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Friday, 25 December 2020

Living in Two Cultures - a Christmas Sermon 2020

My predecessor in Bournemouth, Rabbi David Soetendrop, once told me a story. A relative of a congregant had died and Rabbi David went round one night around this time to lead the shivah prayers. As he walked up to the house, he noticed in the windowsill of the lounge, in full view of anyone who walked past or up to the house, was a small Christmas tree. He knocked on the door and there was a very loud whisper from the house. “It’s the Rabbi,” someone said from inside, “close the curtains before he sees the Christmas tree!” They obviously hadn’t realised that he could see through the glass as he walked up to the house!

Jews have almost always lived in two cultures – the culture of our heritage and the culture of the country in which we happen to be living. There have in the last few thousand years been very few times and places when the culture of our heritage and of our home have been the same, so Jewish life has, almost always, been a balancing act between differing cultures. Sometimes the two cultures complement each other, sometimes they clash. An example of how they can complement each other can be found in the habits of so many American Jews, apparently especially New York Jews, on December 25th. Since those Jews aren’t at work and since restaurants and movie theatres are usually empty at that time (for non-COVID reasons), such Jews invariably go out for a meal, usually Chinese. So, it becomes almost an American Jewish custom to go out for Chinese food and a movie on December 25th. This year, it seems to be take-out and Netflix or Disney +. This isn’t a religious custom at all, even though it's based on the same day as an important Christian holiday. Jews who take part in such a custom aren’t participating in anything Christian, they’re just helping local businesses stay afloat where possible at a time when local Christians wouldn’t be for a day.


A second way that Jews have lived in other cultures is by bringing secular customs into the religious life of the Jewish community. The most famous and obvious example of this is the seder service, which is filled with Hellenic eating customs, such as leaning to the left, starting a meal with herbs and with salt water, and ending the meal with dessert, known in Greek as afikomen. Although we note the Hellenic origins of these customs, they are unquestionably Jewish because they were removed from their original secular context and “made Jewish.” Yes, the Romans may have added salt water at the start of their meal, but we do it to remember the Exodus from Egypt.


The third way that Jews have lived in other cultures is by taking the religious customs of other communities and then rendering them Jewish. This hasn’t happened for a long time but is a part of ancient Jewish ritual. Although Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur receive only brief mentions in Torah, it is interesting how important they became in Rabbinic Judaism later. Particularly important are a series of ten days in which human destiny is set, connection with the creation of the world, the enthronement of God during this time, a sacrifice for atonement to carry away people’s sins. This is important because these were all Babylonian customs and it seems very possible - perhaps one could go so far as to say likely - that the Jewish community picked up these customs during the Babylonian Exile and thus transformed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.


We have so far seen three differing ways that Jews have lived in non-Jewish culture. The first is by simply observing secular customs around the same time as the non-Jewish community celebrated religious customs. The second is by assimilating secular customs into the religious life of the Jewish community, and the third is by assimilating non-Jewish religious customs into the religious life of the Jewish community. All of these were acceptable at the time because they were brought into Jewish life as opposed to existing alongside it. This third way is the most controversial so far, though, because of what might be called religious misappropriation. Bringing in religious rituals from another faith community into your own is a way of denying the meaning behind them and imposing on that ritual differing meaning. So, for example, when some churches hold a seder around Pesach to learn about the Last Supper, they engage in theological violence to the seder (as well as historical violence since it wasn’t even created yet by that time!). We wouldn’t want other communities to take out rituals and bring them into their own religion, so we really shouldn’t be doing the same. We excuse the theological borrowing from the Babylonians since they are no longer around to complain about it, although that’s probably not a very good defence and we’re best to move on from that quickly.


The Enlightenment brought a fourth way of coexisting which has profoundly challenged the Jewish community over the last two hundred years. Once religious authority was replaced by secular authority, and once Jews began mixing socially with non-Jews, a new coexistence formed. Suddenly, Jews were invited to Christmas parties. Jews started marrying Christians and the assumption of a fully Jewish household was no longer valid – indeed, something like one-third of the children in our Religious School come from mixed-faith parents. In such homes, a form of celebration of both Jewish and Christian festivals is common and I would even say appropriate, although it is interesting that in such households the celebration of Christian festivals is usually not accompanied by religious rituals (such as attending Mass) but by religious symbols.


When I was a child, we celebrated Christmas, despite having two Jewish parents. There’s a photo of me at six years old stirring the mix for the Christmas cake, which we used to decorate with a wintry scene every year. We used to hang up stockings, have a tree, the whole works. There was nothing Christian about it in our minds, despite the name, and certainly nothing religious for us – my parents explained that it was something all the other kids at school were doing so they didn’t want us to feel left out. As I grew up, though, I told my family that I no longer wanted to celebrate Christmas because it didn’t seem right to me – we were Jewish and 60% of the kids at my school were Jewish – and I didn’t really want to celebrate a festival that wasn’t my own. I realize now that we weren’t celebrating a festival, but we were taking a faith observance from another religious community, stripping it of all its essential faith aspects, and turning it into a secular celebration of capitalism and of community. Now that I interact with faith leaders from many traditions, I see how painful it is to some of them that people have taken their festival and stripped it of the religious aspects upon which that celebration was founded.


So, where does that leave us in the Jewish community today? For some Jews, their family dynamic is such that celebrating Christmas is an act of love. That celebration might be religious, for example, by attending mass at their partner’s or parent’s church just as they might hope that their non-Jewish family member might come with them to Temple for Rosh Hashanah. That observance might not be religious, though, it may be a less religious acknowledgement of something that resonates strongly with that Christian family member. In many Jewish households, today is a day when the Christian majority celebrate their festival and so Jews who have time off work gather together, either for Chinese and a movie, or for other food and company. For many Jews, Christmas is no longer a Christian festival but is a day of presents and companionship. It’s this form of celebration which is probably most influenced by the consumer culture in which we now live, a culture which seeks to commercialize every aspect of people’s lives, even those which are sacred to some people.


At this time, many prominent Jews ring alarm bells and cry from the rooftops about assimilation and the end of Judaism. But there’s no need for that to be the case. After all, this little boy with the Christmas cake ended up being a Rabbi.

Instead, I believe that we should ask ourselves what it means to authentically live in two civilizations today. I believe that that means not seizing another faith tradition’s customs, desacralizing them and making them our own. I also believe that means showing respect and love to Christians friends, neighbors and family members. There is no one-size-fits-all approach for Jews on Christmas, although I will say is that any Jew who attends Shabbat services on Christmas gains extra mitzvah points!!


So, may today be the example we set to our children and to others in which we demonstrate our living in two cultures, not by abandoning our own culture or by desacralizing and commercializing another. May we all use today to appropriately honor another religious tradition while also honoring our own. May we extend our love to our Christian friends and family as they celebrate their festival, and this Shabbat, as we also celebrate our own. May our observance of Shabbat today be the model of tolerance, love and friendship that helps us continue to live in two cultures. And let us say, Amen.

Friday, 18 December 2020

Mikketz 2020 - Why Am I Doing This?

