Sunday, September 23, 2012

10 Thoughts for the 10 Days of Repentance

The impulse to do evil is at first like a passer-by, then like a lodger, and finally like the master of the house.—Talmud Sukkah 52b

When you arise from your [Torah] learning reflect carefully on what you have studied, in order to see what in it can be put into practice. Examine your actions every morning and evening, and in this way every one of your days will be spent in repentance. – From Nachmanides’ “Letter to His Son”

All beings long for the very source of their origin. Every plant, every grain of sand, every clod of earth, small creatures and great, the heavens and the angels, every substance and its particles -- all of them are longing, yearning, panting to attain the state of holy perfection. Human beings suffer constantly from this homesickness of the soul, and it is in prayer that we cure it. When praying, we feel at one with the whole creation, and raise it to the very source of blessing and life. -- Rabbi Abraham Kook, Olat Re'iya

The primary purpose of prayer is to praise, to sing, to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song and [humans] cannot live without a song. Prayer may not save us, but prayer may make us worthy of being saved. – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

God is close. God is here. God is life. Therefore celebrate life. Sanctify life. Turn life into a blessing and make a blessing over life. That is Judaism in 25 words. – Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

By undermining the classic conceptions of humanity, Marxist, Darwinian and Freudian accounts tragically removed the great constraints on human behavior. They did this in different ways, but all three subverted the force of the ‘Thou shalt not.’ When nothing is sacred, then nothing is sacreligious. – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning

Repentance exhibits man at his most creative, as he remolds and refashions his own personality. – Rabbi Berry Gelman, Morthdoxy Blog

Gustave Dore, Ezra in Prayer, 19th-century engraving

Job puts the issue of God's purpose in creating him in the form of a direct challenge: "Why then hast thou brought me forth out of the womb?" The force of the question resides not in any implied answer but in the question itself. The very power to ask the question becomes itself a testimony to God's purposefulness. . . . [Job] is saying in effect: You made me, and here I am, capable of asking you questions about it. . . . To be able to say . . . "Why hast thou brought me forth out of the womb?" is to demonstrate that man is more than dust, more than clay on the potter's wheel, more even than embryo. These images dissolve at the moment they are affirmed as argument. To say Why is to say that none of these images adequately express the mystery of human creatureliness. The clay cannot say to the potter, What are you doing, but man can and does. . . . Ultimately, we return to the model of Gen. 2:7 to Gen. 1:26f, where the relation between creator and creature is founded not on the kneading of clay but on the majesty of saying itself. "God said, Let us make man in our image." To turn to God and ask him to remember is to challenge him with that mystery. A human creature may be no more than a shred of protoplasm, but he is endowed with the commanding power of saying and asking. To see God as artificer in accordance with the imagery of Gen. 2:7 gives us access to the realm of art, but to see God as a saying God and to see man as made in the image of a saying God takes us beyond art to the realm in which God and man address each other in mutual independence. -- Harold Fisch, Poetry with a Purpose

Job is driven to ask himself the question "To be or not to be?" The answer forced out of him is that life, however unwelcome, has to be endured. To choose life becomes the supreme challenge, the near-impossible task for a hero as sorely tempted as Job is to curse God and die. When all the interpretations have been heard, this remains the irreducible core of Job's righteousness. Job, a worm and no man, reduced to a condition in which life is loathsome to him and death is the desired goal, nevertheless chooses life. It is life that is commanded, even life without comfort, hope, or honor. It is in his flesh, or even it may be when his flesh has been stripped from his bones, that he will see God. Here is the impossible claim of the Hebrew religion. "Therefore choose life" is the command of a creator God who has made us into a living soul, a nepesh hayya. We will not fathom his purpose in so doing, but in the very breath we breathe, in the pulse we feel still beating in our tormented flesh, we have the manifest command of that creative will. . . . Life is given even to the bitter in soul -- and it obligates. -- Harold Fisch, Poetry with a Purpose 

