Pride Shabbat

This is Pride Shabbat. The date was fixed to commemorate Stonewall in 1969.

I want to write about revelation. Though we inherit collectively the majestic legacy of Sinai, revelation comes to most of us in modest, private moments. When they happen, like the clouds which covered the desert mountain the mists of our ignorance, genuine or wilful, part. Beyond them is the living God.

I’m not suggesting we encounter God directly. We meet God through recognising God’s image in other people whose stories, hurts, joys and sensibilities we hadn’t listened to before. These moments open our minds and change us; at least they should.

I didn’t grow up knowing gay people and I wasn’t raised, in this regard, with a welcoming attitude. I don’t belong to the generations for whom LGBTQ+ is a self-evident part of the vocabulary.

What’s changed me is people, friends. One conversation will stay with me all my life. It was with a gay man who hadn’t yet come out:

It’s taken me years of anguish, but finally I can say the blessing for ‘making me according to God’s will,’ and know that God accepts me, and that I can accept myself.

I can’t count the mornings when, saying my own blessings, I think of those words with shame. I don’t mean shame on him, but about me and the rest of us, that this man had to suffer such self-negation for decades.

I’ve used the word ‘revelation’ advisedly. My appreciation of the sanctity of life was deepened; doors closed in my heart and imagination were pushed open. I know I have others which are still shut. Most of us do.

Shema Koleinu; Hear our voices,’ reads an important leaflet prepared by a member of our own congregation:

All over the world, Jews of colour, LGBTQ Jews of colour, from many different backgrounds, are committed to Jewish life, learning and living. Some of us are culturally Jewish – while we don’t go to a synagogue every week, we might love hosting big meals for our friends on Shabbat. Some of us are religiously observant or find our homes in Orthodox synagogues. Some of us are ethnically Jewish but aren’t religious at all.

‘It’s really about diversity,’ another gay member of our synagogue told me yesterday. Pondering her words, I realised that the same Mishnah which teaches that saving a single life is like saving the entire world goes on to say:

When a person stamps coins in the same mould they come out identical. But God stamps every person in the mould of the first human being, yet not one of them is like any other. (Sanhedrin 4:5)

Difference, like equality, is sacred. How urgent this teaching is, in a world of resurgent racism and supremacism.

It’s not enough to ‘tolerate’ people who are gay, though, tragically, it needs to be reaffirmed that this is an essential starting point. It’s only five years ago that Shira Banki was murdered in Jerusalem’s Pride parade.

Inclusion in a cloud of silence is not enough either. Do we as Jews appreciate being ‘included’ so long as we stick to the unspoken bargain and say nothing to betray who we are?

A full voice, being heard, celebrating and being celebrated with, leading, imagining, following together: this is a description of a community in which the image of God is recognised in every person. As the same Mishnah goes on to teach: each and every one of us, being unique, must [be able to] say, ‘For my sake the world was created.’

So I ask myself as a person, ‘Who am I hearing?’ and as a rabbi, ‘Where’s our community on this journey?’

Community that welcomes and supports.
It’s what you do – or are you just shooting the breeze? Alfie Ferguson



‘Daddy, why do passports matter?’

‘Where’ll she sleep if we haven’t a room?’

‘On the busses, I expect, like often.’

‘We definitely have a room!’

That was a conversation between my wife and Refugees at Home. Ms X. stayed with us for just three weeks; our only problem was stopping her helping around the house the whole time out of gratitude, which made us feel terrible.

This is Refugee Week; tomorrow is World Refugee Day.

Our whole country is mourning Dame Vera Lynn, not just an amazing singer but a wonderful human being, who died yesterday at the age of 103. Her voice, like Churchill’s, sustained, consoled and inspired the nation during World War 2. Her most iconic song is probably ‘We’ll meet again.’ Refugees, when they flee, know that they’ll probably never meet again, never see their parents, their children or the place that once was home.

My great-aunt Jenny told me: ‘The worst time in my life was putting my children on that train in Frankfurt Central Station.’ She saw them again; most parents who wept their way home to desolate rooms in 1938 or 39 never did.

