More on Limmud: A response to a friend…

A friend made some comments to me about Limmud, which provoked me to write a bit more on the topic.  This is over and above what I initially wrote for the Times of Israel on the topic.    It goes without saying that this response might equally apply to many others who have commented upon Limmud.  

My dear friend, I need to begin by apologising to any of my non-orthodox friends and colleagues who might have read what you wrote about their movements and their Rabbis. I personally find it deeply offensive and objectionable, I can only begin to imagine how it made them feel. Moreover, I can only square the disrespectful tone of your writing with all of your positive traits by imagining that you do not personally know any of the Masorti/Conservative/Reform/Liberal leaders of which you speak and have not spent much time in their presence. I personally consider many of them, both dead and alive, as deeply insiprational thinkers and human beings. Indeed, this abstract and unreal quality, rooted in a-priori ‘halakhic/hashkafic’ theory and intellectualised sociology, permeates your discussion of Limmud and makes it very difficult for me to know what to say to you. I have basically three words for you. Come to Limmud.
You will then see that it is not the dangerous monster that you and others seems to see it as. It is not a threat to the Jewish people, it is an incredible and unprecedented source and inspiration for Jewish creativity, renewal and regeneration. I will speak personally and state that there were times in my Jewish journey, when the clear air and open minded welcomingness of Limmud was the only Jewish atmosphere which I did not find to be claustrophobic and oppressive. This may be an extreme case, but there can be no doubt that Limmud has had a positive influence on the Jewish lives of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people. The idea that people walk away from Limmud with their Judaism shaken and weakened, with their commitment diminished and stifled, has simply no bearing in reality. Again, come to Limmud. See the joy in people’s faces, the spring in their step, the life returning to their forgotten neshamot. You will see the true power of the Divine, the sense in which He attends to every place where his name is called and makes his presence known there.
Are there challenging sessions at Limmud? Yes. Is anyone forced to go to them? No. Is intellectual challenge a bad thing? Absolutely not. In my understanding faith is deepened through challenge, and Judaism as religion, culture and civilisation has absolutely nothing to fear from philosophical, historical, inter faith and inter-denominational challenge and argument. Judiasm is robust, it is strong, it is flexible and it has the internal resources to re-imagine itself through its own exegetical fertility. Rabbi Akiva was not rocked in the philosophical storm of the mystical orchard because he could interpret every crown of every letter in Torah, in a way that stunned even Moses himself. Interpretation is our lifeblood, not a threat.
You acknowledge that we could all bring our sources of support, and there is some truth to that. I’m interested in why we bring the sources we do, why some of our leaders choose to bring fearful, exclusive and excluding sources, sources which they claim show small mindedness and an aura of paranoid threatenedness. Why does that seem like the answer to the problems we face today? And what does it tell us about their conception of leadership?
But, let me say something about your sources. You dare to bring Maimonides, the heilige Rambam, as part of an argument against intellectual honesty, as a messenger of close mindedness?
I don’t even know where to begin with that. Maimonides was the philosopher and re-interpreter par excellence, and stated clearly in the Guide that if Aristotle had proven the eternity of the world he would have re-interpreted Genesis allegorically in light of that. The whole project in the Guide was to show how our traditions could weather any perceived threat, how they were rich enough to be an ongoing source of wisdom and moral improvement. Truth was truth, and as he said in Shemona Perakim, we should hear the truth from whosoever is blessed enough to speak it.
More generally, the medieval philosophers were excited by, well, philosophy. They believed in Truth, that it was the hallmark and stamp of the Jewish God – as the Talmud states in Shabbat – and that the idea of incompatibility between Truth and Religion was a confusion. Truth brings us closer to God, it’s part of the difficult and challenging journey that it is required of anyone who wishes to engage with the Divine. One may – following the Ra’avad in his critique of Maimonides- choose not to go down this path, but please do not pretend that such a person is taking the only Jewishly or intellectually defensible path.
Proposing that Torah and historical truth or philosophical truth are incompatible is not a statement of faith, it is a statement of faithlessness, and a surrender to the dangers of fundamentalist authoritarianism.
And it’s not just about philosophy. Bertrand Russell used to ask Ludwig Wittgenstein as he was agitatedly pacing his rooms “Are you thinking about Logic or your sins?”. Wittgenstein replied angrily “Both!”. The idea that we can be better people, that we can act with more clarity, more compassion, more integrity without welcoming the power of truth into the inner sanctum of our personalities is a non-starter. Whatever Freud may have got wrong, he saw clearly that truthful reflection and self understanding was the only path to overcoming the demons which threatened to destroy our personalities and our lives. And so did Rav Nachman, and the Kotzker, and Reb Yisrael Salanter and Rav Dessler. Not to mention the Rambam, Hillel, Rabbi Akiva.
Again, come to Limmud. Or don’t. Perhaps you do not fancy it. Well that’s fair enough, Limmud doesn’t proselytize, it doesn’t harangue people into coming. And, thanks to Dayan Ehrentrau and Rabbi Kimche, it doesn’t need to spend much on advertising either. But if you don’t come, if you don’t want to come, please don’t issue proclamations about what it is, about its dangers, about the destruction some of its most valued and well-loved teachers have brought upon the world. You do yourself a disservice, and you bring much more discord and pain upon Am Yisrael than is appropriate at this moment.

