Thought for the Week

Friday 4 August 2018

Dear Members and Friends,

I was not one of the 68 Rabbis from across the different religious denominations, who signed a letter to the Guardian on 16 July, 2018, urging the Labour Party to ‘adopt the full and unamended International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism including its examples.’

Why not?  What stopped me from putting my name to a letter, written with regret to acknowledge that ‘antisemitism within sections of the Labour party has become so severe and widespread’ that it is necessary to speak out with one Jewish voice?

What prevented me from accusing the Labour Party’s leadership of choosing to ignore ‘those who understand antisemitism the best, the Jewish community,’ and charging them for rewriting a definition of anti-Semitism, accepted by the ‘Crown Prosecution Service, College of Policing, the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly, the National Union of Students, and 124 local authorities, including scores of Labour-held councils…and accepted by the vast majority of Jewish people in Britain and globally.’

The IHRA, (formerly the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research), was initiated in 1998 by former Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson. Today, there are 31 member countries of the IHRA, combating Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism and focusing on accurate and sensitive remembrance of history with a view to informing contemporary policy making.

I am fully aware that, as well as the National Executive Committee (NEC), there are those – including some members of the Jewish academic world – who do not regard the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism as the final word on the matter.  Some argue it is ‘deeply flawed’, ‘vague,’ and as a ‘working definition’ of antisemitism, say that it should be developed and refined.

I am also aware that the IHRA definition is, in fact, endorsed and identical in Labour’s code: ‘Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.’

So why is the leadership of the Jewish community and the Jewish press, who last week pulled off the stunt of publishing the same headline in all three Jewish newspapers, so vehemently angry that the NEC has now produced its own code on anti-Semitism?

Is it because the examples of one text are correct and in the other, incorrect?  Is this really a quarrel about a codified definition of anti-Semitism and its examples?  Or a political brawl that wants to see the ousting of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader? Or is it about the freedom of individuals to criticise Israel’s government policies and defend the rights of Palestinians?

I listened to the recording of Peter Willsman, a member of the NEC and an ally of Jeremy Corbyn as he attacked my 68 colleagues who had signed the letter to the Guardian.  As he grew more and more agitated, ignoring a voice that tried to stop him, he accused members of the Jewish community of being ‘Trump supporters’ and making up allegations of anti-Semitism. Were the tone of his voice not so disturbing and so full of loathing, his comments would have been laughable.

He is just one of a number of individuals who have voiced quite despicable and blatantly racist remarks against Jews.  It is hard to believe that scarcely seventy years after the Second World War, in living memory of those who lost family members in the death camps or arrived here as refugees, we have come to this.

So why did I not sign the letter?  Why not simply join my colleagues to declare my disgust at the level of expressed anti-Semitic posts, twitter feeds and verbal assaults in certain sections of the Labour Party?  Surely, after the way that Margaret Hodge, Ian Austin and others have been treated, each one of my colleagues’ signatures is a vindication of such a letter.

I wish I could say that I examined the letter carefully, thought about the issues over time and then decided not to sign.   But that is not exactly the truth.  The truth is that I find the whole issue confusing and disturbing; I asked myself, is this the letter I would write were I to put pen to paper?  Did I really want to become part of a communal debate that seems to have lost its way and where no one listens to each other?  Do we solve anything by shouting headlines at each other? I don’t believe we should dignify the racist slurs and anti-Semitic comments that are thoughtlessly, ignorantly and maliciously expressed on Twitter and other social media.

We need to take a step back and reflect on whether communal anger and tribal politics will get us anywhere in this bitter so-called debate.  Anti-Semitism and racism of any kind should never be tolerated.  But we need to be careful that we don’t become embroiled in a spiral of arguments that will get us nowhere other than in a deeply dark and unpopular place.

We have known what it means to be branded as victims of anti-Semitism; six million of our very own people were murdered in the Shoah because they were Jews and the object of Nazi hatred.  We are, understandably, deeply sensitive and fragile when it comes to issues of anti-Semitism, but this does not mean we can act intemperately and with impunity.   The more our populist Jewish newspapers rile the Labour Party, the more certain individuals will dig in their heels even further and cease to listen to what we have to say as Jews.

I did not sign the letter to the Guardian because I wanted to step back, to stop, reflect and listen to what is really going on behind these loud headlines on the one hand, and to understand what it is about the silence of Labour’s leadership that I find sinister and unmoving, on the other.  I don’t know if there is a rabbinic response to this complex and difficult issue.  There may be several different responses.

But I do know that the Torah, at its very heart, teaches us to listen (Shema Yisrael – Hear O Israel).  It teaches us the principles of reverence and humility, love and service.  It teaches us that stiff-necked humanity is not the centre of all existence, but rather an Unseen Presence who upholds the cause of the needy and vulnerable and befriends the stranger.  This should be our moral compass, for this is what the Jewish people have to contribute to society; to defend our own cause, yes, but also to defend the cause of all those who are oppressed or persecuted.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 28 July 2018

Dear Members and Friends,

I was moved this week to read of a young Swedish student’s lone act of protest to prevent an asylum seeker being forcibly returned to Afghanistan.  Elin Ersson bought a ticket from Gothenburg to Turkey, but refused to take her seat until an Afghan man, who was being removed by the Swedish authorities, was taken off the plane.  Facing both applause and hostility from fellow passengers, she said: ‘I don’t want a man’s life to be taken away just because you don’t want to miss your flight…What is more important a life or your time?’