A Midrash explains that God told Abraham to leave home so that he would become the father of all gerim, all outsiders, temporary residents, refugees. The word ger occurs countless times in the Bible, almost invariably with the command not to abandon but to care for them. The classic biblical dictionary gives the root meaning as ‘sojourn,’ including ‘dwell as a newcomer for a (definite or indefinite) time without original rights.’ How those words ‘indefinite’ and ‘without rights’ beleaguer on the souls of thousands, of millions today.

They resonate across Jewish history in the repeated experiences of marginalisation, extortion and exile. Commenting on the Torah’s command not to oppress the stranger, Rashi says simply ‘Don’t inflict your own wounds on others.’

When I was six, my father lost his passport (as in ‘lost and found;’ he’d truly lost it once before when he fled Germany aged 16.) Cupboards were ransacked in the search. ‘Why does a passport matter?’ I asked. He answered, ‘If you ever don’t have one, you’ll know.’

Our world still buys and sells people, for slavery, sex or both. Countries bleed other countries dry, through tyranny, exploitation or climate negligence. We must never again trade in the misery of others, individually or nationally. Their pain is not far away: Windrush, children stuck in the Calais ‘jungle’ unable to join family in Britain, people in indefinite detention, cut off from future, hope.

Hope is what gives strength to the feet of refugees: a safe life, a life without fear, a life of work, of making a contribution. That’s what Refugee Week is all about: ‘a UK-wide festival celebrating the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees.’

S, who escaped a massacre in the Congo and is now a specialist teacher and pastoral counsellor, just told me he and his wife are expecting their first child. B, who fled state terror and is now a physical trainer, called me for a reference: ‘I’ve been asked to offer exercises in a care home just re-opened after Covid.’

Where would the NHS, food, the arts, be in this country, without those of us who were once refugees?

I sometimes think about that Rashi: ‘Don’t inflict your own wounds on others.’ The wounds we receive can make us heartless, or they can open our hearts more deeply.

Here is a link to some of the organisations we care about and support.


Abraham Joshua Heschel: Religion and racism are irreconcilable

In these urgent times we have a role model for how the Jewish community can stand with the community of black people and stand against all racial and environmental injustice and contempt. Once again, I turn to Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Last night I wrote to his daughter Susannah: My father, she told me last year, would be pacing his room, incredulous, horrified at the hate and supremacism from the highest office in the land. ‘My father,’ she wrote now, ‘would have been marching in today’s demonstrations and pleased that we are together, black and white.’

Heschel was raised in tight-knit Hasidic Warsaw, a world full of spiritual passion. Jewish Vilna, where his thirst for wider learning took him next, had poetry and vision. In Berlin he devoted himself to studying for his PhD the moral outrage and compassionate commitment of the prophets of Israel. He was rescued from Nazi Europe in the 12th hour, ‘A brand plucked from the fire’.

He met Martin Luther King in 1963 at a meeting in Chicago on race and religion. He took his audience straight to the core of the Bible:

At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. . . . The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate.

That same year, as King was preparing the march in Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the two men were called to the White House by JFK. Heschel replied with a telegram:

Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes…The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.

Weary of insipid American synagogues, Heschel enjoined and cajoled Jews to expose ourselves to the vital presence of God, translating the impassioned inner life of Hasidism into the English language and the largely unreceptive world of 50’s and 60’s America.

For Heschel as for King, spirituality and activism were as inseparable as river and water. They were both not just students but disciples of the prophets, orators of God’s fierce opposition to indifference and injustice. Religion was not dogma but the living awareness of the urgency of God, an awareness which did not, must not and could not stop in the consciousness alone.

It demanded action. I once desired a quiet life, Heschel wrote. That was not possible: silence before wrong was a betrayal of God. His famous answer to what he was doing next to Reverend King in Selma Alabama, ‘I was praying with my legs,’ was only logical: the realisation of what God wants from us must flow from the heart to the hands and the feet. What impelled him to march was not deviance from Judaism, but its fulfilment.