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Repentance is Suffering – Rosh Hashana 5774

Towards the end of the first chapter of Hilkhot Teshuva, the ways of repentance, of return, Maimonides makes the following startling assertion:

Even though repentance atones for everything and the essence of Yom Kippur brings atonement, there are some transgressions for which atonement comes immediately and others sins which can only be atoned for over the course of time…

If a person violates in a manner worthy of spiritual excision or execution by the court and repents, repentance and Yom Kippur have only a tentative effect.  It is the  sufferings which befall a person which  complete the atonement. He will never achieve complete atonement until he endures this suffering, for concerning these transgressions the verse in  Psalms (89:33) states: “I will punish their transgression with a rod.”

The idea that our efforts at repentance will come to nothing unless we are afflicted by God with suffering seems very problematic:  it takes away the agency and creativity we tend to view as essential to teshuva, the sense in which it is an opportunity given to us, a compassionate breach in the strictly just fabric of the universe.

Is it possible to find meaning in such an apparently theocentric world view, one which seems to return religion to an infantilising reliance on the supernatural?

Thinking more naturalistically, there might indeed be an obstacle to any sense of teshuva which isn’t preceded by suffering.  Without suffering it seems hard to feel that we have done something wrong, that we have strayed, that we have acted without fidelity.  It is in the pain of suffering that we discover our error and failing, it is through a alienation and disorientation that we sense our falling short of the life we hoped to lead.

In suffering, something becomes conscious, our soul cries out and makes itself known to the rest of our body.  Pain bespeaks a discord between self and world, or, indeed, between what Winnicott called our ‘True Self’ and our ‘False Self’.  A harmony is shattered, something which operated smoothly suddenly functions with abrasive grinding.

Suffering does not then relate to a problematic and childish concept of punishment, but can actually help us understand the more sublime idea of revelation.  In suffering, a truth of our existence is revealed to us.  It may be hazy and unclear, shrouded in clouds of thick smoke, and it may take us a long time to work out exactly what that truth is, but suffering is the starting point.  It is the nexus between the natural and the ethical, the connection, if you like, between heaven and earth.

Suffering, however, does not come easily, or naturally.  We erect endless defences against feeling the pain of others, and a heavily armoured fortress against our own personal hurt.  To see that we have wronged another, to imaginatively step into their shoes is terrifying, not least because it disrupts our narcissistic self-image of being a ‘good person’.

Suffering then takes courage, we need to ready and prepare ourselves before we can suffer, before some truth might be revealed to us.

Part of this preparation takes place throughout the month of Ellul, as we plead through psalm 27:

Teach me Your way, O Lord, and lead me in a smooth path.

For Maimonides , the supplication here is that our ego not get in the way of our quest to return, that we not experience the blockedness which sometimes lies in the way of teshuva.  We ask God ‘remember your mercy and lovingkindness’ (Ps.25), all too aware of the fragility inherent in forgiveness.

And yet, I have a confession to make:  I do not feel well prepared for this Rosh Hashana.  The block is strong, the ego is tight, the narcissism is very well defended.  I have no idea what my return might look like.  I sense that I am distant, but the suffering is very vague, I am not able to interpret it, to glean meaning from it.  The thickness of my slumber has not yet been pierced by the cry of the shofar, my soul feels like it is underwater, heavy and directionless.  Swampy, sludgy; I am experiencing none of the lightness I crave.

Perhaps I should be glad not to be suffering acutely, but there is a thirst for something elusive, and I sense that some suffering needs to be traversed in order to arrive at it.  I pray for that burst of sudden clarity, not another clever idea, but a personal truth, a revelation of something of the self, an insight which will shift me, create an opening.

The Shulkhan Arukh reports a custom of fasting on the eve of Rosh Hashana, and perhaps its source is in a similar sense of panic, in a need to feel something real prior to our day of soul searching.

Psalm 27 ends on a similar note of ambivalence:

‘Lulei he’emanti lirot betuv Adonai…  – were it not for my belief in the possibility of seeing the Divine goodness…’

The thought is left without conclusion, there is no spelling out of what might happen ‘were it not’ for the possibility of grace, of an unexpected and sudden experience of clarity and unity.  There is simply a sense of fractured longing, ‘were it not’, of a soul clinging to a distant hope from beyond.

Perhaps this is all the preparation one can hope for, a reminder of distance, a desperate cry – again from Psalm 27 – that God not hide his face from us.

It is a paradox lost on many that in these moments of distance our appreciation of the Divine can be most real, that we make the most generous allowance for Its independence and elusiveness.

Perhaps this is not then the worst way to go into Rosh Hashana, a day as much about the majesty of God as about the weakness and frailty of man.  In our moments of being lost we have a sense of the magnitude of life, the complexity of it, its infinite and endless intricacy.  Here again, the Infinite becomes real, and the limits of our understanding confront us abruptly.

