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

Kol Nidrei - Shabbat

Trying to become a better person, is a good thing.
Most of the time.

There was once a man, a stonecutter, and he wasn’t happy being a stonecutter. Every time the foreman would shout and harangue him and he felt this jealousness, so he closed his eyes, for just a moment and says to himself, ‘I wish, I just wish I could be a foreman.’
Poof – just like that, he becomes the foreman, and this is great. Now he is doing the bossing around, not for him the hard graft of cutting the stones.
But then the King arrives and demands the profits from the quarry and now our foreman is feeling miserable again, ‘Oh this is terrible, all my hard work, for nothing. And so he closes eyes, ‘I wish, I wish I could be a King,’ and poof, again. The King.
And this really is terrific, robes, jewels, a crown; servants to carry me through the streets of the city.
But it is hot under this crown. Goodness, I’m really starting to sweat. If only I were the sun, then I could solve all these problems.’ And so he shuts his eyes, ‘I wish, I wish’ and poof, again. Now he is the sun.
And that is great until the cloud comes and blocks out the sun. So he wishes to be a cloud, which is wonderful floaty fun until the wind blows the cloud.
So he wishes to be the wind, whistling through the trees, and that is fantastic until he comes up against a mountain, blocking the way of the wind.
‘I wish, I just wish I could be a mountain.’
Poof – and now, here he stands, a mountain, been here forever will be here forever, strong and sturdy and immovable.
Until, down in a quarry at the foothills he hears the chip, chip chip of stonecutter, cutting away at the mountain.[1]

Over Rosh Hashanah I shared, in my sermons, an idea and tried to unpack how it influences both our internal psychological, or spiritual state, our relationship with Judaism and, taking a broader perspective, should be influencing the world.
On first day RH I spoke about alterity.
On second day RH I spoke about truth.
Today I want to speak about an idea that is, perhaps, more important than either.
Here’s the problem;

We don’t know how to stop.
Going after more things seems to be the wiring of our souls.

Or maybe it’s not our souls’ fault.
Maybe it’s that we all live in a society where we are continually told acquiring more stuff will make us a better person, or a happier person, or a person of more value.
And those voices call us to gauge our success by the extent to which we hunger for more.
And, unless we police the borders of our soul we can get swept up in chasing after vanity.

Or maybe it’s the fault of the other voice that seems to crow ever more incessant in contemporary society; the voice of fear; fear of missing out, or fear of not measuring up to standards that are simply unreasonable.
24/7 no longer seems sufficient to detail the extent to which so many of us are expected to be ‘on,’ to be reactive.

I’m part of a FB group of Conservative Rabbis. One of my colleagues queried as to whether it was appropriate for a Rabbi to have an auto-response on their emails apologizing for not responding rapidly to emails at this time of year or whether that just looks like we are wasting time that could otherwise be productive.
And I’m more than aware that if that’s true for Rabbis, for those of you with jobs in the real world, the insistence that you are available and responsive 24/7 are even more demanding.

There are many things to blame for our working ourselves into spirals of dis-satisfaction and fear.

But this is Yom Kippur - it’s a day for us to take responsibility for our own decisions, no matter how much others might have enticed us.
It’s as if we think that at the end of our lives we are to be judged by the amount of stuff we have accumulated or the amount of busy-ness we affect.

Actually the Talmud[2] tells us how we are to be judged in the heavenly tribunal when our time does indeed come.
We can expect to be asked if we had fear of heaven, if we pursued wisdom - those sorts of things. But we aren’t going to be asked if we accumulated enough stuff. We aren’t going to be asked if we were busy enough.
Actually you don’t even need to know the Talmud’s lack of interest in the amount of stuff we accumulate to know the amount of stuff we accumulate is only so very rarely important at the end of a person’s life.
You don’t need to know that the Talmud has nothing to say about how much we accumulate or how many hours we work to know that these issues matter only very rarely at the end of a life.
You just need to spend time with people at the end of their lives.
People regret spending time with their family.
People regret not being able to do more with the people they love.
Those who have lived really great lives - and I’ve had the sad blessing of burying too many this past year - don’t regret anything, they just wish they could be around to spend more time doing the things they know are truly important.

