Monday, 20 March 2017

Who Will Teach Me To Wonder? - Sermon Version Shabbat Parah, Parashat Hukkat

Who Will Teach Us To Wonder

When, Jack, you and I sat and thought together about your Devar Torah we went through the piece you read from the Torah scroll. The strange tale of a cow, killed and burnt, whose ashes are sprinkled in the water to make someone ritually contaminated by death ritually pure.
I asked you if there was anything in the story you found interesting. And you said, with characteristic insight and honesty, ‘no.’

So we changed tack, and you got to give a terrific devar torah on the terrific story of the golden calf. And though your devar torah was indeed terrific, it means I’m left with the cow ash.


This tale of cow ash is undeniably odd. It’s odd to imagine there is something contaminatory about death, and odder still to think that ash from a cow, mixed in with cedar and hyssop and scarlet stuff should do anything to remove such an odd affliction. The good news is that I’m not the first person to struggle for a way of relating to all this oddness.

Here’s a Rabbinic text, about a rabbi who was alive 2000 years ago.

An non-Jew asked Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, ‘This is a bit like witchcraft. You bring a cow, burn it, grind it, take its ashes. If one of you is defiled by a dead body you sprinkle two or three drops on them and say to him, ‘You are pure.’ Rabbi Yochanan asked him, ‘Have you ever seen a man possessed by the demon of madness?’ ‘Yes’ he said. ‘And what do you do? ‘We bring roots and make them smoke under him and then we sprinkle water on the demon and it flees.’ Said Rabbi Yochanan, ‘let your ears hear what you say with your mouth. It is the same for this spirit of uncleanness [and he explains the odd ritual away. But then the Midrash continues]
When the non-Jew left, Rabbi Yochanan’s students said to their master, ‘Master, you pushed off this man with a straw, what explanation will you give to us?’ he said to them, ‘By your life, it is not that death defiles, nor that this water purifies. The Holy Blessed One says, ‘I have laid down a Hok - a decree [it’s not to be understood, it’s something to be followed even though you cannot understand it].[1]

The key word is the Hebrew word hok - something that cannot be understood and isn;t designed to be understood. The ritual of the cow is a Hok. The fact that it doesn’t make rational sense isn’t because it’s stupid and the fact that we - not even Jack - can understand it - isn’t because we - and certainly not Jack - are stupid. Rather this hok is something not to be understood.

I’m interested in what it means to have things, in our lives that we understand, to have things in our lives that we strive to understand and - most of all - what it means to make a space for things that cannot be understood.

I’m aware suggesting we make space for things which cannot be understood is counter-cultural, especially for a Synagogue full of people who understand so many things and quest to understand so much more.

I’ve nothing against the quest to understand. In fact questing to understand the world and everything in it is one of the most exquisite things a person can do with their lives.

I get that there are 37.2 trillion cells in the human body, each one a direct descendent from one single zygote - that’s extraordinary.
I get that every atom in every one of these cells was already present at the very beginning of time and that therefore each of my 37 trillion cells is, in some sense, recycled star dust.

There is nothing wrong with the quest for greater and greater knowledge, and if I had one thing to say to neurologists attempting to understand the nature of brain-damage, or civil engineers attempting to work out how best to build buildings that can withstand the destructive power of an earthquake it would be to say, go, go, go, lives depend on your passion to understand more.
But ...
There is a but.

The but is that as we understand life we have this tendency to turn life into bits of data we can compute, manipulate and control.
And even if there is something out there we can’t understand yet, if we think that this thing is there capable of being understood if we just tried a little harder, we start treating everything in life as a bit of data that can be manipulated and controlled.
We start to think that life can be calibrated and controlled.
And here’s the scary thing for people who like to calibrate and control.

The really important things in life are not quantifiable, they are not measurable and they are certainly not capable of being manipulated like pixels in a computer programme or the spread of bonds and stocks in our investment portfolios.
And the reason the really important things in life are not capable of being manipulated is not that we aren’t clever enough yet.
It’s because the really important stuff in life is beyond control.

The gift of love is not manipulable.
The ability to feel joy isn’t controllable.
You can’t measure artistic worth on a spreadsheet.

Wonder isn’t something that can be programmed.
Really this is all about our ability to appreciate wonder.

