So much injustice: we’re not at liberty to do nothing

One WhatsApp, two emails, and three rabbinic sayings. (Is it only me, or is the attempt to catch up with all those texts an experience of constant failure for others too?)

Here’s the WhatsApp: it’s from X, who stayed with us some years ago for a few months before he got long term leave to remain in the UK. I’ve stopped filing his messages under ‘refugee’ and put them in the ‘family’ folder instead. He wrote:

‘Lost 4 kilos. Lost my momentum. I’m in hospital tonight. Covid negative.’ Then came ‘Sending me home in a taxi. I can’t speak properly.’

That had Nicky and I searching for his flat number in West London late last Saturday night with a bag of food and jars of soup and, specially requested, flowers from our garden. Bless him, he’s a lot better now. There are some requests to which it’s easy to respond.

Next the first email, which came on Wednesday. Others receive dozens like it:

This family haven’t had a hot meal or anything cooked since Sunday. No cooker, no house ware. There are 4 children aged 6 – 13. Address in previous email. Delivery ideally today/tmw. If I can update them with something definite, that will reassure emotionally as well as practically. Neither parent has the right to work. I just don’t know how they’re supposed to survive.

By the time I got this alert several people had already helped. The family are refugees. But as we know on this icy first day of T S Eliot’s ‘April, the cruellest month’, you don’t have to be a refugee to be unable to afford both food and heating, or either, or sometimes neither. We’re a country of massive social inequality.

Now the second email:

I’ve heard from my family at last. They’ve managed to get out of Ukraine. We’re the only relatives who can help. They need to be near us. Do you know hosts who’ll sponsor them?

Fortunately, we do. The reason I’ve never left my community is because of the number of people who’re committed to living actively and consistently by the laws of justice and kindness.

Here, then, are the three teachings of the rabbis (freely translated). The first is the most famous:

Hillel used to say, ‘If I don’t stand up for myself, who am I? But if I exist only for myself, what am I?

In other words, who I am isn’t just about me but how I interact with and contribute to others.

The second is the most radical:

There are four attitudes to money: 1. What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours. But there are those who say that this is the way of Sodom.

‘What’s mine is mine’ sounds fair at first hearing. But what kind of society are we if I don’t care where that leaves you? ‘You haven’t enough food for your children? Your problem!’ How can such an attitude conceivably be just?

The third saying is the most chastening for those of us fortunate to have plenty today:

Poverty is a turning wheel.

I often find myself thinking about my father. He fled aged sixteen from a middle-class home to virtually nothing. I remember him speaking about ‘that gnawing feeling of constant hunger…’ He was in the siege of Jerusalem: ‘People were eating grass,’ he said.

When X kept saying thank you after he’d stayed with us for a while, I told him: ‘Who can know? Maybe one day your descendants will be looking after mine.’ Obviously, I hope not. I hope there’ll be a better world for everyone.

What’s happening right now is overwhelming. We can’t do everything, but we must do something. There are thousands of ways to care, from bringing people joy through music, to helping children learn to read, or cooking for a shelter. We are not at liberty to do nothing.

 

 

Human Rights Day: Our lives are bound together

Today, on this 73rd Human Rights Day, which commemorates the date in 1948 when the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, my thoughts keep returning to the Torah’s beautiful phrase, ‘His soul is bound to his soul.’

It’s spoken by Judah as he describes to the viceroy of Egypt, who, unbeknown to him, is in fact his long-lost brother Joseph, the special bond between their father Jacob and his youngest son Benjamin. Judah has pledged himself to bring the boy back safely: how then can he return to his father without him, since Jacob’s soul is bound to his soul?

The sentence describes the tenacious tenderness of parental love. But it also has a wider resonance. The word translated as soul, nefesh, literally means ‘life.’ Judah is in fact describing the bond of which we are all part: ‘life is bound to life,’ every human being is connected to and dependent on others. Sometimes the bond is love. Often it’s more basic: the duty to ensure that others aren’t oppressed, starving, drenched and freezing with nowhere to go.

