Do no harm

If only we could pack away humanity’s hurts and harms! ‘Do no harm’, runs one of the great, but simple, mottos associated with Buddhism. More than once, a leading Jewish philanthropist said to me, ‘Before I enter any project I ask: “Will we end up unintentionally doing more harm than good? I don’t get involved until I’m reassured on this question.
Hurt and harm are difficult to undo. At Purim we recall that Haman is a descendant of Agag, the royal line of the Amalekites. The Torah is blunt about the conduct of the Amalekite people; they attack the Children of Israel from behind on their way out of Egypt, killing the old and the weak who cannot keep up. ‘They don’t fear God’, the Torah says, meaning that they fail to abide by that ancient standard of morality through which individuals and nations reassure one another that they don’t murder or steal, but respect the person of the stranger and the integrity of family bonds. This code the Amalekites fail to uphold.
Where does such hatred come from? Maybe there is no better description that the phrase A. C. Bradley coined in reference to Shakespeare’s Iago, the villain who by his cunning drives the once noble Othello to murder the wife he apparently still loves: ‘motiveless malignancy’. But the Midrash offers another story. Amalek, the original ancestor and father of the people, is the grandson of Esau. He spends much time with his ageing grandfather who, of course, tells him the story of his life, including how his twin brother Jacob cheated him of his birthright as the firstborn. ‘I couldn’t take revenge’, he explains, ‘I didn’t want to hurt my dear father Isaac any more than he had been already. But you, grandson, you must exact that long-delayed vengeance for me’.
History slowly carries old grudges forward to their untimely fruition. The Midrash also notes that the price of Esau’s great cry when he heard that his special blessing had been stolen by Jacob was eventually exacted from the latter’s descendants. When was this? Centuries later, as, upon hearing of Haman’s plan to destroy all the Jewish People, Mordechai put on sackcloth and uttered a great and bitter cry.
The Megillah, the story of Purim, presents a world of realpolitik. A brilliant study of the interplay of vengeance, power and intelligence, it is all too similar, in motive and counter-motive, if not in style, to the world in which we actually live. But it is not the kind of world we want to bequeath to our children. To them we would like to give a world of forbearing, forgiveness and peace.
Shabbat Zachor, the ‘Sabbath of Remembering’, always immediately precedes Purim. It carries a troubling and seemingly contradictory double-commandment: first ‘Remember what Amalek did,’ and then, ‘Blot out the memory of Amalek’. Surely we can do either the former, or the latter, but not both.
Or perhaps the double instruction is intended to teach us that we must be clear-sighted and realistic about the world we live in, otherwise we are fools. Yet in studying and defending ourselves against the hurts and grudges which history seems to transmit so unremittingly from generation to generation our aim must be not to perpetuate but to try to heal them. We must be aware of them precisely so that we can struggle to overcome them and, in seeking to promote reconciliation, leave behind us the same message as Esther and Mordechai when they wrote to all the peoples of Persia ‘words both of truth and peace’.


We can’t be the only dog-owning Jewish family in which a long nose appears just below the edge of the table as we prepare to eat the challah on Friday night. I wonder how it is that so many dogs, quite incapable of making Kiddush, recognise instantly the sound of the Hamotzi – ‘Who makes bread come forth from the soil’. Their Hebrew must be better than we think.

But dogs are not the only ones who love their challah. It’s arguably the most popular part of the most popular of all Jewish rituals, the Shabbat meal. ‘It’s not possible to have a Friday night or Shabbat morning meal without loaves’, rules the Shulchan Aruch, the key code of Jewish law compiled by Joseph Caro in 16th century Safed.

