I’ve lost count of the number of unaffiliated Jews I’ve met, who have explained their non-allegiance by declaring, ‘I’m not religious’. Sometimes, these pronouncements will be followed by a ‘but’ – as in: ‘but I’m quite spiritual’. Of course, the ‘I’m not religious’ declaration is not exclusive to the unaffiliated. Maybe this evening, a few people attending Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah services across the world are thinking something like, ‘I don’t believe in God, but the music of the High Holy Days draws me and touches me’.
The enduring power of music: Many of us will have a musical library in our heads, telling the stories of our lives in melodies and refrains – especially the days of our youth. Many of the items in our musical library will be shared with others, reflecting the times we have lived through together. And so for those like me, who started listening to music in the 60s: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel; and then in the 70s: Joni Mitchell, Carole King, James Taylor, Janis Ian – and my personal 70s favourite: Joan Armatrading.
Leonard Cohen was 80 on Sunday – September 21st. Can you believe it? Just in case you thought ‘Old Ideas’ released at the end of 2012 was his last studio album, yesterday he released his 13th, ‘Popular Problems’, featuring nine new songs. And he’s still doing concert tours. I managed to miss his 2013 gigs in London and Brighton.
I discovered Leonard Cohen while preparing for my ‘O’ levels in 1971. I used to go to the local library every weekday evening after school, until it closed at 8pm, but at the weekends I’d occupy my older brother’s bedroom – I shared a tiny bedroom with my younger sister, and he was away at university – and listen for hours to Leonard Cohen’s 1967 debut album, as I revised. It was such a dismal time; Leonard Cohen’s languid sombre tone a fitting sound-track to my teenage angst. As an antidote, I also listened to Bob Dylan. When my bro was home he would sing both their repertoires, accompanying himself on the guitar.
I knew Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan were Jewish, but this was not immediately evident from their early lyrics. Years later both of them directly identified as Jews in different ways at different times. Reflecting now on their distinct signature sounds, it seems obvious that both expressed aspects of the spectrum of Jewish youth’s post-Sho’ah sensibility during the 1960s & 70s. And then there was the less abrasive evocative lyricism of those other Jewish troubadours, Simon & Garfunkel. Together, these nice Jewish boys encompassed between them, melancholy, sardonic humour, pathos, rage, and a passion for justice – all wonderful Jewish vices and virtues.
Of these Jewish singer-songwriters, Leonard Cohen, whose own journey has taken him to Buddhism and beyond, remains arguably, the most consciously Jewish. But what does this mean? Is Leonard Cohen a religious Jew? A secular Jew? A cultural Jew? Only he knows. For me, what makes Leonard Cohen Jewish is the way in which he has dedicated his music to meaning-making – from ‘Suzanne’ and ‘Bird on the Wire’, through ‘Hallelujah’, a rendering of the King David and Bathsheba story that provides a graphic demonstration of the absolute irrelevance of the religious/secular divide in Jewish life, and ‘Who by Fire’ – a direct reference to the High Holy Day liturgy.
I’ve begun with Leonard Cohen, and I’m sure we wish him g’vurah – strength – as he celebrates his 80th birthday. But what about us? Where are the religious Jews this evening? The spiritual Jews? The secular Jews? The atheist Jews? The agnostic Jews? The cultural Jews? The social justice Jews? The Jewish-roots Jews? The ex-Orthodox Jews? The Jewish taste-bud Jews? The Zionist Jews? The non-Zionist Jews? The anti-Zionist Jews? The Jew-ish Jews?
I think you know the answer. They’re all here. But then again, at least 50% of all of them aren’t – for a variety of reasons, logistical, ideological, circumstantial, historical…
For the record, I’m a Jew and I’ve been a professional Jew for over half my life, but I’m not a hyphenated Jew of any description. I’m simply a human being, like all human beings, on the finite journey of life, trying to make meaning, who chooses to frame the meanings I make in Jewish terms – which means, of course, that the frame is not a square or a rectangle or even a six-pointed star; it has as many aspects and dimensions as there are ways in which Jews have made and continue to make meaning.
So, welcome to the high point of Jewish meaning-making: the beginning of the Jewish year, when we all get to embark on a new meaning-making adventure.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all really begin again, right now? According to Jewish tradition, we have to reflect on the past year, do an accounting of our deeds and make amends to those we have wronged, before we can start afresh the day after Yom Kippur. Let’s imagine that with been through the process, and now it is the day after Yom Kippur. The past is the past. The un-mapped future is beyond us. It’s a completely new day. What would you do? Where would you start?
To make a new start, we need some resources. What Jewish resources would you draw on for your new journey? Here are some of the resources I would use: the stories of our flawed and complex biblical ancestors; the tales of the Exodus and wilderness wanderings; a few soul-stirring Jewish melodies; some nourishing prescriptions from the legal codes of the Torah: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18); ‘Do not oppress the stranger for you know the innermost-being of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Exodus 23:9); Justice, justice, you shall pursue’ (Deuteronomy 16:20); and, particularly relevant during the yamim nora’im, the Days of Awe: ‘This commandment which I am commanding you today is not too wonderful for you, nor too remote … / It is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it’ (Deuteronomy 30:11; 14).
