The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

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After the terror attacks in Hanau

Like all of us, I feel disgusted and disheartened by the racist murders in Hanau. Our hearts go out to the grief-stricken, the wounded, their families and all who’ve been traumatised by this outrage. My thoughts are especially with everyone who was in Halle on Yom Kippur, and all people, wherever in the world they are, whose haunting memories of witnessing or being near victims of terror are reawakened by this latest outrage.

The terrorist killings in Hanau are an attack not only on those who lost their lives, and not only on the groups against which they were aimed: the Turkish community in Germany, as well as refugees, Muslims, Jews, all minorities.

They are an assault on the soul of society, against its heart, against the principle of togetherness itself, against the fact that we are all humans on this earth, that we need each other, that we should and must support each other, and that without such solidarity and cooperation we cannot survive, cannot thrive materially or spiritually and cannot pursue lives of happiness, dignity and value.

European history, and the history of the Jews of Europe above all, testifies to the brutal, shameful, bloody calamity of race hate. But history alone, without vigilance, is a singularly unsuccessful instructor.

Society is most vulnerable to attack at its periphery. That is why the Torah commands us over and again to respect and protect the ger, the newcomer, the outsider, the person who is different. Samson Raphael Hirsch, who fought for equal rights for Jews across the German speaking world, described the ger as liable to being accorded

no rights to land, home, or existence, and towards whom everything was consequently regarded as permitted…

Therefore, beware, he warns,

lest in your state you make the rights of anyone dependent on anything other than the simple fact of their humanity, which every human being possesses by virtue of being human.

Yet every society throughout the ages has struggled to embrace such a universalist vision.

There are indeed limits to how many people a country can welcome, and it is reasonable for any state to regard its primary responsibility as caring for its citizens. Any society, community and individual needs a sense of identity and belonging.

The danger begins to grow when we begin to define our Us by a Them; when we project onto that Them our fears and prejudices; when we use that Them as a tool in an ideology of supremacism and exclusion; when we legitimise contempt.

Regarding perpetrators like the murderer in Hanau, it is probably impossible to know whether racism incubates their hatred, or whether their hatred finds a nurturing home in Neo-Nazi racism.

Whatever the case societies, including our own, need to be vigilant not only in intelligence, policing and the protection of vulnerable community, but also in challenging racism and hatred in public policy and discourse, in every domain of civic life, in communities and in schools.

Whatever the opposite of race-hate is, it needs to be fostered everywhere, not excluding with us, in our actions, words and thoughts. That’s why so many of us believe in and are committed to working with people of other faiths and in other communities, meeting, learning, even planting trees, together.

Hanau is very close to Frankfurt, where my grandfather served as rabbi for thirty years. When, after fleeing the Nazis in 1939, he returned to the city in 1950 to rededicate the Westend Synagogue, he prayed for a different future. I echo his prayers today.



Valentine’s Day and Hesed

I realised yesterday as I bought my bunch of early daffodils at a stall in Camden Town, that I’d interrupted the saleswoman from her task of tying up single red roses in pretty paper.

February 14 is not a fixture in the traditional Jewish calendar. But Valentine’s Day does have its ancient equivalent, Tu B’Av, the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av, when girls would dress in white and dance in the vineyards where the watching boys would choose partners. It was hardly an egalitarian set-up.

Judaism believes in love. As the wedding blessings show, Hebrew has an extensive vocabulary for romance, affection and fellowship: ahavah, love; achavah, closeness; shalom, peaceful togetherness; re’ut, comradeship. The Bible affirms the magic of passion, as when in The Song of Songs, the whole world is glorious, alluring and full of wonder.

But the greatest love word of all is hesed. No translation feels adequate: ‘loving-kindness’ is too ponderous; ‘faithful kindness,’ while more accurate, sounds pious; just ‘kindness’ seems too commonplace.

But kindness is what the word means, or tenderness, or faithfulness, the enduring, life-long, heart-felt commitment to treating others with warmth, compassion and proactive concern.

