Hillel, Buber – and Debbie Friedman!

August 24, 2015

Hillel said:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

Buber said:
To begin with oneself but not to end with oneself.

One question, one statement: each of great importance to me. Reflecting, comparing them, it’s clear Buber (early 20th century) goes further, yet Hillel (around 100 BCE to 10 BCE) is more challenging. Is not the question form, in itself, preferable in teaching and learning?

Hillel insists that charity – caritas – begins at home; Buber assumes it and moves forward.

But this is only the first of three aphorisms from each of them.

Hillel asks another question: If I am only for myself, what am I? 

Here he moves definitively in the same direction as Buber (and, surely, it is hard to imagine that Buber was not influenced by him?)

Again, here also Hillel asks a question causing us to pause and think. As Eugene Heimler suggested, Judaism’s genius resides in posing questions: is not the Talmud essentially based upon them? Though is that not also the Socratic method?

So, where does Buber now go?
To start from oneself but not aim at oneself

Another statement with a nod to Socrates’ “Know thyself!” And here again: the move towards the Other.

Might it be that Hillel’s initial emphasis on the self also presupposes self-awareness, self-knowledge? Are the two men, at this point, though differently, suggesting very similar ways of living? They are not done, however: where next?

Hillel said: And if not now, when?

Another question, with emphasis on the immediate present but what is asked of us: reflection? Action? Whatever it might be: today is the day. Nietzsche’s eternally recurring present: Live as if the present moment were to repeat itself for ever. I Am That I Am.

So what is Buber’s third aphorism? I forgot, I could not remember. I waited with baited breath till I could check. I was so excited. Buber has been my hero for so long. I have never compared Hillel and Buber in this way before. What was Buber’s ‘clincher’ to be? What was he going to add? To comprehend oneself but not be preoccupied with oneself.

I was so disappointed. Where Hillel progresses, stage by stage, from Self, to Other to Now, Buber merely repeats himself in different words. Further, the brilliance of Hillel’s questioning is replaced with the traditional teacher’s statement by Buber.

The only compensation is my added respect for Hillel – not, to be accurate, ‘Rabbi’ Hillel, since Hillel though a teacher (together with his contemporary adversary, Shammai) predates the period of such titles (the first use of the term being about 200 CE – that is ‘Christian Era’: a terminology used by Jews who find it a bit difficult to term the current era “AD”, i.e. the year of our Lord).

That’s it for today. Except, do take the time to listen to Debbie Friedman, the gifted American artist who died so young a couple of years ago. Her setting and exposition of Hillel’s words, her ability to inspire all of us, to make us think and question and act, illuminate the text. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=mT_5xoAQUUE While listening or better, even, afterwards, do take a further look at a good article on Hillel: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillel_the_Elder.

Oh: and you might look here also https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debbie_Friedman. I cried as I read it: I remember Debbie so well and value her contribution to Jewish life so highly…


August 22, 2015

I have been thinking about conversations between two or more people and what it is that goes on in them.

This interest has been partly stimulated by Irvin Yalom’s novel, When Nietzsche Wept, which I have just finished reading while holidaying with friends.

Sociability, of course, feeds a human need. Excluding clearly purposive interchanges such as between doctor and patient or teaching, or exchange of recipe information (though even that may in fact fulfil wider conversational needs) conversation occurs in an almost infinite variety of potential ways.

Wikipedia [https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conversation] helpfully groups them in four categories:

  • Conversations about subjective ideas, which often serve to extend understanding and awareness
  • Conversations about objective facts, which may serve to consolidate a widely held view.
  • Conversations about other people (usually absent), which may be either critical, competitive, or supportive. This includes gossip.
  • Conversations about oneself, which may be attention-seeking or can provide relevant information to participants in the conversation.

Might this blog be a form of conversation? Certainly any number of topics are possible and though one person starts, there is hope for response!

A 2006 article from The Economist [http://www.economist.com/node/8345491] quotes Cicero’s “On Duties” (44BC). He states that no-one has set down the rules for conversation as they have for Public Speaking and therefore is determined to do so. He is pretty comprehensive in what he covers:

“Speak clearly; speak easily but not too much, especially when others want their turn; do not interrupt; be courteous; deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter ones; never criticise people behind their backs; stick to subjects of general interest; do not talk about yourself; and, above all, never lose your temper”

Yalom’s novel delves into the subject rather more deeply. Based upon imaginary meetings between Lou Andreas Salomé, Josef Breuer (Freud’s mentor) and Nietzsche, it emerges from Yallom’s own vast psychotherapeutic knowledge and experience. The plot is well conceived. Nietzsche, at this time in 1882, entirely unknown, wracked by migraines and multiple symptoms is tricked by Lou into consulting with Breuer, Vienna’s leading physician.
The two men are each entrapped in their unrealised sexual fantasies – in Nietzsche’s case to Lou Andreas Salomé and in Breuer’s to Berthe Pappenheim, better known as Anna O.  Nietzsche, however, far from seeking sociability, flees from it. Why

The novel is excellently conceived both as an introduction to the early practice and theory of psychoanalysis and to the developing philosophical ideas and output of Nietzsche. It could be that Yalom’s ability as a story teller is less well developed and the novel seems to drag in places.

On the other hand, it may simply be that I wanted to return to conversation with my friends. In any case, following Cicero, I will not speak too much in case you want your turn…?

“O Word, you word that I lack”

August 21, 2015

Schoenberg’s Moses voices the agony of formulation, expression and communication. What needs or can be said – and to, or for, whom? Can God be expressed – or only addressed, as Buber suggested?

Usually once a day, normally before sleeping, for thirty years or so, I kept a handwritten diary, very often noting – and mainly ignoring – any dreams, which I’d enter on waking. Bizarrely, perhaps, I stopped when word-processing replaced writing.

The entries forced me to reflect on the day: what had happened, what was important or difficult, what was left-over and, very occasionally, how did the dreams connect. I wrote largely for me.

Sermon writing, of course, was different. Here I needed to formulate thoughts on what I believed to be important but, though beginning with myself, essentially for others. A theme might be suggested by the week’s Torah or prophetic reading or by something happening in Jewish life or global events. Rabbi Lionel Blue, when I was a student, had told me that I would not have time to write my sermon, so I had better learn how to speak from notes.

I usually began to think about a sermon around Wednesday: what would its theme be? Sometimes, little was in place even when I woke on Shabbat morning and then it was a time of terror and agony, of reading and prayer while I struggled in these last hours to pull something together. I could face the community still with uncertainties and these were not always the worst sermons.

To formulate a thought, to publish it and, if I am very fortunate, for it to be read, to receive a response – such is the opportunity of a blog. 

Two are lost in a forest and fortuitously meet one another. Now at least they know, according to the story, the false path along which they each have travelled and together can search for a new one. 

Spending the time in this way, in comparison to tweeting, seems immensely satisfying but what do I really want, or need, to say? 

Given the power of the internet, I am not really alone. Many of us journey together and provide knowledge and understanding which can be immensely valuable. What, for example, is symbolised by this forest? I ask the universe and http://www.Symbolreader.net answers richly and generously: http://bit.ly/1UWxriA

I can continue the struggle (which, after all, is the meaning of the word ‘Israel’: s/he who struggles with God) to become clearer and stronger on my own particular path – with your help. Hopefully, together we might find a new way.



Time is given into our keeping.

August 20, 2015

Paradoxically it seems that the fuller and richer the experience of a day or hour, the more intensively it is lived inasmuch as every moment is precious and special, the faster it passes. 

Surely it should be the opposite? We might expect that the emptier, the least satisfying our day, the faster it would go, rather like a deflated balloon without substance. But in such a case, time drags. 

If ‘time is given into our keeping’, we are conflicted. It might appear that the more fully and deeply we live, the more quickly therefore death hurtles towards us. But is an endless, miserable, emotionally poverty-stricken life preferable? 

