Whom we carry in our hearts

Whose names do we carry on our shoulders and bear in our hearts?

My sartorial interests have always been minimal. Aware of their environmental cost, I shop for new clothes as rarely as possible. If I do have to visit a shopping centre like Brent Cross, the less time I have there, the more likely I am to buy what I need.

But the High Priest’s garments, described in this week’s Torah reading, fascinate me. The very names of the precious stones sewn onto them seem to glow in the text: sappir veyahalom, sapphire and diamond, shevo ve’achlamah, agate and amethyst.

Mystics see them as metaphors for the radiance of the soul. But in our sore times, I’m interested in something more down to earth. Two stones are carved with the names of the tribes of Israel, six names on each, and attached to the high priest’s ephod so that ‘he wears them on his shoulders as a memorial before God.’

Today there is no temple, no sacrificial service and no high priest. Instead, we each come before God carrying the names, hopes, anguish and aspirations of everyone we care about, before God.

My first meeting here in Israel was with my colleague Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya, responsible for supporting the Jewish communities of Ukraine. This Shabbat, 24 February, brings the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion. She writes:

‘Two years have passed but the war still remains. These days, every Shabbat service in Ukraine begins with the prayer for peace in Israel and ends with the prayer for Ukraine.’

Last year, I joined Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski at the Ukrainian Cathedral in London. He carries on his shoulders the anguish of hundreds of thousands of his people, exiled to Britain or fighting and struggling at home. There’s no end in sight to the war. I send him a big hug of solidarity from Jerusalem.

As well as the stones on his shoulders, the high priest wore over his heart four rows of jewels, three in each row, carved with the individual name of one of Israel’s twelve tribes. We, being no formal high priests, carry them not on, but in, our hearts.

I don’t know whom you carry in your heart: someone you love who’s in danger, a hostage, a friend whose hand you want to hold but they’re on the other side of some border, at the other end of the world. What I do know is that we all carry names in our hearts ‘as a memorial before God’: people we love, for whom we hope and pray. I think of Pasternak’s poem:

‘In me are people without names…
I am conquered by them all, and this is my only victory.’

May the God of life embrace them all.

The high priest wears one more piece of clothing bearing a name, God’s name carved on a gold band worn round his head. It was his special tefillin, the small leather boxes with scrolls bearing the commandment to love God, which we place daily next to our heart and on our forehead.

The other morning, I tentatively mentioned to a friend that his tefillin were askew; instead of at the centre they were way off to one side of his forehead. ‘No,’ he wittily replied, ‘My tefillin are in the right place. It’s my head which is facing the wrong way.’ Since then, I keep asking myself which way my thoughts are facing.

The Torah explains that the high priest wears his special garments ‘to make him holy to serve me.’

So may we, each our own high priest, be granted to stand with our head and thoughts facing the God of all life, our hearts filled with love to carry the names of the people who need our embrace, and our shoulders strong to share their burdens, in these cruel, challenging times.

Crossing the silence: the healing power of listening

‘We came today to tell, to listen, to remember,’ said David Grossman at the mourning gathering of the Kibbutz movement. He knows what it’s like to lose a child.

I believe in the power of listening. It’s limited; it takes away from life’s sorrows nothing except the loneliness, the fear, the frustration that no one hears or cares. But that itself is solidarity and solace.

Since I came back from Israel, people have asked me ‘Why did you go?’ I went to listen. I want to listen to those who suffer the anguish inflicted on them since October 7, grief, shock, and waiting, waiting, waiting for news of relatives taken hostage, news which may or may not come even today. As the Torah says in tomorrow’s reading: ‘Give me my wives and my children.’

I want to listen, too, to those who uphold the human spirit, bringing reprieve, strength and joy. And, as Grossman says, I also want to tell, so that there’s less aloneness and miscomprehension in the world.

