‘No’, he said, ‘I’d rather have the meeting in the synagogue,’ before adding, ‘You see, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never yet been inside one’. It was a privilege to host scientist, author and campaigner Colin Tudge last night. And, no, the above admission isn’t proof positive that he’s not Jewish.
Colin Tudge, who was features editor for The New Scientist, then a presenter for the BBC and who now lectures across the world, writes, and runs the Campaign for Real Farming, describes himself as ‘a friend of religion’. In the most urgent task of changing our attitude towards the earth, religious communities are key allies.
At school, Tudge remembered, the nature table was a shrine. He soon discovered it wasn’t true that most birds looked alike: ‘There was a glossy magazine with a picture of shorebirds mysteriously called “Oystercatchers and Knots”. I was hooked.’ Who cared about colds and flu when you could explore the ponds and mud? ‘I never wanted to be a professional scientist. I just liked being with the creatures’. He was shocked when he found that not everyone felt likewise. The Secret Life of Birds was written in answer to a friend’s questions:
           ‘What I really want to know about is birds. They keep coming into the garden. They fiddle about. What are they? What are they up to?’
At eleven Tudge started his first tree nursery. ‘A tree is a big plant with a stick up the middle’, he explains in The Secret Life of Trees. But why be a tree? ‘The advantages of treedom are both manifold and manifest’, he explains. ‘But being big is…  risky, because all the time a tree is growing, time and chance and other creatures are working on its downfall.’ One of those creatures is us.
‘What needs to change?’ I asked him. ‘The most important thing is attitude’, he replied. ‘The goal of all the world’s most powerful governments is “economic growth”. Other creatures hardly get a look in.’
To express this in religious terms would be to speak about idolatry, the setting of profit and advantage before reverence, respect for nature, stewardship and the service of God. A young woman recently spent a Shabbat in our community before travelling to Bhutan to study one of the only countries in the world which defines its national goals not in terms of GDP but of collective happiness. It would be good to hear what she discovered.
‘If you took a train across Britain what kind of farms would you like to see?’ I asked him. ‘Thick strips of trees, lots of fruit trees, coppiced hazel, also large hardwoods like oak and hornbeam, with fields of grain in between. Livestock too; most prefer the shade of trees and suffer in the heat. You need small, highly skilled farms. They’re just as profitable, but sustainable.’ Could our community become an outlet for them? ‘Certainly!’
Tudge attacked the prevalent Dawkinsian notion of ‘the selfish gene’. Genes, he argues in his latest book, are not selfish. Life is often ruthlessly competitive, but the best way to survive is co-operation. The misplaced concept of the selfish gene feeds a selfish ideology.
Why host such a talk in a synagogue? Because it goes to the heart of religion, which concerns how we respect the world, including how we consume; because this autumn brings the Sabbatical year, when the land’s produce is shared between poor and rich, animals and humans; because that should not be treated with utilitarian contempt which we are taught to view with reverence as filled with the presence of God.  


I remember as a small boy listening to my mother telling me about the first English policeman she saw. She was in her teens when she escaped Nazi Germany, with its SA, SD, SS and Gestapo. The family landed at Croydon Airport on 9 April 1939 and it was there that she saw British Bobbys for the first time. They smiled.
My values have also been formed above all by the rigorous Jewish moral and legal traditions which place justice and loving-kindness together at the pinnacle of all values. ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue’ demands the famous verse from Deuteronomy (16:20). If, as was axiomatic for the rabbis of the Talmud, the Torah uses no term in vain, why is the word ‘justice’ repeated? It is to teach us, explains the third century Resh Lakish, that we must pursue the goal of justice not only when the path towards it is clear and open, but also when it is obstructed and occluded by corruption and deceit.
The findings of the review by Mark Ellison QC into the undercover activities of the police in the investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence come as an appalling indictment. The lack of clarity, integrity and honesty, not to mention the lack of the most basic respect and humanity towards the Lawrence family, are an affront to justice and human dignity. David Winnick MP was right when he said, following the Home Secretary’s statement to the House: ‘May I simply say that a society based on the rule of law should feel thoroughly ashamed of what has been revealed…’
Jewish jurisprudence addresses itself rigorously to every aspect of the legal process, but quite particularly to the integrity of witnesses. What is known and seen must be disclosed; once adjured as a witness, a person who ‘has seen or known, but does not tell it, shall bear his guilt’. (Leviticus 5:1) We read those words in the Torah tomorrow.
That law provides the basis for one of the most famous passages in the entire Mishnah, the earliest rabbinic code of Jewish law, compiled at the close of the second century. It concerns the adjuration of witnesses. First, they are warned to say only what they know directly, not by hearsay. Then they are warned that in capital cases, – which carried the death penalty in theory, though not in rabbinic practise, – they are answerable not only for the blood of the accused, should dishonesty on their part lead to a false conviction, but also for the blood of the wrongly condemned person’s unborn descendants. It is here that we find the remarkable declaration that ‘whoever saves a single life is as if they had saved the entire world; while whoever destroys a single life is as if they had destroyed an entire world’.
Finally the Mishnah addresses itself to anyone who might decide that it would be easier to avoid testifying at all: ‘If you say “Why should I get involved in all this trouble?” then know that ‘he who has seen or known and does not tell shall bear his guilt’.
Justice must be ‘pursued’; it may neither be avoided nor perverted. There are no exceptions to this principle. The notion, obviously racist, that there might be certain kinds of peoples who deserve a lesser justice, offends against the Torah’s rule that ‘You shall have one law’ and against its quintessential value, expressed in its very first chapter, that every human being is created in the image of God.
It should not be imagined either that in such contexts justice is somehow in contradistinction to mercy. Mercy and compassion should affect all our conduct. But there is no mercy in obstructing the pursuit of justice on behalf of the vulnerable and the grief-stricken. 

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