 This week, we are faced with a story of incredible emotion and power. Joseph, now viceroy of Egypt, is visited by his brothers. He recognises them, but they do not recognise him. He immediately sets upon them, accusing them of being spies, and they plead their innocence. He puts his own brothers in jail for a few days and then commands them to get Benjamin, the youngest surviving brother as far as they are concerned, from home. They start to regret what they did to Joseph, because they feel they are being punished for what they did to him. Joseph orders that their bags are filled with the money that they had previously paid for their rations, and the brother are terrified. When they return to Jacob, he tells them that as honest men they should return the money. Moreover, he sends them back with Benjamin, despite the pain that it causes him. The brothers immediately admit that there must have been a financial mistake, and they offer to repay the money that was erroneously returned to them. Seeing his brothers all together again clearly upsets Joseph terribly, but he nonetheless offers them food. When they leave in the morning, Joseph’s cup has been placed in Benjamin’s sack without him knowing. When his guards catch up with the brothers they protest – why would innocent men who returned money that was not theirs then go and steal a goblet? They lower their bags, Benjamin’s bag has the goblet inside, and the brothers are distraught. The brothers throw themselves on the ground before Joseph and beg for mercy for Benjamin.


There is a tremendous amount of pain apparent in the story, most of it created by Joseph’s bizarre plots. So why does he do it? Why cause so much pain to his brothers, to his father, and to himself? Why not just tell his brothers straight away that he is the brother they thought was dead? There are a number of possible answers. The medieval commentator Radak says that he causes pain to his brothers because he wants to punish them for what they did to him. While that would be a very human response, Abravanel and other commentators point out that such a response would not justify the pain caused to his aging father. Other commentators suggest that the pain caused to his father by tearing Benjamin away from him was necessary because he was afraid the brothers might have killed Benjamin too, and he needed to see him alive before revealing himself. Some commentaries suggest that Joseph creates these painful situations in order to have the dream of his brothers bowing to him to be fulfilled, although that seems particularly cruel to me. The most common commentary is that he wanted to give them the opportunity to truly repent of what they did to him, so that he could then trust them and engage in a relationship with them again.


Rabbi Ismar Shorsch, Principal Emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary, holds that Joseph’s scheme is designed to ensure true repentance in his brothers (http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/archives/5764/mikketz.shtml). He quotes Maimonides who asks, “What is complete repentance? When we are confronted with a situation in which we previously sinned and could do so again, but this time we desist not out of fear or weakness but because we have repented. An example: a man has relations with a woman in violation of the Torah. Sometime later he finds himself alone with her again in the same place with ardor and virility undiminished. However, this time he departs without the slightest impropriety. Such a person has attained the level of complete repentance (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:1; My translation).” In other words, Maimonides holds that a person has fully repented when they could repeat the error but do not – in his example, same time, same place, same lovely lady.


According to Shorsch, Joseph completely recreates a situation where the brothers could get rid of their youngest brother and get away with it. Clearly, Benjamin had been caught red-handed. The brothers could have left him as an eternal slave to Joseph and they would have been completely in the right to so do. Why might they have done such a thing? Because now Benjamin was the favoured son, just as Joseph was before him. So to Shorsch, Joseph sets up the system to see if the brothers would do to Benjamin what they did to him – resent the favour their father showed, and take it out on the brother, effectively barring him from ever returning to the family.


But they don’t. And they don’t because, according to Shorsch, to Samson Raphael Hirsch and others, the brothers have completely atoned of their sin against Joseph. But is that really why the brothers don’t leave Benjamin behind? At the risk of criticising the view of a scholar significantly more learned than myself, Shorsch seems to neglect two important elements. The first is that the brothers have sworn to return Benjamin to Jacob and regardless of whether or not his arrest were justifiable, they would suffer consequences for not returning him. Secondly, Shorsch neglects complex human emotions. As Rabbi Jonathan Kraus suggests (http://ma002.urj.net/dtmikketz96.html), Joseph is probably awash with an array of complex emotions. Part of him probably does want to get back at his brothers and cause them pain, simply because it re-establishes power in Joseph’s mind. Part of him probably is very scared that they brothers might have killed Benjamin. And part of him probably does want to see reconciliation, but knows that can only happen when he’s sure his brothers regret throwing him into a pit.


And it is the complex array of emotions that rush through Joseph that speaks to us all, because we’re often faced with situations where emotion gets the better of us, where we find ourselves unsure why we’re doing what we’re doing. Times when we think we’re acting for one reason, but in fact later realise we were deluding ourselves, and had an entirely different motivation. I think the power of this story is its inherent humanity, its ability to strip us bare as complex individuals with many motives and motivations. And I think reading the story, we’re compelled to search ourselves. Instead of merely asking why Joseph subjects his family to so much tzuras, we have to ask ourselves how we might have behaved. How do we behave in our daily lives? In fact, it probably asks us one of the most probing questions of all, “Why am I doing this?” I think this is the question we need to take with us during the week, posed to us by the Joseph narrative. Not to obsess, but to occasionally reflect on whatever it is we’re doing, and ask, “Why am I doing this?” That is the question that grounds us in reality, that asks us what we’re doing and where we’re going, and makes us much more present with the world, and that can only be good. So this week, may it be that we all find time to stop and ask ourselves the question that perhaps Joseph should have been asking of himself, “Why am I doing this?” and let it be that the answers are good ones. Amen.

Friday, 11 December 2020

How to light the Lamps

 A story from Chabad: R. Joseph Isaac Schneerson once recalled a thought-provoking conversation between his father and predecessor, R. Sholom Dov-Ber, and a chassid, a righteous Jew.

The Chassid asked: "Rebbe, what is a Chassid?"

R. Sholom Dov-Ber answered: "A Chassid is a street-lamp-lighter. A street-lamp-lighter has a pole with fire. He knows that the fire is not his own, and he goes around lighting all lamps on his route."

The Chassid asked: "But what if the lamp is in a desolate wilderness?"

The Rebbe answered: "Then, too, one must light it. Let it be noted that there is a wilderness, and let the wilderness feel ashamed before the light."

"But what if the lamp is in the midst of a sea?"

"Then one must take off the clothes, jump into the water and light it there!"

"And that is a Chassid?"

The Rebbe thought for a long moment and then said: "Yes, *that* is a Chassid."

The Chassid continued:"Rebbe, I see no lamps!"

"That is because you are not a street-lamp-lighter."

"How does one become such?"

The Rebbe replied: "One must avoid evil. When beginning with oneself, cleansing oneself, becoming more refined, then one sees the lamp of the other. When, Heaven forbid, one is crude, then one sees but crudeness; but when himself noble, one sees nobility."

When the his son recounted this conversation, his son added: The lamps are there, but they need to be lit. It is written, "The soul of man is a lamp of God" (Proverbs 20:27), and it is also written, "A mitzvah is a lamp and the Torah is light" (Proverbs 6:23). A Chassid is someone who puts their personal affairs aside and goes around lighting up the souls of Jews with the light of Torah and mitzvot. Jewish souls are in readiness to be lit. Sometimes they are around the corner. Sometimes they are in a wilderness or at sea. But there must be someone who disregards personal comforts and conveniences and goes out to put a light to these lamps. That is the function of a true Chassid.”


The darkness of winter need not be terrifying, it can be an exciting opportunity. Where there is spiritual darkness, we can bring light. Where there is despair, we can bring hope. Where there is fear, we can bring courage. The sacred task of the Jew is to be a lamplighter, an igniter of souls.


But, are we really meant to disregard personal comfort and convenience in order to go round igniting the souls of others? To many of us who live comfortable lives, that doesn’t sound very appealing. More than that, if the sacred task of the righteous Jew is to go round igniting the souls of others, does that mean that if we don’t do that, or can’t do that, then we’re not very good Jews?


I suspect that many people today feel like their light isn’t worth shining to the rest of the world. Perhaps they feel fragile, like a delicate little candle ready to be extinguished at any moment by the lightest breeze, so we keep a flame burning within, but are afraid to show it for fear of being accused of zealotry or for fear of it being extinguished. But while the message of this story is very powerful, I think it misses an essential element, which is that of community. We’re not a lone candle, we’re a Chanukiah of candles. It’s not just the case that a little light dispels a lot of darkness, although that it obviously true. In fact, a lot of light, shining together, radiating warmth, dispels even more darkness. So, where is may have once been true that the chassid needed to forgo everything and rush off alone into the wilderness to ignite souls, we do things differently. Instead of lone lamplighters, we aim to become a community of lamplighters. We turn within before we turn without. We add candles to the Chanukiah just as we try to add people to a warm, loving community. We ignite each other’s souls, we help those around us burn as bright as they can, before scurrying through the dark. As a community, we shine with a warmth and a radiance that could never be matched by one of us alone, and then together we go out into the world and light the souls of others.


May God help ignite our own souls as individuals and as a community so that we may burn ever brighter each and every day, and let us say, Amen.

Friday, 27 November 2020

A Collection of Thanksgiving Prayers

A Thanksgiving Psalm, adapted from the original by Alan Cook

Hodu l’Adonai ki tov; ki l’olam chasdo

O give thanks to the One Who is good Whose love is everlasting May those who call upon the Eternal God give thanks for many blessings bestowed and received. May those who call upon the Earth Mother, the power of nature, find beauty and inspiration in the wonders of the world around us and the resiliency of the human spirit. Give thanks for Tewa, Apache and Navajo who settled and sanctified this land, who nurtured its abundance, whose indelible imprint is still visible on this land, whose stories and prayers and songs still reverberate in the wind.… Give thanks for the elders who connect us to our past. Give thanks for the children who guide us toward our future. Give thanks for Black and Latinx individuals, for those of Asian background and those of mixed racial identities. Give thanks for White folks. Give thanks for the opportunity and the necessity to live together, to work together, to build together. Give thanks for queer and straight, for trans and bi. Give thanks for the fact that love is love and knows no bounds. Give thanks for opportunities for every individual to know and show their true selves. Give thanks for the understandings borne out of scientific research in concert with the understandings derived from our faithful convictions - may they guide us toward unfolding the mysteries and majesty of our world, securing our own health and welfare and the well-being of our planet. Give thanks for the conviction that even if ideologies divide us, our common humanity can unite us. Give thanks for the imperative handed down to us by our religious traditions: To love our neighbors just as we love ourselves. Give thanks for the tools we have been given to build bridges, to share in dialogue, to laugh and weep and argue and struggle and plot and plan and solve life’s challenges together. Baruch Ata Adonai, she-natan lanu hizdamnut l’taken et ha-olam. Blessed is the One who has given us the opportunity, responsibility, and challenge, to work with one another to bring wholeness to our world.



A Thanksgiving Prayer by Rabbi Naomi Levy

For the laughter of the children,

For my own life breath,

For the abundance of food on this table,

For the ones who prepared this sumptuous feast,

For the roof over our heads,

The clothes on our backs,

For our health,

And our wealth of blessings,

For this opportunity to celebrate with family and friends,

For the freedom to pray these words

Without fear,

In any language,

In any faith,

In this great country,

Whose landscape is as vast and beautiful as her inhabitants.

Thank You, God, for giving us all these. Amen.


Adapted from MODIM ANACHNU LACH – We are Grateful to You, by Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker

We are grateful, Adonai, even in this time that challenges us. We give thanks for the food before us and all the people who brought it forth from the land, from seed to harvest to the grocery store, and the people who prepared it into our meal.

Before we eat, we take a deep breath as we focus on all our blessings.

We are grateful for life. We are aware how fragile it can be. We mourn those who have died in our community and world from the pandemic. We pray for healing for those who are now ill.

We are grateful for the medical professionals and front-line workers who serve our community. We will do our part to change our behaviors, to love our neighbors and ourselves as we are mindful to wash hands, physically distance, and wear masks.

We grieve those who are not with us today. How we wished to celebrate in person! We pray that the end of this struggle is in sight and once again there will be a time for embracing.

During this period of Thanksgiving, we are grateful for the scientists working on vaccines to help bring that day soon and speedily. Until then, may we be patient and resilient with hearts open to gratitude. With that spirit, may we give tzedakah generously to those in need and reach out to those alone. Adonai, help us be fully aware of our gifts to make this world more whole, more just, and more loving.



Adapted from Appreciation Amidst Pandemic: A Thanksgiving Prayer During COVID-19, by Rabbi David Dine Wirtschafter


Modim anchunu lach, Grateful are we to all those whose have helped us to persevere through this crisis.

For doctors and nurses continuing to treat their patients,

Modim anachnu lach.

For mental and behavioral health professionals continuing to offer comfort and encouragement,

Modim anachnu lach..

For teachers and professors continuing to offer instruction,

Modim anachnu lach.

For first responders continuing to rush to our aid,

Modim anachnu lach.

For essential workers continuing to put food on our tables,

Modim anachnu lach.

For nursing home employees and care givers continuing to tend to the elderly and infirm,

Modim anachnu lach.

For the unemployed and underemployed continuing to help their families and communities,

Modim anachnu lach.

For family and friends continuing to inquire about us,

Modim anachnu lach.

For continuing to see and hear one another remotely until we can gather in person,

Modim anachnu lach.

Baruch ata, Adonai, hatov shimcha ul’cha na-eh l’hodot.

Blessed are You, Adonai, Your name inspires goodness and Your caring deserves our thanks.



Friday, 20 November 2020

A Drug of Life or Death - Tol'dot Sermon 2020

The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is nothing new under the sun, meaning that even though the specific details may be different, there are recurring themes throughout the history of humanity. One theme, which in our world is hard to appreciate, but is getting much easier to appreciate with every passing day, is that we are entirely dependent on the accessibility of water. The ability to control water to the point that clean, running water, sometimes heated, is available “on tap” is nothing short of miraculous. Our planet is covered in water, although most of it is completely undrinkable, either because it is too salty, or too polluted.

In this week’s sidrah, we read of the ever-human need to dig for water, and the tensions that finding water can create. Just as around the world governments are wising up to the fact that the great number of military conflicts in the future will be simply fought over water, so too in our sidrah there is strife as soon as water is found.