I listened to a report from the Poland-Belarus border on Radio 4’s Crossing Continents. A young teacher on the Polish side described how every night she and her friends take hot soup, blankets, even just water, to refugees, small children among them, stranded between the icy forests and the marshes. After bringing them to Minsk, Belarus harries them to the border, which Poland and the EU won’t let them cross. Some die.

I couldn’t help thinking of 1938, when Nazi Germany expelled thousands of Jews of Polish origin to the frontier, where they were ‘forced to scramble across the barrier into Poland while the guards screamed at them. No sooner were they on Polish soil than Polish border troops chased them back,’ until the Polish authorities eventually relented. (David Cesarani: Final Solution) I’m doubtful if, as a species, we learn from history.

It would not be difficult to draw up two lists. The first would include all the good intentions outlined in the Universal Declaration, each as important now as when it was drafted. The second, sadly longer, would comprise the ways they are disregarded today, from the genocidal sufferings of Uyghur people in China, to the desperation of millions in Afghanistan, and fate of thousands of refugees in Europe.

But I’m not sure that’s helpful. I’d rather stress something more positive, but also more personal and demanding. Judah tells the viceroy of Egypt that he’s pledged himself to bring Benjamin home safely. Rabbinic tradition understands that pledge as representing the responsibility we all owe one another.

Judaism doesn’t speak a language of rights but of responsibilities. It’s forbidden to ‘stand idly by the blood of your brother.’ It’s a duty to ‘feed the hungry, clothe the naked and bring the oppressed and destitute home.’ These are acts of Tsedakah vaHesed, social justice and faithful kindness, the values at the ethical heart of Judaism and all genuine religions and moral philosophies.

The question, then, is not ‘What does the theory say?’ but ‘What can I do? How can I increase the amount of Hesed in the world?’ There are people, near and far, who need us, who’re crying out now: ‘My life is bound to yours,’ my safety and wellbeing depends on you.

When Nelson Mandela wrote that ‘to deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity,’ he understood profoundly that it is also our own humanity which is challenged if we stand silently by while others are trodden down. Our souls, the moral and spiritual quality of our lives, are bound to others, to how we fight for and care for their lives alongside our own.

To the leaders of the G7

Something has been haunting me this dawn. It’s connected to the G7, but it’s not about politics.

So that you remember:’ I woke with these words searching my head like torchlights. But what were they looking for? ‘Remember!’ Remember what? It was like one of those discomfiting moments when you can’t recall a familiar name; you know that you know it, but it remains obstinately irretrievable behind a barrier of unforthcoming brain cells.

Except that it wasn’t a name I was after. It was a spirit, an awareness, that sense ‘of something far more deeply interfused’ of which Wordsworth writes, which sometimes visits the soul in the pre-dawn, holding a hushed conversation in semi-comprehensible associations, like a friend from the old days who turns up unpredictably from nowhere, mysterious but benign, then vanishes.

Lema’an tizkeru – So that you remember:’ the words come from the Torah and form the core of the third part of the Shema, Judaism’s twice daily meditation:

So that you remember and do my commandments; then you shall be holy to your God. (Bemidbar 15:40)

Usually, it’s something specific we’re told to remember, an event or a date. But this ‘remember’ has no object, as if to say ‘remember everything’ – and the purpose beyond everything. This thought reminds me of how a person I scarcely knew once turned to me as I stood watching the river in Cambridge forty years ago: ‘Never forget why you’re here in this world,’ he said. ‘Don’t ever forget that you belong to something higher which you have to serve.’ His words stuck in my soul.

I’m one of a group of religious leaders who were invited to offer a short video message at last night’s multi-faith service in Truro Cathedral for the leaders of the G7. I don’t know if they actually attended, but our instruction was to talk values to power, to speak climate justice, vaccine justice and our duties to the destitute.