Hesed applies most closely towards those with whom we are most close. In intimate relationships it doesn’t exactly refer to passion, but it does express the thoughtfulness, affection and appreciation which differentiate love from lust.

In relationships between children, parents, grandparents and close family, hesed is all those little things –favourite foods, whats-apps about ‘how’s your day’, hugs, notes with the right message at the right time, allowances for our moods – which make us feel safe, loved and cared for, which make the difference between loneliness and home.

But hesed is not just a pretty term for those lucky enough to live inside cosy bubbles.

‘The world is built on hesed’, wrote the author of Proverbs, presumably intending this as a prayer rather than a statement about reality. Those are the words on the foundation stone of our synagogue. They are the base-line of our values: they express an attitude, a determination, a will to make the world different, especially in an environment which feels more cruel, hard-hearted and brash towards so many.

Hesed is present when, like Barbara Stern, you semi-retire and devote yourself to Home Start because so many local children don’t get breakfast before school and have no one to help with their homework and give them a decent chance in a competitive world. Hesed is when the man filling shelves in the store doesn’t just answer her question, but accompanies the lady with the white stick to where the rice is and asks her which kind she wants. Hesed is when any government, anywhere, doesn’t just say it cares but allocates budgets and acts because it really does care, and believes that the country is a safer, better and stronger place because of it.

Hesed is the essence of creation. It’s a basic rabbinic view that God made the world from and for the sake of hesed. The trouble is that this simply doesn’t appear true. In a cruel, self-devouring world the evidence just isn’t there.

That’s why the words of Arthur Green speak to me so sharply:

The flow of life as we experience it is morally blind… But as humans we are here to direct that flow of life, to lead the divine energy in the world in the direction of compassion… The divine energy flows outward from the Source, through the complex and multi-pronged evolutionary process, and into us… We, by adding to it the insight and act of compassion, send it streaming back to the One, our gift in gratitude for the gift of existence itself. (A Jewish Mystical Theology)

Hesed is the latent possibility in every relationship, every encounter. Through love of life and love for life, even in the smallest acts and simplest words, we make it real.


Let’s Plant

For two millennia Judaism has had its own Arbor Day, Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for Trees.

I don’t know when the love of trees begins, when you first kick the piled autumn leaves and watch in delight as they scatter, when you collect your first conkers, put acorn cups on your fingers, climb for the biggest, most elusive apple, dare the dark forest and find it full of wonder, or listen like Keats to the birds which sing amidst the ‘beechen green and shadows numberless’. I believe everyone has a favourite tree.

We need trees and trees need us. We need them for our spirit, for our very life.


The Hebrew root siach means both ‘shrub’ and ‘meditation’. Forests, gardens, indeed solitary trees, are wonderful companions in prayer. I love to listen to them. They silence the arguments in my head and speak to my soul. Trees, like all life, are a dwelling place of God.

The rabbis taught that when a tree is cut down, a cry goes out from one end of the world to the other, yet nobody hears.

That’s not entirely true. Our friend Heather, who had cancer, would walk daily to the corner of her street to be with her beloved tree. ‘They cut it down,’ she told us sadly one day. Soon afterwards, she died.

We’re learning to listen to the loss of our trees. We need them, physically, economically, ecologically, emotionally and spiritually. The authors of the Bible, the early rabbis living close to the land and the kabbalists understood this at every level.

I used to think that the first trees mentioned in the Torah, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, were two separate entities. But to the mystics this was not so; they were one and the same. Knowledge of good meant awareness of the vital, sustaining spirit which flows through all creation in the great rhythm of life, death and new life. Evil meant the weaponization of knowledge to exploit and destroy the leaves and roots of life’s tree.

Judaism encourages us to enjoy the fruits of that tree of life, but only with respect and humility. To consume without appreciation or blessing, is, in the Talmud’s words, the wrongful misappropriation of God’s gifts.

