Message from Senior Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
By Masorti Judaism
This has all happened in the very week when we were rejoicing on the festival of the Giving of the Torah, the Torah of life, the Torah of which the central image is the Tree of Life and whose core teaching is that ‘you shall live by them’, by commandments and values which promote justice, compassion and dignity.
I am utterly shocked by the murder of Jo Cox MP. When a member of parliament is murdered, democracy itself is under attack. The noun democracy is composed of two Greek words, demos – people, and kratos – rule: thus, when democracy is attacked in such a violent and lawless manner every single person, together with freedom itself, suffers assault.
I am horrified by the slaughter in Orlando. When a gunman kills 49 people and injures many others at a gay nightclub, whether motivated by homophobia, the violent creed of ISIS, or both, human society and solidarity themselves are under threat. Such crimes, facilitated by too ready access to guns, are an abomination.
It is not enough to condemn this exceptionally sadistic crime in general terms. As in attacks against Jews, gypsies, or any other group, especially a group which has good reason to feel vulnerable, the nature of the crime and the identity of the victims must clearly be spelled out. Pastor Niemoller’s much-quoted warning came too late to save us from Nazism, but it is apposite now:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews…
We can all add the apposite new lines…However, the reason for solidarity is not primarily because ‘they’ll come for us next’. It is a basic human responsibility towards the vulnerable, towards those who are part of the same society as we are, to those whose lives we care about and for whose dignity we must stand up. That is why I hope if practicable to walk however many miles it proves to be to join London’s Gay Pride after services next Shabbat (and I almost never join parades and always feel out of place).
When it is felt legitimate to use the rhetoric of incitement against refugees, – that is, against people many of whom have watched their closest family killed, their homes destroyed and their children hungry and terrified, – then the very notion of what it is to be a human being, conscience and compassion themselves, are under threat.
On all of these matters the Torah has one over-riding, simple, clear instruction: ‘Don’t stand idly by’. Don’t say, ‘It’s not me’. Don’t say, ‘Others are the victims’. Don’t do nothing.
Yet it’s not in the end because of the group they belong to or the public office they hold that our hearts are heavy with these horrors. It’s because those who were killed and those who now suffer are human beings, somebody’s child, parent, partner, colleague, friend. I keep thinking about the words of Jo Cox’s husband Brendan:
Today is the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. More difficult, more painful, less joyful, less full of love…
She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her.
We are not empowered to put the love back into the world which has been stolen by murder; we can’t replace that unique tenderness, thoughtfulness, moral passion, loving concern.
But let us please all put something kind, good and loving back onto this sore-hearted earth.