The grander perspective on this relentlessness is the ecological disaster we are bequeathing on generations to come. March was so cold the army were called into help. The summer broke all records for heat.

There are two tales of creation at the beginning of the Torah. One tells us we are placed on this earth to impose ourselves on it, it tells us that the world and everything in it is our plaything - here for us.
But we’ve forgotten the other tale. The other tale tells our life’s work is to work and protect the earth - lovdah ulshomrah.

At the time that God created Adam, God led him past every tree in Gan Eden and said to him, “See how beautiful and praiseworthy are My creations. Everything that I created, I created for you. Be careful not to damage or destroy My world, for if you damage it, there will be no one to fix it up after you.”[3]

So much for working and protecting the earth - we are sucking out its resources and destabilizing the carefully balanced ecology that protects life on earth.

But we are, you and I, extraordinarily blessed to have a way out of this cycle of danger.
Because, as Jews, we have a gift that has kept our people for thousands of years.
It has allowed us to rise higher than being ever more busy.
It is called Shabbat.
This is a sermon about Shabbat.

On Shabbat we free ourselves from the tasks of subsistence, we become free.
We step back from the day-to-day tasks of the week and instead get to become, in the words of Bible, a little less than angels.

In the Creation Narrative we find that on the seventh day, God vayinafash. It is usually translated as God rested. It is a poor translation.
Vayinafash – can mean ‘breath’ and on the seventh Day, God put the breath into the world. Now that is a more radical notion than rest, as we would normally understand the word.

But Nefesh means something else as well as ‘rest’ and ‘breath.’ Nefesh is a soul.
Vayinafash – And God put the soul in the world on that first Shabbat and we can still hear that echo,
Or at least we would be able to if only we could still our lives, still the ever-spinning hamster wheels.

Shabbat can even help up find that stillness.
The radical notion of the laws around Shabbat is that our lives become more special when we abstain from stuff.
Shabbat serves as correction to the human search for that which is beyond what we really need to celebrate our humanity, and our Jewish identities.
Shabbat is the antidote to our addiction to getting more and more.
It can teach us that it’s not only possible to step back from always chasing after more. It’s actually vital.
We humans need a sabbatical day – a day in seven to be ourselves, to recover our own resources, a time to be with our families, with God, and to celebrate the joys of a simpler kind of life; a life of friendship, of community, of holiness.

As a Rabbi I feel that the Shabbat is the single greatest weapon in our arsenal as Jews, as human beings that will allow us to become better, stronger and more compassionate people.
How is it possible to make change in our lives– Keep Shabbat
How is it possible to respond adequately to the incredible gift of simply being alive – Keep Shabbat
How is it possible to keep things in perspective when life gets so cluttered and stressed and busy – Keep Shabbat
How is it possible to keep a balance between work life and home life – Keep Shabbat

It is difficult to explain how these glorious collections of rules and rituals carry so much power. In fact I guess that their mystery is part of the efficacy.
Shabbat can’t really be explained, it has to be lived.

So I want to offer two very concrete tools, techniques and approaches to Shabbat.
One for Friday night, one for Saturday during the day. Both radically simple.

On the Friday night I want to suggest to us all that we become bolder in claiming the sanctity of Erev Shabbat.
I want to suggest, to us all, that we feel more confident in declining the invitations to shows and parties and the like.
Let them go. I know we are all so well connected and so many of us get so many invitations to attend so many wonderful and interesting places.
But there will be enough invitations even if we decline ones on a Friday night.
Friday nights are for protecting a Jewish time.

