The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Heart and Mind

Read the latest post

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.

The Power of Words

This isn’t what I’d intended to write on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, but -

Yesterday, as I was discussing the news with his parent, a child came on the line: ‘I don’t want deaths…after Jo Cox…No more deaths, will there?’ He was crying. I’ve heard nothing like this before. I hear the fear.

I am shocked and frightened at the abuse to which MPs and public servants, especially women, are subject, and at the derision directed worldwide at the guarantors of liberty, our independent judiciary and free press.

Verbal violence doesn’t only provoke physical violence. It turns threat, hatred and contempt into a form of culture; it uses them as tools for identity creation. Neither the UK, the US nor Israel or anywhere else must go that way. Life and the world are too precious.

Judaism has long appreciated the power of words: ‘Tell it here and it kills in Rome,’ warns the Talmud about lashon hara, which could be translated today as ‘verbal incitement’. What would the Talmud say in the social media age?

So my prayer is for words of goodness, kindness and healing.

Words are energy. ‘God spoke and the world came into being’: words are the divine instruments of creation. We humans can’t make physical worlds with words. But ask a poet, a novelist: words are sacred, wonderful, beautiful, malleable. They form worlds within worlds which transform the way we see and feel this world.

Words are greeting, recognition: Shalom Aleichem: I notice you; how are you? They are companionship, friendship and solidarity. They push at the doors of loneliness; they ‘speak to the heart.’

Words are questions, attempts at understanding: What does this mean for you? How does your life feel, in your thoughts, inside your skin?

Words are the pursuit of truth. Words may be discursive, debating, incisive, inventive, argumentative, impassioned, outraged – so long as they are ‘for the sake of heaven’.

Words are exhortation: do what is right and just! Words are warning to depart from evil.

Words are gratitude and blessing: thank you for this fruit, this water. Thank you for this dawn, this dusk, this life.


Is this the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Which of us has never shouted, never spoken in anger, never intended to be hurtful, never told a lie, never put someone down, never let a racist, sexist, derisive, contemptuous word pass our lips?

Therefore, words are also apology: I said wrong. I misunderstood you. I hurt you. Will you accept my apology? Will you help me to find a better way to live together, – in our family, our community, our country, our world?

My prayer is that words like these should be our discourse, in public as in private.

But my prayer is also for what lies deeper than words: the listening on which they must be founded.

Help us listen, with our hearts as well as our heads, to what lies beyond the words and silence of those we love, and of those who turn to us, or to whom we should be turning.

Help us hear our ‘them’, our ‘that lot’, whoever they may be, with whom we may disagree viscerally but to whose realities we may have paid little if any attention.

Above all, help us listen to life itself, this living world, this wonder of rivers and mountains this terror of storms and droughts, so that we hear the urgent need for protection and restoration.

Then, out of that listening, may be find the words and commit ourselves to the actions of healing.

That is my prayer, which I address to myself, and you, and everyone, and God.


Why truth matters

Just as the liturgy of the High Holydays emphasises life and love, so it focuses on integrity and truth. We are called to speak truth before the God of truth.

I’m experiencing the side-stepping of truth in certain fields of public discourse as deeply frightening. ‘To abandon facts is to abandon freedom’ wrote Timothy Snyder in On Tyranny; ‘’if nothing is true, then no one can criticize power.’ (p. 65)

Judaism holds as self-evident not only certain specific truths, – the importance of life, liberty and responsibility, – but, most significantly, the basic proposition that there is such a thing as truth. There are different kinds of truth, including many shades of subjective ‘truth’ relative to the perspective of the beholder. But this does not contradict the central importance of truthfulness, or that there exist such things as falsehood, lying and denial. Hence the Torah commands us to keep far from false matters, search truth out, acquire truth and speak truth in the heart.

Underlying this commitment to truthfulness is the belief that we are ultimately accountable. That is how Rashi explains the Torah’s injunction to ‘fear your God’: know that even where there are no human witnesses there is One who knows.

I am not sure where this ‘One’ is. Sometimes the ‘One’ is my own conscience, when I realise that I’ve been telling that most subtle and intimate of half-truths, or half deceits, – to myself about myself. At other times, the ‘One’ is in the mind of my friend or interlocuter, expecting, adjuring me to, speak honestly. Often my sense is vaguer, that somehow life reads me, has the measure of my heart and deeds, summons me to integrity.

