On Judaism, government and civil disobedience

Last week something happened in the synagogue which I had never heard before. People laughed during the prayer for the government of the country.

Someone asked me ‘How long does one go on saying that prayer?’ I’m sure he wasn’t thinking about the Queen, whose devotion to public service is justly admired, but of certain members of Her Majesty’s Parliament whose wisdom and statesmanship are equally justly doubted.

There have been worse periods in history. One has only to think of the lines from Fiddler on the Roof: God bless the Czar and keep him – far from us.’ Nor, as we know, was the Czar the worst of tyrants.

Still, these are anxious times. Leonard Cohen famously sung that it’s through the cracks of imperfection that the light gets in. But it’s also true that through the cracks in democracy populism, corruption, deceit and tyranny get in.

This is a price the world cannot afford. When, as the New Year prayers aptly and frighteningly say ‘the earth hangs over the void’ and climate change places destiny of life itself in the balance, we need leadership.

Therefore, our prayers, which are addressed not to the wellbeing of specific public figures but to the very principle and practice of just and compassionate government, are all the more important.

The Jewish tradition of praying for our rulers is ancient. It begins with the pacts Abraham and Isaac make with local leaders. In the 6th century BCE, in a missive which must have shocked his contemporaries in beleaguered Judaea, Jeremiah instructs the exiles in Babylon to pray for the wellbeing of the cities to which they have been deported and where they must now rebuild their lives. Though well aware of the brutal side to Roman rule, in the 2nd century CE Rabbi Hanina directed his colleagues to ‘pray for the wellbeing of the government, because, were it not for the fear of its authority, people would swallow each other alive.’ (Mishnah, Avot 3:2) He comes close to Thomas Hobbes’s warning at the close of Leviathan that without a social contract life would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.

As for us, privileged above virtually all other generations in history to live in an open democracy, we have a responsibility not only to pray for good governance, but also to hold our government to account.

Therefore it is important to know that there is an equally ancient tradition in Judaism of civil disobedience. It begins among women: the midwives in Egypt refused to obey Pharaoh’s command to kill all the male Hebrew babies. Moses conducted what may be regarded as the most successful strikes in history. He did so in the name of dignity and equality, sacred values which, then and ever since, God has commanded us to uphold towards every person, everywhere. Rabbi Akiva refused to stop teaching Torah during the Roman persecutions of the second century, paying for his dedication with his life. I imagine the spirits of these women and men walking invisibly alongside Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel in Selma, Alabama.

However, it should not be concluded that Judaism advocates defiance, let alone anarchy; time and again it emphasises the importance of justice and – compassionate – law.

But there is something higher than fear of the powers-that-be: Yirat Shamayim, Fear of Heaven, awe before the presence of God, and the consequent commandment not to comply in silence with what is unjust, cruel and destructive.

Asked about the legitimacy of civil disobedience, Martin Buber wrote in 1963:

I know no other answer than that disobedience of this nature is legitimate when it is in fact obedience, obedience to a law superior to that which is being disobeyed here and now – in a word, when it is obedience to the supreme law.

As to when such disobedience is justified in specific situations, there are, he said, no general rules.

Climate Action Week begins today. I plan to participate in an interfaith service later today.

The climate emergency may lead to situations which warrant peaceful civil disobedience for the sake of specific, well thought-through goals. There can be no higher cause calling for disinterested commitment than the future of God’s world and the lives of the world’s children.

What is certainly not merely warranted, but commanded, is that we hold our leaders in government, industry, finance, religion, law and the media to account unless we do our utmost for the collective future of life.

 

 

Pretending we didn’t notice

I was out for a practice run for next Sunday’s marathon when I saw behind an archway a homeless man sitting next to his sleeping bag, a cardboard cup in his hand. I had no money on me; I didn’t stop. But I saw him see me and felt I could I hear him think, ‘Another person who pretends I don’t exist.’

Tomorrow we encounter one of the most important words in the Hebrew Bible. It appears twice in the same section and nowhere else in the entire Torah: lehitaleim, to hide oneself away, to pretend one hasn’t noticed. ‘You may not do that’, the Torah insists: you are not at liberty to turn a blind eye.