What’s more challenging, I feel the need to listen, too, to those who inhabit the other side of silence, those to whom a Jew like me may not be thought to want to talk, and who may not want to talk to me, in these cruel and divisive days. I want to try, at least try, to listen to those whom the appalling death tolls and the relentless rhetoric of hate push apart:

If we don’t find ways to listen across the divide between factions and acknowledge each other’s pain, the current conflict… will remain embedded in patterns of trauma for generations to come, almost certainly birthing even more violence. This task is more urgent than ever. (Quoted by Solutions Not Sides)

There are so many reasons for avoiding listening, (and they aren’t always wrong): don’t legitimise their point of view; stay with your own; have no time; change the subject; argue back; don’t expose yourself to what you don’t want to know. I’m as guilty as anyone.

Yet I believe in listening. It’s not always possible; there can be too much division, too much hardness of heart, too much hate. Yet I believe, want to believe, in listening’s healing power.

So how do we enter those silences, those spaces filled with the unspoken, with suspicion, with hostility real or perceived, that separate us, Jews and Muslims, colleagues with whom we used to chat over coffee at work, friends, even members of our own family? Where does listening begin?

It’s a question as old as the Mishnah. ‘Listen,’ says Rabbi Yossei, means ‘hear the words your own mouth is speaking.’ He’s addressing an entirely different question: the import of the first word of the Shema, (‘Hear!’) which opens Judaism’s most familiar meditation.

Nevertheless, his explanation is acutely relevant. If we want to listen across the silence, we need to consider what we ourselves are putting into it. Have I said hate-filled words? Is my posture saying, ‘I don’t want to know you’? Can I articulate instead, in word or gesture, ‘I’m ready to hear’?

‘Hear’ isn’t the same as ‘agree’. ‘Hear’ means ‘hold your story’, have a place in my heart for your humanity too.

This takes courage, not the daring of a fighter, but the readiness to step off the ledge and abseil into the abyss of human troubles and sorrows, cruelties and injustice, held safe only by the thin rope of faith. This is not exactly faith in God. It’s the faith that somewhere in the rawness of our consciousness, across our different journeys between life and death, we can take heartfelt cognisance of each other’s humanity.

Then maybe, just maybe, we can nurture from there small shoots of hope and trust, vulnerable, subject to hail and drought, but slowly, slowly, capable of growth.

How else are we to rebuild, out of our griefs, our enmities, our fears?

Solidarity in a time of fear

I’m still asking those fatuous question, ‘How are you? Are you alright?’ Most people say ‘yes,’ then add, ‘not really.’

We’re not OK. Cruelty, pain, fear and fury are at loose, and our hearts ache.

What do we do? We’re probably not the people making the big decisions. So how can we make a difference? Through solidarity, kindness and keeping on going.

I’ve no words to add about the cruelty of Hamas. It’s premeditated, beyond disgusting, indescribable, yet must, in truth’s name, be described.

The pain is what possesses me, the pain of the hostages and their families, the pain of the bereaved. I’ve been staring at the picture of a young Israeli couple, beautiful, in love, – now slaughtered, their children orphans. What can one say?

‘You can quantify many things,’ a sympathetic Muslim colleague told me, ‘but you can’t quantify pain.’ And one person’s pain doesn’t negate another person’s pain. The pain of a child in Gaza with nowhere to flee is its own distinctive pain. It all adds up to a vast, immeasurable hurt. Except that pain can’t be added up either. Pain is personal; it spears the heart.

There’s rage. Where there’s abominable hurt there’s bound to be vast anger. It’s inevitable, human, understandable. Not acceptable is how so many people, not connected with the pain, ignorant of the issues, jump on the bandwagon of hate and spit on other people’s wounds.

I fear what these furies, if ungoverned, will bring to birth, what new monstrosities are right now being conceived to savage future generations, what

…shape with lion body and the head of a man,   

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   

Is moving its slow thighs… (Yeats)

There’s fear, for family and friends in Israel, for our community, for school and university students, for everyone alone. I wish it wasn’t needed, but thank God for the Community Security Trust, working 24/7 to protect us, and which even at this bitter time extends its work against racism to Muslim and other communities.

Antisemitic attacks have risen off the scales. Hate crimes against Muslims have doubled. ‘I’m afraid of using public transport,’ several fellow Jews have told me. So have Muslim women. Jewish pupils have said they feel frightened, shunned and alone. So, to my initial surprise, have some Muslim leaders. Maybe our very fear and pain can bring us together to call out against hatred, at least here in Britain.

