The only illegitimate choice is to do nothing

It was noisy where I was sitting with X, a professor of Jewish Studies from America, for a chat and a snack. So I thought perhaps I’d misheard when he said: ‘I understand the Germans better now’.

But I hadn’t got it wrong. I sensed at once what he meant: German people in the Hitler years weren’t the only ones to carry on with their lives and not get involved when evil was happening at – and within – their borders. We’re capable of doing that too. It’s not a pleasant thought to let into one’s mind. Of course, there are radical difference in degrees of evil, the paralysing effect of fear and, no doubt, many other factors.

‘There are children of five and under’, my friend continued, ‘separated from their parents in detention centres near the US borders, living in their own excrement. The physical and mental trauma will never go away’.

Next day I received an email from a friend, now in another country:

We have a choice to see how today’s events pan out in history. Get out there, fight for [the democracy] we have. We cannot stand quiet. Make it clear there is a side for good and a side for evil. If alternatively you prefer to get that hoped for role of Kapo in the future state where all those moaning do-gooders like me will finally shut up about all those things that annoy you (Human Rights anyone?), please defriend me.

I wouldn’t have used exactly that language (you should see some of the political comments which, as a rabbi, I left out). But I feel no less strongly.

For two thousand years our teachers have understood the danger of moral indifference. The rabbis took the Torah’s instruction ‘You may not stand idly by your brother’s blood’ as a commandment never to be a mere onlooker in the face of evil.

Evil is not endemic in our society. But it has roots, and shoots which look like growing: ignorance among the rich and comfortable of the life of the poor; hostility to ‘outsiders’ (not excluding Jews); contempt for the environment; shamelessness and disdain for truth and integrity in high places; unbridled consumerism for which our children will pay the real price.

Good is also all around us: letters and emails from organisations and individuals courageous in compassion pour through my letterbox and into my inbox. As the Torah says: the choice has been set before us.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once thought he’d spend his life as a spiritual teacher, serving ‘in the realm of privacy’. Three considerations changed his attitude. The first was the inability to sustain inner stillness in the face of what was happening around him. The second was ‘the discovery that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself’. The third was the impact of the outspoken moral courage and visceral compassion of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, on whom he wrote his PhD in Berlin, precisely as Nazism was tightening its hold on power:

There is immense silent agony in the world, and the task of man is to be a voice for the plundered poor, to prevent the desecration of the soul and the violation of the dream of honesty.

I think of these words alongside those which the biblical Mordechai passed in secret to his protegee Esther at the critical hour in their shared destiny, knowing even as he did so that it would be hard for her to act on them: ‘If you remain silent now…’

There are innumerable issues which go to the heart of justice and compassion. The only illegitimate choice is to engage with none.

 

What do Green Shabbat and Pride have in common?

I am pulled in two directions. In London, this Shabbat is Pride; it is also Green Shabbat across all UK Jewish communities as part of the capital’s Climate Action Week.

These are very different subjects and to mix them risks offending everyone. Yet, at least for me, there are deep commonalities.

I stopped for a coffee while taking Mitzpah to the dog osteopath. I sat on the grass and took out one of my favourite Hasidic works, Derekh Hamelech by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira. The book fell open at the following passage, as if the text knew exactly what I needed to read:

…Speech comes from the soul… it is only when the listener is able to understand the soul of the speaker, only when his soul is close to the speaker’s soul, that he truly hears.

The rabbi then turned to the world of nature: animals and birds understand each other, but we humans fail to comprehend them because we regard ourselves as higher beings and are not close to them in spirit. It’s not surprising, therefore, that we don’t hear

the call of all the worlds, every level of creation…crying out constantly that God is one…

I sense this ever more deeply the older I get, often to my shame: there is a great symphony of life to which we belong but to which we do not listen.

Because we refuse to heed them, we do our partners in life’s music the most terrible harm. We must learn to listen again, to the wind and water, to every living thing which sustains the life on which we too depend. We need to do so fast.

This has nothing to do with Pride. Except that I cannot be alone in appreciating that here too there needs to be a journey of listening.

When I was asked to help our community decide whether to conduct same-sex marriages, I was stopped more times than I can remember in corridors, corners, even on the underground, and the conversations almost all began like this:

Can I talk to you about how this feels to me?
I want to tell you about my daughter…
This is what happened to our close friend’s son…

I don’t want to convey the notion that the LGBTQ community is a ‘them’ for those of us who are not gay, and that we form a totally separate ‘us’. I wish to communicate something quite different. There is a symphony of life, to which we all belong. Whatever my own melody, whichever my own notes, if I disregard part of the music I both fail to appreciate its gifts and I myself am also incomplete. I would address any form of prejudice in this manner, including in myself: it hurts others, it shrinks my own heart.

I was moved by Alfie Ferguson’s poem in the leaflet prepared for the Jewish group at the UK Black Pride event, celebrating LGBTQ Jews of colour:

Who am I? Another Black soul like you, walking this earth the best way I can…
My Jewishness is me, the same as my Blackness is me, as my queerness is me.
The connection is so strong, honouring family, ancestors and pioneers.

People may think my priorities are wrong, too green, too whatever… There are many ways of describing life’s ultimate purpose. To my mind, the most important matter is to deepen and expand our hearts, to broaden and make brave our deeds, in compassion for all of life, in ceasing from hurting and striving to heal. I believe this is what serving God means. In that task I look every day for teachers and companions.

 

 

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