An attack on humanity itself

It’s hard to translate the phrase kevod habriyot. I can visualise examples more easily than I can put the words into English: a child taking an old man’s hand and gently leading him to the dinner table; a nurse addressing a semi-comatose patient ‘Now Mrs. X, would it be OK for me to give you an injection to help with the pain?’

Kevod habriyot, literally ‘the honour of creatures’, refers to the respect due to the state of being human. It knows no differentiations of gender, faith or nationality. It expresses that dignity which inheres in each and every human life by virtue of being created in the image of God. Whatever that endowment is, – intelligence, creativity, conscience, vulnerability, sensitivity to others, – it bestows upon each and every human being certain rights which it is criminal to breech: the right to personal safety, to respect for close family relationships and to justly acquired property. To violate those rights is to show that one has no yirat Elohim, no fear of God, no respect for the most basic, most universal, laws of life.

Neither youth, nor age, nor illness, nor disability can diminish a person’s kavod, It is a crime wilfully to hurt a person because they are too young, too old, too ill or simply too different from ourselves.

However, a person’s kavod may be heightened by virtue of age or office. Thus, a special kavod adheres to the elderly, before whom we are commanded to stand in respect. A particular dignity belongs to the priesthood and to those who faithfully serve God.

The violation we witnessed this week in the murder of a venerable priest, Father Jacques Hamel, while he was reciting mass in a small church near Rouen, in a place of holiness and sanctuary, is an attack upon the very foundations of human life and society itself.

This desecration reminds us of the vulnerability and exposure of each and every person to violent evil. Our very fragility binds us in an indissoluble bond of fellowship with all who respect and care for life, whatever their faith or nationality; with all who exercise kindness and compassion; with everyone who, in the words of Micah, ‘practises justice, loves mercy and walks humbly with God’.

As Jews, we know only too well what it means to be forced to die for the sake of our faith and identity. So, too, do members of other religions. It has been estimated that currently three hundred Christians are murdered for their faith each month. In parts of the world less documented than Western Europe Muslims are killed regularly in Islamist outrages.

Judaism has always understood any attack or disaster as a call to teshuvah, to return and repentance. This must not be taken to mean that we should understand the tragedy itself as caused by our sins. In the present circumstances such an accusation would itself be a blasphemous violation.

Rather, the very fragility of human life in the face of violence and disaster teaches us to return to our most basic values, to fellowship, friendship, sharing, generosity, kindness, supporting the hurt, the homeless and the needy.

I’ve just finished reading Samuel Kassow’s harrowing account of the Warsaw Ghetto, ‘Who Will Write Our History?’. In it he records how, after receiving the German expulsion order, the Jews of the small town of Skempa in Poland ‘asked their rabbi to give them personal letters attesting to their past status in order to remind strangers that they, too, were once respected householders, not beggars’.

To label others as less than human is easy. The challenge is the opposite, to recognise and respect the humanity of every person. We must never be driven to forget that kevod habriyot, respect for the dignity of each and every human being, is the foundation of our humanity, and of humanity itself.

Noticing small things

‘What’s that bird with the red patch on its head?’ This is the trouble with holding meetings in the garden; there are so many distractions.

Though they’re not really ‘distractions’; they’re the reason life is wonderful.

‘It’s a goldfinch’, I answered. Two years ago I wouldn’t even have known what a goldfinch looked like. But about that time they decided to start visiting our garden. Since then they’re here virtually every day in their numbers, often three or four at a time feeding on the sunflower kernels and niger seed which we diligently replenish.

Yesterday a fledgling hopped past outside my study. I gave it a stern warning about local cats, though mercifully the dog generally sees them off the territory. (The other day a young bird flew right into my study and sat surveying me from the bookshelf before mercifully finding its way back to the wide expanses of the unrestricted air.)

There are young wrens too; last year a brood kept looking in from the windowsill. My favourite of all was the season the greater-spotted woodpeckers raised a family in our garden.

Last Shabbat a mother blackbird pecked beakfuls of unripe fig-seed from our tree and fed it mouthful by mouthful to its two teenagers, whose young tail feathers were still speckled and brown.

I’m not just writing about these small matters to take my mind away from the terrors and disasters which almost daily afflict our world. Rather, it’s important to remind oneself what life is for, why it is such a privilege, and why even deliberately damaging the wing of one small bird is such an outrageous crime.

There’s a blessing, not said often enough: ‘Baruch she-kacha lo be’olamo; Blessed be the One in whose world it is thus!’ The ‘one’ may be God, or simply life itself, or perhaps they are really the same thing, that vital force in the quintessence of creation which generates such magnificent and infinitely varied forms of existence.

Perhaps we don’t say that blessing enough because we don’t notice. That’s what most adults love about small children. ‘Look!’ they cry, ‘Look at that!’ all their energy and excitement bounding into a great exclamation mark of curiosity and delight. And we relearn through them to look again, the dust blown away from our habituated perceptions.

I can imagine a God who challenges us with disappointed puzzlement: ‘You were in my world, but you didn’t notice!?’ The question applies to beauty and wonder as much as it does to sensitivity towards other people, their suffering, their sensibilities.

At the bottom of the garden the sweet peas are flowering in perfumed cascades (There are some in the synagogue garden too). I know they are just little things. But they are also why it’s so terrible to be forced to become a refugee, why war is so appalling, – because a person loves the scents and colours of home, because its dawns and dusks, its shrubs and trees, its birds and animals make sense, and nowhere else ever does to the same depth, with that same breath of childhood, that same intuition of life’s wholeness. Friends who have allotments say it’s the world in a vegetable patch, everyone aspiring to grow the tastes of home, wherever that once was.

In the face of terror….

I’ve just spoken to my colleague David Touboul, rabbi of the Masorti community in Nice. Mercifully, it seems his congregation are safe, though many were nearby when the attack took place. But poor people of Nice. Our thoughts are with the bereaved, the wounded and the traumatised. Poor France, and alas for a world where so many people suffer terror or the threat of terror every day of their lives.

Only this winter I celebrated with Rabbi David the twentieth birthday of his congregation at which everyone sung and danced with the Torah.

The Torah is called Torat Chayim, The Torah of Life. To hold it is to embrace the tree of life, like a child who throws its arms around the trunk of an oak tree in the park. You feel as if its sap is rising not only into its branches and leaves, but through you; you push your heart against the bark and sense the great nourishment of the giver of all life.

Judaism, life itself, finds its strength and joy through attachment to the tree of life. In hours of pain and confusion we turn to the Torah and its teachings to seek healing; in times of celebration we sing and dance with the Torah, like the dance of life itself.

The aim of terror and hatred is to detach us from the tree of life, to kill us physically and to maim us spiritually by destroying our confidence and joy. Any terror outrage anywhere is an attack on the preciousness of life everywhere. We must never condone it, or, though we have to be vigilant, be cowed by it, or allow it to undermine our values, at the heart of which is the simple truth that every life and all life matters beyond any price that can be put upon its head.

It is our duty to bring healing wherever we can. There are innumerable ways in which we can make this part of our lives, each of us according to our gifts and opportunities. Healing is not just saving lives, though nothing is more important where life itself is at stake. Healing can be listening to stress and anger with patience, a kind word in an otherwise anonymous interaction, a gift to someone who is hungry, the offer of help with a lonely, challenging task.

It is also incumbent on us to reach out to others, now more than ever. There are many within our own community (whether that is Jewish, Christian, Muslim or the locality of our street or village) who are isolated by age, disability or distance from their loved ones. It is far harder to bear difficult times alone than within the embrace of a neighbourly group. There are also many who feel unheard, unwanted and unwelcome. We must respond to those who exploit differences to foster fear and prejudice by crossing the lines of apparent division to develop friendship, mutuality and trust. That is the only way to defeat hatred.

