Listen to Rabbi Brawer’s Thought for The Day on BBC4 Today Programme


The Tooth Fairy, Biblical Truth and the Loss of Innocence

After weeks of hanging on a thread my seven year old son’s tooth finally fell out. Later that night I silently crept into his room to deposit the tooth fairy’s money under his pillow. It’s not his first tooth so it’s a routine he has come to expect. I am not sure precisely when he stopped believing in the tooth fairy. I think it happened gradually. He is a bright kid and it didn’t take him long to reflect on the incredulity of a nocturnal visitor bearing a gift of cash. Still he is more than happy for the charade to continue and one in which he plays a willing part by reminding me to remind the fairy and then pretending to be surprised the next morning when he discovers money under his pillow. I don’t think there is a parent on the planet who at some point deliberately sits down with their child to disabuse them of this tenuous belief. It just sort of happens and it happens well before the child has lost all his milk teeth.  Why do we continue to play out this charade? A psychologist or sociologist might have a sophisticated response but I think we continue because the game is harmless and it gives pleasure to our children. It costs nothing more than the pound or two placed under the pillow. There is no real emotional, psychological or religious cost to learning that the tooth fairy is actually one’s parent. It’s a game. Everyone knows it’s a game and our children outgrow it. All too soon

There is however another game that we tend to play with far greater consequences and that is how we teach our children to understand the stories in the bible; particularly those in the early chapters of Genesis.

While younger children will have no problem imagining Adam and Eve lounging in the Garden of Eden, a talking snake and a virtual zoo on a floating ark, older children, particularly brighter ones, are bound to question the veracity of these tales.

Where there really only two people at the beginning of time? Who did Cain marry? How was he able to build a city and who was the city for if there was no one else on earth ? Did people really live for centuries? How did Noah get all of the world’s animals onto the ark? These are questions that are bound to emerge as children read and reread the story. The answers we give them then are crucial to their relationship with, and respect for, this sacred scripture. All too often our bog standard answers are even more implausible than the initial questions. For example, Cain and Able married their sisters (who for some reason the bible does not consider significant enough to mention.)

The problem with this approach is that like the tooth fairy the kids just stop believing it. You know they don’t believe it; they know you know they don’t believe it and they suspect you don’t believe it either. So we enter into a charade except this charade is dangerous because it threatens our children’s life-long relationship with the bible and by extension with religion.

An honest approach is that these stories are not meant to be taken literally. The bible does not set out to write history. It is trying to communicate deep values and truths about God and the nature of human beings. The story of Adam and Eve is the story of humanity, the Garden of Eden is not a geographical locale, it symbolizes a state of innocence and purity. While the story of the deluge might well be based on some historical episode its primary purpose is to draw attention to man’s capacity to destroy and to redeem. It also can be read as a counter-point to the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh epic.

Can a primary school child take all this in? Of course not. Which is why it makes sound educational sense to allow younger children to approach these stories at face value. There is a crucial point in a child’s development however when responsible educators must gently and careful begin to introduce the concept of non literalist reading. The cost of not addressing this issue is to widen a gulf between a student’s increasingly sophisticated secular education and his rather simplistic and childlike comprehension of the bible. When this happens the only recourse available to the thinking student is cognitive dissonance, or wholesale rejection of the bible.

I believe that the time to introduce non-literal thinking is in secondary school when children are still developing intellectually. Waiting any later is too great a risk. We must engage them before they wander away. What we need are religiously committed, Intellectually honest educators can find  creative ways to introduce the idea of non-literalist reading without shaking the foundations of a student’s faith. They can demonstrate that while history is concerned with factual truth the bible is concerned with timeless truth; the truth of our relationship with God and our place in creation. If we are successful, our children will return to these timeless stories repeatedly, seeking and finding in them an inexhaustible source of wisdom, guidance and truth.

What Tolstoy can teach us about Tishrei

Several weeks ago my wife and I went to see Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright’s film adaptation of Tolstoy’s great love story Anna Karenina staring Jude law and Keira Knightly.

It was a magnificent production although for those hoping to see a film you may be disappointed as it is more of a play with very stylized acting and almost the entire thing was shot in a dilapidated Russian theatre.

Yet, despite being a  wonderful production it inevitably cuts out huge swathes of the book (it has to reduce a 900 page tome to a 130 page script.) in the process one loses not just key elements of the story but crucially the nuance of Tolstoy’s brilliant writing which just cannot be captured in a film.

One of the major themes of the book that gets overlooked in the film is the contrast between two relationships: Anna and count Vronsky and Konstantine Levin and Kitty Sherbatsky.

Anna and Vronsky fall deeply and madly in love almost as soon as they first set eyes on each other. Yet as the years move on their relationship begins to fracture. The reason is that it is too intense, too rarefied. There is just too much love and nothing else. They are rich, idle, unsaddled with family responsibilities (partly because they are unable to become a family) and in the end boredom and paranoia set in. The relationship begins to crack under the weight of unrealistic expectations and in the end Anna despondently throws herself under a train.

The contrast with Levin and Kitty could not be any sharper. Levin is a neurotic, self conscious, socially awkward, overly sensitive land-owner who tries, fails and eventually succeeds in winning the hand of the beautiful Kitty Sherbatsky. Their relationship is the polar opposite of Anna and Versonsky’s. The early years of their marriage are not easy. Levin is prickly, Kitty is highly strung. They misunderstand each other, they get angry with each other and they struggle to meld their lives together. Slowly however they manage to do just that and they develop deep mutual love and respect for each other.

The major difference between these two relationships is that the first is a fantasy while the second is built on reality.

The message that emerges from this is that while sparks of intense passion are good they must be harnessed to something more concrete, like everyday life, if they are to sustain a relationship over the long term.

The late Rav Shagar would often return to a key idea when addressing newlyweds under the chupah. He would point out that the western ideal of love is characterized by the two lovers looking only at each other. This is reflected in literature, film as well as in the popular saying ‘he only has eyes for her.’ The Jewish ideal however shifts the focus onto a third point; that of a shared value or ideal. Real love in Judaism is about partnering with a soul mate in pursuit of shared goals and vision. It is through working alongside a life partner that the deepest and most sustaining love develops.

A similar idea could be applied to one’s relationship with God. It is neither desirable nor possible to maintain for any length of time a passionate state of dvekut (cleaving to God.) rather Jewish mystics understood that a relationship with God necessitates a dialectical dance of advance and retreat (known in Hebrew as ratzo va-shov.)

This dialectical dance undergirds all of Jewish religious experience. It is the basic structure of Shabbat and the workweek. If we advance passionately towards God on Shabbat, we retreat (in a manner of speaking) once Shabbat passes and a new week begins. It is precisely because of this temporary retreat that our advance the next Friday evening is so meaningful. It is also because of the intensity of the advance on Shabbat that we are sustained spiritually and so able to retreat during the week that follows.

The same dynamic occurs each day with an intense connection through prayer and a relative retreat as we enter into our workday.

The Tiferet Shlomo, the Rebbe of Radomsk (who incidentally lived at the same time as Tolstoy) offered a very beautiful interpretation of a passage we read in the musaf prayer on festivals. The prayer begins bestow on us the blessing of the festival.. The Hebrew word for bestow is ve-hasi’enu which, says the Rebbe of Radomsk, has the same letters as the Hebrew word for marriage. He develops his idea further by pointing out that the end of a wedding is merely the beginning of a young couple’s future together. The same is true for Jewish festivals. They are moments of intense religious celebration and connection to God. Our prayer reminds us that when the festival ends the real work begins for sustaining a meaningful long term relationship with God.

As we say farewell to another Tishrei let’s keep that in mind.

Political Conventions, the Jewish New Year and the Authentic Self


Aesop’s fable ‘The Ass in the Lion’s Skin’ depicts a duplicitous ass who dons an old lion’s skin in order to masquerade as the king of beasts.  The ploy works until he tries to speak. When he does his asinine tone betrays him. While the moral usually drawn from this tale is that foolish words will always betray a fool no matter what his guise, I choose to see it as an exhortation to authenticity. One must always discover their true voice despite being concealed under layers of disguise. The timeless wisdom of this ancient fable popped into my mind while reading coverage of the American republican and democratic national conventions

The one common concern shared by both the republican and the democrat conventions was to strip away the layers of myth that naturally adhere to public figures and to expose the real person running for high office, who inevitably is just an ordinary guy.  Yet ironically it is in presenting the candidates as ordinary guys that the most extensive mythmaking occurs.

Michelle Obama delivered a folksy account of Barak the man, husband and father. Ann Romney took listeners behind the scene to portray the real Mitt. The delegates predictably lapped it up.  Apparently it didn’t occur to any of them that these heart to heart speeches by a candidate’s spouse are amongst the most heavily edited and spun orations one is likely to hear. There is a science to political speechwriting. On multimillion dollar US presidential campaigns there are teams of speechwriters, analysts and strategists who will pick over every phrase and word before vetting a speech. What emerges is anything but the conversational ‘heart to heart’ chats portrayed by the candidates’ wives. Instead of their words revealing the man who would be president they only serve to further conceal him. There is little that is genuine and nothing that is spontaneous in these heavily airbrushed speeches calculated to elicit as much applause as possible. Yet the irony is lost on hundreds of delegates and thousands of TV viewers who applaud wildly believing they have glimpsed the authentic candidate.

It is not just in the world of politics that the authentic voice is muted. Celebrity culture is another obvious example of a continuous masquerade. All we know about celebrities is what they choose to reveal and invariably they choose to reveal what they think we want to see. Celebrity magazines are a multi-million pound business and yet for all they reveal the real celebrity is kept well hidden. This is also true of the world of business where people tend to project an image to a client that is very different from the image projected to a partner or competitor.

In a certain sense we all suffer from a lack of authenticity. We assume many roles and project many images of ourselves on a daily basis. We may in turn be a spouse, parent, commuter, client, citizen, consumer, neighbour and friend. To each of these roles we bring not just what we believe the role demands but also what others expect to see. At the end of the day it can be difficult to divest ourselves from these accumulated layers of synthetic identity and like the donkey at the beginning of Aesop’s fable we lose sight of who we really are.

The central ritual of the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) is the sounding of a ram’s horn known in Hebrew as a Shofar. One of the explanations of this ancient ritual is that the simple, raw, unadorned sound of the ram’s horn simulates a human cry. Where cleverly crafted words conceal our innermost thoughts and feelings the human cry reveals them.  The sound of the Shofar then is the deep calling of the authentic self.

This does not mean that one can, or should, expose their deepest self in all the many different roles they assume on a daily basis. Such intensity can be untenable. It does mean however that we should not lose sight of the authentic self and to allow it, at least in some degree to shine through the multiple necessary guises we assume. In narrowing the gap between who we are and how we are perceived we come to live a life of greater authenticity, holism and meaning.

Israelis, Ice Cream and Apologies

I recent trip to Israel and encounter with Israelis left me with very mixed emotions. On the one hand I experienced, as I always do when visiting Israel, all of the positive aspects associated with Israelis; their energy, dynamism, optimism and sheer celebration of life. On the other hand I encountered some of their less pleasant attributes such as their  rudeness and insensitivity.

Let me share two vignettes to illustrate.

We were in Jerusalem on one of the hottest days of the year. We stopped at the Malcha pedestrian mall to buy some ice cream. My wife found a long strand of hair embedded in her ice cream and brought it to the attention of the shopkeeper. Please pause for a moment and indulge me with the following thought experiment: imagine the same thing occurred at an ice cream shop in New York or London. How do you think the proprietor would react? Exactly. He would thank you for pointing it out and then apologize profusely. It goes without saying that he would refund you for the cost of the ice cream and express the wish that you would continue to patronize his shop again. Well that is not what happened to my wife in Jerusalem. The owner actually accused her of implanting her own hair into the ice cream so as to get a refund. He even ‘proved’ this to her by demonstrating that while his hair was short hers was long. The only logical conclusion was that the long offending hair was her own.

Later that day we took a bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. We stood for about a half hour in a queue at the central bus station (the tachana ha-merkazit.) just as we neared the end of the line a middle-aged women conversing loudly on her mobile phone pushed in front of us and worked her way to the front. When I pointed out that we had been waiting patiently for close to a half hour she began to shriek at me saying that she suffered from hypertension and that she was an ill woman who couldn’t stand in line for that long. I responded by saying that all she had to do was politely tell me that before pushing in front and I would have gladly let her through. She had no answer to this and continued to shout and bellow about how ill she was and how insensitive I was.

Reflecting on these two experiences while sitting on the overheated bus to Tel Aviv it occurred to me that Israelis have a profound difficulty with making apologies.  Whereas in Western culture an apology is a sign of maturity and strength Israelis can’t help thinking of it as a sign of weakness and therefore something to be avoided at all costs. It is not just ice cream retailers and impatient overheated travellers who have difficulty mustering the word sorry; it is also politicians and national leaders who believe that if only they argue their point long enough and loudly enough it will resonate with listeners irrespective of the merits or legitimacy of their argument . This is one of the failures of the hasbarah campaign; it concedes no ground to the other side regardless of how in the wrong Israel might be on a particular issue. This can be infuriating for those on the other side and that is why in the long run such an attitude has proved counterproductive. It is not just Israelis who have difficulty apologizing, Diaspora Jews display the same tendency when they label a self-hating Jew any member of the community who criticizes Israeli government policy.

In fairness to Israelis it is understandable where this attitude comes from. They live in a very hostile region where one cannot afford to display the slightest sign of weakness lest it be exploited by an enemy. Yet a genuine apology does not a weakling make. On the contrary, apologizing when you are clearly in the wrong is not only a sign of strength and confidence it is also the surest way to disarm your opponent. It is also a good way of ensuring customers continue to patronise your shop even after discovering hair  in their ice cream 

The Substance of Symbols

In preparation for the summer Olympics draped across the length of Regents Street are the flags of 206 nations coming from around the globe to compete in the summer games. It is a spectacular sight adding great splashes of colour to one of the finest roads in London. It is also certain to generate feelings of pride and patriotism amongst the multitude of international pedestrians as they spot their country’s flag fluttering overhead.

The interesting thing about national flags is the meaning or association of their colours and symbols change over the course of time. Take the iconic Union Jack for instance. In the nineteenth century it stood as a symbol of a colonial empire. Today the very same flag stands for something else entirely; a multi-cultural Britain. The meaning of symbols is never constant it changes depending on circumstances and how people choose to read the symbols. In the case of nations, flags don’t just tell a story about the past they represent the present and the future as well.

Amongst the 206 flags are those belonging to nations that are in the midst of tremendous rupture and change. The ways in which these countries manage such change will inevitably affect the way their national flags are interpreted for years to come.

Lazy politicians and irresponsible scaremongers often shift the blame for their countries situation onto minority groups and outsiders.  Demonising the other is a tried and tested method of shirking responsibility for a national crisis. And yet historically those nations that embraced cultural, religious and ethnic diversity always came out ahead in the long run.

In the book of numbers the bible relates how the children of Israel wandered through the dessert under tribal banners. The colours and symbols chosen reflected not just the stories of their past but the highest religious and ethical ideals they hoped to live by in the future.

May each of the 206 flags fluttering on Regent’s Street represent a future of prosperity, security and human dignity.

Invisible Art and the Humility of Faith

I recently visited the Hayward Gallery to see a new exhibit entitled Invisible: Art about the Unseen, 1957 -2012. While to many the term ‘invisible art’ is an oxymoron this exhibit explores the work of  a unique group of artists starting with Yves Klein in the 1950’s who began to conceive of and produce art that cannot been seen, only imagined. Those looking for an aesthetic experience will come away from this exhibit with the impression that the emperor is well and truly naked. However for those interested in the intersection of art and existentialist philosophy this is an exhibit not to be missed.

What artists such as Klein, Bruno Jakob, Gianni Motti, Tom Friedman and others are trying to do is raise the question what is reality and how our perceptions, expectations and biases play a role in shaping reality. Take for example a piece by the Swiss artist Bruno Jakob. The viewer sees a large framed blank sheet of paper with barely perceptible creases. It portrays nothing and yet paradoxically it is capable of portraying anything one chooses to project onto it. No two people will ‘see’ the same image on this paper. What is reflected back to us is what we project onto it and our projections are intensely subjective and personal.

Another example is the work by the Chinese artist Song Dong who keeps a personal diary written in clear water on stone leaving inscriptions that rapidly evaporate. He began this bizarre practice in 1995 when he realized that conventional diary writing posed the risk of exposing his most intimate thoughts and feeling to others. Seventeen years on, after pouring his most intimate thinking out in this way he believes that the stone – which to the observer betrays nothing of his activity – has actually become thicker day by day with the accumulation of his thoughts. In light of this information it is impossible for the viewer to see the stone as simply a stone. One invariably projects this awareness onto the blank surface of the stone seeing in it something else entirely; the reflection of a man’s intimate thoughts and feelings.

Interestingly much of how we perceive the world depends on what we expect to see. The psychiatrist and neuroscientist Ian McGilchrist makes this argument in his book ‘The Master and his Emissary’ where he unpacks the workings of the two hemispheres of the brain. Each new experience as it is first present to the mind, he writes, engages the right hemisphere. Once the experience becomes familiar it gets re-presented by the left hemisphere and that re-presentation is very much guided by what we expect to see. This is why for example we can drive the same road on the way to work for years and yet still not ‘see’ unexpected changes along that road such as new street furniture. The first time we drove that route we saw things as they really were. On subsequent journeys we see what we have come to expect. Ultimately, much of what we see can only be described as a grand illusion since we tend to experience more and more only what we already know. Ultimately, McGilchrist concludes, we become so entrenched in this cycle that it is hard to know how we can ever come to experience anything truly new.

Wandering around the gallery and engaging with the artwork it suddenly occurred to me that the nineteenth century atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach would have felt right at home. Feuerbach famously asserted that there is no independent reality called God. Instead, what we describe as God is nothing more than humanity projecting its deepest values and loftiest ideals onto an imagined deity.  God for Feuerbach is no more real than the fantastic images we chose to project onto Jakob’s blank canvass. It’s all a figment of our own overactive imagination and we would all be better off focusing less on contrived heavenly attributes and more on human justice and compassion. Freud similarly argued in The Future of an Illusion that the illusion of God is one of the most important items in the psychical inventory of a civilisation. It was Freud’s fervent hope however, that civilisation will evolve beyond this infantile stage and that science will replace all religion and reason will replace faith in God.

While Feuerbach and Freud argued that man should evolve beyond the primitive stage of religious belief pragmatists like William James maintained that belief in God can be justified regardless of whether or not He actually exists. This is because such belief – which can neither be proven or disproven – can be immensely useful in the way it brings about extraordinary positive changes in people’s lives. A contemporary of  William James, the American Psychologist James Leuba similarly held that proof of God’s actual existence is irrelevant to a person of faith. He writes:

God is not known, he is not understood, he is used sometimes as meat-purveyor, sometimes as moral support, sometimes as friend, sometimes as an object of love. If he proves himself useful, the religious consciousness asks for no more than that. Does God really exist? How does he exist? What is he? are so many irrelevant questions. Not God, but life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life, is, in the last analysis, the end of religion.

True beliefs, then according to James and Leuba are those that are useful to the believer. In fact, in response to a survey about religious belief, James indicated that he believed in God, not because he had any evidence of God’s existence but because he needed such a belief.

And yet just because the canvass is blank it does not mean that it is intrinsically empty. Simply because a reality is incommunicable does not necessarily undermine its veracity. The mystics also thought of God as a blank canvass. They believed that any attribute or quality that one ascribes to God is nothing more than our description of how God is manifest to us. As for God himself nothing can be said since He transcends all description and characterisation. In fact ‘He’ is neither he nor she, simply the En Sof;  the infinite, the indescribable, the inscrutable. Any attempt at definition is detraction. Any characterization is to limit the limitless. The mere use of language is severely inadequate which is why the mystics struggle with language when talking about the divine.  Gershom Scholem pointed out how the seminal text of Jewish mysticism the Zohar is filled with oxymora and paradoxes for this very reason. When the Zohar employs a term like ‘It is and is not’ it is not struggling to describe something that exists only partially argues Scholem, but rather that its existence is of such a lofty spiritual nature that it cannot be properly described.

Even though nothing rational can be said about God it does not mean that belief in God is inherently irrational. The American psychologist and philosopher Ken Wilber makes an important distinction between what he calls pre-rational and trans-rational states of mind. In the pre-rational state one has not thought the matter through and is simply ‘irrational.’ In the trans-rational state one recognises that rationality has its own severe limitations and therefore seeks to go beyond these limitations.  This awareness of something divine beyond language and description is, according to the Lutheran Theologian Rudolph Otto, at the heart of all religious faith and the feeling it engenders is what he calls the Numinous which he describes as ‘a non-rational, non-sensory experience, or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self.’ He also refers to it as the ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’ a great mystery that invokes both fear and fascination, the operative word here being mysterium. Rabbi A.J. Heschel who was influenced by Otto’s thinking argued that the rational mind cannot be the sole arbiter reality. In his ‘Man is not Alone’ he writes that:

The most basic objection to the belief in the existence of God is the argument that such a belief passes from the mind’s data to something that surpasses the scope of the mind. What gives us the assurance than an idea which we may find ourselves obliged to think may hold true of a reality that lies beyond the reach of the mind? Such an objection is valid when applied to the speculative approach. Yet, as we have seen, the certainty of the existence of God does not come about as a corollary of logical premises, as a leap from the realm of logic to the realm of ontology, from an assumption to a fact. It is, on the contrary, a transition from an immediate apprehension to a thought, from being overwhelmed by the presence of God to an awareness of His essence.

The mystics and Feuerbach however, agree up to a point. They both see the characterisation of God as a human endeavour, not dissimilar to projecting images onto a blank canvass. Where they part company however is in their conception of the blank canvass itself. While Feuerbach contends that it is nothing the mystics maintain that it is everything. For Feuerbach there is no independent divine reality beyond our own imagination. For the mystics God is absolutely real even if at the same time He is inscrutable.

The practical upshot of all this is awareness that despite our best efforts we cannot possibly know God. While this seems obvious to some it is sadly not the case for others. A decade into the twenty first century we are witnessing a resurgence of faith. While on the surface that is a good thing it is the kind of faith professed by many that is disturbing. It can only be described as a’ faith of arrogance.’ One that purports to know exactly what God is and what he does, and does not want, leading its proponents to act as God’s enforcers. Such confidence and certainty can be toxic when aligned to man’s baser instincts such as the craving for power, greed and self importance. Sadly, no faith has a monopoly on this dangerous distortion. We see it and read about it all the time. What frequently passes for religious zeal is barely masked opportunism in which individuals project their own selfish needs, desires and fears onto God. We need to rediscover the wisdom of the mystics and start putting forward a faith of humility underpinned by awe and wonder at the infinitude of the divine – the mysterium tremendum – while at the same time acknowledging our own severe limitations and inadequacies. The result is to proceed humbly and cautiously on one’s religious journey as the prophet Micah (6:8) said ‘Walk humbly with your God.’  A visit to the Hayward Gallery is a useful first step in this direction.

Invisible: Art about the Unseen,1957-2012 is showing at the Hayward Gallery 12 June – 5 August.

this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle on 5 July