This year I’m going to talk about two new books and one classic film. One of the year’s most fascinating new books, only recently available in English, is called Sapiens, and it’s about the history and the future of our species – a huge topic, worthy of consideration on this night when we ponder not just our own future, but the future of humanity. In world history we are relatively recent arrivals, and for many thousands of years we weren’t the only kind of humans – there were Neanderthals and others, who didn’t simply precede us, they co-existed. Some say that with genetic engineering we could even bring Neanderthals back to life. Think of what that would do for our moral codes if they were around today. Would human rights extend to Neanderthals? Now there’s a sobering thought.

Now the book called Sapiens is written by a very clever Israeli called Yuval Harari, who is a history lecturer at the Hebrew University, and the Hebrew edition has been near the top of the best seller lists there for three years. Harari has a very provocative way of writing, suggesting that ever since humans have developed language we have lived in an imaginary world “On the one hand,” he writes, there is “the objective reality of rivers, trees, and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.” Harari also argues that although we’ve been around for 150,000 years or so, we may not be around much longer. We are on the start of a biotechnological revolution, which in his view will bring the end of sapiens: we will be replaced by bioengineered post-humans, “amortal” cyborgs, capable of living forever.

All this provides fascinating and sobering perspective as we think tonight about how to improve our lives and our world. Where does his argument leave us? Harari himself has no time for religion: to him it’s a fiction, along with nation states, corporations and much else. In Harari’s universe human beings really are just animals. So life, in his view, has no real purpose, other than our own preservation. The world’s religions, and in particular the experience we begin this evening, tells us something very different, that there is a real purpose in trying to improve ourselves and our world. That’s why we’re here. Or at least, it’s why we should be here.

Harari expresses himself very provocatively, but his viewpoint, when it comes to religion, is not so unusual. It is easy to be cynical.
At this time of year I am often inspired by sermons, lectures, essays, written by rabbinic colleagues, so often thoughtful, heart-warming, skilful, occasionally brilliant. But this year I find every some of my colleagues have themselves become a little cynical and jaded about Yom Kippur and the process we go through. Rabbi Walter Rothschild, writing in the Leo Baeck College Alumni magazine, describes Kol Nidrei like this:

we are as prepared as we can be. As we can be? Really? How far can one prepare for such a day, for an encounter with the God one has missed the whole year through, for an encounter with that most dreadful of prospects, a missed lunch? There is no such thing as a free lunch, but the freedom to miss lunch is not one that most people count as a major blessing. And what
is our blessing? Simply that we are here, that we have had another chance, that we have reached another Yom Kippur, that we have survived another year of dread and disaster, of disease and discomfort, of destruction and despair…. I stand there and think over the past year, as the minutes pass till the time to start… Where do we stand in the mortgage-repayments of Life, are we reducing our debts
to ourselves or merely standing still, is the interest still crippling us, is the shortfall maybe even worse than last time? How does our spiritual pension fund look, will the time ever come when we can sit back and live off the credits? And what is there to say? So much repetition, so much pleading, so many readings, so much empty confession…..
And where is the place for Anger, in the middle of all this guilt and helplessness, this pleading and begging? Where is the room for shouting at the One Who not only gave but took, Who was not there when needed, Who Let Us Down?

That’s Rabbi Walter Rothschild of Berlin, expressing, it seems, quite a lot of anger about this whole day, this whole process. Quite separately Orthodox Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, founder of Yakar, writes this:

You might accuse me of being unduly cynical and world-weary. But I remember in my first, let’s call it “little” school, youngsters who prayed and cried and shook and swayed with the utmost fervor over the Holy Days, or more accurately the Days of Awe. Looking at them you might have thought they carried the weight of the world on their little shoulders and were actual saints in pious fear of Heaven. But the moment the Gates were closed and we leapt from awe to joy, they were just as mean and nasty as they were before. Later when I saw this all repeated at the “big” schoolsI attended, I realized the little ones were just aping the big ones, who were aping their parents, who had aped theirs.

Oh dear, is it really that bad? Here we have an Israeli scholar telling us all our constructs are fiction, one Rabbi saying it’s all pointless because God lets us down and another, quite unconnected, saying it’s all pointless because people let us down. I can understand what they are all saying but I am not so cynical. Of course, it is all too easy to repent and then to go back to our bad habits. But real life changing experiences are not going to happen to all of us every year – if this season affects one person in this room in a really profound way, that’s worth everything. And I truly believe that this time of year, even when it has not improved us personally, has inspired our people. We are a great people. We have been pioneers in so many fields. Jews founded social science, psychotherapy, and have contributed hugely to physics, to music, to maths, to medicine, to business, to finance, to education. Why all this success? Are we innately more intelligent than other peoples? I have no idea – but not necessarily. But even if we were, intelligence on its own does not lead to great and pioneering work. To do that you have to have intelligence plus energy and motivation and a real desire to improve the world and take responsibility for your own life. And that springs from Yom Kippur. We human beings are so good at blaming other people for our problems. John Cleese was at it in the media a few days ago—his problems in life are all his mother’s fault. Oh, how easy it is to do. Politicians blame their opponents, Israelis blame the Palestinians, Palestinians blame the Israelis, Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent, the brothers blamed Joseph, all this and more happened, until the Jew is brought up short by the message of Yom Kippur, that we each of us individually, and collectively as families, as a community, and as a people, have to take more responsibility for our own actions. Now don’t get me wrong here: I’m not saying, as some do, that we can simply brush off bad things that happen to us, and even less am I saying that everything that happens to us is our own fault: but often it’s not – accidents that happen to us, diseases that we catch, arguments that we get caught up in. What Yom Kippur does is to wrap up all that blame culture and place it on God’s shoulders: after all if God created everything and is in charge of the world who else can be to blame? Rabbi Rothschild was definitely on the right track there. But then this day goes on to say – that God is forgiving, that we can have a new start. And whether you believe in God or not, the message is still there, and it’s this: we do not have to be defined by what happens to us but by how we respond to what happens to us. Did we as a people respond to the Nazi destruction by dispersing and trying to hide? Of course, at first that is what many did, but look at us now – look at the responses we have built to tragedy, to remember with honour and to learn the lessons, to rebuild our shattered people, to sow and to reap, to invent and to harvest, to travel and to write, And oh yes, we are incredibly good at doing guilt: that’s part of it too, making ourselves and sometimes those around us fell guilty: it is often unhelpful and indeed it often diminishes us individually and as a people. But guilt, if you analyse it, is a culture that makes a sharp distinction between the sinner and the sin, between the person and the crime. If the judge declares us guilty, there is an opportunity to pay the price, serve the sentence, make retribution and move on. If the judge shows mercy, we are still grateful and still have to wipe away the stain of what we have done. The process of Yom Kippur has enlarged us, built us immeasurably as a people, and encourages us through our confessions to do better not just individually, but in building a better world. What could be greater than that, what could be more important than this day? We are more, far more, than animals with bigger brains. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Harari argues that religion and nationality are both just fictions, but I venture to suggest that it is his Jewish culture and his Israeli education which has led him to think big, to devote his time to macro-history beyond the vision of other historians. Tonight, let each one of us think big. The truth is we do not know precisely what challenges will be around in the world in time to come. But while homo sapiens is around, let’s remember what the phrase means—wise man. God has given us insight and wisdom, let us take it now, for if not now, when? “We turn to the selichot, the poems of pardon, the songs of supplication, the pleas of our ancestors. May the thoughts inside us match the words we speak aloud.”


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