Monday, 11 December 2017

Chanukah - Between History and Religion

We have an (almost) contemporary record of the Chanukah story. While the Rabbis never considered the Books of the Maccabees part of the Bible, the early Church did preserving them as, what Christians call, ‘inter-testamental literature.’ They make for a compelling read. There’s pride, honour, gutsy under-dogs and an arrogant enemy brought to humility. There’s also a rededication project - that, of course, is the literal meaning of the word Chanukah.

My favourite passage is the heroic refusal of Mattathias to bow down to the statue of the wicked King Epiphanes. The Maccabean patriarch has been singled out to bow first;

But Mattathias answered and said in a loud voice: “Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to obey his commandments, everyone of them abandoning the religion of their ancestors,  I and my sons and my brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors.  Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances.  We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left.”

What the First Book of Maccabees doesn’t do, however, is recount the miracle of a long-lasting flask of oil. That miracle doesn’t appear in the Second, Third or Fourth Book of Maccabees either, or the reasonably contemporary historical narrative of the great Jewish/Roman historian Josephus. The miracle of the oil only makes its first appearance in early (Tannatic) Rabbinic literature, dating from probably around 200 years after the event.

Talmud Shabbat 21a
Chanukah begins on the twenty-fifth of Kislev. On these eight days eulogies and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest. It contained enough for only one day’s lighting; yet a miracle occurred and they lit the lamp with it for eight days. The following year these days were marked as a Festival with Hallel and praise.

While the Talmud does contain the story of the oil, the Rabbis mention neither the Maccabees nor any narratives of heroism.

The Maccabees seem to have been edited out of the Rabbinic history since their dynastic rule was marked by corruption, murder and other impropriety. (Really there is a mini-series waiting here for someone). I wonder if another reason for the absence of praise of military-based heroism is the Rabbinic discomfort with military might as a way of solving challenges. The Haftarah for Shabbat Chanukah - chosen by the same Rabbis who are responsible for the Talmud - contains the verse, ‘Not by might and not by power, but by [God’s] spirit.’

Rabbi David Golinkin, from the Masorti Machon Schechter in Jerusalem, has a terrific post on the original Megillah for Chanukah (not a tradition still in use) - you can read his piece here or watch here. His suggests re-creating a public recitation of a story of Chanukah in our homes and synagogues. We might try it this Shabbat. But this deeper level of historical connection would come at the cost of what must be a deliberate Rabbinic decision - to downplay the military importance of the historical event in favour of more peaceful miracle.

May we all be blessed to have the opportunity to spend Chanukah in peace, celebrating miracles of light, and not placed in a position where military solutions are our only response to the challenges facing us.

A peaceful, light-filled, Chanukah to all,

Rabbi Jeremy


The first Book of Maccabees can be read on-line here.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Mental Health



Isaac never recovers from the trauma of the Akedah. If a label of ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ feels anachronistic, maybe that’s a reflection of our unwillingness to view the ancient heroes of our faith as archetypes of the very same challenges we face as humans today.

The Bible is replete with examples of mental health; King Saul displays symptoms of depression, mania, paranoia, anxiety ...

Meanwhile, in the Talmud, come tales of senile dementia; one aged mother who, following the death of her husband, wants to marry her son. Another marches into the City Council, where her son is Mayor, and proceeds to bash him over the head with a slipper.

Judaism offers a remarkable counter-balance to the stresses and strains of contemporary existence - the Sabbath - and the importance of soulful rest has never been more important. But mental health is tragically often a burden beyond the reaches of even the most efficacious bowl of chicken soup.

We don’t make enough space in our souls and in our community, to acknowledge the ways mental health can devastate a life. Indeed, perhaps precisely because mental illness is harder to see than many physical illnesses and injuries, the impact of mental ill-health on the family and social structures surrounding an ill person can be even more painfully felt.

I was deeply moved, this week, to receive the latest edition of ‘Head Room’ - a listing of courses, seminars and events run by Jami, the ‘mental health service for our Community.’ It’s a remarkable document containing offerings for the young and the old, for patients, and those who love them, for anxiety, stress, vulnerability, self-harm, eating disorders, managing loss and on the list goes. In particular, many of the listings share a concern to provide a safe space for sharing stories, listening and finding among other human beings, a humanity when faced with these deeply human sufferings. I would hope we, at New London, and I - not that I’m a trained medical professional - can offer some of that humanity and safety for all those in our community so affected.

