Friday, 30 November 2018

Reward & Punishment - Middah Keneged Middah

This week’s parashah opens with Joseph spreading bad reports on his brothers.

What did he say?
Rabbinic invention[1] two guesses
Sons of Leah insult the sons of Bilha and Zilpah and call them slaves.
And because of his tale-telling, the Rabbis say, so Joseph was sold as a slave to the Midianites.
Or alternatively
His half-brothers were accused of eyeing up the local ladies.
And because of his tale-telling, the Rabbis say, so Joseph was beset by Potiphar’s wife, who cast her eyes upon him, eventually accusing him of rape.

These responses raise, for me, the question of the relationship of reward and punishment.
Do the things we do have direct consequence in terms of how we fare before the cosmologic whole?
Getting right to the heart of religion.

Clearly important doctrine Maimonedes
As in Yidgal
Gomel Lish Hesed CMifalo – notein lerasha ra crishato
And clearly, at least in the Bible sense that works in the here and now – in this world
Second paragraph of the Shema – do good, get a good rainy season and good crops.
Do wickedly, drought, famine.

But there is a problem –
When we look out at the world we don’t see it.
Rabbis shunt time of reward back, into the afterlife.
Faithful is the taskmaster [meaning God] who will pay the reward of your labour but know the recompense of the righteous will be in the world to come. (Avot 2:16)

What do we do about reward and punishment in this world?
Are we prepared to give up on the notion completely?
Incredibly radical – Gemorah in Kiddushin – ‘there is no reward for the Mitzvot in this world.’
Really hard.
Albo –
Decides that it’s OK, Jewishly to believe either there is, or there is not material reward in this world.
He prefers the notion that there is reward in this world – but he can’t say that the opposite position is heretical.

No surprise what the problem is.
One the one hand – Experience - Tzaddik vra lo, rasha v’tov lo.
If there is a simple process of reward and punishment, why is it so easy to find decent people suffering – babies even, and so easy to see crooks and thugs seemingly blessed.
But if there isn’t a system of reward and punishment then we live in a material universe without a material connection between doing something materially good and some kind of material reward.
And that feels anarchistic, chaotic, amoral.
It’s certainly dangerous, creates a bully’s charter .
Clifford Geertz –
The rain falls on the just and unjust fella, but larger on the just, coz the unjust has his ‘brella.

Who would want to live in such a world?
And if we did ive in such a world, what would that say about its Creator. If the world is indeed unjust and nothing other than a dog-eat-dog place of cruelty and violence, then ... God forbid, that reflects poorly even on God.

Pages of Mediaeval philosophy attempt to reconcile our this world sense of the anarchic, amoral chaos with an other-worldly  sense of Divine order.
I’ll be honest, most of it leaves me utterly cold.
Not only do I not believe it, I don’t even believe that its authors believe it.

Prefer the take of some of the greats of the Mussar tradition where we are called to live lives of decency and propriety without suggesting that there will be this-world direct reward. My favourite attempt comes from Luzatto’s Mesilat Yesharim where he suggests that since righteous people are righteous they couldn’t be bribed with the offer of this world reward. That’s smart; we are counselled not to aspire to the morality of a puppy doing what they should just for the sake of a treat, or to avoid a telling off. We need to develop our commitment to decency without reference to reward and punishment.

I wonder if a Midrash like the one opened with presents a way round.
The technical terms is
Middah kneged Middah
It translates, as Shakespeare put it, as Measure For Measure.
Or as another Rabbincic text[2] puts it
BaMidah she adam moded bah, moddedim lo
With the measure a person measures, they shall mete to him.

Commonly game in Rabbinic tradition to connect things back and forth across, partic, Biblical narratives using this Middah KNeged Middah thread.
Samson – who dies with his eyes gouged out – is held to have sinned by eyeing up women in general – and Delilah in particular. He gets his comeuppance – Midah Keneged Midah.
Jacob, who deceives his blind father by dressing as Esau gets his comeuppance when he is deceived and doesn’t realise he is marrying the sister with weak eyes and not his beloved. Midah Keneged Midah
Pharaoh who drowns Israelite boys in the Nile suffers the first plague of a bloody Nile, the tenth plague - the death of his first born, and then the ultimate defeat in the waters of a previously split Red Sea. Don’t mess with God or God will come after you Middah Keneged Niddah.

