What God says

A dreamer’s Shavuot message for a troubled world.

We say every day in the morning prayers that the world is illumined berachamim, by mercy and love. Wendell Berry, writer, devoted Christian, farmer and environmentalist so committed that, on principle, he ploughs his land only with horses, puts it like this:

I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, in so far as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love.

I so much want to agree. But the world doesn’t appear to be like that. To take just one example, (alongside so many issues about which we justly worry) the displaced family from Kharkiv have just marked one year since they fled Ukraine and came to live with us. With no sign of the war abating, we wondered how to mark the day. (The region was bombed the night before.) I made them their favourite cheese scones, small compensation, and we commiserated.

So it doesn’t exactly feel as if the world in its current state ‘subsists and coheres’ through love. But about this there can be no doubt: that the world, each of us, all of us, everything alive, has much need of love.

Therefore, that’s how I want to hear God’s voice in the Ten Commandments, which we will read tomorrow in all synagogues in every land and across all denominations. A beautiful Mishnah teaches that God didn’t just say ‘I am’ once long ago on Mount Sinai. God says this every day, calling out for us to attend. And God’s ‘I am’ is more than just a pronoun followed by a verb. The words are an appeal: ‘Hear me, care for me, love me.’

But where do we hear those words? To the mystics, the Kabbalists and Hasidim, the answer is simple: in everything. The voice of the living God is the essence of life in all its forms, the very heart of existence.

Therefore, when we think of children, especially perhaps children faced with extra struggles, such as finding a safe country, being given a safe home, having the right teachers who understand their gifts as well as their needs, we can hear within them the voice which says ‘Look after me, cherish me, love me.’

When we consider people facing the hard years toward the close of a long life’s journey, the physical limitations, the indignities which age can bring, the loss of friends, we can feel in their presence the voice which says, ‘Be gently with me, respect me, care for me.’ And so often we can see that voice embodied in those precious, remarkable carers who, day in and day out, night in and night out, truly care.

When we read the statistics of declining species, yet learn of the work of those determined groups who restore habitats, clean rivers, watch nests, save toads from busy A-roads, and know how to discern the music of one small songbird from another; there, too, we can hear God’s voice saying ‘I am’ in all the innumerable languages of creation.

But isn’t this all mere sentiment, when we’re told that God’s voice is commandment, a firm ‘Thou shalt’?

Not so! What greater commandment can there be than to live with love of creation, in whatever sphere of life we can best express it?

Therefore, may this be a year of listening, and responding, to God’s great commandment, God’s patient, enduring, long-suffering, pleading ‘I am.’

Be on the side of life

These two times ‘I’ may be all the world needs. The first is ‘I am’ and the second is ‘I shall.’ But beyond them waits a third, the terrible sentence of Cain.

The first anochi, ‘I am,’ is the opening word of the Ten Commandments, which we will read next Friday morning on Shavuot, the Festival of the Giving of the Torah. The description of the scene at Sinai moves me greatly, the cloud over the mountain, the rising cry of the shofar, the voice of God from nowhere and everywhere, saying Anochi, ‘I’.

When they heard that ‘I am,’ wrote Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger, (1847 – 1905) when they experienced that ‘I am your God’, not just the Children of Israel but every living being felt it was addressed directly to them. More than that, they felt it was them, the voice at the very core of them, the holiness in the essence of all life.

Those simple words ‘I am your God’ say something deeper than the divine equivalent of ‘Look, this is me!’ They are not really words at all, but the translation into human language of a truth at the centre of all existence. They are vitality itself, the very articulation of the sacred energy which flows through all organic beings, giving them form, life, consciousness and the gift of time.

Therefore, the presence of God, – perhaps it’s less daunting to call it the sacred, the special, -can be felt in all things, in our fellow human beings, in our companion creatures on this earth, in the trees, in meadows, in a tiny flowering plant, even an insect.

This is the first, and most definitive, ‘I am,’ the life of all life.

The second anochi, ‘I’, is what Judah says to his father Jacob to persuade him to entrust Benjamin to his care and allow him to go with his brothers back down to Egypt to buy grain and stave off starvation. Anochi e’ervenu, he says, ‘I shall stand surety for him.’ (Bereshit 43:9) Send the boy with me; I’ll look after him.