There are a few copies of the Jami booklet in the Shul foyer, others - and much else - are available at www.jamiuk.org.

As ever, I welcome any and all responses,

Shabbat shalom

Friday, 3 November 2017

Balfour - One Day Later


One hundred years, and a day, ago the Balfour Declaration was signed.

“His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Those of you at last night’s lecture at New London, ‘Balfour and Beyond’ will have heard Professor Yaacov Yadgar’s superb presentation on the subject. He highlighted the challenges implicit in the declaration itself; Jews were to have a new national home, without losing rights in their existing national homes. The new national home would be for the Jewish people, but nothing should be done to suppress the rights of the non-Jewish communities. To these challenges he added others; what does a ‘national home for the Jewish people’ mean - is ‘being Jewish’ simply the collection of the things that Jews do, whatever and wherever that may be? Or is ‘being Jewish’ a spiritual vision of a covenantal relationship with God? And if the latter, who gets to decide what that means in a vibrant challenging polis?

Professor Yadgar showed how the Balfour declaration owed much to a rejection of a former vision of Jewish existence; a vision where Jews were ‘Englishmen [or Frenchmen, or Germans] of the Mosaic persuasion,’ a people whose external political life was entirely devoted to the states in which they lived, whose Judaism was an entirely inward-facing private apolitical matter. Early Zionist thinking, in large part, rejected that vision; replacing the internal aspects of Judaism with a complete focus on  Jewish political national consciousness.

At the heart of all these challenges is the question of what, precisely, Judaism, or Jewish-ness, actually is. Are we a faith, a race, a people, a community ...? It must, indeed, be frustrating looking for a label which fits Jewish-ness. We seem to suit many a little and none precisely.

There is only one solution. We need to be able to embrace multiple contradictory claims as capable of bearing truth. ‘Elu v’Elu Divrei Elohim Chaim’ - teaches the Talmud - ‘Both these and these are the words of a living God.’ It’s hardly a new idea for us. Judaism needs to be both honoured in the diaspora and safeguarded in its homeland. It needs to be both a religious calling and a political reality. Israel needs to be a Jewish homeland which does indeed recognise rights and aspirations of non-Jews in its borders. Perhaps that is the greatest insight of the Balfour Declaration - it understood that Jews need to be ‘both and’ and not ‘one or the other’ if we are survive and thrive. If being ‘both and’ means we do not fit into the neat categories of non-Jewish ways of thinking about socio-religious political entities, so be it. In truth we know who we are. We know when our rights are threatened, we know what gives us pride and we know where we fall short. Maybe what we lack is the confidence to exist in our multiple-identities, the honesty to admit our shortfalls and the willingness to apply ourselves to do better.


Shabbat shalom

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Shabbat UK


The Chief Executive of Next, Simon, Baron, Wolfson, was one of the panellists on last week’s Any Questions. After the usual tour of topics of the day, came a question about a school who have issued alarm clocks to their students so they don’t have to keep their mobile phones in their bedrooms. We are all, it seems, too in thrall to our phones.

“Funnily enough,” the boss of one of Britain’s most significant clothing companies shared, “for religious reasons I turn my phone off for from Friday night sundown and I keep it off until Saturday nightfall. And I have to say it’s an incredibly liberating thing to do. What you realise is that it’s not a life support machine. And you can live for 24 hours without your phone. I would recommend trying it. You will have a much nicer weekend.” Silence swept the studio as the idea sunk in, then applause.

MP, Lisa Nandy, went next. She suggested that if only MPs could be persuaded to turn off their phones for a day they could actually get together and solve the problems of Brexit. She was only half-joking.

Does that help? I figure I am, at this point, not really trusted on this - pasul b’eydut in the Talmudic idiom - banned from serving as an objective witness as to the beauty and power of a Shabbat honoured without mobile phones, computers, email and the rest of it. But here you have a FTSE 100 CEO and an MP. And there is more. Getting the phone turned off is more than a way of making your weekend ‘nicer.’ It’s about connecting with life as it right before you - not being whisked away from the here and now by the siren calls of telephony, push e-mail and streamed distraction. It’s about learning to take pleasure in what you have already, letting go of the chase for the new and probably not that important. It’s about finding a space in which to be grateful for the gift of life, and Jewish life at that.

It’s Shabbat UK - it’s a pleasure to share congratulations with the Orthodox Chief Rabbi for his leadership in drawing the focus of all Britain’s Jews towards the greatest gift we possess, as Jews - the Shabbat. There are Challah bakes and calls to light candles and all of that is important. But if you want to experience Shabbat as what the Rabbis meant when they called her a little piece of paradise on earth, please do join me in turning off that phone. Let me know how you do.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy

P.S. If interested, The Question Time clip is on-line [here - https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b09bcrn4/question-time-19102017] at 54:30.


November at New London


Next month we are launching the Chai Mitzvah Initiative, and hosting a flagship educational evening; Balfour & Beyond. Members are warmly encouraged to take advantage of these two terrific programmes.

Flagship Evening on the Centenary of the Balfour Declaration; Balfour & Beyond
We are delighted to welcome Professor Yaacov Yagdar, newly appointed Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Oxford, to reflect on one of the most significant moments in the journey towards the creation of the modern State of Israel. It will be an exceptional evening and I am honoured that Prof Yagdar will be joining us as we host members from several local Synagogues.
7:30pm 2nd November at New London Synagogue
Open to all.
More info here

Over Yom Kippur I spoke about a new initiative at New London - Chai Mitzvah.
It’s a programme designed to support people looking for something extra Jewishly, but wary or just too busy to make more than one evening a month.
The deal is this; come to nine monthly classes and commit to one new act of Jewish ritual engagement (of your choice) and a project of bettering something - an act of Tikkun Olam. You will deepen your understanding of Judaism, feel more engaged in the community and have fun.

The materials are terrific (more info here).
The people who have already indicated their interest are terrific.
And I am able to confirm the dates for the year. See [below - can you link down the document to the dates].

I have had so many conversations with so many members articulating a desire to find something that hits that ‘sweet spot’ allowing a comfortable, intelligent, well-supported way of feeling more at home in their Judaism. This is the best opportunity I have found. I commend it to all. If you have any questions, or if you are interested in joining us, please let me know

These are programmes absolutely central to my sense of what we, as a community, should be offering. I hope they will have your support.

Rabbi Jeremy

--

Dates for the Chai Mitzvah Initiative

Thursdays at 8-9:30pm at the Synagogue on
November 16th
December 7th
January 4th 2019
February 1st
March 8th
April 12th
May 3rd
June 7th
And Shabbat after services, at my home, on
June 30th


Friday, 29 September 2017

God Optional - Kol Nidrei 5778

God Optional

A long time ago, now, I started thinking about the Rabbinate. There was so much that enticed me; the study of Torah, the majesty of Shabbat, even - I’ll admit it - the idea of having a bunch of people sit and listen to me pontificate for a while - thanks for coming. There was just the one problem - the God problem.

I didn’t really have any relationship with God. I hadn’t heard any voices. I hadn’t spent my life in fear, or in love, with a white bearded deity on a cloud. I’d uttered a bunch of words in shul - I’d even found inspiration and comfort in prayer - but I’d never taken the God-ness of our liturgy too much to heart. And here I was thinking about the Rabbinate - chutzpah, dishonesty or possibly on to something?

We had a visit earlier in the Summer from one of my dearest American colleagues, Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavi. Amichai runs an organisation called Lab/Shul - it’s branded ‘God-Optional - Open To All.’ I get what he is trying to achive; saying to people that it doesn’t matter what you do or don’t believe about God. Here’s Judaism, you want it, come on in. Take what you want to take, and leave what you want to leave. Perhaps most of all, Amichai is acknowledging that the G-word is a barrier for many of us. Calling Judaism ‘God-Optional’ opens a path to those who are never going to take seriously something they feel is predicated on a deceit.

So here’s my ‘does it matter’ question for Kol Nidrei - does it matter if you believe in God?

