As we saw in this week’s sedrah – and last week’s election – leadership is a fraught business. Dissatisfaction is always round the corner, particularly if the leader is seen to be a bit remote, as Moses was always experienced to be by the Israelites, and Mrs May came to be regarded during her election campaign.
It’s struck me over this last week or so that it was a good job that democracy was a Greek invention and not a Judaic one. In the fifth century BCE for the first time in any society adult, male citizens of Athens – that is, about 30% of the total population – were allowed a say on who was to be the leader of the city and its surrounding territory, a model that soon spread to other cities of Greece. By this time the major texts of the Hebrew Bible had already been written, and the different kinds of leadership in the Israelite community had already become part of the people’s consciousness.
Moses is chosen by God, so the texts say, and so too are the leaders of the next generation, Joshua and Caleb with their positive message about the possibility of settling in Canaan –‘Yes we can’ is their Obama-esque message, which was music to God’s ears, if not the people’s.
And once the Israelites are in the land of Canaan, leadership is passed to judges, and from judges to kings – but there is not a hint of a democratic ethos in any of it. The people never get a say in it. Even the other sources of leadership – the priests for cultic leadership and the prophets for moral and spiritual leadership – are, on the one hand, a kind of family business, inherited within the tribe of Levi, and as regards the prophets, well that’s a kind of anti-leadership, a solitary, outsider role holding close to the ethical vision of the tribe: prophets are self-appointed, divinely-appointed, the texts offer two ways of thinking about it, but they certainly aren’t chosen by popular acclaim. On the contrary – the prophets had the same status in the eyes of the majority as do candidates from, say, the Monster Raving Looney Party. The prophets were eccentrics – as you have to be, or at least as you will be seen to be, if you aren’t interested in realpolitik but set out an uncompromising moral vision as the heart and content of your message.
So we can thank the Greeks for the blessings of democracy, not the Jews. And as we know, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”, as Churchill once said.
And we thank the Greeks too for introducing us to those two other concepts which have been around, these last 10 days or so, and are still around – hubris and chaos. To the Greeks, hubris referred to self-confidence, pride, and ambition so great that they offend the gods and lead to one’s downfall. It was a character flaw often seen in the heroes of classical Greek tragedy – Oedipus, Achilles are good examples – and we are in the midst of witnessing hubris at work again, though on this occasion it wasn’t the gods who were offended by Theresa May but the people.
And as for chaos – the word means chasm or void in Greek – it has come to mean complete disorder: so we don’t have to look too far to see how chaos, along with hubris, are dominating our day-to-day politics at the moment.
Mrs. May might be a vicar’s daughter, but she has no hotline to the divine. She’s living out a Greek-style tragedy not a Judaic one. Tragedy in the Hebrew Bible has a different shape, as we see in this week’s sedrah, which offers us an extraordinary portrait of leadership. Moses might not have been the people’s choice – on the contrary they have distrusted him from the very beginning and in this sedrah we heard the rebellion against him in full cry: “And the people said to each other: ‘Let’s get ourselves another leader, and let’s get back to Egypt’” (14:4) – but Moses acts with humility in the face of this, along with Aaron, and he shows an amazing rhetorical giftedness for such a tongue-tied stutterer when he argues down God, who is portrayed as so angry with the people’s lack of faith in the project of entering the land that he wants to kill off the whole lot. Moses faces down this divine tantrum with a seductive argument aimed at God’s vanity: ‘when the other nations get to hear that you have destroyed the people of Israel, they are going to say you were too weak to get them to the promised land, and you wouldn’t want that would you? Remember who you are’ – that’s Moses’ message to God, ‘remember your better self, your better qualities, slow to anger, filled with lovingkindness, forgiving sin and transgression…’ (verse 18). ‘This is who you are’ he reminds God.
And this flattery just about saves the day – Joshua and Caleb are saved with their descendents, and the youngsters are spared, they are the future, and they will inherit the land after the wanderings are over. But we can still call this whole episode a tragedy because the generation that left Egypt are condemned to schlep around the wilderness until they are die off with their destination never reached. It’s only the next generation who are allowed to complete the journey and eventually to inherit the land.
Neither God nor Moses are the slightest bit interested in democracy. Giving the people a voice, a vote in their future – well, we had to wait another 2000 years before Jews got on board with that project. Of course we probably wouldn’t have it any other way now – but it’s a sobering thought that the Hebrew Bible, our sacred scriptures, are so deeply anti-democratic in their underlying ethos. Of course they are profoundly interested in questions of justice and how a society should be organized well for the benefit of the oppressed and the marginalized, the strangers, the widows, the orphans, the disadvantaged. Loving your neighbour and acting with compassion and care is at the heart of the Jewish ethical vision – but it’s not a democratic vision, it’s a religious vision run more like a benign dictatorship, with God as the ultimate authority and various groups mediating God’s wishes for His people. As Tim Farron realised this week, another small scale personal tragedy, a religious vision does not necessarily sit comfortably with an egalitarian, democratic vision. I don’t think they have to conflict but it is salutary to be reminded that in the Judaeo-Christian tradition they might well do.
The issues are all there in the scriptures and I want to share with you now a new scripture that has just been revealed. And I want to share it because I think you’ll enjoy it, in these fraught and chaotic times. We know the author of this scripture, he’s a Brit who writes for the New Yorker, Anthony Lane is his name, and he has uncovered a new text for our edification and enlightenment and entertainment and its name is The Book of Jeremy Corbyn, and this is what it tells.
The Book of Corbyn
And it came to pass, in the land of Britain, that the High Priestess went unto the people and said, Behold, I bring ye tidings of great joy. For on the eighth day of the sixth month there shall be a general election.
And the people said, Not another one. And they waxed wroth against the High Priestess and said, Didst thou not sware, even unto seven times, that thou wouldst not call a snap election?
And the High Priestess said, I know, I know. But Brexit is come upon us, and I must go into battle against the tribes of France, Germany, and sundry other holiday destinations. And I must put on the armour of a strong majority in the people’s house. Therefore go ye out and vote.
And there came from the temple pollsters, who said, Surely this woman shall flourish. For her enemy is as grass; she cutteth him down. He is as straw in the wind, and he will blow away. And the trumpet of her triumph shall sound in the land.
And the High Priestess said, Piece of cake.
And there came from the same country a prophet, whose name was Jeremy. His beard was as the pelt of beasts, and his raiments were not of the finest. And he cried aloud in the wilderness and said, Behold, I bring you hope.
And suddenly there was with him a host of young people. And he said unto them, Ye shall study and grow wise in all things, and I shall not ask ye for gold. And the sick shall be made well, and they also will heal freely. And he promised them all manner of goodly things.
And the young people said unto him, How shall these things be rendered, seeing that thou hast no money in thy purse?
And he spake unto them in a voice of sounding brass and said, Soak the rich. And again, Pull down the mighty from their seats.
And the young people went absolutely nuts.
And they hearkened unto the word of Jeremy, and believed. For they said unto themselves, Lo, he bringeth unto us the desire of our hearts. He cometh by bicycle, with a helmet upon his head. And he eateth neither flesh nor fowl, according to the Scriptures. for man cannot live by bread alone, but hummus is quite another matter.
And the High Priestess saw all these things and was sore. And she gathered unto her the chief scribes and the Pharisees and said unto them, What the hell is going on?
And they said unto her, It is a blip, as if it were a rough place along the road.
But they said unto themselves, When the government was upon her shoulders, this woman was mighty. But now that she has gone abroad unto every corner of the land, she stumbleth. For surely it is written that ruling and campaigning are as oil and water, and there shall be no concord betwixt them.
And the chief scribes wrote upon tablets, saying, Jeremy is false of tongue. He hideth wickedness in his heart. And his sums do not add up. And nobody paid attention.
And the elders rose up and said to the young people, If ye choose Jeremy, he will bring distress in your toils and wailing upon your streets. Do ye not remember the nineteen-seventies?
And the young people said, The what?
And the elders spoke again, and said to the young people, Beware, for he gave succour in days of yore to the IRA.
And the young people said, The what?
And the young people said, Jeremy shall bring peace unto all nations, for he hateth the engines of war that take wing across the heavens. And he showeth respect for all peoples, even unto the transgender community.
And the elders said, The what?
And it came to pass that the heathen of this land came among the people, with fire and sword, and slew many among the faithful. And great was the lamentation.
And the High Priestess waxed exceeding wroth and said to the people, Fear not. For I shall bind your wounds and give ye shelter from the heathen, and shall take up sword against them.
And there came again pollsters from the temple, who said, Will the people not vote for her in this hour of need?
And nobody paid attention.
And it came to the vote.
And the elders went up to vote, and the young people. And the young people were a multitude. And in the hours of darkness there was much counting. And the young people watched by night, and the elders went to bed.
And there came in the morning news that the High Priestess had vanquished the prophet Jeremy. But the triumph of the High Priestess was as the width of a nail. And she was vexed.
And the elders and the chief scribes and the Pharisees spoke among themselves, yea, even in the corners of their houses.
And there was great rejoicing amidst the multitude of the young. And they took strong wine, and did feast among themselves. And there were twelve baskets left over.
And of the pollsters there was no sign.
And the people saw Jeremy and said, Surely this man has won? Doth he not skip in gladness like a young hart upon the hills?
And there was great murmuring among the elders. And they said unto themselves, Weep not. For the High Priestess doth but prepare the way. Cometh there not one who is greater than she?
And they said, Behold, for the hour of the redeemer is upon us. And his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Prince of Peace. And they cried in one voice, Boris.
And the people gave tongue, and made supplication unto the Lord, saying, Lord, let our cry come unto thee..
And the Lord thought the whole thing was absolutely hilarious.
And then the people said, Lord, what shall we do regarding Brexit? For henceforth the High Priestess shall be as weak as a newborn lamb. How shall we hope for continued access to the single market?
And the Lord said, The what?
[ Anthony Lane, The New Yorker, 9th June 2017]
Which is just about where we are now. And here endeth the lesson.