The Olympic Torch

I know that the close of this Shabbat will bring the fast of Tishah Be’Av with its deep sadness and anxiety; I know that from when the month of Av begins until the fast is over joy should be diminished, but

But – whoever went out to watch Leslie Lyndon running with the Olympic Torch will have experienced the happy interruption of that sombre mood. It was a most wonderful, doubly moving experience.

The occasion was moving for its own sake. To see the streets lined with people enjoying each other’s company and the glorious day, chatting to those they knew and those they didn’t know, children, teenagers, whole families, babies, the able and the disabled, older people (the lady who carried the torch shortly before Leslie was a hundred); to live in a country where people of all colours and faiths can gather in peace; to listen to the crowds cheering everyone, the outriders, cycle-riders, police and the floats with dancers, the vans of previous runners and those yet to run; to witness everything graciously organised in a smiling, calm, under-stated manner; –  all this was a blessing not to be taken for granted. New North London was out in its hundreds; never have I felt so confident of an early minyan.

Then to see you, Leslie, with your typical beaming smile, holding the torch high in both hands, running up the hill: – I wonder how many of us cried for joy and love of you and all your family. Then you stopped, and lit the torch for the subsequent runner – I’m not sure what the berachah ought to be, lehadlik ner shel humanity? – and you were back in the arms of your friends and family. We’ll never ever let you live the experience down!

The choice of such a large and diverse group of people to carry the Olympic flame was an act of genius, for it burns now with the courage, inventiveness, skill, determination and generosity of them all. We wandered home afterwards slowly, touched by a different vision. That’s how it’s been throughout the streets and cities of this country.

And so to Tishah Be’Av, with its laws of mourning and fasting, the very opposite of that cheerful scene, the day when it isn’t even permitted to say shalom to one another but we merely acknowledge each other’s presence in semi-silence, the day we sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the deaths of communities.

Yet there is an all-important connection.

There are many reasons for remembering calamity. We recall the destruction of the first and second Temples, the expulsions from England and Spain, the book burnings and the persecutions, so that the deaths of people like ourselves are still mourned, so that we don’t forget, so that we learn from history for the sake of our own people and all other peoples. But perhaps most deeply of all, by reflecting on destruction we are taught to appreciate the importance of creation and the privilege of life, our own life and the lives of others, the lives and livelihoods of neighbourhoods and cities we live in, the fruitfulness of the landscape around us, the fields and forests on the breathing of which we depend.

‘It’s a wonderful world’, if we don’t destroy it. Life is miraculous, if we don’t kill it. These are the lessons of Tishah Be’Av. How privileged we are to live in streets where we can celebrate together! How devotedly we must nurture and share that privilege!

In the face of murder

One has to hold on to the strange idea that on Tishah Be’av the Messiah will be born.

Tishah Be’Av, literally ‘the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av’, falls on Sunday week and is the saddest day in the Jewish year. ‘You move the commemoration of bad events to a bad day’ teaches the Talmud, and there is no shortage of them, from the destruction of both Temples, to the expulsion of Jews from England and Spain. ‘When Av begins, joy is diminished’, and that month starts today. There’s no shortage of sad events to ponder.

I just watched footage of the bus bomb in Bulgaria. You can see CCTV pictures of the suspected bomber wandering around the airport entrance in casual sports gear. Then you look at the wrecked bus and listen to survivors speaking of how they jumped out of the windows, not knowing whether another bomb was awaiting them in the terminal itself. They are Israeli holiday-makers, grandparents taking their grandchildren on a trip to Europe, doing exactly the things we might have been doing in a place we might have been, killed because of being  Israelis and Jews. The Bulgarian bus driver must not be forgotten, slaughtered as ‘collateral damage’. Our hearts go out to all their families and those of the injured.