What, then, is our responsibility or, as Holt (Http://www.davidholtonline.com) would have it – responsability, (distinguishing through this spelling judgement from capacity). We are responsible when we take and accept our responsability for our choices and decisions – for how we choose to live. 

‘Time is given into our keeping’, then, means that time is not something that happens to us but something in which we also play our part, every moment of every day. Here we distinguish between the circle of the natural cycle of seasons, where plants and animals live in timelessness and man’s entry into and making of history, especially through stories, the telling of deeds. 

Language, perhaps preceded by music, rhythm and etchings becomes necessary to extend our memory which of itself only stretches back at most three or four generations. Language, like time (the two of course are interwoven) is equally something which is given to us and which we also make. In doing so we both uncover and create our world. We live, therefore, in a world which we both inherit and make.

These days, though my appearance is incontrovertibly ‘Jewish’ (mainly Ashkenazi with Sephardi skin tones), there is little, it seems to me, to suggest that I am a rabbi. Neither my daily life, rituals and practice, nor my choice of language – expressions, quotations – would lead anyone to guess that, someway below the surface, Bible, Talmud, midrash, Jewish thought and practice deeply inform my thinking and action.

Over the past twenty years, the profound issues which face us all, the secular humanism which appears dominant in British society together with the shortsightedness of multiple Israeli governments have led me superficially to loosen the hold of Jewish particularism and plunge myself into the maelstrom of the present, that present in which alone can we meet “I am That I Am”, that eternal Being, the present in which (whom?) we all live. 

Of course, such a plunge carries with it both loss of the past, of ‘tradition’ and therefore the very real possibility of drowning, of losing oneself. To maintain perspective, as Hannah Arendt beautifully observes in her reflection upon Kafka’s parable “He” (see, for example, http://bit.ly/1Jkk8EJ) it is necessary to step out of time and think, which, in itself deepens our observations and enriches our experience. But death? 

Present Tense

August 17, 2015

I need to be engaged in something I consider worthwhile, preferably with others. The question is, what might that be? 

This time of the year has always been critical – endings and beginnings. As a school child and then at University, it was the hiatus, the moment the year (rather than in December) really turned. But then, as a community rabbi, the annual cycle of readings closed at the end of Deuteronomy and began again just after the New Year in, usually, September and the Day of Atonement, the great annual Fast of Reflection.

So I have been accustomed to rethinking at this time just what I am about. What am I doing here, on this earth and what do I want to do? 

Officially, I am ‘retired’, which means that I have the great good fortune to be able to make choices. Family can be priority but also an excuse, an easy option to avoid having to make those choices. So? 

Clearly, as everyone else, I am ageing. Again, this existential fact may act as a point of inspiration and exploration or another evasion but undoubtedly I now experience time very differently. Without the daily pressure – these days ‘too little’ is more usual than ‘too much’ – each moment provides immense opportunities in which the multiplicity of possibilities can be paralysing and filled by anxiety or my iPad, as now.

But here I want to open my personal dilemmas. Perhaps the universe will respond. 

I am available and need to be needed but it seems, (I write knowing how limiting is this egoism) that though there is so much that I, anyone, could usefully do – visiting, gardening, exercise, reading to young or old – each of these raises within me such a strong antipathy that surely they are not what is asked of me at this time.

Over these past few years – perhaps since the sixties but occasionally it seems the roots go back very much further – I have been deeply concerned in what we are doing to our Earth and to one another. As I write this, immediately I know I’m on the right track: this is where my heart lies. Is there a possibility of my making a practical contribution?

The www.EarthCharter.org appeared for some years, and still does, as the best summation of values and principles that exists. It provides a present version of classical teachings. It is insufficiently known and I would, for sure, go anywhere if asked to teach it. To do so would be a joy.

