Chanukah and Brexit

Happy Chanukah, on this fifth day of the festival.

There is a challenging connection between watching the Chanukah candles and looking at the news, as Parliament struggles miserably with the evident difficulties of Brexit.

Light, at least according to the mystics, represents the innermost of qualities. Yet on Chanukah we are commanded to place it in the reshut harabbim, the public square.

Or haganuz, the hidden light, is that first light with which God interrupted the reign of darkness over the face of the earth. While day after day and season by season the world now functions by means of the natural light from the sun and its reflection from the moon, that earlier inner light has not entirely disappeared.

It remains present but concealed. It is not just somewhere but everywhere, in each person and every life. It is the source of hope despite cynicism; of solidarity despite hatred; of kinship despite fragmentation, of faith despite despair. Its light is inalienable; it resides irremovably inside each and every one of us and no one can take it away. It is unquenchable; nothing, even long years in which we no longer believe it exists, can extinguish it entirely. It burns in secret, at the heart of life.

I conducted an experiment with my (large and lively) class of teenagers. I put out all the lights in the room, except for a single candle. I asked them: how many people can this one light inspire? They began to tell me who their inspiration was: Emeline Pankhurst, Nelson Mandela, their grandmother, the guitar playing of Jimmy Hendrix, their teacher, a friend who never gave up in spite of having an incurable illness. We talked about courage, determination, persistence, kindness. They were still telling me when the lesson ended.

These are the qualities of the lights we are commanded to place in the public square on Chanukah. They are most urgently needed there.

This autumn has brought several eightieth commemorations of events in Germany in the 1930’s. Weimar was a far younger and weaker democracy than Britain. Its constitution was adopted on 11 August 1919. It was almost strangled in its opening years by threats of revolution from the left and paramilitaries on the right. It survived for less than 14 years.

But the reasons for its collapse are nevertheless apposite. It failed because of weaknesses in the democratic system and flaws in its key leaders. The other parties failed to come together to keep Hitler’s exciting nationalist populism at bay. Aging and ailing, President Hindenburg made the weak-minded decision to accede to Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor. Vice Chancellor Von Papen was too weak to offer counter-balance and resistance. What followed we all sadly know.

There are plenty of differences. But…But it’s not good when Parliament is experienced as weak, irrelevant, or lacking in capacity. It’s not good for the state whose politicians, most of whom are honest public servants, are held in contempt as a class. It’s worse when some or many of them deserve it. It’s bad when in-fighting and self-interest prevent the coming together of minds to arrive at the best decisions possible for the country as a whole.

I therefore pray at this critical time that the lights of Chanukah will illumine our democracy and its institutions, the lights of faith, courage, creativity, intelligence and wisdom. May they enlighten and inspire us and the leaders and members of the institutions which have created and protected this remarkable country, Israel, the United States, and all other democracies throughout the world.

 

The Hidden Lights of Chaunukah

Sunday brings the first night of Chanukkah.

Chanukkah takes my thoughts back to my grandmother’s house, when I would go to light the candles in the lonely years after my grandfather’s death. As we quietly watched them burn I would look in the window at their reflection, little lamps burning out there in the dark.

Chanukkah is the celebration of the light hidden within the darkness. The mystics explain that olam, ‘world’, derives from the same word-family as he’elem, concealment. We live in a world where the light of God’s spirit is concealed. But it burns secretly in every human being and all living things. It is the flame on the invisible Menorah which illumines the threshold of God’s temple.

Sometimes, though, its light shines out brightly. Chanukkah is the celebration of such moments.

The Talmud tells how the Maccabees searched the ruined temple precincts in Jerusalem for a single vial of unsullied oil to light the Menorah. This may not be historically true. But it’s a truth which illumines all history. There are always those who, with love and courage, seek out and nurture whatever sparks of light can be rescued from the wars and persecutions which mar the human record.

This Sunday marks eighty years since the arrival of the first Kindertransport in Britain. ‘It was a rough crossing’, Leslie Brent told me, recalling the overnight ferry journey from Hoek van Holland to Harwich. Those who created the plan, found, registered, accompanied and gave homes to those children, rescued precious lights which would otherwise have been extinguished and destroyed.

