Clusters of snowdrops

Because this is Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song; because the week brings Tu Bishevat ‘The Birthday of the Trees’; and because the snowdrops are clustered in their green and white beauty and even the first January-flowering daffodils are brightening the winter day, (and after all the painful memorials of the previous weeks), I want to write about wonder and joy.
Wonder at the natural world and consciousness of the spiritual world are deeply interconnected. They both have their roots in yirat shamayim, awe before God, which is shorthand for a lived and experienced feeling of reverence for all life, both in its particularity, in tree, bird and deer, and in its vital unity as a constant manifestation of the ‘one motion and one spirit…that rolls through all things.’ (Wordsworth: Lines Written above Tintern Abbey)
The Talmud (Shabbat 31) discusses whether yirat shamayim, awe before God, is the gateway towards which the study and practice of Torah guides us, or the gateway through which we must pass in order to find the true essence of Torah. Maybe it depends on one’s mood at the time, but right now I think of awe and wonder as marking the entranceway to the place from which all teaching derives, all reverence, respect and love of life, everything for which the word ‘God’ serves as indicator, whom the kabbalists call Ein Sof, the unending and inexhaustible source, as it becomes the wellspring of being and beauty.
That is why it matters to look out for the clusters of snowdrops in hedgerows and to stand still in the winter woodlands at night, because their living presence speaks of God as surely as the words of the Kaddish meditation and quietly expresses the wordless equivalent of ‘May God’s name be sanctified and glorified and praised’.
Wonder is a kind of kinship and connection entails responsibility. Therefore each person ‘has an infinite sphere of responsibility, of responsibility before the infinite’ (Buber: My Way to Hasidism). If I seek the spiritual companionship of oaks and beeches, and the birds which roost in them, then I must care about the forests and their wellbeing too.
Hence wonder leads to action. The goal of this action is always Tikkun, reparation, motivated by the longing for the world to be as God wants it, or dreams it. It constitutes our response to what Hans Jonas called ‘the mutely insistent appeal of [God’s] unfulfilled goal’.
Such Tikkun or reparation calls us to dedicate ourselves in two mutually necessary and inter-dependent ways. On the one hand we are required to act. Here, the possibilities are endless. One might apply the Mishnah’s words ‘for my sake the world was created,’ to mean that there are specific aspects of life which call out to me and you especially, because of who we are, because of our particular character and aptitudes, so that we care for them, work with them and seek their healing.
On the other hand, we are required to sensitise our mind and spirit so that we are alert enough and pure enough to hear the speech which is latent in all things, both powerful and inaudible at once, as in the lines of Yehudah Halevi’s poem, based on the nineteenth Psalm:
      Behold the heavens and their hosts proclaim the awe of you, 
      yet their voice is not heard at all
That half-heard, almost silent cry is God’s call.

‘I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.’

‘How did they survive?’ How often I have heard people ask this question with humbled amazement after meeting a survivor or a child from the Kindertransport. Tuesday 27 January will mark seventy years since the first troops of the Red Army liberated Auschwitz. How powerfully Primo Levi described his first sight of them, four soldiers on horseback ‘throwing strangely embarrassed glances at the sprawling bodies, at the battered huts and at the few of us still alive…oppressed not only by compassion but by a confused restraint’.

Reading accounts by survivors, gripping, terrible, often also inspiring, is apt to give a distorted impression. The overwhelming majority of Jews in lands occupied by the Nazis did not survive. Of most of the victims, we know only passing sentences about the gaps they left in the lives of a loved one, perhaps the sole individual from a family of twenty, or forty, to see the summer of 1945 and to testify afterwards in the archives of Yad Vashem concerning the names of those who never came back.

Many, perhaps to some degree all, who survived did so partly by luck. To return to Primo Levi, whose acute and discerning honesty, neither self-dramatizing nor self-pitying, makes him the greatest of witnesses, it was not necessarily the best who survived the cruel struggles forced upon them by the cunning degradations devised by the Nazis and their collaborators. Many of the best, he wrote, gave away their bread, and perished.

Yet, besides chance, that this hiding place was not discovered or betrayed, while that one, metres distant was, one senses – both in the testament of those who did survive and in the fragments, letters, drawings, memories of words stealthily uttered, of those who did not – that there is something else, something penetrating and enduring, something pure, which remains to testify, alongside the vast evidence of unimaginable cruelties, to an essential vibrancy and humanity which has not even now, seventy years later, been extinguished, and never shall be.

Among some, there remained a deep faith. ‘They walked upright and they sang’ Roman Halter, one of “The Boys”, recalled about the Hasidim who advanced next to him towards the infamous selections. ‘I asked, and they told me it was a verse about entrusting themselves to God’s care’. For many more it was not faith in God alone, or faith in God at all, but faith in life, the inestimable beauty and tenderness of life itself, which imbued their hearts with such defiant tenacity, even though their own life was in all probability about to be stolen from them.

