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Tzedakah: The Rest is Commentary

Julia NeubergerFilmed at Limmud Conference 2011

I have a real passion for seeing Judaism through the eyes of the prophets and rabbis who saw Judaism as having a role in putting right the wrongs of the world. It’s not that other things are not important, but that this - nourished by Jewish learning and spirituality - gives us a sense of purpose and a sense of continuity with our ancestors, and we hope with our great grandchildren and beyond, that reaches right back into the Biblical period.

Julia Neuberger was educated at Newnham College, Cambridge and Leo Baeck College, London and was ordained as a rabbi in 1977. She was created a Life Peer in June 2004 (as a Liberal Democrat but is now a Crossbencher) and was Bloomberg Professor of Divinity at Harvard University for the Spring Semester in 2006. She became Senior Rabbi of the West London Synagogue in March 2011.

Friends, I’m delighted to be with you. I couldn’t, I think, have heard two better presentations just now. Amichai, I think you set up the subject and Maureen, I mean about reclaiming the streets, reclaiming the territory. Well, I think you’re completely right and it’s not only in Judaism. Some of you will know that I have a particular interest in the welfare of older people and I think we need to reclaim the streets for older women too, because if you’re an old woman and you need to pee, there aren’t enough loos. And my view is, if we want social justice we actually need to campaign for loos for older women, as well as older men. It’s easier for men, although they don’t always get it right either, but it’s easier for men and I think, reclaiming the streets is what a lot of this is about. But that’s not what I’m talking about today, you’ll be glad to hear. You might have thought, what is she on about?
So I’m going to talk about, the idea that Tzedakah – and the rest is commentary, is what Judaism is about. I’m going to start personally by saying that when my father, whom some people here actually knew, wanted to make me feel badly, which was quite frequently, he would always say to me “You remind me of my mother”. My grandmother, Anna Schwab was a formidable character. We’ve got a portrait of her in our drawing room at home, sitting behind a desk at Bloomsbury house in London, surrounded by people, painted by Rose Henriques. She chaired the welfare committee of the Refuge Committee in the 1930s, and she worked tirelessly and completely rightly to get more Jewish refugees and Jew-ish refugees into the UK, fighting constantly with the Home Office as she found lodgings, work, and helped desperate people get their families out wherever possible. But she could be impossible as a human being and I’m told that I can be, although I don’t really believe it. And she was uncompromising in her belief that social justice making the world a fairer place was more important than anything else. She was also a very orthodox Jew. My grandparents left Germany in 1906 because they came from two different (and of course, warring) factions of the Frankfurt Jewish community. My grandmother was from the so – called austrittsgeminde, Samson Raphael Hirsch community Torah Im Derech Eretz and my grandfather was pretty standard issue orthodox. I say this because although our views on how orthodox or otherwise you need to be are entirely different I believe that my grandmothers’ ruling passion for social justice, helping the disadvantaged, fighting the authorities to get what is right, is absolutely what Judaism is about. And I believe that I got it not quite with mother’s milk, but with grandmother’s milk as much as I also got it from what I studied and learned in later years. The well-known story of the non-Jew coming up first to Shammai and then to Hillel and asking to be taught Judaism whilst standing on one foot appeals to me because the answer – “Do not do to a fellow human being what you would not have done to yourself.” The rest is commentary, and go and study it- really encapsulates what it’s all about. If I had to boil Judaism down into a nutshell, and I do from time to time, for a variety of reasons, I might express it somewhat differently. Perhaps more in the words of one of the great influences on my life, though I never met him, Rabbi Marshall Meyer of B’nei Jeshurun in New York City, but the principle is not so very different. This is his take on a passage we all know from Bereshit ‘And they heard the voice of God walking in the garden toward the cool of the day; and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of God amongst the trees of the garden’. And then what happens? ‘God called out to the man and said to him: ‘Ayecha?’ ‘Where art thou?’ Ayecha?’ Marshall Meyer continues “Didn’t God really know where Adam was? The omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God had to ask where Adam was? God most certainly knew where Adam was! Adam didn’t know where Adam was. The question is asked throughout the ages, of each and every one of us, man and woman, where are you? Where am I, where are you, where are we? At every given moment of our lives, whether you believe in God or you don’t believe in God, that’s the question that perforates your being, if you dare listen. Whether it’s when you’re putting on your make-up, you’re shaving, you’re walking amazingly impressed with the turn, with the hills ablaze with colour, with the snow in the mountains, if you’ve been skiing if you have any snow. And the crunch of the ice beneath your feet, the question is always there. Where are you? I don’t know the answer for tomorrow. I have to struggle with the answer today. I cannot, nor can you, dare to hide in our respective gardens when people scream in pain. Whether you can be conservative or liberal, rightist or leftist or centrist. Circumcise your hearts and listen to the calls of the most vulnerable who are in pain and who are bleeding. They are asking you, “where are you?” That’s Rabbi Marshall Meyer. Put the two together, don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you – and ‘Ayecha’ and you have a powerful call, from the very centre of Judaism to say that tzedakah, social justice, is what it’s all about. Now we can do it in many ways. We can simply have the old tzedakah box and give our ten per cent. Nothing wrong with that. It’s a Mitzvah. But it isn’t enough. We can add to Tzedakah with g’millut chassadim, that’s going beyond tzedakah, which essentially can only be carried out by giving money. G’millut