After the Referendum

Following the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, our country faces an uncertain and testing time. Whichever way we voted, none of us wants to see Britain’s long and remarkable democratic process stall or witness the decline of our country. None of us want to see the far right gain power either here or anywhere in Europe. We all share prayers for the wellbeing of our state.

This is therefore a time to strengthen our commitment to honest discussion, truthful debate and the creation of an integrated and just society free from hatred and xenophobia.

It is not a moment to fall silent or take a step back, but to affirm our values and commitments.

We should not stand idly by when any group or individual is targeted by racist rhetoric or violence. We should come to their support, and be seen to do so.

We should not countenance a culture of disrespect for experts, intellectuals and those who endeavour to exercise leadership in any sphere with honesty and integrity.

We should beware of implicitly condoning dishonesty or racism in any leaders or media figures, with platitudes such as ‘it’s not against us’ or ‘they don’t really mean it’.

We should speak warmly to those in the community around us who may feel rejected, those who were born here, have lived here for a decade, were invited to work in this country, and who now experience their status as insecure and feel they have been told they are not wanted.

We should work across our communities to strengthen our relationships with our neighbours of all faiths or none.

We should be attentive to those who don’t have privileges and opportunities we take for granted, be concerned about the many parts of the country which have suffered economic neglect, and engage actively for a more just, compassionate and inclusive society.

If we have family or friends who voted differently from ourselves and with whom we now find ourselves struggling to communicate, we should try to listen to one another and affirm the common values we still share.

We should respect the process of reasoned debate and the plurality of views.

May God guide us, our country and Europe at this difficult time.

After the vote

It’s not long after dawn. Birds in the garden are singing, and over the radio voices are crowing which make me afraid and depressed. Beyond Britain, yesterday’s vote is a terrible signal to Putin and Le Pen, perhaps even to Donald Trump. The Leave victory is doubtless about many kinds of division in society besides those over Europe. I fear it contains within it many votes against diversity, against refugees, against the other, whoever that may be, and we as Jews have much experience of that. No doubt the remainers are seen by the leavers as having ‘others’ of their own, to whose needs they have been felt to be deaf. That’s very likely why Remain lost.

My only heroes of this horrid campaign are Jo Cox and her family, may God be with them; but I wish Jo was less well known for the heroic person she was, and alive and with her children this day.

I fear that the winter of peoples’ discontents will become the summer and autumn of greater discontents, and I’m troubled by some of those waiting in the wings of the stages of British and Continental politics, now that the lights are inviting them to enter and declaim.

I was lucky yesterday; I was knocked off my bike and fortunate not to be injured. For the rest of the day I was slightly shaking, and kept thanking God in my head. But I was well enough to go running and I took as my meditation Moses’s short prayer for his sister: ‘Please God, heal her please’. This is partly because the man who came to help me turned out to be starting a charity to help young people who had suffered breaks in their education because of cancer, as he himself had done. He’s one of the nicest and best people I’ve ever met. I kept thinking that God and destiny had made a special meeting out of a traffic accident.

So I ran several kilometres with those words ‘Please God, heal her please’ setting the pace for my feet. I’d be glad if they set the rhythm for my life; no other single sentence is so germane to my calling. How often I wish I could bring healing.

Time and again, I wish I could bring more healing to those who turn to me to seek strength for their spirit and comfort for their heart when they’re distraught, frightened or filled with grief.

But I also have in mind other kinds of healing in a far wider context.

My great inspiration is that all around me I find healers. I’m not thinking solely of nurses and doctors, though during the night I retweeted a message by a co-founder of HelpRefugeesUk:

‘EU nurses, carers, teachers, workers over here – I’m so ashamed of the message this is sending u. Pls know, so many of us value u so much’

I’m thinking of those who begin to heal the wounds of people who’ve fled their homes, seen their family killed. I’m thinking of those who feel for the injuries of the homeless and stateless, and who bring them into their own homes.

I’m thinking of healing between people of different faiths, whose knowledge about one another is so often mediated not by personal relationships and friendships but by the narratives and insinuations of suspicion and distrust, and the short, sharp, cruelty of social media.

I’m thinking of those who try to heal political rifts and rivalries, especially at a time when it feels as if more and more of the world is trying to exacerbate them.

I know, though days of rancour may well lie ahead, that what matters most now is healing, wherever it is possible. The vote is the vote now; the counting is pretty much over. We need to be with those who seek to heal whatever wounds in our society, country, continent and world we can most effectively address

‘Don’t stand idly by’

This has all happened in the very week when we were rejoicing on the festival of the Giving of the Torah, the Torah of life, the Torah of which the central image is the Tree of Life and whose core teaching is that ‘you shall live by them’, by commandments and values which promote justice, compassion and dignity.