There are loads of people telling us to try to understand more, and control more, and learn more. There are loads of people telling us if only we tried a little harder we would do better in these exams or that six-month performance review and all the rest of it.
But who will teach us to wonder?

Who will teach us to appreciate that the world is not ours to control.
It’s ours to protect and serve.
Who will teach us that time isn’t simply a unit of production to be set into a productivity spreadsheet, but rather the essence of human life; time is to be celebrated and marked, not put to the service of commercial gain.

We’ve got the balance wrong - too much seeking to control and not enough wonder about that which is beyond control.
We need more people to teach us about wonder.
It’s a subtle point I’m trying to make,
It’s one thing to work to wipe out polio, or tackle malaria or cure cancer, but somewhere we, in our comfortable Western existence, seem in danger of forgetting that death isn’t something to be eradicated as if it were an infectious disease. Death is at the very heart of what it means to mortal. We can eat more fruit and veg, exercise, treat and cure more and more disease, but we can’t escape what it means to be mortal, unless we turn ourselves into something no longer human. 

Death is a wonder, a Hok, something to defeat understanding. That’s why death is so scary - not because we can’t understand it yet, but because it is beyond understanding.
That’s why we need a ritual to help us deal with our inability to understand death.
That’s why that ritual, itself, needs to escape understanding.
That’s why we need a Hok featuring cow’s ash.

And here’s the real problem of forgetting about wonder and thinking everything falls into the twin categories of controllable and almost controllable;
by promoting the notion of control we strip out our appreciation of wonder from the world.
If we say the really important things in life are the things we can measure and control we are in danger of arriving at our deathbed proud, or ashamed, of the amount of money in our bank accounts.
And no-one arrives at their deathbed counting how much money they have in their bank accounts.
It’s really not about the stuff we can measure.
It’s really about our ability to wonder.

I did something I don’t usually do, when thinking about this sermon.
I googled the question, ‘who will teach me to wonder?’
And there, answer number three was a link to Psalms 119:27.

Let me tell you about Psalms 119:27.

It’s not an easy verse to translate, something like this;
Bring me to understand the path of what you demand of me and I will chat with your wonders.

The leading Rabbinic commentary Malbim points out the importance of it being the PATH of the precepts. It is, for Malbim the path up Mount Sinai, the path that leads beyond human understanding.
We seek an understand of that we know we cannot understand.
It’s a little paradoxical.
We address ourselves to the path up the mountain knowing that there are truths beyond human grasp.
And the reward is we get to be in 'siach' - in conversation - with wonder, with mystery.
We don’t get to understand, we certainly don’t get to control.
But we do get, in fleeting moments of insight, a sense of being in conversation with that which is wonder.

The great American writer, William James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience, tries to explain the sort of momentary encountering of the ineffable that is at the heart of great moments of religious insight. The word James uses is noetic - these are kinds of understanding that cannot be spelt out in letters, they cannot be published as respectable scientific literature or made subject to double blind testing of hypotheses and controls.
Noetic experiences are beyond language, beyond measurement, they are experiences of being in siach - being in conversation with wonder.
When an artist, when asked to explain their painting responds, ‘I can’t really explain it in words, if I could have explained it in words I wouldn’t have had to paint it.’ She is talking about a noetic truth.
And noetic truths might just allow us to make sense of our lives in ways even more important than the quest for measurable knowledge.

So, Jack, all of us, let us do lots of great, inspiring, life-saving science. But let us also keep a place for wonder. Let’s keep looking for opportunities to walk paths that don’t reveal all their secrets even under the most powerful of microscopes. Let’s lift up our eyes to wonder in the hope of a siach - a conversation with that which is noetic - beyond.

Because if we lose the ability to wonder, if we lose the ability to appreciate that which cannot be comprehended, we lose the ability to treasure all that is most special about our humanity.

