We are entering the summer months and, as I write, it appears we are still far away from being able to resume normal synagogue life. The uncertainty in many ways is worse than all else. In addition to the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world, we have also witnessed social unrest in response to horrific police brutality/murder in Minneapolis.
This is a good time to stress some Jewish responses to both crises – the spiritual uplift and reminders can help us during difficult times to absorb the changes in our lives and the world.
First, the coronavirus pandemic:
1. This horrendous disease that has taken the lives of thousands of people here and around the world reminds us of the precarious nature of life. Being alive today is no guarantee of tomorrow. We learn to take each day as a gift, a miracle. That is why our ancestors were so committed to prayer: acknowledging each day, thanking God for allowing us to breathe, talk, study, walk, see, hear and all the miracles that we too often take for granted. Limnot yameinu – the Psalmist tells us to ‘count our days’. Make each moment count, stop to recite a bracha when you eat and drink, acknowledge that it can all be taken away so quickly. By doing so, when we are able to return to normalcy, we will be able to embrace our lives with a renewed feeling of exhilaration at being alive and be sensitive to everything we say and do.
Expressing our gratitude for everything we have, we become more sensitive to those who have lost their livelihoods and health during this difficult period. We must use this time to grow closer to the ones we love, thankful for the short time that we have with each other.
2. The time at home has given us the opportunity for silence and quiet, perhaps for more study and reading. It certainly has been a time of reflection about our lives, what they mean, how we shall live in the years ahead. Studies have shown that people across the globe have used this time to ask more questions about God, humanity, morality, to undertake serious
philosophical and religious meditation. We have slowed down enough to realise how crucial it has been to spend this hitbod’dut (solitude time) to try to understand ourselves and what life means to each of us.
3. This pandemic has also taught us the importance of community, congregation, our tradition of linking with a minyan, being with our fellow Jews. Our sense of hevruta, of being bound together, reminds us of our obligation to each other. I have been very proud of the number of volunteers who have come forward to deliver food, make phone calls and simply to bring cheer to so many of our Belsize family unable to leave their homes at all.
Second, the issue of race:
1. We Jews know that the first premise of our Torah is that ALL human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, meaning that every human being carries within him or her, no matter our race, background, religion, ethnic group, physical abilities and more, a part of God. Therefore, every human life is inviolable and sacred; the loss of one human life is as if an entire world is lost (Mishnah Sanhedrin). We must show that
racism of any sort is intolerable, not just for a week but each and every day, in the way that we conduct ourselves on the street, at home, at our places of work. It’s the basic supposition of our entire religion, it is the Torah, and what flows from that principle is our obligation to treat every human being with dignity, ‘to love one’s neighbour as oneself’ (Lev.19). There should, one day, be no such thing as race, because we are all part of the human race. Black-white distinctions, prejudice, are harmful to the human soul and must be eradicated. There is no debate about that at all. Moses, after all, married a Cushite woman, Tzipporah, who was black, and Judaism knows no racial boundaries.
2. Judaism rejects violence as an answer to social problems, the needless deaths, looting, rioting, burning, attacking law enforcement officers. Responding to justifiable anger about racism should not lead to reverse hatred and violence against innocents. Martin Luther King Jr is my spiritual
guide here. He worked hand in hand with one of our great rabbis of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He taught all rabbis who had the privilege of getting our rabbinic education at the Jewish Theological Seminary that peaceful activism and protest was the answer to social woes that needed addressing, vigorously but not by violence or terror.
That principle of non-violent protest has been ingrained in the Jewish people throughout our history, by Yohanan Ben Zakkai and the Rabbis who established the first rabbinic yeshiva in Yavneh in the first century CE, who taught us that the way to God would ultimately be through study of Torah, prayer and mitzvot.
The state of Israel, which has been called upon to defend the Jewish people’s right to exist as a sovereign entity in our native land, has had to use force to protect lives, the security of the Jewish people and all its citizens. We should reject all organisations that are built upon violence as a means to address social problems.
3. We should also be very concerned about randomly knocking down statues, banning books, removing films of a different era because of racism. In the process we will be destroying much of our past, and if Christopher Columbus is an outrage to Native Americans, then there are all kinds of statues that will be offensive to a vast array of people. If Winston Churchill’s statues are removed, because Churchill did make some demeaning racial remarks during his career, what do we do with statues of people who did good for a certain part of the world, but who were inherently antisemitic? In my view, there will be no end to our rage and I am worried about where this will lead. We are living in history-changing times. What I would like to see happen is a complete transformation in how our leaders and society deal with these attacks against civil stability.
We need to hear language of comfort, hope, uplift, of a renewed sense of idealism, compassion for each other. We need to hear once again the language of the prophets – to work for justice, for the day when there will be no violence or war any longer, when the world will fulfil the moral mandates of the Torah, to exercise love for our neighbour and not hate.
That will be my goal when we usher in the new year 5781, my last with Belsize Square Synagogue. Hatikvah is taken seriously – hope should replace malaise and darkness.
My wishes to each of you and your loved ones for better days ahead – health, safety, shalom. May we all be ever sensitive each day of the year to those different from ourselves, to strive for a better world than the one we live in today, to learn together, and grow together.
Shalom for us, the Jewish people, Israel and all humankind.
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler