Shabbat Shuva 5780 Sermon by Dr Rabbi Kahn-Harris

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 7 October 2019

Among other things, I spent the summer watching season 3 of Stranger Things with my teenage children. Aside from the sheer pleasure of it as highly entertaining, well-acted and well-written television, Stranger Things has the added benefit of helping me and many parents of my age bracket breach the generational gap between ourselves and our children. And as someone who was raised in America, albeit less Midwestern than the setting of the programme, it’s a good primer overall for helping my children understand my teenage years. Stranger Things is just about everything I remember about my formative years bar one glaring hole, which is hardly ever mentioned except in passing – the imminent, or so we thought, threat of nuclear war and annihilation.

Living through the Reagan/Bush years permeated everything with a background layer of fear and anger. We had nuclear fallout shelters in my high school. We went on CND demonstrations. We wore peace symbols as fashion accessories. We watched teen idols accidentally hack into defence department computers in the movies and were sure that we were one small mistake away from nuclear winter and the wholesale destruction of the planet. Stranger Things may make the 80s look like a simpler time, but the truth is that the terror was always there, lurking. Maybe that’s what the upside down, the evil bit of the Stranger Things universe, truly represents.

In any case, I share this nostalgia of the 80s with you only to put into context what I want to say about the world today – I remember what it was to live through what felt then like the ‘interesting’ times of the old Chinese curse and I wish that today were merely that ‘interesting’. We are living in truly disturbing and unsettling times, even by the standards of nuclear anxiety.

I carry two passports, two citizenships, with a third option that I hold in reserve in the knowledge that I can always take it up it if necessary. In the USA, the country of my birth, and the land that is the supposed the leader of the free world, a formal impeachment inquiry has been started into the dealings of the President. In the UK, the country of my choosing, and still apparently the world’s 5th largest economy, the Supreme Court has ruled unanimously against the judgement of the sitting Prime Minister, while the leader of the opposition presides over a party seemingly pathologically incapable of dealing with anti-Semitism in its ranks. In Israel, the country of my heart, and the only Jewish country in the world, the longest serving Prime Minister in the nation’s history faces corruptions charges in the courts even as he struggles to cling onto power. I cannot remember a time in my lifetime when our political life has felt as grubby and divisive. The political wisdom of inhabiting the centre ground, of uniting people across their divisions in favour of national harmony, seems to have been tossed aside in a race to divide and conquer, to stoke tensions in an effort to galvanise one’s political base only, to double down – in the language of journalists – when faced with criticism of any sort, however reasonable or appropriate. More than ever it feels as though we are led by narcissists with limited, if any, capacity for empathy.

It would be so much easier if instead of doubling down, instead of coming up with forms of words devised by the spinniest of spin doctors, instead of finding ways of saying what they feel they have no need to apologise for, I would like to hear our leaders say, ‘Mea culpa, I was unequivocally wrong. I own my errors and I apologise to the people I lead and represent, who have the right to expect better of me.’ Instead we get politicians tying themselves in rhetorical knots to explain why day is night under some obscure and statistically irrelevant circumstances and night is, of course, sometimes day as well when looked at through a particularly squinty eyed lens that only they can actually see through.

Here we are in the midst of the Jewish season of self-reflection, the time when we are actually compelled to apologise for our mistakes, whether purposeful or accidental, whether through omission or commission, and on too many days it has felt to me, at least, as though the world around us is mocking this quaint religious tradition. Why apologise when you can contort and distort, when you can deflect, distract, and divert? Why apologise when you can simply assert what you do not need to apologise for and hope that nobody will notice the glaring lacunae in your words? Why risk the YouTube political death of a Nick Clegg style collection of apologies set to pop music? Why take responsibility when you can bluster and bluff and apologise, should you ever really feel the need, at some long distant point in the future when it might make for good book sales?

The Mishnah in tractate Yoma 8:9 tells us that

הָאוֹמֵר, אֶחֱטָא וְאָשׁוּב, אֶחֱטָא וְאָשׁוּב, אֵין מַסְפִּיקִין בְּיָדוֹ לַעֲשׂוֹת תְּשׁוּבָה.

One who says, “I will sin, and then repent, I will sin [again], and then repent,” will not receive an opportunity to repent.

The Mishnah warns us against the potential to become habituated to doing wrong. If we believe that we can simply sin and repent endlessly in the full knowledge that whatever we do wrong doesn’t really matter because, after all, we can always repent, we will always, so to speak, have Yom Kippur, then we are wrong. If repentance becomes a get out of jail free card, then it is no longer repentance, just an act of misdirection and misappropriation. Repentance in such a situation becomes no more than our politicians offer when they explain why they haven’t actually done anything wrong at all. Repentance transmogrifies into playacting, devoid of any real content, a ritualised action that has no meaning.

Perhaps you have remembered that Maimonides himself tells us in Mishneh Torah, Hilchut Teshuvah 1:3: ‘Even one who was an evildoer all his life but repented in the end, not a thing of the wickedness is held out against him…’ You might think that Maimonides statement is in direct contradiction to the Mishnah’s, but they are not in conflict. Maimonides speaks of genuine remorse, real acceptance of guilt, no matter when in life it comes. The Mishnah speaks of something entirely different – of the person who plays the system against itself, of the one who believes themselves to be above the Divine law, who thinks that they have figured out how to cheat the rules.

I would like to tell you that such people get what is coming to them in the end, but barring the ineffable hope that in some existence beyond death that may be the case, I don’t believe, in general, in Hollywood endings. Politics and religion are broadly poor bedfellows, but politics and morality ought to be inseparable friends. Yet, I fear too much of our public life is mired in a fear of seeming to be weak for acknowledging culpability, for appearing feeble for admitting responsibility when things go wrong. We live in an age of strongmen – and I do mean that in the gender specific way in which it is expressed – who do not even say to themselves that after they sin, they will repent. Such men simply repeat to themselves the mantra that they are incapable of doing wrong, that their cause or causes are so inescapably just that any actions or inactions that enable them to succeed must be inherently right.

Growing up in fear of the nuclear button, I never once thought that Reagan would push the button because he thought it was the right thing to do. I lived in fear that his increasing senility or an accident of some sort might result in mutually assured destruction as a defence turning into actual destruction.  I never liked Reagan or his politics, but I never thought he was an immoral man, just one with whom I didn’t agree. I wish could say the same today.

We may think that it’s all about Brexit or anti-Semitism or white nationalism or the politics of anti-immigration, anti-Arab, anti-LGBTQi, or ‘anti’ any other marginalised group in society. But to my mind, as we find ourselves here on Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of Return, the midway point between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this dangerous liminal moment in our calendar, the real question for me is about repentance. Are we capable not only personally, not only as a community, but also as a society, are we capable of acknowledging when we have done wrong and genuinely making recompense? Are we capable of granting the same humanity to our leaders without fear of what the ballot box will bring them? Strongmen or menschen?

In our prayers for the community, we ask not only that God bless our government, but more fundamentally we ask for God’s help that we may be good citizens working together for justice and peace. First and foremost, therefore, we must fulfil of our part of the citizenship bargain and ensure that we vote. But when the time next comes to vote – and it will surely be very soon – we must insist on helping to build a political culture that gives us a clear choice between strongmen and menschen, between the politics of divisiveness and the politics of consensus. We must not say as we head to the ballot box, I will hold my nose just this one time more when I vote and then I will feel guilty and ask for forgiveness later. For those who do, I fear that neither Yom Kippur nor any other day atones. In the immortal words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:

“…morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

We are responsible.