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

Friday, 9 November 2018

In Memory of Kristallnacht

Today marks the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht. We will be hosting a commemorative dinner this evening and I will be speaking on the subject tomorrow. Memorial prayers will be shared at our Shabbat Services. Our commemoration of Remembrance Sunday will be next week and on 25th November.

Speaking about Kristallnacht Simon Schama, shared “You can’t really overstate it’s importance; not because a thousand synagogues were burned or 90 people were killed or twenty thousand people taken off to what were then concentration camps but because it was a theatre for the public.  And once people were humiliated and defiled, and their property was looted and synagogues were burned down and nothing happened except the sound of applause, there was a kind of aha! moment in the core of the Nazi party itself after which … the Final Solution.” These are the spectators watching on as the furnishings of the Mosbach synagogue are burned in the town square.



Treating the burning of Jewish artefacts as a kind of gruesome entertainment, of course, is several steps beyond habituation to the suffering of others. But it is only a matter of steps. First we don’t trust the other. Then we feel bad for their suffering, but fail to protest. Then we no longer feel bad. Then we feel they must deserve their penury. Then we watch on with a sense of falsely placed righteousness. And then ...

There is too much disaster in the news. I know. There is too much suffering. I know. And we are, quite rightly, afraid for our own safety - the memories of last week’s attack in Pittsburgh remain deeply painful. But we dare not, we must not, become habituated to the dehumanisation of humanity, in any form. And we certainly must never gloat at the distress of others.

In a remarkable blog I found this awful article from the Daily Mail of the late 1930s - stateless Jews are “pouring in,” it warned. Taking pride in its vigilance, the un-named ‘Daily Mail Reporter’ takes pride  in pointing out the risks and the possibilities for rebutting and rejecting these “aliens.”



But outrage and opposition to fascism and the trail of human disaster fascism leaves in its wake isn’t enough without a call to action. The New Synagogue in Berlin (saved from destruction on Kristallnacht by a heroic single police officer, Lieutenant Otto Bellgard,) recently hosted an exhibition entitled From the Inside to the Outside: The 1938 November Pogroms in Diplomatic Reports.

“What is noteworthy about the documents,” the curators wrote, “is what they do not contain. The diplomats almost unanimously condemned the murders and acts of violence and destructions. The British described the pogrom as ‘Medieval barbarism’, the Brazilians called it a ‘disgusting spectacle’, and French diplomats wrote that the ‘scope of brutality’ was only ‘exceeded by the massacres of the Armenians’, referring to the Turkish genocide of 1915-1916.  Nevertheless, no country broke off diplomatic relations with Berlin or imposed sanctions, and only Washington recalled its ambassador. Most of all, however, the borders of almost all countries remained largely closed for the roughly 400,000 Jewish Germans.”

Last Shabbat I shared some possible responses to the challenges we face healing contemporary societal fracture and human suffering. I’m proud of the work of our destitute asylum seeker drop in. Every month we provide those who have fled countries under fear of persecution for who they are as human beings, with food, clothing and a small amount of financial support. We stand with them as humans should stand with other humans. To volunteer; to offer time or money or skill, please contact thenlsdropin@gmail.com.

I also spoke about Citizens UK, the organisation behind the Living Wage Campaign and other campaigns designed to heal our society and bring together the diverse centres of engagement in our great city - so many of which are hidden from us, or even feel threatening. I’m proud to be a co-signatory of this letter on the subject, which appeared in last week’s Sunday Times. If you are interested in hearing more about Citizens UK and possibly attending a London Assembly to put questions to Mayor Saddiq Khan, please let me know.

May this never happen again,

(With thanks and appreciation to  Gerry - author of
https://gerryco23.wordpress.com/2013/11/09/kristallnacht-the-nazis-aha-moment/
 

Friday, 19 October 2018

Who Owns the Castle?

At the opening of this week’s Torah reading God calls on Abraham to go, and he goes, and so the story of our people begins.
I have often referred to the famous tale of Abraham in his father’s idol shop, smashing up the idols and being dragged before the local potentate, most recently here But this year my attention has been taken by a more nuanced tale, from Midrash Hagadol.

In this tale, all the wrestling happens within Abraham’s own mind. He is ‘Shotef b’Daato’ roaming in his mind. He is initially attracted by the power of the sun but when it sets he turns to the stars. He gives up on the stars as they disappear before the dawn. He yearns to know if there is something truly ultimate, something which has no causation. The Midrash continues, “To what can this be compared?
To a traveller who saw a tremendous large castle and wanted to enter it. He examined it from, but could find no entry. He called out, but there was no response. Then he lifted up his eyes and saw red woollen cloths spread out on the rood. After that he saw white flaxen cloths. The traveler thought, ‘Surely someone lives in that castle, for otherwise how would the cloths appear and disappear?’ When the owner of the castle saw that he was in distress over this, the owner asked, ‘Why are you in distress? I am the owner of the castle.’”

In later Chasidic thought this Midrash inspires a much-cited teaching about a King hidden in the innermost chamber of a palace. Fine draperies and gold trinkets abound in the outer courtyards and most of those who come to seek the King are distracted by the first piece of sparkle they find and give up on a deeper search. It’s only the truly great seeker who penetrates to the heart of the castle to sit with the King.

The point is that Judaism prizes theological questing (a favourite word of our founder Rabbi). Theology isn’t supposed to be easy. The easy theologies are the stars and the fancy drapes, simple, but dishonest and false. The quest of a source of power that has no causation isn’t a childish vision of a deity on a cloud, it’s stripping back of distractions and accretions. It’s ultimately a belief that there is an owner of the castle, that all this beauty is not without any meaning at all. Talking about God is hard, expecting it to be easy is refuse to consider a true theology at all.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy


Thursday, 4 October 2018

Fackenhiem and Kristallnacht - Talk Given at the opening of the Weiner Library Exhibition 'Shattered'


I was invited to speak at the opening of the new Weiner Library exhibition - Shattered - on Kristallnacht.
Following some initial remarks, this is the body of my talk.

I want to talk about the survivor of Kristallnacht who has had the most powerful impact on how I think about the Holocaust - actually how I think about pretty well everything.

Emil Fackenheim was a post-doctoral student in philosophy in Halle at the time - Halle - the birthplace of Hayden - he writes in his memoirs - also the birthplace of Heydrich - the architect of the Final Solution.

In the afterword to a Festschrift in his honour - published in the 1990s he writes -

On 9th November, 1938 synagogues were set on fire all over Germany. Among the thousands of Jews carried off to concentration camps were my father, my younger brought and I: [Emil was taken to Sachenhausen for three months until he was released and managed to escape first to Scotland, then Canada]: in the big house in Halle, my mother was alone. Our family’s best friends, the Lewins, suggested that she move in with them, and this she did. Why, alone of all Halle’s Jewish males, aged 16 and over, was Curt Lewin untouched? He was protected by his neighbour, none other than [Rudolf] Heydrich, so that for several weeks, my mother lived under the same roof with the coldest, most ruthless, most systematic of all the destroyers.’[1]

I wanted to know more about  Fackenheim’s memories of that fateful night - and where better to come than the Weiner Library. Happily, you have a copy of his memoir - An Epitaph for German Judaism - on your catalogue. Rather unhappily the copy seems to have been lost. In a sad way, it’s a little typical. Fackenheim is remembered - if remembered at all for only one idea, in a book published in 1978. He felt that a book published 16 years later, about a much more powerful idea was the true distillation of over 50 years grappling with the thought-challenge of the Holocaust.

Here’s the problem.

Millions were brutally murdered, babies were thrown, alive, into burning pits. Kristallnacht, in its awfulness, was merely a taste of things to come. The list of horrors is unremitting and uncompromising in its awfulness, and if we - as human beings reveal ourselves of capable of such awfulness - and we have - what is the point of everything.

In this later and pivotal book, To Mend the World, Fackenheim quotes twice this passage from the great Christian existentialist, Soren Kiekergaard. He uses the same the passage again as the epigram in his reply to the articles published in his honour in the Festschrift.

Should we say, ‘There have elapsed now nearly two thousand years since those days, such a horror the world never saw before and never again will see; we thank God that we live in peace and security, that the screams of anguish from those days reach us only very faintly; we will hope and believe that our days and those of our children may pass in quietness unaffected by the storms of existence? We do not feel strong enough to reflect on such things, but are ready to thank God that we are not subjected to such trials.’ Can anything be imagined more cowardly and more disconsolate than such talk? Is then the inexplicable explained by that that it occurred only once in the world? Or is not this the inexplicable, that it did occur? And has not this fact, that it did occur, the power to make everything inexplicable, even the most explicable events.[2]

This is the problem of the Holocaust. If small babies were thrown, alive, into the furnace - and they were[3]... If the awfulness of Kristallnacht was only the precursor of what was to come - and it was... then what is the point? What is the point of any of it all? What’s the point of a Chanukiyah lit to remind Jews of their triumph in a military campaign some 2000 years earlier. What, frankly, is the point of a library to document quite how bad it was and whether it was Franz or Heinz who died on this day or that. Doesn’t everything, Fackenheim is tormented by the notion, lapse into in-authenticity when facing the Holocaust?

