Rabbi Sacks, and Comparing Myself to Friends

I know, there’s been an election in America. That’s not what I want to write about. Shortly after Shabbat (the Sabbath) finished, the Anglo-Jewish community heard that Rabbi Lord Sacks, the Emeritus Chief Rabbi, had died. I still feel shocked and am struggling to process things. I never met him personally (although I’ve been in the same room as him a couple of times), but I own ten of his books, and that’s excluding his prayer books (siddur, five machzorim and hagaddah). I’ve read far too many of his divrei Torah (Torah thoughts) to count over the years as a long-term subscriber to his email essays and updates. Just this year, I’ve seen him speak live online several times on video during lockdown. I quote him a lot in my own divrei Torah. I knew he had cancer, but I had no idea that it was this far advanced.

Rabbi Sacks was a major influence on my thought. He was really the first rabbi who showed me that it’s possible to belong to both Orthodox Jewish society and wider Western culture, not just as a bidieved (exceptional, after-the-event circumstance), but as a deliberate choice. The Jewish community in the UK is very small, about 400,000 people, I believe the smallest mainstream religious community in the UK, but we have a much bigger societal presence than that. It’s not by any means entirely due to Rabbi Sacks, but his eloquence and media presence ensured that he was an ambassador for the community on the wider stage. I suspect the community under-rated him in his lifetime, partly due to a few controversies he was in, and also because his ability to explain difficult ideas from Judaism and Western philosophy in an accessible way made him sound less intelligent and original than he was; he was never a ‘difficult’ read in the way that e.g. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik was.

To lose Rabbi Sacks and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz within a few months of each other is a massive loss to global the Jewish community in general and the Centrist or Modern Orthodox community in particular. Barukh dayan ha’emet.

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My second, and hopefully final, autism assessment appointment has been delayed until 2 December. I’m not quite sure why. It’s a little frustrating, but I feel OK about it. At least the NHS warned me in advance this time.

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As for how I’ve been, I got up earlier than usual on Friday and managed to get in more than an hour of work on my novel before Shabbat. It was slow going, re-reading and editing, and my heart wasn’t really in it, but I slogged on.

I think my parents thought I was fairly grumpy on Friday night. To be honest, they were right. I didn’t mean to sound grumpy, but everything I said came out wrong, when I was able to do more than grunt and shrug. I’m not always good at understanding or even spotting my emotions, so if they hadn’t told me, I probably wouldn’t have noticed. They asked if I was anxious about anything and I initially said no, but after a while I realised that I have a new job, where I’m worried about letting a friend down and about travelling on public transport during lockdown and catching COVID, and even beyond that I’m worried about juggling work, Torah study, writing my weekly devar Torah and working on my novel as well as looking for further work for when this finishes, so it’s not surprising that I am a bit anxious.

***

I finished reading the anthology of writings by Rav Kook that I’ve been reading for some weeks now (The Lights of Penitence, the Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters and Poems). This post has already been dominated by Jewish stuff/rabbis, so I will not say much, just that, although I had read some of Rav Kook’s writings before, I had not realised his enormous relevance to the contemporary world. In a world where we are encouraged to think in terms of binary opposites (religion OR science; the individual OR the community; tradition OR modernity; nationalism OR universalism), Rav Kook says, “No, God is bigger than that, God is big enough for both, and more.” Essential reading.

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After Shabbat I had a Zoom call with a bunch of friends from my Oxford days. We tend to meet up every six months or so and are now doing it on Zoom because of COVID. I enjoy seeing them, even virtually, but I sometimes end up feeling a bit negative about myself as I’m the only one without a good job (university lecturer/writer and two lawyers, although one is a law teacher at the moment) and one had his baby daughter with him on the call for a while. I thought I was over this kind of looking over my shoulder and comparing myself to others, but obviously not.

I mentioned about my novel to them the last time we spoke, really to have something to say and not to sound pathetic for being long-term unemployed, but I feel really uncomfortable talking about it and I’m not sure why. It’s partly that I never like talking about myself, but I think also that I’ve told people that the novel is semi-autobiographical, which it is, but now I’m trying to walk that back because (a) a lot of it is NOT autobiographical and (b) I don’t want people assuming that certain bits are autobiographical when they are not (or, in some instances, when they are, but I don’t want to make that public. In particular, I’m vaguely worried about someone I used to know realising one of the characters was originally based on her, even though I’ve now developed her beyond that).

I wanted to do some work on my novel tonight, but after the Zoom call and dinner, it was too late, plus I’ve been thinking about Rabbi Sacks and wanting to write this post.

Love of God; Loss and Gain of Friends

Shabbat was good. I slept too much though: about ten hours at night and another two and a half after lunch. It meant I didn’t have time for much Torah study or recreational reading.

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I had a thought about being loved by God. I used to say that I couldn’t believe that God loves me, then that I could accept God loves me intellectually, but not emotionally. I thought this was all tied up with suffering, mine and that of the world in general. I realised yesterday that that’s not the issue, or not the main issue. While I’m not sure how much I accept that God loves me, my real worry is that I won’t be able to cope with the future suffering he makes me go through, whether it’s physical pain or even greater loneliness (when my parents aren’t here). I worry that I won’t cope and (a) will be in extreme pain (physical or emotional) and (b) will stop being religious out of anger or despair. I’m not sure where to go with these thoughts right now.

