The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Heart and Mind

Read the latest post

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.

IMG_0205

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.

IMG_0127

Between Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’Atzmaut

The days between Yom Hoshoah, the Jewish date for Holocaust Memorial Day, and Israel’s Independence Day are always poignant.

I immediately think of my father. He came by ship from Trieste to Haifa in the autumn of 1937, fleeing Nazi Europe. Just a few days ago I found a letter giving him a place to study at the Bezalel Academy of Arts in 1936. He never was able to take up that offer. At the age of 16, in the impoverished Palestine of those years he suddenly found himself the main bread winner. His own father had managed a timber mill in Germany, not a transportable skill. He never could find serious employment in Jerusalem; it fell to my father to support his sisters, and the family. But the future Jewish state had saved their lives, as it saved millions more, from Europe, Arab lands, and later Africa and Eastern Europe. My father died on Yom Ha’Azmaut; for the first time this year I will be in Israel for his Yahrzeit.

I think too of my friend Aaron Barnea, whose son was killed by a roadside bomb near the Beaufort fortress in South Lebanon, one of so many thousands for whom Yom Hazikaron, the day of mourning which precedes Yom Ha’Atzmaut, never becomes less poignant. The Parents Circle, in whom he was active for many years, now brings together bereaved families, Israeli and Palestinian, to mourn with one another and share the pain of loss, but above all to affirm the value of life and to work for a different future.

Like so many of us, I have thought about Israel in so many ways: with love, wonder, worry, fear, dismay, frustration, appreciation and admiration. In my many tens of visits, in the times I have taught there, and the innumerable times I have learnt there, I have looked out at the country through numerous windows.

I have looked through the windows of the Egged bus as it climbed the road to Jerusalem, past the burnt-out trucks left as a reminder of the terrible losses in the siege of Jerusalem. I have seen with joy the green of the forests and fields. I have loved wandering around the campuses of the Hebrew University on Givat Ram and Har Hatsofim, taking out books in the National Library. I have watched the ringing of tiny birds on the reserve in the Hula Valley, and the passing of storks and cranes. I have looked for the different coloured anemones in the spring, and admired the wild cyclamen, Israel’s national flower.

I’ve listened to the stories and viewpoints of family and friends, of the left and of the right. I’ve been out with many groups devoted to building bridges, between rich and poor, religious and non-observant, Israeli and Arab. I’ve looked at the same landscape from the living room of Israeli friends, and, from the opposite side of the valley, through the windows of a Palestinian home. I’ve stood on the roof in an Arab village and watched the house next door being slowly demolished, and seen the school children returning home, and wondered what questions they will ask and who will answer them and how.

I’m dismayed by the reception the Israeli Ambassador received outside SOAS yesterday, the hatred, the prejudiced assumptions, the singling out of Israel for abuse. But I’m also troubled deeply by those who ignore the reality in which so many Palestinians have to live, behind the wall where our thoughts, imagination and empathy usually find it easier not to follow. A country which limits the freedom of some, risks over time compromising the freedom of all. I’m frightened by the mire of intransigence, breeding hatreds.

I’m left with affection, anxiety, hope and prayer. The hope, Hatikvah, rests in the immense courage, creativity and moral imagination with which the country was built, and in witnessing the similar courage with which so many defend the values of its founders and seek to develop it for the good of all its citizens, for justice and compassion, in spite of everything.

The prayer is that, despite the violence and hatred with which not only the Middle East but so much of the globe is riven and divided, the spirit of humanity and generosity, the spirit of God apprehended by the prophets of Israel in the very hills and valleys of this land will prevail and that there shall one day be ‘Tranquillity and harmony, and none shall be afraid’.

Letters from the dead

About a month ago, in a café in Emek Refaim, my one and only cousin Michal handed me a small plastic bag, the sort you wrap gifts in. ‘I found some more letters’, she said, ‘I wanted you to have them as soon as possible’.

I began to look at them there and then. I took out the first couple of pages, the writing turned blue-black with time, the paper thin as tissue, still strangely strong, though no doubt fragile. I looked at the dates, 1938, 1940, 1941. There were photographs too, mostly of Arnold, my father’s cousin, as a baby, as a little boy in a sailor suit. His young life would end in Treblinka. I put the pictures away.

Only now, in these days of Passover, of liberation, have I had time to study most of those letters. They do not add new chapters to the account I wrote in My Dear Ones, my book about the fate of my father’s family during the Holocaust. But they fill in gaps, confirm surmises, add painful details.

There are the last letters sent from Berlin in December 1938 by my great-grandmother and her eldest daughter Sophie who was helping her pack away her things and send them ahead to Palestine, before taking her across the border to her own seemingly safe home in Czechoslovakia. Sophie wrote:

Hopefully everything will go smoothly with the passport, the Unbedenklichkeitsschein (required to prove that one had no debts to the Nazi state), the documents, and – that’ll be the most difficult thing – if dear Mama still has no English visa for here.

Sophie wrote ‘here’, but she meant Palestine. Perhaps at that critical moment she imagined herself there too in the Promised Land, with her brother and sisters who had already made the journey to Jerusalem. She visited them in ’38. ‘We couldn’t persuade her to stay’, my father recalled with sorrow.

