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Thursday, 31 March 2011

Is Religion Good for the World?

One of my distant friends posted a question on Facebook – “What man-made creation has killed more humans than any other?” Someone immediately posted the answer that was being looked for – “religion.” I get so tired of this question because it's such a simplification of something to which I have gladly dedicated my life. So my response to the Facebook post was as follows...
*yawn*. The answer is without any doubt the concept of ownership of land. More people have died because they were either on the wrong land or because someone else wanted their land or resources than have died from anything else. Most wars that were given a religious connotation were actually wars over land or resources or, at the core, the concept of ownership of land. It's a cheap lazy shot to say religion, I'm afraid. When the crusaders went marching into Jerusalem, they did so not because of religion because the religions were already mixing there. They did it because they wanted to OWN Jerusalem. Religion by itself is not violent and does not cause death."

The obvious claim against religion is that it’s the basis of all the major conflicts in the world. That of course doesn’t bear out when you look at the history of wars in the last century alone. Even wars that are between differing religious groups often have nothing to do with religion at all, although religion is often at some point subverted for the cause of division to then support the war. But just because something can be subverted, does that mean it’s inherently bad for the world? Hardly. If I take a coin and put it in a charity box, for example, it becomes a good thing for the world. If I take the same coin and throw it at someone, it becomes a bad thing for the world. Even this comparison doesn’t quite work because a coin is an amoral object whereas religion by its nature deals with morality and actions based on morality.

Has the track record of religion been perfect? No, of course not, although it certainly doesn’t fare any worse than the track record of secular societies. Of course there are religious extremists who go around killing people - Yigal Amir's assassination of Yitzchak Rabin was religiously motivated - but such acts say more about the individuals who carry them out than they do about why they thought they did them. To be blunt, I don't believe that religious nuts go nuts because of religion - I think that religion is a convenient excuse for them being nuts.

At the end of the day, those who are involved in religious communities see that while there are those who would use religion for the detriment of society, ultimately religion can bring people together, help people explore their own meaning and place in the world, inspire people to better themselves and help create a society of peace. If that’s not good for the world, I don’t know what is!

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Describing the Perfect Rabbi


As I take on the new important task of blogging to reach a wider audience, with the humour of Purim still in mind, I can’t help but expand on an old internet meme that claims to have surveyed people in what makes for the perfect Rabbi. I believe were such a survey to exist nowadays, it might just reveal the following:

·        the perfect Rabbi’s sermons are full of concepts so complex that they dazzle the entire community and are simultaneously so simple that anyone can access them
·        the perfect Rabbi condemns sin but at same time never upsets anyone
·        the perfect Rabbi works from 8am until midnight and also helps raise the archetypal Jewish family
·        the perfect Rabbi makes £500pw, wears good clothes, buys good books, drives a good car and gives about £500pw to the poor and needy
·        the perfect Rabbi is 28 years old and has preached 30 for years
·        the perfect Rabbi has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all of their time with senior citizens
·        the perfect Rabbi smiles all the time but with a straight face because they have a sense of humour that keeps them seriously dedicated to their work
·        the perfect Rabbi makes 15 visits daily to congregation families and the hospitalised but is always in their office when needed
·        the perfect Rabbi devotes much time to bringing in new members and simultaneously spends all their time looking after the current synagogue membership
·        the perfect Rabbi wants to work for the total improvement of society but should  never get involved in political matters
·        the perfect Rabbi demonstrates sustainable living and also travels as far as possible for the benefit of the community
·        the perfect Rabbi communicates through the most modern media while always critiquing the trappings of modern society
·        the perfect Rabbi has a healthy social and personal life and is also available for synagogue members 24/7.

 Simple, really!

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

This Post Is Intentionally Left Blank (Almost)

If you have opened your 2011 Census, the chances are that you will notice that question 17 is blank. It literally says "This question is intentionally left blank." Conspiracy theories abound online (of course) but the reason for it is rather interesting. There is a question 17 but only in Wales where it asks if you can understand spoken Welsh, speak Welsh, read Welsh, write Welsh or none of the above. I love Wales and am continually fascinated by the language - in what other country could a Tesco store serve "pwdin" (read the "w" as a "u")? The fun I genuinely had with the following conversation...
Me: What's the Welsh for carrots?
Unsuspecting Welsh person: Moron.
Me: Calm down, I only asked a question!

