The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Heart and Mind

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We can’t abandon refugee children

Tomorrow brings two of my favourite things: Tu Bishevat, the New Year for Trees, and Shabbat Shirah the Shabbat of Song. I had thought to write about both. I’ve been reading Peter Wohlleben’s wonderful book The Hidden Life of Trees. A forester initially employed to maximise the yield from the woods over which he was appointed, he comes to understand the mystery of the secret life of his trees, how they communicate with one another, support each other, develop resilience and form a rich and wondrous community.

I wanted to write about how God’s presence sings in the trees, how that song can embrace and chasten us and make us more deeply aware of the wonder and privilege of life.

But I won’t. Having hosted Lord Dubs in our synagogue and heard him speak of what motivated him, a child of the Kindertransport, to petition Parliament to allow 3,000 lone children into this country, I cannot be silent when that agreement seems now to have been overturned by the government.

I was in The House of Commons last week for the rededication of the plaque in honour of the Kindertransport. After the Chief Rabbi and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who both spoke with moving eloquence, a boy of 15 from Syria told us, through an interpreter, about his long journey to these shores. When asked what was most in his thoughts, he said: ‘The unknown fate of his parents and family’ as he tried to restrain his tears.

In the wake of the Holocaust we asked in grief and anger how it was possible for so many people to remain indifferent, unmoved by the fate of others. I fear the answer is that it’s easy: ‘If it doesn’t affect me, I can just get on with my life as usual. It’s simpler not to know.’

Every verse of Jewish teaching and every chapter of Jewish experience tells us that that is not good enough. ‘Don’t hide yourself from your own flesh’, proclaims Isaiah: don’t be deaf and blind to those who suffer just as you are suffering. ‘Lo titallam - Don’t hide away; don’t pretend you didn’t know’.

Barbara Winton, who spoke in our synagogue and with whom I’m closely in touch, wrote to the Prime Minister today (Theresa May was her father Nicholas Winton’s MP): ‘Every single child’s life is worth every single thing we can give.’

None of us has done enough to help save those lives. I repeat at this link the initiatives I’m encouraging us to support. I admire the remarkable work of our Drop-In. I respect greatly the huge efforts of Help Refugees and Safe Passage. I am pleased we are beginning to find ways to support and befriend the refugee families in our midst, in Barnet. But we need more initiatives, more engagement and more moral courage.

I want to stress that this is not an alternative to strengthening our own community. My heart sinks and I feel personal upset when I learn that someone has failed to come forward to support our minyan, our quorum, on their due date on the rota, preventing others from reciting the Kaddish. We must not let each other, our Judaism, or our common humanity down.

Peter Wohlleben describes in his beautiful book how, through the hidden connections between their roots, trees nourish the weak amongst them and uphold the strong. The roots of our shared humanity also mingle in the common earth of our mortal existence. We too can, and must, uphold one another.

The Dubs Amendment

‘The Dubs Amendment’ was agreed by Parliament last year as a gesture of humanity and hospitality in the face of an immense crisis in which child refugees are the most vulnerable of all. It was supported by public opinion, the widespread feeling that, with its tradition of compassion and hospitality, this country should and could do more.

To close the doors now, when only a fraction of the three thousand children due to come here have been enabled to do so, is cruel. Barbara Winton, daughter of Nicholas Winton whose actions saved the lives of over 600 children in 1938/9 told me: ‘It’s tragedy if the hopes of these young people are dashed. Even 3,000 is just a drop in the ocean, but each drop is a life…’

We need to work together to hold the government to its commitments. We must also play our part as communities and individuals in receiving and welcoming the children who do arrive here, and in helping them to establish new lives.

True to our values in difficult times

I listen to the news of the attack at the Louvre, icon of France’s love of beauty, and feel profound dismay. Poor Paris, city which has suffered so much in the last two years.

A brave soldier was swift enough to shoot the attacker. But the event still increases fear and suspicion. It cannot be doubted that we live in a world where constant vigilance and good intelligence are a sad but basic necessity for our security.

Yet we do not want to inhabit a society divided on religious, racial or ethnic grounds by barricades of suspicion, prejudice and anger. A world, state or city separated into ‘them and us’, with mass collective exclusions, is not the answer. It represents a victory for fear and hate; it is already a kind of failure. For division is the hallmark of hatred and fear.

Judaism has always had at its heart the belief in one God. Oneness is perhaps Judaism’s most unique and characteristic idea. What does it mean?

