Sermon: Being an Angry People (Rabbi Professor Tony Bayfield – Kol Nidre 5775)
Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 22 March 2015
More than thirty years ago, the late, great Harry Blacker, member of Alyth, drew a cartoon with the Rabbi in the pulpit saying: “Before my sermon I’ve something interesting to say to you.” Plus ca change? We’ll see!
Before this sermon, I want to make three ‘interesting’ statements. One: I believe in God and haven’t lost my faith. Two: I’m an utterly committed Zionist who watched the latter stages of the Gaza conflict on North American television and can’t begin to comprehend the BBC’s role as the feed for Hamas PR. And three: You’ve no need to time the sermon this year because Jacqui tells me that short is best and I’m grateful for her good taste.
Why a ‘before this sermon’ at all? Mainly because I’ve no scruples whatsoever in trying to win people’s attention and if this doesn’t make you mildly curious, then next year I’ll have to do something really outrageous. But, second, because I’ve something very uncomfortable to say. You may not like it. You may not agree. But I hope you’ll appreciate that I feel compelled to say it. Here goes.
Where did we get the idea from that extremists and fanatics always get their come-uppance and nice, decent people win out in the end? It’s just not true. And if any people should recognise that saccharin lie for what it is, we Jews should.
Let me treat you to an episode from past Jewish history because it’s the norm not the exception.
Islam had conquered huge swathes of the known world and many Jews found themselves living under Muslim rule. In Spain, it wasn’t too bad – better than living under Christian rule. In Muslim Spain, Jews lived as second-class citizens with a discriminatory tax system. But our talents were recognised – particularly in medicine and diplomacy – only one of those will be a surprise – and some rose to great prominence. One such was a man – both faiths were unremittingly patriarchal – called Shmuel ibn Naghrela (note the Arabic name) whom Simon Schama describes as “an unapologetically outsized ego, a hand-pumping, back-slapping, rib-wacking, hairily muscular personality, capable nonetheless of inward self-examination and erotic pathos.” If any of the psychoanalytic psychotherapists present would like to give me their card, I’ll pass it on to him – you’ll doubtless have theraped him, erotic pathos and all, many times before. Ibn Naghrela became the unchallenged Governor of Granada. In him there was a genuine union between Islamic culture and power on the one hand and unapologetic Jewish identity on the other. He – and his son who followed him – even laid the plans for the building of the Alhambra Palace. Jewish life in Andalucía flourished. It’s often called ‘the Golden Age.’
And then along came two successive waves of Muslim conquerors from the Atlas Mountains in North Africa. The Almoravids smashed Granada, flattened Andalucía and destroyed the life that Jews had built. Never mind the ibn Naghrela family, the more modest, less egotistical, ordinary Jews – the GPs and the merchants, the shopkeepers, rabbis and poets – were put to the sword. Many Jews died. Others were forcibly converted. Numbers fled to other parts of the Iberian Peninsula. But, as we do, a remnant stayed put, kept their heads down until the worst of the storm had passed and then began to rebuild their lives.
Less than 100 years later, another wave of North African zealots swept through Southern Spain. The Almohades were even more militantly puritanical and fanatical than the previous lot. Islamic life, Islamic life was set back for 200 years. Jewish life in Granada never recovered. Lest this be taken as an anti-Muslim sermon, let me point out that, by the mid-13th century, inspired by the leadership of Spanish national hero El Cid – played by Charlton Heston – the Christians had re-conquered the whole of the Iberian Peninsula except for Granada. They made such a thorough job of torture, forcible conversion and, finally, expulsion that Spain was rendered more Judenrein than even Adolf Hitler – with all the tools of modern technology – could ever have hoped for.
‘Why on earth does he need to be going on about this, this evening of all evenings? We know and don’t need to be told it again.’ I think we do. I apologise if it’s upsetting but I don’t think that Yom Kippur – of all days – is a time to be comfortable.
It wasn’t just the six million of our people that Hitler wiped out. It wasn’t just the children and grandchildren that those who were incinerated never had. Even those who survived were scarred beyond measure by their experience. A generation ago we realised that the children of survivors were also damaged. And now we’re beginning to realise that the psychological damage is passed on in very many cases even to the third or fourth generation.
