Sermon – Is this who we really are? Responding to the Riots

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 12 August 2011

“It’s about showing the police we can do what we want” So proclaimed a teenage rioter in Croydon on Tuesday morning after a night of disturbance and drinking.

I have spent much of the last week reflecting on this, and in truth I do not really understand.

That there should be a sub-section of British society who aspire only to “do what we want” – and for whom ‘what they want’ involves violence and theft and destruction.  Such a sentiment is beyond me.

I live in a middle-class, intellectual, Jewish world – a world in which ‘what I want’ is just one factor in a complex process of moral decision making.  And in truth, what I want anyway is pretty tame and harmless. So I am far outside my comfort zone when I speak of these things.

And so, too, because of my distance, I find myself lost in the differing narratives of the riots presented in the media.  Is this an inevitable expression of frustration – at societal inequality and police oppression?  Or is it merely criminal opportunism?  Or a bit of both? I feel ill-equipped to judge this as a matter of social analysis.

But I am a rabbi, and not a maker of public policy.  And my first response must be driven not by social trends, nor by shock or pity, but by theology.  The events of recent days demand accommodation within my view of the world – and that means my Jewish view of the world.  And what we have seen over the past few days needs to be reconciled with how we understand the essential nature of human beings, and our relationship with God.

The events of the past week seem to support a Hobbesian world view – one that sees human nature as essentially brutish; that believes that good behaviour comes from the suppression of our true nature in the face of a greater authority.  If the state, in the form of the police, can’t stop us, we are naturally inclined to do what we want – if left unchecked, the outcome is harsh and brutish and violent. The first response to disorder is to re-establish authority, to suppress, because human nature and law are in tension, one against the other.

A similar idea can be found in some interpretations of the Christian notion of original sin.  The Protestant Reformer John Calvin, for example, understood original sin to be a “hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature” – one which leaves human beings inclined towards “adulteries, fornications, thefts, hatreds, murders” unless adequately checked.  And there are those who might argue that the Jewish construct of Mitzvot – of divine command of the sort we have read this morning – of divine reward and punishment – also functions to challenge our natural inclination to be morally corrupt.  To misquote Dostoevsky – without mitzvot, everything is permitted.

But this is not my view.  I believe that despite the evidence of this week, people are not naturally inclined towards brutishness and sin.  I believe this not only through the projection from my experience onto the lives of others.  I believe this from my Judaism. The central metaphor of our creation narrative is that we are – all of us, all human beings – created b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God. If I believe this, I must believe that we are inclined towards goodness, for how could we be made in the image of the Creator and be inherently inclined towards destruction?

This does not mean that we are perfect.  Of course not. Judaism is not naïve.  But it means that within each of us is the potential for goodness.  This is expressed in another metaphor grounded in the creation story – the rabbinic idea that we are created with two inclinations – the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara – the inclination to good and the inclination to evil.  In other words, we may contain within us impulses that if left unharnessed can lead us astray, but this is not the total picture.  We also have the God-given ability to control them.  And, according to our sources, when properly controlled the yetzer hara is also the driver of many socially desirable results. An out of control yetzer hara leads to violence and looting, but the yetzer hara in balance also drives us to marry, have children, build a house, or engage in trade.  It is only when it gets out of hand that it becomes the cause of harm.

If this is true (and this is the basic Jewish view of human nature) then in fact I do know how to distinguish between the narratives: the events of this week cannot be understood as an expression of human nature – as simple opportunism – but must be an aberration.  The good instinct in people, who b’tzelem elohim are essentially good, has somehow ceased to work – somewhere along the line we have allowed a society to develop in the concept of self control has become warped.

This has implications – it suggests that the key question is not now how the state asserts control from above – not the Hobbesian view in which human nature and law are pitted one against the other and the need now is to beat down upon those who have behaved so atrociously.  Rather, the question is why those involved can not control themselves – what are the forces in the lives of these young people – in their education, family, culture – that mean their yetzer hara can run unchecked.

This is not to suggest that civil society should not seek out and punish those who have offended.  A maxim in the midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah cautions that if we are only merciful in circumstances where we should be pitiless, we will ultimately be capable of being only pitiless.  But it does mean that where punishment might be counter-productive – as some of the measures being thrown around at the moment certainly would be – where punishment will not be restorative, we should be wary of calling for it.  Let me give an example from Jewish law:  The Halachah of demanding recompense after a crime is that if a robber wishes to repay the value of goods he has stolen, we should not accept payment from him.  To do so is counter-productive.  Instead, in the words of Maimonides:  “we assist him, and forego the claim in order to bring the straight path closer to the penitents”.  We should be careful that the response we call for is one that brings the straight path closer – to enable the rebalancing of the internal dialogue between inclinations that has so evidently got out of control.

I do not really understand what has taken place in England over the last week.  I am on one level utterly ill equipped to identify what has led to the events that have so horrified us.  In truth, it would be far easier for me to condemn than to understand.  Yet, while I may not be able to identify the forces at play, I know they must be there.  The alternative is to adopt a world view which is not mine – which is not Judaism’s – in which the brutishness of the past week is simply human nature.  Not as a bleeding heart liberal, but as a Jew, I am duty bound to stop and try to understand – to listen to my yetzer hatov.