Chassidim involves going of ourselves, by personal service as a volunteer, or by offering words of comfort and consolation. By being there. We can sensitise ourselves to disadvantage, and part of g’millut chassidim the extension of simply giving tzedakah to even things up, is by volunteering to spend time with people who are the most desperate and the most disadvantaged. That’s how you hear their suffering. That’s how you empathise. That’s what drives you or should to give tzedakah, to go and get others to give, to try change the world. For we can also listen to the words of the prophets, appalled as they were by what our ancestors were doing ritually – the ritual observances were perfect – whilst they ignored pain and hunger and poverty and despair. Many of us read this on Yom Kippur in synagogue, for very good reason: “is not this the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” Is 58:6 Or, also from Isaiah:, “Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the cause of the widow.” Is 1:17 But what does it mean? We know about deprivation. We’ve heard the appalling statistics this week about homelessness in the UK. The average age of death of a homeless person in the UK, is 47 years old and even lower for homeless women at just 43 compared with 77 for the general population. Ayecha? Where are you? What are we going to do about it? We know about Sukkot, we know about temporary shelter. That’s what we build, with our Sukkah. What are we going to do about it? We also know about destitute asylum seekers and we know how the term asylum seeker has become a term of abuse in school playgrounds. Some of our synagogues, mine included, now run drop-in centres for asylum seekers, and a good thing too. We’ve got some fellow feeling. Most of us are descendants of refugees, asylum seekers, or economic migrants. That’s how we got here. So we can share a bit of the experience. But do we do enough, given how little they have? We do not. Ayecha? Where are you? Or take this Christmas today – when we are here in warmth and you could say it’s too hot and plenty at Limmud. There are volunteering opportunities in abundance – people are helping in homeless shelters up and down the country. Jews volunteer to help Christian staff drive to hospitals and care homes. There’s a lot of that, we’re quite good about it. But what about afterwards? How many of us are deeply involved in homelessness, in hospital visiting – especially the very old and very lonely even in our own communities, let alone beyond in the dark days of February and March? How often have I heard staff saying at Jewish Care, Nightingale, Harmmerson or Sundridge or elsewhere that there are old people living in their homes who have few or no visitors? And that’s let alone old people living in their own homes, when there’s an estimate that 60,000 old people will have been totally alone over Christmas, in London, over this particular Christmas. Why are we not doing more? Some may literally have no family and others will have lost touch with them. But what’s wrong with us? Why are so few Jews being volunteers for Contact the Elderly, for instance, and hosting a few older people to tea once a month, a brilliant, and you might say, simple endeavour. Ayecha? Where are you? Where are we? Or take, and I’m not talking about the politics in Israel in general, but take in Israel and we were just hearing about it earlier the trafficked women who are trafficked into Israel. Where actually there has been too little political will to do something about it. Why are we not making more fuss? Indeed as we should be making a fuss for the 52%. Well what about worldwide, with modern slavery, reinvented in different forms? But we know the heart of the slave and we know the heart of the stranger, because we were slaves in the land of Egypt. Or take a very Jewish issue, mental ill health. We have slightly above probably the national average in incidence for mental ill health in our community, for all sorts of different reasons. Why are there not more of us? Volunteering in hostels and voluntary groups, for people with severe mental illness? Ayecha? Where are you? Where are we? So for me, Judaism is about a cry of the conscience – the conscience being God’s voice within us. And then we get the detail, and that’s what makes Judaism so brilliant. Judaism tells us in many ways how to listen and say ‘Hineni’ – I’m here. It tells us in Maimonides, 8 orders of charity, from giving grudgingly to giving so the poor person never needs to ask again, and is self-sufficient. It tells us how we must help our ‘brother’(and I’d include sister myself), and in Sifra it even tells us that even if the person you help falls again and again you continue to have to help them and you have to bring him to live with you, which some of us might find a bit hard. And what does that say about some of the really difficult people in our community and beyond, the drug addicts, the obsessive compulsive disorder people, the alcoholics, and in our own community in large numbers, the addicted gamblers. But it’s not only about Ayecha? Franz Rosenzweig one of the great philosophers of Judaism, argued that with human beings a real love of fellow human beings, led them to redemption in the here and now – in this life. He also argued that in Christianity the relationship between God and humans is marked by love alone, whereas for us Jews it’s marked by law as well as love. And that’s why we have to study our law with seriousness and application, to discover how better to love other human beings. And that’s the point. That’s why Rabbi Meyer was right to say it doesn’t matter where you sit on the religious spectrum or even the political spectrum. ‘Ayecha?’ applies to us all. The answer ‘ Hineni’ ‘Here I am’ should be immediate. What Judaism then gives us is the how. How we should help. What our obligations are. How to give, even if you are poor yourself. How to impose a discipline upon yourself that makes it more likely that you will give. Shabbat. What we eat kosher, vegetarian or whatever. How we celebrate festivals. How we think about our day, our week, our year. That’s how we form a relationship and maintain it with God. That enables us to hear the call when it comes. ‘Ayecha?’ Says God, Where are you? The answer is ‘Hineni’. ‘I am here’, and I am ready to serve, and through God serve humanity and work for tikkun olam, making the world, God’s creation, a better place. The rest is commentary. And I’ll leave you all to it.

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