Water, it should be noted, is one of the most prominent metaphors for Torah. Water immediately flows to the lowest place, just as Torah flows toward those who are low of spirit, that is, those who are humble. Water refreshes and nourishes, just as Torah refreshes and nourishes. Life is impossible without water, and life for a Jew is impossible without Torah. But if we read this sidrah metaphorically, then, there is a very challenging message for us all. As we dig for Torah, as we explore the depths of Torah, we’re going to come into conflict. We’re going to struggle over the Torah that others have found. So, can Torah ever be destructive? Can Torah damage us?

Interestingly, there is a text in the Talmud that suggests that it is possible. It takes the quotation that is sung as we lift the Torah scroll before or after reading it (depending on your custom) – vezot hatorah asher sam moshe lifnei b’nei yisrael, which means, “this is the Torah that Moses placed before Israel.” Now the Rabbis enjoyed a good play on words whenever they could to try to explore new meanings of the text. They noticed that the word for “placed”, which is Hebrew is sam, is also the word for drug. As a result…

“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: What is the meaning of that which is written: and this is the torah that moses placed (sam) (Deut. 4:44)? If one is deserving, it becomes a drug (sam) of life to him. If one is not deserving, it becomes a drug of death to him. And this is similar to that which Rava said: Where one uses it skillfully, it is a drug of life, where one uses it unskillfully; it is a drug of death.” (Talmud Bavli: Yoma 72b)

This is really quite a remarkable passage. It’s not that studying too much Torah is bad for you socially, but that if one is undeserving, or if one uses it unskillfully, then it is a drug of death. What does this mean? Is it an immediate poison that kills on the spot? Dramatic as that may be, it’s clearly not that. So in what way could Torah be a drug of death? This question is made even harder when we think about the first point, that if one is deserving, or if one uses Torah skillfully, then it becomes a drug of life. What is a drug of life?

It’s possible that it’s talking about intoxication. Intoxication can be a good thing, or it can be a bad thing. Intoxication is a mitzvah on Purim, for example, because it lifts the heart and helps us enjoy the world. Intoxication can go too far, however, and can lead us to a very dark place, wherein we lose ourselves. But as nice as that interpretation might be, why not just say that? Why instead talk of life and death?

Perhaps it’s talking about addiction, in this case, the addiction of burying oneself in books to the exclusion of all else. In one famous narrative, the Dubner Maggid believes he is totally righteous, until his teacher takes him outside into the marketplace away from the protection of his books. His teacher then challenges him to be just as pious as he was when he was addicted to his books. In that reading, Torah could be a drug of life when it helps us and others live fully but becomes a drug of death when it leads us to arrogance or to isolation.

Perhaps this commentary is a warning to Jewish leaders – when Moses put Torah in front of the Israelites, how he put it was more important than what he put in front of them. Perhaps it’s all about presentation. Jewish leaders can put Torah over to their communities in a way that forms an enjoyable habit for them, or they can put it over in such a way that it dulls their senses and their only addiction is to stay away from it, therefore dying spiritually. Maybe this, like much of Talmud, is a text from rabbis to other rabbis. Maybe it’s saying, “Present the Torah well and you’ll get people hooked, and their spiritual life will grow. BUT, if you put Torah in front of the community and don’t do it well, then you will turn people away, and they will die spiritually.”

There is another text which supports this theory. Pirke Avot tells teachers to watch their words lest their students swallow them up and die. The similarity in these two texts between a “pill” and “swallowing” can’t be avoided. These two texts seem to be telling Jewish leaders that the spiritual life or spiritual death of their community might heavily depend on their interpretation and particularly their mode of presentation of Torah. For a Rabbi, that is rather terrifying. Will the next words I utter cause the spiritual death of the community? As if I needed more pressure in my work!

It was our sidrah that gave me some comfort, and helped me connect this thought to my opening theme. We dig for water because everyone is thirsty. Some people like sparkling water, some still. Similarly, we all need Torah, but we need it presented to us in a way that is palatable. There is no one way to present Torah that will be palatable to everyone. One person’s drug of life is potentially another’s drug of death. What’s important is to create a community where everyone digs for water. It’s not the words themselves, but the way we sustain people. Rabbis need to keep serving up water in differing forms, some of which people will like, some of which they won’t. But what is important is to create a community where everyone digs for water together. Today’s Rabbi isn’t a firehose that sprays people with as much Torah as possible – they’re a map to water reserves.

The healthiest Jewish community is one which continually explores God’s Word and sips it and struggles with it in a mutually affectionate way. We can disagree, but those disagreements don’t need to damage us because those disagreements are just the same as preferring still or sparkling water. Actually, such disagreements help us grow as a community as we learn to see the world from differing perspectives. May our learning come to be a drug of life, may it sustain us and bring us sustenance and joy, and let us say, Amen.

Friday, 13 November 2020

Hearing and Listening (Chayye Sarah)

When a word or phrase occurs twice in a sidrah, it gives us an opportunity to comment on it. When it occurs six times within the space of ten verses in a sedrah, it demands attention. This word, meaning “Hear us” or “hear me” is in Hebrew “She’ma’einu,” Shema’eini” and “Shema’uni.” Our Torah portion for this week focusses on truly hearing the other.

The first time we hear this phrase is when the children of Heth invite Abraham to pick any burial place for Sarah. In response, Abraham mentions the phrase as he asks for the cave of Ephron the Hittite. As he hears this, Ephron mentions the word in inviting Abraham to take the cave. Abraham offers to pay, using this word. Finally, in his response Ephron asks Abraham once again to hear him.

At no other time in the Torah is there a negotiation anything like this. Looking carefully at the text, it seems as though Ephron is being extremely generous when he offers the cave to Abraham, but not everything is as it seems. All the Hittites are gathered together and the leader announces that Abraham can take any cave he wants. Abraham picks the cave of Ephron. We can now read the text in two ways at this point. One has Ephron the Hittite extremely frustrated at his land being chosen, the other that he wants to give it away but when suddenly faced with losing it, realizes how valuable it is to him.

In the first reading, Ephron is frustrated but he has to act magnanimously in front of everyone else. His people had already declared that Abraham could take any land he wanted, and Ephron probably agreed with that on the assumption that it would be someone else’s land. When his land is selected, he doesn’t want to give it up. Abraham senses that Ephron is unhappy and offers to pay him money, but Ephron could not possibly accept money in front of his people who offered his cave for nothing! So he could have said to Abraham “What’s a piece of land to me? Feh! It’s nothing, have it.”  But instead he says, “What is a piece of land worth 400 shekels (wink, wink) to me?” Abraham hears the words behind the spoken words, and pays the man the 400 shekels.

In the second reading, Ephron is initially willing in theory to give up his ancestral land but at the point when he has to let go of it, suddenly his attachment to the land – perhaps all his family memories - come flooding back. Suddenly, he sees himself impoverished, he realizes what has value in his life and instead of giving it away, he hesitates, and needs to be convinced financially.

What’s happening in the first reading? People are saying things without actually saying them. In English we might differentiate between people hearing and people listening, in Biblical Hebrew the differentiation is made by the inclusion or exclusion of this verb. To hear something is passive, but to listen to something requires effort. We have a story in which people are not only hearing the words, but also listening to the messages behind the words. When the Hittites offer Abraham a field for nothing, he knows that taking the land for free means that they can claim it back at any point, so he hears the words behind the words, and offers money instead to ensure it is his land forever. Now that Abraham is offering money, though, Ephron cannot openly say that he wants the money being offered, but he can spell out the price that the land should be bought for and leave it up to Abraham to give him the money or not.

