I was very moved by how Ben Okri accepted the invitation to join our Friday night service. We are both communities which have known persecution, he told me in an earlier conversation: we need to stand together. I was stirred by his call on our humanity and for our action, as well as by the warmth of heart with which he, joined by his young daughter, stayed with us in prayer.
Yesterday The Guardian published his powerful article ‘I Can’t Breathe’: Why George Floyd’s Words Reverberate Across the World. Those basic words say everything about the heartless, prolonged and vicious cruelty of George Floyd’s killing. They also capture our fears about Covid 19 and our deep anxiety that unless we heed the warnings, our entire world will be unable to breathe because of the destruction of our biosphere.
There is nothing more basic to life than breathing. Ben Okri’s words made me reflect on breath in Judaism. Neshamah means both breath and spirit. The Torah describes it as God’s earliest and greatest gift: ‘God breathed nishmat chaim, the breath of life’ into the first man and woman. The intake of their youngest breaths is the sound every parent longs to hear. Each morning we thank God, saying ‘neshamah shenattatah bi, the breath and spirit you gave me is pure’. The final verse of the entire Book of Psalms reads ‘Kol haneshamah tehallel: praise God with our entire spirit.’ The rabbis reread it as kol hanesheemah, with every breath let us praise God who gave us the privilege of life.
There is no concept, no jot or dust-sized shadow of a notion that there can exist people whose breath matters more, or less, than that of others. Breathing is, should be, must be, equal. It is a truth we as Jews know only too well from our own history: how, after all, did Zyklon B work?
Therefore, we must stand up for everyone’s right to breathe. This includes not just physical breath but also breathing as a metaphor, as in the sentence ‘I can’t breathe in this place’ which means: ‘I’m not comfortable, not at home, don’t feel safe, am rejected, made to feel unwanted, worthless here.’
There are demonstrations round the country and the globe, with their own health and safety challenges. The public, political, legal and educational will to be honest about history and just and equitable in the way every part of our society functions is paramount. These are issues over which we as Jews have fought for recognition time and again, and in which we and black and BAME communities are natural partners.
At the same time, I’m at least as concerned about what happens closest to home. Experiences of being black, or black and Jewish, and treated with suspicion, challenged, ignored, not listened to or considered invisible in our communities, are frequent. Our reflections and actions have to start with ourselves. We want to be able to sing ‘kol haneshamah tehallel – Let every breathing, living soul praise God,’ where every really means every. We want to be able to sing those words with integrity.