April 9, 2015 admin

The core of civilisation

All this week of the beautiful celebration of Pesach, the festival of freedom and of spring, I have also been thinking of the mad and terrible massacre of students at Garissa University in Kenya. Centres of learning are always targets of violent fascist groups, as if they have to defeat thought itself because the very acts of thinking and enquiry challenge them. The Nazis burnt books, then people, as Heinrich Heine had prophesied a century before: ‘Where they burn books, they will also burn people’. At Garissa, Al-Shabaab went straight for the students, gunning them down in their dorms and as they tried to escape, leaving 148 dead.

Over Easter, church services in Kenya were devoted to mourning; the Pope condemned the attack in his pontifical address. We stand in solidarity with the families of the victims.

Over Pesach, we celebrate freedom. There is no direct and specific reference to the freedom to learn, but it is implicit on every page of the Haggadah and in virtually every aspect of Judaism. The Haggadah is structured around the very core and essential acts of learning, the asking of questions and the attempt at answers. ‘At this point the child asks,’ states the Mishnah which governs the procedure of the Passover evening. ‘If people are on their own, they must ask themselves’. The absence of questions is unthinkable. Questioning is at once method and morality; it implies curiosity, the need to probe received notions, to think for oneself, to distinguish between truth and falsehood. That is why not just the Haggadah but the central rabbinic text, the Talmud, is formed around questions: ‘Who says?’ ‘What difference does it make?’ ‘Is that really so?’

Such a process of interrogation is never satisfied by one single, static answer. Within the Haggadah itself there are many attempts to explain the meaning of its story, each one inviting further comment and interpretation. There is also a clear recognition that different kinds of people seek different types of response at varying times. Therefore, ‘the more one talks about the exodus, the more praiseworthy it is’, the more issues will be raised, the more human dilemmas explored. The purpose of the conversation is not, however, simply talk for talk’s sake; behind the discourse lies the determination to engage the moral imagination, to place oneself in the position of another. ‘Every person must see themselves as if they went out of Egypt’: we are not allowed to remain within the comfort of our own skin, in the familiar ambit of received opinions. We are required to be alert to the world as different people experience it to re-sensitise ourselves on a regular basis.

It is precisely these processes, so integral to learning, at the very foundation of the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom and truth, which are anathema to tyranny and fanaticism. It is not surprising therefore that their ranks should turn their machine guns on places devoted to scholarship. The attack on the University of Garissa is an assault on learning itself, and on every serious institution of study in the world. The response, as well as heightened security and pursuit of those behind the perpetrators, must be an even deeper and more universal commitment to learning. The sages of the Mishnah declared that the crown of Torah was there for anyone and everyone to take. This was not the whole truth; Judaism had not then, and would not until almost two millennia later, open true opportunities for serious learning to women. Nevertheless, Judaism has heralded a commitment to the broadest access to the process of questioning and study, discourse and debate. This lies at the core of civilisation itself and must be seen as the right and privilege of every human being.

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