Such is the evidence in the picture from the camp at Gurs in the Pyrenees of the light-winged, multi-coloured butterfly perched on the very barbed wire which denied the painter the freedom of the mountains beyond. Such is the testament of the child who wrote in Theresienstadt, ‘I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining’. Such too is the testimony of Gerda Weissman-Klein who wrote, recalling the conversation between her parents about their love for each other which she overheard on the last, sleepless night before the dawn of their separation, that it was this very love which sustained her in Poland and Germany, through camps and ghettoes, when all else was taken from her except what she treasured in her own heart, and the stalwart ski boots her father had insisted, despite her protestations, that she put on her feet on that hot day in June when they were forced from their family home.

This precious testament is our inheritance, together with the legacy of bearing witness against all cruelty and evil wherever it is committed on this earth. We must garner this ineradicable faith, this unquenchable love, in our hearts. It is our deepest treasure, our greatest ally, as we, the generations of those now here, carry our life-time of responsibility for the destiny of humanity and the fate of all the creatures on the earth.

Now, when once again the world is louring, replete with potential cruelties yet to unfold, we need every breath of that love and faith, every glimmer and reflection from that eternal light which God illumined in the heart of humanity and which shall never yield to being extinguished, to guide us on our path.

Not just ‘I am’ but ‘I care’.

This has been a terrible week. Our thoughts are with our fellow communities in Paris. We followed the sieges with anguish, learnt with horror of the deaths of hostages, were stirred by the huge demonstrations across France, and pained to witness the grief of the families at the funerals of their loved ones in Israel, and across France.
The anxiety has not gone away. The same threats which manifested themselves in such a vile manner in Paris remain; threats to democracy, to freedom, and to Jews and anywhere Jewish. Islamist terror endangers all humanity, not least Muslims, who have paid the greatest price in lives and loss of liberty.
What do we do?
On a pragmatic level we must be vigilant. In this country we are grateful for the support and advice of the Community Security Trust and the police. We are closely in touch with them and follow their guidance. We are also in contact with fellow communities in France (click here or see below*).
But what do we do on the spiritual level?
Frightening events, whether in the personal or the public sphere, are traditionally understood as opportunities for Teshuvah, re-engagement with our deepest nature, values and faith.
The demonstrations in Paris were marked by identification. Millions chanted je suis Charlie; many carried signs je suis juif. If it has enduring content, the true translation of that je suis must be not just ‘I am’ but ‘I care.’ This is a time not to step away from, but towards our Judaism. I mean its central values; compassion, justice, self-discipline, dedication to making this earth not a battle-ground over who can exploit it most ruthlessly, but God’s world in which we live with appreciation and respect for all that is. I mean, too, Judaism’s central institutions, those constructed around community, learning and care for the vulnerable.

It is through faithfulness to our own traditions, together with openness and generosity of heart, that we reach out most deeply to other faiths and fulfil our shared responsibility of caring for one another. Being true to ourselves must bring us to work harder to be true to each other. If being loyal to our own faith does not lead us to discover our deepest common humanity, then we misunderstand the meaning of faith.
On the question of faith, I find myself reflecting yet again on the letter Anatole Shcharansky wrote from Chistopol prison about yirat shamayim, awe before heaven, which he describes as ‘an inner stirring brought about by the lofty Divine vision’, and as ‘the one factor capable of conquering human fear’. People have been speaking to me about fear. We know that the threat from terror is real. Though we pray that they shall, even the best intelligence and the greatest vigilance cannot for certain thwart every plan, everywhere, all the time. Shcharansky’s words therefore resonate inside me. They speak of how reverence before life and its source can fill the heart with an awareness so humbling, so strong and so inspiring, that it penetrates as deep as fear. But unlike fear, it unites us in solidarity with all living being.
This was exemplified when I visited John Hyman yesterday. There is no testament to God and goodness greater than what he, his wife Mavis and daughter Esther, have done in memory of their daughter Miriam who was killed in the London bombings. They have met hate with goodness, perpetuating the love Miriam had for life. Because she rejoiced in beauty and colour, they dedicated themselves to enabling blind children to receive operations to restore their sight. They literally opened their eyes to see the sun, to enjoy the simple sky, the trees and stars. Now they are working with schools, to facilitate greater understanding between pupils of different faiths so as to open hearts as well.
This is a truly remarkable way to respond to evil.

