The Blog of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Heart and Mind

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Attack in Westminster

An attack on Westminster is an attack against liberty and democracy themselves.

It concerns us all.

Our thoughts are with the families of PC Keith Palmer and the others who were so cruelly and randomly murdered. We pray for the swift healing of all who were injured.

We must never take for granted the bravery of the police and the skill and care of the emergency services, who responded with such courage.

Such cruel and violent attacks, which have taken place in such vile ways in many of the capitals of Europe, must not undermine our commitment to life, freedom and the values of humanity and compassion.

Jonathan Wittenberg

Learning from what we can’t do

There are important lessons to be learnt through what we can do.

There are very important lessons in life to learn from what we can’t do.

I’ve never been super-confident and often spend time thinking about what I have, or might have, done wrong. Running has therefore been really good for me. I’ve found that, to balance my work as a community rabbi, which is a great privilege, but not a role in which one can ever truly know what one has or has not achieved, I’ve found that I like doing things the results of which are immediately visible: gardening, wood work, running.

It was one of the highlights of my life to run the half-marathon with (or rather behind) my son Mossy in Jerusalem this time last year. The day still glows in my thoughts; I could tell you what I did every hour.

It’s hurt, even more emotionally than physically, to have sustained an injury to my back so that I am unable to join him in the whole marathon this year. We cheered each other on through extensive training. Now I shall cheer him on from the side-lines, and give him a huge ‘congratulations’ hug at the end.

I could have chosen not to come to Jerusalem, not to expose myself to seeing the flags and banners and kilometre signs everywhere knowing that I’ll be thinking ‘but just last year…’. However, I felt that such a decision would mean not only letting down Mossy, but letting myself down as well. It would be cowardly not to face what I have to learn from what I can’t do at the moment.

I told friends in Israel how gutted I felt at being to run and that I needed something else worthwhile to do on the day. They put me in touch with Shalva, an extraordinary centre for children with disabilities (which has such wonderful facilities that all kinds of people want to use them, a new form of inverse inclusion). ‘You can help by supporting us with our 800 metre run for disabled and terminally ill children’, they told me. So that’s what I’ll be trying to do tomorrow.

There are much more profound ‘can’t do’s’ for very many people than a temporary pause in their running.

I met the young man whose parents were the motivating force behind the creation of Shalva. He’s deaf, blind and in a wheelchair. He exudes a palpable enthusiasm for life. I learnt that: he’s been to London and met Gordon Brown, and wants to come back again; that one day a week he helps organise an aspect of Israel’s Route Six (I didn’t quite grasp in what way); and that, most importantly, he has an exceptionally discriminating palate and works another day a week as a wine-taster. I’m sure, though, he must have his down-days too, and that they must be lonely and hard. But what a list of achievements! (With the exception of his love for Donald Trump.)

What we can do is enormously important, especially by way of kindness, moral courage, justice and human solidarity. There’s always far more that we can do, and should do in life.

But wisdom is also the product of absorbing the frustration of what we can never do, or used to do but no longer can, or want to have but cannot any more, and transforming it into insight and compassion, – or at least trying to do so.

There are many people who have to struggle with this question in the most profound and challenging way, not just in connection with a run. Or perhaps this is something we must all encounter, at different times and in varying manners, at some of the deepest moments of our lives.

And ‘Next Year in Jerusalem! At least 22.1, if not the full 42.2, kilometres of it!

 

 

We can’t afford to be silent

I wish Purim was not becoming more relevant every year.

Its story unfolds in an amoral world. On the surface, that may not seem ugly; there are halls with bright tapestries, gold drinking vessels, parties unending and beautiful women.

But not far beneath lies the lust for power and domination, the appeal to racism, hatred, and the subjugation of women. The king and his ministers aren’t interested in justice, and fair, transparent government. Advancement is gained not by merit and goodness but by cunning and manipulation.

