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Faith Lectures: Judaism, Justice and Tragedy – Confronting the problem of evil


[Unedited verbatim transcript]

Howard Jackson: Dear friends: Welcome to the 2nd lecture of the Chief Rabbi’s six part series on Faith. This evening’s topic is “Judaism, justice and tragedy: confronting the problem of evil”. After the talk, the Chief Rabbi has agreed to take questions and there is also a box at the back of the theatre for written questions. There is also the Chief Rabbi’s website which we would urge you to look at: So, it gives me great pleasure to present the Chief Rabbi.

The Chief Rabbi: Friends, first of all I want to say thank you. I think it is absolutely fantastic of every one of you to turn out on such a revolting day. If there is any greater testimony to your faith, I hope it will be justified. I can’t think of one. You know, 13 years ago, in 1987, we had this wonderful moment shmini atzereti. On shmini atzeret we say for the first time in the year mashiv haruakh umored hagashem. We pray to God “Who makes the wind blow”. That night there was a hurricane. If you remember, it was that night which blew down half the trees in south-east England. Next morning I came into shul, Simchat Torah morning, and the first person I met said, “Rabbi, next time could you pray a little less hard?!”

This year we have had the sedra of Noah and the flood and I think maybe that next year we will leyn it a little less hard. But thank you very much for coming.

Let me begin, if I may, with a story just to relax you. Or, if you don’t need relaxing, I do. Of course it is one of my favourites. It is the story that is told about a Rosh Yeshivah who was approached one day by a young man who wanted to come to the yeshivah to learn. The Rosh Yeshivah really did not particularly want to admit this young man. He thought he did not know enough to be able to learn. But the young man was very, very insistent so the Rosh Yeshivah said, “All right, I am going to ask you a question to see if you can learn Gemara, if you can understand the rabbinic mind. If you can answer the question, I’ll let you in”. So the young man said, “Fine” and the Rosh Yeshivah said, “Here is the question. If two men come down a chimney and one comes down dirty and one comes down clean, which one has a wash?” The young man thinks for a moment and says, “The dirty one”. “Wrong!” says the Rosh Yeshivah, “Obviously the dirty one looks at the clean one and sees he is clean so he thinks ‘I must be clean’. The clean one looks at the dirty one and sees he is dirty and thinks ‘I must be dirty’. The clean one has a wash!” “Aagh!” says the young man and goes away in dismay.

The next day he comes again. “Reb Rosh Yeshivah, I have been thinking and I really feel I now understand Gemara. Please let me in!” And the Rosh Yeshivah says, “All right. I will ask you one questions and if you get I right I will admit you to the yeshivah but if you get it wrong you’re really not up to it”. So the young man says “Fine” and the Rosh Yeshivah asks the following question. “If two men come down a chimney and one comes down dirty and one comes down clean, which one has a wash?” “The clean one!” says the young man. “Wrong!” says the Rosh Yeshivah. “Obviously the clean one looks at his hands, sees they are clean and he know he is clean. The dirty one looks at his hands, sees they are dirty and the dirty one has a wash.” “Ok. Aagh,” says the young man and goes out in total dismay.

The next day he knocks again on the door of the Rosh Yeshivah and says, “Rebbe, please, you know, I really think now I’m beginning to master talmudic logic.” And the Rosh Yeshivah says, “All right. But this is the last time. I will ask you one question and, one way and another, if you don’t get it right you do not enter the yeshivah. The young man says, “Yes” and the Rosh Yeshivah asks him the following question. “If two men come down a chimney, one comes down dirty, one comes down clean: who has a wash?” The young man thinks – the dirty one, the clean one, the dirty one, the clean one? – finally he gives up but says, “Tell me, Rosh Yeshivah, which one has a wash?” And the Rosh Yeshivah looks at the young man and says, “Tell me, young man, how can two men come down a chimney and one came out dirty and one came out clean?”

Friends, I was trying to explain in my first lecture that Judaism, as you will understand from that story, is a religion of multiple perspectives, of many ways of looking at the truth. Some of you who followed that lecture – did any of you follow that lecture? [Laughter]. It was a bit tough going but some of you followed that lecture and understood absolutely correctly that it was nothing whatsoever with the title of that lecture which was “Faith”. Listen, I’m sorry. What can I do? The truth is: I will come to faith, I promise you, probably in the third lecture, possibly in the last. One way or another, we’ll get there. But first of all I really have to take you with me on a journey to see Judaism as different, as less familiar, as more radical than we ever imagined. If we can do that, we will be able to take things we have known about for ages and see in them something new. We will undergo what I call a ‘paradigm shift’.

My thesis in the first lecture, the story so far for those of you who missed it, as far as I can summarise it, is this: that Judaism as I portrayed it was and is a radical alternative not only to the ancient world of myth but to the central paradigm of western civilisation, namely to Greek thought whose characteristic mode is philosophy, at least Platonic, and Cartesian philosophy, and whose master discipline is logic. As I said, the unspoken assumptions of western thought – and of course I am being crude here but you don’t want a lecture with footnotes as well – are the following:

That knowledge is cognitive.

The metaphor of cognition is sight. It’s a visual matter; truth is something we see. And, in particular –

Truth is something we see from a particular perspective. That perspective which is God’s eye point of view, the point of view of the detached spectator – what Thomas Nagel calls “the view from nowhere”.

That is represented in Greek myth by the figure of Zeus; in Greek culture, by Greek art and by Greek drama at which the spectator and the audience are outside the world of reality in the painting or in the theatre, and in Greek thought, as I say, in Plato seeing reality as he emerges from the cave. In other words, the detached spectator theory or as the (here’s evidence of a misspent youth) as they put it in a graffito in one of the loos (excuse me) of the Cambridge University library and they wrote: “God exists. It’s just that He doesn’t want to get involved”. That is the paradigm of western thought.

In Judaism, by contrast, God does get involved but He also makes space for humanity to get involved. He does this by conferring integrity, legitimacy, dignity on the point of view of man. That means that in Judaism at the very least – at the very least! – there are two viewpoints, never less than two: ultimately, the viewpoint of how things appear to God and how they appear to us. And in Judaism both of those are legitimate: truth as it is in heaven; truth as it is on earth.

Those of you familiar with the world of rabbinic midrash will know there is a very famous midrash on this. You know that we have the story of Genesis chapter 1. It unfolds in that beautiful way, “And God said, ‘Let there be'” – and there was and God saw that it was good. In only one of the creations, God has a kind of forethought. He kind of discusses it in advance. Which one is that? [No reply from audience.] The case of man where, instead of God saying yehi, ‘Let there be’, God as it were reflectively says, “Na’aseh adam betzalmainu kidmutainu” – “Let us make man in Our image and Our likeness”. And, you know, the rabbis obviously wanted to know who is the “us”. Who is keeping God company? It is lonely being the God of monotheism! You don’t have a lot of friends around for dinner! So who was He talking to? Of course the sages, in their way which is both deceptively simple but ultimately very profound, said that God discussed this with the angels. That is their way of representing moral dilemmas or internal conflict. He discussed it with four angels. The angel of chesed said, “Let man be created because he is oseh chasidim – human beings do kind deeds”. The angel of truth said, “Let him not be created ki culo shekarim – because human beings are full of lies”. The angel of tzedek said, “Let man be created ki oseh tzedakot”. It is a bit untranslatable in English but it roughly means, “We give to charity”. (Now how come this is a Jewish event and we haven’t asked anyone to give to charity yet? Are you thinking up something?) Anyway, the angel of peace said, “Let man not be created ki culo ktetah – because he is full of strife”. And the midrash says, very opaquely, Ma asa Hakodesh barechu? – What did God do? Lakach emet vehishlich ota artza. He took Truth and threw it to the ground. And the angel said, “Mipnei ma ata mevazeh et hatachsis shelcha?” – “Truth, Almighty, is your signature, your seal. Why are you throwing it down to the ground?” And God replied, “Emet mi’eretz titzmach” – “Let truth grow up from the ground”.

Now, what this midrash is telling us is that there is indeed a challenge against human existence. As T. S. Eliot said, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality” – that is, too much truth. But God replies, “I don’t ask of man that he or she understand truth as it is in heaven” It’s sufficient if we understand truth as it exists down here on earth. The midrash has many more depths than that but at the simplest level the midrash is saying: There is truth as it is in heaven; truth as it is on earth – and God wants us to aspire to truth as it is on earth. That is terribly important.

So, in Judaism, truth is always a truth from somewhere. And because that somewhere can be distributed some place either in space or in time, they generate multiple perspectives and in Judaism, in other words, there is not a single dimension in which all truths co-exist because not all truths do co-exist. If they are separated in space, there can be conversation between x and y – somebody who is here and somebody who is there – ultimately God and humanity, and I call that the ‘dialogical imagination’, the truth by conversation. Or it can be distributed in time: one truth which we see now and another truth which we live or embody at another time – and I call that the ‘chronological imagination’.

So, as opposed to the logical imagination of the Greeks and western philosophy, which I do not denigrate in any shape or form, Judaism though operated on a different system: the chronological and the dialogical imagination. In other words, if I can put it as simply as I can: in Judaism truth is not impersonal; truth is inter-personal. It is the truth that exists when two beings separated in space or time relate to one another. Well, ad ka’an hakaf harishonah – up to there is what I tried to say last time. Does it now make sense to any of you? No, no, no, all right! Read the book! Well – I haven’t written it yet, so – [laughter]

Anyway, now I want to take that lecture, that framework and see whether it will help us understand. It won’t help us solve, for heaven’s sake! it will not help us solve – but see if we can understand in a new way that most difficult of all problems in religious thought, perhaps in human thought as a totality, namely the problem of evil or the problem of injustice, the thing which we describe when we talk about ‘when bad things happen to good people’ or what the rabbis said in terms of tzadik vera lo, which is the rabbinic equivalent.

That problem is so deep that it has given rise to a whole theological discipline, primarily a Christian one, a very distinguished discipline. And I please pray of you, all of you, that whenever I contrast Judaism and something else, I am never trying to denigrate that something else. I really mean that. To be a Jew is to make space for ‘otherness’. If I were to sum up the whole of these six lectures, it would be in that phrase: “To be a Jew is to make space for otherness”. But that means we do our thing and we respect those who do other things. Therefore, Christianity developed a whole theological discipline which so to did the Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages which is called theodicy. It is the whole attempt to understand how if God exists evil exists.

What I want to argue tonight is that any attempt to deal with this subject as it is conventionally dealt with in western thought, in classic western theology, through the discipline logic, any such attempt must fail! Not because it is false but because it is just too simple. It fails to do justice to the complexity of the issue: and that failure is not just intellectual; it is also moral and existential. Here we will see – I hope in tonight’s lecture – very clearly, what is at stake in terms of the difference between the logical imagination and the dialogical imagination.

Now, let me begin by saying that it is here, above all, that you will find the most passionate expressions of dialogue in the whole of the Jewish literature. Not only are they the most passionate, I think they are virtually unique. I challenge as I am sure many of you here tonight know more about this than I do, but the conversations, the dialogues that I am going to mention are very famous. I do not know of analogues to them in any other religion, in any other religious literature. Here they are.

The first, of course, hits us between the eyes. Abraham’s challenge to God. When he hears from God about the prospective fate of the cities of the plain of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham says to God in words that are still stunning – I mean, they send a shiver down my spine whenever I read them – “Halilah lecha mei’asot kadavar hazeh,” says Abraham, “God forbid that You should do such a thing – lehamit tzadik im-rasha – to kill the righteous with the wicked – vehaya katzadik karasha halilah lach – so that the righteous should have the same fate as the wicked, God forbid! – hashofet kol-ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat? – Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?”

How can a human being who says, as Abraham says, “I am but dust and ash”, how can human finitude say such words to God? In any other faith, it seems to me, those words would be close to, maybe even tantamount to, blasphemy! And yet there they are at the core of Jewish faith, one of the great prophetic utterances in our literature. Abraham is not alone.

Moshe Rabainu says, as you know, to God, very early on in the history of his mission to Egypt – (You know why Moshe Rabainu was the greatest of the prophets? My theory is because when God offered him to be Chief Rabbi of the Jewish people he said “No” five times. There was a man who could foresee the future! [Laughter]) Anyway, Moshe Rabainu, as you know, begins his mission. The immediate result is that Pharaoh actually makes the work harder and more difficult and Moshe Rabainu turns to God and says (listen to this!), “Lamah harai’ota le’am hazeh?” – “Why have You done evil to this people? – lamah zeh shelachtani? – Why did You ever send me?”

Or Jeremiah. Listen to Jeremiah. Here is Jeremiah, the first Jewish barrister if you like, summoning God to a court case. Jeremiah, chapter 12.

“You are always right, O Lord, when I bring a case before You. Whenever I bring You to court, You always win. Yet I want to speak to You about justice. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are the evil people always at ease?”

I mean, this is explicit language of a court case. Stunning words of Jeremiah, chapter 12.

And, of course, the most astonishing of all, by far the most astonishing book in any religious literature known to me, the book of Job. Job, as you know, suffers a series of mishaps. His friends, three of them and then a fourth later in the course of the book, try to comfort him and they do so in the classic terms of theodicy. They say to Job that since God is just and he has suffered, he must have done something to deserve it – and they argue their case throughout this very long and powerful book. Job refuses to accept their arguments and insists not that he is innocent but he insists that he has a right to a hearing directly in the presence of God.

He wants to bring God to court and argue his innocence in front of Him – and of course he does. As you know, what is the answer God gives him? Well, as you know, the Jewish custom is that you answer a question with another question. Job has questions. God answers Job with four chapters of questions of His own. There is not a single statement, just questions.

I always said, when the Sunday Times first brought to light the ‘cash for questions’ scandal, I said, “You know, this is the difference between the Jewish people and minhag Anglia – the English way of doing things. In England you have to pay somebody to ask questions. In Judaism you have to pay somebody not to ask questions!”

But there it is. This extraordinary book which, again, teeters on the very brink of heresy by any conventional standards. Then, at this denouement, we receive this extraordinary proposition: Job, after being battered by four chapters of questions from the Almighty says, “You are right, Almighty. I should never have said such a thing” and we think the story has a happy ending. God is right: Job is wrong. Job’s comforters were right all along. But the book still has a surprise for us – and it is the biggest surprise of the lot! God says that he should go and tell his friends, Elifaz the Temanite and so on,

“I am angry with you and your two friends [Job’s comforters] because you have not spoken of me what is right: my servant Job did”.

Unbelievable! The whole story has been leading up to the fact that Job is wrong and he is going to accept that he is wrong. Finally, the twist is that Job was right and his comforters were wrong. The conventional approach of theodicy, that Job must have done something to deserve his fate, is torn up by God Himself. This is unbelievable.

So we have here an extraordinary situation, a situation which the book of Job embodies, is structured around: what looks to us like a contradiction. The book of Job is a contradiction. Logic fails.