We need trees and trees now urgently need us. Across the faiths, on the internet and media, are numerous projects for planting and rewilding, such as the search-engine Ecosia whose users have planted 83 million trees. The figure goes up as you watch.

Judaism has an ancient tradition of nurturing trees. Two thousand years ago, challenged for planting carobs, which would never bear fruit in his lifetime, Honi the Circle-Drawer explained that he’d found the world with trees and intended to leave it so for his children.

Today, we need to leave it with trillions more than we find it. This applies from Britain, among the least forested countries in Europe, to the global south; from the diminished Caledonian forests to Madagascar and the Pacific Islands, whose very future depends on how we rewild and mitigate climate change. The destiny, too, of countless wild plants, insects, birds and animals is in our hands.

Communities of all faiths are responding. Ruth Valerio, who consulted me about Jewish sources when she wrote the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2020, Saying Yes to Life, describes the moving relationships between UK churches and rural communities in Peru who are personally planting thousands of saplings to preserve both nature and their livelihoods.

We must do no less. That’s why has been rooted, here in the UK, in the US, with further young branches in Israel and Canada. It facilitates planting through environmental NGOs who work with local communities, sustainably and ethically. Our New North London target is 50,000 trees. Please join us!

As Kohelet said, ‘There’s a time to plant’. It was never so urgent as now.


On listening to the Kaddish

Today’s the day to say Kaddish for Britain’s membership of the EU. For all its faults, the European Union and its precedents have helped maintain a relative peace across a bloody continent. I hope the seventy years which follow are as free of war and as committed to cooperation.

Kaddish is always a letting go, an acknowledgement that life and love, even the strongest bonds of parenthood and partnership, do not remain forever. Born to European family on both sides, attached in ways I cannot rationally fathom to the frequently tragic history and culture of continental Jewry, at home in cities, old synagogues and graveyards I have never visited before, I experience this day as a severance, a cutting-off of roots. But, as ever with an ancient faith and peoplehood which has always transcended the boundaries of geography and time, other roots will go down deeper into the sustaining soil of faith where life is always interconnected.

Like most other Jews, I have listened to countless people saying Kaddish and recited the ancient, resonant words many times myself. I’ve heard them spoken loudly and fast, whispered and slowly, stumblingly, fluently, in – and out of – time with others. I try not to judge. Perhaps the person rushing the words is fleeing as much pain as the mourner formulating the letters of each word, as if every slow syllable were a single stair in the long climb of a hundred thousand steps out of sorrow.

I’ve listened, too, to how the community reacts. For Kaddish is a communal affirmation; it requires a minyan, a quorum of ten, and is, if nothing else, a reinstatement, a reaffirmation of the bonds of solidarity: ‘I am with you, next to you, saying alongside you “Yehei Shemei Rabba, God’s great name”.’ The Shulchan Aruch, the sixteenth century code of Jewish law, teaches us to respond neither faster nor louder than the mourner. Our pace and volume should be in harmony with him or her.

This week I’ve listened to the Kaddish of a woman who, although she began with confident self-possession, suddenly wept although it was years since her mother died. I heard the first Kaddish of a family who lost a beloved daughter and sister. I tried too, to hear the unsayable Kaddish of a man in his nineties, bed-bound, who told me on Holocaust Memorial Day, ‘I never thought anything could bring it all back like that, Auschwitz, Birkenau,’ and who, when I asked if it was at those terrible places that he was ‘liberated’, replied, ‘No, at Dachau.’ One knows what that signifies, those hundreds of frozen miles, on foot…

I’m still thinking the Kaddish about all this; I shall be for the rest of my life. Yitgaddal, just that first, opening word, what does it mean? It’s a reflexive verb; how should it be translated: ‘May God show God’s self as great’? ‘May God, whose name is great, reveal that greatness?’

