Between cruelty and wonder: how we treat life

I’ve woken up with a divided spirit these last few days.

I go out into the garden we are privileged to care for, in this most beautiful of seasons, and feel wonder. Already this morning I’ve seen sparrows, great tits, blue tits, parakeets and a jay. I know the blackbirds are eating the raisins I spread on the lawn. Maybe I’ll get another glimpse of the wren I spotted earlier. Yesterday a woodpecker came to the feeder opposite the window of my study; I stopped all else and watched.

There are bluebells, and the rhododendrons, my favourite, are stunning. When I was a small boy in Scotland, our neighbours had a huge rhododendron. I would put the fallen pink white flowers like little bells over my fingers and feel the drops of dew inside them run down my hands. I think of this now as a blessing from life itself, which is exactly what it was.

Kadosh, ‘holy’, is the dominant word in the sections of the Torah we are currently reading: Be holy, because I, your God, am holy’. The sacred spirit of life flows through all existence, life’s secret essence from God, Chei ha’olamim, life of all worlds. It is not directly perceptible. Since we never hear or see it, we may conclude that it doesn’t exist. Today we can describe in accurate materialist terms the cause of virtually all phenomena. We don’t need mystery, or holiness, to explain the inexplicable away. But if we choose to live without sensitivity to life’s spirit we have less space for reverence, wonder, humility and joy. Our life and our world are diminished.

The other part of me wakes up reflecting on yesterday’s interactions. In one single day this week I spoke to three people, each of whom had been tortured, each in a different country. One of them, in response to a question about whether she now had sufficient support, simply put her head in her hands and wept.

Nicky and I have been watching late at night the BBC’s serialisation of Wilkie Collins’s gripping novel, The Woman in White. The subtle and brilliant portrayal of cruelty disturbs me greatly. I’ve witnessed several times the aftermath of pain when men have calculatedly, unashamedly, instrumentalised, humiliated, and treated with cunning physical and emotional contempt women, sometimes children, with little power to evade their control.

Nature, too, is full of cruelty. I was driving to a memorial service for a young woman murdered by her husband when right in front of me a bird of prey flew down and snatched from the verges a helpless rabbit which it carried away, writhing in its claws. The image abides with me, an evil emblem.

The opposite of honouring life’s sanctity is desecration, hillul. The Torah enjoins us not to desecrate God’s holy name. This isn’t about ritual piety. It’s an appeal to recognise and respect God’s presence in all life, human life first and foremost, but also throughout creation.

Any act, however small, which enhances the awareness of life’s value is a sanctification of God’s name, Kiddush Hashem. Any act which shows contempt for life’s sacred value is a Hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.

When any of us behaves with the intention to harm, with deliberate cruelty, or negligent callousness, we strip life of its beauty and void it of its preciousness. When any of us tries to nurture, cherish, honour, heal and love life in any of its forms, we deepen the presence of reverence and wonder. We honour the sacred spirit which flows through all life.

There is little, if any, space for neutrality.

It is clear what we are here on earth to do.

 

A specifically rabbinic response to racism and antisemitism

I have a full heart after speaking at the synagogue of my friend, companion and colleague Marc Soloway, about my book My Dear Ones: One Family and The Final Solution. I think of the love my great-grandmother had for her children, the love and faith she carried in her heart through all the terrible years. She began even her last postcard, from Theresienstadt, with the words ‘My Dear Ones’. Life is precious and the bonds of love are ‘powerful as death’.

That is why hatred is such a sin against humanity, both that of the person who is hated, and of the person who harbours hate. ‘Do not hate your brother in your heart’, the Torah commands. The word ‘brother’ must be understood as comprehensive and inclusive. It is not okay to hate people because they are white, because they are black, because they are Jewish or Muslim. When we hate others because of the bare fact of their religion, nationality or identity, we destroy each other; we denigrate them and defile ourselves. That is why the rhetoric of racism, antisemitism and nationalist and religious abuse is so dangerous and must be countered, in whatever form or forum it is expressed.

