This sermon was delivered on the occasion of the final dedication of ‘Seatscape‘ at the LJS – a project to stitch new seat covers for the synagogue chairs, launched as part of the synagogue’s centenary (hence the puns throughout).
Last week I threatened to say something interesting this week about space, the final frontier – in light of the Rosetta mission last week and the rather amusing request, received via a national newspaper, to write a response to the question of Judaism’s readiness for extra-terrestrial encounters on earth. So here goes my attempt to WEAVE a journey through the subject.
Actually it is quite an inspiring topic on which to write, after one of the most impressive scientific accomplishments in space last week with the landing of a craft on a comet. Who knows what next might be in store for us humans! And in truth, I am rather indebted to Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs who covers the topic with typical brilliance in his book ‘A Jewish Theology’. Had the author of the book, whose chapter I was reviewing, taken the trouble to read Jacobs and not clumsily STITCH together Rabbi Google’s answers the chapter on Judaism might well have been worth publishing, but I digress.
My short response can be read on my blog, but for now I want to take us in two different directions. The first is really what do Jews have to say about this question of extra terrestrial encounter? And the second is what happens when we contemplate the meaning of the encounter. To my mind, it has little to do with the theology, philosophy, or halakhic questions.
If you were to ask my generation, as children (when we were under 18), who were the three most famous aliens imagined to be encountered by human civilisation in popular culture (leaving aside the Alien and Predators series as 18 certificate films) your answers would probably include…
Kal-El (AKA Superman, AKA Clark Kent) Superman – the boy who when he reaches teenage years discovers special powers. Must conceal his true identity in order to ‘fit in’ with the wider society (as Jewish comic creators the inventors had been excluded from the industry for being Jewish after all). And secretly he could dominate the world…whoops.
ET (of glowing finger fame) – the invention of a young kid who becomes one of the most successful film producers and directors. The story of the touching encounter between a boy and a friend. A film that brings nearly everyone to tears. The loner, Jewish film director, creates a film that expresses human relationships, acceptance and tolerance for the other on a deeply interpersonal level.
Spock (it’s life Jim but not as we know it) – the one alien crew member on a human ship has uncanny intellectual abilities and a greeting sign rather reminiscent of the Priestly benediction (as described by Leonard Nimoy). The outsider, again accepted on the inside, but always treated with a little suspicion and his ways are never fully understood acted by a Jew. Don’t forget to watch out for the Vulkan death grip!
Of these, the first two are invented by Jews and the last is acted by a Jew. Coincidence? Well if we can leave aside the possibility that Jews own Hollywood or control the world, I think it’s almost certain that it is no coincidence. And for good reason. But let me come back to these guys later.
But before that, my second point – I want to reflect a little on what it might mean for a non-earthling to visit our earth. What might the rich TAPESTRY of life teach to our visitor and to us? The journalist who asked me the question was interested in whether the aliens could convert to Judaism. To which my response would be something along the lines of – if it turns out humans and aliens could fall in love, and it turns out they create homes together, why ever not! Though it requires a rather massive sense of hubris to think that, having travelled light years to get here, any alien is going to be interested in the least in becoming a follower of an earthly and earth bound religion/ethnicity. But we’ll leave that for the aliens to figure out.
SEW, I am personally more fascinated by the classic question, what an alien might observe were they to arrive on the earth and imperceptibly live among us. Since this year was the year in which Robin Wiliams died, I must of course acknowledge my debt to Mork, though perhaps the Solomon family of ‘Third Rock from the Sun’ should be our Jewish point of reference! Are you keeping up by the way?
What would these aliens, extra-terrestrials observe in the WARP AND WEFT of human life? Perhaps, whilst applying the Prime Directive they might witness the incredible cooperative capability of human life. Our uniquely human trait must surely be the transmission of knowledge, of culture and of values. We know animals can communicate at basic levels and one day we might teach a particularly dextrous animal to use an implement like a needle, but would they be able to (a) transmit that knowledge from generation to generation and (b) evolve a mastery of the use of said tool to create visual representations and a sense of art and the transcendent? Who knows, but not yet and for me this is where humans stand out.
Our aliens would be able to draw the THREADS of human advancement together in order to see that in majestic acts of cooperation we are able to send craft on a 6.4 billion kilometres expedition to put a washing machine size lander on a comet. How optimistic the extra terrestrials might think to themselves. And turning to the small acts of cooperation and wonderment they might witness the incredible creativity, commitment, volunteer spirit in something as local as a project to stitch 104 seat covers for a synagogue sanctuary.
