The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Heart and Mind

Read the latest post

Seeing the world feelingly

I’m not a person who believes in beschert, pre-destined, but – there may be exceptions, and, as my teacher Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs said, quoting Solomon Schechter ‘the best theology is inconsistent’.

I walked out of the Conservative Yeshivah into the Jerusalem street and there he was in front of me, a beautiful young black Labrador. He wore that jacket which tells people like me, who’re too much inclined to strike up conversations with every dog they meet, that he was in training and strictly not to be distracted.

I asked the young woman who was walking him: ‘He’s going to be a guide dog’, she explained. He’s just eight months old and I’m his carer for the year.’

I couldn’t believe it. This is the day before I’m due to run the Jerusalem Marathon in aid of Toby’s very organisation, the Israel Guide Dog Centre. I apologised for thus accosting her puppy out of the blue and told the girl what I was doing. ‘His name’s Toby’, she then said. I don’t think she wanted me to get too familiar with her hound. ‘And you’re welcome to take pictures.’

Then, as we went our separate ways at the corner, she added: ‘When my father’s friend went blind we saw how important dogs are. We’ve been deeply involved ever since.’

The encounter felt like a blessing, a token of good luck from heaven.

As I walked away I found myself thinking about the girl’s words: ‘We saw how important…’

They are so many ways of seeing, and not seeing.

The world is full of beauty. ‘Lift up your eyes and see who created these’, says Isaiah; I’d always thought he was referring to the stars, but it could be trees, or clouds, or flowers, or human faces, all the wonder of which, in our rushed lives, we so often fail to take note. To lose one’s sight is, in Milton’s famous lines, to have beauty at ‘one entrance quite shut out’. It must be an extremely painful loss.

Yet there are different ways of seeing and being enabled to see. In rabbinic Hebrew a blind person is referred to as Sagi Na’or, a person of great light. The verb for seeing, ro’eh, is often used in the Bible to refer to other and deeper kinds of awareness and emotional sensitivity. God ‘sees’ the sufferings of human beings; God ‘knows’. People, too, often ‘see’ the pain of others, and their own.

Such usage is by no means unique to Hebrew. Shakespeare gives searing expression to this relationship between sight and insight when the maddened King Lear meets the blinded Earl of Gloucester on the cliffs above Dover. ‘No eyes in your head nor no money in your purse, yet you see how this world goes?’ the crazed King challenges. ‘I see it feelingly’, the former Earl replies. He did not of course see it with any such feeling when he had his eyes, his title and his power.

That is not to glorify or romanticise the painful, frightening loss of sight. But it does show that they are many depths to how we see the world. Responding to an unknown critic who condemned Picasso for painting the sky green, E M Forster wrote that he was grateful to see the world through Picasso’s eyes, if only for a few moments.

Countless people enable us to see. We see the world not just through one another’s eyes, including the beautiful eyes of guide dogs, but through each other’s hearts. Maybe that’s why I love Amazing Grace, because I not rarely fear I may have been blind to important sensitivities, and hope that ‘now I see’.

When I run tomorrow – (‘What time do you hope to finish by?’ I was just asked in an email. ‘Pesach’, I answered) – I shall think of the many people who have helped me to see, and hope that I too can occasionally help bring sight to others, – a gift which the wonderful dogs for whom I’m running have in affectionate abundance,

Toby guide dog

Where God is in a bleak climate

I woke up this morning thinking of Moses’ words to God: ‘va’eida’acha – let me know you’, wondering what this means. I’ve been trying to work out why this was on my mind.

I’d listened to the news on my way back from Cambridge last night. I’d heard about Vladimir Putin’s televised address in which he spoke of Russia’s new weapons, nuclear, intercontinental, five times the speed of sound, undetectable by any defence system present or future. What a thing to be proud of! And what about what Russia is doing in Syria? Poor humanity!

