Greetings on the official birthday of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Throughout her long reign, Her Majesty has with untiring dedication represented the ideals of service and responsibility in this country and across the world, in innumerable public duties, and through devotion to charity, faith and peace.

These values have enabled Jews, alongside those of all faiths, to create communities, practise our religion and contribute to every aspect of life in this land in an environment of freedom and equality. Such opportunities must never be taken for granted.

We have profound reason to be grateful to Her Majesty the Queen, and to the government of this country.

May Her Majesty be blessed with many years of health, happiness and peace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Three Great Themes of Rosh Hashanah: 3 – Like a bird alone on the roof

Life can be extraordinary lonely and cruel. I remember asking a man from the Congo who was a guest in our community about his family. He didn’t reply, but simply turned away from me towards the wall.

The Talmud has an image for great loneliness: ‘like a bird alone on the roof’. Where have all the others gone? Have they already flown to seek the warmer lands? To whom shall I sing? Which way should I go? To the mystics the lonely bird on the roof became an image for God, forsaken in the world. Few people, too, escape moments, or days, or sometimes months and years, of such forsakenness, especially refugees and victims of destitution and war. It is unimaginable to most of us how our world must feel for many millions today.

At the heart of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, is a call to partnership. God, we are told, ‘remembers the covenant’. That covenant embraces the Jewish People in our long and challenging relationship with destiny, defining our essential aspirations of justice, compassion and peace. At an earlier level, the covenant includes all humankind, all the descendants of Noah, every family and nation of the earth, from those facing flooding in Bangladesh to those fleeing drought when the rain fails. Prior to that, it is a covenant with creation itself made over the sign of the rainbow, requiring us to be attentive to the animals and plants with whom we share our world and which, if we destroy, we annihilate ourselves. Earlier even than that, the covenant embraces the very earth which, in this Sabbatical year, ‘rests before the Lord’.

We are thus linked in mutual interdependence and bound together in inescapable responsibility with all that lives, whose animating spirit the Bible and the mystics call the breath of God.

On Rosh Hashanah the Shofar, the call of the ram’s horn, summons us home to this partnership. The wild ram feeds on grasses nurtured by sun, rain and earth. Its horns grow slowly of keratin; after the animal’s death they are hollowed out by human hand so that the breath can flow through and cause the horn to sound. That cry, with no words, no melody, no fixed pitch or volume, is nevertheless strangely and penetratingly articulate, the voice of some invisible presence calling us back to faithfulness.

Our world is torn apart. With the possible exception of 2001 and the days after 9/11, I can remember no New Year quite so frightening. Unrestrained violence is vaunted without shame. Beheadings, bombing, rockets, secret tunnels, assassinations, threats of terror dominate the headlines. At the same time, other voices cry out to be heard, voices of forests and seas, birds and fishes, of the planet and the atmosphere themselves, as in the great Climate Change marches last Sunday.

Rosh Hashanah calls us home to our faith and asks us to conduct ourselevs in good faith, with each other in our families and communities, with the Jewish People and all Israel, with other faiths and nations, and with the earth itself. In the words of Martin Luther King, ‘We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny’.

May God guide us to behave in all our dealings in the coming year with respect, compassion, courage and faith.   Leshanah Tovah – A good, worthwhile, happy and peaceful New Year.


