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Rabbi Wittenberg's Weekly Message

19th June 2009 / 27th Sivan 5769

Dear Community,

This has been a year marked by elections, in the USA, in Israel, in Europe, and now in Iran. Each of them has been profoundly important.

To me, and many others, one of the most poignant moments of the year was listening to President Obama’s inaugural speech. Irrespective of whether one agreed with his policies, one could scarcely but feel that this was an hour which defined the meaning of freedom, equality and democracy. I found myself weeping and thinking, strangely perhaps, of my grandfather returning home, sick but alive, after his release from Dachau: ‘It’s for this that he survived; it’s for this that Nazism was defeated’.

Then followed the Israeli elections, with all the difficulties attendant on its particular system of proportional representation. ‘The people vote, then the politicians go to the bazaar’, one leading Jewish figure told me, in a cynical moment. Israel’s electoral system is a bigger problem than its external enemies, said another political expert. In Europe, the BNP managed two seats, to our dismay. One can only hope that this will sharpen our struggle against racism and wash away our moral lethargy.

Daily we now watch as hundreds of thousands of Iranians courageously take to the streets and public squares to get back their votes, to mourn those murdered by the regime and to protest the descending forces of injustice, brutality and censorship. Following the accounts of the cyber struggle through web and twitter against the attempts by the regime to shut freedom down, I found myself wondering, ‘If these tools had been available in Nazi Europe, would events have turned out the same?’

If we don’t feel passionately about democracy, then we certainly ought to. There are four reasons embedded in the teachings and history of Judaism why this must be the case.

Firstly, though the Bible presents a world ruled by God, the rabbis determined over the last two thousand years that God’s will is to be discovered not by appealing to Heaven, or by blind obedience to some theocratic mouthpiece, but by reasoned and rigorous debate followed, with respect for minority opinions, by deference to the majority view.

Secondly, though Judaism teaches that our ultimate purpose is to follow God’s will in doing justice and practising compassion, Jewish teaching from the Bible onwards endows all human beings, irrespective of race, gender or status, with dignity, immeasurable value, moral responsibility and freedom of choice.

Thirdly, justice, accountability and openness are key Jewish principles. We must act fairly and equitably before not only God, but before our fellow human beings. Inevitably, dictatorship entails corruption (far more than democracy), oppression, suppression and fear.

Fourthly, and perhaps most significantly, the whole sweep of Jewish history can be understood as a struggle against tyranny, from the resistance of the courageous midwives to Pharaoh in the Bible, to the scraps of letters thrown in desperate hope through the slats of freight vans on their way to the death camps in the east.

That is why we are the natural allies of all those, wherever on earth they may be, who protest, peacefully and with integrity, for freedom.

Shabbat Shalom

Jonathan Wittenberg