I look forward to Yom Kippur. When I first became a student rabbi, I used to be very anxious about whether I would be able to fast all day and be able to lead the services and manage all the singing – the congregations I went to before my final year didn’t have choirs, so whether or not there was any music, really did depend on me. But then, I went to a congregation that did have a small choir of a hand-full of people, became their rabbi after my ordination – and from then on, it became easier and easier; by the time I’d taken High Holy Day services a half dozen times, I knew the ropes.
Yes, Yom Kippur became familiar – its themes, rhythms and cadences so well known that I began to really look forward to it. Perhaps some of you – those of you are very well acquainted with Yom Kippur – can recognise what I’m talking about. And how can it be otherwise? After all, we do return to Yom Kippur year after year; by the time we’ve read the same prayers and scriptural readings many times over and can sing the melodies off by heart, aren’t we bound to feel increasingly comfortable – despite the on-going anxiety about whether or not we’re going to manage without food and water?
Of course, we are. But if this is really so, then we face a paradox: Yom Kippur is not only a day set apart, a day radically unique and different from all other days of the Jewish calendar, it is also that very singular time when we are challenged to examine ourselves and our deeds and confront the realities of our finite lives in the context of the Infinite – the Transcendent mystery beyond us. Yom Kippur, for all its familiarity, is not a cosy, quaintly old-fashioned, gathering around the fire-side in comfortable arm-chairs to chat with our intimates and share old stories. We do gather together, and there is a fire of sorts burning both above and within the aron ha-kodesh – the sacred ark – before us, but the focal point of our gathering is also a discomforting reminder that when we arrive at Yom Kippur, we enter the realm of the unknown beyond our day-to-day experience.
Whether or not we believe in God; whether or not we see ourselves as religious or secular, all of us confront the unknown beyond us. In fact, interestingly, sometimes the secular person, who does not have faith in the existence of God, is much more able to acknowledge the unknown beyond, than a religious person, for whom God’s presence is taken for granted; who is confident that God is there and directly available. Yom Kippur, for all its apparent familiarity, for all its well-rehearsed litanies, confounds the assumption and the expectation that we know where we are and whom we are addressing. We don’t know; there can be no certainties on this Sabbath of Sabbaths; this day set apart from all others, when we step out of the regular routines of our lives.
So, here we are – actually on unknown territory. Being on unknown territory is in a real sense an increasingly unfamiliar experience in our world today, which, assisted by the world-wide-web, has apparently been transformed into a ‘global village’. Of course, there are still places beyond the reach of the web, places outside the ‘global village’, where McDonalds and Coca Cola have not – yet – set up shop. But then, there are all those intrepid new-style explorers trekking to all the regions and peoples beyond, with their film crews in tow, making sure that we get to see the places and the people that the modern world has not – yet – reached, in ‘High Definition’ on our flat-screen TVs.
We may see them – those other people who inhabit unknown territories – but they remain beyond us and our lives. But that’s not all, our awareness of these unknown landscapes and their inhabitants beyond may serve to bolster the illusion that everyone else – those who don’t live in the northern and western regions of the world, but nevertheless have entered the ‘global village’ – are essentially, either, just like us – or on their way to becoming just like us. This illusion is highly problematic for at least two related reasons: first, it tends to air-brush out the characteristics of these other inhabitants of the ‘global village’, which don’t quite fit in with our image of ourselves; and, second, it tends to reinforce the hegemony – the supremacy – of what for want of a better word, is called ‘western culture’.
Now, some of you may be wondering at this point – what’s the problem? What’s wrong with the world becoming a ‘global village’? What’s wrong with other people adopting western culture? If current trends continue, won’t that mean that, eventually, once everyone has bought into the system and has access to all the life-enhancing technology, that there will be an end to poverty and war? May be – if we don’t destroy the world first; and now that China and India, in particular, have jumped on the ‘progress’ bandwagon, the chance that we may do irreparable harm to the planet, is fast becoming a certainty…
Actually, my concern today is not with debating the pros and cons of globalisation in these terms. Instead, I’d like us to take a few moments to consider another aspect of the impact of globalisation. At the beginning of July, Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ slot was unusually thought-provoking (02.07.09). A certain Reverend Dr Charles Fraser chose to devote his three minute ‘thought’ to exploring a core idea developed by the contemporary Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. The essential point he drew out from Levinas was that ‘the face of the other is other’ and that we have an ethical responsibility towards other people, not because they are like us, but, rather, because they are different from us.
It is extremely difficult to summarise Levinas, who articulates his thinking in very dense philosophical language – and I must confess, I hadn’t read much of his writing before that ‘Thought for Today’. But what I took from Levinas, when I picked up one of his most accessible books, from a Jewish point of view – Beyond the Verse. Talmudic Readings and Lectures (Continuum, London, 1994) – helped me to understand in a new way what this afternoon’s Torah portion teaches about how we should relate to our neighbour – and also, how we should relate to the geir: a word that is usually translated as ‘stranger’, but actually means ‘sojourner’.
We read at Leviticus chapter 19, verses 33 and 34:
V’chi-yagur it’cha geir b’artz’chem – When a sojourner sojourns with you in your land, you shall not oppress him; / the sojourner who sojourns with you shall be like the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt – ki geirim heyyitem b’eretz mitzrayim – I am the Eternal your God.