Come to shul - our Friday night services are lovely - short!, shorter than this journey, you can sing, we’d love you to sing. You can connect to being part of a Jewish journey. And you can leave the rest of the world to get on with its lunacy.
And you should eat - of course you should eat. At its heart Shabbat is about meals, made unique in the week by the ritual that accompanies them. If you are blessed with a family - eat with your family. Invite others to share a Jewish meal with you. If you don’t have regular invites - make a point of booking for our dinners at New London - next one is on 9th November.

Just protect Friday nights from a slow slide away into just another weekend evening.

For Saturday during the day I want to commend to you all the observance of an issur d’oraita – a prohibition straight out of the Bible. We are commanded not to carry, on Shabbat, in a public place.
I spend my week laid down. Even if I am not shlepping computer around, my pockets are always full of wallet and phone and jangling keys and scraps of paper reminding me of who knows what.
For one day a week they can all be left at home.
Especially the wallet.
Especially the phone.
If you really need to carry – take the one key, not the whole bunch.
Do you really need that handbag? If you really do, what can you empty out, what can you let go of?
What can you leave behind today?
It is a wonderful way to realise how little stuff we actually need to get through our days.
On Saturday day, don’t carry, Keep Shabbat.

I know there is plenty to do.
I know there is plenty to campaign for and campaign against.
And I know that we are all worried about the financial and corporate pressures of this world in which we live.
But it doesn’t help to chase after more forever.
It’s so easy to lose track of what we are actually searching for.
Keep Shabbat and we may soon start to find it.
May we do that, and in so doing find a wonderful, peaceful and healthy year to come.

Gemar Chatimah Tovah

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Stonecutter
[2] Shabbat 21a
[3] Kohelet Rabbah 7:3

Cognitive Dissonance - Neilah 5779

Ta-Nehasi Coates writes on race in America. He’s published an award-winning indictment of the way black men - and unarmed black men in particular - are being killed by members of the police force. At the heart of the book is the tale of his friend, Prince Jones, shot, unarmed, by police in the year 2000, and the Officer faced no criminal charges.

I heard Coates interviewed on the subject earlier in the year.[1] The big thing that’s changed since Jones was killed 18 years ago, he reflected, is the rise of video-cameras in phones. Now everyone has a video camera. Everything gets seen, everything gets recorded. There’s loads of evidence. And you might expect, he reflected, that in this new all-recorded-all-the-time world all these cameras would make a difference. You might expect, he reflected, that people would look at the footage, and see the unarmed victims and that something would change. But, he reflected, you don’t. Despite all the evidence, unarmed black men are still getting shot by police in extra-ordinary numbers. And the officers still, routinely, face no criminal charges.

Or here’s another one. Did you see the article, written by a barrister, advocating banning juries in cases of causing the death of cyclists by reckless driving.[2] The problem, wrote Martin Porter QC, a man - let it be said - with a professional interest in there being lots and lots of jury trials - is that juries in these trials tend not to pay attention to the evidence of the defendant’s reckless driving. They tend, in his words, to be ‘overly sympathetic’ to drivers. ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ they think, so says Porter. And a high proportion of jurors are drivers - who tend to have empathy for drivers. And jurors who are drivers tend not to have empathy for cyclists. Did I mention that I’m a cyclist?

I’m interested tonight on the impact of cognitive dissonance on our decision making.

Cognitive dissonance is a fancy term for what happens inside our conscious, inside our souls, or our minds, when a new piece of evidence comes in which - if we were to take it seriously - would force us to change already something deeply embedded in our lives.

The thing about cognitive dissonance is that it is so much easier to disregard new evidence than change something already deeply embedded in our lives.

I make no apology for going back to this issue of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn’s deeply embedded thing is that he is a life-long opponent of racism, and a life-long supporter of Palestinian causes. Well that’s fine. But when new evidence comes in that suggests that, despite your life-long opposition to racism, you are behaving like an antisemite you have to make a decision. You might not even be aware of making this decision, but your unconscious is going to be at work. Do you take on board the evidence and change some deeply embedded part of yourself? Or do you disregard the evidence, do you explain away the evidence, and stick with the ‘you’ you already know and inhabit so well.