Underneath that lies a profound insecurity: there are plots all around. Not even the king can be sure of his power. That’s why the vain, self-obsessed and unscrupulous Haman can persuade him so easily:

There is a certain people. They’re everywhere in your kingdom. They have their own rules; they don’t follow yours. It’s a grave mistake to tolerate them. And, by the way, they’re rich. (based on Esther 3:8-9)

We were that people, then, and often in history since. But it’s not just the Jews; wherever justice and equality are absent, wherever fear and racism rule, there are many victims.

That is why we are required to remember the world of the Megillah; and never to forget the power of evil. Indeed, the Shabbat before Purim is specifically called Shabbat Zachor ‘The Shabbat of “Memory”.

There are two levels to this ‘memory’.

The first is historical. We are not to forget the evil Amalek wrought on us by attacking us from behind when we left Egypt and killing the old and the weak, nor what Amalek’s descendant, Haman, tried to do in Persia by persuading the king to kill all the Jews.

It is essential to understand that Amalek no longer refers to any specific nation. Almost two thousand years ago, the rabbis of the Talmud already affirmed that the people Amalek had ceased to exist. Amalek represents the principle of hatred. Wherever one group of human beings is maltreated by another, wherever there is inequality and injustice, wherever xenophobia infects a people unchecked, there Amalek is too.

We forget this at our peril.

The second level of ‘memory’ is more personal. It concerns not the past, but the present. In this sense, to remember is to recall our deepest selves, created with a conscience aware of justice and a heart aware of love. It is about behaving as a true human being.

‘Sorry, I forgot myself’ is a familiar excuse. Many things can make us lose our better selves: anger, envy, petulance, fear. Some such emotions rise up from inside us. Others are incited from without, when we go along with the crowd. When we come back to ourselves, we feel shame.

I read about a young woman, caught after the North London riots. She’d never smashed a shop window or looted before. She’d always been good. Now she had a custodial sentence. ‘How did I allow myself to do that?’ she wondered. I felt for her; it’s easy to lose ourselves, hard to stay true to whom we truly are.

Yet precisely in today’s world, which feels more insecure, more unjust, more about displays of power, we must remember both our history and our deepest nature.

We are not here on earth to manipulate others, promulgate prejudice and succumb to hatred and greed. We are here, in God’s image, to seek justice and mercy for all.

Perhaps the most important words in the entire Purim story are those Mordechai conveys to Esther, his niece: You can’t be silent now. We can’t afford to be silent, ever.

Why we need sanctuary

‘They will make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them’ (Exodus 25:8). These words come near the opening of the long section of the Torah devoted to the building of the Tabernacle which travelled with the Children of Israel through the wilderness. Over the subsequent millennia they have come to mean far more, to express our need for safe spaces in our world, countries, cities and souls.

Since childhood I’ve always been excited when I see a road sign with the words ‘animal sanctuary’. I doubt if the animals fortunate to find respite there offer oblations to the divinity and spend their days in contemplative meditation. Rather, the few square miles are a place of refuge from hunting, predation by humans, and the slow, seemingly unstoppable retraction of their natural habitats of meadow, and woodland, valleys and rivers. Just as the animals need sanctuary from us, we, too, seek sanctuary from the noise, pressure and remorseless demand for ‘more, more’, which characterise so much of modern civilisation. Animal sanctuaries are also soul sanctuaries, where bird song brings healing and the sounds of the small streams are meditations.

Sanctuary cities are not dissimilar in concept. They offer refuge to humans seeking safety from violence and persecution. As the sanctuary city movement in the UK writes: “We believe the ‘sanctuary message’ of welcome and inclusion is needed in all spheres of society and as such we are committed to helping schools, universities, health and maternity services, theatres and arts centres, churches and other faith centres, sports, communities, businesses and homes become ‘places of sanctuary’”. Sanctuary cities are not there, as their opponents have claimed, especially recently in the USA, as safe havens for criminals. Judaism condemns the notion of any refuge from justice for murderers and the perpetrators of evil. They exist to allow communities to come together in harmony, and refugees to rebuild shattered lives.