As I was wondering what such greatness might look like, a stupid, ridiculous thought entered my head: a snowdrop. A snowdrop? I picture them in my mind, singly in their delicate beauty, not just white but with fine green lines around the tiny bells, then in drifts of thousands in woodlands, by the path-sides. Snowdrops, the grace of bleak midwinter.

When we listen to someone saying Kaddish it is as if we are holding their hand, even if it trembles with sobbing, and, without denying their pain, helping them point it towards the world, perhaps to say, ‘There is beauty although I struggle to see it; there’s life although it hurts to try to embrace it. But help me, stand by me, and one day, despite everything, I shall; or at least, I shall try.’

It is with this solidarity, this loving courage, that we guide each other to behold the present and look towards the future.


75 years since the Red Army reached Auschwitz

My father’s grandmother did not survive long enough in Birkenau to see the four young Russian soldiers on horseback whom Primo Levi describes with that astute, understated eloquence which characterises his testimony:

they seemed oppressed not only by compassion but by a confused restraint…It was that shame…the just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist. (The Truce)

‘Liberation’ is an inadequate word to describe the arrival of the Red Army at Auschwitz on 27 January seventy-five years ago. For most who survived, freedom brought the unbearable confirmation that the world they had known, the community, teachers, family, loved ones had ceased to exist: they were all murdered.

My tears fell…they did not soak into the dust, but remained like round clear crystals, and that was all I could think of in that great hour (Gerda Weissman-Klein: All But My Life)

Today we remember not as rote or ritual, not as homage to the past and not because we are unable to forgive and forget. The wounds are still with us. They are there in the sorrow and trauma of survivors and their children. They are present as absence in the immense loss of wisdom, vitality, music, humour, poetry, love of life. They manifest in the injuries to spirit and psyche of all the peoples affected, the Jewish People, the Sinti Roma, every group which was ever a collective target, the terrible legacy of genocide which impacts not only on the victims but also on the descendants of the perpetrators and upon all humankind.

These wounds to the very body and soul of humanity, joined by the cries from Cambodia, Rwanda and elsewhere, call out to us today. They demand our vigilance. What Prince Charles said yesterday at Yad Vashem is only too true: ‘Hatred and intolerance still lurk in the human heart, still tell new lies, adopt new disguises, seek new victims.’

That is why we must challenge any act of wanton degradation, any law, bureaucratic obfuscation and collective action or inaction which causes gratuitous suffering to any individual or group, especially if targeted at their race, nationality, gender or religion. That’s why Lord Dubs, himself a Kindertransport ‘child’, is right in insisting that we must not abandon child asylum-seekers. [1] Many of our parents were once children like them, hoping some country somewhere, anywhere, would let them in and allow them to live.

Those wounds also weep. They seek our healing and our heart. They show us how precious life is, how vulnerable and tender; they weep for our compassion, gentleness, thoughtfulness and love.

It may seem strange, but each time I have been to Auschwitz-Birkenau I have had a similar experience: a call to silence before this unfathomable enormity, an unspoken instruction to say nothing, to listen not just to their deaths but to the living voices of those killed there, their hopes and loves.

To remember the Holocaust is to heed the unceasing appeal to our deepest, most comprehensive, most courageous and most compassionate humanity.

At the request of the Council of Christians and Jews I wrote the following prayer:

Holocaust Memorial Day 2020

There inhabit over Birkenau seventy-five years afterwards, over the remains of electrified fences, over the wooden huts, shacks which testify to cold, disease, starvation and dying, over the cracked concrete floors and broken-down ceilings of the gas chambers;

There inhabit not just the enduring, ineradicable hauntings of the slaughter of hundreds of thousands, Jewish people, Russian prisoners of war, Sinti Roma people, courageous enemies of Nazi ruthlessness and hate;

There inhabit in that space full of spirits the thoughts, longings, dreams of teenagers, grandmothers, human beings, who had families, neighbours, friends, made music, prayed, worked, loved and blessed each other, like Gerda whose Papa put his hands on her head in benediction when they were forced to part:

‘My child,’ he managed. It was a question and a promise. I understood. I gave him my most sacred vow: ‘Yes, Papa.’

