Vision In the Mist: Sermon Delivered in South Africa by Mandel Provost Michael Marmur - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Vision In the Mist: Sermon Delivered in South Africa by Mandel Provost Michael Marmur

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Tuesday, September 2, 2014


A Sermon Delivered by Rabbi Michael Marmur, Ph.D., Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Provost

St George's Cathedral, Cape Town, Sunday, August 24, 2014 


From left: Dean Michael Weeder, St George's Anglican Cathedral, Cape Town, South Africa; Rabbi Marmur; and Dr. Sarah Bernstein

My thanks go to the Dean of the Cathedral, Dean Michael Weeder, for inviting me to speak in this extraordinary place. It is a profound privilege to be given the opportunity to stand in this pulpit. Your country, your city and your sacred House of God are an inspiration and an example to all who believe that change is possible. From these pews, a message of hope emanates around the world. It reminds us that even in times of great darkness, the ways in which we respond to God's call can engender epoch-making transformations. Yours is a gospel of hope and change, of reconciliation and encounter, and it echoes in the four corners of the earth.

I am a Jew, British by birth and Israeli by choice. I am a Reform rabbi, dedicated to teaching men and women to become vessels of Torah in the spirit of a modern non-fundamentalist and moderate strand within the wider tapestry of the Jewish conversation. 

As you well know, these are days of tragedy and despair in Israel and in Palestine. When Dean Michael invited me to address you neither he nor I could have imagined that hostilities there would have continued and grown to such horrendous proportions.

For the last couple of weeks my wife Sarah - who directs the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations - and I have been far from the madding crowd, and far from the heart-wrenching realities of the Middle East. We have in fact been in the Namibian Desert, sampling the raw beauty and breathtaking vistas of that remarkable land.

A few days ago we awoke at dawn enveloped in a desert mist. Our guide drove us to the area of a dried-out river bed, and we peered through the thick mist at the wonders of nature all around us, trying not to startle nor to be startled by any of the animals around us. As we travelled I was reminded of a teaching which appears in the Babylonian Talmud, one of the great foundational Jewish texts. The source makes use of parables, and that style of teaching may sound familiar to you - Jesus the Jew from Nazareth employed them too.

The subject occupying the sages in this teaching was one which has been in the forefront of our consciousness over these last dreadful weeks: fear, and most particularly the fear which an apparently weaker party can command over an ostensibly stronger one. It is interesting to note that the animals to which they refer can be found here in Africa, while many of them are rare or extinct in the Middle East. They taught that a lion can be terrorized by a beast which can do it no harm, perhaps by issuing a smell or a sound which convinces the lion it ought to afraid. A mosquito can drive an elephant crazy - we know what it's like when one buzzes in our ear, just imagine what it must feel like to have one up your trunk! They went on to describe the powerful scorpion who fears a spider. Their study in animal psychiatry continues as they suggest that a humble swallow may strike fear in the heart of a mighty eagle. And lastly, they describe the alarm felt by a whale at the thought that a small fish might block its blowhole.

Fear is at the root of conflict. When we fail to confront our fears on the personal level we are likely to stay trapped. And on the social and political level, if we fail to understand our own fears and those of the other, we are doomed to be incarcerated within a cycle of bloodshed. Each of the rabbis' examples describes a kind of fear, and they are among the fears I see around me in Israel today.

Take the fear of the scorpion, which can usually be expected to defeat the spider. Sometimes it fails to do so, and the spider finds a chink in the scorpion's armor in which it plants its poison. This is one of Israel's fears, admittedly a regional superpower with  a great deal of strength. It resides in a dangerous and volatile neighborhood, and it fears that one day it may fall prey to one or more of its adversaries. Is this fear justified? Are there palpable dangers which confront Israel from near and far? I believe there are. But I also believe that we must refuse to allow this fear to paralyze us.

Let's consider the fear of the eagle. If the smaller bird gets beneath its wings, it may fail to achieve the height it craves. Here is an allegorical representation of a fear sensed by many in Israel today. We came to Israel in order to be part of a noble project, to advance the self-determination and self-expression of the Jewish people. But the brutal realities of conflict threaten to paralyze our quest for a peaceful and thriving state living in harmony with its neighbours. The fear is that we might be brought low by our failure to soar.

