Erev Rosh Hashana 5779 – Rabbi Tony Bayfield

This sermon has a complementary theme to the sermon that Rabbi Bayfield gave at FRS on 1st day Rosh Hashana.

 

EREV ROSH HASHANAH  5779           9th SEPTEMBER 2018

Sha’arei Tsedek, North London Reform Synagogue

NO TRUMP – IN SPADES

This year, I’m going to break with a lifetime of prudence in the pulpit and risk causing you grave offence.  Tomorrow morning I’ll be at Finchley and plan to say a word or two about Jeremy Corbyn.  Tonight, Donald Trump.  If you feel you’re likely to be upset, may I suggest you take a fifteen minute comfort break and re-join us for the last part of the service.

Every time President Donald Trump invades my television screen, I experience feelings of loathing – but that’s beside the point.  What’s much more important is the churning anxiety in my kishkes.

A fortnight ago, Jacqui and I were at a Leonard Bernstein Prom.  We’re big Bernstein fans – Jacqui sang in his Chichester Psalms at university and I’m waiting to be offered the lead role in a revival of West Side Story.  But this particular Prom began with a short piece neither of us had heard before.  Titled ‘Slava (A Political Overture)’, it was written for the Russian cellist and conductor Rostropovich who’d come to live in America.  During the music, sound-bites of politicians addressing the populace are played in the background.  Lenny was saying to Rostropovich, ‘Don’t be fooled comrade-buddy, it’s no different here from back home.  All politicians lie.’

I’m sure that’s true but, if one thinks about it, it would be impossible to govern and be completely transparent about every unfolding chain of events or provisional plans not yet agreed with colleagues.  Never mind Jeremy or Boris, I‘ve a hunch that Mother Theresa – the one from Maidenhead – doesn’t always answer the questions as fully and openly as we would like.  And who knows what Sajid Javid gets up to with his Personal Protection Officer![1]

But Donald Trump, he’s something else.  He’s different – in kind as well as degree.  And my stomach is sour with unease.

Many of you will have met Dr Keith Kahn-Harris, husband of Rabbi Deborah, Principal of Leo Baeck College.  Beneath his subtle Lubavitch disguise, Keith is a radical academic, a sociologist who’s just published an important – and very readable – book.  “Denial: the Unspeakable Truth[2] isn’t about a river in Egypt, but about a phenomenon which his American colleagues term ‘denialism’.  Denialism is about constructing a detailed framework of pseudo-logical, historical or scientific arguments to support a claim which is utterly untrue but permits, justifies the deepest feelings of the denier however nasty.  I’ll give you a few of Keith Kahn-Harris’ examples and you’ll get what I’m going on about.

You’ll probably remember the law suit and may have seen the recent film in which Deborah Lipstadt took on the Holocaust denier David Irving.[3]  Irving had spent a lifetime constructing a detailed fake history to demonstrate that the Shoah never took place and is a myth fabricated by us Jews for our own advantage.  Keith makes the point that though Lipstadt won hands down in court, she also lost in the sense that Irving, now out of prison, is still teaching Holocaust denial, which has become part of the dark underbelly of modern western culture.

Very different – and yet essentially the same – is the claim that HIV doesn’t exist or, if it does, has no connection to AIDS.  “[In south Africa]there was always going to be significant cultural resistance to implementing an effective response [to HIV/AIDS]”, Keith Kahn-Harris writes.  “In the era of white minority rule, AIDS was often dismissed as a ‘black’ problem and ascribed to their essential sexual promiscuity.  As the country transitioned to the post-apartheid era, other factors came into play . . . The end result was a cascade of official denials that variously, minimised the problem, attributed it to stigmatised groups and to foreigners, and downplayed the necessity of treatment programmes.”[4]  He concludes that 330,000 people died, many of whom would have lived had a treatment programme been adopted.

Much closer to home is the denial of evolution.  It has a major hold in schools in the southern United States but, not so long ago, Jonathan Sacks was forced to withdraw a book in which he acknowledged evolution and re-publish it with the offending passage removed.[5]  Jewish evolution-deniers have developed a body of rabbinic literature to support their case and preserve a pre-scientific view of the world which they feel is under threat.

The most dramatic and disastrous example of denialism today is denying the fact of global warming, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, by constructing a detailed, pseudo-scientific web of arguments that allow the corporation or the politician to carry on doing or permitting whatever is profitable or not to their advantage.

As I’ve already indicated, the huge attraction of denialism is it permits you and your fellow deniers to do what you want to do and feel what you want to feel – without guilt: to continue to see Jews as all-powerful and malevolent whilst not having to feel sorry for us or acknowledge what deep-seated hate has led to in the recent past. What a huge relief not to think you’re prejudicing the economy, jobs and future of humanity which accepting the urgency of climate change demands.  Denialism is a deeply disturbing feature of the present as well as of the past, underlining the expendability of truth in the face of the pursuit of self-interest.

