‘As the deer longs for streams of water’: On the Book of Psalms

It was my grandfather who gave me my first copy of Tehilim, theBook of Psalms: ‘All of life is in it,’ he told me. I knew that he knew: a happy childhood in a rabbinic family, then student years in Berlin at its cultural prime had been followed by the Western Front, the great depression and inflation, the rise of Nazism, Dachau, exile, and a new life in Britain, haunted by losses. The book with his signature in it was my treasure, – until I lent it, I don’t recall to whom, and never got it back. When he died, we knew what to write on his gravestone: ‘I shall sing to God with my life, make music to my God with all my being’.

Now a group in our synagogue, our very own Chevrat Tehilim, Psalms Group, has completed a study of all 150 songs. It’s true, we haven’t done so quickly. The Psalms are traditionally divided into seven books, one for each day of the week. You can see pious Jews, women especially, on the buses in Israel reading the daily sections with deep devotion.

Admittedly, our group took a decade and a half, meeting roughly ten times a year to study each Psalm carefully and in order. But this too has been a deeply devoted and loving undertaking.

This Sunday we celebrate completing the Book followed, in traditional Jewish fashion, by starting immediately at the beginning. ‘May we not be forgotten by you, nor you be forgotten by us’, runs the customary invocation on completing a sacred text. We have no intention of forgetting.

No other book from the Hebrew Bible forms so great a part of the Siddur, the daily prayer book, as Psalms. No other text in world literature has become so intimate a part of the prayer life of tens of generations of both Jews and Christians. As my grandfather taught me, the entire life of faith and doubt, despair and hope, wonder and dismay, alienation and closeness, fear and trust – all of it is here.

There is the yearning of loving faith: ‘As the deer longs for the streams of water, so my soul longs for you, God. My soul thirsts for God, the living God.’ (Psalm 42)

There is the bewilderment of feeling utterly lost: ‘I said, “Darkness will surely cover me, light be night around me,”’ followed by the realisation, perhaps no less disturbing, that we are nevertheless not utterly alone, “Even darkness is not dark for You.” (Psalm 139)

There is the hopelessness of abandonment: ‘You have distanced from me my friends and those who love me; all who know me, darkness.’ (Psalm 88)

And there is wonder at creation: ‘[God] makes the streams run through the valleys, flowing between the mountains…The birds of the skies alight on them, and sing among the branches.’ (Psalm 104)

In all the years of prison and solitary confinement there was one item Anatole Shcharansky refused to let the KGB take from him: his book of Psalms. From it, he wrote later, he learnt the awe of God:

What is significant for me is that I feel a closeness to God in a most tangible manner. I sense its essence and domination over me. (Letter to his mother, 6 May 1984)

We can wrap our lives around the Psalms. And other people’s lives are wrapped in them too. I think of those who began the fifteen-year journey with us, but who didn’t complete in down here on earth: Olga Deaner, who adored Jane Austen but also developed her sense and sensibility among the songs of King David; Professor Bryan Reuben, who loved his Bible as much as his science; David Jackson who, despite two strokes which robbed him of his mobility, wrote music and a commentary for every single Psalm, continuing to do so when he could scarcely leave his room:

Though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death I shall fear no evil for You are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me…(Psalm 23)

…and Your music, Your Psalms, the wonder of Your world, and the companionship of those who care for such things – they comfort me too.

 

On Grief

Over the years I’ve witnessed many painful happenings: slow illnesses; sudden deaths, timely and untimely; people parted cruelty from those they love; young children losing parents; worst of all, parents losing their child. I never pass unthinking the words in the memorial service: ‘Our children, in whom are garnered all our love and hope’.

And this in peacetime in Britain, without the horror of war which so many earlier generations endured with courage, fear, and the gritty determination to live.

Mercifully, I’ve seen many causes for joy, tenderness, thoughtfulness, generosity, courage, and sheer beauty, – beauty in simple things: the winter sun in the branches of orange witch-hazel; a stock-still squirrel, watching the child watching it.

I often think how those whose hearts are broken might find enough love, purpose, meaning and healing to live with wounds which no one can take away. I know that life, which visits us with blessings, will inevitably bring us all, unpredictably, unequally, sorrow. We will all come to know what we don’t and cannot know, until…

So I hope… These are things I hope when pain visits those I care for. I hope love will be present, from family, a closest friend, to take her hand, to hug her, when the man she loved so long passes through the strange, bewildering gateway of death, where the living may not follow and they cannot turn back.

I hope that at the halvayah, the final accompanying journey… “I don’t know what to say,” people tell me often…I hope the hand with which we touch the mourner’s shoulder, take his hand, is a hand of faithful kindness, our presence at the prayers the promise of enduring solidarity.

I hope that in the numb days when it’s hard to believe it really happened, – “It feels unreal”, I’m so often told – there will be people, community, who’re attentive, listen, don’t ask, “How are you?”, know when to offer memories, when to take out the photograph and say “I knew your father”, when to laugh and when to keep silence.

