Tuesday, 10 January 2023

“Seeing Auschwitz” – A Reflection from Rabbi Jeremy



 

Dear Friends,

 

Before we settle fully into Chanukah mode, I wanted to share a reflection on the ‘Seeing Auschwitz’ exhibition now installed (until March 23), in a gallery on Old Brompton Road. It’s one of the most thoughtful, moving and powerful presentations I can remember seeing.

 

The curators do guide us through some historical background, but the exhibition is not really about what happened, but rather about what it means to look at images of Auschwitz. The first galleries feature images shot by an SS Officer. The curation, both in the visual presentation and the excellent audio guide, draws us into a comparison of the dehumanising framing - emphasising the ‘efficiency’ of the operation, stripping the victims of their personhood – and moments of intimacy and humanity that nonetheless pervade even these shots – a man standing bewildered, missing a shoe, a camp inmate speaking to a recently disembarked woman – at great personal risk, a young boy meeting the gaze of the camera full-on…

 

In a photo of a ‘selection,’ we see only the backs of men’s heads as they are pointed towards immediate death or life-as-inmate by an SS ‘doctor.’ The audio guide alert us to the humanity of these men, clearly visible in the photo, but only if we stop and look slowly. Our attention is drawn to the pacing of victims as they head from the moment of selection towards the gas chamber visible in the rear of the image – “See how quickly these human lives are dispatched,” the audio calls us to note. “How quickly were you prepared to glimpse at this photo and move on?” To see humanity, we need to look more slowly. It was at that point that I wrote off other afternoon plans and settled in for the journey through other collections of images, all remarkable, powerful and brilliantly curated.

 

There are drawn images that survived on scraps of paper, this time drawn by an inmate, raising questions about agency and the reality of the behaviour of the SS Camp Guards – who stand ‘noble’ in the photos taken by the SS Officer and whose brutality is revealed in these illicit images drawn by an artist-inmate known only as ‘M.’

 

Another gallery features and curates for us two blurred photographs where piles of bodies between gassing and cremation can be just made out. The photos – taken by Jewish members of the Sonderkommando - are part-obscured by the need to hide the camera as it was being used. Video testimony of survivor Sonderkommando members contextualises these awful images.

 

Perhaps the most sickening images are ones featuring smiles and laughter; taken by an SS guard at the retreat centre for stressed guards, where they are encouraged to consort with the ‘right’ sort of German women and relax.

 

The exhibition is presented in a corporate venue and doesn’t clearly bear names we would associate with material such as this. But its origins are an exhibition prepared for the United Nations’ observance of the International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust and exhibited at UN Headquarters, New York, UNESCO Headquarters, Paris and United Nations Information Offices worldwide. The Memorial & Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Yad Vashem are frequently mentioned and the lead curator, Paul Salmons, helped curate the highly regarded Holocaust Galleries at the Imperial War Museum.

 

I recommend it highly, particularly in these over-tinselled times. We’ll be lighting flames in the coming days, may we all be touched by the miracles of survival and insistence on the importance of acknowledging the right to self-determination for our people, and all people.

 

Rabbi Jeremy

Saturday, 17 December 2022

A Guide to Lighting the Chanukiyah

 To Light the anukkiyah

1.    Place the first candle to the far right of the anukkiyah, then add any further candles incrementally from the right towards the left.

2.    Hold and light the shamash.

3.    Say both blessings (and, on the first day only, add the Sheheḥeyanu blessing).

4.    Use the shamash to light the candles beginning with the newest candle – the leftmost candle, moving incrementally towards the right. It’s customary to sing HaNeirot Halalu while lighting.

5.    Return the shamash into its holder and sing Maoz Tzur.

On Friday night the Chanukah candles are lit before Shabbat candles. On Saturday night, Chanukah candles are lit after making Havdalah.

Blessings


בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִידְשָׁנוּ בְּמִצוֹתָיו וְצִיוָּנוּ לְהַדְלִיק נֵר שֶׁל חֲנֻכָּה

Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam asher kid’shanu b’mitz-votav v’tzivanu l’hadlik neir shel anukkah.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God and sovereign of the universe, who has sanctified us with commandments and commanded us to light the anukkiyah.


בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁעָשָׂה נִסִּים לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בַּזְּמַן הַזֶּה

Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam she-asah nissim la’avoteinu bayamim haheim baz’man hazeh.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God and sovereign of the universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days, at this season.

First night only

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁהֶחֱיָּנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיָּענוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה

Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam sheheḥeyanu v’kiy’manu v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God and sovereign of the universe, who has given us life and sustained us and enabled us to reach this season. 

HaNeirot Halalu:

הַנֵּרוֹת הַלָּלוּ אָֽנוּ מַדְלִיקִין, עַל הַנִּסִּים וְעַל הַנִּפְלָאוֹת וְעַל הַתְּשׁוּעוֹת וְעַל הַמִּלְחָמוֹת, שֶׁעָשִׂיתָ לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בַּזְמַן הַזֶּה, עַל יְדֵי כֹּהֲנֶיךָ הַקְּדוֹשִים.

וְכָל שְׁמוֹנַת יְמֵי חֲנֻכָּה, הַנֵּרוֹת הַלָּלוּ קֹדֶשׁ הֵן, וְאֵין לָנוּ רְשׁוּת לְהִשְׁתַּמֵּשׁ בָּהֵן, אֶלָּא לִרְאוֹתָן בִּלְבָד, כְּדֵי לְהוֹדוֹת וּלְהַלֵל לְשִׁמְךָ הַגָּדוֹל עַל נִסֶּיךָ וְעַל נִפְלְאוֹתֶיךָ וְעַל יְשׁוּעָתֶךָ׃

Haneirot halalu anu madlikin al hanissim, v'al hanifla-ot, v’al hatshu-ot v'al hamilamot she-asita la'avoteinu bayamim haheim bazman hazeh, al y’dei kohanekha hak’doshim.

V’khol sh’monat y’mei anukkah, haneirot halalu kodesh hein, v’ein lanu reishut l’hishtameish bahein, ela lir’otan bilvad, k’dei l’hodot ul’haleil l’shimkha hagadol al nisekha v’al nif-l’otekha v’al y’shu-atekha.

We light these lights for the miracles and the wonders, for the redemption and the battles, that you made for our forefathers in those days at this season, through your holy priests.

During all eight days of anukkah these lights are sacred and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them, but only to look at them - in order to express thanks and praise to Your great Name, for Your miracles, Your wonders, and Your salvations.

Maoz Tzur (First Paragraph)


מָעוֹז צוּר יְשׁוּעָתִי לְךָ נָאֶה לְשַׁבֵּחַ

תִּכּוֹן בֵּית תְּפִלָתִי וְשָׁם תּוֹדָה נְזַבֵּחַ

לְעֵת תָּכִין מַטְבֵּחַ מִצָר הַמְנַבֵּחַ

אָז אֶגְמֹר בְּשִׁיר מִזְמוֹר חֲנֻכַּת הַמִזְבֵּחַ

 

Ma’oz tzur y’shu-ati l’kha na’eh l’shabei-aḥ, tikon beit t’filati v’sham todah n’zabei-aḥ,

L’eit takhin matbei-aḥ mitzar ham-nabei-aḥ,az egmor b’shir mizmor ḥanukat hamizbei-aḥ.


Friday, 16 December 2022

Why Be Religious - Archbishop Rowan Williams' Reith Lecture




I know the BBC is a complex organisation, and in recent times has been guilty of some offensive antisemitism, but I still hold it dear.

For years I’ve made a commitment to listen to the Reith Lectures – four lectures given, every year, by leading figures in their field.

This year by four different figures, taking their cue from the four freedoms articulated by the then President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1941 State of the Union address; freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.

The speaker addressing the freedom, in a lecture given in their home-town of Swansea was the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.[1]

It was a remarkable talk – I recommend it. And I want to share some of Archbishop’s ideas about the value of worship as a follow up to the sermon I gave last week about the value of Judaism. And I hope, next week, to share something on the value of prayer – the kind of Jewish worship we engage in here, week after week, after week.

