“The neighborhood bully he just lives to survive / He’s criticized and condemned for being alive / He’s not supposed to fight back; he’s supposed to have thick skin / He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in /The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land / He’s wandered the earth an exiled man / Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn / He’s always on trial for just being born / Well, he’s surrounded by pacifists who all want peace / They pray for it nightly that the bloodshed must cease /Now, they wouldn’t hurt a fly / To hurt one they would weep / They lay and they wait for this bully to fall asleep He’s the neighborhood bully”
One would love to deliver a sermon on anything else other than the last extravaganza by Ken Livingstone.
But what can I do, it just jumps out of the page, as the Satmar Rebbe used to say when his congregants criticised him for preaching only about Zionism. What can I do, the whole Torah is about Zionism, every Torah portion is about Zionism, and I have to preach about the Torah portion, don’t I?
So, I cannot help it, this week’s Torah portion makes me think to the last boutades by Ken Livingstone. It just jumps out of the page.
Because, in case you have missed it, the former Mayor of London had come back to the scene with his favourite piece of historical fantasy: that is the alleged cooperation between the German Nazis and the Zionist movement. Ken Livingstone is persuaded that in the 1930s there was a “working relationship” between Hitler and the Zionist groups. He had repeated this grotesque falsehood during an interview broadcasted few days ago.
It is of course a plain lie. There has never been any working relationship, let alone cooperation, between the Nazi Regime and the Zionist movement.
The often quoted Haavara Agreement is nothing comparable to cooperation. The Haavara Agreement in 1933 allowed the German Jews to recover, in then Palestine, part of the goods they were forced to leave in Germany when they were expelled. It has been nothing close to ‘cooperation’, unless you consider “cooperation” to similar situations, such as rape. Yes, the woman who is raped “cooperates” with the rapist rather than been killed.
There has never been any cooperation, or working relationship of any kind, between Nazis and Zionists. To suggest otherwise is simply outrageous and distorted.
Fine, you may say, everybody agrees with that. But what does this have to do with the Torah portion? How does this week’s Torah portion make us think of the boutades by Ken Livingstone?
You see, the Torah portion of this week is called “Shofetim”, Judges. It deals mainly with matters of justice. Here are there the elements for a constitution, and for the judicial system. Here we find the job description, if you like, of judges, kings, priests, and prophets. We have the rules regarding witnesses, justice in time of war, and unsolved murder victims. This is particularly interesting. The rules are that if the body of a murder victim is found lying in the open, and despite many investigations, it is impossible to determine the killer, then the elders of the nearest town had to perform an enigmatic ritual: the sacrifice of a heifer. Just before the sacrifice, the eldest of the town, the public authorities, had to state aloud “Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it” [Deut 21:7] They were innocent; and yet they had to confess they have been guilty, because they had not been able to prevent the murder, they had to ask God to be merciful.
In Biblical times, in the Land of Israel, an unsolved murder was so shocking that the whole community had to take responsibility.
The Mishnah, a text written several centuries after the Torah, explains that such a ritual lapsed “when the number of murders increased” [Sotah 9:9]. That is particularly interesting. This ritual is meaningful in a society in which murder is an exceptional recurrence. In the current society it is hypocritical to pretend that every citizen must feel the responsibility for an unsolved murder. Only when murder is an abnormal occurrence, there are reasons to expiate if we are not able to punish the murderer.
You may ask what this discussion about an ancient ritual has to do with the grotesque historical boutades of the former Mayor of London. And I invite you to compare the tales by radical demagogues like Ken Livingstone to the wisdom of the ancient Rabbis.
On one side we have someone who plays with symbols. Radical demagogues do not deal with real people. Real people, real individuals, are complicated. Ken Livingstone and his followers believe that Nazism is evil, that Zionism is equally evil. Therefore, so the ideology dictates, there should be some kind of working relationship between the two evils.