It is the courage and probity of this young woman’s act that moves me most  – a declarative act that embodies sayings found in the Mishnah and in a similar form in the Qur’an, that whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.

On Monday, some of my progressive and Masorti colleagues set out to stand outside the Israeli Embassy in London to protest against the arrest of Rabbi Dov Haiyun, a Conservative Rabbi, who had officiated at a non-orthodox wedding in Israel.  Unable to gain access to Palace Green and make their presence felt at the Embassy, they stood at the end of the road in High Street Kensington, holding a tallit as a chuppah and placards demanding pluralism and equality and an end to the orthodox monopoly on life-cycle ceremonies in Israel.

Last week, despite thousands protesting in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, the Prime Minister of Israel, Netanyahu, passed a Bill now known as the Nation State Law, a law, which is seen as a further erosion of democratic values in Israel.  There is no mention of Israel’s Arab, Druze or Bedouin citizens; Arabic is no longer one of the official languages of Israel, but now has ‘special status.’  It makes no mention of preserving the cultural, historical and religious heritage of minority groups in Israel; nor of the state’s national value on any settlements other than Jewish ones.  It does not promote coexistence or flexibility; it is a law that lacks humanity, respect and sensitivity.  It is a law that emasculates and declares ‘other’ anyone who is not Jewish.

It subverts completely the Jewish value that cries out from the Torah: ‘Love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’  What has happened to our Jewish values?  Where is the voice of compassion?  How have we lost our ability put ourselves in the shoes of those who are different from us?

I don’t know how we move away from the stridency and extremism of discourse.   Where is diplomacy? Where is humility?  What has happened to our capacity to listen or to change?  What has happened to justice?  Can we hear and see what we have become?

Of course, not everyone is pursuing a path towards extremism; not everyone is motivated by religious and ideological fanaticism.  If that were the case, we would not have an Elin Ersson in Sweden, or colleagues in the USA and here in the UK promoting pluralism and tolerance, nor would we find Israelis in the streets of Tel Aviv defending the rights of minorities in Israel, whether Arabs, Druze and Bedouin, or LGBTQI people.

In this hot, dry summer, fields and heaths consumed by wildfires, with its shrivelled harvest, its cities choked by toxic effluence, we are becoming too heated and too irritable, too caught up in a language of confrontation and contempt.

We need to take a step back and think about the effect of our words and actions.  Not all of us are comfortable in this binary place that pits the so-called ‘good’ against the so-called ‘evil’.   That surely is the way of losing hope, of remaining entrenched in static positions, where there is no possibility of moving forward.  We are stuck in an ever-recurring cycle of despair and hopelessness.

I hold on to that image of a weeping student in the aisle of a plane standing up for the life of one Afghan asylum seeker. And I hold on to the voices of my colleagues with their placards and tallitot pleading for pluralism and equality;  and I listen to those voices of in Rabin Square, refusing to give up hope that Israel can be a home for all its citizens – Arab, Druze, Bedouin, Jews and others.

The world is not all bad; we are not all fanatics.  But stand back and listen to the gentler voice of compassion and sensitivity, listen to those who have the capacity to change themselves and therefore change the tone and nuance of debate and listen to those who say, ‘ ’tis not too late to seek a newer world’ (Tennyson, Ulysses).

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 20 July 2018

Dear Members and Friends,

This weekend, in the cycle of our Torah readings, we begin a new book – the book of Deuteronomy. The name ‘Deuteronomy’ comes from the Greek translation of the phrase, Mishneh Torah (Deut. 17:18), meaning ‘second, or repeated, teaching’.  The Hebrew name of the book, D’varim, means ‘words’.  The Israelites now stand on the threshold of the Promised Land, and the book of Deuteronomy is cast as Moses’ farewell address to the Israelites.  It is a most fitting reading this week, as The LJS opens a new chapter, too, in its rabbinic life.

Don’t worry, though, this farewell Shalom LJS message to you is much,

much shorter than Moses’!  Words – d’varim – can be used to hurt, and they can be used to heal.  The Midrash, D’varim Rabbah (1:6) says of the words of the Torah, ‘just as the honey of the bee is sweet and its sting sharp, so too are the words of Torah…’  They can hit hard, as many of Moses’ words do, in his final speech, reminding the people that their fate depends on their behaviour, and their response to God’s commands and promises.