This week the Board of Deputies of British Jews met with Jeremy Corbyn. This followed a powerful Parliamentary debate in which John Mann spoke movingly about the threats to his family while chairing the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, – online attacks, a dead bird in the post.  Meanwhile communal action by Jews and those in solidarity with us has once again been branded a ‘Corbyn smear’. In fact, many of those who dare to raise these challenging issues are, or wish to be, Labour supporters, and several Jewish Labour MPs and local party activists have received appalling abuse.

The Board and the Jewish Leadership Council welcomed Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘personal involvement in the discussion’ and his further comments recognising and apologising for antisemitism in the Labour Party. But they found the meeting ‘a missed opportunity’; none of the six action points they had set out in order to establish a rigorous, unambiguous and transparent policy were agreed.

Antisemitism is not, of course, solely a province of the left. Across parts of Europe, and the globe, it is once again a weapon of the far right. For yet others it is simply a politically expedient tool, to be exploited as a cynical instrument of self-interest. Nor are Jews alone in facing a rise of racist attack in an increasingly aggressive and dangerous world.

Saying we have no place for antisemitism and racism is not enough. Professing ideological opposition (‘I don’t believe in racism, so how can I be a racist’) may be little more than self-deceit. It is our actions, far more than our words, which show who we are.

So what must we do to stand up both for ourselves and other vulnerable groups? It is not my role to determine what must be done politically and legally. Rather, as a rabbi, I want to stress a specific Jewish response. It derives from an incident in the Talmud on which I often reflect. During the Roman persecutions in the early second century Rabbi Pappos comes upon Rabbi Akiva, who is teaching Torah in public, an activity strictly forbidden by the Roman rulers. ‘Desist’, Pappos insists. Rabbi Akiva refuses. He is promptly caught and imprisoned. Shortly afterwards Pappos is also incarcerated. (Tyrants will always find reasons for persecuting their ‘others’) ‘Happy are you Akiva’, Pappos tells him when he meets him in prison, ‘At least you were caught for something’.

In standing up against antisemitism and racism we should know who we are. I do not mean this in an arrogant manner. Rather we should seek strength in knowing and living what it means to be Jewish; by making ourselves more deeply literate in our history and faith, studying our texts, knowing the language of our traditions, exploring and expanding our spirituality, participating in our communities and living our values. In this way we stand up for our Judaism and for humanity in general, because to know our Judaism is to know that we and every other human being created in God’s image, of unique and special value, never to be hated, but protected and cherished in his or her particular dignity.

 

After Yom Ha’Atzmaut: Humanity and Hope

Many of us reach this Shabbat with full and thin-skinned hearts after ten days of remembrance and celebration: Yom HaShaoh, Yom HaZikaron, on which Israel remembers over 23,000 dead, and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s 70th Day of Independence.

Many searing words have been said. In our own community, two hundred of us listened in gripping silence as six courageous teenagers from Shlomi in the North of Israel, invited by the UJIA, spoke in fluent, eloquent English, each sentence learnt by heart, of the losses the country recalls, and of their own fears and aspirations, as they approach the age of army service. Our hearts go out to them in all their hopes for a life of peace and safety.

In Israel, David Grossman addressed a Remembrance ceremony intended for all, Israeli and Palestinian bereaved as well as those in solidarity with them, at a gathering attended by thousands. He spoke from personal grief, ‘from the fragile place that vividly remembers the existential fear, as well as the strong hope that now, finally, we have come home’. He spoke as a person proud of Israel’s achievements, ambitious and determined for the country’s true values, and as a consummate artist of the Hebrew language.

He spoke as a man ‘who resists rage and hate’ because it takes away ‘living contact with my son’, his Uri, killed in Lebanon in 2006. He spoke as one ‘doomed to touch reality through an open wound’. From out of those wounds, he spoke with frank and forthright humanity of his hopes for an end to injustice and violence on both sides, when Israelis and Palestinians could stand side by side without fear and share in their respective anthems the line “To be a free nation in our land”.

