On Anti-Semitism

I am sending a further note to our community in haste before Yom Tov. It concerns a matter on which we would all wish that there was no need to write.

It is clear that we are living in increasingly difficult times. Both Jews and Israel are sometimes spoken about in utterly unacceptable terms. Anti-Semitic comment has become more prevalent. Sometimes it is intentional; at other times the speaker seems blandly unaware that the views expressed are hurtful and hateful.

I certainly do not consider that all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic; this is far from the case. Yet it seems to me evident that certain kinds of rhetoric of contempt and hatred for Israel have also become a means of attacking and denigrating Jews and Judaism in general.

Naz Shah has made what sounds like a genuine and heartfelt apology in the House of Commons; the matter remains under investigation. What I find most disturbing in her case is that she may well have been quoting without consideration narratives and comments very widespread on social media and public discourse. Very many people do likewise, spreading all kinds of forms of racism and prejudice.

What has driven me to write are Ken Livingstone’s comments today about Hitler and Zionism. They are outrageous, inflammatory, inaccurate and in the circumstances entirely gratuitous and helpful to no one. I appreciate John Mann’s frankness and outrage in combatting them.

Not only we as Jews, but every sector of society needs to expose and counter anti-Semitism and every form of racism and bigotry. Those who hate one entire group of people quickly move on to hating another; we are all in the struggle against this evil together.

But that is not enough. The challenge is not to increase enmity in the world but to do our best to turn enemies into friends or at least partners in debate. Sadly there are situations and people where and with whom this is simply not possible. But wherever we can we need to find ways of creating relationships and entering into dialogue, even when it is difficult, with those who out of ignorance or received bigotry hold views we find unacceptable. Our real and enduring strength lies in our integrity and the quality of the relationships we develop with other faiths and groups in society and across the world.

These are profound and demanding challenges. We need to employ all the strengths, talents and human resources of our community and society in engaging with them.

The Second Dipping – bitterness & compassion

Pesach will soon be over. When Shabbat ends, the special dishes will be packed away again for another year together with the memories of this year’s Seders. Before that happens I’d like to take [at least] one look back at the Haggadah.

‘On all other nights we don’t dip at all; on this night we dip twice,’ says the third of the Four Questions. It’s one which we rarely pause to answer.

The original version probably read that on all other nights we dip any number of times, because the ancient custom was to eat by dipping one’s bread or pitta into a communal dish. Once it became the practice to use individual plates, the wording was changed.

Everyone knows about the first dip: it’s the parsley in the salt water, to represent the tears of the oppressed. But what about the second? I conducted a small survey; the majority view was that it refers to when we put a finger in our wine and remove a drop for each of the Ten Plagues in token of our awareness that, while they brought deliverance to us, they entailed terrible suffering for the Egyptian people. It’s an inventive response, but not correct.

The second dipping is when we dip the maror, or bitter herbs, into the sweet paste of the charoset. The Talmud explains that this is to diminish their sharpness, because eating unassuaged maror could be a health risk. A large amount of truly bitter herbs might even finish a person off. Regrettably, we are then instructed to shake off any charoset which might remain clinging to our maror, before we chew the latter thoroughly and on its own.

I realise I wrote about this briefly before Pesach, but the meaning of this apparently abstruse ritual engages me. In fact, I’m involved in it, or witness it, almost every day. Charoset, at least according to the mediaeval commentators, was made of foods mentioned in The Song of Songs, the great Biblical love song recited on the final day of Pesach (this coming Shabbat). These include apples, dates, figs and nuts; cinnamon and spices; and, of course, wine. One senses that a different meaning has overtaken the earlier tradition that charoset represents the mud or mortar used by the Children of Israel to make bricks at their taskmaster’s behest, or the straw they were forced to gather when Pharaoh redoubled his measure of oppression. Instead it has become the food of love, of solidarity in the face of cruelty and persecution.

This then is what the second dipping says to me. The person who suffers alone has no one to help take away the sharp edge of their sorrow’s pain. The person who has loving family, friends, or community around them must still absorb their sorrows. No one can or should relieve another of the need to come to terms with their experiences, happy or sad.

But the person surrounded by friendship has companions in which his or her anguish can be ‘dipped’. It doesn’t take the pain away; but in the words of the Talmud it may ‘remove the poison’. When others care for us, we have greater strength and understanding with which to digest our sorrows and our fears.

