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.

The Lights of Chanukah

I don’t know whether I was half awake or asleep, but during the night of this new moon of Kislev I felt the lights of Chanukkah reaching out to me like a warm guiding hand.

It was two years ago, when the long winter lockdown was beginning and we’d been obliged to close the synagogue for a second time. I spoke over Zoom of how as a boy I used to see in my grandparent’s house the Chanukkah candles reflected in the windowpanes, and the reflection of the reflection in the bay windows opposite. The lights seemed like sentinels, like welcomers to wayfarers half-lost as they traversed the night, reaching out to them in the darkness with their hope and warmth.

Last night I saw those candles again and felt them draw me towards them. ‘Join us’, they seemed to say, ‘be part of our light.’ That’s what Chanukkah does: it warms the darkness of the spirit; it brings light to the community.

‘What do you do?’ I asked Cormac Hollingsworth, our guest at our forthcoming event Such a Thing as Society? ‘By profession I’m a banker,’ he said, ‘But for ten years I was chair of Hope Not Hate; now I’m on the steering group of Warm Welcome.’ ‘What’s that?’ I enquired. ‘It’s creating thousands of spaces across the country which will be kept warm and open for children, and for people in general, who can’t afford the bills.’

‘It’ll be a hard winter’: the words ring ominously, like the ‘hard rain’s a-gonna fall’ in Bob Dylan’s famous song.

So how we can make it lighter and warmer for someone, for anyone?

I’ve been having many conversations about hope, mostly with other people, though some, if I’m honest, in the depths of my own heart. One of the best lines I’ve heard is: ‘Never think, or let anyone else think, that simple good deeds are too small to matter.’ To paraphrase the famous Mishnah: Whoever makes life warmer for one single person is as if they do so for the entire world. (Sanhedrin 4:5, 2nd century)

That’s why I’ll be out planting trees this Sunday with clergy of all faiths on a hillside by Abergavenny. Who knows what may grow from our actions? We have to keep our sense of purpose alive and strong.

This week our study group reaches Pslam 40. Two antithetical phrases have stayed with me from the text: the grim libbi azavani, ‘my heart deserted me,’ and the all-important ‘God, I hope and hope again.’ Appreciating those latter words, I researched them in the world of Midrash, rabbinic homily, where I found the following:

Should you say [with Jeremiah] ‘Harvest-time’s over, the summer’s gone and we’ve still not been saved,’ then remember [with the Psalmist] to ‘hope in God, be strong and fill your heart with courage.’ If you say, ‘I’ve already done that!’ go and do it again. If you ask, ‘How long should I stay hopeful?’ the answer is ‘always and forever.’

I never met my Tante Rosel, great-aunt Rose; I think she died before I was born. To my grandparents she was a legend. Through all times, thick and thin, she’d be up before dawn, down in the kitchen singing as she baked the morning’s bread. ‘That’s the way to be!’ my grandparents would say.

So I was happy when last night I saw those same candles which I’d spoken about two years ago and felt them reach out to me as if they were saying, ‘Come join us, you and your community. Be part of our light!’

Hope, and how to find it

The first I heard about the results of Israel’s elections was an email from the Freddie Krivine Initiative which brings children together from every background: We shall not give up on our work! That was enough to tell me all the rest.

That vote, and other world events besides, made me turn urgently to Emily Dickenson’s poem

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

We need hope; we need it to land like a familiar robin on our outstretched hand and hop down into our heart.

The stirring Psalm recited through the Hebrew month of Elul and the High Holydays concludes with the repeated instruction

Hope in God; be brave, make your heart strong, and hope in God (Ps. 27)

The rabbis taught that every repetition in the Bible has a purpose. The point here is that to have true hope we need to work at strengthening our heart with everything which inspires us.

So these are some of the things which motivate me. The first is people. Three secondary school boys came to my home for lessons yesterday. The first two said ‘COP 27 is going to be a disappointment, like COP 26.’ ‘Only partly,’ I replied, wishing I disagreed more. But the third said something different: ‘I’m in a local group which plants trees, clears weeds and improves paths. I go once a month with my father. The sustainability committee at my school has got rid of plastic bottles.’

So the first message I tell myself when I feel low is ‘Stick with people who’re doing good. Find them, follow them, keep them in sight.’ That’s how I felt at Parliament for a launch of the Walking Inquiry into Immigration Detention. Here were people, some who’d been detained themselves, who listen to asylum seekers, walk together, act together, and who’re determined to keep going until they right the wrongs of the system.

That’s why, regarding Israel, we must speak out for the dignity of all people, condemn racism clearly and specifically from wherever it originates and support everyone working for a respectful, pluralist society.

