The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Heart and Mind

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The Shabbat of Consolation

For much of last night Isaiah kept going round in my head: ‘Nachamu, nachamu ammi: Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people; speak to the heart of Jerusalem.’ The Sabbath after Tishah Be’Av is called Shabbat Nachamu, ‘The Shabbat of Consolation,’ after these words.

I can’t be the only person who doesn’t sleep well after a fast day. Driving down to Kent late last night to celebrate my daughter Kadya’s birthday at my mother-in-law’s, where the family almost always gathers on special occasions, I’ve had the privilege of praying in the orchards while the mist is low among the apple trees, the first birds are singing, the last star is still visible in the sky and the horizon to the east is red with expectation. That in itself is balm and consolation.

What brings comfort? How can we offer it to one another? These questions drifted in and out of my half sleep as they’ve flowed through my thoughts all my working life. What can one do about the pain in so many lives, the sorrow in so many hearts?

Sometimes it’s about action. Have you anything to eat? Are you being bullied? Who hurt you like that? These questions may need to be asked. I’ve seen the queue at the local food bank, the children waiting. When someone’s hungry, comfort starts with food. Where there’s race hatred, consolation begins with calling the perpetrators speedily and unhesitatingly to account, – and stopping them misusing twitter. Comfort begins with the commitment to compassion and justice. That’s why Martin Luther King quoted Isaiah’s next verse in his great speech “I have a dream”: ‘Every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill made low.’

‘Speak to the heart of Jerusalem:’ sometimes comfort demands words. Social media has advanced the art of the cleverly cruel put-down. Incomparably more important is the opposite skill: knowing how to offer the right words of support, especially to children, so that those around us feel valued, encouraged and empowered. ‘So many people have made me feel worthless. You helped me see I was somebody, that I had something to give.’ This is one of the greatest compliments I ever heard a pupil pay a teacher. ‘You changed my life.’

Yet there are also sorrows which neither actions nor words can reach. What can heal the grief in another person’s heart? What can we do or say? We have nothing to offer but our own heart’s attentiveness, nothing else but companionship to give. ‘Speak,’ says Isaiah, but maybe it’s more important to listen, simply to be present and hear, without platitude and fear, but with kindness and calm, and maybe, if appropriate, a gentle touch of humour.

And at times it is we ourselves who seek comfort. What human being is never in need of consolation? We may turn to others for guidance, but in the end only we can know how to find healing for our spirit.

Perhaps it is among the trees, with the birdsong, by the rockpools on the shore, where, like the sea tide, a greater life flows into our heart’s wounds and withdraws again, flows in and withdraws, and quietly we know: I accept life in its mystery, even with its flaws and hurts. I am at one, amidst this endlessness, with my smallness and mortality. I hear you, God of life.

 

Groundless hatred, causeless love and the fate of a young hedgehog

‘But think of the kindness to which it led.’ I’m holding on to Nicky’s words.

She’d been on her way home when the road was blocked by a police car. The policemen were not at their usual tasks; instead, they were trying to pick up a young hedgehog stranded in the road. Experienced in such matters, she wrapped the poor animal in a towel and brought it home for rehab.

Sadly, it wasn’t well. On the advice of the RSPCA we took it to the Royal Veterinary College. It cried all the way, piteously, like a kitten. The vet soon returned with the news that the little creature was too sick to save. We got home after midnight, upset.

‘But think of the kindness,’ Nicky said: ‘The police, all those drivers who stopped, David and Linda who care about hedgehogs, the woman on the helpline, the vet. We also did our best; it didn’t die abandoned. Even wild animals know.’

This may all sound trivial. But I’m not so sure.

The Talmud explains that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, gratuitous hatred. In response, Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook famously wrote:

If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to causeless hatred, then we would rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with causeless love — ahavatchinam.

‘Causeless love’ is made up of small interactions. It’s Wordsworth who wrote that the best portion of a good person’s life consists of

little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.

Nothing is too small for love, even a young hedgehog.

These days before the bleak fast of Tishah Be’Av are understood as a time when anger is on the loose in the world. This fits well with our current predicament: lockdown has eased but Covid is still around and there are worrying warnings about autumn and winter. Frustration and anxiety are in the air, like the virus itself.

Short temper, blaming and hitting out are understandable. Who has never done it? But, as the cornerstone of our synagogue building reminds us, the world, so easily destroyed by groundless hate, is rebuilt through love: olam hesed yibaneh.

Transforming vexation into kindness is also a prickly matter to handle. We need to listen, but not react, holding back our own irritations, even if warranted. We don’t simply want to mirror anger back with anger. We need to respond with understanding.

Bernard Kops described how he was walking with his father in the East End when a man up a ladder reviled them with antisemitic abuse. ‘What’s hurting you?’ his father had asked. Somehow, he got the tone just right. The man ended up coming home with them for tea.

Perhaps that’s what Rabbi Yochanan (third century) meant when he explained that the temple was destroyed because ‘the judges ruled by the strict letter of the law’ and not with the generosity of compassion. ‘You’ve asked for it; you deserve to be hit back’ may be true. But it won’t draw the angry puss out of the wound; it won’t transform our world.

The mystics speak of the need to outweigh gevurah, judgement and harshness, with hesed, lovingkindness. This applies to our own emotional state, to the world at large, and even in the heart of God. ‘Noteh klappei hesed – God inclines toward mercy,’ teaches the Talmud, inviting us to do the same.

I’ll hear the whimpering of that hedgehog for a very long time. It is the minute articulation of cries of great suffering across our world.

 

Jeremiah and inconvenient truth

It’s among the most painful challenges: to find the words for the gravestone of someone you love.

But when my grandmother died, I knew: the quotation had to be from Jeremiah: ‘Zacharti lach: I remember the tender kindness of your youth, the love of your bridal days, how you followed me through an unsown land.’

She and my grandfather cherished those words, with their beautiful Rosh Hashanah melody. They captured their love for God and Judaism, but above all their deep affection for each other, his adoration of his beautiful bride Natalie Charlotte, with whom he was married for almost sixty years. They encapsulated, too, their shared destiny, flee Nazism in late mid-life to an unknown, if not unsown, land.

To me those words express tenderness, loyalty, moral courage and the great resilience of Judaism and the human spirit. To explain, I must go down into the depths with their author.

Every year at this season of bein hametsarim, ‘between the troubles’, in the three bleak weeks from the fast of 17 Tammuz when the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem, to Tishah be’ Av, when both Temples were destroyed, I am drawn to Jeremiah.

Jeremiah is the father of everyone killed for telling the truth. God appointed him the ill-fated bearer of warnings ignored. His contemporaries disregarded or despised him, burnt his writings, threw him into the dungeon and eventually stoned him to death.

But the Bible gave us his voice: implacable, tender, angry, lonely, wounded, ‘broken in the brokenness of my people.’ He sits alone, contemplating the troubles to come, then sits with Jerusalem in her aloneness when the Babylonians sack the city. He screams at his people in warning, weeps with them in sorrow, then chastises them once more. He cannot and will not be silent. God’s truth is obligation, compulsion, ‘fire in my bones.’ All around him others are mouthing convenient untruths; his is the burden of the inconvenient truth.

There are ‘truth-tellers’ who despise humankind seemingly proud of saying what’s painful to hear. But the truly great tellers of truths are lovers for humanity. They are our best allies not just in integrity and justice but in survival itself.

Among them are poets, scientists, journalists, lawyers, politicians, ‘ordinary’ people who refuse to see their neighbours wronged. They are united by the indelible conviction that they have to speak out. Some tell truth to power; often futile, sometimes fatal. Others seek people like you and me.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported over 550 killed in the last decade, many more dead under circumstances not yet clarified, famous among them Jamal Khashoggi of the Washington Post.

There’s nothing new about silencing of truth. I often think of Osip Mandelstam, dead in transit into Stalinist exile.

You gave me my shoe-size in earth with bars around it.
Where did it get you? Nowhere.
You left me my lips, and they shape words, even in silence.

     (trans. Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin)

It’s the ancient creed of prophets and poets.

There are plenty of warning voices now: about racism, proto-fascism, the climate emergency. We must not join the pallbearers and bury them in silence. God, teaches the Talmud, is amiti, truthful; God demands the resilient courage of truth.

