We must not be disempowered by a culture of bullying

Professor Colin Schindler, a scholar of outstanding integrity whom we are privileged to have in our community, gave a lecture in Pittsburgh last week to commemorate Kristallnacht and honour those murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue just a year ago.

He quoted Hannah Arendt’s observation that authoritarianism flourishes when there is an alliance between the elite and the mob. Those who stand in its path become targets of retribution.

Her words are astutely relevant with the rise of populist political cultures, not confined to one country or party, in which powerful leaders claim to speak better for the people than the established bodies of democracy, parliament, judiciary, a free press and a pluralist culture of honest debate. Caught in this unsubtle and bullying jingoism, those in the middle and in minorities often feel helpless and afraid.

Absorbed in these reflections, I asked a particularly engaged class of twelve-year-olds whether they thought Judaism was an ‘I can do’ or an ‘I can’t do’ religion. ‘I can do’, they all said, producing a rush of examples starting with Abraham.

Abraham is not fault-free, especially in how he treats his family. But, as we read in the Torah tomorrow, he does stand up for his values. I care about him because he pursues justice, God declares.

Just four verses later that very God is the object of Abraham’s pursuit: ‘How can you destroy the righteous alongside the wicked?’ Abraham challenges: If there are fifty, forty, even a mere ten honest people engaged in the affairs of the city then you, God, must spare the entire constituency of Sodom for their sake!

My attention is captured by the phrase ‘engaged in the affairs of the city’. It’s easy to feel there’s little we can do. But we all have a sphere of influence: our family, friends, neighbourhood, workplace, community, town. The Talmud asserts that those who have the power to exert such influence, whether over a circle as seemingly small as their own self or as wide as the entire world, but fail to do so, are held accountable for what happens within its compass.

There is little as empowering as deeply rooted values, especially if we have the solidarity of others who share them. One of my heroes, who spoke with profound conviction out of his personal experience of persecution, was Rabbi Hugo Gryn. I miss his voice, his gentle, compelling inspiration. ‘I spend much of my time fighting racism as hard as I can,’ he wrote, because ‘I know that you can only be safe in a society that practises tolerance, cherishes harmony and can celebrate difference.’

You can be a builder or a destroyer of bridges, he once told me: ‘There is a choice. Life is holy. All life, Mine and yours.’ (Chasing Shadows)

This is Interfaith Week. We can make connections with our own and other communities. We can stand together for social justice, compassion and equality, and against racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and bullying. We can create bonds with those other communities of life which we so often ignore but on which we depend for our very existence: fields, meadows, forests, insects, birds.

We can, and we must. We are not at liberty to allow ourselves to be disempowered. Limited as our influence is, we still have significant capacity to co-create the societies and the world in which we want ourselves and our children to live.

 

81 years since Kristallnacht; 30 years since the Berlin Wall

Tomorrow evening brings the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Those who bear the searing memories of Nazi terror, imprisonment and murder in Germany and Austria are now in their eighties or nineties. We wish them every strength.

For them, the date of November 9th will never mean anything other than the Night of Broken Glass. Listening to their testimony at yesterday’s service held by the Association of Jewish Refugees, seeing them stop, weep, and then continue to speak from the soul, was humbling and moving.

Yet time and history impose fresh events on familiar dates. A baby is born on the Jahrzeit of a parent, carrying into new life the name of a grandparent she never knew. A family wedding is planned for a day previously remembered as the birthday of a much-missed relative.

That has been the case with the 9th of November. This year, everyone is talking about thirty years since the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. Many of us recall the hope and fervour which that iconic break-through brought. More than any other specific event, it epitomised the end of the Cold War. East and West could hammer away stones, sing and encounter each other in freedom.

I’ve puzzled over the meaning of the juxtaposition of these two almost opposite events, seemingly brought together by mere coincidence of the calendar.

Many who lived through the rise of Nazism and the horror of Kristallnacht testified to how the absence of physical barriers added to their bewilderment:

The boys next door who used to play with me wouldn’t talk to me anymore.

‘Friends’ with whom we’d been on civil terms walked past us in the street.

I saw the man who was once my friend in Nazi uniform.

Our neighbour gave us away.

Walls are not necessarily made of stone. They can be built from the bricks of bigotry and hate and bound with the mortar of suspicion and fear. They are easily constructed; tyrants, racists, populists and liars readily find co-workers.

When ordinary people who know and like their neighbours, when courageous public figures counter prejudice and take those walls down, shadows often rebuild them in the night. Though more easily passed through than structures with watchtowers and barbed wire, the very intangibility of the barriers of prejudice and contempt make them more elusive to absolute, irrevocable deconstruction.

That is why the task of undoing bigotry remains constant and essential. We are all both empowered and required to engage in it.

It’s as easy as friendship, as simple as caring about people because we are all people. We want our children to be safe in the street, encouraged at school and have opportunities in the workplace. We want to live in a society which is cooperative, diverse, inclusive and creative. We want to care about and for each other.

But it’s also as hard as resisting the temptation in our own minds, often unscrupulously fanned from podiums, pulpits and the press, to blame, fear, label and ‘other’.

In these times of choice and uncertainty, we are all responsible for taking down the barriers of prejudice and hate.

 

Prayer that ‘lets the light into your soul’

I went outside this morning to begin my prayers among the trees. The beech has turned yellow-brown; the ash still holds its colour. The rain falls mildly, melody from thousands of leaves.

The Hasidim had a genius for creative misreading whenever they sensed an opportunity to reveal a hidden depth in Scripture. ‘Make a window in the ark,’ God tells Noah. But the Hasidic masters didn’t take the verse that way. The term for ark, tevah, can also mean ‘word’. ‘Make a window in your words,’ they therefore taught: ‘Pray in such a way that it lets the light into your soul’.

I’ve been asked to pray for many outcomes, for people in many and varied situations. I shouldn’t really say ‘people’, since last week I was asked to include a healing prayer for a cat with a broken leg. I did. It was simpler than the request which came through the synagogue office many years ago to perform an exorcism on a cat possessed by evil spirits. I didn’t. I had no idea how.

Of course, I pray for outcomes. Who wouldn’t, when someone we love is ill or in great pain, when we hear accounts of hungry children, when war threatens?

I pray now, as electioneering commences, that whatever government comes into office will be led with integrity, rule without bigotry, focus on the issues which truly matter to humanity and life, and be guided by the values of justice and compassion.

But, I believe, the essence of prayers is not asking. Rather, it is listening. I often think in terms of ‘praying with’, rather than ‘praying for’. I recall bedsides by which I’ve sat in so many of London’s hospitals, The Royal Free, Barnet General, UCH, the North London Hospice. By ‘praying with’ I don’t chiefly mean saying the words or singing a melody together. The ‘with’ is not chiefly about sharing the page in the prayer book or being in the same physical place, but rather about being together in the heart’s space. Prayer, the rabbis taught, is avodah shebalev, heart’s work. It brings our consciousness together with life; it paces it at life’s service.

That, too, is why I often prefer to pray outdoors. The birds, the leaves, the dog watching and waiting, are simplifications. ‘Echad’, they say; ‘Be at one with the oneness of God’. Except that they don’t say. There are no words; rather they, we, participate together in the quiet of the spirit which transverses all things. ‘Prayer is the life of all the worlds,’ wrote the first Chief Rabbi of what was then Mandate Palestine, Abraham Isaac haCohen Kook. I wonder if this is what he meant.

Even in a space with five hundred people one senses when such togetherness, such energy is present, in the shared melodies, in the awareness which no one articulates but everyone senses that something which transcends us fills our hearts, dispelling the petulant distractions of our busy, fussing minds.

None of this, however, is an excuse for avoiding action, a contemplative alternative to commitment on the level of doing and striving.

On the contrary, prayer leads to action. If we listen to life, hold life’s cry as well as life’s stillness in our consciousness, how can we not devote ourselves to caring and to healing?

 

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