Values in a frightening time

It’s three and a half thousand years, according to the traditional Biblical timescale, since God said to Abraham ‘lech lechaGo!’ Go, God said, from a city tyrannised by power and violence and create a land ruled by justice and compassion. Thus began the Jewish journey, and the journeys of other faiths, and all our individual journeys in search of what is right and good, journeys full of inspiration, also sometimes misdirection, and which remain today far from their envisaged messianic goals.

The world is not in a good place on that journey just right now. This Armistice Day I shall light my candle and wear my poppy for all who gave their lives fighting for a more compassionate earth, and all whose lives, rich with hope, were squandered by tyranny and evil.

At this strange and difficult juncture on the path of civilisation we must not lose our vision or our values. This week I heard the word ‘post-factual’ several times. It frightened me. It also set me playing with other prefix combinations: post-truth; post-humanitarian; post-compassionate, and now, with the sad passing of Leonard Cohen, post-Halleluyah. I don’t want to live in a ‘post’ world.

So here are some key values.

Honesty matters; facts matter. Facts are not the measure of everything; one would hardly expect a faith leader to argue that they were. As Shakespeare wrote, sometimes ‘The heart has reasons that reason cannot know’. Facts, too, have always been mustered, configured and fingered to support one’s own argument. But, as battleofideas puts it: ‘Post-truth differs from traditional contesting and falsifying of truth by rendering it of “secondary” importance’. In a post-truth world Holocaust deniers hold equally valid opinions, and Judaism and Jerusalem need have no historical connection, if you choose to think so.

No; we must search for truth and listen to truths, even, and especially, inconvenient ones. Truth is our guide to integrity and justice.

Humanity matters. It consists primarily in the awareness that we share the privilege of existence with all other human beings; that we are all mortal, vulnerable and often afraid; that nevertheless we are endowed with creativity, conscience and the inexhaustible capacity for wonder and love. Such humanity is our guide to empathy, compassion and commitment to one another.

Faith matters. I don’t mean by faith that we know with absolute conviction what God said and whom God likes. I especially don’t mean that we know with absolute conviction whom God does not like. I mean the faith that everything has value, and not just ‘market value’; that life is imbued with a property which is hard to define but may be called ‘sacred’; and that there is a wonder and a oneness to the essence of all life. This is our guide to humility, awe and service.

Music matters; poetry matters. I doubt if anyone wants to live in a post-Halleluyah world. ‘Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord’, begins Leonard Cohen’s perhaps best-known song. Without it neither the heart of every culture nor the heart itself would be able to express the beauty of what the spirit knows but words alone cannot tell.

We must not desert these values, lest they desert us.

Thoughts on the Anniversary of Kristallnacht 2016

It’s seventy-eight years since the Night of Broken Glass, when Goebbels unleashed upon the Jews of Germany the full of violence of Nazi hate. Though he described the subsequent horrors as the unpremeditated and spontaneous expression of the Kochende Volkseele, the boiling public mood, the smashing, burning and killing were co-ordinated across Germany and beyond. Nor was the timing incidental. It’s widely thought that the failure that summer of the rest of the world to increase their quotas for refugees from Nazism gave Goebbels a moral victory, enabling him to claim that nobody else wanted the Jews either, and gave Hitler the green light to act against them as he pleased.

I was in Frankfurt yesterday, where the Jewish Museum hosts an annual evening of study on the day before Kristallnacht. The subject was the rabbis of Frankfurt who fled the Nazis, and their legacy, focusing on my grandfather and his close colleagues. I re-visited his testimony of those terrible years. I read how he preached of his pride in the appellation ‘Israel’ after the Nazis forced all Jews to add it to their name. I stood where the great Boerneplatz Synagogue was burnt to a ruin. My grandfather was outside, summoned by the Gestapo. My father’s uncle’s family were inside; they lived in a flat adjacent to the lady’s gallery. He was arrested and taken to Buchenwald. His pregnant wife and their four children were hastily taken away by relatives, haunted by the sight of the blackened cupola, now visible through the burnt-out doors, of the great house of prayer. The baby died at birth.

