Forthcoming Events and Lecture on Sexuality – November 2016

I will be giving the next Honest Theology lecture on Sunday 20th November at 7.45 for 8pm.

The topic will be ‘What is the Meaning and Purpose of Jewish Education?’ and it will be an exploration of the types of Jewish values we wish to bequeath to our children.  It will be an exploration of the core values of both education and Judaism, and it will challenge conventional understandings of both.  Do join us for another excellent evening of thinking and discussion.

The venue is Central Square Minyan Hall, Central Square, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London NW11 7AH.  Booking is advised, but not essential.

Tickets and more info can be found here: http://louisjacobs.org/news/the-honest-theology-project-lecture-6/.

The previous lecture, an exploration of the complex relationship between Judaism and sexuality, can now be viewed online here:

http://louisjacobs.org/eventseries/the-honest-theology-project-lecture-5/

By way of a teaser passage, here is a short selection from it:

Humans have a powerful desire to know the answer to sex, for a book to tell them what it means.  But it just doesn’t work like that, sex is a mystery, it is a source of revelation to us, it shows us who we are, however uncomfortable that might sometimes be.  There is no right and wrong, and it cannot be reduced to another thing, to be contained, whether in the language of biology or psychology or in terms of religion and morality.  Sex lives, as we live, and it will always leave us with more questions than answers, it will always challenge what we think of ourselves and the world around us.  

Recent Lectures – Why Might We Keep Halakha? and Can Judaism Survive the Return to Zion?

The Honest Theology Project has been progressing in a manner that provides great encouragement for those of us interested in a thoughtful, honest and constructive form of religion.

The third lecture was given on February 7th 2016 and engaged with the questions of why we might actually maintain halakhic practice in today’s world and in light of our theological understanding.

It can be viewed here, together with an excellent Q&A session.

By way of taster:

The middle position, and perhaps the most challenging both to defend and to live by, is one that can see that sometimes and in some ways there is a need for submission and surrender. But that this does not mean that the aim is to thwart the flourishing of human wellbeing or to pollute its moral conscience.

We need not understand everything or always feel moved to observe, but nor must we always simply seek to negate our sense of self or suspend our ethical judgment. Living a life is a long and complex process, comparable perhaps to a complex symphony, and whilst perhaps some notes are primarily there to link between the more poignant and moving moments, they are nonetheless of tremendous importance, an essential part of the overall structure.

The fourth lecture was given on April 17th 2016, and asked ‘Can Judaism Survive the Return to Zion?’.  It was an attempt to probe the depths of the dangers of religious literalism, particularly as manifested in contemporary Zionism, particularly its religious varieties.

A sample of the opening reads:

Religion, as we have described it thus far, consists of an elaborate and complex web of metaphor, symbol and myth. It is laden with suggestions, hints and multi layered meanings. For a person to make good use of such a system, they must, amongst other things, have an awareness and sensitivity for symbolic language, for mythical representation, for rituals that are soaked in metaphoric suggestion. 

When people approach religion without this sensitivity, or worse, with a sense of anxiety or threatened-ness that they wish to dispel, then they will find therein a set of stories, teachings and ideas which offer them very concrete guidance and instruction. They may even find there sanctioned and legitimised outlets for their own violence and hatred, for their need to oppress and annihilate. 

If we are to embrace religion in any kind of public way, then I think we have a responsibility to provide a roadmap for how to use the symbols in constructive ways, how to curate the better readings of our myths and to highlight some of the more dangerous and explosive metaphors.

The lecture, together with a fascinating Q&A, can be found here.

Chag Sameach and do be in touch with any thoughts or questions.

What is God – The Second Honest Theology Project Lecture

On November 22nd I gave the second lecture in the Honest Theology Project series.  The title was ‘Getting to the Core – What is God?’.  The video is now available.

The main lecture is here:

https://player.vimeo.com/external/147047561.sd.mp4?s=c0b125c654a46186e7b43cca142ce590d6016548&profile_id=112

And the fascinating Q and A session afterwards is here:

https://player.vimeo.com/external/146947436.sd.mp4?s=180312c1478fa9d565d3c1ca829541497bee3524&profile_id=112

I look forward to hearing any thoughts or feedback.