But since I am not Welsh and neither do I live in Wales, I am faced with a blank space. What to do?

The sensible thing to do would be to just pass over it. But searching online reveals a wide range of other possibilities of things people are doing from the childish (drawing a giant phallus) to the impressive (writing the answer to the absent Welsh question in Welsh) to the creative (placing a sticky note over the blank space and writing on it "Do not remove this sticky note"). Suddenly, question 17 asks more of us than any other question. It provides us with a blank space but specifically invites us to move on by adding "Go to 18." Indeed, the instructions at the beginning specifically ask us to leave the space blank.

But wouldn't it have made for an interesting census if question 17 had asked, "How would you like to fill the following space?" How would you have answered it? I have a feeling I would have quoted Shimon ben Gamaliel (Pirke Avot 1:17) - "I have found nothing better for anyone than silence."

Sunday, 20 March 2011

To Blog or Not To Blog - Is That The Question?

For a long time I have avoided the world of blogging primarily because of a fear that it might almost be the epitome of vanity ... I say almost because surely that honour belongs to Twitter (no, I don't care you're having a cup of tea right now!). I had been concerned that blogging was just a way for people who felt like they were irrelevant in the world to be noticed, to express their thoughts in a myriad of webpages in the hope that someone might notice them and they might feel slightly less insignificant. Then I read the blog of a colleague of mine, Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers, a blog that includes details of a personal goal that Rabbi Debbie is working towards to raise awareness of our place in the consumer society. On reading this blog I came to realise that blogging can be a tool of social transformation - it doesn't have to be like inane Tweets (oh, really, you're having a piece of toast now, too? Thanks for letting me know) but can actually be a resource for a way of thinking. So where I had been hesitant in the past, I came to realise that blogs can be like sermons, just to a wider audience.

Now this may all seem obvious to many people but it's been quite a revelation to me because it once again challenges my understanding of what it is to be a Rabbi in today's society in a number of ways.

First of all, it asks the question about what is usually called the "target audience." What is a Rabbi's target audience? Is it the members of their community? Is it the wider but nonetheless local community? Is it the Jewish community or a larger community? Or is it even the global community? In the Talmud (Shabbat 54b) we learn that whoever can stop their household from committing wrong but does not do so is held accountable for the wrongs of that household. The same applies to fellow citizens and even to the whole world - if we could have made society better but did not, we are held accountable...and this is ultimately the motivation behind this blog. I don't know if I can make the world a better place but I hope I can and now that there is an opportunity to reach a larger audience, I feel a responsibility to at least try.

Another way that blogging challenges my perception of the contemporary rabbinate is because it asks questions about priorities - how often am I going to write this blog and does it even count as work? If I'm hoping for it to be a tool of social transformation, even if only making a small difference in society, then isn't that a responsibility upon all of us, not just Rabbis? Just because I will no doubt reference Rabbinic texts as I did above, aren't I writing this blog as a human being hoping to create a better world? From time to time, won't I be writing as an environmentalist? In some sense, I probably will and but I won't have members of my community waiting to see me because I was writing a blog and I won't miss out on family time either. So I'll be posting to this blog when I write something that I'm pleased with for my community and that I want to share with a wider audience, when I have a thought that doesn't make it into a sermon for one of a multitude of reasons or when I am engaging in other forms of social transformation, such as my interfaith or environmental work. This won't always be a Rabbinic blog, then, and it won't be a regular blog for the reason that the above Talmudic quotation seems to place things in order - family, community, world - and my personal, rabbinic and blogging priorities will follow that order.