Outside, many thousands of memorial tiles line the walls of the ancient Jewish cemetery.

I was shown pictures of the 1930’s, a Sabena aeroplane like that on which my family escaped, the airfield at Croydon where they landed – the very part of London where refugee children have now been arriving.

I sat at length with the director of the Jewish Museum discussing Frankfurt’s Jewish legacy: Ludwig Boerne, ‘the father of modern journalism’, born in the Judengasse, exiled, like Heinrich Heine, to Paris; and Samson Raphael Hirsch the great neo-orthodox rabbi who taught that ‘love your neighbour’ means seeking the same rights and opportunities for every citizen as you want for yourself, irrespective of religion or race. He taught, too, that the moment you abrogate in any way the rights of the stranger, or make the rights we owe each other conditional on any other attributes than the very fact of being human, created in the image of God, you re-open the gates to ‘all the horror of the slavery in Egypt’.

On the train home I passed through the Ardennes, the landscape of Hitler’s bitter last offensive, mercifully thwarted by Allied courage. The route went not far east of the terrible graveyards of the First World War, which we remember this Sunday on Armistice Day.

I followed responses to the US elections on twitter. And, not by any means solely for that reason, I feel afraid. I fear for my children; I fear for the earth. The world, it seems, is reverting to tribalism; maybe fear itself is part of the cause. I don’t know where or why this began, or if it is always thus. My next writing deadline is about the anniversary of the attack on the Bataclan theatre in Paris.

That is why it is essential to say ‘No’ to racism; ‘No’ to anti-Semitism; ‘No’ to the hatred of Muslims, ‘No’ to the denigration of women.; ‘No’ to xenophobia. That is why we must assert the centrality of the commandments, the very core of faith and humanity, to ‘do justly’, to ‘love compassion’, and never denigrate the image of God in anybody, or act with wanton destruction towards this beautiful world, God’s world, the world of which we must continue to say, conducting ourselves accordingly, ‘And God sees that it is good’.

It’s not only elections which make a leader

My colleagues in America circulated the following Communal Prayer in Anticipation of a US Election Season. It reads, in part:

Help us to recognize the gift of our vibrant and open democracy and the responsibility to nurture it. Strengthen us to take our duties as citizens seriously, to hold in our minds and hearts all that is at stake in this election and to fulfil our obligations with integrity. May we discern Your Divine presence and amplify Your teachings through our actions and commitments.

It’s a beautiful prayer, composed in the context of a most unbeautiful campaign. This morning’s New York Times refers to the latest poll, not about who’ll win but about how Americans regard the whole process:

An overwhelming majority of voters are disgusted by the state of American politics, and many harbor doubts that either major-party nominee can unite the country after a historically ugly presidential campaign… With more than eight in 10 voters saying the campaign has left them repulsed rather than excited, the rising toxicity threatens the ultimate victor.

One can only hope that out of this mire, true leadership will somehow emerge. It is not only in America that it is needed.

But what is real leadership? The Torah, as so often, answers the question indirectly.

It’s customary to contrast the ‘leadership styles’ of Noah, this week’s hero, and Abraham. But a comparison with Moses is no less telling.

Noah does what God tells him. ‘Make an ark’; he makes it. ‘Take two of every species’; he rounds them up (it would be fascinating to know how.) ‘Enter the ark’; he goes in. ‘Exit the ark’; he comes out. He speaks not one word. Only, according to the Zohar, when he sees the devastated landscape after the Flood, he weeps. ‘Why’, God then chides him, ‘Didn’t you weep before?’ It’s hard on Noah, who, following a different – rabbinic – tradition, tried to no avail for over a hundred years to persuade his contemporaries not destroy to the earth. Perhaps it was despair which reduced him to speechlessness, and tears.

Moses is not a man of silence, notwithstanding his protest that he lacks eloquence. He’s a person who lacks the dubious capacity not to get involved. Watching Moses catch sight of the burning bush, God observes that ‘he turned aside to see’. The obvious meaning is that Moses turned off the beaten track to take a closer look at this strange horticultural phenomenon.

