Thursday, 24 August 2017

A Journey With Alberto Giacometti - Part One - Reclining Woman Who Dreams

In the run up to Rosh Hashanah I am sharing reflections inspired by the sculptor Alberto Giacometti, whose work is currently on show at the Tate Modern. There is much, rabbinically, to disagree with or find offensive in his work, but I’m not going to do any of that here. Rather I’ll be sharing where these works of art have taken me as I turn my heart towards the work of this time.

I begin with ‘Reclining Woman Who Dreams.’

Here she is. Here I am. Stripped back to my most basic elements and dreaming.

It’s an abstracted naked form sculpted in white plaster (not the reddy-brown clay - with which Giacometti is more associated), then cast in reddy-brown bronze, but then painted white.

Giacometti is being pulled between two competing views of life. Are we best represented as red - bloodily vigorous (and to the Biblical mind the blood is the source of our soul) - or white - cadaverous and skeletal?

When we rise in the morning we dress up, we clothe our essential skeleton with an overlay which allows us to play the various roles of our existence. These clothes, masks perhaps as well, are what Kabbalists call Klippot - literally husks. These Klippot serve two functions; on the one hand they protect an inner fragile kernel, but this protection comes at the cost of distancing everyone we come into contact with, and even ourselves, from our essential fragile truth. Stripped of all of that, what do we have left?

Our dreams.

Theodor Herzl’s aphorism, ‘If you will it, it is no dream,’ suggests - in translation - a pejorative dismissal of dreams, not present in the Hebrew. Our dreams are the things that give meaning to our bony existence, they bring life and open up new futures to these dry bones. What Herzl meant - as we all understand - is the ‘unless we dream, nothing important will ever change in our lives.’ Our dreams are checks on the clothe and mask wearing - are we really doing what is really important? Without them we are but dust and ash.

Find time, this month, to lie back and dream. Allow this time to serve as an invitation to drop the masks, the clothes and even the fleshy-over-layers. Allow an encounter between the very bones of our existence and the hopes that elevate to that become that most precious of all creations - a human, please God, a Mentsch.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, 18 August 2017

On the appeal of Fascism - Thoughts on Charlottesville and Deuteronomy

David Runciman, a political scientist at Cambridge, coined the term ‘dictator envy’ to articulate the way in which those who wish to live in a democracy look at a complex problem and wish someone strong and powerful would 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 a desire that something or someone could save us the trauma of having to deal with complexity ourselves.
I first came across the phrase ‘dictator envy’ in an 2013 article. I wonder how Runciman reflects on its creation today. It might be that last November the greatest democracy of our age gave in to the desire to have a strong leader ‘just come along and sort it out,’ in the process damning the democratic deficit such a decision left in its wake.
That certainly seems to be the appeal of the Alt-Right/neo-Nazi absurdities witnessed in Charlottesville. ‘They won’t replace us,’ the marchers chanted; prompting liberal voices to pour scorn on the simplicity of their mantra; ‘who’s the “they”?’ ‘Replace as what?’ Scratch the surface of the neo-Nazi rhetoric and it descends into either gross-oversimplification or such a democratic deficit as to terrify anyone who values human equality.
And so to the Torah; ‘If a prophet should appear in your midst, giving you a sign, and the sign, they spoke about, came to pass, if they call you to worship other gods, do not listen to the voice of that prophet.’ (Deuteronomy 13:2-4 abbreviated)
Accept, for a moment, that the Torah’s understanding of, ‘worshipping other gods,’ equates to the greatest of any sin (as Maimonides would wish us to do), and the point becomes clear. When a charismatic leader, or force, appears and seems to capture a moment - don’t listen to that voice when it’s a voice that leads one to a path of sin. Don’t be misled by charisma, apparently accurate prognostication, or even the successes of short-termism. The right and the good thing remains the right and the good thing even if the signs of the moment suggest otherwise.
Now, perhaps, revisit the notion of ‘worshipping other gods.’ An idol is the infinite rendered in finite form, the incomprehensible presented as comprehended. Idols are the simple solutions to the problems of a world we cannot fully understand. This is both the reason idols are wrong - as in doomed to fail, putting aside any moral or faith-based issue with statues of gods - but also the reason idols prove so attractive. Complex solutions to complex problems aren’t as sexy as a simple solution. That doesn’t make the simple solution correct. Indeed it might be that the simple solution can be immediately discounted simply because of its simplicity.
The answer has to be that we train ourselves to resist the appeal of the simple now understood as the idol. The answer, perhaps, lies in allowing ourselves to believe in the radical monotheism of our faith. We believe in a god without form, beyond our ability to control or even comprehend. True monotheism is, or at least, ought to be, a training in an existential humility. Faced with a complex problem, and the problems facing the Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville are the same complex problems that face all us, we need to train ourselves to abstain from the charismatic appeal that calls us towards evil. We need to resist the calls of the false prophet.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Knocking From the Inside

“I have lived on the lip
of insanity, wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door. It opens.
I've been knocking from the inside.”

I’ve always loved this short poem by the thirteenth-century Islamic poet Rumi. It captures my contemporary existence so accurately. Here I am teetering on the edge of lunacy - the emails, the emails, the emails. I spend my days attempting to make sense of it all; trying to impose myself on this complex world and the even more complex people who inhabit it. Knocking, Knocking, Knocking.

I wish I could access the Persian, a little. I wonder if the original ‘Knock’ might carry a sense of a person pushing to open a door that needs instead to be pulled. Gary Larson has a cartoon that captures the moment with his characteristic crispness - the entrance to a School for The Gifted has a big sign on the door reading pull, and the student is depicted pushing with all their might. I think of the cartoon every time I push at a door that needs to be pulled - in the spirit of the day, I confess it happens often. And not just at literal doors. At least, it turns out I am in good company.

For here is Rumi - one of the great spiritual teachers of all time - knocking, knocking, knocking. He’s desirous of being let into some other quarter, a new place with the promise of answers and ‘reasons,’ but he is on the inside already. Maybe we all are - already on the inside. Maybe there is nowhere else to go to realise whatever we are going to be capable of realising. Maybe to access the ‘reasons,’ maybe to become the person we wish to be, what we have to do is stop knocking and pull on the door we have been pushing against for so long. Our future doesn’t live in some other quarter. It doesn’t even live in our past. It lives in us. We are here already.

The task of the day is to stop knocking, stop questing after something somewhere else. And instead be here, making a space in which to realise you are and you have everything that you need. You are already inside.

Monday, 7 August 2017

This is who we are, this is what we want to be.

It’s seven weeks until Rosh Hashanah
I’ve written these weekly words for non - or not yet - New Londoners. Please take a moment to pass this message to anyone you think would appreciate being part of our communities for the celebrations to come.  Indeed, sending this to five people who could join us could be the greatest possible boon you could offer to the future of this wonderful community.
To those I haven’t met ... yet.
Come join us, at New London Synagogue - for the celebrations of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur especially.
Changing a lifelong Synagogue affiliation can be a daunting prospect. Attending a Synagogue for the first time is even more daunting. But the New Year calls on us all to be a brave. We are summoned to reflect on who we want to be and asked with whom we wish to stand - among our fellows and before a God (indeed a God some of us don’t believe in). Who or what do we want to be closer to, who or what do we want to step away from? New London is a place to wonder at these questions in the company of a wonderful chazan and in an atmosphere that inspires and even demands an openness of heart and mind.
A recent Jewish Policy Research report recorded growing numbers attracted to Masorti Synagogues. We know that - and it’s great news for us. But also plummeting numbers leaving the United Synagogue, and falls in the numbers attracted to Reform and Liberal communities. That’s not good news for the future of our faith, and the rise in affiliation to Masorti doesn’t come close to making up for declines elsewhere. My hunch is that many of those turning away from Synagogue based Judaism are no longer finding the voice of Judaism they grew up hearing compelling or inspiring, and with so many other calls on our time, they are drifting away. While there are many, many attracted to good Orthodox, Reform and Liberal communities, there are also those who are looking for a Hebrew, classical approach to liturgy combined with an openness to what it means to be a Jew of the twenty-first century. That’s us. That’s what we are trying to be. And if that is you, do consider joining us.
You can find out more about our services and even buy tickets through our web-page - or please do drop me a line - and if there is anything I can do to help you chart a path through this wonderful time, it would be an honour,
Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy
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