Eric Lucas recalled the final parting from his parents at the station:

First my father and then my mother had laid their hands gently on my bowed head to bless me…My father’s eyes were filled with tears of loneliness and fear.

One hopes his parents could carry the knowledge that their child was safe like a tiny lantern inside their hearts, even as they walked towards the darkness.

But it’s not only in war that hidden lights can guide us. It happens every day in the inspiration we give each other. I experience this often.

I recently received an award in New York. There’s no such thing as leadership without partnership and companionship, so it was really an award for our whole congregation. My first contract with our synagogue, as a youth worker, is dated January 1981, so it’ll soon be forty years my life has been guided by the inspiration of our community. I wrote next day:

I’m deeply touched by the love and generosity of my family, community and colleagues. It isn’t only yesterday. It’s the knowledge that not just my thoughts and, hopefully, many of my actions, but my heart has been, and still is, formed by the kindness, forbearance, wisdom, example, love and sometimes chastisement of so many people. ‘Formed’ is not an adequate word; I mean deepened and extended; people have pushed against inner doors I had not known existed and opened for me spaces of reverence, sorrow, gratitude, mourning and awe. That process has enriched me with the guidance, courage and love of many people, and, through them and the wonder of nature, with moments I think of as sparks from the radiance of God’s light.

There are always people near us who have the gift of nurturing the light hidden within the world’s darkness, through how they care for children, practise healing, fight for the vulnerable, protect the beauty of nature, and stalwartly prove how untrue it is that nothing can be done.

Such people’s lights illumine our only path to victory over brute power, cruelty, lies and destruction.

On Chanukkah we’re commanded to place those lights bireshut harabbim, overlooking the highway, in the public square. We take the sacred hidden light we receive from God, the world and each other, honour it, celebrate it and make it define the direction of our lives.

 

International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women

#IDEVAW2018

I doubt there is a single one of us who feels we have managed all our relationships perfectly, or even three quarters as well as we could and should. If there is such a person, he or she should be the first to see a therapist.

Rabbinic tradition names the strange figure with whom Jacob wrestled all night as the guardian angel of Esau. It’s the Esau in his conscience, whose cry and tears Jacob hears now, twenty years later, as he crosses back over the physical and emotional border to re-enter the landscape of his childhood.

Jacob has had many opportunities to learn to listen better over the intervening years. He’s experienced for himself what it’s like to be on the wrong end of deception. He’s witnessed, disturbingly aloof, the pain each of his wives has felt, Leah unloved, Rachel long unable to conceive a child. Only now, at last, his conscience is open.

Most of us don’t intend to inflict suffering on those we love. But over years of family life, the whole of our self inevitably comes into play. Few of us have a perfect grip on our temper, always. Our vulnerabilities, especially those of which we are not conscious, make us defensive. Defensiveness easily becomes aggression. Trying to compensate for aspects of our upbringing we didn’t like, we lean the other way and inflict different wounds. Philip Larkin has a strong line about what parents do to their children, only it’s not one a rabbi can repeat.

That’s why the best qualities we can bring to our relationships, with friends and colleagues as well as family, are appreciation, humility, the readiness to acknowledge we may be wrong, forgiveness, kindness and openness of heart. Most of the time, these attitudes see most relationships through the downs as well as the ups.

But there are also crueller, deeper hurts, leaving scars which never heal. In her poem about her new dog Benjamin, Who Came From Who Knows Where, Mary Oliver describes how she only has to reach for brushwood or the broom for the animal to rush away. When he returns, she strives to comfort him, telling him not to worry:

I also know the way
the old life haunts the new.

 Sunday is International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women.

I’ve listened to the fear, distress, humiliation and destruction of self-esteem domestic violence can leave. Sometimes it involves physical brutality; sometimes it includes financial manipulation; often it takes the form of emotional bullying and coercive control; frequently it is exercised in subtle and cunning, but no less powerful, demeaning and cruel, ways.