Rabbinic tradition understands God’s observation more profoundly. God isn’t interested in being a prototype of Google Earth. What God sees is how, at the sight of the toiling slaves, Moses ‘Prince of Egypt’ leaves his royal entourage to ‘behold the burdens’ of the most despised and abject outcasts from society. He observes their labour not with objective vision only, as the object of passing curiosity. Instead, he sees ‘with’ their sufferings; he looks, and at once he feels. By the time he returns to the palace, a crucial question of identity has been resolved forever in Moses’s heart: it is this people who are his people; it is the slaves, not the Pharaohs, who are his true brothers.

That’s why God makes him leader.

May we have leaders who ‘turn aside to see’. May we recognize those who ‘turn aside to see’ as our true leaders.

Rights, Responsibilities and Refugees

As I write there are two images before my eyes.

One is of the desperation of children and young people amidst the burning remains of the camp in Calais. That children should suffer mistreatment, especially after the horrors so many of them have passed through, is an indictment of our humanity.

The other picture is of the beautiful letters of the opening words of the Torah, the shining black ink of In the beginning God created, emerging from the blank spaces of the parchment.

Judaism does not have an overt charter of Human Rights. Instead, it speaks of our responsibilities, of doing right, rather than asserting rights.

What Judaism does have, indeed what to many people Judaism primarily is, is a charter of ethics, grounded in the sanctity and dignity with which life is endowed.

This is evident from the very beginning of the Torah. The world is God’s creation. The relevant issue here is not if and how God made the world. The point is rather that the earth itself and all life on it, land, sea, trees, birds, fishes and animals, are integral parts of a sacred whole. They are not ours to destroy but to respect; they are not for us to own, but to nurture and protect.

Most significantly, every human being is imbued with God’s image. It is partly irrelevant how this is interpreted; whether, as different scholars have explained it, the reference is to the capacity for reason, imagination, creativity or speech. In whatever way we understand the words ‘the image of God’, the essential point is that this image resides in every person; it is the sacred trust with which each human being is endowed. Hence, no life is worthless; no one may be treated with cruelty or contempt.

Therefore, a corresponding obligation to care extends across the entire network of humanity and creation. It is our responsibility to safeguard God’s image both in ourselves, through how we conduct our lives; and in each other, through how we treat our fellow human beings and nature itself.

It is an impossibly high demand. History could be summarised as the record of our failures. Yet it is also testament to constant and outstanding examples of justice, compassion, courage, generosity, selflessness, tenderness and devoted love.

The meaning of our moment in time lies partly within our own power. Is it a time of tenderness, or cruelty? Are we, or are we not, faithful to the endowment with which we have been created?

There is no such thing as neutrality.

People call me every day to ask how they can help refugees, especially children. I’ve been listening to discussion among the leaders of several key organisations and hope to put forward more detailed suggestions as to how, individually and collectively, we can try to assist.


In the meantime, here are a number of organisations we should support:

The NNLS Asylum Seekers Drop in

World Jewish Relief

Help Refugees

 JCORE (The Jewish Council for Racial Equality)

An attack on humanity itself

It’s hard to translate the phrase kevod habriyot. I can visualise examples more easily than I can put the words into English: a child taking an old man’s hand and gently leading him to the dinner table; a nurse addressing a semi-comatose patient ‘Now Mrs. X, would it be OK for me to give you an injection to help with the pain?’

Kevod habriyot, literally ‘the honour of creatures’, refers to the respect due to the state of being human. It knows no differentiations of gender, faith or nationality. It expresses that dignity which inheres in each and every human life by virtue of being created in the image of God. Whatever that endowment is, – intelligence, creativity, conscience, vulnerability, sensitivity to others, – it bestows upon each and every human being certain rights which it is criminal to breech: the right to personal safety, to respect for close family relationships and to justly acquired property. To violate those rights is to show that one has no yirat Elohim, no fear of God, no respect for the most basic, most universal, laws of life.

