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Thursday, 15 November 2012

Please, God, Not Again....

Just the other day I was with the local Imam and he was telling me how difficult things were for the Muslim community given what was going on in Syria. I empathised with him and we discussed their pain. He listed off statistics of innocent people being killed and we shared grief at the situation. Days later, I’m expecting a ‘phone call from the Daily Echo asking for a comment on Israel latest operation in Gaza which will likely be compared with that of Imam Majid and which will reveal our differences once more.

What disturbs me almost as much as the loss of innocent life is the polarisation of the rest of the world observing what happens. That disturbs me because the more polarised we become the harder it will ever be to find a solution and, therefore, the more likely it will be that more innocent blood is shed. Remarkably, last night I found myself online completely polarised, begging some historical revisionists to at least accept Israel’s right to exist. I hoped I could add to their knowledge but it quickly became clear that we were all entrenched in our own views and nothing would move us. I find myself reflecting back on that conversation with the words of the Bible ringing – “Do not answer a fool according to his folly or you will also be like him” (Prov. 26:4). Conflict like that in Gaza can so easily lead to polarisation – Jews flocking to defend Israel and Muslims flocking to defend Palestinians. Suddenly, we’re back where we were with Operation Cast Lead, angrily shouting at each other to get ‘the truth’ heard.

I’m not going to write to defend Israel today or to criticise it. I want to do both. Israel, of course, has a right to exist free from terror and yet it seems to have chosen to launch an attack on Gaza only hours after some kind of ceasefire had been brokered with Hamas. Israel has an absolute duty of care to keep its citizens safe but with every military operation it loses more global support and risks the long-term future of the state itself as the perception of a apartheid state gains ground in the media. We can’t win this. We can never win like this. There has to be another way…. I just don’t know what it is. Perhaps it is to not be polarised, to see both sides, to try to experience the pain of the other as well as of the self – individual or collective. Or perhaps that’s woolly wishful thinking that can be done from the comfort of Bournemouth. So perhaps instead of political commentary, instead of defending one side against the other when deep down we know that both sides have done wrong, perhaps all we can do is open our hearts and mouths in prayer and start by saying ‘Please, God, not again….’

Thursday, 5 April 2012

The Search for Serach

In 2003 I had the fortune to study Talmud at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College with two wonderful teachers - Jonah Steinberg and Sarra Lev - both of whom opened up new ways of approaching Talmud. In one of Jonah Steinberg classes, he mentioned Serach bat Asher and suggested that having a cup for Serach would actually be more appropriate than a cup for Miriam (I'm aware that you may be thinking 'Who's Serach?' - don't worry, I explain later!). Miriam's cup is now well established in very many progressive seders around the world so I remember thinking that, as much as I appreciated the narratives of Serach bat Asher, I could never see a cup for her replacing a cup for Miriam.

It was only once I started leading communal seders at Bournemouth Reform Synagogue that I realised that Serach could ... should... make an appearance but not instead of Miriam but in addition to Miriam. All of this, by the way, presupposes a cup for Elijah, the fifth cup on the table, about which the Rabbis didn't know if we should drink from it, so they left it out for Elijah to solve when the Messiah comes.

Below is the text that I wrote to explain who Serach bat Asher is and how and why we should have a cup for her. Please feel free to use this (provided you acknowledge the source!) in your seder if you wish...

The Cup of Serach bat Asher, Rabbi Neil Amswych, 2006

Not only did Serach bat Asher go down to Egypt with Jacob’s family, but she was also present after the Exodus. Midrash ascribes eternal life to a woman whose presence in modern conscious Jewish history is hardly recorded. Yet we read that she was the person who proved to the Israelites that Moses was genuinly going to redeem the people, and only she knew the locations of Joseph’s bones that were due to be carried out of Egypt.
Serach finds herself in between Miriam and Elijah. Just as Miriam’s Cup reminds us of the past, so too the start of Serach’s journey is a reminder of the past. But her ability to live into the Israelite’s redemption from Egypt also makes her like Elijah, looking forwards into the future. Some commentators say that she died, like Miriam, but others hold that she lives forever, like Elijah. As a keeper of secrets and, according to tradition, the guardian of Israelite folk-memory, she brings the past into the present, and she looks forward from now.
Serach, like each one of us, finds herself not to be a prophet or prophetess, but an ordinary human being capable of extraordinary things. From normality, Serach creates for herself a remarkable destiny. Her cup is the cup of the immediate present, reminding us to be fully present at all times, and yet to remember the past as well as look to the future. She mixes the lives and abilities of Miriam and Elijah, and so her cup of a mixture of water and wine. It is a cup which refreshes us and enlivens us, just as we are to refresh and enliven those around us. As we drink from Serach’s Cup, we remember that even though we may not be a prophet, we are still very human, and it is the gift of our humanity that promises so much.

