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.

Let My People Stay

Wearing a kippah and knowing Hebrew didn’t seem the most relevant asset when I visited the so-called ‘Jungle’ in Calais 15 months ago with leaders of different faiths. Suddenly a young man touched me on the shoulder and addressed me in Ivrit. He’d been an asylum-seeker in Israel, he explained. People had been decent to him but there was no future there. So he’d returned to the Sudan, been shot at, and then made his perilous way across the sea and through Europe – to here. He showed me his tiny, flimsy tent.

Now Israel is proposing to deport its asylum-seekers, or detain them indefinitely. In defiance, Rabbis for Human Rights has started the Anne Frank Home Sanctuary movement to give refugees shelter and protection:

“Who here would be willing to house people?” asked Rabbi Susan Silverman at a gathering of rabbis and educators in Jerusalem. All 130 or so people in the room immediately raised their hands.  (Haaretz)

As that gathering clearly understood, ‘Jewish’ in the description ‘a Jewish state’ needs a moral, not just a national, meaning.

Meanwhile a hundred rabbis protested in Washington this Wednesday, urging the passage of a clean DREAM Act. DREAMers are undocumented children who’ve fled to the USA from Mexico and other South American countries.

Valeria Luiselli, a novelist translates for such children at immigration courts, writes about their experiences in Tell Me How It Ends: an Essay in Forty Questions. – (Those are the forty questions the children have to answer at the hearings)

The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.

She describes the huge risks of violence, rape and ‘disappearance’ which the children run on La Bestia, the nickname for the train through Mexico on the roofs or between the carriages of which most of those children reach the border, before trying to give themselves up to US patrols before vigilantes find them.

The DREAM Act (The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) offered a pathway through education for such children to become citizens. Meanwhile, they were protected under the DACA programme (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), instituted during the Obama presidency. Last September President Trump determined to end this protection.

Alongside rabbis, protesters in Washington included leaders of the Anti-Defamation League, and HIAS (which assisted Jewish refugees to the States). Taking their cue from Moses, they sang ‘Let my people stay’, and ‘God is my strength’ as they waited to be arrested. Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the ADL said:

As the Jewish community intimately understands, at its best, the United States has been a beacon of hope for refugees and immigrants facing persecution… A clean Dream Act is a moral imperative for the heart and soul of our nation.

I grew up hearing from both my parents what it was like to flee persecution and start again with nothing. The Yishuv, the embryo Jewish State in Palestine, helped my father and his family; the British Consulate and many kind individuals, most not Jewish, assisted my mother. The message they passed on to me was clear: what others did for us, we must do for others.

Meanwhile here in the UK, people, including many children, sleep rough on nightmares of the violence they have fled, waking to a cold, lonely and uncertain future.

We can’t help everyone. But we are not at liberty to do nothing and help no one. Where the physical lives of the persecuted and destitute are on the line, our moral lives are on the line too.

 

‘We can’t leave it to others’: Thoughts for the 35th Martin Luther King Day

Late last night we celebrated with Kioumars, a refugee from Iran who has been staying with us and has just received leave to remain in the UK. He spoke to us about a church he attends in central London, saying:

You pray inside a building. You take a few steps outside and see two homeless people. You can’t separate these matters. It makes no sense to pray inside and not care what’s outside, on the doorstep. Where’s my responsibility?

Kioumars’s comment reminded me of the message Susannah Heschel sent last week on the Yahrzeit of her father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He defined a religious person as

A person who is maladjusted, attuned to the agony of others, aware of God’s presence and God’s needs…always refusing to accept inequalities, the status quo, the cruelty and suffering of others.

In a touching reminiscence, Susannah asks from where her father drew his strength to march next to Martin Luther King, stand up against the Vietnam war and protest racism, narrow-mindedness and soullessness wherever he encountered them. ‘From prayer’, she answers, describing how she loved to sit quietly in the room while he enveloped himself in tallit and tefillin, in prayer-shawl and phylacteries, in liturgy and love.

But he did more: ‘I was praying with my feet’, Heschel answered a critic who challenged him about what he’d been doing down in Selma, Alabama, on that march to Montgomery in the spring of 1965.