We were asked to give voice to a call to awareness, beyond machination and advantage, self-interest and the need for profit; to bring to mind that spirit, sacred and universal, to which all power owes allegiance.

Each faith addresses it in a unique manner, but it is ultimately one. Even God is only a name, a word in human language, for that oneness, all-present and all-pervading, manifest in everything, yet hidden in everything, to which we are summoned to devote our service and allegiance.

Bringing it to mind is not sufficient. We have to act on what it tells us to do. ‘Va’asitem et kol mitzvotai – then do my commandments,’ the Torah continues. The voice which speaks in private to the heart is at the same time the most powerful, unremitting, non-negotiable demand for action: do justice; be compassionate; discipline yourself; know your responsibilities; align yourself with creation.

The world looks intently to those in power, as it will again at COP 26, to exercise their influence humbly but urgently, according to the demands of sacred wisdom.

Ve’heyitem kedoshim – then you shall be holy to your God,’ the Torah concludes. God is called Chei HaChaim, the life of life, the life force within all existence.

We can quash individual lives, human or animal, but we can never crush that life within life. If, on the contrary, we conduct ourselves and the affairs of our communities and countries in harmony with it, it will guide us, strengthen us, partner with us, and bring us and the world its blessings.

Black Lives Matter: What is needed from us

Monotheism means the indivisibility of God. This is not just the basis of Jewish theology, but of universal humanity.

When the Torah, in chapter one, teaches that every human being is created in God’s image, it leaves no place for the notion of ‘children of a lesser God’. There exists no one who doesn’t matter, whose life is less important than anyone else’s. Black lives matter; God is the ‘life of all life’, ‘God of all flesh’.

The shocking and cruel death of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman, and the racism, contempt and injustice it has highlighted, shock our societies and souls. The violence which has followed is frightening. But the vast majority of protesters and protests have been peaceful and courageous, and how and by whom the destruction has been manipulated remains complex, sinister and opaque. The record of disdain from the highest office has inflamed the land and disgraces the history of often brave American leadership.

Reverend Anthony Jackson, whose grandfather founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference together with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, addressed the Jewish community in the columns of The Forward. What we need from you, he wrote, is

to help us put an end the murder of innocent Blacks with the exact same fervor, dedication and commitment that you show towards preserving and defending your own families, that you show for Israel…. We need you to understand that Blacks and Jews are in this together; white racists view you as the N-word, too. We need you to embrace Blacks as absolute equals. Jews have used their influence to make a difference in society… We need you to use it again. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel once said, “The Black church is the salvation of Judaism.” We need each other.

Rev Jackson’s words remind me of the line I’ve italicised line in Dan Pagis’s searing Holocaust poem

No. no, they were created in the image
Uniforms, jackboots…
As for me, I had a different creator…

Judaism knows of no such entity as a ‘different creator’ and no such human being as someone with lesser rights. There are no geographical, racial, religious or gender limits to our equality before God as understood, and as should be practised, in Judaism.

But that is not the reality we witness in our societies. We are not at liberty to do nothing about it. We cannot limit ourselves to idle outrage. Examining prejudice in our own minds, communities and conduct is not comfortable, but, as was said in our synagogue just before lockdown, acknowledging and entering the zone of our discomfort is an essential first step.

Just as God’s oneness underlies the equality of all human beings, so it informs the interconnection of all of nature. If God is within all life, if Ruach Elokim, God’s spirit, breathes in all creation, then no species, forest or river is merely dispensable.

Here again, whatever this may say to us theologically, it means everything practically. The very future of life on our planet depends on the realisation that we and all of nature are interconnected. Today is World Environment Day, instituted by the United Nations in 1974. Interestingly, the date has a second name, ‘People’s Day’, because our own future, our children’s lives, depend on how we now act.

Indifference is no option: we must waste less, plant more, cherish this earth. For me, this concern, this passion, migrated long ago from my head to my soul; it’s a terror, a hope, a split vision: the world as arid and bleak, the world as wonder and beauty.

