Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

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. While listening or better, even, afterwards, do take a further look at a good article on Hillel:

Oh: and you might look here also 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 [] 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 [] 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 answers richly and generously:

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.



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 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 who is Founder and CEO of (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, 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 for the 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….