Listening, with leaders of all faiths, at Grenfell Tower

I was invited to speak at a gathering of faith leaders close to Grenfell Tower yesterday. I went, mainly to listen. We were Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Bahais; we were just people, but people together.

On walls and railings all around are pictures of the missing, children, young couples, all ages: ‘Have you seen…?’ ‘Marco and Gloria, Italy is praying for you’. In the streets, people talk in small groups, residents, school children, police, helpers, chaplains.

There were powerful calls for justice; for all questions to be answered in all aspects; for those responsible to be made accountable. Yet the spirit was solidarity, not anger; togetherness, not division.

Pain knows no age, no colour, no gender, no religion, said the local Sikh leader; humanity is one. He told me these were the words of a colleague who was volunteering among the dispossessed in Syria and Lebanon. London, too, has its dispossessed.

‘We’re here for the long haul’, said the Bishop of Kensington, Bishop Graham, speaking for the local clergy, who’ve been remarkable. ‘We believe in community; we believe in a God who gives hope’.

‘I’m nobody’, said a local young man, ‘But I’m somebody.’ He grew up nearby; as a child he’d played next to, in and beneath the Tower: ‘I’ve friends who didn’t get out’. We’re all responsible for our communities, he said; if only we’d realised earlier; if only we’d done more.

On the walls, among the pictures of the missing, are small hand-written posters:

Broken but United with My Neighbours (in many colours)
Life does go on. But now it has to change
Listen. We are still here…

I spoke about listening; ‘Shema; Listen!’ is the first word of Judaism’s most important meditation. I told the story of the man whose friend assures him that he loves him. ‘If you love me’, he replies, ‘tell me where I hurt?’ ‘How should I know?’ the man remonstrates, ‘I’ve no idea where you hurt!’ ‘Then you aren’t truly my friend,’ says the man.

We must not become a city so separated into sub-communities divided by ethnicity, religion, income, prospects and such different daily realities that we’ve no idea where others hurt. We must not remain a society in which, when one group cries out ‘I don’t feel safe’, the rest don’t hear, perhaps don’t even care.

We all have the power to turn a nobody into a somebody, by listening and caring. We can also make a somebody feel a nobody, by closing our heart. It happens all the time and we are all responsible.

Before the gathering, I met Father Alan Everett, who’s coordinated much of the support. We talked about resources for the long-term… As for lessons, he said: Be organised and prepared. Know each other; know your local communities, councillors, faith leaders, police, fire services, teachers. Meet, discuss, plan for eventualities. Have up-to-date contact lists; keep them up-to-date.

Above us all is the tower, charred and silent; full of stifled voices which will cry out in the hearts of parents, children, friends, neighbours, firemen, rescuers, forever. I think of Rachel Bluwstein’s words, written soon before she died:

Will you hear my silence, -
You who did not hear my words?

 

Muslim Welfare House mosque, Finsbury Park

We stand together in solidarity with our Muslim fellow-citizens after the terror attack on worshippers leaving the Muslim Welfare House Mosque last night in Finsbury Park. This is a shocking and despicable hate crime.

The victims were leaving the mosque after a day of fasting and prayer on one of the holiest nights of the month of Ramadan. Our thoughts are with them and with their families and their community.

This appalling act is a desecration of the name of God and a crime against all the citizens of London who seek to live together, celebrating our differences and creating a just, vibrant and compassionate society for us all.

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

In tribute to Jo Cox MP

The London and Manchester terror attacks, the horrifying fire, – they make us think about the frailty of life, but also about its value. No one can ever assess the worth of any human life, but the criteria which speak to me most are simple:

What impact have we had on the lives, hearts, minds and souls of others? Have we alleviated suffering? Have we shared joy and appreciation? Have we brought companionship and love?