With regard to words, there is a rabbinic story about Rabbi Shimon ben

Gamliel, who once told his servant, Tevi, to buy the best food in the market.  The servant bought tongue.  He then instructed his servant to buy the worst food in the market.  Tevi again bought tongue.  Rabbi Gamliel said to him, ‘What is this?  When I asked you to get the best food, you bought me tongue.  When I asked you to buy me the worst food, you also bought me tongue!’  Tevi replied, ‘Both good and bad come through the tongue.  When the tongue is good, there is nothing better.  When it’s bad, there is nothing worse.’  (Va-Yikra Rabbah 33:1)

This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of the Vision.  The name comes from the first word of the traditional Haftarah portion, Isaiah 1:1-27, describing the ‘vision of Isaiah’.  This is the last of three special Haftarot read between Tammuz 17th, when the Babylonians breached the walls of the city of Jerusalem, and the Ninth of Av, Tish’ah B’Av, when they destroyed the Temple, in the year 586 BCE.

There is one word that links the Torah portion, the Haftarah portion, and the book of Lamentations, that is read on Tish’ah B’Av, and that is eikhahEikhah can mean both ‘how’, and ‘alas’ (isn’t Hebrew wonderful?).  In the Torah portion, Moses, weighed down by the burden of the people, who have become so numerous, cries out, eikhah…’how shall I alone bear the burden of you…?’.  In the Haftarah, Isaiah laments the iniquity of the people of Jerusalem, eikhah hay’tah l’zonah… ‘Alas, she has become a harlot, the faithful city’, and the book of Lamentations begins with these words: eikhah yashvah badad ha-ir, ‘how lonely sits the city once filled with people!’

This is a sobering weekend in the traditional Jewish calendar.  Rabbi Elana Dellal will be leading a study session, and an Erev Tish’ah B’Av service on Saturday evening, July 21st, and this will be an opportunity for you to get to know her, and also to discuss with her how we, as Liberal Jews, respond to tragedy.

This time of year reminds us of the consequences of our actions, and enjoins us to engage in the work of Tikkun Olam, doing our part to repair the world.  After Tish’ah B’Av, there are seven weeks of Haftarot of comfort and consolation, that then lead us up to Rosh Ha-Shanah, and the contemplation, reflection and introspection of the High Holy Day season.

Last Shabbat, we marked my final service as one of The LJS’ permanent Rabbis and this is my final Shalom LJS message to you.  I said ‘Thank You’ to you all in the July/August newsletter, and during the service last weekend.  I would like to finish this message with Moses’ words of blessing in this week’s Torah portion:

‘May the Eternal, the God of your ancestors, increase your numbers a thousand fold, and bless you, as promised’ (Deut. 1:12)

 

Shabbat Shalom and L’hitra’ot (I’ll be seeing you!),

Rabbi Rachel Benjamin

Thought for the Week

Friday 13 July 2018

Dear Members and Friends,

This was a simple story of twelve children who entered to explore a cave with their young football coach.  When the rains came, the cave flooded and they found themselves with no way of returning to the entrance and cut off from all contact with the outside world.  How they existed, what they thought or felt during the nine days of their isolation from the outside world, we will, no doubt, learn as the boys return to health and are allowed to tell their story to the world.

Then, out of the water and darkness, there appeared two British divers.  The rescue of the boys could not be undertaken immediately, it would be fraught with danger; the expectation of monsoon rains entering and raising the water level of the caves, the low levels of oxygen, the weak state of the boys, their inability to swim, the impassibility of parts of the underground passages, the prospect of spending perhaps months inside the cave until the waters had subsided.  And in the midst of the preparation to bring the boys and their coach out of the caves, the loss of life of one of the divers – a sobering and tragic indication that the story could end badly.

This was the story of Noah and Jonah rolled into one – diluvian waters threatening to extinguish these young lives, a dark, dank, deep environment beneath the earth, with its undiscovered life forms and only the prospect of the waters rising, leaving these boys no way out.

‘The waters closed in over me,

The deep engulfed me.

Weeds twined around my head.

I sank to the base of the mountains;

The bars of the earth closed upon me forever.

Yet You brought my life up from the pit,

O Eternal One my God!

When my life was ebbing away….’ (Jonah 2:6-7)

As the divers from a host of different countries, many unable to communicate in one language, but bound together by a common and urgent task, undertook the rescue of the boys and their coach, families, friends and volunteers gathered at the entrance of the cave, to hear news, to pray, to grieve over the death of one diver but above all, to hope.

In Hebrew, the word for hope is ‘tikvah’ and it comes from a root which may probably have meant to ‘twist’ or ‘stretch’, then of ‘tension’, a sense of enduring and waiting.  ‘Tikvah’ also means a ‘cord’ – the red cord that was hung out of the window of Rahab’s family in the Book of Joshua, that would preserve her life and the life of her family.

The diagrams that illustrated the rescue of the boys, show the static rope that guided the divers back to the entrance of the cave – a cord of tension, part of the complex system that would help to save the boys’ lives, but also a symbol of those days of waiting to see whether all the boys and their coach would survive.

‘Kiviti Adonai, kivtah nafshi, v’lid’varo hochalti’ – ‘I wait for the Eternal One; my soul waits, I put my hope in God’s word…’ (Psalm 130:5).  It is this sense of longing for something inexpressible that gives us hope in the world – the hope that the boys’ lives would be saved; the hope that humanity can work together in a united, not a divisive way, to save other lives, other children in parts of the world, hidden from the public eye.

