This past summer, the warmest and sunniest – in south-east England, at least – for the past ten years, was also memorable for less pleasant reasons: the march across Syria and Iraq of ‘Islamic State’, a militant Islamist organisation intent on establishing a new caliphate, and another war between Israel and Hamas, which got fully underway when Israel began to respond to rocket fire from Gaza, with aerial bombardment on July 8. On August 26, after a number of failed time-limited ceasefire attempts, brokered by Egypt, a more permanent ceasefire began. But a ceasefire is a world away from a peace settlement…

Ten days ago, the Jewish New Year began, but when we consider the turmoil in the Middle East and the persistence of other conflicts across the globe, it doesn’t seem that there is much that is new about it. It’s hard not to feel pessimistic about the future. It’s hard not to feel utterly powerless. Of course, there is very little we can do over ‘here’ about what is going on over ‘there’. Nevertheless, there is a connection between what ‘we’ are doing ‘here’ – and what ‘they’ are doing ‘there’; there is a connection between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

The first connection that springs to mind is the fact that we are all human beings. But there is at least one fallacious assumption entangled with references to our common humanity – the notion that we are all the same. We are not all the same because each individual person is unique. So what is it that connects one human being to another – and so connects ‘us’ over here to ‘them’ over there?

In his now classic work, I and Thou, the philosopher Martin Buber distinguishes between two forms of relationship. Most of the time, he argues, individuals are in an ‘I-It’ relation to the world around them, a relationship between subject and object – which encompasses treating other people as objects. We enter into an ‘I-Thou’ relationship, when we fully relate to the person before us as another person, another subject. In 1925 Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig embarked on a project to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into German, with the goal of rendering the German as close to the Hebrew as possible. Rosenzweig died in 1929, and Buber finally completed the work in 1961, four years before his own death. Their translation of one of the key verses of the portion from parashat K’doshim, Leviticus chapter 19, also known as the ‘Holiness Code’, which is read in Liberal congregations on Yom Kippur afternoon, gives us an insight into Buber’s thinking concerning I and Thou. The Hebrew reads: V’ahavta l’rei’akha; Ani Adonai (19:18). We are familiar with the translation: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Eternal’. Buber and Rosenzweig translate the verse slightly differently: ‘Love your neighbour as one who is like you.

In his treatise,The Star of Redemption Franz Rosenzweig provides an insight into this translation. He writes:

…. Your neighbour is ‘like you.’ …. ‘Like you,’ and thus not ‘you.’ You remain You and remain just that. But he is not to remain a He for you, and thus a mere It for your You. Rather he is like You, like your You, a You like You, an I – a soul. [My emphasis]

In other words, to love your neighbour like yourself is to relate to her or him as a subject, a self, ‘like you’. As verse 34 in Leviticus chapter 19 makes clear, the obligation to relate to your neighbour as a self ‘like you’ also applies to the stranger. We read:

The stranger that sojourns with you shall be like the home-born among you, and you shall love him like yourself – V’ahavta lo kamokha.

So, what is meant by ‘love’ in relation to neighbours and strangers? In his Reflections on Leviticus 19:18, Love, Accusative and Dative, Paul Mendes-Flohr points out that, ‘love’ in these contexts is not ‘love’s emotional embrace’, rather the neighbour and the stranger are ‘the intended recipients of love’s deeds.’ In other words, we are obligated, not to feel loving – feelings cannot be commanded – but rather to act lovingly towards others.