I pray that the majesty of the day – malkhiyot – act as an instrument of awakening – shofrot – such that there is a return and remembrance – zikhronot – which can move us and re-connect us.

May we return to the land of the living, and may the words of its book shed clarity on the suffering and confusion we endlessly experience.

Mourning, not Melancholia – Tisha B’Av 5773

On Tisha B’Av we reflect upon destruction, upon trauma, upon loss.

While the rest of the world is light-headedly embracing the frivolity of summer, we cast our fishing rods deep into the sea of memory, revisiting the archetype of destruction at the bottom of our psyche.

Why do we do this – have the lessons of Jewish history not already sufficiently traumatised us, does not its apocalyptic mood hound us all too heavily as we try to experience the simple joy of life?

There is truth to that, but we mourn today not because we need more trauma, but because we have yet to complete what Freud called our ‘mourning work’.

To mourn is to register loss, to relinquish something, to know that we will never again be fully complete.  We are ejected from the womb, weaned from the breast, usurped in sibling rivalry and banished from the eden of childhood innocence:  our entry into the world is along a boulevard of ruin and loss.

So much is promised, and so much is taken away.  we are left longing, painfully so, pining to return to these earlier states, to the wholeness and fullness which defined them.

We might ask a different question: is the ‘mourning work’ ever complete, can we ever fully come to terms with such harrowing loss, can the vision of wholeness ever be totally abandoned?

In one sense, it surely cannot.

The personality that we build is in response to these losses, the cultures we erect serve to let us cope with the pain.  We work with the pain, we harness it, but we do not fully leave it behind.

It is a curious paradox, but the personality which is built upon hiding the pain, upon denying it, that will be the personality which promotes the persistence of pain, which gives it a constant source of life.  There is no elixir of eternal life like suppression; denial is the surest way to keep something vital and creative.

The personality or culture which acknowledges loss, which encourages consciousness of our incompleteness, of our desire to return to a greater sense of fullness, this is the personality which will be truly strong, which will be resilient, creative, sensitive and generous.  Pain, anger and resentment are slightly defused, it’s harder for them to get going when the loss is in full view.

When the sages visited the ruins of the temple, they saw foxes emerging from the Holy of Holies.  The source of life had become a playground for vermin, integrity and holiness supplanted by sly cunning.

The sages wept, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.  He had visited the site of trauma, the loss was in plain view, yet he did not experience it as paralysing or debilitating.

When the rabbis asked him to explain himself he responded by quoting the prophecies of Uriah and Zekharia.  Uriah prophecies desolation, whereas Zekahria has a vision of rebirth and regeneration. Rabbi Akiva emphasised that the two are intimately connected, that the existence of the former is what safeguards and ensures the latter.

Rabbi Akiva was embedded within the prophetic framework of loss, longing and hope, and the interplay between these was central to his vision.  By keeping one eye on the loss, he is more able to see the hope, and, perhaps more importantly, to connect with the joy.

Megillat Eikha ends on a strange note.  The whole book is a stage by stage dealing with loss, going through shock, anger, existential turmoil, soul searching and eventually, in the final chapter, crying forth in prayer.  At the end of that last chapter, there is an urgent plea:

‘Return us to you oh God, and we will return;  our days will be made new, like they were before’

The ultimate response to the loss here is return, a consciousness of return, an incorporation of the desire for greater completeness.  This neither denies nor suppresses loss, it rather tolerates it respectfully as one of our core aspirations.

It also hints at the impossibility of returning to the past, it will always be a ‘new’ past, a past re-acquired through creativity.

In the haftara of the day the onus is less on God and more on the people:

‘Seek the Divine where It might be found, call out to It when you sense Its closeness.’

Again, the yearning is placed at the centre, it is a creative response to the ravages of suffering.  It is a given that we will never entirely merge with the Divine, but it is also thought that it will be better to have a healthy object or address for our longing.  It should be one which will inspire us in the ways of truth, justice and love; not one which will fetishize specific aspects of an irretrievable past.

We yearn for the unreachable, but somehow that allows us to expand, to stretch, to grow. It enlivens us, filling our veins with oxygen.  It doesn’t cripple us with brooding and melancholia, doesn’t close us back in upon ourselves.  It doesn’t limit and stifle us, forcing us to live in a world of artificially limited emotional bandwidth.

The lovers of the Song of Songs are never fulfilled, and it was again Rabbi Akiva who insisted that this message was the Holy of Holies, that it was the ultimate religious lesson.  There is pining at the centre; unity for him only came in death.

Jewish life is littered with references to the loss of the temple, when we marry, when we build a home, the psalms we recite before grace after meals.  Shabbat too marks something of a loss, the cessation of the Divine hand in creation, the awareness that we have transitioned to maturity, that we have left the secure canopy that our parents provided for us.