Though seemingly separate issues, how we behave to each other and how we treat nature are united within the prophetic call for justice and humility. We have no right to conduct ourselves as superior, neither to one another whatever our colour, nor towards nature, nor towards God, who weeps in our soul at every outrage and abuse.

 

Pharaoh: the first populist?

The Book of Exodus is always too contemporary for comfort. There has always been slavery in the world, tragically; and there are always Pharaohs.

The ‘new Pharaoh’ who arises to rule Egypt at the beginning of the book may be the world’s first famous populist. We’re told that he ‘doesn’t know Joseph’; he’s not interested in the facts of his own country’s history. Alternatively, as the Talmud suggests, he pretends not to know. It doesn’t suit his interests to acknowledge that he may be in any manner indebted to that ‘Hebrew lad’ whom his predecessor brought out of prison to save the land from famine. He’s the prototype of the ruler who denies the contributions of ‘outsiders’, all too often a first step in denying them rights, first to equality, then to residency and, at worst, to life itself.

This new Pharaoh’s first public pronouncement is that there are too many of Joseph’s people over here: ‘You have to understand’, he tells his own people, ‘that these Children of Israel are now a nation: there are lots of them and they’re more powerful than us.’ This might be thought of as Pharaoh’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.

But it’s how he continues which is most interesting. ‘Havah nitchakmah lo’, he says; this is generally translated as ‘Come, let us deal wisely with them.’ But this fails to convey the full seductive power of his invitation: ‘you and I together, we’re smarter and savvier than them. We know how to deal with those people.’ It’s the way populists in every generation know how to draw out the worst in us all; the appeal to our insecurities in order to create an ‘us’ against ‘them’. It’s the manipulative allure of being considered one of the ‘clever’, not one of the losers who doesn’t get how dangerous ‘those people’ are. It’s the co-option of the little racist voice which, if we’re honest, whispers its innuendos in somewhere nervous and nasty inside most of us, into the big racist project of the leader who is the right man at the right time, who’s truly one of the people, one of us.

Nachmanides, the great thirteenth century Catalonian rabbi who was eventually forced to flee Spain to save his life, well understood what can happen when a leader legitimises the worst in human nature. He notes how Pharaoh doesn’t use his police or army to drown the Hebrew boy babies. He can rely on ordinary people to do that. They’ll stop at nothing, once the restraint of the law is removed. They’ll listen out for the sound of crying; they’ll go into the houses of their Hebrew neighbours and search; they’ll take the babies from their cots. Should any parent object, should anyone say ‘He just stole my child’, Pharaoh’s officers will say, ‘Of course it’s against the law. Just bring witnesses and we’ll settle your case.’ But no one will have seen, no one will ever have heard anything.

Pharaoh saw himself as the saviour of his country. Instead, he brings only disaster. It may take time, but gross injustice ultimately has gross consequences. ‘Are you still unable to grasp the fact that Egypt is utterly ruined’, Pharaoh’s own advisers tell him, finally voicing their frustration after the seventh of the ten plagues. In the end it is always the land itself which suffers under evil misrule, the poor, the cattle, the crops, the water, the entire ecology.

Samson Raphael Hirsch fought for equal rights for Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire before being called to Frankfurt, where he was rabbi of the orthodox community and lived through the unification of Germany under Bismark. Beware, he wrote in his commentary to the Torah, lest you make a person’s rights contingent on anything other than the basic fact of his or her humanity. Once you do that, you open the floodgates to all the horrors of Ancient Egypt.

In every generation we need to be wary not only of our Pharaohs, but, as the first Hasidic leader, the Ba’al Shem Tov, taught, of the little bit of Pharaoh in us all which says yes, thank you for dealing wisely.

 

On Judaism, government and civil disobedience

Last week something happened in the synagogue which I had never heard before. People laughed during the prayer for the government of the country.