I’ve learnt of the impact of abuse on children, ongoing decades after it took place. I know that whatever I’ve heard is only a tiny fraction of what takes place. I feel nervous even trying to bring words to this hidden, taboo subject, for fear they might cause further hurt. I tried to do so in Things My Dog Has Taught Me; perhaps the book’s overt topic gave cover:

There exists something even worse than depriving a person of love: to rob him or her of the feeling of being worthy of receiving love, of being lovable and capable of giving love at all. We are born with the capacity to respond to love; as it grows we develop the ability to love others in return. It is a sin is to starve that faculty for love in another person, especially a child. It is an even greater sin… to punch holes in the fragile membranes of the heart where those experiences are stored and garnered which nurture inside us the feeling that we ourselves are lovable and able to give love, kind and able to show kindness, good and capable of altruistic goodness.

We must do everything we possibly can to make safety and support accessible to everyone who is suffering bullying and abuse, be it behind closed bedroom doors, at work, or wherever. I know to my horror that too many bullies get away with it. Too many people whom they hurt are left to suffer and go on suffering.

This responsibility is even more urgent when bullying and contempt for women are expressed from the highest places, and the victims ignored or jeered at.

We must all also try to learn from the sore places in our own hearts, and from our own potential angers and capacities to bully. We are at our most truly human when we are not hurters but healers.

 

A hundred years since the war

In this week of Armistice commemorations I feel saddened, touched, bewildered and concerned.

Last week I walked slowly past the sixty thousand poppies in the grounds of Westminster Abbey, so many young lives calling to the heart:

Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world…     (Wilfred Owen: Strange Meeting)

I hear in my mind how Helen recalled her final parting from her husband, the poet Edward Thomas, when he climbed the country path away from their house, calling out to her as he always did ‘coo-ee; coo-ee’ through the thickening mist. Her searing account formed part of the ceremony in Glasgow Cathedral to mark a hundred years since the outbreak of the war.

I see my English teacher looking over our class and saying: ‘If this was 1910, half of you would die in the trenches’.

Then yesterday I stood at the graves of the Jewish soldiers of Frankfurt am Main and lit the memorial lamp for the 447 Jewish sons of the city who died for their Fatherland. The shadow of my grandfather stood beside me, – except that I felt that he was truly present, and I was the shadow. I imagined him, a chaplain for the duration with the 5th German Army, speaking at the dedication of this site in 1923. I opened my address with his words:

‘Kameraden!’ Heute begruessen uns die Tote: ‘Comrades!’ Today the dead hail us: ‘Do not abandon us to the grave. Let us live in your hearts…’

The old Jewish cemetery was beautiful. All around among the tall trees were graves with familiar family names. I felt I stood among my people. In 1932 Nazi threats forced an end to all official commemorations. Until 2008 the soldiers lay forgotten by the country for which they had died.

I was asked to speak afterwards at the general military cemetery. ‘Accept’, my Jewish contact advised me, but know that some SS may be buried there too. In that vast arena level grey gravestones stretched away, row after row.

The General who spoke before me was frank about the past, and forthright about the rise of race-hate today. I was blunt about the bitter, murderous fate meted out with merciless thoroughness to Germany’s Jews, and the return of race hatred once again stalking the streets of the cities of so many states.

But I also remembered how the English war poet Keith Douglas, himself killed soon afterwards in Normandy, had looked with pity at the body of a Wehrmacht soldier in whose he found a tattered note from his girlfriend: ‘Steffi; Vergissmeinnicht’.

What a waste and destruction of life.

That evening after I’d spoken about my grandfather’s life a kind elderly gentleman took me aside. He’d grown up in the post-war ruins of the city. His father, a survivor, dealt in groceries. ‘Father’, he’d asked him one day, ‘Why do you buy your potatoes from that miserable small store? Why not get them somewhere decent?’ ‘No’, his father had replied. ‘That man threw potatoes over the fence when we were rounded up for deportation. The others from whom I buy gave us bread in those terrible times. Now it’s my turn to help them.’

‘My father’, he explained further, ‘Ran a soup kitchen for destitute Jews in the 30s. Your grandfather gave him money. An SS man used to come secretly, after dark, bringing food. When the war began, he brought all his money, then shot himself. I found the man’s SS insignia in a box my father bequeathed me’…

Why did he join the SS in the first place? – My new friend had no answer…

Why do so many succumb to hatred? Why do we surrender our conscience to populists and hate-mongers? How is it that, despite everything, some still obey the heart’s law of loving kindness? Why do millions follow the madness fanned by the few? Why do millions more have to die, who had only wanted to live their peaceful lives, with their family, their farm, their walks across the hills?

I wish these questions belonged only to the past. I wish, preach and pray for us all to speak out, before we too are devoured in the horrors.

 

In solidarity with the Tree of Life synagogue

I share with our community, with all Jewish congregations around the world, particularly in America, in Pittsburgh, and among the members of the Tree of Life synagogue, a heavy heart.

Those murdered in the appalling gun attack last Shabbat were the faithful of the congregation: a couple, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, married for 62 years; two brothers, Cecil and David Rosenthal, who ‘loved their community and never missed a Saturday’; Daniel Stein, with a ‘very dry sense of humour’, who recently became a grandfather. As a colleague wrote, they were those good, kind, reliable souls ‘on whom we all depend in our communities’.

הַנֶּאֱהָבִים וְהַנְּעִימִם
בְּחַיֵּיהֶם וּבְמוֹתָם לֹא נִפְרָדוּ

They were beloved and kind in their lives;
and [cruelly] in their deaths they were not divided.

There has been an immediate, immense, shocked, heartfelt outpouring of solidarity. It is local: the Muslim community raised tens of thousands of dollars to support the bereaved and injured; at a nearby school, pupils of all faiths sang Havdalah. It is national: at synagogues across America thousands upon thousands have gathered in sorrow and support, queueing in the streets outside, often joined by Christians and Muslims. It is international, as here in London, where the Home Secretary, the Mayor and the American and Israeli Ambassadors spoke out.

Whatever comfort this brings, I’m sorrowfully aware that it does not remove the nightmare that a place of prayer has been made the site of a massacre and that families now face the long years of irreplaceable loss. May God be with them and with their friends, their community and all who lead and guide them.

Those murdered are the victims of three crimes. First, anti-Semitism. They were killed as Jews, because they were Jews, at synagogue, engaged in Jewish prayer. It is abominable proof, as if that were wanted, that this ancient hatred, of Jews for being Jews, is not over.

Second, racism; specifically, white supremacist racism. The killer targeted the Tree of Life synagogue because it works with HIAS, the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, to support refugees. He screamed abuse about both Jews and Muslims. His actions are an eruption of a vicious hatred of the other; a scornful and fearful contempt which considers itself increasingly legitimised not just in America but across Europe and much of the world.

Third, gun violence. From Britain, American gun laws seem incomprehensible. Why should such lethal, often military-grade, weapons be accessible to those who plan slaughter in schools or places of worship? It is a United States issue, but not solely so. We must all be ashamed that wealth is made from the arms trade, money out of violence. Mostly we don’t know the victims; here, we do.

How must we respond?

Hate speech is lethal. This should not need saying and yet must be said.

Hate speech leads to hate actions. It prepares the ground for lynching, killing and mass murder. It must not be legitimated in the classroom, workplace, clubroom, or from the pulpit of any and every religion. It must on no account be legitimised from high office. ‘Life and death depend on the tongue,’ says the Talmud. The more powerful the tongue, the greater the responsibility. We must therefore reach out to each other across the ‘boundaries’ of faith and ethnic group, as Tree of Life did and does, and as their Muslim neighbours have demonstrated by example. We must never listen passively to hatred and bigotry, against us, any individual or group.

Above all, we must live by our values. We must be vigilant. But we must also be defiant, not in an aggressive manner, but with the defiance of commitment and inner depth.

Our strength lies in living by our Judaism, in rooting our daily actions in its teachings of disciplined dedication to community, to our people and to humanity in all our potential for good and all our susceptibility to suffering.

This is what faith truly means: trustworthiness and service before life and before God. It unites us with the deepest source of inspiration: the dedication, courage, wisdom and compassion of Jewish people, and countless people of other faiths and none, across the troubled millennia.

 

 

Would Abraham have protested fracking?

I’ve been following the case of the anti-fracking activists, Simon Roscoe Blevins, Richard Roberts and Richard Loizou. Imprisoned for the offence of public nuisance, they were freed yesterday by the high court, which called their sentence ‘manifestly excessive’. Their crime was to ensconce themselves for days on top of trucks bringing drilling equipment.

Had Abraham our Ancestor been alive today, would there have been four men sent to prison?

There’s a good chance.

