The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Heart and Mind

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Let My People Stay

Wearing a kippah and knowing Hebrew didn’t seem the most relevant asset when I visited the so-called ‘Jungle’ in Calais 15 months ago with leaders of different faiths. Suddenly a young man touched me on the shoulder and addressed me in Ivrit. He’d been an asylum-seeker in Israel, he explained. People had been decent to him but there was no future there. So he’d returned to the Sudan, been shot at, and then made his perilous way across the sea and through Europe – to here. He showed me his tiny, flimsy tent.

Now Israel is proposing to deport its asylum-seekers, or detain them indefinitely. In defiance, Rabbis for Human Rights has started the Anne Frank Home Sanctuary movement to give refugees shelter and protection:

“Who here would be willing to house people?” asked Rabbi Susan Silverman at a gathering of rabbis and educators in Jerusalem. All 130 or so people in the room immediately raised their hands.  (Haaretz)

As that gathering clearly understood, ‘Jewish’ in the description ‘a Jewish state’ needs a moral, not just a national, meaning.

Meanwhile a hundred rabbis protested in Washington this Wednesday, urging the passage of a clean DREAM Act. DREAMers are undocumented children who’ve fled to the USA from Mexico and other South American countries.

Valeria Luiselli, a novelist translates for such children at immigration courts, writes about their experiences in Tell Me How It Ends: an Essay in Forty Questions. – (Those are the forty questions the children have to answer at the hearings)

The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.

She describes the huge risks of violence, rape and ‘disappearance’ which the children run on La Bestia, the nickname for the train through Mexico on the roofs or between the carriages of which most of those children reach the border, before trying to give themselves up to US patrols before vigilantes find them.

The DREAM Act (The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) offered a pathway through education for such children to become citizens. Meanwhile, they were protected under the DACA programme (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), instituted during the Obama presidency. Last September President Trump determined to end this protection.

Alongside rabbis, protesters in Washington included leaders of the Anti-Defamation League, and HIAS (which assisted Jewish refugees to the States). Taking their cue from Moses, they sang ‘Let my people stay’, and ‘God is my strength’ as they waited to be arrested. Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the ADL said:

As the Jewish community intimately understands, at its best, the United States has been a beacon of hope for refugees and immigrants facing persecution… A clean Dream Act is a moral imperative for the heart and soul of our nation.

I grew up hearing from both my parents what it was like to flee persecution and start again with nothing. The Yishuv, the embryo Jewish State in Palestine, helped my father and his family; the British Consulate and many kind individuals, most not Jewish, assisted my mother. The message they passed on to me was clear: what others did for us, we must do for others.

Meanwhile here in the UK, people, including many children, sleep rough on nightmares of the violence they have fled, waking to a cold, lonely and uncertain future.

We can’t help everyone. But we are not at liberty to do nothing and help no one. Where the physical lives of the persecuted and destitute are on the line, our moral lives are on the line too.

 

‘We can’t leave it to others’: Thoughts for the 35th Martin Luther King Day

Late last night we celebrated with Kioumars, a refugee from Iran who has been staying with us and has just received leave to remain in the UK. He spoke to us about a church he attends in central London, saying:

You pray inside a building. You take a few steps outside and see two homeless people. You can’t separate these matters. It makes no sense to pray inside and not care what’s outside, on the doorstep. Where’s my responsibility?

Kioumars’s comment reminded me of the message Susannah Heschel sent last week on the Yahrzeit of her father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He defined a religious person as

A person who is maladjusted, attuned to the agony of others, aware of God’s presence and God’s needs…always refusing to accept inequalities, the status quo, the cruelty and suffering of others.

In a touching reminiscence, Susannah asks from where her father drew his strength to march next to Martin Luther King, stand up against the Vietnam war and protest racism, narrow-mindedness and soullessness wherever he encountered them. ‘From prayer’, she answers, describing how she loved to sit quietly in the room while he enveloped himself in tallit and tefillin, in prayer-shawl and phylacteries, in liturgy and love.

But he did more: ‘I was praying with my feet’, Heschel answered a critic who challenged him about what he’d been doing down in Selma, Alabama, on that march to Montgomery in the spring of 1965.

Our rabbis define prayer as avodah shebalev, ‘service of the heart’, the devotion of the consciousness to God. They understood this as an integral part, the core and inspiration, of a life of avodah, a life devoted to service with all our being: feet and hands, body and soul.

This Monday, 15 January, marks Martin Luther King Day in the United States. It was a date hard fought for. It took fifteen years after his assassination, six million signatures, a hit song Happy Birthday by Stevie Wonder and a gathering by veterans of the civil rights campaign on the 20th anniversary of King’s I Have a Dream, to establish the day in the American calendar.

It is a commemoration most urgently needed at the present hour. ‘My father’, Susannah Heschel wrote further, would have been devastated to witness ‘the KKK marching in the streets, neo-Nazis celebrating’ and racism emanating from the highest places: ‘He would be pacing the floor, unable to sleep…’

In this week’s Torah portion Moses and Aaron ‘go in to Pharaoh’ time after time. They are not frightened to confront tyranny, cruelty and moral blindness. Neither are they afraid of their own people’s preference for the status quo, their understandable concern that protest is only making matters even worse. Moses, who describes himself as ‘burdened in speech and heavy of tongue’, has a greater weight to consider which puts his own reticence into second place: the burdens of suffering born by his brothers and sisters.

We live in a time of danger, from East and West. Values of dignity, justice and compassion cannot be taken for granted. We cannot leave it to others to protect the humanity of the most vulnerable, or our own. ‘Stand up’, insists Timothy Snyder in his sharp-edged book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century: ‘Take responsibility for the face of the world’.

 

In Honour of Aharon Appelfeld

I had wanted to write about the moon in the water of the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal. I was running with the dog at dawn when I saw, trapped on the surface of the water among the reflected branches of the trees, the image of the moon. Maybe it’s the Hebrew word sihara, the rarer, more poetic term for ‘moon’, which makes me think of the adjective ‘serene’, but there was a silence, a beauty and a mystery to this scene, the cream moon-shadow floating on the blue-black water among the trees.

I wanted to write about how such images sustain me in the torn-edged rush of life. I like to say my prayers in such places, in woodlands, beside small streams, in a garden. It’s different, praying amid such company. It’s not so much about me saying words of prayer, as letting the noise inside my head yield to the stillness, quieted by the call of a bird, the semi-silent movement of a sheep in the neighbouring field. Then reverence and prayer enter me. I do not know the language of the oak trees, blackbirds, or of the slowly flowing water but I am content to be articulated by their wordless liturgy.

I just now read that the Israeli novelist and short-story writer Aharon Appelfeld died yesterday. I met him several times in Jerusalem, a peaceful, wise and quiet man. I met his son Meir also, on one searing occasion when his wife was very ill. I’ve taken down from the shelves and placed next to me his books A Table for One, illustrated by Meir, in which he writes of his love for Jerusalem’s cafes, and his autobiography, The Story of a Life.

I find Appelfeld’s fiction hard, as no doubt it is intended to be. Often it depicts a world of waiting and not knowing, a bewilderment as threatening as Kafka’s, but with its castles, courtrooms and transformations, its deadly geography concealed. His characters often seemed trapped in the ordinariness behind which we know hides waiting a most unordinary death, which, like so many millions of Europe’s Jews in the 1930s, they cannot escape.

Appelfeld himself survived, hiding in the forests of the Ukraine for over two years. One learnt to keep quiet, to distrust fluent speech: ‘War is a hothouse for listening and for keeping silent…I’ve carried with me my mistrust of words from those years’.

Moments of trust came from elsewhere:

In the forest I was surrounded by trees, bushes, birds and small animals. I was not afraid of them. I was sure they would do nothing harmful to me…Sometimes it seemed to me that what saved me were the animals I encountered along the way, not the human beings.

From the moment I first read them, I have stored those sentences in my mind. I think of them often. We humans are creatures of politics and history, unable for the most part to escape the lethal battlefields of identity and ideology. They are shaping up their armies across the globe even now and whether we like it or not it is almost impossible to escape being enlisted.

That is why I savour a moment by a canal, the moon shadow on the water. They are evanescent; the rising day will lot them out. But they are also redemption, partaking of the slow, trustworthy rhythms of ancient time, by which all life is nurtured and sustained.

‘I never saw him again’ – can we help bring missing loved ones together?

‘I never saw him again’: it’s only this week that I heard those searing words from a refugee.

‘If only I could hear your voice’; ‘If only I could hold you in my arms once again’: few lives are never pierced by such thoughts.

It does not lie within our power to avoid the terrible separations of death.

Our heart is never only our own; those we have loved inhabit its chambers too. When they die, we may attempt to close the internal doors. But unlike the cupboards in the lounge, the contents of which we may take with sorrow to the second-hand shop, we never can empty the heart’s rooms of the looks, or smells, or the sound of the voices of those we love. We are never immune from memory, welcome guest, or sudden intruder when an unanticipated sight summons us unprepared to the when and the where of what once was.

Our lives are simultaneously defined by the irrevocable passage of time and the irremovable presence of all we ever have been. Our hearts are fashioned by everyone to whom we are ever bound by love.

That is why unnecessary separations are so cruel, partings forced upon us by war, persecution, violence, cruelty and crime.

Since I had to flee, I’ve heard from two of my children. I’ve no idea where the other two are. Pray for them. Pray for me.

It’s several years since a mother from Africa spoke those words to me. There are millions like her, searching among the living, among the records of the dead, searching the lacerated terrain of memory; needing to move on, not wanting to let go.

Perhaps that was what those twenty-two years were like for Jacob, our Biblical ancestor, when he was shown that blood-soaked, multi-coloured coat and concluded that his beloved son Joseph was dead:

I will go down to my son mourning to the grave. (Genesis 37:35)

In this week’s Torah portion he is informed that Joseph is alive after all. ‘It is enough’, he says, ‘My son Joseph yet lives. Let me go and see him before I die’.

Their meeting is among the most moving moments in the Bible:

He appeared to him, and he fell upon his neck, and he wept upon his neck, more and more. (Genesis 46:29)

Who wept on whose neck? ‘It was Joseph who was weeping’, says the commentator Rashi. His father, Jacob, was engrossed in the recital of the morning Shema meditation. The moment had such power over him that he transposed his overwhelming feelings into prayer.

‘No’, explains Nachmanides; it was Jacob who wept:

It is well known in whom the tears are found, in the elderly father who finds his son alive following grief and despair, or in the regal young son…

Nachmanides knows all too well: he himself was forced to flee his native Spain, leaving all his family behind. In 1267 he added this postscript to his letter home:

I am banished from my table, far removed from friend and kinsman, and too long is the distance to meet again…I left my family, I forsook my house. There with the sweet and beloved children, whom I brought up on my knees, I left also my soul. With them, my heart and my eyes will dwell forever. (Letters of Jews through the Ages ed. F Kobler)

My heart goes out to all those who long to see a beloved face, hear a beloved voice, whom war, violence and cruelty keep apart. May the coming secular New Year herald a time of ‘Yet my loved one lives. Let me go and see him…’ May we, too, help bring refugee families together.

 

Hope – despite everything

At the Holocaust Survivor’s Centre yesterday a lady drew me aside and explained:

We have a picture from 1933. Down one side of the street are houses covered in swastikas, draped with Nazi flags. On the other side is a window with a Chanukkiah. You see, they lit their candles, in spite of everything.

That, I believe, is the meaning of Chanukkah, – not just the defiance, but the hope, the courage and the tenacity of spirit.

I thought the same when I read Sarah Cooper’s words yesterday, before the service at St Pauls marking six months since the appalling Grenfell Tower fire. She is head teacher of Oxford Gardens primary school, which lost a pupil and a former pupil, and where over a hundred and twenty children have been severely affected:

We decided to have a day in where we aren’t saying: ‘It’s six months since the fire’. We are saying: ‘It’s six months in which together we’ve built strength’.

Anyone who lives locally, has been part of the emergency services teams involved, or even who drives or walks in the district, knows that the charred, burnt out tower stands as a terrifying, searing and accusing landmark over the entire area.

Thus, too, the ruins of the interior of the Temple in Jerusalem and the casualties and debris of numerous battles, must have haunted the thoughts of the Maccabees whose rekindling of the menorah over two thousand years ago the festival of Chanukkah commemorates.

But such brutal realities are scarcely mentioned in the Talmud’s brief narrative on which the eight days of Chanukkah is traditionally understood to be based. The account is so short it could almost be a tweet:

When the Hasmonean powers grew strong and defeated the Seleucid armies, they searched and found only one vial of oil with the seal of the High Priest intact. It contained sufficient to burn for only one day, but a miracle occurred and they lit from it for eight.

There is no mention, except by inference, of violence and war. But I don’t think this represents avoidance, the attempt to deny history or create alternative facts.

Instead, the story expresses something deeper, – the discovery of light in spite of everything. That, to my mind, is the real miracle. The search for the oil in the ruined precincts of the Temple is a symbolic expression of the quest to find the inner strength and the tenacity of spirit to sustain us despite everything, all the cruelties, injustice and hardship which life can bring. It is a quest we all must make, though some in incomparably more difficult circumstances.

The one vial of pure, unsullied oil is the unquenchable, inexhaustible flame of hope. It is the fuel on which creativity, inner strength and inspiration draw. If we have the courage to light it, the flame almost invariably lasts far longer than reason would have us calculate.

One person’s spirit kindles others, and they in turn impart strength to the person from whom they drew their first inspiration. Such light, sometimes in remote individual flames, sometimes in glowing solidarity, has illumined humanity in defiance of war and disaster, hatred and persecution, throughout the ages. It will not be extinguished.

Jewish law directs us to place our Chanukkah candles in the most visible place, ideally outside the front door to the left as we enter our home, or in a window overlooking the street. For we need strength of spirit in every domain; in our inner life to restore and maintain our own individual sense of purpose; in art, poetry and music; and in the public square to face with hope and courage the collective challenges with which history presents us.

Human Rights Shabbat and Chanukah

This weekend is Human Rights Shabbat; 2018 will bring the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Leo Baeck was the leader of German Jewry during the Nazi years. Imprisoned five times for refusing to bow to Nazi demands, he was deported to Theresienstadt in 1943. He survived. Afterwards, in one of the earliest collections of testaments, he wrote:

The principle of justice is one the whole world over. Justice is like a dike against inhumanity. If a small part breaks, the whole is threatened…An injustice to one is an injustice to all.

His words recall those of an earlier German-Jewish leader, Samson Raphael Hirsch, who warns in his commentary on the commandment not to oppress the stranger:

Beware… 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. With any diminution of this human right, the door is thrown wide open to the whole horror of the experience in Egypt, the wilful mistreatment of other people.

Through listening to refugees, I’ve learnt how close at hand that ‘whole horror’ is. People have their homes bombed to pieces in wars pursued by leaders with utter contempt for human life. They are persecuted by regimes with brutal laws administered at the whim of tyrants. To escape with their lives, they may be forced to sell themselves to people merchants, traffickers who promise, in exchange for whatever money their hapless victims could save from the wreckage of their lives, to deliver them to a free country. Bundled into the backs of lorries, onto planes bound they may not know where, they find themselves in a strange country, bereft of family, friends, money, language, everything they had ever known.

‘Do you have family in Ethiopia?’ I eventually asked a refugee who was staying with us, not knowing what wounds I might be re-opening.

My mother and brother were murdered. I haven’t heard from my father for 12 years. He’s in prison, or killed. I don’t know.

Perhaps, like our ancestor Jacob who believed for 20 years that his beloved Joseph was dead, her heart has an inconsolable corner which she visits in tears when no one is looking.

The least we can do is to help such fellow human beings as best we can. At a session on behalf of Refugees at Home my co-speaker and I were persistently heckled: ‘Those people want to kill our children. They want to live in Kensington and Mayfair’. I’m sure that among the millions of refugees there are a very small number of terrorists. (Others are here already, developing their hideous plans) Vicious people always find ways of abusing the misery of others. We must support and pray for the success of our intelligence and security forces.

But that is no reason to pass collective judgment over all refugees. It is indescribably hard for them to create a new life. Many wait for years, a decade, for permission to remain. Meanwhile they’re not allowed to work. How should they live? This country also permits indefinite detention, in defiance of Magna Carta. The threat hangs heavy in hearts which harbour wounds most of us cannot imagine, torture, hunger, catastrophic loss.

This week brings the wonderful festival of Chanukah. The miracle it proclaims concerns not just the eight days for which a single day’s supply of oil burnt in the ruined Temple in Jerusalem 2,150 years ago. The miracle begins when, amidst the desolation, someone finds that tiny vial of pure olive oil and the decision is made to light it. Despite everything, in defiance of all violence and destruction, the light of hope and courage starts to shine.

To this day it has not been extinguished. It never shall be, if we nourish it not just through our rituals but our deeds.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem

Sha’alu shalom Yerushalayim: Pray for the peace of Jerusalem

I have two reactions to President Trump’s announcement concerning Jerusalem this week.

This ancient, beautiful city was the Jewish capital from the time of King David until its destruction by the Romans. Through almost two millennia of exile it stayed the capital of the Jewish heart, and remained the home of a poor, but enduring, Jewish community. Since 1948 it has been de facto the centre of Israeli government, containing the Knesset and the Supreme Court. I remember my father, who recalled with pain the many lives lost in trying to defend the old city in 1948, waking me in the night in June 1967 when I was a boy of ten, to tell me that the old city had been recaptured.

At the same time, I vividly recall sitting with Palestinian families in their homes in East Jerusalem, now on the other side of the wall. I can never forget the hours I spent with the CEO of the Palestinian hospital in East Jerusalem during operation Protective Edge, listening to his pain. These experiences affected me profoundly, bringing home the truth that there can be no solution which does not offer hope, opportunity, safety and dignity for all. I think too of the many friends, Muslim, Christian and Jewish, in various NGOs devoting their lives to the endeavour to create the civic groundwork for co-existence between two peoples and three religions for when a political solution is eventually achieved.

I also know that Judaism, with its many texts attesting to the integrity of its history and to its ancient presence in Jerusalem, preceding Christianity and Islam, also demands equal justice in the treatment of each and every individual person and calls upon us to act faithfully in the name of the God of all humanity.

I fear for what President Trump’s words will do in this complex balance of religion, history, emotion and politics, words for which he will not suffer the immediate consequences.

In the language of the Friday night prayers

May God spread peace over us, over all God’s people and over Jerusalem

It’s not about hate

‘Rabbi, how does one find one’s path in life?’

This was the question X asked me as we travelled together to Liverpool for his interview with the Home Office about his asylum application. He spoke of the hatred he had witnessed in the country he’d fled: ‘It’s the wrong path, isn’t it?’

I’ve spent much of my last weeks with people struggling with pain, be it from politically or religiously motivated persecution, the verbal or physical brutality of family members, or the after-effects of tragedy.

Asked by a colleague what one-word subject I wanted to talk about, I answered ‘cruelty’.

But I don’t. In a week when North Korea tests more lethal weapons, when the President of the United States gratuitously repeats hate-tweets, when violence and fear feel ever more prominent, I want to talk about the opposite. If only to myself, I want to answer X’s question on that train to Liverpool.

What are the values by which the world should be led? What, at least, are the qualities by which our own lives should be led, which we should develop in ourselves in a frightening, beautiful, inspiring world?

We need justice. For students of the Hebrew Bible this is founded on the principle that every human being is created in God’s image. Therefore, as the Mishnah declares, ‘No one may say, “My parents were greater than yours.”’ No life is intrinsically of lesser value. We may not despise or ignore the rights, hopes and sufferings of another human just because he or she is different from ourselves. Justice equally requires us to expect that they treat us likewise.

We need a listening heart. We need imagination, the capacity to think and feel what the world is like from the other person’s point of view. Where does the spiked wheel of fortune cut into his or her heart? What would bring him or her relief, joy, at least a sense of not being alone?

We need compassion. The Talmud teaches that life is unbearable for the person who tries to feel for everyone. There are limits. But it is a good daily goal to ask ourselves ‘What kindness can I do? How can I avoid giving hurt?’ If we had such an attitude towards everyone we encountered, from our own family, to our neighbour, to the blackbird on the grass, we would be far closer to Isaiah’s vision of a world where ‘they neither hurt nor destroy in all God’s holy mountain’.

We need moral courage. We are not here to tolerate every outrage. History shows that if we fail to stand up for ourselves and others in the name of truth, integrity and justice, we too will be swept away on the tide of anger or the backwash of indifference.

We need faith. The mystics teach that God is everywhere and in all things. I am less interested in the infinite God in the unfathomable reaches of the universe. I care most about the presence of God here before me, in this particular person, her gifts, opportunities and hopes. I care most about the presence of God in the birds, in the deer who drink from this river, in the God of this life around me. For it is here, in this immediacy, that God commands me to do what is just and good.

We need faith in ourselves. This is not faith in our superiority; it is not arrogant or disparaging of others. On the contrary, it is the faith that despite our failures, limitations and confusion, there is within us light and strength, hope and love which glows from the sacred source of all life.

We are not here to let our souls be echo-chambers for hate or despair, but to transform them through courage, imagination and compassion, into healing.

 

Light up a Life

‘God revives the dead – mechayei hametim’ – Among the many challenging phrases in the prayers, this is probably one of the most difficult. Do we or don’t we believe in life after death?

 

I often reflect on how many possible meanings the sentence contains. Does it refer to literal resurrection? Or does it express how we hold precious in our hearts the love of those no longer with us in this world, so that they, their goodness, their wisdom and their foibles continue to live within us?

 

Are the words rather a metaphor for the whole rhythm of dying and living, of lives ending and new lives being born? Or might they even be a description of the flow of the years as the seasonal leaf fall, the annual dying of autumn, is succeeded by the unfurling leaves and germinating seeds of spring?

 

But this morning a different thought passed through my mind. On Sunday I participated in the moving Light up a Life ceremony at the North London Hospice. It opened with the ancient Hindu right of kindling a flame and meditating on the light of compassion. Later, a father spoke with gratitude, as well as pain, about how his son’s final weeks at the hospice were made bright and full of life by the care and love of staff, friends and family.

 

‘Mechayei hametim: you revive the dead’ – The words are in the present continuous tense; a more unusual, but no less literal, translation might be ‘you bring life to those who are dying’. I thought about the tenderness, love, sorrow, gratitude, humility and gentleness; about the deep sense of service and reverence I have witnessed at the hospice so many times; about how the value of each life and its unique relationships has been protected, and even enhanced, there during so many people’s final days.

 

Perhaps this, too, is what those words mean.

 

And I thought also of so many families and their loved ones who parted in that precious, special place.

For the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

Often, it’s the little words which do the damage. Or it’s the words not said, like the unspoken ‘but’ after an insincere ‘I love you’. It’s absent in the semantics but all too evident in the intonation, undermining what’s being professed, hurting the hearer to the heart.

It’s with words that we do most of our wounding, – and blessing. That’s partly why the rabbis who studied the Hebrew Bible discounted not one word, ignoring not a single syllable or even a seemingly superfluous letter. It all had to have meaning. Rabbi Akiva was famous for interpreting every particle, every ‘and’ and ‘also’ in the Torah.

There’s a challenging example in these week’s portion. Jacob has just been deceived by his father-in-law Laban into marrying Leah, when it is her younger sister Rachel with whom he is in love. Now, just one week later, Laban ‘gives’ him the latter too in marriage:

And Jacob slept also with Rachel and loved also Rachel than Leah (Genesis 29:30)

That second ‘also’ – it comes twice in six words – is like the laceration of Leah’s wound. That she knows to her core that she isn’t loved is apparent from the name she gives her first son, whom she calls Re’u-ven, ‘Look, a son’, saying, ‘For God has seen my affliction and now my husband will love me’. Thus, the innocent baby imbibes with his first milk the life-long burden of being the son of the one who wasn’t loved.

One wonders: with whom would Leah be most angry, her father, her husband, her hapless, no less wounded sister? Which one of them has betrayed her most? (Yet she still manages to be sister, wife, and eventually mother of six sons and a daughter.)

Leah’s poignant cry, ‘Surely now he’ll love me’, has ached in countless hearts in every generation. It still does.

Decades later, children carry the wounds of homes where love went wrong. Sometimes it’s the after-shock of homes full of violent anger; sometimes it’s the cold absence of affection; sometimes it’s contempt; sometimes it’s abuse, made even worse if others knew but turned a blind eye.

These are hurts which damage not just the body but the soul. They invade a child’s, a woman’s, a person’s, sense of self-respect. They attack the essential inner feeling of being lovable, worthy of another’s love. They penetrate into places to which it is extremely hard to bring healing. Even the memory of such afflictions may be deeply, overwhelmingly humiliating.

Maybe that is, partly, what leads many women to suffer in silence verbal contempt, emotional belittling and bullying, physical violence, threats to their very lives. Sometimes, even amidst the cruelty, the hope in Leah’s desperate words still echoes in the heart, ‘Maybe now he’ll love me???’

Jewish Women’s Aid, similar organisations in other faiths, and national agencies are calling on us not to ignore such suffering. If we glimpse such cruelty within ourselves, we must take ourselves to therapy. If there are victims within our families, or among those we know, we need to think carefully, and maybe seek confidential advice, about how to help. What we must not do is condone; that aligns us with the perpetrator.

We have seen in the Jimmy Saville scandal, and many since, (not exactly the same issue, but closely connected) is not only that there are people whose behaviour is vile, but that there are far more who turn a blind eye, as if the prevailing culture considered it ‘OK’ to treat women, and children, in such ways. It is most definitely not OK.

Leah, we are told, has einayim racot; a kind translation would be that her eyes are ‘gentle’ but the usual rendition is that they are ‘weak’. Maybe, though, the true weakness resides in the eyes of those around her, and all those since, who look but refuse to see.

Jewish Women’s Aid, is the only specialist organisation in the UK supporting Jewish women and children affected by domestic abuse. Their free phone confidential helpline is 0808 801 0500

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