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.

Between Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’Atzmaut

The days between Yom Hoshoah, the Jewish date for Holocaust Memorial Day, and Israel’s Independence Day are always poignant.

I immediately think of my father. He came by ship from Trieste to Haifa in the autumn of 1937, fleeing Nazi Europe. Just a few days ago I found a letter giving him a place to study at the Bezalel Academy of Arts in 1936. He never was able to take up that offer. At the age of 16, in the impoverished Palestine of those years he suddenly found himself the main bread winner. His own father had managed a timber mill in Germany, not a transportable skill. He never could find serious employment in Jerusalem; it fell to my father to support his sisters, and the family. But the future Jewish state had saved their lives, as it saved millions more, from Europe, Arab lands, and later Africa and Eastern Europe. My father died on Yom Ha’Azmaut; for the first time this year I will be in Israel for his Yahrzeit.

I think too of my friend Aaron Barnea, whose son was killed by a roadside bomb near the Beaufort fortress in South Lebanon, one of so many thousands for whom Yom Hazikaron, the day of mourning which precedes Yom Ha’Atzmaut, never becomes less poignant. The Parents Circle, in whom he was active for many years, now brings together bereaved families, Israeli and Palestinian, to mourn with one another and share the pain of loss, but above all to affirm the value of life and to work for a different future.

Like so many of us, I have thought about Israel in so many ways: with love, wonder, worry, fear, dismay, frustration, appreciation and admiration. In my many tens of visits, in the times I have taught there, and the innumerable times I have learnt there, I have looked out at the country through numerous windows.

I have looked through the windows of the Egged bus as it climbed the road to Jerusalem, past the burnt-out trucks left as a reminder of the terrible losses in the siege of Jerusalem. I have seen with joy the green of the forests and fields. I have loved wandering around the campuses of the Hebrew University on Givat Ram and Har Hatsofim, taking out books in the National Library. I have watched the ringing of tiny birds on the reserve in the Hula Valley, and the passing of storks and cranes. I have looked for the different coloured anemones in the spring, and admired the wild cyclamen, Israel’s national flower.

I’ve listened to the stories and viewpoints of family and friends, of the left and of the right. I’ve been out with many groups devoted to building bridges, between rich and poor, religious and non-observant, Israeli and Arab. I’ve looked at the same landscape from the living room of Israeli friends, and, from the opposite side of the valley, through the windows of a Palestinian home. I’ve stood on the roof in an Arab village and watched the house next door being slowly demolished, and seen the school children returning home, and wondered what questions they will ask and who will answer them and how.

I’m dismayed by the reception the Israeli Ambassador received outside SOAS yesterday, the hatred, the prejudiced assumptions, the singling out of Israel for abuse. But I’m also troubled deeply by those who ignore the reality in which so many Palestinians have to live, behind the wall where our thoughts, imagination and empathy usually find it easier not to follow. A country which limits the freedom of some, risks over time compromising the freedom of all. I’m frightened by the mire of intransigence, breeding hatreds.

I’m left with affection, anxiety, hope and prayer. The hope, Hatikvah, rests in the immense courage, creativity and moral imagination with which the country was built, and in witnessing the similar courage with which so many defend the values of its founders and seek to develop it for the good of all its citizens, for justice and compassion, in spite of everything.

The prayer is that, despite the violence and hatred with which not only the Middle East but so much of the globe is riven and divided, the spirit of humanity and generosity, the spirit of God apprehended by the prophets of Israel in the very hills and valleys of this land will prevail and that there shall one day be ‘Tranquillity and harmony, and none shall be afraid’.

Letters from the dead

About a month ago, in a café in Emek Refaim, my one and only cousin Michal handed me a small plastic bag, the sort you wrap gifts in. ‘I found some more letters’, she said, ‘I wanted you to have them as soon as possible’.

I began to look at them there and then. I took out the first couple of pages, the writing turned blue-black with time, the paper thin as tissue, still strangely strong, though no doubt fragile. I looked at the dates, 1938, 1940, 1941. There were photographs too, mostly of Arnold, my father’s cousin, as a baby, as a little boy in a sailor suit. His young life would end in Treblinka. I put the pictures away.

Only now, in these days of Passover, of liberation, have I had time to study most of those letters. They do not add new chapters to the account I wrote in My Dear Ones, my book about the fate of my father’s family during the Holocaust. But they fill in gaps, confirm surmises, add painful details.

There are the last letters sent from Berlin in December 1938 by my great-grandmother and her eldest daughter Sophie who was helping her pack away her things and send them ahead to Palestine, before taking her across the border to her own seemingly safe home in Czechoslovakia. Sophie wrote:

Hopefully everything will go smoothly with the passport, the Unbedenklichkeitsschein (required to prove that one had no debts to the Nazi state), the documents, and – that’ll be the most difficult thing – if dear Mama still has no English visa for here.

