Thursday, 18 January 2018

Where To Go When You Can’t Stay

This is the week when the Children of Israel finally depart slavery. At first, they experienced joy in Egypt, that turned to oppression, and now they are off. What awaits them? The first place the Children of Israel head to is ‘Succot.’ It’s a strange word to find at this point in the Biblical narrative. We don’t have any archaeological record of a physical place called Succot. But we do, of course, have a deep religious connection to the term. Succot are booths of temporary dwelling. They are precarious and unsafe, but they hold the promise of arriving in some new land.

The existential psychologist Claes Janssen talks about a ‘Four Room’ theory of change and growth. The first room, he suggests, is lovely. It’s perfect for us, comfortable and exciting. This is the initial experience of the Hebrews in Egypt in the time of Joseph. But then something happens and we are forced to leave this comfort. There is a one-way door from the first room into the second and there is no going back. The second room - the one we find ourselves forced to enter - is awful. It’s uncomfortable. Nothing feels right. It is deeply disturbing and all we want to do is head back to the first room. But that is impossible. This is the experience of oppression under the ‘new’ Pharoah and then in the Succot in the desert - we continually pined for a return to Egypt - the first room - but that return isn’t possible and instead, we grumble, grouse, protest and revolt. Eventually, a new door appears in the second room. It heralds a new beginning, but it’s impossible to stay in this third room for long. Janssen suggests the door between the second and third room revolves. This is the experience of the Children of Israel in the desert in those moments when they get the possibility of freedom, praising God who brought them out of Egypt ...  before building a Golden Calf, committing themselves to a covenantal relationship with God ... before failing. Again and again. Only after time, and with pain, do we find the ability to hold on in the third room for longer and longer. We learn how to hold ourselves from spinning back into the second room.

Then, finally, the door to the fourth room becomes apparent. In the fourth room, there is our future. It’s new, there’s hope and possibility. The fourth room is the Promised Land. “If only,” we pine, “we could have found this fourth room at the beginning of our journey our lives would have been so much easier.” But no. Somehow, for some purpose we cannot understand, we cannot move from first room to fourth room without the journey through rooms two and three. We cannot get from Egypt to Israel without the Succot.

To all of us bounced from our comfort into a difficult second room, my deepest sympathies. To all of us spinning between the possibility of a future and continued discomfort, my blessings of fortitude, patience and hope. No journey to the promised land is possible without spending time in Succot. It has always been thus.

Shabbat shalom

Monday, 15 January 2018

Abraham Joshua King, Martin Luther King Jnr and the Accident of Birth

One of my greatest spiritual inspirations is Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Here’s in a picture with his good friend Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jnr

Heschel was born in a Hasidic family. He was expected to become a Rabbi. And he became a Rabbi, also with a PhD. He survived the Holocaust because he ended up in America, as a professor at the Seminary where I studied for the Rabbinate.
King was born in a Baptist family. He was expected to become a Baptist preacher and he became a Baptist preacher, also with a PhD and became the greatest human rights hero of in the history of the United States of America.

The two men met on the 14th January 1963 - almost exactly 55 years ago to the day at a conference in Chicago on Religion & Race at a time when racial tensions in the States were high. The conference opened with a statement from JFK and then Heschel spoke.

This is how he started his speech.

Speech to conference on, “Religion and Race” (14 January 1963)
At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ words were: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me.” While Pharaoh retorted: “Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.” The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a [black man] to cross certain university campuses.

It’s an extraordinary speech. I love it for a couple of reasons. More than two, but I’m going to share two today.

I love it because it reminds me how quickly humans forget this story - the story we read today, in this Shul, and in Synagogues the world over.  Every year we tell the story of the oppression of a people - our people - by another people who forgot all the good we could do and focussed only on how scary it was to have a different people among them. Every year we remind ourselves, and frankly the whole world, of how quickly we invent supposed sins committed by those ‘not quite like everyone else’

It reminds me that human beings are quick to invent some meaningless supposed sin of people who are unlike everyone else - the supposed sin of being a Jew, the supposed sin of having black skin, the supposed sin of ....

So this is how I’m defining racism - to treat two people different because of an accident of birth is racist; whether that accident of birth resulted in different colour skin, different gender, different anything. There is no justification for treating people differently because of an accident of birth.

Well, it’s kicked off again, just this week.
There are reports that the President of the United States rejected a bi-partisan plan to bring child refugees to America with language I cannot repeat, but he seems to have rejected the plan because the people who are fleeing to America are coming from poor countries like Haiti. It’s not a sin to come from a poor country. It’s not a sin to come from a country visited by earthquakes and hurricanes, and beset with political instability. The stories of the destruction of Haiti should move us to empathy, not disdain.

You are not better than a Haitian because you were born into wealth and health. You are better, or worse, than the next person because of how you treat others, frankly, how you treat the poor and wretched most of all, frankly, how you treat the poor and wretched you don’t particularly feel drawn to treat well. It’s us, the wealthy, healthy inhabitants of what we like to call the free world, who get judged on an issue like this. Not the people born in Haiti, and Congo and Syria and the like.
We are not better than Haitians because we had the fortune to be born here. It’s not a sin that they were born there.

Here’s Heschel again.

Religion and race. How can the two be uttered together? To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God’s beloved child. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity.

The sad news is that racism remains present, even 55 years after the Chicago conference. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Race remained present even 1300 years after the conference in Egypt - the one with Pharaoh and Moses.

Of course Black Lives Matter, of course it’s appalling that black men have a likelihood of being shot - shot even by police who are supposed to be guardians of justice - crossing the road far, far, far higher than white men. Even 55 years after Heschel pointed out
“it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a [black man] to cross certain university campuses.”

That’s the first reason I love this speech. It reminds me how much we need to do to combat and oppose and challenge racist language and behaviour - language and behaviour that suggests one person is better or worse than another and deserving of different treatment simply because of an accident of their birth.

But here’s the other thing.

I love A.J. Heschel, and this speech particularly because it’s a reminder of what we need religion for, in this day and age, in a time when we’ve learnt to peer into the very earliest moments of the big bang and have learnt to split atoms and genes and become so very very clever.
I love A.J. Heschel and this speech in particular because it’s a reminder that religion can play a role in changing people’s hearts - in fact, it’s probably the greatest source of anyone changing their mind in the history of humanity.

Here we all are, in our silos - we know what we know and we like to surround ourselves with people who agree with us. We select the newspapers that agree with us. We curate out Facebook and Twitter feeds to echo the thoughts in our mind. And we are pro-Brex-this or anti-Brex-that. And we if we let different voices into our private echo chambers at all, we congratulate ourselves on our liberality, as we scoff at those people who have the temerity to think differently from ourselves and go back to reinforcing whatever opinions we have already decided are correct.

When we discount religion, when we no longer listen hard enough to the stories like the great story of Exodus, when we no longer spend enough time in Synagogues and other places of religion, when we no longer make space in our lives for God, we get to a place where human beings are the most important things there are. And that’s not completely errant, but it's woefully insufficient.

If we lock religion out of our lives I am left with just me. And if you disagree with me, in a world without religion, who is to say that I’m not right? Who’s to say that I have to listen to you?  If we stop listening to the voice of religion who is to say that one lot of people aren’t, indeed, more important than another lot of people. Who’s going to jab their finger at us and call us to account for the times we’ve treated different human beings as being of different worth.

Here’s the religious take on race - all humanity is created in the image of God, white skinned, black skinned, yellow skinned, male female, gay, straight, poor or rich ... who is to say, say the Rabbis, that your blood is redder, perhaps their blood is redder?

The thing about religion is that it puts us all in second place, as human beings, behind a God who is our creator in whose image we are all pale reflections. And I don’t care if you understand gene splicing or the big bang, if that makes you confused as to whether you are really the most important creation in this world. Because you are not. I am not. None of us is.

We need religion to remind us an existential humility, we need religion to remind us of how insidious it is to treat another human being as worse less than us. We need religion to remind us that even if we do behave in ways that are subtly racist, God still sees, God still knows and God still records.

