As a community rabbi I see joy and beauty almost every day. But I also witness much suffering. Some of it cannot be avoided: as Virgil wrote, ‘sunt lacrimae rerum, there are tears in the nature of things.’
But cruelty is different. It has perpetrators. The legal dictionary defines it as ‘The deliberate and malicious infliction of mental or physical pain upon persons or animals.’ It continues: ‘As applied to people, cruelty encompasses abusive, outrageous, and inhumane treatment that results in the wanton and unnecessary infliction of suffering upon the body or mind.’
I would rather write about prettier matters. If I look up, the early light on the autumn trees summons me to shacharit, to praise the wonder of creation. But what of the those who can’t look out, because they are literally locked in, handcuffed, shackled, tied to bannisters? Or who are mentally and emotionally trapped with a man who threatens, bullies, undermines, and derides them and cunningly and calculatedly inflicts pain?
25 November is the date of The United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the beginning of sixteen days leading to International Human Rights Day on December 10. This Shabbat is dedicated to JWA, the work of Jewish Women’s Aid.
I looked up ‘cruel’ in Hebrew אכזרי – The first definition is ‘failing to show any mercy’. Job complains that even God has turned cruel, ‘oppressing me with all the power of his hand.’
But it’s cruelty by humans, by us, on which these days require us to focus. It’s not something which happens far away, done by the kind of people we never meet to others we never encounter.
I know this directly from personal testament, what women have told me about men and sometimes, too, what men have told me about other men – and, occasionally, women. It must take a lot to make a person tell their rabbi, – which says to me that what I know is only a tiny fraction of what, tragically and horribly, there is to know.
Abuse can be the loneliest of suffering, because a person feels too ashamed or afraid to tell, or because she is so brutally and ceaselessly policed that there’s no one accessible and no opportunity to tell. Lockdown has made all this far worse. It’s one thing to be at home with one’s beloved family, quite another to be shut in with one’s tormentor. Organisations like JWA can offer the only hope, therefore we must support them.
Seeing I’m writing bluntly, here are a number of frank questions – in which I include myself: have I never ever done anything cruel, not a hidden action, not a word, not a subtle aside, just to cause hurt? Have I never justified or been complicit with cruelty? Have I never, in those albeit limited circumstances when I could do something about it, ignored cruelty and simply carried on? Have I done my best to direct my words and actions to the opposite of cruelty, mercy and kindness?
There are two verses in the Torah which together define what it is to be a truly human being: ‘created in the image of God’ and ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. Jewish teaching names three outstanding characteristics by which these criteria are fulfilled: tsedek, fairness, rachamim, mercy, and chesed, kindness. The last is arguably greatest because it includes the others.
These are the qualities which make us truly human and our societies genuinely humane.