Jo Cox was murdered exactly a year ago, on 16 June 2016, just before her 42nd birthday. Labour MP for Batley and Spen, she was killed because of her open, inclusive and deeply compassionate values. As Sarah Brown said in tribute: ‘Jo reserved a special place in her heart for the most vulnerable and the poorest citizens of the world. She was fearless, she was endlessly upbeat…’

Before entering Parliament, she worked for 10 years at Oxfam, becoming the head of advocacy and policy. As then Prime Minister David Cameron said, she ‘epitomised the fact that politics is about serving others’.

The very day his wife was murdered, Brendon Cox issued an extraordinarily courageous statement:

Jo believed in a better world and she fought for it every day of her life with an energy, and a zest for life that would exhaust most people. 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.’

At Brendon’s request, this weekend of 16 – 18 June is dedicated to The Great Get-Together, to motivate us to create in Jo’s memory a societywhere we know our neighbours, invest in our communities, and are able to keep an eye out for each other’s children…Jo was ambitious for what could be done…’

This is the plain meaning of the quotation from the Torah inscribed next to the Ark on the eastern wall of our synagogue: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. When Jews gained civic equality in Germany (for all too short a time) Samson Raphael Hirsch interpreted these words to mean that we must seek for every member of our society, irrespective of their faith or ethnicity, the very same rights and opportunities we want for ourselves. We could add that we should also try to provide for others the same security, reassurance and loving kindness we hope will surround us during our journey through life. For life can be cruel, lonely and wretched.

Brendon Cox could not have known that this weekend would come at such a painful and fragile time in the life of the country. In the last two weeks, we have seen the horrors of both physical fire and the fire of hatred.

But we are also witnesses to the great outpouring of kindness, generosity and solidarity which has characterised the huge public response, including people of all faiths and none, and across all sections of society from the Queen to the homeless.

This is a moment when the heart of humanity is open and we are called upon to be part of it.

Our hearts are with the families of the victims

Our hearts go out to all the families who have been devastated by the evil killings in the Manchester Arena. It’s been heart-rending to think of parents looking for their children, calling on their mobile phones, waiting in the desperate hope of news. The pictures of the faces of the children and young people killed fill us with pain and pity. The young have every right to hope for security, love, joy, excitement and music. Had the attack been at the concert scheduled in London, young people from our community may well have been there.

Our prayers are with the wounded, the bereaved and all who care for them. Our thoughts and appreciation are also with the emergency services, the police and all who strive to keep us safe.

Next week is Shavuot, Zeman Mattan Toratenu, the Time of the Giving of our Torah. One simple, over-riding teaching has been in my mind all week. The Torah is Torah Chayyim, the Torah of Life. We shall read the Ten Commandments on Wednesday. Our rabbis emphasise the close correlation between the first and the second five. ‘I am the Lord your God’ is thus parallel with ‘You shall not murder’. It is, or should be, as plain as daylight: since the sacred presence of God is in all life, we may not hurt or harm, let alone wilfully and wickedly take away, another person’s life. This is the foundation of all morality and all religion; there is no place for relativism or retraction.

I spent the last two days engaged in Jewish-Christian dialogue at the Kirchentag in Berlin, a huge gathering of the Protestant Church. The motto of this year’s conference is a verse from the story of Hagar, when she says to God ‘You see me’. The issue for us is not just whether God sees us, but whether we see one another: do we see in each other human beings, equally deserving of life? Do we see and respect each other across the differences of faith, history, nationality, gender, age? If we don’t, or won’t, those who pay the price will include, over and again, the most innocent among us.

At the Kirchentag Amos Oz was awarded the Abraham Geiger prize in recognition of his life’s achievement as foremost among the greatest living authors. His acceptance speech was magnificent, brilliant, courageous and sharply to this point. He spoke of the Jewish gene and genius, – not a biological, but an intellectual and emotional gene, and not, he added, just Jewish either, – for debate, argument, exploration, disagreement. I love my country and my faith, he said, because of my right to disagree with them. This is by no means a privilege to be taken for granted across the world.

He focused on the importance of curiosity; it’s what makes him a writer. A person has to ask, ‘What if I were him or her?’ not in order to become him or her, but to enlarge one’s understanding of others by considering what the world looks like to them. Such curiosity makes one intellectually, emotionally and morally a better person. It also, he argued, makes one a better driver, because you think ‘What’s that idiot going to do next?’

