Sermon: Devarim: Being Human means Telling Stories

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 18 September 2012

What is unique about being human?  It’s not the ability to walk or hunt or form family groups, most mammals can do that.  It’s not the ability to nurture our young, birds care for fledglings with tender care.  It’s not the ability to be ingenious, watch a squirrel finding its way into a bird feeder.  It’s not even the ability to use tools.  If a chimpanzee finds a tasty nest full of termites he will use a stick to get them out and will use a stone to crack a nut.  No what is unique about humans, says Professor Mark Pagel, is the way in which we use language to implant thoughts directly into each others minds – giving rise to social learning.


Chimpanzees will never make the stick that they use to get into the termite’s nest into a shovel, nor will they swop banging a nut on a rock for walking into a shop and buying nuts which are ready shelled.  They are not able to pass on to each other what they have learned about how to do things better and more effectively.


Our fossil record shows that the ancestors of humanity made pretty much exactly the same kind of hand axe for a million years – 40,000 generations.  Then 200,000 years ago our language skills evolved and developed enough that we could begin social learning from each other.  This meant that I can do what you can do without putting in the time and effort to develop it for myself.


I can see how you flake the flint from your hand axe and become a better hunter than you.   Something though in our God given faculties meant though that we did not keep this ability to learn just to the smallest family groups, guarding it jealously.  Rather we used it to develop co-operative society and shared and exchanged – which has since then meant that humans have been about to spread worldwide using our social learning skills to adapt to our environment, while other species are stuck to wherever their genes best suit them.  Witness the more than two hundred countries represented at the Olympics from the frozen north to the baking south.


Critical to the social learning which has enabled humanity at its best to steward the world as well as live with its vagaries is the telling of stories.  We don’t build our groups simply by giving instructions.  We use the most effective way to pass on values, ideas and emotions so that each of us learns to build our understanding of the world ourselves.  We tell stories.


So we ground our children’s understanding of Judaism by telling them tales of their spiritual ancestors.  Few would argue with the proposition that a good part of our Synagogue’s early years Jewish education, in our Kindergarten and Galim, our Religion school, and the home Jewish education which we encourage should be the telling of Bible stories.  No one would propose that instead of telling our children about Abraham, Miriam, Esther and Moses we should be discussing the current state of Jewish philosophy.


Nicola and I followed this example and included some well told bible tales into our daughters’ bedtime story routine when they were young.   Though we have done so with little self analysis, clearly behind our telling of these stories was our wish to begin to build their Jewish identity and acquisition of Jewish values by means of telling them tales that they will come to see as their own.


I was discussing our telling of Bible tales with a friend of mine, who would describe himself as a liberal humanist.  We wondered together what tales he could tell to his daughter to fulfil the same role as a Jew or Christian’s Bible tales, a Muslim’s tales of the Prophet, a Hindu’s tales of the pantheon.  He suggested that he too could search history to tell the tales of exemplary people – Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi, William Wilberforce, Nelson Mandela and the like sprung to mind.  The only trouble for the Liberal Humanist is that all of these were or are essentially religious men – King the pastor, Ghandi the Hindu Ascetic, Wilberforce, late of the Hendon parish and endower of many of our local churches, even Nelson Mandela was brought up in the Methodist church – thus at least one aspect of their lives would automatically fail the humanist test.


Judaism has always been deeply conscious of the power of history to build identity and to grant authenticity to our message.  The Book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses will over the next nine Shabbatot, reprise the laws and commandments which are set to govern the Children of Israel and establish their covenant with God, does not begin by listing the laws in order of their importance or any other such dull device.  Rather it begins with the relating of the tales of the wandering, of the forty years since Mount Sinai – with the history of the people whom he was addressing.  In this way Moses cements the identity of the people whom he will be guiding and establishes the authority of the claim of such laws upon them.


It is a pleasing beginning to this last book of the Torah, whether you hear the Book of Deuteronomy as the words of Moses or analyse it as the work of a Deuteronomic school of Biblical authors composing or compiling many centuries after the events of Moses’s life were meant to have taken place.


So great can be the power of the telling of historical tales in establishing and maintaining identity that almost all Jews, even those who are close to secularism in their Judaism, use the device yearly at the Seder service.  Indeed Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Religious action centre, reports on the time when he was among a group of Jews who were consulted by the Dalai Lama a few years ago.  The leader of Tibetan Buddhism, living in exile, was searching for the secret of our people’s longevity when our connection to our religion’s land of origin had been broken.  The Dalai Lama said that he could see in the Seder service the whole secret.  It has been the continually repeated tale of our history impressed deeply on each generation that has sustained us in our Diaspora.  We have made our rootlessness our triumph.


The power of Jewish history poses a special challenge to Reform Judaism – especially when you call it Progressive Judaism – implying as this does that it is our Jewish mission to move forwards, onwards, upwards and presumably away from our history.  What are we to do with the ability of tale telling to carry our message to our next generation and to cement the identity of the current generation?


Generally speaking, we use it as much as any part of Judaism.  Understanding that Bible stories and the midrash which enhances them personalises our religious values and give a personal dimension to the development of our religious tradition we will continue to tell them to our youngsters – inevitably adding a Reform Jewish slant in which for example the military exploits of Moses are less celebrated than his qualities as a leader, the courage of Esther is more celebrated than the revenge that she takes against the Persians, where Jacob’s guile in duping his brother Esau is not glossed over.  We will continue to teach our history as a people aware that our particular interoperation of Judaism and Jewish authority is borne on the wings of Judaism’s encounter with modernity.  Thus a Reform Jewish approach to Jewish history inevitably takes the surrounding cultures into account rather than making the specious claim that Judaism has always been isolated from such influences.


Essentially the Reform Jewish task with respect to history its telling and experience is to be grounded in history and the tales of our people and yet to transcend it.  In doing so we do follow a tradition stretching back at least to the times of the Mishnah and Talmudwhen the Rabbis of the turn of the common era and the five centuries thereafter developed a Judaism that both recognised the importance of the destroyed Temple and its style of worship to the history of religion and yet took its rituals into a new generation no longer living exclusively in the land of Israel.  So, for example, the Passover sacrifice was turned into the home observance of the Seder, the priests bringing in the Sabbath with sacrifice was replaced by lighting the candles and drinking a cup of wine.  The centralising authority of a nation, its priesthood and kings was replaced by the meritocracy of the rabbinate and the Jewish community.


This is an exercise that we will continue here in our Synagogue tomorrow morning when we commemorate Tisha b’Av together studying how the Temple has been portrayed in art over five centuries – reading from the book of Lamentations so that we can enter the emotional world of the time through its own tales.  Tisha b’Av commemorates the loss of the two Temples of Jerusalem.  But we will be together tomorrow not in order to sit in mourning for the loss of the Temple, dragged back into our past – but rather so that we can be built further by a knowledge from the story of where we have come from and an appreciation of the trauma that our past generations have suffered.  Our history will continue to ground us – but we will try to use it to respond to the challenges of our day.