Sometimes people do things they shouldn’t, but years or even generations later one’s grateful. My cassette machine, if people remember what that is, stands gathering dust on my study windowsill; I guess I’ve left it there just in case its very antiquity should somehow prove it useful. It was an instrument like that which someone smuggled unlawfully into the synagogue in Berlin’s Pestalozzistrasse one Rosh Hashanah. That’s how we have a series of recordings of my grandfather Rabbi Dr Georg Salzberger’s sermons, audible despite the static, in that strong, clear voice which, even in his nineties, he never lost.
So this morning, as I think of the fighting in Ukraine, where I was six weeks ago, or the battle for true democracy and the impartiality of justice in Israel, I hear my grandfather’s voice as he opens a sermon with the words of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, the leader of the Jewish People through their struggles under Roman tyranny in the mid second century:
The world is established upon three things: truth, justice and peace. (Chapters of the Fathers 1:18)
Then I hear my grandfather ask: ‘Ist es denn so, wirklich so, meine Freunde? – Is that so, really so, my friends?’ He had, after all, lived through two world wars, persecution, flight, and the Cold War after that.
It’s because of these same principles that I will shortly set out to join the demonstrations in London, because they constitute the foundations of Torah and the soul and strength of Judaism throughout its long history of moral courage and survival.
I will go in sorrow, because the very fact that it should be necessary to demonstrate against the Prime Minister of Israel Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to London troubles me. But I will go willingly, because I will be standing in public support of Israel, in solidarity with the hundreds of thousands on the streets of its cities every week. They want their, and our, beloved country, for whom they are ready to give their lives, to be precisely a place of truth, integrity, justice and peace, because these are the qualities upon which a free, honest and equal society depends.
Truth, and the unflinching readiness to tell it to power, is the very heart of the prophetic literature, which forms a full third of the Hebrew Bible. Time and again, kings and ministers turned on the prophets; many knew they might die for their cause and several were indeed murdered. Yet still they spoke out, because God’s words ‘burned like fire in the bones’; because they could not witness wrong and keep silent.
This fire was inflamed by every form of injustice, the wrongful accrual of wealth, the arrogance and dishonesty of high office, the heartless dispossession of the poor, the failure to honour the supreme value of chesed, loving kindness, which must always be the partner of justice.
This same cruelty and wrongdoing, the similar endeavour to corrupt and pervert justice, is manifest today before our eyes in many lands today, sadly now not excluding Israel.
The prophets had probably never heard of democracy; their chant was not de-mo-krat-iah but tsedek, justice. For them, theocracy was the ideal form of governance and God the supreme Judge.
But the underlying values were the same. They understood that God is the God of truth ‘who sees to the heart.’ They knew that justice had to be placed in the hands of those who ‘respected God, loved truth and hated corruption.’ (Exodus 18:21) They understood that a peaceful society depends not just on the rule of the majority, but on how it upholds the dignity, voices and rights of minorities because every human being is created in God’s image.
They knew, and we know, that it is on these principles that the good name of Israel and the reputation of Judaism rests.