I fear that without such a sense of answerability we are adrift in a sea of chaos and violence, that, again in Snyder’s words, ‘Post-truth is pre-fascism’. That is why this season when we are called to account is so profoundly important, not just to Jews, but to civilisation itself, even if we do not believe in God in any way at all, but that the locus of truth lies is the human heart and conscience.

For it is in the name of truth that we must challenge lies, evasion and the suppression of evidence out of self-interest; acknowledging, of course, that we too may be mistaken and that truth does not belong to us, but that we must belong with truth. Only thus can we face the challenges before us with integrity and hope: how to live with ourselves and each other in a world able to sustain the rich and beautiful diversity of life. We have no time to waste on disingenuity and denial.

Truth is not the only quality we need. ‘Truth and peace have fallen in love,’ reads the leader’s meditation, ‘Righteousness, justice and compassion as well as truth accompany you’. I find it easier to write about kindness, peace, healing and beauty. But they have no basis, are rooted in no sustaining ground, without truth. That’s what frightens me, and what makes our thoughts, prayers and resolve so important at this season.


Apples are for life

I went into the garden to pray; I feel among my betters there too. The plants breathe into the words, then the birds carry them on their wings and with their songs.

Apple-Tree-RJWI was struck by the sight of this apple tree, its fruit in perfect time for the New Year’s blessing. People may remember; I bought that tree in memory of the three daughters of Dr Abuelaish, killed in their home in the Gaza war. I planted it not to take political sides, but out of sorrow; I planted it because amidst the deaths it felt essential to side with life.

Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish spoke last year in my community. Afterwards, though it was already dark, he asked me to show him that tree, which he photographed for his other children. It felt as if we prayed together there, calling on the God of life.


‘Life’: if there is one word stressed above all others in the long liturgy of the New Year it’s the single syllable, ‘life’. ‘Choose life’, the Torah demands. God is ‘the living God’ who ‘loves life,’ ‘remembers us for life,’ and whom we ask to ‘write us in the book of life’.

Yesterday I wrote about hesed, loving-kindness; it’s the natural expression of the longing to cherish life, to nurture, tend, listen, care and heal. In these acerbic and divisive times, life can be assured and enhanced only by healing, not by more anger and hate. It was surely this generous and instinctive insight which led Dr Abuelaish to title the book he wrote in the wake of his tragedy I Shall Not Hate:

We need to reach each other by embracing one another’s realities, sending messages of tolerance rather than intolerance and healing instead of hate.

Healing is what the vast majority of people want, even in the midst of conflict. Rushing his other wounded to children to hospital – in Israel – Dr Abuelaish reached the Sheba hospital

to an enormous show of support from the staff I’d worked with, as well as passionate blessings from Arab, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian people…

‘Hatred’, he concluded, ‘is an illness. It prevents healing and peace.’

We need healing in every dimension of our lives. It’s impossible to live, have a heart, be a rabbi, for even a day without being aware of life’s cruel injustices. I often wish that there existed some power or means to take the wounds out of each other’s hearts. But I know we can offer only companionship, understanding and prayers that life will breathe a wind of healing over the sores in our souls.

Amidst the acrimony of Brexit and similar divisions afflicting other societies, we need to try to comprehend and not just condemn. What does life feel like for ‘them’, whoever our ‘them’ might be?

Most of all, we must act and pray for the world’s healing, so that apple trees can grow in gardens and songbirds peck at the fruit.

We must be on the side of life.


About love

There is a particular service which, year by year, opens my heart to the High Holydays. It’s a small gathering, and maybe its best that way because it takes place at the cemetery. We remember together our family, community and friends, once part of our everyday life and whose love still hold us in our hearts.*

I’m privileged to witness to many loving words. Love at the close of life is especially moving; it touches the transcendent, it’s the only quality able to transcend:

(In the hospital) I’m here. I’m holding your hand, my darling. You can go now; be free, if that’s what has to be. I love you and I’m with you.

(In the chapel) I couldn’t keep you by my side, but I hold you in my heart forever.

