Sermon: The danger of ‘Blessing and Curse’
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 31 August 2019
Back in the mists of time, when I was a fresh faced first year undergraduate, I was forced (and I really do mean forced – it made my head hurt and I wasn’t very good at it) to learn formal logic: The transformation of hypotheses and sentences into symbols and notations; the creation of truth tables. The very thought of ‘propositional calculus’ still fills me with terror. The idea, I think, was to take ill-disciplined teenagers, ill-disciplined thinkers, and to force us to think in a more structured way. To consider how we made arguments, the way that we structured sentences; to prioritise consistency, lack of contradiction. This is a discipline concerned not with truth or evidence, but validity of inference.
Even I, poor as I was, could have taken the beginning of this morning’s Torah portion and fit it into a formal table. It is very simple – as I would once have been forced to write it: phi not phi. See, I set before you this day blessing and curse. Obey the commandments, blessing; do not obey, not blessing (curse).
It’s the kind of choice that is typical of Deuteronomy: blessing or curse; good or evil; life or death.
The book was composed – most likely – in Jerusalem in the 7th century BCE as part of religious reforms introduced by King Josiah, a concerted move against idol worship. And it utilises the most powerful, straightforward of rhetoric – all or nothing, yes/no, right/wrong, take it or leave it. The arguments it makes are clear, clean, consistent, unambiguous.
The treatment of our portion in rabbinic literature emphasises the very binary nature of the choice before us. The midrash, Sifre Devarim, compares the beginning of our portion to standing at a crossroads with two paths ahead – two choices, no more. Rabbi Levi in the midrash D’varim Rabbah compares it to a master who offers his servant a simple choice – a golden necklace if he will do the master’s will; and if not, iron chains.
Blessing or curse
Path A or path B
A golden necklace or iron chains.
This kind of binary language typifies the rhetoric of Deuteronomy. And, nearly 3000 years later, it has come to typify that of our modern political discourse.
Ours is an age in which the most important political decision of modern times, certainly of my life time, has been reduced first to a simple ‘in or out’, path A or path B, and then over three tortuous years to an even more absurd ‘all or nothing’; an age in which our politicians speak only in declarations of total disaster or complete reward – golden necklace or iron chains; in which news programmes interview only the proud or the stubborn, only those who will declare loudly ‘for or against’, blessing or curse.
And this week, the natural development of this binary world. With such certainty of opinion, such clarity of choice, when we know, when we really know – why would there need to be discussion, time for questions, to hear one another? The rejection of complexity, reduction of issues to binary decisions is necessarily in tension with representative democracy, which in theory values debate and scrutiny. So what other outcome than the suspension of that debate.
For ours is an age in which, to quote the columnist Zoe Williams: “politicians… flaunt their inflexibility as if it were a virtue”.
Over the last three years, I’ve many times stated the opposite from this desk, while never imagining we would get to where we are today. I’ve spoken hopefully about the value placed in our tradition on flexibility; I’ve cited the Talmudic adage that we should “always be bending like a reed and not hard like a cedar.”
And I have spoken about compromise, p’sharah, as an essential element of decision making. The Talmudic example – now familiar to many of you – is of two ships in a narrow channel or two laden camels on a mountain pass. If neither ship, neither camel has to give way, then neither can move without compromise. And if both try to move, both insist they have the right, that they alone are right, then both might sink; or both might fall from the mountain.
I suppose I assumed, naively perhaps, that compromise would eventually come.
But we are no longer in an age of compromise.
So binary is our politics, so certain, so Deuteronomic, let’s call it, that the approach is now simply to barge the other camel off the mountain, to sink the other ship so it cannot get in the way. And if the risk is that all will sink, all will fall from the mountaintop, then so be it – how far can it be to fall? Something – one clear, consistent, unambiguous thing – has to be done. To be decisive. That is the only way.
When the dust is settled, what we will need to recognise for our politics is what our tradition in fact understands about Deuteronomy: that binary language might make for a consistent argument, might fit neatly into a table, might make for powerful rhetoric, but it doesn’t correspond to reality.
There may be no inconsistencies in the choice that Deuteronomy offers us, it’s just that it doesn’t reflect the complex reality of life. There is no simple choice between blessing and curse. If there were, very few of us would qualify for the blessing promised by our portion. It is not all or nothing; rather we exist on a spectrum. If it were not so, what incentive would there be to reflect on our lives, to change who we are, to apologise, to listen to others, to ask to discuss.
The complexity of our real lives, our real choices is articulated in a Talmudic tradition that we will read over the coming weeks as we enter the High Holy Days. Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah. Three, not two. One for the wholly righteous, one for the wholly wicked – the wholly righteous are at once inscribed in the Book of Life; and the wholly wicked in the book of death. But there is a third book, a third category with judgement suspended. And there the majority of us dwell. Indeed our tradition teaches us that we are all there in the spectrum, in the middle. Ecclesiastes states: “There is not a righteous man upon earth who does good and sins not”.
It is the very point of the period we are about to enter – that we are complicated: not wholly good, nor wholly bad. Full of contradictions. And the decisions that we make are complex too. It is a rebuke to the binary promise and threat of Deuteronomy, a recognition of the complexity of human behaviour. Indeed, perhaps the greatest beauty of our tradition is that it values complexity – multiple voices, multiple ideas, argument, probing, subtlety. Build yourself a heart of many rooms. Until the Middle Ages at least, very little irritable reaching for answers, comfort with contradiction.
As with our religious lives, so it should be with our politics. Binary rhetoric may be powerful, but it doesn’t correspond to reality – it doesn’t reflect the complexity of our lives or choices. And it leads to terrible outcomes. As the Israeli author Amos Oz z”l observed, “idealists always regard compromise as opportunism, as something dishonest, as something sneaky and shady, as a mark of a lack of integrity.” But, he notes – “the opposite of compromise is not a lack of integrity but fanaticism”. That is our age.
There is another reason that I didn’t like the study of logic. It wasn’t just that it was hard, though it really was. It was that its concern – consistency, validity, lack of contradiction – is not my concern. There are other, more important criteria: creativity, justice, honesty, decency, compassion, truth, love, community. All or nothing – be it in religion or politics, or indeed philosophy, rarely prioritises these ideals.
See, I set before you this day blessing and curse. The midrash, Sifre Devarim, compares the beginning of our portion to a person sitting at a crossroads with two paths ahead – which will be clear and which full of thorns?
But it is a false choice. Ours is a complex world; all paths have thorns and all paths have areas of clear ground.
If we find ourselves at a – metaphorical – crossroad of just two paths on an issue of substance, probably something has already gone terribly wrong. The best choice is not to plough forward regardless, but to turn back, to look for a completely different route.