Our rabbis define prayer as avodah shebalev, ‘service of the heart’, the devotion of the consciousness to God. They understood this as an integral part, the core and inspiration, of a life of avodah, a life devoted to service with all our being: feet and hands, body and soul.

This Monday, 15 January, marks Martin Luther King Day in the United States. It was a date hard fought for. It took fifteen years after his assassination, six million signatures, a hit song Happy Birthday by Stevie Wonder and a gathering by veterans of the civil rights campaign on the 20th anniversary of King’s I Have a Dream, to establish the day in the American calendar.

It is a commemoration most urgently needed at the present hour. ‘My father’, Susannah Heschel wrote further, would have been devastated to witness ‘the KKK marching in the streets, neo-Nazis celebrating’ and racism emanating from the highest places: ‘He would be pacing the floor, unable to sleep…’

In this week’s Torah portion Moses and Aaron ‘go in to Pharaoh’ time after time. They are not frightened to confront tyranny, cruelty and moral blindness. Neither are they afraid of their own people’s preference for the status quo, their understandable concern that protest is only making matters even worse. Moses, who describes himself as ‘burdened in speech and heavy of tongue’, has a greater weight to consider which puts his own reticence into second place: the burdens of suffering born by his brothers and sisters.

We live in a time of danger, from East and West. Values of dignity, justice and compassion cannot be taken for granted. We cannot leave it to others to protect the humanity of the most vulnerable, or our own. ‘Stand up’, insists Timothy Snyder in his sharp-edged book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century: ‘Take responsibility for the face of the world’.

 

Human Rights Shabbat and Chanukah

This weekend is Human Rights Shabbat; 2018 will bring the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Leo Baeck was the leader of German Jewry during the Nazi years. Imprisoned five times for refusing to bow to Nazi demands, he was deported to Theresienstadt in 1943. He survived. Afterwards, in one of the earliest collections of testaments, he wrote:

The principle of justice is one the whole world over. Justice is like a dike against inhumanity. If a small part breaks, the whole is threatened…An injustice to one is an injustice to all.

His words recall those of an earlier German-Jewish leader, Samson Raphael Hirsch, who warns in his commentary on the commandment not to oppress the stranger:

Beware… lest in your state you make the rights of anyone dependent on anything other than the simple fact of their humanity, which every human being possesses by virtue of being human. With any diminution of this human right, the door is thrown wide open to the whole horror of the experience in Egypt, the wilful mistreatment of other people.

Through listening to refugees, I’ve learnt how close at hand that ‘whole horror’ is. People have their homes bombed to pieces in wars pursued by leaders with utter contempt for human life. They are persecuted by regimes with brutal laws administered at the whim of tyrants. To escape with their lives, they may be forced to sell themselves to people merchants, traffickers who promise, in exchange for whatever money their hapless victims could save from the wreckage of their lives, to deliver them to a free country. Bundled into the backs of lorries, onto planes bound they may not know where, they find themselves in a strange country, bereft of family, friends, money, language, everything they had ever known.

‘Do you have family in Ethiopia?’ I eventually asked a refugee who was staying with us, not knowing what wounds I might be re-opening.

My mother and brother were murdered. I haven’t heard from my father for 12 years. He’s in prison, or killed. I don’t know.

Perhaps, like our ancestor Jacob who believed for 20 years that his beloved Joseph was dead, her heart has an inconsolable corner which she visits in tears when no one is looking.

The least we can do is to help such fellow human beings as best we can. At a session on behalf of Refugees at Home my co-speaker and I were persistently heckled: ‘Those people want to kill our children. They want to live in Kensington and Mayfair’. I’m sure that among the millions of refugees there are a very small number of terrorists. (Others are here already, developing their hideous plans) Vicious people always find ways of abusing the misery of others. We must support and pray for the success of our intelligence and security forces.

But that is no reason to pass collective judgment over all refugees. It is indescribably hard for them to create a new life. Many wait for years, a decade, for permission to remain. Meanwhile they’re not allowed to work. How should they live? This country also permits indefinite detention, in defiance of Magna Carta. The threat hangs heavy in hearts which harbour wounds most of us cannot imagine, torture, hunger, catastrophic loss.