***

I realised I’ve changed a lot of my social contacts in the last six months or so. I’ve lost touch with shul (synagogue) friends and acquaintances because of lockdown. I have not been in touch with E. properly since we broke up (although she tried to get back together with me, or at least to get back in contact, I did not think it was a good idea). I think there has been a high turnover of people reading my blog in the last six months to a year, with some people vanishing and others starting to read. I guess I find all the change a bit disconcerting (blame autism if you want). I’m still blaming myself for friends that I lost a couple of years ago (real life and online), which was at least partially my fault.

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I was trying not to think about my novel over Shabbat, but a possible solution, or part solution, to the problem of the climax came into my head suddenly. It will take a lot of restructuring, but I’m open to that at this stage.

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More Rav Kook: “Every person who feels within himself the depth of penitential remorse and the anxiety to mend his flaws — both those whose redress is within his reach and those he hopes to redress in time by the mercy of God — should include himself in the category of the righteous.” from The Lights of Penitence in Abraham Isaac Kook: The Lights of Penitence, The Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, and Poems p.65

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I don’t like to use the word “hate,” but can I just say how much I hate the new WordPress editor? I thought I would get used to it over time, but the more I use it, the worse it seems. I can’t work out how to get back to the classic editor (properly, not just for a particular block). I can only assume the new editor was developed by a mole for rival blog platform, trying to bring the company down from within; I can’t believe someone actually thought it was a good idea.

Striving

It’s September. “Harvest has passed, summer is gone, but we have not been saved.” (Yirmiyah/Jeremiah 8.20) COVID is still with us and I still feel uncomfortable being near other people or entering a shop, as I had to do today. The autumn Jewish festivals are approaching and I feel unprepared for those too, uncertain of whether I will even feel comfortable setting foot in my shul (synagogue), given the risk of infection and the discomfort of having to wear a mask.

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I got up at 10.15am again, which is good, but I wish I could get up an hour earlier (at least). I guess I wish I was a morning person when I’m really not one, but 10.15 seems very late, even if I’ve got up later. I did feel too tired to get dressed straight after breakfast and ended up reading online (including a depressing article on Minneapolis in Tablet Magazine, which probably wasn’t the best thing to read) while the coffee slowly kicked in. Again, this was a bad habit I wanted to kick, but haven’t managed to do so yet. I am probably trying to change too much of my life at the moment without enough of a plan; when I do a cheshbon nafesh (moral/religious self-assessment) later this week in preparation for Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), I should try to set myself some realistic goals.

***

I was sent an email on high functioning autism and social interactions. This was as a result of the autism support group Zoom meeting last week. There was a list of attractive qualities in friends or partners often found in people on the spectrum. One was “detail orientated.” This is one of the things autistic people are known for, at least in stereotype, the trainspotter-type with an encyclopaedic and detailed knowledge of some very arcane topic, as well as the ability to focus on very mundane and repetitive tasks.

I wonder if I still have that detail orientation. I feel I used to have it, but I don’t any more, except I suppose about Doctor Who. As I’ve said before, in the last few years I feel I’ve lost my ability to focus on details when cataloguing or in the practise exam work I was doing the last few days. I don’t know what has caused this change. Maybe just a loss of confidence, maybe something more troubling.

I spoke about this a bit on the depression group Zoom call. People said that I should try to do things and see if that will bring my confidence back up, which I know is sensible, I’m just not sure how to go about it. I think that unemployment, and my previous unsuccessful jobs, have sapped my self-confidence about work just as lockdown and isolation have worsened my social anxiety and lack of self-confidence about socialising.

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“The fact that a person is always prone to stumble, to deviate from justice and morality, does not discredit his perfection, since the basis of his perfection is the constant striving and the desire for perfection.” From The Lights of Penitence in Abraham Isaac Kook: The Lights of Penitence, The Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, and Poems, emphasis added.

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I finished The Islamist and moved on to the latest Jewish Review of Books. I find that the JRB covers all aspects of the Jewish experience: religion, history, Israel, culture and so on in a fairly balanced way not easy with a civilisation 3,000 years old and spread across the entire globe, but I feel it does ascribe slightly out-sized importance to various “classic” twentieth century American Jewish writers and critics. People like Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Lionel Trilling. This issue we got five pages on Philip Roth, which seemed excessive (articles in the JRB are usually two to four pages long); for comparison, last issue the Bible only got three pages. I’m being slightly facetious, but I do think there is sometimes an excessive focus on twentieth century American literature, although as it’s mostly an American publication, maybe there’s more desire for Philip Roth than (I don’t know) Mendele Mocher-Seforim, Rav Saadia Gaon, or Jewish society in eighteenth century Poland.

***

Achievements: I worked on my novel and finished reading through the book as a whole for the first time. There’s a lot I want to change and it’s hard to assess my own work, but it’s not as awful as it might have been. I think there are some good bits in there, or bits that could be good with more work. I also went for a walk and did shopping. I spent an hour and a half cooking dinner, which was a bit longer than I wanted. I only did half an hour of Torah study, but I did finish reading Mishlei (The Book of Proverbs) in Hebrew, a couple of weeks earlier than I expected. I went to depression group via Zoom too. I had some trouble with my connection which made it somewhat frustrating, especially as other people had connection problems too.