I’m headed somewhere religious, I promise. Sorry to anyone for whom all of this is already too political, but I need to stay on the front pages so we can understand what we do to the evidence that our soul can’t or won’t accept. If you want to know how evidence that might require us to change gets beaten up, chewed over and spat out when it isn’t to be taken on board, watch Russia, or Trump. There’s no sustained enquiry into whether one thing or another is actually factual, rather our twitter feeds, or our flunkies or our propaganda-agencies and spy-agencies, if we have them, just throw mud. And if cognitive dissonance works this way on a macro-political level, it’s only because it’s working on a micro-intra personal one also.

This is precisely the critique levelled at the Children of Israel in this morning’s Haftarah. If only the people would change their ways, says the prophet, God will heal them, guide them, comfort them. “But vyigr’shu meimav refet v’tit - they throw up mire and mud like a driven sea”[3] It’s almost as if God is trying to explain where the Children of Israel are going wrong and we are responding by saying, we didn’t do, or if we did, they deserved it, or it was only an accident or, or ... vyigr’shu meimav refet v’tit.

In this morning’s Haftarah the Children of Israel go around protesting how pious they are, fasting ever so nicely on Yom Kippur - pretending to know God’s ways, hen l’riv umatzah tatzumu  - but you fast with grievance and strife - screams the prophet, fully aware that nothing he says, no matter how true, is changing anything.

I know nothing changes because the Haftarah we read this morning is challenging the Israelites after they return from their exile in Babylonia, and we also have prophetic texts dating from before the exile. And they read precisely the same. Haven’t you realised, prophet after prophet rails, that you are behaving badly. Can’t you see the evidence for you to change your ways?

It’s always been easier to change the way we consider the evidence than change the way we behaved. That was the case before the first Temple was destroyed, or after the Second Temple was built, or after that Temple was destroyed or after this thing and that thing and the other thing. And here we are.

And the gates are closing.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah I spoke about alterity - recognising difference in others and being firmer in claiming our own difference. A number of you responded warmly, letting me know of a decision you made, one way or the other in the past few days. Thank you - it’s always lovely to hear someone’s listening. And there will be others of you, responding to other things I’ve said, or you’ve read, or reflected on in these past awesome days. But I don’t make the error of over-estimating the impact of any of this on our lives once these gates finally close.

It’s one thing to hear a sermon and agree - even a sermon that does something as shocking as suggest we come to Shul on a Friday night. It’s another thing to actually change. It’s one thing to nod as the evidence comes in, but to surmount the challenge of cognitive dissonance is hard, really hard. Because as soon as we get back out there the quiet moments of introspection get drowned out by the shoutiness of the world - and if we’ve taken a day off work today, we are already a day behind.

On the other hand, at least we know how to behave in the skin we currently inhabit.

My sense is that for most of us, anything we’ve heard, anything we’ve reflected upon, any newly understood truths, any seeds of unformed decisions about our future that have just started to take root, are due to be overwhelmed by the barriers of our embedded patterns of behaviour once the Shofar is sounded and off we go into the world again.

We need to learn ways to handle cognitive dissonance. Perhaps it will help to be prepared. Get ready. Know the challenge that is to come. I hope that will help. Know that you aren’t perfect already - that’s not personal, that’s all of us. We’ve these few more precious moments together before the gates close and it’s an invitation to bed something in; to commit, to gird ourselves as we re-enter the world.

The quiet voices that suggest maybe we don’t have it quite right, just yet, are the important voices. The commitments to the future don’t need to be extravagant, in fact we are probably best advised to tread gently.