Someone asked me ‘How long does one go on saying that prayer?’ I’m sure he wasn’t thinking about the Queen, whose devotion to public service is justly admired, but of certain members of Her Majesty’s Parliament whose wisdom and statesmanship are equally justly doubted.

There have been worse periods in history. One has only to think of the lines from Fiddler on the Roof: God bless the Czar and keep him – far from us.’ Nor, as we know, was the Czar the worst of tyrants.

Still, these are anxious times. Leonard Cohen famously sung that it’s through the cracks of imperfection that the light gets in. But it’s also true that through the cracks in democracy populism, corruption, deceit and tyranny get in.

This is a price the world cannot afford. When, as the New Year prayers aptly and frighteningly say ‘the earth hangs over the void’ and climate change places destiny of life itself in the balance, we need leadership.

Therefore, our prayers, which are addressed not to the wellbeing of specific public figures but to the very principle and practice of just and compassionate government, are all the more important.

The Jewish tradition of praying for our rulers is ancient. It begins with the pacts Abraham and Isaac make with local leaders. In the 6th century BCE, in a missive which must have shocked his contemporaries in beleaguered Judaea, Jeremiah instructs the exiles in Babylon to pray for the wellbeing of the cities to which they have been deported and where they must now rebuild their lives. Though well aware of the brutal side to Roman rule, in the 2nd century CE Rabbi Hanina directed his colleagues to ‘pray for the wellbeing of the government, because, were it not for the fear of its authority, people would swallow each other alive.’ (Mishnah, Avot 3:2) He comes close to Thomas Hobbes’s warning at the close of Leviathan that without a social contract life would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.

As for us, privileged above virtually all other generations in history to live in an open democracy, we have a responsibility not only to pray for good governance, but also to hold our government to account.

Therefore it is important to know that there is an equally ancient tradition in Judaism of civil disobedience. It begins among women: the midwives in Egypt refused to obey Pharaoh’s command to kill all the male Hebrew babies. Moses conducted what may be regarded as the most successful strikes in history. He did so in the name of dignity and equality, sacred values which, then and ever since, God has commanded us to uphold towards every person, everywhere. Rabbi Akiva refused to stop teaching Torah during the Roman persecutions of the second century, paying for his dedication with his life. I imagine the spirits of these women and men walking invisibly alongside Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel in Selma, Alabama.

However, it should not be concluded that Judaism advocates defiance, let alone anarchy; time and again it emphasises the importance of justice and – compassionate – law.

But there is something higher than fear of the powers-that-be: Yirat Shamayim, Fear of Heaven, awe before the presence of God, and the consequent commandment not to comply in silence with what is unjust, cruel and destructive.

Asked about the legitimacy of civil disobedience, Martin Buber wrote in 1963:

I know no other answer than that disobedience of this nature is legitimate when it is in fact obedience, obedience to a law superior to that which is being disobeyed here and now – in a word, when it is obedience to the supreme law.

As to when such disobedience is justified in specific situations, there are, he said, no general rules.

Climate Action Week begins today. I plan to participate in an interfaith service later today.

The climate emergency may lead to situations which warrant peaceful civil disobedience for the sake of specific, well thought-through goals. There can be no higher cause calling for disinterested commitment than the future of God’s world and the lives of the world’s children.

What is certainly not merely warranted, but commanded, is that we hold our leaders in government, industry, finance, religion, law and the media to account unless we do our utmost for the collective future of life.

 

 

Pretending we didn’t notice

I was out for a practice run for next Sunday’s marathon when I saw behind an archway a homeless man sitting next to his sleeping bag, a cardboard cup in his hand. I had no money on me; I didn’t stop. But I saw him see me and felt I could I hear him think, ‘Another person who pretends I don’t exist.’

Tomorrow we encounter one of the most important words in the Hebrew Bible. It appears twice in the same section and nowhere else in the entire Torah: lehitaleim, to hide oneself away, to pretend one hasn’t noticed. ‘You may not do that’, the Torah insists: you are not at liberty to turn a blind eye.

