Yom haZikaron la’Shoah ve’la’Gevurah: The day for remembering the Shoah and for remembering the Bravery.

vati passport 1Tonight we begin Yom HaZikaron la’ Shoah ve’la’Gevurah (יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה – The day for remembering the Shoah and the Heroism.

Around six million Jews and five million others were targeted by the Nazis and were murdered in the Shoah. LGBTQ people, Travellers (Roma), Communists, the mentally or physically frail, Jehovah’s witnesses, the people who opposed the decrees – they too perished simply for being who they were.

From 1933, as German Jews were stripped of having legal and economic status, till 1945 when Hitler was finally defeated, the Shoah was not one large act but a huge multiplicity of smaller and ongoing acts, and the bravery and heroism we also remember was equally often the actions of individuals whose values led them to refuse to partake or support, or to support hidden Jews, or to resist in numerous quiet ways.

My family have, as have many families like us, threads of stories about what happened to us.  The voices to tell the stories are few – we have had to collect and collate information from many different sources, we have had to research and visit places in Germany, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Switzerland… to try to find the streets and the buildings, and rarely the cemeteries, where our family members found some rest for a short while before journeying onwards.  Some stories come from memories recounted to us when we were young and the teller was feeling particularly open or vulnerable, some stories are found in legal documents, in letters, in photographs, in lists of names for deportation.   Some stories are embedded in the names given to us at birth, in recipes, in particular family traditions. My family, like the families of many like us in the UK and America, have made deep roots in a very short time in the new places we live in now, others find themselves unable to come back from the violent uprooting they suffered, and so remain consistently rootless.

The pain we memorialise on Yom HaShoah travels down the generations. The silence of survivors doggedly refusing to tell their stories until almost too late, has been more profound and more powerful than speech. The anguish of families torn apart, with most disappeared or murdered, has an effect on the remnant that survives, be it spoken of or be it suppressed. I can still hear my 87 year old father asking – “but have I got any other family in the world besides the family I created? And “I wonder what my father would have thought of me”

The enormity of the Shoah is too much to process. The pain of individuals is too much to bear.

And yet we must continue to tell the story as best we can. We can tell the stories within our families, we can tell the stories of one community, one street, one house, one person. It comes down again and again to the personal stories, the fear and loss of individuals, the pain and terror of one human being.

And we must alongside tell the stories of bravery and heroism. The family with the same name as a Jewish family living in an apartment block who gave their papers to the Jewish family when the Gestapo came to call. The people who warned small children playing out –“don’t go back home, the soldiers are there, find somewhere else to go but don’t go home”. The people who hid Jews in their homes at their own risk, who faced down authorities and refused to accede to their demands, who gave out visas or forged documents to help people escape certain death.

One thing we learn is that fascism starts small, with many small acts of distortion – seeding fake news, calling out truth as if it is fake, skewing and manipulating public opinion, destroying trust in any source of information, acts of violence that are not confronted, racist dog-whistling, gaslighting – the process of driving a person to question their own sanity through deliberate psychological manipulation. This last – coming from the play by Patrick Hamilton “Gas Light” which premiered 1938 – is done not only by individuals but by governments and nation states. Hitler made promises, asserted facts and then later would act as if this had never happened.  The destabilising effect of what you know to be true suddenly apparently being false or non-existent is increasingly apparent once more in the politics of Trump, of Brexit, of the populist parties gaining power in Europe.

Fascism starts with many small acts of distortion. It is neutralised by clarity, transparency and truthfulness.

It is neutralised too by every act being called out for what it is at the level at which it occurs. Every taxi driver ranting on about a Brexit dividend or with a racist agenda, every dinner guest, every work colleague. Politeness is the enemy of honesty on occasion and allows the hatred to flourish as the hater believes their agenda is agreed.

The small acts of heroism alongside and during the Shoah are what gives me faith in the future, gives me a hope for the present, and also directs my own actions. I cannot stand idly by and hear racism, anti-European rhetoric, anti-Muslim spew. I will not stand idly by.  We must have faith in our own perceptions and our own values and not allow the gaslighting. We must be strong in what we know to be right – human dignity for all, support and care – and resources – for the vulnerable, honesty and transparency in our politics.

The word Shoah probably comes from a root meaning to ravage, to destroy, to devastate and is connected to the word used in the ten commandments – la’shav (do not take the name of the Eternal God La’shav) – meaning empty or vain, desolate or ruin.  One of my favourite glosses on this root as it appears in the third commandment is that we must not damage the world in the name of God, not destroy others – who also hold the reflection of God within them – for a misplaced sense of what God must be like.

I love too the modern midrash on the root Shoah which is made up of the three Hebrew letters Shin, Alef Hei.

The letter Shin has a shushing sound. A soothing sound we make to frightened children, the sound when there is nothing to say except “I’m here with you”

The letter Alef is silent; it reminds us of the silence of Aaron in the face of the sudden death of his sons, the shocked inability to respond at all as we freeze in our horror at the reality of what we are facing.

