This sermon began as a reflection on a counterintuitive idea.
This piece of cloth isn’t supposed to stop me catching COVID.
The reason to wear a mask isn’t to stop me catching COVID, but rather to stop someone else catching COVID from me.
Mask wearing is an act of … what is it exactly, generosity? I don’t think generosity quite covers it. I’m going to make the claim that mask-wearing is religious. I don’t mean mask-wearing is something that can be included in a list of good deeds we stack up in a cosmic account of boxes ticked and not ticked, but rather that mask-wearing unlocks the very nature of what it means to be religious.
Mask-wearing is a very Levinasian act. The great Jewish theologian and philosopher Immanuel Levinas talked about placing value on the other person as the central ethical call of our lives. He wrote, in the decades immediately after the Holocaust, of the importance of placing the mortality of the other person at the very centre of who we are. Levinas is going to stand as an exemplar of what it means to be religious, for me, this evening.
And on the other side of this debate, between the forces of religion and the forces of … not religion, I’m calling as witness a central idea from the writings of Immanuel Kant. I’m going to be a little unfair on Kant who had much else to say, but Kant was responsible for the idea that every individual is the end in themselves, and never to be solely a means to another end. I know that’s to oversimplify Kant, but this is a sermon, not a philosophy seminar.
The reason, I think, it’s OK to oversimplify Kant’s categorical imperative is that his articulation transformed so much of what we think it means to be ethical. Kant’s doctrine of the in-alienable nature of the self has driven human rights legislation, medical ethics and so much else. And mostly that’s good. But placing ‘me’ at the centre of what it means to ethical is dangerous.
If I am not to be a means to another end, I must be the most important thing in my own ethical universe. My rights deserve to be prioritized, my self-determination needs to be vouchsafed. Ibsen’s tragi-hero Peer Gynt can justify frittering away their life in the search to be true to his own self. Thousands of t-shirts and posters can be printed with versions of the slogan, “Live Your Own Truth,” and this idea can, somehow, be cast as ethically OK. And somewhere in all of this, that pseudo-Kantian idea is to blame.
I mean, if I should pursue my own truth as an ethical goal,
if I focus all my ethical energy on not being a means to the ends of another,
if I’m not under the ethical command to discomfort myself with this piece of, let’s admit it, deeply discomforting cloth, then why on earth should I?
In response to pseudo-Kantian claim that Living Your Own Truth is the purpose of existence, religion sits down and has a little cry. I mean, what can religion say to someone who has turned themselves into the centre of ethical power in their own private universe? What should I say to someone who has made themselves into their own god?
Religion – at least this religion – is the practice of locating power beyond the self. Religious Jews don’t eat what they feel like, they don’t say the things they feel like saying, they don’t do the things they feel like doing all the time. Rather we eat what we eat, say what we way and do what we do in the context of a covenant, a relationship with a people and a God. That’s the very essence of Judaism – we are not God – we did not create the world, imbue it with life and meaning and we did not bring the Jewish people out of the Land of Egypt.
And so, the entire drive of a Jewish understanding of life, becomes the attempt to live well in the face of otherness we cannot understand and cannot control. The entire apparatus of Jewish law is a training in living with this external sense of obligation.
Let me give two examples.
כִּי תִבְנֶה בַּיִת חָדָשׁ, וְעָשִׂיתָ מַעֲקֶה לְגַגֶּךָ; וְלֹא-תָשִׂים דָּמִים בְּבֵיתֶךָ, כִּי-יִפֹּל הַנֹּפֵל מִמֶּנּוּ.
When you build a new house, you shall put a parapet on the roof so you shall not place blood on your house should someone fall from it. (Deut 22:8)
If I’m not stupid enough to go clambering around my roof, why should parapet building be my problem? Because my actions have implications for other people, and I need to obligated by them, even if I don’t want to be, or don’t see how that could possibly be fair.