Fortunately, across the world there’s no shortage of people from every faith and walk of life whose purpose is to do what’s good, and who’re passionate about it. I try to go where I can learn from them. They strengthen my heart.

My second source of hope is the world’s beauty. This isn’t about aesthetics; it’s about love. My wife and I saw a deer trapped in a fence. She’d misjudged the height of the top wires and caught her hoof between the strands. She hung upside down, her head on the turf. I tried to speak gently as I wedged the wires apart and watched her limp off, her leg sprained but not broken. ‘She’ll rest in the woods. There’s food there, and water,’ Nicky said.

How can one not love our fellow creatures, our companions on this earth, especially when they don’t harm us? That’s my second source of hope: the sheer preciousness, the vulnerability and wonder of human life and all life, inspiring us to work for people, also animals, trees, nature itself which needs our urgent engagement.

‘Od lo avdah tikavetnu, Our hope has never ceased…’ runs Israel’s national anthem, expressing the secret of Jewish, of all human, resilience.

Our hope may never have ceased, but few of us can honestly say that it’s never even faltered. That’s when we need to nourish that hope and, fortunately, as Emily Dickenson concludes in her final verse

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –

And on the strangest Sea –

The Queue to see the Queen

Yesterday I joined the chaplaincy to the miles-long queue of people waiting to pay tribute to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ll. It was a moving and humbling privilege.

Have you been queueing long?

‘Yes, but it’s worth it, isn’t it? I have to show my respect.

And you?

‘Not really. If she can serve her country for seventy years, I can stand for seven hours to say thank you.’

The Torah portion for this Shabbat begins with gratitude. While the temple still stood, the entire people was commanded to bring the first fruits of their land and present them in Jerusalem in acknowledgement of God’s blessings. (Deuteronomy 26: 1-11) The ritual was known as viddu’i bikkurim, the confession over the first fruits. It was entirely different from what’s happening in Westminster now. But there’s one thing in common: gratitude.

Can I ask you what’s brought you here?

‘I just want to say thank you.’

Did you meet the Queen?

‘Never. But I saw how she dedicated herself to this country.’

‘Yes, many times. I worked in the palace; we had artisans with every kind of skill to build a new section.’

I learnt nothing which everyone hasn’t heard many times. I answered more questions about whether you could take hand-sanitiser through security (lots) than about faith and God (none). One man asked me in distress whether he’d be allowed to change from his trainers into the shoes he’d brought specially for when he entered Her Majesty’s presence. It was somehow truly touching.

I gleaned no different explanations for why people were here than what we’ve all heard many times. (Except for the gentleman down on one knee with Parliament in the background who claimed he wasn’t taking a picture of his partner but was about to propose. No one around believed him.)

What was moving was not anything exceptional which was said, but the opposite: the plain respect for a life of dignity, humanity and service:

‘She was the mother of the nation.’

‘Grandmother.’

‘She was the gran I never had.’

In this often throw-away age of public posturing, an age deeply wounded by fear and insecurity, these virtues are still the rock and at heart we all know it: service, humanity, discipline, dignity, faith.

‘Have you come far?’

‘From Glasgow, overnight. I’ll be back on the bus tonight, but I’m here now.’

‘From New York.’ New York! You came specially? ‘Yes. I just had to.’

The respect with which everyone waited reminded me of the reverence with which our family watched the footage of the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill (Levi Eshkol, Israel’s Prime Minister, walked all the miles of the procession because it was Shabbat). My parents weren’t uncritical of British policy, as many are today of the Royal Family and the concept of monarchy. But they knew that without Churchill the war might not have been won and the country which had offered them liberty as they fled Nazi Germany might not have withstood invasion. Part of what took me to Westminster yesterday (and I’m heading back in a few minutes) is gratitude for a country where my family, and we as Jews, can live in safety. I noticed how many people of different cultures smiled at me as I stood in my ‘faith team’ high-vis with my kippah on my head.

People spoke warmly with one another as they advanced along the line. ‘So you’re family?’ I asked several times:

‘No. We just met in the queue. But we know everything about each other now. We’re going to remain in touch.

According to the Mishnah (2nd century) when people arrived in Jerusalem with their first fruits everyone went out to great them, saying ‘Peace be upon you, my brothers and sisters.’

A queue of tens of thousands of people of all faiths, ethnicities and ages united by respect and reverence is not a daily sight. This, too, is the Queen’s achievement, her legacy. If only it could spread across the world, and long endure.

A tribute to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ll

These are days not just of national mourning for Queen Elizabeth ll, but of a sorrow which touches us communally and personally.