We pour the wine from Elijah’s cup and the water from Miriam’s cup together into the previously empty cup of Serach bat Asher.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ..., שׁהַכֹּל נִהְיֶה בִּדְבָרוֹ:
Blessed are You, our Living God, by whose word all things exist.

We drink the mixture of water and wine.

We drink the wine from Elijah's cup? Yes, we do. Because it's a ridiculous waste of wine and energy to have it grown, bottled, transported and then sit out on your table only to then be thrown away at the end of the evening, and such a waste is clearly contrary to bal tashchit - the prohibition against needless waste. But we don't drink straight, we mix it with water to show (as well as all the reasons mentioned above) that we're not just drinking from Elijah's cup - hence the blessing is not the one for the fruit of the vine.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Funny Because it’s Wrong or Wrong Because It’s Funny?

The internet has encouraged a new generation of people who complain. Whereas to complain in the past actually involved writing a letter, getting an envelope, going to a postbox and so on, the “Angry from Amersham” brigade can now register utter disgust about anything on twitter and on chatrooms almost instantaneously. So we’re definitely seeing more bursts of spontaneous outrage about various matters in the public domain. I have to be very careful as a blog poster, then, not to fall into that trap quickly and yet I have to be allowed to register discomfort at something as well.

This week a journalist found a tag in the boxer shorts of her partner and registered her disgust online. In case you can't see the picture clearly, the washing instructions tell the man what to do before adding "Or give it to your woman - it's her job." Responses seem to generally fall between two camps – ‘it’s just a joke’ or ‘it’s not funny at all.’ The “it’s just a joke” comment reminds me rather of David Cameron’s “calm down, dear,” comment (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-13207256). In other words, it’s a joke by men for men at the expense of women who really shouldn’t complain because it’s not their (male-defined) place to do so.

I have to admit that when I first saw this, I laughed out loud and then I felt bad for doing so, in much the same way as my reaction to comedians like Jimmy Carr. I laugh at such things because I’m shocked and then I think “the normal reaction to shock should be shock,” not laughter.

What concerns me is that there does seem to be a growing trend of clothing companies manufacturing items that have deliberately sexist messages. A new blokes’ culture seems to be developing which makes completely inappropriate jokes and then says, “calm down, dear, it’s just humour.” The bloke-dominated language of communal discourse – even extending to the horrible facebook term of “fraping” which is somehow meant to be an amusing way of referring to taking over someone’s account while somehow injecting humour with a reference to the obviously horrific practice of rape – seems to be growing, not declining. We seem to be reverting to the normalisation of sexism, made most evident by allowing sexism to be funny again.

If our society were actually equal, if religious discourse were fully egalitarian, if women were paid the same as men, if women had the same access to jobs as men, then we might be in a place to reflect on some post-sexist humour. But, of course, society is nowhere near there. Were this a post-modernist comment on sexism or something similar, perhaps with an equitable tag in girl’s knickers saying “give to boyfriend to beat with club” then it might have been funnier because it would have transcended sexism and would instead have become about gender stereotypes. But it wasn’t – it was a blokes’ gag about women.

Ultimately, I think that I initially found it funny because it was wrong and then found it wrong because it was funny. In a world where we can take things way too seriously, I’m aware that it’s just a joke. But if in the deep south of America the same thing had happened but with the words “Give it to your negroe servant,” which is as possessive as “your woman” (with the emphasis on the possessive “your”), then I don’t think anyone would have found that funny at all. Where, indeed, does it end? A joke about the Jews perhaps? “Calm down, Jew, it’s only a joke.” Being sexist or racist ironically is still being sexist or racist, just doing it with a patronising and dominating smile. Some jokes, ultimately, aren’t funny, they’re just reinforcing symbols of dominating structures that should long have been abolished.

Ultimately, I think this is just cynical consumerism at its best. I’m sure the hope is for the company to shock people, to get them to talk about the product and therefore to mention the company as much as possible with the understanding that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. And that’s why I didn’t even mention the name of the company because I wouldn’t give them that satisfaction.

Since this blog focuses on baby, bible and biodiversity, this post falls under the first category. I want to raise my baby in a world in which she acknowledges that sexism was once a part of society and that it held society back from achieving its full potential. As much as I went to a boys’ school and learned many unbelievably sexist jokes which were funny to me at the time, I don’t want my child to be raised in a society like that. Sexism, in the end, isn’t funny, it’s domination, it’s unjust and it’s unbecoming. I think we’re better than this and I know of many better jokes than this.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Why aren't we angry?

In September 2002, days after Tony Blair put over Britain's spurious case for war against Iraq, somewhere between 150,000 and 400,000 people marched in protest through the streets of London. Over the coming months across the world demonstrations of similar sizes protested against a war that offended a wide range of members of the public. As we know, the US and UK dived into war regardless, dragging other nations behind them and the ratings of Blair and Bush eventually suffered a terminal decline.

