ROSH HASHANAH MORNING 5780
MONDAY 30th SEPTEMBER 2019 FINCHLEY REFORM SYNAGOGUE
I sat there in a state of growing intellectual and emotional conflict, oblivious of the closing pages of the music. Shaking.
Every year, the Bach Choir performs at the Royal Festival Hall and invites a number of London girls’ schools to nominate a couple of 6th formers each to join them in singing that most spiritually uplifting piece of music – Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion. In English.
I turned up with bucket loads of Jewish grandfatherly pride to listen to my characteristically blasé granddaughter, Miriam’s niece Francesca (aka Chessy), demonstrate just how much she owes to me for her considerable musical talent. Not. When I’d located Chessy on stage, basked in adoring admiration and finished scanning the audience for people who might recognise me, I finally began to take in what they were singing.
My German is largely confined to Yiddish derivatives (schlep, gesundheit, ich weiss nicht) – so I normally concentrate on the music which transcends the words. But sung in English, the words were unavoidable: ‘The wicked Pharisees, the accursed Jews betrayed their King and Saviour and conspired to have the Holy Lamb crucified. The Jewish people have incurred eternal guilt for the murder of God Himself.’ That’s what they sang; that’s what Chessy sang – and, as the applause echoed round the Festival Hall, I exploded: why do we always have to be the incarnation of evil at the heart of the western world? Grandpa was still incomparably proud. But the Theologian was immersed in his deeply troubled thoughts.
Anti-Semitism is infinitely more complex than the novichok virus and I’m not an authority on the virulent poison running through the veins of our shared culture. But my friend and colleague David Ford, who recently retired as Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, once suggested to me that the significant Christian contribution to this obscene and blasphemous cultural disfigurement could be understood (understood, not excused) as rejection. The followers of Jesus and the early Church were convinced that the charismatic Jewish teacher from Galilee was the Messiah, the fulfilment of desperate Jewish hopes in the face of ruthless Roman oppression. But the majority community rejected their claim and when the Gospel writers recorded the post-crucifixion story they read back into it the hurt, frustration and deep sense of rejection of a minority whose claims the majority declined to uphold.
When the Ancient World came to a bloody end some centuries later, Muhammad was likewise shocked that the considerable Jewish community around Mecca and Medina similarly failed to give him the support he expected. The hurt that engendered is expressed in the Qu’ran.
This is not the whole story but it’s a significant part of it, a major contributor to the shameful fact that the vocabulary, image, demonization of the Jew is an ineradicable part of western culture. It’s in the text of Bach, the portrait of Shylock, the unmistakable inference from the closing words of Wagner’s Meistersingers, from ‘the Jew in furs underneath the rats’ of T S Eliot, the formative art of the Renaissance, the very fabric of churches. Would we want to eradicate it – ban The Merchant of Venice, lai, lai, lai to Bach, expunge Ezra Pound from the historical record – even if we could? No more than the thought and culture of the Jew – the influence of the Hebrew bible, the music of Mahler, the insights of Freud, the philosophy of Wittgenstein, the painting of Rothko – should or can be eradicated from western culture, however much tyrants and anti-Semites have tried.
I found the time between the finalisation of the text of Being Jewish Today and its publication anxiety-making in a number of respects but one in particular. I couldn’t stop scanning the review pages of the weekend papers for books that I would have read had I still been writing – and buying and even reading some of them. Fortunately there was only one that I would have given my eye teeth to have been published six months earlier, when I was still writing. It’s a book of essays by a New York literary critic called Adam Kirsch – who I suspect might be Jewish not just because of his surname but because the book is called who Wants to be a Jewish Writer and Other Essays. It’s superb and I can thoroughly recommend it: Yale University Press.
Kirsch’s book includes an essay about a Viennese novella writer of great distinction, Stefan Zweig.
Zweig was lionised by the leaders of Viennese culture in the nineteen twenties and thirties. He was also dismissed by some of his Jewish contemporaries as a lightweight. Plus ça change! He and his wife fled the Nazis in 1934, moved to London, then Bath but, on the fall of France, booked their passage to New York. However, even New York didn’t feel safe. The Zweigs retreated to pre-Bolsonaro Brazil, lived for a while in a remote mountain town north of Rio and, in February 1942, committed suicide. Adam Kirsch writes:
Finally, even Brazil did not feel safe. Zweig was convinced that even if Hitler lost the War – and after Pearl Harbor, this began to seem possible – the world would never again be “the world of yesterday”. Zweig came to believe that there was nowhere left to escape to, no place where the values he cherished could survive. [repeat]
Kirsch ends: ‘[Zweig’s] curse was that he died believing this; our good fortune is that he was wrong.’