The context is animals: You mustn’t see your brother’s ox or sheep astray and carry on as if you hadn’t noticed; you mustn’t find his lost donkey and act as if you never saw.

Perhaps we are tempted to think ‘it’s only animals’, an unpardonable excuse given the wanton cruelty our civilisation habitually inflicts on them, with meagre pity and remorse. If so, Isaiah puts us right, in a passage given prime time on Yom Kippur morning:

If you see the hungry, feed them; the naked, clothe them; the oppressed, free them. Do not hide from your own flesh.

If we’re inclined to say to ourselves, ‘But it’s their flesh, not mine. I’m OK’, we should bear in mind Shylock’s masterful summary of what common humanity means: ‘If they prick us, do we not bleed?’

Lehitaleim is a gripping term, a reflexive verb formed from the root a.l.m, hidden, which also gives us the noun olam, the rabbinic Hebrew for ‘world’. We live in a universe of concealment, the mystics insisted, and the art is to learn to see.

Some things, it must be said, are obvious; they ‘stare you in the face’: a lost animal, lost child, refugee, the lost mobility of someone who can’t get into the building, or bathroom, because there’s no proper access. In such cases the Torah insists that we may not pretend we didn’t notice.

Other matters are less apparent. I’ve often had the privilege of being in the company of people who truly see, – and deeply:

‘Did you notice how exhausted she looked? She always makes light of what she has on her shoulders. But…’

‘He was smiling. But he looked so pale…’

People like that see not just with their eyes but with their heart. They teach and humble us all.

In the long confession on Yom Kippur we ask atonement ‘for the sin of haughty eyes.’ The opposite is to have eyes of loving kindness and compassion, to see and not turn away, notice and not ignore. It’s the only antidote to the world’s hard-heartedness.

When the mystics describe our world as a domain of concealment, they don’t just mean that there is much suffering of which we fail to take note. They understand the presence of God to be hidden throughout creation, covered over by the material form which all being takes, driven down into the recesses of our consciousness because of our preoccupation with practical concerns.

But da’at, deeper, reflective awareness, can reveal to us the preciousness of everything, the inestimable value of all life, that there is not a living being which does not matter. In the rare, gifted moments when we see like that, we look with the heart and see to the heart. Then we realise; then we do not turn aside.

In the bewildering rush of the ceaseless encounters which urban life entails, we are bound to be overwhelmed. Inevitably, we will sometimes turn aside, turn a blind eye, hide ourselves away, pretend we hadn’t noticed. We couldn’t survive otherwise.

But sometimes, as much as we can, we must look and see, see and act, act from the heart. Otherwise we won’t know we have a heart anymore, and the purpose of life is to deepen the heart’s compassion.

 

Bribery, blindness and politics

Three words encapsulate Jewish values: tzedek, ‘righteousness’, the practice of justice in all our dealings (which implies honesty and integrity); tzedakah, a virtually untranslatable noun which expresses the vision, commitment and generosity to work proactively for a more just world; and hesed, ‘faithful lovingkindness’, which should permeate all our actions.

This week’s Torah portion focuses on the first of these terms, tzedek, with the famous verse ‘Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue,’ preceded by this sharp warning:

Do not take a bribe, because bribes blind the eyes of the wise and pervert the words of the just.’ (Deuteronomy 16:19)

I always thought bribes meant serious criminality; that bribery was corruption writ large. I realise now that it can also be something more refined, subtle enough that we may not even notice we’re part of it.

The issue came up in a conversation about climate change with an Australian colleague: ‘Democracy’s part of the problem’, he said. ‘Democracy invites short-termism,’ I agreed.

Neither of us had the remotest intention of preferencing a different form of government. But we were concerned that leaders who depend on frequent re-election want to please their voters who naturally and usually rightly want what’s in their own best interests. The result can be that essential long-term goals, which require the courage to make short-term changes and sacrifices, are pushed into the background.