Freedom is God's greatest gift to humankind but it also the most fateful and terrifying. For it means that we alone have the power to destroy the work of God. . . . God gave us freedom, knowing the risks. Because we are free, we bear responsibility for our deeds: we need to repent. But because we are free, we can change, so we are able to repent. -- Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, The Koren Yom Kippur Mahzor

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Jewish Response to Hedonism and Narcissism

A Jewish Response to Hedonism and Narcissism

In The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Dorian’s problem, like any narcissist’s, is that he mistakes himself for the center of the universe. Judaism’s view of the world is completely antithetical to the narcissist’s. The Jew doesn’t put himself at the center of the world. The world is not even at the center of the world. God is at the center of the world, and a Jew should approach life with a sense of wonder that this is so.

Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in God in Search of Man that the Jew’s primary stance in relation to the world should be one of wonder:

Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man’s attitude toward history and nature. . . . [Man] knows that there are laws that regulate the course of natural processes; he is aware of the regularity and pattern of things. However, such knowledge fails to mitigate his sense of perpetual surprise at the fact that there are facts at all. Looking at the world he would say, “This is the Lord’s doing, it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalms 118:23). . . (45).
The profound and perpetual awareness of the wonder of being has become a part of the religious consciousness of the Jew. Three times a day we pray:

                    We thank You . . .
                    For Your miracles which are daily with us,
                    For Your continual marvels . . . .

Every evening we recite: “He creates light and makes the dark.” Twice a day we say: “He is One.” What is the meaning of the repetition? A scientific theory, once it is announced and accepted, does not have to be repeated twice a day. The insights of wonder must be constantly kept alive. Since there is a need for daily wonder, there is a need for daily worship.

The sense for the “miracles which are daily with us,” the sense for the “continued marvels,” is the source of prayer. There is no worship, no music, no love, if we take for granted the blessings or defeats of living. No routine of the social, physical, or physiological order must dull our sense of surprise at the fact that there is a social, a physical, or a physiological order. We are trained in maintaining our sense of wonder by uttering a prayer before the enjoyment of food. Each time we are about to drink a glass of water, we remind ourselves of the eternal mystery of creation, “Blessed be Thou . . . by Whose word all things come into being.” A trivial act and a reference to a supreme miracle. Wishing to eat bread or fruit, to enjoy a pleasant fragrance or a cup of wine; on tasting fruit in season for the first time; on seeing a rainbow, or the ocean; on noticing trees when they blossom; on meeting a sage in Torah or in secular learning; on hearing good or bad tidings—we are taught to invoke His great name and our awareness of Him. Even on performing a physiological function we sat “Blessed be Thou . . .who healest all flesh and doest wonders” (48-49).

Dorian, as a hedonist and narcissist, becomes oblivious to everything but his own mindless pursuit of sensory delight and pleasure. But his indulgences aren’t redeemed and instead he becomes enslaved to his own animalistic urges.

We know that a Jew is not forbidden from enjoying the pleasures of the world:

The last mishna in the Talmud Yerushalmi in Kiddushin states:

רבי חזקיה ר' כהן בשם רב עתיד אדם ליתן דין וחשבון על כל שראת עינו ולא אכל

The Talmud states that when we die, God will ask us for a reckoning of all that our eyes saw but we did not eat.

It’s interesting to note the terminology the Gemara uses: Our eyes see and we eat. The acts remind us of what Adam and Eve did in their sin; they saw and ate. But the Gemara instead shows us that we have an obligation to see and eat, to look at the world and to partake in it in a halakhically acceptable way.

Another Jewish source, Pirkei Avot, can also be used to elucidate the topic of the Jew’s response to the material world.

Pirkei Avot 3:9 reads:

ג,ט  רבי יעקוב אומר, המהלך בדרך ושונה, ומפסיק משנתו ואומר מה נאה אילן זה, מה נאה ניר זה--מעלין עליו כאילו הוא מתחייב בנפשו.