Perhaps another way I've been challenged by blogging and the rabbinate is the concept of the role of the Rabbi. When our early Jewish texts were being written down the idea of globalised instantaneous information was unthinkable, so the concept of community and therefore of the role of a Rabbi within the community was utterly different, almost incomparable. So as the world changes, how far should the role of the Rabbi change as well? Is blogging really for Rabbis? Rabbi Danny Burkeman, who generously talked me through the complexities of setting this blog up, expresses an opinion with which I have much sympathy - this is where the community is, so this is where we as Rabbis have to be. While I appreciate that his London-based community will have a higher percentage of members online than my Bournemouth-based one, Bournemouth isn't exactly in the Dark Ages! It's a vibrant community and the internet is obviously part of the lives of many people here too. The seventh edition of the Forms of Prayer siddur includes a story by Herman Wouk in the Study Anthology (p.370-1) in which the Vilna Gaon asks the Dubner Maggid to tell him what the Maggid believes are his faults. The Dubner Maggid eventually says, "You are the most pious man of our age. You study night and day, retired from the world, surrounded by the wors of your books, the Holy Ark, the faces of devout scholars. You have reached high holiness. How have you achieved it? Go down in the market place, Gaon, with the rest of the Jews. Endure their work, their strains, their distractions. Mingle in the world, hear the scepticism and irreligion they hear, take the blows they take. Submit to the ordinary trials of the ordinary Jew. Let us see then if you will remain the Vilna Gaon!" The story ends with the report that "the Gaon broke down and wept." Judaism of yesterday was Judaism of the ghetto or of the shtetl, of the intimately connected community of Jews who lived on top of each other and who socialised with each other. The Jewish community today is nothing like that and it is perhaps irresponsible to continue a model of the Rabbinate that doesn't take into account the profound changes in society. The Jewish community is widely dispersed, it's heavily influenced by outside ways of thinking and behaving. Some of the members of my community live a 40 minute drive from the nearest synagogue and yet they still come to services regularly. How can my Rabbinate not be different for them and the people who live near them? Similarly, where people used to only turn to their Rabbi for advice on Judaism, now as many people just turn to the internet to find the opinion that suits them. So how could I not be online as well for such people? But, of course, this blog isn't just for Jews - absolutely not. The contemporary Rabbinate must involve an interfaith element and my hope is that people of all faith - and none - might come to read my blog.

The final challenge of blogging is a social and environmental one. Do I really want more people spending more time at their computers? Do I want to be the cause of more data storage units burning through more energy just to hold my thoughts? Do I want to be spending even more time at my computer which, despite being run on renewable energy, means less time working on IDEA: Interfaith Dorset Education and Action, the interfaith environmental group I started in 2007? To allay that concern, I will be spending some of my time on this blog focussing on environmental matters because it's an important part of my personal identity and because if people are going to be spending time looking online I would rather give them something interesting to look at other than extended video clips from The Only Way is Essex on Youtube!

So... to blog or not to blog - is that the question? It's the starting question because I'm still slightly skeptical about the whole blogging endeavour. But at the same time, in our synagogue's weekly email I write a Note from Rabbi Neil and someone told me today that that was her only regular contact with religion and spirituality and perhaps that is enough to show that there is no question. Perhaps in this new world of globalised information, the best hope for spirituality and for social transformation is in a mixture of face-to-face interaction and online expression. Perhaps it's no question at all - perhaps the answer to the question will be in the comments that people leave and the success of the blog itself.

With all this in mind, I hope and pray that this blog can become a tool for social transformation without ever becoming pretentious or arrogant. I hope it adds something positive to people's lives in terms of spirituality, environmentalism or education. And I also hope that at some point in the future I don't come to regret my mockery of Twitter!

So, since this is my first blog, it seems appropriate to at least share a blessing. The "shehecheyanu" is a blessing we recite on new things. Tradition didn't suggest it be used for new blog posts, but I feel it is appropriate to bring God in as I post this - baruch attah adonai eloheinu melech ha'olam, shehecheyanu v'kiyimanu v'higiyanu lazman hazeh - Blessed are You, our Eternal God, Ruler of the world, who has kept us alive and supported us and brought us to this season.