I am utterly shocked by the murder of Jo Cox MP. When a member of parliament is murdered, democracy itself is under attack. The noun democracy is composed of two Greek words, demos – people, and kratos – rule: thus, when democracy is attacked in such a violent and lawless manner every single person, together with freedom itself, suffers assault.

I am horrified by the slaughter in Orlando. When a gunman kills 49 people and injures many others at a gay nightclub, whether motivated by homophobia, the violent creed of ISIS, or both, human society and solidarity themselves are under threat. Such crimes, facilitated by too ready access to guns, are an abomination.

It is not enough to condemn this exceptionally sadistic crime in general terms. As in attacks against Jews, gypsies, or any other group, especially a group which has good reason to feel vulnerable, the nature of the crime and the identity of the victims must clearly be spelled out. Pastor Niemoller’s much-quoted warning came too late to save us from Nazism, but it is apposite now:

    First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews…

We can all add the apposite new lines… However, the reason for solidarity is not primarily because ‘they’ll come for us next’. It is a basic human responsibility towards the vulnerable, towards those who are part of the same society as we are, to those whose lives we care about and for whose dignity we must stand up. That is why I hope if practicable to walk however many miles it proves to be to join London’s Gay Pride after services next Shabbat (and I almost never join parades and always feel out of place).

When it is felt legitimate to use the rhetoric of incitement against refugees, – that is, against people many of whom have watched their closest family killed, their homes destroyed and their children hungry and terrified, – then the very notion of what it is to be a human being, conscience and compassion themselves, are under threat.

On all of these matters the Torah has one over-riding, simple, clear instruction: ‘Don’t stand idly by’. Don’t say, ‘It’s not me’. Don’t say, ‘Others are the victims’. Don’t do nothing.

Yet it’s not in the end because of the group they belong to or the public office they hold that our hearts are heavy with these horrors. It’s because those who were killed and those who now suffer are human beings, somebody’s child, parent, partner, colleague, friend. I keep thinking about the words of Jo Cox’s husband Brendan:

Today is the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. More difficult, more painful, less joyful, less full of love…

She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her.

We are not empowered to put the love back into the world which has been stolen by murder; we can’t replace that unique tenderness, thoughtfulness, moral passion, loving concern.

But let us please all put something kind, good and loving back onto this sore-hearted earth.

Greetings on the official birthday of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Throughout her long reign, Her Majesty has with untiring dedication represented the ideals of service and responsibility in this country and across the world, in innumerable public duties, and through devotion to charity, faith and peace.

These values have enabled Jews, alongside those of all faiths, to create communities, practise our religion and contribute to every aspect of life in this land in an environment of freedom and equality. Such opportunities must never be taken for granted.

We have profound reason to be grateful to Her Majesty the Queen, and to the government of this country.

May Her Majesty be blessed with many years of health, happiness and peace.

Torat Chesed: The Torah of Loving-Kindness

The words ‘veTorat chesed al leshonah, the Torah of loving-kindness is on her tongue,’ keep going round my mind. Maybe it’s because I was asked to respond to Pope Francis’s letter on mercy, which resulted in a stirring Jewish-Christian conversation last night on the meaning of love, justice and forgiveness in our faiths.

Or maybe it’s because there just isn’t enough loving-kindness in the world. I think of Professor Michael Feige, killed in the vile terror attack in Tel Aviv on Wednesday night. He was a friend of members of our community, a scholar in the field of Israel Studies, and known to all as a gentle and sensitive teacher. May his memory, together with the memories of all the victims, be for a blessing. May God bring peace.

The phrase Torat Chesed is also on my mind because we’re at the threshold of Shavuot, the festival which celebrates our relationship with the Torah, a bond not simply of acceptance, but of love. When I hold the Torah I sometimes feel I’m being held by all who’ve loved Torah, studied it, lived by it, even died by it throughout the ages. This Torah is a Torah of stories, of laws, of values, but at heart it is above all a Torah of loving-kindness.

Chesed, loving-kindness, vies with Tzedakah, the implementation of social justice, as the most important word in the language of Judaism, of religious values overall.

I had two discussions with teenagers this week about if and where God talks. One said she didn’t know if she really believed in God, but sometimes she sensed something speak in her heart. That spoke to me.

The God I believe in, the God who in my best moments I too hear in my heart, inhabits all life. This is not a ‘soft’ version of God, an enfeebled God who can’t command. On the contrary, God commands from all of life: don’t hurt, don’t ignore, don’t be selfish. Don’t live under the illusion that you own life and can do what you feel like. Listen, and be chastened by the bonds of love and partnership which bind you to all things.

This, I believe, is the God who spoke at Sinai, and speaks always; this is the root of all the commandments which teach us to create sacred community, act with loving kindness and justice, and discipline our body and spirit to serve the Most Deep, the Most High.