In fact that’s the very point of religion - to stand above us and point out our falling short. And I know that that is not very trendy in this, I’m alright, you’re alright world.

But the truth is we need religion today more than ever. More than ever it matters that I do not consider I am the most important person in the world - when the costs and the dangers of seeing other people as less important than me are so huge - when the costs and dangers of seeing the world around me as there only for me to use and abuse it.

We need to learn how to place ourselves below the level of God. We need to learn we are all children of God. We need to learn that our responsibilities, as Jews, as humans, are greater than our claims to be in control of our destiny. We need a humility. That’s what religion teachers.

In our faith, you get up on the morning and the first words on your lips should be ‘Modeh Ani Lefanecha’ - I am grateful God for the gift of another day alive. That should make you think before you oppress another before you place yourself above another.

Let me leave the last words with A J Heschel

Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking. Perhaps [Heschel went on, reflecting on the conference on Religion and Race to which he had been invited] this Conference should have been called “Religion or Race.” You cannot worship God and at the same time look at man as if he were a horse.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Ten Years at New London - Thinking of the Future

Somewhere, gathering dust in a filing cabinet in my office - who uses filing cabinets anymore? - is my contract of employment with its defined ‘commencement date of 1 January 2008.
This Shabbat marks my tenth anniversary as Rabbi of New London.

I used to look like this


And as I was thinking of what to share this Shabbat, sat, it must be admitted, around a very nice swimming pool in a far away warm place, I was reflecting on the last decade at New London. I was going to do a sermon on the past ten years.

There was going to be a reference to the conversation I had with a longstanding member who, my having gone up to him to wish him a Shabbat Shalom, told me I had ruined the shul. Thanks.

As well as some of the more positive feedback, I do get a lot of positive feedback - thank you also.
And the sorts of things that are less dependent on the whims of individuals. The numbers, particularly the numbers of younger members, the nature of the community today and the evolving journey that has been our path these last ten years.

There are areas where we are weaker, but many, frankly, far more areas, where we are stronger and more vibrant as a community than has been the case for many many years. I’m well supported by both professional and lay colleagues, but I take a pride in this past decade’s work.

And then I got into some conversations with another of the Jews on the resort. There were a lot of Jews on the resort - they even had Chanukah themed tinsel.
Ari Wallach is a futurist. I don’t really know what that means either. But he’s got a Ted Talk up there with over a million views, and he’s a bright guy and he suggested that instead of my looking back ten years at my time at New London up to now, I should look 50 years forwards. Maybe that’s why he gets paid the big futurist buck.

Ari’s Ted talk features references to Plato and Heidegger and the rest of the great canon of Western philosophical thought but, as he shared, his approach is impeccably Jewish. The problem with the great philosophers is that they all take, as a unit of measure for their reality of what it meant to be virtuous and good, a single lifespan, from birth to death.
And it turns out that that kind of length isn’t enough to deal with the sort of challenges we face as a people, frankly as a human race. Ari suggests that in order deal with the really big challenges that face us we need, what he calls, ‘transgenerational thinking.’

A bit like this passage from Talmud, Masechet Taanit

One day Honi was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree; he asked him, How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit? The man replied: Seventy years.
He asked him: How do you know you will live another seventy years?
The man replied: I found trees in the world; as my ancestors planted trees for me so I too plant for my children.
Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept a rocky enclosed him and hid him from sight and he slept for seventy years.
When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and he asked him, Are you the man who planted the tree? The man replied: I am his grandson.
Honi exclaimed: It is clear that I slept for seventy years.

The problem with not thinking transgenerationally, says Ari, is that you end up sandbagging. Sandbagging deals with symptoms - it will stop the waters coming into the house - but it doesn’t deal with causes - it won’t stop the waters rising. In fact, worse than that, the more you deal with challenges by sandbagging the higher the waters will continue to rise until ... well, you get the picture.

So, how do you think transgenerationally? Says Ari you need an end goal, a Telos. You need a vision of what the future looks like.

So where will be in 50 years time? What does our future look like, as a Jewish community here - at a time when most us will have passed away. What’s the goal?

Here are three things that are on my mind when I think of the tree I want to leave for those who will come after me.

Judaism Will Be Driven by That Which is Felt to be Meaningful
Growing up there were a bunch of reasons to be committed to Judaism; Antisemitism was a big driving force in Jewish commitment. Who here remembers Fackenheim’s 614th Commandment ‘Don’t hand Hitler a posthumous victory?
Linked to that was a certain kind of Zionism predicated on Israel’s fragile existence. Just about my earliest Jewish memory is accompanying parents at a blood drive to support Israeli soldiers injured in the Yom Kippur War.
I know that antisemitism is still a danger. I know that Israel still faces an existential threat.
But these things don’t drive commitment to Judaism today. And I don’t think they will in 50 years time either.
Even more challenging is the disappearance of stickiness in general culture, and Jewish culture also. It used to be that you would have one job for life, one bank account, one GP. That you would join one shul for life probably the same shul as your parents because that’s just what you did, back then. Everything moves so much more quickly today. We can’t and shouldn’t rely on people retaining a relationship with Judaism because of a kind of stickiness that is no longer a part of contemporary culture.

The same can be said for a bunch of other drivers of Jewish engagement of years' past; ‘guilt,’ 'parental pressure,' ‘chicken soup,’ and ‘don’t marry a non-Jew’ aren’t cutting it and won’t cut it into the future. 

I don't think even God is going to going to drive Jewish affiliation in the future. Our members are hungry for what I call existential engagement, they want to find meaning beyond the mundane, but telling people to care about Judaism because God wants them to do this isn’t going to drive future engagement - so I won’t.

Judaism’s future will be dependent on whether Jews, and those in love with Jews find Judaism meaningful in their own lives and the lives of their children.

Jews will engage with Shabbat if they find meaning in stepping back from a society which elevates chasing material consumption above all else, and if the pathways of Shabbat help a person connect to that sense of meaning. That might mean Friday night dinners with those closest to us, with our data streaming devices turned off, become more significant, and it might mean that some of the classic forbidden Melachot associated with the Talmudic understanding of Shabbat become less significant. So be it.

Jews will come to Shuls like this one if they find meaning in coming together, to celebrate together and mourn together and sing together as young and old, rich and poor, healthy and infirm. And prayers of our Shul, the experience of prayer, will need to lift up a person’s soul to an engagement with that which is beyond the humdrum, profane, cacophony of the day-to-day business of our lives.
Jewish prayer, if it is to thrive in a community like ours, will need to be a point of personal connection and meaning. That’s likely to mean shorter services, more tunes that people enjoy singing along to and liturgical decision making driven by what draws people towards a feeling of connection. It’s likely to mean less concern about being ‘completist’ and less liturgy being done because ‘it ought to be done.’ So be it.

It may well be that different people, in the future, will connect with observance at different levels. It might not make sense, in the future, to consider that there is only one way to observe Shabbat, with all other paths being deemed hypocritical and false. That’s going to take a generation or two to work through the system, perhaps, but in many ways we - you - are probably there already. It’s the leadership - me - that needs to play catch up.

That probably sounds quite different from how Judaism was discussed by our grandparents. It’s a little scary, I’m a little scared, but I’m not interested in sandbagging. Not today, anyway.

And besides, I have tremendous faith in what we have - in our arsenal of religious responses to the challenges of today, and even the challenges of tomorrow.
And that brings me to a second point.

Judaism of Fifty Years Time Will Function as a Lever for our Engagement with the World Around Us
When I say lever, I’m thinking of Archimedes. ‘Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it and I shall move the world.’
The ideas, the rituals, the pathways of Jewish religious creativity are levers long enough to move us and move our engagement with the world and the people in it.
We have such richness in our tradition.
You want to know how a people can arrive in a strange land and find a way to thrive not only as citizens but also while remaining distinct and confident in our own identity - ask a Jew. That’s our national story.
You want to know how and why societies struggle with new arriving peoples - ask a Jew again. We know that story also.
You want to know how to fight for justice, stand up for humanity, strive for truth - all the rest of it? Ask a Jew. We’ve plenty of experience and plenty of resources.
You want ways of thinking about being a consumer of all that is wonderful in the world, and simultaneously serving as a servant and guardian of a fragile ecosystem?
You want to know how to face mortality, bereavement or sickness - your own or that of those you love?
As vast as the list of challenges of tomorrow appears, the responses of our faith are greater.
Look into the Jewish canon of liturgy, ritual and response. We have such levers to lift the world.
Others might do it as well, but I don’t know of anyone, any faith, any doctrine, philosophy or approach that does it better.
Such long levers.