I’d listened to a report on changing wind patterns in the Artic, the possible cause of the unpleasantly named ‘Beast from the East’. Even the penguins are in trouble, the polar bears too. Others may feel this is foolish, but it pains me: more elephants are currently shot each day by poachers than are born. Who gave us the right?

There are times when I simply feel frightened for the future, and ashamed of being human, part of this species inflicting such hurt on creation.

I’d been on an interfaith panel at The Perse School in Cambridge. We’d been sent in advance the questions pupils wanted to ask. Next to my name I saw:

How can religions, supposedly all about love and peace, use God’s name in war?

Part of me was glad we ran out of time before that particular issue was raised.

But I know how I would answer.

I’d walked a couple of miles last night in the freezing streets. Poor people who have no roof over their heads, nowhere to retreat from the elements, no hot food, no stove, no bed. How can we do more for them?

I’d looked out at the frozen gardens, watching the birds, virtually queueing by the feeders, tiny, fragile, ice upon their wings. A couple of raisins or sunflower seeds could be a matter of life or death for them.

What sort of human wants innocent people, innocent creatures to die?

All this adds up to why Moses’ questions ‘Let me know you, God’, was on my mind.

Knowing God isn’t about being certain God’s on one’s side, automatically, ipso facto, just because one’s a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian, or anything else. It’s not about knowing what God’s against and whom God hates. God’s is not the will behind the invention of even more lethal weapons of war. All this is idolatry; worse, it’s idolatry posing as religion.

Every act of terror purportedly in God’s name defiles that name. Every time we cause hurt to any living thing we hurt God too.

So what about Moses’ question – ‘Let me know you, God’? Even for Moses, isn’t this asking too much? No one ever really, truly knows God.

But we know enough. We know all we need to know, and we know it with the heart. There is something of God’s presence in those hungry birds. There is much of God’s being in every homeless, hungry person. God is present among the civilians in Syria, the DCR, and every war zone, unable to escape the clever weapons which destroy their towns, homes, children, souls, lives.

We are not mere bystanders while all this takes place around us. We are joined together by this moment of existence, this flow of life which animates us all this very breath-take, now. We are bound to each other by this call for compassion which cries out from round about us: Help me! Shelter me! Feed me! Save my children!

What more do we need to know about who or what or where God is?

 

Laws and Customs of Purim

Chag Purim Sameach! Happy Purim!

Here are some of the commandments and traditions connected with the festival, which begins fully tonight.

First of all, we are instructed to listen to the reading of the Megillah, the Scroll of Esther, tonight and tomorrow morning. It is a gripping and contemporary tale. Behind the colourful facades and drinking parties, the protagonists conduct a politics which, though it may look casual, is cunning and ruthless. In two short sentences Haman puts before King Achashverosh every trope of Antisemitism: the Jews are everywhere; they’re rich; they have secret communications networks; they care only about themselves. Esther defeats Haman’s plans not by wiles but through astute political judgment. The Megillah is the classic tale about what minorities have to do to survive caught in the lethal interplay of the interests of more powerful others.

As if to create a different and more compassionate reality, we are instructed to give mattanot la’evyonim gifts to the poor, on Purim. Because both words are plural in Hebrew, we are required to give at least two gifts to two different people or groups of people suffering hardship. The Mishnah Berurah (late c19 commentary to the classic 16th century code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch) comments movingly that ‘it is better to give much to the poor than it is to spend greatly on one’s Purim feast or in giving gifts to one’s friends, because there is no greater happiness than causing the hearts of the poor to rejoice’. It is evident from the Shulchan Aruch that in many places it was also customary to give to the local poor, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, and to bring gifts to the neighbours among whom one was living ‘for the sake of the ways of peace’. (See below concerning two groups for whom we are collecting as a community this year.)