But there’s a dimension to Donald Trump and his presidency which makes him a cut below the rest.

What all the examples of denialism Keith Kahn-Harris cites have in common is that their authors have had to work really hard to construct an argument convincing to themselves and to those who want to believe along with them.  In each instance many articles have been written and books published arguing the case in the same language as the truth they deny.

Donald Trump doesn’t bother.

Publications and programmes have poured out over the last year identifying hundreds of instances in which Trump has subverted the truth, misrepresented the facts, made claims which are downright lies – and they make no difference either to him or his supporters.  Just occasionally he feels obliged to say he’s ‘mis-spoken’ but that’s the exception rather than the rule.  Most of the time, he just shrugs, repeats the untruth, blames the press – and carries on tweeting lies.

A few weeks ago, the American literary critic Michiko Kakutani published a little book called “The Death of Truth[6] – there’s a stomach-churning title for you – putting her finger on what precisely is going on.  She begins with the narcissist, “who has become increasingly emblematic of this self-absorbed age” – the person who, quote “often experiences intense feelings of rage, a sense of inner emptiness and then fantasises about omnipotence and his right to exploit others – re-making, re-modelling, elevating and polishing one’s own glorious self.”[7]  You may have an inkling of to whom she’s referring!  Then Kakutani goes on: “Along with this embrace of subjectivity comes the diminution of objective truth – the celebration of opinion over knowledge and feelings over fact.”[8] – my opinion is more important than your knowledge and my feelings trump any facts.

And there we have it.

The preening narcissist can achieve and maintain power precisely because he appeals to those who don’t want to be told the truth but only want to hear what sounds correct and feels right to them.  ‘Tell me what I need to be true, want to be true, deserve to be true and I’ll support it come what may.  There’s no need to go to all the effort entailed in denialism – I don’t need you to erect a web of self-serving, pseudo-scientific arguments – just tell me what I want to hear and I’ll be up there cheering for the most grotesque example of narcissistic populism in modern times.’

Feeling sick, I started to think about truth in Jewish tradition – I am, after all, a professor of Jewish Theology and Thought – and got a nasty shock.  It’s not, I found, a word much in evidence in the Torah or, indeed, in classical Rabbinic commentary.  But after a spot of academic panic, I began to think about why.  By and large, Biblical Hebrew doesn’t go in for abstract terms; instead it roots the language of its values and principles in the physical rather than the abstract and in everyday examples.  Emet, which is the Hebrew for true, has the same root letters aleph-mem-nun as emunah, trust, and amen, that’s what we have faith in.  The Torah doesn’t tell us to tell the truth – it insists we shouldn’t give false evidence in court, we shouldn’t spread gossip – untruths about other people – and we should be honest in our business dealings, not falsifying weights and measures or making something we’re selling look better than it really is.

At the heart of Judaism are fundamental principles and values which embody our precious insights into tangible, everyday truth – that which you can trust, that which you can rely on, that to which you can say ‘amen’ because it has integrity.

I’m fearful because we may indeed be entering the age of the death of truth.  It’s fashionable to lie brazenly – how do you know the Novichok didn’t come from Porton Down rather than Russia?  Anyway, they were innocent businessmen.

We now – I gather – have the ability to take a short clip of someone speaking and from it manufacture soundbites and place them on You Tube so the person appears to be saying things they never said and would never wish to say.

It’s increasingly clear foreign governments have the power to place false stories on the internet and, who knows, maybe MI5 or 6 do the same.

We know there are companies who, for money, will target individuals with disinformation and half-truths, playing to their fears and prejudices and persuading them to vote a certain way.

But what’s most terrifying of all is not needing these black arts but simply lying in the knowledge you have a constituency you can manipulate because, such is its deprivation and desperation, it will buy into what it wants to hear.  Which is, therefore, what its ruthless, narcissistic manipulator tells it.

Not a very cheerful sermon; not much apple and honey.  But when truth itself is in mortal danger, it’s vitally important that the synagogue is a place where emet, truth is valued and where what is said you can rely on.  And to which you can say amen.

 

Endnotes

[1]              Reference is to the BBC’s drama series ‘Bodyguard’.

[2]              Keith Kahn-Harris, Denial: The Unstoppable Truth. (Kendal: Notting Hill Press, 2018).

[3]              The lawsuit was in 2000.  The film ‘Denial’ came out in 2016.

[4]              Kahn-Harris, Denial, p.22.

[5]              Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference. (London: Continuum, 2002).  A lengthy paragraph on p.69 is absent from the 2nd edition.

[6]              Michiko Kakutani, The Death of Truth. (London: William Collins, 2008).

[7]              Ibid p.62.

[8]              Ibid p.63.

 

Rabbi Professor Tony Bayfield CBE, DD (Cantuar)