 

Tear Open Your Hearts – Shabbat Shuva 2015

(Originally delivered at Finchley Partnership Minyan on 19th Sepetmber 2015) 

It’s hard to feel like we’re in the right place at this time of year.  The Yamim Noraim – the days of awe – always seem to come out of nowhere.  However conscious we are of the passing days of Ellul, Rosh Hashana seems to always find us unprepared.

The Ba’al HaTanya says that at this time of year the King is in the field – Hamelekh Basadeh.  The King leaves his secure and aloof  residence in the palace and comes out to be closer to his people, allowing them to encounter him, to get to know him a little better.

But still, we must leave our homes and go out into the field, the King is not in our lounge or our kitchen. He is closer but it still requires an effort.

The Rambam in Hilkhot Teshuva opens with a fascinating formulation:

א  כָּל הַמִּצְווֹת שֶׁבַּתּוֹרָה, בֵּין עֲשֵׂה בֵּין לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה–אִם עָבַר אָדָם עַל אַחַת מֵהֶן, בֵּין בְּזָדוֹן בֵּין בִּשְׁגָגָה–כְּשֶׁיַּעֲשֶׂה תְּשׁוּבָה וְיָשׁוּב מֵחֶטְאוֹ

‘Every mitzva in the Torah, whether a positive commandment or a negative prohibition, if a person passed over one of them’ – if one missed the opportunity for growth inherent in that mitzva, this is the meaning of aveira – ‘whether deliberately or accidentally’ – whether he maliciously set out to self destruct, to distance himself from the source of his wellbeing, or whether he was simply lax and lazy, he lost focus and temporarily forgot himself, had a moment of weakness and doubt – ‘when he does Teshuva and returns from his sin he is obligated to confess and articulate it in front of God, blessed be he.’

When he does Teshuva’.  The Rambam sounds like he is describing a law of nature, a person will sin, will miss out on opportunities, but he will return, he will always return, there is only so long that he can stay away for.  It’s like a young child, who gets angry with his parents, who stomps off in a huff, maybe tells them he hates them, and the parent bears it, doesn’t laugh it off, but knows inside that the child will return shortly, will want to be close again, will want to be hugged and caressed,   will want to feel the love and intimacy once more.

The child will return, because he knows that his true state is union, that the separation is only temporary, that really he can’t survive on his own.  His mother gives him his sense of who he is, connects him to the world, and there’s only so long that he can bear to be without her presence.

The Rambam continues ‘and he returns from his sin’.  Sin does not sound here like an action, a misdeed, but more like a place, a distant country, a state of mind.  The Talmud in Sotah 3a tells us that a person does not sin unless a spirit of madness enters him.  Sin is not something we would choose to do if we were fully conscious of ourselves, if we grasped at the deepest levels how our actions were affecting our psyche, how our selfishness and hard heartedness, our rational self interest, were actually causing us tremendous distress, were alienating ourselves from our truer selves, were building up a storehouse of sludge and muck that we will one day need to drag ourselves through in order to get back on track.

Many of us have families, we are raising young children, we must do battle with the world to protect them, to ensure they have everything that they need, and this is noble and right and how things should be.

But then we see it, the picture of the child washed up on the beach, the helpless toddler who has become victim to the world’s latest madness, and our hearts are pierced.  Suddenly we’re not so sure about the everyday order we inhabit, suddenly the world’s problems have crashed into our lives.  Suddenly we’re forced into a new state of questioning, into pondering the insoluble mysteries of how 7 billion people are supposed to inhabit this planet without killing each other, without killing our children.

We can’t easily fix these problems – לא עליך המלאכה לגמור - the task is not for us to complete – but we cannot ignore them either – ולא אתה בן חורין לבטל ממנה – we are not permitted to desist from them either.  Again, the language is key, we are not Bnei Chorin – free and unburdened – libatel mimenah – to disown the problems, to distance oursleves, to fundamentally separate ourselves from what is going on in our world.  We may not say ‘that is their problem, but I’m ok and it’s really not my fault so let them get on with it, let them sort their own problems out.’  At the very very least we must identify, retain solidarity, we must not succumb to the temptations of hardening our hearts and forgetting.

I don’t know if we can build a better world, there are plenty of reasons to feel gloomy.  But if faith means anything it means not giving it up, not being seduced by fatalism and helplessness, not retreating into our own petty kingdoms.