I know it’s easy to insist it is; I can cite Rambam and Rashi, and the rest of ‘em. There is a mighty list of theologically inclined Rabbis who all agree that Judaism without a relationship with God is an impossibility. But I also know the reality of Jewish life in this special community, and many others. There are loads of us busily getting on with Jewish lives; learning, cultural engagement and even prayer - who don’t do God. Many of us are actually quite comfortable customising our Judaism to exclude the God bit. Does that matter?

OK, that’s the question clearly put. And here it gets a little tricky. I occasionally joke with upcoming BMs that there’s a trapdoor under the Bimah, and if they make a mistake in their leyning they’ll find themselves dropping into a piranha pit underneath. I say it with a smile. But this sort of sermon does feel a little like that. I know what’s coming.

The truth is I don’t care much about a person’s use of the G-word. You can tell me you believe in God. You can tell me you don’t. It would figure pretty low on a list of things I would want to know about your qualities as a person and your relationship with Judaism. But that’s not because I’m into what most people refer to when they talk about God-optional in Judaism.

Most people, when they talk about God-optional Judaism, mean that there is a fully realised Judaism that can be lived culturally, with a love of the Jewish people, Jewish history and even Jewish study. And that’s it. That’s not what I’m trying to say at all. I think Judaism needs an existential component - existential as in - connected to a grand vision of the nature of existence. It’s just that I think that if you connect to three key elements of that existential sense of what I think Judaism has to be about, I would encourage you not to worry so much about the G-word. If you can go along with these three key parts of Jewish life - you’ve already got it.

So these are the three key parts of the existential nature of Judaism.

The first is an awareness that you are not the most central thing in the Universe. None of us is. I’m aware that’s a little counter-cultural. We live in a world obsessed with placing our own needs and desires front and central - a view it has to be said, largely fostered by those making money from exploiting our desires to satiate own needs to line their own pockets. More fool us. But seeing our own desires as not ultimately important is more than a waste of money. It’s shallow and dangerous. Placing self-interest at the centre of our world view, turns the rest of the world, and certainly all the people in it, into the means to our own ends. Seeing our own desires as supremely important empties out an ability to care about anyone or even anything else. It spells disaster for any serious attempt at relationships. It’s dangerous but we all do it, all the time. We judge political parties, friends, professional colleagues, even the ecology of our planet in terms of what they could do for us, rather than see our lives as opportunities to serve, to care and to tend.

Locating ultimacy as beyond self-interest is an essential component of what people who use the G-word should mean when they use the G-word. Belief in God is a training in recognising the power otherness. “I am God,” reads the first of the Ten Commandments, and you are not. Belief in God is belief in there being something more important that anything we could possess, tame or own. It’s a training in humility. It opens us up to realise that what we have is not some kind of right but a gift and a grace.

If you can get to this place of grace, recognising otherness and our relationship to that which is truly important in the work - without the G-word. And there are plenty who do. That’s genuinely fantastic. That’s the first thing.

The second element in an existential Judaism is an awareness that the most important things in life can’t be measured.  This is the thing that most drives me to staggered bemusement when I encounter the blockbuster atheists who seem only to value that which can be measured and double-blind tested under laboratory conditions.
I know measuring is terribly important. I don’t want to take a train across a bridge that hasn’t been measured and checked to beyond any conceivable chance of collapse. Of course measurement is important. But you can’t measure a life in the same way you can stress test a bridge. You can’t measure love, happiness or kindness. Or rather something rather sad happens to these things if we pretend they can be force between callipers. The more we measure the more we turn everything in our life into commodities - just other things in a world of so many things. That’s not the way to treat that which is most important - our relationships in particular.

In one of the most famous tales in the Talmud the great Rabbi, Shammai loses his temper and ends up beating a stranger with a question with the Talmudic equivalent of a ‘2 by 4.’ I wonder if the violent response might be occasioned by Shammai’s profession. He’s a carpenter - indeed that’s what he’s doing with the 2 by 4 in the first place. And carpenters do a whole lot of measuring. I’ve known some lovely carpenters, but I wonder if Shammai was just too used to measuring things, and began to measure people in the same way he measured joists and beams. Hence the frustration with anyone who didn’t come up to the expected height - whack. Hillel - who brings the poor soul under the wings of the Divine Presence - is presses olive oil. That’s a job which entails drawing sweetness from something that seems intolerably bitter. Pressing olives is probably not a bad training in valuing things that cannot be seen and none the less needs to be valued.

