Signing off on your heart

‘Set your signature on my heart’, says the lover in The Song of Songs.

We carry each other’s signatures in our hearts. Every day we write ourselves into each other’s lives and spirits.

Sometimes it happens with sudden drama, as when people fall madly in love. More often it occurs slowly, imperceptibly almost. Teacher, neighbour, colleague, friend, man at the gate, – months pass, years pass, turn unnoticed into decades. We share a hundred ordinary things, take each other for granted, like the trees along the side of the road.

When a person we know in such a way dies, we lose them, their idiosyncrasies, humour, how they liked their coffee, said ‘good morning’.

And we lose a part of our own self also. For our lives are interwound and a part of us dies with each other’s death. That is why John Donne’s words leave few untouched:

No man is an island entire of itself…Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.   Meditation XVII

Bernard Schneider died last week. If you didn’t know him, imagine a person who was always there, faithful, quiet-spoken, kind; a man with a sense of humour so dry or droll that I sometimes gave people who’d never before met him a quiet health-warning in advance; a person loyal to family, community and the Jewish religion, with an immovable commitment which not rarely suggested the words ‘stubborn’ or ‘obstinate’; a man on whom the congregation could utterly rely; a man who never lost touch with the child-part of his own soul, so that he was, until almost the end, a wonderful reader of stories, player of games, pusher of swings with his children and grand-children.

He used to approach me at the end of the synagogue service and make a gesture of turning a door knob. I would hand him my bunch of keys to the office and he would go upstairs and place some essential document in the community wedding files.

For Bernard really did write signatures of the heart. During thirty-five years he was our registrar, our senior secretary for marriages, who filled in the forms in indelible ink in the official books; held out the pen to bride, groom and witnesses; sat on the other side of the table while the photographers captured that iconic moment in which the newly-weds signed away the rest of their lives; and finally confirmed with a signature of his own that this was indeed a marriage faithfuly performed ‘according to the usages of the Jews’.

I’ve been told that Bernard officiated at three hundred weddings (including Nicky’s and mine), almost all of them after the death of his first wife, which made me realise what courage lay concealed within his humour and unflappable self-possession.

Bernard’s passing is to me and his friends not at all like his loss for his wife, children and grandchildren. My heart goes out to them.

Losses are never comparable. I cannot but think today of the shocking murder of seventeen young people and staff at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. (It’s inconceivable to me why America does not change its gun laws.) I think of all of them, their parents and families, and of the ties friends and colleagues may have with the five Jewish victims.

Sometimes our writing on each other’s hearts feels like the calm presence of a steady hand, sometimes like the reassurance of a calming caress, and sometimes like the cutting and tearing of an adze.

Our heart is full of other people. We should acknowledge them, appreciate them, thank them, share their greetings, quip back at their crazy humour, stand by them in loyalty, while they and we still can.

Can there be religious faith without justice?

This week the Torah moves us swiftly on from the great revelation at Mount Sinai to mishpatim, just laws. For at the heart of Judaism is the relationship between justice and faith.

Tyranny, cruelty, unfairness, the cynical perpetuation of inequality, are wrongs not only against our fellow human beings, but against God. This is because God, if God means anything significant to us at all, is not in the heavens, imprisoned up there in splendid isolation and irrelevance.

God’s living spirit breathes within all life, in every human being. It is therefore God’s presence on earth which is, or should be, the true preoccupation of religious life.

Faith and injustice may seem to be all too frequent companions. It is of course possible to mouth words of prayer and practise, or turn a blind eye towards, cruelty. But in truth, they are incompatible.

To seek God, to claim God’s nearness, while knowingly wronging our fellow women and men, is like turning the door handle to invite God to enter, while keeping the bolts firmly fastened. God can’t get through.

That’s why the small Hebrew letter vav, meaning ‘and’, is so powerful. The Torah passes without pause from the great revelation on Mount Sinai, ‘I am the Lord your God’, to the finer details of the laws of damages, having servants, owning sheep and cows, without more of a pause than that minimal prefix ‘and’. But this ‘and’ is vital; it connects God’s revelation on high with the most ordinary details of everyday life on this earth.

As commentators from the Talmud to modern times indicate, that ‘and’ contradicts our intuitive sense of discontinuity: What? What has religion got to do with how I let my ox behave, or whether some stranger accidentally falls into the hole I dug in a field? With how I treat outsiders? Or use abusive and humiliating language?

The answer is ‘everything’:

Rabbi Ishmael taught: ‘Just as the exalted principles come from [God at] Mount Sinai, so do the lower laws’. (Mechilta)

In fact, the lower laws may be more important. We aren’t responsible for whether there’s a God in the heavens, but we are answerable for whether God feels at home here on earth. As William Blake, passionately concerned with social injustice in the chartered streets of London wrote:

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all Heaven in a rage.

So does the mistreatment of the vulnerable, – almost always represented in the Torah by the frequent phrase ‘the stranger, the widow and the fatherless’. I don’t know of any other single sentence in the Hebrew Bible which contains three consecutive uses of the emphatic double-infinitive:

If you shall oppress and oppress them, and they then cry out, cry out to me, I shall hear, yes surely hear them’, [says God]. (Exodus 22:22)

That’s why we can’t hide behind the mantle of God’s imagined favour, if we mistreat women, let the poor go hungry, mock foreigners, leave asylum seekers to rot in loneliness and contempt and fail to protest when innocent people are attacked, imprisoned or murdered, anywhere on earth.

There is no society in the world which doesn’t have serious work to do to let God in, which does not face profound challenges of injustice. In this struggle there is no such thing as neutrality; bystanders don’t exist. We all have our hand on the door handle, to open it, or close it.

When God asks the questions

Life presents at least two major spiritual challenges. The first is: Where is God? The second is: Where is God not? The second is harder.

‘I am the Lord your God’ declares the first of the Ten Commandments, which we read in the Torah this week. To some this is life’s most unshakeable certainty. To others it’s a patent absurdity, manifestly confounded by the realities of history. To yet more it is a question, sometimes all but irrelevant, at other times urgent, piercing to the heart: ‘God, are you? God, where are you?’

I was invited to a class of seven-year-olds who’d prepared a series of questions about God: ‘Is God a person?’ ‘Is God a he or a she?’ No, I don’t think God is a person, not a he nor a she. ‘So, what is It then?’ at which point one of them mercifully chirped up with ‘God’s in everything.’

That’s what the mystics thought: ‘Leit attar panui minei – there’s no place empty of God’. God fills all space, is present in all things and transcends all things, hence the famous Dudele song of Rabbi Levi-Yitzhak of Berditschev: Only You, solely You, wherever I go it’s You’. It’s based on Yehudah Halevi’s great poem 700 years earlier: ‘God, where shall I find You? And where shall I find You not?’

The question of God is thus a matter of the sensitivity of heart and soul, rather than solely an issue addressed to the mind. Do I sense your presence, God, in my fellow human beings, in the breathing of the forest, birds, squirrels, deer? Do I hear you speak, or cry, or scream, in all creation and all destruction?

For you are the spirit, the energy, the consciousness which fills all life and all existence, always One, yet infinitely differentiated in this world of matter and substance, things, people different in innumerable ways.

That leads to the second question. It pursues us, challenges us in every true encounter.

Aren’t you there, God, in the hospital ward, the ICU, the fragility of birth, illness and dying?

Aren’t you there in the loneliness of the empty moor, bare rocks, mountains and water?

Aren’t you there in the thriving life of the woodlands, even when the chain saw cuts down the living trees?

Are you absent in this refugee, just seventeen, who fled here (Greece, Calais, London, Jerusalem) from the Sudan or Eritrea? Are you not there in those who try to care for her? And in those who are set to deport her?

These were the questions which made the prophet Jeremiah, determined to stop himself from constantly saying what no-one wanted to hear, cry out: I’m trying to be silent, but your word burns like fire in my bones.

This was the awareness which made the Psalmist sing: To you, God, silence is praise’, hearing God in the pre-articulate wonder of dawn, and at the spring where the gazelles come silently to drink.

But this leaves open the issue which bewilders us most often: So, God, what about your agency? What do you actually do? (There’s no obvious answer to the question. God’s in hiding. God is waiting; God could if God would. God used to intervene in history and shall one day again: Such explanations don’t help me. They make history seem even more unjust. They don’t take me further in God’s service.)

The answer which is most meaningful to me, which haunts and harasses me, is the counter-question: ‘And what about you?’ I believe God asks this question of us constantly, not from heaven, but from the lives of everyone we encounter, from their suffering, their joy, and above all from their needs. ‘What are you doing with the part of Me in you?’

The only true answer is what we do with our lives.

 

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