I suggested that Measure for Measure could serve as an idiomatic translation for Midah Kneged Middah.
But I think a better term is ‘poetic justice.’
It’s poetic in the sense of not being literal. In fact Middah Kneged Middah is meant to be slightly tongue in cheek.
The connection between action and reaction is post-hoc.
First something happens, and then the connection is made.
A bit like the story of the prince who, riding through the forest, comes across a target drawn on a tree, and an arrow right through the very bullseye.
And then another target – arrow through the bullseye, and another and another.
I must be, the prince feels, in the vicinity of the greatest archer in the world.
Eventually he spies a man with a bow on his back and asks him if he truly shot all these arrows.
Yes, said the man.
Then you must be the greatest archer in the world.
Oh no, said the man. I just shot arrows into trees and then drawn on the targets afterwards.
George Foot Moore – perhaps the greatest historian of the Rabbinic period - urged us not to read these equations of cause and effect more seriously than they are meant.
Middah Keneged Middah isn’t meant seriously, it’s not about logic, it’s not supposed to tell you what will happen in the future. It’s about finding some way to join up the dots that result in us living in a world not entirely undone by chaos.

Middah Keneged Middah is a kind of game, where connections that might otherwise be invisible are made. They serve to join the dots, to create a veneer of order where without one the apparent randomness of life might get too much to bear. They provide enough of a reminder to behave decently, I hope, to keep up on the path of goodness, without suggesting an overly simplistic relationship between reward and punishment.

The hope, if we understand and embrace the vaguely poetic, vaguely humorous ebb and flow of Midah Kneged Midah, is that things won’t hurt so because they won’t deprive us of any sense making mechanism. We won’t understand them any better.
We won’t often, feel that the response is justifiable, and indeed they Middah Keneged Middah is a dangerous tool, too easily used, as even the Rabbis do on occasion[3], to explain away that which humans should not try and tritely solve.
But I think that there is something to be gained by having a response that is poetic, humorous even.
Even if it can’t always take the pain of suffering away.
The notion that there is some explanation, that in some way fits,
even if it can’t justify, even if it still feels so unfair
is better than the pious, but ultimately unsustainable notion that reward and punishment do really play out in this world in some direct measurable, logical way.
It makes us feel that it is still worth questing for the decent and the good.

And even if it doesn’t it can still help us smile - sometimes the only thing left is to laugh - and this too is worth a great deal, especially when nothing else seems to make sense.

Max Gelberg was seventy years old when his wife died. After six months of mourning, Max decided life must go on, so he began a strict program of physical fitness.
After a few months of regular workouts, Max felt and looked wonderful. Friends would stop him on the street and ask him, ‘Max, is that you? I didn’t recognise you! You look sixty!’
With this encouragement, Max continued on the exercise program, he went on a vegetarian diet and arranged some minor plastic surgery. His friends, seeing him on the street would stop and say, ‘Max, is that you? I didn’t recognise you! You look fifty!’
Max was delighted and decided to move to Florida so he could take advantage of the sun. He took up a permanent spot on the local muscle beach. The following winter he met up with an old group of friends, ‘Max,’ said one, ‘I didn’t recognise you! You look forty!’
That was all Max needed to hear, he started dating and soon won the heart of young woman in her thirties. They both glowed in a shared love and arranged to be married.
Standing under the Huppah, Max’s old Rabbi peered out at the groom with astonishment, ‘Max, is that you? I didn’t recognise you! You look thirty!’
Max was ecstatic, but as bride and groom were preparing to leave for their honeymoon – wham – Max is struck by a passing car and killed instantly.
Reaching the gates of heaven Max is furious and demands to know who is responsible for this tragedy. Eventually, he muscles his way into the office of the Almighty.
‘I don’t believe this,’ Max shouted, ‘I finally get my life together and poof! Tell me, what have you got against Max Goldberg.’
‘Max Gelberg?’ The Almighty replies, ‘Is that you? I didn’t recognise you!’