Sophie wrote ‘here’, but she meant Palestine. Perhaps at that critical moment she imagined herself there too in the Promised Land, with her brother and sisters who had already made the journey to Jerusalem. She visited them in ’38. ‘We couldn’t persuade her to stay’, my father recalled with sorrow.

Almost exactly a year later the two of them wrote again, from Czechoslovakia. To their immense relief they had just heard from Trude, Sophie’s younger sister, another of my great-aunts. Trude had been living in Poznan, which was occupied by the Wehrmacht only 10 days after they invaded Poland. Within weeks Trude and her family were deported, together with thousands of other Jews:

Trude and her family travelled for 48 hours and then had to walk for 12 hours. They overcame all this in good health. Their suitcases (can’t read the word, but think it means ‘robbed’)

They included her new address, in the small Polish town of Ostrow Lubelski, where thousands of Jews were dumped when the Nazis cleared the Warthe region in the west of Poland of racially undesirables to make way for ethnic Germans. Had I had that address when I went there with David Cesarani and Mossy, I might have known which of the small wooden houses had been Trude’s temporary home for almost three meagre years, until they were all taken to Treblinka.

It’s strangely moving to be back with these letters, with their breath, I do not want to say from the dead, but from the living, – the living, who had such hope and so much love for one another.

A new question has been puzzling me, one of which I somehow failed to think before. My cousin found these letters in a previously unopened cupboard. A cupboard, an old suitcase, a trunk: what part of the memory do they represent? What does it mean to live with such a history in a dusty drawer or unopened compartment in the travelling bag of one’s consciousness? Does one put the contents aside, out of mind, in order to build a new life? Do the dramatis personae of that half-buried past nevertheless inhabit, bodiless, the new landscape of one’s existence? Do they step out at night and enter one’s dreams, or nightmares? Do they say, ‘Remember my fate’? Do they say, ‘I bless your new lands, new lives, and the new work of your hands’?

Or is it we, the now living, who shape the meaning of the words of our dead, our histories?

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.

We can’t afford to be silent

I wish Purim was not becoming more relevant every year.

Its story unfolds in an amoral world. On the surface, that may not seem ugly; there are halls with bright tapestries, gold drinking vessels, parties unending and beautiful women.

But not far beneath lies the lust for power and domination, the appeal to racism, hatred, and the subjugation of women. The king and his ministers aren’t interested in justice, and fair, transparent government. Advancement is gained not by merit and goodness but by cunning and manipulation.

Underneath that lies a profound insecurity: there are plots all around. Not even the king can be sure of his power. That’s why the vain, self-obsessed and unscrupulous Haman can persuade him so easily:

There is a certain people. They’re everywhere in your kingdom. They have their own rules; they don’t follow yours. It’s a grave mistake to tolerate them. And, by the way, they’re rich. (based on Esther 3:8-9)

We were that people, then, and often in history since. But it’s not just the Jews; wherever justice and equality are absent, wherever fear and racism rule, there are many victims.

That is why we are required to remember the world of the Megillah; and never to forget the power of evil. Indeed, the Shabbat before Purim is specifically called Shabbat Zachor ‘The Shabbat of “Memory”.

There are two levels to this ‘memory’.

The first is historical. We are not to forget the evil Amalek wrought on us by attacking us from behind when we left Egypt and killing the old and the weak, nor what Amalek’s descendant, Haman, tried to do in Persia by persuading the king to kill all the Jews.

It is essential to understand that Amalek no longer refers to any specific nation. Almost two thousand years ago, the rabbis of the Talmud already affirmed that the people Amalek had ceased to exist. Amalek represents the principle of hatred. Wherever one group of human beings is maltreated by another, wherever there is inequality and injustice, wherever xenophobia infects a people unchecked, there Amalek is too.

We forget this at our peril.

The second level of ‘memory’ is more personal. It concerns not the past, but the present. In this sense, to remember is to recall our deepest selves, created with a conscience aware of justice and a heart aware of love. It is about behaving as a true human being.

‘Sorry, I forgot myself’ is a familiar excuse. Many things can make us lose our better selves: anger, envy, petulance, fear. Some such emotions rise up from inside us. Others are incited from without, when we go along with the crowd. When we come back to ourselves, we feel shame.

I read about a young woman, caught after the North London riots. She’d never smashed a shop window or looted before. She’d always been good. Now she had a custodial sentence. ‘How did I allow myself to do that?’ she wondered. I felt for her; it’s easy to lose ourselves, hard to stay true to whom we truly are.

Yet precisely in today’s world, which feels more insecure, more unjust, more about displays of power, we must remember both our history and our deepest nature.