The Talmud discusses whether having charoset, which, unlike maror and matzah, is not mentioned at all in the Torah, constitutes a mitzvah. Is it commanded, or simply an optional adornment, a nice additional recipe? The conclusion appears to be that it is indeed a mitzvah. And what mitzvah is greater than helping form communities of friendship and care, attentiveness and prayer, ritual and presence, through which we sustain one another in our struggles and sing together in our joy?

Credo – Between Spirituality and Ethics

Tikkun Olam and Yirat Shamayim

Ahavat- and Yirat- Shamayim, love and awe before Heaven, are shorthand for a lived and experienced reverence for life, not only as it is encountered in its particularity, in tree, bird, deer, people, but as it is inhaled in its essential vitality, as a vibrant awareness of the invisible oneness which fills all being, the ‘one motion and one spirit…that rolls through all things.’ [1]

Such awareness opens the heart to wonder and respect for the essence of life, to that to which the word ‘God’ serves as pointer, to what the kabbalists and mystics called Ein Sof, the unending and inexhaustible source of existence and the wellspring of being and beauty. Prayer is the attempt to spend time undistracted in the presence of this reality, to let it cleanse the mind, fill the heart, reinvigorate the spirit, motivate our conscience and guide our actions.

The very awareness of such a relationship with life is in itself a form of responsibility. How can one know and feel kinship, but then not care? Each person ‘has an infinite sphere of responsibility before the infinite’ [3] This is expressed not only in bonds of heart and soul, but in action, classically in the performance of the mitzvot, by doing what we experience ourselves as commanded to do.

The goal of this action is always Tikkun, reparation, motivated by the longing for the world to be as we believe God wants it, or dreams it, to be. The purpose is to respond to what Hans Jonas called ‘the mutely insistent appeal of [God’s] unfulfilled goal’. [4]

Such Tikkun calls us to dedicate ourselves in two mutually necessary and inter-dependent ways.

The first aspect of Tikkun requires us to act. The possibilities are endless. The Mishnah’s remarkable statement that everybody needs to be able to say ‘for my sake the world was created,’ can be taken to mean that there are aspects of life, its need, vulnerabilities and wounds, which call out to us especially because of our own particular gifts, sensitivities, experiences, and even our wounds and failings, calling on us to work, advocate, and seek healing for ourselves and others in those specific domains. One person is drawn to care especially for children, another for the disabled, a third to plant trees and protect wild spaces. [5]

This commitment to care is always multiple. Rooted in the mutuality of community and the commonality of history, we are as Jews primarily responsible to the Jewish people to Israel, just as other peoples and faiths are to their own members and countries. At the same time, we are answerable before all human life, since we share the equal privilege of being created in the image of God. No one may stand idly by the suffering of another, or witness the debasement of their humanity, without compromising their own integrity and morality as human beings. In the words of Immanuel Levinas ‘To follow the Most High is to know that nothing is of greater importance than the approach made towards one’s neighbour, the concern with the fate of “the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the poor.”’ [6] We are also accountable before creation itself, the animals, birds, trees and plants entrusted to our safeguarding, as the rabbis enjoined: ‘Do not destroy my world [says God] for there is no-one after you who can put it right’. There is a contemporary urgency to this responsibility which demands us to change the way we live; our relationship to the earth itself has become mindless and exploitative and the very elements are demanding that we reconsider and change our habits. [7]

The second aspect of Tikkun requires us to sensitise our mind and spirit, to listen and be still, so that we intuit and take inspiration from the speech which is latent in all things, powerful and inaudible at once, the often almost silent call of the sacred:

Behold the heavens and their hosts proclaim the awe of you,
without their voice being heard at all.   [8]

For many, this is where we find our God, not in the belief in an external, interventionist Deity who will resolve all the tensions of history and of our own lives; but as the essence and inner being of all life, who speaks to us out of all existence and from within our own life also, humbling us, filling us with awe and wonder, and teaching us to do what is compassionate, just and good.

In these ways Tikkun Olam is both what we endeavour to do for one another and the world, and also an inner work of Teshuvah, return to and rediscovery of the person we could be and seek to become, a tikkun or reparation of the olam katan, the world in miniature,which each of us constitutes in our own life and spirit.

  1. Wordsworth: Lines Written above Tintern Abbey
  2. Buber: My Way to Hasidism.
  3. Hans Jonas: The Concept of God after Auschwitz
  4. Mishnah: Sanhedrin 4:3
  5. Immanuel Levinas: Revelation in the Jewish Tradition
  6. Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on Kohelet 7:13
  7. Yehudah Halevi: God, where shall I find you, and where shall I find you not?

A Seder needs to be real

Tomorrow is Shabbat Hagadol, ‘the great Sabbath’, the Shabbat before Pesach. There is no single reason why it bears that name. Some suggest it’s because the rabbi would deliver a lengthy and detailed sermon on the laws of the festival: how to keep kosher, how to celebrate the Seder. Others say it’s because of the closing verse of the Prophetic reading from Malachi which refers to the ‘great and awesome day of God’.

Whatever the case, this is the Shabbat on which we set our minds on the meaning of the forthcoming festival. My fear about Pesach this year is not that we won’t manage the cleaning, or arrange the details. That’s not to imply that I don’t care about such matters. I very much do. In life detail matters, so long as it’s not a fixation.

My fear is that my Pesach will be a sham, that it won’t be real. I asked some friends to write to me about what the Festival of Freedom means to them this year. Here is one response:

In Iraq, a little girl drew a picture of her mother on the floor of her orphanage.
She carefully took off the shoes, lay down on mother’s chest and fell asleep…

(The picture is below – you may well already have seen it. There’s a debate online as to whether the picture was drawn by the child, or created by an adult. Either way, it expressing a heart-rending reality.)

The sender added: ‘I really don’t know how to use human language to interpret such a picture’.

A refugee suffers numerous losses: home, country, language, friends, culture, status, work, possessions, money, – but worst of all is the loss of family. Many have not only lost closest relatives, but witnessed their murder.

The Hebrew Bible stresses family time and again: Noah and the animals come out of the ark bemishpechotehem, ‘in their families’; we leave Egypt and encamp in the desert in families. The whole story of how God redeemed us from slavery is structured round the familiar pattern of children asking their parents. I remember how as a child I used to ask and ask again: ‘What happened when you had to leave Nazi Germany?’

Our notions of security, love, perhaps even freedom, are nurtured in the hopefully safe circle of our parents’, especially our mother’s, presence.

All this little girl has left of her mother is her inner picture. What courage, what sweetness, to draw it around her and then feel safe enough to go to sleep. And what sadness!

Freedom is having your mother, your family, those you love around you, eating together, going to sleep and not being afraid, and waking up and knowing you can do it all again next day without worrying that someone’s going to kill you or blow up your home.

Why do we steal such freedom from each other? How can we give it back, at least some of it back, when it has once been taken away?

As Jews we’ve lived with such experiences and their pain, and sometimes still do. There are millions suffering them at this very moment, waiting at the gates of our humanity for permission to enter in.

These are some of the questions we have to address at our Seder table.


Give me your hand

Tonight is the new moon of Nisan, the month of spring, bringing Pesach, the festival of liberation and redemption. The first fruit trees are in blossom, the daffodils radiant in the woods and gardens. It’s a wonderful time of year to be alive. In the heart, hope and joy, like young leaves pushing aside the cusps of their protective buds, emerge and sense the air.

I was supposed to write about the horrors and memorials which fill the news, but instead I want to write about healing.

‘Heal me, God, and I shall be healed’: few prayers are said with deeper feeling. Who does not want the magic hand of healing to cleanse with an invisible touch all the sores of the body and soul?

There are so many wounds upon the body of humankind. There are wounds from terrors witnessed through fragile slats which conceal the traumatised survivors them from the killers of their families: yesterday marked twenty-two years since the slaughter began in Rwanda. There are wounds of war, carried in broken bodies and families left bereft. There are wounds of flight: futures fractured in so many places that no one yet knows what splint can serve to re-align the destinies of families scattered in strange lands and often inhospitable places. There are wounds of illness and grief, and wounds from hopes which never find fruition.

Fate is unjust and suffering unequally distributed; millions of people pass through troubles unimaginable to those of us lucky enough to have lived relatively safe and settled lives. But nobody carries no wounds at all. The question then is what we make of our heart’s fears and injuries and how we bring healing to one another.

The Talmud contains the moving description of how Rabbi Yochanan, the third century teacher famous for his good looks, visits an impoverished pupil who lives in a low, dark room. Rabbi Yochanan has himself recently been ill and in need of assistance. He hears the sound of weeping, but his inept questions fail to elicit the reason for those tears, until his student finally tells him: ‘It is because beauty such as this must perish in the dust that I am weeping’. At these words Rabbi Yochanan weeps too, and, as they cry together, holds out his hand and helps raise his pupil from his bed. (Talmud, Berachot 5b)

I am touched by at least three qualities in this story: beauty, humility and compassion.

