Prior agreement

‘I can’t possibly ask him that’, I said quietly to Guy in English. ‘Go on’, he insisted, ‘Of course you can. Say it in German’. So I did; and Guy was right.
It wasn’t exactly a familiar situation. It happened two and a half years ago, on my walk through Germany, as I was having dinner with the prior of the ancient and famous monastery of Maria Laach. My dog Mitzpah, who had accompanied me everywhere, was invited too. I tried to explain to him as we walked down the long corridor lined with crosses that, unlike most Jewish people, monks often ate in silence and that this wasn’t the time to bark. In the event he curled up on the carpet and slept for the duration of the meal.
‘Ask him’, said Guy, who was filming the whole enterprise, including this repast, ‘what he thinks your dog adds to your adventure’. So I did.
The dog, the prior explained, reminds us that we humans are not the sole centre of God’s world, which we share with all of God’s creatures. It’s a lesson in humility, and compassion.
I thought of the prior’s words yesterday when, down in the New Forest on my way to teach in Bournemouth, I watched a car pull out of Tesco’s and stop for a donkey to cross the road. It’s not a sight I often see in Finchley. There were a whole group of grey donkeys at the entrance to the village, enjoying the sunlight and fresh grass which they badly needed to put some flesh around the ribs which showed sharply beneath their coats after a lean and bitter winter.

Maybe it was the view from the upstairs room in our childhood home in Glasgow which did it. I remember how my brother and I would sit and stare out at the golf course, the green hillside beyond it and the two beautiful horses which grazed there on bright days.

I’ve always loved animals, (though I used to be frightened of dogs). But love isn’t quite the right word, though I admit I’m sentimental. I often find companionship and solace in being with domestic animals. In their presence and in the sound of their breathing I’m reminded at a level which isn’t merely notional or intellectual that I belong together with them in this world of changing seasons, light and dark, cold and warm, rain-driven wind and stall spread with hay. Here is a relationship without complexity or guile. Something within me unfurls and I rediscover the God I share with the horses and the sheep.

When I can, I like to pray among the animals too. Admittedly it’s a different kind of congregation or communion, more continuous perhaps with some great evolution and community of life and it almost always draws me into the calm of contemplation.

I hate to see cruelty or to recognise myself as, even unintentionally, a contributor to it. This is not only because animals suffer both physical and emotional pain. It’s because wanton cruelty to animals is a form of contempt for life itself, life which we are taught to treat with reverence and respect in all its forms.


As I write we are, almost to the minute, half way through the forty-nine day period of the counting of the Omer. Jewish art has always been closely associated with objects connected with observing the commandments, Kiddush cups, Challah covers, Shabbat candlesticks, Chanukkiot, – and Omer counters. I have always loved our simple counter, made of olive wood, with a small window in which you can see the relevant date on a little scroll turned by two rollers. Beneath the weeks and days, which must both be counted, is inscribed their kabbalistic quality. I’m a little behind the times because it was last week’s feature, but a whole seven days are devoted to different aspects of Tiferet. 
Tiferet is explained by the mystics as meaning either truth or beauty. I have often wondered about the relationship between these two domains. John Keats evidently had no doubt, concluding his Ode on a Grecian Urn with the striking lines:
    ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,- that is all
     Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
But is it really so? I had planned to write about a small but much loved manifestation of that beauty, one acclaimed by Keats’s fellow romantic poet William Wordsworth, – daffodils:
    Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
    Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
We don’t have quite so many in our garden, but a cold spring has its rewards and those best loved of all the season’s flowers have been kept in glory for longer this year, making these April days a joy.
But then I thought that I mustn’t focus on such irrelevant trivialities. This week has seen a mean and cruel attack on the Boston Marathon, a run which is such a vibrant expression of freedom, equality and civic peace. (I wrote at once in solidarity to colleagues in The States). This was followed by a lethal explosion in the small Texan town of West. Look wider, and we come to Syria: what kind of spring is it for that country’s children? Look back, and this week brings the commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Who cares about daffodils? They may be beautiful, but how can they also be truth? Isn’t truth bigger, bolder and, all too often, nastier? What’s true about beauty?
Murder, cruelty and disaster are not only dreadful because of the horror they leave in their wake. They are terrible because they take away from ordinary human beings the basic right, or maybe it’s not a right but a privilege, of enjoying the most free, ordinary and elemental of things, – a spring day, sunlight on green grass, daffodils. It’s even worse when these simple joys are stolen from children, who are just beginning their great adventure of encountering this wonderful, beautiful, and vicious, world.
That’s what’s true about beauty, about the uncontrived and inimitable grace of a flower, or of an impromptu act of kindness. They bespeak, without saying anything, wonder, joy, goodness and the bountifulness of life.
How dare we take away from anybody the days in which to live in reverence of these things!