But the letter Hei, often used to designate the name of God, reminds us that at the end of it all, God is still with us. And it too has a soft and gentle sound, the sound of breathing.  At the end of the Shoah- even after all this time since the end, we can still say nothing to remedy or to heal the dislocation and pain we still endure and live with, but God is still with us, and we are still able to breath and to live, and to look forward in the hope of a life of peacefulness and with all the breath we have to fight the forces that would take that peace away.

 

photo of my grandfather’s reisepass with the red J firmly stamped.

Biblical Empathy at the exodus from Egypt

Bible tells of ten plagues that struck all Egyptian people in the battle between God and Pharaoh, culminating with “God smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt from the firstborn of Pharaoh to the firstborn of the captive in the dungeon and all the firstborn of cattle….there was a great cry in Egypt for there was not a house where there was not one dead.” The Egyptians hurried the Israelites away, giving them everything they asked for – jewellery, animals, clothing, gold, because they said “We are all dead”.

One can only imagine the grief, the terror and anguish of the Egyptians on that night, the night that we celebrate as “leil shimurim – night of vigil”, now Seder Night. As we celebrate and remember the story of our liberation, we are also observing the anniversary of these deaths, and on Seventh Day Pesach we will recall the deaths of the Egyptian soldiers, drowned as the waters closed over them while they pursued the escaping Israelites.

The bible tells the stories unflinchingly, recording the screams of the people facing their dead at midnight, the fear and distress of the Egyptian forces caught on the seabed unable to flee as the waters roll back.  It tells of the real human cost of our freedom. And Jewish tradition picks up this theme so that our observance of Pesach not only tells the story of the Israelites gaining freedom, but also the story of grief and fear experienced by those cast as our enemies.

The book of Proverbs tells us “when your enemy falls, do not rejoice” and rabbinic tradition reminds us to lessen any  joy gained at the expense of others. So we recite only half-hallel for the last six days of Pesach, we take out drops of wine at our Seder while recounting the plagues, and  remind ourselves that freedom  comes at a cost that we must never forget.

 

written for and first published by London Jewish News “the bible says what?” column March 2018

Should we know how much people in public life are paid?

Right back in the book of Exodus, in parashat Pekudei, we have the example to follow – the text shows Moses providing a detailed account of how the precious metals that had been donated to build the mishkan were actually used. Bible- usually so concise- gives a lot of space to what is essentially the auditor’s report. We learn from here that the use of public money must be transparent and accountable – even Moses must explain – and Talmud tells us “A person should not give a penny to the communal charity purse unless it is under the supervision of a person [as honest as] Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon” who famously made up monies from his own pocket when he confused two charities (BT Avodah Zara 17b)

The Nolan principles, the ethical standards for those who work in public life include integrity, accountability, openness and honesty. We know that decision making and public spending that is for the public good must be accountable and honest. Society works best when organised around the free flow of information, and the remuneration of people paid by public money must be part of that flow. Already the exposure of pay gaps that are only down to gender has embarrassed the BBC and their willingness to address this unfairness has been accelerated only since it has been known more widely.

But I would go further than this. On the principle that one should not put a stumbling block in front of the blind it is important to know not only how our public money is being spent, but also who is spending private money in order to buy political capital.  Our media, be it web or print, is increasingly funded by people whose agenda is to shape public opinion rather than objectively report news, dark money is funnelled via undisclosed donations in legal loopholes so that rich businessmen can skew government policy and public opinion in order to become even richer at the expense of the rest of society.

Until we have transparency about how money is spent in the public arena, be it those in public life or the shadowy figures whose money shapes opinions, we risk creating an unethical society built not for the community but for the wealthy. Moses knew it, rabbinic tradition knew it. We know it too. Accountability and transparency are critical in healthy societies. We ignore this at our peril.

Jacob Wrestles with God – and so do we

The bible says what?   Jacob wrestles with God.

Genesis 32:25

(25) Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.

בראשית ל״ב:כ״ה

(כה) וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר׃

What happened at the Ford of Jabok was critical in Jacob’s life leaving  him physically marked for life and with another name. He was alone, yet a ‘man’ wrestled with him till dawn. Who that ‘man’ was is open to interpretation but Jacob is in no doubt – he names the place P’niel because he has met God face to face.

The Bible gives a dubious etymology for Jacob’s new name, Israel, but what is important is the meaning given – one who struggles with God and with other people, and is able to do so.

We take this name for ourselves; we are Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, and our defining characteristic is that we too must wrestle with God and with our world and make something of ourselves in that struggle.

Judaism is a religion of enquiry,  questions are met with more questions, not with definitive answers. Despite the systematizing work of Saadiya Gaon and Maimonides who responded to the doctrines of Christianity and Islam, Judaism remains a religion of deed, and not of creed. We must keep on engaging with ideas, imagining possibilities, wrestling with God and with our world, in order to be truly alive.