So what can we do? We must show and live in solidarity. Thousands need us, and we need them. We must keep in frequent touch with Israeli family, colleagues, friends in the army, friends whose children have been called up. We must reach out with heart and hands across the Jewish world; we must give.

Solidarity begins with loyalty to our own people. But its roots lie even deeper, in what it means to be human. I’ve spoken to Muslim and Christian leaders who seek that solidarity too, the roots of which lie in the very depths of humanity and God, and from which, if it’s to come at all, healing must ultimately spring.

We must be kind. Chesed, loving, enduring kindness, sounds weak in response to terror. It’s not. It’s a way of life. It requires constancy, generosity, forbearance and the courage to stay present amidst pain. It demands our time, commitment and heart.

We must keep going. We mustn’t forsake the wells from which we draw strength. I find them in prayer, not because I expect heaven to send miracles, but because our ancestors speak through the words and music, telling of their unyielding resilience and the presence of God. I find strength in community, nature and keeping busy.

Whatever the source of our spirit, we mustn’t forsake it. From it we draw the deep strength to guide us beyond fear and panic to care for one another.

Not alone: hopes and prayers in these times of deepest distress

Two people reached out to me unexpectedly last week. The first was Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, who called me in the days after the horrors perpetrated by Hamas. Years ago, we’d walked together through the centre of London leading a protest against racist violence of all forms.

‘We need to do something he said.’ That was the start of conversations which led to his public condemnation of antisemitism and my response to him in the presence, and with the strong support, of Archbishop Justin Welby. ‘We’re all on the side of life,’ I concluded. (Click here to read the statements in full).

The second person was a woman walking behind me on Lambeth Palace Road. I’d paused to put my backpack down on a bench when she turned to me: ‘I’m so glad to see you wearing your kippah round here,’ she said, starting to cry. ‘I’m Jewish and I’m so afraid.’ My heart went out to her. My heart goes out the many who feel as she does.

I’ve thought repeatedly this week of those pictures one finds in old Haggadot of a man rowing a boat crossing a wide river. They’re illustrations of ‘Avram Ha’Ivri, Abraham the Hebrew.’ Ivri derives from ever, meaning bank or side. As the rabbis put it: ‘All the world on one side, and Abraham on the other.’

I feel for everyone who finds themselves alone at this extraordinarily difficult time, especially students, especially pupils in non-Jewish schools, especially those working in places where there are no fellow Jews. How many times I’ve heard: ‘There’s a wall of silence around me; even my friends don’t ask.’ Or those seeming friends post something vile on Instagram.

I feel, too, for everyone for whom the pogroms by Hamas have re-awoken the traumas of the Shoah and earlier ages.

We must reach out to each other; we must open our doors, our kitchens, our hearts. Over and again, I hear from friends in Israel: ‘What’s not let us down is our society. Everyone’s helping. Am Yisrael chai – the people of Israel lives.’ We, too, must be in sustained contact with our family, friends and colleagues in Israel, and with each other.

And we must try to reach further. Despite the mass rallies, the hatred and the disgusting social media, we do have friends. I’ve had many messages of solidarity, from Christian groups especially, but also from other faiths, and from acquaintances near and far.

Wherever possible we must build with these relationships. Cruel as the times are, we must not solely hunker down in distrust, fear and anger. We must find those with whom we can stand together in a deeper, more embracing humanity. I believe in God who is ‘Elohai haruchot lechol bassar, God of the spirits of all flesh.’

We must not lose our hope or our deepest Jewish, humanitarian values. Beyond war there has to be a different vision. All the people I’m close to feel deep pity for everyone across Israel and the Jewish world who is grief-stricken, traumatised, desperate for the release of family members taken hostage. At the same time, we also feel great pity for the poor people caught up in their thousands in Gaza, who want nothing to do with Hamas and who are, in a different way, also hostages, struggling to escape with their lives, their children.

We pray, for all our sakes, for a better outcome than the creation of the next generation of fear and hate. I think of Zechariah’s prophetic words, lo vechayil velo vecho’ach ki im beruchi. What they mean to me today is: Neither power nor force will help unless guided by My spirit, says our God.

My feelings were summed up when I listened to my colleague Nathalie Lastreger, rabbi of Kfar Veradim in the far north of Israel, as she struggled to keep singing the HaTikvah through her flowing tears: Od lo avdah tikvateinu, Our hope has not ceased.’

Hope itself must never cease.

A Prayer

In the midst of our own trauma, grief and anguish, we do not lose sight of Judaism’s supreme values of chesed and rachamim, loving kindness and mercy.

We protest and pray for the release of all the hostages and for their safe return to their longing and desperate families. We pray for a minimum of casualties in the IDF, and among all civilians, in Israel’s war against the terrorist organisation Hamas. We pray for strength for everyone, across the whole of Israel’s society and the Jewish world, who gives shelter and support to the tens of thousands evacuated from their homes and to everyone traumatised and grief-stricken by Hamas’ barbaric attack.

Our God is the God of all life. We pray, too, for the safety of all the many, many thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians caught up in this horror, who desperately need food, water and medical aid. Their plight is unimaginable. They desperately need a safe escape route from the fighting. We ask and pray for a humanitarian corridor to be established, maintained and safely supervised. We pray for a better future of life, hope and freedom for them too.

Our prayers are with the remarkable people who devote themselves to saving lives, wherever they are. We pray for all who, despite the fear and hostility, recognise the image of God in all the victims of this terrible conflict and who work for healing on all sides.

We pray, too, for our society here in Britain, that we should not be the targets of antisemitism, that all forms of race and religious hatred and prejudice be overcome, that we should work together in solidarity for a safe and harmonious future for all.

Even as continued fighting seems inevitable, we pray that a better way will swiftly be found than war with all its unspeakable horrors, so that Israel and its neighbours can live together in safety and peace, with life and hope for everyone.

Who’s heard of Rainbow Day?

If you have never heard of Rainbow Day, you’re not alone. I learn of it for the first time just this week, in a note from Rabbi David Seidenberg. He describes himself as a neo-hasid, a modern mystic, and is passionately concerned for nature, attitudes I 100% share.

There are more than 365 (or even 366) ‘days’ in the year. There are days devoted to almost every area of human concern, and to numerous species of animals, birds and even insects. So what is Rainbow Day and how did it begin?

I’d assumed it must have secular origins, like so many ‘societies for the protection of…’ (even one, I’m told, for the appreciation of dandelions, though this may be a tease.) But I would be wrong. In fact, the source is in the Torah: ‘In the 2nd month, on the 27th day, the earth dried out,’ and Noah, his family and all the animals were finally able to leave the ark and re-establish life on earth. (Bereshit 8:14)

This year the 27th of Iyyar, (the 2nd month in the Hebrew calendar) falls next week, on the night of the 17th / 18th May.

I’ll certainly be marking the date. For, as Rabbi Seidenberg writes, it’s ‘a chance to reflect on the deep spiritual and religious meaning of diversity, creation, and our role as part of creation and partners with God.’ This matters urgently, both in human society and nature.

It’s not just because I’m Jewish that I understand viscerally the importance of societies which don’t just tolerate but respect and celebrate diversity. But being a Jew has made me skin-thin sensitive to this essential concern. Additionally, hosting refugees from Iran, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Somalia has made me look at the world in new and challenging ways. It’s brought the truths of injustice, hatred and cruelty closer. It’s made me realise what a proper meal, a bottle of water, a hand in friendship can mean.

I agree with the government that the merciless exploitation of refugees by traffickers is a vicious wrong. But I admire the Archbishop of Canterbury for bluntly speaking truth to power in calling the proposed immigration bill morally unacceptable, a slur on Britain’s reputation and a threat to international cooperation in supporting refugees from war, famine, and persecution. We need safe, legal and justly administered routes for people seeking asylum. That’s fundamental to being a decent country in a rainbow world.

As a rabbi I have the privilege of listening to many people: this has sensitised me to the importance of Rainbow Day in other ways too. If the doors of our community spaces, homes and hearts are open only to those who are so-called ‘normative’, be that gender-normative, neuro-normative, or indeed physical body ‘normative,’ (I use these words with trepidation) we leave a lot of people outside and cause much pain.

