The work of the living God

‘By open, I mean open’, he said, ‘We’re all together here, Jews, Christians, Muslims; we’re all human beings and that’s what’s important to me’. I’m sitting in the kitchen of the artist Eytan George with his cat on the chair next to me. ‘When I came to Acco after the accident, I fell in love with the place. When I first moved in the neighbours’ children used to throw stones at the cats. Now if they find an injured animal we take it to the vet together. I make art out of stones and rubbish. When the police first saw me picking things up they asked for my identity card; now they drop things round at my door.’ His home is full of beautiful ceramics, the garden full plants he has grown. The artwork, crafted of the simplest things, rice, pebbles, richly coloured threads, has a haunting grace, especially the depiction of his beloved horses. What he sells is for the benefit of Reuth, the rehabilitation hospital in Tel Aviv which brought him back to health.

From his home we go together to Kishorit, a caring community of adults with special needs. We rejoice in the organic vegetable garden where the broccoli and sweet peas, the tomatoes and peppers set a challenge for our little synagogue garden. ‘Would you like to see the goats?’ ‘But of course!’ The smallest kids are scarcely one day old. After a while I retreat, nibbled by a dozen small but versatile mouths. Across the yard are the free range organically fed chickens, laying thousands of eggs each year. I’m hoping we shall have some too in our back yard; the local foxes have already voted unanimously in favour. I meet James, who lives here, whose Bar Mitzvah in our synagogue on Shabbat Chanukkah I remember with love. He’s spent the morning picking strawberries. On Friday he’ll be running the half marathon. There are people in this village of all ages, from every kind of background.

The next day Simon Lichtman and Rivanna take me to the Nissui (experimental) school in the centre of Jerusalem, a supporter for over twenty years of their work in bringing Arab and Jewish Israeli children together. The hallways are cold in the bright February morning but the school is warm with affection for the children. We sit with the headmaster and discuss the importance of encounter in education, of the creation of a confident understanding of self which is open and nuanced, rich with the plurality of the cultures which nourish us and open to others who are different from ourselves. To have such a dream in times of ease is one matter; to refuse to abandon it in years of threat and tension is another.

We warm ourselves up over coffee with Ala, a young Muslim from Ein Rafa, where Simon and Rivanna also work. ‘We have a responsibility’, he says. ‘Anyone can make the worst of a situation; we must seize the chance to make the best of it. Jews, Arabs, people are intelligent, aspiring; we can work for life.’ He devotes himself to creating engaging and enterprising activities for the youth of villages where there is little spare money, opportunity, or parental time.

That evening the conference for the Masorti rabbis of Europe begins with a talk by Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum. Her presence expresses a radiance which can only emanate from a person who is whole-hearted in her aspirations. What does she care about? – A Judaism which is deeply and passionately spiritual; a love of the land which is both ancient and modern and inclusive of all its peoples; an understanding of Jewish law in which men and women are equal; a deep acceptance of people as they are; a renewal of values and the restoration of the true meaning of community.

Yes, there are plenty of details to attend to, and matters to be mended, but the hours at the Conservative Yeshivah (an institution with which we should all cease to be unfamiliar) fly by in study and debate, drawing our colleagues closer across the pages of the Talmud. In the words of the famous saying ‘These and these are the words of the living God’, and the art, the organic vegetables, the goats and chickens which feed on them, and all these people who have the courage to follow their visions are the work of the living God too. Thank you for your inspiration!


‘It’s warm in here!’ That was my first reaction when together with some hundred and fifty Christians, Muslims and Jews of all ages I came out of the cold and wet London streets into the welcoming atmosphere of Great Portland Street Synagogue. (‘It’s the first time we’ve ever been in a synagogue, one family whispered to me on the way out. I’m sure they weren’t the only ones.) 
Rabbi Barry Marcus, recently knighted by the Polish government for his interfaith work, had encouraging words for the group. He referred to the famous verse from tomorrow’s Torah reading, ‘You shall build me a sacred place, and I shall dwell in their midst’ and commented on the apparent disjunction: we build a holy space for God, but it is among us that God wants to dwell. It is a society worthy of such presence which we must all try together to create.
I find myself pondering that verse. It reads like a description, ‘They shall make’; but it sounds like an imperative, ‘Make! Whoever you are and whenever and wherever you live your task is to make a place where I can dwell close to you’.
Where is that place?
Out in the February sunshine I watch an early bee fly into the small white bell of a snowdrop. Is that God’s house to the bees?
The poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, who obviously loved the forests of Russia and missed them badly when he came to Palestine, used the language of the temple to describe the paths through the wood, ‘There is a tranquil holy place, hidden away amidst the shade-giving trees’. He’s not the first to find God’s home in nature. It’s wonderful retreat.
But it’s not how the Torah defines our task. The verse doesn’t say ‘and I will dwell among the trees’.  ‘Amongst them’, it insists; God wants to be able to live among people like us.