I had a letter from a new friend, Adam Bucko, a spiritual teacher and priest in training who’s worked for years among homeless children in New York. At 3.00am he was out trying to protect street children from the pimps and drug-mules who ruin their lives, and to bring them instead into the centre he created with his friends to care for them and give them a future. He heard a crazy preacher screaming: ‘Where’s God? Where’s God? Where’s God?’ My God is here on the street with those children, he realised.

This reminded me of the words of Nachmanides (1194 -1270, one of my favourite rabbinic figures: ‘[Throughout history God says] I see the tears of the oppressed who have no one to comfort them, and power lies in the hands of their oppressors, and I protect every human being from the hands of those stronger than them’. He was thinking of the stranger, the refugee and the orphan, the street child.

Judaism speaks of the partnership of God and humanity. God works through us in this world. It’s a bond of both vulnerability and mutual strength. When nothing speaks in our heart, when we can’t hear God’s voice, or the echo of that voice, or even how others we trust have intuited that voice, and we feel alone and purposeless, then God’s dreams are – temporarily – abandoned.

But that moment we do hear God speak through all life, any life, our spirit is strengthened, our own life finds new meaning, and the longing for tzedakah va’chesed, righteousness and loving-kindness, finds new hands in this world to bring them into the reality of the hungry, the vulnerable, or the lonely.

To hear that voice is to receive the Torah, whose deepest language is chesed, the teaching of loving-kindness.

‘Peace with security’

‘Peace with security,’ these words are so painfully familiar, that I had never realised that the first time we see them together is in this week’s Torah portion: ‘You shall dwell securely in your land; and I shall make peace’. (Vayikra 26:5,6)

Security is a most serious matter, sadly. I feel better if my bags are searched when I enter a large public building. Since the terror attacks is Paris one senses a different attitude to the police at Central London stations; one’s glad to see them. We ourselves need more help with voluntary security duties in front of our synagogue (and this is volunteer week).

The security of nations is equally essential, as we know all too well in regard to our worries about Israel. Security in this context means not just the challenging capacity to defend borders, but the ability to govern in such a way as allows the population, and the land itself, to feel safe, productive and prosperous. We should therefore pray for the security of Syria too.

But, while ‘secure’ is a fair translation, the Hebrew betach has a very different resonance in the Bible. It signifies security based on trust in God, divine protection merited by performing God’s will. That’s why in rabbinic literature bitachon means not ‘security’ but ‘faith’. This, alone, is the ultimate source of peace.

We might quarrel with such an idea. After all, it’s failed the reality test: many people have placed their faith in God, only to be murdered by their former neighbours. In the realpolitik of this world, we need more practical forms of protection too.

Yet, though you may say the Torah is a dreamer, the dream is profound. It’s a dream connected especially to the practice of the Sabbatical, the culminating year of the septennial cycle, when the earth itself must rest. For those twelve months ‘our’ land ceases to be ‘ours’ in the usual sense. Gates must be opened so that rich and poor, refugee as well as citizen, and both wild and domestic animals, can freely share the produce of the land, while the only form of trespass would be a sign saying ‘Private; No Access’.

This too has largely failed the reality test. But not the idea behind it. For within this dream, or truth, that the earth ultimately belongs to God lies the awareness that for any land to merit peace its population must provide for the needs and sensitivities of all who live off it. Only one voice is ultimately entitled to say ‘Mine!’ and that voice belongs to God.

This Sunday is Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day. I was nine years old during the Six Day War; I vividly remember how my father, who had been in the Hagannah during the siege of Jerusalem, woke me up to explain that the Old City was once again in Jewish hands.

If the city is truly to be as the Psalmist envisaged, ‘ir shechubrah lah yachdav, a city united all together’, this will depend on deep sensitivity to the needs of all its populations and faith groups, by all its populations and faith groups. The same applies, in macrocosm, to the earth itself.

Together with many Israeli organisations, Noam* and other youth movements have been concerned that celebrations of Yom Yerushalayim are conducted with such sensitivity. It’s an important moment, as Ramadan begins on Sunday night. Jerusalem is, and has been for thousands of years, central to Jewish history, geography and faith; we pray that it may be as its name indicates, a true city of peace.

I wish our Muslim neighbours here in Britain Ramadan Mubarak, a blessed Ramadan. I hope that these weeks enable us to deepen our sensitivity towards each other, because cities, like land, belong in the final analysis only to God and it is in the awareness of our shared trusteeship of God’s world that our hopes of peace and security ultimately reside.


*Noam is one of the Youth Movements that have signed a letter to change the route of the Yom Yerushalayim march.

  • Click here to read an article in The Jewish News.
  • Click here to listen to a New Israel Fund Podcast featuring Noam movement worker, Dan Eisenberg.

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