In the first part of the speech, the Archbishop disdained to care very much about protecting freedom of religious conscious – the right of a person to believe whatever they wanted to believe as a internal, purely spiritualized faith commitment. He was interested in what he called “manifested religion” – protections to do things because we believe in things.

If we say we are in favour of freedom of religion and we only mean freedom to privately believe in anything anyone wants to believe, we put religion in a category that doesn’t matter.

It is, Williams argued, “the kind of repressive tolerance that some radical social theorists of the ’60s identified, a tolerance that undermines what it purports to allow.” I think that’s exactly right. Religion doesn’t want to be considered a private set of beliefs that have no impact on the way we live our lives. Religion, if it means anything at all, means that the beliefs we have must be manifested – must be lived out. Belief drives action.

But also, he went on to say, freedom to worship can’t be merely about protection of rights to do strange, ritualized things, the rights of Jews to take time off work on Rosh Hashanah, or the right of Sikh men to wear long hair, or Islamic women to cover their hair.

“Modern societies,” Williams argued, “have settled for a kind of lukewarm tolerance, a recognition that within reasonable limits of public order people may conduct whatever rituals they please because none of this should impinge on the way they make significant decisions or order their civic and personal lives. But this gives the unmistakable impression that religious practice is essentially a sort of leisure activity, probably harmless, but definitely marginal to the main business of society.”

You might want to  swim, I might want to play football. You might want to go to the theatre, I might want to hear jazz. You might want to keep kosher and I might want to keep Halal.

So be it, and we can probably get on, more or less, with most of that. But that, also, argues Williams, isn’t enough to justify why it’s worth caring about relgion.

So what is really going on when we say that religion matters?

What does it really mean to say that we want a protected space for religion in the public sphere.

Religion starts, rather obviously, with God. That is to say, not with humans. That means two things.

Religion is a counter to what Williams called the “double dangers of modernity,” that on the one hand strength and might is the only true locus of power – that, of course is the danger of fascism, and on the other that my own internal compass should be the only locus of authority over me, a danger that he calls vacuous.

I have to admit, a deep dislike of the sort of life-task Ibsen’s Peer Gynt spent a life pursuing, “be true to yourself.” “Follow your own truth.” It’s a kind of self-serving, self-aggrandizing way of seeing one’s place in the Universe. The chances are that the Universe doesn’t really need us to focus on our own self-satisfaction and our own pursuit of our own self-interest. In fact for us to get on as a society we’re going to have to peer outside the silo of our own self-interest and start working out how to live in society.

And that leads us to how we make decisions as societies. What happens on the other side of Rousseau’s social contract? Williams argues that, were it not for religion, were it not for some ‘other’ centred location of absolute importance in our world, the only other way societies work out how to behave is by power; power expressed by authoritarian regimes, but also by democratic regimes.

what’s at stake in all this is the freedom to believe that certain human actions and policies derive their goodness or rightness not from consensus or even legality but from something more lasting, something about the way things are, and the freedom to organise your actions, public and private on that basis. It’s the freedom to see your human choices and habits as part of an attempt to discover some kind of fit with a reality that is quite outside human control. It’s the ethics as tied up with a process of discovering what is lastingly appropriate for the kind of beings that human beings are in the kind of world that this world is.

Williams’ point is that, if you make room for religion, you make room at the table for a view of how the world should work that isn’t just about the numbers or feelings of people sharing those views right now. He makes a point that at every point in history large numbers of people have held beliefs that are, when viewed from some other place, palpably wrong – slavery being perhaps the best example.

The point of religion is that it comes at the comforts of our contemporary moment from the outside.

While is might be true that there have been religious moral failures, religious people who have tried to give religious justifications for the unjustifiable. From where else have we or do we learn to see society from outside the prism of number and power?

There’s a wonderful rabbinic commentary on the moment when Moses and Aharon appear before Pharoah.[2]

And Moses and Aaron came [before Pharaoh] (Exodus 5:1)

Rabbi Hiyya son of Abba said, ‘This was coronation day, when all the Kings came to crown Pharaoh because he was the Emperor. While they were placing crowns on Pharaoh’s head, Moses and Aaron stood at the entrance to the hallway.