I hear about that second anochi almost every day, and often witnessed with my own eyes: ‘I’ll commit to that,’ ‘I’ll take care.’ They’re simple words, but what they represent is not so easy, a combination of awareness, kindness, and the readiness to take responsibility.

I saw only part of the film Mo Farah is making about his life. Alongside those who trafficked him to the UK and enslaved him in domestic service were those who heard him, listened and strove to protect and love him. ‘I’ll stand surety for him,’ they said.

We hold innumerable lives in our hands. The great question, the issue which will define the future of humanity, is whether we can say ‘I’ll stand up for you,’ and mean it truly. That ‘you’ may be a child. But it may also be an orphaned or mal-treated animal, a local park, a meadow. I’ve met people who treasure the tiniest creatures, looking after with wonder. What matters is that we are on the side of life, engaged in heart, practical in our care.

These two words, God’s ‘I am’ and our answer ‘I shall’, may be all we need to find our path through life.

But against them, louring, is a third anochi, the ‘Am I?’ of Cain: ‘Hashomer achi anochi? Am I my brother’s keeper?’ He’s the prototype of those treacherous perpetrators who stalk our future with their byline: Why should I care who I hurt or kill?

That’s why it matters absolutely, always to be on the side of life.

Is there a commandment to love our planet?

Last Wednesday I had the privilege of making a small contribution to ‘Loving the Planet.’ It wasn’t a tree-hugging session, a team effort to prepare a hedgehog highway underneath a road, or a hedgerow planting day, but a seminar at Regents Park College, Oxford. I was asked to respond to a lecture by Professor Melissa Raphael as part of an interfaith seminar on Ecology, Love and Theology.

There’s no obvious commandment to love the earth, Professor Raphael argued, undoubtedly correctly. Judaism offers plenty of pragmatic direction: don’t destroy, don’t be cruel, allow your animals to rest each seventh day and the land each seventh year, repair the world. But love the planet? The Torah contains no such injunction.

She then proceeded to make a moving argument that, since we have become estranged from the land, its fauna and flora, seasons and smells, needs and yields, perhaps the earth itself is now, too, one of those strangers which the Torah instructs us to love in no less than thirty-six places. Is our degraded planet calling out to us: ‘Love me.’

Imanuel Levinas teaches that we must hear God’s command in ‘the face of the other’, calling on us to take responsibility for one another, so the earth too has a visage, ‘pnei tehom, the face of the deep’ over whose darkness God spread the first mantle of light. This face of the earth also commands us. Commandment is ‘interruptive’: it insists on a response, demands our ‘Hinenni – Here am I.’

It was a beautiful paper. It put me in mind of the Torah’s other love commandments, especially the love of our neighbour. Could we understand the earth not just as stranger, but also as neighbour, I wondered in response? After all, it’s never far away.

Like so many rabbis, Samson Raphael Hirsch loved word associations. In his Torah commentary he links Re’acha, ‘your neighbour’, with mir’eh, ‘pasture’. From a strictly semantic perspective this is most unlikely, but it’s an evocative connection, nonetheless. Destroy our neighbours’ ‘pastures’, he argues, their rights, place in society, sources of sustenance, the earth on which they and we depend, and we break the commandment to love our neighbour like our self.

“And it’s not just ‘like us’,” someone in the room added; “it is us, for our very bodies are of the earth.” So, should ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ include the meadows, woods and wheatfields too – without devaluing our special responsibilities to our fellow humans?

Yesterday Deborah Golend and I opened the fourth conversation Jewish and Emotional on the subject of gratitude. It led me to think of the closing lines of a poem by Rachel, the pioneer Hebrew poet whose life was cut short by tuberculosis:

Let me not be bitter, lest I cloud with my bitterness

the pure blue of the sky, my friend of old.

Her term for ‘my friend’ is re’i, the same word as ‘neighbour’ in the Torah.

Perhaps, them the earth is both stranger and neighbour, calling, in different ways, for our care?