This dynamic tradition of enquiry and analysis has kept us going over the centuries, adapting where necessary, accepting knowledge from outside sources and bringing it into our world view. It is the life-source of progressive Judaism, as we keep our minds open to the world and its knowledge while grappling with our texts and their questions.

Jacob at Jabok is a metaphor for us in so many ways – fearful of the unknown future, struggling with the temptation to run back to the familiar, yet ultimately moving forward carrying the wounds of our struggle with us. I’m proud to belong to a tradition that eschews doctrine and dogma, demands we struggle with God and with ourselves, and helps us aspire to be our best selves..

Written for and Published in Progressive Judaism Page London Jewish News November 2017

“You Shall not make A Graven Image” – or how hard it is to be a Jewish Artist

The Bible says “you shall not make a graven image”

While there are many Jewish writers and scientists, Jewish artists are thin on the ground as it is generally understood that Judaism has a taboo against creating images from the natural world.  This taboo stems from biblical texts – most notably the second of the Ten Commandments – which reads “Do not have any other gods before my presence. Do not make yourself a carved-image (pesel) or any figure that is in the heavens above, that is on the earth beneath, that is in the waters beneath the Earth;  Don’t bow down to them or serve them…” similar rulings are  found in later books.

The context is always that such images are connected to worship, and that making or having them will lead away from the invisible and incorporeal God of Israel. Unlike the pagan traditions surrounding them, the Israelite God was never seen, at most God was shrouded in cloud or fire, and could be anywhere at any time, unlimited and unconstrained.

It is likely that the original law forbidding images was to prevent the Israelites from assimilating with the different peoples they met in the wilderness.  Certainly the prophets saw them as a path to assimilation into the surrounding cultures.

One of my favourite psalms (115) describes these idols as having mouths that cannot speak, eyes that cannot see etc, and that everyone who makes them or trusts them will become like them, worthless and impotent, unlike Israel whose trust in God will support them.

But the prohibition against such images for worship is honoured rather less than one might think. There were cherubim in the desert tent and in Solomon’s Temple as well as early synagogues, and we routinely have lions or flowers decorating Sifrei Torah. Was the ban to prevent syncretism polluting the Israelite God or was it to prevent assimilation? Was it to demonstrate the beauty of holiness rather than the Hellenic holiness of beauty? or was it to prevent people gaining power over God by knowing God’s image or name?

Torah permits representations of humans as long as they are not used for idolatry and we no longer fear alternate ‘gods’. Possibly the most powerful challenge is that we are made b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God. So maybe it is time for more Jewish artists to emerge and follow the tradition of Betzalel, the artistic director of the desert tabernacle, and decorate our world fearlessly

written for and published in Progressive Judaism Page of  London Jewish News

“He will Rule Over You” a verse misused

While it is true that God says to Eve ‘I will multiply your pains in childbearing; with painful labour you will bring forth children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you’, one must remember that extracting a verse from its context can be dangerous.

There are those who read this verse as objectively true. Childbirth is painful; women look for intimacy more than men; men are superior to women. This writer is not one of them.

The passage occurs immediately after the expulsion from Eden. God curses the serpent with separation from other species for beguiling the woman, adding mutual hostility for good measure. Then comes the statement to Eve, and finally Adam is addressed, “Because you listened to your wife and ate the fruit… The ground is cursed …By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food.

There are two biblical parallels. God challenges Cain later in almost identical language “sin waits at the door; its desire towards you, but you can rule over it.” The passages mirror each other – Eve’s desire is positive, sin’s negative. Dominating is negative when over Eve, but positive when over sin. And we see another mirror image from before leaving the garden: In Eden Eve’s will dominated and food had been easily obtained. Now we have the reverse: an exercise in irony and dislocation from the perfect.

The statements to Adam, Eve and the serpent must be read within this context of warning that life will never be easy, never be perfect; there will always be temptations, we must work hard to make the best of it.

This verse has been used to justify keeping women subservient to men, overlooking the texts where men and women are created equally. Its misuse compounds the problem of living in an imperfect dislocated world and hides the achievable resolution.

written for and published in Progressive Judaism section of London Jewish News February 2018

Ki Tissa

an earlier post from 2013 given another airing

rabbisylviarothschild

“And it came to pass, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tables of the testimony in his hand, that Moses knew not that the skin of his face sent forth beams while God talked with him. And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face sent forth beams; and they were afraid to come near him. (Exodus 34:29-30)

When Moses was in the presence of God that time on the mountain, something happened to him that was, quite literally transformative. Beams of light radiated from the skin of his face as he descended the mountain. The word used for the beam of light – “karan”- is connected to a word we are more familiar with – “Keren”, meaning a horn. The Vulgate, the Latin translation of the bible followed Jerome, one of the Church Fathers, who had misunderstood…

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