Foremost among these is the protection and regeneration of the earth. But the money to be made on the immediate exploitation of irreplaceable resources blinds the eyes of those who should be wiser. Their children, too, will pay the price. But I don’t see why my children, or the children and children’s children of billions of others, should have to pay it too.

It’s easy to incriminate others. I realise, though, that it’s not just ministers of state who’re blinded. I know from experience that it’s not always easy for ministers of religion to say what people may not want to hear. The so-called ‘fine line’ between leadership, courage, tact and empathy, not to mention the awareness that we may be mistaken, is more like a net beneath a trapeze artist than a line at all.

Few of us face truth with the integrity we should.

The Talmud observes that ‘a judge who judges truly [refusing to take bribes] is like a partner to God in the work of creation.’ An unnamed commentary offers this explanation:

Shochad, (the Hebrew for ‘bribe’) derives from chad, meaning ‘one’. A judge who takes a bribe becomes at one with the litigant who gives it…But the judge who refuses to take bribes, is at one with neither litigant. To such a judge God says, ‘Since you rejected partnership with them, I shall consider you a partner with me.’

The etymology is almost certainly wrong. But the idea is profound. The path of integrity can be lonely and hard. There is a price to following inconvenient truths and eschewing convenient untruths. But if we want to be ‘partners with God in sustaining creation’ we must refuse the alluring bribes of short-term gain and listen to enduring wisdom.

I’m frightened by the populism which has taken hold of politics and nations, and the bullies of any party or persuasion whose paths it paves.

Judaism, like all faiths rooted in a just and sustaining vision, requires us to be faithful to deeper and enduring values: justice, faithful kindness and partnership with God in caring for creation.

 

75 years since the Porajmos, the murder of the Roma in Auschwitz

Today is the first of Av, month of sorrow. As the rabbis taught, when the moon of Av waxes, joy and celebration wane. The sad mood of the three weeks bein hametsarim, ‘between the troubles’, which began on 17 Tammuz, the date when the walls of Jerusalem were breached, now intensifies. It will culminate in the fast of 9 Av, when we reflect on the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem.

Yet this month is also called Menachem Av, ‘Av the Consoler’. Perhaps this is because of the tradition that the Messiah will be born on its ninth day. Or maybe this very belief is an expression of faith and determination: we can and shall move from destruction to creation, from mourning to the celebration of the world’s birthday on Rosh Hashanah, the New Year.

Consolation comes, in part, from companionship and solidarity. ‘My friends have betrayed me, passers-by laugh at me, nobody cares’, writes the author of the Scroll of Lamentations, which we read on the eve of the fast. Only when we care and notice, only when we uphold and protect each other’s humanity, will the world truly change.

Later today I will attend the memorial for the Roma and Sinti peoples in Hyde Park.

In 2015 the European Parliament declared 2 August European Roma Holocaust Memorial Day to commemorate the Porajmos, ‘The Devouring’, the murder of 500,000 Sinti and Roma in Nazi-occupied Europe. It was on this date that the prisoners in the so-called ‘gypsy family camp’ in Auschwitz-Birkenau were gassed.

I have a huge Holocaust library, hundreds of books. But I’m ashamed to acknowledge how little I knew about the history of the Roma under Nazism. Yet the fate that overtook them is close to that of my own family.

The Nuremberg laws, which deprived my father of citizenship, also applied to the Roma. In 1938 Himmler designated as ‘asocials’ ‘gypsies and persons travelling in gypsy fashion who have shown no desire for regular work or have violated the law.’ He also included ‘all male Jews with previous criminal records’; on Kristallnacht this expanded to include simply ‘all male Jews’.