Talking about ‘outside’ takes me to the other half of Rainbow Day: anxiety, hope and care for the natural world. When I think of this my heart, like Wordsworth’s, ‘leaps up’.

I’ve always loved animal. Once scared of birds, I’ve learnt to love them too. I watch eagerly for the jays and woodpeckers, the long-tailed tits and occasional grey-blue nuthatch. I’ve understood that insects matter and treasure log-piles for beetles. Life on earth starts here.

But then my heart shrinks back, confronted with what we humans do to our diverse world. As Rabbi Seidenberg writes, ‘The Torah teaches that God has promised never to flood the Earth again. But that doesn’t mean humanity can’t’ – and won’t.

Therefore I want to remain a tree-planter, meadow-lover, and carer for both people and animals to my dying day. That’s why I’ll say my first-timer shehecheyanu thanksgiving blessing this Rainbow Day and henceforth mark it always.

On the Coronation as King Charles III and Queen Camilla

On this day of their coronation, we ask God to bless King Charles III and Queen Camilla.

Through the millennia Jews have lived under many rulers. The Hebrew Bible and rabbinic writings in the Mishnah and Talmud testify to the experiences of being subject to Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. Through the Middle Ages and into the modern era we have suffered oppression under many cruel leaders and been blessed by the enlightened policies of some who were benign. But scarcely ever have we been settled in a country which has offered such deep equality, opportunity, justice and protection as Britain, ruled by a democratically elected government, under the constitutional monarchy of the House of Windsor.

Queen Elizabeth II was greatly admired for her unfailing dedication to service, her self-discipline and dignity and, despite the wealth and privilege of royalty, her personal humility. Many in the long queues to pay tribute commented that her heir would continue in the same manner.

During his years as Prince of Wales, King Charles showed a deep commitment to core values: to the environment, following his father the Duke of Edinburgh; in the welfare of refugees, exemplified in his sustained support for the welcome centre for Ukrainian people displaced by the war; and to the wellbeing of the different faith groups of this multi-cultural country.

Influenced, perhaps, by the example of his grandmother Princess Alice, who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, King Charles has been constant in his support of the Jewish community as this message to him and Queen Camilla from World Jewish Relief testifies:

We are grateful for Their Majesties’ remarkable friendship to the Jewish community, and particularly for the 8 years the former Prince of Wales has spent as [our] committed and actively engaged Royal Patron. 

King Charles will say the following words, with their universal vision, within the Christian context of his coronation service at Westminster Abbey:

Grant that I may be a blessing to all thy children, of every faith and conviction, that together we may discover the ways of gentleness and be led into the paths of peace.

We are fortunate to live in a country whose King and Queen aspire to live by such a creed. We are grateful for this privilege and pray that these should be the values at the heart of all leadership.

From Psalm 72 (Verses which will be read at the Abbey)

אֱֽ-לֹקים מִ֭שְׁפָּטֶיךָ לְמֶ֣לֶךְ תֵּ֑ן וְצִדְקָתְךָ֥ לְבֶן־מֶֽלֶךְ׃

יָדִ֣ין עַמְּךָ֣ בְצֶ֑דֶק וַעֲנִיֶּ֥יךָ בְמִשְׁפָּֽט׃

יִשְׂא֤וּ הָרִ֓ים שָׁ֘ל֥וֹם לָעָ֑ם וּ֝גְבָע֗וֹת בִּצְדָקָֽה׃

יִשְׁפֹּ֤ט עֲֽנִיֵּי־עָ֗ם י֭וֹשִׁיעַ לִבְנֵ֣י אֶבְי֑וֹן וִ֖ידַכֵּ֣א עוֹשֵֽׁק׃

יִֽפְרַח־בְּיָמָ֥יו צַדִּ֑יק וְרֹ֥ב שָׁ֝ל֗וֹם עַד־בְּלִ֥י יָרֵֽחַ׃

Give the king your judgements, O God, and your righteousness to princes. Then shall he judge your people righteously and your poor with justice. Let the mountains produce well-being for the people, the hills, the reward of justice. May he defend the poor among the people, deliver the children of the needy and crush the oppressor. In his time shall righteousness flourish, and abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.