In the quiet, which extends into the flat fields and birch trees past where relatives of survivors, pilgrims, visitors wander bewildered; in the silence which spreads over the marshes where the ashes were poured, there inhabit the disembodied voices of the murdered, calling without words, in languages only the heart can interpret, calling to God, calling to the presence of God within us:

Are you there? Do kindness, love, humanity exist?

Where are you now, in a world once again hate-filled, full of refugees, replete with disregard?

Is God there?

E’l De’ot, God who knows,

God who says Immo anochi betzarah, ‘I am with you in your troubles’,

Be with us, instruct us, guide us.

Give us eyes to see, ears to hear, a heart to care.

Discomfort our conscience, dispel indifference.

Demand of us the determination to name and call out hatred, in ourselves, our society, the world, anywhere, everywhere.

Prevent us from despairing of the power of goodness, compassion, courage and faith.

Imbue us with loving kindness to cure the wounds with can be healed and tend with gentle understanding those beyond our repair.

Open our hearts to the intricate, destructible wonder and fragile privilege of life.

[1] It is not too late to write to our MP in support. Please see this link and what I’ve written on Facebook

Pharaoh: the first populist?

The Book of Exodus is always too contemporary for comfort. There has always been slavery in the world, tragically; and there are always Pharaohs.

The ‘new Pharaoh’ who arises to rule Egypt at the beginning of the book may be the world’s first famous populist. We’re told that he ‘doesn’t know Joseph’; he’s not interested in the facts of his own country’s history. Alternatively, as the Talmud suggests, he pretends not to know. It doesn’t suit his interests to acknowledge that he may be in any manner indebted to that ‘Hebrew lad’ whom his predecessor brought out of prison to save the land from famine. He’s the prototype of the ruler who denies the contributions of ‘outsiders’, all too often a first step in denying them rights, first to equality, then to residency and, at worst, to life itself.

This new Pharaoh’s first public pronouncement is that there are too many of Joseph’s people over here: ‘You have to understand’, he tells his own people, ‘that these Children of Israel are now a nation: there are lots of them and they’re more powerful than us.’ This might be thought of as Pharaoh’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.

But it’s how he continues which is most interesting. ‘Havah nitchakmah lo’, he says; this is generally translated as ‘Come, let us deal wisely with them.’ But this fails to convey the full seductive power of his invitation: ‘you and I together, we’re smarter and savvier than them. We know how to deal with those people.’ It’s the way populists in every generation know how to draw out the worst in us all; the appeal to our insecurities in order to create an ‘us’ against ‘them’. It’s the manipulative allure of being considered one of the ‘clever’, not one of the losers who doesn’t get how dangerous ‘those people’ are. It’s the co-option of the little racist voice which, if we’re honest, whispers its innuendos in somewhere nervous and nasty inside most of us, into the big racist project of the leader who is the right man at the right time, who’s truly one of the people, one of us.

Nachmanides, the great thirteenth century Catalonian rabbi who was eventually forced to flee Spain to save his life, well understood what can happen when a leader legitimises the worst in human nature. He notes how Pharaoh doesn’t use his police or army to drown the Hebrew boy babies. He can rely on ordinary people to do that. They’ll stop at nothing, once the restraint of the law is removed. They’ll listen out for the sound of crying; they’ll go into the houses of their Hebrew neighbours and search; they’ll take the babies from their cots. Should any parent object, should anyone say ‘He just stole my child’, Pharaoh’s officers will say, ‘Of course it’s against the law. Just bring witnesses and we’ll settle your case.’ But no one will have seen, no one will ever have heard anything.