The bread should be bought from a Jewish baker, notes the Mishnah Berurah, the late 19th century commentary by the Chafetz Chaim, before conceding that those who have no choice, such as soldiers in the Czar’s army, should rather use what bread they have than not say the blessings at all. Better still, challah should be home-baked, this being an essential part of honouring the Shabbat. ‘Because of our many sins’, he adds in a warning happily concealed in the small print of an additional learned commentary, ‘nowadays a number of women have abandoned the custom and buy from the baker. In this they do not do well…’ Note which gender is in the kitchen. But if this comes as no surprise, the following may: ‘Rav Hisda used to chop the vegetables very fine. Rav Nachman would tidy the house’. Tokenism, or equality at last?  The point is that Shabbat is the heart of the Jewish week; all the other days face towards it, and preparing for it, especially by making the best food, is one of the greatest honours we can show it. In this everyone should be involved. ‘Don’t say “it’s beneath my dignity”, for in dignifying the Sabbaththis does one’s dignity lie’ – the Shulchan Aruch again.

What then about challah, or kitke if you come from South Africa, or barches if you’re of German-Jewish origin, or birkata in Judeo-Amharic? What is the connection, if any, with the law of ‘challah’ as commanded in the Torah, which consists in giving the first of our baking to the Cohen, a kind of tax, or gift, to the civil service of the day? The custom is to knead a quantity of dough for one’s challah sufficient to take from it the ‘challah’ and say the special blessing ending ‘lehafrish challah min ha’issah’ – ‘who commanded us to takechallah from the dough’. The requisite amount to render our baking liable for this ‘tax’ is about 3lb or 10 – 14 cups of flour, according to the excellent website My Jewish Learning. Nowadays it is not given to the priests but burnt in the bottom of the oven, or thrown away with dignity. It serves as a reminder that of all we eat a portion should be given, in money or in kind, to those who would be glad to see on their table a quarter of what we routinely enjoy.

One has two challot on Friday night, and two at the Shabbat midday meal, in memory of the double-portion of manna which the Children of Israel gathered in the desert. Just as that manna was wrapped above and below in the dew, so we place our challot on a board below and cover them with a cloth above. Unless all the participants have two loaves or rolls in front of them, they should wait for the leader to say the berachah. The latter has two further dilemmas. Firstly, which of the two challot do you use? The lower one on Friday nights, the upper one on all other occasions, says the Shulchan Aruch. Therefore, seeing one doesn’t reach out over the challah one intends not to use, one should move the lower loaf a tiny bit nearer to one’s hands just before saying theberachah. Finally, do you cut the challah with a knife, or break it by hand? I do the latter, based on the Torah’s teaching that a sword, being an instrument of war, profanes the altar – and nowadays everyone’s table is their family altar.

Isn’t simpler to be a dog and wait until one’s thrown one’s portion, or chance it and, while the humans are busy washing their hands, make off with the lot?

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PS – A community dream: to have a rota of challah-bakers so that every Thursday night we can bake at shul, and send challot to all the families where someone is ill, or in hospital, or has had a new baby. Three people have come forward already; would you join the rota, if it was 4 times a year?


This week I was part of a challenging panel on whether it is, or is not, worthwhile to engage in inter-faith discussions and activities. I often ask myself what it is which makes me consider such involvement so important. I regard it not only as a legacy of my grandfather, but also of my teachers Rabbis Hugo Gryn and Dr Albert Friedlander, its resolute, and robust, proponents.

Inter-faith work is not at all about diluting the particularity of my Judaism. As I recently heard someone say in a different context, I may have been born Jewish as an accident of birth, but my soul, heart and mind resonate deeply to its music, teachings, values and laws. I’m reminded of how, according to family legend, I was once offered to choose from a huge box one chocolate which I liked: ‘But I love them all!’ I apparently replied. That’s broadly how I feel about the many facets of Judaism: ‘I love them all’.

No, inter-faith work is not part of an apology for being true to oneself. Its urgency, though, is for sure sharpened, for me and for many Jews, by the awareness that throughout history it is our people, probably more than any other, who have been made to pay, as the butt of ignorance, hatred and institutionally inculcated prejudice, the price in possessions, body and blood of the bigotry of others. It is this which brought Rabbi Gryn to the conclusion that ‘you can only be safe and secure in a society that practises tolerance, cherishes harmony and can celebrate difference’.