Equally, it is the custom to take portions of food and drink to friends and acquaintances, following the instruction in the megillah that people sent mishloach manot ish lere’ehu, ‘parcels of food to one another’. It is an enjoyable custom to prepare cheerful baskets of basic food and treats both for friends and people one doesn’t know. Within the community, it is a way of including members who may be unwell or frail, so that they too can find happiness on Purim. Some communities also do this collectively, using the money they raise for charity.

One of the central themes of the megillah is the interplay between appearance and identity. There is probably no other Biblical story in which clothing features with such prominence. Hence it is the tradition to dress up on Purim. An ‘upside-down world’ is created, in which one no longer knows who’s who. Add to this a carnival spirit and you enter the world of Purimspiels, cabaret acts, disguises, and fun. The date has long been a holiday for children, who wear fancy dress and give and receive presents of food. It’s in the spirit of Purim, for adults to dress up too.

In the afternoon of Purim day, one gathers for the Purim Se’udah or special meal. Traditional foods include pulses (less widely eaten on Purim today) because Daniel ate vegetarian when he was an exile in the court of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. More popular are Purim challah made with raisins inside and hundreds-and-thousands all over, and Hamantaschen, filled with anything from poppy-seed to chocolate.

Stoneman Douglas #NeverAgain – I admire the pupils’ courage

My teenage class this week wanted, perhaps needed, to talk about the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school.

-          People blamed pupils for tweeting and using WhatsApp while it was happening, but they must have been terrified.
-          We’ve had lock-down practice at our school, but this – it’s beyond me. I can’t even begin to imagine it.

One student at the school had tweeted “Our school is having a shooting. I’m not even kidding I’m about to die.” Poor people. Thank God if pupils here in the UK can’t imagine such a thing.

But since the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, many classes in the US have had ‘active-shooter drill’ practice, from Kindergarten age upwards. ‘Seeing a school shooting as an event to prepare for, rather than an awful aberration, seems to have fueled the students’ anger’, noted The Guardian newspaper.

I respect that anger. I admire the initiative shown taken by pupils from the Stoneman Douglas high school since. All strength to their #NeverAgain campaign with its slogan ‘Protect our lives not our guns’.

Yet more guns cannot be the main answer. What’s clearly needed, what has clearly and self-evidently been needed for years, are changes to US gun laws. (It’s easy to say that from the UK, but that makes it no less true.)

My role in my teenage class is to provide the Jewish content. Our rule is: they choose the topic and bring the You Tube video or online article; I bring a relevant Jewish text or idea in response. The deal is that I get at least two day’s notice.

But this discussion was unplanned. So what was I to bring?

I tried to draw the discussion round to the significance of human action. We exist to make a difference. Action in defense of what is just and right is not an option but an obligation, a categorical responsibility, the core responsibility which defines what it means to be human. (And what is more right that the right of pupils and staff in schools to survive their day, learn and help create a better tomorrow?)

That’s why I agree with The Economist:

It has been the response of the surviving students… that has kept the tragedy in the news a little longer than usual. The pupils… have poured their grief and rage into a new campaign for gun control. In television interviews, speeches and social-media posts they have excoriated politicians who take cash from the National Rifle Association…

I admire their activism.

This week brings the festival of Purim. The language of the key text of the festival, the Scroll of Esther, draws repeatedly on the Torah’s description of Joseph’s experiences in Egypt. Both describe the situation of the Jew in the court of the all-powerful non-Jew: Joseph and Moses before Pharaoh; Mordechai and Esther before Ahasuerus.

But the key actor in Exodus is absent in the world of Mordechai and Esther. In Exodus Moses calls upon God and God at once intervenes. But God isn’t mentioned, not even once in the Scroll of Esther. The world, and our fortunes within it, are entirely delivered over to human agency.

That is not the same as saying that God is absent. There are God-like, God-inspired and God-required courses of action. But that action is dependent upon us.

This is something the frightened and grieving pupils and teachers of Marjory Douglas Stoneman high school have understood and grasped. Their courage and determination bring hope to us all.

 

Signing off on your heart

‘Set your signature on my heart’, says the lover in The Song of Songs.