Early childhood memories have cast Scotland in a green and lovely light. I remember going to school down the Milngavie Road on a route which eventually arrives at Loch Lomond. Hills, streams and ‘the kiss of sweet Scottish rain’ have a central place in my sense of how the world should be.
I was born in Scotland for reasons loosely connected with Hitler. When my mother was eighteen, my grandparents sent her out of Germany to study in Zurich. At least one of their children would be safe from the immediate Nazi threat. When the whole family finally received permission to enter Britain, on temporary visas with a promise that they would continue on to the States, my mother was in the middle of her degree. Apparently, the only university to accept students from the Continent and credit them for courses already completed, was Glasgow. That’s why she and a group of other German-Jewish girls found themselves together on Kelvinside. Years later, after she’d obtained her PhD, made Aliyah to help establish the German Department at the Hebrew University, met my father, had my brother, and they were making plans to come back to Britain, she recommended Glasgow as ‘a place where she had friends’. Two years later I was born in Bearsden.
Once or twice each year the call of the hills still overcomes me, a longing easily transmitted to the rest of my family, and we board the train to cross the border. (‘Will we need our passports next time?’ the children ask.) Even the dog recognises those happy moments when we walk alongside the carriages at Euston and empties his bladder against every lamppost, knowing it’ll be many hours before we descend amidst fresher air and the prospect of incomparably longer walks.
On those treks it’s not rare to see in the midst of the heather and ferns the ruins of old stone walls. There are whole villages, abandoned. It’s all that remains as witness to the Highland Clearances in which thousands of people were driven from the land they’d crofted for generations in favour of the more profitable (and ecologically disastrous) sheep-farming. The history of the Clearances is complex as well as cruel. It’s often (mis?)connected with the brutal conduct of the Duke of Cumberland after his victory over Bonnie Prince Charlie at the battle of Culloden in 1746, the last real struggle for Scottish independence from England. Whatever the details, the broken byres and crofts testify to what the financial aspirations of the distant rich can do to the lives of the poor. It’s not surprising that in the far north we saw many signs this summer bearing the one word, ‘Yes’.
Does the Torah have anything to teach about the Scottish Referendum? (On my children’s advice I resisted the temptation to tweet: ‘Vote ‘No’ and oppose the two-state solution’. ‘It’ll only be misunderstood’, they said, wisely). The only reference I can find in the prayer-book is the High Holyday plea asking God to direct our hearts so that ‘we all form agudah achat,one union, to do your will with a perfect heart’. That notwithstanding, there’s no evidence that Judaism would define either voting ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ as a mitzvah or a transgression. The blessing for the Torah which describes God as asher bachar banu, ‘who chose for us’ can thus be claimed by neither side.
Nevertheless the whole affair makes me sad. There’s always tension between our need for commonality and our desire to be different. The renewed engagement with roots and tradition is a positive response to the levelling and dulling effects of globalisation. We don’t want to be stripped of our right to be different and to live as who we are, not as part of someone else’s empire, commercial, religious or territorial. But is the creation of new borders the only way this can be achieved?
A leading question facing not just Scotland but humanity is whether we have the creativity, sensitivity and imagination to foster both our commonalities and our differences and allow them both to deepen our humanity?

Light and salvation

During these weeks of Elul, the month of preparation before the New Year, it’s the custom to say Psalm 27 every morning and evening. I feel attached to this Psalm and I sometimes find myself saying its words on long lonely walks, or, like last night, when the dog barks at a fox at two in the morning and I can’t get back to sleep. 
It begins: ‘God is my light and my salvation, of whom shall I be afraid?’ (Verse 1)  Light and salvation sound like weak protection against the terrors of the world. Yet what would we wish for a hostage, like the British aid worker David Haines held by IS? What do we ask from God on his behalf? Of course, we pray that the best and swiftest way is found to gain his release, that his captors should not treat him, or any other hostages, with cruelty in the meantime and that he should be enabled to re-join his anxious family in safety and good health.  But we would also wish that God should be with him in his heart, as his light and his salvation, to bring him inner strength and peace. Whatever troubles we ourselves may have to pass through, however minor in comparison, or however serious, I believe we would say the same prayer for ourselves, that something steadfast should dwell within our heart, a presence which, without promising anything other than itself, so that it cannot disappoint us, is sustaining, irremovable and silently luminous.
Later in the Psalm the heart speaks in response. ‘On your behalf my heart has said: “Seek my presence”; that presence, God, I shall indeed seek. Don’t hide it from me…’ (Verses 8 and 9) Judaism generally takes an unromantic view of the human heart*. The heart is conflicted; it is the place where desire and willpower, passion and reason, meet. Will it prompt us to act rightly, or drive us into wrongdoing? Jeremiah records a moment of despair: ‘The heart is deceitful and weak; who can know it?’ he asks. Only God, he responds, in words which have made their way into the confessional prayers for the Day of Atonement: ‘I am the Lord, who searches the heart and tests the conscience’. (17:9-10)
But this Psalm offers a gentler and more generous account of the encounter between God and heart. God may search the heart, but the heart also searches for God. The heart is inwardly attuned to the resonance of God’s presence and, despite all the noise of the world around it, hears God’s words within its chambers as if it, the heart itself, were the speaker: ‘Seek my face’.
This is not a moment of transcendent revelation in which God addresses us from heaven. It’s more a moment of togetherness and recognition, a moment of awareness of the presence of God within all life, in the vitality of trees, the vibrancy of music, the stillness of thought itself.
To hear this voice is the heart’s deepest passion; it longs for connection with the life which animates all vital being, as the pool in the rocks below the waterfall needs the stream which feeds it living waters. The heart seeks God as the source and essence of its vitality and, in that longing, knows that it must be pure and honest and closed off by no wrongdoing. ‘Your presence, God, shall I seek’.

