The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Heart and Mind

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We must not be disempowered by a culture of bullying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

81 years since Kristallnacht; 30 years since the Berlin Wall

Tomorrow evening brings the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our neighbour gave us away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Prayer that ‘lets the light into your soul’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Torah begins with wonder

The Torah, like a child, begins its explorations with wonder.

I think the magic of that first light of the first ever day has never entirely dimmed in our souls. ‘Look’, says Nicky, ‘Come out in the garden’. The sun has sunk and clouds of red and orange illumine the pear trees from behind and even the high roads to the west are touched by transient, lucent beauty.

Day two is land and water. Every adult becomes part child again at the sea’s edge. Shells, stones smoothed by a thousand years of tides, rock pools like mini oceans with their strange anemones, tiny replicas of Shelley’s sea-blooms and oozy woods ‘which wear the sapless foliage of the ocean’, the mesmerising rhythm of falling waves which were before and shall be after: these mysteries beguile our complications, untwist our thoughts into the simplicities of wonder and of joy.

Day three is the creation of the grass and trees, meadowlands and forest. Late January is the time to walk in the early light among the oaks and beeches, to see the glory of their branch-work unveiled by the long-fallen leaves. April is the month to capture the day, when the grey twigs of the oak, as many as a quarter of a million on an ancient tree, reveal the tiny leaves, or when the sticky dark brown chestnut buds unfold their curious fingers to feel the new spring air. Give me a night walk through the forest when the deer race across the twilight path and the last birds chant their ragas to the night and I’ll be there.

The Torah is concerned with many matters: right and wrong, good and evil, family feuds, tyranny, injustice, bullying, peer pressure, and how to remain just and kind nonetheless. There’s nothing with which our lives are intertwined, our thoughts burdened, or our hearts weighed down about which the Torah and its commentators have nothing to say.

But the Torah begins with wonder; wonder comes first, and wonder is something we all need.

Day four is the moon and stars; day five are the fishes and the birds, the loud-mouthed wren, the nuthatch which feeds upside down; the morning of the sixth day brings the horses, foxes, hedgehogs, beavers, badgers, wolves.

Finally, we humans enter creation, in the image of God, capable of creating or destroying, of wonder or contempt. I didn’t ask for an easy life, Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, ‘I asked for wonder, and God gave it to me’. I believe the capacity for wonder exists in every child and in the child within every adult and remains with us lifelong as the secret wisdom of growing older without becoming old.

The philosophers and mystics debate which of the commandments comes first: to know God, love God or be filled with the awe of God. I don’t think the order matters very much. Rather, take them all together, apply them not to what we cannot know but to what lies before our eyes, that autumn chrysanthemum, that blackbird, that cloud which can’t quite catch up with the moon, – and they add up to a wonder, a reverence, a sheer, overwhelming joy which sometimes overtakes us with such power that we stop still, our thoughts still, our soul still, traversed by the mystery of endless life which has bestowed on us, briefly, temporarily, this unfathomable consciousness.

We need wonder. Where there is wonder, there is reverence and respect. How then can we ever seek to hurt or to destroy?

 

Walking the Moonlit Walk

There is a custom among mystics to observe one’s moon-shade on the night of Hoshana Rabba (the Great Hoshana). You have to find a field or forest far from light-pollution and walk with the moon behind you, observing how it casts your shadow at your feet.

The date is significant because Hoshana Rabba is regarded as the day when the books of destiny are finally sealed. One wears white; the liturgy is an after-echo of the melodies of the Days of Awe; the greeting is Gmar Tov, ‘a good conclusion: May you be included in the book of a good life and good deeds’. The service ends with seven circuits of the synagogue chanting our hopes for humanity, nature, the very earth itself and the ultimate Jerusalem when peace will settle over the face of the globe. The chorus is always Hoshana, ‘Save!’ Hence the name Hoshana Rabba.

Hoshana Rabba begins this Saturday night and the weather forecast for London is mediocre, in case anyone does fancy that midnight moonlit adventure. The more compete your shadow, the fuller your year will be.

The fact that I don’t believe in such superstitious myths, and even regard them as spiritually dangerous, has proved insufficient to prevent me from sometimes following the dark night path. (Maybe I should regard this as a mere by-product of walking the dog. And what can be bad about a night-walk among the moon-shadows of the trees with a dog for company?)