Israel’s next great idea

I’m always moved by the Shabbat which falls between Yom Hashoah, the Jewish date for remembering the Holocaust, and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day. I’ve only to think of my father’s family; three of the four of his mother’s siblings who managed to escape Nazi Europe were able to do so only because of the Yishuv, the growing Jewish settlement in what was then still Palestine. It’s my father’s Yahrzeit on Yom Ha’atzmaut; it feels a fitting date given the fate of his family, and his own destiny, repairing tanks behind the lines at El Alamein in the Royal Engineers, then joining the Hagganah and being responsible for the refrigeration of emergency blood supplies during the siege of Jerusalem.
Two scenes pass through my mind as I think about the connection between these two decisive dates for Jews in the modern world. One happened at Birkenau; the last several times I have led groups from our community to that terrible place, there have been units of Israeli soldiers gathered in commemoration. Some of the ceremonies have been modest, reflective; others more demonstrative, with singing and marching.
‘That’s redemptive’, said one of my group; others clearly agreed. I understand that response. No doubt it can only truly be appreciated by survivors, who know exactly what it means to be powerless in the face of depravity and watch helplessly the torments inflicted on those you love most. On this earth we often need force to defend our humanity, our very right to exist. Expressing his scepticism about the nation-state as an ultimate ideal, Amos Oz nevertheless writes that ‘existence without the tools of statehood is a matter of mortal danger’. This is an obvious, and painful, lesson both of Jewish history and, sadly, of the present Israeli reality.
Yet those ceremonies in that former death camp filled me with too many associations of what power alone can do for me to want to use a word like ‘redemptive’. Indeed I feel that any expression of power, even the most benign, even our own, in a place where power taunted and slaughtered so many, is open to question. One knows too much about what power can do.
The other scene was quieter. I was sitting outside a hut in downtown Tel Aviv with Nic Schlagman, who was showing me his work with refugees from Eritrea and Somalia who see Israel as their sole hope and haven. ‘My grandmother came on the Kindertransport’, he said, ‘I think she would be proud of me’. I believe there are innumerable others, throughout Israel, and Jewry, and across the world, motivated in a similar manner.
I was at a seminar yesterday led by the outstanding Israeli scholar and diplomat Dr Tal Becker. ‘A nation is as great as its great idea’, he said, and then challenged us: ‘After the creation of the state, what is Israel’s next great idea?’ The answer to my mind is that ancient Jewish response which begins when Abraham refuses to accept that injustice be done even to Sodom, and Moses cannot countenance a slave being taunted. It’s as simple as the words ‘Get involved and make it better’ and requires nothing less than that we commit to this our lives.
That is what remains so inspiring about Israel, despite the wrongs done to it, and despite the wrongs it sometimes does, and despite the urgency of the hour to put an end to both. It is the number of people and organisations motivated by a profound vision of humanity, rooted in the wisdom and compassion of Jewish values, texts and community life at its best, and nurtured also by those particular sensitivities which derive from having been compelled to live for so long at the margins, who then go and put it into practice in innovative ways, whether towards Jews, or Arabs, or both, or in other countries all around the world.
It is to this idea that we must commit ourselves, as human beings, as Jews, and as those who care about Israel.

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