All that, as Ben Okri said when we spoke last week, was two generations ago. Every hour has its own urgency; God ‘korei ladorot, calls to each and every generation’ and every generation must answer.

We live today not only with unresolved, but with resurgent racism, amidst rhetorics of xenophobia renewed by forgetfulness of the past and reinvigorated by disdain and fear. We live too amidst the uprising of the sea and the revolt of the very atmosphere against contempt and abuse. There never was a more urgent now.

Every one of Judaism’s thrice daily prayers condemns indifference: why ask God to heal the sick, bless the earth and bring justice, if we do little? It’s idle, if we are idle.

A Jewish life, a religious life of any kind, must be a dedicated life, now.


‘I can’t breathe’

I was very moved by how Ben Okri accepted the invitation to join our Friday night service. We are both communities which have known persecution, he told me in an earlier conversation: we need to stand together. I was stirred by his call on our humanity and for our action, as well as by the warmth of heart with which he, joined by his young daughter, stayed with us in prayer.

Yesterday The Guardian published his powerful article I Can’t Breathe’: Why George Floyd’s Words Reverberate Across the World. Those basic words say everything about the heartless, prolonged and vicious cruelty of George Floyd’s killing. They also capture our fears about Covid 19 and our deep anxiety that unless we heed the warnings, our entire world will be unable to breathe because of the destruction of our biosphere.

There is nothing more basic to life than breathing. Ben Okri’s words made me reflect on breath in Judaism. Neshamah means both breath and spirit. The Torah describes it as God’s earliest and greatest gift: ‘God breathed nishmat chaim, the breath of life’ into the first man and woman. The intake of their youngest breaths is the sound every parent longs to hear. Each morning we thank God, saying ‘neshamah shenattatah bi, the breath and spirit you gave me is pure’. The final verse of the entire Book of Psalms reads ‘Kol haneshamah tehallel: praise God with our entire spirit.’ The rabbis reread it as kol hanesheemah, with every breath let us praise God who gave us the privilege of life.

There is no concept, no jot or dust-sized shadow of a notion that there can exist people whose breath matters more, or less, than that of others. Breathing is, should be, must be, equal. It is a truth we as Jews know only too well from our own history: how, after all, did Zyklon B work?

Therefore, we must stand up for everyone’s right to breathe. This includes not just physical breath but also breathing as a metaphor, as in the sentence ‘I can’t breathe in this place’ which means: ‘I’m not comfortable, not at home, don’t feel safe, am rejected, made to feel unwanted, worthless here.’

There are demonstrations round the country and the globe, with their own health and safety challenges. The public, political, legal and educational will to be honest about history and just and equitable in the way every part of our society functions is paramount. These are issues over which we as Jews have fought for recognition time and again, and in which we and black and BAME communities are natural partners.

At the same time, I’m at least as concerned about what happens closest to home. Experiences of being black, or black and Jewish, and treated with suspicion, challenged, ignored, not listened to or considered invisible in our communities, are frequent. Our reflections and actions have to start with ourselves. We want to be able to sing ‘kol haneshamah tehallel – Let every breathing, living soul praise God,’ where every really means every. We want to be able to sing those words with integrity.

Black Lives Matter: What is needed from us

Monotheism means the indivisibility of God. This is not just the basis of Jewish theology, but of universal humanity.

When the Torah, in chapter one, teaches that every human being is created in God’s image, it leaves no place for the notion of ‘children of a lesser God’. There exists no one who doesn’t matter, whose life is less important than anyone else’s. Black lives matter; God is the ‘life of all life’, ‘God of all flesh’.

The shocking and cruel death of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman, and the racism, contempt and injustice it has highlighted, shock our societies and souls. The violence which has followed is frightening. But the vast majority of protesters and protests have been peaceful and courageous, and how and by whom the destruction has been manipulated remains complex, sinister and opaque. The record of disdain from the highest office has inflamed the land and disgraces the history of often brave American leadership.