Tisha B’Av is really the first day of Ellul, the beginning of the trajectory of intensified return which propels us through to the High Holydays.  As our seeking leads to scrutinising our personalities, we dedicate ever more creative energy to the memory of loss.  From destruction we create, from the horror we re-rekindle desire.

May this be the start of a year of profound rebirth, and may we be spared from further trauma whilst engaged in this task.

On Circumcision

As many of you will have noticed, I’ve fallen a bit behind with the Daf Yomi of late.  Part of the reason for that has been the birth of a new son, our third, which has been a wonderful and inspiring period.  (And yes, a little bit tiring too…)

A new son means another circumcision, and I found it to be an extremely traumatic experience, with no easy resolution whatsoever.  I wrote a piece on it which was published in The Forward, an American Jewish newspaper with a long and proud heritage of being socially engaged.  The piece is certainly not the final word on the matter, but it’s an honest account of how I experienced the event of the circumcision itself.  There is a lot more to be thought about, it’s a topic that doesn’t seem to want to stay in anyone’s mind.  If you haven’t already, please read it, and I’d be delighted to hear any thoughts about the piece or the topic.

http://forward.com/articles/176023/a-fathers-pain-at-overseeing-sons-circumcision/

On Hating Margaret Thatcher (not directly Talmud related…)

In Greek mythology, Pandora is famous for opening a box which unleashed greed, envy and hate upon the world.  Once they were out the box, there was no way to get them back in again, and they became an enduring part of the fabric of human existence.  We are all plagued by them, and as the Kleinian school of psychoanalysis has shown us, they are so perniciously ubiquitous that our only response can be to live in constant denial of them.

Klein also showed that we all hate the parts of us that are hateful, and that we disown them and project them onto others.  Rather than own the hate/envy we feel, it is much more palatable to claim that some other person is envious/hateful, that they are the real problem and troublemaker.

Be wary of the one who points out hate in everyone, for it may be their own hatred that they are struggling with.

I have been taken with the idea that Margaret Thatcher turned out to be something of a Pandora figure in our recent history.  Whether wittingly or not, she helped frame an economic ideology which allowed people to justify and celebrate greed, selfishness and avarice.  Under her watch it became popular to believe that everyone should only worry about themselves, that society was not as important as assumed, that the market would take care of everything.

Again, she may not have intended this, but so it happened, and it was certainly not a co-incidence.

I’m not really interested in the various counterfactual histories that have been flying around over the past ten days – ‘If she hadn’t done this, where would we be?’ or ‘The trade unions and inefficient industry would have destroyed this country’.  It seems clear to me that we can never and will never know quite how much truth or falsehood resides in these claims – economic history of actual events is hard enough, let alone that of imagined events.

I will say though that the idea that ‘she did what was necessary’ irks a little; the assumptions in this Thatcherite thought reveal how economic thinking gradually came to trump and overpower human and social thinking.  This paved the way for the legitimisation of the socially destructive emotions outlined above.

But I digress.  What I want to say is that these emotional ills were not unleashed upon the world in abstract, but they were unleashed within each and every one of us.  Growing up – as I did – in the world where ‘greed is good’ – meant that we were actually encouraged to find and feed the greed inside of us, to find the aggressive and demanding voice which wanted to just take and take from the world.

I’m aware that it was actually the fictional Gordon Gekko who uttered those words, and that Oliver Stone intended them to be taken as satire, but the fact is that they stuck, and they stuck because they captured the spirit of Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s America.

Once greed is unleashed it triggers a nasty and vicious cycle of competitive selfishness, where if one person isn’t keen enough to further their interests, and wastes too much time dreaming about helping the unfortunate other, they are only going to fall behind and suffer.  Greed snowballs, and leads to the disintegration of the co-operative and collective spirit needed to preserve and better society.

But again, it’s not her that we hate, it’s what she made us into, what she made us become – selfish, rational economic agents, who knew and understood that the bottom line was that money mattered, that the markets were God.

When we hate her we are hating an unattractive and difficult aspect of ourselves, the darkness inside, and she becomes a convenient scapegoat, because she helped create the conditions which allowed us to become tainted in our own eyes.

We project our unpalatable self-hatred onto the helpless image of a now deceased politician.

When I think about Thatcher I can think about the deep recession she presided over which closed down our family business and left my father out of work.  And I can think about the subtle ways the ideology she ushered in helped persuade me to give up my Philosophy PhD and follow Gordon Gekko into the world of finance.  And it’d be tempting to jump on the hatred bandwagon.  But ultimately I now see that it’s my own failing I’m uncomfortable with, my own sense of maybe things should have been different, that maybe I could have done better.

It’d be great to have a figure of evil in the world, a source of all wrongdoing which abdicated us of the responsibility for our failures.  But there isn’t, we all exist on a precipice, and we are always going to be challenged and sometimes overwhelmed by the forces of evil that reside in us.  We need to own and understand those, for only then can we be alive to the one thing that was left in Pandora’s box – the promising possibility of hope.