For, though I deplore the custom if taken literally, as a metaphor I find it deeply significant.

The danger with literalism is that it presupposes a God who lengthens or shortens our days according to some inscrutable criterion of divine justice. Life contains too much patent unfairness for it to be possible, to me at least, to believe in such a deity. Nor do I want anyone to feel that the losses, sorrows and fears which life invariably entails, though distributed in unequal measure, are necessarily our just deserts. Life is often cruel.

But as a metaphor the night-lit wander on Hoshana Rabba shines into my conscience. The High Holydays are behind us now. What light do they cast on the path before me in the year ahead? What kind of me do they project into the footsteps of the future?

I have listened to much beauty: music and words two thousand years-old which directed my ancestors’ lives: ‘Open your heart’, ‘Remember; be aware!’ ‘Write for life with the God of life’.

I have heard much wisdom from many people: we’ve debated the nature of truth and the moral centrality of integrity and accountability; we’ve spoken about love of the world and our urgent responsibility towards nature, trees, even bees; we’ve discussed the plight of refugees, families fleeing persecution, women trying to escape societies which fail to protect them from abuse.

These responsibilities and truths now shine on my path ahead, outlining in shadow form who I might be, what I could, should, might do with this precious next year of life: Will I care enough? Will I be kind? Will be a planter or uprooter? Will I have the integrity to follow the example of other people’s light, or the courage to step forward where the path is yet unlit?

The God I believe in speaks to the heart, breathing into it wonder, love, honesty and courage. Will we listen in the year ahead? Will we walk the walk?

 

Attack on the Synagogue and Jewish Community of Halle

We are shocked and dismayed to learn of the despicable attack on the synagogue in Halle while the community were at prayer on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

We admire the courage and swift reactions of the synagogue security in barricading the door. We stand together with the Jewish community of Germany in these days of anguish. We have written to the head of the community of Halle, Max Privorotzki, to express our solidarity.

Our hearts go out in sorrow to the families of those killed by the gunman in the streets outside the synagogue, on whom he vented his rage. May God be with you in your grief and bring you strength and comfort. We wish speedy healing to all those injured.

We appreciate Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immediate expression of solidarity.

We deplore all forms of racist violence and stand together with all Jews, Christians, Muslims and people of all faiths and beliefs who have been the victims of such murderous aggression in the past years.

As Imam Monawar Hussein of the Oxford Foundation writes:

We must all work to unite against those advocating violence, hatred and division. We must watch out for the vulnerable in our society, reach out to each other and strengthen the bonds of friendship

Why Succot may be even more important today than Yom Kippur

Succot is a first Jewish memory; my father was a wonderful Succah maker. My family have inherited his booth-building passion.

If Yom Kippur takes us up to heaven, Succot brings us down to earth. If Yom Kippur leads us to the Holy of Holies of the spirit, Succot reconnects us with the soil.

Long before the building of huts with sheaves and leaves and branches became associated with our ancestors’ forty years of wandering in the wilderness, Succot was an ancient harvest festival.

‘Festival’ may not be the right word; succot, booths or shelters, were a farming necessity in lands where the sun beat relentlessly onto the fields. Thus, the first mention of a succah in the Bible has nothing to do with what we now call Tabernacles; it refers to the shelters Jacob built to allow his cattle to rest in the shade.

It is just this earthiness which makes me love and respect the festival.

Succot is a celebration of our bond with the earth, a festival of gratitude. To ensure we experience it personally, Nicky and I have long chosen seeds, tended the young plants, watched them grow and, if they thrived, ensured we left the last pickings of beans and courgettes, kohlrabi and pumpkins, for the Succah. Last year we even had just one home-grown watermelon (the magic size of a tennis ball) to share among our 27 guests in miniature slices.

We were only following ancient custom: the Talmud refers to hanging sheaves of corn, flasks of wine and plums (or their equivalent) in the festival booth. These basic foodstuffs were eloquent with a directness our supermarket generation has half-forgotten: ‘Thank you for the gifts of the soil. Without the rain, the insects, and the right weather we could not live’.