Beauty is worth weeping for, because it is for beauty that we live. It is unfathomable and endless. There is the beauty of gardens and forests, coast lands and wild skies, music and poetry. There is the beauty of love, companionship, community and friendship. It is life’s great gift to us, the essence of the joy of being alive. We can’t ‘make beauty happen’, but we can, like Rabbi Yochanan’s pupil, point to it, share it with others, and weep, or keep silence, or sing, or hold out our hand and draw another person towards it. It is the very essence of God’s presence and God’s healing in this world.

Humility is perhaps a precondition. Many people do indeed have specific and invaluable healing skills to offer. But in countless situations all we have is our humanity, our spirit’s attentiveness, our heart’s openness from all the places where experience has penetrated it and left it open and exposed and willing to descend and listen wherever life may call it.

Compassion is life’s most compelling and universal commandment. That is not because the world itself is innately compassionate. Far from so; in a challenging passage the Talmud counsels us to refrain from calling even God compassionate, lest the cruelties of destiny make us lose faith with faith itself. But compassion, simple kindness, is the one thing we can always offer. There are innumerable injuries it is powerless to prevent, but its capacity to bring healing, not the ‘perfect healing from heaven’ we refer to in our prayers, but at least the human touch of a healing hand, or the sound of a healing word, can never be exhausted.

Withdrawing from the Human Rights Act – a Jewish Question?

This Shabbat we ask God’s blessing for the coming month of Nissan, the month in which we celebrate Pesach, ‘the season of our freedom’.

Freedom has never been the sole and ultimate goal in Judaism. In the many struggles for liberty which the Jewish People has had to face throughout our challenging history, sometimes alone and sometimes alongside others, the answer to the question ‘freedom for what?’ is always pre-supposed: freedom to serve God, freedom to do good, freedom to live and enable others to live according to the demands of justice, dignity and compassionate concern.

The European Convention on Human Rights was created in the wake of the Holocaust and the Second World War. The indescribably terrible experiences of the Jewish People, and of many others, formed the moral background to its formulation. Paradoxically, 15 September 1935 may have proved retrospectively to have been a key date in the Convention’s pre-history, the Nuremberg Rally at which the Nazis proclaimed that only those of German blood and origin could be citizens of the Reich. In this manner the protection of the law was removed from hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Jews, who henceforth found themselves the defenceless victims of the tyranny of the state.

But the relationship between freedom and the Jewish experience goes back far further. It is in the wake of our slavery in Egypt that the essential laws of justice are enshrined in the Torah, frequently with specific reference to that bitter experience: ‘Don’t pervert the justice due to the orphan or the stranger; don’t take a widow’s clothing as pledge. Remember – you were a slave in Egypt…’ (Deuteronomy 24:17-18)

It is argued that Judaism, like other religions, speaks of obligations rather than rights. It is true that it has little in common with those who petulantly pursue their ‘rights’ without showing any evident concern for their concomitant responsibilities.

But other people’s rights can also be formulated as our duties towards them and as the core moral concerns of our society.

Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888) understood ‘love your neighbour’ to mean the responsibility to seek for our fellow citizens those very same rights and opportunities which we ourselves seek to enjoy in a free society. Commenting on the Torah’s injunction to ‘love the stranger’ he warned against making the rights of another person, whoever they might be, contingent on anything other than the fact that they too are created ‘in the image of God’. His words ring today with a prophetic tone.

It should therefore be with grave unease that we as Jews should contemplate the possibility that this country might repeal the Human Rights Act. Details and procedures are always subject to debate and potential improvement. But the Act protects the rights to life, liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of religion and conscience, and freedom of speech, among others. Should Britain withdraw from the European Convention of Human rights, the signal this will give to far less democratic regimes, such as Putin’s Russia, can well be imagined.

Rather, we should struggle for the enhancement of human dignity, and responsibility, towards each other, all life, and God in all the lands in which we live, including both Israel itself and Britain. After all, the great narrative of our origin as a people concerns how, as a result of having been slaves ourselves, we become imbued with a unique responsibility and passion for the pursuit of justice and liberty, subject only to the service of God and God’s creation.

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