Sermon: Yom Kippur Neilah
Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 30 September 2023
I’ve got some exciting news to share with you: ‘Big Brother’ comes back to our TV screens next month, while ‘Room 101’ continues to be available on catch-up! ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Room 101’ were phrases coined by George Orwell in his novel 1984, published in 1949. Amazing how that book has influenced so much of contemporary life and culture since then: it’s been adapted for cinema, TV, radio, ballet, theatre and opera; it influenced David Bowie, The Clash and the Manic Street Preachers; the 1960s TV series, The Prisoner; films like The Matrix, A Clockwork Orange, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. (Dorian Lynskey, The Ministry of Truth: a biography of Georg Orwell’s 1984 Picador 2019)
‘Thought Police’ figures in it; so does ‘Newspeak,’ what we call ‘fake news’ today. ‘Fake news’ actually started life in 18thC French Revolutionary newssheets as ‘les fausses nouvelles,’ while ‘Thought Police’ was used by the Kempeitai, the Japanese equivalent of the Gestapo.
The Horizon Europe programme promotes scientific collaboration between EU member states. Brexit meant we were no longer part of that programme. The Government proudly announced this month that a deal had been negotiated for the UK to become an Associated Country in Horizon Europe. It was heralded as another achievement for post-Brexit UK. But, as always, especially with government, listen to the language. Yes, we are back in Horizon Europe but only as an Associated Country. In other words, back to where we were pre-Brexit, but not exactly there either….
It’s been a week where Rupert Murdoch – guardian of journalistic probity, propriety and truth – steps down as MD; Russell Brand tells us “no problem it was ‘all consensual.’” Populism is on the rise, for example, in Poland, Hungary, Italy and, sadly, in Israel. Populism is concerned about ‘nationalism’ or even ‘ultra nationalism’ both of which seldom share an abiding concern for truth, freedom and justice.
Ca va sans dire – “it goes without saying” that language is the prime medium we have for communicating with each other; but ca va mieux pour le dire – “it goes even better with the saying.” So while Brexiteers, Donald Trump and the like weren’t the first to employ phrases like ‘fake news,’ the twist they’ve given them in our time has been that they fly, quite brazenly and unashamedly, in the face of all evidence and aren’t even concerned to hide their own contradictions.
If you tell me that 2 plus 2 equals 5, I I’d conclude you were rubbish at maths. But If you argue with conviction that 2 plus 2 equals, say, 386, I’ll know that something else is going on, that there’s some other purpose behind what you are saying. And that’s what ‘fake news’ is really about.
Fake news, alternative facts, lying, invective, rubbishing experts, dismissing something as ‘woke,’ are all part of one and the same thing. And – or but – of course, journalists, politicians and celebrities by no means have the monopoly on any of that.
Hateful, untruthful speech damages three people, suggests the Talmud (Arachin 15b): the person who says it; the person – obviously – at the receiving end but also – and that’s the third person – anybody else who hears it.
Many years ago, a colleague gave a lecture at a Reform Movement conference. I can’t now remember why, but for some reason I took issue with him about what he said. I should have spoken to him about it. Instead I wrote a letter to him but also – sadly, stupidly – circulated copies of that letter to all and sundry. I don’t know what came over me that led me to do it. It was in pre-email days so I didn’t even have a record of those to whom I sent it. I made my apologies to him and a public apology wherever I could. I have to say that he was infinitely more gracious with me than I had been with him. But having sent it, I had released a poison into the public domain with, obviously, no idea where it would go. It is one of the more shabby, shameful episodes in my life. I’m pretty sure I ended up worse in other people’s eyes than he did.
So how do we respect, honour, give space to those with whom we might very deeply disagree? How do we avoid getting sucked into a level of verbal abuse which now seems to have been given a green light from so many public figures? None of us are immune from the corrosive effect of that sort of language on others or ourselves.