This week brings the wonderful festival of Chanukah. The miracle it proclaims concerns not just the eight days for which a single day’s supply of oil burnt in the ruined Temple in Jerusalem 2,150 years ago. The miracle begins when, amidst the desolation, someone finds that tiny vial of pure olive oil and the decision is made to light it. Despite everything, in defiance of all violence and destruction, the light of hope and courage starts to shine.

To this day it has not been extinguished. It never shall be, if we nourish it not just through our rituals but our deeds.

It’s not about hate

‘Rabbi, how does one find one’s path in life?’

This was the question X asked me as we travelled together to Liverpool for his interview with the Home Office about his asylum application. He spoke of the hatred he had witnessed in the country he’d fled: ‘It’s the wrong path, isn’t it?’

I’ve spent much of my last weeks with people struggling with pain, be it from politically or religiously motivated persecution, the verbal or physical brutality of family members, or the after-effects of tragedy.

Asked by a colleague what one-word subject I wanted to talk about, I answered ‘cruelty’.

But I don’t. In a week when North Korea tests more lethal weapons, when the President of the United States gratuitously repeats hate-tweets, when violence and fear feel ever more prominent, I want to talk about the opposite. If only to myself, I want to answer X’s question on that train to Liverpool.

What are the values by which the world should be led? What, at least, are the qualities by which our own lives should be led, which we should develop in ourselves in a frightening, beautiful, inspiring world?

We need justice. For students of the Hebrew Bible this is founded on the principle that every human being is created in God’s image. Therefore, as the Mishnah declares, ‘No one may say, “My parents were greater than yours.”’ No life is intrinsically of lesser value. We may not despise or ignore the rights, hopes and sufferings of another human just because he or she is different from ourselves. Justice equally requires us to expect that they treat us likewise.

We need a listening heart. We need imagination, the capacity to think and feel what the world is like from the other person’s point of view. Where does the spiked wheel of fortune cut into his or her heart? What would bring him or her relief, joy, at least a sense of not being alone?

We need compassion. The Talmud teaches that life is unbearable for the person who tries to feel for everyone. There are limits. But it is a good daily goal to ask ourselves ‘What kindness can I do? How can I avoid giving hurt?’ If we had such an attitude towards everyone we encountered, from our own family, to our neighbour, to the blackbird on the grass, we would be far closer to Isaiah’s vision of a world where ‘they neither hurt nor destroy in all God’s holy mountain’.

We need moral courage. We are not here to tolerate every outrage. History shows that if we fail to stand up for ourselves and others in the name of truth, integrity and justice, we too will be swept away on the tide of anger or the backwash of indifference.

We need faith. The mystics teach that God is everywhere and in all things. I am less interested in the infinite God in the unfathomable reaches of the universe. I care most about the presence of God here before me, in this particular person, her gifts, opportunities and hopes. I care most about the presence of God in the birds, in the deer who drink from this river, in the God of this life around me. For it is here, in this immediacy, that God commands me to do what is just and good.

We need faith in ourselves. This is not faith in our superiority; it is not arrogant or disparaging of others. On the contrary, it is the faith that despite our failures, limitations and confusion, there is within us light and strength, hope and love which glows from the sacred source of all life.

We are not here to let our souls be echo-chambers for hate or despair, but to transform them through courage, imagination and compassion, into healing.

 

For the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

Often, it’s the little words which do the damage. Or it’s the words not said, like the unspoken ‘but’ after an insincere ‘I love you’. It’s absent in the semantics but all too evident in the intonation, undermining what’s being professed, hurting the hearer to the heart.

It’s with words that we do most of our wounding, – and blessing. That’s partly why the rabbis who studied the Hebrew Bible discounted not one word, ignoring not a single syllable or even a seemingly superfluous letter. It all had to have meaning. Rabbi Akiva was famous for interpreting every particle, every ‘and’ and ‘also’ in the Torah.