Prayer for the King and Queen

God of all life, Sovereign over all sovereigns, bless King Charles III and Queen Camilla on their coronation. Give them wisdom, compassion and insight, health, fortitude and resilience. Strengthen in them the spirit of service and commitment to all that is just. Grant them length of days and the happiness which comes from dedication to what is right and good.

May their hearts be open to the many and different needs of all the peoples of these lands. May they continue to support all those who seek to do good for human society and for all life. May they uphold the values of justice, freedom, equality and democracy according to which this country has been and must be governed.

May they, in the spirit of Aaron, love and seek peace. May they be guided, as the Torah commands, by awe and humility before God and by the love of God’s creation.

And let us say ‘Amen.’

 

The Prayer for the Country

המנוןאנגליה – The National Anthem

By Yoav Oved and David Djemal – New London Synagogue

מֶלֶךְחֵןשְׁמוֹר-נָאאֵ’

מֶלֶךְהוֹדנְצֹרהָ-אֵ’

שָׁמְרֵהוּאֵ’.

הַמַּשִּׁילָהגְּבוּרָתוֹ

וְנֶצַחתִּפְאַרְתּוֹ

הַאֲרֵךְמַלְכוּתוֹ

שָׁמְרֵהוּאֵ’:

 

Melekh khen sh’mor-na El

Melekh hod n’tsor haEl

Shom’rehu El.

Hamshila g’vurato

V’netsakh tifarto

Ha’arekh malchuto

Shom’rehu El:

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.

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.

Where God’s light shines

This Chanukkah I feel I’ve witnessed two moving examples of God’s presence in the world, and two more, by inference, which I’d rather not have seen.

Why ‘God’s presence in the world’? Because of a question the Talmud asks about the Menorah: ‘Does God really need its light?’ Isn’t it rather the other way round, that we need God’s light, not God ours?

The Talmud answers that the Menorah isn’t there to provide God with a torch, but to symbolise how God’s light illumines the world. The lamps of the Menorah ‘are testament that God’s presence dwells in Israel’ and throughout creation.

The first example of God’s light was very public, when the Mayor of London, Sadiq Kahn, celebrated Chanukkah in Trafalgar Square. London is the greatest city in the world, he declared, as he always loves to say. That’s because it’s a place where a Muslim mayor can light the Chanukkah candles with a rabbi next to a huge Christmas tree in its most famous square.

How often in human history, I wonder, has such togetherness been possible? To me, it exemplifies what the Torah means when it teaches that every person, irrespective of religion, ethnicity, gender, or any of the many features which so often divide us, is created equal in God’s image.

The second example was very private. I was welcomed into a residential care home to say the Chanukkah blessings. But it was a different light from that of the candles which caught my attention. I watched the staff; I witnessed their kindness, sensitivity and patience. It’s not easy to provide constant, intimate care to vulnerable people who’ve often lost so much of their stature and independence in the closing phases of their lives. The staff’s conduct made me think of the Kabbalistic quality of gevurah shebachesed, strength within loving kindness, that challenging balance of resilient compassion which requires so much attentiveness, gentleness and restraint. If God’s presence is anywhere in this world, it’s with people like these carers.

Sadly, there are two further examples I’d rather not have witnessed. Were they of God’s presence, or God’s absence? I’m not sure.

The first was the long queue at a nearby food bank. Yes, the bank shows that there exists deep compassion within our society, a determined protest against want, and against the harshness and injustice which causes it, and which leaves so many people unable to provide food and warmth for their families. But it would be incomparably better if such testament were not so desperately needed by so many.

The second was the news that girls have been denied access to serious education in Afghanistan. I know people this will affect, through the knowledge that the suffering their families and friends are enduring is now even greater. To me, this gross cruelty testifies precisely through what it negates: it highlights the truth that God’s presence shines equally in the minds and hearts of men and women, and that it’s deeply wrong, a devastating desecration, to attempt to limit that light.

So the Talmud’s answer makes every sense to me: Yes, God’s light shines across the world.