Money – Fetishizing the Future Shabbat 119

We encounter today a story which may take some of us back to our childhood:

Joseph-who-honours-Shabbat had in his vicinity a certain gentile who owned much property. Soothsayers  warned the gentile:  ’Joseph-who-honours-Shabbat will consume all your property.’ 

So he went, sold all his property, and bought a precious stone with the proceeds, which he set in his turban.  As he was crossing a bridge the wind blew it off and cast it into the water.  A fish then swallowed it.

The fish was subsequently hauled up and brought to market on the Shabbat eve towards sunset.

‘Who will buy this fish just now?’ cried the fish sellers.

‘Go and take them to Joseph-who-honours-Shabbat,’ they were told, ‘as he is accustomed to buy in order to honour the Shabbat.’

So they took it to him.  He bought it, opened it and found the jewel therein.  He sold the jewel for thirteen roomfuls  of gold coins. 

A certain old man met him and said, ‘He who lends to Shabbat,  Shabbat repays him.’

It certainly works as a nice story for the children, but I think there’s actually a whole lot more going on here.

In the character of the gentile , (I’m not sure why it’s a gentile, and I don’t really attribute much significance to it, surely there have been many Jews who would fit this mould!), we meet a man who is deeply anxious about his property, about his money.

This manifests itself in a variety of ways.  It is significant that he consults soothsayers in order to learn the fate of his fortune – he is caught up in the future, worried about the fate of his wealth.

He does not seem to be able to enjoy the benefits and luxuries that his wealth might proffer upon him in the present, his peace of mind does not seem to have increased in proportion to the size of his bank account.  Rather, he seems to be enacting that other dictum of the sages:

‘More possessions leads to more worry.’ (Pirkei Avot 2:8)

So he engages soothsayers and, more than this, he responds to their warning with credulity.  I want to say that this is characteristic of a mind that is ill at ease, that it responds to the most unfounded and paranoid of suggestions and treats them as hard fact.  Something about its lack of centring, about its lack of rootedness, means that it lacks contact and connection with the plain realities in front of it, with the starting point of hard evidence which the simplest of minds would readily grasp.  No, it is fragile, hallucinatory, and all too susceptible to the crazy doomsday whisperings of the unsound, to the tale of his undoing which arrests him.

Perhaps he is indeed haunted by such a sensation, he may in some sense be feeling that he is coming undone, unstuck,  and that this proclamation of such by the other is only a confirmation of what he has known for a long time, of the worm-like secret which has been eating away at him over the years.  He is perhaps unable to bear the burden of plenty, to live with the inequality that his wealth creates.  Something about it separates him from his fellows, and this alienation, this exile, has become for him a torment of soul shredding proportions.

Let us now turn to his response to the soothsayer’s warnings.  He decides that the best strategy is to sell all of his property and concentrate his wealth into one precious jewel.

On one level, this would seem to only be taking him further from any capacity to enjoy his wealth, to derive actual and material benefit from it.  In his determination to prevent someone else from stealing or obtaining his property, he has in a sense stolen it from himself; he has removed from himself any advantage of his affluence.

The concentration of the wealth into the jewel seems to symbolise a process of fetishization.  The jewel is of virtually no use, but it instead embodies a magical quality for its owner.  It is his superstitious response to the otherworldly prophecies he receives; he responds to the witchcraft with some sorcery of his own.

His money is in transit: the more he tightens his grip on it, the further it slips away from him.

And yet, with all of this paranoia surrounding his money, he exposes it in its totality to the slightest act of nature, to a gust of wind which removes his turban and blows it into the water.  One almost has to read an unconsciously wilful act of neglect here; he almost couldn’t bear the tension and was somehow desiring its end.  The death drive, with its magnetic force of dissolution, seems to have overwhelmed him.

In the character of Joseph-who-honours-Shabbat we seem to encounter someone of precisely the opposite nature.  The name by which he is known, Yosef Mokir Shabbei, might also be translated as Joseph-whose-wealth-was-Shabbat.  He holds Shabbat dear, he cherishes and values something which has a powerful impact on his soul and spirit, something which is very much tangible in the here and now.  He is not distracted by the future, he is not imprisoned by worry and a sense of impending doom.  He is bound to the moment, living in intimate proximity to the source of his joy.

The jewel comes to Joseph not because he is looking to get rich, not because he has bought a lottery ticket or invested in a spirit of speculation.  His wealth arrives because he has a reputation for sparing no expense, for using every last penny he has, in order to honour Shabbat, in order to enrich the day one with every possible delight.

He comes to wealth because he has no interest in looking after his money, in worrying about its future life.  He has a healthy relationship with his property, he understands that if it is not used, if it is not put to work in enhancing the finer and more sacred aspects of life, then it becomes empty, it becomes a tormenting and divisive fetish.

We notice that the first thing he does on obtaining the jewel, presumably once Shabbat was finished, was to undo its fetishization, to release its value into an abundance of gold coins which could then be spent, which could be used to bring better things, things of real value, into the world.

The soothsayers’ wording is particularly prescient, they use the term ‘akhil’, literally ‘eat’, to describe what Joseph will do to the gentile’s wealth.  He will re-translate it into something tangible, something nourishing, something which can actually enhance a person’s health and wellbeing.