For me, one very powerful message of this sidrah is that we all have a responsibility to listen to the words behind what people are saying – to try to find our way to the root of what is being said. But conversely, it also puts responsibility on us every time we speak – that we need to make sure that the words that we say really reflect the feelings we mean. And that is why at the end of the Amidah we pray to God to make the words of our mouths, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable to God – in other words, may the words of our mouths and the thoughts in our hearts always be one, and always be Godly.

At the same time, though, when it comes to having other people hear us, even if our words are totally consistent with what we’re thinking, there is still potential for confusion. The same word or phrase can mean very different things to differing people. One example which amuses me is the phrase “quite nice.” In America, when a person says that it’s a compliment, but in Britain when a person says that it’s a negative qualifier – the American “quite nice” is much more positive than the British “quite nice!” In Pirkei Avot (1:11), Avtalyon warns scholars to be careful of their words lest their students misunderstand and be led astray. When teaching halakha, that’s much easier than when having a conversation with someone. In negotiations such as the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah, everyone needs to be sure that they understand each other, hence the repetition of “Hear me” and “hear us” throughout the negotiation. But just saying that isn’t really enough because of how differently people hear words. Real conversation involves more listening than it does speaking. It involves listening to our own words to make sure they mean what we want them to, it means listening to what other people are saying, it involves listening to how our own words are received and it means listening to the words behind the words that other people say. This is why, according to Jewish tradition, we have two ears and one mouth – because we should be listening far more than we should be speaking.

This Shabbat, then, let’s commit ourselves to really listening. Listening to the words of our heart and ensuring that they synchronize with the words of our mouth. Listening to the words expressed by others, and the words within the heart of others. And let us say, Amen.


Friday, 6 November 2020

Authoritarian America and How to Avoid It - a post-2020 election sermon

A number of years ago, a cartoon in the New York Times by Paul Noth has a flock of sheep staring at a billboard for a political candidate. The picture of the candidate, who is a wolf, lies next to text saying, “I am going to eat you.” One of the sheep looking at it turns to another sheep and says, “He tells it like it is.”

Many members of this community have publicly expressed shock and dismay that the election result wasn’t a landslide for Joe Biden. They look at the last four years and despair that over sixty million people could vote for four more years of the same. They thought that the 2016 election was an aberration, that Donald Trump was elected because Hillary Clinton arrogantly didn’t visit key states, because she called half the electorate a basket of deplorables, because the FBI dropped a bombshell only days before the election or because Russia hacked the election. These things all certainly contributed, but this most recent election has seemingly confirmed that which many people believe – that there has for a long time been an authoritarian, anti-democratic movement in this country that continues to grow in strength. Despite believing that it had defeated authoritarianism once and for all in the 1940s with the military defeat of Nazism, this recent election is a rude awakening to many liberal Americans that authoritarianism is on the rise in America, and despite the fact that its rise to prominence has seemingly been temporarily halted, unless we address its root causes, it has the potential to overwhelm this country in the future.

The start of the 2006 book American Fascists – the Christian Right and the War on America, by Chris Hedges, contains an essay by Umberto Eco called “Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt.” Of the fourteen ways that Eco explains, at least seven could be applied to the Trump administration. To be clear, I am not saying that the 45th President of the United States was a fascist – all experts on fascism agree that that’s not true, despite a growing number of similarities. I’m not saying that the tens of millions of people who voted for him are fascists – of course they aren’t. I am saying, though, that what we have seen over the last five years by Donald Trump’s campaign and subsequent administration, culminating in this week’s denial of the democratic process by a sitting President, has been clearly authoritarian and has bordered dangerously close to fascism, and that we need to understand where this comes from in order to avoid it in the future.

In Umberto Eco’s essay, the reliance of tradition and the fact that there can be no advancement of learning is the first way that leads to fascism, and we have seen that in recent years by the open and consistent refutation of science not only regarding climate change but also regarding the current pandemic. The second way that leads to fascism is the rejection of modernism and the embracing of irrationalism, as made evident by the explosive growth in QAnon followers, one of whom has now just been elected to serve in Congress. The third way is similar – the belief that thinking is a form of emasculation and that the intellectual world cannot be trusted. We saw that in the President talking about climate scientists following political agendas. The fourth way is the belief that disagreement is treason. We have certainly seen in the last four years the rejection of valid peaceful protests and the vilification of protestors such as Colin Kaepernick as un-American or even anti-American. Eco says that for the fascist disagreement is a sign of diversity but “the first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders.” Again, we have openly seen the Trump administration try everything they could to block what they saw as intruders from Muslim countries. It is points 6 and 7 in that essay that I believe are essential to understanding this election. Eco says “Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.” When members of our community don’t understand why tens of millions of people could vote for Trump, it’s very possibly because they don’t understand the depth of despair and feelings of futility felt by vast swathes of people in this country whose jobs were either automated or outsourced to other countries by corporations who were supported by the political class on both sides of the aisle. When Trump promised to drain the swamp, that promise wasn’t against all forms of corruption – clearly - but specifically against the corruption that brought poverty to predominantly white manufacturing workers. And when those jobs were outsourced who did they go to? To people of color worldwide. This is the direct consequence of free trade agreements that say that they’re opening up markets but are actually locking individuals worldwide into a form of contemporary serfdom by only providing employment to those who pay the least and who provide the least protection for the workers and their environment (see Hedges, p.136). This capitalistic global race to the bottom has devastated vast areas of America and left countless millions of Americans feeling betrayed by the political class, the intellectuals who failed to make life better for the electorate and who didn’t suffer from the global recession as they did. Despair turned to rage, and when white American jobs went to people of color abroad, that rage turned into overt racism. Despite the pandemic having killed nearly a quarter of a million Americans in less than a year, despite the clear evidence of systemic racism, despite the continued subversion of the democratic process, despite pending environmental catastrophe, still, despite all those things, the leading issue for voters in this election was overwhelmingly the economy. When you cannot feed your family, when you cannot afford the payments on your home, when you cannot afford your healthcare, then the issues of race that affect black people in cities miles away and the issues of environment that affect polar bears in the arctic become irrelevant to an enormous number of voters. That is the inevitable manifestation of the radical individualism of American society that defines the American dream as personal, and not communal, success, as well as the inevitable product of decades of the erosion of the economic safety nets that are essential to so many Americans.