It does not cross their minds that Zionism, namely emigrating to then Palestine, was the only way for hundreds of thousands of Jews to remain alive. Radicals don’t deal with real life situations, with real life tragedies: they want to affirm principles. So they turn people, individuals, and human beings, into symbols of some ideology.
Is Ken Livingstone trying to put himself in the shoes of any of the 1930s German Jews? Of course not. In his world there is no such a thing as a German Jew, as a human being. In his world there is Zionism, which is evil like Nazism (with which they must have, indeed, some kind of working relationship). He takes into consideration the individuals, real people, only as symbols of ideologies.
How different is Judaism, how much more profound is the wisdom of the ancient Rabbis. Because they dealt with real people, they acknowledged that a ritual, which was instituted by God nonetheless, was not to be observed anymore.
On one side you have a crazy demagogue who turns human beings into symbols: a man who thinks ideology always comes first. On the other side you have religious leaders who know the reality of human life, which is tragic and complicated. Even if they are religious leaders, they boldly ignore God’s expectations, because they know that, in the world we live in, the Divine expectations are too extreme, impossible to match for the human beings of their generation.
Now, that is Judaism. Learning how to deal with the complexities of human nature. Trying to put noble and high moral values into practice, in this society, which like every human society, is a complicated society. And acknowledging that is difficult, sometimes very difficult, and maybe impossible.
It is well known that we Jews are not popular among radicals and demagogues. Because they like to say that things are simple, that everywhere there is black and white, good versus evil (Judaism and Zionism needless to say, are on the evil side).
While we Jews know very well, and our Tradition teaches that, things are very, very complicated.
Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue
10 September 2016 / 7 Elul 5776
If only things were simple. This is my reaction when I think to the horrendous carnage in Nice, less than ten days ago.
If only things were that simple. This is, too, my reaction to the other episode of Islamic motivated violence, on a train in Germany, last week.
If only things were that simple.
Because we are told that radicalisation happens in isolation. We read that these two murderers were alienated, frustrated, and that they did not regularly attend any mosque. We are informed that they were not pious Muslim: actually, the Franco-Tunisian mass murderer seems to have led a very promiscuous life. Then, so it seems, he decided that making war was better than making love.
This is not the real Islam, because Islam is a religion of peace, they say. Therefore someone, some pervert, some criminal, must have twisted the teachings of such a religion of peace. Therefore these Muslim men must have been brainwashed by some evil mind, some terrorist leader, aiming to exploit their feelings of alienation. And therefore we have to work hard against this feeling of alienation.
We must build an inclusive society, so that the Muslim newcomers to Europe will benefit from inclusion, so that they will feel part of the same society we are part of. And they will not listen to the twisted teachings of the extremists, radical Islamists: Wahabite, Salafites or whatever.
To which I reply: if only things were that simple.
The more we know about the background of Islamic terrorists and murderers, the more we see that this sociological explanation does not hold water. It is probably not the case of these last; but let’s not forget that many, many of the Muslim extremists who have joined the ISIS came from very posh background. They were deejays, personal trainers, doctors, engineers. Certainly not alienated or marginalised young men.
And there is another explanation that we hear nowadays, every time news of Islamic extremism reach us: we are lectured about the horrors of colonialism, to which Islamism is a reaction, we are told that it is always a reaction. A reaction to the Gulf Wars, a reaction to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, a reaction -guess what – to the occupation of Palestine etc… Muslim people are peaceful; Islam is a religion of peace.
Radical, terroristic Islam is allegedly a reaction to the perpetual violence that we, the guilty Westerners, infer to the Arab population since the War in Iraq, or maybe the First World War (you know: the Balfour Declaration…), or who knows, the end of the Ottoman Empire, or even the Crusades.
Islam is not guilty. Muslims are only reacting. We are the ones to blame, because a young man axes passengers on a train in Germany; and/or because a Tunisian born man massacred eighty four French citizens, and injures several more, on the anniversary of the French Revolution.