What I want to say about these passages is, number one, to repeat: I don’t know of any analogue in any other faith. Number two, the obvious point that all four of these passages are dialogues. They really are. Man speaks. God replies. There is an interchange between them.

However, the third fact is much more important. Does anyone know what happens just prior to the first of these conversations? You know, when Abraham has his dialogue. Do you know what immediately precedes that in the Torah? Anyone know? [Inaudible answer from audience.] Ah, the angel visits Sarah. Yes, and when that visit is over, listen to the words: “Hamechaseh ani mei’Avraham asher ani oseh?” God says, “Shall I hide from Abraham that which I am about to do?”

In other words, God invites Abraham’s challenge! If God had not spoken out loud – that He was going to destroy the cities, that He had heard of the evil from the cities and it was very grievous, and so on – if He had not spoken it out loud in the presence of Abraham, Abraham would never have known! God invites the dialogue. He says it explicitly. “Shall I hide from Abraham that which I am about to do?” In other words, God knew that Abraham would challenge him. He invited him to challenge Him.

Let me say further that it is more than this. If you know the concept – I am sure you are familiar with this – Buber and Rosenzweig: the idea of a motif word. You know what in Ivrit is called mila mancheh. Yes? A certain word functions in the Torah as a motif. Now listen very carefully. God goes on to say, “Shall I hide from Abraham that which I am about to do? … Ki yedativ – for I have known him, for I have chosen him – lema’an asher yetzaveh et banav ve’et-baito acharav – so that he will instruct his children and his household after him – veshamru derech hashem – that they may keep the way of the Lord – la’asot tzedakah umishpat.” – I have chosen Abraham so that he will teach his children to do tzedakah umishpat – righteousness and justice.

If you recall what I said to you just before, those are the key words of Abraham’s speech. (Are you with me?) “Halilah lecha mei’asot kadavar hazeh – God forbid that You should do this – lehamit tzadik im-rasha vehaya katzadik karasha … hashofet kol-ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat?

The key words in Abraham’s challenge to God are tzedek and mishpat. God has given those to Abraham before Abraham has spoken: Abraham, this is what you are all about! Tzedek umishpat. And Abraham takes the cue and immediately says to God – What about the tzedek? What about the mishpat? God teaches Abraham how to challenge God.

Now that is incredible – and he gives him the language in which to do so. And don’t think that is the only case. Let me give you an example which the rabbis themselves in the Gemara stunned by. You remember when Moses is up the mountain and the Israelites make the golden calf? Listen to what God says. “Ve’ata hanichah li – Now, leave me alone – veyichar api bahem va’achalaim – so that I can get angry with them and destroy them.” And the rabbis want to know: what was Moses doing? He never even heard of it before. “Leave me alone so that I can get angry with them …” If that isn’t a tacit invitation, if “leave me alone” isn’t a way of saying, “Please don’t leave!” It is a paradox called intervention for those familiar with this odd school of psychotherapy. But that is what it is. God is inviting Moses to play exactly as he invited Abraham to play.

So these passages plunge us into an awareness that in Jewish thought the problem of evil – which was what Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah and Job all raise with God – is fraught with drama, with dialogue, with tension and with conflict. I have to tell you very bluntly: these passages are fraught with contradiction – and let me explain why. Let us just take that first case of Abraham. Was God right or wrong to destroy the cities of the plain? Right or wrong? [Shout from audience: “Wrong!”]

Well, listen, listen, listen! If He was right, why did He invite Abraham to challenge Him? And if He was wrong, why did He think of doing it in the first place? (Are you with me?) If God was right – I mean God knows everything. Ok? He knows all the stuff. He’s got files on every member of Sodom and Gomorrah. He’s done all the research. If, therefore, there are not 50 or 45 – or Abraham leaves it off in 10 – how many righteous people were there in Sodom, incidentally? [“Four?” – from audience.] There were absolutely zero because, as you know, in the very next chapter there is a little controlled experiment. Two visitors come to Lot. Everyone surrounds the house. Nasabu … kol ha’am. The Bible says everyone in the town – mina’ar vead zakain – from the young to the old, surrounded the house and said, “Bring us out these men that we may know them.” An act of, as you know, homosexual rape which made Sodom synonymous with something or other. Anyway, one way or another, there is a controlled experiment to show that Lot and his family, who were ‘kacha’ [so-so] – you know, I don’t know whether they were great or not so great – but they were mishpachah [family] of Abraham so they got saved.

But there is a controlled experiment in the Bible in Genesis, chapter 19, to make us aware that actually no-one was righteous. God knew that in advance otherwise he would never have thought of destroying the city. So if God was right, why did He invite Abraham to challenge Him? If He was wrong, how could He have conceived of destroying the cities in the first place? So, please understand that we are dealing here with stuff that does not fit the template of logic. By any standards we are dealing here with a contradiction that can only be solved by mapping it on a different way of seeing the universe.

And now I am going to begin the answer. I want to begin with the opening words of Jewish history, the opening words of this week’s sidra, the first words of God to Abraham, the words that set the history of the people of the covenant in motion, Lech-lecha mi’artzecha umimoladetecha umibait avicha el ha’aretz asher are’eka – Get thee out from your land, your birthplace and your father’s house to a land which I will show you.

Those are the first words that set Jewish history in motion and I want to ask, right at the outset: Why did God choose Abraham? This is not a trick question. It is an open question. Why did God choose Abraham? [Inaudible answer from audience.] I don’t know. It doesn’t say that He did. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, these words, Vayomer hashem el-Avram lech-lecha. There’s no preamble to those words.

Now please be aware that if the Torah does not give us a reason why God chose Abraham, we have a lacuna here. It is a glaring absence. Why did God choose Adam? Nobody else to choose from! There wasn’t a whole lot of choice! Why did God choose Noah? It says so at the beginning of Noah, last week’s sidra. “Noach ish tzadik tamim hayah bedorotav et-ho’elokim hithalech?Noach. Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations. He walked with God.”

None of which are ever said about Abraham. Why did God choose Moses? Well, look, if you read the beginning of the book of Exodus you will see there three scenes: Egyptian hitting a Jew – Moses intervenes on the side of justice; Jew hitting a Jew – Moses intervenes on the side of justice. He escapes for his life and then meets the daughters of Midian who are being driven away from the well by some other Midianite shepherds, non-Jew against non-Jew – Moses intervenes on the grounds of justice. So Moses has passed his three ordeals. No. 1, when injustice is being committed he does not stand still. No. 2, this is not chauvinism: he doesn’t care. If it is a Jew persecuting a non-Jew, he’ll defend the non-Jew. Justice in Judaism is impartial. Moses is a man of character. So we know why God chose Moses. In general, either the Torah tells us something very remarkable about the character of the individual or in some cases there is a story of a miraculous birth.

Who is obviously singled from birth because they have a miraculous birth? [Responses from audience.] Shmuel. Samson ? Shimshon. Moshe – Moses, yes. A sort of miraculous birth. Isaac. Jacob. You know that Rivka was infertile – vaye’atair Yitzhak lashem lenochakh ishto ke akarah he – she was infertile. Another miraculous birth. Who else was infertile? Rachel was infertile. So we have here: Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, question mark Moses, Samson, Samuel. There is a miraculous birth, or there is some story of their biography that tells us why they were singled out.

