‘The Hebrew for hedgehog,’ he said. It wasn’t the response I’d expected. Let me explain: the last of my series A Jewish Take on Life on Earth, scheduled for 9 March, is about mammals. Receiving no reply from elsewhere, I tried the British Hedgehog Society:
– Could they provide a speaker to follow on from my Biblical insights with something about the contemporary state of affairs?
– And you are???
– A rabbi; this is the kind of thing I do. You see, my community is very eco-minded…
To my surprise I’m given the mobile number of the Society’s spokesperson, Hugh Warwick, whose name I know from his books, such as A Prickly Affair. He answers at once. ‘I’m always up for a different kind of audience,’ he says kindly. ‘There are four references to hedgehogs in the Hebrew Bible, the word is kipod isn’t it, and there’s that magnificent passage in Job…’
As it happens, I’d already ordered his next book Linescapes about reconnecting Britain’s fragmented wildlife. On page 32 he quotes the remarkable phrase ‘extinction of experience’. He explains, ‘All over the world agricultural systems are being disrupted by this erosion – the loss of language, or just words, to describe, own and manage the land.’
That phrase ‘extinction of experience’ has climbed off the page into my head. It’s relevant not just to ecology, but to Judaism, and more: it encapsulates the danger there will be a rift, a break in transmission, in the core values of life.
When our children were growing up, we wanted them to have three loves: people, starting with family, nature and Judaism. We sought to teach them wonder, taking them to the forest by day, and in the owl-cry night. They’ve shown a remarkably loving degree of parent tolerance.
What we need to transmit aren’t facts or even skills. They’re experiences, and only the love and the living, the commitment of heart as well as head, has the power to communicate them.
Have I lived what I care about deeply enough? I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that being human, a teacher, indeed a rabbi is about precisely this: fostering the osmosis of good experience. Neither Judaism, nor nature, nor humankind can afford ‘the extinction of experience.’ One can teach through talks on Torah. That’s important. But the true purpose is to teach and learn through living and doing.
That’s the difference between being a teacher and an educator. I remember the names of many excellent teachers I’ve been lucky to have. But I’ve never even known the names of some of my educators, – like the elderly Jew who held a finger to his lips to tell me to be silent while he sewed new fringes onto my tallit, my prayer shawl, in an act of devotion the spirit of which still often wraps itself round me when I put the garment on.
That’s why, in a different context, I periodically WhatsApp our street, asking for shopping for the food bank. I’m aware that it makes better financial sense to set up a standing order to the Trussell Trust or Foodbank Aid; we should do that as well. But seeing the queue at the food bank makes me know something which filling in an online form cannot.
So I find myself, too, a rebel against extinction. I wouldn’t use all the strategies of XR. But I too feel the urgent need for a recentring of values back to the heart of being human.
My ambition at 64, felt even more deeply as I get older, is to live that love of people, nature and Judaism ever more fully and be inspired by others who do the same and more so.