festivals · high holy days · sermon

Is time a cycle or a line?

Do you ever feel like we’re going round in circles?

No, really.

We just spent our evening going round and round. We circled the synagogue seven times; we spun around on the spot. We rotated so much we got dizzy.

Then, having spun and circled and danced with the Torah, we read the very last bit of the story, only to begin it again. No sooner had our narrative ended than we immediately restarted it.

Our storytelling does not begin with creation and end with the death of Moses, because the death of Moses is immediately followed by the story of creation. You cannot hear one without hearing the other. We are locked in a cycle.

How fitting that this celebration of circling is the completion of our High Holy Day festivals. They began with Rosh Hashanah, when, our tradition teaches, the world was first created, and they end with Simchat Torah when, we read, the world was first created. Our festivities began with a new beginning and end by redoing the same beginning all over again.

This makes sense in the context of our festival cycle, where one simchah always follows from the last and leads to the next one. Which one is the beginning, and which one is the end? If you tried to place your finger anywhere in the cycle, you would soon find it slipping away from you, as it made way for the next turn on the same wheel.

Our Torah, our festivals, our planet, and our bodies, all turn with anticipated regularity. So we go on in circles.

This view of time is antithetical to the modern mind. Everything in contemporary thought speaks of progress. We came from a finite beginning, and we are heading to a finite end.

The world began at one point, when it was created, and will end at another, when it will be destroyed. Humanity came into existence around 300,000 years ago, and could last another 8 million, but it will at some point cease to be.

In the intervening period while humans exist, we progress from intelligent apes to hunter-gatherers, to shepherds, to subsistence farmers; through the metallic ages to feudalism, to capitalism.

Yet this view of time, as a progression from one clear point to a closing at another, is a distinctly modern one.

For most of Jewish history, time has not been a journey from beginning to end, but a constant cycle.

The great 20th Century literary critic, John Berger, explained this mentality. For those who work the land, life is precisely a cycle. The work of each day is in a routine with every other. Each year follows the same pattern as the one before.

Autumn, spring, summer, winter. We reap, we sow; we plant, we harvest. We mulch the ground and till it with seeds and water it and take in the yield and repeat the same process again.

Every individual is born into a world where that wheel is already in spin and, when they die, the world carries on turning in just the same way.

When peasants imagine time, therefore, they think only of three stages. The first is our present life of survival, confined as it is to that ongoing cycle. At either end is an identical period of perfection. We began in a paradise and we are heading to a paradise. The ideal world existed long ago in the distant past, and we will return there when the world is set right.

If the distant past and the messianic future are the same place, then time is a cycle. We are only ever heading to the place from which we began.

This is precisely the position of traditional Jewish theology. Our souls began in Eden, dwell temporarily in this life to struggle, and will one day return to that same Eden.

It is the traditional Jewish view of time. Humanity was given a perfect world; we live now in a time of violence and injustice; the world will be returned to its sublime state once more.

When we put the Torah back in the ark, we summon this Jewish view of time: חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם – renew our days as of old. Make our times new, like they were at the beginning.

Within these times, then, says Berger, our only way forward is to trudge the same path. We walk on the same roads as our ancestors did and beat them down again for the next generation.

In Judaism, we call that path “halachah”: the way, the route. These are the rites and customs of our ancestors. We will repeat them and we will pass them on. The cycle continues.

But there is a problem with this view of time. Berger acknowledges that, if life is seen from this standpoint, the only correct moral viewpoint is conservative. We must repeat what we have done before. We cannot deviate from it whatsoever.

That is, effectively, a parody of Orthodox Judaism’s view of history. The religion is the same as it always was and we must endeavour not to let it change. Our ancestors knew more than we did, and we will be in a constant descent of generations until a long-awaited messianic age.

In such a worldview, there is no room for development, innovation, or change.

There is a reason why “going round in circles” is an insult!

However much progress may conflict with the passing of the seasons, it conforms with what we know of what has happened over the centuries.

We are all here as Reform Jews because we have seen something in the past that we wanted to correct: whether it was inequality between the sexes; an inability to watch TV on a Saturday afternoon; or simply a desire to hear the organ in shul. If everything must remain static, our synagogue could not exist.

Reform Judaism is an effort to reconcile the two views of time. It straddles the traditional cycle and modern progress. It says that we can go round and go forwards at the same time.

How is this possible?

I like the analogy of time as a snail shell. Yes, it goes in cycles, but at the end of each turn, it moves forward, just slightly. We go round and we go out. We go back on ourselves in order to advance.

If it feels like we are going round in circles, that’s because we are, but we are not always coming back to exactly the same place.

When we arrive at this new Simchat Torah, we are reliving the old one, but we are here as transformed people. We are slightly different than when we saw it last, so the festival is too.

We go back on ourselves in order to move forwards.

Chag sameach.

high holy days · sermon

Why the world was made

There are some places in this world that fill me up with an awe of creation more than anywhere else can. Places so beautiful they make me wonder why they exist.

The Scottish Highlands are such a place. Those mountain landscapes are cragged rocks and stark hills stitched together by seas and tarns and smaller rock pools. They are peat bogs and waterfalls growing shrubs and trees, so full of life it feels as though they are themselves breathing. 

This year, I went to visit them. With my partner, we walked through the hills, saw old churches, visited a beloved rabbinic mentor, and witnessed the birds and wildlife. 

In between completing my dissertation and getting ordained as a rabbi, I decided to make a pilgrimage to mark the transition. It truly felt like a religious moment; a chance to draw closer to something sacred.

As we walked, we met with a land that was part of our country but felt decidedly foreign, and we met myths that, while part of our heritage, seemed alien. 

For the Gaelic-speaking peoples of Scotland and Ireland, these landscapes have their own origin story.

Those mountains are no accident. They were built intentionally, but a type of deity called Cailleach. Known also as Beira, or the Queen of Winter, she is an aged crone; one-eyed and completely white. 

She battles spring each year to reign her icy dominion over this hemisphere. She is a deer-herder, a lumberjack, and a warrior. She carries in her hand a great hammer as she strides across the Celtic Isles. She is the mother-goddess.

It was Cailleach who built the Highlands. She pulled rocks out of the sea and carved out stepping stones for her giant strides. She pushed through the space, breaking up new mountain faces with her hammer. She walked as winter through the new landscape she had made, and allowed waters to flow and overflow in every crevice.

I was enamoured by this story. Yes, that is what it looks like. It looks like an enormous witch has made it. It feels bursting with purpose.

My boyfriend prefers another version. He is a scientist, a doctor. We see the same world but through different lenses.

Millions of years ago, he read, the earth endured an ice age. Frozen water cut through the earth and wore down the ancient mineral rocks at a glacial pace. When the waters finally thawed, they left behind these precipices and pastures on the Scottish coastlines.

But isn’t that just the same story, told in a different way? Cailleach is simply an anthropomorphic ice current. The processes attributed to gods and fairies – that breaking and carving and flooding – are repackaged in scientific language. The scientists can give us approximate dates and name when the layers of sediment formed, but they are effectively telling the same story.

What difference does it make whether these wells were made by frozen currents or by the Wild Woman of Winter?

It is not fair to say that one is rational and the other is mythical. Both accounts are testament to humanity’s ability to understand its surroundings. The story of Cailleach is no less important a contribution, and we cannot just dismiss it. 

Equally, we cannot treat the national myth in the same way as we would our best scientific discoveries. They are not equally weighted as theories about how the earth was formed. Centuries of technological advancement and detailed research have given us this account of the Highland’s foundations.

The difference between these stories is not whether they tell us something true, but what kind of truth they point us to. The scientific explanation tells us the history of the world in context of great geological events. It teaches us how to identify, exploit or protect the natural surroundings we have inherited.

The story of Cailleach, by contrast, tells us about the unquantifiable truths of the Highlands: the awe they inspire; the magic they seem to hold. It teaches us about the shared national destiny of the Scottish, Irish, and Manx people who tell her story. 

These are not competing, but complementary, stories of creation. One tells us the truth of how a place was made, the other tells us why.

At this time of year, we turn to our own national myth and origin story. Our new year recalls the creation of the world. It is a day for us to delight in the fact that we are alive.

The biblical account of creation does not only explain the origins of one geological formation, but seeks to tell the genesis of the entire world.

5,783 years ago, the world was made in six days, from explosive dividing light, through land and seas and atmosphere, through to sea creatures, winged beasts, mammals, and human beings.

It is no good to compare this religious tradition with the theories of the Big Bang or evolution through natural selection. They are telling the story of the same thing, but from totally different perspectives. 

Science attempts to understand how the world was made; our myths ask us why.

The first chapter of Genesis suggests some reasons. The world was created with great purpose. Each day, with everything that God created, God saw that it was good.

When God created humanity, God gave us responsibility for the earth and what is in it. God gave us companions and promised us regular rest. God created the world for goodness, with humanity at heart.

The scientist and the theologian alike look at the world with a sense of wonder. We both feel awe as we track their stars in their orbit. We both marvel at the fact that a planet has produced the perfect conditions for life to form and grow entire ecosystems to sustain myriads of plants and creatures.

On this we agree.

The difference is that, for the believer, we do not just gaze in awe. Awe gazes back at us. 

You are not just amazed at the world, but the world is amazed by you. 

Not just the parts of you that you share in common with all other living beings, but those things that are unique to you. 

Not just the fact that you have functioning organs and limbs, but you. That transcendental, magical part of you. We might call it personality or soul or neshama.

It is not something mechanical or quantifiable. There is something about you that is wonderful and irreplaceable.

That is you

When we are confronted with the wonder and beauty of the world in which we live, we are tempted to ask what it is all here for. The answer of Judaism is that it is here for you.

To the religious imagination, your life is not an accident. It is a blessing. You were created for the sake of the world and the world was created for the sake of you. 

According to our Torah, at first creation, God wandered round to take in the Garden of Eden in the cool of day. And, there, God called out to the first human being: “Where are you?” God was looking for the human.

The great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, understood that this question is addressed to every human being in every age. We, too, are forever hiding, behind the stories we tell ourselves that our lives are meaningless and our actions matter little. We find ways to try and escape truth, even to hide from ourselves. 

And God, that great Source of amazement, nevertheless seeks us out, asking “where are you?”

So, Buber says, you have to answer that question. You have to seek deep inside your soul and answer who you really are. You have to try and give an account of what you are doing on this earth. You have to make yourself present, ready to face Truth, and, crucially, to change.

Where are you?

You are on this beautiful earth, crafted by a magnificent Creator. You are here and alive. You are a miracle.

God is amazed at how wonderful you are.

And now you have to show that God’s faith is rightly placed.

Shanah tovah.

Cailleach, Queen of Winter