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Rabbi Wittenberg's Weekly Message

Erev Shabbat 20 November 2009
3 Kislev 5770

Dear Community,
 
I’d never been in Lambeth Palace before. But this was at any event a special occasion. At the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, representatives of the denominations of all the major faiths in this country came together at the start of Interfaith Week to sign a declaration of understanding and cooperation. This is a declaration of faith and intention, that, despite our long histories of intermittent conflict, the pulpit must, and can, be recruited as a great and necessary instrument of peace.
 
On what is this faith based? Experience has taught us the inadequacy of the late nineteenth century ideal that religions are only the outer trappings of universal, democratic man or woman and that thinning down ritual difference to the barest see-through essentials would soon bring the messianic age of brother- and sisterhood. The First World War put paid to that. At the beginning of the 1920’s Franz Rosenzweig inveighed against such a superficial idea. Jewishness is not a nationality like being German or British, he wrote: ‘One is a juedisch Kind with every breath. It is something which courses through the arteries of our life…something infinitesimally small yet immeasurably large, [one’s] most impenetrable secret, yet evident in every gesture and every word’. Our Judaism, he argued, is not a mere trapping of our humanity; rather, it fashions how we are human to our very depths.
 
We have seen further, and worse, than Rosenzweig, who died in 1929. We’ve witnessed how faith or tribe can separate us out and carry us away, whether we will it or not, with such irresistible power that it is as if we were standing helpless on a continental plate. We’ve seen how it can lift us up, from Berlin or Vienna, from Bosnia or Rwanda, from between neighbours amongst whom we considered ourselves comfortable for decades or even generations, and deposit us on the rotting heap of death. Its call is more visceral than high universal ideals. It expresses itself with the force of generations; we drink it in with the stories we tell ourselves, we absorb it in the hatreds and distrusts we perceive, or fear, or imagine to be there even if they are not. Am I a Jew first or a Brit; do I belong to Umma or England? Do I decide, or will destiny call me out and name me ‘Muslim!’, ‘Jew!’ ‘Black!’?
 
And yet. And yet we know. I felt it most powerfully at the multi-faith North London Hospice. We die of the same illnesses; we suffer the same weeping of farewells, we stretch out our hands in love to our children in the same manner. We breathe the same air and infusions of the same blood help save our lives. I am not Jewish as some strange alternative to being human; being Jewish makes me neither less nor more human. It is a way, my way, our way, of exploring our shared humanity to its depths. God is not Jewish, or Muslim, or Christian; God is God, flowing through all things, equal in all hearts, nameless, unknowable, however much we try to taint God with our idolatries and send God forth at the head of our armies. But it is not so; God is God of us all.
 
Because I believe these things, that our faith is faith in the same God, that love opens the heart irrespective of our race or religion, that our most urgent needs - for safety, security, community, prosperity and a planet with a future - are the same needs, that we either work together or destroy us all, I signed (on behalf of Masorti Judaism) and consider it a privilege and a duty.
 
Shabbat Shalom
 
Jonathan Wittenberg