Or this one, a little less well known – the law of the Egla Arufa; if a dead body is found in a field beyond my village, the leaders of the village have to come forth and accept responsibility for the death. Why do they have to accept responsibility for something that happened outside their village - it’s not as if the leaders of the village killed the person? Rather it’s because they failed to stop the death from happening and the empty space beyond their village is still their problem.
I think about the law of the Egla Arufa every time I read about a refugee dingy capsizing in the Mediterranean, or when I hear about those left behind in Afghanistan. The people in a field beyond my village are still my problem.
In 1972, Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Rabbi, the anti-racism and anti-war campaigner wrote: “Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, [and] in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Much is made of the notion of Jewish guilt. I think it’s usually a mis-understood concept. The issue isn’t that we are going to burn in hell for every infraction of an ancient set of rules. The issue is, that our lives are to be judged on a scale of how successfully we lived up to our obligations towards others and otherness. By the standards of the cosmos I don’t believe, for what it’s worth, that there are many points available for successfully doing what seems right in our own eyes – whatever that happens to be.
That’s why wearing a mask that keeps, not me safe, but you safe, is such a fundamentally religious act. Mask wearing is perhaps the paradigmatic way in which we, in a pandemic, accept the burdens imposed by the other.
By the way, if you’re exempt, you’re exempt. If you shouldn’t be wearing a mask, of course it’s ethically correct not to wear a mask. If you’re exempt, I don’t mean you.
But let me do a piece on vaccines also. Because while I know so many of us in this sacred community took the very first opportunity presented to go and get vaccinated, I’ve had invitations from members of this community, to protest against a supposed unfairness of vaccine fascism or whatever it’s being called. And I’m sorry for the discomfort I’m going to try to impose on the vaccine resistant in this community, but not that sorry.
To be fair, I’ve encountered far more vaccine resistance in the yoga circles I wander through than Jewish world I inhabit. In yoga-classes I’ve encountered younger, fitter people who don’t want to put toxicity into their bodies. They are concerned about the side-effects of the vaccine – and there are side-effects of the vaccine – and rightly or wrongly they aren’t so worried about getting Covid themselves because they think they are young enough and fit enough to fight it off. All that may be true, but these yogis who parenthetically seem to spend a lot of time talking about ‘pursuing your own truth’, or ‘prioritizing self-actualisation’ seem to have missed the point that, if you are young and fit, the reason to get vaccinated is less to prevent your own serious illness than to ensure that there is less infection out there in the society in which we all live. For the more infection there is out there in society, the more those who are less young, and less fit will suffer.
Again vaccination, especially for the younger and fitter among us, is at least as much an act of generosity or ethics or religion as it is an act of self-protection.
That’s why I got vaccinated, that’s why I wear a mask. That’s why it’s such a privilege to serve as a rabbi to a community who – and here you all are in your masked splendor – get this. And simply by being here, in your holy, holy masks embody your commitment to this idea. Thank you.
But this isn’t really a sermon about mask-wearing or vaccines. I’m interested in something far broader. It’s going to take much more than wearing masks, and coming to Shul on Kol Nidrei to transform the society in which we live. It will take an inversion of the entire pseudo-Kantian idea that my own needs are the way to go, ethically, and as a lifestyle. It will take a whole re-centering on the value and desperate importance of living our lives for the sake of others.
So where might one find a training in this radical new idea?
Forgive me for making a political sermon on Kol Nidrei so overtly religious. I sent out a survey just after Yom Kippur last year and had some respondents who told me my Yom Kippur sermons should be less political and some respondents who told me I shouldn’t use my sermons to bang on so much about being more religious. Sorry. But this is what we do here, week in, week out. Prayer service in, prayer service out. We practice locating the central obligating force in our lives as other than us. We’re training ourselves to hear that voice, the voice of faith articulated in the language of Mitzvah – commandedness, obligations to others. That’s who we are, as a faith community.
Gemar Chatimah Tovah.