For, as the festival prayers make clear, we are utterly dependent. The two-thousand-year-old chants were not written in remote academies. They were composed by farmer-poets who knew the land, understood in the stomach the meaning of flood and drought: ‘Save man and beast, restore the soil, protect the trees which shelter us from desolation, O God who holds the world suspended over the void’. (I shared this text at the Succah in Trafalgar Square last night.)

This awareness of dependence underlines the bond not just between humans and nature, but also between ourselves, as families, communities and faiths.

‘Hide me in your Succah during evil days’, goes the Psalm. It sounds like a bad prayer. What could be a worse place to hide than a hut of sticks and branches? But that’s the point. True safety in any society is not when we need bunkers, but when we can dwell together, outside, protected only by the thin walls of makeshift celebratory huts because we understand that we will all only survive if we recognise together the shared gifts of this earth.

That is precisely what isn’t happening today, when only the strong doors of the synagogue in Halle kept the attacker out, and when he vented his rage on unprotected passers-by.

If I had to choose, I might say that our world needs the teachings of Succot even more urgently than those of Yom Kippur.

 

Saying sorry

On the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we must make our peace with one another. The Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish Law composed by Joseph Caro in the middle of the sixteenth century in Safed, devotes a whole section to this difficult subject.

We should apologise even if we only hurt the other person with words. If we caused them loss or other quantifiable harm, we need to make good. If our sincere apology is not initially accepted, we should offer it a second and a third time.

To withhold acceptance of an apology is considered hard-hearted, unless the wrong inflicted on us is grievous and beyond healing. Even then, though, says the Shulchan Aruch, it is an act of mercy and kindness to receive an honest and remorseful apology with good grace. It is worth remembering Nelson Mandela’s counsel that to hold on to resentment and bitterness is like drinking a cup of poison and expecting our opponent to die.

I’m often asked what to do if it’s difficult or impossible to offer our apology face-to-face. We want to come clean with both the person we have hurt and with our own conscience. But sometimes that person is not accessible to us.

If he or she is no longer alive, the tradition is to speak our heart at the graveside. If life has driven us apart through a painful shared history no one is eager to revisit, or if we have uttered disparaging words but the other person is not necessarily aware of this, we can only speak truth to our own heart and to God, or to a trusted friend, and resolve to learn for the sake of the future. What we are not entitled to do is to hurt another person further (‘You may not remember, but…’) in order to salve our own conscience. Life, sadly, usually has unfinished business.

All that said, this is not primarily the way I feel about these days before Yom Kippur. Rather, I experience them as precious days, days of appreciation. I think about my family, especially my wife and children. Somehow, the heightened sense of life’s fragility, of the brief, wonderful, uncertain privilege of time, of each holiday and ordinary day shared, deepens my awareness of them. What goes through my heart is gratitude, the wish to acknowledge what I owe to them, and to my friends, to my community, to tens of people whom I have encountered, whose poetry I have taken to heart.

Apology follows, in thought more often than word. I regret the ways I have hurt you.

I imagine my reactions are typical.

Then our ‘I’m sorry’, flows from love as in Naomi Shemer’s song ‘I haven’t loved enough’: ‘I haven’t told you, appreciated you, given back to you or life, enough’. Thus sorrow and remorse become part not only of contrition but of blessing, for a beautiful but deeply challenging world which urgently needs our faithful loving kindness and enduring care.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah

Life’s categorical imperative

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me),
It’s always our self we find in the sea.

These much-loved lines by EE Cummings could also describe Yom Kippur. For the Day of Atonement is a sea, a chance to wash ourselves until we find our most real self again, our truest, deepest self. I don’t know if the sea is the music and the waves the words of prayer, or if the sea is consciousness itself and music the tide which carries it in to the heart.

Shuvah means return. ‘Come home’, says God, ‘Come back to me.’ The voice which calls out to us, so I believe, is not that of some bleak moraliser, a spoiler at life’s dance who halts the music with a long list of don’ts. The voice is the call of life itself: ‘Hear me; see me. Have you noticed those amber leaves? That sky?’ If there are don’ts, they are simply these: don’t ignore me, don’t hurt me, don’t destroy me. (Simply these? Imperatively, categorically these!)