Through it, I was lucky enough to meet with Peter Head http://ecosequestrust.org/our-people/executive-team/ who is Founder and CEO of www.EcoSequestrust.org (TEST for short). If there were an opportunity to work alongside or within this visionary project which wishes to help transform city-regions, I would gladly do so.

Recently, http://www.chilternsociety.org.uk asked me to help establish a new Heritage Group, certainly a worthwhile and exciting project and we are beginning to make progress.

Finally, I write articles, when I can, especially when asked. I tweet and perhaps now I may even ‘blog’. Could this provide the link which holds the strands together? At this point, there is also the possibility of a talk emerging out of the work of http://davidholtonline.com for the http://www.jungclub-london.org. This, if it should take place, may be in two parts: “Encountering David Holt” and “Holt and the Future”.

Surely, that is enough and provided the balance works out, it sure is. But it can’t be all writing. If anyone looks at this….


Greece, Corbyn: Economic & Political Reality

August 15, 2015

With sympathetic WordPress technology, it may be possible for me to move beyond twitter and become a blogger! This demands much more including a willingness for self-revelation (though for anyone reading behind the tweets, nothing could be more revelatory) and connected thinking!
About what? If it’s not ‘thinking about thinking’ (guided by Heidegger and Arendt), it’s likely to be ontology, reality and Being.
So why the ‘obsession’ with Greece? 
The psychological fear is that I’ve not had enough to do or think about, which may be true!
However, the strength of my intuition about the potential implosion not only in Greece but also within the EU would not leave me. It took me to Greece and led me to Adam Nicholson’s wonderful “The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters”. 
Now it seems as if imminent catastrophe may have been avoided: was it not J.M.Keynes who observed: ‘in the end, we are all dead’? Perhaps political sense will prevail and people will turn out to be seen as more important even than economic ‘realities’.
Which nearly takes me back to ‘reality’. 
In UK presently, we are swept up in a most unexpected question: will Jeremy Corbyn become the entirely unlikely new leader of the Labour Party? He has none of Tsipras’ charisma, not even youth. He’s a ‘backbencher’ – one of those MPs who never sought and was never rewarded with ‘office’, unsurprising given over 500 rebellions against the ‘whips’, the authority of the party or its leadership.
But what of his economics? 95% (a conservative estimate) of the population understands nothing of economics or money, so votes are on ‘confidence’ and ‘trust’. Surely a left-wing agenda is discredited, implausible, unelectable? 
The political tectonic plates are shifting. We are – despite the last election – likely to be entering the era of coalitions. Paul Mason’s ‘Post-Capitalism’ underlines the technological changes that the Information Age brings with it.
‘Reality’? Who knows? Certainly I cannot bear too much of it.

Visiting Greece: from tweets to a blog

August 5, 2015

I’m an inveterate tweeter!
Occasionally, someone follows through and looks at my blog, which is blotchy: bits and pieces, incoherent, poorly edited. I am not proud of it – almost ashamed, in fact, which may be why, for two years or so, nothing has appeared.
I need to work at my editing capacity, for sure. I should like to make my blog look more attractive. 
But equally important is the content. What do I want to say?
I have just been in Greece. or several weeks my tweets were dominated – obsessively (and I am not yet entirely sure why) with the economic and political situation between Greece and Europe and my journey (the first time I had ever been) was to learn more as well as to enjoy a little of what Greece has to offer.
But since I knew so little I wanted a Guide Book. Not exactly the usual travel guide and I certainly could not manage a History of Greece. Where, also, did the legends fit in, the myths of the Gods? I needed something that would help bring it together.
And ‘miracle of miracles’ (as Tevye in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ would say) I came across Adam Nicholson’s ‘The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters’, just out in paperback, which was exactly what I needed. It is personally based, beginning on a boat trip that Nicholson made from Falmouth to Scotland while reading the Odyssey. Suddenly, gradually, he began to understand and more and more Homer’s two books not only provoked a search into who Homer was and why he mattered but also began to become a life-guide for the journey we all have to make between birth and death.
But why all the bloodshed, the gory detail, the obsession with violence and the hero? What of the role of the gods? When were the books written? Nicholson’s writing transports us into such questions in a poetic prose which, though it may occasionally be over-written, is far from a dry academic research, though drawing upon it. 
Over these next few weeks, I hope to blog more, even much more. The content is there and perhaps I will also learn to edit – and add pictures!