(On the stones) ‘Forever loved and deeply missed…’ ‘You are my love, my life, my hope’… (Those words, always inadequate, always merely pointers to what cannot be expressed.)

Many matters touch the heart, but love is at the centre.

We are mortal. Embodied, in our parents, partner, closest friend, children (God forbid), love cannot conquer time. But in the soul, it does: the love which reached us from the past and nurtured our spirit, lives in us and becomes our gift. Perhaps life’s greatest achievement before we return to the dust is to pass that love safely into the trust of the future.

We say of God in the Days of Awe: ‘Your throne will be established in love and you will reign on it in truth.’ A Hasidic leader commented: ‘Only where there is love can God truly reign’.

I’m not entirely sentimental. Love isn’t always easy. People are complicated: they don’t only inspire us; they annoy us, bore us, frustrate and frighten us. Opportunities for anger are always present: there’s not just road-rage, but supermarket rage, office quarrel rage and my-family-are-driving-me-crazy rage. For many, rage at life itself is amply justified: life can take away loved ones, expose one to cruelty and abuse, leave one with no work, no home, no freedom, no sense whatsoever of hope.

Love is not a given; it’s inner work, for which we often need help. Mercifully, life not rarely proffers it, in the form of kindness, loving people, beauty, quiet, prayer. Life offers it often, but not always.

And yet (or maybe I should say ‘And therefore’) I believe love is a subterranean river, flowing hidden beneath the heart, invisible across the generations; sometimes, suddenly emerging fast-flowing into green, refreshing joy, then plunging down and away, but almost never utterly, very rarely totally, beyond the reach of the deep well of the heart.

So may God’s throne be established in truth in each of our hearts so that we can face life’s challenges with love.

*(I am leaving the theme of environment, not because I don’t think it’s important, but because there are so many important matters close to the heart. I will revert to it just once before Yom Kippur. For those who want more practical guidance on what we can do, please go to on the NNLS website, or to Eco Synagogue)



From Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur: 1

‘Help us know what we can do?’ I’ve been asked repeatedly to stress the environment in my High Holyday letters. Each day until Yom Kippur I will try to focus on a different Jewish value, a specific sentence from the prayers, and practical actions we can take.

The place to begin is the beginning: ‘This day is the birthday of the world’. Rosh Hashanah celebrates creation and creator, all matter, every living being and the presence of the living God within all life.

Most of us realise we are in the midst of a climate emergency, the central issue in global justice, and survival itself.

Just as there is a debate among the legalists as to which is the first commandment, the fear or the love of God, so there are different views among climate activists as to whether we are motivated more by love or fear.

‘You shall love the Lord your God’, is the essence of the Shema, Judaism’s central, daily meditation. To love God is to care, deeply, for God’s works: people, animals, nature the very elements of earth and air.

I’ve met no one who hates trees, despises birdsong, or is immune to the intricacy of nature. To those who love it, the wonder of the natural world, even in a single leaf or bud, lifts the heart and replenishes the spirit. To anyone who reads any of the research, nature is also us: we are interdependent with it, dependent even on the smallest insects and worms.

Love, taught Maimonides, deepens with knowledge:

When one contemplates God’s works, perceiving in them a fraction of the infinite and endless divine wisdom, at once one is filled with love… (Foundations of Torah 2:2)

One does not have to believe in God to be moved in this way.

To love therefore means to learn. We can choose a tree, bird or animal (oak, ash, bumblebee, starling, elephant, red squirrel, cow), look out for it, study its fate, reflect on the challenges it faces today. We can join the Woodland Trust, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Plantlife, The Wildlife Trust, the Worldwide Fund for Nature or any similar organisation in the UK, Israel or across the globe.

Ignorance, when we have the opportunity to learn, is a form of indifference. But love leads to knowledge; knowledge to awareness, and awareness to action.

On its birthday the world calls to us in the shofar’s cry to be more deeply aware:

Let everything You made know that You made it; all creation understand that You are its creator. (The Rosh Hashanah Amidah)

If all life is so precious, how can we bear to destroy it? What can we do to protect it? How, in traditional terminology, can we be co-creators with God?

Get in touch...