The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Heart and Mind

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Listening, with leaders of all faiths, at Grenfell Tower

I was invited to speak at a gathering of faith leaders close to Grenfell Tower yesterday. I went, mainly to listen. We were Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Bahais; we were just people, but people together.

On walls and railings all around are pictures of the missing, children, young couples, all ages: ‘Have you seen…?’ ‘Marco and Gloria, Italy is praying for you’. In the streets, people talk in small groups, residents, school children, police, helpers, chaplains.

There were powerful calls for justice; for all questions to be answered in all aspects; for those responsible to be made accountable. Yet the spirit was solidarity, not anger; togetherness, not division.

Pain knows no age, no colour, no gender, no religion, said the local Sikh leader; humanity is one. He told me these were the words of a colleague who was volunteering among the dispossessed in Syria and Lebanon. London, too, has its dispossessed.

‘We’re here for the long haul’, said the Bishop of Kensington, Bishop Graham, speaking for the local clergy, who’ve been remarkable. ‘We believe in community; we believe in a God who gives hope’.

‘I’m nobody’, said a local young man, ‘But I’m somebody.’ He grew up nearby; as a child he’d played next to, in and beneath the Tower: ‘I’ve friends who didn’t get out’. We’re all responsible for our communities, he said; if only we’d realised earlier; if only we’d done more.

On the walls, among the pictures of the missing, are small hand-written posters:

Broken but United with My Neighbours (in many colours)
Life does go on. But now it has to change
Listen. We are still here…

I spoke about listening; ‘Shema; Listen!’ is the first word of Judaism’s most important meditation. I told the story of the man whose friend assures him that he loves him. ‘If you love me’, he replies, ‘tell me where I hurt?’ ‘How should I know?’ the man remonstrates, ‘I’ve no idea where you hurt!’ ‘Then you aren’t truly my friend,’ says the man.

We must not become a city so separated into sub-communities divided by ethnicity, religion, income, prospects and such different daily realities that we’ve no idea where others hurt. We must not remain a society in which, when one group cries out ‘I don’t feel safe’, the rest don’t hear, perhaps don’t even care.

We all have the power to turn a nobody into a somebody, by listening and caring. We can also make a somebody feel a nobody, by closing our heart. It happens all the time and we are all responsible.

Before the gathering, I met Father Alan Everett, who’s coordinated much of the support. We talked about resources for the long-term… As for lessons, he said: Be organised and prepared. Know each other; know your local communities, councillors, faith leaders, police, fire services, teachers. Meet, discuss, plan for eventualities. Have up-to-date contact lists; keep them up-to-date.

Above us all is the tower, charred and silent; full of stifled voices which will cry out in the hearts of parents, children, friends, neighbours, firemen, rescuers, forever. I think of Rachel Bluwstein’s words, written soon before she died:

Will you hear my silence, -
You who did not hear my words?

 

Muslim Welfare House mosque, Finsbury Park

We stand together in solidarity with our Muslim fellow-citizens after the terror attack on worshippers leaving the Muslim Welfare House Mosque last night in Finsbury Park. This is a shocking and despicable hate crime.

The victims were leaving the mosque after a day of fasting and prayer on one of the holiest nights of the month of Ramadan. Our thoughts are with them and with their families and their community.

This appalling act is a desecration of the name of God and a crime against all the citizens of London who seek to live together, celebrating our differences and creating a just, vibrant and compassionate society for us all.

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

In tribute to Jo Cox MP

The London and Manchester terror attacks, the horrifying fire, – they make us think about the frailty of life, but also about its value. No one can ever assess the worth of any human life, but the criteria which speak to me most are simple:

What impact have we had on the lives, hearts, minds and souls of others? Have we alleviated suffering? Have we shared joy and appreciation? Have we brought companionship and love?