We carry each other’s signatures in our hearts. Every day we write ourselves into each other’s lives and spirits.

Sometimes it happens with sudden drama, as when people fall madly in love. More often it occurs slowly, imperceptibly almost. Teacher, neighbour, colleague, friend, man at the gate, – months pass, years pass, turn unnoticed into decades. We share a hundred ordinary things, take each other for granted, like the trees along the side of the road.

When a person we know in such a way dies, we lose them, their idiosyncrasies, humour, how they liked their coffee, said ‘good morning’.

And we lose a part of our own self also. For our lives are interwound and a part of us dies with each other’s death. That is why John Donne’s words leave few untouched:

No man is an island entire of itself…Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.   Meditation XVII

Bernard Schneider died last week. If you didn’t know him, imagine a person who was always there, faithful, quiet-spoken, kind; a man with a sense of humour so dry or droll that I sometimes gave people who’d never before met him a quiet health-warning in advance; a person loyal to family, community and the Jewish religion, with an immovable commitment which not rarely suggested the words ‘stubborn’ or ‘obstinate’; a man on whom the congregation could utterly rely; a man who never lost touch with the child-part of his own soul, so that he was, until almost the end, a wonderful reader of stories, player of games, pusher of swings with his children and grand-children.

He used to approach me at the end of the synagogue service and make a gesture of turning a door knob. I would hand him my bunch of keys to the office and he would go upstairs and place some essential document in the community wedding files.

For Bernard really did write signatures of the heart. During thirty-five years he was our registrar, our senior secretary for marriages, who filled in the forms in indelible ink in the official books; held out the pen to bride, groom and witnesses; sat on the other side of the table while the photographers captured that iconic moment in which the newly-weds signed away the rest of their lives; and finally confirmed with a signature of his own that this was indeed a marriage faithfuly performed ‘according to the usages of the Jews’.

I’ve been told that Bernard officiated at three hundred weddings (including Nicky’s and mine), almost all of them after the death of his first wife, which made me realise what courage lay concealed within his humour and unflappable self-possession.

Bernard’s passing is to me and his friends not at all like his loss for his wife, children and grandchildren. My heart goes out to them.

Losses are never comparable. I cannot but think today of the shocking murder of seventeen young people and staff at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. (It’s inconceivable to me why America does not change its gun laws.) I think of all of them, their parents and families, and of the ties friends and colleagues may have with the five Jewish victims.

Sometimes our writing on each other’s hearts feels like the calm presence of a steady hand, sometimes like the reassurance of a calming caress, and sometimes like the cutting and tearing of an adze.

Our heart is full of other people. We should acknowledge them, appreciate them, thank them, share their greetings, quip back at their crazy humour, stand by them in loyalty, while they and we still can.

Can there be religious faith without justice?

This week the Torah moves us swiftly on from the great revelation at Mount Sinai to mishpatim, just laws. For at the heart of Judaism is the relationship between justice and faith.

Tyranny, cruelty, unfairness, the cynical perpetuation of inequality, are wrongs not only against our fellow human beings, but against God. This is because God, if God means anything significant to us at all, is not in the heavens, imprisoned up there in splendid isolation and irrelevance.

God’s living spirit breathes within all life, in every human being. It is therefore God’s presence on earth which is, or should be, the true preoccupation of religious life.

Faith and injustice may seem to be all too frequent companions. It is of course possible to mouth words of prayer and practise, or turn a blind eye towards, cruelty. But in truth, they are incompatible.

To seek God, to claim God’s nearness, while knowingly wronging our fellow women and men, is like turning the door handle to invite God to enter, while keeping the bolts firmly fastened. God can’t get through.

That’s why the small Hebrew letter vav, meaning ‘and’, is so powerful. The Torah passes without pause from the great revelation on Mount Sinai, ‘I am the Lord your God’, to the finer details of the laws of damages, having servants, owning sheep and cows, without more of a pause than that minimal prefix ‘and’. But this ‘and’ is vital; it connects God’s revelation on high with the most ordinary details of everyday life on this earth.

