Hearts of the future

I walked back a few paces and watched. We’d just completed the service for the stone-setting of a much loved member of our community; two hundred people were gathered there out of love for her and her family. Greetings followed; hugs, affectionate words. Then, rather than going home, several of the crowd separated out to look for family graves, a friend, a brother, a parent, a spouse, a baby who scarcely knew the sounds of this world. I watched, and tried to greet people as they returned: Were they alright? What was happening with the sores in their hearts?
 
This scene has stayed with me all week despite the many concerns of the last days: fear for John Cantlie and all the hostages of IS; relief over the Scottish referendum (so long as there’ll now be a time of listening and healing): worry, as ever, over what the future holds for Israel and all the people of the Middle East. Through all these matters I still see before me that group, of different heights and ages, wearing variously coloured clothes, parting between the off-grey stones, here a single figure, there two persons together, to visit those for whom death has not diminished their love; that gradual dispersal of the living into the quiet among the dead, and their slow, humbled return.
 
I thought of the verses which every year open our Torah reading on the Shabbat before the New Year, speaking of ‘all those here standing with us today before God, and all those not here with us on this day’. We tend to think of our community as the people we bump into, in the street, shops or synagogue. But that’s only one part of it. In fact we belong to a far greater community across time, comprising those who were once living, those yet to be born to our children and children’s children, and us, the generations currently alive, moving slowly, dressed in our various colours, between the dead and the unborn.
 
I find nothing morbid in these thoughts. On the contrary, they inspire in me a sense of love, and responsibility. That’s partly because the dead aren’t entirely dead and gone. They live in our hearts, words and mannerisms, both in those qualities we liked so much we hoped to make them our own, and in precisely those quirks and habits we swore we’d never inflict on our own children when the time came – and yet, of course, we do. From the dead we have our greatest nourishment of spirit; our memories and our prayer-books are filled with their music, the very melodies with which we too now measure out our lives.
This must have been what moved me as I watched so many people I care about go out among the gravestones to listen to the remembered voices of those they love.
 
It’s not just about the past; it’s even more about the future. One has only to think of the queue of buggies outside the synagogue, the most precious treasure of any community. Whether or not we have children of our own, we are all transmitters into the future, creators of memory, generators of impact on the minds and feelings of other people and on the world itself. Therefore we need to be mindful of what it is we give them, as the past with all its loves, and faults and failures, flows through us into the future.
 
As we came back down the cemetery paths to re-encounter our friends, our cars, our future, I felt not so much sad as humbled at having observed something precious and important, even, in an unusual way, beautiful. For this is what it means to be human: to carry the love the dead have given us and place it tenderly, respectfully, thankfully in the hearts of the future, blessed with the gleanings of our own sojourning, the frightening mystery of an owl’s call, the even respiration of the sea, the beauty of a bowl of apples and the melodies of prayers interwoven with whispered conversations.
 
This is as much as we can achieve, faithfully, before God.

Scotland

Early childhood memories have cast Scotland in a green and lovely light. I remember going to school down the Milngavie Road on a route which eventually arrives at Loch Lomond. Hills, streams and ‘the kiss of sweet Scottish rain’ have a central place in my sense of how the world should be.
 
I was born in Scotland for reasons loosely connected with Hitler. When my mother was eighteen, my grandparents sent her out of Germany to study in Zurich. At least one of their children would be safe from the immediate Nazi threat. When the whole family finally received permission to enter Britain, on temporary visas with a promise that they would continue on to the States, my mother was in the middle of her degree. Apparently, the only university to accept students from the Continent and credit them for courses already completed, was Glasgow. That’s why she and a group of other German-Jewish girls found themselves together on Kelvinside. Years later, after she’d obtained her PhD, made Aliyah to help establish the German Department at the Hebrew University, met my father, had my brother, and they were making plans to come back to Britain, she recommended Glasgow as ‘a place where she had friends’. Two years later I was born in Bearsden.
 
Once or twice each year the call of the hills still overcomes me, a longing easily transmitted to the rest of my family, and we board the train to cross the border. (‘Will we need our passports next time?’ the children ask.) Even the dog recognises those happy moments when we walk alongside the carriages at Euston and empties his bladder against every lamppost, knowing it’ll be many hours before we descend amidst fresher air and the prospect of incomparably longer walks.
 
On those treks it’s not rare to see in the midst of the heather and ferns the ruins of old stone walls. There are whole villages, abandoned. It’s all that remains as witness to the Highland Clearances in which thousands of people were driven from the land they’d crofted for generations in favour of the more profitable (and ecologically disastrous) sheep-farming. The history of the Clearances is complex as well as cruel. It’s often (mis?)connected with the brutal conduct of the Duke of Cumberland after his victory over Bonnie Prince Charlie at the battle of Culloden in 1746, the last real struggle for Scottish independence from England. Whatever the details, the broken byres and crofts testify to what the financial aspirations of the distant rich can do to the lives of the poor. It’s not surprising that in the far north we saw many signs this summer bearing the one word, ‘Yes’.
 