Places of sanctuary, synagogues, churches, mosques, temples, perhaps we should add libraries, offer calm and quiet in a turbulent world. They allow us to find the self and soul we so easily lose in the ceaseless chase to catch up with our daily commitments. They enable us to listen to our own heart and, within it, to hear the voice, or silence, of God’s presence. How I wish there were no such thing as security concerns and our synagogue could be open day and night to offer hot soup for the body, and music and silence for the spirit!

A heart of sanctuary is a place which exists within us all. The challenge for each of us is not to create it; it’s already present inside us. The challenge is to find our way back to it. When people come to talk to me in times of trouble, when I try to listen to myself in my own hours of trouble, I often find myself asking the question: ‘What brings you solace?’ Maybe it is music, or walking among trees, or meditating on the name of God, or a quiet conversation with a friend, or yoga, or the study of Torah, or rereading a favourite poem. ‘Do it’, I say to people. ‘However much pressure you are under, don’t starve yourself of whatever it is which nourishes your own soul’. (I hope others listen to me better than I listen to myself).

That, to me, is what prayer is for: to bring my consciousness back from a hundred frets and engagements, to let it settle in my heart, to listen. For in the heart is a stairwell down to a well of water. That water is inexhaustible and unfathomable, because it flows from the fountain of being which has its source in God. It never fails; it never dries up. As the Torah says ‘I shall dwell within them’, which mean that God dwells within each and every human being, and within all life.

We need sanctuaries to know the world and its wonder, to know and care for each other as different peoples and faiths, to know ourselves, and to know God.

From such sanctuaries, blessing always flows. It may not change the course of events in the way we would most wish; it cannot prevent us from being vulnerable and mortal. But it always has the power to transform us through loving-kindness, and guide us with wisdom.

Kindness is the world’s heart

Two weeks ago, I went shopping at Tesco’s late on Thursday night, my usual hour for the pre-Shabbat round-up of the items on the family list (except that I invariably stupidly forget one or two of the things the others urgently need). I managed to fill the trolley, but had a painful back and was forced to squat down on the floor for a moment next to the cash desk. Within seconds two members of the checkout team were at my side:

Are you alright?

Yes, I’m OK thank you. Only I’ve got a bad back.

Don’t worry. We’ll put your items through the check-out, pack them for you and take them to your car.

They didn’t just say it; they did it. It made all the difference, not just to my back but to my spirits.

This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, which means ‘laws’. The older I get, the more I am grateful for Halakhah, Judaism’s unending debate, rooted in the Torah, of how it is right, fair and compassionate to act in every situation. I’m thankful, too, to live in a society where by and large the laws are just. Like many others, I am increasingly aware that justice and compassion can never be taken for granted and that we must stand up and speak out against every breech and infraction of the equal dignity of all people. The last thing we should do is take justice for granted.

But justice alone is never enough, as a detail in tomorrow’s Torah portion makes clear. The Torah insists that a lender who takes his neighbour’s garment as pledge must return it before dark. Perhaps it’s the man’s only nightshirt: ‘What then shall he sleep in? If he cries out to Me, I will hear him [says God] because I am merciful’. (Exodus 22:26)

The ancient rabbinical text Mechilta comments: ‘Why is “I am merciful” stressed? Because, says God, it was through mercy that I created the world’.

Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein of Pinsk (1860 – 1941) notes in his Torah Temimah that the lender could say in all fairness: ‘The man hasn’t repaid my loan; I’m entitled to keep his pledge’. To such an attitude God responds: ‘But I made the world through mercy’. Rabbi Epstein then records the famous account of how God saw that a world based on justice alone could never survive and therefore counterbalanced it with mercy.

We live in increasingly harsh times. I fear what laws may be passed, or enforced, which will end up disadvantaging and punishing the weakest in society: the poorest, the outsider, the stranger, those who have no one to fight for them, exactly those groups the Torah constantly reminds us to treat with particular concern.