* A better translation might be ‘consciousness’ since biblical and early rabbinic Judaism don’t separate between the heart as the centre of feeling and the mind as the locus of rational thought. Both are included in the word ‘heart’. 


The Torah contains three commandments about love: ‘Love the Lord your God’; ‘Love your neighbour’; and ‘Love the stranger’. These three injunctions, the essence of Jewish spirituality, communal life and ethics, are now beautifully composed in our Synagogue, above and on either side of the Ark. Thanks to Jason Kelvin, they have been fashioned with subtlety and grace, to show both light and shadow, just as in our hearts the love of others is sometimes prominent and sometimes, sadly, overshadowed.  
The three love commandments share a basic problem. Actions can be commanded, but is it really possible to order a person to love? Surely no one can love on demand; love has to flow genuinely, or it cannot flow at all. Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Lev of Ger, known as theSefat Emet, addresses this question as follows: Indeed, love cannot be commanded. But that is not what the Torah does. Rather, the love of God and other people are natural to us; such is the native propensity of the human heart. All the Torah therefore requires of us is that we remove  the numerous preoccupations which prevent us from experiencing and living according to such love: self-interest, narrow-mindedness, the dulling callus of old injuries where the open heart has been wounded. Underneath them, we will rediscover an unfathomable reservoir of kindness, generosity and love. His interpretation depends on a deep faith, not just in God, but, even more so, in human nature. For many, both stand, sadly, in question.
What do the three love commandments ask of us? The simple answer is ‘not less than everything’; they encompass our entire moral and spiritual world, they engage us in every dimension and relationship of life.
The love of God calls on us to open our hearts and minds to the one spirit, the breath of all living being, which animates our consciousness and the consciousness of all that exists. It asks us to be faithful to the invisible bond of life to which we belong and which speaks wordlessly in all things: ‘You shall not hurt, nor destroy in all my holy mountain’.
The love of our neighbour requires us, in Hillel’s words, ‘Not to do to others what we would not want them to do to us’. When relationships are open and comfortable, it summons the natural loving-kindness within us. When matters are difficult, it asks us to try to understand the challenges and sufferings of others and, rather than responding with anger, to be thoughtful and forbearing and to try to engender healing.
The love of the stranger requires us to imagine life through the eyes of the most vulnerable: what is it like to feel not at home, unsafe, marginal, unwanted and excluded? In the cruel realities of today, it demands of us that we try to read the world not just as it features in our narrative, the story with which we tell ourselves ‘the truth’, but also as it might look to those in other countries, of other faiths, whose accounts might read quite differently from our own. Little is so urgently necessary in our day as such moral imagination. If we all asked ourselves, ‘What does that feel like to others?’ there might actually be no war.    
Nothing is so challenging as these three love commandments. As we endeavour to allow them to direct our lives, we should regard not just our successes, but also our failures, as provisional. In the words of Naomi Shemer’s famous song Od Lo Ahavti Di! I haven’t loved enough. Which of us has done even a significant fraction of what we could for our neighbour, for the stranger, or for our own spirt? Yet none of us has ‘failed’. Where we do wrong, where we conduct ourselves less worthily than the person we know we might have been, we must not despair, but learn and endeavour anew. For goodness, like God’s spirit, is never exhausted.  It calls on us to try again, and again and again after that. It is the essence of the holy, and summons us forever.