Neither youth, nor age, nor illness, nor disability can diminish a person’s kavod, It is a crime wilfully to hurt a person because they are too young, too old, too ill or simply too different from ourselves.

However, a person’s kavod may be heightened by virtue of age or office. Thus, a special kavod adheres to the elderly, before whom we are commanded to stand in respect. A particular dignity belongs to the priesthood and to those who faithfully serve God.

The violation we witnessed this week in the murder of a venerable priest, Father Jacques Hamel, while he was reciting mass in a small church near Rouen, in a place of holiness and sanctuary, is an attack upon the very foundations of human life and society itself.

This desecration reminds us of the vulnerability and exposure of each and every person to violent evil. Our very fragility binds us in an indissoluble bond of fellowship with all who respect and care for life, whatever their faith or nationality; with all who exercise kindness and compassion; with everyone who, in the words of Micah, ‘practises justice, loves mercy and walks humbly with God’.

As Jews, we know only too well what it means to be forced to die for the sake of our faith and identity. So, too, do members of other religions. It has been estimated that currently three hundred Christians are murdered for their faith each month. In parts of the world less documented than Western Europe Muslims are killed regularly in Islamist outrages.

Judaism has always understood any attack or disaster as a call to teshuvah, to return and repentance. This must not be taken to mean that we should understand the tragedy itself as caused by our sins. In the present circumstances such an accusation would itself be a blasphemous violation.

Rather, the very fragility of human life in the face of violence and disaster teaches us to return to our most basic values, to fellowship, friendship, sharing, generosity, kindness, supporting the hurt, the homeless and the needy.

I’ve just finished reading Samuel Kassow’s harrowing account of the Warsaw Ghetto, ‘Who Will Write Our History?’. In it he records how, after receiving the German expulsion order, the Jews of the small town of Skempa in Poland ‘asked their rabbi to give them personal letters attesting to their past status in order to remind strangers that they, too, were once respected householders, not beggars’.

To label others as less than human is easy. The challenge is the opposite, to recognise and respect the humanity of every person. We must never be driven to forget that kevod habriyot, respect for the dignity of each and every human being, is the foundation of our humanity, and of humanity itself.

Not Wanted Here

Whichever way people voted, everyone agrees: the political and economic repercussions of Brexit will go on for years. We only have to think of yesterday in Parliament. But one matter has swiftly become clear; I already heard about it the morning after the poll: many people feel ‘outed,’ made to feel ‘other’. Here’s what they’ve said:

‘Suddenly I feel a foreigner’.
‘They asked me to come to the UK to work but now they want me to go home’.
‘Will I be deported?’ (then tears).
‘I walk down the street and think: maybe this person doesn’t want me here; maybe that person doesn’t want me here.’

Perhaps what I’ve been hearing isn’t typical, but I doubt it. I’ve spoken to some of the Hungarians, Spaniards, Germans, French, Bulgarians I know – and that’s just around the neighbourhood. (Last week I wouldn’t have referred to these friends by country, but that’s the way they’ve been made to perceive themselves now). Many feel anxious, uncertain, angry; they sense they’ve been given the thumbs-down.

Perhaps ‘outed’ is no more than just a feeling, a hyper-sensitive reaction. After all, there’s racism and prejudice before the EU, after the EU, and certainly within the EU. Why should the referendum have made a difference? But I believe it has; it’s brought to the surface, semi-legitimised something ugly within our society.

And it’s not just a ‘feeling’ for the person who told me she’d been hit for being ‘a foreigner and a Jew’ in the run-up, or for the student insulted for being Jewish, or to the children who found their school daubed with anti-Polish hate slogans, or to the Muslims targeted during Ramadan.

There’s a debate about where there really is more racism since the vote, or just a politically-motivated need by some to claim that there is. I certainly don’t believe the great majority of ‘leavers’ voted as they did because they’re racists. That in itself would be another kind of collective calumny.

But there are racists out there, and no doubt among the ‘remain’ voters too, and across the EU, and race hate is on the rise. And I’m not waiting for the statistics to prove how big that rise is, or why it came about, before saying that any such racism is wrong.