Umberto Eco adds that “to people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged.” Think of the so-called War on Christmas, the claims of Christian persecution in America, the conspiracy theories, the unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud even four years ago when trump won the election (!), the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville chanting “the Jews will not replace us,” the claims of paid crisis actors and paid protestors, the need to constantly talk of the fake news media plotting to undo the Presidency. To those invested in the narrative of a subversive plot, the impeachment of Donald Trump only became more proof that there was a plot against him and his supporters. Regardless of clear evidence of impropriety, the act of impeachment reinforced the narrative of persecution and thus profoundly strengthened the base for this election. Why do so many people buy into that plot, into that feeling of persecution? Because modernity has undermined the social structures upon which such people hang their psychological existence. In that world view, there are men and women and there’s nothing in between. The dismantling of basic concepts of gender has a huge effect on patriarchal America because it leaves the men in particular feeling totally lost and unable to identify themselves. They claim to be worried about physical violence in bathroom stalls by transgender individuals despite no evidence of that happening but it’s not physical violence that they actually fear, it’s violence to their patriarchal norms. It’s violence to everything their society is based on. They fear psychological violence from modernity, and vote against it.

Those patriarchal norms are constantly reinforced in this country by the evangelical right-wing church whose most prominent leaders have since the beginning of this election campaign spewed the most shocking bile as they concoct sinister plot after sinister plot by the liberals. The fundamentalist church has for decades been working to infiltrate the American political scene, and has unquestionably succeeded in its mission because it knew that if modernity continued, it would be rendered irrelevant. The lavish lifestyles of its clergy would have to come to an end. It has, therefore, seized upon the dismantling of patriarchal norms by the secular state – the encouragement for women to work and to have their own voice, the permission for same-sex marriage, the permission for transgender surgery, and more – and reframed them as a war against God Himself – the source of ultimate morality. It has provided comfort to countless millions whose traditional views were being dismantled, by framing those who would dismantle them as working for the Devil. And nowhere has that strategy been more successful than in the abortion debate, where it has succeeded in framing the discussion to be about when life begins as opposed to when personhood begins. It has thus been able to convince millions of people that abortion is murder and that the woman who carries the fetus loses all right to her body as soon as she becomes pregnant because she is now a vessel for another person and not a person in her own right. The deliberate confusion of life with personhood is why we have repeatedly heard the accusation of Democrats being “baby killers” or “murderers,” especially in recent months. It is because where the secular state views morality as an ongoing democratic process that is determined at the ballot box, the religious fundamentalist refers to Scripture for morality and claims that it is unchanging. In that claim, they totally reject the post-modern concept that every text exists in relationship to its reader and that everything is therefore interpretation. No amount of relativity, or evolution of thought, may come into this mindset – there is simply truth and lie. This conflict of religious fundamentalism against the secular state in this country claimed an important public win for the fundamentalists in the Scopes Trial of 1925 in which a high school teacher, John Scopes, was found guilty of teaching evolution despite Tennessee’s Butler Act which specifically prohibited it. Although the verdict was overturned on a technicality, the win was empowering for religious fundamentalists in America. They have for a hundred years since then deliberately reached out with their monolithic truth claims to the economically disenfranchised and socially displaced, they have comforted those people by framing their malaise as persecution by globalist elites – read Jews – who do not care for them, and they have helped form a mass social identity of opposition to democracy which has failed the blue-collar masses. Just as that religious fundamentalism is deeply patriarchal and anti-democratic within its own community, so too it manifests itself in anti-democratic norms. Thus, denying Merrick Garland a place on the Supreme Court or denying the validity of an election becomes in their eyes not only a moral position, but a Divinely supported position.

There is another narrative that must be included in any analysis of this election, which is the narrative of race. To millions of white Americans, totally removed from the reality of life for African Americans and Native Americans in particular, there is no racism in America. To them, racism was segregation and that was decades ago. In their minds, all that holds African-Americans back is their failure to manifest their own success – as we saw recently by Jared Kushner’s extraordinary statement that his father-in-law can’t want African-Americans to be successful more than they do. In that way of thinking, their lack of success is nothing to do with systemically racist structures but is their own fault. To such people who have no experience of systemic racism, it doesn’t exist. In fact, many of those white Americans genuinely blame President Obama for bringing racism back where, as far as they believed, it had been resolved! The dismantling of the American dream narrative, which was always a white narrative, coupled with the dismantling of other social narratives upon which so many white Americans had hung their own identities, had to be rejected for their own mental wellbeing. Segregation is not something from the distant past, though – at least one member of our community was arrested for sitting at a lunch counter with a black man. We can see how prevalent racism is in the so-called justice system in this country. We see it in employment figures. We see it in how devastating the pandemic has been in African American and Native American communities compared with the white population. But for those who have no contact with such things, the Black Lives Matter movement becomes just another attempt to undermine the profoundly American narrative of white normalcy.

It is important to clarify that I am in no way saying that everyone who voted for Trump in this election is an economically marginalized, distrusting, racist, white blue-collar Christian fundamentalist. I am absolutely not saying that. There are a multitude of reasons why people in this country vote for candidates from differing perspectives on gun control to voting rights to taxation to regulation and more. But what I am saying is that a now sizeable percentage of the American electorate is, indeed, made up of economically marginalized, authority-distrusting, white blue-collar citizens who unite with a massive voting bloc of misogynistic, democracy-denying, modernity-refuting Christian fundamentalists. Indeed, Christian evangelicals make up nearly 20% of the American electorate, and 75% of them voted for Trump this time. These are people who unite behind charismatic white, straight male figures. Together, they intimidate through fear of spiritual or physical violence, which is the hallmark of fascism. Indeed, this united group fan the flames of physical violence with chants of locking up opponents, with failing to condemn racial violence, and then turn to an authoritarian figure to resolve it through draconian law-and-order measures, like whisking away civilians in unmarked vans, or praising armed nationalists who walk the streets after civil unrest. They do everything they can to “own the libs” because the ultimate goal is the suppression of the new social narrative. They therefore even support what they know to be open lies as an act of defiance against the new social narrative and as a way to bring about a transformed American society that returns them to the time when they alone felt valued, which almost always meant privileged. Make American Great Again is the clarion call of this movement. From a logical perspective, Make America Great Again Again - a call which was made at least twice in this election campaign - is clearly nonsensical. But it actually reveals the deep insecurity of so many Americans who have lost their economic and social privilege and who will do anything they can to get it back. As Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise, wrote two days ago, “It’s clear now that far too many of Trump’s voters don’t care about policy, decency, or saving our democracy. They care about power.” As Hadley Freeman recently wrote of Trump, “His white working-class supporters saw in him their own aggrievement at not being accepted by elites who rigged the game; [and] the elites saw a fellow plutocrat who would protect their fortunes.” She quotes John W Dean and Bob Altemeyer’s book “Authoritarian Nightmare: Trump and his Followers” in saying that there is no defeating Trumpism as so many people thought might happen in this election. There is no defeating Trumpism because it doesn’t exist – it’s not a consistent thought pattern. It is, she says, nothing more than a mere reflection of his followers and their own psychological predispositions. “They look at him,” she says, “and see what they want to see: themselves.” The impulse to authoritarianism, to control, to power, will never be fully slain because it is an all-too human impulse.