At the end of this week, we know that we have the resources, the capacity and the goodness to work together; we are different nationalities, different faiths, different cultures, we speak different languages, but our faith in One God reminds us that we are one humanity, descended from one common ancestor and united in our deep longing and hope to make the world a place of life, goodness and love.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 6 July 2018
Dear Members and Friends,

After last weekend’s Liberal Judaism Biennial, with its sessions on the draft liturgy of the new prayer book and explorations of what Liberal Jews believe in (or not), I came home and looked on my shelves for a book I haven’t read for several decades.  It is called ‘Mister God This is Anna’ and is written by someone who called himself ‘Fynn’.  Published in 1976, it is both narrative and philosophy, telling the story of how the teenage Fynn encounters four year old Anna, a runaway from an abusive home, somewhere in the pre-war East End of London.  In an age without child protection policies, he takes her home where she is embraced by his mother and becomes part of his family until her tragic death at the age of eight.

The philosophy is embedded in the dialogue between this diminutive child and her rescuer.  Anna’s relationship with God is a deeply personal one:

‘Most people I knew used God as an excuse for their failure.  ‘He should have done this’, or ‘Why has God done this to me?’, but with Mum and Anna difficulties and adversities were merely occasions for doing something. Ugliness was the chance to make beautiful.  Sadness was the chance to make glad. Mister God was always available to them.  A stranger would have been excused for believing that Mister God lived with us, but then Mum and Anna believed he did. Very rarely did any conversation exclude Mister God in some way or other.’

Anna is Fynn’s ‘vehicle,’ if one can so describe her, to express the inexpressible.  We are a little like ‘Mister God’, says Anna, but God isn’t like us.  The definitions of God, the words that we often use to describe God like ‘Goodness, Mercy, Love and Justice’ are refined; God lies beyond what you and I can express and see.  ‘You see,’ she tells Fynn, ‘everybody has got a point of view, but Mister God hasn’t.  Mister God has only points to view.’  Fynn is stumped for words: ‘It seemed to me that she had taken the whole of God outside the limitation of time and placed him firmly in the realm of eternity.’

If God is everywhere with his infinite number of viewing points, says Anna, he is also different because he ‘can know things and people from the inside too.  We only know them from the outside, don’t we?’ she asks Flynn.  ‘So you see, Fynn, people can’t talk about Mister God from the outside; you can only talk about Mister God from the inside of him.’

There is no piety in this child, only a kind of vulnerable, short-lived innocence that is able to perceive the limitations of humanity.  It is sad about people, she muses; people ought to become wiser when they grow older, but they don’t.  Their questions only fit the size of the box – the answers are the same size as the box.  ‘You ask a question in two dimensions, then the answer is in two dimensions too. It’s like a box. You can’t get out.’

What she means by this is that we limit God; we are unable to let God simply be.  ‘We put Mister God into little boxes…. Because we don’t really love him. We got to let Mister God be free. That’s what love is.’

Anna looks for evidence of her God in all the signs and wonders of the world, not simply from her own viewpoint, but from every other individual’s point of view – whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, whether a scientist or rationalist – to Anna, our different voices and the different names and sounds and symbols we give to God, are the same to ‘Mister God.’  ‘We’re all playing the same chord to Mister God but with different names.’  Even the ‘chord of atheism might be a discord but then discords were in Anna’s estimation ‘thrilly’, but definitely ‘thrilly.’’

Liberal Judaism today is struggling with this inclusiveness.  We have pushed the boundaries to ensure that all can find a home in our movement, but at the same time, I wonder if we have lost our way theologically?  Where is the personal God; where is the idea of a moral God who drives the individual towards doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God?

We do not need to become mystics, seeking a communion with a transcendent mysterious presence, but we do need to hold on to the idea of ethical monotheism.  Should this be our theological limit? If what is important in our limited human lives are the encounters we have with each other and the imperative to listen and understand human needs, to bring goodness and compassion into the hostile environment of our world, do we not need, therefore, to go beyond ourselves, to go to the deepest part of ourselves and feel driven and nudged by something more personal, more intimate, more present to us?  And can we not give that presence a name, our own Jewish name of Yod Heh Vav Heh, the Source of all Existence?

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 29 June 2018

 

Dear Members and Friends,

From Sunday onwards and for the following three weeks, my orthodox neighbours will be refraining from haircuts, listening to music and dancing, celebrating weddings and playing instruments for fun. The reason is a minor fast day in the Jewish calendar known simply by its date, the Seventeenth of Tammuz, or Shiva Asar b’Tammuz in Hebrew.

The Mishnah in tractate Ta’anit 4:6 lists five calamitous events that took place on the 17 Tammuz: the tablets of the law were broken by Moses on account of the golden calf; the daily sacrifice ceased as Jerusalem was sacked; Apostomus, a Greek general in the time of the Maccabees, set fire to a Torah scroll and the Romans placed an idol in the Temple.