Leonard Swidler is Professor of Catholic Thought at Temple University in Philadelphia. Much of his professional career has been devoted to promoting dialogue between different religious groups. In that context, he drew up what he called his ‘Ten Commandments for religious dialogue.’ He might have been writing about religious dialogue, but many of those ‘Ten Commandments’ apply to any civil discourse between people. (https://www.gvsu.edu/cms4/asset/843249C9-B1E5-BD47-A25EDBC68363B726/dialoguedecalogue.pdf)
One of them reminds us not to confuse ideals with everyday practice. For we tend to judge ourselves by our highest ideals – which are seldom translated into practice; but when we look at others we tend to look at their practice which so often falls short – just as ours does – of their ideals.
Another of his commandments looks at how we speak about each other. There can be no real dialogue, he suggests, if I cannot recognise myself in the way you describe me or if the other cannot recognise themselves in how I describe them. This bedevils the Israel-Palestinian debate, for example. Many Israelis see every Palestinian as a would-be terrorist; many Palestinians see every Israeli as hell-bent on keeping them subjugated. Neither view is of course matched by reality. But when that is how we see the other, what real conversation can there be between us?
Participants in dialogue, Swidler suggests, should have a healthy level of criticism towards their own tradition, philosophy, standpoint. Many years ago, Pelican books – the non-fiction branch of Penguin Books – ran a wonderful series called ‘Objections to…’: ‘Objections to Christianity,’ ‘to Psychoanalysis,’ ‘to Humanism’, and so on. Each had a number of essays around that theme. What made them special, though, was that they were written not by critics from the outside but by ‘practitioners,’ as it were. So, for example, psychoanalysts wrote the essays in ‘Objections to Psychoanalysis,’ humanists the ones in ‘Objections to Humanism’ and so on. After all, the best critics of a philosophy, a religion, a political approach, are those in that system. They know it intimately, from the inside, in a way no uninvolved outsider ever can.
The Amidah always begins with a verse from a Psalm (51:17): Adonai s’fatai tiftach ufi yaggid t’hilatecha My God, open lips and my mouth shall declare Your praise. While most of our prayers are communal, in the 1st person plural, Adonai s’fatai tiftach is in 1st person singular. Traditionally it’s to be said silently; it’s a very personal kavannah. For what is “God, open my lips” actually saying? Presumably something like “God, help me find the right words; may they be real, truthful, from my heart and not just the mouthing of empty words and phrases.”
Earlier today we sang a verse from another psalm: Mi ha’ish asher he’chafetz chayyim, “who is the person who desires life?” (Psalm 34:13-14) The Psalmist responds in a sort of elliptical way, elliptical because it’s not an immediately obvious answer to the question – n’tsor l’shonecha meira us’fatecha midabber mirmah. “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies.” We say a version of it to end the Amidah, but it’s been transposed from 1st person plural to 1st person singular: Elohai, n’tsor l’shoni meira. “My God, keep my tongue from causing harm and my lips from telling lies.”
So our tradition brackets the Amidah with these two verses, both in 1st person singular, both saying something about the words we use, implicitly reminding us they can be used for good or for harm.
The tongue, suggests a midrash, can hurt somebody in at least two ways: as with a sword or with an arrow. But aren’t they the same,” it asks, “both can kill?” Not at all, comes the answer. You can draw your sword to hurt somebody but they might beg for mercy, or you might have second thoughts. In any case, you can put the sword back in its sheath. But the arrow, once released, has gone, and you can’t get it back. (Midrash Tehilim 120.2) So too with our words.
In 1992, Amos Oz was awarded the International Peace Prize of the German Publisher’s Association. In his acceptance speech he said:
I constantly remind myself that telling good from evil is relatively easy. The real moral challenge is to distinguish between different shades of grey; ….. to differentiate between bad and worse and worst. …. there is a ceaseless struggle against the degradation of language, against the perpetuation of stereotypes, racism and intolerance, against the celebration of violence.”
[Israel, Palestine and Peace: Essays, Vintage Books, London 1994, pp68/69, 76)
That speech was given 30 years ago. Maybe it was ever so – but words in our time seem to be seldom only words. None of us is immune from launching them off like arrows, unable to be recalled, their damage done.
Yihyu l’ratson imrei fi, “may the words of our mouths be acceptable” not just to You, God, but, maybe even more importantly, acceptable to us, words we can live with in our hearts.