The story ends with the observation of the wise old man that one who lends to Shabbat will be repaid by Shabbat.

On one level, this speaks of the difficulty in keeping Shabbat at a basic level, in the financial and career sacrifice that it seems to demand of us.  It is a non-trivial challenge to prioritise Shabbat when other demands are in the foreground, demands which whisper to us of the security and future benefit they will bring to us and our families.  Trust in Shabbat, he promises, and you will be repaid.

On another level however, he is speaking of the shift in perspective that Shabbat might offer us.  ‘Suspend your concern for the future, release yourself from the anxious worship of financial accumulation and embrace the life of the spirit, the immediacy of your desire.  Use this pause to connect and re-root, and all manner of surprising benefits will follow in its wake.’

As we said recently, Shabbat offers us a loosening of the soul, a release from the ordinary anxieties that separate us from our truer selves.  Money, and our complicated and tortuous relationship with it, can play a big part in this alienation, in the ways in which we fail to live in the present, we fail to be present, on account  of the future.

It is the perfect seducer, it begins with the promise of answering real and palpable needs, then at some point it takes on magical qualities, promising us everything the future has to offer, provided we make a Faustian pact against the present.

Eventually we might fetishize it, we forget why we wanted it, but we only know that we must have it, that it is all that matters.

It has perhaps never been harder to untangle ourselves from this web of confusion, never has there been an age where genuine value and monetary value have been so messily interlinked and amalgamated.  The theology of the market, whose collapse we are still struggling to really understand, has profoundly and disturbingly warped our thinking.

We can only hope that the experience of Shabbat, the joy in real and present experience that it offers, can help us to re-calibrate our inner scales somewhat, and that we can return to our lives a little more attentive to the right things, a little less haunted by what the soothsayers might threaten.

Desire, not Apocalypse Shabbat 118

R. Simeon b. Pazzi said in the name of R. Joshua b. Levi in Bar Kappara’s name: He who observes [the practice of] three meals on the Sabbath is saved from three evils: the travails (birthpangs) of the Messiah,  the retribution and judgment of Gehinnom,  and the wars of Gog and Magog.

In spite of appearances, there is something quite profound being hinted at here, something which connects our conceptions of Shabbat, Time and Apocalyptic thinking.

I do not read this as teaching that we will be literally saved from three actual future events.  Rather, if we manage to immerse ourselves in Shabbat sufficiently, if we allow it to teach us what it means to be properly oriented and rooted in this-worldliness, then we will be spared from the anxieties of the apocalypse.

We will be spared from them because we will cease to think of them, because we will overcome that tendency so ingrained in us to ignore the positivity and possibility in our immediate surroundings.  All too often, we allow our desires and hopes to become suspended, helplessly, in the future.

And let us make no mistake, we all have our personal versions of Gehinnom, of Gog and Magog, our deepest and most concerning worries about what might be in the future, about what might befall us, about what we might lack.

And I would not contend for one second that these fears are without foundation, without good and sensible justification.

But the very fact that they are so real, so alive, so tangible – this is the reason why we would do so well to detach from them, to loosen their grip on us, to stop them from ruining our present.

Shabbat comes to help us with this, to weaken the sense that we are omnipotent and can fully control our future.  It creates a nurturing space wherein we are forced to stop doing and encouraged to concentrate on simply being.

In the passage from Genesis we say at Kiddush on Friday night, we are told that:

On the seventh day, God ceased the work which he had done

And he rested on the seventh day from the work that he had done. (Gen. 2:2)

At a first glance, this sounds quite repetitive, but on reading it carefully, I hear the idea that there is a difference between ‘ceasing to work’ and ‘resting from work’.

To cease is physical, is objective; it is easily defined and can be legislated for.

To rest from work is a more subtle thing; it is a state of mind, a loosening of the soul, a challenge to the personality.  It is the injunction to leave behind the worry and stress which drive us throughout the week, which perpetually propel us in our worldly enterprise.

The word Shabbat is taken from this latter concept, it is about ‘resting from’, and in doing so, finding peace.

I feel this might somehow sound trite, that the idea might seem a little bit simplistic.  But I am convinced that we don’t quite get how bound up with the future we actually are, how detrimentally our thinking is affected by a strange contradiction of aspiration and anxiety.

We allow ourselves to become trapped in instrumental thinking, believing that we’re always doing something in order to get to the next thing, to progress, to get promoted, to become wiser.  It’s like an addiction, and it’s a never ending battle to escape from its grasp, to simply exist in the moment, to savour the delectable peace in standing still and connecting with our own depths.

This too can become clichéd, but there really is a sense that all this worry, all this future oriented concern, keeps us on the surface, in the external world, and keeps us utterly distracted and distant from what’s really going on in our selves, in our unconscious.

And again, the unconscious is not some storehouse of dreams, symbols and fantasises, a censored version of consciousness.  It’s a river of molten lava, a fluid and dynamic energy field; it is the source of all the originality, spontaneity and authenticity that we bring into life.