There’s a challenging example in these week’s portion. Jacob has just been deceived by his father-in-law Laban into marrying Leah, when it is her younger sister Rachel with whom he is in love. Now, just one week later, Laban ‘gives’ him the latter too in marriage:

And Jacob slept also with Rachel and loved also Rachel than Leah (Genesis 29:30)

That second ‘also’ – it comes twice in six words – is like the laceration of Leah’s wound. That she knows to her core that she isn’t loved is apparent from the name she gives her first son, whom she calls Re’u-ven, ‘Look, a son’, saying, ‘For God has seen my affliction and now my husband will love me’. Thus, the innocent baby imbibes with his first milk the life-long burden of being the son of the one who wasn’t loved.

One wonders: with whom would Leah be most angry, her father, her husband, her hapless, no less wounded sister? Which one of them has betrayed her most? (Yet she still manages to be sister, wife, and eventually mother of six sons and a daughter.)

Leah’s poignant cry, ‘Surely now he’ll love me’, has ached in countless hearts in every generation. It still does.

Decades later, children carry the wounds of homes where love went wrong. Sometimes it’s the after-shock of homes full of violent anger; sometimes it’s the cold absence of affection; sometimes it’s contempt; sometimes it’s abuse, made even worse if others knew but turned a blind eye.

These are hurts which damage not just the body but the soul. They invade a child’s, a woman’s, a person’s, sense of self-respect. They attack the essential inner feeling of being lovable, worthy of another’s love. They penetrate into places to which it is extremely hard to bring healing. Even the memory of such afflictions may be deeply, overwhelmingly humiliating.

Maybe that is, partly, what leads many women to suffer in silence verbal contempt, emotional belittling and bullying, physical violence, threats to their very lives. Sometimes, even amidst the cruelty, the hope in Leah’s desperate words still echoes in the heart, ‘Maybe now he’ll love me???’

Jewish Women’s Aid, similar organisations in other faiths, and national agencies are calling on us not to ignore such suffering. If we glimpse such cruelty within ourselves, we must take ourselves to therapy. If there are victims within our families, or among those we know, we need to think carefully, and maybe seek confidential advice, about how to help. What we must not do is condone; that aligns us with the perpetrator.

We have seen in the Jimmy Saville scandal, and many since, (not exactly the same issue, but closely connected) is not only that there are people whose behaviour is vile, but that there are far more who turn a blind eye, as if the prevailing culture considered it ‘OK’ to treat women, and children, in such ways. It is most definitely not OK.

Leah, we are told, has einayim racot; a kind translation would be that her eyes are ‘gentle’ but the usual rendition is that they are ‘weak’. Maybe, though, the true weakness resides in the eyes of those around her, and all those since, who look but refuse to see.

Jewish Women’s Aid, is the only specialist organisation in the UK supporting Jewish women and children affected by domestic abuse. Their free phone confidential helpline is 0808 801 0500

The most basic freedom – life

There is something more basic even than freedom, – life itself.

I have in front of me a picture of the graves in Khan Seihkun, where more than seventy people including many children died a horrible death, probably from the nerve agent sarin. Assad’s regime is almost certainly responsible, protected by lies from Moscow.

The rough concrete stones in the sandy ground remind me of the cemetery I saw on Lesbos, where lay so many anonymous dead, among them babies, drowned during the crossing from Turkey.

The most basic freedom of all is the freedom to live.

Judaism is categorically on the side of life. From the first moment of human existence, from when God breathes the first divine breath into the first human being, life is sacred. The barest, simplest High Holyday prayer is Zochrenu le’chayyim, Remember us for life. Love of life underlies the Jewish determination to survive in times of persecution, bring healing in times of illness, and celebrate in times of joy. Where life becomes unbearably painful, when life comes to a natural end, it is a matter of sorrow, humility and, if we can manage it, acceptance.

Perhaps the most radical rabbinic re-interpretation of the Torah was to render inapplicable all references to the death penalty. Any death demands accountability. Any killing, except in a just war, demands specific, thorough and impartial investigation, whoever the victim. Any breech in this fundamental law is an offence against humanity and God. God’s image has been destroyed in a unique individual; there is less God in the world.