That’s a question to make you swallow hard.

Fackenheim suggests his problem is the ‘brute facticity,’[4] of the Holocaust - ‘A spectre haunts my thoughts [he writes] - the spectre of historicism.’[5]

Over there, in that corner, is a scrap of a report from a clandestine resistance organisation, smuggled out of Germany in a shampoo sachet. Does it matter - it didn’t help?
Over there, are the reports of the JCIO, carefully detailing the testimony of those who were there and personally witnessed the destruction of the Holocaust. Does it matter?

If Fackenheim’s first foray in post-Holocaust thought began with the question;

In the face of the Holocaust what should the authentic Jew do and why?[6]

Over the decades that followed his interests shifted to the more inchoate and more universal problem;

Can there ever be an authentic response, in the face of the Holocaust?[7]

To Mend the World is full of historical excurses into the Holocaust. But Fackenheim finds something truly precious in the rubble of the destruction of European Jewry. He finds the very building blocks of a response. Auschwitz brings us all to a halt. But it is not the end of our tale, rather, its beginning. As Fackenheim says;

It is at this point that our going-to-school-with-life … begins in earnest…And only in [the] context of [engaging with the destruction of the Holocaust] can the “central question” of our whole inquiry be both asked and answered.[8]

History provides not only the ‘Q’, but also the ‘A’.

Central to Fackenheim’s commitment to look to the dark places of history until the darkness becomes its own source of possibility. It brings, if not a downright epiphany, then at least its own reward. We have his record of the moment.

[While studying the story of Pelagia Lewinska[9]] I made what to me was, and still is, a momentous discovery: that while religious thinkers were vainly struggling for a response to Auschwitz, Jews throughout the world had been responding all along … with an unexpected will to live – with under the circumstances, an incredible commitment to Jewish group survival.[10]

The answer, claims Fackenheim, was there all along, waiting in history for someone to come and find it.

The evil of the Holocaust world is philosophically intelligible after Auschwitz in the exact sense in which it was already understood in Auschwitz – and Buchenwald, Lublin and the Warsaw Ghetto – by the resisting victims themselves… No deeper or more ultimate grasp is possible for philosophical thought that comes … after the event. This grasp – their grasp – is epistemologically ultimate.[11]

Lewinska, who discovered that in the face of Nazi de-humanisation she felt commanded never to surrender her humanity, becomes the model for the possibility of choosing a path of ‘faithfulness unto death.’[12] The Buchenwald Hasidim, who swapped FOUR rations of bread for a pair of tefilin, become the paradigm for the possibility of retaining categories of commandedness[13] in a post-Auschwitz world. Shimon Dubnov was the greatest historian of hasidism, at the time of the Holocaust. This is Professor Ismar Schorsch, former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary where I received my Rabbinic education,

No Jewish historian ever had a greater impact on his time than Simon Dubnov. He died at the hands of the Nazis in Riga in December 1941 at the age of 81. Because he was too frail and infirm to deport, they shot him in the ghetto. Those who witnessed the murder reported that Dubnov's last words were, "Jews, write it down." And they did, in Kovno, Warsaw, Lodz and elsewhere. In his spirit, Jews organized collective and clandestine efforts to record the terrifying faces of the Final Solution. Unarmed and unaided, they found solace in assembling the evidence that would one day convict their mass murderers in the court of human history. Dubnov died as he had lived, devoted to the power of historical consciousness.[14]

Fackenheim would say Dubnow - and those unnamed heroes who dedicated their lives, sometimes quite literally, to documenting the Holocaust from within the Holocaust - within the thing itself - did something else, they justified documentation as an authentic response to the brute facticity of the Shoah.