The Manchester killer did not see others. The doctrine which filled, and killed, his heart and mind, prevented him from seeing them, – young people who merited incomparably better of life. He, and above all those who brain-washed and destroyed him, are eternally responsible for the pain following their terrible deaths.

We can’t bring the murdered back. Maybe the awareness of our solidarity will diminish by some tiny amount the loneliness of those whose lives have suddenly been flooded with inexplicable suffering.

But we can resolve to see one another, as the God of all life, and the Torah of Life, require us to do. And we can aspire to find the courage and compassion to act accordingly.

Prayers of listening

I had two unusual prayer experiences yesterday, even three. It wasn’t that I was ‘seized by the spirit’; or perhaps, in a very quiet way, I was.

Prayer has always been to me first and foremost about connection, about bringing my consciousness home. Like most of us, my mind is full of plans, worries, questions, wants and don’t wants. When I pray, I hope to let go of all that, even if only for the shortest of time. I hope that God, life’s spirit, will enter me like water from an unquenchable source creeping, seeking its way rivulet by rivulet, back up a river bed which has become dried out. I hope to be reunited, even for mere seconds, with the vastness and wonder of life, and made silent.

I was in Israel yesterday morning, in Tiveriah. I found a path to the fields and said shacharit, the morning service, next to brilliant blue cornflowers growing among the wheat, my prayers accompanied by the white caper blossoms with purple stamens of which the Talmud speaks. There’s teaching in the simplicity of their grace; it’s good to be humbled by such beauty.

I hadn’t realised that there were to be more prayers later that morning. I’d been invited to Israel participate in a Catholic Jewish encounter, as a guest at the Domus Galilaeae of the Neocathecumenal Way. The ‘house’, a place of prayer, retreat and service, is situated on the Mount of Beatitudes. Jewish participants, largely orthodox, including representatives of Israel’s chief rabbinate, were warmly welcomed. This Christian group appreciates its deep roots in Judaism, profoundly regrets the Church’s history of persecution and sees in Jewry an essential partner in maintaining our spiritual and moral heritage. We joined them for shared prayers, consisting overwhelmingly of Psalms.

They sung Psalm 150, the Halleluyah Psalm, in a multitude of voices. Then they sung their own composition of Shema Yisrael, repeatedly affirming the oneness of God as the foundation of faith. The Cardinal of Perugia preached quietly about respect and love as the foundation of shared ethics, including the love of nature, animals, people different from ourselves.

I was moved by the singing and these gentle words. Having listened to many of the people around me, I know they spend their lives working amongst the poor, the destitute in the slumlands surrounding the wealthy core of the world’s big cities, that they lead profoundly dedicated lives amidst very difficult conditions. I thought of the words: ‘Open my heart through your Torah, your teaching’: we can learn about God’s presence from people of our own faith, other faiths, and no faith, and from nature itself. Life and its spirit flow through all things, in different ways but from the same infinite source. Moments when that oneness touches us are special; they penetrate the heart and retain the power to speak to us even years later and purify our lives.

On the way home from the airport close to midnight, the cab driver, a Muslim man originally from Afghanistan whom I had met a couple of times before, and I found ourselves deep in conversation about prayer. ‘I feel not right with myself when I don’t pray during the day’, he said. I agreed: ‘It’s as if there’s something missing, as if I haven’t been in touch with truth, haven’t been washed clean by life, or listened with my soul.’

Perhaps the deepest prayers are less about what we say than what we hear and how that speaks to us in our heart.

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True to our values in difficult times

I listen to the news of the attack at the Louvre, icon of France’s love of beauty, and feel profound dismay. Poor Paris, city which has suffered so much in the last two years.

A brave soldier was swift enough to shoot the attacker. But the event still increases fear and suspicion. It cannot be doubted that we live in a world where constant vigilance and good intelligence are a sad but basic necessity for our security.