This was but a prelude to five further catastrophic events that took place on the 9 Av, three weeks later in the Hebrew calendar, including the destruction of the First and Second Temples – and hence two fast days and a three week period in between, restricting joyous occasions and diminishing pleasures.

Actually, the 17 Tammuz occurs on Shabbat this year, but the custom is to postpone the fast to Sunday as mourning restrictions are always lifted in honour of Shabbat.

Liberal Judaism has held on to Tisha B’Av, recognising the significance of a date that became the focus for major tragedies throughout Jewish history – not only the destruction of the Temples, but the expulsion of the Jews from England and Spain, pogroms and massacres against Jews in Poland and Eastern Europe and as an opportunity, along with Yom Ha-Shoah, to commemorate those who died in the Shoah.

But the 17 Tammuz has disappeared completely from our calendar, so too the Three Weeks – a dark period in the cycle of our Jewish year. And as I bask in these warm and sunny days at the end of June and watch the blue-tits and thrushes, the jays and robins in the garden, constantly on the move, busy finding food, flying from one feeder to another, I find my spirits lifting; how does one connect to the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem two and a half thousand years ago and the continued observance of these two fasts of 17 Tammuz and 9 Av?

After the Six Day War, when Jerusalem was recaptured, there were those who abandoned these fasts – political exile had come to an end with the founding of the State, they said, and the fact that Jews could now worship at the Western Wall had turned their mourning into rejoicing. But for others, redemption was not a political event – the return of our people to our homeland, but metaphysical. In the words of our Marriage Service, we live in a world as yet unredeemed, ‘where joys and sorrows are commingled.’

These two fasts, particularly Tisha B’Av which begins on Saturday night 21 July with a service at 8.30 pm at the LJS, remind us forcibly of our obligations to each other. In the days when our people were confined to the ghetto and persecuted simply for the faith they had held on to for millennia, these fasts paradoxically gave us hope for better times – that out of destruction would come rebirth, as it did in each generation. Return to Zion after the Babylonian exile, the flourishing of Jewish life in the diaspora after the destruction of the Second Temple, the persistent resurgence of Jewish life throughout the Middle Ages in spite of expulsions and massacres, and the founding of the State of Israel and renaissance of Jewish life after the Shoah. These ‘resurrections’ of our people do not detract from the tragedies that preceded them, but they testify to something mysterious and enduring about our people and faith.

And so, these days should remain a focus in our thinking about the unredeemed elements of our world – three weeks in our own spiritual cycle to ask ourselves, what can we do to lessen prejudice, to counter hatred, to turn the tide in the affairs of the world against cruelty, dehumanisation and shameful words and actions from leaders who have lost their moral compass in the world?

It is easy in these summer months of relaxation and holidaying to lose sight of that moral compass that has always been the driving force of our people. If we are to be a ‘light to the nations’, then our role is to motivate ourselves and others to protest against hatred and bigotry and to vote only for integrity and honesty. Only then can we hope for the equality of all human beings and that dignity and respect can be restored as the foundation stones of the world we are building for future generations.

Shabbat Shalom,
Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 22 June 2018

 

Dear Members and Friends,

It is in this week’s parashah, Chukkat that Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, dies and in the aftermath of her death, the Israelites are without water.  Yet again, they quarrel with Moses, resenting his leadership: ‘Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink?’ (Numbers 20:5)

God tells Moses to ‘order the rock to yield its water’, but in his frustration, and perhaps also his grief at the loss of his sister, he abuses the people: ‘Listen, you rebels…’  Then forgets that it is not his hand that will get water out of the rock, but God’s: ‘Shall we get water for you out of this rock?’  And instead of speaking to the rock, he strikes it, not once, but twice with his staff.  His punishment is death on the eastern bank of the Jordan, he will never set foot in the Promised Land.

The punishment is a harsh one and although Moses says nothing here in response to God, in Deuteronomy, as Moses recounts this episode to the people, he confesses that he pleaded with God at that time to let him cross over and see the ‘good land on the other side of the Jordan’.  God remains angry and refuses to relent.  Moses can see the land from the summit of Mount Pisgah, but will not be allowed to enter.

Many have debated the severity of the punishment.  Hasn’t Moses been a good enough leader?  Hasn’t he borne the quarrels and insurrections of the people for forty years? Has he not calmed and saved the face of an angry God who would have destroyed the people had it not been for Moses’ intercessions?

Why such an unfair punishment?

That is the question a friend asked me this week, but it was more personal: ‘Why am I being punished by God in this way?’ she asked me.  ‘Why am I afflicted with a mental illness and cancer, preventing me from leading a normal life like my friends with jobs or who are having babies?  Having just learnt that the cancer had spread further, she felt that God, in her eyes, must be a punitive God. ‘I must have done so many bad things in my life,’ she said.

How was I to respond to her? This was not the first time this conversation had taken place.  If I said that I don’t see God as being so punitive, but rather as One who accompanies us on these painful journeys, to whom we can pray for strength and courage, how would that help her?  In her eyes, God is all-powerful, the God of the Hebrew Bible, who performs miracles, but also metes out punishment for those who fail to live righteously.