Going on…a personal response to climate change doom

August 5, 2015

Initially, I was both shocked and admiring: you were saying explicitly something that maybe I thought I believed.But I also noticed, as I read, your time-frame: humanity will be wiped out after thirty more generations, that is, 2500 AD and ‘there is no key’ which will enable people to ‘wake up’. I agree with your second point to the extent that there are many, many keys – maybe as many as there are individuals: each of us needs to find our own? After all, there is a paradoxical craziness (I’m sure you’ll agree) in the vigour with which you are pushing your (brilliant) creative #CliFi idea and your conclusion that we are all doomed anyway. In any case, those of us working to break the intransigence of those who pay no heed to our plight need to collaborate. The thing is: we’re not ‘doomed’. On the whole, though I did not much enjoy Daniel Quinn’s Ishamel (the Wikipedia article is quite good https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ishmael_(novel)), it was worth reading for the conclusion: the apes need human beings in order to survive! One of the most important influences on me has been Hannah Arendt. I believe she lived through, fully faced and articulated the horrors of WW2 and, in particular, the almost unbelievable deliberate destruction of millions of human beings that we call the holocaust. The destruction of millions upon millions more human beings (some of this is already happening) in the chaos of climate change is, it seems to me, the terrifying repetition that future generations will live through. Some, however, – I think James Lovelock estimates it at one billion – will survive (the story of ‘the remnant’ is basic in the Bible). I think that. What will they have learnt? Will they know and understand more than we do about the meaning and purpose of life? What sort of ‘civilization’ with what sort of animals, birds, fishes, insects, machines? Maybe that is not my/our concern, though I believe it is one that science fiction may deal with (‘Canticle for Leibowitz’?) I also believe that much current learning, e.g. bio-mimicry, is of life-changing importance. Hannah Arendt’s conclusion, messianic according to a superb recent book, https://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/mln/v118/118.5bernstein02.html was ‘We must go on’ and the book concludes that W.H.Auden saw things similarly.

Is that not what the three of us, and Aubrey, are doing, as best we can? But Peter begins with reference to my time in Greece, which was truly life-changing, because to help me there, I happened upon a book, which only came out in 2014, by Adam Nicholson called ‘The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters’. Who was Homer? Did he exist? The book, though well referenced, is alive, based mainly on sailing and on our own individual journey from life to death. It spans many more lifetimes and generations than merely 500 years as it moves from the Bronze Age and across continents. If, I think, we want to have a sense of the future, we need a deep understanding of the past. All that, Dan, was stimulated by your response to Peter. Thank you for provoking it. I’m cc to Aubrey, who knows all this better than I and illustrates it beautifully in music and words at the Eden Project Eden Project.mov which has just won an award for Britain’s 21st Century landmark (http://highlife.ba.com/articles/21-landmarks-for-the-21st-century/ – some strange questions about that, but never mind). The Golden Mean: Pythagoras – watch & listen, spell-bound Earth Venus Tango round the Sun

Barclays responds to criticism on financing ‘mountain top removal’

May 20, 2014

Dear Stakeholder

Thank you for your email to Antony Jenkins raising concerns about Barclays’ reported financing of companies that practise mountain top removal coal mining. We are in the process of establishing the background to these allegations and the details of the transactions involved – which were not made clear in the reports provided.

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight that Barclays has a longstanding commitment to understanding the environmental and social risks associated with our lending activities: these are supported by stringent environmental and social impact assessment policies and practices together with risk escalation procedures.