My grandparents lie in Hoop Lane cemetery where their gravestone stands as part of Judaism’s undying testament against tyranny. I visit them each Tishah be’Av and read those words about faithfulness, our bond with truth and God.

 

Lockdown Learnings – heartfelt

‘What have you learnt in lockdown?’ That’s what I was asked to address on zoom before the team of a large law firm yesterday. (They were very kind.)

Lockdown learnings bubble in my heart, sometimes like the melody of a mountain stream, sometimes like the hiss and burn of boiling oil.

For most of us, this is a time which hurts. Sleeping isn’t always easy. I keep lists in my head of whom I’m worrying about. I get zoom-dizzy, with headaches. I never complete my day’s tasks. I fear for the world I love; fear for all our future.

But I’m also aware that hurt is not equal: my heart goes out to all who grieve, who couldn’t even kiss a hand, have one last hug and say goodbye.

Thank God for my family, our dog, our garden; for blackbirds, blue tits and goldfinches, privileges all. Thank God for everything which grows, the tiny blue of gentians, the Bigwood oaks. Thank God for the study of Torah, the yearning for God in Hasidic teaching. Thank God for the health to go running.

Thank God for every single member of the amazing team at our synagogue.

This is what’s most important in these uncertain months: to connect: to connect the heart with God in the damp cool of early morning; to connect with the breathing leaves, ‘You’re here, I’m here, we have another day together’; to connect with our neighbours, delivery people, food store team, friends, community, everyone we once, wrongly, took for granted; to connect in quiet heart space with those we love, for whom we often leave the least time over; to connect our society, across all faiths, ethnicities and colour. For our world may either break apart now, or come closer in vision, intention and spirit.

Sometimes I feel at peace in the midst of all this strangeness, often overwhelming helplessness, failure.

I’m grateful for all who help us find each other, find direction, purpose, God. I’m grateful for our lockdown adoptions, ‘grandparents’ who’ve read stories over the internet to small children, teenagers who’ve been shopping-and-prescription-pals to people who have to isolate, volunteers who call people every day or week, ‘How are you? Just keeping in touch.’

I appreciate everyone who’s strengthened our spirit. In impassioned discussions my colleagues have articulated that love of Shabbat, which, disciplined, rigorous, spirited and unshakeable, has held the Jewish People to our vision of redemption. Holding fast to halakhah, Jewish law, we work six days and on the seventh, free of labour, money and interactive electronics, enter a world of wonder, spirit and grace, the world as God intended.

I’m grateful to everyone who’s made the community vibrant online with quizzes and classes, music, prayer, photographs of ducks and deer, and humbling insights into their practical and their heart work.

I appreciate, too, those who, because of the unprecedented nature of these times with their grief, uncertainty and anguish, have created Shabbat connections with prayer and healing on zoom, which so many have valued. What I cannot condone halakhically, I can well understand and value. I hear what these services have meant to many people. My heart is torn between my halakhic and spiritual, and my communal and pastoral selves, and because, rightly but painfully, I am not there in these virtual gatherings with people alongside whom I’ve lived as rabbi for up to forty years.

I long for better days, when we shall all be together again, when God’s name will be one and we will say it as one in one community.

I’ve learnt in lockdown that nothing matters more than healing, not just for the body and the soul, as we pray for everyone who is ill, refu’at hanefesh verefu’at haguf, but healing for our relationships, for the injustices in our society, the cruelties, violence, repression and hatred in the world, and for the broken bonds between humanity and nature.

I shall go on worrying, caring, hoping, praying, emailing, phoning, writing, studying Torah and making sure that trees get planted.

 

Green Shabbat

It’s Green Shabbat tonight, part of London Climate Action Week.

A close friend just had a double cataract operation. When I called last Friday he said, ‘I’m OK. But almost blind. I don’t know how this is going to be.’ Mercifully, an operation was scheduled the following Monday. When I phoned that night, he said: ‘It’s wondrous; I came out and there was this brilliant, marvellous light.’

Every morning we give thanks for the gift of seeing the world: ‘Baruch pokeach ivrim – Bless, you, God, for opening the eyes of the blind.’

There are millions of people for whom this miracle never happens. The Talmud tells how two rabbis on a journey turn aside to visit a blind scholar. When they leave, he blesses them: ‘May the One who sees but can’t be seen, bless you who saw me but whom I can’t see.’ So sight is indeed a blessing and a privilege.