Shabbat shalom

[1] Bemidbar Rabbah 19:8

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Who Will Teach me to Wonder

Thinking about the impossibility of understanding the Hok of Shabbat Parah and falling in love with Psalm 119:27
דֶּֽרֶךְ־פִּקּוּדֶ֥יךָ הֲבִינֵ֑נִי וְ֝אָשִׂ֗יחָה בְּנִפְלְאוֹתֶֽיךָ׃
I can't really translate it properly (yet), something like
Bring me to understand the path of what you demand of me and I will chat with your mysteries
Malbim points out the importance of it being the PATH of the precepts. It is, for Malbim the path up Mount Sinai, beyond human understanding.
And I love the reward, to be in 'siach' - conversation - with ultimate mystery.
It's not a verse I've ever really considered before - comes in that monstrously long Psalm you just want to skip over. But I think I've just stumbled over my new favourite articulation of my relationship with Mitzvot.
And how did I stumble over this jewel in the rough?
I googled, 'who will teach me to wonder' and this verse, courtesy of some angel buried in Google's algorithm waved their wand.
So I post the story on-line
Ahhh, the life of a C21 Rabbi.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Coming Soon - Pesach

My thanks to everyone involved in making Purim at New London such a fabulous experience.
And now Pesach!

First night Seder is Monday night 10th April. If you are looking for hospitality, or able to offer hospitality, please let me know.

The New London Communal Seder, led by Cantor Jason and I, is Tuesday night 11th April. Booking is open and we urge anyone planning on coming to book in time to allow proper arrangements to be made for catering. It’s a terrific night and members and guests are all invited. More info here.

Our flagship pre-Pesach event, the Taste of Refuge Seder, has already sold out. My apologies for those who had planned to book later. We will share reflections and also some of the materials we will be using after the event.

Shabbat 1st April will focus on preparing for the Seder. I will be teaching and have some terrific material to share as part of the services. All welcome.

Shabbat 8th April will feature, after the service, a communal sing-a-seder-along with Cantor Jason. Bring your favourite tunes.

The 2017 NLS Pesach - Guide to Kashrut is now on-line. For more on selling Chametz through me, look out for subsequent mailings sent to this list.

Other things to look forward to in the coming month;
29th March the book launch of New London member Anne Summers’ terrific Christian and Jewish Women  in Britain 1880-1940. More here.

Monday morning 10th April, 7:15am, Shacharit featuring a Siyum on the occasion of the Fast of the Firstborn, all (not just firstborns) warmly invited.

Purim, in the best possible way, was chaotic. And now the journey to Seder - order. May that journey be matched by an equal journey from darkness to light and oppression to freedom for all.
It’s my honour to be able to share this journey with you all,
Chag Kasher V’Sameach - A happy and kosher celebration,
Rabbi Jeremy

Friday, 3 March 2017

Women's Torah

I received a mail from a member recently. She wrote about some of the Synagogue’s recent decisions on the role of women (which she supported) and shared the following;

"Whilst I acknowledge religious texts are historically overwhelmingly written by men, there are numerous brilliant contemporary texts and commentaries written by women. I would like to see women's books and teachings held up as a source of inspiration, be it in sermons or at Cheder, as much as men's works. I believe acknowledging women and their work (other than as wives and mothers) as equal sources of inspiration is one of the most important actions we can do at this time and one of the best gifts we can offer to children of any gender."

Well, amen to that - at least in theory. In practice, the process of accessing these ‘numerous brilliant contemporary texts’ isn’t so easy - for me. I’ve been trained  - and spent my entire Rabbinic existence - surrounded almost exclusively by male voices. And even when contemporary scholars are women, they are so often writing about a male pre-existing canon of authority. I remember, as a second year Rabbinical School student, encountering feminist Jewish theology for the first time (Judith Plaskow’s terrific ‘Standing Again at Sinai’) and realising how much of Judaism required radical rethinking. Many of the works that have most shaped and moved my sense of Judaism since have been written by women. Perhaps that’s inevitable; welcoming a new voice will bring newer insights than turning continually to the similar.

Those in shul a couple of weeks ago will have noticed a terrific poem by Merle Feld included in the handout (do read it if you weren’t around). I’ve also turned to my many colleagues around the world for suggestions as a book list - ah the joy of social media - now available on-line here. This Shabbat w are introduced to what becomes the central organising structure of Jewish life throughout the wanderings in the dessert - the Mikdash or Sanctuary. Inspired by an analysis of  Judith Antonelli, I’ll be discussing the implications of the way a surprisingly high number of Rabbinic texts considered the Mikdash as a woman. All, of course, most welcome.

Let me also wave the flag for this Sunday’s Masorti Women’s Forum which we, at New London, are hosting for the entire movement - from 2-6pm. There are some terrific scholars, including Susie Orbach and our own Dr Anne Summers (whose book we will be launching at New London later in the month, see below). More information about the Forum here. Open to women only.

Shabbat Shalom
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