As thousands gather for the London Olympics, as our own beloved Leslie Lyndon prepares to run through Finchley with the torch, we think of the eleven Israeli athletes murdered in Munich forty years ago, for whom we will say a memorial prayer on Shabbat Chazon (Shabbat week). Their families need them to be remembered. So do we; so does anyone with a heart. As Ankie Spitzer, whose husband Andrei, a fencing coach, was killed, writes:

The IOC says it’s not in the protocol of the opening ceremony to have a commemoration. Well, my husband coming home in a coffin was not in the protocol either. This was the blackest page in Olympic history. These 11 athletes were part of the Olympic family, they were not accidental tourists. They should be remembered as part of the Olympic framework.

After all, she says, aren’t the Olympics a time in which we are one human family celebrating the joy and courage of sport?

These events are quite enough to leave one feeling somewhat lonely, apart and vulnerable. But there is also last week’s Synod to consider. I was asked by the Board of Deputies to write a statement explaining why I could not support the proposed programme for Christian clergy visiting Israel and Palestine. I did so, saying that I could well understand the importance of seeing and listening to the very real sufferings of Palestinians. But the itinerary lacked all balance, the time in Israel and with Israelis being hopelessly and offensively minimal. Understanding and peace could only be fostered by those who fairly listened to the narrative and anguish on both sides. But Jewish voices were not heard in the ensuing debate; rather it seems that they were mocked, with ugly inferences about Jewish lobbying and money.

It is hard to see how the Church of England will be able to re-establish a reputation with our community for acting in good faith. Instead it feels as if old wounds about anti-Jewish prejudice have been reopened. This matter cannot be allowed to rest in such a troubling place.

So it’s hard to see much evidence that the Messiah is about to be born.

But that’s the point. We must not allow ourselves to abide in anger, or step backwards into despair. In the face of murder we must proclaim the preciousness of life, all life. In the face of prejudice and ignorance we must strive for knowledge and understanding. Where there is the danger that different faiths become more distant, we must work all the harder to draw them nearer.


Where does the Jewish protest against racism begin?

It doesn’t start with the Jewish People’s long experience of exile. It commences even earlier, in a time almost before time itself, on the sixth day of creation, when God is understood to say ‘Let us make man in our image and according to our likeness’. (Genesis 1:26) ‘Man’ here is neither black nor white, neither Jewish nor non-Jewish, for no such divisions exist. All life is sacred and God is present in every human form. There is no person devoid of God’s image and whose existence does not reveal some unique, otherwise unapprehended aspect of God’s world. Nor is the word ‘man’ gender-specific, suggests the Talmud, for the first person was neither male nor female, but both.

The story is told of how Rabbi Elazar son of Rabbi Shimeon was returning home from his studies when he met a man described as ‘exceedingly ugly’. Proud of having learnt so much, he rudely failed to return the stranger’s greeting and called out instead, ‘Empty head, is everyone in your city as ugly as you?’ ‘Go’, said the man, ‘And tell the maker who fashioned me how ugly his works are!’ Instantly recognising his sin, Rabbi Elazar dismounted from his donkey and begged forgiveness. If only those who call Jews, Asians, Muslims, Africans or any one else ‘ugly’ would recognise as quickly that we are made in the same image and hurt in similar ways, and climb down from the easy haven of our racism, and apologise.

‘You shall love the stranger like your own self, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt’, teaches the Torah (Leviticus 19:24). Rabbi Natan comments sharply, ‘Don’t lay your own blemish upon others’. Is it really a blot or blemish to be a stranger? One would have hoped not. But Rabbi Natan is reflecting on the already long Jewish experience of marginalisation and dispossession, on the slave-market and the overseer’s whip. He knows. Had he written not in the 2ndbut in the 20th century his comment would surely have been stronger.

Jews have long been, and continue to be, victims of what has been called ‘the oldest hate’. It therefore troubled me when a Muslim colleague asked for my help. The English Defence League have exploited the Israeli flag in anti-Islam rallies, co-opting the beautiful symbol of our hope and freedom and into a disgusting campaign. Purportedly Jewish bloggers have written virulent anti-Muslim poison. There is only one response: Not in Judaism’s name, which commands us to stand alongside anyone who is the victim of such hate.