The French Jewish philosopher, Emanuel Levinas, takes the notion of “‘Like you, and thus not ‘you’”, a stage further than Buber and Rosenzweig.  For Levinas, we are obligated to acknowledge, above all, the otherness of the other. Indeed, our responsibility to the other as other supersedes our responsibility to ourselves. Levinas speaks of the other in terms of the ‘face’:

The approach to the face is the most basic mode of responsibility. As such, the face of the other is verticality and uprightness; it spells a relation of rectitude. The face is not in front of me (en face de moi) but above me; it is the other before death, looking through and exposing death. Secondly, the face is the other who asks me not to let him die alone, as if to do so were to become an accomplice in his death. Thus the face says to me: you shall not kill. In the relation to the face I am exposed as a usurper of the place of the other. The celebrated “right to existence” that Spinoza called the conatus essendi and defined as the basic principle of all intelligibility is challenged by the relation to the face. Accordingly, my duty to respond to the other suspends my natural right to self-survival, le droit vitale. My ethical relation of love for the other stems from the fact that the self cannot survive by itself alone, cannot find meaning within its own being-in-the-world, within the ontology of sameness.

Levinas expresses himself in complex philosophical language that is not immediately accessible to the uninitiated, but hopefully we can glean what he is saying. In the context of ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, and Buber’s understanding of the verse, the final paragraph of the Levinas passage bears repeating:

My ethical relation of love for the other stems from the fact that the self cannot survive by itself alone, cannot find meaning within its own being-in-the-world, within the ontology of sameness.

Ontology is a philosophical concept drawn from a branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature of being, becoming; existence. What Levinas is saying that there is no such thing as an essential self. The meaning of the self emerges only in relation with others, for whom we bear a responsibility, precisely because they are other than us – a responsibility that takes precedence over – and here, as the extract reveals, he is challenging the view of another Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza – our own ‘right to existence’.

So, our connection with ‘them’ over there – in Israel, Palestine, Syria, Iraq – all those ‘over theres’ that seems so far away from us – is not because we are all the same, but rather because we have a primary obligation to others. This is not to say all ‘others’ are somewhere else; they are ‘here’, too. Every human relationship, including the most intimate relationships between parent and child, between beloveds, is the relationship between those who are ‘other’ to one another. Our greatest hope is that the recognition of otherness – which is a gradual process when it comes to parent-child relationships – is reciprocal and our sense of obligation towards the other is also mutual and reciprocated.

But we cannot engage in relationships demanding mutuality and reciprocity – which brings me back to our text: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ – V’ahavta l’rei’a’kha kamokha. For Levinas, the command to love is internal not external; the responsibility to the neighbour is within – our obligation to our neighbours defines who we are. In my attempt to make sense of Levinas, these verses from parashat N’tzavim, Deuteronomy chapter 30 (:11-14), from the portion which is read on Yom Kippur morning in Liberal congregations, come to mind:

Surely, this commandment which I am commanding you today is not too wonderful for you, nor too remote. / It is not in the heavens, that you need to say, who will go up for us to the heavens and take it for us that we may hear it and do it. / Neither is it beyond the Sea, that you need to say, who will cross the sea for us and take it for us that we may hear it and do it. / For the matter [ha-davar] is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it.

What is ‘this commandment’ – ha-mitzvah ha-zeh? All the Commandments taken together? Or, perhaps, since Nitzavim is read in the weekly Torah reading cycle shortly before Rosh Ha-Shanah, specifically, the commandment of t’shuvah, repentance? In the context of Levinas perhaps we might say it is the obligation towards the other that makes us who we are; a sense of ‘compelling commitment’ towards the other that comes from within us.

So, how do we go about putting Levinas’ thinking into practice? Quite apart from what is going on in the Middle East, we ourselves are caught up in so many ‘us’ versus ‘them’ traps, with little sign of any attempt to apprehend the face of the other – just think about the Liberal/Orthodox divide. When it comes to political debate in Britain so much of it seems to be obsessed with us/them polarities: Right versus Left; North versus South; Brits versus Immigrants; Britain versus Europe. The list goes on… And of course, conflicts in the Middle East reverberate here in antagonisms between, for example, Jews and Muslims. In this regard the fact that following the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Muslim Council of Great Britain issued a joint statement on August 28 is a welcome sign. Acknowledging the impact of the conflict between Israel and Palestine on attitudes between Jews and Muslims in the UK, the statement concludes:

We condemn any expression of Antisemitism, Islamophobia or any form of racism. We call for Muslim and Jewish communities to redouble efforts to work together and get to know one another.