I worry that kindness, compassion, the imagination to think what life might feel like for the other person, will be a victim of this hardening of the social arteries as we enter an age of greater insecurity, fear and anger.

My back is, thank God, far better and I’m running again (with the doctor’s blessing). I hope I’ll soon forget the pain. But I hope I’ll never forget those moments of kindness in the supermarket.

The world depends on justice. But it’s the kind deed, the gracious word, the compassionate act, which ensures that the world still has a heart. We’re all part of that heart and we’re all responsible for it.

And you? Where are you?

In these troubling weeks, I feel myself nagged and bothered by the first commandment, those simple words ‘I am the Lord your God’. They stalk me, stare out at me, echo back at me from everything I encounter.

I saw that commandment when I passed a young man sleeping rough on the street. I heard it when I spoke with my friend Okito, the leader of the Congolese community in London. I even see it when I look out at the goldfinches on the bird feeder. I know I’m going hear it again, loudly, when I visit at the local hospital. And these days I feel I overhear the words weeping almost every time I look at the newspaper.

What stalks me is the sense of my personal, and our collective, failure; what haunts me is a sense of shame.

How can one be stalked by ‘I am the Lord your God’? After all, it’s only a sentence. It isn’t even really a commandment (and some theologians don’t count it among the ten in the Decalogue). ‘I am the Lord your God’ doesn’t even ask us to do anything. The words are merely the preamble. Specific instructions follow: ‘Don’t murder’, ‘Don’t steal’, ‘Don’t be faithless in relationships’. But ‘I am your God’ is not itself a command.

Or is it?

There are two ways (at least) to read it. One can take it as saying ‘Tick this box’. Agree to this about how the world is’. An alternative box is ‘I’m an atheist’, or ‘I don’t care’. Of course, which box we tick in our heads is important. Though I’m nervous of people whose boxes are ticked only in their heads; there’s always the danger they’ll go to war with people whose boxes are different.

It’s the other way of hearing the first commandment which haunts me. If there is one God, one vitality, one community of life which connects us all and to which we all belong, vast and varied as that community is, then the words ‘I am the Lord your God’ cry out at us from every living thing.

They call to us from the person sleeping rough. They cry to us from the woman deported back to a country where she fears for her life. They appeal to us from the Jew afraid because of hate threats to go outside with a kippah. They weep from every wound, every injury and every wrong inflicted on our fellow human beings and nature itself.

They say to us ‘I, God, am here too, in this hurt and this injustice’. They say at the same time, ‘I, God, am here in this beauty, in this creativity, in this potential goodness of all life’. They say, ‘You there, walking past, do you hear me? I am the sacred in all life. I speak in everything around you, and in your heart. Are you listening? Are you there?’

That’s how the Rabbi of Slonim, the Netivot Shalom, understood that First Commandment: ‘God spoke and created all things, so that they say: “I am the Lord your God”’.

How then can I, how can we, how can leaders and governments across the world, be callous, unjust, cruel, careless, heedless, selfish?

The First Commandment is really the first half of a question: I am the Lord your God, God of all life – And you, where are you?

We can’t abandon refugee children

Tomorrow brings two of my favourite things: Tu Bishevat, the New Year for Trees, and Shabbat Shirah the Shabbat of Song. I had thought to write about both. I’ve been reading Peter Wohlleben’s wonderful book The Hidden Life of Trees. A forester initially employed to maximise the yield from the woods over which he was appointed, he comes to understand the mystery of the secret life of his trees, how they communicate with one another, support each other, develop resilience and form a rich and wondrous community.

I wanted to write about how God’s presence sings in the trees, how that song can embrace and chasten us and make us more deeply aware of the wonder and privilege of life.

But I won’t. Having hosted Lord Dubs in our synagogue and heard him speak of what motivated him, a child of the Kindertransport, to petition Parliament to allow 3,000 lone children into this country, I cannot be silent when that agreement seems now to have been overturned by the government.