וְקִרְעוּ לְבַבְכֶם וְאַל-בִּגְדֵיכֶם, וְשׁוּבוּ אֶל-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם

‘Tear your hearts, and not your clothing’ says the prophet Yoel, in the verses just before today’s haftara.  ‘Tear your heart’, let it open, let it feel, let it empathise, let the world’s troubles in.  Don’t imagine that you can be better off through dissociating from them, by pretending that they aren’t going on.

Tearing our clothing is cathartic, but perhaps limited, we’ve done our bit, it’s part of moving on.

Tearing our hearts is an opening, a beginning, something new can grow, something can begin to happen.

We’ll say on Tuesday night in the famous piyut,‘for here we are, like a stone in the hands of the cutter, at his mercy to grasp it, at his mercy to smash it’.

The usual reading is that we don’t want him to smash it, but to save the stone, to leave it be.

I’m not so sure, maybe our hearts have become stone, and maybe exactly what we want from Yom Kippur is that they should be smashed, that their impenetrable hardness be shattered, that our emotional numbness be penetrated.

Ve’initem et nafshoteikhem is the essence of the day, you shall put pressure on your souls, you shall try to change them, to jolt them back to life, to starve them into sensitivity.

And where does it get us to, this fasting, this tearing of our hearts, this rending of our souls?  Isaiah offers us guidance in Chapter 58:

ו הֲלוֹא זֶה, צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ–פַּתֵּחַ חַרְצֻבּוֹת רֶשַׁע, הַתֵּר אֲגֻדּוֹת מוֹטָה; וְשַׁלַּח רְצוּצִים חָפְשִׁים, וְכָל-מוֹטָה תְּנַתֵּקוּ.  ז הֲלוֹא פָרֹס לָרָעֵב לַחְמֶךָ, וַעֲנִיִּים מְרוּדִים תָּבִיא בָיִת:  כִּי-תִרְאֶה עָרֹם וְכִסִּיתוֹ, וּמִבְּשָׂרְךָ לֹא תִתְעַלָּם.  ח אָז יִבָּקַע כַּשַּׁחַר אוֹרֶךָ, וַאֲרֻכָתְךָ מְהֵרָה תִצְמָח; וְהָלַךְ לְפָנֶיךָ צִדְקֶךָ, כְּבוֹד יְהוָה יַאַסְפֶךָ.  ט אָז תִּקְרָא וַיהוָה יַעֲנֶה, תְּשַׁוַּע וְיֹאמַר הִנֵּנִי:

6   “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loosen the chains of injustice    and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free    and break every yoke?

7   Is it not to share your food with the hungry    and to bring the poor wanderer to your house— when you see the naked, to clothe them,  and not to turn away from your own flesh?

8   Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will gather you up.

9    Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

From a broken heart, an open heart, our light will erupt like the dawn, a new light, a hidden light, with the power to transform our own lives as well as those around us.

At that moment we will find the King, we will cry for help, and we will experience the warm embrace of his presence.

We begin on Tuesday night with this light:   אוֹר, זָרֻעַ לַצַּדִּיק;    וּלְיִשְׁרֵי-לֵב שִׂמְחָה.

Light is planted, buried deep, for the righteous, and joy for those of straight heart, of honesty and openness.

This is what we are seeking out, this is the purpose of this period, to re-open our hearts, not in a withdrawn and narcissistic way, not as part of our own ‘personal journey’, but as part of remembering our linkages to the world, our obligations to justice, our inability to flee from truth.

And where is God in this, what function does he serve?  Our haftora in Hoshea provides an answer:   אֶהְיֶה כַטַּל לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, יִפְרַח כַּשּׁוֹשַׁנָּה; וְיַךְ שָׁרָשָׁיו, כַּלְּבָנוֹן

I will be like the dew to Israel;    he will blossom like a lily.  Like a cedar of Lebanon    he will send down his roots.

God’s presence provides the catalyst, the nutrients, the hydration, and if we are able to make use of It, then our roots will become deeper and stronger, and our capacity to live well will become greatly enhanced.

May we all be torn and smashed, and may we be blessed to see the light at the end of it, to flourish in its radiance, and emerge into the new year as people of renewed purpose.

Rosh Hashana 5776 – What does it mean to be judged?

(This originally appeared in Ha’aretz Jewish Thinker Column, on Monday 7th September: http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.674949)

Not everyone believes that God sits in heaven with a book open on the High Holy Days. But this doesn’t mean that these days are devoid of meaning; that it is not possible for atheist and non-literalist alike to experience the power of this period.