Pharaoh saw himself as the saviour of his country. Instead, he brings only disaster. It may take time, but gross injustice ultimately has gross consequences. ‘Are you still unable to grasp the fact that Egypt is utterly ruined’, Pharaoh’s own advisers tell him, finally voicing their frustration after the seventh of the ten plagues. In the end it is always the land itself which suffers under evil misrule, the poor, the cattle, the crops, the water, the entire ecology.

Samson Raphael Hirsch fought for equal rights for Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire before being called to Frankfurt, where he was rabbi of the orthodox community and lived through the unification of Germany under Bismark. Beware, he wrote in his commentary to the Torah, lest you make a person’s rights contingent on anything other than the basic fact of his or her humanity. Once you do that, you open the floodgates to all the horrors of Ancient Egypt.

In every generation we need to be wary not only of our Pharaohs, but, as the first Hasidic leader, the Ba’al Shem Tov, taught, of the little bit of Pharaoh in us all which says yes, thank you for dealing wisely.


Memories of my father

Vayechi means ‘And he lived’, although it opens the portion of the Torah in which Jacob dies.

My father, if he were still living, would have his 99th birthday today.

I met a man this week who, as a child, survived the Nazis in rural France. He described to me how he and his father had to flee to the forest and hide in a low, moss-covered cave. He’d thought little of his father then, he confessed. To the boy he then was, his father had seemed a broken man, unable to work or support the family. Only now, he told me with surprise, only now late in his life, was he hearing again in his head all the stories, all the poetry his father had shared with him during those long, lonely, frightening days.

I don’t know if the dead ever address us from some other outer world. But I do know that our dead speak to us from some deep inner reality, sometimes with a clarity we missed while they were living. Maybe it’s because the winnowing of time has removed the everyday husks, leaving only the kernels of their wisdom and love. Or perhaps some process within us, reflection, remorse, has helped us to hear more clearly their true voice.

This does not amount to any real recompense for our loss, for the absence of someone we love and with whom, day by day and week by week, we shared the wonder of the ordinary: a flower, a shopping list, a joke, a much-loved book. But it is some measure of consolation, given to us often only after time, when the years have enabled our dead to journey from our day, our kitchen, the message on the phone, into our heart.

I hear my father now in ways I wish I’d listened to more carefully before. Perhaps it’s because I think of his life not as ‘shall we repair this shelf?’ (he was brilliant with his hands) or ‘when shall I get home from hospital?’ (his last years were not easy), but as a whole. In Jerusalem it’s the custom to inscribe on every gravestone the places where each person was born and lived before his or her days ended in the holy city. I wish we’d put those destinations on my father’s stone: Breslau, Jerusalem, Glasgow, London, the journey of his life.

This past frightening week, when I spoke twice late at night to refugees from Iran terrified for their families still there, has made me think of what my father lived through. There are entire stories between the words ‘Breslau’ and ‘Jerusalem’: flight, hunger in the siege of Jerusalem (‘people were eating grass’). Between ‘Glasgow’ and ‘London’ is the death at just 44 of his first wife. It was only after he was gone that my cousin said to me in a café in Israel, ‘Your father was our hero.’

Most of all, I hear my father come upstairs to my brother’s room where, when I was five, I too was allowed to sleep, and say ‘If you’re good, I’ll teach you another line of the Shema again tomorrow.’ This, in my memory, is juxtaposed to how, when I was sixteen or seventeen, he questioned me: ‘Are you still saying the Shema before you sleep?’ Since then, I have never once consciously omitted to do so.

And, as Australia burns, and people and nature suffer appallingly, I hear my father ask somewhat sharply, as he did when we watched a moving documentary on the work of Medecin sans Frontieres, ‘And you, what are you going to contribute with your life?’

Abba, please don’t stop challenging my conscience. And, since I remember most especially your blessing before every Yom Kippur, please don’t let that blessing cease.

May the blessings of all who loved us never cease inside our hearts.



On nuthatches, nature and God

What’s in my soul to write about has nothing to do with this week’s Torah portion, except for just one phrase and then only if I take it out of context.

I want to write about the trees, the oaks, beeches and hollies in the steep hills of the Wye valley, ‘Thou wanderer through the woods’, as Wordsworth called this beautiful river 200 years ago in his wonderful Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey.

I want to write about the birds which came each day to the feeder where our family stayed. ‘Have you seen the nuthatches?’ Yes, we watched them, these shy birds who feed upside down like woodpeckers, only smaller, blue-grey backed and orange-breasted, which came so near and privileged us so closely to witness the life of the forest.

At night and before dawn the owls called, their cries like their flight, floating out of the darkness suddenly, gliding still-winged, then with two or three beats rising back into the blackness of the branches, from where, impossible to see, they with their huge eyes see all.

Later, out walking with the family or running in the early light, the mist concealed the river and turned the trees into harbingers of the forest’s mystery, with its falling streams and the pale glimmering from the edges of wet fallen leaves.

‘Wilderness is a curse word to me’, said Ernestine, a native Tlingit living in the islands off Alaska, to the ecologist-researcher Lauren Oakes. Lauren is shocked that these vast areas she had helped struggle to protect, ‘where earth and its community of life are untrammelled by man, where man himself is a visitor and does not remain,’ should be considered a ‘curse’. Then she understands: the world can’t be divided into ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’, wilderness and civilisation, exploitable and untouchable. Nature and humanity are not separate: what we need is relationship, but on terms enduring and endurable for all life. This is something Ernestine’s family have understood for generations: when to take and when to refrain from taking, so that millennia hence the forests will still be there. (see Lauren Oakes: In Search of the Canary Tree)

That’s the phrase from the Torah which returns to me again and again, ever since it caught my attention because of the haunting way it was sung in a Hasidic stiebl in Shaarei Hesed in Jerusalem: nafsho keshurah benafsho, his life is bound to his life; his soul is bound to his soul.

In context the words have nothing whatsoever to do with nature. Judah speaks them to describe the bond between his youngest brother Benjamin and his aging father Jacob: without the beloved son from whom he was so deeply reluctant to part, from whom only the unrelenting desperation of famine could divide him, the elderly parent will die.

But the words transcend that context. They do speak, indeed, of a bond of spirit between us and the people we love. But they also describe, with inimitable brevity, the vital connection between us and nature, between our life and all life, between our tiny fragment of spirit and the spirit of all being, between us and what we may perhaps mean by God.

This bond is the greatest of things, and the smallest, revealed in a water-drop condensed on a leaf, in the alighting of a tiny bird.

The lights of Chanukah: inner illumination, public values

It’s not just the presents, the chocolate coins and the doughnuts which make Chanukah so many people’s favourite festival. It’s the lights.

The Chanukah candles represent the most inward and most outward of illuminations. They are both our inner light and the light we owe each other, our society and the world.

‘The human spirit is a lamp of God,’ quotes one of my favourite Hasidic teachers, Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger. The single, seemingly insufficient jar of pure olive oil the Maccabees found amidst the ruins of the Jerusalem temple symbolises to him ‘the tiny point’ of purity and holiness which exists in every human being. This point may be small but it is incorruptible, despite all life’s challenges and temptations. Its flame can never be extinguished, because the light with which it burns comes from God.

Hence, in typical Hasidic fashion, the Rebbe creatively misreads the Torah’s command to Aaron, who is charged with kindling the lamps on the Menorah in the Temple. What the Torah says is ‘When you cause the flames to ascend.’ What the Torah really means, he explains, is ‘You must cause your light to ascend’, words addressed not just to Aaron but to every single person, always.

It is often far from easy to find our own inner light. Anxiety, the ceaseless noise of endless interactions, make it hard for us to find recourse to our deeper inner selves. Often, there’s just too much to do, the opportunity simply isn’t there. At other times, sorrow or confusion hover like thick clouds between our harried minds and the stillness we can’t access in our hearts.

That’s why I love the small lights of Chanukah. Just looking at them can help us find the way back.