In me and you? It’s true; in moments of inner quietness, calmed by silence or humbled in the presence of tenderness, by illness borne courageously or by some delicate gesture of one person’s affection for another, I have felt that a hospital room, or even the bones of my own ribcage might temporarily constitute the walls of a temple, that God is here, in this place and this moment. I have sensed this too when a large group immerses itself in prayer and each person’s silent contemplations somehow touch each other, creating a world of collective quietness into which the presence of God has somehow entered, unobserved but felt and known to the heart. I’ve witnessed this wonder in people of the same faith, and in people of different faiths when they truly find themselves, together.       
Sadly, I also know what it means to desecrate such spaces. I’ve done it myself, through anger or ingratitude. (Twice last week people said to me, ‘I have such a good life; what contempt for God it would be if I were unthankful’, and neither of them had been through easy years.) 
Tragically, we’ve witnessed God’s temple destroyed many times in incomparably worse ways, in the wanton murder of human beings, the generous life of Dan Uzan protecting the community in Copenhagen, the good life of Deah Barakat, ‘my brother with the kindest heart,’ in Chapel Hill.*(see below for links to interviews)
Beyond such acts in scale and compass lies the devastation of war, the lives cut off, the homes destroyed, the landscapes laid waste. Even in a just war, to speak anthropomorphically, God’s heart must ache and God’s tears flow. In an unjust, pointless, vicious war how angry and frustrated God must also feel: ‘It’s such a beautiful world in which I gave them the privilege to live, and they do this to one another!’
‘You shall build me a sacred place, and I shall dwell in their midst.’ What task could be more challenging, yet more urgent?


* The dignified and loving responses of the elder sister of Deah Barakat, and the elder brother of his newly-wed wife and her sister, are more than inspiring.

After Copenhagen – and Paris

We are living, once again, in extremely difficult times, both for the Jewish People and for civilisation as a whole. Jews are under threat simply for being Jewish. The core values of freedom, equality and the rule of law are under attack precisely because they are core values.

Our thoughts are with the family of Dan Uzan, killed outside Copenhagen’s synagogue while he was helping with security. In the words of the chief rabbi of Denmark Jair Melchior, he was ‘a person who was always willing to help’. They are also with the family of film director Finn Norgaard, ‘a warm-hearted and creative man’ who made films about the dreams of the down-trodden. Our prayers are with all those who were wounded and traumatised.

What should we do, as Jews and as citizens of the UK?

We must insist that our political, religious and civic leaders of all faiths and parties take every possible measure to ensure the security of the community and that they speak out clearly against anti-Semitism, as they must against every from of racism. We too must be vigilant; we are fortunate to have available the expertise of the Community Security Trust, who work closely with the police and the government. The CST needs our support and co-operation.

We should strengthen our bonds with our own community. It is easier to confront uncertainty and anxiety when we feel connected to one another. We should reach out to those who feel alone, and be sure to care for each other. We should express our solidarity with the communities of Paris and Copenhagen and across the world.

We should deepen our bonds with Judaism. This is not a time to shrink from, but to embrace our faith, so that we can find courage in its wisdom, support in its spiritual and ethical depth, discipline in its rituals and inspiration in its history.

We should work together with those of other religions and none to strengthen our society in the name of our common values. The evil of the few should not make us cynical about the good will, active or potential, of the many. Though proactive vigilance is needed in the fight against fanaticism, our society will in the end only be made safe by working together for the dignity and rights of all. We need to develop and deepen the bonds of civic society, and of relationships between the faiths, at every level.

Though these times are fearful, we must continue to count our blessings. It is the way of Judaism to be thankful for life’s gift and to dedicate ourselves to the service of life at all times.


Yesterday I was briefly in Paris to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of the son of my colleague Rabbi Rivon Krygier. That very morning eight soldiers had set up camp next door (‘We’re one of the last communities to receive army protection’, Rivon told me.) The soldats were very friendly, and were promptly offered coffee and cakes. They’re unlikely to starve while on guard duty outside a synagogue. The local Hasidic shul even had their soldiers dancing. But what a world, where such measures are necessary!
With two hours to spare, I went to see the exhibition La Collaboration 1940 – 1945; I understand it’s the first full presentation of documents from the French national archives detailing the terrible triangle of cooperation between Berlin, Paris and Vichy which was to prove fatal to so many thousands of Jews as well as to numerous others. My grandfather, who as a chaplain in the Germany Army in WW1 observed the defence of Verdun from close quarters, was a reluctant admirer of Marshal Petain. What must he have thought of this collaborationist leader in 1942, or 1944?
However, my thoughts dwelt less with him than with the ordinary French man or woman (and it was not dissimilar in Holland, or Poland) who was faced with regular moral decisions as to how to relate to former neighbours, business partners, or strangers desperate for help, whose lives depended on somewhere to hide, something to eat, on not being betrayed for a handful or Marks. Such moral decisions, of which they were often the hapless victims, determined their fate.
But are these in fact anything as clear-cut as ‘moral decisions’? Or do people not rather slide into acquiescence with wrong, becoming aware of what they have done only afterwards if someone forcibly takes their hand and points their own finger at the consequences of their own actions?
I went out, silent and saddened, into the Paris streets, glorious in the February sunshine and walked back to the Gare du Nord.
The issue of collaboration is covered by one of the Torah’s briefest injunctions: ‘You shall not follow the many to do evil’ (Exodus 23:2). It’s a cluster of words which often haunts me.
It’s folly to underestimate the impact of group power. It isn’t easy to remain true to principles under pressure. Even something as (apparently) casual as the desire to be ‘cool’ can become a form of internalised intimidation. Few of us have escaped the feeling of walking away from a perfectly average conversation with a queasy conscience, thinking, ‘Why did I let myself become complicit in that?’ because there was a tone of denigration towards another person, group, or faith. How then would we conduct ourselves if we had a well-founded fear of physical retribution?
The road to racism is paved less with conviction than with seduction and threats. 
We are living in a time where both the deeds and the rhetoric of hatred are rising. We must not submit by failing to defend ourselves when we are the victims. But neither may we yield by becoming bystanders or perpetrators in what we say about others, or fail to say in standing up for them. We are all responsible for upholding the human dignity of those around us. This is not something we can delegate by default.
In these difficult times, let our leaders not be those who lead us down the road of collective prejudice, but those who enable us to understand more deeply the humanity of others.