Judaism is a way of living better lives staggeringly well attuned to the challenges of today - and tomorrow. We need to be more articulate about that, more proud about that.
We need to teach that.

And if, on these journeys, through the depths and wisdom of our faith there are those areas of Jewish life that simply cannot handle the challenges of tomorrow. Well, so be it. We need not be held paralysed by the totality of a tradition occasionally no longer fit for the current day when there is so much goodness there.

We’ve always found ways to grow and evolve, we’ve always found ways to quietly drop those parts of Judaism that cannot be carried into the future, be that the sacrificial system or the doctrine of murdering a stubborn and rebellious child. We have the tools to allow for our evolution. It’s going to be OK.

How do you work out which bits to hang on to, and which bits to let go?
It’s not, it can’t be, that we become superficial. When I say that Judaism will survive through that which is meaningful, I don’t mean that we should junk anything that doesn’t speak to us immediately.
Anything good takes work, takes commitment.
We need to fight the good fight to help our members understand the value of commitment. You aren’t going to experience the full richness of Judaism while standing on one leg. We need to find ways to draw people in and then give them the confidence and the tools to dig deeper, find a way to out-perform the siren calls of the social media world that suggests that everything has to be communicable in 140 characters, even when we know that that is untrue. We know that the more we skim through our lives the less far we travel. We know we need depth. Judaism has to place itself as an answer and a training for that deeper more committed quest.
We need to help people want to find the long levers of our faith.

And here’s the third thing about Judaism 50 years hence.

It needs to be open to all
We’re actually pretty good at one piece of this - converts.
Back in the bad old days converts would be routinely embarrassed and distrusted as ‘proper’ Jews.
I think that’s pretty much gone here. Certainly, without our converts, we would be a far, far weaker community than we are today.
But there is far more to do in terms of engaging those who were traditionally shunned by formal Jewish communities.
More than simply say we are being welcome, we need to shift and change the way we do things to embed a sense of welcome in our community.
It’s not a matter of tolerating those who would have found themselves at the edges of Jewish society 50 years ago. We need to make every Jew feel they are at the heart of Jewish life. No-one is interested in being put-up-with. You do that to a Jew, and they’ll just walk away. We need leaders for our future.

As members of a broader society, we are increasingly sensitised to difference, and the values of difference. It becomes increasingly impossible to hide Judaism away from a journey toward a more radical inclusivity. We aren’t a community to hide - certainly not a community to hide from our own future.

It’s increasingly impossible to claim that women can’t and shouldn’t be expected to do the same things as men in any environment, rightly so. The idea that, thinking transgenerationally, there is a future for a non-egalitarian Jewish community outside of orthodoxy strikes me as impossible.

And whether we’re talking about Jews of colour or Jews who are only attracted to others of the same-sex, or Jews who are in committed relationships with non-Jews. Even the categories we are still getting our heads around; the non-binary, trans-this and trans-that Jews - we need to demonstrate we are open to all; celebrating difference and diversity publically and fearlessly because we believe, ultimately, in the value of every human being as created in the image of God.

Members of a society who have traditionally been excluded are attuned to whether they - we are being genuinely welcomed or merely tolerated.
There’s more work to be done, here.
If we want to be genuinely committed to this openness we need to get faster at change. A little scary, I know, even for those who intellectually agree with this as an agenda. And I know we do not all accept this as an agenda.

But the challenge of Jewish life is to think like the man who planted the carob tree. To serve as a Rabbi of a community like this, to be a member of a community like this, is not to be a sandbagger, but rather to be a planter of trees for the future.
A future I believe in, and with your support, will work to bring to fruition.

Shabbat shalom
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