The p’shat – the ‘plain’ meaning of these verses is that when someone comes to live in your country – we would call that person an ‘immigrant’ – you may not wrong them in any way; rather, you must treat them in the same way as someone born in the country, and love them as you love yourself, because you know what it’s like to be an immigrant. Earlier, in the same chapter, the Torah teaches – at verse 18: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (:18) – that is you shall love the person who is like you: the Hebrew word for neighbour, rei’a, based on the root Reish Ayin Hei to associate with, means, ‘friend’ or ‘companion’, and also, ‘fellow’. So, we should love those who are like us, and also, remembering our ancestors’ experience of marginality and exclusion, of being ‘the other’, love the other people in our midst and behave ethically towards them.
Acting ethically towards the different people we encounter is a far cry from the way in which those driving globalisation treat the other inhabitants of western culture’s greatest export, the ‘global village’. Trampling over differences – including differing needs – the juggernaut of globalisation, spurred on by the promise of ever-expanding markets, and so, spiralling profits for the global businesses involved, would turn the world into an endless series of undifferentiated shopping malls, and homogenise the different peoples into consumers.
In the ‘global village’ there seem to be no neighbours and other people are just so much economic fodder. It could be very different. Levinas writes in one of his more straight-forward statements: ‘The Torah teaches: the closer you get to the other, the greater your responsibility towards him becomes’ (1994, p.30). Fortunately, in recent years, this alternative understanding has been emerging in the Fairtrade movement, in particular, which has been developing a framework for ethical conduct towards the small-producers of our staple imports, bananas, coffee, tea, chocolate and sugar – all of whom are vulnerable in today’s global market. Nevertheless there is a long way to go before our increasingly close contact with other people within the global village becomes regulated by a code of ethics, rooted in a sense of responsibility towards others.
Of course, in the ‘global village’, there are, yet, different ‘villages’, different peoples – and even in the different ‘villages’, strangers arrive from other places. Jewish teaching exhorts us to act ethically towards neighbour and stranger alike, but, again and again we fail to do this – and it’s not just that most Jews focus on our own, rather than on others. Interestingly, while there are some Jews, who only feel obligated towards fellow Jews, there are other Jews, who feel a sense of responsibility only towards non-Jews. But actually this crude dichotomy of mutually exclusive fidelities doesn’t do justice to the more fundamental matter: Ultimately, the choice is not between supporting your own, or reaching out to others; the challenge before us all is to acknowledge the other altogether; to acknowledge that everyone – neighbour, stranger, beloved partner, relative and friend alike – is another person; their own person.
When Levinas speaks of the other, he understands that for the self, everyone else is ‘other’. The legislation we find in Leviticus 19 is an ethical code concerned with governing our relationships with all others – both fellow Israelites and sojourners. But if we focus only on the details, the particular rules regulating economic behaviour and the treatment of vulnerable and marginal groups, and so on, it is easy to miss the raison d’etre. We read at the beginning of the chapter – which is also the beginning of the parashah, the portion, K’doshim (:1-2):
The Eternal Spoke to Moses, saying: / Speak to all the congregation of the Israelites and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Eternal your God, am holy – k’doshim tihyu ki kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheichem.
We are called to imitate the Eternal One – but what does this really mean? And how is it possible? After all, the Eternal, by definition, is radically different from us – absolutely other. How can we be like the Eternal One? For Levinas, God is utterly other, and yet the Revelation of the Eternal that is at the heart of the Torah demonstrates that God ‘remains “uncontainable”, infinite, and yet still maintaining a relation’ (p.144). Revelation is the way that the Eternal comes into our lives. And it is this ‘relation’ that provides what Levinas describes as ‘a model in the non-indifference towards the other, in a responsibility towards him’ (ibid.). In other words, as God, the ultimate other, establishes a relation with us through Revelation, so we must be in relation to others. That’s what it means to ‘be holy’ as the Eternal One is ‘holy’. That is our most essential obligation; our responsibility as human beings – and that is how, in relation with the other, that each person becomes a ‘self’ (ibid.).
While Martin Buber speaks of the relation of Ich und Du – ‘I’ and ‘Thou’ –– Emmanuel Levinas speaks of the relation between ‘self’ and ‘other’ – and of the responsibility such a relation entails. For Levinas, the Eternal is the epitome of the other; it is in acknowledging the ultimate other that we can learn to acknowledge the otherness of other people – both those we feel are ‘like us’ – and those we feel are different from ‘us’. Essentially that is the value of a religious perspective – which in its simplest sense is just a way of being alive that acknowledges the other.
Whether we see ourselves as secular or religious – and it’s interesting to note that being a Jew, a member of the Jewish people, whether by birth or choice, does not require one to be formally religious – we are all here today, the secular and the religious together, inhabiting the realm of the other. But we are not here, simply, in a passive sense; here, in the realm of the other, leaving the known world behind us for a day, we are summoned to take a journey towards the ultimate other, the Infinite beyond. During the Kol Nidrey service I spoke of Yom Kippur as a garden. If Yom Kippur is a garden, its familiar contours mask the fact that it is also a wilderness without end. That’s why we cannot stay here; only visit for a while to remind ourselves that, ultimately, every one alive is a sojourner; a temporary dweller in a land on the edge of the unknown – and that it is our task as Jews and as human beings: to acknowledge one another, wherever and whoever ‘we’ and ‘they’ are, and take responsibility for our relationships with one another, both locally and globally. It is that simple – and also that demanding. May our experience of being here today, and of being together on this journey into the unknown, be a source of inspiration when we return to the world and our daily lives. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut
Yom Kippur Shacharit 5770 – 28th September 2009