Sunday, 2 October 2016

Be Religious - A Second Day RH Sermon

I love Chuppot.
I love doing weddings, and going to weddings - who doesn’t love a good wedding.
But more than that I love the symbol of the Chuppah - the canopy - itself - I love the ideas the physical canopy directs us to understand.

Mostly, if we think about the symbolism of the Chuppah at all, we only get half the story of its power.

The story most often told is that of Abraham’s Tent; open on all four sides, so when some dust-addled strangers appeared over the horizon Abraham could see them, and run out to welcome them into his home. For those of you here yesterday that’s what you might call a Port idea, open, engaged, outward looking.
But it’s only one half of the symbolic power of the Chuppah.

The other idea is that the Chuppah is the bride and groom’s first home, the first ‘roof over their head.’ The Chuppah is supposed to be a place of intimacy, or seclusion. This is the driving intent of the legal literature - [1] which refers to the the Chuppah as a place of Yichud - intimacy. It certainly feels that way, when you are stood there with a couple, almost as if you are, as the Rabbi, invading their private love. And if that is not quite a fort-idea, it’s certainly a long way away from the image of Abraham’s tent. If the Abraham’s tent idea is about being open, the Yichud idea is about being enclosed.

I suspect none of us is worried about this apparent contradiction - the Chuppah as symbol of openness and closedness. For this tension between openness and closedness is exactly how marriage works. Those of us fortunate enough to get to stand under a Chuppah, or even attend a Chuppah pick up, maybe in some unconscious way, something of this relationship between internal strength and outward-looking strength. That’s how religion works of course. In symbols and rituals and liturgies and stories that gently shape us and allow us to pick up something about how we should be living our lives. At its best these symbols and rituals are sophisticated, subtle and enlightening.

The problem is that so often, for one reason or another, we don’t get to understand the full richness of a religious idea. Ideas get half told - like the story of the Chuppah - which isn’t so bad, but also corrupted in the retelling, or hijacked by those with no love for religion who paint some of the most beautiful and sophisticated ideas in our faith as oppressive or childish, or both. That’s more of a problem.
If a person makes a decision to care less about religion, that’s one thing, but to make that decision on the basis of a corrupt version of what is being rejected is desperately sad.

Let me do another example. Actually this example will always be the best example of how Judaism does anything - Shabbat.

Six days you shall work and on the seventh day you shall do Shabbat and - the last word of this verse is hard to translate - vayinafash - be en-souled.

Six days a week get out there. Change the world, drive forward, plan, achieve, create. These are the open four walls of the Chuppah translated into the work of our lives. Six days a week be outward-looking.

And then, one day in seven pause, acknowledge what you have, test what you really need, become a human being, rather than a factor production. Become en-souled. - be inward.

Sound reasonable?
Sounds reasonable to me.
Too much work can exhaust and empty us out.
But let me set it against the most significant challenge of our age; a challenge so severe that it could leave all our blustery concerns about refugees and US Presidential Elections as nothing more than a tumbleweed blowing through what our descendants might say of our time.

We are destroying our planet. And it’s the only one we have. The problem is that we humans don’t know how to stop wanting more. My favourite example is that of the oligarch who decided they needed a new yacht since the first yacht had only one helicopter pad on it. That meant that when he was on board, with his helicopter, there was nowhere for anyone else to land. Such problems we should all have.

The historian of human existence, Yuval Noah Harari[2] in his new compelling, but infuriating book Homo Deus suggests we could learn a great deal by looking at the games we play. From the board game Monopoly to the computer based civilisation strategy games the principles are always world domination or bust.

But what if the world can’t cope with our appetite for dominance?
Harari’s idea is that knowledge will save us, new technologies and the like. Well knowledge develops with astounding pace and the new technologies are exciting, but I’m not sure it will be enough. In fact it might already be too late. Pretty immediately we are going to have to learn to live with less; or more accurately we are going to have to live with a sense that what we possess or what we can bring into our possession is not simply there for our use. We need to find something more important than relentless consuming … and then consuming some more. And that’s where religion comes in.

At its heart religion - this religion anyway - contains a message about what is yours and what is non-yours. Ladonai Haretz Uumeloo - the earth and everything in it is God’s - we say in Psalms. We get what we have as stewards. It’s not ultimately ours.
It’s not ours because there is something more important than we are, even if we don’t understand what that greater force is, we are commanded to observe, recognise and validate that we don’t place ourselves at the centre of Universe.
Shabbat is a training in existential humility and we are in dire need of some existential humility.
Is it OK to be excited about creating and acquiring and accumulating? Yes, but not only to a point. There are limits, responsibilities and most of all the requirement, once a week, to stop entirely and reflect on what all this rushing around is for.