An incomparably greater blasphemy

The shocking murder of the staff of Charlie Hebdo concerns us all. Martin Luther King wrote in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham City Jail that ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’. Similarly, an attack on liberty anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere.
To perpetrate such a crime in God’s name to avenge blasphemy is itself an incomparably greater blasphemy; there is no greater desecration than the unjustifiable taking of life.
As Ed Hussain wrote in yesterday’s Guardian, the act is ‘also an assault on Islam and the very freedoms that allow 30 million Muslims to prosper in the west’. Those same freedoms allow Jews to prosper too. We have here the same interests at heart.
The spontaneous vigils which filled the streets of Paris, Berlin and London on Wednesday night were important indications of the refusal to be intimidated, of a vigorous popular response, not only in solidarity with the victims of the crime and their families, but also with the essential values of democracy and freedom of expression. However, these powerful feelings must not be betrayed by letting them turn into collective hatred and xenophobia, but must remain focussed on what truly matters.
The modern world can be accused of many faults but post-Enlightenment civilisation has, at its best, created the safe spaces in which we currently thrive, spaces defined by democracy, equality, freedom of expression and access to justice. Though these are all imperfect, they are not feeble, and we owe them the openness which allows Jews to be Jewish, Muslims to be Muslim, Hindus to be Hindu and atheists to challenge the lot of us, all within the same civic space. It troubles me as a religious leader to know that the most significant attacks on this space come today from religion itself, albeit religion distorted and misused. 
What does Judaism say about freedom of speech? It has never been an explicitly central rabbinic theme. As Mathew Stone writes, ‘The clearest indication that the Talmud supports debate is the document itself’. It interrogates every proposition and consistently includes dissonant voices. It fearlessly challenges even God. Apologising with a stock phrase like ‘one mustn’t say it, but’, it accuses Heaven itself. ‘Moses threw words at God’, it declares. Jewish blasphemy law is scarcely applied; God can take care of God.
Jews are far more sensitive to attacks on fellow Jews and Judaism, knowing that verbal assault is often the precursors to physical attack. Even then, recourse is to protest and laws against incitement. Where Jews themselves are responsible for the curtailment of legitimate liberty of expression, be this in the domains of politics or theology, we must defend freedom of speech as a matter of urgency. We’ve known all too well what it means to live without it. My grandparents used to tell me how in Frankfurt in the 1930’s they stopped by a poster with an ugly caricature and the slogan ‘The Jews are our misfortune’. ‘I quickly nudged your grandmother “Shsh!”’ my grandfather recalled, ‘The Gestapo were watching’.
Judaism has a vibrant tradition of defiance, beginning with the midwives who ignored Pharaoh’s decree to kill the Hebrew boy-babies and continuing through such poets as Osip Mandelstam, whom Stalin deported twice in the 1930’s:
    You gave me my shoe-size in earth with bars around it. 
    Where did it get you? Nowhere? 
    You left me my lips, and they shape words, even in silence
Yet the use of language has limits. ‘Freedom’ is not entitlement to say whatever we like, however hurtful. Judaism condemns heedless gossip, lashon hara; the exploitation of another person’s vulnerability, ona’at devarim; cruelty with words and unwarranted verbal assault. Careless or needless humiliation of another person or group, especially in public, is a serious wrong. But where there is cause to call conduct to account Judaism upholds the right to challenge anyone and anything in the name of integrity and justice.
A poet in exile was once asked in my home ‘Is there freedom of speech in Zimbabwe?’ ‘Well, there’s freedom before speech’, he answered. We want to live in a world where the way we use speech ensures that there is freedom before, during and after it.
Our thoughts are with the families and friends of all those who were murdered in Paris and in the hunt for the killers.