I was in The House of Commons last week for the rededication of the plaque in honour of the Kindertransport. After the Chief Rabbi and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who both spoke with moving eloquence, a boy of 15 from Syria told us, through an interpreter, about his long journey to these shores. When asked what was most in his thoughts, he said: ‘The unknown fate of his parents and family’ as he tried to restrain his tears.

In the wake of the Holocaust we asked in grief and anger how it was possible for so many people to remain indifferent, unmoved by the fate of others. I fear the answer is that it’s easy: ‘If it doesn’t affect me, I can just get on with my life as usual. It’s simpler not to know.’

Every verse of Jewish teaching and every chapter of Jewish experience tells us that that is not good enough. ‘Don’t hide yourself from your own flesh’, proclaims Isaiah: don’t be deaf and blind to those who suffer just as you are suffering. ‘Lo titallam - Don’t hide away; don’t pretend you didn’t know’.

Barbara Winton, who spoke in our synagogue and with whom I’m closely in touch, wrote to the Prime Minister today (Theresa May was her father Nicholas Winton’s MP): ‘Every single child’s life is worth every single thing we can give.’

None of us has done enough to help save those lives. I repeat at this link the initiatives I’m encouraging us to support. I admire the remarkable work of our Drop-In. I respect greatly the huge efforts of Help Refugees and Safe Passage. I am pleased we are beginning to find ways to support and befriend the refugee families in our midst, in Barnet. But we need more initiatives, more engagement and more moral courage.

I want to stress that this is not an alternative to strengthening our own community. My heart sinks and I feel personal upset when I learn that someone has failed to come forward to support our minyan, our quorum, on their due date on the rota, preventing others from reciting the Kaddish. We must not let each other, our Judaism, or our common humanity down.

Peter Wohlleben describes in his beautiful book how, through the hidden connections between their roots, trees nourish the weak amongst them and uphold the strong. The roots of our shared humanity also mingle in the common earth of our mortal existence. We too can, and must, uphold one another.

The Dubs Amendment

‘The Dubs Amendment’ was agreed by Parliament last year as a gesture of humanity and hospitality in the face of an immense crisis in which child refugees are the most vulnerable of all. It was supported by public opinion, the widespread feeling that, with its tradition of compassion and hospitality, this country should and could do more.

To close the doors now, when only a fraction of the three thousand children due to come here have been enabled to do so, is cruel. Barbara Winton, daughter of Nicholas Winton whose actions saved the lives of over 600 children in 1938/9 told me: ‘It’s tragedy if the hopes of these young people are dashed. Even 3,000 is just a drop in the ocean, but each drop is a life…’

We need to work together to hold the government to its commitments. We must also play our part as communities and individuals in receiving and welcoming the children who do arrive here, and in helping them to establish new lives.

True to our values in difficult times

I listen to the news of the attack at the Louvre, icon of France’s love of beauty, and feel profound dismay. Poor Paris, city which has suffered so much in the last two years.

A brave soldier was swift enough to shoot the attacker. But the event still increases fear and suspicion. It cannot be doubted that we live in a world where constant vigilance and good intelligence are a sad but basic necessity for our security.

Yet we do not want to inhabit a society divided on religious, racial or ethnic grounds by barricades of suspicion, prejudice and anger. A world, state or city separated into ‘them and us’, with mass collective exclusions, is not the answer. It represents a victory for fear and hate; it is already a kind of failure. For division is the hallmark of hatred and fear.

Judaism has always had at its heart the belief in one God. Oneness is perhaps Judaism’s most unique and characteristic idea. What does it mean?

The oneness of God comes first. As Maimonides wrote in The Laws of the Foundations of the Torah, and as the mystical tradition persistently emphasises, to declare that ‘God is one’ is not simply to say that God is not two, or four, or eight. It is a profound affirmation that a sacred oneness, the divine spirit and presence, permeates all things and transcends them; that all life belongs to God and God belongs in all life; that there is therefore nothing and no one devoid of sanctity and value.

It follows that humanity is ultimately one. The description in the first chapter of Genesis that God made the human being in the divine image, is not a scientific account of what actually happened, but an assertion of the ultimate equality of all life. In the words of the Mishnah; ‘No one can say “My parents were better than yours”’. There is therefore no such thing, to use the ugly Nazi phrase, as ‘a life unworthy of life’. People may behave disgracefully, treacherously and wickedly and therefore merit punishment. But ab initio, they are not children of a lesser God, or of less intrinsic worth because they are Jews, Muslims, or Zoroastrians, for we are all not just children, but agents, of the one living God.

It follows further that all life is part of one inter-connected web of sacred vitality, as the prayers on the New Year declare, ‘let us all be part of one bond, to do God’s will with a perfect heart’. We are mandated to participate in a profound sharing of the resources of the earth and the gift of life itself. This is a truth affirmed at one end by a deep faith in the sanctity of all things, and at the other by the empirical evidence of ecological examination.

What then are we supposed to do in a time when fear and hatred threaten to pull us apart, yet togetherness, mutuality and understanding are at the heart of our vision?

We should be neither naïve, nor passive. Individually and collectively we need to do our utmost to remain true to our faith and ideals. We must deepen our roots within our own community, reach out to those who feel isolated, build relationships with those of different faiths and groups, and engage with those who are strangers, outsiders and refugees.

We need to be vigilant against violence, whether in words or actions, and whoever the victim. At the same time, we also need to be vigilant in our own hearts and minds, in what we say and hear said, against the proliferation of hatreds and prejudices of our own.

We need to work even harder to be true to our ideals. At this time of greater difficulty, the rewards are also great: new friendships, new connections, deeper bonds of shared humanity and commitment to justice and compassion.

Holocaust Memorial Day

I woke up this morning with a line from the Israeli poet Rachel on my mind:

Will you hear my silence, you, who did not hear my words?

Her appeal, poignant in the knowledge that her death from tuberculosis is approaching, is deeply personal. Someone she has loved has failed to hear her cry. Soon she will have no more words…

But the feeling is also apt for Holocaust Memorial Day, the anniversary of the date when the first troops of the Red Army came upon Auschwitz and Birkenau. Primo Levi’s description of his first sight of them is unforgettable, four horsemen, silent, a look of shame on their young faces that such a place could even exist, that such deeds could be part of the annals of what is.

Might Rachel’s line not express what the dead are asking of us:

Will you hear my silence, you who did not hear my words?

Will we hear the stifled voices of those forced down forever into the world of death? What might they say? Each time I visit the site of a former death camp, I try to walk in silence and to listen. For these are places which command attentiveness:

Don’t kill me. I love life.
I wish we were together. I’m afraid.
Don’t be afraid.
My child, where is my child? If only I could have spared you this!
Take my hand.
What?

Beneath and beyond is all silence; what do we really know of what people thought and felt in their final moments?

Across the world, in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, mothers, children, spouses, neighbours confront the silence of those they had loved. Often, they don’t even know how they met their death or where their bones now lie.

But all is not silence. We still have survivors among us, witnesses, refugees. In my experience, they testify to horror and pain, to the importance of memory and truth, but rarely in bitterness and hardly ever with hatred. On the contrary, the voices of survivors are overwhelmingly a call to a profound and embracing humanity, to the awareness of the transcendent value of life, beyond the differences and barriers of race, ethnicity, faith and nationality. Though they speak of the past, what they really address is the present and the future: where today is that humanity, the courage to confront prejudice and hate, the determination to protect the innocent victims of violence, which was so much lacking then?

Within their words lie the lives and loves of all those whose cries were not heeded, whose voices were silenced with a bullet, a boot, or gas, disease or starvation.

Will we hear? Will we act?

Memory is never morally neutral; it is always a question addressed to the future. It is always responsibility.

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