Almost exactly a year later the two of them wrote again, from Czechoslovakia. To their immense relief they had just heard from Trude, Sophie’s younger sister, another of my great-aunts. Trude had been living in Poznan, which was occupied by the Wehrmacht only 10 days after they invaded Poland. Within weeks Trude and her family were deported, together with thousands of other Jews:

Trude and her family travelled for 48 hours and then had to walk for 12 hours. They overcame all this in good health. Their suitcases (can’t read the word, but think it means ‘robbed’)

They included her new address, in the small Polish town of Ostrow Lubelski, where thousands of Jews were dumped when the Nazis cleared the Warthe region in the west of Poland of racially undesirables to make way for ethnic Germans. Had I had that address when I went there with David Cesarani and Mossy, I might have known which of the small wooden houses had been Trude’s temporary home for almost three meagre years, until they were all taken to Treblinka.

It’s strangely moving to be back with these letters, with their breath, I do not want to say from the dead, but from the living, – the living, who had such hope and so much love for one another.

A new question has been puzzling me, one of which I somehow failed to think before. My cousin found these letters in a previously unopened cupboard. A cupboard, an old suitcase, a trunk: what part of the memory do they represent? What does it mean to live with such a history in a dusty drawer or unopened compartment in the travelling bag of one’s consciousness? Does one put the contents aside, out of mind, in order to build a new life? Do the dramatis personae of that half-buried past nevertheless inhabit, bodiless, the new landscape of one’s existence? Do they step out at night and enter one’s dreams, or nightmares? Do they say, ‘Remember my fate’? Do they say, ‘I bless your new lands, new lives, and the new work of your hands’?

Or is it we, the now living, who shape the meaning of the words of our dead, our histories?

The most basic freedom – life

There is something more basic even than freedom, – life itself.

I have in front of me a picture of the graves in Khan Seihkun, where more than seventy people including many children died a horrible death, probably from the nerve agent sarin. Assad’s regime is almost certainly responsible, protected by lies from Moscow.

The rough concrete stones in the sandy ground remind me of the cemetery I saw on Lesbos, where lay so many anonymous dead, among them babies, drowned during the crossing from Turkey.

The most basic freedom of all is the freedom to live.

Judaism is categorically on the side of life. From the first moment of human existence, from when God breathes the first divine breath into the first human being, life is sacred. The barest, simplest High Holyday prayer is Zochrenu le’chayyim, Remember us for life. Love of life underlies the Jewish determination to survive in times of persecution, bring healing in times of illness, and celebrate in times of joy. Where life becomes unbearably painful, when life comes to a natural end, it is a matter of sorrow, humility and, if we can manage it, acceptance.

Perhaps the most radical rabbinic re-interpretation of the Torah was to render inapplicable all references to the death penalty. Any death demands accountability. Any killing, except in a just war, demands specific, thorough and impartial investigation, whoever the victim. Any breech in this fundamental law is an offence against humanity and God. God’s image has been destroyed in a unique individual; there is less God in the world.

Life is not just under threat from direct physical violence but from the rhetoric of hatred and contempt. We live in a time of rising xenophobia and incitement, against women, foreigners, Jews, Muslims… One must never say ‘It’s only words’, especially when it comes from public figures. Religious, media and political leaders carry responsibility not only for what they say, but for how it leads others to act. One person’s words legitimise another person’s deeds. That is why the brazen speech of President Trump and the shameless distortions of truth by Ken Livingstone* are so dangerous.

The speech of ISIS and its like is terrifying. The greatest blasphemy is when God’s name is evoked to justify hatred and violence. Where regimes, whatever their professed ideology, instigate policies of calumny, contempt, degradation, and collective deportation the road for some will end in death.

The border between respect for life and the acceptance of killing is a boundary humanity cannot afford to cross. Any civilisation, regime, cult or individual which legitimates and glorifies killing, terror and murder thereby renders itself an enemy of humanity itself and of all living being.

As we celebrate freedom on Passover, we celebrate life: its variety, creativity and potential; its need for liberty, opportunity, compassion and nurture; its beauty; its capacity for wonder, generosity, tenderness, love and joy.

Where we honour life, we honour freedom; where we love life, we love liberty too.

*For a superb analysis of his appalling conduct see this piece in Ha’artz by Colin Schindler

Standing up for truth

One short sentence sticks in my mind out of everything I’ve read this week. It comes from Timothy Snyder’s short book On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the Twentieth Century:

‘Post-truth is pre-fascism.’

The book was published in 2017, under Donald Trump’s presidency. It is a sharp warning to those who believe in civil liberties, equality, freedom, truth and justice to wake up. But it is not just relevant to the USA. It applies wherever fascist groups are on the rise, and where they already dominate, in much of Africa, in Putin’s Russia, in many Arab lands.

Snyder is a professor of history at Yale. His major field is Holocaust Studies; he wrote the much acclaimed Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. He doesn’t suggest we’re living in the 1940’s, or even the late 1930’s. But he does say we’re nearer than we like to think to that terrible cliff-edge towards which Weimar Germany tottered, slowly and ever more feebly, and over which it fell in 1933.

I’ve heard similar from my mother, and others, who remember from their childhood those frightening years in which democracy allowed itself to become weakened, fatally.

Snyder’s concise, punchy book is no lament. It’s a call to action. Pursue truth, he argues, bringing evidence of the dangers of lying from Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. Refuse to be misled; reject collective prejudice. Avoid the Facebook bubble; seek out facts; read proper print. Engage in civil society; meet others who’re doing the same. Don’t be silent. Don’t do the easy thing; don’t hide behind the convenient vestige of conformity. If you do, you’ll find yourself conforming to actions you truly ought to loathe.

His argument is familiar from ancient Jewish sources. ‘Acquire truth and do not sell it’ is a saying of King Solomon (Proverbs 23;23). But is truth saleable? Isn’t it really ourselves we sell when we abandon truth, handing over our souls to the marketplace of lies and prejudice?

This week’s Torah reading is a discourse about sacrifices. One of them is an atonement offering for failing to be truthful, for swearing falsely, lying, and perjury.

The rabbis of the Mishnah were aware that life can seem simpler if one doesn’t get involved. ‘Should you say: “Why should I get caught up in all this bother?” you’ve been told [in the Torah] “If you are a witness, if you see or know, but fail to tell…”

Post-truth makes aiders and abetters of those who fail to stand up for honesty. Passivity is the ally of oppression. The failure to fight for human dignity, justice and compassion turns us into accomplices of prejudice and tyranny.

I write so strongly because I am afraid, of Isis and Islamism; of Putin’s Russia; of the rise of the far right in Europe; of Trump’s way of doing politics, his apparent contempt for the environment, human and natural; and, yes of the possible consequences of leaving an EU which has kept its member states from war for seventy years.

Truth, integrity, freedom and human dignity are inter-dependent. We’re on the threshold of Passover, The Season of our Freedom: if we believe in freedom across the face of the earth, we must stand up for it.

Vigil at Trafalgar Square

Last night I joined the vigil at Trafalgar Square. I stood with people of all ages, walks of life and faiths.

Three feelings were expressed.

First, there was sorrow for PC Keith Palmer, Aysha Frade, Kurt Cochran and their families, and concern for all the wounded. They had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Had our El Al flight back from Tel Aviv not circled for forty minutes before being given clearance to land at Heathrow, Nicky would have been crossing Westminster Bridge at exactly 2.30. It’s a reminder that we are all here by the grace of God and none of us knows what tomorrow may bring.

I hope that somehow, in the secret way in which thoughts travel, our prayers for the strength, consolation and healing of the wounded and bereaved will remain with them and their families in the challenging months when the papers have long been filled with other headlines.

Secondly, there was deep appreciation for the courage of the police and the skilled compassion of the emergency services. I made a point of thanking some of the many police-men and -women I passed as I walked from the tube station to the square. It’s easy to take for granted the risks others take on our behalf and the care with which they serve us. As a community rabbi, I often see ambulance crews at work and have almost always been moved by their humanity and professionalism.

Thirdly, and most profoundly, there was an embracing sense of solidarity. As the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said:

We stand together in the face of those who seek to harm us and destroy our way of life. We always have and we always will.

I’ve asked myself what the terrorist murderer saw in front of his eyes when he drove his car into a crowd of holiday-makers, parents collecting their children from school, people on their way to meetings. What did the driver of the lorry in Nice see, or the perpetrator of any such outrage, anywhere? What possesses their minds to turn fellow human beings into enemies and dirt in their eyes? There are answers to these questions, doctrines of hate, propagandists of evil…

But they are not the issues which interest me most deeply. What really engages me is the question of what those people see, here in London and anywhere in the world, who rush to help, who show no fear, who try to heal, who offer comfort and encouragement. I don’t expect they ask themselves anything at the time; they simply follow their intuition and their hearts.

Earlier this week I was with a friend and colleague in Israel whose daughter was badly burnt in a freak fire. Thank God, she is recovering. ‘It was terrible’, he said. ‘And’, he continued, ‘It was inspiring’. Noticing my perplexity, he added: ‘The total devotion of the nurses, social workers, doctors, whether Arab, Druse or Jewish, – it was humbling, it was wonderful.’

I love my Jewish faith. But I don’t find God just in creeds. In this remarkable, beautiful, cruel world, in one another and our hopes and dreams and needs, in our toughness and our vulnerability, there the living God awaits us, always.

Attack in Westminster

An attack on Westminster is an attack against liberty and democracy themselves.

It concerns us all.

Our thoughts are with the families of PC Keith Palmer and the others who were so cruelly and randomly murdered. We pray for the swift healing of all who were injured.

We must never take for granted the bravery of the police and the skill and care of the emergency services, who responded with such courage.

Such cruel and violent attacks, which have taken place in such vile ways in many of the capitals of Europe, must not undermine our commitment to life, freedom and the values of humanity and compassion.

Jonathan Wittenberg

Get in touch...