I hope that when the daily rush has reabsorbed everyone in their customary preoccupations and the community has moved on to the next wedding, the next bereavement, steadfast friends won’t just leave a message “Don’t forget to ask me if there’s anything you need?” but say “Can I ask you, if you’re up to it, tomorrow at 3.00… If not, may I ask you in a couple of days again?”

I hope that over the searing months, when it’s impossible to know round what corner or inside what envelope memory waits in ambush with new pain, it may somehow be possible to begin to find purpose: “She cared about that; I’ll devote myself to that in faithfulness to her”; even, “My child loved music; I’m going to do something for children and music… I can’t have him back, but I can do a little of what he would have done.”

I hope that God will speak, not the God of “this happened because”, not the rationaliser or the blamer’s God, but the God of life, who talks in snowdrops, in the wren in the hedge, the God whose unspoken words translate simply as “I am here”.

I hope the Kaddish doesn’t feel like gestures, lies, homage to a past when others really did believe; I hope there’ll be moments when shirata are nechmata, when songs are truly comforts and praise, for a moment, makes sense.

I hope that slowly, over years, those we love, who once held our hand, traverse into our heart and speak to us from there, retelling us their wisdom, their bad jokes, listening when we need them, so that we say “She would have said…”.

I know there’s no gainsaying the empty room, the unoccupied space beside you which follows wherever you go, the dread of reaching for the key to unlock the empty house. I know that grief works to no time-table, conforms with no calendar.

Yet I hope that, somehow, there’ll be sufficient love, enough purpose to go on and live.

 

Reflections on Mental Health Awareness Shabbat

Rebbe Nachman of Breslav, the great teacher and story-teller to whose grave in Uman thousands make the pilgrimage every New Year, used to say: ‘Asur Lehitya’esh – It is forbidden to despair.’ To this was added, by him or by subsequent folklore the rhyme: ‘Rak Lismoach Yesh – Only and always be happy’. It won’t come as a surprise that he was reputed to suffer periodically from severe mental anxiety.

This Shabbat is Mental Health Awareness Shabbat. JAMI which supports mental health in the Jewish Community is focussing on its Head On campaign:

Head On aims to raise the profile of mental health in the Jewish Community. It is an opportunity to encourage people of all ages to be more in touch with their own mental health and wellbeing, and to raise awareness in the local and wider community. Head On falls annually on the Shabbat when the weekly Torah portion of “Bo” is read, which tells of the Plague of Darkness. The description of the plague of darkness has particular resonance with mental illness.

Vayameish choshech, God instructs Moses before sending the penultimate plague: ‘Let there be palpable darkness’. There then descended over Egypt a darkness so thick that ‘no one could see his brother or get up from his place for three days.’ (Exodus 10:23)

The plain meaning is that it was utterly and impenetrably dark. But the verse put me painfully in mind of something different. Lo kamu ish tachtav, are the exact words in the Torah: literally, ‘no one could raise himself up from his low place’. We have them, inside us, such spaces. …. If we’ve been spared ever visiting those bleak internal realms we’re blessed. I know this from listening to people and from the rare dreadful hour – which few of us never experience. It’s been described to me as follows:

One can descend inside oneself to places where one’s terrors and persecutions are seemingly one’s only reality; down to the basement of the basement of some internal prison, den, horror-film mental ward; down below the sign at the entrance to Dante’s hell: ‘Abandon hope all you who enter here’. There one may sit, mentally banging one’s head against the dirty concrete wall, sometimes thinking that there’s only one way out…

One may know it’s absurd. People one loves may be in the next room, the same room, talking to one. But some seemingly impenetrable membrane separates them off. They belong to another universe. One knows they exist, but how to get back to them…

Kumu, kumu – get up, rise up,’ one says, holding out one’s hand to a mourner at the end of the seven days of the shivah, helping them up from the traditional low chair. Similarly, we hope that the hand held out to us in our hours of darkness, the hands we hold out to others, the heartfelt intention in the gaps between our inadequate words, will reach, make contact, and we will manage to help each other up.

Hopefully we return with relief and gratitude back from dark places into the daylight. Just as God, after hovering over the void where ‘darkness covered the deep’ calls out ‘Let there be light’, so the spirit of God inside us calls out in blessing and appreciation to the wonder of light.

We don’t know the inner reality of other people’s lives. We can never understand in full the brightness of their light or the depth of their – sometimes – darkness.

But we do know that we can be aware of one another, younger or older; show solidarity to each other; open the doors of our community, and, if we can our homes; acknowledge the hours of darkness and help each other find the right support and understanding. Depression and mental illness can make not just the sufferer but everyone around feel helpless and worthless. But often just being there, with patience and thoughtfulness, makes more difference than we can imagine.

We must keep faith that we will one day together once again bless the wonder of life and light.

 

Spiritual Resilience

As it nears its close, few people are talking about 2018 in glowing terms. ‘Hard’, ‘gloomy’, ‘wearying’, ‘frightening’, are some of the adjectives I hear. The big issues, political, economic, environmental remain unresolved; they’ll be back next year.

So we need hope, courage and tenacity in large quantities. ‘Spiritual resilience’, said my Sufi friend, which I think of as inner, spiritual security, no less important than its external physical counterpart.

