In muddy French refugee camp, Torah ethics live

“Compulsory tea break”. The call goes around the huge warehouse five minutes’ drive from the refugee camp universally known as “The Jungle” outside Calais. During the pause, a woman in a beret eyes my kippah: “Are you here over Shabbat?”

People wheel in loads of donated clothing. Philli, who runs the warehouse, is precise about what’s needed: good sleeping bags; solid men’s shoes; medium sized men’s coats; two- and four-person tents.

In the camp, a refugee stops me. I think he’s Eritrean. He says: “Jewish? There are three, four Jews.” I’m not sure if he means people back home or in Calais. Our guide, from Auberge de Migrants, apologises: there are mosques here and a church, but no synagogue.

On the road through the camp, I recognise a congregant, also volunteering. The refugee crisis speaks powerfully to the Jewish consciousness. It’s not just the Torah’s commandment to “love the stranger”; it’s the immediacy of recent experience. My father once mislaid his passport. “Why does it matter?” I asked – I was small at the time. “You’ll know if you ever don’t have one,” he replied. Aged 16, he was a refugee from Nazism.

I’ve never sat at a Seder without guests who had fled for their lives.

Dani Lawrence of Help the Refugees explains: “My father left Morocco and found a home in Israel. My mother fled Algiers for Paris, where my parents met. Being French, I felt ashamed when I learnt about Calais.” Several of the women who help run the organisation out of Ms Lawrence’s home are Jewish.

For the Jewish youth movements and young adults who were among the first to volunteer here, the appeal is the opportunity to help both as Jews and as part of an interfaith and international effort.

It’s a way of living according to Eli Wiesel’s dictum, “A Jew must be sensitive to the pain of all human beings.”

I find further resonances with Jewish experience. There’s a thirst for life, culture and enterprise. There’s a library and a classroom, while a dome of timber and plastic sheeting shelters a space for painting and music.

All around are low tents, feeble barriers and running mud. Within sight is razor wire blocking access to the trains.

A decent way – a fair, safe and shared way – must be found to offer humanity a future.

www.helprefugees.org.uk

This article first appeared in The Jewish Chronicle

Three Chanukah cards

Our synagogue received three unusual Chanukah cards last week. They each begin
 
Dear Jewish Community,
I send this message to you as a Muslim. I share with you the celebration of spiritual light that opposes the darkness of religious hatred.

 
Each concludes ‘Your Muslim neighbour’ and carries a personal signature.
 
The Joseph Interfaith Foundation, established by Mehri Niknam, describes the project as giving ‘the chance to individual Muslims who want to extend a hand of friendship towards the Jewish community through a safe forum’.
 
The adjective ‘safe’ stands in sorry contrast to the noun ‘friendship’; it’s a sad world where we need ‘safe’ ways to show friendship. But few would deny that such is the case. I just received an email from a friend which closed not with our customary ‘see you soon,’ but with ‘frightening world’. It’s true.
 
The less safe the world, the more it matters to work at the relationships between faiths. The Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) began amidst the worst persecution of Jews in history. Its terms were agreed in March 1942 under the chairmanship of William Temple, then nominee for Archbishop of Canterbury. Its key objectives were ‘To check and combat religious and racial intolerance’ and ‘To promote mutual understanding and goodwill between Christians and Jews in all sections of the community’. This Shabbat we are welcoming Bishop Michael Ipgrave, the current Chairman of the CCJ, to our community.
 
Later in the war Archbishop Temple addressed the Hungarian people via the BBC World Service: ‘Do your utmost to save from persecution, it may be from massacre, those who are now threatened as a result of German occupation…Help them to hide from their tormentors, help them, if possible, to escape’. If only his words had been more widely hearkened! Are we today doing as much to support the victims of religious hatred, stop persecutors, and challenge bystanders, as he did then?
 
Is religion part of the problem of collective hatred, or part of its solution? Unsurprisingly, Richard Dawkins expressed strong view on the matter.
 
One of the voices in my head agrees with him. Religion, with its ready-made pulpits, communities, preachers, and its ancient appeal to obedience, is an easy way to peddle identity. One’s onto a popular brand when one can tell people what they’re for, whom they’re against, what’s right, what’s wrong, and, with the aid of a convenient quote from Scripture, that God says so. No tool is so useful in identity creation than an enemy other.
 
The other voice disagrees. For all its flaws and susceptibility to abuse, religion is ultimately the moral and spiritual commitment to the deepest, most embracing reality. My God is never a different God from your God, though I may express my devotion in different ways. To realize God’s presence on earth, my humanity needs your humanity, just as yours needs mine.
 
It therefore matters to extend the hand of friendship and open the heart to understanding, especially in a time of a danger.

The hidden light

Before we lit the candles I asked the group around the table to introduce themselves and add a word about light. No one demurred: ‘Light is hope;’ ‘Light is inspiration;’ ‘Light is music;’ ‘Light is morning’.
 
Chanukkah is the festival of lights, (the best greetings are either simply ‘Good Chanukkah’ or the modern ‘Chag Urim Sameach’) and lights have many depths. They shine like the reflections, and reflections of reflections, of the candles of the Chanukkiah in the windows.
 