In 2009, hundreds of thousands of people took part in The Wave in London, a march to show a desire to move towards a sustainable economy. It was a tremendously good-natured affair, a living expression of contemporary environmentalism's enforced social agenda of being hopeful and not giving in to negativity. It was a protest of sorts - a positive "We're ready for change" kind of protest. It wasn't direct action protest and it wasn't angry.

But why not? Why are so many people happy to rage about a war that cost hundreds of thousands of local civilian lives in order to secure future oil supply but aren't happy to rage about the war on the earth that has the potential to cost billions of lives over the centuries?

The question comes to my mind as my daughter, Zafra, grows. Now 18 months old, I pray she will live to a happy old age. Yet as I consider this I also consider the words of an elderly  congregant of mine - "I'm glad I won't be alive to see the things that you'll see." She understood. The environmental legacy that we pass onto the next generation becomes more and morelikely to become horrific with each day of inaction. If Zafra lives to see the end of the century, I shudder to consider what she might see and that makes me angry.

I look at the failure of the COP talks that essentially locks us into a minimum of 2 degrees of global heating, with the potential of much more, especially considering the possibility of runaway feedback effects, and I think, "You are potentially harming my child. You are potentially exposing her to horrors and hardship that you could have prevented."

Perhaps one of the differences between the war in Iraq and anthropogenic climate change is that we - the average civilians - didn't cause any of the deaths in Iraq whereas while we continue as excessive consumers, we are at least partly responsible for anthropogenic climate change. Putting pressure on government is important but focussing all criticism on government is misplaced. Some of the anger should be aimed towards ourselves for our own hypocrisy.

But there is a place for angry challenge. Not shop-smashing challenge (if for no other reason that to repair violent damage uses yet more precious global resources), not rioting, but actually unifying as a mass of people and saying to the political parties, "Unless you take this much more seriously than you currently do, you will not win the next election." Putting environment before the economy should be a political win, not a loss, and the reason that it isn't is because of us, the voting public and our inability to expressanger.

We limit ourselves, but hardly. We say "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" but what we really do is "reduce costs, buy cheaper reused products and recycle, recycle, recycle" as though recycling alone will somehow avoid dangerous climate change. We limit ourselves but only as a meagre contribution. "Is this the fast that I have chosen?" says Isaiah (58:5). In other words, this is it? That's pathetic! Isaiah is angry at the tokenism of the masses and the leadership who influence them.

Maybe it's time to reignite some of that anger, that passion, and say, "We will not tolerate this. We must all do better. No ifs, buts or maybes. No more excuses." Well-focussed anger, dissatisfaction at the status quo, is surely what we need to kick-start the dramatic changes that our society needs. Let's generate that anger and focus it properly.... and soon.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Tu Bishvat - a reflection

Only when the last tree has been cut down;
Only when the last river has been poisoned;
Only when the last fish has been caught;
Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.

This Cree Indian maxim comes to my mind after having last night watched the film The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy’s bestselling novel. In that film, social order has broken down entirely as the biosphere essentially collapses. Amongst other things, all the trees have died and throughout the film the thudding of another dead tree as it falls to the ground echoes in the distance. It is a chilling vision.

But it won’t happen to us, right? Well, strictly speaking it won’t… even if we can’t limit global heating to 4 or 5 degrees Celsius (which is looking harder and harder for every year of pontificating and posturing at Climate Change summits), it seems almost impossible for the biosphere itself to die. And yet the idea that social order could collapse is not as impossible. There is increasing realisation that our society now is “nine meals from anarchy” – after three days of lack of food, it seems that most people will do anything to make sure that they and their loved ones can eat.

But it won’t happen to us, right? Well, not as such. Even with positive feedback loops starting to kick in, toppling the millennia-held climate stability upon which our civilisation was based, we’re still unlikely to witness social breakdown in our lifetimes. Instead, it is the inheritance that we seem to want to give to our children, grandchildren or perhaps great-grandchildren. Rabbi Charles Middleburgh writes “our children might forgive our silence and apathy on environmentalism, but our great-grandchildren will curse us for our selfishness…” [MANNA 94, Winter 2007, p.22]. If we continue to think in the short-term, it won’t happen to us, no. But if we live from the perspective of “us” being our extended family through the generations then, yes, unless we all make significant changes now, it will happen to us.

Today is Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees. I find it hard to celebrate this year. Yes, there’s the glory and beauty of every tree in the garden and local parks but the crashing of the millions of trees globally that fall to provide people with land, palm oil, coffee and more just echoes through my soul today. Maybe today for Tu Bishvat as well as singing happy songs about how lovely trees are, we should remember the thought from Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer - when a tree is cut down, its cry rings from one end of the world to the other, though no sound is heard. Maybe it’s time to hear the sound so we can help more trees, and future us, live together in harmony.