Rabbi Yaakov said: "One who travels upon the road studying Torah and interrupts his studies, saying, "How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this plowed field!" -- Scripture considers it as if he bears the guilt for his own soul.

Does this mishna mean to say that one is guilty for not doing anything but studying Torah? Should a person really refrain from admiring the beauties of the world and be consumed with Torah alone? (Frisch would have to close if this were so!) Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains that this mishna means that a person cannot interrupt his study to admire a tree or a plowed field if he fails to understand that the natural beauty he beholds -- the tree -- or the wonder of technology he lauds -- the plowed field -- come from God. The one who is truly versed in Torah recognizes that all the wonders of the world, both natural and man-made, are from the Creator. The mishna, therefore, is not telling man he should not engage with the world, but rather that he must do so with the proper perspective.
Support for a Jewish lifestyle that includes both Torah and the pleasures of the world can be found in Rambam’s writings. Rambam in his famous work, the Mishnah Torah (Deot 3:1), writes that a person should not say to himself:  "Since material desires lead a person to sin, I will avoid these physical pleasures, such as wine, meat, and sex."  According to Rambam, asceticism is a Christian way; it’s the practice of the monks.  Judaism, however, teaches she-lo yimaneh adam atsmo elah mi-devarim she-manah ha-torah bilvad, that a person should only withdraw from those things that the Torah itself explicitly forbids.  And so, Rambam states, the reason why the Torah says that a Nazir must bring a sin-offering after he has fulfilled the term of his Nazir-hood is because he has sinned in forbidding for himself that which the Torah has permitted.

In sum, a Jew should, to use the Rav Soloveitchik’s word, “redeem” his actions by devoting them to God and remembering the Source from which springs all things. A Jew should maintain his wonder that God has brought the world and its manifold creations into being.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian has an additional problem aside from his intense narcissism. His narcissism stems from his fascination with his own incredible attractiveness, which he becomes aware of because of a beautifully painted portrait of his extreme good looks. Dorian’s beauty then leads him to an exploration of other beautiful objects, particularly objects of art, and to a hedonistic lifestyle, one in which he tries to sate himself with the enjoyment of sensual items. Heschel again offers his opinion on the proper behavior for a Jew:

The Beautiful and the Sublime

What do we mean by the sublime? . . . Since the time of Edmund A. Burke (1729-1797), the sublime has been contrasted with the beautiful. He [Burke] identified the sublime with the vast, the terrible, and the obscure which arouse the feeling of pain and terror, and the beautiful with the smooth, the small, and the delicate which arouse a feeling of love and tenderness. . . .

The sublime is not opposed to the beautiful, and must not, furthermore, be considered an esthetic category. The sublime may be sensed in things of beauty as well as in acts of goodness and in the search for truth. The perception of beauty may be the beginning of the experience of the sublime. The sublime is that which we see and are unable to convey. It is the silent allusion of things to a meaning greater than themselves. It is that which all things ultimately stand for; “the inveterate silence of the world that remains immune to curiosity and inquisitiveness like distant foliage in the dusk.” It is that which our words, our forms, our categories can never reach.  This is why the sense of the sublime must be regarded as the root of man’s creative activities in art, thought, and noble living. Just as no flora has ever fully displayed the hidden vitality of the earth, so has no work of art, no system of philosophy, no theory of science, ever brought to expression the depth of meaning, the sublimity of reality in the sight of which the souls of saints, artists and philosophers live (38-39).

. . . It is not the sublime as such of which the Biblical man is aware. To him, the sublime is but a way in which things react to the presence of God. It is never an ultimate aspect of reality, a quality meaningful in itself. It stands for something greater . . . .
It is . . . an act of God, a marvel (40).

Dorian’s tragedy is that he mistakes the marvel, himself and the artwork, for the end and not the beginning of his search. His appreciation and enjoyment of beauty should lead him to recognize the mystery behind it: the presence of God. Instead, Dorian ends his search for the sublime at the superficial level.

“In contrast,” Heschel says, “the Biblical man in sensing the sublime is carried away by his eagerness to exalt and to praise the Maker of the world” (41).

Writing Assessment Assignment

11H Writing Assessment Assignment:

1) Read the student essay I photocopied for you. As you read, take notes about how the paper makes a clear thesis, documents the thesis and uses the passages as appropriate proof from the texts.

2) Reread your essay. The question required you to create a thesis and then back it up, using appropriate evidence from the passages and the books as a whole. How well do you think your essay did this? What is the greatest area of weakness in your essay, in your opinion? Explain, in one paragraph.

3) List three grammar and/or punctuation errors you made in your essay.

4) Most of you did not use in-text citations correctly. Here is a link to a website that shows you how to cite using MLA standards:

OWL Online Writing Lab: In-Text Citations

Correct one of your in-text citations, so you have cited a quote properly.

5) Revise one paragraph from your essay.

6) What is the most useful thing about writing you’ve learned so far?

Post your responses to questions 3-6 in this document. Hand in the responses to questions 1-2 in analog form (that is, hard copies given to me. Very old school, I know).

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

September 11 Lesson in English and Art History

The 9/11 Memorial at night
AP English Language/American Literature:

In my junior English class, a course in which we analyze rhetoric and in which we've begun the year by discussing Tim O'Brien's definitions of fact and fiction -- "happening-truth" and "story-truth" -- I asked my class to read "The Names" by Billy Collins and a Huffington Post article on September 11 First Responders. Here are both texts:

"The Names" by Billy Collins

September 11 Responders Still Waiting for Relief

For homework, I asked the students to answer, in a wiki post, the following question:

Read "The Names," a poem about Sept. 11 by Billy Collins and then read the _HuffPost_ article about Sept. 11 first responders. Which text had a greater effect on you and why? Was that effect emotional or cerebral? Explain your answer in a paragraph, citing specific proof from the text(s).

The assignment enabled me to broaden students' knowledge about September 11, expose them to poetry, and test them on skills I want them to develop, such as the ability to analyze their own response to what they're reading and to use proper textual proof in their arguments.

The 9/11 Memorial 

AP Art History

In AP Art History, we are about to begin studying the art of the ancient Near East, and so on September 11, I used the day to discuss the way war is depicted in the ancient world -- how it is glorified by leaders who use battles to show themselves as powerful men who have the favor of the gods and a ruthless ability to destroy enemies. I then took the students through the following slideshow, which was compiled by my art history students last year:

The Art of War

The slideshow culminates with Maya Ying Lin's Vietnam Memorial and the 9/11 Memorial, so students are able to see that the emphasis in war has shifted from the celebration of a leader's exploits to the mourning of the loss of the common soldier or civilian. This shift represents a radical change in view about what and who is important in battle.

The lesson on the 9/11 Memorial also allows me to introduce the concept of the use of water and landscape elements in the design of an architectural environment. For example, the deep abyss into which the water in the 9/11 Memorial falls reminds the viewer of the awful way the victims perished, but the water also represents rebirth and renewal. The trees surrounding the waterfalls are additional symbols of rebirth and renewal: they are all deciduous and so shed and grow leaves in the fall and spring. The landscape designer used, as well, trees from Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania, in order to include all victims of the day in the New York memorial. The slideshow linked above has more information about this moving tribute to the victims of September 11.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Antinomianism and a Jewish Response

Antinomianism and a Jewish Response

Yehuda Amichai is a famous Israeli poet (1924-2000) who embraced the instability of the postmodern movement. His poems reveal the self-awareness and dearth of simple answers that the postmodern movement is often known for. During a unit on postmodernism during which my students discussed White Noise and became acquainted with works from the postmodern era, I thought it would be interesting for them to see how a secular Israeli contributed to postmodernism. Following the poems, though, is an excerpt -- with a link to the full text -- of a speech on messianism by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Sacks addresses what it means to be a religious person in a postmodern world and the role that Judaism has played in filling the chasms left by any philosophies which are nihilistic.