It’s not simply the stuff we’ve repressed, that’s just a small part of it.  It’s where brain, body and mind meet in a pre-conscious and non-articulate way, the site of an indomitable individuality which will only ever be partially integrated into language, culture and society.

It is what is absolutely real for every individual, and which every manner of anxious and neurotic defence try to keep us away from.

It is intimately connected with desire, with the heart’s desire, and it is striking that we are instructed to connect with Shabbat through engaging with nothing less than desire.  In the passage above we are rewarded not for meditating and spiritually contemplating the essence of Shabbat, but through eating three meals, through refreshing our body with the simple delight of desirable food.

The next passage develops this further:

Rab Judah said in Rab’s name: He who delights in the Sabbath is granted his heart’s desires, for it is said: ‘Delight thyself also in the Lord; And he shall give thee the desires of thine heart’ (Ps 37.4).

 Now, I do not know what this ‘delight’ refers to; but when it is said: ’And thou shalt call the Sabbath a delight’ (Isaiah 58.13),  you must say that it refers to the delight of the Sabbath.

Not only is the injunction here to ‘delight’ in Shabbat, but the very reward that is promised is the granting of the ‘desires of the heart’.

To be in touch with desire, to be alert to the soul’s longing and questing, ‘mishalot libekha’ as it is in the Hebrew, is to be freed from the enslavement of the future, of the tendency to imagine our own personal apocalypse.

And there is a subtle but important qualification here, to be connected and comfortable with one’s unique and individual desire is not necessarily to be a hedonist, to be nihilistically chasing all manner of physical gratification.  It can very often be the case that to be trapped in the cycle of chasing and craving a specific form of gratification can actually be another form of defence from facing up to one’s genuine and deeper desire.  It can be a bulwark against the authentically personal way in which one needs to live creatively, to express one’s being in the world.

Desire is about knowing one’s depths; not about reacting to one’s surface.

It is about being able to bear the present, about not needing to hide in concerns about the future.

The liberating effect of desire is also suggested by another part of the Talmudic discussion today:

R. Johanan said in R. Jose’s name: He who delights in the Sabbath is given an unbounded heritage, for it is written, Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord, and I will make thee to ride upon the high places of the earth; and I will feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father.

Delighting in Shabbat adjusts the character of our world, it broadens us, loosens the tightness of our worry, allows the expression and energy of our desire to flow more easily.  Something about our existence becomes unbounded, freer; more playful and spontaneous.  And all of these benefits will help guard us against seduction by the future.

This train of thought also allows us to better understand the idea that Shabbat is ‘Me-ein Olam Haba’, a foretaste of the World to Come.  It is not that Shabbat is a sample of some future world; rather, learning to dwell in the present creates the possibility of experiencing a time related redemption in everyday life.  The structure of our relationship with time changes, the future is experienced as the healthy offshoot of our being in the present, not as the neurotic source of our disregarding the present.  The future is driven by the present, and not the other way round.

I am becoming increasingly convinced that ‘olam haba’, and the similar phrase ‘chayeii olam’, do not refer to some kind of afterlife, to some supernatural other world.  Rather, they refer to the way that we experience our time and our activities in this world, to the openness and possibility that are embodied by the way we live in the moment.

Do our actions open us to greater levels of relatedness, engagedness, or do they deaden us, restricting us to a limited and enclosed terrain?

This is the sense in which ‘olam haba’ – the world of becoming – is something worth trying to attain, to become attuned to.

Song is a vital part of the delight of Shabbat, and one of my favourites, the 11th century Ma Yedidut, gives poetic expression to many of these themes.  In a famous line the author declares:

Your wants are forbidden, as is the making of future oriented calculations. 

Desire, however, is permitted. 

This gap between the pettiness of our wants and the eternal profundity of our desire, the endless mystery it contains, is something with which Shabbat tries to enlighten us.

May we blessed with the delight of many Shabbatot, and may we learn from them how to live confidently and securely in a desire-enriched present.

Darkness and Diversity – Channuka 5773

A seasonal piece on the importance of pluralism and diversity, written by myself and the great William Kolbrener, published in the Times of Israel: http://www.timesofisrael.com/kindling-the-lights-of-diversity/ 

Enjoy, and a happy Channuka to one and all

p.s. a special thanks to Mannie and Leonie Sher, who invited me to talk in their house about Channuka, which got the ball rolling on this one.

Let there be Peace – Shabbat 34 to 40

We are probably quite familiar with the three things the Mishna on 34a recommends that we say before Shabbat:

Have you given charity? (Issartem) Have you tended to the building of community (Eiravtem)?

Now let us light the Shabbat candles.

What we may not realise is that the Talmud expands upon this, emphasising a motif of peace which runs through it.

It starts by basing the origins of the practice in the following verse:

And you will know that your tent is one of peace, when you visit your home you will never sin.  (Job 5.24)

So the motivation of the practice is to ensure that we bring about peace, that we enact the prayer of ‘Sim Shalom’ within our own house.

