Our different faiths: why we need to reach out for each other as we seek God

I’m conscious of writing on Christmas Eve, as across the world billions are hoping for a happy and peaceful festival and all of us want a safer, healthier, better 2022.

It was above the River Wye that Wordsworth wrote his remarkable lines about

A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man…

I believe in that presence, that oneness which ‘Impels all thinking things, all objects of all thought / And rolls through all things.’ Only ‘belief’ may be the wrong word. For, in truth, this is not a belief but an experience. It touches us in many ways, whatever our faith: in nature, poetry, kindness, love, silence, music, prayer. It’s the spirit which, even as we feel it, we cannot name. Afterwards we may say, ‘that was a moment of wonder,’ or, ‘there was a grace, there was something spiritual, to that,’ as in the dancing of Rose Ayling-Ellis in Strictly.

To this oneness, this palpable yet invisible vitality at life’s core, Judaism gives the unutterable name of God, ‘I am that I am.’ The same four Hebrew letters rearranged form the word havayah, ‘being.’ This is the sacred essence of all existence.

I believe the experience of this oneness is the source and soul of religions. Through all their serious forms, distinctive as they are, through ritual, discipline, moral teaching, seasons, celebrations, philosophies and mystical practice, they reconnect the individual life with this same spirit of being. This heart of life, this God we call by various names, seeks after us in turn, calling, teaching, purifying and guiding.

Yet religions differ in almost every way, from our stories of origin, through our sacred texts, professed beliefs, modes of worship, cultural practices and, tragically often, political allegiances. Religions have gone to war, and been misused to justify war, so often that it’s hard to say whether they’ve been a blessing or a curse to humankind. God may have been used to justify more violence than any other cause.

This is the most terrible violation, first and foremost of God, but also of religion. God, being within all life, cannot want one life wilfully to destroy another.

Where then does religious hatred come from? Often faiths are cynically conscripted in nationalist causes, the megalomanic interests of cruel leaders and exploitative suppression. But there is another reason, too, closer to home, intrinsic. Religious texts together with their interpretations haven’t fallen straight from God, as God’s unadulterated word. They are also human. They have histories and contexts. They too reflect cultural conditions, political motives and conflicts. Furthermore, they are constantly subject to misapplication and deliberate abuse. They must be treated with extreme care, respectfully but critically. Weaponizing them is a form of idolatry. Those who practice gratuitous violence against the followers of another religion perpetrate violence against their own.

Therefore, it is all the more important to honour and work with those who teach their faith with integrity and respect for others and who reach out to us. Often, our very differences can bring us the fellowship and perspective to travel to the heart of our own faith and look into the core of each other’s. From those depths, we can form spiritual bonds and work together practically for the urgent common good. In these difficult times, it matters more than ever to return to the oneness at the heart of our faiths and seek one another as we seek God’s presence.

For we hold the same ultimate interest: a world of justice and kindness, sufficiency and integrity; a globe across which we perceive and protect what is precious and sacred in each other, nature and all life; an earth at peace.

With these thoughts in mind, I want to wish my Christian colleagues and friends a joyous festival and all of us a peaceful, worthwhile and hope-filled 2022.

Finding strength in tough times

The words we remember years afterwards often come in unexpected moments. We were just putting on our anoraks to go out, when my uncle Gabi (at least three times removed but close in heart!) said to me: ‘You know what strength is? It’s not being tough; it’s having compassionate values and trying to live by them whatever.’

Tomorrow we’ll complete the public reading of Bereshit, Genesis, the first book of the Torah. Most of us will follow the Ashkenazi custom of calling out:

Chazak, chazak, venitchazek: Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.

Jeffrey Tigay writes that the custom began in 19-century Germany where the briefer form ‘Be strong and let us summon our strength’ was used, building on the earlier, even shorter ‘Be strong’ called out to the person who read the last verses of one of the books of the Torah. In the Middle Ages poets and scribes would close their compositions with sentences like ‘Blessed be God who gives strength to the weary.’ Copying manuscripts was exhausting work. (See his essay in the Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, p. 1504)

Now, as once again we enter cautious days with Covid infections rising fast, the full threefold greeting feels timely: we need our physical strength, our emotional and spiritual strength, and the strength we find through each other.

With regard to the first, all I have is a prayer. May we do our sensible best to stay healthy and keep others safe. May God give strength to everyone supporting us and the wellbeing of all our society. May we appreciate them and do our utmost to make our own contribution. May everyone who needs healing be met with kindness and skill. May our health and care services be sufficiently financed, personned and valued. May God, hanoten laya’ef koach, who gives strength to the weary, give us health, energy and endurance.

As for emotional and spiritual strength, each of us has our own special path to that inner reservoir of life-giving waters which is never sealed off but frequently hard to access. For some it’s music. For others it’s yoga, baking, dog walking, birdsong, tai chi, and dare it say, even prayer. ‘What’s the cure for a sore heart?’ asks the Talmud, before answering ‘Torah, the Tree of Life.’

People sometimes ask me: ‘I’m going through tough times. My mother, father, partner, child… is ill. Where can I get the strength to look after everybody?’ Maybe it’s not the right response but I find myself asking ‘What are the things you like to do which truly sustain you week by week?’ Whatever the answer, (and no one has so far told me it’s robbing the bank) I say, ‘However great the pressure, try to maintain time for that.’

So, today, if possible, please at least sometimes keep doing what leads you on the inner journey to that place from where living waters flow back into the weary, dehydrated spirit.

I’m unsure how to translate venitchazek: is it ‘Let’s strengthen one another’ or ‘Let’s find strength in each other’? But it amounts to the same. ‘What I miss most,’ a doctor told me, referring to the cumulative impact of lockdowns, isolation and social distancing, ‘Are those informal chats with colleagues. I’d get so much support from them.’

Thank goodness at this point in time we can gather, in small numbers in our homes and cafes, on walks, in places of prayer and, if not in person, at least online – though that’s never quite the same. But wherever and however, it’s the ordinary things which matter: kind words, a listening heart, a small gift, a phone call, an encouraging word, even a passing greeting in the street.

Human Rights Day: Our lives are bound together

Today, on this 73rd Human Rights Day, which commemorates the date in 1948 when the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, my thoughts keep returning to the Torah’s beautiful phrase, ‘His soul is bound to his soul.’

It’s spoken by Judah as he describes to the viceroy of Egypt, who, unbeknown to him, is in fact his long-lost brother Joseph, the special bond between their father Jacob and his youngest son Benjamin. Judah has pledged himself to bring the boy back safely: how then can he return to his father without him, since Jacob’s soul is bound to his soul?

The sentence describes the tenacious tenderness of parental love. But it also has a wider resonance. The word translated as soul, nefesh, literally means ‘life.’ Judah is in fact describing the bond of which we are all part: ‘life is bound to life,’ every human being is connected to and dependent on others. Sometimes the bond is love. Often it’s more basic: the duty to ensure that others aren’t oppressed, starving, drenched and freezing with nowhere to go.

I listened to a report from the Poland-Belarus border on Radio 4’s Crossing Continents. A young teacher on the Polish side described how every night she and her friends take hot soup, blankets, even just water, to refugees, small children among them, stranded between the icy forests and the marshes. After bringing them to Minsk, Belarus harries them to the border, which Poland and the EU won’t let them cross. Some die.

I couldn’t help thinking of 1938, when Nazi Germany expelled thousands of Jews of Polish origin to the frontier, where they were ‘forced to scramble across the barrier into Poland while the guards screamed at them. No sooner were they on Polish soil than Polish border troops chased them back,’ until the Polish authorities eventually relented. (David Cesarani: Final Solution) I’m doubtful if, as a species, we learn from history.

It would not be difficult to draw up two lists. The first would include all the good intentions outlined in the Universal Declaration, each as important now as when it was drafted. The second, sadly longer, would comprise the ways they are disregarded today, from the genocidal sufferings of Uyghur people in China, to the desperation of millions in Afghanistan, and fate of thousands of refugees in Europe.