Middah Keneged Middah,

Shabbat shalom

[1] BR 87:3
[2] M Sotah 1:7
[3] Miscarriage based on Peah. Mishnah

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Stan Lee, Jacob and Being a Jewish Superhero

One of the great heroes of 20th C American literature died last week - Stan Lee, the comic book genius behind Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Avengers, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Black Panther and the rest of them.

Stan Lee was Jewish - been wondering how that impacted on his heroes.

Let’s start with the X-Men.

Series started in 1963 where small boys and girls would discover their mutant superpower as they hit their teenage years. A sort of BM present, if you like. But then, in 1965 came a shift that has come to play an important part in the franchise ever since.

Episode 14 - ‘Among Us ... Stalk the Sentinels’[1] featured a Dr Bolivar Trask who wanted to wipe out these mutants, fearing their supernatural powers would condemn everyone else to slavery. So he pioneers sentinels to destroy our mutant superheroes.

“So, it has finally begun,” Charles Xavier pours over the newspaper. “The one thing I always feared – a witch hunt for mutants!”

The Sentinels were based on the German Nazi SS. Of course they were.
Lee, of course, was born to a Jewish family that had fled Romania - he knew about witch hunting people who were different and threatening in their difference.

A number of the obituaries I read suggested that this was behind his commitment to creating superheroes who reflected the diversity of this extraordinary planet - the Black Panther - created by the Jewish Stan Lee, Daredevil - the first blind superhero - also created by a Jew who understood the power of diversity and the importance of protecting it and proclaiming it.

These aren’t just kids’ stories, they are the myths that shape us. Fifty years after Lee created these characters, they still shape us.

Or what about another of Lee’s creations - Ben Grimm - The Thing, one of the Fantastic Four.[2] Grimm was a Jewish kid living on the Lower East Side when he stole a Magen David from the Jewish shop-keeper Mr Sheckerberg. Some years later Grimm returns to return the stolen jewellery to find the super-villain Powederkeg has created an explosion leaving Shekerberg lying, seeming on the point of death. Grimm stands over the shop-keeper and recites the Shema.

In his last encounter with Powederkeg who is, of course, defeated, the villain peers up at The Thing and says,
"Are you really Jewish?" the villain asks.
"There a problem with that?"
"No! No, it's just... you don't look Jewish."

That’s a very deep vein of Jewish identity Lee is mining. The non-Jew unable to imagine they have been defeated by a Jew they always assumed was less able than they were, and certainly less physically powerful.

In fact, that’s part of why Stan Lee and the other Jewish comic book creators were doing working in comics in the first place.
Anti-semitism made it difficult for Jewish writers, illustrators and designers to find employment in more prestigious sectors like advertising or the mainstream medi, so they did the one thing they could - told stories and produced images for whoever would be interested.

I’m reminded of Michael Chabon, Pulizter Prize for Fiction
Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
Story of two Jewish boys, one a refugee from Nazi occupied Prague who become best of friends in New York and create comic superheros who triumph over all adversity.

In a world where it was very hard for a Jew to win, in a world where Jews were being murdered for the simple fact of their Judaism in mainland Europe, and kept the respectable well-paid jobs even in the United States, in that world the Jewish comic book creators, Lee first among them, created stories where Jews could win.

Then there was the humour.
Everyone assumes the superheroes crack jokes while they save the world, or even while they are getting beaten up in that scene where it looks like they might finally be defeated ... before they save the world.
But that, again, was Stan Lee’s creation.
And that, again, is profoundly a reflection of the ways Jews made their way in the States in the middle of the last century.