I was pained, too, to read the words of Aliyana Traison, Deputy Editor of Haaretz, following vicious attacks on Africans in the South Tel Aviv where she lives: ‘The racism that has engulfed Israeli society cannot be ignored, lest we wish to destroy ourselves.’ She’s not afraid to live alone in her street, she continues, but ‘I am afraid…to live alone in a hateful society. I am afraid to live alone in a country where my government supports discrimination and racism.’ This, she adds, in a land created by refugees as a haven for those who know what that means.

And what is it like around the corner from us? I was pained also, but moved, to learn from members of our own community of how they struggled to prevent an NHS hospital from turning onto the sodden street a homeless asylum-seeker the day after her baby’s birth.

These issues define the living meaning of our Judaism. There’s none of us they don’t concern.


The first time I went to Kent to meet Nicky’s parents (we’ve now been married for 21 years) I was somewhat nervous. A few months earlier I’d broken up with a girl whose mother and father had given me a terrible dressing down for being a failure. So what would happen this time? I’d stopped at the level crossing on the lane where Nicky’s parents live when a man came up to my window and said, ‘You must be Jonathan’. It was Nicky’s father. Years later I asked him how he’d known it was me: ‘There aren’t that many people with a kippah driving down this way’, he replied. No one could be more welcoming than Nicky’s parents.

How do we welcome people into our communities and homes? It’s an important mitzvahhachnasat orchim, ‘bringing in wayfarers’, is listed by the Talmud as a kind act to which there is no limit. Some shuls even had rooms for guests up in the eaves; the community would ask them back for meals. East-Enders may remember that one always laid an extra place at meals; no poor man or unexpected guest should be made to feel a trouble.

At one level, offering welcoming is not so complicated. One only needs to ask people to meet and greet everyone, with a special eye for those who are new or unfamiliar. But even then it’s no small matter, and I’m grateful to those who look after others in this manner. It’s not always easy to have a smile for everyone, without exception, to be kind when feeling flustered, to approach those who look lost, risking the rebuke that they’ve ‘been coming for years’, and to still offer a nice word when someone treats you like an official.

Kiddush, an unstructured social situation, is more challenging. Paradoxically, the ritual setting of the service itself has clear boundaries which bestow a kind of safety. But at Kiddush one can swiftly find oneself alone. Do we who feel at home stick among our friends, or do we turn to people we don’t yet know, to those around the edges, and draw them in? We’re all sometimes tired; we all sometimes want it easy. Yet, for many, Kiddush is the decisive point where either a sense of comfort or creeping alienation settles in the heart.

But there is a deeper level to true welcome. Every person comes with a story in the heart, a story one never completely understands even if one becomes a friend and doesn’t know at all at first meeting. Is there the pain of grief in this person’s soul? Is her child ill? Has a new loneliness opened like a chasm with the breaking of a long relationship? Has accustomed aloneness become the expectation of rejection? Will this be a place which will humiliate me if I’m not successful, married, and religious, but gay, alone, without children, recently made redundant, not very Jewish, not Jewish at all, disabled, or in some way ill?

Welcome is also about the receptive space we create within ourselves for other peoples’ as yet untold stories. We cannot possibly carry the burden of everyone’s harsh experiences of the world, but we can try to convey that a synagogue is a place of many stories, where chesed, loving kindness is strong enough to include them.

Must we bother? Here lies our choice between two interpretations of the Bible’s best known verse: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. We can be open only to such neighbours as are ‘like ourselves’. Or we can try to treat everyone who comes to our door as our neighbour, welcoming them as we ourselves would hope to be welcomed wherever we went.

There aren’t many places of true refuge in our society where we can all meet, embraced equally by God’s presence. I would hate to feel that the doors of God’s house were ever unnecessarily shut.

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