nurses and carers working with the aged felt that a lack of training in how to deal with elder abuse was a barrier to them providing proper care. Sent a chill down my spine.
Insulting one’s parents is another hidden sin.

And of course, the widow, the orphan and the stranger are all classic examples of those without a voice in the public sphere.

All these sins, in this anathema, are hidden sins.
And this, maybe, is precisely why our attention is directed to them.

You don’t need religion to protect society from public sins - like striking a person in the street.
Civil society will handle these public sorts of failings precisely because they are committed against society in the full view of the society.
But private sins are much more difficult.
Arur hamakeh reayhu beseter – cursed be the one who strikes their fellow in secret – it feels to me like the Torah is talking domestic abuse – vanu khol ham vomru amen and all the people shall say amen.
And society isn’t nearly as expert at handling these ‘behind closed doors’ sins.
Because they can’t be seen.
The religious language of these verse – ‘cursed be the one’ ‘and all the people shall say amen’ is designed to remind us that, even if hidden from every human eye, there is One who knows about our private infidelities.
The religious language is to remind us that even if we escape public censure God knows, and God cares, and God counts.

Itturei Torah, the collection of Chassidic teachings suggests that the real danger with these hidden sins is not only that they are hidden from public, but they are also hidden from ourselves.
When we commit sins in private, and no-one sees, it becomes easy to kid ourselves that we have done nothing wrong.
And when we leave our private domains we walk out into the world with our head held high,
We suggest to the world that we have nothing to feel guilty for.
The teaching goes on to suggest that with this hypocrisy we kid ourselves.
Not only do we dishonestly broadcast our guiltlessness to the world.
We even tell ourselves we have nothing to feel guilty for and now, says the teaching, Teshuvah – repentance – is impossible.

How often have we seen it?
The perfectly respectable wife-beater who, in public, presents himself as a pillar of society.
The so-called pillars of society who make all sorts of contributions to good causes, but whose private culpability seeps out under the microscope of forensic accountancy or marital infidelity.

We kid ourselves, and we all do it, when we tell ourselves that our behaviour is good enough because our publicly visible behaviour is good enough.
While our private behaviour gives the lie to that claim.
We need to train ourselves to feel the tap tap tap on the shoulder of the hand that belongs to the One with an all seeing eye.
It’s a training in listening to the elusive and the hidden because this tap tap tap is not a measurable, scientifically observable phenomenon.
Rather it will come, if we feel it at all, in much the same way that the voice of God can be heard in the still small voice – the kol damma dakka we talk about during the most important moment of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers.
As we approach the High Holydays;
If we are to grow,
If we are to face our own hypocrisy
If we are to make our lives more valuable
We need to listen to the hidden voice that reminds us of our hidden failings.

Oh dear Professor Dawkins, you are quite wrong in your claim that only the publicly visible, testable is important.
And not because I am a goofy fundamentalist, bent on banning evolution from School curricula, but rather because I believe that the hidden, the internal is a better guide to the worth of an idea, a person, than the public and the visible.

The moon of Ellul is beginning to wane, soon it will disappear.
Soon it will be Rosh Hashanah, and then we all stand before a God who sees what is hidden.
Called upon to look just a little more closely at our own hidden failings, and acknowledge them as that and turn our efforts to elevating our private, our hidden failings, as well as our public behaviour in the year ahead.

Shabbat shalom,

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