That morning prayer is not just about seeing, but about how we see. I’ve become a fan of David Godfrey, congregant, wildlife photographer 24/6, whose mantra is ‘the three l’s: look, listen, learn’, and who’s called his recent work ‘Chasing the light in London’s lockdown.’ ‘It’s about wonder,’ he said.

Love of nature isn’t a distraction from my spiritual life; it’s the heart and soul of it. When I hear the dawn birds I’m listening to God’s songs. When I see pictures of elephants mysteriously dying in Botswana in hundreds, I think of the words the Talmud puts in God’s mouth: ‘My head hurts,’ alas for what’s wrong in my world. When I witness the needless destruction of nature, the Talmud’s words make my heart ache: ‘We’re shoving God’s presence away.’

My family is privileged to have a huge garden; it’s made lockdown a hundred times easier. ‘We need to spread access to nature far wider,’ said Tamara Finkelstein, Permanent Secretary at Defra, on an Eco Synagogue event followed by hundreds last night. We need all of us to love and care for it more.

Deena Kestenbaum brings the healing of nature to young adults in the Grenfell area: ‘What are you seeing outside your window? Adopt a tree or plant,’ she teaches. She creates virtual vistas onto open spaces, and they watch together, ten minutes every day. ‘I find a stillness in it;’ she says, and brings that stillness to others.

The blessing for ‘seeing’ isn’t just about the eyes. In the Bible, seeing is with the heart and has to lead to action. Otherwise, we count with those who ‘look but fail to see.’

I don’t find that heart part hard: when I think of the forests, rivers and savannas (I belong to The Woodland Trust, RSPB, WWF, Plantlife, etc. etc…) though wonder lifts my soul, anguish eats me alive.

The Torah commands us not to sit there doing nothing while our neighbour’s lifeblood drains away. Nature is everyone’s neighbour; furthermore it’s a neighbour we depend on. Its life is our children’s lives. So we’re forbidden to do nothing.

We know what we have to do: it’s not an issue of knowledge but of will and urgency.

Plant gardens, bee friendly, restore forests; eat healthily for ourselves, animals and the earth; use green energy, insulate our homes, travel with greater care; invest savings in a green future. Advocate for change, in business, economics, energy, transport, farming, law. In democracies, if enough voices are raised, leaders have to listen. We need to span the distance far more quickly between what we know and what we do.

This is what Jodi Coffman, a young member of our community who’s passionate for nature recommends. I’m glad to have her generation as my teachers.

The rabbis teach that there are two motives for doing what’s right: love, or fear. Let’s act out of love. I love our beautiful world.

 

Pride Shabbat

This is Pride Shabbat. The date was fixed to commemorate Stonewall in 1969.

I want to write about revelation. Though we inherit collectively the majestic legacy of Sinai, revelation comes to most of us in modest, private moments. When they happen, like the clouds which covered the desert mountain the mists of our ignorance, genuine or wilful, part. Beyond them is the living God.

I’m not suggesting we encounter God directly. We meet God through recognising God’s image in other people whose stories, hurts, joys and sensibilities we hadn’t listened to before. These moments open our minds and change us; at least they should.

I didn’t grow up knowing gay people and I wasn’t raised, in this regard, with a welcoming attitude. I don’t belong to the generations for whom LGBTQ+ is a self-evident part of the vocabulary.

What’s changed me is people, friends. One conversation will stay with me all my life. It was with a gay man who hadn’t yet come out:

It’s taken me years of anguish, but finally I can say the blessing for ‘making me according to God’s will,’ and know that God accepts me, and that I can accept myself.

I can’t count the mornings when, saying my own blessings, I think of those words with shame. I don’t mean shame on him, but about me and the rest of us, that this man had to suffer such self-negation for decades.

I’ve used the word ‘revelation’ advisedly. My appreciation of the sanctity of life was deepened; doors closed in my heart and imagination were pushed open. I know I have others which are still shut. Most of us do.

