Shabbat Sermon: Two wise men – Barak Obama and musical humorist Tom Lehrer (Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 22 December 2019

Two wise men – Barak Obama and musical humorist Tom Lehrer:

Obama in 2016:

If you had to choose a moment in history to be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you would be—you didn’t know whether you were going to be born into a wealthy family or a poor family, what country you’d be born in, whether you were going to be a man or a woman—if you had to choose blindly what moment you’d want to be born, you’d choose now.—Barack Obama, 2016


And Tom Lehrer:

Always predict the worst, and you’ll be hailed as a prophet,”


How do we know which is right? Show me the data!


In one of my favourite books, Factfulness, Hans Rosling shows that we’re terrible at assessing whether the world is getting better or worse – the vast majority of us think the world is getting worse. It isn’t. It’s much much better – and shown to be better with data. Rosling’s team has carried out extensive research. They asked whether levels of extreme poverty, girls’ access to schooling, health care such as child vaccinations are improving or deteriorating.


Every single group got all the answers wrong except to climate change which we recognize. As he says, “Every group of people I ask thinks the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless—in short, more dramatic—than it really is.”

We think that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer; and the number of poor just keeps increasing; and we will soon run out of resources unless we do something drastic.

Rosling calls this “the overdramatic worldview. It’s stressful and misleading.”


The data shows that the vast majority of the world’s population lives somewhere in the middle of the income scale. Perhaps they are not what we think of as middle class, but they are not living in extreme poverty. Their girls go to school, their children get vaccinated, they live in two-child families, and they want to go abroad on holiday, not as refugees. Step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving. Not on every single measure every single year, but as a rule. Though the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress. This is the fact-based worldview.”


But there’s a reason that we’re drawn to the overdramatic worldview and that we’re notice the most dramatic and negative answers. It’s the way our brains work – “We are hard-wired with instincts that helped our ancestors to survive in small groups of hunters and gatherers. Our brains often jump to swift conclusions without much thinking, which used to help us to avoid immediate dangers… This overdramatic worldview is so difficult to shift because it comes from the very way our brains work.”


Psychologists know that we respond 6x more to negativity than positivity and we can see this with online reactions to posts.


So let’s enter Chanukah and carry out our responsibility, our commandment, mitzvah, to enjoy our festivals by shifting the way our brains respond. Let’s look at progress not to congratulate ourselves or but to identifying the causes of success so we can do more of what works.

Let’s shine a light on each fact-based global improvement – one for each day of Chanukah


  1. Global Poverty – candle


Over the past twenty years, the proportion of the global population living in extreme poverty has halved


85% of humans live in the “developed world” box. People are richer, less extreme poverty. 75% of people live in middle income countries


There is not a single country in the world where infant or child mortality today is not lower than it was in 1950.


In the past 200 years the rate of global extreme poverty has tanked from 90 percent to 10, with almost half that decline occurring in the last thirty-five years.


The Oxford economist, Max Roser points out that if news outlets truly reported the changing state of the world, they could have run the headline NUMBER OF PEOPLE IN EXTREME POVERTY FELL BY 137,000 SINCE YESTERDAY every day for the last twenty-five years.

This has a great knock on effect because when people are more financially stable and better educated, they care more about the environment, they work out how to protect it, and are more able to pay the costs.



  1. Gender candle in honour of Dina (and all those people called Aviva in her family)


Our new parliament has more women than ever before – over a third. These women are remarkably resilient in their response to an increase in abuse directed a female MPs.


Five of the six favourites to be next leader of labour are women.


There is equality legislation that I’m proud to say my late father helped to bring in which protects racial minorities. There was a recent article in the Jewish Chronicle which many felt that was Islamophobic and the level of solidarity between Jews and Muslims this week has been fabulous.

Best example is antisemitism.

Even though the levels of antisemitism have risen – return to the data which shows that we are one of the least anti semitic countries in the world. Look at the data from the Jewish Policy Institute – less than 5% of the country could be seen a being anti-Semites. Differentiate between our feelings which are off the scale frightened, particularly when the leadership of the Labour Party responded to abysmally to concerns.


In a historical period, just a few heartbeats away from the holocaust. I feel lucky. We have loads and loads of allys and also, most people in the Uk either feel positive about Jews or simply don’t notice us which is great!


  1. Democracy

2001 – the election was noted for voter apathy, with turnout falling to 59.4%. This election and the last – increased to around 70%.


In Britain, extreme parties don’t gain seats. Antisemitism in the Labour party was a factor in the final vote and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission are responding to the submission on the Labour Party and anti-Semitism.


  1. Life expectancy


81 years in UK. (79/83)  Males born in 1841 could expect to live to only 40.2 years and females to 42.2 years


  1. LGBT+ (just the fact you probably know the letters is progress – Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and trans people and other identifications).


Same sex marriage or “equal marriage” exists across the whole of the United Kingdom. We live in a beacon of LGBT+ rights, and can be proud of Israel’s record too.



  1. Jewish life


Thriving in UK – people aren’t leaving. We’re back up to 42 communities! I’m off to Limmud tomorrow – Jewish film festival, JW3 and our communities. Came to the UK 20 years ago, the vast majority of communities were flagging and bland and boring. Now the clergy are committed to learning, growing, changing and many of them are beacons of change. Look at a Shabbat here!


  1. You at Chanukah? Our responsibility – shine a light on what’s true and what’s not? Ask for the data. Ask how gathered. Be the light – in data we trust!


Let’s shine those Chanukah lights of next week on what works. Let’s do more of what works.

Chag Chanukah sameach, shabbat shalom