Yet we do not want to inhabit a society divided on religious, racial or ethnic grounds by barricades of suspicion, prejudice and anger. A world, state or city separated into ‘them and us’, with mass collective exclusions, is not the answer. It represents a victory for fear and hate; it is already a kind of failure. For division is the hallmark of hatred and fear.

Judaism has always had at its heart the belief in one God. Oneness is perhaps Judaism’s most unique and characteristic idea. What does it mean?

The oneness of God comes first. As Maimonides wrote in The Laws of the Foundations of the Torah, and as the mystical tradition persistently emphasises, to declare that ‘God is one’ is not simply to say that God is not two, or four, or eight. It is a profound affirmation that a sacred oneness, the divine spirit and presence, permeates all things and transcends them; that all life belongs to God and God belongs in all life; that there is therefore nothing and no one devoid of sanctity and value.

It follows that humanity is ultimately one. The description in the first chapter of Genesis that God made the human being in the divine image, is not a scientific account of what actually happened, but an assertion of the ultimate equality of all life. In the words of the Mishnah; ‘No one can say “My parents were better than yours”’. There is therefore no such thing, to use the ugly Nazi phrase, as ‘a life unworthy of life’. People may behave disgracefully, treacherously and wickedly and therefore merit punishment. But ab initio, they are not children of a lesser God, or of less intrinsic worth because they are Jews, Muslims, or Zoroastrians, for we are all not just children, but agents, of the one living God.

It follows further that all life is part of one inter-connected web of sacred vitality, as the prayers on the New Year declare, ‘let us all be part of one bond, to do God’s will with a perfect heart’. We are mandated to participate in a profound sharing of the resources of the earth and the gift of life itself. This is a truth affirmed at one end by a deep faith in the sanctity of all things, and at the other by the empirical evidence of ecological examination.

What then are we supposed to do in a time when fear and hatred threaten to pull us apart, yet togetherness, mutuality and understanding are at the heart of our vision?

We should be neither naïve, nor passive. Individually and collectively we need to do our utmost to remain true to our faith and ideals. We must deepen our roots within our own community, reach out to those who feel isolated, build relationships with those of different faiths and groups, and engage with those who are strangers, outsiders and refugees.

We need to be vigilant against violence, whether in words or actions, and whoever the victim. At the same time, we also need to be vigilant in our own hearts and minds, in what we say and hear said, against the proliferation of hatreds and prejudices of our own.

We need to work even harder to be true to our ideals. At this time of greater difficulty, the rewards are also great: new friendships, new connections, deeper bonds of shared humanity and commitment to justice and compassion.

Why interfaith matters

Brendan Cox’s remarkable statement following the trial of Jo Cox’s killer is an extraordinary testament to both her and his vision, courage and love. He described her murder as

An act driven by hatred which instead has created an outpouring of love. An act designed to drive communities apart which has instead pulled them together. An act designed to silence a voice which instead has allowed millions of others to hear it. Jo is no longer with us, but her love, her example and her values live on.

We are living through times when the need both to be pulled together, and to pull together in the issues which confront us all feels more urgent that at any other period in my life.

Hatreds have been released across the globe. Most probably they have always been there, semi-covert, half-hiding, under the lid. But now Isis and affiliated terror organisations preach loathing and practise merciless killing. In the West, the referendum here has revealed new levels of racist abuse and attacks, as recorded by the CST for the Jewish, and by TellMAMA for the Muslim, community. In the United States a language of xenophobia and supremacism has reinvigorated groups on the far right, some of whose deeds in the past have gone well beyond words alone. I find myself thinking bleakly about Shakespeare’s line in Othello:

Humanity must perforce prey on itself / Like monsters of the deep.

In the face of these realities, ‘interfaith’ sounds like a weak combination of opposites: what’s ‘inter’ about ‘faith’? Don’t our faiths tug us towards different and often antagonistic identities and goals?

This is partly true; our faiths ask us to anchor our moral and spiritual lives in the culture, liturgy, and discipline of our respective ancient traditions.

