Monday, 11 June 2018

Being Religious and Being Good

Do you have to be religious to be a good person?
No, clearly not.
Are all people who profess to be religious good people?
Sadly, no, there are some people professing to be good people who are pretty awful.
But - and this is my question - does it help?
Does being religious make it more likely that you will be a good person, does being religious help?

I think so.

Let me get stuck into the question in two ways, both prompted by an extraordinary moment at the end of this week’s Torah reading which will help us understand what it means to be religious, and what it means to be good. Spoiler alert - they are one and the same thing but don’t leave quite yet, come with me on the journey.

There’s an argument between Moses and his brother and sister - Aaron and Miriam. They are jealous, ‘has God only spoken to Moses, didn’t he speak to us as well?’ God’s unimpressed. He calls the three siblings together and calls out to Aaron and Miriam - ‘Usually I make myself known to prophets in a dream, but not so with Moses. With him, I speak mouth to mouth. He has seen the image of God. So how come you speak against him? And God was angry with them and left.

You might think I like this story because it’s about a family of two boys and girl being told to get on. And I’m all in favour of families with two boys and a girl getting on. But that’s not it, I’m interested in this idea of God speaking to Moses mouth to mouth’ - peh el peh - in the Hebrew. Actually there is an echo of this image elsewhere in the Torah - way back in the book of Exodus the Bible says that God spoke to Moses face to face - panim el panim.

But this is all a bit odd, for a Jew - we are used to claiming that God has no mouth - like you or I have a mouth. God is God, not a human being. We are used to claiming that God has no a face - like you or I have a face. And what does it mean when the Bible says that Moses ‘saw the image of God - tmunat adonai yabit? Surely the biggest claim of a monotheistic religion like Judaism is that God has no image.

We are at the very heart of the question of what it means to be religious. What exactly is this God thing anyway?
This is a commentary from one of the great Chassidic masters of the late C18 century, Levi Yitzhak of Beridichtev.
Says Levi Yitzhak,[1]

ובאמת זה האדם כשהוא במדריגה זו שיש לו עזר ה' להסתכל על האי"ן אז השכל שלו הוא בטל במציאות
“Moses had the assistance of God to see that which is utterly beyond all sight. And in that moment, his human this-worldly intellect is utterly surpassed - to the point of disappearance.”
אחר כך כשאדם חוזר אל עצמות השכל אז הוא מלא שפע
“And after an experience like that, when Moses returns to the this-world realm of human intellect, he is overflowing with a flow of energy that comes from the Divine - the Hebrew word is Shefa.”

What Levi Yitzhak means is that the way Moses saw God, face to face, had nothing to do with the way light enters through the cornea and is refracted onto the retina in such a way electronic messages are sent through the optic nerve that the visual cortex of the brain recognises as images.
When Moses saw God he experienced sight in a way that no other human being has ever experienced sight.

Another of greatest Rabbis - Maimonides - zeroes in on these verses when he tries to explain quite how unlike any other prophet Moses was. Anything you know about sight - that’s not what Moses saw. Anything you know about speech - that’s not what Moses heard.

Perhaps the best way to explain is through the example of a great short story, written by Edwin Abbott a long time ago. In the story Flatland everyone exists only in two dimensions until someone realises that there is a third dimension, and that world doesn’t just go up & down and left & right, but in & out too. Or maybe you might be into string theory - the great attempt of physicists to work out all the complexities of the world. Every time they can’t explain the world with a number of dimensions you thought you knew about the add another dimension to explain the things that were previously beyond imagining. According to the string theorists, there are up to ten, or possibly eleven dimensions in the Universe. And when physicists look at the eighth or ninth or tenth dimension they don't look like you or I look at another person, they are looking that it’s almost impossible to understand.

And the dimension in which God has a face that Moses sees says Levi Yitzhak, is the dimension beyond all that, it’s the dimension that Moses could only see with the assistance of God, it’s the dimension that wiped out all human intelligence. But having seen that image which is beyond sight, Moses understood something no other human has ever understood, and no other human can ever understand.

Being religious means allowing for that to be the case, it means allowing for there to be that extra dimension beyond all human intellect, beyond all human sight, a realm where the secrets of the universe will always be beyond human grasp and understanding.

And in the Jewish tradition, the claim we make is that one great prophet, Moses, in a way I cannot understand and cannot replicate and cannot test and cannot explain, crossed that threshold between the dimensions of human capacity and the realm of Shefa - divine energy.

That’s the nature of religion.
So what has any of that got to do with being good?

We need one more verse.
Way back in the first Chapter of Genesis God creates humanity, and the Torah says this,
God said, Let us make humanity in our image and our likeness, so God created humanity in God’s image.
And this, for me is the heart of all Jewish ethics. Just like the shadow thrown by a cube is a square, and just like the shadow a sphere is a circle, so too the shadow, the image, of God is me, or you, or you - or any of us.
Actually, that’s kind of the point - the image of God isn’t a single human being - it’s the totality of all human beings that have ever or will ever be created.

In a 2,000-year-old Rabbinic Text, Mishnah Sanhedrin[2], the Rabbis ask why God created all humanity from a single original human - and their best answer is that it was God’s way of demonstrating how beyond understanding God really is, for - say the Rabbis when a flesh and blood Monarch wants to press a coin, they create a mould and every coin comes out looking exactly the same - but when the king of Kings, the Holy Blessed One, wants to create a coin they create a mould and every coin comes out looking different. That’s us, of course, we are the coins that come out looking different.

It’s one of my favourite images in all of Rabbinics, because back then, just like today you get faces on coins. And back then coins were things that most human beings thought were really important. But coins are boring - they all look the same. It’s human beings that are really important, because we all look different, and each of us in some unique, mysterious way that is beyond human ability to describe, each of us contains within our humanity something of the image of God.

And this is where religious ethics comes in. If you have a belief that there is a divine power beyond all human understanding and that that divine power created us to contain some element, some whisper, some potentiality,  some shadow of that divinity in our humanness - then how could you possibly mistreat another human.

The best word to think about to understand religious ethics is ‘otherness’ - God is wholly other, wholly beyond in a way I can’t explain, in a way that makes no human sense. But every other human being in the world is other in a very direct way that tests my ability to respect the image of God every time I want to have an argument with my siblings, or every time I walk past a homeless person on the street, or every time I buy something in a shop, or send an email or ...

The goal of our human lives is to acknowledge the otherness of other people in such a way as to acknowledge how they are created in the image of God every bit as much as I am.

The goal of our human lives - not Moses, Moses was different, Moses looked at God face-to-face and saw the image of God directly - but you or I  - our goal is to look at the image of God as expressed in the faces of the people we meet, the people we know, and the people we don’t know, the people we like and - and here’s the kicker, even the people we don’t like.
And you want to know how to be really good? Treat everyone you meet as if they are made in the image of God.  I don’t know a better way of putting it. I don’t think any secular philosophy has ever got close. I like Immanuel Kant, but Kant falls short.  I think the secular world will fall short because the secular world doesn’t value otherness the way religion values otherness.
Because for religious people other people aren’t something to be tolerated or to be treated as ends in themselves, or to be done to as one would wish to be done for oneself.

For religious people, other people are our test of living up to the gift of our creation.
There’s politics here - how should we treat all those other people who come to our country. The Mayor of London was at an Iftar held in a local Synagogue this week. He said something about how important it is for people from different religions and cultures to come together this because, and I quote “our diversity isn’t a weakness but our greatest strength, it isn’t a challenge to be managed but an asset to be unlocked.” Diversity isnt a weakness, otherness isnt a problem, its the solution.

But let me end with something micro - about our everyday lives.
Let me assign some homework. Try this.
Look at someone, anyone, and imagine you are seeing on their face the image of God. Imagine you are face-to-face with God.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] Pekudei 13
[2] 4:5

Ten Years a Rabbi At New London

Those of you at Services last Shabbat will have heard the announcements.

Our chairman congratulated the Bar Mitzvah boy and his family on his wonderful achievement - and the congregation responded in full voice; Mazal Tov.

And then Ian announced that this week there would be a kiddush given in my honour, having been Rabbi here for 10 years - and the congregation responded with a couple of tentative Mazal Tovs and a definite sense of  - can we go and get the fishballs yet?


I was reminded of the story of the Rabbi who was so ill he couldn’t get to the Council Meeting. Worried something might have been decided in his absence the Rabbi hauled himself from the sickbed to call the Chair to hear what had been decided. ‘Good news,’ the Chair responded, ‘Council voted 12 to 8 to wish you a refuah shleimah.’

It was always thus.

Moses in these terrific Parshiot is having a tough time. He’s asked 12 senior members of the congregation of Israel to go and scope out the land and 10 of them come back and give a fullsome raspberry to his prospects of leading the people into the settled life in the and they have been promised.

We’ve been doing a poll of our own these past weeks - we are looking at bringing new clergy in to support the community and we’ve been asking members what they think we should be looking to preserve and what we should be looking to transform at this time. Thank you for your responses. It’s even been helpful to understand more about some of the frustrations and dis-satisfactions of some in the community.
‘I don’t really know what’s going wrong,’ one distinguished member shared, ‘perhaps it’s the Rabbi. Things just aren’t what they used to be.’


One of my favourite books is written by Ronald Heiftetz, the Founding Director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University - it’s called, ‘Staying Alive in Leadership.’ The issue is, as anyone who tries to provide leadership knows - is that leaders very often get shot at. Leadership, of course, isn’t giving everyone what we want. And when we don’t get what we want it’s all too easy to blame the person standing at the pulpit.

Heifetz says that the big challenges that face us aren’t capable of being solved by a single solution - proper challenges can’t be solved technically - they can’t be solved by a skilled professional - no matter how gifted and hard working. The big challenges facing us are adaptive. Adaptive challenges are a messy conglomeration of factors beyond any single point of control. Adaptive challenges call us all to be creative, bold and sensitive.

So this is the adaptive challenge I identified when I started here.
I’m going to be blunt.
Apologies in advance.
I’m taking a risk that you can’t really sack the Rabbi for a sermon he gives on the occasion of being honoured with a kiddush for having made it to 10 years.

At the time I arrived here as Rabbi New London had been in decline for twenty years. For a generation the founding Rabbi of this community had told committed Jews thinking of joining, or even staying in membership, not to bother. I’m one of those who drifted away. Louis came to see New London as a vehicle for his sermons from this Bimah and not much more. And eventually Louis, of blessed memory, passed away.
That left - well really not very much.
There were no new members and a handful of kids in the Cheder. The only life-cycle events I performed in my first six months here were funerals. The black hole of the Synagogue finances was compounded by the fact that we had a significant number of members on the books who were  - not only not paying dues - but were actually dead.

The legacy of the greatest Jew of 350 years of Anglo-Jewry seemed to be that no-one other that Rabbi Louis Jacobs could lead a community that was founded for him. And now Louis was dead.

The executive Director of those years, Ronnie Cohen, dropped me a note this week, recognising my efforts. He suggested that what has happened here is an example of Techiyat HaMetim - bringing the dead back to life. That’s a little over-dramatic - though it made me smile.

The reason things aren’t what they used to be is that things aren’t what they used to be. It’s not the late 1960s anymore. Louis’s not Louis more. The world isn’t the same world as it was, frankly, even a decade ago. That’s not this Rabbi’s fault, it’s not even Louis’ fault or anyone else’s. It’s life.

And the reason I haven’t tried to re-infuse precisely the same things that energised this community in its pomp is only a small part of what energised the community in its pomp was energising the community the late 2000-and naughties. And I’ve always liked Einstein’s definition of insanity as ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’

I know I’ve done some things that haven’t been easy for every member to accept - and I don’t mind being blamed for them.
But I’ve been blamed for doing things that - really - aren’t my fault at all. There are members cross with me that the Ladies Guild isn’t still doing the great work they did in the 70s. There are members cross with me that Cantor Jason isn’t the Cantor here.
So be it. But really.

Let me say a word about the role of women.
I know there are members who are upset at my leadership in transforming the community on this issue. I’ll hold my hand up for that one.
But - like everything else in this community - it’s never been just about one person, not even the Rabbi.

I’ve a copy of Volume 1 Edition 2 of the New London News, published in early 1965. It contains an article from a founder member arguing for a greater role for women in liturgy. This is a debate that’s been going on in this 54 year old shul for 54 years.
Over the last 10 years I’ve listened to more members and read more survey responses and emails on this subject than on any other. Here’s the most interesting thing about where this community is on the issue of the role of women.
There is no demographic indicator for who feels what - it’s not that men want less roles for women than women, or vice versa. It’s not that new members want more or vice versa. It’s not that more committed members want more or less than less regular attendees. The same goes for age, we’ve old and younger adults who split on the egal issue just we split on every other demographic splits - - - until you get below a age. Once you go below a certain age virtually everyone is in favour of a fully egalitarian community.
Here’s the reality.
The vast majority of the community either strongly want to see us become fully egalitarian or would wish that we become fully egalitarian were it not for the pain that it would cause the minority of members who feel uncomfortable with that change.
I know that there are members who feel uncomfortable - and worse - that New London might become egalitarian - they’ve been made to feel uncomfortable already.
But what’s a leader to do?

On the actual occasion of my ten years here, back in January, I gave a sermon looking transgenerationally - looking long into the future. I said then, that I don’t see any long-term future for a non-orthodox Jewish claim that women should be limited in the roles they can play. It doesn’t make sense to me Halachically, or as God’s will. It doesn’t make sense to me sociologically. It doesn’t make sense to me when I peer into my murky crystal ball.
For nigh on 50 years New London opened its doors to those looking for non-egalitarian non-orthodox traditional Judaism, and once the immediate flame of the Jacobs Affair died back the queues never materialised.
What’s a leader to do?

To those uncomfortable, I’m sorry. I hope I can ease a journey for some of you. I know I can’t ease that journey for many of you.
But what’s a leader to do?

Let me delve into my own filing cabinet of the 500+ sermons I’ve given over last decade from this very Bimah.

500+ sermons! Those of you who listen closely - and there will be an exam - will know I don’t repeat myself, but I looked again at two of my sermons - from my first year at New London and there is something I want to share today.

On my interview weekend in November 2007 I set out what I understood as the role of New London is. And I haven’t changed my opinion in the past decade.

I know - I said then - that there is something that needs to be done. A task which summons our attention and our best efforts. We live in a world where the unfettered call of materialism spreads misery and threatens to rip the soul out of human beings, turning us into productive units, overpaid hamsters spinning our way round and round and not really getting anywhere. We live in a world where religious idolatry – fundamentalism – has succeeded in destroying the World Trade Centres and threatens so much more horror.
We are still the inheritors of Avraham avinu who broke the false idols of faux religious piety and struck out on a journey towards a life with decency, integrity and kindness.

That’s where we come in. We exist to be a proud, brave, iconoclastic place of community. A place for people to come together in Jewish community to pray, to play, to honour and to celebrate; infused by everything we learn from our glorious tradition.

In the last ten years, we’ve done a lot of that. We’ve had events and programmes that have inspired and I’ve had the privilege of honouring and celebrating and commemorating with so many of you. I did the maths for the number of weddings; 167! But I suspect even above the delight I’ve taken in the weddings it’s been the funerals, or more accurately, the opportunity to be with families at times of pain, that has been the greatest privilege of my pastoral work here.

But perhaps above all the thing I value most is this - Shabbat after Shabbat, in this glorious space, with prayers led so gloriously, by Stephen and then Jason. And the honour and the responsibility of sharing, from this Bimah a Torah worthy of you, and indeed worthy of this unique and extraordinarily Synagogue. And that takes me back to Louis.

At my induction almost ten years ago I ended my address with the words of our founding Rabbi at his induction, at the New West End, back in 1954, because even over 60 years later I don’t think anyone has ever put it better. I don’t expect anyone ever will.

Said Rabbi Jacobs then, and say I now;
"I hope that the Judaism I preach from this pulpit will be a courageous Judaism. To the best of my ability I shall see to it that no shallow, spineless Judaism, one demanding no challenge and presenting no sacrifice, shall be preached here. But I hope that I shall also see to it that no harsh, unsympathetic, inhuman interpretation of Judaism is voiced here [either].
'O my Creator, give me understanding that I may transmit your inheritance; Strengthen and uphold me that I may be far from weakness and fear.' [From the Reshut of the Sh'li'ach Tzibur - Rosh HaShanah]
May You bless all the members of this holy congregation, prosper the work of their hands and bring joy into their lives, and may You always be with us as we continue to labour to do your will in sincerity and in truth. 

It’s been a privilege to share these last ten years with you. And I look forward to much else to celebrate together in the decades to come,

Shabbat shalom

Friday, 1 June 2018

Georgia on my Mind

The Jewish highlight of my recent trip to Georgia was this gold amulet, from Shevtitkoshveli, now in the National Museum. The amulet, perhaps 5cm tall, is dated to the 5th Century - that makes it as old as the Talmud. It contains the wish that God should, ‘Drive out the evil spirits and make firm the just act. In the name of [a slew of] angels I seal and bind the evil spirit that there shall be over Abraham the son of Sarah no sorcery, evil spirit, or devil or anything like a devil.’ ‘Just as,’ the amulet reads, ‘long ago God fulfilled God’s word to Abraham [the patriarch’, so too God should always be the guardian God [for Abraham son of Sarah, owner of the amulet, and his family].'

Amulets form no part of my contemporary Jewish existence, but the wishes that the just act be, ‘made firm,’ that no evil spirit, ‘or anything like’ an evil spirit,’ touch Abraham or his family are wishes I recognise. Equally, I’m moved by the turn to God’s relationship with the ‘original’ Abraham. I turn this way also.

In Judaism, things change while revealing an inner consistency. Looking at this scrap of gold, I feel closer to this 5th century Jew of the trans-Caucasus than I would have imagined. But I wonder how he - Abraham son of Sarah - would consider me; a Rabbi who writes no amulets, a Rabbi whose theology doesn’t even recognise literal revelation, let alone literal angels, one who reads not only Torah, but also Philip Roth, and even - heaven forefend - non-Jewish authors.

My sense is that it’s easier to feel connected to a past than a future. It’s easy to look back and feel a certain inevitable evolution brings us to our present. Meanwhile pitching ourselves towards the future feels unstable and awkward. It’s a reflection that occurs to me this week particularly. I’m being honoured next Shabbat (9th June) with a kiddush in honour of my decade of service at New London. Thank you. I’m aware of how our community has changed, and I’m particularly aware of how easy it is to look variously backwards and forwards with feelings of connection or even disconnection. I’m going to take the opportunity, next Shabbat, to look as honestly as I can at where we are, and where we might be headed. I’m proud of my work for this community. Frankly, you’ve had the very best effort I could bring to this sacred calling, but I know, also, that there are those who have struggled with this journey, and I hope to address these concerns also.
I do hope you will take that opportunity to join me.

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