Making A Great Name For Ourselves: The Jeopardy of Sloganeering

Sloganeering has never in my life time been so hideously crass. I’m only young remember. I was a young adult in the 90s when we thought the world was going to actually get better as long as we survived the Millenium bug. Now we have to make everything great again. Like the greatness of institutional racism, embedded misogyny, slavery and the Empire.

I had an amazing teacher when I was studying in Jerusalem. Her name was Rabbi Naamah Kelman, a prominent rabbi, teaching at HUC the rabbinic seminary of the Reform movement. In fact, the first woman to be ordained in Israel as a rabbi. At the time, in the early noughties, the text ‘Bowling Alone’ was a regular read for community builders. By Robert Putnam it details the decline of civic engagement and community infrastructure. The idea for the title coming from the demise of bowling clubs in America. My teacher, Rabbi Kelman, taught me something I’ll never forget. She said, quite simply, you have to look at who was in those bowling clubs. White, Christian men. The disintegration of those community membership groups cannot be looked back on with fond nostalgia. Because, she said, it was in the fragmentation that the cracks appeared that meant people like her could become rabbis. The breakthrough of women as rabbis, of black men and women in positions of power, and so on, also meant that the homogeneous façade of bowling clubs could not be forever sustained. She would not, in fact let me restate that, she could not be a rabbi if things had not changed. So you can take your nostalgia for all things great in the past and remember that.

In case I’m babbling on and I’ve lost you. Let me share the wonder of our Torah portion this weekend. The futility of greatness:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָבָה נִבְנֶה-לָּנוּ עִיר, וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם, וְנַעֲשֶׂה-לָּנוּ, שֵׁם:  פֶּן-נָפוּץ, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ.

The said, “Come let us build for ourselves a city and a tower the top of which is in heaven and make for ourselves a name. Lest we be scattered across the face of the all the earth” (Genesis 11:4).

The root of ‘tower’ is גדל – big or great. Let us build a great big thing all the way to heaven to make ourselves renowned.

The sloganeering of our time is nothing new. There is nothing new under the sun. Only the Tower of Babel is the first time it happened. Let’s make ourselves really big and great and then forever after we can talk about that time when we were big and great.

Now listen to what God does:

הָבָה, נֵרְדָה, וְנָבְלָה שָׁם, שְׂפָתָם–אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ, אִישׁ שְׂפַת רֵעֵהוּ. וַיָּפֶץ יְהוָה אֹתָם מִשָּׁם, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ; וַיַּחְדְּלוּ, לִבְנֹת הָעִיר.  ט עַל-כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמָהּ, בָּבֶל, כִּי-שָׁם בָּלַל יְהוָה, שְׂפַת כָּל-הָאָרֶץ; וּמִשָּׁם הֱפִיצָם יְהוָה, עַל-פְּנֵי כָּל-הָאָרֶץ.

Come, let us go down and confound their language, so that they do not understand one another’s language. The Eternal one dispersed them from there across the face of the earth and they ceased from building the city. Therefore, they call that place ‘Bavel’ for there the Eternal balal  (confounded) the speech of all the earth. And thence the Eternal scattered them across the face of the earth. (Genesis 11:7-9)

In the dispersion, in the fragmentation and in the disintegration of homogeneity, comes humanity. In fact, this is where we get the notion that we are spread everywhere in the world and develop unique identifiers for where we live like language and culture. We don’t become great by building massive monoliths for the sake of just being renowned.

Greatness comes through, and here’s my simplistic list: prosperity, safety and security, respect for difference and dissent, protection of minorities, cultural interaction and international cooperation, the rule of law, peace.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the tower of Babel story was read regularly as a critique of the Soviet Union and communism. Everyone is coerced into the building, you all have to be the same and individual life is less important than the ideology and State you were forced to sustain. The commentators read this as a critique of unity through homogeneity and preferred a reading that demonstrated how humanity is united through its difference.

These days I read it as the loss of understanding of what it means to build our world for the future. We don’t build buildings to remind everyone we were once great. We do not force everyone to agree with our project, dissent is part of the fabric of our democracy. We are not prepared to sacrifice our intelligent critical faculties and respect for truth on the altar of a slogan. Remember my list: prosperity, safety and security, respect for difference, protection of minorities, embrace of cultural interaction and international cooperation, the rule of law, peace.