Abraham wasn’t a person easily deterred by power. He challenged Pharaoh (albeit after making his wife pretend she was his sister). ‘I thought there was no fear of God in this place’, he declared; which amounts to ‘Do you have any moral boundaries here?’

He went to war to rescue his nephew from pirating armies. He ensured the protection of the well supplying his water, defending his most important environmental asset.

‘Yes, but he did it all from self-interest’, it could be claimed. There’s little such motive in his horrified response when God threatens to destroy in entirety the perverse city of Sodom: ‘How can you annihilate the good alongside the evil? Should the judge of all the earth not do justice?’

Among the legends with which the rabbis embellish the biblical account, three stand out. Abraham defies the tyranny of the ‘mighty hunter’ Nimrod, walking with steady defiance through the ‘fiery furnace’ of all the weaponry unrestrained power has at its disposal.

Impressed with Abraham’s leadership qualities, God calls him not just servant, but officer, ambassador, secretary of state: ‘Walk ahead of me’, God instructs him. Shine a light on the dark pathways God’s presence has to penetrate in this world.

Most famous of all these rabbinic parables is the account of how Abraham found God:

He came upon a palace on fire. ‘How come it’s got no owner?’ he wondered. The owner looked at him and called out: ‘This palace belongs to me’.

I’ve puzzled over this picture for years: what’s the owner doing inside a burning building? ‘Get out, God!’ one wants to say, ‘After all, you’re supposed to be able to do anything.’

Maybe that’s the point. Abraham sees a world on fire with violence and brutality. The God he experiences needs humanity to put it out. God’s message to him is: ‘You and your fellow humans are responsible for the world.’

I worry repeatedly about what that responsibility entails. What does moral and spiritual leadership mean?

When Abraham challenges God about Sodom, the point they agree on is that to save the city requires a minimum number of good people. They argue over the figures: fifty, twenty, ten? But, whatever the case, these decent citizens have to be betoch, ‘in the midst of’, involved in their city. They must be ‘out there’, active, pro-active. If all they do is sit at home with their good ideas, they’re useless.

So I imagine Abraham might have climbed onto the cab of one of those lorries and protested, peacefully, with unshaking commitment.

After all, the world is in flames (and in floods). God is inside it, crying out from all nature and all humanity, ‘Put the fires out!’

 

Ode to Wonder; set this on your heart

The Hebrew Bible opens with delight in life. The first chapter of the Torah is a great celebration. Were it a scientific account of the process of creation we would have to find it wanting, absurd. But it’s not; it’s an ode to wonder:

Let there be light, let the partnership of day and night bring dawn and twilight to the gathering waters in seas and rivers and streams. Let sunlight cause the seeds to germinate and rainfall make them grow. Let the sun guide the seasons, the moon rule the tides, and the stars illumine the night.

May there be birds to feed on the fruit-bearing trees and fish in the cold depths of the oceans. May there be deer, secretive and swift; and horses and wolves:

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings… (Gerald Manley Hopkins, Pied Beauty)

Created amidst this abundance, human beings are celebrated too. We have the unique responsibility of being formed in God’s image, perceptive, articulate, intelligent, capable of moral discernment, creation and destruction, generosity and love – there is no consensus about what ‘In God’s likeness’ means. Except that, like God, human beings possess inherent kavod, dignity, which we are expected to uphold towards ourselves in all own conduct and honour and respect in all others.

Life is good, not just the first, but every day. The flow of time, evening and morning; the sharing between humans and animals of the fruit of the land and trees; the inter-dependence and overall balance of nature: God looks at it all, blesses it and sees that it is ‘very good’.

God appoints human beings to rule; to do so by means of avodah, – work, respect and reverence, and shemirah, – observation, awareness and nurturing care.

These opening verses are worth laying on our hearts in a world of violence and vulgarity. They are worth remembering in a week when no less a figure than the President of The United States of America mocks, – not just questions, legitimately and fairly, but mocks and derides – the testament of a woman who has come forward with serious allegations against a man who could hold decisive powers for decades, while around him everyone jeers. We should lay them on our hearts when the President of Russia lies and lies again, and the essential tasks of caring for our world are relegated before the vanities of power and ignored.