None of this applies to Abraham. There is no miraculous birth. There is no preamble. (Are you with me?) This is a glaring silence. And let me tell you that this is a particularly glaring silence because not only is this the first moment of Jewish history, it is also the defining moment at which the entire biblical world shifts on its axis. Until the beginning of Genesis, chapter 12, the first words of this week’s sidrah, the Torah has been concerned with what? With the universe. With everyone – culminating with Noah. Adam and Eve. Cain and Abel. Noah and the Flood. The Tower of Babel. All of these are about universals. About humanity as a whole.

Then, all of a sudden, the Torah switches into a different key and with Abraham we suddenly deal with the particular people: an individual and his family. A nation. An am segulah. This is the point at which the Torah shifts on its axis and here it is: total silence. And if nature abhors a vacuum, Judaism abhors silence.

We are a noisy bunch, aren’t we? Years ago, many more years than I care to remember, there was (I think on BBC television) a documentary series, a six-part series, about the world’s great faiths. When the presenter of this programme (I’ve completely forgotten who it was) came to Judaism, he was obviously shell-shocked by this difference between the terribly pious other faiths that he went to and this rabble called Judaism. He wanted a title for the programme. He called it “The Holy Argument” and I will never forget this wonderful interchange he had with Elie Wiesel. He said, “Professor Wiesel, Judaism seems to be a very noisy religion. Is there such a thing as a silence in Judaism?” And Wiesel replied in these words: “Judaism is full of silences. But we don’t talk about them.” [Laughter]

So this is a glaring silence. Why Abraham? Now I repeat: Judaism doesn’t like silences and, therefore, the Jewish tradition filled in the gap. You know the famous story ‘Number One’? Abraham was the first iconoclast. He took the idols that his father sold or that Nimrod sold and, quietly one night, he smashed the lot of them and left the hammer in the hands of the biggest idol. The next morning, when everyone wanted to know who broke the idols, he said, “Look, this big idol -” You know the story. You learned it in cheder. Abraham, the first iconoclast.

According to Maimonides, Hilhot avoda zara, chapter 1, Abraham was the first philosopher. There he sees the universe, the stars wheeling in their axes, and he says to himself: How can the stars move if nobody moves them? How can the universe exist if nobody created them? – Abraham was, in other words, proto-Aristotle or Rambam – whatever it was. The first philosopher. The first person to think of what Aristotle calls “God as the prime mover”. You know those stories.

I now want to tell you a third story which is very enigmatic. This one is going to hold the key to everything I have to say. Here it is. Midrash Raba which says: God said to Abraham Lech lecha. Says the Midrash: Mashal le’ehad shehaya over mimakom lemakom vera’ah birah ehad doleket. What is this like? God has called to Abraham. It is like somebody who is on a journey and in the middle of a place he sees a palace in flames. He says to himself: Tomar shebirah hazu belo manhig? How can this palace be in flames? Surely a palace has an owner? If it has an owner, somebody is looking after it, somebody should be putting out the fire! At that moment the Owner of the palace appears on the battlements and says, “I am the Owner of the palace”.

So Abraham was saying to himself: Is it possible that the world doesn’t have a manhig, a ruler? Hitzitz shelo beKodesh barechu ve’amar lo – God looked down on him and said: Ani hu ba’al ha’olam. I am the owner of the universe.

That is the passage: Midrash Raba on Lech lecha. This is a very enigmatic passage. So enigmatic that it was subject to beautiful misinterpretations by 20th century theologians. One of them, a wonderful man, the late A. J. Heschel. I don’t know if you have read A. J. Heschel’s work. A. J. Heschel was a Jewish mystic, grandson of one of the great hasidic leaders after whom he was named, the Apter Rav. Heschel translated birah doleket – which I have translated as ‘a palace in flames’ – Heschel translated it as ‘he saw a palace full of light’.

According to this, Abraham was a mystic, a kind of Wordsworth, wandering “lonely as a cloud”, seeing the whole world full of the glory of God.

“I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns …”

Anyway, there it is. The radiance of the Creator. He saw a palace full of light. Unfortunately, birah doleket means ‘a palace in flames’. It does not mean ‘a palace full of light’.

Louis Jacobs in one of his books gives it a different theme. Abraham is a philosopher, a rationalist. Somebody who has reason to believe, and he says the following thing. He says that this is like the cosmological argument. You know: the argument from design. The famous argument put forward by Paley that if you are wandering along in a desert and you see a rock or a hill, you don’t ask who created that. But if you are wandering along a desert and you see a watch, you say: Listen, somebody made that. The bits are too intricate. They fit together too carefully. They were obviously designed with a function in mind and therefore, since they have design, they must have had a designer.

So, says Abraham, according to Louis Jacobs, even though the world sometimes appears to us as if it is on fire, nonetheless, underneath it all there is a palace. It looks as if it has architecture. The universe looks as if it has structure: the human genome. Whatever. I will talk about that some other time. Anyway, that is the second explanation. However, I think both of those are beautiful interpretations: only they do not mean what the passage means!

Here it is. And I repeat: this is radical stuff but bear with me.

Abraham sees a palace. That means that he sees the world has order. Therefore, it has a Creator. But the palace is in flames! – which means the world is full of disorder. It is full of evil, violence, injustice. Now nobody builds a building and then goes away and deserts it. Therefore, if there is a fire there must be somebody in charge to put it out. The building must have an owner. Where is he? And that is Abraham’s question. Where is God in this world?

That is the question that gives Abraham no peace. Here, if I am right, that is the starting point of Jewish faith. In Judaism, faith does not begin with an answer. It begins with a question. It doesn’t begin in harmony. It begins in dissonance. Here it is: if God created the world then God created man. Why then does God allow man to destroy the world? How can we reconcile the order of the world with the disorder of human society? Can God have made the world only to desert it? That is Abraham’s question. Efshar sheha’olam beli manhig? – Can it be the world has no-one in charge, no owner? That is his question.

I now want to outline to you the two logical possibilities which are the only possible answers to that question. Here they are – and these have been the two defining possibilities throughout most of human culture. There are two ways of seeing the world.

Way one – and this one, as you know, prevailed at certain times in the past and certainly prevails today in many quarters. According to this view, there is no God. There are only contending forces: there is chance and there is necessity. There is genetic mutation and natural selection. The strong, the well-adapted survive; the weak, the maladapted die. The evolution of the universe is governed by forces which are inexorable and blind. There is no justice because there is no judge. Therefore, there is no question. We can only ever ask ‘How?’: that is, the scientific question. We can never ask the question ‘Why?’ because there is no ‘Why?’ There is no palace. There are only flames. That is the logical possibility: one.

Logical possibility: two. This is the opposite of the first. God exists. Therefore, everything that is, is because He made it. Everything that happens, happens because He willed it. In which case all injustice must be an illusion. We think it is evil because we don’t really understand. When people suffer, either it is they are being punished because they did wrong or, if they are innocent, it is to purge them, to purify them, to teach them sympathy or compassion or serenity. Somehow God organises the souls’ perfection through the bodies’ torments. All evil is good in disguise. If we could only see things through God’s perspective, we would have no question because everything, being from God, is good. There are no flames: there is only the palace.

Those are the two – and only two – logical possibilities. The faith of Abraham begins in a refusal to accept either answer. Because both contain an element of truth and between them there is a contradiction. Either God exists, in which case there is no evil. Or evil exists, in which case there is no God. But supposing both exist? Supposing there are both God and evil? Supposing there are both the palace and the flames?

Now if that is so, if my interpretation is smartpillwiki right, then Judaism begins not in the conventional place where faith is thought to begin, namely in wonder that the world is. Judaism begins in the opposite, in the protest against a world that is not as it ought to be. At the very heart of reality, by which I mean reality as we see it, from our point of view, there is a contradiction between order and chaos: the order of creation and the chaos we make.