But I’m not sure that’s helpful. I’d rather stress something more positive, but also more personal and demanding. Judah tells the viceroy of Egypt that he’s pledged himself to bring Benjamin home safely. Rabbinic tradition understands that pledge as representing the responsibility we all owe one another.

Judaism doesn’t speak a language of rights but of responsibilities. It’s forbidden to ‘stand idly by the blood of your brother.’ It’s a duty to ‘feed the hungry, clothe the naked and bring the oppressed and destitute home.’ These are acts of Tsedakah vaHesed, social justice and faithful kindness, the values at the ethical heart of Judaism and all genuine religions and moral philosophies.

The question, then, is not ‘What does the theory say?’ but ‘What can I do? How can I increase the amount of Hesed in the world?’ There are people, near and far, who need us, who’re crying out now: ‘My life is bound to yours,’ my safety and wellbeing depends on you.

When Nelson Mandela wrote that ‘to deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity,’ he understood profoundly that it is also our own humanity which is challenged if we stand silently by while others are trodden down. Our souls, the moral and spiritual quality of our lives, are bound to others, to how we fight for and care for their lives alongside our own.

Chanukah and the light we give each other

I wish everybody Chag Urim Sameach, a Happy Festival of Lights, on this fifth day of Chanukah, the eve of the Shabbat which marks the 47th birthday of our congregation.

Last night we were privileged to host members of different faith communities; it was a warm-hearted gathering. Reverend Philip, from the local church of St Mary’s, spoke of ‘a contagion of light.’ I’ve heard the word ‘contagion’ many times during these Covid months, but never before in a positive sense.

The Talmud asks a technical question: ‘Is it permitted to light one Chanukah candle from another?’ On a practical level, it’s not really an issue: every Chanukiah has, as well as its eight holders for each of the lights of the eight-day festival, a special place for the shammash or servant candle. It’s traditionally set higher than the rest, just as Abraham and Sarah remained standing so that they could serve their seated guests. If any of the Chanukah candles goes out, one takes the shammash to re-ignite them.

But on a symbolic level the issue is real. We need our own light, and we need each other’s too. Sometimes, the fire in us burns strong: we’re excited with life, full of the love of it, with plans and hopes, and dreams as well as deadlines to fulfil. But in harder weeks our inner light fades; fears, griefs and thick mental shadows cloud it out. Why be here? What’s the point?

That’s when we need one another’s light and inspiration. Maybe that’s why Jewish law rules that, yes, one may indeed kindle one Chanukah candle from another. Emotionally and spiritually, we do so all the time. That’s what Reverend Philip must have meant by the ‘contagion of light.’

I’ve remained a rabbi of the same community all my career, not because it’s always been easy but because of the light I’m constantly given. There are the little, not-so-little, things: ‘We’ve made a food rota while their mother’s in hospital;’ ‘We’ve created a new game so every child can engage;’ ‘We’re offering those saying Kaddish the opportunity to tell us in a sentence about the person they’re remembering.’ There’s little so humbling as everyday thoughtfulness. It takes us down into ourselves, touches the heart and replenishes our own inner flame.

Just as the Chanukah lamps are sacred, so is that of each person. Though death takes their warmth from us, it cannot entirely extinguish the light of those we love. When I visit the cemetery where many of our community now lie, I think of them as much with affection as sorrow. They inspire me still.

There’s David Jackson, who had a stroke at the age of forty. When he came from Liverpool to London, he knew little Hebrew. He made himself into a scholar; he attended everything. He could muster a wicked smile, had a self-deprecating sense of humour and obstinately refused to stop feeding KitKats to my dog. He loved the Psalms, and even after a further stroke kept him to his room, wrote music and a personal commentary for each of the hundred-and-fifty in the Psalter. David, I sense you here, sitting where you always sat, just behind where I’m writing now in this same room.

Most of my job as rabbi consists in enabling candles to be replenished from the candles which burn; those which give light all the way back from the ancient Jewish past, through the travails of millennia, to our lives today; those we proffer each other, and those we share across our faiths and out into lonely and dark places in our societies and occluded depths in our souls.

On this lighting of one light from another the flame of our collective resilience, courage and hope depends.

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