One action we can and must take in these time of uncertainty is to show solidarity within our Jewish community which is more vulnerable now (consider how Jeremy Corbyn received the report on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party!) with different faith communities, and with other groups and individuals who are, or feel, attacked and insecure. We must express that solidarity and be heard and seen expressing it.

In this week’s Torah portion the spies sent by Moses to explore the Promised Land report back that they felt like ‘grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we were in the eyes of the inhabitants’. Maybe it was only their imagination, but what they thought others thought about them invaded and diminished their own self-esteem. That’s what happens when a person experiences, or senses, the contempt of others.

There is a further question we have to ask ourselves in this connection; it’s uncomfortable but essential: who might those ‘others’ be whom we in turn find ourselves blaming for doing the ‘outing’ and ‘othering’?

There are more than enough people who hold xenophobic attitudes and commit racist crimes. Such views have to be challenged, such actions reported and condemned, and their perpetrators brought to justice.

But far more people probably feel that they themselves have long been society’s other: not heard, not empowered, not included in the opportunities from which those who ignore them have grown rich. If we don’t listen now, it will not only be to our peril, but constitute our own form of prejudice.

We are virtually all someone else’s ‘other’ and all of us, too, are inclined to ‘other’ someone else.

When the Torah insists that ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ it offers no immediate definition of who that neighbour is. It divides the world into two, us and our neighbour; not into three: us, our neighbour and the other. The Torah asks us not to ‘other’ but to relate. It’s a high, perhaps impossible, ideal.

‘Love’ is a vast and vague term. The Torah no doubt means something far more down-to-earth. If we could try to respect, be aware of and stand up for the rights and dignity of our neighbour as we would want them to stand up for us, then and only then will we live in a society at peace with itself, inside or outside the EU.

After the Referendum

Following the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, our country faces an uncertain and testing time. Whichever way we voted, none of us wants to see Britain’s long and remarkable democratic process stall or witness the decline of our country. None of us want to see the far right gain power either here or anywhere in Europe. We all share prayers for the wellbeing of our state.

This is therefore a time to strengthen our commitment to honest discussion, truthful debate and the creation of an integrated and just society free from hatred and xenophobia.

It is not a moment to fall silent or take a step back, but to affirm our values and commitments.

We should not stand idly by when any group or individual is targeted by racist rhetoric or violence. We should come to their support, and be seen to do so.

We should not countenance a culture of disrespect for experts, intellectuals and those who endeavour to exercise leadership in any sphere with honesty and integrity.

We should beware of implicitly condoning dishonesty or racism in any leaders or media figures, with platitudes such as ‘it’s not against us’ or ‘they don’t really mean it’.

We should speak warmly to those in the community around us who may feel rejected, those who were born here, have lived here for a decade, were invited to work in this country, and who now experience their status as insecure and feel they have been told they are not wanted.

We should work across our communities to strengthen our relationships with our neighbours of all faiths or none.

We should be attentive to those who don’t have privileges and opportunities we take for granted, be concerned about the many parts of the country which have suffered economic neglect, and engage actively for a more just, compassionate and inclusive society.

If we have family or friends who voted differently from ourselves and with whom we now find ourselves struggling to communicate, we should try to listen to one another and affirm the common values we still share.

We should respect the process of reasoned debate and the plurality of views.

May God guide us, our country and Europe at this difficult time.

‘Don’t stand idly by’

This has all happened in the very week when we were rejoicing on the festival of the Giving of the Torah, the Torah of life, the Torah of which the central image is the Tree of Life and whose core teaching is that ‘you shall live by them’, by commandments and values which promote justice, compassion and dignity.

I am utterly shocked by the murder of Jo Cox MP. When a member of parliament is murdered, democracy itself is under attack. The noun democracy is composed of two Greek words, demos – people, and kratos – rule: thus, when democracy is attacked in such a violent and lawless manner every single person, together with freedom itself, suffers assault.