The mystics distinguish between two kinds of light, Or Olam, the light of this world, (though ‘eternal light’ is at least as good a translation) and Or Hane’elam, the hidden light. The division goes back to creation itself.  Since on the fourth day God made the sun and the moon to rule over the rhythms of time, what became of the earlier light God formed on the very first day to pierce the darkness of the void? God concealed it, the mystics answer, but not so deeply or so distantly that we are incapable of rediscovering it.
 
Each day our prayers begin with thanksgiving for the light of this world: ‘You fashion light and create darkness,’ we say in appreciation. It’s so easy to take light for granted; it’s ubiquitous as dust. But when one wakes before dawn and watches the gaps among the branches grow bright as the first birds sing; or when one stares as the light is withdrawn from between the black trees and the last birds cry – then wonder stills us and awe keeps us silent in the rushing, noisy world. At such moments we don’t pray; rather, prayer absorbs us into itself.
 
The hidden light, the light of the spirit, blesses us too. The Talmud employs the euphemism sagi nahor, ‘one of great light’, to describe someone blind, in testament to the inner light which burns within each person. The idea is probably that the blind person ‘sees’ the world by means of the inner light’s wisdom, undistracted by the ceaseless ephemera which, by making us focus on the eyes, obscure the heart’s perception.
 
But everyone is blessed with that hidden light, each of us differently according to our spirit. It is the image of God in which we are created, and it shines uniquely in every person; so that to destroy, torment or humiliate a life is to extinguish an irreplaceable portion of God’s light in this world. It is the light acclaimed in the verse from Proverbs ‘A candle of God is the human soul’. That is why my friend and colleague Arik Ascherman wrote for International Human Rights Day: ‘In my prayers today I added to the Psalms of Hallel verses beginning with the letters for “Ner HaAdam - The Light of the Human Being”.
 
We could not live without each other’s light: we’d have no companionship, no music, no poetry, no courage, no inspiration, no one to re-illumine our own light when the darkness overwhelms it. It’s as the Psalmist wrote: ‘I said “The darkness will crush me”. But the night is light round about me.’ (Psalm 139) Most often the light which makes our inner night bright again reaches us from other people.
 
This hidden light is present in all creation; it is the radiance of creative energy in all living beings. When we fail to sense it, life is just a series of transactions. When we do perceive it, life is wonder once again.
 
That is the miracle of the light which the candles of the Menorah proclaim.

Faith, light and gardens

Since I first heard my teacher Rabbi Jacobs chant them as he carried the Torah round the silent synagogue before the commencement of Kol Nidrei, the words have always sung to me – ‘Or zaru’a latzaddik, Light is sown for the righteous, joy for the upright in heart’. It’s an image both of gardening – though it was pointed out to me that light comes not in seeds to be sown but in bulbs to be planted – and of the spirit. Faith, light and gardens – it’s no wonder the verse sings to me.
 
First the light. I’m writing from Berlin. It’s not the only time I’ve been here, but I’ve never before taught Torah at the seminary. It’s a strangely moving experience. My grandfather on my mother’s side came here to study in the first decade of the twentieth century at the Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums, the more progressive of the two rabbinical colleges, before being called to the rabbinate in Frankfurt-am-Main.  I’ve read and reread his account of his student years; Wohin, wohin, he begins the chapter ‘Whither has fled the youth that once was mine.’ He and his friends called themselves ‘The band of geniuses’. ‘It was presumably beyond our ability to come up with a more modest name,’ he reflected in his autobiography some fifty years later. 
 
My great grandfather on my father’s side also studied here, in the 1880s, but at the strictly orthodox Hildesheimer Seminar. He would return to the capital city in 1928 to spend the last decade of his life teaching at his alma mater and as Av Bet Din, head of the rabbinical court, of Berlin. He died in 1937, a blessing perhaps, since his wife Regina perished in Auschwitz in the summer of 1944.
 
Gone are my ancestors and gone the Germany they loved and in which they felt so deeply at home. Yet the light of Torah and its teachings still burns. Or Haganuz, the hidden light, the mystics called it, which went underground here for so many years. But now it burns once more in the increasing revival of Jewish life.
 
Thus burns also, often hidden and in secret, the spirit which sustains humanity.  Its flame shines in the individual heart and conscience; its light is the guide to compassion even when the world is filled with the rhetoric of anger and the wounds and ruins which are the inevitable legacy of violence.
 
It is the inextinguishable nature of this light which is the miracle we celebrate on Chanukkah. Even when it seems there is nothing left to sustain it, only one small jar of oil which can last no longer than a day, it refuses to gutter and die, and neither the world not the human spirit is left entirely in the dark.
 
Now the gardens. It was a highlight of my career to host Gardener’s Question Time and speak with Chris Beardshaw on the relationship between gardens and faith. Is it the choice of Biblical plants, the creation of a peaceful and secluded place, the opportunity for solitude and solace, or the sheer wonder of growth itself which makes life flourish in a garden? Or is it the very act of planting trees, with the implied belief in a peaceful future of forests and orchards to nourish many generations?
 
It was nice to have the approval of Dan Cocker, the programme’s producer. ‘Despite the wind trying to upstage us (!) the faith garden feature we recorded in the afternoon was very meaningful. It was refreshing to consider the relationship between gardening and faith…I know it will sound wonderful.’
 
Whether seeds, bulbs, corms or tubers, I hope light will grow and shine in our world and that, in the words of the prophet Malachai, it will bear  ‘healing on its wings’ for all those hurt and wounded and far from those they love in our world of violence and turmoil.

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