2nd Day Rosh Hashana 5780
It used to be said that when rabbis speak to their communities, they shouldn’t be political. Avoiding politics, they should talk about something more spiritual, more edifying, more…rabbinic. Maybe about Jewish values, or Jewish ethics, things that the Torah focuses on – like, erm…care for the outsider, love of the stranger, concern for the poor and the marginalised in society, social justice, legal and illegal business behaviour, the avoidance of intemperate language in families and in communities; how to look after one’s fields, and animals, trees, the soil and the natural habitat, the environment. Stuff like that. And of course there is plenty of stuff like that – that flows out of the Torah’s moral vision, which is based on, rooted in, the extraordinary, revolutionary notion that there is something of the divine in each human being – humanity made ‘in the image and likeness of God’, as the Torah puts it with typical poetic and imaginative richness – a moral vision that embraces the natural world too, as part of the ongoing creative activity of Adonai, the One and timeless source of all that exists.
Well, I hope you can see what a nonsense this is in reality, that rabbis shouldn’t be political. Because all those themes surrounding Jewish ethical and moral responsibilities are of course deeply political. The way in which the social and environmental policies of a country are arranged, the legal arrangements for people to get justice (or not), the economic policies and priorities of a government that effect the living day-to-day reality of everyone in a society – do they increase the gap between rich and poor or reduce it? – the way a country tackles hate crimes, and prejudice and discrimination, all of these everyday tangible concerns of successive governments, the bread-and-butter stuff of politics, although it’s not often articulated as rooted in a moral or ethical vision, this kind of politics does of course have a large ethical dimension and therefore is something that Jewish tradition – and rabbis – will have a view on.
So – taking a leaf out of George Orwell’s book, when he wrote that “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude”, I would suggest that ‘The opinion that sermons should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude’. But by now I am sure you are saying to yourself – well I hope you are, I hope you are one step ahead of me on this – you’ll be thinking ‘Well, when they say rabbis shouldn’t be ‘political’ what’s meant is ‘rabbis shouldn’t be party political’. As Hamlet famously soliloquised: “Ay, there’s the rub”. One shouldn’t be party political.
By the way, Shakespeare borrowed this phrase from the game of bowls, in which ‘rub’ – as in drawback, obstacle, impediment – meant some unevenness in the ground that hindered or diverted the free movement of the bowl. It might be useful to rehabilitate this term in the current circumstances of our political life as a nation, when we see the unevenness – not to say chaos – on the ground beneath our feet: each hyperactive day, a new development it seems, a new obstacle to the smooth running of ‘politics as usual’. One might say that Mr. Johnson is not exactly getting the rub of the green at the moment: to lose one’s first seven votes in parliament as well as being humiliated 11-0 by the Supreme Court, well if he was managing a football team, the club’s owners might well be asking him to ‘consider his position’. As in: ‘consider that your position is now vacant’.
Actually, I’ll let you into a secret, I wasn’t going to talk about any of this today, straying into ‘party politics’. Like one recent now notorious example, I was dithering up to the last minute, this morning, about which way to go: I didn’t actually have 2 sermons prepared, one of which I’d bin depending on which way the wind was blowing, but then I’m not being paid 275,000 quid a year to pen a weekly column of waffle, piffle and prejudice; but what I am paid to do, amongst other things, is offer you from time to time some considered thoughts on what our timeless Jewish values might have to say in relation to what is going on in our perplexing and fraught world: communally, nationally, globally.
Because I know that many of us are feeling – if we haven’t become desensitised by the relentless barrage of news that arrives every hour – we’re feeling the maelstrom of disorder and uncertainty sweeping through the daily fabric of our lives, our livelihoods, the very air we breathe. We are caught up in all this whether we want it or not. And although you might hear me voicing some disobliging remarks about some of our political leaders – and don’t worry I will come to Mr. Corbyn in a moment – yes, I am very aware of that old-school unwritten guideline about party politics; but I am also aware that it can be a dereliction of rabbinic responsibility and leadership to ignore what’s going on in front of our eyes and not call out politicians (in whatever country) when they cross red lines of legality, or racial prejudice, or just common human decency.
And one of the reasons I do want to talk about political issues – and this dementing political, social, economic, and environmental mess we are in – because of what it’s doing to us, how ill it is making us as a society. It’s making us emotionally unwell, and sick in body and soul, it’s hollowing us out – I see this every day not just on the news-feeds of knife crime and homelessness and food banks and austerity-produced deprivation and shortening life expectations around the country, but I see it too in my consulting room as a therapist: how people are suffering from the diseases and dis-ease of 21st century consumerism with its roots in capitalism’s necessary fantasy, promoted by almost all political parties, of endless economic growth and social progress. People talk dismissively about the ‘worried well’ going to see their therapists – but actually, whether you are seeing a counsellor or not, people are not worried well, they are worried sick.