Shema Koleinu; Hear our voices,’ reads an important leaflet prepared by a member of our own congregation:

All over the world, Jews of colour, LGBTQ Jews of colour, from many different backgrounds, are committed to Jewish life, learning and living. Some of us are culturally Jewish – while we don’t go to a synagogue every week, we might love hosting big meals for our friends on Shabbat. Some of us are religiously observant or find our homes in Orthodox synagogues. Some of us are ethnically Jewish but aren’t religious at all.

‘It’s really about diversity,’ another gay member of our synagogue told me yesterday. Pondering her words, I realised that the same Mishnah which teaches that saving a single life is like saving the entire world goes on to say:

When a person stamps coins in the same mould they come out identical. But God stamps every person in the mould of the first human being, yet not one of them is like any other. (Sanhedrin 4:5)

Difference, like equality, is sacred. How urgent this teaching is, in a world of resurgent racism and supremacism.

It’s not enough to ‘tolerate’ people who are gay, though, tragically, it needs to be reaffirmed that this is an essential starting point. It’s only five years ago that Shira Banki was murdered in Jerusalem’s Pride parade.

Inclusion in a cloud of silence is not enough either. Do we as Jews appreciate being ‘included’ so long as we stick to the unspoken bargain and say nothing to betray who we are?

A full voice, being heard, celebrating and being celebrated with, leading, imagining, following together: this is a description of a community in which the image of God is recognised in every person. As the same Mishnah goes on to teach: each and every one of us, being unique, must [be able to] say, ‘For my sake the world was created.’

So I ask myself as a person, ‘Who am I hearing?’ and as a rabbi, ‘Where’s our community on this journey?’

Community that welcomes and supports.
It’s what you do – or are you just shooting the breeze? Alfie Ferguson

 

 

‘Daddy, why do passports matter?’

‘Where’ll she sleep if we haven’t a room?’

‘On the busses, I expect, like often.’

‘We definitely have a room!’

That was a conversation between my wife and Refugees at Home. Ms X. stayed with us for just three weeks; our only problem was stopping her helping around the house the whole time out of gratitude, which made us feel terrible.

This is Refugee Week; tomorrow is World Refugee Day.

Our whole country is mourning Dame Vera Lynn, not just an amazing singer but a wonderful human being, who died yesterday at the age of 103. Her voice, like Churchill’s, sustained, consoled and inspired the nation during World War 2. Her most iconic song is probably ‘We’ll meet again.’ Refugees, when they flee, know that they’ll probably never meet again, never see their parents, their children or the place that once was home.

My great-aunt Jenny told me: ‘The worst time in my life was putting my children on that train in Frankfurt Central Station.’ She saw them again; most parents who wept their way home to desolate rooms in 1938 or 39 never did.

A Midrash explains that God told Abraham to leave home so that he would become the father of all gerim, all outsiders, temporary residents, refugees. The word ger occurs countless times in the Bible, almost invariably with the command not to abandon but to care for them. The classic biblical dictionary gives the root meaning as ‘sojourn,’ including ‘dwell as a newcomer for a (definite or indefinite) time without original rights.’ How those words ‘indefinite’ and ‘without rights’ beleaguer on the souls of thousands, of millions today.

They resonate across Jewish history in the repeated experiences of marginalisation, extortion and exile. Commenting on the Torah’s command not to oppress the stranger, Rashi says simply ‘Don’t inflict your own wounds on others.’

When I was six, my father lost his passport (as in ‘lost and found;’ he’d truly lost it once before when he fled Germany aged 16.) Cupboards were ransacked in the search. ‘Why does a passport matter?’ I asked. He answered, ‘If you ever don’t have one, you’ll know.’

Our world still buys and sells people, for slavery, sex or both. Countries bleed other countries dry, through tyranny, exploitation or climate negligence. We must never again trade in the misery of others, individually or nationally. Their pain is not far away: Windrush, children stuck in the Calais ‘jungle’ unable to join family in Britain, people in indefinite detention, cut off from future, hope.

Hope is what gives strength to the feet of refugees: a safe life, a life without fear, a life of work, of making a contribution. That’s what Refugee Week is all about: ‘a UK-wide festival celebrating the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees.’

S, who escaped a massacre in the Congo and is now a specialist teacher and pastoral counsellor, just told me he and his wife are expecting their first child. B, who fled state terror and is now a physical trainer, called me for a reference: ‘I’ve been asked to offer exercises in a care home just re-opened after Covid.’

Where would the NHS, food, the arts, be in this country, without those of us who were once refugees?

I sometimes think about that Rashi: ‘Don’t inflict your own wounds on others.’ The wounds we receive can make us heartless, or they can open our hearts more deeply.

Here is a link to some of the organisations we care about and support.

 

Abraham Joshua Heschel: Religion and racism are irreconcilable

In these urgent times we have a role model for how the Jewish community can stand with the community of black people and stand against all racial and environmental injustice and contempt. Once again, I turn to Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Last night I wrote to his daughter Susannah: My father, she told me last year, would be pacing his room, incredulous, horrified at the hate and supremacism from the highest office in the land. ‘My father,’ she wrote now, ‘would have been marching in today’s demonstrations and pleased that we are together, black and white.’

Heschel was raised in tight-knit Hasidic Warsaw, a world full of spiritual passion. Jewish Vilna, where his thirst for wider learning took him next, had poetry and vision. In Berlin he devoted himself to studying for his PhD the moral outrage and compassionate commitment of the prophets of Israel. He was rescued from Nazi Europe in the 12th hour, ‘A brand plucked from the fire’.

He met Martin Luther King in 1963 at a meeting in Chicago on race and religion. He took his audience straight to the core of the Bible:

At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. . . . The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate.

That same year, as King was preparing the march in Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the two men were called to the White House by JFK. Heschel replied with a telegram:

Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes…The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.

Weary of insipid American synagogues, Heschel enjoined and cajoled Jews to expose ourselves to the vital presence of God, translating the impassioned inner life of Hasidism into the English language and the largely unreceptive world of 50’s and 60’s America.

For Heschel as for King, spirituality and activism were as inseparable as river and water. They were both not just students but disciples of the prophets, orators of God’s fierce opposition to indifference and injustice. Religion was not dogma but the living awareness of the urgency of God, an awareness which did not, must not and could not stop in the consciousness alone.

It demanded action. I once desired a quiet life, Heschel wrote. That was not possible: silence before wrong was a betrayal of God. His famous answer to what he was doing next to Reverend King in Selma Alabama, ‘I was praying with my legs,’ was only logical: the realisation of what God wants from us must flow from the heart to the hands and the feet. What impelled him to march was not deviance from Judaism, but its fulfilment.

All that, as Ben Okri said when we spoke last week, was two generations ago. Every hour has its own urgency; God ‘korei ladorot, calls to each and every generation’ and every generation must answer.

We live today not only with unresolved, but with resurgent racism, amidst rhetorics of xenophobia renewed by forgetfulness of the past and reinvigorated by disdain and fear. We live too amidst the uprising of the sea and the revolt of the very atmosphere against contempt and abuse. There never was a more urgent now.

Every one of Judaism’s thrice daily prayers condemns indifference: why ask God to heal the sick, bless the earth and bring justice, if we do little? It’s idle, if we are idle.

A Jewish life, a religious life of any kind, must be a dedicated life, now.

 

‘I can’t breathe’

I was very moved by how Ben Okri accepted the invitation to join our Friday night service. We are both communities which have known persecution, he told me in an earlier conversation: we need to stand together. I was stirred by his call on our humanity and for our action, as well as by the warmth of heart with which he, joined by his young daughter, stayed with us in prayer.

Yesterday The Guardian published his powerful article I Can’t Breathe’: Why George Floyd’s Words Reverberate Across the World. Those basic words say everything about the heartless, prolonged and vicious cruelty of George Floyd’s killing. They also capture our fears about Covid 19 and our deep anxiety that unless we heed the warnings, our entire world will be unable to breathe because of the destruction of our biosphere.

There is nothing more basic to life than breathing. Ben Okri’s words made me reflect on breath in Judaism. Neshamah means both breath and spirit. The Torah describes it as God’s earliest and greatest gift: ‘God breathed nishmat chaim, the breath of life’ into the first man and woman. The intake of their youngest breaths is the sound every parent longs to hear. Each morning we thank God, saying ‘neshamah shenattatah bi, the breath and spirit you gave me is pure’. The final verse of the entire Book of Psalms reads ‘Kol haneshamah tehallel: praise God with our entire spirit.’ The rabbis reread it as kol hanesheemah, with every breath let us praise God who gave us the privilege of life.