Famous Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai

The Diameter of the Bomb

Yehuda Amichai

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective
range – about seven meters.
And in it four dead and eleven wounded.
And around them in a greater circle
of pain and time are scattered
two hospitals and one cemetery.
But the young woman who was
buried where she came from
over a hundred kilometres away
enlarges the circle greatly.
And the lone man who weeps over her death
in a far corner of a distant country
includes the whole world in the circle.
And I won’t speak at all about the crying of orphans
that reaches to the seat of God
and from there onward, making
the circle without end and without God.

(Translated from the Hebrew by Yehuda Amichai and Ted Hughes.)

Temporary Poem of My Time

Yehuda Amichai

Hebrew writing and Arabic writing go from east to west,
Latin writing, from west to east.
Languages are like cats:
You must not stroke their hair the wrong way.
The clouds come from the sea, the hot wind from the desert,
The trees bend in the wind,
And stones fly from all four winds,
Into all four winds. They throw stones,
Throw this land, one at the other,
But the land always falls back to the land.
They throw the land, want to get rid of it.
Its stones, its soil, but you can't get rid of it.
They throw stones, throw stones at me
In 1936, 1938, 1948, 1988,
Semites throw at Semites and anti-Semites at anti-Semites,
Evil men throw and just men throw,
Sinners throw and tempters throw,
Geologists throw and theologists throw,
Archaelogists throw and archhooligans throw,
Kidneys throw stones and gall bladders throw,
Head stones and forehead stones and the heart of a stone,
Stones shaped like a screaming mouth
And stones fitting your eyes
Like a pair of glasses,
The past throws stones at the future,
And all of them fall on the present.
Weeping stones and laughing gravel stones,
Even God in the Bible threw stones,
Even the Urim and Tumim were thrown
And got stuck in the beastplate of justice,
And Herod threw stones and what came out was a Temple.
Oh, the poem of stone sadness
Oh, the poem thrown on the stones
Oh, the poem of thrown stones.
Is there in this land
A stone that was never thrown
And never built and never overturned
And never uncovered and never discovered
And never screamed from a wall and never discarded by the builders
And never closed on top of a grave and never lay under lovers
And never turned into a cornerstone?
Please do not throw any more stones,
You are moving the land,
The holy, whole, open land,
You are moving it to the sea
And the sea doesn't want it
The sea says, not in me.
Please throw little stones,
Throw snail fossils, throw gravel,
Justice or injustice from the quarries of Migdal Tsedek,
Throw soft stones, throw sweet clods,
Throw limestone, throw clay,
Throw sand of the seashore,
Throw dust of the desert, throw rust,
Throw soil, throw wind,
Throw air, throw nothing
Until your hands are weary
And the war is weary
And even peace will be weary and will be.

The following poem offers a more redemptive moment, if man will only seize the opportunity to bring it about. The poem makes an interesting comparison with Rabbi Sacks' speech on messianism:


Yehuda Amichai

Visits of condolence is all we get from them.
They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,
They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall
And they laugh behind heavy curtains
In their hotels.
They have their pictures taken
Together with our famous dead
At Rachel’s Tomb and Herzl’s Tomb
And on the top of Ammunition Hill.
They weep over our sweet boys
And lust over our tough girls
And hang up their underwear
To dry quickly
In cool, blue bathrooms.

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

From Faith Lectures: The Messianic Idea Today

“The other thing is that when we say ‘not yet’ but will we still say, im kol zeh echakeh lo bechol yom sheyavo – af al pi ken – we still await him daily – is the refusal to accept the second alternative which is the world we inhabit today which is the world of Postmodernism in which there are no ultimate meanings. Postmodernism is the rejection of the redemption narrative. “Postmodernism”, says Jean-Paul Lyotard, means the distrust of meta-narratives.” “Postmodernism,” says George Steiner in his latest book “Grammars of Creation”, “is the eclipse of the Messianic.” And we say: No. We do not say the ultimate meaning is the world we live in today where meanings are essentially private, whether they be therapeutic, Buddhist, New Age or any other alternative. We say that the meanings of our world are not private: they are shared. They are something we call the common good.”

Thanks to my student Penina Warburg for locating this article for our class.

Click on this link for the complete lecture:

How do we respond as Jews to the lack of clear narrative in the postmodern meta-narrative?

Part I. Philosophy
Now look, let me remind you of just a few of the differences I charted between the language of philosophy and the language of Judaism. Just to quickly sum it up. I have said that:
* Philosophy is about impersonal truth. Judaism is about personal truth.
* Philosophy is about detached observation. Judaism is about engaged participation.
* Philosophy is about a single ideal picture of the world. Judaism is about the irreducible multiplicity of perspectives.
* Philosophy searches for truths that are universal. Judaism articulates truths that are particular.
* Philosophy is about the discovery of harmony. Judaism is about cognitive dissonance.
* Philosophy is about the truths that we see. Judaism is about the truths that we hear.
* Philosophy is about truths thought. Judaism is about truths lived.
* Philosophy sees knowledge as cognition. Judaism sees knowledge as relationship.
* It follows that if philosophy is about the conquest of ignorance, Judaism is about the redemption of solitude.
You know, one could go on and on about those differences but it seems to me that those are just a few – and probably enough – to show you that there really is something fundamentally different about the way Judaism relates to the world and the way Plato and Descartes and their followers did, and that it is too little understood and far too little studied.

Part II. Cyclical time vs. linear time

Now the important thing about cyclical time is that it has a philosophy to it. Namely, that beneath all these changes that we see in nature and even in the human life cycle from birth to youth to maturity to decline and death and the new birth – all of those record changes beneath which there is an underlying order. Things actually don’t change. The cast of characters changes but cyclical time is time that endlessly repeats itself. And that is the philosophy behind the world of myth. It is the philosophy behind the world of philosophy. And it is the philosophy behind the world of science. Myth, science, are both different ways of discovering an unchanging order beneath the apparent chaos.

[C]yclical time [is] a world of eternal recurrences and that is the world that never changes and, to a certain extent, halachah, Jewish law, certainly as it relates to ben adam lemakom – to our relationship to God – Jewish law, in that sense, does not change. To ask a question of whether something is kosher or treif is, I think, more or less guaranteed to be fairly similar whether you ask the question in 2001, 1001 or 3001. I think so. Although the person who taught me for smichah always used to say, ‘Whatever it is, eat it today because tomorrow it will be treif’! That is cyclical time. And in that we claim no originality. We borrowed that from other time. That is cyclical time.

Anyway, this particular time I am going to call – because most people call it that and I am going to do so by way of shorthand – this time is called ‘linear time’. And the Torah has a marvellous way of fixing the moment when linear time begins. When God says to Abraham, Lech lecha me’artzecha mimoledetecha mibeis avicha el ha’aretz asher erecka – Leave your land, your birthplace and your father’s house and go to the land which I will show you, that is the birth of a concept of time as a journey. Time as a way of travelling towards a destination. Time as a narrative that has a beginning, middle and an end. That is a revolutionary concept of time born in Judaism and a very important one indeed.