The way we live now is making us sick, not just metaphorically, but literally, and it’s generating a barely disguised (and in some quarters nakedly undisguised) aggression that is poisoning our land. Things are not working out the way people want them to in so many domains of life, and the Brexit furore (as important as the issue is for the future well-being of our country) is a cover story for a much deeper malaise. People become angry when they can’t have what they want, whether it’s realistic or not. You see it in toddlers and you see it in the House of Commons. People become enraged at being denied their wishes, or when their feelings about what they want – or feel they deserve, or have a so-called ‘right’ to – become thwarted. Democracies across the globe are being transformed by the power of feeling. And it’s not just anger that is being released, but there’s resentment and fear because we know in our hearts that all is not well in the world. The future looks perilous on many levels, which is why nostalgia for a imagined past when all was well (even though it wasn’t) becomes so powerful. And I think religious leaders do have a responsibility to talk about all this as our New Year begins, and we reflect on what needs to change, and how we might need to change, and how we, as Jews, might respond to where we find ourselves at this point in our nation’s history.
None of us knows, of course, what tomorrow’s headlines could be, for ourselves, our country. That’s always been true, but in our increasingly speeded-up, interconnected, always-‘switched on’ world, with the country’s current political crises continuing to cascade over us, it’s hard to keep up, even if we want to – and many people don’t want to, it can feel too unbearable to be exposed to the lying, the deception, the chicanery and corruption, the combustible rhetoric, the demagogic language, the polarising rhetoric, the demonization of the other, all this ugly and sometimes frightening stuff.
We live in multiple worlds now: while the ever-changing local, national, international issues swirl round us, the timeless pageant of births, marriages and deaths goes on, the personal stuff, our health scares and illnesses, divorces, job losses, emotional problems, everyday disappointments, that’s all woven into the tapestry of our lives (alongside the constant reminders of a planet heating and flooding and choking). And I think it can create inside us – all this hyperactivity – some very difficult, hard-to-manage, feelings: of nervousness, lostness, helplessness, emptiness so that in a secret part of ourselves we feel we don’t know what we are doing, what’s happening, where we are going, we don’t know where hope is going to come from for the future: our futures, or our children’s futures, or – God help them – our grandchildren’s futures?
We are all having to manage it, this febrile atmosphere that’s stalking the land, with its toxic mix of nationalism and populism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and yes, undercurrents of antisemitism too, and you’ll all have your views and opinions and nothing I say will make any difference to how you cast your vote when an election arrives, as it will do soon. (I’m back to party politics). And unlike in America where my colleague Zoe tells me that it’s illegal for rabbis to speak to congregants about how they might vote, and unlike in Israel where the Haredi rabbis tell their followers who to vote for, and they do, and nobody thinks there’s anything amiss with that, you here would be shocked (I hope) if I – or any of the clergy here – directed your attention towards who to vote for.
Although I was shocked – and believe me it takes a lot to shock me – to hear that some of my colleagues (not in this community I hasten to add) are thinking of writing to their congregants before the election and telling them not who to vote for, but who not to vote for: i.e. to cast their vote for whatever party would have the best chance in that constituency of defeating the Labour candidate, even if it goes against their normal political allegiance.
Although a few of you here are nodding your heads in approval, I don’t think I’m in a minority in thinking that’s a pretty problematic decision, if they follow through with it. It’s problematic for a variety of reasons – not least because I think it could well add fuel to the already smouldering antisemitic fires that we know about and keep an eye on.
By the way, I would be saying this whatever the party being targeted: I hold no personal candle for Corbynite Labour and some of his nastier and ignorant fellow-travellers. But in sharing this with you, more in sorrow than in anger, I want to use it to illustrate a deeper, more substantial point: for me it represents just how contaminated by emotion and false consciousness our thinking has become – when even supposedly thoughtful Jewish leaders fall prey to this kind of polarised thinking, something quite upsetting, and frightening, is happening: rather than help people think about and manage their fears and anxieties about disturbing trends in the society around us – all that toxic swirl of aggression, anger, hatred, victimisation, blame, some of the ugliest strands of emotion inside us that we know courses through public discourse and on social media – instead of helping us as a Jewish community contain our worries, our emotional distress, and retain or fortify our psychological and spiritual wellbeing – I think those kind of rabbinic messages can only stoke people’s fears, increase people’s anxieties, collude with our historically deep-seated impulses towards paranoid thinking.
To which some might respond: but what if it’s not paranoia? As they say: Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they are not out to get you. To which I would reply: and yes, that’s exactly what the paranoid mind says, it’s always them, never me. But our job – and it’s not easy, but it is psychologically and spiritually essential – is to separate out the outward hostility (where it exists) from our conscious and unconscious hostility that we project outwards and then feel is being directed at us. If we don’t stay in touch with and control our own aggression, we will only ever feel it as being directed at us.
You see, it’s true that the one thing we know is that we don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but unless we are rooted in, and work at staying rooted in, something timeless in our Jewishness, we are going to feel very lost, a bit demented sometimes, and perhaps sometimes feel we’re losing our hopefulness in life. And what do I mean by ‘staying rooted in something timeless in our Jewishness’?
On Rosh Hashanah, as a new year begins when things are likely to remain chaotic and fragmented, disenchanted and polarised and fraught, we need to focus on what counts, what really counts: and what counts doesn’t change with the zeitgeist, with fashion, with the ups and down of political rhetoric. What counts are – the machzor reminds us of this on every page – compassion, generosity, lovingkindness, a passion for justice, a deep care for one’s neighbour, and for the stranger, the outsider. These are the values that are timeless, and this is what the meaning of the Jewish survival is about – not survival for three millennia for its own sake, just another ethnic group to add to the rich mix of humanity, that’s not what our purpose is here in this world, to focus on our national or ethnic claim as Jews, but to bring into a lived reality these qualities which are at the heart of the Jewish story, the Jewish vision: we have survived not just in order to keep on surviving, but because we have a role; to be a spiritually alive Jew means to be a blessing, to bring a blessing into the world through our actions, our everyday inter-personal behaviour, our ability to say, and to enact, that you – created in the image of the divine – have value. I have value, but you have value too. A value that we cannot put a price on. The divine spirit which animates all things and flows through creation and lives in me, is also in you, in the others. This underpins a religious vision, just as it underpins, in a disguised form, human rights legislation and our justice system and our care for the environment.
Unless we keep rooted in this ancient and yet still never achieved vision, we will not survive. Unless as Jews, individually and in communities – and Miriam highlighted this in her RH sermon, her pride in all the activities within and beyond FRS that members are committed to – unless we are committed to care, to kindness, to concern for those who are deprived of rights, to the impoverished, and the marginalised; unless we are committed to the well-being of life – human, animal, natural – unless we keep a steady eye on our vision, our Godly purpose, we will feel lost, confused, frightened, scared of the future. If we turn away from these values, turn inward, we will betray our purpose and our destiny, our raison d’etre. And if we betray it, there will be nobody to fix things after us. And whether your commitment is through working with groups like Extinction Rebellion, or JCore, the Jewish Council for Racial Equality, or through the synagogue, or in random acts of kindness in individual relationships with people you meet, what matters is that you allow the timeless ethical demands and wisdom of our tradition to filter through you, so that you are agents of the change you would like to see.
George Orwell once wrote that “In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act”. So let’s be revolutionaries. Our tradition calls today Yom Ha-Zikkaron, the day of remembering, and the truth is that for Jews there are two kinds of remembering. One kind of remembering – the lachrymose view of our past – is remembering the vale of tears we have inhabited because we have attracted hatred and hostility, over the generations: that’s an old story, always close to the surface, always waiting to snare us in its determinism, ‘remember what’s happened to us’. There’s a truth there, yes, and we need to remember it – but without it colonising our minds. Because if it does colonise our minds, occupy all the available space with its haunting story of what has been done to us, there’s no room for the other remembering, the other truth, the other revolutionary act.
And this second kind of Jewish remembering is to remember our vision, symbolised by the revelation at Sinai, of a new ethic of how to live together, how to create a society of well-being: a vision of inter-personal generosity, compassion, the fighting against injustice, the care for each other, and the care not just for those like us, but for those different to us. Remembering the moral vision we have been given and carried for all these generations, in all its depth and richness and all its demands to be lived out, remembering this is the way forward, the way we keep hope alive in fraught times.
Keeping our eye on the timeless is no guarantee that we won’t lose our bearings in the face of the superfluity and bombardment of everyday life – but without it our sense of being lost and directionless will only grow. In the face of division, hostility, demeaning language, let’s be revolutionaries, let’s insist on the timeless truths we still hold close to our hearts.