As commentators from the Talmud to modern times indicate, that ‘and’ contradicts our intuitive sense of discontinuity: What? What has religion got to do with how I let my ox behave, or whether some stranger accidentally falls into the hole I dug in a field? With how I treat outsiders? Or use abusive and humiliating language?

The answer is ‘everything’:

Rabbi Ishmael taught: ‘Just as the exalted principles come from [God at] Mount Sinai, so do the lower laws’. (Mechilta)

In fact, the lower laws may be more important. We aren’t responsible for whether there’s a God in the heavens, but we are answerable for whether God feels at home here on earth. As William Blake, passionately concerned with social injustice in the chartered streets of London wrote:

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all Heaven in a rage.

So does the mistreatment of the vulnerable, – almost always represented in the Torah by the frequent phrase ‘the stranger, the widow and the fatherless’. I don’t know of any other single sentence in the Hebrew Bible which contains three consecutive uses of the emphatic double-infinitive:

If you shall oppress and oppress them, and they then cry out, cry out to me, I shall hear, yes surely hear them’, [says God]. (Exodus 22:22)

That’s why we can’t hide behind the mantle of God’s imagined favour, if we mistreat women, let the poor go hungry, mock foreigners, leave asylum seekers to rot in loneliness and contempt and fail to protest when innocent people are attacked, imprisoned or murdered, anywhere on earth.

There is no society in the world which doesn’t have serious work to do to let God in, which does not face profound challenges of injustice. In this struggle there is no such thing as neutrality; bystanders don’t exist. We all have our hand on the door handle, to open it, or close it.

When God asks the questions

Life presents at least two major spiritual challenges. The first is: Where is God? The second is: Where is God not? The second is harder.

‘I am the Lord your God’ declares the first of the Ten Commandments, which we read in the Torah this week. To some this is life’s most unshakeable certainty. To others it’s a patent absurdity, manifestly confounded by the realities of history. To yet more it is a question, sometimes all but irrelevant, at other times urgent, piercing to the heart: ‘God, are you? God, where are you?’

I was invited to a class of seven-year-olds who’d prepared a series of questions about God: ‘Is God a person?’ ‘Is God a he or a she?’ No, I don’t think God is a person, not a he nor a she. ‘So, what is It then?’ at which point one of them mercifully chirped up with ‘God’s in everything.’

That’s what the mystics thought: ‘Leit attar panui minei – there’s no place empty of God’. God fills all space, is present in all things and transcends all things, hence the famous Dudele song of Rabbi Levi-Yitzhak of Berditschev: Only You, solely You, wherever I go it’s You’. It’s based on Yehudah Halevi’s great poem 700 years earlier: ‘God, where shall I find You? And where shall I find You not?’

The question of God is thus a matter of the sensitivity of heart and soul, rather than solely an issue addressed to the mind. Do I sense your presence, God, in my fellow human beings, in the breathing of the forest, birds, squirrels, deer? Do I hear you speak, or cry, or scream, in all creation and all destruction?

For you are the spirit, the energy, the consciousness which fills all life and all existence, always One, yet infinitely differentiated in this world of matter and substance, things, people different in innumerable ways.

That leads to the second question. It pursues us, challenges us in every true encounter.

Aren’t you there, God, in the hospital ward, the ICU, the fragility of birth, illness and dying?

Aren’t you there in the loneliness of the empty moor, bare rocks, mountains and water?

Aren’t you there in the thriving life of the woodlands, even when the chain saw cuts down the living trees?

Are you absent in this refugee, just seventeen, who fled here (Greece, Calais, London, Jerusalem) from the Sudan or Eritrea? Are you not there in those who try to care for her? And in those who are set to deport her?