Most of all, it remains our privilege and responsibility to celebrate life. We respond to contempt for life by honouring life; to the destruction of life by the nurturing of life. Celebration is not the same as heedless hedonism. It is an affirmation of the privilege of being able to breath, feel, communicate, enjoy, care, love, – all the sensations and emotions of being human, many of which we share with other forms of existence as well.

It is a basic form of gratitude. It is a way of saying: we never hold life in contempt; we are never indifferent; we are grateful for this short gift of time and will use it to cherish and love our comrades in this partnership of life.

It is the way we put our arms around the tree of life, – and sometimes even that strong and sustaining tree needs our embrace as well

Rabbi Jacobs: a tribute on the 10th Anniversary of his death

It’s ten years since our teacher, Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs, went to his eternal rest, like his beloved wife Shula, on the sacred Sabbath. But the sound of his voice, his Mancunian inflections, the way he told a joke, and above all the endless knowledge and devotion with which he spoke of Torah, still resonate with those who loved and admired him.

His most famous, and controversial, teachings were the result of the encounter of two great intellectual traditions. The first was without doubt the world of the Yeshivah, specifically Manchester Yeshivah, which he entered in his teens and where he was quickly recognised as an illui, a prodigy, with an incisive intellect, a voracious dedication to learning and a memory which retained in every detail the finest of the fine commentary on the margins of the Talmudic page. He loved this world, felt spiritually at home in it, and, although he had to abandon some of its tenets, felt in the end not so much that he had left it but that it had jettisoned him.

The second was the rigorous, scientific discipline of post-enlightenment scholarship. He was a modernist, committed to the empirical method of critical enquiry and the impartiality of reason. Faith could justly claim to transcend reason, but not to ignore it and tread down facts. Dr Stern, his teacher at University College London, where he enrolled after the death of his Rosh Yeshivah, liked to cite the witty aphorism of the great scholar Moritz Steinschneider: ‘The beginning of wisdom is bibliography’. The true quote is of course, ‘The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord’.

Between bibliography and the fear of the Lord, Rabbi Jacobs charted his courageous course. It forced him to reject, in the name of a hundred and fifty years of impartial scholarship, the traditional claim that the Torah was totally the unmediated word of God, in favour of the view, which he held with a passion, that it was the profound revelation of God’s will not just ‘to’ but also ‘through’ the Jewish People. The Torah therefore inevitably reflected, as well as transformed, the history and the legal, social, moral and literary norms of the ages in which it was written. For, as he would often say, no person can avoid being the creature of their time, – and, one might add, no text, not even the most holy, either.

Judaism is thus from the first a dynamic interaction between God and humanity, history and morality, the eternal truths of the spirit and the developing understanding of the times. Judaism is thus the complex path of piety and questioning, practice and protest, spiritual submission and moral challenge, created by the Jewish People through history in obedience to the understanding, always imperfect, of God’s will. To follow it we need both faithfulness and flexibility, both obedience and openness, both commitment to the past and the courage to follow the quest into the unresolved questions of the future.

On this path no power or threat could cow Rabbi Jacobs; he lived in complete fidelity to his truth and his God, for God, as he noted in the very first paragraph of his first truly controversial book We Have Reason To Believe, is the God of truth.

His legacy is manifold; but there is one outstanding concern. Two generations after the most formative period of Rabbi Jacobs’s thought, we no longer live solely in the same vortex of the clash between modernism and faith. A populist brand of post-modernism seems to have scooped up and rescued faith, though not in a way which is necessarily helpful to humanity. There is no truth, it claims; we only know our narratives. They are the great stories which animate our lives, – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, secular, nationalist. They define our identity, tell us who we are, what we are for, and, more disturbingly, who we are not and what we are against.

The frightening concern is that the protagonists of these narratives tend to see them as the truth and the only truth. The world is busy mobilising the soldiers of these stories: we may be on the brink of the age of the clash of the great mythologies.