After Gaza: these wounds go very deep

‘Here you have sixty seconds to get to the shelter’, Rabbi Mauricio Balter explains to me. ‘Your body is on constant stand-by. You have to think through every moment. What do you do when taking a shower? What about elderly relatives who walk with a frame?’ We’re in the office of his beautiful synagogue in Beer Sheva with its kindergartens attached. He’s worried for the children, he continues sadly, ‘They’ll look at the world with eyes of suspicion instead of trust’. He describes his congregation’s shared activities with Bedouin and Arab communities, ‘I worry for the future of Judaism, the pluralist, open, debating Judaism we love’. ‘And the future of Israel’, a colleague adds.

I’ve come to Israel now because there’s so much anxiety and pain and I want to stand alongside some of those who bear it and strive despite everything to bring healing. Even if only briefly and symbolically, I want to be with those who, even in these cruel times, keep bridges open.

I’m in the homes of Israeli Arabs with Simon Lichman, whose Centre for Creativity in Education runs remarkable programmes which bring Israeli and Palestinian school-communities together. Here are mainly old friends; how is the war affecting them? They too are underneath the rockets, and afraid. ‘Force is a loser. The leaders have to talk,’ said a retired Imam. ‘If only they’d just let us get on with living together,’ two sisters told me. But just living isn’t easy: ‘There aren’t many Arab women in the Jerusalem light railway now; you might get spat at, shouted at, your head scarf pulled off. It’s frightening in the streets.’ There’s a tone of resigned determination; these people keep stubborn, even affectionate faith with the country despite the indignities they sometimes experience: ‘My father didn’t bring us up to say “That’s a Jew” or “That’s an Arab”, but “That’s a human being”.

I hear the same message from Jewish Israelis. ‘It won’t end until we talk’, is the slogan of the Parent’s Circle, the organisation of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents who’ve lost children in the conflict. Since the start of the war they’ve held an open meeting every evening in a square in Tel Aviv. A man cycling past stops to argue: ‘There’s no one to talk to. You can’t talk to Hamas!’ He’s invited to stay and discuss. One of the long-standing members of the Circle, Jacob Gutterman, tells his story: ‘My father died in the first day’s fighting in the Warsaw Ghetto. Aged nine, I was an orphan. I came to Israel, married, had two sons. My wife died of cancer when I was thirty. I brought those boys up with love. Raz insisted on joining the Golani. He was killed at Beaufort in 1982. How many wars must there be? What do they achieve? We need to end the occupation, and talk.’ The questioner is not satisfied.

I visit the family of Hadar Goldin. On the way I pass the military cemetery; his grave is covered in wreaths, now starting to whither. They are from his unit, his friends, colleagues of his parents. Hadar had just become engaged; they’d planned to marry before Rosh Hashanah. He was the kind of leader people longed to follow, an excellent officer. ‘He would say: “One can think of oneself, or do better and think of others”’. He was an artist; in his Siddur are beautiful hand-written prayers: ‘Let our hearts see the virtues in our fellow beings, not the faults; let there be no hatred’. His kind and gentle family welcome me.

I visit wounded soldiers at the remarkable Seroka Hospital. ‘They’ve mainly gone home, thank God. Yesterday this place was packed with well-wishers, children, choirs, politicians.’ I’m moved by the cards, the gifts of food, the appreciative affection for those who’ve seen the terrible fighting. A family waits outside Intensive Care: ‘We talk to him, play music. His level of consciousness is low, but we have faith. He’ll come back to us!’ ‘He’s a true hero’: says our guide, indicating a soldier as we pass; I see stitches all down his leg. I’ve been spared serving in any army; I’ve no idea how terrifying it must have been in the dreadful tunnels of Gaza.

I visit the rehabilitation centre at Tel Hashomer. It’s easy to forget how young the soldiers are; at just twenty or twenty-one they are responsible for the borders, the kibbutzim, their comrades. They have wounds on their legs, arms, shrapnel injuries on back and shoulders. Several lost companions in battle. In their memories many must carrying haunting images of injury and death. Yet they smile and speak warmly about the future.

