Thought Of The Week: 17 November 2016

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 16 November 2016

When we were both younger and, maybe, didn’t need our sleep so much, I would often phone one of my colleagues in the early hours of Friday morning and ask, “what are you preaching about this Shabbat?” If there had been some major event in the news we would ask: “how can we not speak about it? Surely our congregants will be bringing it with them into the synagogue and expect a word from us about it.” Yet we would also reflect: “but just what is there to say, Jewishly, sermonically, about it?”

One of my colleagues spoke this morning about the “tumultuous times that we’re living in.” Yet we have lived through such times before. But what’s been happening since the referendum feels like something quite different, in a class of its own. Whatever we might feel about Brexit, it’s left us in a state of uncertainty and insecurity – and that feels like something new. We have no idea what the long-term effects will mean for us, as a country, individually, and, as Jews. Some dark forces have been unleashed which seem to have enabled the coming to the surface of some unpleasant strands of isolationism, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, intolerance and the like. Such things now seem to have a hechsher, a seal of (unkosher) approval. The hunt for the scapegoat. Strong on what’s wrong with society and who’s to blame for it but less strong on what needs to be done to improve things.

And it the uncertainty generated by the referendum vote wasn’t enough, we now have the outcome of the Presidential election to take on board. Both votes, then, have created anxiety about a future which has so many question marks and uncertainties in it. I have a sense of something quite strange going on, a rejection of things that I feel go towards making a civil society.

There has been talk of a ‘retreat from liberal (with a small ell) values.’ What are these ‘liberal values’? I believe that many of them reflect some very basic Jewish teachings.

“Liberals believe individuals should doubt their own truths and consider fairly and open-mindedly the truths of others.” (Geoffrey Stone, Professor of Law, University of Chicago) The Jewish expression of that is eilu v’eilu divrei elohim chayyim: “these and these are the words of the living God.” Eilu v’eilu also means understanding that difference is not merely good, but is, indeed, something to be celebrated. Nobody has a monopoly on the truth.

Liberal values argue that caring for those less fortunate in society is a moral imperative on all who are not in that situation. Jewish words for that would be ahavah, love; tzedakah, justice and charity; caring for the stranger because we know the heart of the stranger, we’ve been in that place. Liberal values would assert the right of an individual to choose their path, as long as doing so doesn’t come into conflict with or restrict the rights of others to follow theirs. That would certainly be a keystone of Progressive Jewish values.

In the past six months we have witnessed changes whose impact and consequences, not surprisingly, we can barely comprehend. What these seismic changes have done is to make us ask ourselves “who are we? What values do we hold on to? What is important in our lives?”

Maybe what we are witnessing has something to do with Fundamentalism. The point about fundamentalism is not so much that it interprets the Bible literally (which, of course, it often does) but that it sees things in terms of black and white, good or bad. In this view, contemporary society is invariably wicked and corrupt, in a state of moral and spiritual decay. The solution is a retreat into an idealised past which is, nostalgically, believed to have been pure and pristine, a world which is safe and secure, where people knew “what’s what,” where values were clear, straightforward and accepted by all. Life was so much less complicated – apparently. That is the appeal of illiberal demagogues – the attractive panacea they offer for all our ills is a return to an idyllic past, confidently striding into the future, backward step by backward step.