Religion - this religion, on this day - is about standing before one’s creator and being called to account for how one has lived, called to account for our obsessions with material stuff. It’s about acknowledging that no matter how much stuff we have accumulated our end is dust, we are only as strong as a pottery shard, as life-full as withered grass, as permanent as a passing shadow. Those are all images drawn from our tradition.

Shabbat is the tool to inculcate a positive, sustainable, holy relationship with our desire for possessing things and more things.
Religion is the voice that guides us to live in peace with a creation that is not ours to hollow out and devastate.
At least that’s what I think religion is really for.

Noah Yuval Harari on the other hand has a very different concept of religion. Harari thinks that religion is all about forcing a person to do strange and often unethical things for an invented fairy-tale of a fake divinity to ensure the people respect their political overlords.

Harari’s a smart guy, but reading Harari on religion is enough to drive a rabbi to distraction.
Why do people who understand so little about religion spend so much time writing about it? Reading Harari on religion is a bit like encountering a writer on physics explaining billion dollar space programmes are primarily designed to improve non-stick frying pan technology, or a music-theorist who thinks the point of Bach is to teach a person how to play scales.

You don’t reconsider the value of the thing being described because you can’t get beyond the notion that the writer has entirely the wrong end of the stick. At least you shouldn’t.

I don’t mind people pointing out damage done in the name of religion - for there is damage done in the name of religion - even this religion. But if you are going to do that at least give religion points for the good it has inspired - anyone think that slavery would have been overthrown, in this country or the United States were it not for religion, the notion of the creation of every human being in the image of God and that glorious tale of the Exodus

And if you want to put religion on a scale of the various forces that have caused suffering in the world how would it line up alongside Hitler’s non-religious malevolence, or Mao’s or Stalin’s or the atrocities of Rwanda or former Yugoslavia or Cambodia and what about the Congo?
And on what might be blame the relentless destruction of our planet? Where should we place liberal values; or the right to consume on that scale?
I just don’t get the notion that religion, done well, is a force for harm.

The quest to live life well is challenging. Listening only to our own feelings we too easily fall prey to what the Rabbis call the evil inclination. It’s not that human beings are bad, it’s just we get seduced or distracted into wanting what is not good to want. Having boundaries helps, training ourselves to act decently helps, dedicating ourselves to practices of kindness and justice help. Training our children in these practices helps. That’s what it means to be religious. Being religious helps.

Here is the plea. Support this kind of religion. If you don’t want to become a Salafist Muslim or an Evangelical Christian, or even an Ultra-Orthodox Jew - that’s fine. I don’t buy into any of those stripes of religion either. But I do buy into this version of a quest to understand who we are and how we should live in this world. I buy into the way we do religion here at New London Synagogue.

I buy into the idea that the rituals, rhythms and stories are powerful enough to make my life more meaningful, more full of the possibility of doing well in the world.

I believe that if more of us adopted a serious relationship with Shabbat we would stand a better chance of saving the planet. Not just because we would stop buying stuff we didn’t need on the Sabbath day, but because the ideas of Shabbat seep into our lives for the other six days of the week. Because that is how religion works. You make space for it in your life, you give it a chance to change how you see the world and you come out better. Not because of some marxist plot and not because of some fairy-tale nonsense, but because for thousands of years we have quested after the whispers of the divine and constructed pathways to connect our lives to something more important than pursuit of base self-interest.

Maybe the way someone as smart as Harari gets away with writing such rubbish about religion is that he doesn’t hear voices of people who do religion the way we do religion sufficiently clearly. So we need to be clearer, we need to be clearer not just in how we talk about the way we do Judaism, we need to deeper in our engagement with Judaism.

This is the plea; actually two pleas. Engage and talk about it. Engage with religious life, make space to observe Shabbat, come to shul, come to our adult ed programme, read a book - if you want a recommendation, let me know.
And talk about it. Don’t accept the sloppy disregard for religion banded about by the Hararis and Dawkins and the like. Speak up the value of living a life attempting to walk in the ways of Hashem. Share an idea about Shabbat as you understand it, as you love it. Share something you love about Judaism, doesn’t matter if you only get half an idea. There is always more to learn.

And keep an eye on the e-mail in tray. I’ll be running a series of classes a sort of Judaism for intelligent adults who are concerned they don’t quite know enough yet in the winter. If that sounds like something you would enjoy, let me know.

Just don’t be put off by the people who don’t get it, or wilfully seek to subvert the one thing that might just allow us to save this planet, and save our humanity. There is indeed, much at stake.

Shannah Tovah

[1] Shulchan Arukh Even Ha-Ezer 55

[2] Homo Deus p.210

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