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Etz Chayim – the ‘Tree of Life’ – is the Hebrew name of Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue.
Bar Mitzvah Jonathan Grout
This morning’s parashah is so vital to us as Liberal Jews, that we read it now and at one of our highest ritual moments of the year, on Yom Kippur afternoon. It questions and challenges: What does it mean to be holy? How can we imitate God? It responds by suggesting that it is by the healthiest combination of ritual – the acknowledgment or the Divine and our purest ethical behavior towards one another that we might attain holiness.
But is that possible. I think that there is a distinction to be drawn between imitating God and making our best human, mortal attempt to follow the precepts that we might hold were written down by our ancient ancestors and all those since, inspired by their love of God and humanity.
Perhaps this is hinted at in what has become known as ‘The Golden Rule’ that Jonathan read for us this morning: “V’ahavta l’rei-acha kamocha - Love your fellow as yourself.”
There are various versions of this that polemicists have used to suggest that one might be higher than the other. Hillel, at the beginning of the Common Era, when asked to sum up the entire Torah, replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” Putting the positive spin ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you (Matthew 7:12).” Yet when we consider these aphorisms, they are anchored still in our verse Leviticus 19:18 and verse 34 that qualifies it: “The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Read as an attempt to imitate God it makes complete sense, “V’ahavta l’rei-acha kamocha - Love your fellow as yourself,” but we require the qualification of verse 34 also those who are not from your family or People because the sense of rei-acha is actually to love your fellow ‘Israelite.’ This makes sense as our mortal attempt to follow the precepts that we might hold were written down by our ancient ancestors and all those since, inspired by their love of God and humanity.
For is it realistic for us to be commanded to love and is it realistic to be commanded to love those outside of our sphere of intimacy? Our deep connection to the atrocities in Boston this week illustrate this aspect of our humanity, for we were not so moved by the atrocities committed on the same day that killed, maimed and tragically altered many more lives in areas of the globe that we do not share the same affinity – Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria.
Nachmanides writing in thirteenth century Spain, “regarded the language as rhetorical exaggeration. Our nature is such that we cannot love others as much as ourselves; and the halachah (Jewish Law) does not obligate us to sacrifice our lives for others.“ Gunther Plaut suggests that, “This commandment, Nachmanides asserts, calls on us to love others as we love good for ourselves. We should free ourselves from jealously and rejoice in our fellow’s (for him fellow did mean, ‘Jew’s’) good fortune. But we should not tolerate injustice in the name of ill-considered love.”
Even “Love your fellow [Israelite] as yourself” might prove hard for us at times. On a quite magnificent BBC 2 programme this week ‘Israel: Facing the Future’ -that I urge you to watch if you have not already seen it, for unusually and wonderfully positive reasons in terms of journalism regarding Israel and Palestine – I was struck by the use of language that now I come to think of it, has become increasingly common: The use of the word ‘Settler’ to denote a Jew whose lives on the West Bank. There was even a distinction between a ‘Settler’ who lives in one of the main settlement blocs that, if please God a peace settlement is ever reached, will be counted as Israel; and those who are considered ‘extremist Settlers,’ in Hebron and outposts illegal even under Israeli Law. These people were not called Israelis, but ‘Settlers.’
And in that same programme and more generally, there is a distinction made between Muslims and Islam, and ‘Islamist’ and ‘Islamism:’ The latter introduced to denote those who use Islam as a justification for the subjugation of minorities and the ‘other’ and are prepared to kill and maim to further their perverted philosophy. Perhaps these new nomenclatures accord with Nachmanides’ assertion: “to love others as we love good for ourselves. We should free ourselves from jealously and rejoice in our fellow’s good fortune. But we should not tolerate injustice in the name of ill-considered love.”
What then do we do with situations where an individual divides public opinion as dramatically as Lady Thatcher did, for in her was a character who was loved and hated. Although the term ‘Thatcherism’ was coined after her, I do not know of anyone called a ‘Thatcherist’ – indeed my spellcheck accepts Thatcherism but not Thatcherist!
I was struck by the funeral arrangements for Lady Thatcher and found Matthew Parris, writing in The Times similarly bemused. He wrote far more eloquently than I can and so I unapologetically quote at length:
“What a very odd country we are. Of all the nations on Earth, you would suppose the hidebound, traditionalist, conservative, undemonstrative, do-it-by-the- book British would have a set procedure for the death of previous prime ministers, designed to curb the enthusiasms of political factions…In particular (I suggest) there would be inbuilt restraint against surges of support for, or hostility towards, particular deceased politicians. The ceremony would be in the first instance ex officio: for anyone who had held the office. Those things that are a matter of opinion would be carefully distinguished from those things that flow from the fact of office.
Then Lady Thatcher — who was certainly a vastly important former prime minister — dies after many years of frailty ... and what happens? We forget precedent and are overwhelmed by sentiment. The state broadcasting corporation goes wall-to-wall. A new form of state occasion, a non-state funeral but with full military honours (whatever that may mean) appears to have been invented overnight…
I adored Margaret Thatcher. For what it’s worth I believe she was our greatest peacetime prime minister since Gladstone and Disraeli…But her legacy would still be bitterly disputed by millions — not least in Scotland, Wales and the English Midlands and North, whose voices in the media tend to be swamped by us southerners. And I cannot help feeling just a twinge of discomfort for the doubters: that part of our country — as much as a third of the population — feeling a bit flattened by this Force 10 gale of respect...”
Does this funeral set the precedent? Do we accord the same set of guidelines for the funerals of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and any future Prime Minister? And what of celebrities who have endeared themselves to a large portion of the population? Surely not for David Beckham or Helen Mirren?
I am not sure that this funeral has helped those in power to show humility for their position. I am not convinced that it did anything to uphold the value of each and every citizen of this country, for that, when she died, was what Lady Thatcher was. Whilst I am sure that those who revered her might demur, I do not think it actually helped those who sought to “V’ahavta l’rei-acha kamocha - Love your fellow as yourself,” and it certainly did not provide space for those struggling not to hate someone whose politics detrimentally, deeply affected their lives.
As we seek in life to emulate God or at least to make our best human, mortal attempt to follow the precepts that we might hold were written down by our ancient ancestors and all those since, inspired by their love of God and humanity: Let us seek ways in which we can love and also ways in which we keep ourselves far from hate. Let ritual moments such as this, allow us the space and time for deep contemplation, so that we might achieve humility and self-respect in our lives for having accorded such honour to others.
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