Hence there is a political dimension to inter-faith work. It is essential that faith and ethnic communities respect and appreciate the lives and traditions of other communities and share broad moral and civic values and goals. After all, we live in a world where it is impossible not to interact closely. I therefore agree with David Cameron’s insistence that if we speak of multiculturalism this must not be a form of lax relativism but a pluralism rooted uncompromisingly in the essential values of democracy: freedom, justice and equality. Hence, amidst the current global realities engagements with people of other faiths may be deeply inspiring but are also not rarely challenging, difficult and disturbing.
But this is not for me the end of the matter; I do not value encounters across the borders between faiths simply because they are a preventive necessity. They form part of my moral and spiritual search, and occasion encounters and friendships which enrich and inspire me.

In listening to the prayers and thoughts of others whose faith has led them to dedicate their lives to service, I have sometimes felt that I was being taken straight to the heart of the matter. Hearing a devoted Christian speak about care of the poor, I both respect and reflect on what he or she does, and turn to my own tradition and find such teachings at the heart of my Judaism. If someone were to say: ‘Do you really need inter-faith for that? Why not go straight to your own faith?’ my answer would be that this may be true. But often it is seeing the good in others and being touched by a universal sense of purpose which inspires us to go back home, sift the essential from the over-familiar or the peripheral in our own faith, and then do likewise. In meeting the other, I thus learn both about him or her, and about myself and whom I could or should be. Engagement with people of other faiths, in the context of a deep commitment to my own, thus further refines me, intellectually, morally and spiritually.

But most importantly of all, I hopefully also encounter something else as well: that deepest understanding which unites us, the call and inspiration of the universal God who inhabits all life and whose presence within it we are all required to honour, serve and cherish.

Sometimes even, habituated to the by-ways of our own faith, from its exaltation to its peccadillos, we almost fall into thinking that it is this itself we worship. Worst of all is when religious communities forget their purpose and become a form either of localised narcissism or of nationalist idolatry. Meetings with others beyond our own group remind us then of the all-encompassing, all challenging vastness and wonder of the one and living God, and recall to us our responsibilities here on earth.

Negative capability

Tomorrow we read in the Ten Commandments ‘I am the Lord your God’. One spends one’s life wondering what those words mean….
I often ask myself what we can really give one another. Of course, in the daily humdrum of life there are endless ways in which we interconnect, care about and support each other’s activities. We shop, fetch, cook and wash up; we phone, send emails, and even occasionally indulge in the ancient art of writing a letter. We chat, confide and tell stories. That’s what love and companionship mean amidst the thousand rushing realities of this world.
But sometimes it’s not about all that. Listening to a person’s anguish, noticing the tears, sitting by the hospital bedside, or in the waiting room at the end of the ward, or at home after the tea has been put down on the table, amidst the powerlessness to change the circumstances, to repeal time, void the diagnosis, or make un-happen what has already come to pass, – what then? What does one do or say or have to give?
There’s so often the temptation to know something more, or offer answers: ‘It must be because…’ ‘God only send us what we can cope with’. I, like my mother Isca, have always respected John Keats’s remarkable definition of what he called ‘negative capability’:  when a person ‘is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ Faced by life’s cruelties, injustices, pain, as also by life’s wonder, beauty and tenderness, we don’t have knowing or answers, and wisdom is sometimes silence.
So what do we have? – Only this being here, only an open heart and each other; only this solidarity of testimony, felt, unspoken. Maybe it’s a form of love. (Later the doing becomes important again, the practicalities, the humour, the courage of getting on with it.)
I wonder if God isn’t sharing such moments, God whose first word is simply Anochi, ‘I am’, God whose deepest request of us reduces down to the simple demand that we say to each other Hinneni, ‘Here am I’. (All the rest, all the commandments and the history, follow as consequences and culture.)
‘I am’, says God, without interrupting either silence or conversation. I am in your hearts and in the bond between you; I am with the nurses in the intensive care unit; I am with life’s first breath and its last; in the bird’s heart and further away than the furthest star you can see.
Is God always good, or sometimes bad? Is God fair, or often unfair? Does God do things, or fail to do them? At certain moments these questions retreat; their unanswerable perplexities withdraw. Something other has rendered them at least temporarily irrelevant.
There is companionship, solidarity, somehow a kind of healing.

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