Professor Colin Schindler, a scholar of outstanding integrity whom we are privileged to have in our community, gave a lecture in Pittsburgh last week to commemorate Kristallnacht and honour those murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue just a year ago.
He quoted Hannah Arendt’s observation that authoritarianism flourishes when there is an alliance between the elite and the mob. Those who stand in its path become targets of retribution.
Her words are astutely relevant with the rise of populist political cultures, not confined to one country or party, in which powerful leaders claim to speak better for the people than the established bodies of democracy, parliament, judiciary, a free press and a pluralist culture of honest debate. Caught in this unsubtle and bullying jingoism, those in the middle and in minorities often feel helpless and afraid.
Absorbed in these reflections, I asked a particularly engaged class of twelve-year-olds whether they thought Judaism was an ‘I can do’ or an ‘I can’t do’ religion. ‘I can do’, they all said, producing a rush of examples starting with Abraham.
Abraham is not fault-free, especially in how he treats his family. But, as we read in the Torah tomorrow, he does stand up for his values. I care about him because he pursues justice, God declares.
Just four verses later that very God is the object of Abraham’s pursuit: ‘How can you destroy the righteous alongside the wicked?’ Abraham challenges: If there are fifty, forty, even a mere ten honest people engaged in the affairs of the city then you, God, must spare the entire constituency of Sodom for their sake!
My attention is captured by the phrase ‘engaged in the affairs of the city’. It’s easy to feel there’s little we can do. But we all have a sphere of influence: our family, friends, neighbourhood, workplace, community, town. The Talmud asserts that those who have the power to exert such influence, whether over a circle as seemingly small as their own self or as wide as the entire world, but fail to do so, are held accountable for what happens within its compass.
There is little as empowering as deeply rooted values, especially if we have the solidarity of others who share them. One of my heroes, who spoke with profound conviction out of his personal experience of persecution, was Rabbi Hugo Gryn. I miss his voice, his gentle, compelling inspiration. ‘I spend much of my time fighting racism as hard as I can,’ he wrote, because ‘I know that you can only be safe in a society that practises tolerance, cherishes harmony and can celebrate difference.’
You can be a builder or a destroyer of bridges, he once told me: ‘There is a choice. Life is holy. All life, Mine and yours.’ (Chasing Shadows)
This is Interfaith Week. We can make connections with our own and other communities. We can stand together for social justice, compassion and equality, and against racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and bullying. We can create bonds with those other communities of life which we so often ignore but on which we depend for our very existence: fields, meadows, forests, insects, birds.
We can, and we must. We are not at liberty to allow ourselves to be disempowered. Limited as our influence is, we still have significant capacity to co-create the societies and the world in which we want ourselves and our children to live.