I have chosen these resources carefully – because I know they will do the job I need them to do. When I’m reminded of Sarah’s stubborn endurance, Jacob’s deceit, or Dinah’s eagerness to go out on her own and explore the world outside her mother Leah’s tent, despite the risks, I remember again that whatever our circumstances, we can make choices. When I recall the story of the Exodus and the forty-year journey that ensued, I am reassured that life is a maze, and remember that living and dying in a wilderness is preferable to life in captivity. When I am apprehended by the ethical teachings of the Torah, I learn again that the essence of being alive is not to exist, simply, but to reach out and connect with others. When I respond to the myriad demands of life, I am reminded that the compulsion to act comes not from somewhere beyond me, but rather, from within me – that it’s, literally, in my mouth and in my heart to do it.
Jewish texts and Jewish experience overflow with resources for meaning-making. But let us return to this moment, and pause to savour the wondrous resource that is Rosh Ha-Shanah. Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke of Shabbat, the Sabbath as ‘a palace in time’. This is, surely, true of all the sacred days of the Jewish year. Imagine that you have entered into a ‘palace in time’, adorned with precious furnishings, where you are being welcomed as a special guest, and invited to unburden yourself of all the trappings of daily life, and to enjoy a nourishing repast of solemn ancient texts, provocative stories, haunting melodies – and the eerie wails of the Shofar.
Of all these awe-inspiring sacred appurtenances, it is the melodies, many of which are repeated again and again, that provide the sacred fabric of the palace in time that extends from Rosh Ha-Shanah through Yom Kippur. Music, of course, occupies a very special place in the lives of many of us. Music: a set of notes lifted off the page by voices and/or instruments, by expertise and technique. But music cannot be reduced to its technical features. Rather, transcending their constituent elements, the sounds we call ‘music’ transform the moment – both for the musician and the listener.
How we make sense of the impact a piece of music has on us is very personal. For some of us music is simply, emotionally stirring; for others, a spiritual experience. For many of us, music evokes memories – directly personal ones, as well as those we share with others. And so, when we hear and sing High Holy Day melodies, we traverse the soundscape of our people, scattered across countries, cultures and aeons, and feel a power beyond us that yet resonates from deep within.
Our Jewish texts, tunes, traditions and palaces in time provide us with marvellous resources for meaning-making – but then, after we leave the ‘palace in time’, we have to get to work. The work begins with our determination to wrest meaning out of the material of our experiences day after day – both ordinary and extraordinary. And so, before I close, some meaning-making of my own, inspired, not by music, but by another art form, which I offer as a blessing for all our journeys this New Year:
I’m looking at a picture. It’s a poster commemorating the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima by the graphic artist, Ivan Chermayeff, displayed in a recent exhibition of his work at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill. The image is of a beautiful blue and white ceramic round plate, depicting a traditional Japanese scene. Below the image, one word: ‘Peace’.
The plate is broken in multiple places. The break just above the middle catches my eye because it reveals an eye-shaped gap. Bottom left as I look at the plate, there is an even larger gap, which appears to me like a lopsided downturned mouth. Numerous strands of tape in different colours – red, blue, yellow, orange, white and sand – of different lengths and widths hold the pieces together haphazardly. Several bits of tape stick out as if attaching the plate to the black background.
It’s not a perfect repair job – far from it – but the plate seems as if it is, just about, holding together: a patchwork of pieces. But, of course, the perfect unity of the original form and image has disintegrated. Just as important, the plate can no longer function as a plate.
Despite numberless efforts from numerous directions, wholeness cannot be restored. Despite attempts, efforts overlap and miss the gaps. All that is left: rupture and brokenness.
And yet: the broken pieces have not been discarded. Through the efforts of restoration, however incomplete, something new has emerged out of the shards; a new fragile piece, inviting further attempts at repair; a new purpose – and a transformed, though ruptured and broken, wholeness.
The image expresses the meaning that the artist has made of a catastrophic event. The subtitle of the work – not displayed on the poster itself is: ‘A Fragile World.’ The viewer – any viewer – isn’t simply a passive spectator, but also makes sense of the image for her/himself in a way that reflects her/his own experience, values and meaning-making resources.
Shalom/shalem: Peace/wholeness. When peace has been broken, wholeness is shattered. And then we are presented with the challenge of repair: a shared challenge, involving numberless contributors.
What is true on the level of society is also true for the individual. When our lives break apart and all we have left are the broken pieces in our hands, we often don’t know how to put ourselves back together. But it doesn’t matter, as long as we are prepared to learn from the ruptures we have experienced, and to acknowledge that mending ourselves also encompasses repairing our relationships, and is a shared endeavour.
Each Rosh Ha-Shanah we are given the opportunity to mend our lives. We don’t know what we will come up with when we pick up the bits and pieces, and whether or not we will recognise ourselves – or our relationships. But if we make the effort, a new ruptured and broken wholeness will emerge. May each one of us find the courage we need to begin the work of repair.
And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut
Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah 5775 – 24th September 2014