So let me finish by saying this, since one national paper took the liberty of mentioning West London Synagogue in the text of their report of yesterday’s High Court decision. We should be very afraid of slogans and headlines that attack individuals fulfilling their function in the heart of our democracy – an independent judiciary being something rather dear to us as Jews I think. You can disagree with a legal decision on the grounds of the law (I would have thought having a Supreme Court might give you some grounds for comfort proving that you can disagree on a point of law) – and by the way my view on Brexit is my own private matter. But if you’ve reached a point in which, however briefly, an online headline attacks someone by highlighting their sexuality, or their sporting prowess, and sees fit to mention their religious affiliation, or if you are ignorant enough to forget or never understand the purpose of an independent judiciary and you call judges an enemy of the people for fulfilling their democratic and legal function you’re in deep trouble (or have accidentally travelled in time to the 1970s).

Just to make the point as clear as possible, at 9:50am this morning, Brendan Cox, widower to the late Jo Cox MP tweeted: “Whatever our views on the court ruling I hope we can take a step back & debate it soberly. Inciting hatred has consequences.”

More frequently than almost every other text in the Bible, The Tower of Babel, is interpreted as a cautionary tale about the purpose of society. What is our aim, what is our purpose, what is our intention? We do not exist to be great, to have big towers emblazoned with our name on them. That is about as meaningless a slogan as may be possible to entertain. The means, to paraphrase Buber in writing about the early State of Israel, then becomes the ends. Civil society (or even uncivil society) and the nation state and the institutions of democracy do not exist for their own sake. They are the best mechanism so far devised to achieve the vision, which I think everyone of us would share:

The vision of prosperity, safety and security, respect for difference, protection of minorities, embrace of cultural interaction and international cooperation, the rule of law. A vision of peace.

May it be God’s will that it come soon in our days and let us say: Amen


A Rabbinate Only In Time Of War

A rabbinate only in time of war – I’m thinking deeply about the debate in Parliament today regarding bombing in Syria.

We all have our memories of 9/11. Mine is of entering the student common room at the Leo Baeck College amidst the first week of studies for the rabbinate. I turned on the television at the end of a day of ‘intensive Hebrew’ and saw the news. My rabbinate has been one almost wholly defined by war. Since the first week of my studies until today as I watch the news and the discussion of whether Parliament will vote in favour of air strikes in Syria. My rabbinate, in spite of it all, has been a rabbinate only in time of war.

In 2003 I felt such a great anxiety about the falling missiles that with my fellow rabbinic students we organised a meeting ‘Responding to War’. Not much came of it – though Rabbi Sheila Shulman z’l was a great presence at the meeting as my teacher. I dug out the sermon I gave in March 2003 as the sorties began and in this sermon I announced the meeting for ‘Responding to War’. It turned out it was part of a war in which we still find ourselves, that has had an effect on millions of people and that friends have been personally affected by. I now add a further text to my sermon by Yehuda Amichai, the great Israeli poet. Our spears are still not ploughshares, never mind musical instruments:

תוספת לחזון השלום / יהודה עמיחי

לא להפסיק לאחר כיתות החרבות

לאיתים, לא להפסיק! להמשיך לכתת

ולעשות מהם כלי נגינה.

מי שירצה לעשות שוב מלחמה

יצטרך לחזור דרך כלי העבודה.

Don’t stop after beating the swords

Into ploughshares, don’t stop! Go on beating

And make musical instruments out of them.

Whoever wants to make war again

Will have to turn them into ploughshares first.

And Aaron Was Silent – Parashat Shemini, 29 March 2003

It was a real dilemma for me this week – what could I talk about in my sermon that would approach anything meaningful during the war which we find ourselves in the midst of.

I must say that I have heard all too often, from Jewish quarters, about the rights and wrongs of the war.  Whether it is a war permitted according to halacha (Jewish law) and what texts can be used to support one’s position.

And with the media circus parading around giving 24-hour coverage I was not even sure if you may already have become over-exposed to the commentary on the war – thus making any comment by myself a rather pointless exercise.

My dilemma was confounded, could I reasonably give a sermon about something not related to the war?  Would it be an outrageous neglect of my duty to you as a community?  And maybe you have come to synagogue today to enter a different space, a holy dimension, that would be perverted by any discussion about war.

Instead I have decided to opt for a different perspective and perhaps introduce something new.

Last Wednesday, before the ‘war’ began, I purchased a new copy of “The Sabbath” by Abraham Joshua Heschel.  The weather was splendid and my afternoon lecture had been cancelled.  So I sat in the grounds of the Sternberg Centre and began reading – it is only a short book and yet is written in a way that I believe transforms the soul and one’s understanding of the universe.  One paragraph stuck in my mind and recurred to me again and again as I thought about the world around me:

“To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilisation, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature – is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?” (p. 28)

Today we create a palace in time, a sanctuary of peace.  That is why we greet each other with Shabbat Shalom – Sabbath of Peace.  A Shabbat that is in stark contrast to the world which exists outside of our temporary sanctuary.  Because Shabbat is a taste of the eternal – it spans from the moment of creation to the world to come.  And because of this the extract I just read from “The Sabbath” seems to hold a striking and uncomfortable pertinence for us today.

