Wednesday, 15 Aug 2012

Written by Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh

If anyone comes to public worship and leaves with the feeling that they have got nothing out of it, let them ask:  Did I bring anything to it?  Most often the answer to the second will supply the cause of the first.  A stubborn heart, a rebellious heart, a cold heart that cherishes its coldness, a critical mind that looks for objects of criticism, will not profit.  It is true of public worship in a high degree that only they receive who give.  The influence of public worship, like that of electricity, is felt only where there is a capacity for receiving it.  Stone and ice are spiritual non-conductors.

                            [Israel I Mattuck, SoH, p.9]

Those words, written by the great Lithuanian born rabbi, Israel I Mattuck, who served the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood from 1912 until his death in the mid-1950s, were part of an introduction he wrote for the Liberal Jewish Prayer Book which was published in 1937.  Ponder that date for a moment and you will realise that the times in which Mattuck wrote his words were not those of peace and security, of stability and calm, but a matter of 19 years since the ending of the First World War, less than a decade after the Great Depression, a mere four years after the accession to the German Chancellorship of Adolf Hitler, and two years after the promulgation of Germany’s vicious Nuremberg Laws.

This should not have been a time of cynicism about religion, for hard and threatening times usually encourage a return to faith, but clearly Mattuck felt that there was still plenty of scepticism around, plenty of emotional distance and spiritual close-mindedness, and so he wrote his salutary words.

What, we might well wonder, would he have written if it had been 2007, even more 2012, a time of deep-rooted secularism and hostility to organised religion, a time of rampaging and glorious scientific achievement vying with religions that all too often seem to add little value to human life, a period of utter apathy at best to the very idea of a deity and of contemptuous dismissive atheism at worst?

This Shabbat we coincides with Rosh Chodesh Elul, the new month of Elul; it is a month whose significance and value has begun only recently to impinge seriously upon the consciousness of all but the most orthoprax of Jews, but which cannot easily or rightly be ignored by those who live their lives within the continuum of both the secular and Jewish calendar.

Because the purpose of Elul is to help us prepare for the High Holy Days that follow it, and if our preparation – spiritual, emotional and intellectual – is good, and genuine, and deep, and sincere – then what we will get from those most solemn of services could be hugely enriching.  Each day of Elul we can focus on a different aspect of our lives, consider it, review it, and try to recall the level of our performance; it may well be that we will conclude that, honestly, we haven’t done too badly, that broadly speaking we were on the right track, and with a little more attention we could achieve even more in the year to come.  That is fine:  ‘could do better’ in adult life needn’t have the same dismissive quality that those of us who received that phrase in school reports associate with it!

But in other areas there can be little doubt that we will find much to regret, to be saddened, even ashamed by, or to shudder inwardly over, when we recall words or actions that should have been beneath us.  Now some may feel that this sort of self-examination is almost masochistic, because all it does is cause damage; but if you think that it only means that you have the process right but the intention wrong.  The purpose of this introspection is self-improvement, it only becomes masochistic if we wallow in self-abasement and loathing.

Sadly, in the 21st century, we find it hard to think coolly and rationally about ourselves; like many in society there is very little in our behaviour that gives us serious pause for thought, very little that we cannot excuse, lay at the door of other people, or circumstances, or that multi-valent justification, always uttered with a shrug – ‘life’!!  We get no lead from public figures in this regard, for they are often the worst obfuscators of all, and the higher they get the more they seem to regard the laws that govern the lives of other men and women not to apply to them.  For public figures to apologise, let alone resign these days, they have to be so completely skewered by a bad press that they have no other choice, and if we look for role models there we will be hard-pressed.

Yet our tradition is rich in instruction and guidance to us in such circumstances: if we go a little way towards God, say the Sages, God will draw even nearer to us.  One good deed inevitably causes another, and one bad deed acts just the same. Wrongdoing starts out like a spider’s thread, frail, a wil ‘o the whisp, but after a long and sustained period of wrongdoing it becomes like chains made of the most toughened steel.

If we start in Elul to subject ourselves to constructive self-improvement then the High Holy Days will represent the apotheosis of the project, the logical conclusion of a month-long process; the chances that they will be spiritually meaningful are multiplied many times over, and the more meaningful they are the more likely are we to repeat the process next year.

It was a recognition of the potential in Elul, and the need to raise its profile for many Progressive Jews, that motivated my colleague Andrew Goldstein and me to compile our anthology of readings for Elul and the Days of Awe called High and Holy Days, a book of Jewish Wisdom [SCM, 2010].  Knowing the challenge of directing our own minds inwards we set out to identify a number of areas on which we could focus, like Hope, Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Personal Responsibility, Self-Examination, Human Nature, Human Suffering, Sin and Repentance, and placed texts under those titles that were designed to provoke and stimulate our thoughts in the right direction at the start of the Penitential Season.

As befits those known by the title of Ahl al-Kitab, the People of the Book, we felt that texts provided as sure a means as any to sharpen minds and channel concentration in precisely the ways they should be directed at this time.  For those who have become distanced from the rich range of material in the Jewish literary heritage, and whose sense of an inner spiritual self may be weaker than was the case in past generations, it is through guided text study that many can find the key to some of the struggles they may have had in the past year, find the answer to moving on from bad thoughts and regrettable behaviour and even, perhaps, to feel and see glimmers of the divine.

We found that the gathering of this material was in itself a spiritual exercise as well as a practical one, and that living with the material as we did for several years embedded its ideas in our minds. We all need to improve ourselves, we can all do better, we can all build on the best that has gone before and diminish if not wholly eradicate those aspects of our character which cause us the greatest pain and are the source of our greatest regrets.

One text in particular, for me encapsulates all the rest, and it is this with which I will conclude:

Today we stand before the Mirror of All to see ourselves as we really are.
We come with no gifts, no bribes, no illusions, no more excuses.
We stand without defence and wait to be filled.
What will fill us?
Remorse, certainly. So much error and needless pain.
And joy: remembered moments of love and right doing.
We are too complex for single-sided emotions.
And we are too simple to be excused by our complexity.
Let us be bold enough to see, humble enough to feel, daring enough to turn
and embrace the way of justice, mercy, and simplicity.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro

Rabbi Dr Charles H Middleburgh
August 2012

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.