If over these last ten days you have thought my pleas to take Judaism more seriously was worthy of attention, don’t let embedded resistance get in the way of doing things differently in this year to come.
If your private reflections have instilled in you a seed of a different way to treat others, to treat the world differently, take this opportunity to bed these commitments in.
Take these last few minutes, before the gates close, to articulate a commitment that has a chance of withstanding the cognitive dissonance and the world out there.

And in so doing may we all be blessed with a year to come of courage, strength, health and happiness,

Gemar Chatimah Tovah

Friday, 14 September 2018

Ways of Looking at Suffering - It's Not Just About You

In the run-up to Rosh Hashanah, I’m sharing reflections inspired by Scott Samuelson’s Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering. Previous posts are [here - http://rabbionanarrowbridge.blogspot.com/search?q=seven+pointless+suffering]. I’ve been hugely touched by members who have shared their appreciation for these reflections. Thank you.

Actually, for this reflection, I need the full title of the work, “Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering: What Philosophy Can Tell Us About the Hardest Mystery of All.” I’m not opposed to philosophy. In fact, I quite like it. But the biggest failing in Samuelson’s, generally excellent, book is a classic philosophical failing - a religious book would get this one quite right.

Philosophy books tend to over-value thinking about things, and sometimes it’s more important to do something. Judaism places a greater emphasis on observance of Mitzvot than mental states perhaps for two reasons; one being that an over-emphasis on thinking can become solipsistic - we can lose ourselves in the consideration of our private grief. The other being that doing something for others is, perhaps, the best way of losing sight of our own pain.

‘Tzedekah Ma’avirin Et Roah HaGezerah’ we’ll pray on Monday - ‘charity draws out evil from the decree.’ Suffering is eased by doing things for other people, it’s a curious but glorious oxymoron - the more we give away, the richer we feel. One of the remarkable demands in Judaism is the demand that everyone, even the poorest, need to make financial charitable contributions. There is no-one spared the call to care for others. We feel more joy through bringing joy to the lives of others than serving our own ends. Similarly, we ameliorate our own grief by looking out for others’ suffering. The religious command to consider others is, again, one only rarely heard in the philosophical realm. There are greater, and there are fewer experiences of suffering we all carry. This year, set off the experiences of suffering by doing something for someone else.

Shabbat Shalom,

Shannah Tovah

Rabbi Jeremy

Thursday, 13 September 2018

To Choose Our Own Way

My thanks to all who made our Rosh Hashanah services so special; from the main service where Chazan Stephen’s leadership was so appreciated to the hall and children’s services, it was a wonderful honour to celebrate 5779’s arrival with you all. Yom Kippur begins with Kol Nidrei on Tuesday evening.

This is my final reflection on Scott Samuelson’s Seven Ways at Looking at Pointless Suffering. Previous reflections are [here - It is a remarkable and warmly recommended book, combining both rigorous reading of philosophical masters and more personally grounded insights drawn from Samuelson’s experiences as a teacher of philosophy in prison. But the title ... I don’t like. I get that titles need a certain ‘snap.’ But that word, ‘pointless’ sticks. At one point in the book, Samuelson gives an example of the level of suffering he considers pointless. It’s a brutal narrative, his neighbour was born with a “broken brain” and lived her a scream ‘that was a pure siren of misery,’ It sounds awful and I wouldn’t dare presume to find in her suffering point and how much the more so reason or justification. But I’m nervous about imputing pointlessness on anyone’s experience from the outside.

Dr Ros Taylor, one of the country’s leading palliative care physicians, was a member of my previous Synagogue, SAMS, and we did a series of sessions together on end of life issues. She was strongly opposed to softening legal positions on euthanasia. Her experience was that while many people could come up with theoretical positions in which they would wish for euthanasia, for themselves or for a loved one, when - God forbid - these awful situations unfolded it was only very rarely that the experience of even a slither of what we call ‘quality of life’ was not cherished. The point is that the pointlessness of suffering is a decision that should not be made from the outside of a direct experience. It is a subjective call, one that can only be made by a person suffering, not by a book.