Pharaoh’s guards told him, ‘Two elders are standing at the doorway’

Pharaoh asked ‘Have they got a crown?’

The guard replied ‘no.’

‘Then let them enter last.’

When Moses and Aaron finally stood before Pharaoh he said, ‘What do you want?’ Moses replied ‘The God of the Hebrews has sent be to you to say, “Let my people go so they will serve me.”’ (Ex 7:16).

Pharaoh replied angrily, ‘Who is this GOD that I should listen to His voice. Doesn’t He know enough to send me a crown, rather you come with words.’

Rabbi Levi said, ‘Pharaoh then took the list of gods and began to read, ‘The god of Edom, the god of Moab, the god of Sidon, yada yada yada,’ and he said to them, ‘There, I have finished all my records and your god’s not on the list.’

So Moses and Aaron said to Pharaoh, ‘Fool, the gods you mentioned are all dead. But the LORD is a living God, Ruler of the Universe.’

Pharaoh asked, ‘Is he young or old? How many cities has he captured? How many states has he humbled? How long has he been in power?

They replied, the strength and power of our God fills the world. God was before the world was created and God will be at the end of the worlds. He fashioned you and placed within you the breath of life.’

What else has he done? Pharaoh asked.

It’s an argument between someone, Pharaoh, who believes in the world as it is as determining what is and what should be done. And someone, Moses, who are trying to make a space for an understanding of the world that comes from outside Pharoah’s experience. It’s an argument about the value of religion. It’s an argument that goes to the heart of what it means to be a human and to hunger for freedom and morality.

Religion doesn’t always get it right, but if religion is going to be given the grief for its errors, then it deserves its plaudits and protections for being the force behind every liberation movement in Western Civilization since the original Exodus.

And what of those errors – the errors of religion to back things that are simply wrong, or immoral? Williams argues that it’s true but also unsurprising. It’s a hard business, attempting to look at the Universe from the outside, and that’s why, at least for me, religion is at its best in humility. When the notion of there being a power outside of the world that is greater than me, and everything in this world imbues in my a humility, a lack of confidence in the absolute rightness of my own position.

The knowledge that I am not God, and that there is a force outside of all humanity that I have to live before should help me find points of meeting even with those with whom I disagree.

As Williams puts it

[The] main thing is that the presence within a society of people with strong commitments about what is due to human dignity puts a certain kind of pressure on the whole social environment, a pressure to argue for and justify what society licences or defends in terms that go beyond popular consensus alone. In other words, it helps to guarantee that argument about issues from environmental responsibility to sexual politics will have an element of real moral debate, debate about the kind of beings human beings are.

Religion isn’t the guarantor of getting these arguments right, but it is, I think, absolutely vital

 



[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001fw1l

[2] Midrash Tanhumah, V’era 5

Monday, 12 December 2022

Wandering; Abraham and the Human Condition

  


I wonder if Abraham would get our sympathy if he were alive today.

Or perhaps, more technically, I wonder if, were Abraham to arrive in this country in the way in which he arrives in Egypt at the beginning of this week’s reading, he would be processed in such a way as to allow him leave to remain on these shores.

Actually, I don’t wonder. It’s abundantly clear that Abraham is an economic migrant. He wouldn’t have a chance. The Biblical verse reads

There was a famine in the land and Avram when down towards Egypt to dwell there, for the famine in the land was severe.

That’s not a well-founded fear of persecution. He’s just hungry. Desperately hungry. By the standards of today’s world, that’s not good enough. But it deserves, surely, our empathy.

 

The great Biblical commentator, Rashi brings a teaching that dates to the first two centuries of the common era; “ra’av bair, pazer raglecha – a famine in the city, makes your feet go wandering.”

Famines do that to a person.

No food, no possibility of sustenance.

Pazer raglecha – off we go in search of pastures greener.

It’s hard-wired into the human condition since I suspect, before there was such a creature as homo sapiens.

 

Several chapters later, in the Book of Genesis, Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, also flees in fear.

His mother tells him,

Esav achicha mitchatein lecha, lehargecha

Esau, your brother is plotting to kill you.