Resilience is social; it’s about creating and drawing us in to warm-hearted, inclusive and outward-looking communities. Resilience is moral; it’s about studying, debating and living our values. Resilience is spiritual; it means developing a restorative, healing inner life.

At its heart is prayer. There are many ways to pray: silence, music, meditation, walking. I love the beaten path of Jewish prayer, its discipline, its words, its music and mantras.

Most of the time I don’t pray in the hope of changing the mind of some all-powerful, heavenly being, – though sometimes, in moments of fear, I do.

I mostly pray to go downwards, not up. I try to pray like a digger of wells who persists until fresh water seeps through the dry earth and fills the hidden depth. That depth is not in the earth, but in myself. Can I get there? Can I listen, travel down below my flitting, floating thoughts, beneath my irritations and preoccupations, and feel life from my heart? At that moment, new sweet water flows and sings its way back into the dried out receptacle of the soul. What I feared was empty is replenished.

Some rare days this is easy. Many days I fail, usually because I don’t stay still in mind or body long enough, or because my effort is forced and I leave my spirit behind.

But when the water sings, it’s always a gift. Someone or something has been the inspiration: a kindness I witnessed, a moment of generosity or tenderness, a phrase of poetry, a quietly grazing horse.

The gift is life, connection with the life which nourishes all things. It begins with particular connections, with the trees, the birds, with people around me, this community at worship, that man in the hospital who said, ‘Can we pray together’. I feel the same spirit flow through us all, bestowing on us our respective consciousness. We belong together, all of life. It owns us, and none of it do we own.

Here is the presence of God, not in the heights but in the earth and everything alive. Without words it instructs us to take off not just our shoes but our selfishness, for the ground on which you stand is holy.

It’s the source of love, not perhaps of passion and attachment, but of a steady, determined chesed, a faithful kindness, which condemns cruelty, and insists that all life commands respect and needs compassion and understanding.

It’s the source of responsibility and moral determination, reminding us that we are not here to make life serve us, but to be of service to life. This is the truth we must not betray and try never to let down: that everything and everyone matters.

Shabbat Shalom

I wish all our Christian friends and their families a good and happy Christmas and a peaceful, worthwhile New Year

Jonathan Wittenberg

 

Therapy for madness

I’m losing people; they’re disappearing, – in my own home. The evening before last I couldn’t find two participants in my evening class. I discovered them kneeling by the couch, talking to the dog.

It was earlier that same day that I’d realised half way through the lesson that one of the girls in my Bnei Mitzvah group had come through the front door but never subsequently appeared in the class. I found her, – in our rear porch, hugging a guinea pig. When I mentioned to the whole group that we’d rescued a baby hedgehog, every single member one of the twenty-five voluble twelve-year-olds fell instantly silent: ‘Can we see it?’ There was even a ‘please’.

I’ve come to understand that this isn’t just an indulgence; it’s not merely sentimental. It’s therapy. It’s a need.

I’m feeling it myself. I have a longing to go to the New Forest. I want to spend a day, a dusk, a night walk among the ponies and donkeys, out with the trees, listening to them breath. My soul is craving sanity; it’s hungry and wants nourishment. I want to be rooted back in the earth, with the leaves, the breathing, grazing, chewing, rhythms of the animals, the branches and the wind.

I had a quiet word with the guinea-pig hugging pupil, – and let her be for the rest of the lesson. I saw that for her this wasn’t indulgence; it was therapy, and she needed it.

It’s a therapy I need too. We all need it; the whole of humanity needs it. Disconnected from the earth, the trees and the animals, our souls slowly forget how to breath. After a while our minds begin to malfunction because our brains are in receipt of insufficient spirit and too little humility. Then comes the greatest danger, that we forget what it is we’ve forgotten. We no longer realise that we’re part of creation, not its gods and owners. We imagine we’re morally, spiritually, economically, ecologically self-sufficient, that we don’t need the earth, the trees and the animals, that we can dispense with the hand that feeds us and the spirit which gives our hearts life.

Yet, hopefully, someone, something, some all but inalienable intuition calls us back: Can I hold that guinea pig please? Where’s the dog? I love horses. The children remind us.

I long to go to the forest, to listen to God. Humankind cannot live by Brexit, instant news, social media and the constant news of folly and disaster alone.

A colleague reminded me of these words by Henry Beston. They provide a fine commentary on book one, chapter one of the Bible, on the meaning of creation, of the gift of life among all other living beings:

We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.

I worry and fear daily, because the destiny of all other forms of life, and without it our own, now rests in our untrustworthy hands. Isaiah, chapter 11, is my ideal: ‘They shall not hurt nor destroy in all [God’s] holy mountain’.

I hail this Native American prayer and want to wrap it round my arm, next to my heart, with my Tefilin, my phylacteries, every morning:

Every seed has awakened and so has all animal life.
It is through this mysterious power that we too
Have our being and we therefore yield to our neighbours,
Even our animal neighbours, the same right as
Ourselves, to inhabit this land.
Tatyanka Yotanka, Sitting Bull

 

 

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.

 

 

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