The Torah has, of course, a third love commandment: Love God. Judaism rejects the deification of nature, the pantheistic worship of hilltops, moons and stars. Yet, together with the mystics, the panentheists, we may see God not as nature, but within, as well as beyond, it. The spirit which hovered over the deep, lives within all breathing things, for God is Chei hachaim, the Life of all life.

How then can we treat any creature with wanton cruelty, or cause needless destruction, when in so doing we hurt not only its particular life, but something infinitely precious at the same time, a tiny portion of God’s presence? The very thought makes the heart ache, and isn’t that a symptom of love?

Whose faces do we see?

I received a remarkable WhatsApp from Raba Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, rabbi of the Tsion community in Jerusalem. The colleague who introduced us said to me ‘Meet your soul-sister’. It’s an honour I don’t deserve, though now that her family has a puppy maybe it’s a little less untrue.

Rabbi Tamar had just concluded a ten-day hunger strike out of deep anguish for Israel. Two weeks ago, she told me at the demonstrations in Jerusalem, ‘Don’t compromise your principles. But listen to everyone.’ The struggle for democracy and justice must be won. But behind it lie further dangerous rifts, angers, insecurities, wrongs and fears.

Tamar reflected deeply on the words of the Hatikvah, “The Hope”, Israel’s national anthem, especially on the line kol od baleivav penimah, ‘For so long, deep within the heart…’ Penimah means ‘within’, but panim are also ‘faces’. She wrote:

 ‘So long as I have within my heart the faces of my brothers and sisters, so long as I acknowledge them, carry them, seek their peace as I seek my own…’

Her words reminded me of Pasternak’s poem ‘Daybreak

In me are people without names,

Children, stay-at-homes, trees,

I am conquered by them all

And this is my only victory.

So who are these people we must carry in our heart?

Some are our nearest-and-dearest because we feel and care in similar ways. But Tamar’s point is that’s not enough. What about others?

Pharaoh asked Moses this very question three thousand years ago: Who’s going with you on your journey to freedom? ‘Our old and our young,’ he replied, ‘our sons and our daughters.’ Moses was leaving no one behind.

Now, approaching Pesach, ‘The Festival of Our Freedom’ who must we carry with us in these troubled times? To whom as we open the door to Elijah, prophet of peace, can we open our hearts and minds?

Some things are easily said, just hard to do. We must take the poor with us in our increasingly unequal societies, refugees, children, all children, those who cope readily in our fierce-elbowed world and those who find it tough.

Some things are hard even to say. Can we carry in understanding, without agreeing or conceding, those whose views, and often actions, we oppose, including, perhaps, communities we call ‘ultra-orthodox’ who fear modernity? Are there values with which we can empathise?

Is there a place in our thinking for those whose hurts are also, alongside the oppression and hatreds of so much Iranian and Middle Eastern politics, partly our responsibility after fifty-five years, Palestinian people on the wrong side of those concreate walls, without rights we mostly take for granted? If not, to what shared pain are we jointly condemned?

Is there even space in my imagination for those whose actions I utterly deplore and in no way seek to justify, supremacists and racists who profane the name of Judaism? Should I see their actions, without in any way exculpating them, as in part the product of hurts and wrongs, pogroms and attempted genocides, absorbed by Jews for centuries and now poured forth in vindictive anger, and fear?

To what wrongs – I write this with trepidation – here in the UK, across this unjust world, and among my own people, am I too party? We read the famous verse v’ahavta le’re’acha kamocha, as ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, which numerous rabbis, being pragmatists, understand as ‘respect and acknowledge others as you want to be respected.’ But the words, vowel-less in the Torah, can be misread as ve’ahavta lera’achah. It’s a harsh misreading, but not beyond the scope of what one sometimes finds in Hasidic discourse. It means something like ‘acknowledge the bad which is like you,’ the wrongs in which I also have a share.

If we wish to advance our journey towards freedom and redemption this Pesach, these are some of the questions we may have to face.

I love the festival and shall write affectionately and uncritically about its details on Monday.

A frank and heartfelt report from Israel

My body is back from Israel, but not my head and heart. ‘Don’t turn away at this critical hour. Stay by us. Know that there are many Israels; decide with which you stand.’ That’s the key message I was given in this time of danger, when both Israel and the meaning of Judaism are at stake.

I’ll describe elsewhere the amazing UK-bound rabbinical students gathered at the Conservative Yeshivah to share their learning, spirit, values and devotion to each other.

I’ll say little of my half marathon, the guide dogs I met, and how in the last metres I looked the wrong way and carelessly, idiotically, ran into a road, was missed by a bus by 3 inches, am lucky to be alive and must say the blessing ‘for the unworthy to whom God does good.’

No: I’ll focus on what’s seared in my mind from meeting after meeting. Forgive me; I must write more than usual.

De-mo-crat-ya; the chant from the demonstrations doesn’t leave me. No one gave Israel’s present government the right to tread down those principles, which, beyond the word’s literal meaning of ‘power of the people,’ are the essence of democracy: the supremacy of justice and law, equality, freedom of conscience and expression, respect for minorities. ‘I’m terrified,’ a gay activist tells me. These values are at risk not just in Israel but in many lands.

Everyone I know is there, right, left and friends who don’t go to demonstrations. The speakers are well-chosen: leading women, an Arab Israeli, a senior academic, an ultra-orthodox rabbi. As they name the wrongs of the proposed legislation, the chant turns to ‘bushah, bushah, bushah, shame, shame, shame.’

There’s power and hope in these demonstrations, which keep going, growing, can’t be ignored.

I pick up the sticker ‘Democracy and Occupation cannot Coexist.’ ‘You can’t dissociate this from the occupation,’ says orthodox rabbi Alon Goschen-Gottstein, who created the Elijah Interfaith Institute, as we walk through the lanes of beautiful Yemin Moshe. Injustice knows no green lines and crosses back over separation walls.

I sit with scholar Dror Bondi, raised among settlers with the belief that ‘God is Jewish,’ until, spiritually troubled, he encountered Abraham Joshua Heschel’s ‘any God who’s my God and not your God isn’t God.’ Is it conceivable, he writes, that in a Jewish state the high court of justice should not be above and independent of the government, just as in times of monarchy the king was subject to the Torah’s law ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue?’

Israel’s crisis is political, but it’s also about the nature of Judaism. Now more than ever is the time to uphold the spiritually, morally, culturally, rich and courageous Judaism whose God is the God of all, against a nationalist, literalist narrowing down. For Judaism’s reputation is on the line.

I go with the New Israel Fund and Ir Amim to the valley flowing from the Old City to the Arab village of Silouan. Below, donkeys graze sweetly in a model biblical farmyard. But it’s part of a land grab led by El Ad who’re also behind the cable-car project and a bridge across the valley to dominate the neighbourhood. I’m reminded of a conversation years ago with the CEO of a nearby Palestinian hospital: ‘You’re an intelligent people,’ he said, ‘And I’ve been a peace activist for years. So what are you doing trying to force us out? What consequences will this have?’

I hadn’t thought of as animals as political. But next day I’m in the West Bank with Rabbi Arik Ascherman, director of Torat Tsedek (Torah of Justice). His car stuck in mud in the rainswept hills, he documents settlers calculatedly grazing their sheep on undisputedly Palestinian land. He phones the police and army; when we leave, they haven’t yet arrived: ‘By the time anything happens the sheep may have eaten all the produce…’

Arik, who has extraordinary physical and moral courage, has been attacked many times. At the trial of the seventeen-year-old who held a knife to his throat, he pleaded that the young man not go to prison, saying “We must honour God’s image in every human being.” About those words Professor David Shulman, author of Dark Hope, Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine, wrote: ‘Out of the 613 mitzvot the Jews are meant to perform, this one stands out. Its existential priority, in the awareness of a person like Arik, speaks to the old tradition of Jewish humanism that I knew from my grandfather and my parents.’

We love our country and look after it for everyone, say the leaders of The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel when we meet to discuss partnership with Jtree over planting shrubs and trees round wetlands project. But the proposed legislation will remove all safeguards over nature, allowing virtually unlimited ‘development’.