Jo Cox was murdered exactly a year ago, on 16 June 2016, just before her 42nd birthday. Labour MP for Batley and Spen, she was killed because of her open, inclusive and deeply compassionate values. As Sarah Brown said in tribute: ‘Jo reserved a special place in her heart for the most vulnerable and the poorest citizens of the world. She was fearless, she was endlessly upbeat…’

Before entering Parliament, she worked for 10 years at Oxfam, becoming the head of advocacy and policy. As then Prime Minister David Cameron said, she ‘epitomised the fact that politics is about serving others’.

The very day his wife was murdered, Brendon Cox issued an extraordinarily courageous statement:

Jo believed in a better world and she fought for it every day of her life with an energy, and a zest for life that would exhaust most people. She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her.’

At Brendon’s request, this weekend of 16 – 18 June is dedicated to The Great Get-Together, to motivate us to create in Jo’s memory a societywhere we know our neighbours, invest in our communities, and are able to keep an eye out for each other’s children…Jo was ambitious for what could be done…’

This is the plain meaning of the quotation from the Torah inscribed next to the Ark on the eastern wall of our synagogue: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. When Jews gained civic equality in Germany (for all too short a time) Samson Raphael Hirsch interpreted these words to mean that we must seek for every member of our society, irrespective of their faith or ethnicity, the very same rights and opportunities we want for ourselves. We could add that we should also try to provide for others the same security, reassurance and loving kindness we hope will surround us during our journey through life. For life can be cruel, lonely and wretched.

Brendon Cox could not have known that this weekend would come at such a painful and fragile time in the life of the country. In the last two weeks, we have seen the horrors of both physical fire and the fire of hatred.

But we are also witnesses to the great outpouring of kindness, generosity and solidarity which has characterised the huge public response, including people of all faiths and none, and across all sections of society from the Queen to the homeless.

This is a moment when the heart of humanity is open and we are called upon to be part of it.

To those who will now be governing our country

I hope and pray that whoever runs the country following the complex results of the election will show strong leadership in the protection of everyone’s safety, the respect for dignity and equality, the promotion of justice and compassion, and in unyielding commitment to the defence of the environment, the future of life itself.

Four issues concern me deeply, and have been especially poignant in the last week.

The first is safety. Like all of us, I’ve looked many times at the pictures of the people murdered by Islamist terrorists near London Bridge. ‘She died in his arms’: the utter cruelty of destroying the life, love, hope and joy of others with such evil and wanton intent is beyond comprehension. I went to Potters Fields, joined the minute of silence, and listened to the defiant and compassionate words of the Mayor of London, Sadiq Kahn. The headlines will pass, but not the pain of those whose lives have been transformed by injury, trauma and grief. Our hearts go out to them.

I joined Muslim, Jewish, Christian and police leaders at a press conference expressing sorrow for the victims and condemning terror, all terror, everywhere. I was not alone in saying how sorry I feel for the vast numbers of Muslims whose faith, so dear to them, is being hijacked by terrorists, but that, at the same time, there are challenging questions to be asked, and urgently pursued, as to why Islam is repeatedly used as cover for such wicked abuse.

I am full of admiration for the courage and professionalism shown by the police and emergency services, and the selfless bravery of so many local people and passers-by.

The second issue is the fate of refugees and the homeless. We currently have a charming lady staying with us who’s been a refugee in the UK for twelve years. She told us that when she has nowhere else to go she sleeps on the night buses. In the last months, I’ve travelled a lot; I’ve seen people sleeping on the streets and in the porticos of London, Berlin, Paris, Geneva. It’s almost impossible for a person without an address to get a job. If one has no work, how does one reconstruct a sense of one’s own life and worth? I was asked to speak at an OECD conference about what faith communities can do for refugees: the phrases I heard again and again were ‘the opportunity to learn the language’; ‘apprenticeships and jobs’; and, very importantly, ‘we need to think not just about the refugees but also the unemployed and poor in the communities where they arrive’.

The third concern is the vulnerable. Time and again when I speak with doctors, social workers, therapists, I hear of doors closing because of cuts in funding, excessive bureaucracy and resultant poor morale. (Yet I also frequently witness the heart-felt dedication of nurses, physicians, OT’s, volunteers…) Where are people to go now, who need care or counselling, or simply a compassionate ear in a compassionate environment? It makes me all the more determined to increase the resources and resilience of our, and other, faith communities. If we shut our doors to the needs of body and soul, what open doors will there be left?

Last but not least, is the matter which embraces all humankind and life on earth itself. I co-wrote and co-signed a letter to The Times (published yesterday) from leaders of all religions:

Our respective faiths unite us in the affirmation that all human life is of infinite value and that caring for our planet is a sacred responsibility. We are answerable to God, each other and our children’s children for the wellbeing of this earth. Life is too precious, the earth too wonderful and the demand to act for environmental justice too strong for us to remain silent.

I hope these basic Jewish, and universal, values will be central in the hearts of those governing our country and the world.

 

President Trump: Why many of us are angry

I struggled with a surge of anger last night as I listened to President Trump announce the withdrawal of the US from the Paris climate agreement. Like millions of others, I’m trying to work out how to direct my outrage constructively.

Beneath the anger lies pain.

From my earliest memories, I’ve experienced the world as a place of wonder.

That nature is a sacred gift is not merely some intellectual idea which makes sense to me after due consideration. I feel it viscerally, intuitively, in my very bones. It’s not a thought, but a command. It calls out from every tree, river, bird and animal. I hear it as God’s voice throughout creation. It has the eloquence of the wind and the waves; the vast sky is its articulation. It speaks in the tiny eyes of baby animals and the urgent cries of fledgling birds. Its voices are the silence of hungry children and the sickness of families with no source of clean water, and the hunger of men and women whose land, the earth which fed their ancestors, has turned to desert, or lies beneath the rising waters.

This voice penetrates the consciousness more powerfully than any form of merely human words. But if I must translate it into language, what it says is simple, brutal and commanding: ‘I am life; do not destroy me’.

I am often ashamed of my own existence, fearing the damage I may inflict on what I reverence, the woodlands and fields, the animals and birds, children. I’ve long ago resolved to be a planter, not an uprooter, of trees, and not to kill for my food. But still I feel faithless to this great world of sanctity and beauty.

It was with these thoughts of wonder and shame that, alongside hundreds of millions, I welcomed the Paris agreement and felt great relief in its wake. Whether the 2 degrees centigrade limit on global warming is too high and should be 1.5 degrees; whether the accord is enforceable; whether signing was for certain leaders no more than an act of public show; how the accord relates to social justice: all these remain vast areas of uncertainty. But Paris was a huge move in the right direction.

Now one man has made what may be for him a small, almost casual step backwards, but it is a vast leap in the wrong direction for all humankind.

Part of the reason I’m angry is because of the contempt shown towards the 195 nations who signed in France. The agreement was the result of a vast international effort, supported by the leaders of all faiths and none, headed by Pope Francis in his magnificent encyclical Laudato Si.

But I am mainly angry because of the cause itself. President Trump’s claim that he was “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” is indeed true. But what good can global warming do to Pittsburgh, or Chicago, or Detroit? Research and industry are themselves already (finally) moving towards renewable energies and different technologies. Is the aim to penalise his own country?

Closer to home, doesn’t the President of the United States represent his own children and grand-children and their future on this earth, not to mention my children and yours, and all the children yet unborn who will inherit the wrongs on which our generation turns its back?

The hope is that the President doesn’t represent the USA, let alone the globe, and that his intentions will be challenged in states, cities and courtrooms. Perhaps he will yet experience a change of heart.

The hope is that we will not agree to let this wonderful, breathing world be asphyxiated by our own indifference or negligence, that we simply love it too much, that we will do more because others threaten to do less.

 

Our hearts are with the families of the victims

Our hearts go out to all the families who have been devastated by the evil killings in the Manchester Arena. It’s been heart-rending to think of parents looking for their children, calling on their mobile phones, waiting in the desperate hope of news. The pictures of the faces of the children and young people killed fill us with pain and pity. The young have every right to hope for security, love, joy, excitement and music. Had the attack been at the concert scheduled in London, young people from our community may well have been there.

Our prayers are with the wounded, the bereaved and all who care for them. Our thoughts and appreciation are also with the emergency services, the police and all who strive to keep us safe.

Next week is Shavuot, Zeman Mattan Toratenu, the Time of the Giving of our Torah. One simple, over-riding teaching has been in my mind all week. The Torah is Torah Chayyim, the Torah of Life. We shall read the Ten Commandments on Wednesday. Our rabbis emphasise the close correlation between the first and the second five. ‘I am the Lord your God’ is thus parallel with ‘You shall not murder’. It is, or should be, as plain as daylight: since the sacred presence of God is in all life, we may not hurt or harm, let alone wilfully and wickedly take away, another person’s life. This is the foundation of all morality and all religion; there is no place for relativism or retraction.

I spent the last two days engaged in Jewish-Christian dialogue at the Kirchentag in Berlin, a huge gathering of the Protestant Church. The motto of this year’s conference is a verse from the story of Hagar, when she says to God ‘You see me’. The issue for us is not just whether God sees us, but whether we see one another: do we see in each other human beings, equally deserving of life? Do we see and respect each other across the differences of faith, history, nationality, gender, age? If we don’t, or won’t, those who pay the price will include, over and again, the most innocent among us.

At the Kirchentag Amos Oz was awarded the Abraham Geiger prize in recognition of his life’s achievement as foremost among the greatest living authors. His acceptance speech was magnificent, brilliant, courageous and sharply to this point. He spoke of the Jewish gene and genius, – not a biological, but an intellectual and emotional gene, and not, he added, just Jewish either, – for debate, argument, exploration, disagreement. I love my country and my faith, he said, because of my right to disagree with them. This is by no means a privilege to be taken for granted across the world.

He focused on the importance of curiosity; it’s what makes him a writer. A person has to ask, ‘What if I were him or her?’ not in order to become him or her, but to enlarge one’s understanding of others by considering what the world looks like to them. Such curiosity makes one intellectually, emotionally and morally a better person. It also, he argued, makes one a better driver, because you think ‘What’s that idiot going to do next?’

The Manchester killer did not see others. The doctrine which filled, and killed, his heart and mind, prevented him from seeing them, – young people who merited incomparably better of life. He, and above all those who brain-washed and destroyed him, are eternally responsible for the pain following their terrible deaths.

We can’t bring the murdered back. Maybe the awareness of our solidarity will diminish by some tiny amount the loneliness of those whose lives have suddenly been flooded with inexplicable suffering.

But we can resolve to see one another, as the God of all life, and the Torah of Life, require us to do. And we can aspire to find the courage and compassion to act accordingly.

Humanity’s Heart

Yesterday evening I was at Humanity’s Heart (www.humanitysheart.com).

Yesterday and today that heart bleeds, looking at pictures of missing children, – children like our own children who just wanted to enjoy the excitement and beauty of music – thinking of their parents and loved ones searching for them, ever more desperate, not wanting to give up, preserving hope. May God be with them. May God ‘bring back the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents’. May they find one another alive; may they have healing.

But we know that not all will receive the news they long to hear. There is no comfort which can remove that pain. Maybe our solidarity can make their grief hurt a little bit less. May they find ways for their pain to be a source less of anger and more of love. May God bring comfort.

Humanity’s Heart is a film about refugees; it’s about people who devote themselves to caring for the homeless and sometimes hopeless. It’s about people who give of themselves just because they care, because they know that to help those who’ve lost almost everything is what it means to be human, to have a heart. They do it from love, from the determination to bring hope, joy, future, music, safety, education, opportunity back to broken lives, because every child and every person deserves no less.

We can’t undo the shocking, vile, evil crime committed in Manchester Arena on Monday night, or stop the tears it has and will bring. But we can determine to be a part of humanity’s heart, more deeply than before.

What the earth says

I can’t count how many people tell me they feel closest to God in nature. I often think the same. Not always; because there are times of closeness between people, bonds of listening and fellowship, in which God seems present too.

‘The earth shall rest a sabbath to God,’ teaches the Torah in tomorrow’s portion about the sabbatical year. ‘Like on the Sabbath of creation,’ explains the medieval Bible scholar Rashi.

But on that first Shabbat (whether we believe there literally was such a day, or take this just as an idea) no labour had been performed from which either land or human could rest. Only God had been at work. So that first sabbath was pure appreciation of the wonder of creation.

This remains the essence of every Shabbat and sabbatical year. ‘Stop’, they tell us: ‘look, listen, notice’.

Every Shabbat, Nicky and I walk together round the garden with which we have been blessed. We don’t do so in order to decide what beds need weeding and which plants need pruning (though I admit that we do discuss this). We look at the garden in order to see and appreciate it, to breathe it in: the smell of the rain on the wet leaves, the last of the apple blossom.

The mystics have a beautiful misreading of that verse about the sabbatical year: ‘When the earth rests, it says to us ‘for God’.

When Moses asks to know God’s name, God answers ‘I am that I am’.

Sometimes, we hear the earth itself articulate that ‘I am’. The earth isn’t there just for our use, important as this is. It isn’t there solely for what it produces, essential though that is for the sustenance of life. The earth itself, soil, plant and tree, wild flowers and cultivated crops, is part of the all-present ‘I am’ of the sacred. This name, God’s name, the unnameable sound of being itself, addresses us from the essence of all living things in unending, semi-silent vibrancy. We are prevented from hearing it not because it ever ceases, but because of the noise of everything we do.

Yet it is always possible to regain our attentiveness. To do so, we must make ourselves still and listen; we must liberate ourselves from preoccupation. That is the purpose of Shabbat.

The Torah has a cruel punishment for the failure to observe the sabbatical year, – exile from our land. I believe this is neither more nor less that the plain truth. The failure to listen to nature, both its beauty and its humbling power, risks making us exiles and strangers not only from the earth itself and from other creatures, but from our own soul. We need the sea, the trees, the insects and the plants, not only physically for our bodily survival, but spiritually, to know who we are, to know the God of all life.

Every day we pray for knowledge: the Hebrew term is da’at. I’ve often wondered what this da’at is: science, skills, understanding, wisdom, academic success? All these attainments matter.

But just this week I came across a Hasidic explanation: da’at is awareness of the sacred, of the value of all things, of the presence of God in every life and every person. In praying for da’at, we ask to be the exact opposite of Oscar Wilde’s definition of the cynic: we ask to know not the price, but the value of everything.

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Creating communities of ‘we’

Changing the story people tell, altering the narrative of a nation, can feel like trying to turn an aircraft carrier around by engaging a group of swimmers to push it in a different direction.

I spent yesterday at a conference arranged by the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations. The subject was promoting inclusion and countering anti-migrant narratives. This meant narratives of xenophobia, racism, including anti-Semitism, and hate for refugees.

The room was full of inspiring people; the world full of disturbing realities. Moving examples of generosity, welcome and integration were shared. But it was felt the world was headed in a different direction, driven by narrowing identity slogans of ‘Me’: Russia for the Russians; America for the Americans. How do we tell a more complex story of identity? How do we create a community of ‘We’?

I thought of this Shabbat’s Torah reading, with its (almost) concluding verse: ‘You shall have one and the same system of justice; it shall be the same for the citizen and the stranger’ (Leviticus 24:22). It’s the first piece of Torah I ever learnt. The great 11th century Bible commentator Rashi makes the stirring comment: ‘I am the God of you all; just as I make my unique name known over you, so do I make known over the stranger’.

‘Tell success stories about refugees; talk about the great contributions they make’, one delegate stressed, ‘That’s how to change public opinion about refugees’.

Others demurred. Refugees from persecution have a claim on our humanity not because they will become a success, though they may, but because of our shared humanity. That is what connects us: our shared hopes for safety, food, a home, a future; our shared fears of violence, homelessness, hunger, being unable to look after our children. How does one persuade people to open their heart to these truths?

I was struck by the contribution of a storyteller who works with children. You don’t change attitudes by going on about human rights, he said. People just think, ‘these lefties and their slogans’. But when someone’s child comes home from school and talks about the new friend in the class, that’s different.

I spoke about how members of our community invite refugees to cook together, share music, and tell their stories. Food, music, family, stories: that’s who we are and how we learn who others are. It’s when we are accepted for who we are that we feel at home. I often think about how Isca, my mother, first felt at home in Britain when she studied at Birmingham University, at the Quaker College of Woodbrooke and was invited to play the cello.

The most challenging conversations concerned how to respond to groups which promulgate racism.

They need to be challenged. I was impressed by Stop Funding Hate, which persuades big brands not to advertise in newspapers which incite xenophobia.

But they also need to be understood. We live in a world of renewed fear, for jobs, housing, national security. It’s not helpful, someone said, to think in terms of; ‘refugee’ and ‘local’; ‘outsider and insider’. Instead, we need to think of a more embracing ‘us’.

We have three objectives, the UN Commission told us: Protecting the human rights of everyone; listening to people’s stories; and create communities of ‘we’.

‘Creating communities of we’ seems to me like an ancient, contemporary, honourable, essential, deeply human and deeply Jewish endeavour.

Prayers of listening

I had two unusual prayer experiences yesterday, even three. It wasn’t that I was ‘seized by the spirit’; or perhaps, in a very quiet way, I was.

Prayer has always been to me first and foremost about connection, about bringing my consciousness home. Like most of us, my mind is full of plans, worries, questions, wants and don’t wants. When I pray, I hope to let go of all that, even if only for the shortest of time. I hope that God, life’s spirit, will enter me like water from an unquenchable source creeping, seeking its way rivulet by rivulet, back up a river bed which has become dried out. I hope to be reunited, even for mere seconds, with the vastness and wonder of life, and made silent.

I was in Israel yesterday morning, in Tiveriah. I found a path to the fields and said shacharit, the morning service, next to brilliant blue cornflowers growing among the wheat, my prayers accompanied by the white caper blossoms with purple stamens of which the Talmud speaks. There’s teaching in the simplicity of their grace; it’s good to be humbled by such beauty.

I hadn’t realised that there were to be more prayers later that morning. I’d been invited to Israel participate in a Catholic Jewish encounter, as a guest at the Domus Galilaeae of the Neocathecumenal Way. The ‘house’, a place of prayer, retreat and service, is situated on the Mount of Beatitudes. Jewish participants, largely orthodox, including representatives of Israel’s chief rabbinate, were warmly welcomed. This Christian group appreciates its deep roots in Judaism, profoundly regrets the Church’s history of persecution and sees in Jewry an essential partner in maintaining our spiritual and moral heritage. We joined them for shared prayers, consisting overwhelmingly of Psalms.

They sung Psalm 150, the Halleluyah Psalm, in a multitude of voices. Then they sung their own composition of Shema Yisrael, repeatedly affirming the oneness of God as the foundation of faith. The Cardinal of Perugia preached quietly about respect and love as the foundation of shared ethics, including the love of nature, animals, people different from ourselves.

I was moved by the singing and these gentle words. Having listened to many of the people around me, I know they spend their lives working amongst the poor, the destitute in the slumlands surrounding the wealthy core of the world’s big cities, that they lead profoundly dedicated lives amidst very difficult conditions. I thought of the words: ‘Open my heart through your Torah, your teaching’: we can learn about God’s presence from people of our own faith, other faiths, and no faith, and from nature itself. Life and its spirit flow through all things, in different ways but from the same infinite source. Moments when that oneness touches us are special; they penetrate the heart and retain the power to speak to us even years later and purify our lives.

On the way home from the airport close to midnight, the cab driver, a Muslim man originally from Afghanistan whom I had met a couple of times before, and I found ourselves deep in conversation about prayer. ‘I feel not right with myself when I don’t pray during the day’, he said. I agreed: ‘It’s as if there’s something missing, as if I haven’t been in touch with truth, haven’t been washed clean by life, or listened with my soul.’

Perhaps the deepest prayers are less about what we say than what we hear and how that speaks to us in our heart.

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