It’s not that these heroes of research and record thought that they could undo the horrors of the Holocaust, and certainly not that they didn’t know exactly what was going on. They knew the futility of their action and were aware of their all-but-certain-death; ‘they knew it, but they did it.’[15] This, claims Fackenheim, was holy, authentic and meaningful. And whereas before this epiphany we feared there could be no authentic response in the face of the rupture of such horror, once an archetypal reaction is discovered to be authentic the path is open for other possible responses. Notwithstanding the futility of life and the failure of piety and the certainty of death in our contemporary existence, we too are capable of achieving holiness, authenticity – even meaning.

My heart was struck by the wonderful testimonies, over there, and collected in that wonderful volume - honour to recognise the work of Ruth Levitt and so many others associated with the Library in its production.

Fackenheim uses a very Jewish term for the category of an authentic response to the utter catastrophe of the Holocaust. The term is Tikkun - it means to mend or repair, but he means it very specifically in the context of Lurianic Kabbalah

Tikkun follows Shvirah.
Brokenness - I wonder - and if you can find the copy of Fackenheims Epitaph to German Jewry, I would love to come back and check - I wonder if the brokenness of that awful night of broken glass close on 80 years ago may be more integral to the thought of this bravest of thinkers on the Holocaust than has been so far realised.

That brings me back to this wonderful Chanukiayh - the point about a flame is that it is fragile. We don’t light a flame at Chanukah - and the family of Helen especially - don’t light a flame because we know it is always going to be OK in the end. We light it, authentically, because we know of the fragility and the brokenness. And we still believe in the light that can be shed. For that authentic refusal to surrender to the awfulness of the darkness, of the darkness of that night - and the darkness of everything that followed - I gain huge succour. So to you all, thank you.





[1] P.254-255
[2] P. 251, attributed to Kierkegaard, Either/Or (1959) II pp 344 ff
[3] Cited in Emil Fackenheim, To Mend the World: Foundations of Future Jewish Thought (New York: Schocken, 1982), hereafter MW, p. 212. Op cit p.340 n. 15 offers a fuller bibliographic citation for this testimony.
[4] F. German Philosophy & Jewish Thought ed Greenspan & Nicholson, A Reply to My Critics p.276
[5] p.274
[6] The driving question of Emil Fackenheim, God’s Presence in History (New York, Harper & Row, 1970), hereafter GPH.
[7] The driving question of MW. This framework is based on Morgan’s “The Central Problem of Fackenheim’s To Mend The World” Journal of Jewish Thought (1996) 5:297-312 at p. 299.
[8] MW 23-24.
[9] Auschwitz survivor and author of Twenty Months At Auschwitz (London, Lyle Stuart Inc., 1968)
[10] Emil Fackenheim, The Quest for Past and Future (Bloomington, IN, Beacon, 1968) pp. 19-20
[11] MW p. 248.
[12] GPH p. 74, see discussion of Lewinska in MW pp25, 217, 219, 223, 229, 248, 302.
[13] Though the notion of commandedness is clearly central for Fackenheim he does not advocate the wholesale importation of pre-Modern Halachic norms into a post-Holocaust world. The notion that the ‘religious Jew who has stayed with his God may be forced into new, possibly revolutionary relationships with Him’ is a central tenant of Fackenheim’s self-claimed canonical statement of the Commanding Voice of Auschwitz, GPH p. 84. See discussion of the Buchenwald Hasidim in MW pp.218, 223, 229, 254 & 303.
[15] MW 266-267.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Yizkor - Philip Roth, Fleshy Existence and Life Everlasting


There are some wonderful people I miss. It’s been a hard year of accompanying members mourning in this community. And to those who have lost loved ones this past year, I offer, again, my wishes for consolation and comfort.

And then there’s Philip Roth. I never met Philip Roth. I don’t know if I would have liked him if I did. But he was - still is - one of the most powerful writers I’ve ever encountered.

Everyman isn’t one of his best-known works, but it’s the one that speaks most clearly today.

Everyman, is the name of a shop owned by the book’s protagonist. It sells diamonds.
We are told the shop’s founder, our hero’s father, chose the name ‘Everyman’ because he wants every man to feel they can buy a diamond, the father believes in diamonds.

‘It’s a big deal for working people to buy a diamond,’ the father tells his son, ‘no matter how small. When the wife wears it, this guy is not just a plumber – he’s a man with a wife with a diamond. Because, beyond the beauty, the diamond is imperishable. A piece of the earth that is imperishable’

Buy a diamond and become imperishable. Buy a diamond and live forever.
Everyone, says the shop-sign, Everyman, can do it.