I’d asked if it was possible to visit wounded Palestinians. The ordinary people, especially the children, hadn’t chosen to be born in Gaza, trapped as human shields between the cunning cruelties of Hamas and Israeli’s response. Friends take me to Mokassed Hospital. I’m nervous but they tell me, ‘No, they appreciate Jewish visitors. It’s important.’

Children arrive here from Gaza every day. “It’ll make your heart weep,” our driver is telling my friends. A woman cradles a young boy; I ask if she’s his mother. ‘No; she’s a volunteer. Eighteen of his family were killed. There’s only his grandfather left. I turn to an elderly man: ‘It’s God’s will’, he says. It matters to him deeply that we visit, he adds.

In another ward is a girl with a sweet smile; her face is covered in burns. A relative wordlessly lifts the blankets; her arm, her legs are completely bandaged. She has shrapnel wounds too. Most of her family are wounded, I’m told. They’ve needed amputations. The question arises: what’ll happen when they get home? There is no home; their home has been destroyed.

They sit us down: ‘There are hundreds of such cases; the doctors have never seen anything like this. There are laws of war; there’s right and there’s wrong. If this is supposed to be Judaism, someone isn’t reading the Torah right. Are these children targets?’ (The previous night, former MK Rabbi Michael Melchior read me in pain the appalling pronouncements of certain rabbis claiming that everyone was a legitimate target in Gaza.)

One of them continues: ‘I’ve been pro-peace since before Oslo. But what’s this? Why don’t the Israeli leaders talk to their friends? Why has Abu Mazen been humiliated? Don’t imagine  Hamas is weaker now.’ ‘But Hamas’, I feel like arguing, then realise I’m not here to argue, not in the face of these appalling injuries. I’m here to listen and bear witness. He says: ‘Jews have been leaders in thinking. But about the future for Israeli Arabs, the future for Israel, they do not think. We need to hear the voice of Jewry.’

Afterwards my friends explain that people are slipping them envelopes with money for the hospital. It’s desperately needed for medication. ‘So that I can look myself in the mirror’, one eminent Israeli said as she gave several thousand shekels. A doctor from  Tel Hashomer tells me that they care for many Palestinians. He hopes the bridges will soon be rebuilt so that they can work together with Palestinian hospitals for the best future for the children.

Every country has the right and duty of self-defence. But where will force alone take us? The solution has to be political, diplomatic, moral, human. It has to contain dignity, justice and security. People have to be truly equal. Only there lies life: ‘It won’t end until we talk’.

In the car back from Beer Sheva, the driver, a deep patriot, said to me: We did need to defend ourselves. But maybe not everything was justified. His friend’s son is an officer, he adds. After two weeks in Gaza he was allowed to call home. He simply wept: ‘The devastation; the destruction!’ He didn’t want to cry in front of his men, he told his mother, but he could hear them weeping in the night.


Published in the JC on Friday 15th August 2014


Most years, after the bleak fast of Tishah b’Av is over and we arrive at Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Consolation, named after the beautiful words of Isaiah ‘“Comfort you, comfort you, my people”, says the Lord’, a change comes over me, like a cool wind blowing through the heart, like the song of a waterfall, still hidden below the trees but near, restorative and strong: ‘The glory of God is revealed, and all flesh shall see it together’. I wish it was possible to feel the same this year.
On Monday I was privileged to attend on behalf of the Jewish community the service in Glasgow Cathedral commemorating the centenary of the start of the First World War. It was an extremely humbling experience. At its heart was the movingly read extract from Helen Thomas’s memoirs of her husband Edward’s last leave; he had joined the Artists’ Rifles in 1915. As he walked out into the snow and mist, their final parting, he called out to her their familiar call ‘Coo-ee’ and she endeavoured to respond:

  • “Coo-ee!” So faint now that it might be only my own call flung back from the thick air and muffling snow. I put my hands up to my mouth to make a trumpet, but no sound came. Panic seized me, and I ran through the mist and the snow to the top of the hill, and stood there a moment dumbly, with straining eyes and ears. There was nothing but the mist and the snow and the silence of death.

