We have to learn more quickly

First of all, two greetings:

To our fellow community in Brussels, with whom we celebrated Purim, and to the people of Brussels and Belgium: in the face of terror we must uphold together the dignity and wonder of life, in the service of which our existence finds its meaning. The messages of solidarity we have shared strengthen us all.

To Christian friends and colleagues over Easter: may the reflection on death and the restoration of life touch us with renewed reverence for the sacred spirit which dwells in us all. May these be stirring and meaningful days.


There are three ethical foundations of faith: the sanctity of life, the pursuit of justice, and the practice of compassion. Religions have not always been faithful protectors of these imperatives. In forsaking them, they betray God, humanity and life and turn themselves into forms of self-worship and idolatry, including some of the most monstrous known to history.

In defiance of Christian values, Radovan Karadzic was declared by part of the Greek Orthodox Church in 1994 “one of the most prominent sons of our Lord working for peace”. He is far from the only war-lord in history to receive accolades from his religious leaders for their purported efforts to bring tranquility to God’s earth.

It is not the case that Karadzic doesn’t have a soul. Born in 1945 as the war ended, in a brutalized Yugoslavia full of unhealed wounds and murders not called to account. He read medicine at Sarajevo University and Columbia, becoming a psychiatrist. He published powerful poetry which records a dangerous sense of beauty and a perverted faith:

Convert to my new faith crowd
I offer you what no one has had before
I offer you inclemency and wine…
People nothing is forbidden in my faith  (For Izlet Sarajlic)

He entered politics as a promising young leader, making his home in Pale, overlooking Sarajevo. Largely Serb-populated, its people had lived alongside Muslims for generations. On 9 January 1992, the Bosnian Serb Assembly proclaimed the Republic of the Serb people of Bosnia and Herzegovina. As Head of State and Supreme Commander of the army of the Republika Srpska, he initiated the Siege of Sarajevo which lasted 44 months, among the longest and most vicious in recorded history. His forces conducted lethal campaigns of ethnic cleansing against Bosniaks and Croats, including widespread murder and rape. He had direct responsibility for the slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica.

Whoever heard the verdict against Karadzic read out yesterday in The Hague will have trembled at the listing of so many accounts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Karadzic is set to appeal. Whatever the outcome, it will not help the thousands of women who still do not know where the bodies of their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons may lie, often dismembered and disposed of in different locations, to lay their torment to rest.

I was moved, and troubled, as I listened to the judge. Humanity does in the end have power to call perpetrators – or at least some – to account. But the process is slow; justice comes too late, though better than never. The rest of their lives is too short a span to heal the wounds of the survivors. And in the interval, as we witnessed this week, more mass crimes are perpetrated.

We have to learn more quickly. We have to be better at teaching what is good and right.

Running for the dogs

I’m writing feeling somewhat achy but very moved. Since I started running it’s been my ambition to run the Jerusalem half marathon [I think that’s my maximum distance in this lifetime]. I ran with [or rather behind] my son Mossy this morning, among thousands taking part in the marathon, half marathon, 10k, 5k and various other distances.

I admit I was rather nervous at the start, but I found myself carried by the crowd, the singing at almost every corner, and above all by memories. I can’t really call it a memory, but I kept thinking of my father: what was this part of Jerusalem like when he came in 1937; was this a street with which he was familiar?

There wasn’t a road without associations from the various periods when I worked or taught here in my twenties, or where I brought Nicky and the children, or where I have precious friends. Here the artist Yehoshua Hass lived, may his memory be for a blessing; here is the railway station [sadly no longer in use] where my mother’s father arrived in 1935, by train from Cairo [with a boat across the Nile] to share the 1935 celebrations of Maimonides.

Even the last stretch went well, although I did feel rather tired. I wrongly imagined that there was still a further kilometre to go and found that I’d finished before I realised it, when someone said ‘stop running’.

Early in the week I spent a day at the Masorti kibbutz Hanaton [I always thought the name came from the Hebrew hanat – to bud or blossom; but in fact it was a place known to the ancient Egyptians, named after the Pharaoh Achnaton]. Pluralist, including secular and orthodox in the surrounding suburbs, egalitarian also, with emphases on strong Jewish learning, living in close contact with Bedouin and Arab neighbours, and relating to the earth and nature, it is the obvious place in Israel for our community to cultivate a sustained relationship [and several members are already living there…]

Rabbi Yoav Ende took me on a tour [he’s one of several scholars forming a community of serious learning]. ‘Here’s the refe’t, he explained; ‘what does Judaism have to teach about looking after cows?’ We stopped to try to identify the birds of prey hovering above the hillside opposite. ‘Here’, he showed me a valley, ‘we’re planning to plant an almond orchard’. He took me to the education centre where there are courses for young people from abroad [run by Jonny Whine] as well as a year-long pre-army programme for Israelis on Judaism, humanism and Zionism.

Rabbi Haviva Ner-David, with whom I have a special connection as we both received our rabbinical ordination from the same teacher, Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky, nero ya’ir, explained the uniqueness of the local mikveh, accessible to Jews of all denominations, as well as non-Jews who occasionally wish to use it. She is a world recognised expert on the subject.

I can see all kinds of ways we can connect with this amazing place, only recently regenerated over the last decade.

I have also seen some of the poverty and suffering, some of the harsher realities of life for different populations in Israel today. But I will keep writing about that for another time.

I’ll finish with the dogs. I’ve already made one visit to the centre for training guide dogs, and hope to be there again on Tuesday, on my way home. The thoughtfulness with which every detail is built is extraordinary; different kinds of flooring, small bumps on bannisters, signal to a blind person where a corridor begins, where there is a doorway opposite. Height barriers, beneath which they themselves can easily pass but not their humans, teach dogs to read obstacles from the point of view of their significant other. Pampered cats experience schadenfreude when the dogs are told off should they so much as attempt to chase them.

While running that half marathon to sponsor the training of those dogs, I passed a fellow runner who had his canine with him on a lead. Sorry Mitzpah [my dog, whom I left behind in London] – maybe next time.

Thoughts on International Women’s Day

Last Tuesday was International Women’s Day; Sunday is a very important day of learning for women in the Masorti Jewish community. Perhaps a man writes about women at his peril; but it’s also not right not to write.

I grew up with four women role models in the immediate family.

My mother’s mother saved the family from the Nazis. We called her Oma, but her full name was Natalie Charlotte; she was proud of being born a Caro and claimed descent from the illustrious Rabbi Joseph Caro, a heritage confirmed when she married a rabbi. When my grandfather was in Dachau, she, like tens of thousands of other Jewish women in Germany in 1938, challenged the evil powers of the state. She saw off a Nazi officer who tried to buy their home for 10 marks, entered Gestapo offices where the doors had no handle from the inside, and single-handedly repaired the telephone cut off by the secret police. It was above all her victory when the family finally reached Britain.

My father’s grandmother was not so fortunate. But I have spent years studying the letters she wrote from Czechoslovakia, from 1938 until1943, to her children around the world. Her body was eventually destroyed, but not her love, courage or faith. Her final written words were prayers.

I didn’t have the chance to know my late mother Lore very well. But her passion for poetry entered my veins nevertheless, with accounts of her academic brilliance, and her love of dance (which I did not inherit). When I got a scholarship to Cambridge I won from my grandmother the ultimate accolade: ‘You did almost as well as your mother’.

Perhaps the greatest tribute I can pay to Isca, my second mother who brought me up since the age of 5, and who has just celebrated her 93rd birthday, is that whenever we have a dinner for young people, they virtually queue to sit next to her. ‘I loved talking to your mother; she’s amazing,’ they always say. I don’t think they’re referring only to her pioneering work in psychoanalysis and great renown, but to her interest in life and people: her curiosity, engagement and sense of wonder.

I’m not even going to try to write about my wife and two daughters (and son, of course) or my wonderful mother-in-law. I am, after all, outnumbered.

I’ve always felt wrong about the ‘spare rib’ theory of the creation of woman; I was relieved when I discovered an alternative account in the Talmud. According to this reading the first human was androgynous, as the Torah says: ‘male and female did God create them’. Appreciating that the two facets of this dual being could not find companionship face to face, God separated them, one side (not ‘rib’) becoming a man, the other a woman. This apologetic does not, of course, make good the immeasurable loss caused by the overwhelming absence of women’s voices, wisdom, insight and ideas in our classic rabbinic texts, – until the modern period.

Though I grew up in a world where the leadership of all aspects of the synagogue service by men was almost unquestioned, I now feel uncomfortable in such settings unless there is a parallel egalitarian alternative, or at least a balance of options, which can be freely chosen. In the latter circumstances, I can appreciate why there are women and men for whom the long non-egalitarian tradition of Judaism feels in greater continuity with what has been familiar since childhood, with the way our grandparents prayed.