There is no concept, no jot or dust-sized shadow of a notion that there can exist people whose breath matters more, or less, than that of others. Breathing is, should be, must be, equal. It is a truth we as Jews know only too well from our own history: how, after all, did Zyklon B work?

Therefore, we must stand up for everyone’s right to breathe. This includes not just physical breath but also breathing as a metaphor, as in the sentence ‘I can’t breathe in this place’ which means: ‘I’m not comfortable, not at home, don’t feel safe, am rejected, made to feel unwanted, worthless here.’

There are demonstrations round the country and the globe, with their own health and safety challenges. The public, political, legal and educational will to be honest about history and just and equitable in the way every part of our society functions is paramount. These are issues over which we as Jews have fought for recognition time and again, and in which we and black and BAME communities are natural partners.

At the same time, I’m at least as concerned about what happens closest to home. Experiences of being black, or black and Jewish, and treated with suspicion, challenged, ignored, not listened to or considered invisible in our communities, are frequent. Our reflections and actions have to start with ourselves. We want to be able to sing ‘kol haneshamah tehallel – Let every breathing, living soul praise God,’ where every really means every. We want to be able to sing those words with integrity.

Black Lives Matter: What is needed from us

Monotheism means the indivisibility of God. This is not just the basis of Jewish theology, but of universal humanity.

When the Torah, in chapter one, teaches that every human being is created in God’s image, it leaves no place for the notion of ‘children of a lesser God’. There exists no one who doesn’t matter, whose life is less important than anyone else’s. Black lives matter; God is the ‘life of all life’, ‘God of all flesh’.

The shocking and cruel death of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman, and the racism, contempt and injustice it has highlighted, shock our societies and souls. The violence which has followed is frightening. But the vast majority of protesters and protests have been peaceful and courageous, and how and by whom the destruction has been manipulated remains complex, sinister and opaque. The record of disdain from the highest office has inflamed the land and disgraces the history of often brave American leadership.

Reverend Anthony Jackson, whose grandfather founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference together with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, addressed the Jewish community in the columns of The Forward. What we need from you, he wrote, is

to help us put an end the murder of innocent Blacks with the exact same fervor, dedication and commitment that you show towards preserving and defending your own families, that you show for Israel…. We need you to understand that Blacks and Jews are in this together; white racists view you as the N-word, too. We need you to embrace Blacks as absolute equals. Jews have used their influence to make a difference in society… We need you to use it again. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel once said, “The Black church is the salvation of Judaism.” We need each other.

Rev Jackson’s words remind me of the line I’ve italicised line in Dan Pagis’s searing Holocaust poem

No. no, they were created in the image
Uniforms, jackboots…
As for me, I had a different creator…

Judaism knows of no such entity as a ‘different creator’ and no such human being as someone with lesser rights. There are no geographical, racial, religious or gender limits to our equality before God as understood, and as should be practised, in Judaism.

But that is not the reality we witness in our societies. We are not at liberty to do nothing about it. We cannot limit ourselves to idle outrage. Examining prejudice in our own minds, communities and conduct is not comfortable, but, as was said in our synagogue just before lockdown, acknowledging and entering the zone of our discomfort is an essential first step.

Just as God’s oneness underlies the equality of all human beings, so it informs the interconnection of all of nature. If God is within all life, if Ruach Elokim, God’s spirit, breathes in all creation, then no species, forest or river is merely dispensable.

Here again, whatever this may say to us theologically, it means everything practically. The very future of life on our planet depends on the realisation that we and all of nature are interconnected. Today is World Environment Day, instituted by the United Nations in 1974. Interestingly, the date has a second name, ‘People’s Day’, because our own future, our children’s lives, depend on how we now act.

Indifference is no option: we must waste less, plant more, cherish this earth. For me, this concern, this passion, migrated long ago from my head to my soul; it’s a terror, a hope, a split vision: the world as arid and bleak, the world as wonder and beauty.

Though seemingly separate issues, how we behave to each other and how we treat nature are united within the prophetic call for justice and humility. We have no right to conduct ourselves as superior, neither to one another whatever our colour, nor towards nature, nor towards God, who weeps in our soul at every outrage and abuse.

 

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