The mystics teach that God’s speech in creation is not a once-off ‘God said’ pitched in the past tense. It is present and continuous: we can hear it the flow of a stream, the cry of a bird, the whinnying of horses, the intake of our own breath. God’s sacred speech is the vitality which animates all existence, the energy latent in all matter, the potential in all life.

More and more these days, I intuit that voice not just as a statement but a plea: Hear me! Listen to me! Heed me in all nature; honour me in every human life!

We have choices, constantly. We can destroy, or protect and create.

The beginning of Bereshit, the ode to wonder which opens the Hebrew Bible, summons us to stand, with vigilance, urgency, determination, curiosity and joy, on the side of creation.

 

 

 

Where we find comfort

Today is Tu B’Av, the 15th of the month of Av, the Jewish version of Valentine’s Day, when according to the Mishnah the daughters of Israel would dance in the vineyards and the young men would choose their life’s partners (not entirely egalitarian, but romantic nonetheless).

According to tradition, 15 Av marks the beginning of the grape harvest which continues until the eve of Yom Kippur, the other ‘dating date’ on which girls would go out to the vineyards and dance.

In Israel the day has been given a new name, Chag Ha’Ahavah, the Festival of Love. It is a special privilege to celebrate a wedding today.

Tomorrow is Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people’, declared the prophet Isaiah in words the timeless power of which inspired Martin Luther King’s famous speech on Capitol Hill:

Every valley shall be raised up and every mountain made low.
The glory of God will be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

In Judaism there are two great sources of consolation: life itself, and values. War and persecution have never eroded the tenacious commitment to both. I often hear stories like these:

She met my father at a railway station in Poland in August 1945. They were both looking for surviving members of their families. They didn’t discover any, but they did find each other. She was just 18, he was 20.

 My father came here a refugee, alone. None of his achievements mattered to him a fraction as much as creating a new family. His loved to sit at the head of the Friday night table, his children and grandchildren around him.

Two weeks ago, I found myself overwhelmed by my own experience of consolation. It was Libbi’s graduation. As I watched her, with love and pride, it suddenly struck me that Lore, my mother, would have marked her graduation as a doctoral candidate in the very same location seventy years earlier. We’d named Libbi after her, giving her the same second name, Shulamit, and the same initials, L. S. When I got home, I looked out the photographs: the gown, the mortar board, – little had changed. Lore came to Britain as a refugee. She passed away young; she didn’t see her children grow up or marry, she never knew her grandchildren. Two generations had now passed, yet here we were: ‘Mir zaynen do’.

In his brief, warm welcome the Pro-Vice-Chancellor spoke of the 800-year-old ideals of the pursuit of truth and knowledge.

To Jews, these values are more ancient still, coupled with the commitment to carry out God’s will through justice and compassion. I saw them put into practice at Noam, our youth movement’s, pre-camp this week. There I witnessed four kinds of passion: a deep engagement in Jewish learning; an adventurous commitment to Tikkun Olam, making the world better for the outcast and neglected; an acute awareness that we must do far more for the wellbeing of our planet; a passion for shared, collaborative leadership.

In the love of life and the commitment to these ideals lies our consolation.

 

 

What we must learn from destruction

Tishah Be’Av, the bleak 25 hour fast of mourning on which we recall the disasters of Jewish history, poses a central question: What must we learn from destruction?

I grew up in a world which remembered war. One of my teachers had been decorated for bravery in the Royal Navy; another suffered continued mental torment from his years as a prisoner of the Japanese. My parents spoke about hunger, bombings, flight for their lives.

The generations who lived through the wars remembered; they strove for no more war.

In 1919 The League of Nations was created “to promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security.”

On 26 June, 1945, the United Nations Charter was signed in San Francisco:

We, The Peoples Of The United Nations, Determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind..

On 10 December 1948, in Paris, the United Nations adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaiming that

recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

Too many leaders of our generation seem to have forgotten. National politics and international relations are increasingly characterized by self-interest, aggression, cunning, bigotry, folly and contempt for the lives of the weakest. Last night I heard Philip Pullman speak of an age of ‘mendacity, hypocrisy and stupidity’.