We are not here on earth to manipulate others, promulgate prejudice and succumb to hatred and greed. We are here, in God’s image, to seek justice and mercy for all.

Perhaps the most important words in the entire Purim story are those Mordechai conveys to Esther, his niece: You can’t be silent now. We can’t afford to be silent, ever.

We can’t abandon refugee children

Tomorrow brings two of my favourite things: Tu Bishevat, the New Year for Trees, and Shabbat Shirah the Shabbat of Song. I had thought to write about both. I’ve been reading Peter Wohlleben’s wonderful book The Hidden Life of Trees. A forester initially employed to maximise the yield from the woods over which he was appointed, he comes to understand the mystery of the secret life of his trees, how they communicate with one another, support each other, develop resilience and form a rich and wondrous community.

I wanted to write about how God’s presence sings in the trees, how that song can embrace and chasten us and make us more deeply aware of the wonder and privilege of life.

But I won’t. Having hosted Lord Dubs in our synagogue and heard him speak of what motivated him, a child of the Kindertransport, to petition Parliament to allow 3,000 lone children into this country, I cannot be silent when that agreement seems now to have been overturned by the government.

I was in The House of Commons last week for the rededication of the plaque in honour of the Kindertransport. After the Chief Rabbi and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who both spoke with moving eloquence, a boy of 15 from Syria told us, through an interpreter, about his long journey to these shores. When asked what was most in his thoughts, he said: ‘The unknown fate of his parents and family’ as he tried to restrain his tears.

In the wake of the Holocaust we asked in grief and anger how it was possible for so many people to remain indifferent, unmoved by the fate of others. I fear the answer is that it’s easy: ‘If it doesn’t affect me, I can just get on with my life as usual. It’s simpler not to know.’

Every verse of Jewish teaching and every chapter of Jewish experience tells us that that is not good enough. ‘Don’t hide yourself from your own flesh’, proclaims Isaiah: don’t be deaf and blind to those who suffer just as you are suffering. ‘Lo titallam - Don’t hide away; don’t pretend you didn’t know’.

Barbara Winton, who spoke in our synagogue and with whom I’m closely in touch, wrote to the Prime Minister today (Theresa May was her father Nicholas Winton’s MP): ‘Every single child’s life is worth every single thing we can give.’

None of us has done enough to help save those lives. I repeat at this link the initiatives I’m encouraging us to support. I admire the remarkable work of our Drop-In. I respect greatly the huge efforts of Help Refugees and Safe Passage. I am pleased we are beginning to find ways to support and befriend the refugee families in our midst, in Barnet. But we need more initiatives, more engagement and more moral courage.

I want to stress that this is not an alternative to strengthening our own community. My heart sinks and I feel personal upset when I learn that someone has failed to come forward to support our minyan, our quorum, on their due date on the rota, preventing others from reciting the Kaddish. We must not let each other, our Judaism, or our common humanity down.

Peter Wohlleben describes in his beautiful book how, through the hidden connections between their roots, trees nourish the weak amongst them and uphold the strong. The roots of our shared humanity also mingle in the common earth of our mortal existence. We too can, and must, uphold one another.

Chanukkah, festival of courage and hope

Chanukkah is the festival of courage.

It teaches us that however thick the surrounding darkness it cannot quench the inner light which burns in the human soul.

It teaches us that even amidst the ruins of temples and cities, at least one vial of pure oil, one flame of inspiration and illumination, can always be found.

It teaches us that when we kindle the lamp of hope, however little fuel we may have to nourish it, it always burns far longer and far brighter than we had imagined.

It teaches us that one light can be the source of many flames, one person’s courage and commitment can and will inspire that of others, one person’s goodness can guide a whole society.

It teaches us that cruelty will never triumph utterly over kindness and compassion.

Chanukkah exemplifies how throughout history we have never allowed violence, hatred and terror to put out our faith or extinguish our commitment to our values.

In a cruel year, giving rise to many fears, let us kindle our Channukah lights and, together with the light of other faiths and the inner light which is the soul of all humanity, set them against the darkness.

The darkness and the light

On a clear night now the growing crescent of the moon of Kislev, the month of Chanukkah, Festival of Lights, illumines the sky. Light is especially precious at this dark time of the year. Maybe that’s why each day the parting sun embraces the west in such a vivid band of burning orange, before it disappears.

Last week I was asked at short notice to stand in as Jewish chaplain for the North London Hospice’s annual Light up a Life. The streets around the building, for so many a place both of sorrow and intense loving-kindness, were closed. Hundreds of people stood quietly in the dark, each with a candle, each with memories of love and his or her intimate knowledge of the journey of grief.

I chose two short Hasidic teachings. The first is from Rebbe Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin (1823 – 1900) one of whose favourite sayings was ‘Bereisha chashocha ve’hadar nehora – First the darkness, then the light’.

Just as behind the light sometimes darkness is concealed;
so, behind the darkness is concealed the light.

 Darkness is no illusion; even the brightest light cannot always reach the shadowed and enclosed places where pain and fear, helplessness and despair lie crouching. ‘Even darkness is not too dark for you’, says the Psalmist, addressing God (Psalm 139). But for us humans, sometimes even love, courage and understanding cannot despite all their skill and tenacious tenderness penetrate the walls behind which suffering and loneliness inhabit the thick shadows.

Yet even here lies hidden light. I believe in the great endowment with which the human being is created: the capacities for love, compassion, selflessness, companionship, laughter, patience, endurance, wisdom, forbearance, reverence, wonder and creativity itself. Harsh experience may atrophy these attributes, encase them in cold hardness or even cruelty. But I do not believe that they cease to be there in potential. Thus, the human endeavour remains to help us find them despite life’s darkness, and, although we know too well that it is not always within our power, to alleviate that dark in so far as we can, for ourselves, our loved ones, our neighbours, and for the strangers and the refugees within our gates and beyond.

The second saying is from Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger (1847 – 1905), universally known as the Sefat Emet, ‘The Language of Truth’ after the title of his collected teachings.

One can blow out a candle, but light itself can never be extinguished.

I have witnessed time and again the light and loving-kindness which innumerable people carry in their hearts and seek to share wherever there is loneliness, grief and pain. I’ve been chastened on countless occasions by the ways generous and thoughtful people try to bring light wherever it is needed: gently, not in your face; selflessly, without show; sharing what they have and what their hearts know, not by what they say but by how they listen, not by what they tell but through what they do.

I know that so long as life on earth exists light itself can never be extinguished. I’m grateful to all our teachers, to all who carry that light.

Why Truth Matters

If I ever win the privilege of travelling back in time to a date and location of my choice, I want to spend a day observing the original editors of the Hebrew Bible at their remarkable task. Whoever they were and whenever they met, (I’d have difficulty giving the time-cab pilot clear instructions) they were people of extraordinary courage.

They could have said ‘No way!’ and left out the Book of Job which challenges God’s justice, offering no clear answers. They could have said ‘Impolitic, the Assyrians and Babylonians and Greeks are too busy attacking us already!’ and omitted the piercingly self-critical prophecies of Amos and Jeremiah. They could have said ‘Definitely not!’ and consigned Kohelet’s relentless questioning to the undiscovered dustbin of history’s lost masterpieces.

They did no such thing. Instead, they put the most difficult issues right in the heart of the sacred canon, making it everyone’s contemporary for all time, whatever the issues he, she, the entire community, or humanity itself has to face.

It’s customary to read Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) on the Sabbath in the middle of Succot, – that is, tomorrow. Who he was, when he was, and the bottom line of what he actually meant, – these questions remain open to perennial debate.

But one thing is certain. The author was ardent in the relentless pursuit of truth:

I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom (1:13)

Unlike so many protected by privilege, he did not hide behind the walls of the castles and gardens he built with such profligacy:

Behold the tears of the oppressed; they have no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors is power (4:10)

Most radically of all, he refused all easy answers, questioning whether life has any enduring meaning whatsoever:

Vanity of vanities, says Kohelet; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. (1:2)

This is, in effect, the strap-line of the book; it’s tantamount to testing every insight by multiplying it by zero and puzzling over the results. He refuses to be fooled.

These courageous qualities of Kohelet struck me forcibly this week for their sharply contemporary message, on two counts.

The first is the decision, taken by vote by UNESCO’s 58-member executive, that there is no ancient and integral relationship between Judaism and the Temple Mount. A fact doesn’t cease to be a fact because a wilfully ignorant group prefers it to be a fiction. The vote is by no means a unique occurrence; it is symptomatic of a civilizational drift away from empiricism towards mythology. It is a sign of the frightening reality that what matters today is all too often not what is, but in whose story it gets wrapped up.

The second is the 50th commemoration of the Aberfan disaster. I remember vividly the day when the huge coal-tip buried alive 116 children and 28 adults. Horror, grief and pity gripped the nation. What I didn’t know then was the slow and laborious manner in which the truth had to be dragged out of the National Coal Board that such a disaster could, and should, have been foreseen. Nor was I aware that the funds to remove the remaining pile of slag, and others like it, which terrified the surviving children were partly taken from the very moneys raised to support the victims, and that it was decades before they were repaid.

Should truth and responsibility cease to matter, lies and injustice will rule. When anyone with sufficient courage tries to call them to account, they will hide behind the virtually impenetrable barriers of fiction and unaccountability.

Therefore, let the voice of Kohelet speak out, probing, questioning, challenging and fearless for the truth.

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