My great teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote[1] about the ‘wind that sighed before the dawn.’ He noted that if we treat the phrase as a description, it’s meaningless. But if we consider it indicative - if we think these words point towards that which cannot be accurately pinned down technically, it’s a great phrase. It’s a line from Lewis Morris’ Le Vent de L’Esprit

The wind that sighs before the dawn
Chases the gloom of night,
The curtains of the East are drawn,
And suddenly—'t is light
[2]

That’s the sort of stuff that can evoke wonder and drawing from us an amazement that is the greatest achievement of our human grasp.

Believe in the sights that cannot be seen, the sounds that cannot be heard and the emotions that cannot be plotted on some fancy electronic feed that won’t tell you anything about the quality of your love or the wisdom of your soul.

If it helps to count God among the things you value, the things you believe in, that do not belong in the category of things that can be measured, but are still important. Great. If it doesn’t, if the G-word gets you feeling hostile or embarrassed or preferring some quotidian explanation of why we are the way we are, then don’t use the G-word. I don’t mind. Really.

Just don’t consider you are the most important thing in the universe you inhabit, and value the stuff that can’t be measured.

And the third thing.
The third key element of an existentially valuable Jewish existence is to believe that actions matter. What we spend our money on matters, what we eat matters, the way we speak matters, the way we treat people - strangers and friends matter.
We’ll do the prayer tomorrow, the Unataneh Tokef, there’s a reference to a books recalling our every action, even the forgotten one and the Hebrew reads - Hotem Yad Kol Adam Bo - the seal of every human’s hand is within it. You don’t have to believe in literal books. You don’t have to believe in God as some kind of cosmic accountant running profit and loss accounts on our merits and failings. But if you want to be a good Jew - frankly if you want to be a good human being - you need to live as if the actions you take leave behind some kind of cosmic fingerprint. You have to believe that just as the wind sighs before the dawn, you write a book with Hotem Yad Bo - a book sealed in the trace of your actions and inactions.

Here’s the tricky piece - about actions. I think you need to believe that your actions matter even if no-one else sees you doing the thing you do. In fact particularly these things matters; the things you think you can get away with. I was having a conversation with a friend about trolling, and the way the anonymity of the internet seems to have begat an overspill of nastiness into public society. That’s bad. The hidden nastiness has had very public consequences.
The Jewish understanding of the significance of these hidden actions gets its fullest expression in the understanding of a Biblical verse which prohibits placing a stumbling block before a blind person. ­Lo Titen Michshol Lifnei Iver (Lev 19:14). The blind person, of course, can’t see the stumbling block infront of them. And the Biblical verse goes on to say, ‘I am the Lord your God’ which the Rabbis understand to mean - God watches, even if you think God doesn’t.

But you don’t need to bring God into the picture. You can hold tight to a pithy aphorism about butterflies and hurricanes. You can hold tightly to a notion of God who knows and is the force of order in amongst all this chaos. But you have to believe that actions matter.

If you live your life locating the centre of the Universe as ‘not you,’ if you can value the hidden things as more important than the things that can be measured and if can live as though every act is cosmically significant. That’s great.

And that is really what I wanted to say tonight. If there is someone at home who wants to hear what the Rabbi spoke about in Shul this evening, tell ‘em this. Tell ‘em that the Rabbi said that if you lived life with a sense of humility, if you cared about the things that couldn’t be measured and if you lived life as if every action counted then, the Rabbi told you, you didn’t have to worry about the whole God thing in Judaism. Be my guest.

But here’s the kicker. Here’s the bit for anyone still paying attention. You’re a smart lot, you’ve probably figured it out already. The things I’ve been talking about are the very essence of a perfectly noble theology. This is what Judaism means when it talks about centrality of God. This is what I mean when I say I do believe in God. I believe in God as the point of ultimate otherness. I believe in God as the location of ultimate immeasurable value. I deem God as mechanism of record keeping of all actions. Zeh Hu Zeh. This is that. A belief in God isn’t an abdication the belief that science matters. It’s not a foxhole in which to crawl when things get hard. It certainly isn’t a children’s story. It’s a description of ultimacy, value and meaning. Almost a location.