Does the Torah have anything to teach about the Scottish Referendum? (On my children’s advice I resisted the temptation to tweet: ‘Vote ‘No’ and oppose the two-state solution’. ‘It’ll only be misunderstood’, they said, wisely). The only reference I can find in the prayer-book is the High Holyday plea asking God to direct our hearts so that ‘we all form agudah achat,one union, to do your will with a perfect heart’. That notwithstanding, there’s no evidence that Judaism would define either voting ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ as a mitzvah or a transgression. The blessing for the Torah which describes God as asher bachar banu, ‘who chose for us’ can thus be claimed by neither side.
 
Nevertheless the whole affair makes me sad. There’s always tension between our need for commonality and our desire to be different. The renewed engagement with roots and tradition is a positive response to the levelling and dulling effects of globalisation. We don’t want to be stripped of our right to be different and to live as who we are, not as part of someone else’s empire, commercial, religious or territorial. But is the creation of new borders the only way this can be achieved?
 
A leading question facing not just Scotland but humanity is whether we have the creativity, sensitivity and imagination to foster both our commonalities and our differences and allow them both to deepen our humanity?

Light and salvation

During these weeks of Elul, the month of preparation before the New Year, it’s the custom to say Psalm 27 every morning and evening. I feel attached to this Psalm and I sometimes find myself saying its words on long lonely walks, or, like last night, when the dog barks at a fox at two in the morning and I can’t get back to sleep. 
 
It begins: ‘God is my light and my salvation, of whom shall I be afraid?’ (Verse 1)  Light and salvation sound like weak protection against the terrors of the world. Yet what would we wish for a hostage, like the British aid worker David Haines held by IS? What do we ask from God on his behalf? Of course, we pray that the best and swiftest way is found to gain his release, that his captors should not treat him, or any other hostages, with cruelty in the meantime and that he should be enabled to re-join his anxious family in safety and good health.  But we would also wish that God should be with him in his heart, as his light and his salvation, to bring him inner strength and peace. Whatever troubles we ourselves may have to pass through, however minor in comparison, or however serious, I believe we would say the same prayer for ourselves, that something steadfast should dwell within our heart, a presence which, without promising anything other than itself, so that it cannot disappoint us, is sustaining, irremovable and silently luminous.
 
Later in the Psalm the heart speaks in response. ‘On your behalf my heart has said: “Seek my presence”; that presence, God, I shall indeed seek. Don’t hide it from me…’ (Verses 8 and 9) Judaism generally takes an unromantic view of the human heart*. The heart is conflicted; it is the place where desire and willpower, passion and reason, meet. Will it prompt us to act rightly, or drive us into wrongdoing? Jeremiah records a moment of despair: ‘The heart is deceitful and weak; who can know it?’ he asks. Only God, he responds, in words which have made their way into the confessional prayers for the Day of Atonement: ‘I am the Lord, who searches the heart and tests the conscience’. (17:9-10)
 
But this Psalm offers a gentler and more generous account of the encounter between God and heart. God may search the heart, but the heart also searches for God. The heart is inwardly attuned to the resonance of God’s presence and, despite all the noise of the world around it, hears God’s words within its chambers as if it, the heart itself, were the speaker: ‘Seek my face’.
 
This is not a moment of transcendent revelation in which God addresses us from heaven. It’s more a moment of togetherness and recognition, a moment of awareness of the presence of God within all life, in the vitality of trees, the vibrancy of music, the stillness of thought itself.
 
To hear this voice is the heart’s deepest passion; it longs for connection with the life which animates all vital being, as the pool in the rocks below the waterfall needs the stream which feeds it living waters. The heart seeks God as the source and essence of its vitality and, in that longing, knows that it must be pure and honest and closed off by no wrongdoing. ‘Your presence, God, shall I seek’.


* A better translation might be ‘consciousness’ since biblical and early rabbinic Judaism don’t separate between the heart as the centre of feeling and the mind as the locus of rational thought. Both are included in the word ‘heart’. 

Love

The Torah contains three commandments about love: ‘Love the Lord your God’; ‘Love your neighbour’; and ‘Love the stranger’. These three injunctions, the essence of Jewish spirituality, communal life and ethics, are now beautifully composed in our Synagogue, above and on either side of the Ark. Thanks to Jason Kelvin, they have been fashioned with subtlety and grace, to show both light and shadow, just as in our hearts the love of others is sometimes prominent and sometimes, sadly, overshadowed.  
 
The three love commandments share a basic problem. Actions can be commanded, but is it really possible to order a person to love? Surely no one can love on demand; love has to flow genuinely, or it cannot flow at all. Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Lev of Ger, known as theSefat Emet, addresses this question as follows: Indeed, love cannot be commanded. But that is not what the Torah does. Rather, the love of God and other people are natural to us; such is the native propensity of the human heart. All the Torah therefore requires of us is that we remove  the numerous preoccupations which prevent us from experiencing and living according to such love: self-interest, narrow-mindedness, the dulling callus of old injuries where the open heart has been wounded. Underneath them, we will rediscover an unfathomable reservoir of kindness, generosity and love. His interpretation depends on a deep faith, not just in God, but, even more so, in human nature. For many, both stand, sadly, in question.
 
What do the three love commandments ask of us? The simple answer is ‘not less than everything’; they encompass our entire moral and spiritual world, they engage us in every dimension and relationship of life.
 
The love of God calls on us to open our hearts and minds to the one spirit, the breath of all living being, which animates our consciousness and the consciousness of all that exists. It asks us to be faithful to the invisible bond of life to which we belong and which speaks wordlessly in all things: ‘You shall not hurt, nor destroy in all my holy mountain’.
 
The love of our neighbour requires us, in Hillel’s words, ‘Not to do to others what we would not want them to do to us’. When relationships are open and comfortable, it summons the natural loving-kindness within us. When matters are difficult, it asks us to try to understand the challenges and sufferings of others and, rather than responding with anger, to be thoughtful and forbearing and to try to engender healing.
 
The love of the stranger requires us to imagine life through the eyes of the most vulnerable: what is it like to feel not at home, unsafe, marginal, unwanted and excluded? In the cruel realities of today, it demands of us that we try to read the world not just as it features in our narrative, the story with which we tell ourselves ‘the truth’, but also as it might look to those in other countries, of other faiths, whose accounts might read quite differently from our own. Little is so urgently necessary in our day as such moral imagination. If we all asked ourselves, ‘What does that feel like to others?’ there might actually be no war.    
 
Nothing is so challenging as these three love commandments. As we endeavour to allow them to direct our lives, we should regard not just our successes, but also our failures, as provisional. In the words of Naomi Shemer’s famous song Od Lo Ahavti Di! I haven’t loved enough. Which of us has done even a significant fraction of what we could for our neighbour, for the stranger, or for our own spirt? Yet none of us has ‘failed’. Where we do wrong, where we conduct ourselves less worthily than the person we know we might have been, we must not despair, but learn and endeavour anew. For goodness, like God’s spirit, is never exhausted.  It calls on us to try again, and again and again after that. It is the essence of the holy, and summons us forever.

After Gaza: these wounds go very deep.

‘Here you have sixty seconds to get to the shelter’, Rabbi Mauricio Balter explains to me. ‘Your body is on constant stand-by. You have to think through every moment. What do you do when taking a shower? What about elderly relatives who walk with a frame?’ We’re in the office of his beautiful synagogue in Beer Sheva with its kindergartens attached. He’s worried for the children, he continues sadly, ‘They’ll look at the world with eyes of suspicion instead of trust’. He describes his congregation’s shared activities with Bedouin and Arab communities, ‘I worry for the future of Judaism, the pluralist, open, debating Judaism we love’. ‘And the future of Israel’, a colleague adds.

I’ve come to Israel now because there’s so much anxiety and pain and I want to stand alongside some of those who bear it and strive despite everything to bring healing. Even if only briefly and symbolically, I want to be with those who, even in these cruel times, keep bridges open.

I’m in the homes of Israeli Arabs with Simon Lichman, whose Centre for Creativity in Education runs remarkable programmes which bring Israeli and Palestinian school-communities together. Here are mainly old friends; how is the war affecting them? They too are underneath the rockets, and afraid. ‘Force is a loser. The leaders have to talk,’ said a retired Imam. ‘If only they’d just let us get on with living together,’ two sisters told me. But just living isn’t easy: ‘There aren’t many Arab women in the Jerusalem light railway now; you might get spat at, shouted at, your head scarf pulled off. It’s frightening in the streets.’ There’s a tone of resigned determination; these people keep stubborn, even affectionate faith with the country despite the indignities they sometimes experience: ‘My father didn’t bring us up to say “That’s a Jew” or “That’s an Arab”, but “That’s a human being”.

I hear the same message from Jewish Israelis. ‘It won’t end until we talk’, is the slogan of the Parent’s Circle, the organisation of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents who’ve lost children in the conflict. Since the start of the war they’ve held an open meeting every evening in a square in Tel Aviv. A man cycling past stops to argue: ‘There’s no one to talk to. You can’t talk to Hamas!’ He’s invited to stay and discuss. One of the long-standing members of the Circle, Jacob Gutterman, tells his story: ‘My father died in the first day’s fighting in the Warsaw Ghetto. Aged nine, I was an orphan. I came to Israel, married, had two sons. My wife died of cancer when I was thirty. I brought those boys up with love. Raz insisted on joining the Golani. He was killed at Beaufort in 1982. How many wars must there be? What do they achieve? We need to end the occupation, and talk.’ The questioner is not satisfied.