We may be able to live with a God who gives us freewill – ‘Everything is foreseen, yet freewill is given,’ but can we believe in a God who is limited by the laws of nature and human moral freedom?  A God who is not responsible for disease or accidents or natural disasters.

I am convinced that my friend does not suffer because she is a bad person.  And yet, as she would argue, her not yet forty years have been years of trials because of her illnesses – chemotherapy and radiotherapy as well as surgery for her cancer; treatment for her bipolar disorder, the uncertainty of mood cycles that make her feel so unhappy.

Where did she learn that God punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous?  How can she think, in our own age, with six million dead in the Shoah, one and a half million of them children, that somehow her suffering is a punishment for deeds committed long ago?

I am silent.  I cannot respond to this theology with another kind of theology. It won’t do.  I needed perhaps to say to her that that what she has suffered is dreadfully unfair, that she suffers too much, that she is a good person, who employs her considerable writing skills in posting a blog every single day, drawing together a community of her readers who think of her and join her in the ups and downs of her journey.

God does not pick on individuals because He needs them more than anyone else; God does not single us out for suffering because He loves us more than someone else or has His special reasons for hurting us.  And I don’t believe that God is somehow passively watching what is happening to humanity, uncaring, detached from us all.

I cannot tell her that God is with us, in our suffering, accompanying us, by our side, weeping with us, because that simply doesn’t hold water for her.  She seems to need to believe in a punishing God who rewards and chastises.  But later on, her daily blog pops into my inbox: ‘My Rabbi visits. It’s lovely to see her and to gain some spiritual succour. She encourages me to believe in a less punitive G-d when I ask “why has G-d chosen me for such cruel, unusual and severe suffering?”’

Life is unfair – particularly unfair in my friend’s case.  Perhaps there is some miracle in that she hasn’t rejected God; she hasn’t said – because of my suffering I no longer believe in God.  Perhaps this is her way of articulating despair and the exhaustion of fighting against her illnesses and yet, even as she does this, her writing and her daily regimen of exercise, transcending her physical and mental states, are inspiring – it is in her writing that she makes her readers smile, uplifting their hearts, speaking without a trace of self-pity. And perhaps her belief in this God who chastises is a way of allowing a belief that there is some order in her own uncertain world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Friday 15 June 2018

Dear Members and Friends,

We are in the place where Avram moved his tent to settle by the oaks of Mamre and built an altar to God; the place where Sarah died and was buried and Jacob lived with his large family; the ancient seat of rulers, where David was anointed king over the tribes of Israel – Hebron.

The second largest city in the West Bank, Hebron or Al Khalil, in Arabic, is home to more than 200,000 Palestinians and around 800 Jews who are concentrated around the old quarter.  Our guide is Eliyahu McLean, from Abraham Tours, who introduces himself as a Hasidic Jew, descended from a long line of Scottish pastors on his father’s side and a Jewish American mother. Born in California and raised in Hawaii, he is the founder of the Jerusalem Peacemakers.  Here is how he describes his vision:

                 “I try to hold the whole picture, and that includes the experience of the hilltop
youth and the right-wing  settlers, and the experience of the disenfranchised
refugee and the Palestinian who supports Hamas. That seems like an almost
impossible place to be politically– where does that leave you? But I think that’s
where my spiritual roots come in, to somehow be able to hold all of that and
then to organize meetings, events, projects that somehow connect to that.”

He leaves us with Mohammed, the young, highly articulate son of a Palestinian shopkeeper, whose wares spill out on to the now deserted street that runs from west to east in front of the Tomb of the Patriarchs.  The Herodian walls which surround the Cave of Machpelah, the burial place of the patriarchs and matriarchs, is reached by a set of wide stone steps.  Mohammed takes us up into one half of the building, now a mosque where Isaac and Rebekah’s tomb rest in the centre; later on Eliyahu will lead us into the Jewish part of the Cave and we will see again how Abraham and Sarah’s tombs are divided – one half in the mosque, the other half in the synagogue.

From the mosque, Mohammed takes us through the market and into downtown Hebron – the administration of the city is confusing – the Hebron Protocol of 1997 divided the city into two sectors: H1 controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and H2, roughly 20% of the city administered by Israel.  Through the narrow streets of the market, there are shops on either side and we stop in front a stall of souvenirs to meet the owner; Mohammed invites him to explain what it is like to live and work in this place.  The street is covered with chicken wire and in some places rusted corrugated iron, because above the buildings on one side of the street, explains the shopkeeper, is a house that has been taken over by Israeli settlers who throw their rubbish out of the windows and allegedly harass the stall owners by pouring sewage and other trash into the street below.  Later, on this dual narrative tour, Eliyahu will tell us that it is true that Israeli settlers harassed the Palestinians below and took over another house, forcing a Palestinian family to leave, but that the rubbish is old and the settlers have now left.

Downtown Hebron is chaotic, cars tearing their way through a busy main street, hooting those in their way, children begging for money, women and men doing their shopping to prepare meals for the breaking of the fast at the end of the day – we are a week away from the end of Ramadan.