Frequently, though, we need the help of others, just as the candles on the Chanukiah have to be lit by a shammash. Time and again it’s acts of kindness, generous insights, a word of appreciation, an image from a poem, which illumine the world for me, re-opening the path to my own spirit.

Yet, intimate as our inner lights may be, the rabbis of the Talmud stipulated that the Chanukiah on which they burn must be placed overlooking the reshut harabbim, the busiest public highway. To the mystics those inner flames are loving kindness, moral strength, truth, constancy, beauty and commitment. They are nurtured by faith in life, trust in God, and hope.

It is not enough to reflect on them in solitude. We must use them to light the high roads, back alleys, porches where the homeless try to sleep, chambers where politicians legislate, – all those places, hidden and in plain sight, which define us as a society and world. We have a public duty to contribute from the heart, to shine light both on our own conscience and on that of our entire society, and to act according to what we see.

Chanukah is not only the festival of light, but also of courage, the determination to live according to the values which God’s light illumines in our souls.


After the election – What our values are

Our ancestor Jacob had the right response to a long, hard night when he said to the stranger with whom he’d been wrestling, ‘I won’t let you go until you bless me’.

This is not a comment on the polling results. Like the countless people who spoke to me, I felt with anguish that this election was a choice between different kinds of bad. I could foresee no likely scenario which would leave me truly happy. It goes without saying that I’m no fan of Antisemitism, top down or bottom up, nor of any form of racism.

Rather, I’m focussed on what we, each and every one of us, and each and every community, can and must do in the time ahead. We must fight for our values.

I would have written this whatever the outcome of the elections. What wasn’t clear until morning was exactly which of those values would top the list of those most in jeopardy.

‘We’ve become complacent about moral progress,’ wrote Philip Pullman in Tuesday’s Guardian:

In the doorways of great, stony-hearted buildings, in urine-stinking underpasses, under crumbling bridges, people who have nowhere else to go lie down to sleep. And we go past.

The vast and profound literature of Judaism contains three thousand years of prophetic voices screaming at us that God abhors such complacency. It takes no great insight to know what the values are for which our faith, every true faith and every ethical attitude to life, teaches us to fight.

‘Don’t shut your heart to the poor,’ the Torah demands. To become a country or culture of hard-heartedness is to immolate ourselves morally and spiritually. Open your hand, open your heart, the Torah demands. Don’t let refugees, the homeless, the poor die around the corner from plenty.

‘Heal the sick,’ our daily prayers plead. The National Health Service is this country’s pride. If public money proves in short supply, then the gates of synagogues, mosques, churches and temples must be opened even wider as doorways to compassionate help and understanding for those struggling with physical disability, mental health and loneliness, to those who feel isolated in the search for solidarity and hope.

It’s your world, God, we say daily. We don’t have to be theologians to appreciate that what this really means is that we are stewards, trustees, protectors, temporary residents held responsible for what does not belong to us: the inestimable wealth and wonder of life. Every clean river, every well of drinkable water saves lives. Every field protected from insect- and bird-killing pesticides matters. Every tree not felled for short term interest, every forest restored, matters. Every species saved in the unfathomable interconnectedness of nature is the saving of our children’s children’s lives.

All these issues matter; we must give up on nothing. We pray, as we have in every synagogue each week, that Her Majesty’s Government will guide us in these struggles, or, if not lead then at least listen and follow.

But should this not always prove the case, we should remember that Judaism, like other faiths, knows another forms of power: the inalienable strength of individual conscience, magnified a hundred-fold by the resources and resilience of community, and a thousand-fold by working with other communities of faith, principle and commitment, locally, nationally and across the globe.

In these convictions, one feature of these last days has inspired me above all: seeing so many young people from our community campaigning because of their beliefs.

Some may disagree with their opinions; that’s not the point. They’ve stood up for their values. They give us hope. They teach us how to wrest blessings from the night.


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