I visit the family of Hadar Goldin. On the way I pass the military cemetery; his grave is covered in wreaths, now starting to whither. They are from his unit, his friends, colleagues of his parents. Hadar had just become engaged; they’d planned to marry before Rosh Hashanah. He was the kind of leader people longed to follow, an excellent officer. ‘He would say: “One can think of oneself, or do better and think of others”’. He was an artist; in his Siddur are beautiful hand-written prayers: ‘Let our hearts see the virtues in our fellow beings, not the faults; let there be no hatred’. His kind and gentle family welcome me.

I visit wounded soldiers at the remarkable Seroka Hospital. ‘They’ve mainly gone home, thank God. Yesterday this place was packed with well-wishers, children, choirs, politicians.’ I’m moved by the cards, the gifts of food, the appreciative affection for those who’ve seen the terrible fighting. A family waits outside Intensive Care: ‘We talk to him, play music. His level of consciousness is low, but we have faith. He’ll come back to us!’ ‘He’s a true hero’: says our guide, indicating a soldier as we pass; I see stitches all down his leg. I’ve been spared serving in any army; I’ve no idea how terrifying it must have been in the dreadful tunnels of Gaza.

I visit the rehabilitation centre at Tel Hashomer. It’s easy to forget how young the soldiers are; at just twenty or twenty-one they are responsible for the borders, the kibbutzim, their comrades. They have wounds on their legs, arms, shrapnel injuries on back and shoulders. Several lost companions in battle. In their memories many must carrying haunting images of injury and death. Yet they smile and speak warmly about the future. 

I’d asked if it was possible to visit wounded Palestinians. The ordinary people, especially the children, hadn’t chosen to be born in Gaza, trapped as human shields between the cunning cruelties of Hamas and Israeli’s response. Friends take me to Mokassed Hospital. I’m nervous but they tell me, ‘No, they appreciate Jewish visitors. It’s important.’

Children arrive here from Gaza every day. “It’ll make your heart weep,” our driver is telling my friends. A woman cradles a young boy; I ask if she’s his mother. ‘No; she’s a volunteer. Eighteen of his family were killed. There’s only his grandfather left. I turn to an elderly man: ‘It’s God’s will’, he says. It matters to him deeply that we visit, he adds.  

In another ward is a girl with a sweet smile; her face is covered in burns. A relative wordlessly lifts the blankets; her arm, her legs are completely bandaged. She has shrapnel wounds too. Most of her family are wounded, I’m told. They’ve needed amputations. The question arises: what’ll happen when they get home? There is no home; their home has been destroyed.

They sit us down: ‘There are hundreds of such cases; the doctors have never seen anything like this. There are laws of war; there’s right and there’s wrong. If this is supposed to be Judaism, someone isn’t reading the Torah right. Are these children targets?’ (The previous night, former MK Rabbi Michael Melchior read me in pain the appalling pronouncements of certain rabbis claiming that everyone was a legitimate target in Gaza.)

One of them continues: ‘I’ve been pro-peace since before Oslo. But what’s this? Why don’t the Israeli leaders talk to their friends? Why has Abu Mazen been humiliated? Don’t imagine  Hamas is weaker now.’ ‘But Hamas’, I feel like arguing, then realise I’m not here to argue, not in the face of these appalling injuries. I’m here to listen and bear witness. He says: ‘Jews have been leaders in thinking. But about the future for Israeli Arabs, the future for Israel, they do not think. We need to hear the voice of Jewry.’

 Afterwards my friends explain that people are slipping them envelopes with money for the hospital. It’s desperately needed for medication. ‘So that I can look myself in the mirror’, one eminent Israeli said as she gave several thousand shekels. A doctor from  Tel Hashomer tells me that they care for many Palestinians. He hopes the bridges will soon be rebuilt so that they can work together with Palestinian hospitals for the best future for the children.  

Every country has the right and duty of self-defence. But where will force alone take us? The solution has to be political, diplomatic, moral, human. It has to contain dignity, justice and security. People have to be truly equal. Only there lies life: ‘It won’t end until we talk’.

In the car back from Beer Sheva, the driver, a deep patriot, said to me: We did need to defend ourselves. But maybe not everything was justified. His friend’s son is an officer, he adds. After two weeks in Gaza he was allowed to call home. He simply wept: ‘The devastation; the destruction!’ He didn’t want to cry in front of his men, he told his mother, but he could hear them weeping in the night.

——

Published in the JC on Friday 15th August 2014