Lunch is at the home of Mohammed, where he lives with his parents, wife and little daughters.  Their hospitality is generous – huge plates of chicken and rice, hummus and warm pitta bread. The women make themselves scarce and we seek them out to thank them; they are quiet and modest, leaving the talking to their men-folk, but I feel grateful to have been welcomed into this Palestinian home, to have shared food with our group and listened to the Palestinian side of this narrative.

We are handed back to Eliyahu who leads us through the part of Hebron that is administered by Israel – up a narrow street and steps that lead to the tombs of Ruth and Jesse, a small synagogue where one man is praying and another larger place of study and prayer.  An Israeli soldier stands guard over the shrine.

We enter the other half of the Cave of Machpelah, now a synagogue.  It is strange to see these shrines  inside a synagogue – cemeteries and tombs are places of tum’ah – impurity, they should not be places of worship, but the politics of this place is fiercely competitive and I am reminded of the mosaic at Hamat Teveriya – an ancient synagogue by the Kinneret –  with a representation of Helios, the sun-god in front of the place where the Ark would have been – a Jewish re-interpretation of Greek and early Christian art that perhaps is an expression of the bitter rivalry that existed between the early Christians and Jews living in the Galilee.

Our final visit is to a museum in the Jewish Quarter of Hebron, Beit Hadassah.  There are graphic photographs of survivors of the 1929 Hebron Massacre, when 67 Jews were murdered by Arabs and scores horribly mutilated.  Tzippi Schlissel manages the museum and tells us that her grandmother was rescued by an Arab family during the pogrom.  So why is it, we ask, Palestinians and Jews are unable to trust each other in this place; why not seek out your neighbours to speak to them, to work with them and live beside them.  And then, unassuming, quietly, she tells us that her father was stabbed and killed by a Palestinian in 1998 and that afterwards she came to Hebron to live with her mother.  ‘I have a psychological barrier still,’ she says.  I cannot trust, you do not know what will happen.’  And we are silenced.  ‘My mother,’ she adds, ‘was the grand-daughter of Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine.’

And I wonder what Rav Kook would have made of the religious nationalism today that makes this conflict so intractable on both sides.  ‘Nationalist movements are temporary phenomena,’ he wrote, ‘which are due to be transcended as humanity responds to the more universal claims of human nature…Those who think that the new nationalist movement can supersede our concern with holiness are in grievous error.’  Only in the ‘dimension of holiness’ can we find ‘the source of abiding life.’

Can one find hope even here in Hebron where the memories of pogroms, stabbings and shootings are still so raw?  The tragic irony of this city lies in its name: Al-Khalil in Arabic, Hebron in Hebrew, both words coming from Semitic roots that have something to do with ‘joining together’, ‘being bound together,’ ‘friend’ – a reference to Abraham in the Q’uran, who is described as Khalil al-Rahman – ‘Friend of God,’ echoing Isaiah’s  Avraham ohavi – Abraham, My beloved’ or ‘My friend’.

Certainly, there are friendships across the divide, encounters and conversations.  Surely the partnership between Mohammed and Eliyahu is one such conversation, where a little bit of distrust and prejudice is dissipated in the quest for peace.  We came across many other examples of individuals in organisations working hard to close the wounds and allow healing to take place.  And we were heartened, in spite of everything we read and uplifted by the courage of women and men seeking to build dialogue and understanding.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Alexandra Wright

Thought for the Week

Thursday 7 June 2018

Dear Members and Friends,

I am enjoying working with one of our members towards her adult Bat Mitzvah later on this year and, last week, in discussing the Torah portion (B’Ha’a lot’kha), she commented on ‘Moses’ epic meltdown’, when he rails at the burden of ‘carrying’ the Israelite people.  Well, in this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach L’kha (Numbers 13:1-15:41) it is God’s turn to have an epic meltdown.

At the beginning of the parashah, Moses sends twelve Israelites, one from each tribe, to spy out the land of Canaan.  When they report back, on their return, ten of the spies tell of a beautiful and bountiful land, but with fortified cities and terrifying inhabitants, too powerful to take on in battle, and the other two spies, Joshua and Caleb, assure the people that these inhabitants can be defeated.

The Israelites believe the ten spies, rather than the two, and rail against Moses and Aaron, demanding to return to Egypt.  Joshua and Caleb are almost attacked with stones, when they try to reason with the people.

Everyone seems to have come to the end of their respective tethers in this section of the Torah.  Moses, as I mentioned, despaired of leading this fractious, complaining people any further.  The Israelites themselves go through a cycle of despairing of their situation, moaning and grumbling about the food, the water, Moses, Aaron and God, who has led them towards Canaan only for them ‘to fall by the sword’ (14:3).

God has finally had enough of the people’s lack of faith, and threatens to destroy them and start over with Moses, from whom God would make a far more numerous nation.  Moses talks God down, saying that, if he destroys the people, the other nations will believe that God is powerless to fulfil the divine promise to the Israelites, to bring them to the land of Canaan.  Moses then goes on to appeal to God’s attribute of mercy, reminding God of God’s own patience, forbearance and compassion, and finally pleading, in words familiar from our Yom Kippur service: s’lach na la-avon ha-am ha-zeh k’godel chas’dekha, ‘forgive, please, the iniquity of this people, according to Your great kindness’, to which God responds, salachti kid’varekha, ‘I have forgiven, according to your word’.