The Queen has always been there. In an age of instability, she symbolised stability; in an age of insecurity, she represented safety. In an age which promotes me, my and self, she embodied public service. In an age marked by the weaknesses of leaders, she personified discipline and dignity. In an age which dissects and debunks public figures, the respect she commanded, despite many trials, remained undiminished.

Perhaps we hadn’t realised how precious such qualities are. There’s less in the world now of that decency and order which we had hoped we could take for granted. We feel, many of us, a heartache and anxiety which takes us by surprise.

The rabbis composed a special prayer to be said on seeing a king or queen: ‘Blessed be God who has given of the divine glory to flesh and blood.’ What is that ‘divine glory’ they asked. Observing the juxtaposition in Deuteronomy of ‘God is great and mighty’ and ‘God loves the stranger and refugee,’ they noted that where we find God’s greatness there too we find God’s humility. They taught that, in this regard especially, earthy sovereignty should mirror heavenly sovereignty.

Queen Elizabeth achieved just that, combining the dignity of the throne with humility of person. Based on her Christian faith and her understanding of the best traditions of British royalty, she saw the prerogatives of office as the means to service. That was her promise when she came to the throne, and she lived by it unstintingly throughout the seventy years of her reign.

She combined regal bearing with the ability to touch the heart. She visited Aberfan in the days following the disaster in 1966 when a sliding mountain of coal slag submerged the local school, killing over a hundred children and many teachers. She returned to the town several times, as Elaine Richards, a bereaved parent, remembered:

She promised me 44 years ago that she would open the school when it is built and she is here today. It is a very emotional day, I had to be coaxed to come here to remember the little ones who died.

The words of her broadcast in the lockdown Christmas of 2020, when she alluded to the wartime song which kept hope alive in the nation’s soul, were illumined on placards which normally carry only commercial adverts:

We will be with our friends again.
We will be with our families again.
We will meet again.

She cared. She was patron of over six hundred charities and personally involved in many of them. They reflected her commitment to humanity and nature, her concern for people everywhere, for rural life, for animals, especially horses and dogs, and for the earth.

She was a human being, a wife, mother, even great-grandmother. The picture of her alone in her black coat, black hat and black facemask, observing the rules of isolation at the funeral of her beloved Prince Philip, is the very image of personal grief.

Neither she, nor her life, nor certainly her family, was always easy or perfect. Maybe that too is what draws her to the heart. She was ‘the nation’s grandmother,’ and grandmothers, as everyone knows, are figures as much of affection as of authority.

In Judaism, the queen is the symbol of the Sabbath, shabbat hamalkah, representing the vision of a world at peace. Queen Elizabeth lived through many wars, serving when princess as an auto mechanic in the ATS. Yet she represented something higher, a country, commonwealth and globe drawn together, a harmony to which we yet aspire.

In these difficult days at the start of his reign, we wish King Charles lll and all the royal family comfort and strength.

Like his mother, he has shown deep respect not just for the church but for all faiths. As Jews, we are fortunate to live in a country whose sovereign has visited our synagogues and shared in our prayers.

We hope his reign will be marked by the achievement across the country and the world of those values he has so often articulated: harmony with nature and across humanity.

We join with people of all faiths and none across the nation and the world in sorrow at the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth ll, and in gratitude for her life.

Passover, and the eternal and urgent fight for freedom

I wish everyone in our community, our family and friends and all who celebrate the festival across the world, Chag Sameach for Pesach, zeman cheirouteinu, the festival of our freedom.

Throughout the long experience of the Jewish People, and in the history of peoples across the world, freedom has never been a condition to be taken for granted. Rather, it has been fought for, with God’s help, but with human vision, courage and determination. As we read in the Haggadah, and as we witness today, in every generation there are those who rise up against the basic principles of liberty, justice and human dignity and threaten the world with their totalitarian ambitions and ruthless brutality.

Earlier this week I joined a visit of solidarity to Ukraine at the request of local leaders, arranged by the Elijah Interfaith Institute. We were asked to speak of comradeship, hope and faith. But what mattered to us most was to listen, to be within the close distance of the heart’s hearing.

At an orphanage on the edge of Chernivtsi, where the staff had received a hundred mothers and children fleeing the war-ravaged east, one woman spoke to us on behalf of many:

This is the second time I’ve had to flee. This war’s not been six weeks, but eight years. I have a four-month-old baby. My mother is with me. I worry for my husband, all the time, and about the situation. The world needs to know.

In her, and in the kind, calm women who ran this remarkable place I met today’s incarnation of the biblical midwives who risked their lives in the defiance of tyranny: ‘No, Pharaoh, these babies shall live!’