My most cherished heroic insight into this perspective on suffering comes from the Auschwitz survivor Victor Frankl, who lived through Holocaust and reflected on the single thing that can never be taken away from a sufferer; their ability to find purpose and value even in the most barbaric of circumstances;

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been a few in number, but they offer sufficient proof, that everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of freedoms – to chose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to chose one’s own way.”

May we all be spared suffering in this year and for many years to come. But - should it come, and frankly, of course, it will come - may we find the ability to chose our own way, even there.

This is Shabbat Shuvah, I’ll be sharing some of the great insights of Maimonides into Teshuvah on Shabbat. All welcome.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Rosh Hashanah 5779 - Day Two - Truth

I want to look back, before the tale we read from the Torah today, the tale of the binding of Isaac, to an earlier tale told of Abraham. It’s not a tale from the Torah itself, but a Midrash woven into the Biblical story, but it is a very old Jewish story.

Abraham, the Midrash teaches, was the son of an idol salesman, Terach. One day Terach left his son in charge of the shop. Abraham takes a hammer and smashes the idols leaving the hammer in the hands of one surviving statue. When his father comes home he asks his son, ‘What’s happened,’ ‘Well,’ responds the son, ‘There was a fight over who would get to eat a plate of flour someone bought as an offering and this one won.’

For those of us who like to keep track of this sort of thing, this isn’t really a case of Abraham is lying to his father. Rather Abraham is using language to signify the opposite meaning to the language he was using - that’s called irony. It has a fine and long tradition in Jewish thought. I digress.

Terach accuses Abraham of stupidity - of course the big statue hasn’t wielded the hammer, and Abraham responds to his dad, ‘Don’t your ears not hear what your mouth says!?’ He’s accusing his father of living a life of deceit. And Terach doesn’t appreciate being accused of living a life of deceit - so Abraham gets sent off to the ruler to be taught better of it.

The great ruler Nimrod gets in a logic battle with the upstart Abraham, and loses. Of course, he’s going to lose, he’s an idolator and this is a Jewish story. But the thing that interests me is the way young Abraham is portrayed as a person whose commitment to truth prevents him from taking the easy option; just be nice to your dad, just be nice to the ruler, don’t get in trouble. Rather Abraham makes a fool out of his dad, and a fool out of Nimrod. And for this, the story continues, Abraham gets thrown into a furnace for his troubles.

Two lessons from this story;
Telling truth to power gets you in trouble.
Ultimately truth wins out. Nimrod and his culture of deceitful idolatry is gone, and we are still here.

The thing I’m interested in today is the pursuit of truth.

We all face opportunities to commit ourselves to truth, and we all face opportunities to take other options. In so many ways this is the story of this community. We are only here, New London is only here, because our founding Rabbi, Louis Jacobs, had the option to recant, take back his truth claims about how the Torah came to be, and refused. For this he got in trouble. He lost his job, he lost the chance to be Chief Rabbi with the fancy house and gong that would surely have come to him. And here we all are.

Aside from a belief that, in the end, a commitment to truth will win out over a commitment to one kind of dishonesty or another, I don’t really have a choice about being a student of Rabbi Jacobs. I can’t get my soul around a religion perpetrated on deceit, or a hand-in-the-sand attitude to how and when Judaism developed. And it may be that more fundamentalist forms of religious fervour seem superficially more powerful. But this is the only kind of religion I can love.

We live in strange times for the pursuit of truth. Jonathan Freedland, writing earlier in the year, suggested that the greatest contest of our age is the contest between truth and post-truth.

“We are [he wrote] in an era when the argument is no longer over our response to events, but the very existence of those events. These are symptoms of a post-truth disease in which the truth or falsity of a statement depends on whether the person making it is deemed one of us or one of them. [He continues] information is evaluated based not whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders.”[1]

Do you need examples? There’s Russia and Novichok, Trump and ... well lots of things, there’s Brexit, or Brexin, or Israel or the environment, or ... Freedland refers to a school shooting in Florida where one response from the pro-gun lobby to the death of children was to claim the massacre had not happened at all, and that all those grieving parents and teenagers were “crisis actors.” It’s harder to come up with areas of public life that are free from what Freedland calls “tribal epistemology”[2] - things meaning the things we decide they mean based on their tribal allegiance.

“The greatest contest of our age is the contest between truth and post-truth.”

My sense is that there are two ways to find truth; let me call them the poetic and the prosaic.

Now I love poetry.
You see how the world goes? King Lear asks Gloucester.
I see it feelingly, Gloucester responds.[3]
How wonderful to see feelingly.

There were whispers of the poetic path towards truth in the Torah reading from this last Shabbat.

Torah, we were told on Shabbat, is not in the heavens so we should say who should go up to the stars to bring it down for us. Rather, the verses read, it is very close, in your mouth and in your heart so you shall do it.
That’s poetry for you and its lovely.
Poetic truths burrow into our hearts and set our worldview without our really realising; an evocative image, a captivating turn of phrase. Poetry dismantles our defences so its claims seep into us.

Poetry is so much more delightful than the other thing; the search for prosaic truth.
But here’s the thing about poetry - when Gloucester says, ‘I see it feelingly,’ he’s blind. He’s forced to see feelingly because he has no other option. The rest of us should use every faculty we possess.

This December marks the 200th Anniversary of the publishing of a 30 page article with the unassuming title, ‘On Rabbinic Literature.’ It was written by a German academic, Leopold Zunz and marks the foundation of what’s called Wissenschaft des Judentums - the critical, the prosaic, study of Judaism. It’s one of the most influential pieces of scholarship in Jewish history. It’s the sort of scholarship I was taught in my Rabbinical studies in New York. It’s the sort of scholarship Louis was taught - not in his Yeshiva studies - but when he went to UCL, when he entered the world of the academy.

It’s the sort of scholarship that explains how the great Piyutim of Rosh HaShanah could never had been written were it not for the disciplines of Arabic and Islamic rhetoric. It explains how the very institution of the Synagogue takes as inspiration early Christian church practice. It explains, even, the relationship between the Biblical book of Exodus and the older Code of Hammurabi. That’s a lot of sacred cows dispatched in a few sentences, but these are the things the careful, scholarly, prosaic pursuit of truth has taught those of us who wish to see not only feelingly, but with a commitment to what actually is and has happened.

You want to know what an ancient text means, you have to dig out textual variants, hand-written manuscripts boxed up in different libraries scattered across the globe. You have to set the text in its ancient context - that means having to learn a slew of languages both ancient and modern. It means taking seriously philology, history, sociology, anthropology - it’s exhausting. And at the end of it, you often find yourself disturbed by the very claims you have now proved.

If you are into poetic expressions of truth, then, yes, God dictated the Torah to Moses. But if you seek prosaically, and this is how Louis put it fifty years ago, we treasure a “composite work, [containing] material coming from diverse sources, compiled at different times, some of it, at the very least, dating from long after Moses.”[4]

Here’s the really challenging thing about the difference between the poetic and the prosaic search for truth. We feel most excited about poetic truth when we agree with the truths we find. But prosaic truth disturbs us, and our sacred cows. It breaks things. In scholarship - prosaic scholarship - scholars are more excited by insights that overturn existing assumptions than insights that reinforce what we were previously thinking.

