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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