‘Stand by your principles, but meet everyone,’ says my dear friend Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum. Day and night, she works to get people together: ‘Our society’s torn apart. We must hear each other if we’re to heal. She’s bringing women leaders, Jewish, Hasidic, Druse, Muslim, Palestinian, Christian, right-wing, left-wing, west bank, to listen to each other at Bet Hanasi, the President’s House. ‘I don’t compromise on principles,’ she says, ‘But we must hear one another; it changes hearts.’

‘I’m hopeful,’ says a friend who’s senior in Israel’s bank: all the financial institutions, at home and abroad, all the high tech, is telling this government to stop. So are high officers in the army and air force, whose lives are constantly on the line for our country.

The current government stands on three dangerous pillars: militant settlers, who don’t want to be held to justice by the courts; ultra-orthodox who don’t want equality for women or different branches of Judaism, or to serve in the army; and corrupt leadership at the highest level. It’s also supported by many who, often with reason, have long felt hurt and unheard.

Facing it are millions deeply devoted to Israel who seek to uphold the true meanings of democracy, groups from right and left, countless NGOs, people practising chesed, tzedek, ve’emet, lovingkindness, justice and truth, people who risk their own and their children’s lives for a country so often wrongly attacked, hated and defamed. Alongside them are millions of Jews and non-Jews abroad.

Time and again I’m told: Say to your community ‘Stand with us. Tell them there are many Israels; tell them to choose carefully which ones to support. Use your influence. We need you all.’

The demonstration in Jerusalem falls silent, then everyone sings Hatikvah together: ‘Our hope has not ceased, to be a free people,’ free for everyone. It is deeply moving.

From a troubled Israel

I spent yesterday morning at the Israel Bird Observatory seeing tiny migrating birds being expertly ringed.

The Observatory is situated exactly between Israel’s Knesset and the Supreme Court; politicians go past frequently. An extraordinary green haven in the middle of the city, its location is critically symbolic.

I watched closely as birds as light as just five grams were measured and ringed. It was a privilege to witness the loving skill with which they were handled. There’s a careful technique to holding them, either by their legs, or by cupping them in the hand with fingers placed round their neck. A careless movement and the creature would be strangled.

In that location and at this hour I couldn’t escape the thought that this was symbolic: that Israel’s current government has its rough fingers round the neck of Israel’s judiciary, Israel’s democracy, its ethical standing, its reputation as the Jewish State and the good name of Judaism across the world.

In the words of Yuval Noah Harari, (The Times of Israel) the legal reforms it proposes would give it ‘unlimited power to pass any law it wants…without checks on its power and without protection for minority rights,’ those very rights on which we Jews have depended, and in the absence of which we’ve often been betrayed, in numerous lands for many generations. Without judicial protection, society, and especially the most vulnerable groups in it, would be left at the mercy of the very ministers who ‘have often expressed racist, misogynist and homophobic views,’ a prospect viciously evidenced in Minister Ben Gvir’s despicable response to the appalling pogrom in Hawara last week. (There’s a deeply disturbing relationship between the occupation and the attack on justice and freedom within Israel itself.)

‘It seems that the current Israeli government has simply forgotten what it means to be Jewish,’ Harari concludes.

In an emergency address to the nation last night, President Herzog put himself on the line, telling his government, history would judge if it did not act immediately to calm the national emergency and rethink its proposed legislation which would destroy ‘the supreme values’ of democracy and justice, and imperil Israel.

Moments afterwards there was an appalling terrorist attack on the streets of Tel Aviv, horribly highlighting the all-too-real dangers Israelis regularly face.

I was asked last night about the connection between Purim and Pesach. This year it’s bluntly clear. ‘If you are silent now,’ Mordechai tells Esther, demanding her, despite the risk, to intervene on behalf of her people. Pesach is the festival of liberty and human dignity. If we are silent now, we will watch those very values corroded and corrupted by a leadership which is not only betraying its own courageous and creative country, but Judaism itself.

Writing in the New York Times, Thomas Freedman quoted three Israeli thinkers, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, Yossi Klein Halevi and Matti Friedman who, though representing different political perspectives, deliberately came together to tell American Jewry to stand up and defend Israel ‘from a political leadership that is undermining our society’s cohesion and its democratic ethos, the foundations of the Israeli success story.’

On Wednesday I was with leaders of local protests (half a million people are expected on the streets this Saturday night). One, a senior doctor, had coordinated a letter signed by three hundred medics in the reserves, stating that they would not serve if the government destroyed those very freedoms for which they had time and again put their lives on the line.

The massive, strong and peaceful protests across the country are a deep indication of the country’s health, symbolised by the reclaiming of the national flag as representing the core values for which the state of Israel was founded: democracy, justice and equality for all its citizens.

We, who live abroad, must stand up too. It is not just for Israel but for Judaism itself that those same values must be claimed. Otherwise, others will represent Judaism for us, as proved by the religious far right in the current government. We mustn’t let ‘Jewish’ be merely an adjective we apply to ourselves when it suits. We must study, know, love and live by its creed of justice, compassion, and the service of God through the creation of just, compassionate, knowledgeable and dedicated communities and societies.

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.’

A passion for God and social justice: on the 50th Yahrzeit of AJ Heschel

It’s strangely fitting that we should be marking the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Abraham Joshua Heschel just as we begin the Book of Exodus. He died in the night of 23 December 1972, the Hebrew calendar equivalent of which, 18 Tevet, fell this last Wednesday.

Heschel, like his namesake Abraham, like Moses, understood the spiritual call to fight against slavery, degradation and human misery. To him, as to them, relationship with God meant, simultaneously and ineluctably, an impassioned relationship to social justice. That was the essence of the ‘mutual allegiance’ between God and humanity.

People said of Heschel, as if in surprise, that he had intense kavvanah, inwardness, yet a burning engagement against the wrongs of his time. That’s incorrect, wrote his student Rabbi Arthur Waskow: don’t say yet, say therefore. To Heschel the light of the spirit and the flame of conscience came from one and the same fire, just as the burning bush was at once a spiritual and a moral summons to Moses.

In lines I find intensely moving, Heschel wrote in an essay on his involvement with the peace movement that what compelled him to engage was ‘the discovery that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself:’

There is immense silent agony in the world, and the task of man is to be a voice for the plundered poor, to prevent the desecration of the soul and the violation of our dream of honesty.

The wrongs Heschel protested included the annihilation of European Jewry, the persecution of Soviet Jews, racial injustice in America and the Vietnam War. All too often he was left to feel a lonely voice, unheard by those religious and political leaders he sought to stir to action. In the end, wrote another of his disciples, Byron Sherwin, ‘His conscience remained resolute, his integrity remained intact, but his heart could not survive the onslaught.’

Heschel’s activism was founded on a knowledge of Judaism as inward and integrated as the blood in his arteries. His spirituality was rooted in the intense Hasidic world of piety and learning in which, from well before his teens, he was studying Talmud and rabbinic writings, sometimes eighteen or twenty hours a day. His ‘spiritually-rooted politics’ (Arthur Waskow) were shaped by Hasidic piety and commitment to community, and by the fervent passion for justice of the prophets of Israel, to which he devoted many years of study.

It was this knowledge and passion which made him, a not very successful and little appreciated lecturer, a national moral figure in America recognised first by Christian and subsequently by Jewish leaders:

Rabbi Heschel was a person with whom we could pray. His prayer moved him to action, action for a better world…His commitment to social justice was our commitment to social justice. (Gary Michael Banks: Rabbi Heschel Through Christian Eyes)

Banks is correct about Heschel’s radical, yet deeply traditional, understanding of prayer:

Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement.’ (On Prayer)

This was what famously led Heschel to say on returning from marching alongside Reverend Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama, ‘I felt as if my legs were praying.’

Abraham Joshua Heschel is a religious leader of inestimable importance for our time, whether we live in the UK, Israel, or elsewhere. We urgently need a spirituality which summons us to fight for justice and human dignity for everyone, and a passion for justice and human dignity inspired and emboldened by our spirituality.

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