We often praise the marvellous diversity of Brighton. It is an extraordinary tolerant city with a multicultural and very diverse population. Unfortunately this population includes a share of idiots and of anti-Semites, plus the various, numerous, intersections between the two groups. I had the non pleasant experience of meeting with one of those idiots during one of the lowest moments of the whole balagan regarding the Sodastream shop. He misunderstood, on purpose, the plurality of the Jewish religion, the existence of different denominations, in order to caricaturise our faith.
“Tell me” he reproached me with a bullying voice “what has an ultra orthodox Jew living in Jerusalem with 16 children have in common with a New York Rabbi who officiates same sex marriages?” Isn’t it funny how certain people, when they want to talk about religion, they only think of sex? Anyway, the tirade went on “You have nothing in common, apart from the feeling of superiority, the presumption of being a chosen people. Yours is not a religion, it is a racist doctrine!”
This idiotic anti-Jewish bully was obviously against Israel. He thought it was a racist colonialist State. And from the privileged point of view of his narrow mind he looked with suspicion to the plurality of Jewish culture, the fact that we Jews have lived everywhere, in two thousand years of history, but at the same time we have managed to keep our identity and have resisted assimilation. He really did not get the plurality of Jewish religion, which, admittedly, is somehow peculiar.
Christianity and Islam, the other two major monotheistic religions, have been founded by specific people; Jesus & Mohammad. These two guys have lived in specific places, in certain moments of history. And indeed, Christians and Muslims base their own religious calendar, the calculation of time, on the life of these two personalities. For the Muslims we are in the year 1438, because 1438 years ago their founder journeyed between two very important cities. According to the Christian calendar, this year is 2017 because… well, I don’t think I have to explain why.
But why are we Jews in 5778, beginning from today? You see, there is no historical event, or historical personality, at the foundation of our calendar. The Rabbis connect this day to the Creation. But the date of Creation is not in the Torah, so we have a difference of opinions whether Rosh haShana is the anniversary of the creation of the world, or of the creation of the human being. Again, that plurality of legitimate religious opinions which infuriates the above mentioned idiots and anti-Semites. “You Jews, you don’t even know what you are supposed to celebrate.”
Without taking into consideration these sorts of remarks, it must be said that it is difficult to connect emotionally and spiritually to a day such as today. It’s true, we do not immediately know what we celebrate on Rosh haShana. We celebrate Creation, the beginning of Time and Space. We do teshuvah. We try to close old disputes between ourselves. We put the foundations in order to become better people in future. In other words, we celebrate the passing of time.
And our society has a strange relationship with the passing of time. We live in a sort of eternal present. The vast majority of people portrayed in the movies, seem to be between 20s and 30s. Advertising clothing and food, which is the majority of adverts, targets consumers in their 20s. On TV everybody is young and few people get old. An eternal present indeed. Social media also makes you believe you live in an eternal present. There is no room for the past on Twitter. You just write down what you are thinking right now, what amuses you, what infuriates you, now, in this moment. Not so different on Facebook and Instagram. You write a few lines and take a photo of where and what you are doing right now, in this moment. Both these social medias have now introduced a feature call “My story” that is only a snapshot of usually ten minutes, in which you can tell about your past, but again, it is basically what you are doing and thinking right now.
On various social media’s timelines everything, no matter how far you go back in time, everything is written at the present tense. Contrary to a novel, and stories, and literatures, there is no past, only an eternal present. The feeling of displacement, of disorienting, is very deep. Life is not an eternal present. Our life, our real life is always different from that thing that is portrayed on TV and that we find in social media. In real life there is no eternal present tense. We fall in love, and then our love grows. We ourselves grow up, get old. Our children and grandchildren themselves, they grow up and change. No one remains a 20 year old forever. The contrast between real life and the eternal present which seems to be the time of contemporary life is frightening. Some take refuge by imagining an idealised past, when time did not fly, and people were more kind and respectful, more compassionate even and certainly more religious.
This sort of nostalgia for an idealised past is common to all religions and cultures, and our own it is not an exception. We all feel disoriented for the pace of contemporary life, and for this sort of eternal present. So you have English Christians who delude themselves that they can put the clock back to the Victorian times. And you have Muslims who tragically believe to the existence of triumphant Caliphate in the Middle Ages, (an historical nonsense by the way, never existed), which some of them want to re-instate.
So you have in our ranks, people who dream of a socialist Israel, whose inhabitants were all from Russia or Poland, and each evening danced the hora, after a day spent tilling the soil. While now, Israel is a leading start up nation, half of the population is of Middle Eastern background, and your average kibbutz is now more market oriented than many American companies.
There is another way of deluding themselves about an idealised past, to take refuge from the anxieties of the contemporary world. And it is figuring out an idealised Eastern European shtetl, where everyone was scrupulously observant of every kind of mitzvah, under the benevolent supervision of very pious and erudite Rabbis. Historians have long since demolished this idealised portrayed of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, which was more a creation of the author of Fiddler on the Roof than historical reality. But, yet, especially in the USA, the ultra orthodox push the global Jewish world towards that direction. They want to rebuild the shtetl, an idealised, never existed, shtetl, in the very capitals of the Diaspora, such as New York or London.
I am not lumping different phenomenon under the same category. I know that this nostalgia for the shtetl is different from the belief in the Caliphate, common among certain Muslims, or the nostalgia for the Empire in which certain politicians seem to indulge. But the psychological reasons, the driving factors that make people delude in these tales, are the same. Anxiety, fear, displacement. Need for certainties. Especially religious certainties. You see how these two extremes are related. The eternal present we are supposed to live in. And the delusion of an idealised past which is the refuge many people look for.
Is there an alternative? I believe there is. And Rosh haShana, shows us that there is. As I have said before, according to malevolent critics we Jews don’t know what we celebrate on Rosh ha Shana. Let me rephrase this malevolent observation. On Rosh ha Shana we celebrate several different things.
According to some Rabbis we celebrate the creation of the world, of space and time. Hence the Shofar, with his primeval sound. According to the majority of Rabbis we celebrate the creation of the human being, the one and only creature able to calculate time, to have knowledge of time, hence the act of sounding the Shofar, which only human beings can do. According to Jewish philosophers, on Rosh haShana we do teshuva. We focus on our own mistakes and try to improve and change and become better people. That is we help God to create ourselves, to make us more similar to the idea that God had in mind when the human being was created. Hence the custom of wishing each other Shana Tova uMetuka, good and sweet new year, may this process of repentance bring you to a more pleasant and sweet life. And to bring this sweetness into our houses we eat honey cake, apple and honey and sweet challah. Which are obviously tasty, but also they are symbols and good wishes for a better, sweet and tasty future.
That is, to me, the real alternative to the twin neurosis of the eternal present and of the idealised past. A living tradition which includes the magnificent history of the Creation of the Universe, the noble portrait of human nature as created by God and able to change and improve with the teshuvah. And, most important, able to look at the future with hope and sweetness; a sweetness that you don’t find on social media and a hope you don’t find in an idealised past.
Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue, Rosh haShana 5778