It’s a remarkably powerful text, and theologically quite challenging.  Like Abraham, in Genesis chapter 18, trying to persuade God not to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and wipe out the innocent together with the guilty, Moses, to borrow a well-known phrase, ‘speaks truth to power’.  ‘Shall the Judge of all the world not act justly?’ cries Abraham (Gen.18:25).  Moses appeals to God’s vanity, and compassion, in persuading God against such a drastic course of action.  God is at His most human in this passage.

This is part of what makes it, I think, the story of us all.  We all have our limits.  We all complain, argue, moan about our situation, from time to time.  But then we pick ourselves up and move forward.  Maureen Kendler, the pioneering and inspirational Jewish educator, who died earlier this year, wrote that ‘This is family.  Total strangers do not complain about each other and argue as Israel and God do.  God is their personal God still even though He is a volcanic, punitive God who destroys thousands in the book of B’midbar[Numbers].  Shelach Lekha marks a low point in our family history, but like families have to do, we patch it up, move on… together.’

Overcoming adversity is not easy, but the alternative is worse.  We are continually facing challenges, on a daily basis – some more extreme than others – and our capability to conquer them needs willpower and strength of mind.  In the last few weeks, there have been reminders of recent terrorist acts in Manchester and London, and the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry is in progress.  These have reminded us that it is possible to recover from adversity and move forward, hard though it may be.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Rachel Benjamin

Friday 23 June 2017

Dear Members and Friends,

It is Monday afternoon and I am outside the North Kensington Library on Ladbroke Grove.  A sizeable crowd of people of all ages are spilling into the road from the pavement, waiting to join a silent walk to Bramley Road, near to the burnt out shell of Grenfell Tower.   Some stand with placards – ‘Justice for Grenfell’, others hold up photographs of missing residents – many of them children and their families.

Under the burning sun, the crowd swells – a few young men are jostling the organiser, Ishmahil, who is finding it difficult to maintain his calm.  There is shouting, tempers are frayed, but eventually we begin walking slowly, silently, up Ladbroke Grove and then left into Cambridge Gardens.

I find myself, walking next to Ahmed.  He is telling the story of his last conversation with his sister-in-law, trapped on the twenty-first floor of Grenfell Tower in her flat, with her husband and three children.   ‘We have been told to stay in our flat,’ she tells Ahmed.  These were the last words he heard from her.  He still hopes that the family will be found alive.

The walk continues – everyone silent – down the leafy streets of North Kensington, pausing every few moments, as though we are making that solemn walk from the Ohel to the grave in a Jewish cemetery, to offer up prayers for the souls of the departed.  And then, as we leave the spacious Victorian villas behind us, we are in Bramley Road, the traffic thundering over Westway that cuts through this residential neighbourhood.  Beneath the concrete flyover and outside the community centre there are burnt out candles and hundreds of photographs pinned to walls and railings, flowers withered in the afternoon sun.   ‘Missing’; ‘Have you seen Fawzia?’  or ‘Jessica’?  Or the scores of others missing since the fire last week.

And nothing prepares me as I raise my eyes to a peerless blue sky, to see the terrible and shocking black shell of the tower, as though transplanted from hell’s own landscape.  We stand transfixed on the pavement below – a man next to his bicycle, a woman standing on the balcony of a block of low-rise brick apartments, her head turned upwards to gaze on its unsightly and menacing frame.  Next to me, a group of three young girls clap their hands to their mouths, their eyes wide open in incredulous astonishment.  There are no words to describe this blind, burnt, blackened, towering box – its empty, glass-less windows a shocking indictment of negligence, of all that is morally ugly in our society.

It is enough.  If we are tired, exhausted by the news – yet another atrocity outside Finsbury Park Mosque that night after my visit to the Tower – what of the victims and their families?  What of the police and fire service, what of the hospital staff triaging those who most urgently need care and attention?  What of those who must tell families – your loved one is missing; we cannot locate them, knowing in all certainty that what ‘missing’ means is something else altogether?

These days are frightening for all of us. They make us anxious and fearful – and that anxiety spills into our own families, into our own lives, for we cannot seal ourselves from the vulnerability of being an ordinary citizen crossing a bridge, walking along a pavement, of living in a high rise  block of flats.

It was Ahmed – the man whose sister-in-law and family had been lost in the fire – who taught me the need for companionship and connection in the midst of tragedy.  We stood as old friends, although I had met him just five minutes before. He introduced me to a Palestinian lawyer; he wanted me – a Jew and a Rabbi to connect with his friend.  He wanted to reach out, to be reassured and to know there were friends, those who would accompany him on this walk and help him deal with the terrible aftermath of violent and tragic death.

I know our community tries to be that locus for companionship and connection.  We need each other more than ever – to allay our fears and to find again some kind of faith in each other, in ourselves and in a compassionate God who weeps with all those who suffer.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright