Prayer for Ukraine, one year on

I was privileged to be invited by Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski to offer a prayer of solidarity at the Ukrainian Cathedral this morning, a year since this phase of Putin’s assault so shockingly began. As Mayor Sadiq Kahn said, this is not the first anniversary of the war, but of the Western World waking up to horrors to which the people of Ukraine have been subject since 2014, and to the full significance of this war for truth, freedom and human dignity.

Many members of the Ukrainian community told me how deeply they felt supported by the UK and the Jewish community in particular. Worried about ‘news fatigue’ they asked that this should continue. I assured them that it most certainly would.

The Cathedral was decked with 461 paper angels, representing the Ukrainian children known to have been killed in the war. (Different faiths do things in different ways) There was a rolling screening of pictures of soldiers killed in the fighting, several of whom returned from Britain to defend their country. One feels, too, for the Russian conscripts and their families, young men sent to their deaths in a war they almost certainly don’t understand. It was hard to hold back tears.

It’s painful to say prayers like this on the eve of the Shabbat when we read in the Torah portion Terumah about the tabernacle, God’s sanctuary, which we strive to build so that God’s presence can dwell among us here on earth, and which symbolises a world at peace with a safe place within it for every faith, nation and person, and for all of nature too.

As Rabbi Tarfon said, we will surely not complete the work, but we are not free to desist from it. We need to muster all the solidarity, courage, compassion and creative imagination we collectively can, in the name of life and its blessings.


Prayer for Ukraine, 24 February 2023

‘Out of the depths, I call to you God.’ These Psalmist’s words cried out from the bones of my people at Babyn Yar, where the Nazis murdered tens of thousands of Jews, and which was bombed again last March. They spoke in my heart at Borodianka, by Bucha, by the burnt-out homes, by the charred statue of Taras Shevchenko, father of modern Ukrainian literature.

For the third time in a hundred years a tyrant is trying to annihilate Ukraine and subjugate its people.

This war is an assault on history and identity, truth and freedom, life and hope; a crime against humanity and nature.

The people of Ukraine couldn’t defend themselves against Stalin’s policy of mass starvation; millions of Jews were powerless before Hitler’s Einsatzgruppen.

But today, the President, Parliament, Army and Ukrainian people of all faiths stand united and courageous against tyranny.

In stalwart solidarity with them, we pray:

For Ukraine’s armed forces and those who support them: may you be resilient until victory and peace; may war’s cruelties not harden your hearts.

For everyone traumatised, tortured, raped, and stricken by the wounds and griefs of war: may the God of healing be with you.

For all Ukraine’s children, displaced internally and worldwide: may your families be reunited in a safe, democratic, intact and peaceful Ukraine.

For the ecologists investigating and striving to reverse the environmental devastation of battle.

For the broadcaster who dared to say on Russian television ‘you’re being lied to here,’ and all who seek and speak truth.

For the families of all those killed in this war.

From the depths of our hearts we call to you, God. May life, freedom, truth and peace speedily prevail.

Israel, Judaism and Justice

In many parts of the world justice is in danger.

One sometimes hears Judaism referred to as ‘a religion of justice’ in derogatory tones, as if justice were inferior to love and could be summed up in the supposedly vindictive formula ‘an eye for an eye.’ But it’s a false comparison. Justice is the basis for love even in the closest of personal relationships. It is the foundation of equality and mutual respect across societies and between nations. Without justice, love and companionship cannot thrive. Justice is something to be proud of and defend, as the Torah teaches, ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue.’ (Deuteronomy 16:20)

But in many parts of the world, including, sadly, Israel under its current government, the integrity of the judicial process is in peril.

This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, which means ‘Laws.’ It opens with the words ‘And these are the laws…’ (Exodus 21:1) Being careful readers, the rabbis paid close attention to that ‘and’. They understood it as connecting all the Torah’s detailed rules with the revelation at Sinai described in the previous chapter. Just as the Ten Commandments were given by God, so the laws needed to govern a just and compassionate society are equally sacred.

A striking Midrash goes further. God is supremely powerful, yet God loves justice, as we affirm in every weekday prayer when we bless ‘God who loves righteousness and justice.’ Only tyrants seek to bypass the judicial system. Justice, administered with impartiality and humility, is how God’s will is made manifest in the world. (Yalkut Shimoni to Mishpatim)

The Torah insists that judges must be God-fearing, honest and incorruptible. They must ‘hate bribes’ which presumably includes not only financial but also political inducements. (Exodus 18:21)

An ancient rabbinic principle prefigures the separation of powers between government and governance: ‘There are three crowns: the crown of sovereignty, the crown of priesthood and the crown of Torah.’ (Sayings of the Fathers 2:10) No two crowns were ever to be worn by the same person. The role of Torah scholars, the rabbis and judiciary, was to ensure that society was ruled according to the principles of justice and compassion. Their responsibility was, and remains, to tell truth to power and hold it frankly and bravely to account.