Donald Trump is just one head of the hydra. Defeating Donald Trump at the ballot box won’t end the authoritarian impulses of a growing number of despairing people in the American electorate, just as defeating Hitler militarily didn’t end Nazism as an ideology. Without constant care, democracy can easily slip toward hero-worship and authoritariansm, something the American electorate is now only just realizing. Authoritarianism isn’t timebound, and it is only suppressed, never fully defeated. When a crass twice-time divorced man who openly brags about sexually assaulting women and who cannot even quote from the Bible during interviews is held aloft by white evangelicals as the second Divine incarnation, the underlying issue for that vast section of the American electorate is not religious – it is about power… white male-dominated hierarchical power with Divine mandate. It is about the external threat to that power perpetuated in a narrative of persecution that can only be redeemed by a savior figure. The dismantling of that narrative is therefore crucial to the continued existence of American democracy.

Chris Hedges writes (ibid. p.47) that, “not all who fall into despair turn to the Christian Right” but “despair … is the fuel of the movement.” If we are to avoid such close elections in the future, we need to honestly address despair within all sections of American society. We will need to help people across the country not try to seize power to compensate for their own feelings of abandonment. This will not be a conversation of the brain solved by logic, but of the heart, solved by love of the other.

We will also need to address the sources of despair, particularly economic sources of despair. We need to help people feel validated, seen, respected, valued for their contribution to society. Finally, we need to show the benefits of modernity to those who feel threatened by it and to those who think that they have the most to lose by it. The new President-elect can and will talk of the equality of all people, of being the President for all Americans. Karl Popper once wrote, “To tell men that they are equal has a certain sentimental appeal. But this appeal is small compared with that made by a propaganda that tells them they are superior to others, and that others are inferior to them.” (The Open Society and Its Enemies, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971, 1:96) It is a firm Jewish principle that we are all descended from the same first being so we are all equal. The reality, though, is that not all people in this country are equal. Millions who were in positions of economic and social privilege have lost that privilege and now feel threatened. They do not care for the real systemic inequality in this country that affects others beyond their view and they will do anything to return to their position of privilege, even if it means subverting democratic norms. They will attach themselves to savior figures to do it, and will ignore everything that those figures say or do in order to regain their own feelings of power. They will be like the sheep looking at the billboard, thankful for the honesty of their savior without considering the harm of that savior’s message.

Healing America, then, avoiding authoritarianism, necessitates profoundly changing the American narrative. It means providing economic stability for all in the face of multinational corporations who do not care for American citizens and in the face of the irreversible automation of manual labor. It means speaking to the heart and not just the brain of those who feel threatened by modernity. It means unravelling the personal narrative of the American dream and replacing it with a communal narrative of the American dream. It means abandoning radical individualism. It means that if we are to dismantle systemic patriarchy and racism, we must do so in a way that helps those who benefited from it to learn what we all gain by that dismantling, so that they do not rise up in violent reaction to what must necessarily happen for humanity to progress.

The urge to authoritarianism is real. It is fed by despair and by anti-intellectualism, particularly by white men who wish to protect their own power and hierarchical sense of identity. It is fed by those who cannot see their own persecution of others and who instead see themselves instead as victims demanding a savior. It is not one man, it is a latent seed in the heart of man.

On this Shabbat, we rest. We celebrate the fact that millions more people sought a democratic society than those who tolerated an authoritarian one. We rest. We breathe. We gather our strength. We unify. We thank God for giving us the ability to express our voice at the ballot box. And then after Shabbat, we start the work of protecting democracy, of helping the vulnerable, of dismantling the narratives of privilege and hierarchy in ways that show the benefit of that work to all. We see the pain of the other, and help to remove it, for the benefit of all. We do so because our understanding of religion, of God’s call, is inclusive, loving and empowering. We do so because all of us are made b’zelem Elohim – in the image of God. We do so because the work of helping the other is the work of tikkun olam – of global and spiritual reunification, the core of the Jew. And let us say, Amen.

Friday, 30 October 2020

What to Pray for an Election?

Talmud talks of how important it is that we do not waste our prayers. For example, one who sees a fire in their town from afar cannot pray that it not be their house on fire, since it either is already on fire or it isn’t, and prayer cannot change that reality. When it comes to praying before an election, what prayer, then, might be appropriate?

In the Mishnah (Avot 3:2), Rabbi Chanina, the Deputy High Priest, says that we should pray for the welfare of the government for if people did not fear it, they would swallow each other alive. In the past, I always read this as a positive sentiment, reminding us that we need overarching structures to protect ourselves. We need to social security net because our capitalist structures do, essentially, swallow up the poor and the economically fragile. Now, though, I cannot help but read this as a “law and order” message, a cynical attempt to maintain the status quo by insisting that without the current structures, society would rapidly devolve into chaos. That message doesn’t say anything positive, it just renders any form of change terrifying. The story of Rabbi Chanina is fascinating and, I believe, extremely relevant to us today. At first, he distances himself from the patriots who start to object to Roman rule, as made evident in the Mishnah I quoted. Later, though, as it became more apparent to him how barbarous the Romans were, and how much they focused their attacks on the Temple service, he changed his approach to the ruling power and sided against them. Perhaps I have become too cynical now, but it seems to me that his earlier maxim about praying for the government was only when it worked for him. From his position of privilege, he was able to hope for everything to stay as it was. As soon as negativity came into his life, he rallied against it. If Chanina were a voter in an election, it’s probably not too much of a stretch to say that he would be the kind of voter who chooses their candidate on how they personally are affected, and not the rest of the population. Chanina is so privileged and cut off from the rest of reality that he cannot see the brutality of the Romans until way too late. His mishnah protects the oppressor – it asks the community to ignore the faults of those in power for fear of what may replace it and uses extraordinary hyperbole – the idea that people would eat each other alive – to scare people into keeping what is already problematic.

In his commentary on this mishnah, Rabbi Marc Angel says that “if the government is immoral, one certainly should not pray for its welfare.” There are two difficulties to this – firstly, who determines what is immoral and, secondly, what happens to communal prayer? With regards to who determines what is immoral, what we usually see around elections is that there are widely differing understandings of morality – people who protest injustice and people who say those protests are unjust, people who say that life begins at conception and those who say that it begins at birth, people who say the government should protect the vulnerable and those who say that taxation is theft. Indeed, in this country the question of morality is often a deeply religious one – between those who believe that their reading of the Bible is what should determine morality, and those who do not since we do not live in a theocracy. One reason for the lack of decent political discourse in this country is the deliberate infusion over the last forty or so years of religious statements of morality into political discourse. Another is the fact that both people on the left and the right tend to talk in terms of absolute morality – of right and wrong – which is particularly ironic when one considers the underlying message of liberal belief. What is considered moral to one person is often immoral to another, and even if there are alienable rights determined in a country’s constitution, it has become absolutely clear that those absolutes are also subject to reinterpretation and thus modification over time.

The second issue I have with Rabbi Angel’s position is that it cannot work in a public setting, for example in a community where people are always going to have differing political views. In such cases, does the Rabbi become the arbiter of the community’s morality? That’s not really what the Rabbinate is any more – that was only the case back when Torah was seen as the only morality that mattered. There is a prayer in our siddur, on page 258, for our country. The first part – in slightly smaller font - is a clear quotation from Isaiah 58 that acts as a kavvanah, an opening intention, for the prayer that follows. That prayer asks that our leaders be granted “wisdom and forbearance” and that they govern “with justice and compassion,” but otherwise talks more in terms of the general country, almost as if to say that the government only makes up part of a country.

