Standing by

‘If he was a witness and saw, or knew, but didn’t tell, then he must bear his guilt.’ (Leviticus 5:1) The verse refers to perjury or contempt of court, the failure to disclose the truth under oath. But in the context of the report on Jimmy Savile, and in the light of what we know about being passive bystanders to wrong, it rings with a much more disturbing resonance.

Evil is not overcome by doing nothing about it, let alone by telling the victim to be quiet and stop causing trouble. ‘Keep your mouth shut,’ a woman attacked by Savile was told; ‘he’s famous’.

Evil is corrosive. It devours the conscience of the perpetrator. Maimonides says that a person has up to three chances to amend their ways; after that the sin becomes so habituated and one’s moral judgement so corrupted that one loses the capacity to see wrong for wrong.

It infects those who know about it, but take no action. There are forms of moral ugliness to which we simply become habituated; we slide into compliance and they become the norm. Usually, but not always, a gradual process of coarsening takes place as increasingly objectionable forms of sexism, racism and discrimination become ‘acceptable,’ until the very soul of an institution, or entire society, is sullied and ceases to know right from wrong.

Sometimes this derives from complacent passivity. Sometimes, and far more understandably, fear induces moral cowardice; in such situations it eventually takes deep courage, to the extent of risking reputation or even life, to confront wrongdoing. But sometimes the tolerance of wrong is a form of voyeurism, a kind of: ‘I wouldn’t do it myself, but is it really so terribly bad?’ or, worse, ‘they had it coming, the scum.’

The Torah insists that we speak out in the face of wrong: ‘You must surely reprove your fellow citizen, and not bear sin on their account.’ (Leviticus 19:17) The command sounds categorical: ‘If you fail to object, you become party to the sin.’ (The rabbis also read this as a warning against causing needless humiliation: – be sensitive, even in rebuke. Perhaps this is the origin of “constructive criticism.”)

However, the Talmud (Yevamot 65b) concedes that reproof isn’t so simple:
Just as one is commanded to say what will be listened to, so one is commanded not to say what won’t be listened to.  Abba said: ‘It’s a duty [to discriminate in this manner] as Scripture says, ‘Don’t reprove a scorner lest he hate you; reprove a wise man and he’ll love you.’ (Proverbs 9:8)

In other words, there is indeed a time to keep one’s mouth shut. People can’t be expected to risk further contempt from high-ups who refuse to listen. To know how and with whom to share an uncomfortable truth is a challenge which has kept many people lying awake in the cold sweat of tormented thoughts.

On the other hand, the Talmud also says (Bava Metzia 31a)
‘You shall surely reprove:’ [I know this applies] from teacher to pupil; but [how do I know] it also applies from pupil to teacher? Because the Torah states emphatically: ‘You shall surely reprove’ – whatever the circumstances.

In other words, neither status nor station should constitute a barrier to truth expressed with due consideration.

It’s easy now to join the condemnation of the Saviles of this world, well after the event. But what forms of cruelty, injustice and denigration do we tolerate on such a regular basis that we are liable even to forget they exist, so inured have we become to their presence?