And how those aliens might marvel at the sublime impression the seats make. Looking out at the sanctuary, ripples of the light of Torah, or is it the light of the moon, would be seen as if each ‘pray-er’ were wading into the deep, blue sustaining water, and, for just a moment, perhaps remind the extra-terrestrials of their own sublime vistas encountered on their journey through space. Witnessing the names of the 365 different stitchers, one for every day of the year, our new alien friends might imagine that the human capacity for achieving great things is remarkable – we might even be a species worth saving.
So much for the transmission of noble values and culture, the spirit of cooperation and creating something to direct our hearts to heaven and our souls to new depths. For no sooner had our aliens observed the scientific, artistic and aspirational endeavours then they would hear the news from some place – let’s call it ‘City of Peace’ – Ir Shalem – or perhaps ‘Jerusalem’ just to add to their confusion. As if clamouring to be seen above the nobility of humankind, our ET would now hear of murder of four rabbis and a Druze policeman in a heinous act of terror.
Would our alien visitor be totally confused by the ethnic, religious, national, historic identity and enmity? How could a species capable of so much also be capable of such destruction, they might ask? Looking more closely they would see families, friends, communities, peoples, struggling to overcome the pull from progress and embattled against the voices of negativity, depravity and wickedness.
It was as I thought about this that I realised my vision of encounter with ET fell into two fantasies – either ET would be beneficent because they had surpassed negative failings in their ‘space travelling’ endeavours, or they would be unspeakably evil, malevolent, perhaps like the Borg or Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’. I didn’t stop to think that ET might be like us – capable of greatness and evil, wonder and terror. If human life is stuck between these two, maybe our aliens would be too. Maybe, and this is where I found myself realising my Liberal Jewish values were so important, maybe the alien is not quite as alien as a I thought. Perhaps I would be faced with the greatest test of an encounter with the ‘Other’ and perhaps I would discover that our identities as human and alien don’t fit so comfortably into the pigeon holes I was imagining.
That’s the point isn’t it? The reason why all these Jews are involved in acting, creating, representing alien life forms. An alien in science fiction forces us to imagine what it means to be an outsider and an insider. It challenges us to see in ‘the other’ that which we see in ourselves and demands that we don’t commit a Levinas form of violence on the other by imposing a horizon of being on to their defenceless face.
And with that I realised I wanted to be Rebecca in our story today and I wanted to be Jacob and I desperately wanted to be Esau (or at least advise Esau before he gives up his birthright). Our Torah portion is the portion of mixed identities of being the other, of deceiving the other. Everyone wants to be someone else: Rebecca would like to be the father bestowing the blessing on the son she loves, Jacob wants to be Esau (and carries it off in disguise pretty well really), Esau wishes he was Jacob just for a moment if he could be the homeSPUN child and not the hunter. And Isaac, what do we say about Isaac – he is just so DARN willing to allow himself to be manipulated. He’s the only one who is himself and screwing it up.
It is this portion, more than any other I think, which sets in train the rest of our story. We fight, we steal, we are jealous, we give up, we deceive, we are weak eyed, have favourites, and are deeply pained in the loss or even perceived loss of that which we hold dear. God how we wish the plight of humankind were different. If nothing else we must sit with this story and hear the pained voice of the other – the alien to us – we all carry Esau and Jacob in our hearts. Reconciliation is a long way off, Jacob had plenty happen before he is kissed (or is it bitten) by his brother. We have our own journey or reconciliation to travel.
But, and it’s a big but, this story is not all there is to it. אם כן למה זה אנכי – if so why am I thus? Beneath the bitterness is the most profound existential longing for wholeness and for nobility, to walk with God and be perfect. To surpass the pain and the struggle, to gain wisdom.
So we return to our space mission of billions of miles and our seats of millions of stitches. אם כן למה זה אנחנו? If it be so, why are we thus? Because look at what we can also do. This is what we must aspire towards, this is our hope. In our communities, in our national cooperations, in our visions for a better world.
As the children of Israel stood by the shores of the sea with the Egyptians pursuing them, they were full of fear. Yet, the midrash teaches, wading into the sea went Nachshon ben Aminadav. In his steps to freedom, to the future, not zealously but with a spirit of hope, the sea parted. We have our tapestry of the sea before us now, the ripples of the light dancing on the surface. May it inspire us to take the small step to hope every time we sit in this sanctuary. If it be so why are we thus? It doesn’t have to be but we each individually must play our part, as outsiders, insiders and in-betweeners. May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen.