Standing up for truth

One short sentence sticks in my mind out of everything I’ve read this week. It comes from Timothy Snyder’s short book On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the Twentieth Century:

‘Post-truth is pre-fascism.’

The book was published in 2017, under Donald Trump’s presidency. It is a sharp warning to those who believe in civil liberties, equality, freedom, truth and justice to wake up. But it is not just relevant to the USA. It applies wherever fascist groups are on the rise, and where they already dominate, in much of Africa, in Putin’s Russia, in many Arab lands.

Snyder is a professor of history at Yale. His major field is Holocaust Studies; he wrote the much acclaimed Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. He doesn’t suggest we’re living in the 1940’s, or even the late 1930’s. But he does say we’re nearer than we like to think to that terrible cliff-edge towards which Weimar Germany tottered, slowly and ever more feebly, and over which it fell in 1933.

I’ve heard similar from my mother, and others, who remember from their childhood those frightening years in which democracy allowed itself to become weakened, fatally.

Snyder’s concise, punchy book is no lament. It’s a call to action. Pursue truth, he argues, bringing evidence of the dangers of lying from Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. Refuse to be misled; reject collective prejudice. Avoid the Facebook bubble; seek out facts; read proper print. Engage in civil society; meet others who’re doing the same. Don’t be silent. Don’t do the easy thing; don’t hide behind the convenient vestige of conformity. If you do, you’ll find yourself conforming to actions you truly ought to loathe.

His argument is familiar from ancient Jewish sources. ‘Acquire truth and do not sell it’ is a saying of King Solomon (Proverbs 23;23). But is truth saleable? Isn’t it really ourselves we sell when we abandon truth, handing over our souls to the marketplace of lies and prejudice?

This week’s Torah reading is a discourse about sacrifices. One of them is an atonement offering for failing to be truthful, for swearing falsely, lying, and perjury.

The rabbis of the Mishnah were aware that life can seem simpler if one doesn’t get involved. ‘Should you say: “Why should I get caught up in all this bother?” you’ve been told [in the Torah] “If you are a witness, if you see or know, but fail to tell…”

Post-truth makes aiders and abetters of those who fail to stand up for honesty. Passivity is the ally of oppression. The failure to fight for human dignity, justice and compassion turns us into accomplices of prejudice and tyranny.

I write so strongly because I am afraid, of Isis and Islamism; of Putin’s Russia; of the rise of the far right in Europe; of Trump’s way of doing politics, his apparent contempt for the environment, human and natural; and, yes of the possible consequences of leaving an EU which has kept its member states from war for seventy years.

Truth, integrity, freedom and human dignity are inter-dependent. We’re on the threshold of Passover, The Season of our Freedom: if we believe in freedom across the face of the earth, we must stand up for it.

Vigil at Trafalgar Square

Last night I joined the vigil at Trafalgar Square. I stood with people of all ages, walks of life and faiths.

Three feelings were expressed.

First, there was sorrow for PC Keith Palmer, Aysha Frade, Kurt Cochran and their families, and concern for all the wounded. They had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Had our El Al flight back from Tel Aviv not circled for forty minutes before being given clearance to land at Heathrow, Nicky would have been crossing Westminster Bridge at exactly 2.30. It’s a reminder that we are all here by the grace of God and none of us knows what tomorrow may bring.

I hope that somehow, in the secret way in which thoughts travel, our prayers for the strength, consolation and healing of the wounded and bereaved will remain with them and their families in the challenging months when the papers have long been filled with other headlines.

Secondly, there was deep appreciation for the courage of the police and the skilled compassion of the emergency services. I made a point of thanking some of the many police-men and -women I passed as I walked from the tube station to the square. It’s easy to take for granted the risks others take on our behalf and the care with which they serve us. As a community rabbi, I often see ambulance crews at work and have almost always been moved by their humanity and professionalism.

Thirdly, and most profoundly, there was an embracing sense of solidarity. As the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said:

We stand together in the face of those who seek to harm us and destroy our way of life. We always have and we always will.

I’ve asked myself what the terrorist murderer saw in front of his eyes when he drove his car into a crowd of holiday-makers, parents collecting their children from school, people on their way to meetings. What did the driver of the lorry in Nice see, or the perpetrator of any such outrage, anywhere? What possesses their minds to turn fellow human beings into enemies and dirt in their eyes? There are answers to these questions, doctrines of hate, propagandists of evil…

But they are not the issues which interest me most deeply. What really engages me is the question of what those people see, here in London and anywhere in the world, who rush to help, who show no fear, who try to heal, who offer comfort and encouragement. I don’t expect they ask themselves anything at the time; they simply follow their intuition and their hearts.

Earlier this week I was with a friend and colleague in Israel whose daughter was badly burnt in a freak fire. Thank God, she is recovering. ‘It was terrible’, he said. ‘And’, he continued, ‘It was inspiring’. Noticing my perplexity, he added: ‘The total devotion of the nurses, social workers, doctors, whether Arab, Druse or Jewish, – it was humbling, it was wonderful.’

I love my Jewish faith. But I don’t find God just in creeds. In this remarkable, beautiful, cruel world, in one another and our hopes and dreams and needs, in our toughness and our vulnerability, there the living God awaits us, always.

Attack in Westminster

An attack on Westminster is an attack against liberty and democracy themselves.

It concerns us all.

Our thoughts are with the families of PC Keith Palmer and the others who were so cruelly and randomly murdered. We pray for the swift healing of all who were injured.

We must never take for granted the bravery of the police and the skill and care of the emergency services, who responded with such courage.

Such cruel and violent attacks, which have taken place in such vile ways in many of the capitals of Europe, must not undermine our commitment to life, freedom and the values of humanity and compassion.

Jonathan Wittenberg

Learning from what we can’t do

There are important lessons to be learnt through what we can do.

There are very important lessons in life to learn from what we can’t do.

I’ve never been super-confident and often spend time thinking about what I have, or might have, done wrong. Running has therefore been really good for me. I’ve found that, to balance my work as a community rabbi, which is a great privilege, but not a role in which one can ever truly know what one has or has not achieved, I’ve found that I like doing things the results of which are immediately visible: gardening, wood work, running.

It was one of the highlights of my life to run the half-marathon with (or rather behind) my son Mossy in Jerusalem this time last year. The day still glows in my thoughts; I could tell you what I did every hour.

It’s hurt, even more emotionally than physically, to have sustained an injury to my back so that I am unable to join him in the whole marathon this year. We cheered each other on through extensive training. Now I shall cheer him on from the side-lines, and give him a huge ‘congratulations’ hug at the end.

I could have chosen not to come to Jerusalem, not to expose myself to seeing the flags and banners and kilometre signs everywhere knowing that I’ll be thinking ‘but just last year…’. However, I felt that such a decision would mean not only letting down Mossy, but letting myself down as well. It would be cowardly not to face what I have to learn from what I can’t do at the moment.

I told friends in Israel how gutted I felt at being to run and that I needed something else worthwhile to do on the day. They put me in touch with Shalva, an extraordinary centre for children with disabilities (which has such wonderful facilities that all kinds of people want to use them, a new form of inverse inclusion). ‘You can help by supporting us with our 800 metre run for disabled and terminally ill children’, they told me. So that’s what I’ll be trying to do tomorrow.

There are much more profound ‘can’t do’s’ for very many people than a temporary pause in their running.

I met the young man whose parents were the motivating force behind the creation of Shalva. He’s deaf, blind and in a wheelchair. He exudes a palpable enthusiasm for life. I learnt that: he’s been to London and met Gordon Brown, and wants to come back again; that one day a week he helps organise an aspect of Israel’s Route Six (I didn’t quite grasp in what way); and that, most importantly, he has an exceptionally discriminating palate and works another day a week as a wine-taster. I’m sure, though, he must have his down-days too, and that they must be lonely and hard. But what a list of achievements! (With the exception of his love for Donald Trump.)

What we can do is enormously important, especially by way of kindness, moral courage, justice and human solidarity. There’s always far more that we can do, and should do in life.

But wisdom is also the product of absorbing the frustration of what we can never do, or used to do but no longer can, or want to have but cannot any more, and transforming it into insight and compassion, – or at least trying to do so.

There are many people who have to struggle with this question in the most profound and challenging way, not just in connection with a run. Or perhaps this is something we must all encounter, at different times and in varying manners, at some of the deepest moments of our lives.

And ‘Next Year in Jerusalem! At least 22.1, if not the full 42.2, kilometres of it!



We can’t afford to be silent

I wish Purim was not becoming more relevant every year.

Its story unfolds in an amoral world. On the surface, that may not seem ugly; there are halls with bright tapestries, gold drinking vessels, parties unending and beautiful women.

But not far beneath lies the lust for power and domination, the appeal to racism, hatred, and the subjugation of women. The king and his ministers aren’t interested in justice, and fair, transparent government. Advancement is gained not by merit and goodness but by cunning and manipulation.

Underneath that lies a profound insecurity: there are plots all around. Not even the king can be sure of his power. That’s why the vain, self-obsessed and unscrupulous Haman can persuade him so easily:

There is a certain people. They’re everywhere in your kingdom. They have their own rules; they don’t follow yours. It’s a grave mistake to tolerate them. And, by the way, they’re rich. (based on Esther 3:8-9)

We were that people, then, and often in history since. But it’s not just the Jews; wherever justice and equality are absent, wherever fear and racism rule, there are many victims.

That is why we are required to remember the world of the Megillah; and never to forget the power of evil. Indeed, the Shabbat before Purim is specifically called Shabbat Zachor ‘The Shabbat of “Memory”.

There are two levels to this ‘memory’.

The first is historical. We are not to forget the evil Amalek wrought on us by attacking us from behind when we left Egypt and killing the old and the weak, nor what Amalek’s descendant, Haman, tried to do in Persia by persuading the king to kill all the Jews.