His painful, challenging, hopeful words reminded me of Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish who visited our garden after speaking in our Synagogue about his book I Shall Not Hate. He photographed the apple tree my wife and I planted in memory of his daughters, Bessan, Aya and Mayar, killed in Gaza. He wrote to us afterwards that he could see his three girls there in the garden, standing beside that tree.

These anniversaries occur at a time when cruelty and brutality are reasserting themselves across the world. The guiding values of liberal democracy are themselves in danger: tolerance, decency, forbearance, the aspiration toward social justice, and fair-minded, independent institutions to safeguard them.

Until recently, many of us took almost for granted the illusion that these values would assure humanity a journey onward and upward, hopeful, towards the ever better. Now they are under threat, from brutal attacks by nihilist fundamentalists like ISIS, from the amoral calculations of cunning leaders with blatant contempt for life, and from heartlessness within our own societies.

Here in Britain we should be ashamed of the treatment of the Windrush generation, as the implications of creating a ‘hostile environment’ become apparent in the impact on octogenarians, the sick, those who want to spend their lives with their families in the land where they’ve lived for decades. In Israel, we as Jews should stand alongside those who refuse to be silent at the gap between the love of the stranger emphasised in the Torah and the threatened deportation of thousands of asylum seekers. These concerns are symptoms, perhaps only small symptoms, in countries which essentially committed to justice and fairness, of a far crueller world liable to close in about us.

Therefore, humanity matters. Every person matters. Every kindness matters, every act of justice, every word, gesture and demonstration of solidarity which affirms the dignity and worth of life. In this endeavour, which is the ultimate purpose and meaning of our lives, we are committed first to those closest to us, our community, our people, Israel, the UK, but also to all humanity, every specific, individual before us. What denigrates one person, demeans us all. What enhances the life of one person, affirms the value of us all.

We pray for the wellbeing of Israel, of this country and of the world.

My heart is my compass: Dr Abuelaish and ‘I Shall Not Hate’

Late last night I took a torch and, shining the beam across his path down the garden, lead our guest to the apple tree. The damp buds, latent with leaf and life, glistened in the darkness. My friend held up his phone and took photographs.

He was Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, author of I Shall Not Hate, about his life as a Gazan doctor with close friends and colleagues in Israel, who lost three daughters, Bessan, Aya and Mayar, when their home was shelled twice in swift, fatal succession in the Gaza war.

Soon afterwards, I came to know him and planted that tree in his daughters’ memory.

‘I’d like to see it’, Dr Abuelaish told me.

Earlier, we’d been in conversation at my synagogue, sitting together beneath the verse ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ inscribed above the holy ark. A hundred people were held silent by his heart-felt words.

From the time I was a very small boy I have been able to find the good chapter in a very bad story…

From where did he draw the strength?

God knows what has to be, he said. Therefore, we must take what happens for the best.

Maybe his beloved wife Nadia had died four months before the tragedy so that she wouldn’t have to witness the deaths of three of her daughters. Mothers are the life-givers, the life-cherishers: let women walk in this world not behind us men, but by our side, out in front…

Do not see the other; he said. Do not look at the world out of one eye only, one perspective; see the humanity in all. (I still have that vista before me, the day I first saw a familiar Jerusalem scene from a Palestinian home in a refugee camp. Yes, I knew this valley; I recognised that road. But I’d never seen it from this angle. It was a mere 500 metres away, and a universe apart. I love Israel no less, but with more complexity, more simplicity, more humanity, since.)

Do not blame, Dr Abuelaish added. Don’t say ‘them!’. God judges us for what we do. We must take responsibility, each for our actions, our errors and our future.

Life is a short journey. He pointed at the doors on either side of the synagogue: ‘We enter here and exit there’. In the space between, we can do good. We can leave behind kindness, love. That is all that matters.

Afterwards, at my home, he said ‘My heart is my compass’.

On Passover night we dip our maror, the bitter herbs of history and memory, into the sweet paste of charoset, made, the Talmud teaches, ‘in memory of the apple’.

What apple? ‘It’s the apple tree in the Song of Songs’, the commentators explain. Beneath it during their slavery and degradation in Egypt, the Children of Israel showed each other solidarity and love.

Thus, the sweet charoset mitigates, overcomes, the venom of the bitter maror. So may love disarm hate; the steady heart of compassion withdraw the fuse from fury and from fear.

Will it work?

I asked Dr Abuelaish how the next ‘good chapter’ in a harsh story could be written. He made no comment about the plot, but pointed at the authors.

We are all responsible. We are all the writers of the future. No action is too small to matter and every one of us can choose to be a healer.

 

Never despair! Thoughts on a difficult spring’

Tomorrow is the first day of the Hebrew month of Nisan; in Jewish terms it’s the first day of spring.

Nisan is a month of celebration. Sad, penitential prayers are left out of the liturgy. Instead, in the domain of history we focus on Passover; we follow our ancestors on their journey from slavery to freedom and try to create a world which celebrates, life, liberty and justice.

In the domain of nature, we go out into the fields and gardens and say a unique, once-a-year-only blessing to God

in whose world nothing is lacking, who created beautiful creatures and beautiful trees for the enjoyment of humankind.

I’ve just been outdoors to check: the almond tree is pink with bloom; the apricot, usually first to blossom, is wisely still sleeping out an especially long winter; the pears have a good month to go before May, their season of white glory.

Yet, despite all this, I’m struggling to feel joyous.

Instead, I feel anxious, afraid for our beautiful world. We live in increasingly dangerous times. Much of humanity, or at least its leadership, seems intent on a journey from liberty to tyranny, from peace to war and from injustice to greater injustice. Meanwhile, the poorest and weakest, who have always suffered, suffer even more.

In the world of nature, I read with despair of the huge decline in animal life, of species hunted to extinction, of the pollution of land and ocean by plastic particles. You may think me crazy, but these matters drive me close to tears.

I could take to retail therapy, decide not to think, or close my eyes, and heart, and sit back to enjoy my corner of privileged living, among the world’s wealthiest.

But that’s not the human, certainly not the Jewish way. ‘You are not free to cease from the work’, said Rabbi Tarfon almost two thousand years back. ‘Assur lihitya’esh; it’s forbidden to give up and despair,’ insisted Rebbe Nachman of Breslav two hundred years ago, despite, or because of, his own susceptibility to depression. And, on the back of today’s Guardian, Gareth Southgate adds his own gloss to his rabbinic antecedents: ‘You can live in fear or you can get on with it’.

That’s what saying the blessing over ‘beautiful creatures and beautiful trees’ means right now. Never give up! Never stop appreciating how wonderful the world can and should be! For the sake of the beauty of children, help the besieged, the hungry, the persecuted. For the sake of the beauty of animals and trees, plant and protect, so that they, and humankind together, may live and flourish to breathe a better future.

Last Friday, as I approached the old Jerusalem railway station, some 28 kilometres into running the marathon, I passed a group of people pushing their friend in a wheelchair, or rather in something more like a full hospital bed. According to my running app, the Jerusalem marathon route has a total climb of well over 2,000 feet, with challenging hills and sharp descents. These good people must have taken turns to push their friend up the hardest inclines, then hold on tightly to ensure a smooth run down the steepest slopes. When they reached the finishing line, the entire crowd cheered.

That’s love; that’s courage; that’s doing the best one can to share the basic freedoms of breathing the open air, enjoying the wide panorama, waving to friends, relishing the crazy happiness of those mad enough to run.

On Seder night I don’t just want to read the Haggadah, the story of the Exodus. I want it to shout back at me: Never give up on freedom. When I go outside, I don’t just want to see the world. I want it to sing back at me: Look at all this beauty! Use your life to love it and protect it!

 

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.

 

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.

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