Reverend Anthony Jackson, whose grandfather founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference together with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, addressed the Jewish community in the columns of The Forward. What we need from you, he wrote, is

to help us put an end the murder of innocent Blacks with the exact same fervor, dedication and commitment that you show towards preserving and defending your own families, that you show for Israel…. We need you to understand that Blacks and Jews are in this together; white racists view you as the N-word, too. We need you to embrace Blacks as absolute equals. Jews have used their influence to make a difference in society… We need you to use it again. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel once said, “The Black church is the salvation of Judaism.” We need each other.

Rev Jackson’s words remind me of the line I’ve italicised line in Dan Pagis’s searing Holocaust poem

No. no, they were created in the image
Uniforms, jackboots…
As for me, I had a different creator…

Judaism knows of no such entity as a ‘different creator’ and no such human being as someone with lesser rights. There are no geographical, racial, religious or gender limits to our equality before God as understood, and as should be practised, in Judaism.

But that is not the reality we witness in our societies. We are not at liberty to do nothing about it. We cannot limit ourselves to idle outrage. Examining prejudice in our own minds, communities and conduct is not comfortable, but, as was said in our synagogue just before lockdown, acknowledging and entering the zone of our discomfort is an essential first step.

Just as God’s oneness underlies the equality of all human beings, so it informs the interconnection of all of nature. If God is within all life, if Ruach Elokim, God’s spirit, breathes in all creation, then no species, forest or river is merely dispensable.

Here again, whatever this may say to us theologically, it means everything practically. The very future of life on our planet depends on the realisation that we and all of nature are interconnected. Today is World Environment Day, instituted by the United Nations in 1974. Interestingly, the date has a second name, ‘People’s Day’, because our own future, our children’s lives, depend on how we now act.

Indifference is no option: we must waste less, plant more, cherish this earth. For me, this concern, this passion, migrated long ago from my head to my soul; it’s a terror, a hope, a split vision: the world as arid and bleak, the world as wonder and beauty.

Though seemingly separate issues, how we behave to each other and how we treat nature are united within the prophetic call for justice and humility. We have no right to conduct ourselves as superior, neither to one another whatever our colour, nor towards nature, nor towards God, who weeps in our soul at every outrage and abuse.


Netivot Shalom Beha’alotecha

I came across a beautiful teaching by the Rebbe of Slonim, which we studied yesterday in my class on Hasidism. He refers to the hidden light, which, according to the mystics, God concealed close to the beginning of creation. In contrast to physical light, manifest in the rhythm of day and night, this secret illumination is the presence of the sacred in all things. He calls this Or Ha’elokut, the light of divinity, God’s light. It used to burn on the lamps of the Menorah in the Temple. But when the Temple was destroyed that Menorah was buried and concealed, a hidden vessel for hidden light.

Next week’s Torah portion (Shabbat week) opens with the injunction to Aaron beha’alotecha et hanerot, ‘when you make the flames ascend’ on the Menorah. He, the high priest, and his descendants after him had the responsibility of keeping the flame of spirit burning in the Jewish People and the world, of helping us find and be guided by the light of God’s presence.

Nowadays we all share the role delegated to Aaron; we are entrusted with nurturing each other’s spirit and helping one another find what is sacred in Torah and the world. The Rebbe of Slonim notes that this isn’t easy: only the person who labours in Torah merits discovering its hidden illumination.

If I can say so, I think the task is at once simple and extremely hard. It is not difficult to find the wonder in Torah and existence. There is a beauty which, in the worlds of Gerald Manley Hopkins, ‘Will shine out, like lightning from shook foil.’

But to nurture that sacred spirit in our ourselves, each other and the world is supremely challenging, especially at this time. It involves a deep and enduring commitment to the value of every human being and all of nature, to the sanctity at the core of life itself. We have only to witness what’s happening in America to realise how far we are from living, and from guiding our societies to live, by the hidden light of which the Rebbe of Slonim speaks. I am also deeply concerned about how we will stand as a society here as we move to face the next phase of the pandemic, and by how urgently we need, but may fail, to prioritise our environment.

We need to see and be guided by the hidden sacred light which burns concealed in all and every life.



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