The context is animals: You mustn’t see your brother’s ox or sheep astray and carry on as if you hadn’t noticed; you mustn’t find his lost donkey and act as if you never saw.

Perhaps we are tempted to think ‘it’s only animals’, an unpardonable excuse given the wanton cruelty our civilisation habitually inflicts on them, with meagre pity and remorse. If so, Isaiah puts us right, in a passage given prime time on Yom Kippur morning:

If you see the hungry, feed them; the naked, clothe them; the oppressed, free them. Do not hide from your own flesh.

If we’re inclined to say to ourselves, ‘But it’s their flesh, not mine. I’m OK’, we should bear in mind Shylock’s masterful summary of what common humanity means: ‘If they prick us, do we not bleed?’

Lehitaleim is a gripping term, a reflexive verb formed from the root a.l.m, hidden, which also gives us the noun olam, the rabbinic Hebrew for ‘world’. We live in a universe of concealment, the mystics insisted, and the art is to learn to see.

Some things, it must be said, are obvious; they ‘stare you in the face’: a lost animal, lost child, refugee, the lost mobility of someone who can’t get into the building, or bathroom, because there’s no proper access. In such cases the Torah insists that we may not pretend we didn’t notice.

Other matters are less apparent. I’ve often had the privilege of being in the company of people who truly see, – and deeply:

‘Did you notice how exhausted she looked? She always makes light of what she has on her shoulders. But…’

‘He was smiling. But he looked so pale…’

People like that see not just with their eyes but with their heart. They teach and humble us all.

In the long confession on Yom Kippur we ask atonement ‘for the sin of haughty eyes.’ The opposite is to have eyes of loving kindness and compassion, to see and not turn away, notice and not ignore. It’s the only antidote to the world’s hard-heartedness.

When the mystics describe our world as a domain of concealment, they don’t just mean that there is much suffering of which we fail to take note. They understand the presence of God to be hidden throughout creation, covered over by the material form which all being takes, driven down into the recesses of our consciousness because of our preoccupation with practical concerns.

But da’at, deeper, reflective awareness, can reveal to us the preciousness of everything, the inestimable value of all life, that there is not a living being which does not matter. In the rare, gifted moments when we see like that, we look with the heart and see to the heart. Then we realise; then we do not turn aside.

In the bewildering rush of the ceaseless encounters which urban life entails, we are bound to be overwhelmed. Inevitably, we will sometimes turn aside, turn a blind eye, hide ourselves away, pretend we hadn’t noticed. We couldn’t survive otherwise.

But sometimes, as much as we can, we must look and see, see and act, act from the heart. Otherwise we won’t know we have a heart anymore, and the purpose of life is to deepen the heart’s compassion.

 

Bribery, blindness and politics

Three words encapsulate Jewish values: tzedek, ‘righteousness’, the practice of justice in all our dealings (which implies honesty and integrity); tzedakah, a virtually untranslatable noun which expresses the vision, commitment and generosity to work proactively for a more just world; and hesed, ‘faithful lovingkindness’, which should permeate all our actions.

This week’s Torah portion focuses on the first of these terms, tzedek, with the famous verse ‘Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue,’ preceded by this sharp warning:

Do not take a bribe, because bribes blind the eyes of the wise and pervert the words of the just.’ (Deuteronomy 16:19)

I always thought bribes meant serious criminality; that bribery was corruption writ large. I realise now that it can also be something more refined, subtle enough that we may not even notice we’re part of it.

The issue came up in a conversation about climate change with an Australian colleague: ‘Democracy’s part of the problem’, he said. ‘Democracy invites short-termism,’ I agreed.

Neither of us had the remotest intention of preferencing a different form of government. But we were concerned that leaders who depend on frequent re-election want to please their voters who naturally and usually rightly want what’s in their own best interests. The result can be that essential long-term goals, which require the courage to make short-term changes and sacrifices, are pushed into the background.

Foremost among these is the protection and regeneration of the earth. But the money to be made on the immediate exploitation of irreplaceable resources blinds the eyes of those who should be wiser. Their children, too, will pay the price. But I don’t see why my children, or the children and children’s children of billions of others, should have to pay it too.

It’s easy to incriminate others. I realise, though, that it’s not just ministers of state who’re blinded. I know from experience that it’s not always easy for ministers of religion to say what people may not want to hear. The so-called ‘fine line’ between leadership, courage, tact and empathy, not to mention the awareness that we may be mistaken, is more like a net beneath a trapeze artist than a line at all.

Few of us face truth with the integrity we should.

The Talmud observes that ‘a judge who judges truly [refusing to take bribes] is like a partner to God in the work of creation.’ An unnamed commentary offers this explanation:

Shochad, (the Hebrew for ‘bribe’) derives from chad, meaning ‘one’. A judge who takes a bribe becomes at one with the litigant who gives it…But the judge who refuses to take bribes, is at one with neither litigant. To such a judge God says, ‘Since you rejected partnership with them, I shall consider you a partner with me.’

The etymology is almost certainly wrong. But the idea is profound. The path of integrity can be lonely and hard. There is a price to following inconvenient truths and eschewing convenient untruths. But if we want to be ‘partners with God in sustaining creation’ we must refuse the alluring bribes of short-term gain and listen to enduring wisdom.

I’m frightened by the populism which has taken hold of politics and nations, and the bullies of any party or persuasion whose paths it paves.

Judaism, like all faiths rooted in a just and sustaining vision, requires us to be faithful to deeper and enduring values: justice, faithful kindness and partnership with God in caring for creation.

 

The Jewish New Year For Animals

The new moon of Elul is approaching, the month of wakefulness. Every morning the shofar calls, ‘Awake, you slumberers; rouse yourselves, all you who are asleep’ (Maimonides). For soon all life will pass before God, in judgment tempered by love.

But the new moon of Elul is not merely the herald of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year par excellence. According to the majority view in the Mishnah, it is also a distinct new year in its own right:

The first of Elul is the new year for tithing cattle. (Mishnah: Rosh Hashanah 1:1)

Something of the kind must have been going on at the farm next to where we stayed last week for five wonderful days on the Isle of Mull (maybe it’s because the farmer almost certainly wasn’t Jewish that he got the date slightly wrong). Most mornings only a few highland cattle were in the yard. But on this particular day there were tens of them, cows and calves, with shovings and mooings, while the farmers with their crooks looked about as successful in trying to direct them as secondary-school teachers on a challenging day. No, it wasn’t an entirely bucolic scene; in the loud and frequent lowings were the indisputable tones of fear. The abattoir was just a dozen miles down the road.

The truth is that this is all too close to what the first of Elul originally was, the date on which all calves born in that year were counted and every tenth delivered to the Temple to await its turn to be sacrificed.

That was two thousand years ago. In recent times the first of Elul has been re-invented as The New Year for Animals, in exactly the same way as Tu Bishevat was re-created as The New Year for Trees. (See Hazon.org)

It is far from insignificant that this is the very date when the shofar first calls to us to account for our lives before God, ourselves, each other, and nature itself. The shofar is fashioned from the horn of an animal. It has always sounded in my spirit as the cry of all life, of the animals, forest, mountains, rivers, rain and mists; as a plea for life from the depths of the heart of all living being.

It’s not just because I love animals, because I find companionship and consolation in the presence of those animals who have been humankind’s partners for hundreds of generations. It’s also because I cannot bear the thought of the cruelty with which we habitually treat them, the disregard, the wilful ignorance, the contempt for their suffering. It’s also because I am terrified that we have spread so many poisons in the very elements of air, soil and water, and so trivially and thoughtlessly scattered the detritus of our carelessness and self-regard, that we will kill the birds, fish and bees, the invisible insects and the great wild animals. It’s because I fear, too, that only in the eleven-and-a-halfth hour will we truly understand how deeply interconnected we are, that our physical, moral and spiritual wellbeing is interdependent with all life. It is for all these reasons that I believe that a day demarcated in the calendar for honouring and respecting animal life is so important.

But a sole and single day is insufficient. The most urgent issue for humanity in our time is the rebalancing of our relationship with all life, the reconsideration of how we consume, travel and waste. For certain, there are sacrifices to be made. But the gains are greater: a deeper awakening to wonder, respect, awe and kinship; a renewed integrity and wholeness to our moral and spiritual being; the knowledge that what we bequeath to our children’s generation will not be a wasteland but somewhere beautiful, nourishing and inspiring.

I am horrified by the behaviour of my own species. I cannot say I am not guilty. But I want and intend to do all I can to make atonement with nature, and in so doing, with God.

 

Building the Temple in a riding centre in Toxteth and a crocheting commune in Tel Aviv

There is no such thing as neutrality, wrote the Hasidic teacher Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger, known after his work as the Sefat Emet. He was quoting the ancient rabbinic saying that ‘any generation in which the Temple is not built is a generation in which it is destroyed’. On Tisha Be’Av, the bleak fast which begins this Saturday towards the close of Shabbat and continues until dark on Sunday, we remember the destruction and commit ourselves to rebuilding.

In referring to the Temple, the Sefat Emet didn’t only have in mind a physical construction on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. His was the temple of the spirit, a fourth dimension in which we live according to what God asks for us. If we did so, this physical earth too would be transformed into a world of loving-kindness, justice and peace. It would finally become the sacred space God dreamed of at creation.

I have watched the Temple being built – and destroyed – in many places; so, I’m sure, have you.

I’ve seen its foundation stone set in the Drop-in for Destitute Asylum-Seekers. Bearing the wounds of trauma, yet all too often unwanted, unheard, un-helped and rejected, here people find an island of humanity. If someone were to ask: ‘What’s that got to do with Tisha Be’Av?’ I would answer: on this date our people were made homeless by the sacking of our sacred city and our land; this is the day our people became refugees:

Judah was exiled through poverty and hard labour;
her pursuers trapped her in the narrow passes…(Lamentations 1:3)

I’ve seen another keystone at Kuchinate in south Tel Aviv. Here Eritrean women, who’ve undergone horrors of which they do not speak, can earn enough money to avoid having to live on the streets and resort to prostitution to save their young children from hunger. They weave beautiful baskets to the sound of Eritrean music; they cook familiar dishes and find solidarity in working together.

The Temple is not just a structure of stone; it is also made of trees and meadows, of harmony between nature and humankind. I’ve seen it destroyed in sweeping measure, but also, on a scale as yet too small, recreated. I’ve walked with the family amidst bare mountains in Scotland and, revisiting them years later, seen flourishing woodlands. I’ve planted trees myself to restore the forests of the Jerusalem Hills.

God’s Temple is being built in numerous and unimagined ways. Esther Sills, new on the staff of The Council of Christians and Jews, told me how she connected Park Palace Ponies, a riding centre in an abandoned cinema in Toxteth, with asylum-seeker children. They aren’t allowed to go to school, she told me; they’re stuck inside their accommodation, isolated and frightened. But when they met the ponies they relaxed, smiled for the first time, gained confidence.

This reminds me of a moment of holiness in a central London hospital, where, my friend Jane told me, they brought a horse up 14 stories in the lift because a dying girl wanted to say goodbye. A few weeks later, Jane married her long-time partner there, in the visitor’s room of the neighbouring ward. The nurses allowed flowers; they decorated the whole area; they helped bring Jane to her marriage in a wheelchair. Less than a week later, she died, wise, accepting and at peace.

As we fast on Tisha Be’Av we think of our people’s pain through history, of the suffering of many peoples, of the devastation of nature, – and we therefore resolve to be builders of the Temple and not its destroyers. According to tradition the Messiah is born on Tisha Be’Av afternoon; let the Messiah of hope and commitment be born inside each of us then.

It is essential, wrote Rebbe Shalom Noach of Slonim, that ‘a broken heart belong always to the world of building, not to the world of destruction’.

 

75 years since the Porajmos, the murder of the Roma in Auschwitz

Today is the first of Av, month of sorrow. As the rabbis taught, when the moon of Av waxes, joy and celebration wane. The sad mood of the three weeks bein hametsarim, ‘between the troubles’, which began on 17 Tammuz, the date when the walls of Jerusalem were breached, now intensifies. It will culminate in the fast of 9 Av, when we reflect on the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem.

Yet this month is also called Menachem Av, ‘Av the Consoler’. Perhaps this is because of the tradition that the Messiah will be born on its ninth day. Or maybe this very belief is an expression of faith and determination: we can and shall move from destruction to creation, from mourning to the celebration of the world’s birthday on Rosh Hashanah, the New Year.

Consolation comes, in part, from companionship and solidarity. ‘My friends have betrayed me, passers-by laugh at me, nobody cares’, writes the author of the Scroll of Lamentations, which we read on the eve of the fast. Only when we care and notice, only when we uphold and protect each other’s humanity, will the world truly change.

Later today I will attend the memorial for the Roma and Sinti peoples in Hyde Park.

In 2015 the European Parliament declared 2 August European Roma Holocaust Memorial Day to commemorate the Porajmos, ‘The Devouring’, the murder of 500,000 Sinti and Roma in Nazi-occupied Europe. It was on this date that the prisoners in the so-called ‘gypsy family camp’ in Auschwitz-Birkenau were gassed.

I have a huge Holocaust library, hundreds of books. But I’m ashamed to acknowledge how little I knew about the history of the Roma under Nazism. Yet the fate that overtook them is close to that of my own family.

The Nuremberg laws, which deprived my father of citizenship, also applied to the Roma. In 1938 Himmler designated as ‘asocials’ ‘gypsies and persons travelling in gypsy fashion who have shown no desire for regular work or have violated the law.’ He also included ‘all male Jews with previous criminal records’; on Kristallnacht this expanded to include simply ‘all male Jews’.

On his visit to the site in July 1942, Himmler ordered the swift expansion of Auschwitz II: ‘See to it that you move ahead with the completion of Birkenau. The gypsies are to be exterminated. With the same relentlessness you will exterminate those Jews who are unable to work’ (Auschwitz: D. Dwork and R. Jan van Pelt, p. 320)

The ‘gypsy’ camp was situated near what later became the ‘family camp’ for Jews from Theresienstadt. Thus my great-grandmother Regina, imprisoned there until she was murdered a month before them, must have witnessed the fellow-suffering of the Roma from close by.

In fact, August 2 was not the date initially designated for the destruction of the Roma. This was scheduled for May 16, but the camp guards met with such resistance that they withdrew, – to devise a more deceitful plan. Hence May 16 is commemorated as Sinti, Romani and Roma resistance day. Similarly, to honour the courage of those Jews who resisted physically and spiritually, in establishing 27 Nissan as the appropriate date, the Knesset named it not Yom Hashoah, but Yom Hashoah veHagevurah, the day of devastation and courage.

I’ll go to Hyde Park on the 75th anniversary of the Porajmos, out of solidarity and to learn. I’ll go not just because of the past, but for the future, to join the call from today’s commemoration at Birkenau to end ‘racism, antigypsyism and antisemitism in Europe and worldwide and work consistently for the rule of law and democracy’.

Only if humanity stands together can we travel safely from loneliness and sorrow to creativity and hope.

 

 

100 young people determined to live values-driven lives

It was at Noam pre-Camp earlier this week. For anyone who doesn’t know, Noam is the Masorti Jewish youth movement. Pre-camp is the week of planning, study, reflection, prayer – and fun – when all leaders, from those who’ll look after a small group of children for the first time to those in charge for an entire camp of teenagers, prepare for the joys, challenges, responsibilities and unforeseeable faux pas of the fortnight ahead. Noam is a movement for young people, led by young people. Though there are ‘adults’ present to offer support (if needed and wanted), none of the leaders is above his or her mid-twenties.

To be there as one of the ‘older’ rabbis is a privilege, not only because it is exciting and moving to witness the special pre-camp energy and the culture of deep thoughtfulness among so many young people, but because even a rabbi is there as a ‘guest’, welcome, but by invitation.

After an eventful journey including two hours plus in a stationery train in the heat with no power, no air circulation, and no openable windows, (a potentially lethal design flaw), I got to the camp just before midnight. Wandering around, I caught phrases of conversations almost all of which were about how to care – for each other, for younger children, for those who might feel homesick or bewildered.

Next day there were two sessions on Jewish sources about looking after one another. I saw the group from the distance, discussing quietly in a circle. Even from far, one senses when a truly thoughtful conversation is taking place.

Pre-camp has always been special, but what’s recently grown year by year is the enthusiasm and energy around Jewish learning. It’s not just the great young rabbis, key as they all are; it’s a re-energised awareness that learning matters, that Judaism has plenty to say – about inclusion, social justice, environment, life…

My own session was on loving-kindness towards nature, and animal rights. Remarkably, the group reckoned 50% of their friends were vegetarian and 20% vegan.

I am proud that Noam launched its new Eco-Policy that very day. It includes the following commitments:

  • We will promote and educate around vegan and vegetarian diets and the impact of meat and dairy reduction on the environment.
  • We will advocate for yearly pledges from our members to reduce their environmental impacts.
  • We will take groups to climate marches…and use social media to campaign and raise awareness of climate emergencies.

Here at pre-camp are over a hundred highly motivated young people, determined that their lives should be driven and guided by learning and values. What more can one ask?

My conclusion is not simply, though, that the older should learn from the younger. I know many people, perhaps especially among the half generation above me, who have passionate, life-long commitments to social justice, anti-racism, and fighting for human rights.

Our best hope for the future lies in generations working together, listening to and learning from each other, bound by common concerns and united in shared actions.

Little is so powerful in Judaism as the commandment to teach our children. But how can we teach them if we aren’t also ready to learn from them? And what is the point of teaching them, if we don’t leave them a world fit and beautiful for living in?

 

‘No racist bone in my body’?

Are we the people we like to think we are?

The Fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz, this Sunday, marks the beginning of the Three Weeks culminating in Tishah be’Av, the Fast of the Ninth of Av, during which our rabbis ask us to reflect on sinat chinnam, gratuitous hatred, and the destruction it leads to across the world.

President Trump provided a shocking example of such conduct when he told four congresswomen to ‘go home’. His comment exceeded the level of disdain to which there is a risk that we may have grown dangerously accustomed. It showed, in addition to its racism and sexism, precisely that contempt for democracy, that readiness to attack and try to undermine the very processes and institutions which brought him to power, which Yascha Mounk so disturbingly describes in his book subtitled ‘Why Our Freedom Is In Danger’.

Such words, let loose from the very top of the social hierarchy, have an incalculably injurious after-life. At a rally in North Carolina, the crowds chanted to their hero President, ‘Send her back; send her back’. One does not have to agree with everything the congresswoman may have said to appreciate the outrageous injustice and terrible consequences of fanning such populist hatred.

Yet we learnt this week from the President himself that he has not a racist bone in his body. So, at least, he appears to have claimed. He is far from being the only political leader on the current world stage to maintain that he cannot possibly be a bigot, xenophobe, misogynist, Islamophobe or anti-Semite. Some may simply not care; others may be under intractable illusions about themselves: ‘What? This can’t be me! I’m not sexist. I’m not a racist’.

It’s easy to see such self-delusions in others, harder to acknowledge them in ourselves. Most of us want to be the people we wished we were. We are all susceptible to the dangers of configuring the stories of ourselves accordingly: ‘I didn’t really mean…That wasn’t the real me…’ Who else was it then?

But we are not judged solely by the claims we make about ourselves. Nor are we judged only by those who love and may therefore flatter us. We are also judged by those we hurt. Therefore, if we have a conscience we will want to listen to what they have to tell us, not because it’s pleasant or convenient, but because it may be precisely from them that we have the most to learn.

Of course, the accusations may not be justified. But if we have integrity and self-respect we will at least listen, then filter them in our heart and conscience.

If, however, we maintain our denials, we become responsible for all the further wrongs which are likely to ensue. If we occupy positions of power, be it as parents, teachers, religious leaders, politicians or presidents, we are answerable for the cultures of dishonesty, disingenuousness, bullying, repression and intimidation which may well follow. Far from being an acceptable excuse, dis-acknowledgement constitutes an abdication of responsibility which adds insult to injury.

Few verses from the Prophets are as widely quoted as Micah’s rhetorical question: ‘What does the Lord require of you? Only to love kindness, act justly and walk humbly with your God’. It has never struck me before how significant it is that these should be the words we read on the Shabbat which every year exactly precedes the commencement of the Three Weeks.

If we want to avoid causeless hatred, we need to ask ourselves regularly and often if we are treating other people, whoever they are, with fairness and compassion. We need to consider whether we are listening to God’s voice as it expresses itself through them and if we are allowing it to humble and to teach us.

 

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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