The period from Elul through Rosh Hashanah, culminating in Yom Kippur, is an opportunity for us to engage more honestly with life. There may not be a God with a flowing beard judging us, but there is truth in our lives, demands in our soul, and at this time we must face up to that call.

Jonah the prophet is a powerful archetype here.  He tried to avoid this calling, believing that an honest encounter with truth could be avoided by changing location, by hiding, by mounting practical objections to his mission. Jonah thought that truth was optional, a luxury, something that could be tempered by his pragmatic reason. But his attempts to escape led him into stormy seas, and he eventually sunk to the darkest depths, swallowed up by his own despair.

Jonah teaches us that we cannot run away from the truth, that it is a matter of life and death.  These themes of the period – judgment and mortality – are not just about giving extra charity, perhaps saving a life along the way. They tell us that in our personal lives, in the murky world of the spirit and the psyche, there is an intimate link between falsehood and death.

When we make a pact with falsehood, when we embark on the slippery road of compromising our principles, we endanger ourselves. The crust of artifice starts to weaken us and hold us back, one wrong turn spirals into many, and before we know it we are totally lost.

Man does not live on bread alone, but he lives by the power and integrity of the spirit. This is the source of his courage and strength, of his hope and his faith, and it is traded away at one’s peril.

One might go so far as to say that being religious can actually pose a tremendous threat to our integrity, to our capacity for honesty. Many will tell us that we should believe rather than think, that we should follow rules rather than wrestle with ethics, that we should submit to authority rather than take responsibility.

I wish I could say that this isn’t so, but, alas, there is cause for concern. Orthodoxy is being overtaken by fundamentalism, religious education is becoming about closing down minds, and the conflation of the religious and political realm in Israel is like watching a car crash. Jewishness, in both Israel and the Diaspora, is becoming an ever more exclusive racial category, bringing in its wake the hatred and bigotry that always ensue.

One is reminded of Yeats’ words that “the centre cannot hold…whilst the worst are full of passionate intensity.”  Dogma, whether religious or political, gives people a much sought after sense of certainty, laying down firm barriers in a fluid and confusing world. It is no surprise that it seduces people, but it should worry us, for the closed spirit is the dead spirit and the movement of the mob always ends in horror.

For the engaged atheist, Rosh Hashanah offers a chance to reflect on one’s values, to ponder what truly guides one in life, and to think about how to be faithful to that.

For those who are more comfortable with God language, it should be a time of stripping away falsehood, of challenging dogma, of taking back responsibility. The days contain a theology of remembrance, of zikhronot (memories), telling us that nothing is forgotten, that everything we do shapes and distorts us, however hard we try to forget it.

God is our memory, our history, our psychic baggage, the fate that we cannot escape.  He reflects the private truths that no one else can see, that our public role and persona keep hidden from view. He needles our conscience, letting us know that we must give an account of ourselves, that for all our success our inner life may be in ruins.

As our stubbornness and ego are worn down by prayer and fasting, as we get closer to a moment of surrender to truth and integrity, God also stands for forgiveness, for renewed hope, for the possibility of starting again. If we relinquish falsehood then there can be life, but if we cannot let go, if we cling to it too tightly, then we can be assured of a year of darkness.

 

 

Death, Defeat and the Dangers of Despair

This week’s Torah reading discusses the limited circumstances under which a priest may come into contact with a dead body.

The laws proscribing this particular form of ritual contamination may seem to strange to us, it is hard to see how they could possibly be relevant.

The first thing we notice is that Judaism is not obsessed with death, and does not believe, on the whole, that this world is simply a preparation for an afterlife.  There is talk of Olam Haba, which is often translated as ‘the world to come’, but is perhaps better translated as ‘the world of becoming’.  It alludes to a way of experiencing life that is rich and flowing, infused with energy and inspiration, connected to values and concerns which recharge and nourish it.  This is how Olam Haba is depicted in the Zohar, and I believe it can be read into many other rabbinic uses of the term.

But there is more than that, Judaism seems to have an aversion to death, it wants to keep us distant from its spirit.

We could say that this is a form of denial, that it’s falling prey to the weakness so vividly diagnosed by Ernest Becker in his masterwork the Denial of Death.  Faced with mortality, we flee, we cannot face such hard truths about life, and we embrace distractions and focus on happier thoughts.

But I don’t think this is what’s happening.