The great German-born Canadian-Israeli philosopher Emil Fackenheim told us that from Auschwitz comes a 614th commandment – not to grant Hitler a posthumous victory. I’m an optimist. I believe that we can’t live without hope. I believe that this community – and Finchley – are miracles. No congregations could work harder to ensure Jewish survival. But even I have to acknowledge that the jury – j-u-r-y – is still out and history is unlikely to return its verdict on the survival of diaspora Jewry for a long time.
And Israel? A couple of weeks ago I was listening to the news and heard an interview with someone who was described as being a resident of Ar-Raqqah, the town of a quarter of a million inhabitants in Syria which is now the capital of Islamic State. He was, it was claimed, a member of the underground resistance in Ar-Raqqah. He said two things. One. We don’t want the Americans to bomb the town because the Islamists have all their defences and weaponry concealed within the civilian population. And two. If you do, we’ll join Islamic State and fight against the Americans and the West. Islamic State, Hezbollah, Hamas – they’re all of a piece, they’re all fanatics, extremists. So strong is their fanaticism and so evil their utter disregard for human life and human values that they present a huge threat. Given the self-interested short-termism of much of the West, God alone knows what they may achieve. History teaches that waves of such extremism and fanaticism do eventually subside, burn themselves out. But not before they’ve destroyed not just good innocent human beings but their never-to-be-born children and children’s children and have scarred the survivors even to the third or fourth generation. I’m really scared, not for myself, but for Israel and for a collusive world fiddling while Rome burns, watching whilst someone drills a hole under their seat in our boat.
At this point I need to do a bit of theology – which is what I do these days.
When I was a student at the Leo Baeck College, a lifetime ago, my theology teacher was a German refugee rabbi called Ignaz Maybaum. Maybaum called the Holocaust the Third Churban so as to link it in history with what the early Rabbis had called the Second Churban, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans, the destruction of Jewish life in Judea and our expulsion from the land.
Amongst the generation of teachers who stood in the grim shadow of the Second Churban, two, for me, are pivotal. The first is a rabbi called Ishmael. As a boy Ishmael was taken captive and put in prison in Rome. Fortunately, he wasn’t beheaded – even the Romans didn’t do that, though they were much attached to crucifixion – and when Rabbi Joshua was in Rome, he was told about the boy, ransomed him and he became his pupil. Ishmael dealt with the experience by devoting his life to the establishment of Jewish law which would bring order to chaos. For him God was omnipotent, all powerful and distant, what we call transcendent, not part of this world. His contemporary, Akiva – named after my late wife’s primary school – was the antithesis. For Akiva God was and is present. God was with our people in exile and the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence wept. God not only wept at our suffering but, as it were, was scarred by that suffering and suffered along with us. Akiva’s God was immanent, present, loving, compassionate, profoundly affected by the suffering of good, decent, ordinary people. For Akiva God isn’t omnipotent or all powerful. God is passible, feels but is powerless to intervene.
1,800 years after Akiva, it’s his theology that I, standing in the terrible shadow of the Third Churban, adopt not Ishmael’s. It isn’t that God can intervene on behalf of the good, the decent – like us. If God can but chooses not to, simply to preserve the ability of humanity to make its own choices, to exercise its freewill then what kind of monster is God? To watch the destruction of the Jews of Spain, the million murdered, innocent children of the Third Churban, the tens of millions of victims of Stalin, Mao, Polpot, of genocide in Rwanda and in the Balkans, the hapless victims of Tsunami and Ebola and do nothing for the sake of an experiment in freewill would be monstrous; and to imply so, is blasphemous. The world is as it is and God’s presence isn’t that of a capricious magician. The world is as it is and there are no guarantees that the extremists, the fanatics won’t triumph and that good, decency and honesty will survive.
Some of you will have read – or at least heard about – a book published earlier this year by an Israeli columnist and writer called Ari Shavit. It’s as good a book about Israel as I’ve ever read. Shavit’s a member of the Editorial Board of Haaretz and on September 11th this year – the anniversary of 9/11 – he wrote this:
“You want the truth? We’ve had it. We’ve had it with the delusional nationalists who are leading Israel to destruction, and we’ve had it with the visionary leftists who are stoning Israel. We’ve had it with the skullcap-wearing post-Zionists who are burying Zionism in the hills, and we’ve had it with the bespectacled post-Zionists who are depicting Zionism as a series of crimes. We’ve had it with the messianic believers in the entire Land of Israel, who don’t understand that without dividing the land, there will be no state, and we’ve had it with the messianic believers in a perfect peace, who don’t understand Hamas and Islamic State and don’t know where they are living….
You want the truth? We’ve been broken. We’ve been broken by the crude discourse of power and pillars of smoke, and also by the empty discourse of the Arab peace initiative, the Mahmoud Abbas hope of peace in our time. We’ve been broken by the moldy slogans of “if we just stand firm,” and also by the hollow promises of “if we just extend our hand.” We’ve been broken by the stubborn refusal to understand that the occupation is killing us, diplomatically, morally and demographically, and also by the refusal to recognize that Palestine isn’t California and Hamas leader Khaled Meshal isn’t Martin Luther King. We’ve been broken by those who see bloodthirsty Arabs and anti-Semitic heirs of the Nazis everywhere, and also by those who refuse to admit that Arab fascism, Palestinian fundamentalism and anti-Semitic European Israel-haters exist.
You want the truth? It has to be stopped. The nationalist right has been acting for years in an anti-national fashion, weakening the Jewish nation-state and endangering the Zionist enterprise. The universalist left has been acting for years in a non-universal fashion, adopting a particularistic approach that blames Israel (for everything) and forgives the Palestinians (for everything.)….
The time has come for the silent 70 percent of Israelis in the centre to rise up against the extremists from both right and left and free themselves of their stranglehold. The time has come for a broad-based, angry Israeli rebellion that will return Israel to reality, morality and sanity. We mustn’t give up this one country of ours without a fight. Our duty now is to repossess it, redefine it and put it back on track.”
That really spoke to me. What did it for me was not Shavit’s rejection of extremism both of the right and of the left – though that too; what did it for me was Ari Shavit’s anger. Rabbi Akiva attributed emotions to God, understanding God not as a remote, inscrutable force but as the endorsement of our love and compassion, honesty, decency and goodness. God is love. God is compassion. God is forgiveness. The God of the Hebrew Bible is all of those things but what the modern world has been embarrassed by and has stumbled over is God’s anger.
Over the coming hours Viv and the choir will be singing again and again Adonai, Adonai El Rachum v’Hanun, the 13 attributes of God’s mercy, compassion and forgiveness. But the Biblical text goes on ‘but not acquitting the guilty or forgiving those who’ve broken the rules of human decency and right behaviour.’ The much maligned ‘Old Testament’ God is filled with anger and fury at human wickedness. Our Jewish God doesn’t just endorse meekness and mildness, forgiveness come what may and turning the other cheek. Not at all.
Now, listening to Ari Shavit, is the time to imitate God and be angry, very angry. At a time when fundamentalists and fanatics threaten to destroy everything that’s good and decent – not just in the State of Israel but over vast swathes of the world – small, safe gestures of decency aren’t enough. At a time when powerful and wealthy nations ignore disease, hunger, famine and sorrow abroad in the name of national self-interest – adopting an orphan though Save the Children is noble but inadequate. The imperative tonight is to become an angry congregation. To shout and rage against the cowardly politics of non-involvement and craven bowing to insularity, economic calculation and ‘putting us first’. Britain needs to hear just how fearful we are – for Israel, for the Middle East, for the good and honest, the decent and innocent everywhere who are being swept away by a “blood-dimmed tide” of evil and callous indifference. The time is long passed for polite and worthy gestures which are, I’m sad to say, spitting in the wind. Be angry, be very angry like Ari Shavit.
Shout – at the United Nations which is regularly paralysed in the face of flagrant breaches of International Law and rendered not fit for purpose by its own members. Shout at your fellow citizens who only acknowledge that it might be anything to do with them when a British hostage is involved or British Jihadists threaten to come home. Shout at all our political parties who follow selfish and insular popular sentiment rather than lead it. Shout at Muslims who still claim that Islamic state and Hamas are different; and at Christians who shed peculiarly selective tears. Rage – at the media who only tell their consumers what they think they want to hear and read. Rage at business interests which will support boycotts if their profit margins are threatened and develop new drugs only when there’s a profit to be had from the affluent. Rebel against the fearful-selfishness, the empty rhetoric, the myopia of Britain, Europe and the West. Shout. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” because the hand of evil and inhumanity is already on the last light switch.