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The importance of living Jewishly

September 04, 2014 16:21

So the joke goes: "Two old Russian Jews are reading their newspapers on Shabbat afternoon somewhere on the Pale of Settlement. One is shifting uncomfortably in his armchair. He huffs and says "Oy Vey. Jews are being killed. There are pogroms, riots and new laws against us. What will we do?" He looks across at his companion who is smiling happily. He notices he is reading the Tsarist state newspaper. He cannot believe his eyes, and screams at him "What are you doing reading that?" His companion, still smiling, lowers his paper and says "Ah, you should try it. It's a much better Shabbos read. According to the Tsarists we control the banks, we have stockpiles of wealth across the continent. According to them, we run the world and we have never had it so good."

At times over the past few weeks I have been pulled into reading the Twitter feeds or comments sections that are really best left alone. The ones where, as an active British Jew and proud holder of an Israeli passport, I am horrified to read what some people think I am and what I have done. One of the printable motifs is the "rabid blood thirsty monster". It feels disempowering. How should we respond?

Tackling cases of prejudice, hatred and discrimination on social media is futile. But tackling politicians, lawmakers, and officials is vital to ensure our safety and freedoms are protected.

There is another response: to live positive Jewish lives that demonstrate the inherent wisdom and worth of our tradition. As soon as I learnt Emil Fackenheim's concept of "not giving Hitler a posthumous victory" I was inspired. In the face of growing assimilation and the rise of neo Nazis in the 1980s this to me seemed a constructive idea; that our role is to ensure the survival of the Jewish people, by being Jewish.

But I have understood this is not enough, especially as an educator. Our survival for the sake of survival is self-serving. It does not encompass the full breadth and beauty of our tradition.

We must not let hatred define who we are

We received a letter to the Tzedek office recently from a beneficiary of a project in India. Now 16, this young girl, Manju, had been taken out of school by her parents and prepared for an arranged marriage at just 12 years old. Manju objected; a brave step. Thanks to a social-worker-led programme funded by Tzedek, Manju was given skills and resources to raise pigs. She was then able to supplement her parents income, avoid early marriage and got to stay at school.

The letter is addressed to Tzedek, but the message is for the whole Jewish community. The Jewish community gave the funds, Tzedek is merely the conduit. We have an obligation to relieve suffering. This letter is not headline news. It is a young girl wishing to say thank you to us for taking action against the injustice she faced. I do not doubt that, on a daily basis, Jewish charities and communal organisations receive thank-you letters for work that is part of living generously and compassionately as an expression of the Jewish tradition.

We must not let hatred define who we are and how we behave. We must go beyond our survival and immediate protection to demonstrate, "How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!" Yes, the irony: a blessing given by a reformed antisemite, Balaam.

September 04, 2014 16:21

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