Now the question is: how we do we resolve that contradiction? And the answer is that that contradiction between the palace and the flames, between the world that is and the world that ought to be, cannot be resolved at the level of thought. It doesn’t exist! You cannot resolve it! Logically, philosophically, in terms of theology or theodicy, you cannot do it! The only way you can resolve that tension is by action; by making the world better than it is.

That is the only way you can lessen the tension between the palace and the flames. When things are as they ought to be, when there is only a palace and no flames – then we have resolved the tension. Then we have reached our destination. But that is not yet. It was not yet for Abraham and it is not yet for us. And from this initial contradiction, from this cognitive dissonance, are born the following four fundamental features of Judaism.

Feature one: the primary thing in Judaism is ‘doing’, is action, is deed, is mitzvah. Because only the mitzvah makes the world a little less dissonant between what it is and what it ought to be.

Secondly: the whole programme of Judaism, the project of the Torah, is tikkun olam in the precise sense ‘mending a fragmented, fractured, world’.

Thirdly: (and I’m telling you a whole book in an hour here) we have the revolutionary concept in Judaism. Of linear time. There is an American writer called Thomas Cahill who wrote a bestseller in America a year or two back called “The Gifts of the Jews”. He is actually Catholic. His whole book is on this idea, linear time. He says that if only for this alone, Jews would have changed the course of western civilisation. Namely, that as time goes by we lessen the dissonance between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be. In which case, not everything in the world stays the same. In which case time is not just like time on the clock that goes round and round and round. The cyclical time of myth: day, night, summer, autumn, winter, sprint, etc. etc. The cyclical time of mythical thought, of Greek thought, of Nietzschean thought, eternal occurrences – Judaism crashes through that and says: No, time also has a linear dimension. It is a journey towards a destination. It has a beginning and an end, an endpoint very distant from here. It is like a story, a narrative that has a beginning, middle and end because the world changes. Because we see that there is something wrong with the world. That is linear time which, according to most people, originated in Judaism.

Fourthly: obviously, already we can see here the very beginning of the story, the concept of the destination which is called yemot haMeshiach – the Messianic Age. Which makes Judaism, alone of all the great faiths and all the great cultures, the one culture (with, of course, the exception of Marxism) which sees the Golden Age not as something in the past but as something in the future. Which gave the world the concept of hope. Here’s my plug for my new book which just came out today, called “The Politics of Hope”: it is my re-written “The Politics of Hope”. The concept of hope which is the basic concept of the Messianic age.

In other words, faced with conflicting evidence between order and chaos, between God and evil, it would have been so easy to deny the reality of one or the other. Either we deny God, in which case we have despair: or we deny evil, in which case we have consolation. Judaism refuses the premature and easy options: despair on the one hand; consolation on the other. If either of those logical alternatives were true – either there is no justice or everything in the world is just – then we could live at peace with the world. But to be a Jew is to refuse those easy answers and to live within the tension which sees evil as real and therefore rejects premature consolation, acceptance of the world. And it is also to say that God is real and therefore hope is not an illusion.

If God exists then life has a purpose. If evil exists then we have not yet achieved that purpose. Until then we must travel: lech lecha – like Abraham and Sarah travelled and as Jews have travelled ever since – el ha’aretz asher are’eka – to the land which I will show you – which is always just over the horizon which is always not quite yet.

What is haunting about this midrash is not only Abraham’s question but also God’s reply. What He does is that He stands there and He says: Ani hu ba’al habirah. – I am the Owner of the palace. I am the Ruler of the world. In effect, all He says is: “I am here”. That’s all He says. Abraham asks God, Ribono shel olam – the world is on fire: where are You? And God replies in the first words He said to Adam and Eve as they were about to leave the Garden – Ayeka? – Where are you?

Abraham says: God, why did you abandon the world? God says to Abraham: Why did you abandon Me?

And there then begins that dialogue between Heaven and Earth which has not ceased in 4,000 years. That dialogue in which God and Man find one another. Whose resolution is not an answer. A solution whose resolution is an action. Because God says to Man: Only you can put out the flames and I will show you how.

Now look: I find this an extraordinary analysis. But only thus can we understand the great dialogues between God and Abraham and Moses and Jeremiah and Job. Dialogues which, I repeat, are unique to Judaism. Dialogues which never ended in the Bible! I don’t know if you know, but those dialogues between the prophets and God, the mood of those dialogues was a never-ending feature in Judaism.

They were even accentuated in the midrashic and aggadic literature. They exist if you read it carefully in the literature of lament of the mediaeval period, the things we call kinot and slichot. They exist in hassidic stories, especially for those of you familiar with hassidic stories about the great hassidic Rebbe, Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev. Many of his stories are that kind of dialogue with God. And they exist of course in the Holocaust literature, the most famous example the recently re-published dialogue or monologue, whatever, called “Yossel Rakover speaks to God”.

In other words, that dialogue over the existence of evil has been a non-stop feature of Judaism from biblical times to the present and that is what I call the dialogical imagination as opposed to the logical imagination.

Now I want to show you something. Here it is. I want to show you how this feature of biblical Judaism got carried over to rabbinic thought. I want to show you just one simple example that I find fascinating. Here it is. For those of you who want to look them up, the sources from which I am quoting are the Mishnah in Brachot, chapter 9 – you will find it in the Talmud Bavli on page 54A, and the commentary of the Babylonian Talmud which you will find on Brachot page 60A and 60B. To understand this little drama that unfolds on the pages of the Talmud, you just have to understand one distinction. The Torah has two kind of literature, right? The five Mosaic books. On the one hand there is narrative; on the other hand there is law.

Now what are the rabbinic equivalents of narrative and law? What do we call those? Law is – halachah; and narrative etc. is – aggadah. So aggadah is all the stuff that isn’t law. It is biblical interpretation. It is theological speculation. It is stories and so on. Or to put it in a more focused way: what question does halachah answer? – How shall I act? What question does aggadah answer? – Why did this happen? Those are the two questions.

Now I want to tell you about the Mishnah in the last chapter of Brachot. The Mishnah contains three – well, it contains lots of statements but I am going to focus only on three. Here they are.

No. 1: If you get good news, you need to make a brachah. If you get bad news, you also need to make a brachah. A different brachah. What is the brachah for good news? Hatov vehamaitiv. Brachah over bad news (you shouldn’t know of such things) – Dayan ha’emet. Ok? That is number one.

No. 2 is a very obscure passage. I don’t know what it means. It says mevareich al hara’a mi’ain al hatovah; mevareich al hatovah mi’ain al hara’a. You make a blessing over the bad that contains a bit of good and over the good that contains a bit of bad. We’ll explain that in a moment.

Then the 3rd statement: hayav adam levareich al hara keshem shemevareich al tovah. You have to make a blessing over bad news as well as over good news.

Ok. That is the 3rd statement. Let’s take the 3rd statement first. Here it goes. What does it mean when the Gemara says you need to make a blessing over the bad news as well as good? The Gemara says the following. Reb Huna said in the name of Rav in the name of Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Akiva also said: A person should always say kol de’avid rahmanah letovah avid. Whatever God does is for the best. Whatever the Almighty does is for the good. Here it is. Rabbi Akiva was once on a journey and he came to a town and he wanted a room. Everyone refused to give him a room. Can you imagine such a thing? A Jewish town without hachnasat orchim. So Rabbi Akiva, instead of getting upset, said, kol de’avid rahmanah letovah avid. Or, as we probably say, gam zu letovah. This too is for good. He didn’t know how, but he assumed that the Almighty meant it for good.