It seems to me that we are being given warning that there are moments of crushing defeat in life, moments when all we can feel is the hollowing out of loss, when the dark curtain of despair tries to seduce and envelop us.

This is what is symbolised by death, this is the thing we must not become too contaminated with.

Yes, we must be realistic, we must face the truth, but we must not let death and defeat overcome us, we must not surrender our faith to its indifference.

To do so is to prevent us from achieving anything in life, from bringing about inner and outer change, from doggedly persisting with the endless task of tikkun, of sanctifying and refining the worlds that we inhabit.  For the work is not on us to finish, but we must certainly not waste our time nor evade our responsibilities.

Realism, yes, but in healthy measure, administered like a powerful drug, and whose poisonous dimension we will gradually nurse and encourage out of our system.

For despair is all too easy, particularly in challenging times, and it will not help us, it will not get us where we need to be.

And it seems that the Torah is marking out three levels of warning here.

For the regular Israelite, the average citizen, there is simply the demand for a requisite awareness.  If you have come into contact with death, you should know about it.  You cannot enter the sanctuary, your capacities have somehow been impaired, your spirit is perhaps not best placed to attain its greatest heights, to meet its toughest challenges.

But it is a fact of life, and there is no prohibition against contact with death.  It is part of the fabric of life, the reality of being a person, and we cannot legislate such harsh truths out of existence.  We are not in denial of death.

For the next level of person, the priest, the Kohen, who lives a life more firmly consecrated to higher tasks, a greater level of warning is issued.

They are prohibited from coming into contact with death, they must do everything in their powers to avoid it.  Their work is too sacred, too significant, and the dark shadow of defeat cannot be allowed to cloud their judgment, to sully their spirits, to weigh down on their souls.

‘For how shall we sing the lord’s song in an alien land’, how can we reach the highest heights whilst adrift in the land of sorrow and hopelessness.

There is a sacrifice here, a part of one’s humanity is perhaps being curtailed, but the Torah is suggesting that this is necessary for the good of the greater society, that different people must bear different burdens.  The focus on avodat hakodesh, on the work of elevation, requires a different level of personal consecration.

Only for close relatives, for extremely important and real matters can this bitterness be tasted.  To squander one’s focus and energy on trivial sorrows, on the romance of melancholic absorption, this is not permitted to the priest.

The high priest, the one with ultimate responsibility, he must be even more careful to protect himself, to maintain his near impossible level of spiritual focus and concentration.  For if the leader of the people becomes cut off from the source of hope and life, then the people are wholly exposed, there is no longer any buffer or bulwark to protect them from an annihilating loss of direction.

For the high priest, there can simply be no access to death, its depressive spirit must not be allowed to penetrate.

Not only this, but he must not leave the sanctuary at all, his life must be one of total dedication, of total sublimation.  He is not a realistic or attainable figure, he is simply to exist as a vision for the rest of us, an ideal which inspires us, but which we know that it is not our fate to actually reach.  He is different, he is separated, he is bordering on the otherworldly.

And whilst we might appreciate this tripartite delineation, this mapping out of the spiritual landscape, we might find that it doesn’t entirely speak to our modern sensibilities, to our democratic worldview.

We might however consider that these different levels of spiritual dedication refer to different levels of our personality, different layers of our psyche.  There are the outer parts, the rugged parts, which deal with death and defeat as part of our routine, as part of the cost of doing business.

And then there might be parts which we try to keep a bit more aloof, a bit less accessible.  We sense that these need greater protection, so we do not open them up so easily, we do not rush to expose them in the same way.   We refrain from certain emotional investments.

And then there is our ultimate point, our deepest level, and that is where we know we must be even more vigilant and careful, that there is something there that must not exit its spiritual sanctuary.  For to risk its tarnishing is to risk our very essence, to risk completely losing our way.

We live in challenging times, and there are many many reasons why we might want to give up, why we might let death and defeat dominate our spirit.  But we must look after ourselves, particularly in our most sacred recesses, and we must ensure that we are ready for the next challenge, able to scale the heights when they come into focus once more, able to help generate a new vision of a world perfected by the majesty and sanctity of Divine virtue.

We are not permitted to desist from the task, and we must always be ready to answer its call.

Can the Israeli Army talk about God?

This article was published on November 25th 2014 on Haaretz.  It is an attempt to consider a form of religion that might work in a modern state, and that would neither inflame internal or external passions, nor lead Israel into a religious war.  