On his visit to the site in July 1942, Himmler ordered the swift expansion of Auschwitz II: ‘See to it that you move ahead with the completion of Birkenau. The gypsies are to be exterminated. With the same relentlessness you will exterminate those Jews who are unable to work’ (Auschwitz: D. Dwork and R. Jan van Pelt, p. 320)

The ‘gypsy’ camp was situated near what later became the ‘family camp’ for Jews from Theresienstadt. Thus my great-grandmother Regina, imprisoned there until she was murdered a month before them, must have witnessed the fellow-suffering of the Roma from close by.

In fact, August 2 was not the date initially designated for the destruction of the Roma. This was scheduled for May 16, but the camp guards met with such resistance that they withdrew, – to devise a more deceitful plan. Hence May 16 is commemorated as Sinti, Romani and Roma resistance day. Similarly, to honour the courage of those Jews who resisted physically and spiritually, in establishing 27 Nissan as the appropriate date, the Knesset named it not Yom Hashoah, but Yom Hashoah veHagevurah, the day of devastation and courage.

I’ll go to Hyde Park on the 75th anniversary of the Porajmos, out of solidarity and to learn. I’ll go not just because of the past, but for the future, to join the call from today’s commemoration at Birkenau to end ‘racism, antigypsyism and antisemitism in Europe and worldwide and work consistently for the rule of law and democracy’.

Only if humanity stands together can we travel safely from loneliness and sorrow to creativity and hope.

 

 

100 young people determined to live values-driven lives

It was at Noam pre-Camp earlier this week. For anyone who doesn’t know, Noam is the Masorti Jewish youth movement. Pre-camp is the week of planning, study, reflection, prayer – and fun – when all leaders, from those who’ll look after a small group of children for the first time to those in charge for an entire camp of teenagers, prepare for the joys, challenges, responsibilities and unforeseeable faux pas of the fortnight ahead. Noam is a movement for young people, led by young people. Though there are ‘adults’ present to offer support (if needed and wanted), none of the leaders is above his or her mid-twenties.

To be there as one of the ‘older’ rabbis is a privilege, not only because it is exciting and moving to witness the special pre-camp energy and the culture of deep thoughtfulness among so many young people, but because even a rabbi is there as a ‘guest’, welcome, but by invitation.

After an eventful journey including two hours plus in a stationery train in the heat with no power, no air circulation, and no openable windows, (a potentially lethal design flaw), I got to the camp just before midnight. Wandering around, I caught phrases of conversations almost all of which were about how to care – for each other, for younger children, for those who might feel homesick or bewildered.

Next day there were two sessions on Jewish sources about looking after one another. I saw the group from the distance, discussing quietly in a circle. Even from far, one senses when a truly thoughtful conversation is taking place.

Pre-camp has always been special, but what’s recently grown year by year is the enthusiasm and energy around Jewish learning. It’s not just the great young rabbis, key as they all are; it’s a re-energised awareness that learning matters, that Judaism has plenty to say – about inclusion, social justice, environment, life…

My own session was on loving-kindness towards nature, and animal rights. Remarkably, the group reckoned 50% of their friends were vegetarian and 20% vegan.

I am proud that Noam launched its new Eco-Policy that very day. It includes the following commitments:

  • We will promote and educate around vegan and vegetarian diets and the impact of meat and dairy reduction on the environment.
  • We will advocate for yearly pledges from our members to reduce their environmental impacts.
  • We will take groups to climate marches…and use social media to campaign and raise awareness of climate emergencies.

Here at pre-camp are over a hundred highly motivated young people, determined that their lives should be driven and guided by learning and values. What more can one ask?

My conclusion is not simply, though, that the older should learn from the younger. I know many people, perhaps especially among the half generation above me, who have passionate, life-long commitments to social justice, anti-racism, and fighting for human rights.

Our best hope for the future lies in generations working together, listening to and learning from each other, bound by common concerns and united in shared actions.

Little is so powerful in Judaism as the commandment to teach our children. But how can we teach them if we aren’t also ready to learn from them? And what is the point of teaching them, if we don’t leave them a world fit and beautiful for living in?

 

Get in touch...