Life is not just under threat from direct physical violence but from the rhetoric of hatred and contempt. We live in a time of rising xenophobia and incitement, against women, foreigners, Jews, Muslims… One must never say ‘It’s only words’, especially when it comes from public figures. Religious, media and political leaders carry responsibility not only for what they say, but for how it leads others to act. One person’s words legitimise another person’s deeds. That is why the brazen speech of President Trump and the shameless distortions of truth by Ken Livingstone* are so dangerous.

The speech of ISIS and its like is terrifying. The greatest blasphemy is when God’s name is evoked to justify hatred and violence. Where regimes, whatever their professed ideology, instigate policies of calumny, contempt, degradation, and collective deportation the road for some will end in death.

The border between respect for life and the acceptance of killing is a boundary humanity cannot afford to cross. Any civilisation, regime, cult or individual which legitimates and glorifies killing, terror and murder thereby renders itself an enemy of humanity itself and of all living being.

As we celebrate freedom on Passover, we celebrate life: its variety, creativity and potential; its need for liberty, opportunity, compassion and nurture; its beauty; its capacity for wonder, generosity, tenderness, love and joy.

Where we honour life, we honour freedom; where we love life, we love liberty too.

*For a superb analysis of his appalling conduct see this piece in Ha’artz by Colin Schindler

Standing up for truth

One short sentence sticks in my mind out of everything I’ve read this week. It comes from Timothy Snyder’s short book On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the Twentieth Century:

‘Post-truth is pre-fascism.’

The book was published in 2017, under Donald Trump’s presidency. It is a sharp warning to those who believe in civil liberties, equality, freedom, truth and justice to wake up. But it is not just relevant to the USA. It applies wherever fascist groups are on the rise, and where they already dominate, in much of Africa, in Putin’s Russia, in many Arab lands.

Snyder is a professor of history at Yale. His major field is Holocaust Studies; he wrote the much acclaimed Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. He doesn’t suggest we’re living in the 1940’s, or even the late 1930’s. But he does say we’re nearer than we like to think to that terrible cliff-edge towards which Weimar Germany tottered, slowly and ever more feebly, and over which it fell in 1933.

I’ve heard similar from my mother, and others, who remember from their childhood those frightening years in which democracy allowed itself to become weakened, fatally.

Snyder’s concise, punchy book is no lament. It’s a call to action. Pursue truth, he argues, bringing evidence of the dangers of lying from Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. Refuse to be misled; reject collective prejudice. Avoid the Facebook bubble; seek out facts; read proper print. Engage in civil society; meet others who’re doing the same. Don’t be silent. Don’t do the easy thing; don’t hide behind the convenient vestige of conformity. If you do, you’ll find yourself conforming to actions you truly ought to loathe.

His argument is familiar from ancient Jewish sources. ‘Acquire truth and do not sell it’ is a saying of King Solomon (Proverbs 23;23). But is truth saleable? Isn’t it really ourselves we sell when we abandon truth, handing over our souls to the marketplace of lies and prejudice?

This week’s Torah reading is a discourse about sacrifices. One of them is an atonement offering for failing to be truthful, for swearing falsely, lying, and perjury.

The rabbis of the Mishnah were aware that life can seem simpler if one doesn’t get involved. ‘Should you say: “Why should I get caught up in all this bother?” you’ve been told [in the Torah] “If you are a witness, if you see or know, but fail to tell…”

Post-truth makes aiders and abetters of those who fail to stand up for honesty. Passivity is the ally of oppression. The failure to fight for human dignity, justice and compassion turns us into accomplices of prejudice and tyranny.

I write so strongly because I am afraid, of Isis and Islamism; of Putin’s Russia; of the rise of the far right in Europe; of Trump’s way of doing politics, his apparent contempt for the environment, human and natural; and, yes of the possible consequences of leaving an EU which has kept its member states from war for seventy years.

Truth, integrity, freedom and human dignity are inter-dependent. We’re on the threshold of Passover, The Season of our Freedom: if we believe in freedom across the face of the earth, we must stand up for it.

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’.

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