The rabbis of the Mishnah lived during the Roman persecutions, between the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135, both commemorated on Tishah Be’Av. They saw the war against Rome as leading only to self-destruction. The Talmud records that

There were sufficient supplies in Jerusalem to outlast a siege for 21 years. There were lawless gangsters there. The rabbis said to them: ‘Let’s go out and make peace’, but the former would not let them. They, in turn, said, ‘Let’s go and make war’. ‘It’s futile’, the rabbis responded’. The gangsters burnt down all the food stores and famine forced the people to fight.        Talmud, Gitin 56a

The Talmud’s overall verdict: ‘Needless hatred destroyed Jerusalem’.

Similar needless hatred could destroy the entire world today. That is why it is essential to learn from destruction.

What does it teach? Sadly, probably not that war is always wrong. There is a point when tyranny must be resisted, lest it swallow us all up. War remains a last resort.

We learn that we must try our utmost to live by the creative arts of peace and understanding. We learn that wanton aggression, boastfulness, vulgarity, cruelty, exploitation, injustice and contempt for life are evil, and exact a terrible price not just from their victims but, through the slow yet inevitable processes of time, on their perpetrators as well.

Above all, we learn to cherish life, all life, and the gifts of understanding, healing and creativity which lie within us all.

 

What defines our humanity?

I haven’t gone to the demonstrations in London today. It’s partly because of other commitments and partly because I don’t love demonstrations. But it’s chiefly because I want my whole life to be a protest against certain policies and attitudes advocated by President Trump, and not just by him alone, or Republicans only, or the US only, or solely by politicians. We must be activists against heartlessness not just somewhere, but everywhere.

The first chapter of Bereshit is my creed, the magnificent, misunderstood poem which opens the Hebrew Bible. It’s not a discredited attempt at the history of the universe, but a beautiful declaration of values:

light and dark, land and water, God sees that they are good;
grasses, flowers and trees, God sees that they are good
stars and planets, fishes, birds and animals, God sees that they are good;
human beings created equal in God’s image,
endowed with freedom, imagination and conscience, God sees that they are good.

This remarkable creation, vital, interconnected, interdependent, is henceforth entrusted to our hands. Our humanity is defined by how we honour that trust. Truly to be human is to respect nature, honour all life and stand up for the humanity of others.

Yesterday I attended a ceremony at Hoop Lane Cemetery, where many refugees from Nazi Germany lie buried, to dedicate plaques in honour of courageous rescuers. Among them were: Irena Sendler, the young Polish social worker who smuggled countless people out of the Warsaw Ghetto; Sir Nicholas Winton, who, with Trevor Chadwick, brought more than six hundred children to Britain; Ho Feng Shan, the Chinese consul general in Vienna who enabled thousands to flee to Shanghai.

The night before, I was with Refugee Tales. Through walking together, telling their stories and the power of music, they campaign against the indefinite detention of asylum seekers. I was asked to write one of their Tales this year; it’s about S, who fled for his life from country X. Although as ‘a highly skilled migrant’ he had permission to work here, he was peremptorily detained and sent to Harmondsworth (‘At first it looks beautiful – from the outside; inside it’s really a prison’).

I saw a man sobbing. He’d been in detention for six months: “When I was brought here my girlfriend was pregnant. Meanwhile she’s given birth. I haven’t ever seen our baby”. Another man tried to kill himself, – out of despair. He’d been inside for over a year. He didn’t understand what it was that the authorities were waiting for.

Tomorrow is Sebrenica Shabbat, in memory and in outrage over the fate of the thousands of Muslim men and boys massacred in July 1995, and all the innocent people slaughtered, mutilated and made to ‘disappear’, in the brutal Bosnian war. Women often still do not know the fate of husbands and sons.

God of mercy… we remember with sorrow…
The young dreams that never came to fruition,
The old age that was not spent with family and friends. (Prayer by Mehri Niknam)

Today is the first of Av, the beginning of the nine days of mourning leading to the bitter fast of the Ninth of Av, commemorating the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem and Jewish communities across Europe throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

It is held that the Messiah is born on that day of fasting and sorrow. We should take this personally: what is there redemptive within us, our societies and our collective humanity, which we must learn from so much suffering and cruelty and put into practice in our lives.

The issues which define our humanity are not all over the oceans. They are here in Europe too, in our cities, at our doorstep, in our hearts.

 

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