I’m aware this might sound a little new fangled, or heretical, but it’s what the Rabbis of the Talmud, I think were getting at when they began to use the Hebrew term HaMakom as the word they used when they referred to God. HaMakom means ‘The place.’ God is the place where ultimacy resides.

I believe in God. I got over my nervousness and fear of the word, got on with my Rabbinic studies and here we all are. I began to find insight and strength from allowing myself to feel more at ease with the whole God thing - even if my beliefs in how we got to be here haven’t really changed. I used to believe I wasn’t the centre of the Universe, I used to value the things that can’t be measured and I used to take action seriously. I still do. I used not to take the G-word seriously, but now I do. I don’t think it’s as necessary as some make it out to be. It’s not as necessary as some other more important stuff. But it’s not as far away as some would suggest either. It is, in the sense of that extraordinary verse at the heart of my sermon on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, not in the heavens, it’s not so far that you have to leave your senses or your rationality to find it. It’s very close, in your heart. And the pathway to my feeling a relationship with God are these very three elements of a Jewish life lived well.

You don’t have to believe in God. It’s not necessary, but it could be.

Chatimah Tovah



[1] In God in Search of Man p.182
[2] Le Vent de L’Esprit by Lewis Morris

The Bet is Still On - Yizkor Yom Kippur 5778


The best book I’ve read in the last year is an oddly named book by the French writer, Laurent Binet. It’s called HHhH.[1] In part HHhH is the story of the Nazi, Reinhard Heydrich, known as the Butcher of Prague. Heydrich was intimately complicit in Kristallnacht and convened the conference where the Final Solution was most fully articulated.

I’ve read a bunch of books about Nazis. I am sure many of us have. But what makes Binet’s work particularly interesting is that it’s not a book about a Nazi. It’s rather a book about writing a book about a Nazi. Having introduced us to Heydrich’s brutality, Binet steps out from behind the fourth wall. ‘You see,’ he writes, ‘Heydrich is the target [of this book] not [it’s] protagonist. Everything I’ve written about him [to this point] is by way of background.’  And if that sounds a bit arch, a bit - forgive my generalisation - a bit French, bear with me. Because Binet is on to something deeply important.

The book unfolds, Binet recalls the events of Heydrich’s life. He introduces us to his heroes; Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš; two Czech partisans, trained in England and sent by the Czech Government-in-exile to assassinate Prague’s Butcher. On the fateful day, as Heydrich’s car slows - as the assassins knew it would - at the corner where they planned to strike, Gabčík’s gun jams. The plan - so carefully considered - looks to be failing. But then Kubiš has a moment to lob a grenade in Heydrich’s direction and does. It seems to affect only minor damage on Heydrich the target. But then septicaemia sets in and the Butcher of Prague dies an invalid’s death a week later. Binet goes on to tell the story of Lidice, the Czech town of 500 razed to the ground by the Nazi’s as punishment for the assassination - razed on the entirely erroneous notion that its inhabitants had something to do with the plot. And finally Binet recounts the final moments of Gabčík and Kubiš, holed up in the basement of a Prague Church, keeping 800 Nazis at bay [through a day and long into the night], until at last, they too suffer the same mortal consequence that met their target.

And all through this brilliant storytelling, Binet keeps peeking out from behind the fourth wall, asking us, and asking himself - does it matter? In the shadow of the Holocaust, and millions murdered in so many awful ways, does it matter that the butcher Heydrich dies on a hospital gurney while Gabčík and Kubiš die in a heroic last stand. In the face of the impossible awfulness of Nazi brutality does any of this matter?

Back in the earliest pages of the book, as we first meet Heydrich the child, Binet tells us his target grew up in the German village of Halle. He supposes he ought, at that point, wax lyrical about the village, but admits that he doesn’t know which of the two German towns called Halle Heydrich actually was from, ‘For the time being,’ he tells us ‘I’m not sure it’s important.’ Binet asks if it matters that the gun jammed, or if it matters that more Czech’s died because of the assassination that would have died had Heydrich been left to get on with his awful existence.