That, I think, is actually at least a little fragment of the truth because God was telling Abraham to leave behind all the things that determine our future. That seem to suggest that we have no choice in what we become, that are deterministic. And He is saying to Abraham: Leave that world and embark on a journey of radical freedom.
Now, the question is: Why? What was it about Judaism that allowed Jews to come up with or to hear or to respond to this radically new concept of time according to which the future does not endlessly recapitulate the past? And the answer, I think, is simple. Here it is. Until Judaism, God had been seen in nature. With Judaism, for the first time, God is seen as above, or beyond, nature. If God is above nature, then God is not bound by nature. In other words, God is free. In other words, what is interesting about God and important about Him, is His choice, His will, His creativity. God chooses – asher bochar bonu micol ho’amim etc. etc. – God wills. Veyomer elokim yehi – God said, “Let there be”. God creates. Bereishit barah. Those are the key things about Judaism and you cannot find them in the universe of myth because choice, creativity and will are aspects of a Being that is somehow above nature, not determined by natural laws.

It therefore follows that if human beings are betzelem elokim – they share the image and the nature of God – then we too, for the first time, were able to see ourselves as beings with the capacity to choose, to will and to create. And that remains the single most striking – and I think most controversial, even to this day – of Judaism’s assertions.

Anyway, every attempt to reduce human behaviour to science or to pseudo-science is a failure to understand the nature of human freedom, of human agency, of human responsibility. A failure to understand that what makes us human is that we have will, we have choice, we have creativity. Every single attempt – socio-biological, genetic etc., and they are published by the hundred every single year – represents the failure to distinguish between a cause and an intention. Between phenomena whose causes lie in the past: those are scientific phenomena – and human behaviour, which is oriented towards the future. A future which only exists because I can imagine it and because I can imagine it I can choose to bring it about. That is in principle not subject to scientific causal analysis. And that is the root of human freedom. Because human beings are free – therefore we are not condemned to eternal recurrence. We can act differently today from the way we did yesterday – in small ways individually, in very big ways collectively. Because we can change ourselves, we can change the world.

And in that capacity, to change the world, cyclical time is transcended by linear time which says that because I can change, the world can change, and therefore I can move from where I am now to where I would like to be ultimately. That is where linear time is born. That is where hope is born and that is the incredible concept, the Jewish drama of redemption.

Now, I just want to give you a ‘for instance’ of the difference that makes, and here it is. If I were to ask you: What is the greatest contribution of the Greeks to literature? What genre? – what would you say. Tragedy? Yes. Exactly. That is the unsurpassed achievement of Sophocles, Aeschylus and the rest. Tragedy. Now tragedy belongs to cyclical time. It takes a very specific view of the world, which is that the world is fated more or less to remain the same. That is called moyra. That is called fate. And every belief that we have that we can somehow resist fate is what the Greeks called hubris and is punished by nemesis. All our dreams of changing the world are destined to be shipwrecked on the hard rocks of reality.

What is the Hebrew word for tragedy? There isn’t one, actually. Gevalt! You know how many words are missing from the Hebrew language? I’m sorry – again, I’m a little bit jetlagged. I’ve just come back from doing a big public dialogue with the Israeli writer Amos Oz and that was under the Chair of Judaism and Civility. And the fascinating thing is that when they came to translate that to Hebrew – [laughter] – they discovered there is no Jewish word for civility. There actually isn’t! They were in trouble! They came up with two alternatives: one was derech eretz; one was ezrachut. One means respect; one means citizenship. But there is no Jewish word for ‘civility’. But I should have known that.

Anyway, what is the Hebrew word for tragedy? Exactly! Tragedia! They couldn’t find a word for it. There is no Jewish word for tragedy because Judaism is the principled rejection of tragedy in the name of hope. And I find this extraordinary, that despite the many tragedies of Jewish history, there is no word. There are words for catastrophe. There’s a word like asson. There’s a word like churban. We have even borrowed a word from sacrificial stuff and use the word shoah. But not one of those words means what the Greek tragedy is about, namely bad things that happen because of the innate structure of reality which is fundamentally blind and deaf to human hopes and aspirations. There cannot be a Jewish tragedy. You can’t write it. It doesn’t translate.