Then, of course, Rabbi Akiva had with him a cockerel, an ass and a lamp. During the night, the wind came and blew out the lamp. A fox came and ate the cock. A lion came and ate the ass. So he wakes up and there is nothing there. Rabbi Akiva says: Gam zu letovah. This also is for good.

So the Gemara says, Well, when he came back into the town the next morning, he discovered that some bandits had entered the town and taken all the inhabitants off as captives. So Rabbi Akivah said: “Wasn’t I right to say gam zu letovah? All this is for the good. You see, if I had got a room in the town, I would have been taken captive. If the light had been burning, they would have known I was there. If the cock had been there it would have crowed and they would have known I was there. If the ass had been there, it would have brayed and they would have known I was there. So, obviously, whatever the Almighty does is for good, Baruch haShem.

You ask a Jew how things are: he says “Baruch haShem”, and you say, “Gevalt, that bad?”

So that is the aggadah. Whatever God does is for the best. The Gemara doesn’t ask what the inhabitants of the town thought about Rabbi Akiva’s sunny view of things. But there it is. The view that whatever God does is for the best, which we associate philosophically with – ? [Inaudible response from audience.] Leibniz: “All is for the best in the best of possible worlds” which, as you rightly say, was pilloried or satirised in Voltaire’s Candide in the figure of Dr Pangloss. That is an aggadah. Ok?

However, now I want to show you something surprising. If whatever God does is for the best, then what should you say over bad news? Baruch haShem. Hatov vehamaitiv. But the halachah isn’t like that. The halachah says that over good news one says hatov vehamaitiv; over bad news one says Baruch Dayan Emet.

So the halachah recognises the reality of evil which Rabbi Akiva’s aggadah did not recognise. And now I come to the 3rd statement which is, what is mevareich al hara’a mi’ain al hatovah; mevareich al hatovah mi’ain al hara’a? And here is the Gemara. The Gemara asks the following question – and it must be being asked in several towns in England at the moment.

Your field is flooded. This is bad news now. On the other hand, I don’t know. Do floods improve the quality of fields? They did in the Middle East because they brought alluvial deposits and all fresh earth. So, when all the bad is over it is going to be good. You know this at the time you see the flood. You know it is bad now but it is good in the future. What bracha do you make? [Inaudible response from audience.] Is that good news or bad news? The answer is: not both. On this one, Judaism is unequivocal. You make a bracha – Dayan emet. The halachah is interested in now. It is not interested in the future. It is interested in now. In general, the halachah is interested in now. So if you have got bad news which is one day going to be good news, you still make ‘Dayan emet’. Now you understand that that Gemara which is in Brachot 60A directly contradicts the brachah on the next page, 60B, in which Rabbi Akiva says: “Whatever God does is for the best – because even though it is bad now, as I discovered, by the next morning it is good.”

There is a fat contradiction between Aggada, the world in which everything is good, and halachah in which not everything is good: in which evil is real and recognised as such by the halachah. And, of course, how do you resolve that contradiction? I said to you before, you can resolve a contradiction either by saying that it represents two different viewpoints in space, or two different viewpoints in time. Chronological of dialogical. In this case the answer lies in time.

If we look back at the past, we can ask the aggadic question: Why did this happen? And we can try and find explanations, consolations, that actually it happened for the best. But when we look towards the future: What then shall I do? – when we look towards the future, halachah insists in living in a world in which evil is real and not to be confused with good! If you make the brachah ‘hatov vehamaitiv’ over bad news, even though one day it is going to be good, you have made a blessing in vain. You have broken the third commandment.

I want you to see how halachah and aggadah are two different perspectives on the universe. When we reflect on the past, we can find consolation. When we look to the future, we must refuse to be consoled. In aggadah you can ask – God forbid we should ask, but in aggadah you can ask: Why did that child die? Why did that innocent person get caught up in the bomb blast? Why, if x was such a good human being, did he suffer so many things in this life? – You can ask those in aggadah. But in halachah you can never accept a situation which maybe you can change as a fait accompli to be accepted. You may not! Because evil is evil and halachah does not allow you to confuse it with good – even if maybe it will bring about good. That which can be changed is not sacred. If you can cure an illness, if you can remedy an injustice, if you right a wrong -then halachah says you must! Because you cannot be at ease with it because God does everything for the best.

Looking back on the past, maybe you can. Last summer, Elaine and I were in the University of Stirling where Mel Gibson fought the battle against the British in “Braveheart”! It’s a great place, a lovely place. Twenty-seven countries – Maccabi European Olympics – great stuff. Lots of kids; 1500 Jewish kids. We went there; we spent Shabbos with them. We were there for the opening of the games. We spent Shabbos with 1500 Jewish kids from 27 different countries.

It was beautiful: one of the loveliest experiences I ever went through. I said to them as Shabbos came in that I wanted to tell them a little story: For most of you, this is the first time you have ever been here in Stirling University. For me, it is the second time. (A true story: I tell it in “Celebrating Life”.) I said: I was here in this room 30 years ago, almost exactly. I will tell you that 30 years ago I had just finished Cambridge and I applied for my first job: lecturer in philosophy at Stirling University. I didn’t get it. I’ve got to tell you that I got turned down for every job I ever applied for. (Laughter) Yes!

So there I was. I was 21 years old. I had just been turned down after the first job application I ever made. For 30 years that has rankled. Then I said to them: Supposing I had got the job? I would never have become a rabbi. I would never have become a Chief Rabbi and I would never be here to welcome 1500 Jews celebrating Shabbos together because the University is on holiday and all the academics are away. Now – now I understand – after 30 years, that gam zu letovah! And I am sure all of you must have had some experience when you look back on your life and you saw that thing which seemed so painful or bad or wrong at the time – it turned out to be a necessary stage in a journey which brought you to where you are today.

Once in a while we can look back and say gam zu letovah. But when we look forward we can not. And now I hope we are able to understand this incredible complex duality at the heart of Judaism which explains halachah and aggadah. Which explains the dialogues of Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah and Job, because there are two points of view: there is God’s point of view and there is Man’s point of view. From God’s point of view, subspecia æternitates [?] – if you can see everything, then doubtless everything has an explanation. We don’t doubt this! If only we could see the totality of things! If only we could see the long run. If we could only see the next world as well as this world, I am sure we would understand why everything that happened, happened.

You know the famous analogy, the one that Rav Soloveitchik brings: you are looking at the underside of a Persian carpet. You are looking underneath and there are all these strings and threads of different colours in apparent chaos and you don’t know what they are doing. If only you could go round to see it from the top, not from the underneath, you would see that every one of them was necessary to make this brilliant and beautiful and intricate pattern. That is how things look from God’s point of view and that is a point of view we sometimes glimpse from Tanakh and, as I say, we sometimes glimpse in life. That is the tone of voice you find in aggadah. That is the tone of voice you sometimes get when God answers the prophets.

However, that is God’s point of view. What is crucial to Judaism is that God’s point of view is not the only point of view. When God empowered us, when God asked us to be his partner in the work of creation, when God said: Let not only Me be creative, let this human being that I have made also be creative – then God made space for us and, in order to make space for us, He had to confer legitimacy on the world as it appears to us. So although God knew that all the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorra were evil, Abraham didn’t know. Abraham didn’t know! Therefore God empowers Abraham to make the speech in their defence. Although God knew He was going to redeem the Israelites, Moses didn’t know! Therefore God empowers Moses to protest lama hari’osa le’olam hazeh. Although God knew the reasons for Job’s suffering, Job didn’t know and therefore God empowers Job to protest his innocence. And where do you see this obviously? In the case of Noah, for heaven’s sake!