On heading into battle during Operation Protective Edge, Colonel Ofer Winter invoked the “God of Israel” to bolster the fighting spirit among his troops. This provocative gesture, echoing something from a Biblical narrative, generated huge controversy and could become the undoing of his career.

Israel Harel defends the colonel in an opinion article for Haaretz, and my first instinct was to disagree and say that God should have nothing to do with the army, that religion should be a private matter. Harel’s history as a founder of the settler movement surely highlights the dangers of fusing religious ideals with the national project.

Harel’s presumption of moral superiority is also galling, particularly his assertion that the religious right’s teaching “the values of Judaism, Zionism, love for the Jewish people and love for the land, fill them” – a vaguely defined leftist coterie, one presumes – “with anger… and envy.”

All of that said, it’s perhaps not so simple. For Colonel Winter and many like him, one imagines that preparing for battle is one of the most challenging and difficult moments in their personal lives, as well as having a more obvious national dimension. The personal and the national cannot always be neatly kept apart.
And at moments like these people turn to God, to the personal God who dwells in their depths.

The question then becomes: is it possible for an army colonel to speak about God in a way that is non-problematic? Can a private God be called upon who is different from the nationalistic God who is invoked to justify territorial ambitions and violence?

On one level, it feels like an injustice to deny Colonel Winter the right to connect with his own framework for courage, with his own deepest roots, with his sense of his place in the world.

He makes such a case in his statement that ‘“When a person is in a life-threatening situation he connects with his deepest internal truths, and when that happens, even the biggest atheist meets God.”

The challenge is to find a less inflammatory way of doing this, to be able to speak of God without taking us down the dangerous path of a religious war. In the State of Israel, we must make room for more than just the God of the Bible. We need a God that is a universal and humanitarian force, connected with liberal tolerance and personal strength.

The philosopher Paul Tillich is famous for developing the idea of God as a personal force who provides us with courage. Writing in 1952, he speaks of an existential encounter which replaces anxiety with the courage needed to live with integrity.

But, as Europe lay in ruins, he was very conscious of the dangers of nationalism and was aware that it can provide an easier answer than that of genuine courage. The pressure of the collective makes it harder to stand firm as an individual, to resist the mentality of tribalism which gives us a clear and easy sense of purpose.

Returning the insight to our military situation, we might set up the following opposition to clarify our possibilities:

God can give courage through promising to get involved, through assuring us – in spite of Bob Dylan’s query – that He is on our side.

But God can also give us courage through enabling us to access reserves of strength we never knew we had, through helping us attain a level of moral seriousness which might otherwise escape us, through helping us remember the values that run most true and deep in us. He can help us to wrestle with our fears, and to find a better way of living side by side with them.

It may not be easy to cry out to the God who answered Abraham and Moses, David and Daniel, without calling out to a force with a vested interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, without presuming that He prefers one outcome over the other. It seems hard to evoke these names as mythical legendary characters, without implying a Divinely mandated plan for history.

It feels like it would probably be safer to speak of a purely personal God, to take some quiet moments of reflection and commune with the ineffable presence, who remains wholly ungraspable, beyond the ken of mankind. Whose shadowy hints we may encounter in our depths, but whose explicit intent we affirm as inscrutable.

I suggest that we might approach God as a soothing mother, without needing Him to don His armor and intervene in our world like a violent father.

And if the two cannot be kept apart, if my personal invocation of God must necessarily lead to a mindset which values certain pieces of territory and certain sacred sites, then perhaps God is, indeed, best left out of the conversation.

If we are all – soldier and civilian alike – able to transition into thinking about the personal and non-partisan aspect of God, then we might approach the situation with courage and hope. But if we continue to be bound up with the God who gets physically involved, then we play right into the hands of those looking for a war of religion. And in doing so, we relinquish the moral and religious high ground that we might have once occupied.

Freud vs Freundel

My piece on the Freundel scandal, which explores how Rabbinic training might be enhanced to help prevent such tragedies.
It originally appeared in Ha’aretz -
http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.623397 -
though you may need a subscription to read it.
It has since appeared in The Forward, which does not, I believe, require a
subscription.
http://forward.com/articles/208221/channeling-freud-to-prevent-the-next-barry-freunde/

Does Kashrut Breed Racism?