These are the very issues about which hundreds of thousands are demonstrating across Israel today. One can criticise some of its decisions, but Israel has rightly been proud of the independence, integrity and courage of its supreme court. That independence is now under threat of politicisation and marginalisation by a government which wants to control its composition and undermine its authority. It’s a government which has little desire for true equality among all Israel’s citizens, which has racist minsters in its ranks, and which fails to recognise that democracy means not just the rule of the majority but respect for minorities and their views. In the frank words of Israel’s Attorney General:

Giving unlimited powers to the government is a sure recipe for infringing both human rights and proper governance. The principle of the separation of powers requires an autonomous, nonpartisan and independent judicial system… The results of [suggested changes to the Judicial Selection Committee] would damage the independence, the professionalism and the non-partisan autonomy of the Judiciary. (Issued 2nd February)

These proposed measures, which threaten Israel’s democratic foundations, have met with massive resistance across Israel and the Jewish World. Ron Kronish, who has worked long and tirelessly for understanding between the different faiths in Israel, reported:

I attended the massive demonstration against the current insane government in Jerusalem on Monday, February 13th, along with over 100,000 Israeli citizens from all over the country. It was an amazing experience…. The sane, rational, caring majority of Israeli citizens have woken up from their apathy! …Many groups in Israeli society are involved: high-tech workers, lawyers and jurists, professors and their students, teachers and their students, retired people, reservists from the army and many more… It was inspiring. A moment of hope. (The Times of Israel)

I’m writing about these matters, not eagerly, but because this is not a time to keep silent. Millions of Israelis, and others, Jews and non-Jews, have devoted their lives, and tens of thousands of Israelis have given those lives, for a country which has striven, and continues despite its difficulties to strive, to be ‘based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace as taught by the Hebrew prophets.’ (Israel’s Declaration of Independence) These principles lie at the heart not just of Israel but of the Jewish religion through the ages.

Report from a visit to Kyiv

I’ve spent most of my week in Kyiv, with a small group Christian, Muslim and Jewish faith leaders, organised by Europe, A Patient. As I write, I’m on the long train journey back to the Polish border now, watching the snow-bound flatlands and villages with homes with a well in the garden, where it’s easy to imagine our ancestors, in their poverty, with their horse and cart, and the Rebbe with the faithful in the small Beis Medrash.

Of many encounters, two are foremost in my mind. We visited the Kyiv Masorti community where the group of roughly twenty was largely composed of women of a grandmotherly generation. ‘You’re in charge,’ I was brusquely informed. I hoped these women would tell their stories and, once had begun, they readily did. Fortunately Olena Bogdan, formerly head of religion and culture in Ukraine, was with us, with her superb English. Here’s some of what was said:

–          I stayed in Ukraine because I felt the presence of women was needed. I lost my job caring for children with Down’s syndrome when they were evacuated. I spend my time supporting whoever I can, helping with humanitarian aid, rescuing animals too. I’m a psychologist. I support those going through trauma. The sirens, especially at night, shatter our nerves.

–          I’ve no relatives. I don’t even know for certain I’m Jewish. But my grandmother’s sister was killed at Babi Yar. In this centre I feel safe; they’re my family. We care for each other.

–          My family were mostly murdered at Babi Yar; who’d have thought we’d face another war? My son-in-law was killed. The Russists, that’s what we call them, fired randomly at columns of cars trying to rescue civilians. You never knew who’ll be hit.

(Babi Yar is at the outskirts of the city. We prayed by its frozen ravines. Here tens of thousands were shot by the Nazis in two days in September 41’ and thousands more in the weeks which followed. We were shown fragments of the Russian bombs which hit the adjacent television tower, in this sick, lying war against ‘Nazi’ Ukraine.)

We met Ukraine’s leading civil servant, a member of the Masorti community; when I asked him ‘What shall I say in London?’ he replied simply ‘Give us weapons.’ All the rest is secondary.

I shall never forget meeting Metropolitan Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine. He had that presence one recognises in a person of courageous integrity, astute moral perception and embracing vision.