In a powerful statement sent to accompany our interfaith visit and read out in the Chernivtsi theatre in Ukrainian, Pope Francis referenced an even earlier killer:

All this troubles our consciences and obliges us not to keep silent, not to remain indifferent before the violence of Cain and the cry of Abel, but instead to speak out forcefully in order to demand, in the name of God, the end of these abominable actions.

In the history of the Jewish People, and all humanity, freedom has only been won by struggle and maintained through vigilance. This struggle has not always been military. It encompasses the poet who composes from the conscience, that invincible force which tunnels beneath tyranny. It includes lawyers and journalists who defend the victims of state and gang violence in the face of judicial corruption and political convenience. It involves teachers who daily plan lessons to enable all their pupils to learn towards their dreams. It embraces those striving for the just, compassionate treatment of refugees.

Heroes of freedom include those who composed and ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and The United Nations Convention on refugees, and who put genocide and crimes against humanity on the international statute book, as documented in Philippe Sands’ East West Street. In all these achievements, the experiences and efforts of Jewish people, alongside others, have been key motivators.

Therefore, while Pesach celebrates freedom from, fromthe tyranny of Pharaoh and his like in all ages, it marks no less the importance of freedom to. From that freedom, that task of redemption, we are never free on earth – unless we take freedom for granted or hold it in little regard. For freedom is easily squandered.

Therefore, this Pesach we rededicate ourselves to the work of freedom in whatever ways we are able to pursue it.

Sometimes the battle for freedom must be fought in the front lines against the perpetrators of war crimes. But freedom is also won, and its preservation is only ensured, in the daily tasks of peacetime: combatting hatred and racism, working for social justice, caring for children, and in any activity or action in which the dignity of each person is recognised and validated.

We put our trust in the God of life, in the knowledge that God’s presence is working with us for the good and blessing of all living beings.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Month of Av: from Destruction to Restoration

We are on the eve of the new moon of Menachem Av.

The month begins in sorrow: ‘When Av comes in, joy is diminished.’ The ninth day is the fast of Tisha B’Av, when we remember the destruction of the Temples. But afterwards comes consolation, as we read from Isaiah ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.’ The full moon, Tu B’Av, is all celebration, Judaism’s ancient equivalent of Valentine’s Day.

I was privileged last week to share three experiences which expressed just this movement from sadness to restoration.

The first was in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, bombed out by the Luftwaffe in the night of 14 November 1940. We gathered, scarcely a dozen of us of different faiths and philosophies, surrounded by the remains of the walls and spires, made safe but not rebuilt. It’s not an obvious location for marking Britain’s first ever Thank You Day. But it’s a humbling space and that’s what drew us together. It opened our hearts. We were Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Bahai, Humanist. We all spoke, but the atmosphere of the place said more, reaching into us without words. We belonged to different generations and persuasions but it filled us with the same determination: not to hurt, not to denigrate, but to nurture and appreciate life.

The second was the Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving in St Paul’s Cathedral on the 73rd anniversary of the National Health Service. I sat next to Dr Perpetual Uke, a consultant at Birmingham City Hospital, who told me how she’d been caring for patients when she herself got Covid and became desperately ill. Now, thank God, she was almost entirely recovered. She was here both as giver and receiver of care. Nearby was a man representing the Ambulance Service. I told him how many times I’d had cause as a community minister to witness the kindness and skill of their teams.

Dr Uke lead the prayer:

For the vision of those who pioneered our National Health Service…
For the dedication of those who serve all in need of healthcare…
For the courage of those whose lives are marred by illness and bereavement…
For those who work for a healthier and fairer world.

What does one do when one hears such words? One feels saddened, humbled, touched, consoled and inspired all at once. One subconsciously resolves to do one’s best, to make one’s own contribution.

The third was the joy of two days in Scotland. Getting off the night train in the Highlands, the scents of woodland, heather, wild thyme and bilberry, the green of silver birch and pine, the sound of running streams – these are all God’s agents, they restore my soul. We experienced, too, a more practical kind of restoration in the regenerated woodlands, the young self-seeded trees carefully protected against deer and rabbits, the warnings not to disturb the rare capercaillie which nest on the ground, the feeding stations for red squirrels, the sight of an osprey. This too is part of health care, the health of the earth and our mental and spiritual health at the same time.

On Tisha B’Av we dwell only temporarily on destruction, long enough to rediscover the dedication to restore, rebuild, heal and replant in all God’s Temple, in Jerusalem itself, and throughout that universal Jerusalem which is God’s earth.

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