And, here, too, my answer is: if only things were that simple.
Because, you know what? I would really like to live in the world where these people, where these commentators, are living. Religious violence come to surface here in Europe, in the Western World. Centuries ago, we had the religion wars: hundreds of people were killed, here, in England too, because they refused to believe, or refused to give up the belief in, obscure details of the New Testament: the virginity of Mary, the Primate of Peter… That was centuries ago. We thought it was over, but we have, once again, people killing other people because of religious beliefs. That is tragic, that is pure horror.
I would love to trust those commentators and academics who lecture about need for inclusion, and colonial guilt, and Muslims who are all peaceful, and Islam which is a religion of peace, and if only we would become more inclusive, and if only we would give up the war, and of course, if only we Jews left Palestine (or accept to become second class citizens, under some form of Islamic rule) then Muslim terrorism will disappear and we will all live in safety and peace in Europe and in the United Kingdom.
I would really love to share the faith in this belief. But I cannot.
I cannot because I am Jewish. I cannot because in my tradition there is the story of Pinchas, which we have read last week.
Pinchas: the Israelite man who killed another Israelite man and a Moabite woman, “because of their immorality”. The commentators say, this is a clean way of saying that they were having sex.You see: our tradition, Jewish tradition, is familiar with religious violence. The Torah, the Bible is full of religious violence. But Judaism does not approve of it at all.
And we see it clearly in the story of Pinchas. That episode, the killing, happened actually in last week’s Torah portion. This week we are dealing with the aftermath. Now the Rabbis wonder why the narrative is broken at that point, so that we have to wait one week before reading its outcome.
And the answer is striking for its depth: because we should never rush to reward extremism. We are to wait, even in the Torah itself, until later events clarify the real intentions of actions religiously motivated.
In the Torah scroll itself the letter yud in Pinchas’s name in the second verse, v. 11, is written smaller than the other letters. This happens also in printed editions of the Torah. See for example the Hertz Humash, pag 686, v. 11, the first word, “Pinchas”, you may notice that the yud is smaller. That is because when we commit violence, even if justifiable, the yud in us diminishes.
The yud: the first letter of the Name of God, and the first letter of the word Yehudi, Jew. Even if religiously motivated, even if driven by justice, violence makes us less human, less Jewish, and less connected to God.
This is the teaching of Jewish tradition. This is where we come from. For this reason I feel I cannot accept the justifications of Muslim fundamentalist violence, as much as they look attractive, fashioned as they are in sociological or historical jargon.
Our tradition is familiar with religious violence, but it does not approve of religious violence. We expect everybody, including our fellow Muslim citizens, to do the same.
Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue, 23rd July 2016, 17 Tammuz 5776
Dear Muslim friend,
I thought of you, last week. Several times. Mainly, while I was saying my morning prayers. I am quite a traditional guy so I recite my morning service in traditional attires, tallit, tefillin etc. This comes to a surprise for many non Jews; and to some Jews as well! For them it’s not usual to see a man wearing a prayer shawl over his head or binding a leather strap around his naked arm for purpose of prayer (seven times: three for the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob; four for the Matriarchs: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Lea).
Because of the perplexed expressions that sometimes I meet while I do my prayers I thought of you, my Muslim friend. You probably experience the same, while kneeling down, bowing, rising up, standing during your prayers. Facing the suspicions, when not the open hostility, when you are praying must be uncomfortable … let me be straight: it certainly is uncomfortable. And unjust.
You, my Muslim friend, pray several times a day. Just like us Jews, you strive to relate with God, or at least to try to communicate with God, in these moments of spiritual elevation. Nevertheless, those who do not share our faiths, feel threatened by the view of us at prayer.
In worship, just like us Jews, you also connect with other people of your faith, who maybe you will never meet, but you know they are doing the same thing you are doing at the same time.
We live in a very individualistic world, my Muslim friend. And we know that things should be different. Both my faith and your faith teach that we human beings are part of a community, and in prayers, you and me, experience that sense of connection with our communities.
Both our prayers are indeed physical acts. It’s not a purely interior dialogue with God, as in other spiritual traditions. It’s gestures, movements. It involves the word, the thought and the body. And these unusual movements can be performed everywhere, – which is difficult to understand, for those raised in Christianity, they pray in churches.
And there is another important similarity between our two faiths, my Muslim friend. Both are text based. We do not worship human beings.Our Prophets, Moses, Muhammad, as great as they are, they are not divine beings, (barminan, God forbid, is the Aramaic expression, I think Arab as well). They are human.
When we worship, you and me, my Muslim friend, we quote from our holy books. When we are in need of spiritual guidance we don’t look for miracles and we both tend to be skeptical of super-natural events. We look in our Scriptures. Our highest spiritual authorities, Rabbis and Sages, are not miracle wonderers. They are literate, cultivated teachers, who know by heart our holy writings and help laypeople, like you and me, to look better into them.
Religious texts are the centre of our prayers, as well. We Jews lay tefillin because our holy Book tells us to bind its words to our hands and to our heads. And I understand you sit, you bow, you kneel, because your Prophets said so, and your Sages espoused that on the basis of what your Prophet has said in the Qoran.
Speaking of Holy Writings, my Muslim friend, this week we Jews have read the story of Jacob. The mysterious dream he had, and how he woke up frightened and how he perceived the presence of God. And his words Mah Norah haMakom Hazeh, How great, how terrible, how fear-inspiring is this place, where I perceived God. God is of course everywhere, (we know that, my Muslim friend, don’t we?), but in that place Jacob felt God’s presence in a more intense way – some say because he was on the run, but anyway that place triggered in Jacob some unspeakable, dreadful feelings, and he built the first place of worship of human history.
Out of this sense of fear, out of this feeling of being minuscule and powerless. And because he felt God as great. Jacob felt God as we Jews feel God, which is so similar to the way you Muslims feel God. Imposing, majestic and powerful. Who rules our lives as individuals and our life as collective, as peoples. No matter how great we think we are. God is higher, God is greater and God is more powerful. Jacob knew that.
Later in life Jacob became very, very wealthy. He was successful in life. But he never forgot that humbling feeling. He never forgot that moment in his life, the moment when he perceived that human beings are nothing in the eye of God, and that God is norah, a great ruler of all the rulers, and all powerful, and his power is beyond every possible human imagination.
Now, my Muslim friend, we both know that handling that norah-feeling is not easy. To me, to you, it’s just so obvious that humankind should follow the ways of God, should not question God’s existence, should pay attention only to God’s will, expressed in our holy writings. God is norah, as Jacob experienced. God is majestic. God demands complete obedience. And it is our duty, as men of faith, to make God’s will clear for the benefit of our fellow human beings.
Now, my Muslim friend, I know there are in your midst those who take this commitment very seriously, above all the other demands of God. They recur to violence in the name of God. Worst, they think there is no other way to teach God’s will than violence. They reject many other aspects of your wonderful religion, that are so similar to our own and so much have benefitted human beings. They reject mercy, they reject compassion, and they reject charitable giving: all these duties that our religion teaches as well as yours, count for nothing for a minority of other Muslims who have reduced your religion to violence and oppression.
My Muslim friend, we are people of faith. We both belong to minorities. We Jews empathise with you. We know what prejudice means. We know how important it is to raise our children in our faith. We are on your side, my Muslim friend. Can you help us to support you, in challenging prejudices and racism? Can you help us to welcome you, and your wonderful heritage, in this country and make your faith, like our own, a force for good? Can we stop those who abuse religion, those who use Islam as a weapon of war, those terrorists who harm you and us, and the whole of humanity, in the UK, in Europe, in Israel, in the Middle East and in the whole world?
Can you, our Muslim friends, help us, and the whole world, to stop terror?