Let me ask you a simple question. We read Noah on Shabbos. Tell me, what did Noah say to God while the flood was going on? – Not a word. Not a word. I told you he wasn’t Jewish! [Laughter] Not a word – not a word. Just three times: Noah did everything that God commanded. Noah was obedient. Noah didn’t protest. Believe it or not, that thing which surely in every religious system is the highest virtue – that you are obedient, that you accept God’s decree – in Judaism is not the highest. In fact, that is why Noah fails and that is why Abraham succeeds. Because Noah accepts but Abraham protests.

Only somebody who protests, who sees the reality of evil from a human perspective; only somebody who sees not only the palace but also the flames – only that person understands the fundamental proposition of Judaism that we are here not to accept the world but to change the world. And, yes! we agree that in the fullness of time or in the world to come, or if we could understand how it is that the butterfly’s wings fluttering in China will give George W. Bush victory in the United States [Laughter] – we would understand why bad things happen – not that I mean for one moment that that might be a bad thing! – but our very humanity means that we cannot see the fullness of time! We cannot envisage the world to come! We cannot understand the interconnectedness of things. We haven’t got that infinity to wait. As the Yiddish prayer goes – it’s my favourite prayer of all – Ribono shel olam, I know You’re going to help me, but please could You help me until You help me?!

Our perspective is very fragmentary, fragile and short-term and, therefore, we do not understand. Therefore, evil seems to us real and it is real for us. And God affirms our humanity.

Now I come back to where I began, with those two logical alternatives – and I want to state them, as clearly as I can in a post?Holocaust context. On the one hand, maybe Nietzsche was right, maybe there is no justice. Maybe there is no Judge. Maybe there is no God and no meaning to life. Maybe there is no palace – only the flames. In which case, any attempt to find moral meaning in the universe is destined to fail. All we have is the struggle for existence and what Nietzsche called “the will to power”. The strong crush the weak. The clever outwit the simple. The powerful dominate the powerless. And in such a world there is no reason not to expect a holocaust.

On the other hand, maybe Leibniz is right. Maybe the devout believer is right. Maybe all evil is an illusion. Maybe everything that happens happens in the world because God willed it so. In which case we may not know why the Holocaust happened. But there is a reason for it: God’s reason. And we must accept it. We must accept the fact of the Holocaust as God’s unfathomable will.

I tell you that I as a Jew refuse to accept either alternative. I refuse to accept them because either of them would allow me to live at peace with the world and I believe it is morally impossible to live at peace in a world that contained an Auschwitz. Therefore, I hope I have shown you how this faith of multiple perspectives, of cognitive dissonance, which is lived out in time through the conversation between Earth and Heaven and lived out in dialogue, is the energising tension at the heart of Judaism. It is what drives us to act and try to change the world. If we see the dissonance between our world and God’s world, between the flames and the palace, between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’, then we know that that tension can be resolved only by action which is inspired by revelation, which moves us closer to redemption.

That is what happens when we see the palace and we see the flames. We call out to God and we find Him calling out to us saying, “You must fight the fire. You, human beings, must put out the flames and I will show you how”.

Friends, let me sum up what I have tried to say ‘rabbonishly’. I am sorry I have been a bit philosophical and intellectual. Let me sum it up in another way, in the form of a dvar Torah. You know that there is a famous and very moving moment in the Torah when the brothers return to Jacob with the bloodstained cloak of Joseph whom they have sold into slavery and they have faked this coat dipped in goat’s blood. They ask Jacob if he recognised it as the coat of his son, Joseph. An evil beast has devoured him. And Jacob recognises it and he says that well, an evil beast must have devoured him. And he weeps and the brothers try to comfort him. The Torah uses two extraordinarily powerful and strange words. Vayema’ain lehitnakhaim. He refused to be comforted.

Now you know and I know that in Judaism there is a fundamental principle – yesh gvul le’availut – there is a limit to mourning. There is shiva. There is shloshim. For a parent, there is a year. And when that time has passed, Judaism forbids us to mourn any longer. The Gemara says Hamitkasheh al maito yoter midai – somebody who mourns for too long – God says to him: Are you more compassionate than I am?

It is forbidden in Jewish law to refuse to be comforted. Why then did Jacob refuse to be comforted? The answer is very simple – and it is given by an ancient midrash and here it is.

When is it that we can be comforted? The answer is: only when we are sure that somebody is dead. When we have given up hope of ever seeing them alive again, then we can be comforted. Jacob was not sure that Joseph was dead. He was not convinced that the bloodstained coat was telling him the truth. He did not give up hope that one day he would see his son Joseph alive again. And, in fact, he did see Joseph alive again. When do you refuse to be comforted? When you refuse to give up hope.

Many faiths, many philosophers, give us – as Alain de Botton puts it, quoting that interpolated palimpsest … [?] “The Consolations of Philosophy”. Many philosophies, many faiths give us consolations – nekhamah, comfort. They reconcile us to the work. Judaism is Vayema’ain lehitnakhaim. We refuse to be comforted. We refuse to be comforted when the world still contains violence and oppression and evil. And the reason we refuse to be comforted is that we refuse to give up hope. Because if we can change ourselves, we can change the world. And if we can change the world, we can put out the fire so that the palace, God’s palace, is no longer in flames.

Thank you very much. [Applause]

Howard Jackson: Thank you very much, Chief Rabbi. If anybody has questions, we have time for a few questions. Please raise your hands. But I would ask if you could wait until we get the microphone over to you. If you could state your name as well, that would be great. Thanks.

Martin Sykes: Does Avraham’s failure to protest at God’s command to sacrifice his son amount to a failure of that particular test?

Chief Rabbi: Martin, can you bear with me? I’m really a little bit ausgeschlogged here because that answer takes another lecture of another hour. I wish I could give it to you briefly. I believe that the philosophy I have been trying to outline will force us to go back and re-read and re-interpret many biblical passages. I had the great zhut a few weeks ago of giving an hour’s shiur of re-interpreting the binding of Isaac to the assembled staff of The Jewish Chronicle and we had a wonderful time. I said, “Instead of shmeissing each other, let’s learn Torah together.” It was a wonderful time. But I wish I could give you a brief answer, but I don’t think Abraham failed the test. But I don’t think we’ve read the test correctly in the past. I am sorry. That is a really rotten answer. Can you come up to me afterwards and I will give it to you in brief? You know, you may want me to give a lecture on that and I don’t want to give you ‘who dunnit’ right at the outset.

Ben Morris: Doesn’t the brachah of Dayan emet suggest a backward-looking acceptance of the true God who exercises justice?

Chief Rabbi: Yes, Dayan ha’emet is the acceptance of that which has happened. You’re absolutely right. Tziduk hadin. But, what I was trying to show you is that a world in which there is a brachah Dayan ha’emet is a world that accepts the reality for halachic purposes of evil. And from that follow all the consequences in Judaism. As you know, there was an argument in the Middle Ages: Are we entitled to cure illness in Judaism? (Are you with me?)

The rabbis gave many ‘for instances’ in which they said that illness was a punishment for such?and?such. So, if that is the case, surely being a doctor is attempting to frustrate the will of God. The Rambam, Maimonides, in his “Commentary to the Mishnah” relating to a beraitah in the fourth chapter of Psachim which says that there were certain things that King Hezekiah did and the rabbis agreed with him, and one of the things that he did that they agreed with was that he was ganaz sefer refu’ot. He hid the book of healings. And Rashi’s commentary there says that Hezekiah was a good king and that he hid the book of healings because people were going to doctors instead of doing tshuvah.