These were the questions which made the prophet Jeremiah, determined to stop himself from constantly saying what no-one wanted to hear, cry out: I’m trying to be silent, but your word burns like fire in my bones.

This was the awareness which made the Psalmist sing: To you, God, silence is praise’, hearing God in the pre-articulate wonder of dawn, and at the spring where the gazelles come silently to drink.

But this leaves open the issue which bewilders us most often: So, God, what about your agency? What do you actually do? (There’s no obvious answer to the question. God’s in hiding. God is waiting; God could if God would. God used to intervene in history and shall one day again: Such explanations don’t help me. They make history seem even more unjust. They don’t take me further in God’s service.)

The answer which is most meaningful to me, which haunts and harasses me, is the counter-question: ‘And what about you?’ I believe God asks this question of us constantly, not from heaven, but from the lives of everyone we encounter, from their suffering, their joy, and above all from their needs. ‘What are you doing with the part of Me in you?’

The only true answer is what we do with our lives.

 

For Holocaust Memorial Day: the Power of Words

Tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day, the anniversary of the date when the first units of the Red Army encountered the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau. This year, the theme for the day is the power of words.

I think immediately of the lines of the Russian-Jewish poet, Osip Mandelstam, twice exiled, who perished somewhere in the vast labyrinth of Stalin’s Siberian camps:

You gave me my shoe-size in earth, with bars around it.

But you left me my lips and they shape words, even in silence.

I’ve often wondered what words were shaped in the lonely silences, amidst the roar of the surrounding violence and hatred: in the trains which parted people forever from those they loved, on forced marches, in cold and filthy bunks, in the desperation of the devastated spirit. Those words rarely found a compassionate ear, a heart ready and able to help. The silence swallowed them up, with their love, their despair, their longing, all the complex eloquence of a human life.

From time to time, scraps of paper, even photographs, are still found in the restless earth and ashes of what were once those terrible camps. Or the living discover envelopes, and the murdered, a grandfather, a great-aunt, suddenly have a voice. People ask: ‘What do we do with those letters, hard to decipher, in a language we don’t understand?’ I recall the Biblical injunction: ‘dovev siftei yesheinim – give speech to those who sleep in the dust’.

But it is not just to the dead that we must listen; the silence of the living is more urgent.

‘They have no voice,’ a friend said to me. He’d stood together with those who were shot in river X for no reason; fled with cousins and companions who found no hospitable quarter; witnessed the deported depart; been detained with those for whom there was no one to speak out. ‘They have no voice’, he said; ‘they’re lost in the silence’.

But my friend is not right. It’s not that such people have no voice; it’s that too few are willing to listen. That’s always been the fate of the persecuted, the rejected, the neglected.

How do I find your heart? How do I access your compassion? Surely that was the outcry of millions who perished in the Nazi Holocaust, and in numerous genocides and mass murders since, and still ongoing. It’s the half-heard outcry of hundreds of thousands now, powerless victims of licenced violence, lawless militias, and calculated hatred.

It’s less troublesome to think only of the silence of the dead. But, more than anyone, those very dead would want us to listen, urgently, this very moment, now, to the unheeded among the living. What words are the persecuted, the hopeless, those who find little or no help, shaping in the silence now?

Meanwhile the world is full of noise. Angry, self-righteous, cruel words fly at us, sometimes from the highest places. Timothy Snyder’s short book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is essential contemporary reading. Be heedful with words, he warns. Speak truth, read carefully, listen out for honesty. Eschew the slogans of power and deceit. Beware of fake news, post truth and manipulative sound-bites. ‘Once truth had become oracular rather than factual, evidence was irrelevant’ – He was thinking of Goebbels and Hitler, but mindful also of now.

There are few more generous encapsulations of what language is for than the short phrase from Proverbs, in praise of women: ‘Torah chesed al leshonah – the teaching of lovingkindness is on her tongue’.

A heart which listens truly, will speak the truth of lovingkindness.

 

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’.

 

Get in touch...