This post originally appeared in Ha’aretz on Sunday 28th September.    For those who don’t have a subscription, here it is:

On a recent trip to Israel my family and I arrived at our destination at around 11.15 P.M. Our hostess – whose house we would be renting – was extremely welcoming and didn’t seem bothered by our arriving even later than planned. She had gone to the extra trouble of ensuring that we would have food for breakfast in the morning and had even prepared a couple of salads for us to enjoy. It was a truly Israeli welcome in the very best sense.

But when she saw my kippah she was suddenly overcome with worry. ”Oh dear,” she said, “I think we have a problem. My kitchen isn’t kosher.”

I was quite taken aback by her presumption that this would be a deal breaker, and quickly re-assured her that we would manage, that we’d often holidayed in houses in France and Spain where there had been no question of the owners bequeathing us a kosher kitchen. She helpfully showed me where we might find some aluminium cooking trays, and seemed reassured that we would be OK.

The episode stuck with me, as I discovered that the divisions between Jewish communities in Israel can be wider than those where I come from. In some ways, they have become emblematic of something I noticed about Israeli society.

I was upset by my host’s feeling that her kitchen would somehow not be good enough for us, that we would look down on her house based on its standard of kashrut. As a Diaspora Jew, I don’t expect other people to consider my dietary needs: If I have a concern, I expect to attend to it myself. Kashrut is a personal and private matter, a practice that I keep to myself; not something I wish to broadcast through vibes of separateness, awkwardness and disdain.

Now, this may not be the classical view of kashrut. For many people and in many periods, the purpose of kashrut was to keep Jews separate from their surrounding communities. In ancient times it may have been a bulwark against idolatrous practice, and in more recent times it served to prevent interaction and assimilation with the broader populace.

That said, I can’t help but feeling that in today’s world things have changed.

In a country where Jews are in the majority and there have been alarming indications of racist undercurrents toward Israeli citizens of Arab origin it feels important to cultivate a Jewish mindset that is different from that embodied in “exclusionary” or ”ghetto” kashrut.

If kashrut is rooted in a sense of “us and them,” of “chosen and not chosen,” then it may, under present conditions, contribute to a dangerous and inflammatory state of mind. Fostering ethnic and racial superiority is always problematic, and, with the challenges Israel presently faces regarding racism, it is particularly unwelcome. Evidence of this social poison can be seen in the rise of anti-Arab group Lehava and in the protests at the recent marriage between Morel Malka and Mahmoud Mansour, encapsulated in the disturbing slogan: ”Arab watch out, my sister is not public property.”

It seems clear that an ongoing challenge to the Jewish-Israeli psyche is the transition from traumatized and persecuted victim to a mindset of sovereign responsibility and a civilised wielding of power.

Kashrut may feel trivial in the face of this task, but the manner in which it is embraced can play a key part in shaping psychological attitudes. If the aim of our kashrut observance is to erect barriers, to separate communities, to distance ourselves from other citizens, then our observance might indeed be contributing to the mindset of separation, both among Jews and between Jews and other Israeli citizens.

If, on the other hand, we embrace kashrut – as other voices in the tradition suggest – to refine our capacity for gratitude, to distance ourselves from violence and hatred, to overcome our tendencies toward indulgence and gluttony, then we Jews as the majority population in Israel might move in a more positive direction.

Freud famously understood some forms of religious practice as instances of obsessional neurosis, as answering a deeply human need to overcome anxiety. The anxiety of difference, of encountering those who do not share our history or values, who look unfamiliar or talk differently from us, is a major part of modern multi-cultural life, both in Israel and the Diaspora.

Whilst it might be tempting to respond to difference-anxiety by insisting upon ever-stricter regulations and adherence to kashrut, we should be wary of thoughtlessly falling into this pattern. Rather, we should engage the attentive thoughtfulness kashrut might cultivate, and make every effort to explore and overcome our anxieties about difference.

As a practical example, we might revise the legal status of Israeli Arabs with regard to kashrut. The status quo in Jewish law has been to view them as gentiles, which serves to limit consumption of their food produce. This may have been historically necessary to protect a Jewish minority, but a Jewish majority can be bolder, and find a new legal status that teaches greater respect toward Arab citizens.

Kashrut need not be a place where we express our feelings of being threatened. Positively encouraging Jews and Arabs to break bread together might help re-balance a society struggling to balance Jewish particularism with the universal ideals of Abraham and Isaiah.