‘Return’ is the call chai ha’chaim, the very life of life, the call of God within life. Since that life is inside you and me, who are at this moment privileged with the wondrous, irreplaceable gift of life, the call to return comes not just from without but from within us. It is my own soul’s longing to belong to life, to be at one with and love life, as a child hugs her dog to her heart, wanting only to be inseparable forever.

‘Return’ is God’s call from inside my heart, as the Psalmist wrote ‘Lecha amar libbi’, loosely translatable as ‘my heart is You speaking’.

Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, one of the great spiritual teachers of the last century, not only because of his unvanquished courage in the Warsaw Ghetto, but because of his encompassing compassion and insight, taught that the Ten Days of Penitence are not, or at least not just, about repenting of specific sins. This we should do promptly, whenever we become aware of our mistakes and transgressions. Rather, these days are the longed-for opportunity to answer the heart’s call, God’s call, to cleanse our very consciousness in the One to which we belong.

What is that One, that sea, where I both lose and find myself? It is the essence of life, the oneness which unites all life and to which all life belongs. Therefore, it calls from everything; we can hear it everywhere and anywhere. It calls in the woodpecker half upside-down at the seed-feeder, and in the goldfinch waiting timidly in the queue. It calls from the sorrow of friends who lost their mother this week. It calls from the long line of men, women and children-in-buggies at the Drop-In, seeking support, solidarity, asylum, hope, future. It calls in the children’s protests: don’t destroy our future.

What difference does it make to bathe our consciousness in life’s sea, in the ocean of the presence of God? Our mind already knows the answer: I belong to life and am at life’s service. I am not here to hurt, uproot, exploit, destroy; I am here to tend, heal, plant, nurture, cherish, love and care. I am not here just for me, but to fulfil myself in life’s service.

Our mind knows. But when we are actually in that sea, our heart knows too. It absorbs the knowledge into its very depths and disburses it into the arteries which feed all our actions.

That, in this eleventh hour, must make all the difference.

 

‘It wasn’t me’ – On Teshuvah and remorse

Few of us find it easy to say the simple words, ‘I’m sorry. I was wrong.’ They’re humiliating. They taste like cowardice and feel like defeat. But the real failure of courage probably lies in the inability to get them over our lips.

Maimonides explains that the true penitent ‘changes his name, as if to say, “I’m different now; I’m not the same person as the man who did those deeds”.’

There are two ways to read those words. They can sound like denial: ‘Me? Do that? It can’t have been me. The real me, the me as I like to think of me, never does things like that.’ We may well manage to convince ourselves, maintaining the fiction of who we fancy ourselves to be, while our actual deeds run along after us, calling out vainly in the voices of those we’ve ignored and bruised but who never quite manage to catch the attention of our conscience.

What Maimonides means to say is clearly the opposite: ‘I’m truly different now. I’ve struggled with what I did; I’ve learnt from it and I’ve changed.’

This is heart-work and it’s hard. It takes honesty and courage.

The Torah opens a beautiful short section on Teshuvah, return or repentance, with a simple but telling clause: vahasheivotah el levavecha. It’s often translated as ‘You shall lay this to your heart’, yet it can equally mean ‘Take yourself back to your heart’.

That is where the journey of Teshuvah, return, has to start. It may be prompted by remorse of a specific action. For example, someone once told me, ‘I never believed I was capable of hitting another person. I was utterly shocked by what I’d done.’ During the London riots, many people were horrified afterwards by the thefts they themselves had, in the heat and incitement of the moment, committed.

Remorse occurs when we find the honesty and courage to bring our actions to the awareness of our heart and say and feel: ‘I did’. It’s a deeply uncomfortable experience.

Yet it’s also a moment of hope. For now the resolve to learn, do better, become a better person, the best person we are capable of being, is not merely a thought or general intention. It glows in the core of our being; burns with a fire which has the power to transform the memory of those very actions of which we feel most ashamed into our most powerful teachers for the future. We never, ever want to do the same again. We have learnt, in our very gut and soul.

Teshuvah, the belief in our capacity to change, to ‘return’ to being the person we want to and can be, is a profound affirmation of the human spirit. It begins in the heart and from there grows to embrace our relationships with each other, with injustice and cruelty, with nature and God’s world itself.

But it starts with taking uncomfortable and inconvenient truths to heart.

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