Somehow in those words the echo or vibration of an overwhelming heartache traversed the entire congregation, the aftershock of inexpressible sorrows still palpable after a hundred years.
As we walked out from the service, our subdued feelings warmed by the great kindness of everyone around, I glimpsed on the edge of my sight-lines the banners of a small demonstration, ‘No More War’.
Yesterday the Iraqi town of Qaraqosh was captured by Isis fighters; it had supposedly been a ‘safe haven’ for tens of thousands of Christians and Yazidis. An appalling humanitarian disaster looms; America has dropped food and water, and has threatened air strikes.
In Gaza it is still not clear if Hamas will keep the uneasy truce. Few really believe it’s all over. As Asher Schechter wrote in yesterday’s Haaretz,

  • Iron Dome can’t intercept reality. Our rockets and aircrafts can’t solve the unsolvable any easier. They can’t even guarantee us a quiet winter, because this is not an ordinary military conflict. There is no winning this.

Winning will have to look like something different from war, and more war, which, if it simply continues without any political or human resolution, will only bring fear, pain and grief, and more fear, pain and grief, to everyone.
Where, then, lies the comfort of which Isaiah speaks with such grace?
Sometimes we have to derive it not from around us, but from within us. Can we ourselves be of comfort? Is there any way in which, in whatever capacity, we can be healers? There is the immediate need to move shrapnel from wounded flesh, a skill in which most of us are not qualified. There is the more widespread need to remove hatred from wounded hearts and minds, an even more challenging endeavour in which none of us is totally unskilled and to which, if humanity is to have a future at all, we must all most urgently be committed.
In harsh times it’s easy to spread hate; social media have made it even simpler. Instead, we need to try to understand each other’s needs, anxieties, hopes and frustrations. We need to listen from our hearts, say the words, create the paths and establish the opportunities for each other’s humanity to unfold. This begins at home, moves out into our own communities, and then maybe even crosses boundaries into those of other faiths and those whose minds have been bound on different trajectories from our own.
These thoughts may sound weak to the point of folly and irrelevance when violence and death are on the loose. I’m afraid of them and we have to defend ourselves. But I’m even more afraid of the hatreds not yet born, being bred in hearts even now, conceived amidst fury and destruction, awaiting their future.  We will only supplant them if we can give each other hope; if we can restore for one another the true human legacy of life, affections, plans, ideas, safety, wonder and joy.
Moses summed up God’s injunction in the simplest of all commands: ‘Uvacharta vachayyim; choose life!’ We must help one another to choose life and therein must lie our comfort.

Tishah B’Av – and a Vigil for Life

Tonight, at the beginning of the fast of Tishah b’Av, we read Eichah, the Scroll of Lamentations. I believe it is the only text we read specifically at night except for theHaggadah, which forms the substance of the Seder. As the latter celebrates our freedom, so, by contrast, Eichah laments its loss.
Four of the five chapters of this painful text are written in acrostic form, each verse or group of verses beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. One of the most compelling explanations for this which I have heard suggests that the author was so pained and horrified by the death and devastation which he saw before his eyes that he was rendered incapable of coherent speech. At the same time he felt impelled to give vent to his feelings in words. The only way he could do so was to cling to the structure of the alphabet, rather as a faint and frightened  person might hang on to the bannisters to prevent himself from falling down to the invisible bottom of a fathomless stairwell.
This author is traditionally understood to be the prophet Jeremiah, who lived through the subjugation of Jerusalem, its sacking by Nebuchadnezzar twelve years later and the final demise of the remnant of the population who remained in the city. Of all the disasters he witnessed, nothing appalled him more than the deaths of children:

  • …They say to their mothers ‘Where’s corn and wine?’ as their life drains away and they turn into corpses in the streets of the city, as they breathe out their last breaths in the laps of their mothers.
  • …Rise up! Cry out in the night, at the start of the watch! Pour your heart out like water; stretch your hands out to God, for the lives of your young children, dying of starvation in the streets.