I see the future of Judaism as dependent not on discrimination between the genders but on the depth of commitment to learning, community, Jewish values and spirituality. I am glad to work in a sphere where I have both male and female colleagues and can learn from both.

Thirty years’ of pastoral life have made me deeply reluctant to label any character traits as ‘male’ or ‘female’; I’m much more inclined to think that people are people. This does not mean that everyone is the same, or that life does not bring different experiences and elicit different sensitivities, but sweeping generalisations don’t accord with what I hear and feel.

However, I have, sadly, listened to appalling accounts of brutality, bullying and betrayal, and the victims are far more often women. This outrage goes on in secret or semi-secret all around us, which is why I admire the essential work of my colleague Rabbi Lee Wax in Jewish Women’s Aid. I look with horror on the renewed subjugation women are forced to endure in many parts of the world, sometimes closer to home than we would like to think.

Equality must be an essential foundation of both our civilisation and our faith. It is rooted in Judaism’s most central, basic teachings: that all life belongs to God, that all life is sacred, and that all people are created both equal and unique, in God’s image.

‘He brought together into a community’

This week our Drop-In for Destitute Asylum Seekers celebrates its tenth anniversary. Over these years it has offered warmth, friendship, food, clothing, and legal and medical advice to thousands of people from babies to the venerable aged, rendered stateless and homeless by war and violence.

Whenever I’m at the Drop-In, I’m acutely aware that here are people whose stories I do not know, and, if I did, would not be able to fathom. I have sometimes reflected on what refugees lose, – home, family, friends, community, language, hope, capacity, financial means, respect, the daily knowledge of how to manage the thousand little things that enable one to function competently until one finds oneself cast up and cast off in an alien land. It’s not just the past which people tell me they have lost; of equal, or sometimes greater, significance is the loss of future: ‘I’m not wanted here and not needed here; don’t know where to sleep, or where to turn. I can’t even begin to create a future because I’m not allowed to work and all I want is to make a contribution, and build up my family once again.’

The suffering many people have undergone on their journeys of flight, the fear of deportation, the violence experienced directly or indirectly, – we who have lived safe lives do not have the wherewithal to comprehend such matters truly. A lady asked me years ago to pray for her children. ‘Where are they?’ I asked. She had received news from two of them, albeit they were still in danger; about the others there was only silence, in all these many months not one single word.

The Drop-In has been inspired by a deep sense of Jewish values. They derive from the injunction not to hurt, humiliate or oppress the stranger, ‘because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt,’ and, we might add, in Germany, Poland, the Middle East and many other lands. They derive from an understanding of Jewish history which commands us to transform the experience of past sufferings as the butt of society, at its margins, as its victims, as the recipients of every kind of hatred and contempt, into the urgent and irrepressible imperative to stand by, and stand up for, all others at whom such mistreatment is directed.

While the heart of support for the Drop-In is the synagogue, volunteers come from many faiths and communities and the body of people who help make the centre run represents in itself a great achievement. Perhaps it is more than fortuitous that this week’s Torah portion is Vayakhel, which means ‘He brought together into a community.’ The common purpose of creating sacred space, building a dwelling for God, brings together people of all ages and different gifts, and this itself is part of what makes the space holy. I have been moved to see volunteers from their teens to their eighties, from doctors to those who play with the children, come together to care.

I am deeply grateful to those who envisioned and founded the Drop-In and have kept it running for all these years, most especially Diane Taylor and Deborah Koder. The centre and its leaders have also provided the inspiration for other such projects established by fellow communities.

I am thankful for everyone who has in the past and will in the future take on leadership roles entailing many hours each month of devoted commitment, as well as to all who participate in and give financial support to the work of the Drop-In. It is neither a simple nor a cheap project to run and everyone’s help is greatly needed and much appreciated.

As the Drop-In marks its tenth year, the news grows more disturbing. The northern borders of Greece are being closed; people are being removed from the camp in Calais, including unaccompanied minors; and the lack of a coherent, compassionate and pragmatic response to the crisis of refugees, as well as to the crises which have made them flee their homes in the first place, is ever more deeply troubling.

Here on our door step is something practical and immediate we can and must do. The plight of many seeking asylum here, from the Congo or Cameroon, has often been passed over by the media in silence, yet they suffer no less. We can help by donating clothes and food, volunteering on the day, making a regular donation, and in offering help with housing.

As Lord Ashdown recently said, simply investing in walls and fences is never the final answer. And through walls and fences one is less likely to see the other person’s humanity, his or her tears, fears and hopes.

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