Let's take a look at the last example of theology in the guise of zoology, the whale. Here in Cape Town I have been looking out to sea in the hope of seeing a whale, but so far with no success. These majestic creatures play a role in Jewish tradition as symbols of the messianic future. In this sense we are always hoping for a glimpse of the whale, an intimation of redemption. Another great fear among some Israelis is that the grim realities of the present may suffocate our dreams for a redemptive future. The fear is that one of the victims in this cycle of violence is the hope of both peoples for a better future. If the whale sinks, our hopes sink with it.

I have many fears when I think of my hometown of Jerusalem. I fear that the real physical threats we face may one day prevail. I fear that the moral challenge presented by years of occupation and periodic periods of military conflict will prevent us from realizing our finest aspirations. And I fear that current crises may starve hope of light and sustenance and leave it emaciated.

I believe that there is much which Jewish society in Israel must face up to. We have to stare down bigotry and struggle against inequality. We have to acknowledge the full and unconditional humanity of all individuals, and the legitimate political aspirations of the Palestinian people. Unless and until they have the conditions for a just and workable state, the dream and promise of Israel cannot be fulfilled.

These are some of the fears I have concerning my own people. I want to add another fear I have which involves you. In an appeal to Israelis published last week, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu insisted that criticism of Israel should not be automatically equated with anti-Semitism. I want to state in the most direct way that I believe he is right. You can and should be able to criticize without fear of knee-jerk claim that you are anti-Jewish.

Nevertheless, when I see a poster outside and within this cathedral which declares that it is Gaza where Jesus Christ is crucified today. I have to ask: do you say this of every place in the world where there is egregious suffering and injustice? Or is the scene of crucifixion reserved for the scenario where once again the Jews may be characterized as killers of Christ? If the former is true, then I accept with you that Israel/Palestine is today a place where the image if God has been sullied and cheapened. But if the latter is the case and this imagery is reserved for one conflict alone, you might consider how this plays into our fears and concerns as Jews.

When this dreadful war finally ends, Israelis and Palestinians will need the courage to confront their fears, those which are exaggerated and those which are imaginary. I don't want to suggest that what needs to change in the equation is symmetrical or equal. We Israelis have much more power. But I will confess that any attempt to portray the situation with imagery taken from the ancient Dead Sea sect as a war of the sons of darkness perpetrated against the sons of light is baffling to me. This is a complex and multi-layered situation. There is no complexity involved in bemoaning the outrage of innocent young blood spilled. But it is much more complex to decide where culpability for the bloodshed lies, and even more difficult to discern how we move from a cycle of death to a cycle of life.

The desert mist enveloping us last week in Namibia prevented us from seeing clearly that which was right in front of us. It reminded me of a rabbinic tradition according to which the prophets of Israel saw through a cloudy speculum, a speckled lens. Moses, on the other hand, beheld the divine through a clear lens, through a speculum that shines.

Our two traditions, the Christian and the Jewish, share this imagery. I hope you will not consider it impudent for me to quote a source from the New Testament (1 Corinthians 13):
For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then shall I know even as I am also known.

Here is the Jewish version (Leviticus Rabbah 1.14):
Rabbi Pinchas in the name of Rabbi Oshaya said: a parable of a king who was revealed to his household by use of an icon, an image. In this world the holy spirit is revealed to individuals but in the time yet to come the verse (Isaiah 40) will be fulfilled:
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all people will see it together, for the mouth of Adonai has spoken.

Our vision is clouded by our fears. This is a lesson which your cathedral and your country has taught the world. Great moral exemplars in this country and elsewhere, from the prophets of Israel until our time, teach us that women and men of conscience are called to act as mist-busters and myth-busters. The day will come when the mist will clear. On that day we will understand that no person can be bombed into moderation, and that military force cannot resolve the most profound issues. On that day we will understand that forces of extremism and fundamentalism have to be countered with vigor by forces of moderation and understanding.

On that day we will understand that the Jewish state will also live up to the best of its values and potential when the rights of the Palestinian people are met. On that day we will see that in order for our fears to be burnt off by the warming sun of truth, they must be acknowledged and confronted.

I pray that we may come to live by our hopes and not by our fears. I pray that we may live up to the potential embodied by our hopes, not choke on the restrictions forced upon us by our fears. I hope that you who work to support the struggle of the downtrodden will do so in a way which acknowledges complexity and strengthens those who work for change and justice and peace.

Today we see as through a glass darkly. You inspire us to peer through the mist, to act as mist-busters for God. May the day soon come when the word of the prophet is fulfilled:
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all people will see it together, for the mouth of Adonai has spoken.

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