We carry names in all kinds of ways.
The Torah describes Aaron the High Priest as bearing names. Two stones are attached to the shoulders of one of his special garments, the ephod, each carved with the titles of six of the tribes of Israel. Aaron wears these ‘stones of memory…as a memorial before God’ when he enters the Temple (Exodus 28:12).  In this way he ‘carries the judgment of the Children of Israel on his heart before God at all times’ (28:30).
I found these garments and their meaning simply strange, – until I began to think of them as a kind of jewellery.
I took my grandfather’s wedding ring out of its small blue box to remind myself: it’s carved on the inside with his and my grandmother’s initials. He told me how he wore that ring every day of their almost sixty years of marriage, – except when the Nazis took it from him in Dachau.
But most of the names we carry are not born by us in physical form. They are in our memories and our hearts. We carry them chiefly out of love. They are tokens of our attachment to worlds beyond place and time. We do not cease to wear them when those we love cease to live in this world, just as that love does not stop flowing in our thoughts and feelings.
They are also symbols of our responsibility. An unnamed commentary observes that ‘the second reason Aaron wears the names [of the Children of Israel] on his shoulders as that ‘he bears them as a father carries his children on his shoulders to protect them and save them from stumbling, lest their feet trip over a stone’.
Who are the named, and the unnamed, whom we carry in our hearts? I came across the Greek word for ‘unnamed’ many times this week: agnostica, in the feminine form. It was in a clearing amidst olive groves not far from Mitilene, not far in turn from the rocky beaches where the dinghies bearing fifty or more frightened refugees were coming ashore day and night, as close as they could to where the flags and bonfires of rescuers awaited them.
These were the graves of the drowned: ‘unknown woman’, ‘unknown baby, age 3 months’, with the date of the disaster. A man named Mustafa explained that, when he learnt how many of the dead were left unburied for weeks, he took upon himself to create this small, peaceful cemetery where they could be laid to the rest they never found in their lives.
He carried their names, and the loss of their names, in his heart, together with the names of the relatives who called him from different countries to enquire: ‘Was my relative laid to rest by you? Do you know what became of him?’
Whom do we carry in our hearts? First and foremost it is those we love. Next are the names of our communities and our people. And then we carry, or should do, some of the names of those who have no one to bear or care for them on this earth. We carry them in our hearts, lest they be forgotten, lest they receive no justice, before humanity and God.

My Sinai

I see a double-world, – and am lucky, for the present, to live in the easier part.
Nicky and I spent a few days in the New Forest to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary. It was, among many things, the shared love of gardening, walking, woodlands and animals – not to mention Jewish life – which brought us together, so the forest was a fitting place to go for our special celebration. We both love being surrounded by trees. I am grateful to Nicky, and to our children Mossy, Libbi and Kadya, for the blessings of these 25 years.
Something I like is to pray outside. Harried by Mitzpah the dog, I put on my Tefillin, (covered by my anorak so as not to look odd in the unlikely event of any passers-by) shut the cottage gate behind me and stand among my minyan of beech trees and oaks while a small brook sings the service. Trees make a reliable quorum; they’re always there in ample numbers and never interrupt their quiet, vital meditations. The great trunks and canopies inspire attentive silence, while the birds with their songs, and the dog with his running and dancing, promote joy. (He even knows by now that at a certain point his human will stand still for the Amidah prayer, and stops with a yawn to wait.)
‘You are mighty forever, God; it is you who revive the dead’:  amidst this great forest of life I feel embraced in a fathomless vitality. Let it hold me, nourish me and inspire me while I live, and transform me when I die into earth and grasses and trees.
I believe this communion with a natural world of growth and wonder, decay and regeneration, is what humanity was born for. It chastens the mind and cleanses the heart, as the Psalmist says: ‘Create me a pure heart, God’. I believe, too, that not to have access to such a world is a great deprivation of the spirit, and contributes to the undermining of our moral life. We need the landscapes of our soul, the fields, paths, woods and mountains, especially those which nurtured us in childhood, in whatever part of the world we were born.
Yesterday I heard in a report from the conference of donors here in London that as many as thirteen million people inside Syria, as well as all the refugees who have fled, face displacement and disaster. ‘I had a good life before’, one woman recalled, ‘Now it’s cold in this half-built shelter of a house, and I cannot feed my family’.
The vast abomination of violence and cruelty, and similar horrors elsewhere in the globe, cry out to the humanity of each and every one of us.  We are not at liberty to rejoice in our privileges and care nothing for the searing losses which devastate the lives of others. None of us must fail to make our contribution to allaying human suffering where we can.
At our wedding, Rabbi Louis Jacobs spoke about the first words of the weekly Torah portion ‘Ve’eleh hamishpatim – And these are the laws you shall set before them’. The noun Mishpatim derives from the root meaning ‘justice’ and refers to the reasoned principles of fairness by which society must be maintained. The verse begins with ‘and’ to indicate that the great revelation of God on Mount Sinai which precedes it, with all its thunder and lightning, is as nothing if it does not lead us to conduct our lives and govern our world in accord with the rules of justice.
Like many others my personal Sinai is made of woods and hills, gardens and streams. But I realise that its inspirations are largely an indulgence if they don’t teach us to use our lives to prevent, put an end to, or ameliorate the hurts and wrongs suffered by others.

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