‘Awareness was in exile.’ These words stuck in my mind through yesterday’s double date.
It was Earth Day, founded 51 years ago out of love of our planet.
It was Stephen Lawrence Day, established in 2018, ‘about the part we all play in creating a society in which everyone can flourish.’
Yesterday, too, the Board of Deputies of British Jews published the report by Stephen Bush of its Commission on Racial Inclusivity in the Jewish Community. Based on the testimony of numerous witnesses, its insights are heartfelt and incisive and its recommendations clear, specific and detailed. Every community and organisation should study it and make plans to implement its findings.
The day before yesterday, the killer of George Floyd was found guilty of murder.
‘Awareness is in exile’ is a catchphrase from the Jewish mystics. The Hebrew is ‘hada’at begalut’. Da’at is usually translated as knowledge but here it means more: perception, realisation, awareness. When we have da’at,our mind and conscience are alert. We recognise what we do to each other and the world. When da’at is in exile, we’re oblivious.
These mystics weren’t cocooned in a spiritual reverie of practical and social irrelevance. ‘Awareness is in exile’ was how they explained that archetypal landscape of injustice in the Torah: slavery in Egypt, the cruel, racist dehumanising of others.
Different as they are, Earth Day and Stephen Lawrence Day have a disturbing amount in common. Both have roots in a history of exploitation. In A Decolonial Ecology, Michael Ferdinand makes a disturbing link between colonising other peoples and colonising nature. He refers to
a certain way of inhabiting the earth, some believing themselves entitled to appropriate the earth for the benefit of a few… This is what I call “colonial habitation” – a violent way of inhabiting the earth, subjugating lands, humans, and non-humans to the desires of the coloniser.
I want to rebel against these harsh and discomfiting words. But are they untrue? I can hear Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (1730 -1787) in whose work I first encountered the words ‘awareness is in exile,’ saying to me: ‘Are you respectful towards the earth? Do you honour God for its gifts? Are you respectful towards all human beings, created in God’s image?’
There is a deep connection between the recommendations of the Board of Deputies’ report and President Biden’s call yesterday for the US to cut emissions by 2030 to under 50% of what they were in 2005. In the classical language of Judaism, these are calls to Teshuvah, recognition, rethinking and restoration. They require us to take responsibility and make reparation.
The report of the Commission on Racial Inclusivity is based on the statements of witnesses. At the core of this testimony is the failure to notice: what it feels like to be stopped time and again by security; to have one’s specific culture, from the historical and spiritual to the culinary, ignored; to hear hurtful remarks, usually unintentional but no less culpable for that, passed from pulpit and pew.
We hurt the earth, too, because we so often don’t notice, sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes because we feel we can’t help it, most often because we don’t realise, and sometimes wantonly.
The essential question now is what we can do to put things right. We need to bring a deeper awareness out of exile, back to the centre of our mind, heart and conscience.