So, for those of you who have come today seeking refuge, a holy dimension, a moment set apart, a time in which we can contemplate a world in the future when

“Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war; But every person shall sit under their grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb them.” (Micah 34:3-4)

Shabbat is that dimension, it is holiness in time that reflects the dreams and hopes of the future into our lives as we live today.  Indeed it is significant that the first time the word holy (kadosh) is used in the Bible is for Shabbat – God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.  No creation is invested with holiness in those first seven days, only time – the time of Shabbat (paraphrase of part of “The Sabbath”).  A day set apart.

And there is a noticeable difference between the first six days of creation and the final seventh day.  Each day we are told that God says something and then it comes into being – the power of words thus forming a foundation stone for much Jewish thought, including the attitudes towards Lashon Hara (gossip) and the mystical power of the Hebrew alphabet.  Even today the power of words to affect us and change us is heralded by psychotherapy.

So the first six days are dominated by divine speech.  On the seventh day we are told God rests, blesses it and makes it holy but we do not know how this happens – there is no mention of speech or words.  One can almost imagine the tumultuous first six days that echoed from one side of the world to another as God created heaven and earth.  And on the seventh day an absence of speech must have filled the world – a silence that signified peace and repose.

But now let us turn to our Torah portion, in which we are confronted by a different silence, in a section that we did not read.  Two of Aaron’s sons have been struck dead for offering strange fire to God after the inauguration of the tabernacle.  Moses explains to Aaron why the death of two of his sons has happened, the text then says “Vayidom Aharon”.  And Aaron was silent.

The commentaries make little of this, identifying it as an example of Aaron’s piety – he had nothing to say against God about the severe divine punishment of his sons.  But for obvious reasons this was not satisfactory to me.  I wondered if instead he was silent in a way which we might describe as struck dumb – in a sense a numbness of the soul that acted as a defence against the horror that took place before him.

Maybe this is also what is meant in the paragraph at the end of the Amidah when we read “Even when others curse me, may my soul be silent”, which in Hebrew is nafshi tidom.  Aaron is silent vayidom and our souls we ask to be kept silent tidom.  Through our silence we can reflect on our place before God who is the source of creation.  Thus, when we feel ‘cursed’ or confronted by terrible events our silence allows time to be filled with something else which otherwise remains outside of our normal sphere of life.

In our silence we can hear the still small voice which Elijah experienced in the cave.  God was not in the mighty wind or the earthquake or the fire but in the soft murmuring sound (1 Kings 19:12).  And indeed the Kol D’mamah Dakah is the silent voice, and it has the same Hebrew root as vayidom and tidom.  When the world and people fall silent the presence of God is heard and felt as a powerful silence.  Maybe when Aaron fell silent or when we ask for our souls to be silent we are trying to connect to God who can feel very distant.

Today, on Shabbat we create a holy sanctuary in time a ‘mishkan’ – tabernacle – in which God can dwell and we can be silenced, struck dumb, and allow our numbed selves to be hushed by the world around us.  From within this silence we may hear the Kol D’mama Daka – the still soft voice which speaks in our hearts.

This holy presence of God, on the holy day, this spiritual time out from the clamouring media can then strengthen us and sustain us in our week ahead.  A week in which words again will resume their power to create and to destroy in a way more powerful than any tank or missile.  What else could have brought the world into being?


In conclusion I would like to finish with an extract of a book by Rabbis Homolka and Friedlander “The Gate to Perfection: The idea of peace in Jewish thought”.  The book concludes with a reference to the biblical prophets who themselves used the power of words to change the world around them.

“All we can do in a discussion about peace is to affirm hope: hope in God, hope in a world given to humans who must become aware of their task to fashion a better world.  And so we return to the prophets, to Amos and Hosea, to Jeremiah and Isaiah.  Their central vision has burned itself into the Jewish soul:  There cannot be peace without justice; and the sword comes into the world when justice is perverted and is delayed.  Peace then becomes the work of human hands; at that point, it becomes a blessing from God.”

As the seventh day was blessed and made holy, so may we be blessed with an ability to see a future when the world will be repaired under the sovereignty of God, when the wolf and lamb may lie down together and swords will be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.  Then with this vision silently sustaining us in the week ahead may we strive for it through the strength of our own hands and words.