We have never more urgently needed the voices of those who, while maintaining their devoted love for their faiths, can also step outside and critique them in the name of honesty, humility and humanity and put the question, as the Biblical Prophets did: ‘Is this really God’s will? Is this what the God of truth truly wants of us?’

Not Wanted Here

Whichever way people voted, everyone agrees: the political and economic repercussions of Brexit will go on for years. We only have to think of yesterday in Parliament. But one matter has swiftly become clear; I already heard about it the morning after the poll: many people feel ‘outed,’ made to feel ‘other’. Here’s what they’ve said:

‘Suddenly I feel a foreigner’.
‘They asked me to come to the UK to work but now they want me to go home’.
‘Will I be deported?’ (then tears).
‘I walk down the street and think: maybe this person doesn’t want me here; maybe that person doesn’t want me here.’

Perhaps what I’ve been hearing isn’t typical, but I doubt it. I’ve spoken to some of the Hungarians, Spaniards, Germans, French, Bulgarians I know – and that’s just around the neighbourhood. (Last week I wouldn’t have referred to these friends by country, but that’s the way they’ve been made to perceive themselves now). Many feel anxious, uncertain, angry; they sense they’ve been given the thumbs-down.

Perhaps ‘outed’ is no more than just a feeling, a hyper-sensitive reaction. After all, there’s racism and prejudice before the EU, after the EU, and certainly within the EU. Why should the referendum have made a difference? But I believe it has; it’s brought to the surface, semi-legitimised something ugly within our society.

And it’s not just a ‘feeling’ for the person who told me she’d been hit for being ‘a foreigner and a Jew’ in the run-up, or for the student insulted for being Jewish, or to the children who found their school daubed with anti-Polish hate slogans, or to the Muslims targeted during Ramadan.

There’s a debate about where there really is more racism since the vote, or just a politically-motivated need by some to claim that there is. I certainly don’t believe the great majority of ‘leavers’ voted as they did because they’re racists. That in itself would be another kind of collective calumny.

But there are racists out there, and no doubt among the ‘remain’ voters too, and across the EU, and race hate is on the rise. And I’m not waiting for the statistics to prove how big that rise is, or why it came about, before saying that any such racism is wrong.

One action we can and must take in these time of uncertainty is to show solidarity within our Jewish community which is more vulnerable now (consider how Jeremy Corbyn received the report on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party!) with different faith communities, and with other groups and individuals who are, or feel, attacked and insecure. We must express that solidarity and be heard and seen expressing it.

In this week’s Torah portion the spies sent by Moses to explore the Promised Land report back that they felt like ‘grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we were in the eyes of the inhabitants’. Maybe it was only their imagination, but what they thought others thought about them invaded and diminished their own self-esteem. That’s what happens when a person experiences, or senses, the contempt of others.

There is a further question we have to ask ourselves in this connection; it’s uncomfortable but essential: who might those ‘others’ be whom we in turn find ourselves blaming for doing the ‘outing’ and ‘othering’?

There are more than enough people who hold xenophobic attitudes and commit racist crimes. Such views have to be challenged, such actions reported and condemned, and their perpetrators brought to justice.

But far more people probably feel that they themselves have long been society’s other: not heard, not empowered, not included in the opportunities from which those who ignore them have grown rich. If we don’t listen now, it will not only be to our peril, but constitute our own form of prejudice.

We are virtually all someone else’s ‘other’ and all of us, too, are inclined to ‘other’ someone else.

When the Torah insists that ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ it offers no immediate definition of who that neighbour is. It divides the world into two, us and our neighbour; not into three: us, our neighbour and the other. The Torah asks us not to ‘other’ but to relate. It’s a high, perhaps impossible, ideal.

‘Love’ is a vast and vague term. The Torah no doubt means something far more down-to-earth. If we could try to respect, be aware of and stand up for the rights and dignity of our neighbour as we would want them to stand up for us, then and only then will we live in a society at peace with itself, inside or outside the EU.

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