And off goes Jacob. He flees to Padan Aram.

Who wouldn’t?

I wonder if Jacob would be categorised as an asylum seeker in this country if he turned up today pleading a real and immediate threat of his life being ended.

Actually, I don’t wonder – I know he wouldn’t have a chance.

For the UN Refugee Convention of 1951, even a well-founded fear of persecution only counts if it’s for reasons of, “race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group.”

And Jacob’s just in a filial spat.

 

I could keep going, from Jacob’s children who fled famine in Canaan to seek food in Egypt to … and yes somewhere in all of this are those images that so haunt me as a Jew, of desperate refugees from Nazi Germany.

I don’t know how many of us know the story of the Struma, a 78-year-old yacht that was commandeered by the Betar youth movement in Nazi-occupied Romania to take Jews from the grasp of the Nazis to Palestine,

 

Here's part of the tale of the Struma drawn from the Encyclopaedia of the Holocaust

Apart from the crew and 60 Betar youth, there were over 700 passengers who had paid large fees to board the ship. Passengers were told they would be sailing on a renovated boat with a short stop in Istanbul to collect their Palestinian immigration visas. Each refugee was allowed to take 20 kilograms (44 lb) of luggage. Romanian customs officers took many of the refugees' valuables and other possessions, along with food that they had brought with them. The passengers were not permitted to see the vessel before the day of the voyage. They found that she was a wreck with only two lifeboats.  She sailed on 12th December 1941, and on the day of her sailing, her engine failed so a tug towed her out of the port of Constanţa. The waters off Constanţa were mined, so a Romanian vessel escorted her clear of the minefield. She then drifted overnight while her crew tried vainly to start her engine. She transmitted distress signals and on 13 December the Romanian tug returned. The tug's crew said they would not repair Struma's engine unless they were paid.[17] The refugees had no money after buying their tickets and leaving Romania, so they gave all their wedding rings to the tugboat men, who then repaired the engine.[17] Struma then got underway but by 15 December her engine had failed again so she was towed into the port of Istanbul in Turkey.

 

All sounds desperately contemporary, doesn’t it?

For two and a half months the Sturma drifted around the Eastern Mediterranean while many turned to the British, holders, of course, of the League of Nation Mandate over Palestine to step up and step in. And no one did anything. And then on the 23rd of February 1942 the Struma was torpedoed by a Russian submarine and sunk. Of the 792 people aboard, all but one died. The only survivor, David Stoliar, was left clinging to a piece of bobbing wreckage.

 

Why didn’t the British step in to help? Maybe it had something to do with how the tale of refugees back then was being reported in this country.

The Daily Mail, back in 1938 wrote

“’The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage . . ."

Thanks.

 

The point is this. Wandering is the normal condition. Fleeing persecution is the normal human condition. It’s not “normal” that everyone stays put, come what may. It’s not realistic. Suggesting that human beings should stay put come what may is not how we, as human beings, merit being called humane.

 

I’m so proud of the diverse national collection of members in this extraordinary community. There are so many of us drawn to this extraordinary city in this extraordinary country from so many countries of the world – and Ezra, we celebrate particularly, with you – the son of a native-born Canadian and a native-born American. I don’t know how many generations back it takes until we are all wanderers and refugees – from one thing or another. For me, it takes three generations until my ancestors are from somewhere else. How about for you or any of us.

 

And look what we have been capable of, as Jews in the country, and not even just as Jews. Our Prime Minister is but two generations removed from wandering, even, God help her, our Home Secretary.

 

Even putting aside, the question of the contributions of outsiders, Jewish and otherwise, in the societies in which they find themselves, it’s simply untrue to suggest that there is somehow a natural state of affairs in which there are only us – the people who deserve to be here, and them – the people who don’t.

Mary Douglas, the anthropologist and Biblical scholar, is best known as the author of the book Purity and Danger. It’s about the Biblical system of sacrifices and ritual purity. “Dirt,” says Douglas, “is matter out of place.”  “Dirt is not an independent, objective attribute of something, but a “residual category [of things] rejected from our normal scheme of classifications” 

She illustrates these points with mundane examples: shoes, for instance, are not dirty in themselves, “but it is dirty to place them on the dining table”. Similarly, food is not necessarily dirty, “but it is dirty to leave cooking utensils in the bedroom”

 

I think that’s what we’ve done to human beings. Not just in this country, but all across the developed world.