Roth is, of course, playing with us.
None of us lives forever.
And the real truth of ‘Everyman’ is rather our inevitable mortality.
Just as the contents of the book chart not immortality but the journey of a man into death.
Mortality is the reality of ‘Everyman,’ diamonds or no diamonds.

So on this day, at this time when we stand remembering those who have gone before us, who have passed away.
We bump up against our mortality.
And I ask this question -

Of what purpose is life?

I want to offer two models.
The first is Roth’s prescription for the ‘best of life.’
The second is a more religious, Jewish way of approaching our own inevitable Everyman moment.

Roth is not a man of faith.
He might write like an angel, but when he looks to understand the question, ‘what purpose is life?’ he has nowhere, other than life itself, to go.
Roth’s Everyman thinks that the best that life gets to offer is the memories of the glories of our own temporary existence.
And in the most important moment in the book, Roth’s Everyman looks back on his own youth and speculates that the memories of youthful pleasures are ‘as good as it gets.’
This burst of memory is ultimate for Roth’s Everyman.

I want to share an extended extract from the book, a pivotal extract which expresses what is, for Roth, the very heart of existence.

‘Maybe the best of old age was … the longing for the best of boyhood, for the tubular sprout that was then his body and that rode the waves from way out where they began to build,
rode them with his arms pointed like an arrowhead and the skinny rest of him following behind like the arrow’s shaft,
rode them all the way into where his rib cage scraped against the tiny sharp pebbles and jagged clamshells and pulverized seashells at the edge of the shore
and he hustled to his feet and hurriedly turned and went lurching through the low surf until it was knee high and deep enough for him to plunge in and begin swimming madly out to the rising breakers
– into the advancing green Atlantic, rolling unstoppably toward him like the obstinate face of the future – and,
if he was lucky, make it there in time to catch the next big wave and then the next and the next and the next until, from the low slant of inland sunlight glittering across the water he knew it was time to go.
He ran home barefoot and wet and salty, remembering the mightiness of that immense sea boiling in his own two ears and licking his forearm to taste his skin fresh from the ocean and baked by the sun.
Along with the ecstasy of a whole day being battered silly by the sea, the taste and the smell intoxicated him so that he was driven to the brink of biting down with his teeth to tear out a chunk of himself and savour his fleshy existence.'[1]

The best of life, says Roth, is remembering the times we threw ourselves at the breakers, intoxicated with the ‘ecstasy of a whole day being battered silly by the sea.’ The purpose of life is its own ‘fleshy existence,’

It’s a sensational piece of writing.
But I don’t share the outlook on the best that life can be.
It’s too shallow, too selfish, ultimately too lonely.
I wish I could write even half as well, but I want no part in the theology.
Because I know there is more than this.
For Roth, savouring fleshy existence is ultimate.
And I claim he is wrong.
There is something more.

As many of you know, I practice Yoga.
I enjoy it, it’s good for me. It’s good for my Rabbinate.
But every now and again, I get a little jealous of my Yoga teachers.
Much of Yoga, like much of Roth, brings our consciousness to the ‘this world,’ to the now, to the moment.

And while I am twisted deep into one asana or another and while my teachers are busy instructing me to bring my consciousness to this moment and this world, I keep getting weighed down by all the Jewish stuff.
I reach my hands out towards the sun and feel weighed down by all the mitzvot, and the books, God help me, the books.
And Jewish books are heavy.

And the memories, they weigh even more heavily than the books; memories of ’73 and ’67 and ’39 -’45. And older than those memories, memories of ’92 - 1492 Colombus sailed the ocean blue and the Jews were expelled from Spain, and 70 – not 1970, not 1870, the year seventy – when the temple was destroyed.
And memories of Sinai and Egypt and the binding of Isaac.
My memories are heavier than my books.

And the mitzvot – the obligations – the whole fabric of thou shalts and thou shalt nots.
The more uniquely Jewish obligations of tefilin and kashrut and Shabbat and
The more universal obligations to my family and friends –
You shall honour your father and mother,
I am my beloved and my beloved is mine,
You shall repeat these words to your children,
- And the obligations to the stranger
You shall not wrong the stranger.
The obligations, the mitzvot – weigh heavily.

I’m a Jew.
I don’t travel light; I schlep with me my stories, my memories, my obligations and values.
It gets a little heavy, every now and again.

