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Yom Kippur address, Oxford 5774/2013

OK, so if I asked all the Nobel Prize winners here to stand up, I wonder how many we’d get? Only hypothetical, don’t worry, no-one need feel embarrassed. But I expect that over the years, Oxford – and indeed this community – might indirectly have produced quite a few.

But let me begin with the words of one Nobel Laureate, a Galician-born American physicist. Isidore Rabi was once asked why he had become a scientist, to which he gave this unexpected answer: “My mother made me a scientist” (Well, that bit at least is not so unexpected) “My mother made me a scientist without ever knowing it. Every other child would come back from school and be asked, ‘What did you learn today?’ But my mother used to ask a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she always used to say, ‘Did you ask a good question today?’ That made the difference. Asking good questions made me a scientist.”

It has always seemed to me that Izzy’s mother had hit on something important not only for her little boy, but actually for all of us as Jews. For isn’t it the case that Judaism thrives on questions? The oft-quoted lines from Hillel that end: If not now, when?; the four questions that set the tone for every Seder; the Jewish tendency to answer one question with another; and you’ll remember that Rabbi Hugo Gryn, when asked, “Where was God in Auschwitz?” said something like this: “The question is not ‘Where was God?’, the question is ‘Where was man?’. The Jew’s natural inclination to ask questions is a relentless expression of optimism in even the most dire circumstances. There is the story of a Viennese Jew, in 1939, who entered a travel agent’s office, wanting to buy a steam ship ticket. ‘Where to?’ the agent asks. ‘Let me look at your globe, please.’ The Jew starts examining the globe. Every time he suggests a country, the agent raises an objection. ‘This one requires a visa……This one is not admitting any more Jews…..The waiting list to get into that one is ten years.’ Finally the Jew looks up. ‘Pardon me, do you have another globe?’

And today, on Yom Kippur, we are faced with some of the hardest questions of all. We turn up here again, year after year, and put ourselves through the list of excoriating sins for which we ask forgiveness. It’s heavy. It’s remorseless. And yet, something pulls us back, something makes us return. It’s what Richard Dawkins doesn’t get: he was quoted this week saying that he wanted his legacy (Ah, ‘legacy’ – perhaps better left for others to determine) he wanted his legacy nonetheless to consist of being known as a “lover of truth” and as a “believer in the possibility of discovering objective truth by scientific research”. Nothing wrong with that, one might say, and he’ll probably have his way. But he misses the point, because as we know only too well, there is truth beyond scientific research, there are questions to which there is, at least for us, no answer. On Yom Kippur, we face up to them.

These are not the angry, bitter questions of Job, crying out, “Why? Why is light given to those who are in misery, and life to afflicted souls who long for death but it comes not, even if they dig for it as for buried treasure and rejoice when at last they perish?” Nor are they the type of weasly question asked by Cain in response to God’s enquiry as to the whereabouts of his brother Abel. Instead of confessing the murder he had committed, he taunted God: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Of course, he could have learned the knack of avoiding responsibility from his parents, one of whom blamed his wife, and the other a snake, once they had eaten of the forbidden fruit. How easy it is, all year, for us to be blaming others for our errors, to claim it’s just bad luck when something bad happens to us, to sidestep our responsibility. But not today, and not here. Today, we have a chance to begin to do it differently, to ask of ourselves those questions we so often shy away from, to choose a different path, to return.

This afternoon’s Haftorah tells of Jonah, one of the Bible’s great sidesteppers. In the earlier Haftorah we heard Isaiah explain that the outward signs of fasting alone were not sufficient or acceptable to God, and that it is our actions, rather, that will bring God close to us. The Book of Jonah seems to take this one stage further, emphasising not only the actions and change of heart, but also the power of repentance. It’s not easy reading, it strikes too many chords, at least in me: it’s a wake-up call to recognise and accept our responsibilities, whether, as in Jonah’s case, to undertake the task set categorically by God, or more prosaically in ours, to cut through our daily excuses and ask ourselves, “What type of person do I want to be? Really.”

So here’s Jonah, the son of Amittai, a prophet mentioned in the Second Book of Kings, some time around the 8th century BCE when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was expanding. Later on, that Northern Kingdom was to be completely destroyed by the ruthless power of the Assyrians, who certainly had form in their pitiless treatment of those they conquered. They have been called the Nazi storm-troopers of the ancient world. We of the post-Holocaust generation have good reason to understand the Assyrians and all they represented, so when Jonah had the sudden call from God to head for Nineveh, that “great city” in Assyria, to persuade them of their wrong-doing, we can sympathise with his less than enthusiastic response. Who would reasonably have reacted differently? So he sets off, but as we know, not to Nineveh but towards Tarshish, often identified as being at the southern tip of Spain, in other words, in completely the opposite direction. (Had Jonah had a satnav, we know where he’d have put the blame.) He finds a ship, and off he sails. Of course, the wind gets up, the storm breaks, and when none of the many gods of the multi-national crew is able to calm things, the captain goes down to the hold to find Jonah, who has taken refuge in sleep (something we’ve never done, of course): “Get up!” he cries, “See if your God can do any better.” Isn't that amazing? This heathen leader has more faith in prayer than Jonah, the prophet running away from God. Is this a prophetic hint, ahead of its time, that interfaith cooperation might benefit all?

After that wonderful line in which, as we hear, the sailors drew lots to see who was guilty, and “the lot fell upon Jonah”, how do they react? By asking questions, lots of them: What do you do? Where have you come from? What nationality are you? Who are your people? Jonah’s response is brief and to the point: “I am a Hebrew and I fear the Lord God of heaven”, from which the sailors infer that he’s on the run. They’re smart. They’re also compassionate and have a natural sense of justice, preferring still to try to get the boat somewhere safe rather than simply throwing him overboard, as Jonah, racked with guilt, suggests. As we know, in the end they do just that, the storm dies down, and the crew appear to have converted and to pray to the God of Jonah: an early example of the law of unintended consequences.

The episode of the fish is known to every Cheder pupil. While he’s inside, Jonah himself prays in the manner of a psalm. It’s reminiscent of someone who has escaped from trouble and is offering thanks but still only half acknowledges his responsibility, and there’s no sign of repentance.

Jonah is spewed out by the fish, representing, in one interpretation, Israel surviving the Babylonians and emerging once again to be a light to the nations. It’s not too much of a stretch to apply the metaphor equally to Israel’s survival and rebirth after being swallowed up by the Holocaust. Yom Kippur pulls us back to the responsibilities of that survival, not just within the State of Israel, but within us, the children of Israel.

Back, briefly, to Jonah, who is sent a second time to Nineveh, and on this occasion gets there. The people, hearing the threat of being overthrown six weeks later, do the usual thing – fasting, sackcloth, ashes and so on – but what really works is the command of the King that they should turn from their evil ways, so that God, too, may turn and relent and spare them. Which He does. And how modern is Jonah’s reaction! Here he is, the agent of the Almighty, bringing a heathen people from evil to good, effecting their salvation – and we’re told he was greatly displeased and angry. He was actually afraid that they would repent and be saved, and he really didn’t want that. It’s a triple whammy for Jonah: he’s discovered that he can run but he can’t hide; that God is always ready to accept prayer and repentance; and that even the Ninevites - by their action - come to deserve God’s love and forgiveness. It’s a powerful, practical example of Teshuvah, uTefilah, uTsedakah.

So here, it seems to me, is one of the many paradoxes of Yom Kippur: we learn, actually not once but twice, from the behaviour of non-Jews the power of repentance. How often, as Joseph Telushkin points out, quoting the psychologist Solomon Schimmel, “does a nation preserve in its sacred history a story about the merits and righteousness of its enemies?” And we remind ourselves of that on the holiest day of the Jewish year, of all days! I think Elie Wiesel takes us right to the heart of the matter – the heart of the day – when he says: “God’s will itself may change. Even though punishment has been programmed, it may be cancelled …….Every human being is granted one more opportunity to start his life all over again.”

My father, of blessed and very recent memory, who, throughout his long life, had far less cause than many to repent, was fond of quoting from Goethe’s Faust. On Yom Kippur, I am often reminded of the moment when Faust says:

  “Two souls, alas! live in my breast,
  One wants to break free from the other;
  One clings coarsely to the world,
  The other raises itself powerfully from the dust
  To the realm of higher ancestors."