We’ve defined human beings as dirt when they are more properly defended as human beings out of place. And that is a terrible failure of our ability to recognise humanity in all humans.

I know it is possible, and even for some attractive to respond at this point – but what about the criminals, the failures to behave in some way we might consider suitably British in all this.

But again, the Bible should strip from us the ability to hide, cosily, behind such a point.

After all Abraham – the first monotheist, arrives at the border and offers his wife, Sarai to the border guards knowing she’s going to be offered as a sexual companion for Pharoah. That’s not a radical re-interpretation of the Bible – that’s exactly what it says. And what would we call that behaviour in today’s terminology – human trafficker / pimp? It’s clearly morally inappropriate behaviour, but, again, my questions are where do we place sympathy? How do we related to humans caught up and moving even in ways that are criminal where the impulses and the underlying causes are so much more complex than simply ‘them’ being bad and ‘us’ being good?

Professor Lea Ypi, writing in the Guardian about the nation of her birth – Albania.

There are about 140,000 Albanians currently living in the UK, ranging from construction workers to doctors, from lawyers to cleaners, from entrepreneurs to academics. The vast majority are well integrated: they pay taxes, they queue, they apologise to inanimate objects, they swear loyalty to the monarchy. When all are labelled criminals, their differences, their personal histories, their contributions to society, become invisible. The ideal of democracy is taken hostage by the ugly reality of martial metaphors. When an entire minority group is singled out as “invaders”, the project of integration breaks down. All that remains is violence,[1]

We’ve decided that some human beings are ‘out of place’ and therefore can be recategorized as ‘dirt.’ Practices and treatment that we would never accept of those ‘in place’ somehow can be justified.

And it’s abhorrent and it’s unacceptable.

And the fact that as British Jews, or American Jews, or Israeli Jews have been in-situ for just long enough to shut the door behind us justifies nothing.

It just makes things worse.

 

We’ve a destitute asylum seeker Drop-In, run through this community. It meets once a month and provides those the Refugee Council acknowledge as legally in the process of applying for refugee status with food, company, a little money and human-to-human company.

We celebrate the 6th anniversary of the Drop-In this Sunday. They are looking for volunteers. Let me know if you are interested in hearing more.

 

And the next time there is something that wells up inside, and we all do, and I certainly do it, that threatens to consider a human being who has left their home in search of safety or possibility, even if their reasonable threat of danger falls short of some UN standard, check that you aren’t defining a fellow human being as dirt, simply because they are out of the place where we feel comfortable with them remaining.

 

And speak up, to be proud to be a refugee, or a descendant

of a refugee and don’t let the other voices have all the good headlines.

Because it’s simply repugnant that once we’ve decided that there are people who don’t deserve to be here it’s OK to lock them up as criminals, leave them – leave us – bobbing around the Mediterranean until someone torpedoes the boat.

 

Shabbat Shalom

Monday, 5 December 2022

Why Be Jewish - Thoughts on 'Good' by C.P. Taylor - A Sermon for Vayeitze

 


I went to see a particularly distressing play this week, Good at the Pinter Theatre. It’s a play about a man’s descent from being a debonaire German intellectual – an expert on humanism no less – into a suited and booted Nazi SS officer visiting Auschwitz to check on the progress of the Nazi Genocide of our people.

I did say it was distressing.

But it’s had me thinking about this question – what is it about being Jewish that would be lost from this world if we were to disappear? What is our unique possible contribution?

To be clear, I don’t need everyone in the world to be Jewish, I mean, if you aren’t Jewish, you go right ahead and work as hard on being the best version of who you are as you can possibly be. But if this is your gift, my gift, and my obligation, what exactly does it mean? Hi Noah, welcome to the adult part of all of this. What’s next after succeeding brilliantly at the task of reading from our sacred scriptures and sharing your insight from this podium.