So after one Yoga class, I was feeling particularly weighed down and my teacher mentioned that their guru was coming into town. He was hosting an evening, would I like to come?
I Googled the guru.
The video clip twinkled into life on my computer screen and a white bearded cheery looking man spoke out
‘Live life moment to moment,’ opined the guru,
‘You need to let go of everything you think you know,’
‘The only way you will be happy and have fun is if you stay in the moment. One tiny thought about the past or future and you are lost.’
It was Roth speak.

I had been invited to an evening dedicated to ‘savouring our fleshy existence.’
And I was tempted.
It was, after all, going to be lighter than another evening with my books, my memories and my obligations.
I was going to go,
I wasn’t planning on giving up the Judaism thing, I just wanted to ease off on all this weight and ‘savour my fleshy existence.’

And then someone died.
A member of this community.
And instead of going to an evening with the Guru of ‘fleshy existence’ I picked up the phone and went to visit, to comfort – just like so many other members of the community – and, being the Rabbi, I prepared for the funeral and the shiva and all the weighty rituals that accompany the end of a life.
But they didn’t feel heavy any more.
They felt desperately valuable. For the family, but also for me.
For there we stood.
At the Cemetery at Cheshunt, this family – of relatives and friends, members of this community and other communities.
And we were joined, standing around the coffin, by all the memories.
And all the obligations; the Jewish obligations and the simple obligations.
There was an ancient Exodus, and a new-born grandchild.
And a husband whose love had stood firm through horrible illness.
And colleagues and friends and members of this Shul, and other shuls, and no shul.
And we stood around the coffin.
We stood around the life that had gone as if we were part of a mould, a cast.
A cast of a life – forming a structure, around the hollow where their life should have been
And together we carried the weight, a little unevenly, it must be admitted, those closest to coffin carrying most - but we carried the weight together.
The life had ended, but the weight was still very present.
As it is today.
And the weight doesn’t feel heavy anymore.
It dances a little, at least sometimes.
It tutt-tutts as we fall short of the values that we should be living up to.
And it smiles when we show each other the sort of kindness that our friend would have wanted.
And it makes me know that life has meaning beyond savouring our fleshy existence.
Reminding me that there is more to life than running after waves.
Reminding me that I am part of a narrative that will outlive me.
For long after the fleshy existence is over, the weight; the responsibilities and values, the stories will live on.

Defying mortality.
Defeating mortality.

And this is the Jewish way.
Our teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote powerfully about death.
‘Our hope for eternity,’ he said, ‘presupposes there is something about [us] that is worthy of eternity.’
I want to put it more strongly.

We get to live forever, we get to transcend death, if we live suitably weighty lives.
When we transcend selfishness, when we allow the needs of others to become our responsibilities.
When we live well in the shadow of responsibilities we inherit from our parents – to whom we owe our lives – and their parents and their parents.
When we fold our stories into the great cosmic journey of our people we get to live beyond our finite fleshy existence.

The way we live with our obligations lifts us beyond mortality.
The way we approach our obligations is our key to eternity.

We don’t need a leap of faith to reject Roth’s case for the supremacy of ‘fleshy existence.’
We need only to turn to the weight we carry with us, today, to this service of loss and memory.
We each arrive here today carrying the weight of memory of parents, friends, family, loved ones. And we are all heartbroken by their loss.
We are saddened, but we are also lifted.
The fleshy existence is no more – and we miss it – of course we do.
But the values live on.
We need only to turn to our own memories of those we have loved and lost to know this to be true. These responsibilities remain alive, in us, for as long we let them dance still.
As long as we live up to their challenge to do better, to care more, to love more deeply.
Our beloved dead live on.
And they challenge us too to live beyond our time on this fragile planet.
They challenge us too, to a life beyond our fleshy existence.

May that time not come for us for many years, but come it will, as it comes for Everyman.
And on that day, when our friends and families stand around our own coffin they will carry the cast of our fleshy existence, the mould made out of the values and responsibilities by which we are to be judged.
And, if we merit it, this weightiness will triumph over mortality.
If we merit it, this weightiness will teach yet again, of that which we know when we think of our own departed loved ones,
It will teach that while fleshy existence rots in the earth, our values and responsibilities will live forever.
And indeed this is the answer to the question of what purpose is there to our lives.

For the memory of our beloved departed is more than a blessing.
It is such stuff as immortality is made on.





[1] Pp 126-7
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