As the Nazi’s destroy Lidice and every man and most of the women who lived in the town, Gabcik and Kubis hide in a Prague basement, in despair at the wave of Nazi destruction unleashed in the aftermath of their ultimately successful assasination. They knew, they surely knew that their plotting could result in their own death, but did they consider the mass deaths of innocents their actions would provoke? Was it worth it? ‘Gabcik and Kubis weep from rage and powerlessness,’ Binet writes, ‘No one ever manages to persuade them that Heydrich’s death was good for anything . Perhaps,’ he continues, ‘I am writing this book to make them understand that they are wrong.’

HHhH becomes a book about the possibility of meaning, it’s a challenge posed in the face of Nazi brutality. But it’s a challenge, I suspect, we all feel sometimes. Particularly especially at this point on this day, with our memories of those who are no longer here; some taken peacefully at the ends of long fulfilled lives, others taken too early or too bitterly.

Soren Kierkegaard once wrote, a “single event of inexplicable horror ‘has the power to make everything inexplicable, including the most explicable events.’[2]

This is part of the problem of the Holocaust, it can strip us of all understanding, it can make it seem impossible to care about anything anymore.

And here I find myself drawn into the awful debate, now some 30 years old, surrounding the death of one of the bravest souls ever to have looked into the furnace of Auschwitz; Primo Levi. [3] In 1987 Levi was found dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs in his apartment building. Almost immediately Eli Wiesel pronounced, “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz ... forty years later.” The coroner in seeming agreement called his death a suicide. The American homme des lettres, Leon Wieseltier felt the loss not only of the man, Levi, but everything Levi stood for. "[Levi],” wrote Wieseltier, “spoke for the bet that there is no blow from which the soul may not recover. When he smashed his body, he smashed his bet.”

There’s a certain dangerous, seductive romance given succour by considering Levi’s death a suicide - the whiff of Juliette, taking her life as Romeo lies apparently dead before her. Here, the Levi, takes his life having completed his last great work, having said everything there is to say about the appalling failures of human possibility.

It’s just that - much like Romeo’s apparent death - this dark dangerous romantic vision of Levi might be quite wrong. In the years since his death the notion that Levi gave up on life as a direct result of his suffering in the camps has taken a battering. For one thing Levi himself is recorded active, engaged and excited by life and the various diary commitments he had set out for himself in the weeks after his death. He told his friends he no longer felt under the weight of the experiences of his formative years. And the fall down the stairs is a strange way to commit suicide - especially for a chemist - who could, surely have found easier paths towards death if that was indeed what he had chosen. Levi’s friend and cardiologist, David Mendel, observed that drugs Levi was taking often lower the blood pressure. Mendel imagines Levi on the point of fainting, reaching for banisters to steady himself and instead toppling.

Maybe Levi didn’t accept that the value of life is always trumped by the power of darkness and death.
Maybe Wieseltier’s bet, that there is no blow from which the soul may not recover, that there is no hell which some element of human virtue cannot penetrate, illuminate and palliate is still on.
Maybe life is still worth living - and living fully and heroically and as brightly as we are capable.

We are teetering on a knife-edge, trying to discover if there is anything authentic to do in a world where human will treat human with such abject violence and hatred; a world where the good and the evil suffer the same inevitable mortal consequence. And we are grasping for something that allows us to feel the bet is still on.

Let me draw one more voice into this conversation - Emil Fackenheim - by some twist of fate or coincidence, born in Halle, Saxony in 1916. That turns out to be the very same village in which the butcher of Prague, Heydrich was born 12 years earlier. Fackenheim, by 1939 a Rabbi, fled the Sauchsenhausen concentration camp in which he was detained in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, to become one of the most significant thinkers in 20th Century Jewry.

To read Fackenheim’s work, To Mend the World, is to feel Fackenheim being eaten away at by the notion that the Holocaust strips the life from ... life. Perhaps everything, he suggests is inauthentic after the Holocaust.