In one particularly nasty – if affecting and effective - piece of writing, the Scottish Jewish playwright, C.P. Taylor, has his lead character give a lecture on the problem with the Jews. David Tenant, playing the lead role of John Halder addresses us, the audience, as if we were the potential recruits to the Nazi ideology he seeks to win over, or the smug already-Nazis he seeks to impress with his elocution and smooth patter.

Halder’s point is that the Jews are essentially individualists, looking out primarily for the self as opposed to the vision of a Nazi State – that looks out for its people as a collective – as long, of course as that collective is collectively Aryan of course. I paraphrase the speech, but Halfer cites an aphorism of Hillel, from Pirkei Avot.

“After all, it says in their Talmud,” says Halder, “That if I am not for myself who will be for me.”

Now Tenant is an affecting actor, and Taylor has written an affecting script and it’s part of the brilliance of the performance and the play that you find yourself, as a member of the audience almost nodding along as we are told that the central problem with Jews – with me, and so many of you – is that we are “for ourselves” above all. It takes a moment, even for me – sitting there with my Kippa on in the lofty heights of the upper circle to shake myself out of this.

But of course, it’s not true.

Or at least it’s as true as saying that a bridge is a supremely dangerous piece of engineering since it has only one side securely fastened to the ground while the other side dangles over a chasm.

The full aphorism or possibly our greatest ever Rabbi, Hillel, reads

“If I am not for myself who will be for me. And if I am only for myself, what am I?”

Don’t be misled by the rhetorical question. “If I am only for myself, what am I?” has a very clear assumed answer – unhuman, inhuman, failures at being human.

As I said, I was a little too destabilised by the theatrical moment to get up and heckle, and maybe that’s part of what went wrong in Nazi Germany – it’s hard to get up and heckle when one charismatic human being spouts nonsense about an entire class of other human beings – but I should have heckled, someone should have heckled, we all should have heckled.

No Halder – you only got half the quotation. It’s like saying a bridge is only rooted to one side of a chasm. The full quotation is “If I am not for myself who will be for me. And if I am only for myself, [I am unhuman, inhuman … a monster]. And the monsters are the Nazis. And the monster, Professor Halder is you. And the reason you are a monster is that despite you professing to care about the humanism of human behaviour you only really care about humans like you. You don’t care about the humanity of humans who are too ill to for themselves. You don’t care about Jews. You only care for people who can make your life more comfy and more powerful and …. Ach, you, Professor Halder are not Good. You, Professor Halder are bad, very bad indeed.

One of the advantages of being a congregational Rabbi who didn’t heckle in public a play demonstrating quite how seamlessly a person can be seduced into Nazism, is that you get to make your point on a Shabbat, in Shul.

Sorry, do I need to pause a second and ensure I say that the play is absolutely on the side of the entire human race. The fact that the Jewish C. P. Taylor and everyone else involved in the play wants to demonstrate how a person can be turned into the very worst kind of Nazi doesn’t, of course, mean they have a mote of sympathy for Nazi ideology. There I’ve said it.

But the more that I have been thinking about Halder’s bastardised citation of the Talmud and the way the deceitful claim that Nazi ideology is about a virtuous collective all working together crumbles through one’s fingers, the more I have come to think that these two issues are part of the same dialectic. They are a central part of the answer to the question what we, as Jews, are here for, part of the central answer of what we should be doing.

When Hillel passes sets his great aphorism rolling down through the ages, and it’s been almost two thousand years at this point, he’s sending two opposite tensions.

If I am not for me, who will be for me.

If I am only for myself, what am I?

On the one hand, and on the other hand.

That sounds like the opening of a Jewish joke, really any Jewish joke. It also sounds like the opening of Sugya of the Talmud, really any sugya. It sounds like the key to an understanding of a Jewish hermeneutic of the world. We don’t do one-sided arguments.

You can feel it throughout anything that gets run through a Jewish process – dialectic, tension, one the one hand and on the other hand. Just to take the example of this week’s Torah reading. You can feel a dialectical tension in the relationship between Jacob and father, Jacob and his mother, Jacob and his brother, Jacob and his first wife, Jacob and his second wife, Jacob and his daughter, Jacob and Shimon and Levi. I could go on.