And my point is that Judaism is, always has been and absolutely should be, committed to the prosaic, careful, iconoclastic pursuit of truth. As Solomon Schechter, another of the great prosaic scholars of Judaism - put it, “The Jew was the first and fiercest Nonconformist of the East. To break the idols, whether of the past or the present, has always been a sacred mission of Judaism.”[5]

He wrote well, did Schechter, and Zunz, and of, course, Rabbi Jacobs. There is poetry, even in the prosaic pursuit of truth. There is poetry in what we are doing here today. But we are, “seeing feelingly,” not by failing to use all our faculties. We are seeing feelingly, having engaged critically - having looked hard. That’s what gives us faith in the honesty of our emotional reactions. This is why it’s worth being part of a community like this. This is why it’s worth being a New Londoner, a Masorti Jew.

But this is about more than which Shul we turn up to on Rosh Hashanah. This is - as Freedland put it - about the, “the greatest contest of our age.”

So here are some tips - how to search for prosaic truth, on this day of judgement - the sorts of truth that the world desperately needs.

Prosaic truth can be found everywhere. Moses learns how to create a just society from Yitro the Midianite Priest. The Talmud recounts tales of Rabbis learning from non-Jews, from servants - male and female,[6] even the hated Romans even the cat, even the ant.[7] If you care about prosaic truth you can’t close your eyes to truths based on where they come from. You can’t be tribal in your epistemology.

The pursuit of truth has to be allowed to destabilise our levels of comfort. In fact it might even be the reverse is true. Any level of comfort, without a desire to destabilise that comfort, may well be self-imposed deceit. In the Midrashic collection Bereishit Rabba we find Rabbi Yosi Ben Hanina saying,
כָּל אַהֲבָה שֶׁאֵין עִמָּהּ תּוֹכָחָה אֵינָהּ אַהֲבָה - any love that isn’t accompanied with critique isn’t love.
And Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish saying,
כָּל שָׁלוֹם שֶׁאֵין עִמּוֹ תּוֹכָחָה אֵינוֹ שָׁלוֹם - any peace that isn’t accompanied with critique isn’t peace.
These are fighting words in a society where criticism is too often labelled treacherous, where disagreement is seen as a flaw. That’s terrible news. We need to stand up for the values of disagreement, we need to critique our own claims, support those who wish to criticise us and stand up for the value of discomforting truth-seeking.

Thirdly; the prosaic pursuit of truth needs to be conducted with a certain commitment to process.
There’s a famous Talmudic passage about a three-year old argument between Hillel and Shammai. Eventually, a heavenly voice declares Hillel’s position is to carry the day. Why?
“Because they were kind and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of house of Shammai, and would mention the sayings of the house of Shammai before theirs.”[8]

In the original passage both claims, of Hillel and Shammai are held to be the words of the living God, but I can’t help but think that it’s precisely because of the modesty of Hillel’s position, the commitment to hear the other voice, that Hillel’s side reaches the level of truth that ensures their viewpoint is accepted.

If you want to find truth you have to look everywhere, you have to be willing to be discomforted by what you might find and you need to commit to a truth-seeking process.

We are, as a human race, too powerful to allow ourselves to be shaped only by the poetic pursuit of truth. We are too dangerous to allow ourselves to be shaped only by, “seeing feelingly.” Our tendency to slip into tribal epistemology is threatening not only our faith, but the fabric of our society, it’s threatening the planet.

In the year to come I call on us all to pursue truth more  prosaically; to seek truth even in awkward places, to seek truth even as it destabilises our comfort, and to seek truth in ways decent and modest. And in so doing we should merit living up to the standard of Avraham Avinu - the first and fiercest Nonconformist of the East.

Shannah Tovah

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/20/trump-us-syria-truth-tribal-robert-mueller-white-helmets-factse?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Copy_to_clipboard
[2] https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/3/22/14762030/donald-trump-tribal-epistemology
[3] Act 4, Scene 6
[4] https://louisjacobs.org/new-london-synagogue/revelation-statement-theological-position-new-london-synagogue
[5] Studies in Judaism, First Series, p.xxi
[6] Megillah 18a
[7] Eruvin 105
[8] Eruvin 18a
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