It is essential to understand that Amalek no longer refers to any specific nation. Almost two thousand years ago, the rabbis of the Talmud already affirmed that the people Amalek had ceased to exist. Amalek represents the principle of hatred. Wherever one group of human beings is maltreated by another, wherever there is inequality and injustice, wherever xenophobia infects a people unchecked, there Amalek is too.

We forget this at our peril.

The second level of ‘memory’ is more personal. It concerns not the past, but the present. In this sense, to remember is to recall our deepest selves, created with a conscience aware of justice and a heart aware of love. It is about behaving as a true human being.

‘Sorry, I forgot myself’ is a familiar excuse. Many things can make us lose our better selves: anger, envy, petulance, fear. Some such emotions rise up from inside us. Others are incited from without, when we go along with the crowd. When we come back to ourselves, we feel shame.

I read about a young woman, caught after the North London riots. She’d never smashed a shop window or looted before. She’d always been good. Now she had a custodial sentence. ‘How did I allow myself to do that?’ she wondered. I felt for her; it’s easy to lose ourselves, hard to stay true to whom we truly are.

Yet precisely in today’s world, which feels more insecure, more unjust, more about displays of power, we must remember both our history and our deepest nature.

We are not here on earth to manipulate others, promulgate prejudice and succumb to hatred and greed. We are here, in God’s image, to seek justice and mercy for all.

Perhaps the most important words in the entire Purim story are those Mordechai conveys to Esther, his niece: You can’t be silent now. We can’t afford to be silent, ever.

Why we need sanctuary

‘They will make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them’ (Exodus 25:8). These words come near the opening of the long section of the Torah devoted to the building of the Tabernacle which travelled with the Children of Israel through the wilderness. Over the subsequent millennia they have come to mean far more, to express our need for safe spaces in our world, countries, cities and souls.

Since childhood I’ve always been excited when I see a road sign with the words ‘animal sanctuary’. I doubt if the animals fortunate to find respite there offer oblations to the divinity and spend their days in contemplative meditation. Rather, the few square miles are a place of refuge from hunting, predation by humans, and the slow, seemingly unstoppable retraction of their natural habitats of meadow, and woodland, valleys and rivers. Just as the animals need sanctuary from us, we, too, seek sanctuary from the noise, pressure and remorseless demand for ‘more, more’, which characterise so much of modern civilisation. Animal sanctuaries are also soul sanctuaries, where bird song brings healing and the sounds of the small streams are meditations.

Sanctuary cities are not dissimilar in concept. They offer refuge to humans seeking safety from violence and persecution. As the sanctuary city movement in the UK writes: “We believe the ‘sanctuary message’ of welcome and inclusion is needed in all spheres of society and as such we are committed to helping schools, universities, health and maternity services, theatres and arts centres, churches and other faith centres, sports, communities, businesses and homes become ‘places of sanctuary’”. Sanctuary cities are not there, as their opponents have claimed, especially recently in the USA, as safe havens for criminals. Judaism condemns the notion of any refuge from justice for murderers and the perpetrators of evil. They exist to allow communities to come together in harmony, and refugees to rebuild shattered lives.

Places of sanctuary, synagogues, churches, mosques, temples, perhaps we should add libraries, offer calm and quiet in a turbulent world. They allow us to find the self and soul we so easily lose in the ceaseless chase to catch up with our daily commitments. They enable us to listen to our own heart and, within it, to hear the voice, or silence, of God’s presence. How I wish there were no such thing as security concerns and our synagogue could be open day and night to offer hot soup for the body, and music and silence for the spirit!

A heart of sanctuary is a place which exists within us all. The challenge for each of us is not to create it; it’s already present inside us. The challenge is to find our way back to it. When people come to talk to me in times of trouble, when I try to listen to myself in my own hours of trouble, I often find myself asking the question: ‘What brings you solace?’ Maybe it is music, or walking among trees, or meditating on the name of God, or a quiet conversation with a friend, or yoga, or the study of Torah, or rereading a favourite poem. ‘Do it’, I say to people. ‘However much pressure you are under, don’t starve yourself of whatever it is which nourishes your own soul’. (I hope others listen to me better than I listen to myself).

That, to me, is what prayer is for: to bring my consciousness back from a hundred frets and engagements, to let it settle in my heart, to listen. For in the heart is a stairwell down to a well of water. That water is inexhaustible and unfathomable, because it flows from the fountain of being which has its source in God. It never fails; it never dries up. As the Torah says ‘I shall dwell within them’, which mean that God dwells within each and every human being, and within all life.

We need sanctuaries to know the world and its wonder, to know and care for each other as different peoples and faiths, to know ourselves, and to know God.

From such sanctuaries, blessing always flows. It may not change the course of events in the way we would most wish; it cannot prevent us from being vulnerable and mortal. But it always has the power to transform us through loving-kindness, and guide us with wisdom.

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