Yet, beyond what differentiates us (and even here our distinctive paths traverse in their particular ways the same landscapes of human nature, with its hopes, fears and fallibility), what unites us is immeasurable in comparison.

We belong to the same oneness of life. We affirm the same commitments to justice and compassion. We have the same needs for sustenance and safety, fellowship and community. Ultimately, our faith, hope and trust, whether we are Christian, Muslim or Jewish, are not hope, faith and trust in different, but in the same values, the same humanity and the same God.

My teacher, Rabbi Hugo Gryn of beloved memory, used to say that the world is divided into bridge breakers and bridge builders. We have a choice; we can either be dividers, or uniters.

But we don’t really have a choice: at this stage in world history the price of hatred and division is unthinkable.

In our community, as everywhere, we must develop our relationships with other faiths and communities, local, national and beyond and increase our shared work for the common good. In widening our contact with other faiths, we also deepen our commitment to our own. Through seeking to understand others, we come to know ourselves more truly and are enriched both by the wisdom and ways of our own tradition and by the one God who embraces us all.

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’.

No time for hate

When I came home I found four handwritten cards in the post. That’s unusual these days, when the latter consists largely of requests from charities, leaving the sad task of choosing one or two out of tens of heart-rending causes.

In my mind as I opened the cards were two lines from Mahmoud Darwish I’d just picked up in translation:

I have no time for hating those who hate me,
I am too busy loving those who love me.

I heard them recited (on YouTube) by Arab Aramin at a memorial service where he spoke together with Igal Elhanan: both lost sisters in the violence of the Middle East conflict; both their fathers, Bassam and Rami, are leaders of The Parents Circle; both are friends, and both have been to our community. The service, held last Yom Hazikkaron, strove to encompass the pain of everyone’s losses, embracing them in profound and courageous hope for the future.

The lines kept going round in my mind. After all, it’s so easy to do the opposite, and so understandable: you can be so busy hating those who hate you that you forget to love those who love you.

The first card was from a Polish barista to whom I’d written because a congregant told me he’d been badly hurt in a racist attack in London. I said how sorry I was about what had happened, and that this was not the country or society I believed we truly were. I took the liberty of writing in the name of the synagogue. He replied:
I am happy that I feel a lot better – most of the credit to my wife. If you are ever in the area it will be my joy to meet you…’
I’m hoping to be in the area.

The second card was from a non-Jewish woman who had contacted me out of the blue a while ago, writing the most generous letter about how she tried to reach out to those of different faiths and appreciated others who did the same. An amateur artist, she described in this card how when Nadiya Hussain, winner of the Great British Bake-Off, came to the Food Festival of Bolton, she presented her with ‘a life size colour portrait’ and ‘was rewarded by a big hug!’

The third was from Hana, the second daughter of the Christian lady who, as I mentioned in my recent book, sent food-parcels during the Holocaust years to my great-grandmother Regina and my great-aunt Sophie after they were deported to Theresienstadt. I met the first daughter last year in Holesov in the Czech Republic. I remember, Hana wrote, how my mother would tell me about your family; I am so glad she has found a place in your book, ‘which is witness to the cruel and unjust years for your people, and for all the world’.

The last card was from my wife’s aunt Rosalind. Recalling the war years (she’s over 90) she wrote: ‘I thank God that, but for 22 miles of water and the Battle of Britain, neither we nor future generations would be here’. It was a poignant reminder, after the other messages, of what racism and hatred can do when they have power, and the immense courage required to defeat them.

I went to bed humbled and rose today filled with the same chastening feeling.

There are countless causes for anger and hatred. Perhaps they will prove too powerful, and divide us, fatally, in the end. I do not want to think so.

As for us, whether or not history will bear us out, let’s take courage and place our hearts and efforts together with those who reach out beyond the divisions of races and nations, to heal the wounds of our shared humanity.


I’m running for Tree Aid in the London half-marathon on 9th October. Tree Aid replants desolated regions, to give people back a livelihood so they don’t have to become refugees. Please click here to sponsor me.

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.

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