It is my hope that the Jewish vision of purity of soul neither reveals nor encourages racist and xenophobic sentiments. We can and must find ways of retaining allegiance with our past that neither diminish our humanitarian sensitivities nor jeopardise our political aspirations in the present.

 

Laughing With Dead Poets

This article was originally published in Ha’aretz, in its ‘Jewish Thinker’ section, shortly after the news of Robin Williams’ tragic suicide.  

Toward the end of Dead Poets’ Society, as John Keating is being ushered out of the school following the suicide of one of his pupils, his disciples make a defiant statement of allegiance and respect, of honour and recognition, by standing on their desks and shouting, “Oh Captain, My Captain.” They do this one by one, hesitantly, nervously, and in that moment they enact the poetic passion, the courageous individuality, that he had worked so hard to awaken in them.

He looks back at them admiringly, appreciatively, but there is a tinge of sadness in his face. He has been rocked by the death of his pupil, he has been reminded that the embrace of passion will sometimes lead to destruction. The light may burn brightly, but it may also be prematurely extinguished.

I want to stand on my desk and shout, “Oh Captain My Captain.” Through this role and his therapist role in Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams conveyed to many in my generation a profound sense of the possibilities in being human, of overcoming fears, of the need for “Carpe Diem,” seizing the day. And he always did it without coming across as trite or shallow, it was spoken from the depths of strength, from an awareness of the obstacles that would get in one’s way.

He gave flesh and spirit to a character who had battled demons, who had held his friend’s corpse in Vietnam, who had watched his wife slowly die of cancer, and who was still willing to play a hand, to give life a go.

Robin Williams could seamlessly merge the comic with the tragic, finding the light amidst the darkness, the redemptive laugh in the face of despair.

And yet, it seems, in the end his own darkness was too much to bear, the pain could not be evaded, the abyss pulled him in with a force he could not counter.

I’ve heard people being surprised by this – “but he knew so much,” “why did he not seek help?,” “but he seemed so jovial” – and my feeling is that people misunderstand what it means to suffer in this way. Perhaps this misunderstanding is deliberate, and rational, for to contemplate the abyss too deeply is to start to feel its grip, to awaken oneself to its horror.

It would be trite and disingenuous to suggest that Judaism has solutions or answers to such problems. My own work as a therapist – perhaps part inspired by Good Will Hunting – has taught me that the paralysing blackness of depression needs to be respected, that it can’t be argued with or cajoled into relenting.

It is a space in which words and sense lose all meaning, wherein connections to the future feel frail, like a bridge that cannot be crossed. Sitting with the pain and trauma can help, but there are no guarantees or formulaic fixes.

Severe depression ravages our most basic levels of motivation, decoupling us from the engine that unconsciously propels us through life. And sometimes, when the engine can’t be restarted, even the will to live cannot be found.

What the Talmud may offer us is a sense that we’re not alone in our suffering; that the dead poets of previous generations have been there too.

I am not speaking of finding comfort in God, for as Julia Kristeva notes in “Black Sun,” to be depressed is to be a most proper atheist, to find salvation utterly blocked, to be wholly enclosed within one’s suffering.

The Talmudic sages lived amidst loss, and their approaches carry the weight of that experience.

A particularly thoughtful approach is offered by Rava (Berakhot 5b). He suggested that in the face of tragedy we might use our acute vulnerability as a source of soul searching, as a call to improve ourselves. This wouldn’t alter our external circumstances, but it might enrich our internal circumstances, and be of tremendous benefit in the long run. It would also keep the aggressive energies from turning depressive, sublimating them into more constructive pursuits.

It is Rava’s position that we adopt at this time in the Jewish year, as we transition from the depressive mourning of Tisha B’Av to the creative self-regeneration of Elul and the High Holy Days.

Rava’s emotional flexibility was in part shaped by his own master Rabbah.

Rabbah was famous for opening his discourses with a joke, with a touch of comic lightness. Once his audience had been opened up by this, once their defences were down and their emotions were receptive, he shifted into a mood of awe and reverence, and then began to teach.

Occupying different emotional registers, transitioning from tragedy to construction, these are Jewish values we are much in need of, this Av more than most.

As we remember Robin Williams, a contemporary master of this dynamic, may we find the strength in ourselves to remain fluid rather than rigid, open rather than closed, and instead of fear may we find the courage required for peace.