I am horrified by the slaughter in Orlando. When a gunman kills 49 people and injures many others at a gay nightclub, whether motivated by homophobia, the violent creed of ISIS, or both, human society and solidarity themselves are under threat. Such crimes, facilitated by too ready access to guns, are an abomination.

It is not enough to condemn this exceptionally sadistic crime in general terms. As in attacks against Jews, gypsies, or any other group, especially a group which has good reason to feel vulnerable, the nature of the crime and the identity of the victims must clearly be spelled out. Pastor Niemoller’s much-quoted warning came too late to save us from Nazism, but it is apposite now:

    First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews…

We can all add the apposite new lines… However, the reason for solidarity is not primarily because ‘they’ll come for us next’. It is a basic human responsibility towards the vulnerable, towards those who are part of the same society as we are, to those whose lives we care about and for whose dignity we must stand up. That is why I hope if practicable to walk however many miles it proves to be to join London’s Gay Pride after services next Shabbat (and I almost never join parades and always feel out of place).

When it is felt legitimate to use the rhetoric of incitement against refugees, – that is, against people many of whom have watched their closest family killed, their homes destroyed and their children hungry and terrified, – then the very notion of what it is to be a human being, conscience and compassion themselves, are under threat.

On all of these matters the Torah has one over-riding, simple, clear instruction: ‘Don’t stand idly by’. Don’t say, ‘It’s not me’. Don’t say, ‘Others are the victims’. Don’t do nothing.

Yet it’s not in the end because of the group they belong to or the public office they hold that our hearts are heavy with these horrors. It’s because those who were killed and those who now suffer are human beings, somebody’s child, parent, partner, colleague, friend. I keep thinking about the words of Jo Cox’s husband Brendan:

Today is the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. More difficult, more painful, less joyful, less full of love…

She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her.

We are not empowered to put the love back into the world which has been stolen by murder; we can’t replace that unique tenderness, thoughtfulness, moral passion, loving concern.

But let us please all put something kind, good and loving back onto this sore-hearted earth.

‘Peace with security’

‘Peace with security,’ these words are so painfully familiar, that I had never realised that the first time we see them together is in this week’s Torah portion: ‘You shall dwell securely in your land; and I shall make peace’. (Vayikra 26:5,6)

Security is a most serious matter, sadly. I feel better if my bags are searched when I enter a large public building. Since the terror attacks is Paris one senses a different attitude to the police at Central London stations; one’s glad to see them. We ourselves need more help with voluntary security duties in front of our synagogue (and this is volunteer week).

The security of nations is equally essential, as we know all too well in regard to our worries about Israel. Security in this context means not just the challenging capacity to defend borders, but the ability to govern in such a way as allows the population, and the land itself, to feel safe, productive and prosperous. We should therefore pray for the security of Syria too.

But, while ‘secure’ is a fair translation, the Hebrew betach has a very different resonance in the Bible. It signifies security based on trust in God, divine protection merited by performing God’s will. That’s why in rabbinic literature bitachon means not ‘security’ but ‘faith’. This, alone, is the ultimate source of peace.

We might quarrel with such an idea. After all, it’s failed the reality test: many people have placed their faith in God, only to be murdered by their former neighbours. In the realpolitik of this world, we need more practical forms of protection too.

Yet, though you may say the Torah is a dreamer, the dream is profound. It’s a dream connected especially to the practice of the Sabbatical, the culminating year of the septennial cycle, when the earth itself must rest. For those twelve months ‘our’ land ceases to be ‘ours’ in the usual sense. Gates must be opened so that rich and poor, refugee as well as citizen, and both wild and domestic animals, can freely share the produce of the land, while the only form of trespass would be a sign saying ‘Private; No Access’.

This too has largely failed the reality test. But not the idea behind it. For within this dream, or truth, that the earth ultimately belongs to God lies the awareness that for any land to merit peace its population must provide for the needs and sensitivities of all who live off it. Only one voice is ultimately entitled to say ‘Mine!’ and that voice belongs to God.

