Friday, 9 March 2018

Religion, The Easy Life and Beggars on the Streets of London

In a few moments I’m going to do something some of you will find a little scary.
I’m going to ask you to close your eyes.

Sorry - don’t worry, I’m not going to take you on a guided meditation or even ask you pray. I’m just going to ask some questions and I want you to feel you can answer without worrying about anyone else looking at you and thinking worse, or better of you, based on your answers.

So, I’m walking the streets of the London and I see this. 

We’ve all seen this, really so much of this, that it sometimes feels like the only way get down the pavement is to close your eyes to this.
But there’s this man - a human being - kneeling on the pavement with a sign - the sign says, ‘hungry, please help, God bless you.’ And he’s right in the middle between where I’m hurrying from and where I’m hurrying to.

And here are my questions. Don’t worry you don’t have to shut your eyes yet.
·       How many of you stop either all the time, some of the time, almost never, and absolutely never?
·       And for those of you who stop, how many of you share words, or money, or something else - maybe food.
·       And for those of you who don’t stop how many of you don’t stop because you don’t trust that this person deserves some of your hard earned money?

You got it, OK, I’ll repeat the questions, if you shut your eyes - no peeking.

I’ll get back to this shortly, but I want to look at something that happened in the Torah reading today. Because it’s a terrific illustration of one of the things that people who aren’t religious get wrong most often about religion.

The thing people who aren’t religious tend to get wrong is that they say religious people do religion because it makes it somehow easier for us. So the story goes, religion gives religious people simple answers, and we religious people abdicate our own sense of morality because we’ve replaced thinking for ourselves with ticking religious boxes.

Well it’s nonsense. I mean there might be some religious people who do that, and even some religions that do that, but it’s nonsense when it comes to Judaism.

Let me share how even the Bible itself knows that this is nonsense. It’s clear right from the verses Ariella shared so beautifully today. For weeks we’ve been reading about the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, how it’s going to be built, who’s going to build it, what’s going in it, what people should wear when they work in it. And finally, it’s ready. And it’s dedicated and ... nothing happens.
וּכְבוֹד יְהוָה, מָלֵא אֶת-הַמִּשְׁכָּן.
לה  וְלֹא-יָכֹל מֹשֶׁה, לָבוֹא אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד
And the Mishkan stays put. It only goes anywhere when God’s presence leaves.
The point is this, when God in the Mishkan, nothing human can happen.
God needs to leave for there to be any genuine human engagement.
It’s a pattern we see all over the Bible.

There’s a scene in the time of King David when the Ark of the covenant is being brought into Jerusalem and the cart it is being carried on stumbles and tips and this man, Uzah, runs to stop the ark from falling and gets burnt up by God for the sin of touching the Ark. David gets cross - Vayichar David, and refuses to bring the Ark back into Jerusalem until God calms down and stops being in the way of human beings doing the things that humans need to do with their lives. Too much God means no space for humanity.

And by the time the Rabbis get to work on what we now call Judaism, they understand this dynamic perfectly - more perfectly than the people who think that the role of religion is to be a substitute for thinking for yourselves.

So what is the point of religion, what is the point of this religion? Religion, this religion, peels back the excuses we all make for our failings. I mean, we all fail, all of the time, and then we tend to justify away our failings with all kind of excuses and justifications. Religion is a bit like having a really good psychotherapist with you all the time, whispering in your ear that you only did this that or the other because you hate your father or whatever. Actually, it’s not that spooky. Let me give you a much better example of how this religion thing works.

In a few weeks time we’ll read this verse - lifnei iver lo titein michshol, vayirata me-eilochecha, ani Adonai.
Don’t place a stumbling block before the blind, but fear your God, I am GOD.

Well the first part of the verse makes sense - don’t put a stumbling block before a blind person, because they can’t see it, but why add this stuff about fearing God.
Rashi, our most important Biblical commentator, suggests this;

Because in this case human beings don’t always know real intentions, whether we do things for someone’s advantage or disadvantage, so a person might be able to evade the responsibility for wrongdoing by saying: "I meant it for the best", To the Bible goes on to say, "But fear your God" God knows the secret thoughts.

Religion exists to make you uncomfortable, to make you second guess your own actions. Religion exists to pull you up to a deeper level of self-introspection than you might get to without a sense that there is a creator of the world who knows the inner workings of the kidneys and heart.


Actually this verse about stumbling blocks and the blind and what we really feel when we engage with people and try and evade the responsibility for wrongdoing by saying: "I meant it for the best" ...
This verse has a lot to do with the experience of passing people like this on the street.

I posted this on Facebook on my own feed and that of a Jewish discussion group I follow. I got comments saying, “well I never give money to people like this - they’ll spend it on alcohol, or drugs. It would be dangerous to feed someone’s addiction by giving them money to fuel addictions, a bit like putting a stumbling block before a blind person.” Well, that’s certainly possible. But how do you know, really know that you are really doing the best for that person, maybe there is something else going on in your kidneys and your heart that a bit of ol’ fashioned God fearing could sort out.

Maybe the guy who takes your money and spends it on alcohol which they drink at 10 o’clock in the morning isn’t an alcoholic. Maybe he’s just cold and miserable with his lot and wanted a can of beer to numb out the memories of how miserabl he’d been the last night.

Rabbi Shmelke of Nicholsburg an 18th Century Rabbi from Poland once said, "When a poor man asks you for aid, do not use his faults as an excuse for not helping him. For then God will look for your offenses, and He is sure to find many of them. Keep in mind that the poor man's transgressions have been atoned for by his poverty while yours still remain with you.”[1]

This is the real voice of religion, afflicting the comfortable, and demanding that we do more to comfort the afflicted.

Or maybe the guy isn’t really poor. Maybe he’s got nice clean clothes and a decent home to go back to and he’s just ripping you and me off with his pious way of sitting there, preying on our soft liberal tendencies and laughing his way to the bank

A beggar once came to the city of Kovna, in the 1800s, and collected a large sum of money from the residents. The people of the town soon found out that he was an impostor; he really was a wealthy man. The city council wanted to make an ordinance prohibiting beggars from coming to Kovna to collect money. When the Rabbi of Kovna, Yitzchok Elchonon Specter, heard about the proposed ban, he came before the council. He told them although he sympathized with them, he had an objection to raise. "Who deceived you, a needy person or a wealthy person? It was a wealthy person feigning poverty. If you want to make an ordinance, it should be to ban wealthy persons from collecting alms. But why make a ban against needy beggars?"[2]

Rabbi Chayim of Sanz had this to say about fraudulent charity collectors: "The merit of charity is so great that I am happy to give to 100 beggars even if only one might actually be needy. Some people, however, act as if they are exempt from giving charity to 100 beggars in the event that one might be a fraud."[3]

I’m getting these stories from a fabulous piece of work by Arthur Kurzweil who looked into the Treatment of Beggars According to Jewish Tradition - you can find it online, or let me know and I can send you a link.

“Don’t let the frauds stop you from giving,” argues Kurzweil, “the frauds will get their [just deserts soon enough]”

That’s the thing about religion - it makes a case that actions have consequences, even actions we think no-one else has spotted. God knows, and even if we can’t plot the cause and effect mechanism, strange things happen in the world. This next one comes from the Talmud - the greatest collection of all rabbinic teaching.

R. Hiyya advised his wife, "When a poor man come to the door, give him food so that the same may be done to our children." She cried, "You are cursing our kids suggesting they are going to become beggars!” But R. Hiyya replied, "There is a wheel which revolves in this world."[4]

It’s not easier to walk the streets of London believing that everyone, even the dirty smelly and frankly even the offensive beggars are created in the image of the same God who created you and me. It’s demanding in the most literal sense of the term. And there’s nowhere to hide.


So this is what happened when I encountered this the other day. Usually, I don’t stop. I don’t have good excuses, I just don’t stop. Sometimes I buy a copy of the Big Issue, I give some money to the New London Synagogue asylum seeker drop-in centre, sometimes I even go. But usually, I don’t stop. But when I saw this I stopped - and - this is how my mind went - I thought I had a sermon, so I took the picture, ducking slightly out of the line of sight partly to get a better shot, and partly because I wasn’t thinking of, you know, actually engaging with this particular person - I had places to go.

But in the moments between taking the photo and checking it to make sure I had something to wave around from the Bimah this Shabbat I decided to stop, and say hi, and give some money - in my mind I was buying a sort of ethical copyright to allow me to build a sermon from his poverty. His name is Mosi. He’s a coptic Christian from Egypt. That’s a narrative to think about for a Jew looking forward to Pesach. I told him I was a Rabbi and asked if I could use a picture in my sermon. He said sure. What would you have me say about what it’s like to be out here begging? I said, “It’s difficult.” He said.

His English wasn’t great and I’m not sure he understood me, but it’s difficult. It’s definitely difficult. Maybe that’s the point.

One last religious text, from the oldest collection of Rabbinic teachings we have, Pirkei Avot[5]
רבי טרפון אומר, היום קצר, והמלאכה מרובה, והפועלים עצלים, והשכר הרבה, ובעל הבית דוחק
לא עליך כל המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן חורין ליבטל
Rabbi Tarfon would say, the day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, but the reward is great and the Master of the House is calling. You don’t have to finish the work, but you aren’t free to desist from it.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] Fun Unzer Alter Otzer - found here
[2] Ethics from Sinai,III,p.121 - found in Kurzweil, as above
[3] Darkai Chayim (1962),p. 137
[4] Shabbat 151b
[5] End of Chapter 2

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