Yom Kippur is the moment when we can make that choice – which of our two souls will determine our future behaviour, both towards God and towards one another?

But recourse to ancestors and their virtues is not enough. As Faust says in the gloomy night scene early on in the play, “What you have inherited from your fathers, you must acquire for yourself to make it your own.” That, it seems to me, is the challenge for each of us on Yom Kippur, because we know, deep down, what is good and what is right – our problem comes in translating that into our daily actions, and in recognising how successfully others – those not like us, those we don’t in fact like – how successfully they may be achieving those aims, maybe better than we are. Think ship sailing to Tarshish. Think Ninevites.

Here in the OJC, our very foundation tries to recognise those challenges in a manner we are rightly proud of, and proud to call unique. The OJC concept is still quite radical, but perhaps its time will come more universally in future centuries. We try consciously, and sometimes perhaps even stridently, to proclaim our unity in diversity, our ready acceptance of the way others live out their Judaism and ask questions that are not ours. We should applaud the attempts currently being made to reach those Jews we think are in this area but not involved in the community. We should applaud all attempts to develop the spiritual life of this community. We should applaud the constant drive towards interfaith cooperation, even in the face of visceral hostility towards Israel from some groups, especially – and sadly – our Quaker friends. We should applaud every attempt to discover an even more constructive relationship with Oxford Chabad, also trying in their own way to bring Judaism to Jews. At least we’re not complacent, are we?

We have all had opportunity, I guess, to visit Jewish communities abroad and to see how they address the big questions of Jewish existence. Voluntary Jewish travel is, after all, a new gloss on an ancient tradition. We saw three this year. A couple of weeks ago, we walked up the narrow lane that was once the ghetto of Dubrovnik, and saw the beautiful little synagogue, on the first floor of a cramped house. The community was largely established by one group of Jews fleeing the Inquisition in Spain, flourished intellectually, commercially, even politically - and is dying out: there are currently 45 Jews in Dubrovnik. The young have left. Earlier in the summer, in Avignon, we saw the synagogue there, uniquely circular in Europe, and also beautiful. The Jewish guide was quite sanguine in his reasoning that there was no long-term future for the Jews in France, perhaps not even in Europe, but only in Israel or America. The young have left. But he saw this as simply the natural course of events in Jewish life and history: he would ensure that the synagogue continued to provide High Holyday services and occasional Shabbat worship as long as it was needed, and that would be that.

The third community was in China, where the Jews of Kaifeng have in our generation begun to rediscover their Jewish roots, which go back a thousand years. Their history is largely untroubled by persecution, characterised rather by fruitful co-existence led by the Emperors who recognised how greatly each community could benefit and learn from the other. The Jews themselves, as Jews have always done, reflected their unique sense of mission deriving from the exhortation of Jeremiah to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare”.

In his current television series on the history of the Jews, Simon Schama took us to England in 1290, Spain in 1492, and Venice, where, once again, Jews settled having escaped the Inquisition, albeit in the very first confined space to be given the name “ghetto”. In a voice understandably quivering with emotion as he stood in its tiny first-floor synagogue, he spoke of the countless times that Jews had had to uproot, resettle, and rebuild, and of their ceaseless desire to create something beautiful, something spiritual, however temporary it might be. My parents would have understood that, and I think I do. That has been the leitmotif of Jewish history. It’s what we do. And on Yom Kippur, we have a chance to stop and reflect, to change and return, to rediscover why it is that we do what we do, to become better Jews for our own sakes and for the sake of the world. We ask hard questions of ourselves. We have a choice. Let us choose life.

Abraham Joshua Heschel revised one of the world’s most famous questions in the following way: “To be, or not to be,” he wrote, “is not the question. The vital question is how to be, and how not to be.” May the coming year enable us to understand better how to be, and how not to be. May it bring joy and peace to us all.

I had thought I might end with another question. But how predictable would that have been?

Shanah tovah.

John Dunston

Oxford, Yom Kippur 5774 / 2013

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