But no. Fackenheim, Binet and even Primo Levi, ultimately don’t suggest life is inauthentic, despite their deep investigations into the very darkest of times. They each emerge, if not with a jolly spring in their step, with a sense of the value of a life lived heroically, frankly, the value of a life lived at all. The stories of those who survived and those who did not, are for each of these three writers, full of authentic responses to the extraordinary gift of life even as their, so often tragically, are cut short. The acts of violence are never recounted as voiding the possibility of finding and creating meaning in these stories.

Fackenheim in particular, latches on to moments of heroism; sometimes the dramatic stories - such as Heydrich’s assassins Gabčík and Kubiš;’ sometimes the simpler triumphs of a survivor like Pelagia Lewinska. Lewinska spent 20 month’s in Auschwitz and her great triumph lay in nothing more than refusing to allow the Nazis to strip from her her belief in the value of behaving with human decency - she’s a hero too. Levi tells stories like these with a cooler spirit, but, I think, with pride nonetheless. Fackenheim’s point is that these  acts of heroism can’t be deemed inauthentic, or meaningless because they were performed in full understanding of the consequences. When a group of German philosophers, called the White Rose, sprayed ‘Down with Hitler’ on the walls of Munich in 1943, they knew they were courting death, and that by a certain standard that their actions would surely be futile. But they went ahead. ‘They knew it,’ wrote Fackenheim, ‘but they did it.’[4] And this, the philosopher writes, makes activism after the Holocaust capable of touching authenticity.

Or try this example, from HHhH. It comes from a section where Binet considers Theresienstadt, the so called ‘model’ concentration camp where the Nazis encouraged Jews to have a ‘relatively well developed cultural life with art and theatre.’ The Red Cross were fooled by the demonstrations of culture on show. But the Jewish residents weren’t. Of the 140,000 Jews imprisoned at Theresienstadt, only 17,000 survived. Binet cites Milan Kundera, ‘They were under no illusions: [they knew] their cultural life was exhibited by Nazi propaganda as an alibi; but should that be a reason to refuse freedom, however precarious and fraudulent? Their response was utterly clear: their creations, their art shows, their concerts, their loves, the whole array of their lives were incomparably more important than their jailers’ macabre theatrics. That was their [bet][5]. It should be ours too.’
Weiseltier’s bet, it seems, can survive the Holocaust because it was undertaken also in the midst of the Holocaust.

At the heart of all these articulations of possibility in the face of death, and in the face of the Holocaust most particularly, lies something irreducibly spiritual, perhaps we might even call it religious. I’m not trying to co-opt any of these thinkers and writers. But, for me, considering art, rebellion and even refusing to lose one’s humanity as meaningful bespeaks our belief that we are not just flesh and bones. We are not just material. We contain something other. We need something more than the material and, most remarkably, we become capable of creating something other than the material. As humans we create something other than material even when we are deprived of all material things; even in the midst of the Holocaust. And the heart of this thing that survives even such darkness as the Holocaust, are stories.

Binet writes that ‘The Nazis kept files, but burnt books.’ Files are the quotidian account of what will pass in time. But books are repositories of our soul, playgrounds for our imagination and homes of our dreams. Of course the Nazis were afraid of books. Of course they sought refuge in the reductive false security of ledgers. But the stories have survived. They have survived because stories of life are more powerful than numbers. The actions of the spirit are more powerful than the losses of the material - as much as the material we have lost hurt us so. That’s, of course, what we are all doing here, at Yizkor, remembering stories, even when the material presene of those we have lost and lost has gone.

As we tell stories, as we remind ourselves of all those we mourn. We remind ourselves of those destroyed by the Nazis and of those who have perished since in ways less brutal. But more than any of this we remind ourselves that life is more important than the material.

We remind ourselves of the value of a life lived beyond the realm of the material.
We remind ourselves that the bet is still on.
We remind ourselves that there is a point to living.
Even - in fact especially - as we consider the lives of those who have gone.
May all these lives be for a blessing.




[1] Originally published, in French, in 2010, and winner of the Prix Goncourt Du Premier Roman of that year. I read it in Sam Taylor’s 2012 translation, published by Harvill Secker.
[2] Cited in Kierkegaard’s name but with no citation in Emil Fackenheim’s To Mend the World, p.191.
[4] MW 266-267.
[5] ‘wager’ in the original.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...