American mid-20th C humour is Jewish humour.
Looked up a list of American Jewish comedians - not sure how many of these names will mean something to the younger members here today, but trust me; these men and women are giants.
Filed under ‘B’
Jack Benny, Victor Borge, Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks and George Burns.
In the ‘M’ section the Marx Brothers, Jackie Mason, Bette Midler and Zero Mostel.
Humour was how Jews, and other outsiders, made light of their outsider-ness, indeed used their outsider-ness to gain welcome and success.

But the thing that most struck me, today, was Lee’s greatest creation - Peter Parker better known as Spiderman.

The thing about Parker is that, stripped of his fancy suit he wasn’t so funny. He was a nervy, neurotic too afraid to talk to the girl of his dreams.
Or in yiddish, Parker was a nebbish.
The idea that a superhero could be nervous on the inside and still save the world was Stan’s.

‘Of course Spiderman is Jewish’ said Adnrew Garfield, the Jewish actor who currently plays the role.[3]

And that takes me to the superhero of this week’s parasha, Jacob - the man who is transformed while wrestling some strange mythic force, into Israel.

Jacob is a nebbish.

Last week - in tents, mother’s boy.

Jacob spend most of this parasha nervous. Give Peter Parker a run for his money.

Genesis 32:8
We came to your brother Esau and he is coming to meet you and four hundred men with him.
And Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed.

Not the first and not the last time that a Jew has faced great odds - a much mightier physical opponent, and still found a way to survive.

Goliath – classic superhero
Conquered by the Jewish David.

It is, of course, also a central message of Chanukah
Message, at the end of the day, inner strength will outwit, outperform and triumph over outer-strength
Not by might, and not by power, but by spirit alone…

Interesting and perhaps characteristic Jewish attitude to power.
The true strength of a person is their inner strength, not their outer strength.
And what counts is not how one first feels when encountering a new challenge, a threat or a confusion, but how one completes that work.

That’s the lesson of the wrestling match between Jacob and his super-villain, the angel who comes to wrestle with him.

Jacob’s a nebbish, he’s up against a mighty supernatural force, but he refuses to back down. This artwork isn’t Stan Lee’s it’s Gustav Dore - from 1885 -.

But it could be an illustration from a contemporary graphic novel.

Jacob’s superpower is his refusal to surrender.
That’s the thing that forces the angel to quit -

‘Let me go for it is daybreak’
‘I won’t let you go’ Jacob responds, ‘unless you bless me.’

So the angel blesses Jacob - gives him his new alias and names, for the first time his superpower.

 The man/angel asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man/angel said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel - Yisrael because you have struggled sarita with God and with humans and have overcome.”

That’s Jacob’s superpower - he’s a wrestler with God and humans, and he refuses to give up.

The wrestling with angel comes at a physical cost – Jacob limps on, but mentally, spiritually, he is stronger,

This is the aim of the game.
Not to get through life pristine, unblemished, having never launched oneself into a wrestling match with a scary opponent.
Come to the end of life limping because of the wrestling matches of our life.

Tillich – true fear is to be afraid of looking back at life and seeing nothing.
And there are some who live their life, as if to maximise their likelihood of looking back, at the end of a life to see nothing ventured, nothing gained.
No risks taken.
And there are those who live their lives so that they can look back with no regrets, nothing left behind, risks taken, challenges met, challenges born with courage.

Reach further than we think we can.
Challenge is to sustain our appetite for the challenge.
Giving up only takes a moment,

Even greater challenge when everyone would understand if you were to give up.
But only you would know that this would be weak and from somewhere you find the strength to go on.
That is Jacob’s super-power - the super-power of being an Israelite.

I chanced upon the wise advice of a fictional character to their dear friend.
 ‘Promise me you will always remember, ‘You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.’
Said Christopher Robbin to Winnie the Pooh - who, lovely as he was isn’t really anyone’s version of a super-hero, but the advice was true. It was true for Poo, it was true also for Jacob and as an inspiration, it will do for us all.
For in truth we are all
‘Braver than we believe, stronger than we seem and smarter than we think.’

Shabbat shalom


Sunday, 18 November 2018

Armistice - 100 Years Since the End of World War One

In honour of the centenary of the Armistice for the Great War, I’ve been reading a series of sermons collected by Mark Saperstein in his terrific "Jewish Preaching in Times of War" (Littman 2008). These are sermons preached from right within the First World War. I owe a huge debt to Professor Saperstein's work.

You can feel clouds of war gathering already in 1913 reading this extract from the Induction Sermon of Joseph Hertz as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of this country. Hertz, of course, was the first rabbinic graduate of JTS, and this was his local Shul. I’m not sure where the sermon was preached - it could have been at this very pulpit.

“Ours is an age of doubt and disillusionment. Times are out of joint. Theological foundations are rocking. Dreams of humanity that but yesterday seemed within grasp of realization are dissolving into thin air in the face of the malicious race-hatred that is being fanatically preached and the purposeless human slighter cynically practised, in the opening decades of the 20th Century.”

Hertz came to this country from South Africa.  I wonder if he brought with him a particular fear of war having been closer to the Boer War than other British Rabbis.

Then in July 1914, war broke out. In August of that year, the Jewish Chronicle reported Rev Morris Joseph preaching at Berkley Street Synagogue,

“We resume our Sabbath services this week in circumstances all but unparallel in the history of mankind...The lust to destroy and slay has taken possession of minds hitherto chiefly concerned to heal the hurt of the world and to set the feet of mankind more firmly on the highway of progress. It is a cruel blow to our optimism and our most cherished ideals. It makes us doubt the value, the reality of our civilisation, the fixity of purpose of God himself.”

Joseph went on to argue that our faith should be strong in face of such challenges, but the existential challenges, particularly to those who felt that the world was a romantic place of progress, were very real.

Saperstein suggests that part of the rip at the heart of Rabbis speaking about the First World War - and how could they not speak about the First World War - is that so many had German ancestry themselves.

In a High Holyday sermon in Philadelphia, German-born Rabbi, Joseph Krauskopf shared this;

“Not in the darkest ages of the past has the world been so full of violence, so crimsoned with blood, so smitten with savagery. Our eyes roam over scores of battlefields, our feet stumble against the bodies of thousands of human beings slain, of tens of thousands mangles - slain and mangled by fellow human beings who had never known each other, who had never entertained the slightest ill-feeling against each other... We enter homes from which went forth in the prime of youth and manhood, and in response to the fatherland’s call, husbands and fathers, brothers and sons, who will never, never return, who moulder in some unknown grave or ditch, who have paid with their heart’s blood some diplomat’s blunder, some monarch’s land greed or lust of power.”

Saperstein notes that British Rabbis had found it easier to support the Boer War, American Rabbis, largely from Eastern Europe, had found it easier to support the war against the Spanish.
But this war, the Great War, pitted Jew against Jew.

Rabbi George, Gedaliah, Silverstone, was an Orthodox Rabbi, born in Poland, serving a congregation in Washington

“Whose heart did not throb with agony, whose eyes did not fill with tears, whose blood did not turn cold in his veins upon reading in the newspapers about a Jewish soldier in the Russian army who stabbed with his bayonet a soldier from the Austrian army. The mortally wounded man cried out with his last breath, Shma Yisael Adonai Eloheinu Adonia Ehad’ and with the world echad, his soul departed. When the Russian soldier realised that he had killed one of his brothers, that he had thrust his bayonet into a fellow Jew, he went out of his mind with grief. Alas, alas, that things like this happen in our time.”

Some were even opposed to entering the war. The American Rabbi to a German-speaking congregation, Maurice Harris of Temple Israel of Harlem, argued for civil disobedience in the face of what he saw was unjustifiable militarism;

“How stirred was the civilised world when 1500 persons lost their lives on the Titanic - and now such a loss of life is a daily incident” He called for civil disobedience to keep American out of the War - 22 Sept 1914, “Even when monarchs, bureaucracies and Governments, trained in the militant school, may be hesitant in relegating war to the past, the masses of people must decide for peace. If they decide with an insistent note, “We will not fight,” where is the power of Government to promulgate a war? The old standard set in the Crimean was, ‘Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die,’ must be rejected by the people. They are not pawns, but living beings. Theirs is to reason why. They must ask what right has a Government to plunge the land into war?”

But for the vast majority, especially once war had been declared by the Americans, it was possible to feel conflict about war in general, to feel conflict when the enemy also has Jewish soldiers and still support this war and to support it without equivocation, especially after the attacks on the American ships, the Essex and the Lusitania. And most especially after America formally entered the war. At this point, any suggestion of failing to support their country could have been seen as treacherous, but it’s not just a fear of being labelled disloyal to his homeland that motivates Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the great leader of American Reform Judaism in the early 20th C;     

“We have not gone into the war because of the Lusitania, nor because of any single ferocity of undersea warfare, but because these and similar things represent a type of national mind or rather of governmental theory which will either subdue and conquer the world or be overcome by it. To the task of repressing and of combating this world-menace that nations may again dwell amid security  and all peoples emerge from under the shadow of the destroying sword - we have resolved to dedicate our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honour.”

There is a proud nationalism in these words of the Detroit based Reform Rabbi, Leo Franklin;

The US President’s declaration of war “leaves no doubt as to where this American people stand upon the question of a final settlement with those who have betrayed humanity; that it definitely cuts off all hope that any might have held for the discussion of peace while Germany and her allies occupy an inch of territory that is not rightfully theirs... It says much for the spirit of the American people that it stands to a man squarely behind the President in his decision and that its men and its women are willing to continue their sacrifices of life and of treasure; yes that they would have resented as un-American any other attitude than that which has been taken by the President.”

“The time has passed” he later taught “to ask whether our participation in the war will prolong it or bring it to a more speedy conclusion. It is too late for us to discuss these things now, even if, now that war has been declared. What seems to me to be the case is that this great people have heard what was spoken to our fathers centuries ago “Lo Taamod Al Daam Re’echa” - Thou shall not stand by the blood of your fellow.’ (Lev 19:16)

And later Rabbi Franklin preached “America’s tasks is not so much to bring the blood-thirsty Teuton to his knee as it is to wipe out for all time the possibility for the spread of that Teutonic autocracy.” He wanted German to be “cured of her madness and lifted out of her degradation, to sit once again in the circle of civilisation” but before that was possible, America and her Allies must “win this war, must win it in no indecisive manner and on no terms of compromised, but must win it in such a way that there shall be no doubt henceforth in the mind of any man or in the consciousness of any people that autocracy is dead beyond the possibility of resurrection, that tyranny is destroyed forever from the earth, and that Prussianism, that foul and filthy thing through which the lowest degradation of the human spirit expressed itself, shall never lift its hideous head again”

Powerful words - words it is impossible not to read without weeping for the autocracy that was still to come long after the defeat of Germany in WW1.

I want to conclude with Rabbi Joseph Hertz, as it were, formerly of this parish. Saperstein reports that on the first Sat of 1915 and again in 1916 Hertz and his Sephardi colleague, Hacham Moses Gaster, presumably from just down the road at the Spanish and Portuguese congregation on Lauderdale Rd, held an Intercession Service, a new Minhag-Anglia version of the traditional talmudic Day of fasting and supplication.

These are Hertz’ words from that service - 1st January 1916. May we never have need again of such sermonic bravery and pain.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

On Squirrel Hill and Kristallnacht - Memory and Plurality

Shabbat Shalom

Partic warm welcome to guests; family and friends of Felix in particular.
Usually, if there is a BM, I like to give a sermon that is a little warm and fuzzy and can have everyone going on their way with a spring in their step.
But this isn’t a normal weekend.
And I’m too angry, and too sacred and too in pain to give a warm and fuzzy sermon.

I’m still angry and scared and in pain from the news now two weeks old about the attack on the Synagogue in Squirrel Hill Pittsburgh - no longer the most recent atrocity perpetrated in the United States.
And, frankly, I’m still angry and scared and in pain on this Shabbat marking the 80th Anniversary of Kristallnacht - a night of destruction of Jewish life and property from the darkest ages of our people - 1938 Germany.
I think I would be less angry and less scared about the attacks from two weeks ago and 80 years ago if I didn’t feel what I do about the world of politics.
There would still be pain. Of course, there would still be pain, about the lives lost, and the simple barbarity of destruction.
But I can deal with pain. The pain thing is somehow assimilatable.

It’s the fact that the destruction of 80 years ago and the destruction of two weeks ago resonate off one another, like some wave of energy bouncing between the past and present and threatening to bounce off again into the future.
That’s the thing that makes me so scared, and so angry.
How come we are here?
How come 80 years after we thought we would never again slide into a world of fascist intolerance, a fascism that stirs up and explicitly or implicitly gives a Heter to racist violence and offence, how come we seem to be back here?

How come instead of having reasoned debate and disagreement about the facts that before us we have - country after country - society after society - adopted as argumentative strategies personal abuse and humiliation, dehumanisation and deceit.
How come it’s acceptable to attack a person for their very existence when the thing they say makes us feel uncomfortable.

Yes, of course, I’m talking about President Trump, and Putin in Russia and Orban in Hungary and ah this list is too long.
And, forgive me, but somewhere on this list of political leaders who are prepared to inflame or permit societal hate to secure their own approval and treat opposition as something to be crushed, not something with which to engage, belongs politicians in this country also. And even politicians in the State of Israel.

And here’s the really bad news - imagine you are a political consultant looking to advise someone on how to get power in these febrile times what advice are you going to give? Actually, these wannabe-politicians don’t need consultants to tell them which way to go. They’ve got the message already.

And if it looked, in those hopeful days of the aftermath of Holocaust as if the UN with it Human Rights’ convention and the whole apparatus of international commitments to “never again” were going to work. It doesn’t feel that way today.

And if it looked, in those 8 years in which Obama served as President of the United States, and I don’t care if you are Democrat or a Republican, if it looked for those eight years as though the most powerful country the world has ever seen, had embraced Hope not Hate, it doesn’t feel that way now.

This week I’ve been reading and listening to Sarah Churchwell, author of a new book, Behold America. She points out how triumphalist nationalism, don’t mess with us patriotism and a racism that lurks only just below the surface has never really gone away in America.
American has always thought of itself as the land of the free and home of the brave, and it’s always behaved as a bully taking the lives and the land of whoever came in the way of those who had the might to enforce their sense of right.

I did warn that this was going to be a political sermon.

But the thing that really struck me about America - and America is Ground Zero for this international horror - is how surprised it gets at the same thing happening again. I lived in New York for the five years surrounding 9/11. I saw the stunned amazement of Americans at 9/11. They couldn’t believe they would be attacked. But what was Pearl Harbour? They couldn’t believe it would be so hard to destroy what George Bush called the Axis of Evil. But what was Vietnam?

And the same thing goes for my dear friends in the Jewish community. They couldn’t believe that a Synagogue could be the target of a raging wicked act of antisemitic murder. American Jews feel so at home in America, they can’t imagine themselves as victims of anti-Jewish hatred. They’ve forgotten that General Grant expelled the Jews from the States in 1862. They’ve forgotten the Klu Klux Klan’s invidious Jew-hatred - they should go and watch Spike Lee’s new movie - BlackkKlansman, we all should. I warmly recommend Philip Roth’s Plot Against the Jews. It’s a fiction only a hairs breath away from an entirely plausible past. And today it feels less like some apocalyptic horror show and more like reportage.

Back when I was at Seminary, in New York, we had a class on Mediaeval Jewish History, and the first class of semester was the expulsion of the Jews from England, and the second was the expulsion of the Jews from France, and the third was the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and one of my nice Americal fellow students said something witty about how great it was to be American. And the professor, Dr Benjy Gampel, with the withering scorn of someone who actually knows about history looked down on my colleague and said, ‘If you really think you are so safe in America, you have no understanding of the nature of history.’   

But it’s not just the Americans and not just the Jews.

Anyone else here remembers Gordon Brown announcing the end of the boom-bust cycle?

There is, in us all, a kind of willful amnesia. We don’t want to live in a world where hatred exists, so we imagine we don’t. We don’t want to imagine that it could get worse, so we suppress the knowledge that it ever did.

So what to do?

I want to share two things, two thing I commit myself to, and two things I need your assistance with.

The first thing is we must never forget, we must always memorialise, even as the names are too many and the eyewitnesses too few.
Last week I recited the 11 names of those murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue. This week I want to recite the names of the 2,000 who were murdered, and the 1,000 synagogues destroyed.

I want to count aloud every Mark’s worth of damage that Nazi acolytes caused and Jews had to pay for, on that awful night 80 years ago.
I want to hold up and hand around photos of this destruction from 80 years ago this very weekend,
Together with photos of what German Jewry used to look like, back in the days when German Jews couldn’t imagine anyone othering them - so at home did they feel as full and equal members of German society.

I want to that term, ‘Never Again’ to sound like a question, a fearful and un-easy gnawing in the gut. Because for the term ‘never again’ to sound confident and secure shows, in that phrase of my Jewish history professor, no understanding of the nature of history.
That’s the first thing.
We need to remember and recount and retell so we don’t fall into selective amnesia.

The second thing we all need to do is make the case for the principle of decent society most under threat in this unstable world.
We need to make a much better case for the principle of plurality; the plurality of people and the plurality of ideas.

Too much of the proto-facism of contemporary society is based on an erroneous idea that there are proper members of society and then there are others. And the others don’t really count as full human beings and we would do well to make their life as tough as possible.
And that idea turns my stomach.
It should turn all our stomachs even if we aren’t Jewish ourselves, even if we can trace our ancestry on these isles back to the days of Angles and Saxons and Celts, because if we allow ourselves to drift into becoming a society which doesn’t respect otherness - the plurality of people,  if we allow ourselves to drift into becoming a society which doesn’t recognise that all human beings are equally made in the image of God, and all human beings deserve the same opportunities and chance for a decent life they will eventually come for us.

Eventually, we will all fall foul of being too dark-haired, or too blond or too tall or too short, or too fat or too thin, for we are all too much one thing or not enough another.

Pastor Niemoller wrote in the 1930s

First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

It’s that time already.
If we allow ourselves to slide into a society where difference is not celebrated and protected and promoted, they’ll come for us all.
That’s we plurality of people is so important.

The same thing goes for how we talk, how we debate, how we disagree. Debate, disagreement is good.
It’s how we learn, it’s how we discover things we don’t know. Disagreement isn’t to be disparaged. We need a plurality of ideas. People who take positions that are outside the mainstream are the people who most deserve our respect - they are the most important people in society. They aren’t to be threatened, abused, locked up. They certainly aren’t to be strangled, chopped up and boiled in acid in an Embassy in some foreign land. In what kind of world are we living?

So, do something to promote difference. Give some money to our Drop In Centre for Asylum Seekers, talk to me about getting involved in Citizens UK. Do something.

Promote disagreement, listen harder to those who disagree with you in the hope of learning something you don’t already know. Tell others also to see debate as a good thing.

A belief in plurality isn’t just being nice. It isn’t just a belief in human rights, it’s self-interest - it’s the thing that might, just, save us.

Just don’t forget, and don’t just watch on as decency slides away.
Here’s another thing we learnt 80 years ago.
It’s the bystanders who were, in the end, the people who made the difference.

Don’t be a victim, wrote the great Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer, Don’t be a perpetrator, but, above all, Don’t be a bystander.” — Yehuda Bauer

For as Simon Wiesenthal, camp survivor and Nazi hunter put it

“For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.”

Shabbat Shalom
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