Those liturgical geniuses Lionel Blue and Jonathan Magonet included a stunning piece of Zweig in their liturgy for Yom Kippur. This is how they chose to frame the doorway into the Torah service in their High Holyday Machzor – a piece by the German refugee rabbi who taught me theology Ignaz Maybaum affirming Jewish chosenness on one side of the page and this piece of despairing Zweig on the other:
What was most tragic in this Jewish tragedy of the 20th century was that those who suffered it knew that it was pointless . . . their forefathers . . .had at least known what they suffered for; for their belief, for their law. They had still possessed a talisman of the soul which today’s generation had long since lost, the inviolable faith in their God . . . Only now, since they were swept up like dirt in the streets and heaped together, the bankers from their Berlin palaces and sextons from the synagogues of orthodox congregations, the philosophy professors from Paris and Rumanian cabbies, the undertakers’ helpers and Nobel Prize winners, the concert singers and hired mourners, the authors and distillers, the haves and the have-nots, the great and the small, the devout and the emancipated . . . only now, for the first time in hundreds of years, the Jews were forced into a community of interest to which they had long since ceased to be sensitive . . . And thus, with smarting eyes, they stared at each other on their flight: why me? Why you? How do you and I who do not know each other, who speak different languages, whose thinking takes different forms and have nothing in common, happen to be here together? Why any of us? And none could answer. [p.426]
Zweig was, of course, speaking for many. But primarily himself. And we can still appreciate, still feel his excruciating pain. Why me? Why you?
Lionel Blue also expressed the situation of the Jew in modern western culture in a characteristically witty but profoundly Jewish and Jewishly profound way:
It’s announced on the News that a huge tsunami is heading for Tel Aviv. The Christians go to church and pray for Jesus to save them. The Muslims go to their mosques and beseech Allah to receive them into heaven. The Jews go to synagogue and say: “Dear God, it’s going to be difficult living under five metres of water.”
But haven’t we now all reached the – to me – un-evadable point of asking, with Zweig ‘What the heck for? What’s the point?’ If we’re fated forever to be drowned by the anti-Semitism endemic in modern western culture; if we can’t escape being cast as the incarnation of evil, let’s put an end to this pointless, neurotic masochism and dissolve into undifferentiated humanity.
There are those who just want to be Jews and maintain their right to be who they are, despite the lessons of history. Those who simply want to belong to community and enjoy the warm enveloping mutuality of being with their fellow Jews. I belong, therefore I am.
There are those who simply want to do Jewish and observe in the obsessive-compulsive way they choose. I observe, therefore I am.
Whether either strategy is enough for meaningful and purposeful survival, I have my sociological as well as my theological doubts. In any event, I’m concerned about the link between Jews and Judaism, between being Jewish today and engaging with Judaism today. With finding a place where the values which Zweig cherished or, to be more accurate, the values of Judaism can survive along with us Jews.
There’s a midrash, a piece of classical rabbinic commentary that speaks to me loud and clear across the best part of two thousand years:
What did Abraham resemble? A phial of perfume closed by a tight-fitting lid and lying in a corner so that its fragrance couldn’t escape. As soon as it was picked up, however, the perfume was spread. Likewise, the Holy One Blessed be God said to Abraham: ‘Travel from place to place and your name [made from the values you carry with you] will become important to the world. [Midrash Rabbah 39.2]
Ours is a tradition of engaging with beliefs and ethics embedded in more than three thousand years of text – from the Torah which formed us to the Torah we continue to create through contemporary engagement and commentary today and beyond. With interrogating texts ancient and modern, with debating, challenging and frequently agreeing to disagree. Ours is a tradition of the intellect and the intuitive, of reason and personal experience, of getting to grips with the fundamental challenges of life – not leaving them in a corner or ignoring them because we don’t want to go there.
Of course we need a survival strategy for living under five metres of water. But it’s not enough simply to live under five metres of water; it’s what we make of it, what we do down here that matters. Let’s face it: the water isn’t very pleasant. It’s murky and smelly and undoubtedly toxic.
So, why flounder down here for no compelling reason?
There’s no value to being Jews for the sake of bloody-mindedness alone. There’s no point in being the personification of evil at the heart of western culture unless we deny that’s who we are over and over again by giving the real issues much informed thought and engaging in even more constructive and collaborative action. Otherwise ‘what the heck’. Why poison the naches from one’s granddaughter with impotent and undirected rage? For God’s sake, let’s be Jews for the sake of Judaism, for the sake of pursuing meaning and purpose to our lives.
Shanah Tovah: A good and worthwhile New Year – one in which our synagogue is regularly on ITV and BBC London News for the best of reasons; for reasons of meaning and purpose.
Rabbi Professor Tony Bayfield CBE, DD (Cantuar)