Listen to Rabbi Brawer’s BBC Radio 4 Documentary on the Talmud
Rabbi Brawer’s Passover message for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation
Rabbi Brawer’s Thought for the Day (BBC Radio 4) can be listened to on link below
Listen to Rabbi Brawer’s popular program on the Mourner’s Kaddish on BBC World Service
You can watch Rabbi Brawer on TV channel 4’s 4thought as he contributes to the debate on welfare reform. See the link below.
Below is a selection of scripts broadcast on BBC Radio 2 and Radio 4
A man asks to see his Rabbi. Upon entering the rabbi’s study the man breaks down sobbing uncontrollably. “What is the matter?” asks the concerned rabbi “Are you ill?” “Are you experiencing financial hardship?” Is your wife leaving you?” “No” says the man through his tears. “My health is fine, my finances are robust and my wife is deeply in love with me. My problem is I have lost faith in God.” “Tell me” says the rabbi “does it bother you that you have lost faith in God?” “Bother me?” asks the man incredulously “it’s killing me! I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I can’t think.” “Well if that’s the case” says the rabbi “you’ve nothing to worry about.”
This remarkable story is about the complexities of faith. People often assume that to have faith means to live without doubt or questions. That is not so. Faith is about wrestling with doubt and questions. Sometimes doubts are triggered by personal tragedy or by witnessing the suffering of others. Sometimes doubts surface for no apparent reason. The point of faith is to struggle through those doubts and if need be to learn to live with them.
A believer in the Jewish tradition is not characterised by his unquestioning and constant faith in God but rather by his unyielding desire to believe in God even when such belief desserts him.
Faith is not a constant. It ebbs and flows, and so long as one is committed to pursuing it, it gradually grows and develops. The faith of a forty year old is not the same as the faith of a teenager; it is deeper, subtler, more sophisticated.
A person who does not even occasionally question God is someone who either has no experience of life or someone who doesn’t think. Judaism does not discourage such questions. On the contrary; it is learning to live with them and the knowledge that they may never be answered that distinguishes a person of faith.
Recently my wife and I took the Euro Star to Paris. Our train carriage was surprisingly empty but for a young couple sitting directly behind us. They must have come in from the other side of the carriage after we had already sat down as I didn’t see them enter.
They discussed literature and art and moral philosophy. As their conversation was more interesting than the book I was reading I found myself listening intently. I also gradually began to form in my mind a picture of what these remarkably cultured people sitting just behind me actually looked like. I imagined the young man in Jeans, a turtleneck and a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches. He probably as had on wire-rimmed glasses and a preppy haircut. The young woman I imagined wearing a crisp pair of well cut trousers, sensible shoes, a button-down blouse and a blazer.
When we finally arrived in Paris I stood up to retrieve our bags when I caught sight of two Goths occupying the seats behind us. The couple waxing lyrical about literature and philosophy were dressed in black with heavy eye shadow, dyed hair and more body piercings than you could shake a finger at.
They looked nothing like I had imagined.
As we disembarked from the train I wondered what I would have thought about this unconventionally dressed a couple if I sighted them as soon as they entered the train and took their seats behind me. Would I have assumed that they might possess deep knowledge and subtle intellect? Probably not. I would have been guilty of pre-judging a couple I never met based on something as external as their dress sense. I was both ashamed and grateful. Ashamed that I could be so shallow and grateful that in this instance I was able to see what someone looked like on the inside before seeing how they appeared on the outside.
In-flight entertainment and Inter-Connectivity
I am one of those people who just cannot sleep on a plane and so I rely heavily on the in-flight entertainment to anesthetise me for an otherwise restless hours suspended in a capsule with 300 people I don’t know.
The entertainment system on a recent flight was excellent. Each seat had a private screen with a vast selection of films and TV shows on demand. My only complaint was that the pilot insisted on switching off the system 20 minutes before landing – just when my third film reached a critical juncture about three quarters the way through. Now I have to rent the DVD just to find out how the last twenty minutes play out – which is kind of frustrating.
At one point in between films I got up to use the bathroom and as I did I took in the sight of a cabin full of people each engrossed in their own movie. How different this was from the 1970’s when I was growing up. Then you had to wait until after the meal was served when a large screen was pulled down in front of the cabin and one or two films was all you got.
But at least then everyone shared the same experience. If it was a funny film people laughed together and if it was sad they cried together. It was a common experience that held together 300 disparate passengers. I am not saying I would like to go back to those times – I love the choice and freedom of entertainment on demand – but I do think we have lost something in the process.