In other words, at the heart of linear time is:
1. Human free will – because we can change ourselves, we can change the world.
2. The very structure of reality. Reality is not blind. It is not indifferent to us. It is that at the very heart of it there is a Presence, a Being, a Thou – Who cares, Who wants us to be here, Who assures us that our aspirations are not destined to fail.
3. And because of those critical tragedy-destroying concepts that we speak of ten days in the year, between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the concepts of teshuvah and kapparah. I say I am sorry about the past and I am forgiven for the past. And teshuvah and kapparah between them help to ensure that no past determines our future. If we are sorry for the past and we are forgiven for the past, we have a new slate and we can begin again. No world in which teshuvah and kapparah exists has room for the concept of fate or tragedy.

So, as a result, the most striking thing Judaism ever taught the world was a concept of time which gave rise to the possibility of hope – and thereby gave the West an alternative to Greek culture, namely to tragedy. An alternative to tragedy as the meta-narrative of the human condition. And you will understand that what makes linear time different from cyclical time is that linear time is about history, whereas cyclical time is about nature. Cyclical time, I said, belongs to ish hahalachah, to the halachic mind. Linear time belongs to the ish nevuah, to the prophetic mind. And it signals that there can be real change in the course of human affairs, not superficial change but deep substantive and structural change.
And that, of course, constitutes the third great belief of Judaism: creation, revelation. This is the belief in redemption.

Now the difference between linear time and cyclical time – and let me just say it in slightly different words – is the difference ultimately between seeing the truth as a system and seeing the truth as a story. It is the difference between the platonic concept of philosophy as revealing timeless truth – and Torah, which is not a book in its prophetic aspect of timeless truth. It is a book about the realisation of truth through time.

Now the closing chapter of that story is of course yamot hameshiach – the Messianic Age. And, of course, what the Messianic Age is and what I am supposed to tell you tonight – I frankly give up on completely because it is one of the most hotly-debated topics in Judaism and you don’t want to know my views about it.

However, what you can say without shadow of doubt is, in answer to the questions ‘Has Moshiach come?’, the Jewish answer is ‘Not yet’. However, in that very ‘not yet’ are two monumental assertions. And this is what I want to say.
1. When we say ‘not yet’, we are saying no to any premature consolation, any willingness to settle for less than our vision of an ideal world. How can we say with Christian that the Messiah has come in a world still riven by violence, conflict, terrorism, inequality and injustice? How could we say, with that other great Jewish Messianic vision, Marxist Communism, that the world is saved by the mere withering of the state. I mean, for heaven’s sake! One is okay, one’s a nightmare. But we have been prepared always to say, ‘Not yet. We will not settle for premature consolations.’
2. The other thing is that when we say ‘not yet’ but will we still say, im kol zeh echakeh lo bechol yom sheyavo – af al pi ken – we still await him daily – is the refusal to accept the second alternative which is the world we inhabit today which is the world of Postmodernism in which there are no ultimate meanings. Postmodernism is the rejection of the redemption narrative. “Postmodernism”, says Jean-Paul Lyotard, means the distrust of meta-narratives.” “Postmodernism,” says George Steiner in his latest book “Grammars of Creation”, “is the eclipse of the Messianic.” And we say: No. We do not say the ultimate meaning is the world we live in today where meanings are essentially private, whether they be therapeutic, Buddhist, New Age or any other alternative. We say that the meanings of our world are not private: they are shared. They are something we call the common good.

And that means that we absolutely reject both those who think that salvation has come or is within reach and those who say there is no such thing. What is at stake in this Messianic narrative? I will tell you. What is at stake in the prophetic consciousness, the ish nevua, the linear imagination, the Jewish meta-narrative of redemption, I have here to differ to a man who put it so much better than I could – the non-Jewish writer Paul Johnson. This is what Paul Johnson says in the beginning of his book on Jewish history – and it is so true and so beautiful and here it is.

“No people has ever insisted more firmly than the Jews that history has a purpose and humanity a destiny. The Jews, therefore, stand right at the centre of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose.”