He spoke not just of the horrors of the war, but of its ideological character, its aim of obliterating Ukraine and Ukrainian identity. The Russians burnt books, including Bibles, he told us, just because they were written in Ukrainian. This brought to mind Heine’s warning that those who burn books proceed to burn people. We saw exactly what the Metropolitan meant in Borodianka, a small town next to Bucha and Irpin, where, among the air attacks on blocks of flats and civil institutions, Russian pilots strafed the statue of the poet Taras Shevchenko, founder of the modern Ukrainian language. (Over 20 people are still missing, unaccounted for presumed burnt to a cinder. Father Yasroslav, who showed us round said that for weeks he led seven funeral columns every day after the town was freed).

This is a war which concerns us all: of truth against lies; of freedom against totalitarianism; and, on a religious level, of faith in the God present in every human being and all life, as opposed to the idolatry of co-opting God to justify crimes against humanity. We ignore what’s happening in Ukraine at our peril.

For all that, the streets of Kyiv were far from empty, the cafes, including the kosher restaurant, were open and serving good food. But, as Olena warned, it’s an unreal normality: anything can happen in a moment. And the horror and trauma weight heavy in people’s hearts.

I’ll close by reverting to the words of the Metropolitan: ‘I’m concerned not just about the war, but the quality of the peace which has to follow, for Ukraine, for Russia and for the world.’

I’m writing these words for the Shabbat on which we read in the Torah, ‘Thou shalt not murder.’

Between horror and wonder, silence and song

I love this pre-dawn, pre-rush quiet. I think it’s what Isabel Allende called her ‘witching hour.’ Spirits talk to us from worlds beyond, or maybe they’re really worlds within, our subconscious and soul. Perhaps they always speak, but in this calm it’s easier to hear. Then the roads and emails wake up, and the spirits retreat to hiding places down inside the heart.

This morning I wake with conflicting voices. Until midnight Nicky and I watched America and the Holocaust. It’s outstanding, horrifying, honest, brutal, clear. Superimposed on the pleading letters ‘Let my children in,’ I saw my own family’s handwriting: Trude, deported to Ostrow-Lubelski, setting down desperately ‘Tell them we’re still alive.’ Cruelties unthinkable; wrongs unhealable! I feel cold to the depths of my soul.

Yet something inside me still sings and won’t stop, sings from a very different world. For yesterday, too, I interviewed nature-lover, author and passionate campaigner George Monbiot. ‘I’ve felt more alive ever since,’ he wrote of his experiences in the Amazon. ‘What trees do you like most?’ I asked him. ‘Dead ones,’ he replied, enjoying my surprise. ‘Because they’re not really dead but sustain countless creatures, beetles, birds, small mammals, the seeds of innumerable new lives.’

Here we are, two thirds of the way across the calendar from Holocaust Memorial Day to Tu Bishevat, the New Year of the Trees, which begins this Sunday night. Half my heart is numb; half of it sings.

I sing because I love this world, people, animals, trees, the wren that sat on my windowsill, tiniest of birds, before recommencing its amazingly loud round of songs; the mini-flock of long-tailed tits that chattered around the feeder like congregants at Kiddush; the snowdrops, though I’m no expert on the two hundred varieties as Nicky is; the winter jasmine, wintersweet, mahonia, which reserve their fragrances and flowers for February. How wondrous this world is!

‘What do you need to replenish your spirit?’ I asked a person in mourning earlier this week. ‘I walk for an hour in the woods every day. The trees restore my soul.’

‘The fundamental reason all beings are created,’ wrote Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira

‘is so that they should sing, for in this way they reveal the greatness of God. Every single created being sings… Each and every being reveals a spark of the glory of the God of blessings.’

With a courage, devotion and discipline which are utterly beyond my capacity to imagine, he did not allow even the Nazis and the Warsaw Ghetto to silence his spirit’s song.

The songs of which he wrote are not just melodies of prayer, in heart language; they are no less songs of action, of chesed, deeds of kindness, justice, humanity and defiance. We must not fail to turn our love of the world into action, George Monbiot said to me. We need to sing and help the world sing, in word and deed.

Tomorrow is Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song. ‘So that my soul shall sing of you and not be silent,’ wrote the Psalmist. Only a person who understands the power of silence could write such words, its deep gravitational draw: How can I speak at all, when cruelty and horror destroy our world? Only a person who loves life could have composed them: How can I be silent when such beauty, tenderness and hope call out to my spirit to sing? ‘Oh God, I give thanks to you!’ (Psalm 30:13)

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