Seeking together

May 2015 be a good year for everyone. During the course of the coming months may we find worthwhile ways of working together for understanding, justice, sustainability and peace.
All our family loves the New Forest. Less than a hundred miles from London, it feels like a different world. Here, cars must wait for ponies, however slowly they decide to amble across the road. Cows, take precedence too. The dog can run for miles amongst the oaks and beeches of this, the most southerly of Britain’s ancient forests. The deer emerge from the woods to graze near verges at dawn and dusk, pigs feast on pannage in the autumn and the time measured by the turn of the seasons is more significant that the ticking of clocks. 
The holiday cottage we rented this year proved not simply to be near, but right next to, the church. I couldn’t help noticing the poster outside with the vicar’s name and her phone number. Recalling a wonderful conversation with a Yorkshire minister whom we had likewise cold-called on a vacation visit to his parish many years ago, I rang and invited the reverend to candle-lighting for the last night of Chanukkah. I don’t imagine that was the sort of call frequently received at the vicarage. But she was unfazed; she’d be delighted, she said, but had a sermon to write and wasn’t sure she’d be free in time. At least I could reassure her that I understood the problem.
Just as we were thinking she wouldn’t make it, my mobile rang: she’d be over in twenty minutes, with her husband, daughter, two grandchildren and a foster baby; they would all like to share the experience with us. Our family literally jumped into action: ‘We need a Chanukkiah; you have to buy chocolate coins; it’ll be so embarrassing if we don’t have anything’. A beautiful piece of rough forest wood was selected and the candles stuck in place. The shops were already shut, so sadly there were no coins. But potatoes and onions were peeled and grated, latkes speedily fried, chocolate and drinks placed on the table, so that by the time the party arrived a true Jewish scene awaited them. We placed the Chanukkiah on the centre of the table. There was surely no relevance to putting it in the window overlooking the public domain, as Jewish law requires, since the only passers-by were New Forest ponies and deer, to whom there is, to my knowledge, no specific duty to proclaim the miracle of Chanukkah. On the contrary, it’s creatures like these who remind me of the wonders of God’s works.  
We had a lovely hour of interfaith companionship around the lights, with engaging conversation about what it meant to be a minister in our faiths and parishes. Here was a lady who clearly understood her life as God’s work, caring for people in this beautiful corner of Britain.    
Of course, the next night we went to Midnight Mass. Among the hymns, familiar from school, and the rituals of the mass which are strange and puzzling to me, was a prayer specially written for the service: Just as Jesus was born in a stable, teach us to be mindful of those who, due to war and persecution, have no proper home, or who are outcast and lonely this Christmas. Just as Jesus was born poor, help us to be mindful of those who’ve lost their jobs, who’re on income support, who struggle to manage.
While I listened to these frank and straightforward words, in the imagery of a faith not my own, another prayer formulated itself in my mind: As we share this world full of life and beauty, teach us, God, not to see only the differences, disagreements and wounds of history which lie between us, but to look deeper, to our common aspirations to seek and cherish the sacred. Give us understanding and respect for one another, so that together we can find the strength do what is just and good and kind.
It was stirring to walk the short distance home through the dark woods, the stars the only illumination.

On shopping in the sales

The January sales have reminded me about an issue in shopping ethics which bothers me. I’ve particularly learnt about the issue via Nicky who, as Chief Executive of the Society of Authors, represents the interests of writers, but I’ve also heard it from people in the clothes trade. It’s part of the modern shopping style to go into a shop, maybe the local bookshop or fashion store, find something you like, photograph the details with your mobile phone and, either then and there or back at home, find the same item more cheaply on Amazon or some other outlet and make the actual purchase online. Is it ethical to behave in this manner?

It’s clearly not the same as simply shopping on-line, whatever the virtues and deficits that may have. The critical factor here is the role of the shop, which provides the ‘gallery’ where one can look for and select what one wants. Is it right to use physical shops in this way, without paying the owners anything for that service, while also undercutting them by buying elsewhere?

Jewish shopping law is governed by the principle of ona’ah, ‘overreaching’ or ‘oppression’ in buying and selling. The concept is based on two verses in Leviticus: ‘When you sell to, or buy from, your neighbour, you shall not oppress one another’ (25:14) and ‘You shall not wrong (lo tonu) one another, but you shall fear the Lord, for I am the Lord your God’ (25:17). Although the central laws of ona’ah are concerned with over-charging, an important further aspect of the principle is outlined in the Mishnah (Bava Metsia 4:10) ‘Just as there is oppression in buying and selling, so there is ona’ah in speech. You must not say to [the vendor] “How much is this object?” when you have no intention of buying…’

The issue is probably that a person’s livelihood is at stake. In Talmudic times a very few sales might make the difference between getting enough profit to have bread to eat, or going hungry. To tease a person with feigned interest is therefore cruel. Shopping no longer functions in this manner on the high street. Shop-keepers and superstores have every interest in the shopper who goes in merely to ‘browse’ and casual enquiries are therefore legitimate. Who knows: maybe we’ll be tempted by greed or curiosity to buy something we never knew we wanted, and probably don’t need. (On that note, I was very impressed by Rabbi Debbie Young-Summers who said at Limmud that one of the ways in which she is observing the Shemittah, the Sabbatical Year, is by not buying more books or clothes for its duration, as she has sufficient of both.)

However, the case in the Mishnah does have a bearing on the issue of using the facilities offered by the shopkeeper, who has to pay all the costs attendant on premises, staff and stock, while having from the first instance no intention of actually buying there. I believe this is a contemporary form of ona’ah and is wrong. It may make little difference to a large supermarket which is part of a chain, but it risks putting real shops, both small and large, out of business. Such venues are also local amenities, part of the social and cultural fabric. Do we really want them to disappear?

We should shop with due respect- and we should also consider if we want to shop with bodies that pay low wages and avoid paying tax thus depriving our economy of the much needed funds to pay for hospitals, libraries and essential services.

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