It is not always good to want Utopia
Rabbi David’s Kol Nidrei Sermon 5778
Utopias are dangerous things. Well obviously, living in utopia would be amazing. Having and experiencing moments of utopia would be sublime. And they happen. Moments of connection and intimacy. Places we visit. Holidays. Success at work, at university, at school. But they don’t depict the fullness of our life. Our lives are not utopian. They are simply our lives. We build them up minute by minute, day by day, year by year. We experience them. We become through them.
So why are utopias dangerous. Well they are dangerous when we are sold them as a dream and a tantalising destination. The American dream has got to be one of the most hackneyed utopias of recent years. Dreams such as this can be financial in their aspiration. What about the dream of the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. Israel is the state for the Jewish people, our only state on earth. But utopia – I don’t think so. Sell the utopian story to people – and what happens when they realise that what they find there is complicated, messy, life. Moments of utopia – yes. But a life full of utopia – not really.
In fact, last year I finished my MA in Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies and my Dissertation topic was on modern Rabbinic approaches to radical messianism. The settler movement is characterised by this messianic utopian approach. Much has been written about how the existence of the State of Israel and the capturing of lands in the 6 Day War, led many to believe that we were at the beginning of a redemptive messianic period. It is here everyone – we need to hold on to all the land we can. We need to conquer the land as we are commanded in the Torah and we need to ensure that no other sovereignty exists across the land of Israel. Those were the utopian clarion calls of the settler movement which was founded in 1974. The utopia is here, it is upon us – we are returning to bond with the land, and nothing will get in our way. But what if this utopian model is way in front and ahead of where most other Israelis are. What if those others inconveniently get in the way as they don’t see Israel as a redemptive entity, rather a democratic, pluralist, modern nation state. So, I found a handful of Rabbis who reacted to the radical messianic approach as they saw its destructive side. These Rabbis were no liberals I should add. But they just noticed Jewish values of righteousness and justice. They respected the relationship of the new State with other nations of the world.
So pushing for utopia, when the reality is more murky and complicated, can be seriously damaging. It can be damaging on a personal level, to mental health. If you sell someone a religious life which you describe as constantly full of beauty. What will happen when the life they lead as a religious Jew does not tally with that. It can be damaging on a political level to the civic relationships within a country. At its worst, as with for instance radical Islamist jihadist terror, it can lead to a cult of death in the name of the bringing about of a supposed utopian order.
I was really excited recently, to find a model for this problem of forcing the end, this building of false utopias. It is in the works of the French thinker Bernard Henri Levi, in his book ‘The Genius of Judaism’ and he bases it on the Book of Jonah, one of what we call the “Minor Prophets”. They are minor not because they are less important, more because they are small books, 14 of them, smaller than the great works of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Let us briefly recap Jonah, which we will be reading as the haftarah, the additional reading to the Torah reading at the Yom Kippur afternoon service. Jonah is asked by God to go to ‘the great city’ Nineveh and prophesise its impending destruction if the city does not repent its ways. This is quite unique really within the canon of books that make up the Jewish Bible, the Tanach. Jonah attempts to flee from God, and instead of going to Nineveh, which is in modern day Iraq, gets in a boat that heads for Tarshish, which some say is modern day Gibraltar. He proceeds to go down to the base of the boat and sleep. The sailors realise something is up as the boat ends up in serious danger at sea. It becomes clear that Jonah is the reason that the boat is in such danger, so he is required to be thrown overboard. In the sea, as we famously know, he is swallowed up by a large fish – I should add that the book does not say whale. This fish contains Jonah inside for 3 days and actually, both saves Jonah miraculously from a watery death – and allows Jonah to pray. Jonah now hearkens to Gods word and travels to Nineveh to deliver the warning. The town seems to heed this warning, repent and its people are of course saved. Bernard Henri Levi makes it clear here that Jonah may well have known that the town of Nineveh may in the future attack the Jewish people in Israel as head of the Assyrian empire and then exile the northern tribes. Saving the town was not a simple thing therefore for Jonah to do. But he does, and the book could have ended there. But we are then told that when Jonah sits watching the town from afar, he is shaded by a castor oil plant called a kikayon in Hebrew, whose leaves acted as shade. He is happy about this as the day is hot. At night, however, a worm destroys the plant and he is of course extremely distressed and depressed. He expresses this low mood to God who responds: ‘You took pity on the kikayon, for which you did not labour and make grow and which came over night and perished overnight. And I – shall I not take pity on Nineveh that great city, in which there are more than one hundred thousand people who do not know their right from their left, and many animals as well?’
So the classic way to understand this, is as a clear statement that our God is a merciful God – and Jonah does not understand this. The withering of the kikayon plant is to teach him that lesson. But Levi notes one or two really fascinating things. First, when God talks to Jonah about Nineveh at the end of the book, after they have repented from their ways, he describes them as not knowing between their right and left. In other words, Jonah’s worry was that this whole thing would be a sham. He will go and warn the people. They will on the face of it repent – but not for long as they will eventually return to their ways – they will return to not knowing morally between right and left. What an embarrassment that would be. In fact, only a bleeding heart liberal minded person would give Nineveh any chance at all. Levi does something even better in my mind to Nineveh. He notes that Jonah needed shade from the castor oil plant and so was depressed that the shade was taken from him. Levi therefore postulated that God in some way would want shade from Nineveh, a parallel to Jonah that would make sense of what God says to him. Of course, God does not need something such as shade, from his creation. And what could be the comparison between the shade of a shrub and the great city of Nineveh. Here are the beautifully chosen words of Bernard Henri Levi:
‘For one must, if one follows the text, accept simultaneously that God is all light, that if it were up to him alone, his light would flood the world…and dispel every shadow but that would not be good as God needs, yes, a shadow that prevents him, at least for the moment from spreading his light throughout the universe’
And what is the message from all this? – here are his words:
‘So what I glean from this is an echo of Jewish distrust…of those gripped by the desire to rush to the end of time, to hasten the end of days. What I hear in it is the fear of every sage, every Rabbi, every interpreter of tradition with regard to the impatient souls who want there to be light too soon, too fast, and too far’
So there you have it. Nineveh, that great and corrupt city, that city that might endanger our future status in Israel also had plenty of citizens who could do good, and contribute to the world. That could not be forgotten by Jonah in the here and now. It was shade for God – a mixture of the darkness that humanity still today often exhibits, with the many sparks of light that often go unnoticed and that try so hard to redeem the dark. There are no short cuts to the light filled utopia of the future. We must build up that light one spark after another. If we mistake the present for a utopian reality – it will not be long until we reject others, fight others, purge others, and more.
There is another model for all this by the way – one brilliantly put by the American Jewish thinker Michael Waltzer. It is drawn from the Exodus and is what Waltzer calls Exodus politics. Waltzer describes the Exodus as an initial, founding model of revolution which involves relief from oppression, political struggle and the creation of a new society. But the revolutionary model of the Exodus is no short cut – it is a long, hard march through the wilderness before the Promised land is reached. It is rooted in wanting a better world, in wanting to relieve the world from oppression. The revolutionary model of the Exodus, which entered into the political psyche of the Western world through its passion for the Bible, never reaches a utopian destination. It is always moving forward, but never quite reaching its end. As Ramsay Macdonald the first Labour Party Prime Minister wrote,
‘The long drawn out tale of human progress is shadowed by error and catastrophe, wearisome journeys in the Wilderness, by Canaans which, when yet lands beyond the Jordan, were overflowing with milk and honey – but which when conquered were almost barren…’
Waltzer contrasts the steady march forward of Exodus politics to what he calls ‘the temptation of political messianism’ whose source is the frustration with the present complicated reality – the endlessness of the Exodus march.
To Waltzer, the message of the Exodus is clear:
‘first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt. Second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land. And Third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness. There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and march.’
So Michael Waltzer’s Exodus, is Bernard Henri Levi’s Nineveh – both have to be confronted as they are and both are certainly not free of threat and difficulty. But both attest to a reality that isn’t what we want and isn’t necessarily where we want to be. But a reality that isn’t irredeemable also.
We are facing the reality of Nineveh as Jews in Britain. On the one hand, we hear apocalyptic opinions that most of us want to run away from this Nineveh. We see the statistics. Anti Semitism is on the rise. Hatred of Israel is growing and is more pervasive in our society. But the recent report released by the Institute of Jewish Policy Research together with the CST, put all this worry and anxiety in context. It stated that levels of anti Semitism in Great Britain are among the lowest in the world. By developing a more elastic understanding of anti Semitism which looks at a number of discrete attitudes that are considered offensive to Jews, it could differentiate between hard core anti semites and those who share one or two of the offensive attitudes. They measure the more hard core anti semites as 2.4% based on their survey who shared at least 3 of the attitudes. But those who shared 1 or 2 of these attitudes were numbered at 30%.
Now I am no analayst – I will leave that to the capable hands of Jon Boyd and our very own Dave Rich who does such amazing work for the Jewish community. But one thing I learnt from the report is that there is work to be done. Yes there will be people who are beyond redeeming. Noone is going to turn the likes of Livingstone, Loach and Mcluskey into philo semites or anything near. There are people who so deeply are taken over by anti Semitism on the left and the right of the political spectrum that they are beyond Nineveh. In the Muslim community as well, we know of many influences of radical jihadism that will not listen and dialogue. But there are vast numbers in these communities who will talk, listen and may be open to the realisation of how offensive they sometimes can be. We must not run away from people and their opinions – we need to talk, engage, dialogue and pull people up if we feel that their views are problematic. And I stress also talk. Social media, especially Twitter, is not a place to engage in dialogue on serious issues. So much hurt happens on Twitter so we need to be careful of painting a picture of the world outside through what we see on Twitter and Facebook. There is so much good work to be done. Again, Nineveh is full of shade. It is not perfect. It may listen, and then return to its ways. But there is light there as well, and we must not ignore that.
And finally, today, on Yom Kippur there is a personal message here for each and every one of us. None of our lives are perfect. None of our lives ever really match up to our dreams and life desires. Stuff happens. We expected things to turn out differently. It is like that poem I read out tonight a few years ago, about having a child with special needs – you dreamed of Italy, and your dream was dashed – you ended up in Holland instead. But we can cling on to the model of Nineveh, and the model of the Exodus. We can each one of us separately, and together, gather up sparks of light as we traverse through our lives. And as we grow older, and pray that God does not forsake us, we do that because however difficult life is sometimes – we always cling on to the light that we created.
May your Yom Kippur be full of meaning, and your year be one remembered for the light that you create.