These standards are applied across the business and are an integral component for decisions with potential for material social and environmental impacts. We always aim to take a responsible approach and give careful consideration to such impacts before decisions are approved. When we are asked to finance a specific development project, we apply the Equator Principles – detailed environmental and social criteria applicable to project finance transactions covering issues including local community consultation, the impact on indigenous peoples and cultural heritage sites, relocation of communities and related compensation. This approach to responsible lending applies equally to clients in the coal mining sector as to other industrial sectors.

We will continue to investigate this matter thoroughly and address appropriately should we find that Barclays has not acted in accordance with these standards.

Thank you once again for taking the time to contact us.

Yours sincerely

Philippa Birtwell
Group Citizenship


Contraction and Convergence

January 26, 2014

See Earth Charter Principles 4, 4a; 5, 5a; 6, 6a, 6b, 6c; 7; 8, 8a, 8c; 10a; 13a; 14, 14c; 16a, 16b. These selected Principles and sub-principles are only indicative; those highlighted are clearly especially relevant. Discussion on this selection would be entirely relevant and helpful.

Since 1995, Aubrey Meyer, a musician and mathematician, has promoted a scientifically based policy approach, Contraction and Convergence. A very helpful series of intros can be found on Laurie Barlow’s http://greenswardcivitas.blogspot.co.uk.

It is now (January 2014) clear that, as the short and powerful video, (published by IPCC & UNFCC ‘Climate Change: The State of the Science’ that the State of Climate Science) shows http://bit.ly/1hZIxCD current estimates of the remaining Carbon Budget are far too optimistic if we are to avoid irreversible or runaway climate change.

The purpose of this discussion forum, one amongst many, is to strengthen those of us who believe that this issue is the most urgent facing the planet and that Contraction and Convergence provides the only credible and equitable way forward.

We are not alone. There is overwhelming support for Aubrey’s proposal of a per capita Carbon Budget for every individual based upon the scientific assessment of what is available [currently between 194gT, 250gT and the UK Climate Committee at 395gT – a gigaT=1billion tonnes of Carbon. There are other related gases and issues of feedback but for most of us, this is already becoming too complex!]

It is worth glancing through the (approximately 500 illustrated pages) from Ban Ki Moon, and UN agencies 2000 – 2014, http://bit.ly/1aAh4VX, from the Vatican, Rowan Williams and extensive inter-faith supporting the C&C principle of ‘Climate Justice without Vengeance’ http://bit.ly/M0hfOG (this principle is in opposition to those, mainly NGOs, who unrealistically maintain that the developed world has historically ’caused’ the problems and should be ‘punished’). There are 250 pages of political support from the UK http://bit.ly/KYg41u, and extensive support from Medical Professionals around the world: http://bit.ly/MfDVvc

Aubrey has won numerous awards and been nominated for a Nobel Prize – but still there has been no breakthrough, though many believe C&C is ‘the only game in town’.

To conclude more personally, I became involved when, as a Jew – and a rabbi, that is, a teacher – I realised that 6 million of my people had been deliberately killed in World War Two and we Jews were, rightly, deeply critical of those who stood by, knowing what was happening. They were criticised as bystanders, though acting would have taken great moral courage.

What is our excuse as we see increasing extreme weather conditions condemning millions, or even ‘hundreds of millions’ (Lord Stern) of families to hardship or death?

What can we do? I believe that those who take part in this discussion are doing much but that we can all do more, by knowing of one another’s projects, by supporting one another and by publicising as widely as possible C&C. Our mission is to think, discuss, reflect and ACT.

Recently I wrote an article on Bystanders, which stimulated Aubrey’s imagination, particularly one part, based upon a quote:

Susan Neiman looks at why Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem caused such a furore and shows that without directly invoking God, Arendt’s phrase that ‘in a world that produced the death camps, the impossible came true’, effectively put the world itself on trial. The world could no longer be accepted as it had been, and this effectively indicts Creation itself.

Aubrey sees clearly how evidently we are still ‘on trial’, though we may believe, more or less, ‘that we have never had it so good’ (Harold Macmillan 1957)


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