The oneness of God comes first. As Maimonides wrote in The Laws of the Foundations of the Torah, and as the mystical tradition persistently emphasises, to declare that ‘God is one’ is not simply to say that God is not two, or four, or eight. It is a profound affirmation that a sacred oneness, the divine spirit and presence, permeates all things and transcends them; that all life belongs to God and God belongs in all life; that there is therefore nothing and no one devoid of sanctity and value.

It follows that humanity is ultimately one. The description in the first chapter of Genesis that God made the human being in the divine image, is not a scientific account of what actually happened, but an assertion of the ultimate equality of all life. In the words of the Mishnah; ‘No one can say “My parents were better than yours”’. There is therefore no such thing, to use the ugly Nazi phrase, as ‘a life unworthy of life’. People may behave disgracefully, treacherously and wickedly and therefore merit punishment. But ab initio, they are not children of a lesser God, or of less intrinsic worth because they are Jews, Muslims, or Zoroastrians, for we are all not just children, but agents, of the one living God.

It follows further that all life is part of one inter-connected web of sacred vitality, as the prayers on the New Year declare, ‘let us all be part of one bond, to do God’s will with a perfect heart’. We are mandated to participate in a profound sharing of the resources of the earth and the gift of life itself. This is a truth affirmed at one end by a deep faith in the sanctity of all things, and at the other by the empirical evidence of ecological examination.

What then are we supposed to do in a time when fear and hatred threaten to pull us apart, yet togetherness, mutuality and understanding are at the heart of our vision?

We should be neither naïve, nor passive. Individually and collectively we need to do our utmost to remain true to our faith and ideals. We must deepen our roots within our own community, reach out to those who feel isolated, build relationships with those of different faiths and groups, and engage with those who are strangers, outsiders and refugees.

We need to be vigilant against violence, whether in words or actions, and whoever the victim. At the same time, we also need to be vigilant in our own hearts and minds, in what we say and hear said, against the proliferation of hatreds and prejudices of our own.

We need to work even harder to be true to our ideals. At this time of greater difficulty, the rewards are also great: new friendships, new connections, deeper bonds of shared humanity and commitment to justice and compassion.

Holocaust Memorial Day

I woke up this morning with a line from the Israeli poet Rachel on my mind:

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

Her appeal, poignant in the knowledge that her death from tuberculosis is approaching, is deeply personal. Someone she has loved has failed to hear her cry. Soon she will have no more words…

But the feeling is also apt for Holocaust Memorial Day, the anniversary of the date when the first troops of the Red Army came upon Auschwitz and Birkenau. Primo Levi’s description of his first sight of them is unforgettable, four horsemen, silent, a look of shame on their young faces that such a place could even exist, that such deeds could be part of the annals of what is.

Might Rachel’s line not express what the dead are asking of us:

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

Will we hear the stifled voices of those forced down forever into the world of death? What might they say? Each time I visit the site of a former death camp, I try to walk in silence and to listen. For these are places which command attentiveness:

Don’t kill me. I love life.
I wish we were together. I’m afraid.
Don’t be afraid.
My child, where is my child? If only I could have spared you this!
Take my hand.

Beneath and beyond is all silence; what do we really know of what people thought and felt in their final moments?

Across the world, in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, mothers, children, spouses, neighbours confront the silence of those they had loved. Often, they don’t even know how they met their death or where their bones now lie.

But all is not silence. We still have survivors among us, witnesses, refugees. In my experience, they testify to horror and pain, to the importance of memory and truth, but rarely in bitterness and hardly ever with hatred. On the contrary, the voices of survivors are overwhelmingly a call to a profound and embracing humanity, to the awareness of the transcendent value of life, beyond the differences and barriers of race, ethnicity, faith and nationality. Though they speak of the past, what they really address is the present and the future: where today is that humanity, the courage to confront prejudice and hate, the determination to protect the innocent victims of violence, which was so much lacking then?

Within their words lie the lives and loves of all those whose cries were not heeded, whose voices were silenced with a bullet, a boot, or gas, disease or starvation.

Will we hear? Will we act?

Memory is never morally neutral; it is always a question addressed to the future. It is always responsibility.

A True Leader

I was in the United States on the day of Barak Obama’s inauguration as President. I watched the remarkable proceedings on screen, deeply moved, together with the students at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. I remember weeping when President Obama said that before him in Washington stretched a street where only decades earlier his father might, or might not, have been served in a café. I thought, ‘It was to witness a moment like this that my grandfather survived Dachau and devoted his life to better understanding between peoples’.

The world has developed in threatening, often evil, ways since that date eight years ago. About Obama’s legacy there are differing opinions. But I have not heard it doubted that he is a moral man with good intentions.

Now America is on the brink of a new era. I know no colleagues in the States who feel confident about what President Trump’s leadership may offer. For this, many factors are to blame for which he is not responsible: Islamist terror; Russian militancy; resurgent racist nationalism, including anti-Semitism; inadequate attention to climate change; callousness towards the poor; the perils of a capitalism unguided and unlimited by intelligent compassion for our fellow human beings and for the earth itself.

Professor Vernon Bogdanor spoke yesterday about the shift from a politics of ideology to a politics of identity. Across the globe, people are anxious about who they are, who cares about them, and what the uncertain future holds. They seek assertive leaders who offer not just security of hearth and home, but something more intangible as well: identity security.

It is partly on this current that Donald Trump has come to power. On the journey, he has not eschewed the language of racism, sexism and contempt, or distanced himself from supporters who embrace it. But leadership, though it may corrupt, also holds the power to chasten and transform those interrogated by its responsibilities.

My prayer therefore on this day of his inauguration is that he should have an open mind and heart; that he should experience many hours by day and by night which challenge him to his very essence about what it means to be human, to be hungry or homeless, hated or forgotten; many hours which haunt him about the very state of this beautiful earth. I prayer that these hours, which we should all experience, for we are all leaders in the domain of our own lives and influence, lead to inspiration and action.

Near the start of the Book of Exodus, which we begin tomorrow, Moses ‘goes out to his brothers’. Since he was brought up in Pharaoh’s royal palace, it is fair to presume that these may have been his fellow Egyptians, the taskmasters and slave drivers. But when he sees the burdens of those who are being made to suffer, he realises that it is the latter who are most deeply his kin. Henceforth he knows it is they who are also his true brothers.

It is in that moment that he becomes a leader. That is Moses’ inauguration.

Why we are here on earth

It has been for me a week of heartfelt conversations. In such reflection, in such endeavour to find words which are gentle, honest, encouraging, and which do not infringe upon the shared attentiveness of listening, it becomes clear how much of life is about recognition. Sometimes this recognition concerns acknowledgement of sorrow, sometimes the wondrousness of beauty, but always it deepens our awareness both of each other’s humanity and of our own.

Biblical Hebrew has a profound vocabulary for such realisation. The verb yada is generally translated simply as ‘know’. Though it is used casually in modern conversation – ‘I don’t know’; ‘Who knows?’ – it often expresses in its biblical context the deepest possible dimension of knowing: ‘And you shall know this day and lay it to your heart that God is God’.

This knowledge may be experienced in little things, in the small winter flowers which perfume even the coldest day, in the red fruit of the crab-apple tree, offering January nourishment to the hungry birds. It may be felt in life’s great moments, of birth, love or death, when we perceive even in the mundane, a candle, a tree, a sense of mystery and wonder. It is discovered in moments of awe, in that reverence for life which motivated Isaiah to proclaim his great ideal as if it were the simplest, most obvious truth: ‘They shall not hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain’. Isn’t it our failure to feel it as holy which leads us to wound and damage so much of life? That is why it’s so important to pray, since the essence of prayer is to listen, to be cleansed, quietened, simplified, re-centred from all our distractions, so that we know.

The verb Hikir means ‘to recognise’. It means perceiving and understanding what is in front of our eyes. This is not always as easy as it may sound. Jacob, for example, did recognise the multi-coloured coat of his son Joseph when the brothers brought it to him dipped in goat’s blood. But he failed to perceive those betrayals of which the manner of its appearance might have made him aware. In its deepest sense, hikir involves sensing the unseen; the needs, sensitivities and vulnerabilities, the unspoken stories held in the heart.

Most beautifully, Ruth, the foreign girl from Moab, turns in deep appreciation to Boaz who has just welcomed her as a gleaner in his fields and says: ‘How come I’ve found favour in your eyes that you should recognise me, a stranger’. Such recognition is what so many refugees await from us: an appreciation of their humanity, losses, hopes. It expresses the understanding we need in order to breech the barriers of prejudice, between faiths, nationalities, ethnic groups. It’s what we need from each other in ordinary, everyday life, and even more so in times of stress and pain: to feel heard, included, valued, encouraged. What needs hearing is never only that which we succeed in putting into words but what eludes them in the silence of the heart.

Such knowledge and recognition leads us, simply and clearly, towards life’s purpose, a purpose we may express through our family, friendships, work, community, volunteering, activism, religion, faith, or simply through the way we interact with one another: We are here in this world to bring our humanity together in loving kindness, so that we can act to mitigate the cruelty of things, and we are here to appreciate and celebrate life’s blessings.

That’s what our lives, families, friendships, communities and faith are for.

These causes helping child refugees need our support urgently

World Jewish Relief

Mobile School Programme
For more information and to donate, click here

Child refugee support co-ordinator
For more information and to donate, click here

JUMP (matches young asylum seekers and refugees who arrive alone in the UK with trained, adult befrienders)
To donate, click here

God and Farming

It’s not often one has the privilege of taking part in a conference which is as high in the sky as spirituality and transcendence, yet as rooted in the ground as a row of wheat or the hoofprint of a cow in the frozen grass. But yesterday I was on a panel about metaphysics at the Oxford Real Farming Conference together with the founder of the Campaign for Real Farming, Colin Tudge, and a Christian theologian and a Sufi.

This is not the beginning of a ‘the rabbi, the priest and the imam’ style joke. The session was one of the most moving and inspiring experiences of my life. The room was packed; there were farmers, foresters, and men and women of all walks of life for whom growing, gardening, the tending of animals and the nurture of the earth were a profoundly spiritual as well as an eminently practical pursuit.

Professor Tim Gorrange was a Christian, Dr Justine Huxley, the Director of St Ethelburgas Centre for Reconciliation a Sufi, and I a Jew, but we spoke the same language.

We shared an understanding of God as present in all being, of all life as sacred, silently articulate with the vital presence of the divine.

We shared an appreciation of creation as an integrated whole, and a view of humankind not as chosen by divine right to dominate, but rather as entrusted to respect, care, nurture and stand in humble accountability as part of the great web of life to which we and all things belong.

We spoke of listening, of trying to learn through the different disciplines of our faiths the art of becoming attentive to the silent voice which speaks from within all life, a voice which our civilisation all too often ignores, or imagines not to exist. We talked of the importance of the experience of reverence, and of how the cultivation of plants and crops can help us too to grow in wonder and respect.

But there wasn’t a ‘we’ and a ‘them’; the room was full of practitioners who have plenty to teach our world. ‘I work from a monastery’, one man said, ‘we create spiritual communities through gardening and the sharing of food. The homeless come; the wealthy come; both those  at the top and at the bottom of the conventional social hierarchy. We come together because we are all somehow broken, seeking healing as part of a greater wholeness.’

Another contributor spoke of the family smallholding where refugees and asylum seekers are made welcome; they tend the vegetables, cook, sing together and learn from one another. His brother is a member of our synagogue.

A pastor told me about his work in creating gardeners with former prisoners, finding healing in engagement with the earth itself. He asked me about the meanings of the Hebrew words for ‘earth’ and ‘serve’: ‘Does avad mean both to work the land, and to be a servant of God?’

We spoke of the urgency of placing responsibility, care, compassion and indeed love back at the heart of our culture. There was wide agreement when I mentioned Hans Jonas’ final lecture, delivered days before he died, in which he spoke of the next revelation as coming not from Sinai or Gethsemane but from ‘the outcry of mute things’.

Yesterday I met some of those who are devoting their lives to listening to that silent outcry, to becoming more deeply attuned to what it tells us about God, humanity, creation and the earth, and who are daily endeavouring to answer the call of its commandments.

Chanukkah, festival of courage and hope

Chanukkah is the festival of courage.

It teaches us that however thick the surrounding darkness it cannot quench the inner light which burns in the human soul.

It teaches us that even amidst the ruins of temples and cities, at least one vial of pure oil, one flame of inspiration and illumination, can always be found.

It teaches us that when we kindle the lamp of hope, however little fuel we may have to nourish it, it always burns far longer and far brighter than we had imagined.

It teaches us that one light can be the source of many flames, one person’s courage and commitment can and will inspire that of others, one person’s goodness can guide a whole society.

It teaches us that cruelty will never triumph utterly over kindness and compassion.

Chanukkah exemplifies how throughout history we have never allowed violence, hatred and terror to put out our faith or extinguish our commitment to our values.

In a cruel year, giving rise to many fears, let us kindle our Channukah lights and, together with the light of other faiths and the inner light which is the soul of all humanity, set them against the darkness.

Interviewing Lord Dubs

As the horrors perpetrated in Aleppo intensify even further, as winter deepens across millions of refugees, tens of thousands of them in inadequate camps in northern Greece and elsewhere in Europe, it is a relief to listen to a voice of committed compassion.

Alf Dubs was born in Czechoslovakia in 1932. His departure as a small boy on the Kindertransport had a profound effect on him. To this day, he said, he still finds partings searingly painful. That’s no doubt an essential part of why he feels so strongly about the plight of refugees, especially unaccompanied children.

He entered politics to turn values into actions, to make a difference. ‘The vast majority of politicians are public servants with a genuine desire to do good’, he reminded us. He recalled the impact Joe Cox had on him, listening to her speaking in The Commons.

Concern for refugees has been central to his career, both in and outside of Parliament. Between 1988 and 1995 he was director of the Refugee Council. This work and his own life story made him determined to persuade the government to allow more children into this country in the shocking current crisis. At the second attempt ‘The Dubs Amendment’ was passed.

‘What did it’, Lord Dubs said, ‘Was public opinion. This country has a long history of welcoming refugees’. But at the same time he was well aware of the opposite trend, especially after Brexit, toward increased racism and xenophobia. ‘I spent hour after hour knocking on doors, campaigning for Remain,’ he told us.

He was impressed by the quotations from the Torah on either side of the ark in the New North London Synagogue: ‘Love your neighbour’ and ‘Love the stranger’.

Lord Dubs was given a prolonged standing ovation, a tribute to his determination to fight for values which we all share.

Masorti Judaism was key in raising £200,000 across the community to bring children to this country who had legal rights under Dublin 3 to enter the UK.

I have recently launched a further appeal, through the New North London Synagogue and beyond, to support key NGOs in their essential work of supporting refugee children in Europe and once they have reached this country. Please see click here. Please be generous.


The power of music; the power of evil

Yesterday we accompanied Leslie Lyndon to his final resting place. He was a founding member of our community, leader, cantor, teacher, for over a decade at the heart of our ministerial team, and a close friend. I shall miss him.

He had three especially great gifts: an unfailing smile which expressed a warm, calm and unfailingly kind presence; a beautiful and gracious voice in leading and facilitating prayer; and an unshakeably positive spirit. He was a man who welcomed, enabled, encouraged, included, and wanted no one to be hurt.

When I came home from the funeral and returned, reluctantly, to my computer, I found the following message* from the team who run our Drop-In for asylum seekers. It has no connection with Leslie, and is yet most deeply connected:

We’d like to share this inspiring version of “We Shall Overcome” sung by asylum seekers and refugees. You can watch at

Do listen. ‘We shall overcome…We shall all be friends…’: are these convictions not what lies at the heart of the very power of music itself? For music expresses the strength, tenacity and joy of spirit which tyranny, with all its ever more brutal weapons, its cruelty and its contempt for humanity and God, cannot extinguish, so long as life itself remains, so long as there is a heart to feel and a tongue to sing?

And there is so much to overcome, in the Congo, from where so many of those who attend our asylum seekers drop-in have fled; in Syria, about where the UN humanitarian advisor for, Jan Egeland, just tweeted:

For 3000 years #Aleppo gave so much to world civilisations. How come, when Aleppo’s people needed us the most, we gave so little back?’

I thought of Leslie and his music when I joined the tribute at Westminster Abbey’s Martyr’s Memorial to the men, women and children murdered and wounded in the vile attack on the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo. They went there to celebrate the miracle of life, said Bishop Angaelos, who only two weeks ago was a guest in our community. But, he continued, evil cannot and shall not put out the light of compassion which has come into the world. He may have meant the words in a different theological context from mine, but it’s the same light and the same compassion.

It’s precisely the meaning of the miracle we celebrate at Chanukkah through the story of the one flask of incorruptible oil which the Maccabees found and lit when they re-entered the devastated precincts of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is the inextinguishable light of the human spirit, which always burns longer and deeper than we might have thought possible. By the time one of its flames eventually goes out, another and then yet another has been inspired and ignited.

In the dimension of sight, the spirit is expressed through light; in that of sound, through music. Leslie and I once discussed the Torah’s puzzling words

God is my strength and my song

Is song, a mere sequence of notes, really strength? After all, it can’t prevent bombs from killing innocent people. It can’t often stay the ruthless power of disease. But it keeps the heart of humanity alive, the heart of goodness, kindness and compassion, and it is with that heart that we shall overcome.

 *From the team at the Drop-In for Asylum Seekers:

We hope the video will raise money for the Drop-in to purchase supermarket vouchers and travel money for our clients. If you would like to make a donation, you can do so here. The project provides support to hundreds of asylum seekers. It offers food, clothing, consultations with doctors, lawyers and therapists, supermarket vouchers and travel money. It is run entirely by volunteers.

Please also give generously to these urgent causes

Please click here for links to charities helping refugees in the UK and in Greece.

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