But how often it is obscured!

That leads me to challenge the rhetorical nature of the Talmud’s original question about God needing the Menorah’s light. The anticipated answers is, of course, ‘No!’.

But down here, in this complex world where the sacred is so often obfuscated by conflict, cruelty and self-interest, God does need us. It’s not our light which God needs, and that deep flame which illumines the heart and mind and shines through all creation doesn’t belongs to us anyway.

What God needs from us is to notice the light, in each other, every person and all life. God needs us to protect and nurture it wherever we perceive it. God needs the light of the Menorah to shine not just in our windows but in our hearts.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukkah

Never think there’s nothing we can do

‘Queen Zelenska, Queen Zelenska:’ the boys were bursting with excitement after we got home. We’d been invited by Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski, who a few days earlier had been our guest in the synagogue, to the formal opening of the welcome centre for refugees from the war in Ukraine. ‘I never dreamt I’d be a refugee in London,’ said Halina who, with her daughter and grandsons, is living with us, ‘Nor that I’d meet the king.’ But King Charles meant little to her grandchildren; what impressed them was that their babushka had met Queen Zelenska.

The First Lady radiated presence and warmth. But what must have been on her mind! Over the previous days she’d addressed Parliament, then, with the Queen Consort, spoken to hundreds of women about the particular horrors, war-crimes, violence, abuse and misery to which the fighting left girls and women especially exposed. With all this on her heart, and with an agenda of summoning the maximum possible help, not least in prosecuting war-crimes, Mrs Zelenska nevertheless left an impression of dignity, courage and grace. What came across from King Charles was a quiet humanity; he cared. ‘After his first visit to us in the opening days of the war,’ Bishop Kenneth told me, ‘His office called every few days to ask what we needed.’

I believe all of us who were there left with similar thoughts: How can we help? What can we do, in whatever contexts or situations we can, to mitigate suffering in the world?

Wrongs and hurts assail us from every side. Some are caused by life itself with its illnesses and ill-fortunes: I’m mindful that yesterday was World AIDS Day. Other wounds are the result of human cruelty: this Shabbat is devoted to publicising the essential work of Jewish Women’s Aid, JWA. It’s shocking to realise the huge numbers of women, and sometimes, though more rarely, men, who suffer verbal, financial and physical abuse, very often in enforced or lonely secrecy, for years and even decades.

There are further home truths we also need to face. I’m troubled by the betrayal of what I consider Judaism’s core Torah-based values and of what history has taught us as a people, by the rise to positions in Israel’s government of Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who incite race-hate and homophobia. Not just they but those who appointed them must be challenged and held to account. We can, and should, support Israel by supporting those who truly uphold the just and democratic principles on which it was founded.

Trapped in Europe in the 1930s, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that we humans have two faces: the image of God and the visage of Cain. Later, a refugee in America saved at the last moment, he wrote in The Meaning of This War

The mark of Cain in the face of man has come to overshadow the likeness of God.

But, he continued, we have a choice:

There can be no neutrality. Either we are ministers of the sacred or slaves of evil… God is waiting for us to redeem the world. We should not spend our life hunting for trivial satisfactions while God is waiting….

I’m moved that the motto for this year’s World AIDS Day is ‘To Our World With Love.’ What, can we do to foster that love and bring healing, safety, joy and hope to our world?

I feel greatly challenged virtually every day, yet deeply inspired almost every day. So I want to include with another beautiful moment I, with Nicky, was privileged to share this week, and which I determine to carry in my heart through thick and thin.

We stood near the top of Skirrid, a sacred mountain in South Wales, a small group of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders, and prayed together:

Eternal Spirit, Earth-Maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver…

We hold brothers and sisters who suffer from storms and droughts…We hold all species that suffer…

We pray that love and wisdom might inspire our actions…so that we may, with integrity, look into the eyes of brothers and sisters and all beings and truthfully say, we are doing our part to care for them and the future of the children.

May love transform us and our world with new steps toward life.

Then we joined local farmers and volunteers, and, as the sun set, planted trees to form windbreaks to protect the land.

We must try never to think that there’s nothing we can do.

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