Once again today children are dying amidst violence and war. In Israel too, parents, people many among us know and care for, are weeping the terrible loss of their children; yesterday thousands attended the funeral of Hadar Goldin, bringing the number of young men killed just as their lives were truly commencing to 64. There would have been many, many more were it not for the Iron Dome. In Gaza, over 400 children, caught up in horrors which they had no part in creating, have been killed before their lives have even properly begun. Elsewhere too in the world children are dying in huge numbers. Tonight is also the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, with its millions of young dead.
Judaism teaches us that all life is sacred, that all the living are responsible for one another, and that, whoever is ultimately to blame, death by violence, especially the deaths of children, is a terrible desecration which shames us all. Judaism teaches us that, however great we consider the guilt of others, and in our world today it is constantly shocking, we must nevertheless examine ourselves to ask what we should have done and should now do.    
I admire deeply all those who strive to protect life, especially the lives of the most vulnerable, from hunger, illness, violence, homelessness and hopelessness. For myself, I hope this Tishah b’Av will strengthen my resolve to do more.  

Strange Meeting

As I write, a fragile three-day humanitarian truce has begun between Israel and Gaza. Few would dispute the hope that it should last, then outlast those three days, then become the beginning of a deeper and more abiding change. (In fact, it seems it’s not holding.)

Where does one draw hope in these dismal days? There is suffering for Israel, with the killed, the bereaved, the wounded, the fear for the whole population about where the next rocket may fall, the special anguish of those whose children are in the army. There is suffering among ordinary Palestinian people caught in the fighting, the children, the injured, the bereaved.

In this bleak, tragic terrain, it is not difficult for ideologies of hatred and violence to thrive. Looking from Israel we see Hamas, Islamic Jihad and beyond it Isis. Others, from their perspectives, see different kinds of weaponry, drones, bombs dropped from heights they cannot even perceive, and, far underground in hidden places, nuclear arsenals.

These matters concern not just Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, but everyone anywhere who cares about life. August 4th marks the centenary of the start of the First World War; we don’t want to be back again where we were then, only worse. We don’t want to offer hatred a victory.

If so, what does winning mean? It’s foolish to think that security and self-defence are not critical to the survival of the free world and humanity everywhere. I don’t believe there is another choice, except to pursue them. But they are not alone sufficient to win a different future. As David Grossman wrote (Haaretz, 27 July) ‘There is no military solution to the real anguish of the Palestinian people, and as long as the suffocation felt in Gaza is not alleviated, we in Israel will not be able to breathe freely either.’ His words apply to many situations well beyond the Middle East.

Somehow, there needs to be a human victory. Sometime in 1918, after four years of madness, Wilfred Owen imagined a Strange Meeting between two dead combatants in an underground tunnel beyond the grave. Here they finally recognize each other: ‘Whatever hope is yours, Was my life also’…‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.’ We have to try to keep faith, however impossible it may seem, that beneath the layers of fear and projection with which we dress each other, we will one day encounter in at least some of those we have considered enemies the human visage. Many are striving, and succeeding, in doing that even now as I write.

There needs to be a moral victory. We cannot allow purveyors of hate, whoever they are, to recreate us in their own image. We must not be driven into actions which cut us off from our moral foundations. We therefore need to stand for long-term justice, justice for ourselves as Jews with our long and bitter history of being persecuted, justice for ordinary Palestinian people, and justice throughout the world. That is, after all the essence of the Jewish vision. But it’s not just, or even mainly, a ‘Jewish’ issue: this is a challenge which every nation and every faith has to confront.

There need to be economic victories. There clearly exist ideologies which want to bully us into thinking otherwise, but we have to believe that the vast majority of people want lives which include education, work, family, children, happy memories and a good future. We all need to help make such futures possible. The rich world must not continue to leave people in wretched corners where they have nothing to lose, and nothing to gain except how expensively they can sell their deaths.

There needs to be a spiritual victory, of appreciation that God is the God of life, that every human being carries God’s sacred image, that all life on earth matters, that we must share and honor our sacred home, this earth. It is the ceaseless duty of all religions to affirm and live out these truths with all the passion and commitment of which they are capable.

I put my hope not so much in these beliefs as in those people, in Israel, the Middle East and across the world, who strive to live by them and whose successes, which often seem small in the face of great violence, are the foundation for our future. 

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