We need constructive dialogue to limit our disagreements and identify the widest possible range of areas for cooperation. There are more issues that unite us than divide us.

May the God of Abraham grant our World more peace, wisdom and hope.

I am sure that we would all say ‘Amen’ to that.

The most powerful and poignant example of Levinas in practice that I am aware of is the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra founded by Daniel Barenboim and the Palestinian intellectual, Edward Said, who died in September 2003. The name is taken from the German poet, Goethe’s collection of poems, West-östlicher Divan, written between 1814 and 1819. The poems were inspired by the Persian poet, Hafez, hence the reference to the Persian word, Diwan, meaning a compilation of lyrical poems.

The West Eastern Divan Orchestra’s website sets out the history and philosophy of this visionary project. Initially, prior to the Orchestra being founded, it was a one-off ‘experiment in coexistence’, which took the form of a workshop for Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab musicians, held in 1999 in Weimar, Germany, a place where, as the website puts it, ‘the humanistic ideals of the enlightenment are overshadowed by the Holocaust.’

Three years after the orchestra was established, the regional Spanish government of Andalusia gave it a home in Seville, in an area where cultural exchange between Jews and Muslims flourished in the Middle Ages, and this is where it gathers each summer to rehearse before going out on tour.

In 2005, the orchestra performed in Ramallah on the West Bank. After the concert, “One girl remarked to Daniel Barenboim, ‘You are the first thing I’ve seen from Israel that is not a soldier or a tank.’” The Lebanon war in 2006 prevented some of the musicians from attending the orchestra’s rehearsals and fierce debates raged between those who did meet. When war broke out in Gaza in 2009, “Barenboim began the Divan’s performances by reading a shared statement of the orchestra, ‘we aspire to total freedom and equality between Israelis and Palestinians, it is on this basis that we come together today to play music.’”

It is perhaps only when one goes to one of their concerts that one can really appreciate the achievement of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Watching their performance at this year’s Proms on August 20, I understood better than I ever have what it means for individual musicians in an orchestra to contribute to the creation of a piece of music. The concert taking place before the commencement of the ceasefire in the latest Gaza war, it was wonderful to witness the co-operative endeavour of Israeli, Palestinian, Arab musicians, as they played together and supported the soloists amongst them. Significantly, the Proms programme included the UK premieres of two works, one by Israeli composer, Ayal Adler, the other by Syrian composer, Kareem Roustom, both of whom were there. The second half was devoted to four dances by Ravel. Before a series of spirited encores, the last piece, Bolero, was transformed into an anthem of liberation and hope, as the repeated refrain, marked by the continuous drumbeat, drew in first a flute, then a clarinet, then an oboe; individual instruments slowly giving way to an accumulation of sounds from the entire orchestra. It was thrilling: Levinas in action. And when the audience finally let them go, watching the musicians put down their instruments and hug one another was deeply moving. Music, of course, transcends words. Making music together creates a context for the meeting of ‘others’ with one another.

A congregation gathered together for a service is similar to an orchestra. Each person is on a life’s journey that is entirely their own. Each person has come here today on Yom Kippur, as an individual, with thoughts, and memories and regrets that are entirely personal. And yet, who we are is bound up in our relationships with one another – our relationships within the congregation, our relationships with family and friends, our connections with many, many others near and far. As, over the course of the day, we acknowledge to ourselves our misdeeds of the past year, and our impact on others, we are drawn out of our preoccupation with ourselves towards one another. As we recite the prayers and sing the melodies and study the scriptural passages, we reach beyond ourselves and find ourselves anew in those relationships and connections. May the experience of sharing this sacred moment strengthen and inspire each one of us to respond to the needs of others in the year that lies ahead. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue

Yom Kippur Shacharit 5775 – 4th October 2014