And Maimonides says something very rude about this indeed. He says that those people who object to going to doctors on the grounds that they frustrate God’s will by tampering with nature obviously shouldn’t eat. After all, if God’s will is that we should be hungry, why should we frustrate God’s will by eating! He gave us the capacity to create food to cure our hunger. He gave us the capacity to cure disease etc. Halachah has always operated systematically on the principle that the evils of this world are there to be changed and fought against and that is why Judaism is a revolutionary creed. But that again is a very long story. But, just to give you a very simple other example.

You will find in ancient Egyptian literature of the 17th, 18th centuries BCE a lament that the old order changes: the low have become high; the high have become low. You know Ulysses’ speech in Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida”,

“Take but degree away, untune that string

And hark what discord follows: each thing meets

In mere oppugnancy.”

You see, the rich aren’t rich any more. The poor aren’t poor any more. The poor become rich. The rich become poor. Terrible! Waste and decay in all … [?] For an Egyptian, that change of things is the worst possible thing. You will surely know because we said it as our Haftarah on Rosh Hashanah, first day, when Hannah issues her psalm of thanksgiving for the birth of her son – which, indeed, you know, even more famously because virtually those words are in our Hallel – Mekimi mai’ofer dal, mai’ashpot yarim evyon – God lifts the needy from the dust and raises the poor from the rubbish heap. For Hannah and for the Book of Psalms to see revolution in society is a sign of joy not a sign of tragedy.

Judaism is a systematically revolutionary faith because it does not take anything for granted. Egyptian theology, Mesopotamian theology, was an attempt to create by monumental architecture, by the ziggurats of Babylon, some architectural equivalent of the order of the cosmos. The king, the nobles, the priests, the common people are represented in a hierarchy whose apex is a ruler with absolute power, who is identified with a God, and so on and so forth. The whole of ancient myth, and this was Karl Marx’s objection to religion as a whole, is an attempt to justify in equality, to canonise the status quo.

In Judaism, the opposite! Judaism begins with an act of God liberating slaves. God is a revolutionary! I am not saying that God is necessarily a marxist – either Karl or Groucho! one way or another – but one way or another, Judaism is a revolutionary faith.

I am trying to map, in this halachic world in which looking to the future – good is good and evil is evil and we refuse to confuse the two, even though, as you say, baruch dayan ha’emet is a sense of accepting the inevitable. But that halachic mindset, that resolute determination to change and perfect the world, is very special to Judaism. It gives us our halachic orientation, our future orientation. But I do take your point. Ok, Ben? A general point – but your point is well-taken.

John Raven: Chief Rabbi, I have a problem which I would really like you to refute. That is, ultimately this application of the dialogical model – it just seems to me to be a greater attempt to cover the long-term reality and despair of evil with a deeper and more encompassing form of cognitive dissonance, thereby just rendering it a hidden form of accepting … [?] [Levinas’ ?] logical decision.

Chief Rabbi: No, no. I really believe that Judaism embodies a sense in which, slowly but surely, we eliminate the evils of this world. I have to tell you that I think that is true. I think I said last time – forgive me if I am repeating myself – but when the Torah says: Let us make Man in Our image and according to Our likeness – it is not insignificant that in 1948 the United Nations issued its Declaration of Human Rights. The Torah begins with God redeeming a people from slavery and the 19th century slavery is abolished in Europe and the United States. When the Torah begins with Adam and Eve as figures of equal if opposite dignity and we move towards a time in which women and men do have more equal dignity, then I think the world has changed and changed in accordance with ideals set out in the Torah at the very beginning of the story but reached only late in the human journey. I believe Judaism is an activist faith, not at all a passive faith. And I really believe we are called on to improve the world.

If what I was saying is merely an intellectual exercise which doesn’t get us to act any differently, then I wouldn’t waste your time or my time on it. I really believe that I am trying to create a new world of understanding Judaism so that I hope we will act as Jews with a little more grace and a little more determination and involvement as citizens. I hope we will make more space for others than we have done in the past.

But if you want to go back – or re-formulate your question?

John Raven: [Not into microphone so inaudible.]

Chief Rabbi: The dialogue energises the prophets to energise the people to set justice at the hierarchy of their concerns. And slowly and surely that changes the world – but very slowly. Be aware that as Kierkegaard once said: When a king dies, his power ends. When a prophet dies, his influence begins. – To change humanity is very slow. Maimonides says so in “Guide of the Perplexed” and I believe he was right. Judaism is a tremendously difficult balancing act between priestly time – which is cyclical and never changes. And you know, there are certain Jews, very frum Jews some of them and in some cases not very frum Jews – Franz Rosenzweig was a good example – who believe that Judaism is ahistorical: it never changes. I mean, even though we’re living in Israel, we’re still living in Poland in the 18th century, let us say. Judaism never changes. On the other hand, there is a terrible prophetic impatience in Judaism which says that Moshiach has already arrived – which rushes to change the universe tomorrow and which, very often, gets disillusioned because, you know, you try and change the universe and the universe doesn’t change.

I give you the obvious example of this. The spies in parsha Shlach lecha: Out go the spies. They come back – and ten of the twelve say: We can never do it! So Moses tones God down a little bit – who wants to wipe out the whole lot – and God settles for 40 years. Then come the ma’apilim. You remember? The very next bit. And they say: Ok Moses, we believe in God! We’re going to fight now! And Moses says: You know, you can’t do it. So Judaism has this terrible impatience to change the world, which comes to us from the prophets. It has this temptation to see that nothing in the universe ever changes, which comes to us from the priests. The great difficulty in Judaism is maintaining some kind of balance between them.

Therefore, there are lots of people who think you can never change anything and there are the people who think you can change it overnight. But I really believe that a sober historical view forces us to put right what we can, and what we cannot put right, to hand on our ideals to our children and them to theirs – so that when the moment is ripe they will make the change that we were unable to make in our time. That is my real commitment. I am really not delivering these lectures for the sake of being clever. I hope that out of it will come a deeper understanding of what we are called on to do as Jews.

Graham Newman: Chief Rabbi, you gave two logical alternatives. One is that there is no God: evil exists. The other is that God exists and is all good. Could there be a third one, that God exists but has got a wicked sense of humour and is not always good to us?

Chief Rabbi: Yes, I have no doubt whatsoever that the Almighty has a very curious sense of humour. After all, He chose us! [Laughter] So I definitely believe that if God can sometimes see the joke of things, so should we. And with that, I thank you and wish you Laila tov. [Good night.] [Applause]

Howard Jackson: Thank you very much indeed, Chief Rabbi, for your exciting, inspiring and entertaining talk to us this evening. If people have further questions or comments, we do have a box behind the screen where you can put written questions and the Chief Rabbi may discuss those in future lectures. Also behind the screen is the Chief Rabbi”s new book: “The Politics of Hope” with an introduction by Gordon Brown and there are copies signed by the Chief Rabbi. It is a revised edition. So please do take a look – and there are some other books on sale also.

The next lecture in this series unfortunately is not until Tuesday, 6th February. But please do mark that date in your diary. The title then is: “Creation: Where did we come from?” That will take place here at 7.30 p.m. Tuesday, 6th February.

For further details, one can always check the website:

Just finally, thanks to everybody who helped organise this event, especially thanks to the CST as well, and thank you very much everybody for coming and take care. Good night. [Applause]

[End of recording.]