Motivation in the Halachah of Conversion

The issue of motivation is central to Jewish law concerning conversion. In considering a candidate for conversion, the most significant factor of which a Bet Din must be assured is sincerity. This is more important even than knowledge of the religion.

What does this mean for those who are drawn to Judaism because they have fallen in love with a Jewish partner?

My article argues strongly that there is a profound difference between the catalyst for a person’s initial engagement with Judaism and what, with nurture and support, may emerge as the deep and genuine personal motivation to become a full member of the Jewish community.

Download article: Motivation in the Halachah of Conversion

A bleeding hedgehog

From time to time I see again before me the scene I came across at a small street corner one summer afternoon. It looked innocuous enough; a group of teenagers were standing around in a circle. But in the centre, on the pavement, was a bleeding hedgehog and they were stoning it to death. Its back was already broken and the blood was seeping out beneath the crushed crust of spikes. The teens weren’t upset; they were laughing. The hedgehog was dying, slowly.

Of course it’s not the same when it’s people who are being killed. I don’t know if it’s true that we’re now living in a time of renewed barbarism. Perhaps it has always been there, only more out of sight. We are all guilty of letting others die, of hunger, from curable illness, as ‘collateral damage’ in conflict.

But the beheadings by Isis, the burning alive, the ‘suicide’ murders, the culture of killing, – these are terrifying demonstrations of calculated savagery, and they are not far away from us now. One can see in them, only writ far larger, the same the contempt for life, the same creation of comradeship through rituals of cruelty, the same disdain for anyone who might attempt to call the perpetrators to account, that I saw in embryo that summer afternoon.

This week we read from the Ten Commandments in the Torah. The sixth says simply ‘Thou shalt not murder’, – in Hebrew it’s just two words, Lo tirtsach. The great commentator Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo son of Isaac, (11th century France), has nothing to say about them: the meaning of the injunction is surely obvious.
Rabbi Moses son of Nachman (c13th Spain and Israel) does choose to elaborate:

  • I have commanded you to acknowledge in thought and deed that I created all things. Take heed, therefore, lest you destroy the work of my hands and shed the blood of human beings whom I created…

His words, ‘the blood of human beings,’ offer an important indication. To the Nazis the Jews were first reclassified as sub-human then murdered. The Hutus said the same of the Tutsis in Rwanda: they were snakes. The ‘believers’ in Isis say the same of the ‘non- believers’, who therefore apparently deserve to die. Dan Pagis understood this issue well when he wrote of the Nazis in Testimony
         No, no: they definitely were / human beings: uniforms, boots.
         How to explain? They were / created in the image.
         I was a shade. / A different creator made me…
We all have our ‘others’, our potential ‘shades’. As Jacques Derrida wrote, identity cannot be established without alterity, without at the same time forming, if only by implication, the group of those who do not belong. Most of us seek identity; we see belonging as a great good and the stronger the group the better.
It therefore behoves us to be extremely careful to accord to our ‘others’, whoever they may, exactly and precisely the same dignity and prerogatives we claim for ourselves. Are we not all ‘created in the image’? Samson Raphael Hirsch, writing in mid-nineteenth century Germany just as Jews gained full citizenship, commented on the 6th commandment in precisely these terms:

  • Your fellow human beings have been placed next to you by God. Their rights are sanctified by God, their life, their honour, their freedom, their happiness…

Without stating it explicitly, he was clearly addressing an essential feature of the emerging modern world: identity is multiple and complex. Though heritage and allegiances may differentiate us in some ways (she is Muslim; I am Jewish) deeper bonds unite us. If we’re British, or French, or Canadian, we’re all citizens of the same country. Wherever we are, we’re certainly all citizens of the same imperilled world. We all share the basic needs of flesh and blood. We are all live and breathe by grace of the one God, the one vitality, which animates all existence.

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