The Jewish path to truth isn’t walked by smoothing out wrinkles and creating a pure pathway devoid of jagged complexity. It’s a pathway strong enough to sustain us as a people (for two thousand years at this point) because it entails understanding how complexity works, and tension and non-uniformity and variety and plurality.

Right at the heart of Judaism is the understanding that each of us, in our uniqueness and difference embody the singular Image of God – a God who has no form and no shape so instead can only be understood through acknowledging the different ways in which godliness is made manifest in our world.

 That’s why Hillel is so aghast at the inhuman fool who is only for themselves, they are prepared to imagine that they are God, when, in fact, God lives in the space between all of us, and not beheld and not beholden by any of us.

And the purpose of Jewish study, study of the Torah and the Talmud and all of that is to appreciate in ever more sophisticated and sensitive ways the interplay of complexity in the world and how to pass through that challenge with integrity and gentleness and holiness.

Is it important for a Jew to keep Kosher, for sure. You can get Rabbinic ordination for knowing the rules of keeping Kosher. But the rules of keeping Kosher appear to be blindingly simple – don’t eat this, and don’t eat that with this. The truth is it’s all in the detail and the interplay and the hope is that all this our understanding and our embodied living a life of observing so carefully the way in which we consume stops us from seeing our own dominion over the world.

I don’t want to make the case that we Jews have a monopoly on dialectical tension, but we’re really good at it. We’ve been doing it so long and do it in so many ways it’s profoundly part of who we are and who are, as Jews, supposed to be.

And then we enter into a broader society.

And we challenge. Reaching over the summer our member, Anne Summers book on Christian and Jewish Women Living in Britain 1880-1940. The subtitle is ‘Living with Difference.’ She makes the point that the Jewish women arriving on these shores in the nineteenth century were the first community to challenge the hegemony of Waspish Anglo society. We raised problems for those genteel Christian women’s organisations who thought that everyone would want to have Sunday as the Lord's Day.

The very tension we carry around ourselves in our own Jewishness is the way we manifest ourselves in a broader society that can too quickly lapse into thinking that their way is the only way. That was Halder, of course; in his version of the collective German Volk he forgot about the ways in which German Jews were both one thing – German – and the other – Jews – and should have been protected, not persecuted. Again, we’ve been doing this for a while and while there are, by now, so many other differences in contemporary Anglo society – there is still something particularly complex about Jewish differences. We still exist in a space between and in tension. We pass as ‘normal-ish’ but aren’t the establishment. We are protected as a minority but as David Baddiel and others are finding increasingly Jews Don’t really Count.

We exist as provocateurs, checks in the system. Can you handle difference, can you handle the way in which we don’t fit in.

As I wrote in my weekly words, a society that can handle this, can handle us, tends to do well facing the challenges of the day – the scientific achievements, the economic achievements, the cultural achievements all depend on a healthy attitude towards otherness and difference. After all, if we were all trained into being the same, and trying to be the same, none of us would ever do anything new or different at all.

Perhaps that image of the bridge, Halder’s mis-representation of Hillel’s aphorism as a bridge only secured on one side, is worth returning to. Bridges – of course – have strength because of their tension. I’m always nervous about getting too scientific when there are proper engineers around, but bridges aren’t strong because they are straight and strong in their straightness, they hang off themselves, they suspend, they lean into keystones, and they embody strength through tension.

Rebbe Nachman said, “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be afraid.” It is perhaps one of the greatest truths about Jews and Judaism. We Jews are embodied bridges. I took Rebbe Nachman’s aphorism as a title for my blog – on which I’ll shortly be posting a copy of this sermon.

Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid Noah, and don’t be afraid, any of us. We should be proud to stick out oddly, in our difference, in our obsession over “on the one hand” and “on the other hand.” Our delight in complexity and strangeness, our protecting and nurturing of difference in the way we treat our fellow and our world, the food we eat and the way we spend our time, are part of how the narrow bridge on which we all travel is given strength.

That’s our job.

That’s our destiny.

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I”

“The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be afraid.”

Shabbat Shalom

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