Human Rights Shabbat and Chanukah

This weekend is Human Rights Shabbat; 2018 will bring the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Leo Baeck was the leader of German Jewry during the Nazi years. Imprisoned five times for refusing to bow to Nazi demands, he was deported to Theresienstadt in 1943. He survived. Afterwards, in one of the earliest collections of testaments, he wrote:

The principle of justice is one the whole world over. Justice is like a dike against inhumanity. If a small part breaks, the whole is threatened…An injustice to one is an injustice to all.

His words recall those of an earlier German-Jewish leader, Samson Raphael Hirsch, who warns in his commentary on the commandment not to oppress the stranger:

Beware… lest in your state you make the rights of anyone dependent on anything other than the simple fact of their humanity, which every human being possesses by virtue of being human. With any diminution of this human right, the door is thrown wide open to the whole horror of the experience in Egypt, the wilful mistreatment of other people.

Through listening to refugees, I’ve learnt how close at hand that ‘whole horror’ is. People have their homes bombed to pieces in wars pursued by leaders with utter contempt for human life. They are persecuted by regimes with brutal laws administered at the whim of tyrants. To escape with their lives, they may be forced to sell themselves to people merchants, traffickers who promise, in exchange for whatever money their hapless victims could save from the wreckage of their lives, to deliver them to a free country. Bundled into the backs of lorries, onto planes bound they may not know where, they find themselves in a strange country, bereft of family, friends, money, language, everything they had ever known.

‘Do you have family in Ethiopia?’ I eventually asked a refugee who was staying with us, not knowing what wounds I might be re-opening.

My mother and brother were murdered. I haven’t heard from my father for 12 years. He’s in prison, or killed. I don’t know.

Perhaps, like our ancestor Jacob who believed for 20 years that his beloved Joseph was dead, her heart has an inconsolable corner which she visits in tears when no one is looking.

The least we can do is to help such fellow human beings as best we can. At a session on behalf of Refugees at Home my co-speaker and I were persistently heckled: ‘Those people want to kill our children. They want to live in Kensington and Mayfair’. I’m sure that among the millions of refugees there are a very small number of terrorists. (Others are here already, developing their hideous plans) Vicious people always find ways of abusing the misery of others. We must support and pray for the success of our intelligence and security forces.

But that is no reason to pass collective judgment over all refugees. It is indescribably hard for them to create a new life. Many wait for years, a decade, for permission to remain. Meanwhile they’re not allowed to work. How should they live? This country also permits indefinite detention, in defiance of Magna Carta. The threat hangs heavy in hearts which harbour wounds most of us cannot imagine, torture, hunger, catastrophic loss.

This week brings the wonderful festival of Chanukah. The miracle it proclaims concerns not just the eight days for which a single day’s supply of oil burnt in the ruined Temple in Jerusalem 2,150 years ago. The miracle begins when, amidst the desolation, someone finds that tiny vial of pure olive oil and the decision is made to light it. Despite everything, in defiance of all violence and destruction, the light of hope and courage starts to shine.

To this day it has not been extinguished. It never shall be, if we nourish it not just through our rituals but our deeds.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem

Sha’alu shalom Yerushalayim: Pray for the peace of Jerusalem

I have two reactions to President Trump’s announcement concerning Jerusalem this week.

This ancient, beautiful city was the Jewish capital from the time of King David until its destruction by the Romans. Through almost two millennia of exile it stayed the capital of the Jewish heart, and remained the home of a poor, but enduring, Jewish community. Since 1948 it has been de facto the centre of Israeli government, containing the Knesset and the Supreme Court. I remember my father, who recalled with pain the many lives lost in trying to defend the old city in 1948, waking me in the night in June 1967 when I was a boy of ten, to tell me that the old city had been recaptured.

At the same time, I vividly recall sitting with Palestinian families in their homes in East Jerusalem, now on the other side of the wall. I can never forget the hours I spent with the CEO of the Palestinian hospital in East Jerusalem during operation Protective Edge, listening to his pain. These experiences affected me profoundly, bringing home the truth that there can be no solution which does not offer hope, opportunity, safety and dignity for all. I think too of the many friends, Muslim, Christian and Jewish, in various NGOs devoting their lives to the endeavour to create the civic groundwork for co-existence between two peoples and three religions for when a political solution is eventually achieved.

I also know that Judaism, with its many texts attesting to the integrity of its history and to its ancient presence in Jerusalem, preceding Christianity and Islam, also demands equal justice in the treatment of each and every individual person and calls upon us to act faithfully in the name of the God of all humanity.

I fear for what President Trump’s words will do in this complex balance of religion, history, emotion and politics, words for which he will not suffer the immediate consequences.

In the language of the Friday night prayers

May God spread peace over us, over all God’s people and over Jerusalem

It’s not about hate

‘Rabbi, how does one find one’s path in life?’

This was the question X asked me as we travelled together to Liverpool for his interview with the Home Office about his asylum application. He spoke of the hatred he had witnessed in the country he’d fled: ‘It’s the wrong path, isn’t it?’

I’ve spent much of my last weeks with people struggling with pain, be it from politically or religiously motivated persecution, the verbal or physical brutality of family members, or the after-effects of tragedy.

Asked by a colleague what one-word subject I wanted to talk about, I answered ‘cruelty’.

But I don’t. In a week when North Korea tests more lethal weapons, when the President of the United States gratuitously repeats hate-tweets, when violence and fear feel ever more prominent, I want to talk about the opposite. If only to myself, I want to answer X’s question on that train to Liverpool.

What are the values by which the world should be led? What, at least, are the qualities by which our own lives should be led, which we should develop in ourselves in a frightening, beautiful, inspiring world?

We need justice. For students of the Hebrew Bible this is founded on the principle that every human being is created in God’s image. Therefore, as the Mishnah declares, ‘No one may say, “My parents were greater than yours.”’ No life is intrinsically of lesser value. We may not despise or ignore the rights, hopes and sufferings of another human just because he or she is different from ourselves. Justice equally requires us to expect that they treat us likewise.

We need a listening heart. We need imagination, the capacity to think and feel what the world is like from the other person’s point of view. Where does the spiked wheel of fortune cut into his or her heart? What would bring him or her relief, joy, at least a sense of not being alone?

We need compassion. The Talmud teaches that life is unbearable for the person who tries to feel for everyone. There are limits. But it is a good daily goal to ask ourselves ‘What kindness can I do? How can I avoid giving hurt?’ If we had such an attitude towards everyone we encountered, from our own family, to our neighbour, to the blackbird on the grass, we would be far closer to Isaiah’s vision of a world where ‘they neither hurt nor destroy in all God’s holy mountain’.

We need moral courage. We are not here to tolerate every outrage. History shows that if we fail to stand up for ourselves and others in the name of truth, integrity and justice, we too will be swept away on the tide of anger or the backwash of indifference.

We need faith. The mystics teach that God is everywhere and in all things. I am less interested in the infinite God in the unfathomable reaches of the universe. I care most about the presence of God here before me, in this particular person, her gifts, opportunities and hopes. I care most about the presence of God in the birds, in the deer who drink from this river, in the God of this life around me. For it is here, in this immediacy, that God commands me to do what is just and good.

We need faith in ourselves. This is not faith in our superiority; it is not arrogant or disparaging of others. On the contrary, it is the faith that despite our failures, limitations and confusion, there is within us light and strength, hope and love which glows from the sacred source of all life.

We are not here to let our souls be echo-chambers for hate or despair, but to transform them through courage, imagination and compassion, into healing.

 

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