On this Shabbat before a crucial election which still hangs very much in the balance, I find the prayer by FDR from 1940 (From The Faith of America, Ed. Mordecai Kaplan, et al., edited and adapted by Dennis C. Sasso) to most deeply resonate, and so I share it on this Shabbat:

In every community in our nation, friends and neighbors will gather together around the polling place. They will discuss the state of the nation, the weather, and the prospect for their favorite sports team. And I suppose there will be a few arguments.

But when you and I step into the voting booth, we can proudly say: “I am an American, and this vote I am casting is the exercise of my highest privilege and my most solemn duty to my country.”

We vote as free people, impelled only by the urgings of our own wisdom and our own conscience.

Dictators have forgotten – or perhaps they never knew – that the opinion of all the people, freely formed and freely expressed, without fear or coercion, is wiser than the opinion of any one person or any small group of people.

Every one of us has a continuing responsibility for the Government which we choose. Democracy is not just a word, to be shouted at political rallies…. Democracy [is] much more than mere lip-service. Freedom of speech is of no use to the one who has nothing to say…. A free election is of no use to the one who is too indifferent to vote.

After the ballots are counted, [we pray that] the United States of America will stand united. [The] people of America know…that we have a reservoir of [faith and] strength which can withstand attacks from abroad and corruption from within.

On the eve of this election, we all have in our hearts and minds a prayer for the dignity, the integrity and the peace of our beloved country:

O God, who has entrusted to us this good land for our heritage, may we always prove ourselves a people mindful of Your favor and glad to do Your will. Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Protect our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endow with the spirit of wisdom those to whom … we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home and …among the nations of the earth. In times of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in days of trouble, suffer not our trust and faith to fail. Amen.

Friday, 23 October 2020

Saving the Planet, But Really - Noach 23rd October 2020

Much discussion has been had in recent years, including in recent political discussion, about combating climate change. It is regularly described as an existential threat. Businesses are trying to show how green they are, particularly by reducing their carbon emissions. Saving the planet and reducing carbon emissions are now, for the majority of the public, synonymous terms. Political candidates, newspapers, environmental groups all talk about the months we have left to save the world, how we have to rejoin the Paris Accord in order to stave off the worst effects of the climate crisis. That’s true, but it ignores the reality that is dawning on more and more people that we are already past the point of no return and that climate change will already happen that will be catastrophic to billions of people on this planet. We can probably stave off the very worst effects of it for humanity, which would be total extinction, but we are already locked into a series of positive feedback cycles which will irrevocably change our planet.

In fact, reducing carbon emissions and saving the planet are not the same thing. Most people assume a causative chain – that if we reduce carbon emissions then we save the planet. In fact, it’s the other way round – if we save the planet, we will also reduce carbon emissions. We tend not to talk about the causation working in that way because it’s far more inconvenient to do so. The truth is that we could end fossil fuel usage tomorrow and still not save the planet, because saving the planet is a far larger task and we don’t like to talk about that far larger task because it would necessitate a total change in our lifestyles, and not just a change in carbon emissions. What needs to change is the relationship between ourselves and nature. Reducing carbon emissions should never be the ultimate goal – that goal should be our reconnection with the world around us. Through that reconnection, carbon emissions will necessarily diminish but much more will happen, too. This is an existential crisis but it is not a crisis that can be solved by only by the business world, it’s a crisis solved by a change in attitude to which businesses then adapt.

Some people object to the language of “saving the planet” because they say that the planet will be here long after homo sapiens has been wiped off it. Such people say that what we’re really trying to do is save ourselves – save humanity from extinction. That attitude is actually a symptom of the far larger issue of androcentrism – of putting humanity in the middle of everything – instead of biocentrism. There’s no question that the Bible helped those with an androcentric worldview to claim divine support for their position – indeed, last week’s Torah portion of Genesis clearly has the world set up for humanity to then use in stewardship. However, there is another voice in scripture, a profoundly biocentric voice in which humanity is one voice in a larger choir of creation, a theme which is echoed in many of our prayers. Genesis, however, is clearly androcentric. In this week’s Torah portion, when Noah loads the animals onto the ark, he loads seven of every clean animal and two of every unclean animal because the clean animals would need to be sacrificed – in other words, they were being saved so that they could be useful to humanity. In some sense, he is saving the animals in order to save humanity. But those who say that we’re only really saving ourselves are ignoring the fact that Noah did save two of every other animal as well because, and this is so essential, they have value in and of themselves, regardless of their usefulness to human society. That is a secondary and crucial message in the story of Noah. This isn’t about us, it’s about all of creation. Yes, of course, reducing carbon emissions helps reduce devastation in other species, but that’s not the only way. All the windmills in the world won’t save the planet if we don’t make other profound changes to our society.

For example, if we cut our emissions but also continue to cut down rainforests for palm oil plantations, then we can be absolutely certain that not only will the earth become more hostile to us but we also we condemn to extinction many species, including the beloved orangutan. More efficient cars and homes and businesses are essential, but if in those places we still buy products that contribute to deforestation, then the impact of that efficiency is dramatically undercut. If we still give our money to banks who invest in companies that mine for resources in rainforests, if we buy phones from companies who slaughter gorillas just to get to precious metals, if we only consider the larger carbon footprint while avoiding the devastation caused by the way we spend our money, then we have to ask how green we really are? If we continue to consume plastic and other chemicals that pollute the oceans and strangle the wildlife therein, then we have to be honest enough to remove any pretense of being environmentally friendly. And if we continue to oppress the global poor, if we continue to support the economic systems that lock billions of people into debt and force them to despoil and then sell their own local environmental resources on a global market, are we really going to save the planet just because we reduced our carbon emissions? Indeed, how green are we if we continue to buy products from multinational companies who, half way round the world, force billions of people to buy patented monoculture crops that help the corporations rake in enormous sums of money which are removed from the local economy while the local environment is degraded beyond repair due to the lack of biodiversity in the crops, and then the same corporations make more money selling pesticides to the farmers which poison them further and which would have been totally unnecessary had their local knowledge of how to plant crops locally been listened to?

Noah sits in the ark with all the animals. He tends them and takes care of them but ultimately, he believes that he is above them, not one of them – he thinks he is a guardian of nature, not a part of nature. Western society has for the last four hundred years shifted from a perspective of working within nature to one of conquering nature. We’ve now conquered nature by devastating it. We won the war in which there were no winners. Yes, it is important to reduce carbon emissions but that will be a hollow victory if we do not simultaneously repair the relationship between ourselves and the rest of nature. We need to be of nature, not for nature. That is a change in spirituality, not in business models. It is a change in the way we view our world. It means changing our liturgy, rephrasing our spirituality and then, as a result, in modifying the way we live on the earth. This Shabbat Noach, we acknowledge that time is short. The waters are literally rising. We need to change not just how we shop but also how we think because we can no longer simply shut the door and drown out the cries of the rest of the natural world as it faces annihilation. This Shabbat Noach, we need to commit to saving the planet not just through an alternate consumerism but, more importantly, through re-evaluation of our place in this world. We do this not for our sake, but for the sake of the whole of this wondrous, irreplaceable creation. And let us say, Amen.