And I think this change 30,000 feet in the sky reflects a deeper change back here on the ground. We have become more self-absorbed and cut off from those around us. It is no longer uncommon to see a group of friends sitting at a restaurant each absorbed in reading texts or emails. Despite the profusion in communications technology, and ironically perhaps because of it, we are less connected to each other than ever before. We can’t turn the technology clock back nor should we, but we must at least be aware of its potential cost to society and think of ways of recapturing our rapidly eroding sense of connectivity.
Going Off course
Do you think you are capable of walking a perfectly straight line while blindfolded?
If you answered yes you are wildly overestimating your capabilities.
In the early 1920’s a young scientist named Asa Schaffer took a man to the edge of a field, blindfolded him and asked him to walk a straight line to the other side. Instead of walking straight across the field the man began to veer right and then he started going around in ever tighter circles until he bumped into a tree not far from where he set off.
A similar experience occurred to three men who in 1928 left a barn on a foggy day setting out towards a destination about a half mile away. They too ended up veering of course eventually going around in circles until they hit the barn that they had originally departed from.
The interesting thing is that all the while the men thought there were walking in a perfectly straight line.
No one is sure why we are unable to accomplish the seemingly simple task of walking in a straight line but it is a well established fact that without a clear reference point we are unable to do so.
I think the same is true for our journey through life. We often think we are moving along a straight line. That our behaviour is moral and ethical and that our lives are progressing the way we would like them to. The reality however is often very different from this perception. Unless we have clear reference points our journeys can often end up looking like those of a blindfolded man trying to cross a field in a straight line. We invariably veer of course; only slightly at first – perhaps we compromise a principle or just occasionally bend the rules – but then it becomes increasingly pronounced. The sad thing is that even as we veer off course we have the illusion that we are going straight.
The antidote to this common problem is to ensure we have a reference point in our lives against which to gauge our journey. I think that the best reference point is a good and honest friend who is not afraid to tell you when you have gone off course and who has the wisdom and sensitivity to show you the way back.
Living or Passing Time
Last month my grandmother died. Nana was 96 years old and she died as she lived – on her own terms. Two days before her passing she was out socializing with friends. When her health suddenly took a turn for the worse she refused to go to the hospital. She insisted on remaining in her own home and there, surrounded by her loving family and closest friends she slipped away peacefully in her sleep.
What always struck me about Nana is how current she was. She was born into a world very different from the one she left. Yet despite being born close to a century ago she adapted remarkably well to the considerable and rapid changes in technology and society over the course of more than nine decades. She really understood the world of her great-grandchildren in a way that few people of her generation do. I think this was due to the fact that she was genuinely open to new experiences and she got a thrill out of learning new things especially when it was her grandchildren or great grandchildren who taught her.
The Bible describes the aging Abraham as being old and advanced in years. The two are not the same. Everyone gets older but not everyone advances in years. To advance in years means to really progress and grow throughout one’s life. Nana’s greatest gift was her ability to grasp each new day of life and to grow through it.
Benjamin Franklin said some people die at twenty five but don’t get buried until they are seventy five.
I am forty one years of age. I am alive but am I still living? Do I grasp each new day of life? Am I advancing in years or just passing time? Nana’s extraordinary life has taught me to expect more from myself and more from life.
Be true to yourself
It is said that in our teens we are concerned about what other people think of us.
In our twenties we stop caring what other people think of us.
And in our thirties we realize that other people are actually not thinking about us altogether.
If only it were so. If only we really stopped caring about what other people think.So much of our behavior is determined by the expectations of others that it is often difficult to distinguish between who we really are and who we appear to be.
The 19th century rabbi and mystic Menachem Mendel Morgenstern known as the Kotzker Rebbe put it this way:
“If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then we are each true to ourselves. If however I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I then we are each betraying ourselves.
He also gave a searing commentary on the passage in the Bible (Numbers 13:33) that tells of the Israelites, after returning from spying out the promised land and seeing the psychically imposing Canaanites, lose confidence in their ability to conquer the land. In desperation that say to Moses “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”
Said the Kotzker Rebbe; to feel small as a grasshopper is bad enough, but what concern is it of yours how others perceive you?! We mustn’t allow others to determine how we perceive ourselves. Each person is blessed with a unique set of qualities and characteristics and it is our duty to express them.
May we each discover who we really are, and by being ourselves may we bring vibrancy, color and blessing to God’s World.