This Sunday is Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day. I was nine years old during the Six Day War; I vividly remember how my father, who had been in the Hagannah during the siege of Jerusalem, woke me up to explain that the Old City was once again in Jewish hands.

If the city is truly to be as the Psalmist envisaged, ‘ir shechubrah lah yachdav, a city united all together’, this will depend on deep sensitivity to the needs of all its populations and faith groups, by all its populations and faith groups. The same applies, in macrocosm, to the earth itself.

Together with many Israeli organisations, Noam* and other youth movements have been concerned that celebrations of Yom Yerushalayim are conducted with such sensitivity. It’s an important moment, as Ramadan begins on Sunday night. Jerusalem is, and has been for thousands of years, central to Jewish history, geography and faith; we pray that it may be as its name indicates, a true city of peace.

I wish our Muslim neighbours here in Britain Ramadan Mubarak, a blessed Ramadan. I hope that these weeks enable us to deepen our sensitivity towards each other, because cities, like land, belong in the final analysis only to God and it is in the awareness of our shared trusteeship of God’s world that our hopes of peace and security ultimately reside.


*Noam is one of the Youth Movements that have signed a letter to change the route of the Yom Yerushalayim march.

  • Click here to read an article in The Jewish News.
  • Click here to listen to a New Israel Fund Podcast featuring Noam movement worker, Dan Eisenberg.

‘They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain’

In her heartrending account of life in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster in the Ukraine, Chernobyl Prayer Svetlana Alexievitch records the testimony of ordinary people in the region. Among them are the men who were brought in to shoot local animals and prevent them from spreading the radiation:

It’s better to kill from a distance. So your eyes don’t meet… The horses – they were being taken to the slaughter. They were crying… And I’ll add this. Every living creature has a soul.

The few who refused to be evacuated from their homes and secretly returned, despite the risks, to the places they had loved all their lives, greeted the surviving dogs, cats, deer and even birds they encountered like brothers and sisters: ‘Live with me and we’ll be less alone’. Their attitude to life changed instantly and instinctively; a deep kinship with all living being filled their lonely spirits.

Most of us do our utmost to avoid deliberately hurting other people, and animals too. I can’t understand people who are wilfully cruel, other than by thinking that they themselves must be deeply injured somewhere in their souls. Few Biblical verses are more powerful than those with which Isaiah concludes his vision of harmony on earth: ‘They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain,’ which means that the world will truly be holy only when we stop hurting and destroying.

Yet we do hurt and destroy. We don’t do it with deliberate callousness. Yet we don’t do it in absolute ignorance either. We are aware, or capable of becoming aware, that the suffering of others is a frequent by-product of the way we live, – how we consume, how we want things for ourselves which aren’t equally available equally to others, how we hurt through carelessness, anger or by not noticing the sensitivities of others.

My absolute ideal would be to lead a life in which I would not by my actions bring pain to any person or creature. It’s impossible. Which of us is free of heedlessness or anger? Which of us knows the full consequences of what we do? My more reasonable aspiration is to give less hurt and increase the amount of loving kindness in the world.

In The New Monasticism, a remarkable book which speaks to those of all faiths seeking to lead a morally committed, spiritually guided and disciplined life, Rory McEntree and Adam Bucko suggest nine vows people should consider. The second is ‘to live in solidarity with…all living beings.’  The third is ‘to live in deep nonviolence’. I would like to strive to be worthy of making those vows my ideal.

I have a vision of how God judges us. It has little to do with a deity in heaven reading out our sentence from on high. Rather, we are made to pass before all the people and every creature with whom our life has brought us into contact and they, without a word but by the way they look at us, convey directly to our hearts what kind of human we have been. I used to think this would happen at the end of our lives, but now I see it also as continuous, and profoundly chastening, assessment.

The Talmud teaches that we are not asked first by God how religious we have been, but whether ‘we behaved in all our dealings in good faith’. This is often understood to refer to integrity in business. But the words go deeper: have we acted in good faith towards life itself? Have we, to the best of our ability, neither hurt nor destroyed in God’s holy mountain? How we answer that question is where our faith, our ethics and our daily life must meet.

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