Charity may begin at home; in the Talmudic worldview, peace certainly does.

We proceed with an inward movement, pausing to taking care of our external cares before our lens focusses back on the home, on the inner core, on the nuclear family.

We ensure we have given charity and paid our taxes, that our prescribed responsibility to broader society has been fulfilled.

We then focus on the closer network of community, and ensure that those bonds too have been sufficiently nurtured, that we are connected to those close to us, that our home is not an island in a sea of hostility.

Following that, we light the candles, transforming the home into a sacred space, placing within it an image of the soul, reminding ourselves that only through looking inwards might peace be achieved.

And we are told more than this, we are given not just the ritual tools with which to build peace, but also the language needed for this purpose, the manner with which it must be communicated:

Rabba bar Rav Huna said: Even though the Sages told us to mention these three things in our house before Shabbat, we must, nonetheless, be sure to say them pleasantly, with good grace, in order that they be accepted, that they are made welcome. 

Rav Ashi [living over 100 years later]said: I never heard this teaching of Rabba bar Rav Huna, but I behaved that way nonetheless, because it made sense to me. 

We must build peace, and we must do it peacefully, gently.

And this is not merely a pragmatic decision, it cuts to the core of where peace really begins.  It must first take root in the depths of our psyche, where its opposites – anxiety, unease, dischord – all too often reign.

There is no better way to calm these uneasy waters than an encounter with a person who radiates a genuine sense of deep and profound peace.  We all meet such people from time to time, and we are right to think that there is something miraculous about such encounters.  There is something  arresting about the way their deeply rooted calm,  an authentic expression of their being, without any trace of artifice, gradually seeps into our own psyche, easing and relaxing the tension in our soul.

Peace begins in the home, but to even get to that point, we must first work towards peace in our soul.

And I love the qualification in this teaching – Even though the Sages told us… – do not think that acting out of piety or rectitude absolves you from the need to embody peace, do not get hung up on your own righteousness, on your sense of superiority.  These attitudes, these moves towards some external validation of one’s truth, towards an objective justification of one’s being, are perhaps the enemies of peace.  They are the progenitors of a religion rooted in strife, in enmity, in difference, in demonising the other.

There are many senses here in which we are being guided inwards, in which only the long and difficult journey to our centre will yield the genuinely important result.

But my mind is not only on the inner tonight.

I am profoundly saddened by what is happening in Israel right now, by the loss of lives on both sides, by the way in which people are being forced to flee their homes in terror, the gentle rhythms of domestic life shattered by hatred and aggression.

We are not living in times of peace.

I am no military strategist, and I do not claim much expertise in political matters either, but I cannot stand by silently whilst this madness goes on.

We must return peace to the top of the political agenda, on both sides, for it is craziness to believe that either side can ever live in happiness without it.

We must concede that the Bible speaks sometimes in the violent language of military conquest, and we must accept some responsibility for maintaining this discourse, for allowing it to infect the thinking and discussion of our politics.

But we must move beyond it, we must see that the ultimate religious value is peace, that it is the enduring power for change in the world, the force that creates life, the spirit that breeds hope.

We must believe in peace and we must find leaders who know how to speak the language of peace, who do not feel duty bound to sound more aggressive than their opponents, who feel sure that they will be elected because they have exhibited greater toughness and bravado.

Again, these dispositions have their place, but I fear that our leaders are in thrall to them, seduced by their appeal, lost in their promise of power, both personal and political.  If peace has lost its grip on them, if they have not made space for it in their hearts, then we are in a truly desperate position.

I don’t know how the spirit of peace can be transmitted to every minor faction who might get their hands onto some rockets, I haven’t got a fully worked out implementation plan.  But I do know that if we don’t grasp how central peace is as a value, if we do not return it to the centre of our discourse and our personalities, then it will never catch on, its force will never be felt.

The killing cannot go on,  we need to re-kindle the flame of peace.

And let us not be complacent about this, let us all as individuals question quite how much work we are doing to ensure that we are a source of peace, that we have connected with peace in our souls and that we are able to transmit it to others.

Peace is our own problem, not one more way in which we are superior to our partners in conflict.

And let us not confuse peace with passivity; peace is strong, it is powerful, and the person who finds it can stand courageously in the face of a violence which will always eventually exhaust itself.

Ghandi springs to mind as an example of this, of the way that peace might be part of the battle against violence, a war against war:

 If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.

But it doesn’t just begin with the children, he too saw that it begins with ourselves, with the wars that are raging inside of us:

When you find peace within yourself, you become the kind of person who can live at peace with others.

How wonderful that the Talmud tried to teach us this two thousand years ago; how tragic that we seem to have so frequently forgotten it.

May this Shabbat be marked by the spirit of peace, may we welcome it wholeheartedly into our psyches and into our homes.  And may it spread from there to the rest of our world, bringing the senseless killing everywhere to an abrupt and lasting end.

May we meditate on the words of the prophet Isaiah, and be pained that all these years later we have yet to bring about his vision:

Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they learn war.

For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace.