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A Light to the Nations?
Last uploaded : Wednesday 20th Mar 2002 at 16:17
Contributed by : Rabbi Dr John D Rayner CBE


News "Behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the peoples" (Isa. 60:2). That verse, from the Prophet of the Exile who provided our Haftarah, clinches as well as any the gloom that has enveloped us ever since the catastrophe of just over two weeks ago. In this global darkness, do we, the Jewish people, assembled in our synagogues on this Day of Atonement, have any light to offer to humanity? If the answer is yes, it is surely to be found in the timeless teaching of the Hebrew Prophets.

What is that teaching? It has three aspects, but fundamentally it is that the Creator of the universe is a moral God, and therefore righteousness is what God demands. Everything else ? including, for instance, religious ritual ? pales into insignificance compared with it. Ethical values are the only ultimate values.
"I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assembliesŠBut let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:21, 24). That is a recurring theme in Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah and Jeremiah, and in the prophecy of the Second Isaiah we have just heard. God, he says in so many words, doesn?t care one bit whether we fast, but cares profoundly how we treat our fellow human beings (Isa. 58:1-7).

The message is loud and clear, and imposes on us a twofold obligation: to conquer evil and to establish goodness. The terrorist assault on the United States was as evil as anything that has happened in recent times - and seemed even more so because we watched it happening before our very eyes on our television screens. In the hatred that inspired it, and the contempt for life and indifference to suffering it showed, it made us realise as almost never before how utterly merciless, terrifying and destructive evil can be.

There is therefore an inescapable duty to take strong action against the perpetrators and those who have in any manner aided and abetted them. And not only for the sake of justice. For this new phase in the ghastly history of terrorism holds unprecedented dangers for us all. The real possibility that terrorists willing to commit suicide may yet get hold of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, poses a threat to the very survival of humanity. Not only as a matter of justice, therefore, but for the sake of our own safety and that of generations to come, it is imperative that prompt and resolute action be taken. For both reasons, the prophetic exhortation, šbrqm [rh tr[bw, "You shall eradicate the evil from your midst" (which runs like a refrain through the book of Deuteronomy ? a Prophetic book) needs urgently to be heeded.

But this worthy aim can easily get mixed up with other motives such as pride and revenge, which masquerade as moral principles but are really nothing of the sort, and which would never have had the approval of the Prophets. On the contrary, they constantly inveighed against nationalistic power politics. And these extraneous motives could easily prompt rash actions that only compound the evil by inflicting still more innocent suffering and creating new and even greater dangers. Happily, the rhetoric we have heard from George Bush, Tony Blair and other world leaders has so far been relatively restrained and free of jingoism. Let us hope and pray that they and their advisers will keep cool heads in the days and weeks to come.

In any case, it is one thing to conquer evil and another to establish goodness. That is a much bigger task. It requires education; the teaching of love instead of hate; of moderation instead of fanaticism; of generosity instead of greed. And it requires the application of these principles to international politics and global economics, to the healing of the divisions between rich and poor, and between East and West.

Furthermore, only the accomplishment of this bigger task can deliver real security. The Œwar against terrorism? is an immediate necessity, but it will never be completely won until goodness is established as the chief motivating force of individual and collective human behaviour. Until then we shall live under a constant threat to our very existence. And that fact, frightening as it is, should also give an extra edge of urgency to all our efforts in the area of moral education.

These are some of the things which the Hebrew Prophets, if they were alive today, would surely be saying to humanity as a whole. But what about ourselves, the Jewish people? To what extent is the Prophetic spirit alive among us today, and to what extent, therefore, are we in a fit state to transmit it to humanity?

In many ways the Prophetic emphasis on ethics has continued to influence us. But it has also become obscured. It has become obscured by the Rabbinic penchant for legislation, which makes little distinction between ethics and ritual. And it has become obscured in recent times by a renewed preoccupation with ritual. Nowadays even American Reform rabbis tend to dismiss the Prophetic critique of ritual; to insist that the ritual Mitzvot, because they make us distinctive, are especially to be stressed; and to think that it is ever so virtuous to make the rules and procedures of conversion to Judaism more stringent.

There is therefore a renewed need to assert that the Prophets meant what they said, and that the survival of a people observing a distinctive regimen of colourful, exotic rituals may be of absorbing interest to anthropologists but is of total indifference to God unless that people is, by its ethical example, Œa light to the nations? (Isa. 49:6).

But because ethical imperatives, by their very nature, transcend national boundaries, therefore the teaching of the Prophets was one, not only of righteousness but also, secondly, of universalism. And in this respect there has been in the Jewish world a marked retrenchment. The renewed emphasis on ritual is part of that, since rituals are valued precisely because they set us apart from others. But it is in relation to the State of Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians that the retrenchment is most noticeable. In that regard, the predominant mood of the Jewish people ? to judge from innumerable propaganda leaflets, solidarity rallies, and letters to the press ? is a euphoria of self-pity, self-justification and self-righteousness.

A year ago, so the official story goes, Barak made a generous peace offer to the Palestinians, which they turned down; therefore the current stalemate is entirely their fault and Israel is completely blameless. They should have accepted the offer. Instead, they have resorted to violence, which is inexcusable. The suicide bombings, in particular, are utterly to be condemned, and, after what happened in America, the whole world is beginning to understand what the Israelis have suffered and how right they have been to take tough counter-measures. Perhaps above all, the hatred for Israel instilled into Palestinian children is unforgivable.

Most of that is true, but it is only part of the truth, the part Israel?s Government and the Anglo-Jewish Establishment want us to hear. It is also true that even after the Oslo Agreement, and especially under Barak, Israel, in defiance of world opinion, actually stepped up the building and expansion of settlements in the occupied territories; and that by its savage reprisals, its collective punishments, its confiscation of Palestinian land, bulldozing of their homes, cutting down of their fruit trees, and expropriation of their water supplies, Israel, even while engaged in peace talks, has done just about everything possible to undermine whatever faith the Palestinians might have had in the peace process, and driven them to desperation.

And it is likewise true that, though Barak?s offer was generous in relation to what Israeli public opinion was willing to go along with, it fell far short of what the Palestinians felt in justice entitled to demand.

In short, the myth of Jewish blamelessness cannot be sustained. It gives me no pleasure to say that, but it is the truth, and from this pulpit, I trust, the truth will always be spoken even when it is unpalatable.

The Hebrew Prophets would have been deeply shocked by our people?s present mood of self-righteousness, for they were essentially critics of their own society. The opening verse of our Haftarah sets the tone: "Cry aloud, do not hold back, let your voice resound like a trumpet; declare to My people their transgression, and to the house of Jacob their sins" (Isa. 58:1). And they heaped scorn on the false prophets who fraudulently fed the people?s complacency, saying "Peace, peace, when there is no peace" (Jer. 6:14).

Happily, however, the Prophetic spirit is not completely dead among us. The State of Israel, in its Proclamation of Independence, explicitly invoked Œthe principles of liberty, justice and peace as conceived by the Prophets of Israel?, and in many ways, though not all, it has lived up to that high ideal.

When in October 1953 an Israeli army unit under the command of Ariel Sharon massacred sixty-nine men, women and children in the Jordanian village of Qibya, only one rabbi in Anglo-Jewry, to my knowledge, had the decency, the courage, and the Prophetic spirit, to condemn the atrocity, and that was my predecessor Rabbi Leslie Edgar ? a fact I am very proud of, as I hope we all are. (The only public support he received was from the then editor of the Jewish Chronicle.)

And today, too, there are Prophetic voices in the Jewish world. They are theologians like Michael Lerner and Marc Ellis in the United States, and writers like Amos Oz and David Grossman in Israel. They are the signatories of the Joint Israeli Palestinian Declaration under the heading, ŒNo to Bloodshed, No to Occupation; Yes to Negotiations, Yes to Peace?. They are organisations like Peace Now and Netivot Shalom, and, not least, Rabbis for Human Rights, comprising some scores of Israeli Progressive, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis. Among their plans for the future, one you should know about is that next Tu bi-Sh?vat (28 January 2002) they intend to plant 30,000 olive trees to replace those which Israeli forces and settlers have destroyed in Palestinian land. That will be a truly Prophetic action!

Above all, there is again a cease-fire, offering one more chance to negotiate a peace settlement which both sides can accept with dignity and honour. Let us hope and pray that the chance will not be missed.

Today, of all days, is not a day for self-righteousness. It is, on the contrary, a day for self-criticism. It is not a time for pointing a finger at the faults of others, though they are many and grievous, but for confronting our own. It is a time for listening to the voice of the Prophets, which challenges us to say and do, not what is popular or fashionable or comforting, but what is right. It may not seem expedient, but then it is another key principle of the Prophets, and the third element in their teaching, that what is morally right, though it may seem inexpedient at the time, will ultimately prove to have been expedient, too.

And here, I submit, lies the resolution of the dilemma Rabbi David Goldberg** posed to us last night: that we seem to have to choose between loyalty to our people and loyalty to God. Did not the Prophets love their people? Yet they castigated its leadership. Did anybody ever love the Jewish people more passionately than Jeremiah? Yet he condemned their sins ? and for that very reason ? all the more passionately. So, too, those who are urging Israel to adopt policies that are morally right ? policies of restraint, moderation, compromise, and respect for the rights of the Palestinians, policies conducive to peace ? do not love their people less than those who applaud the present sterile, hard-line, tit-for-tat policies which lead nowhere except to an endless cycle of more and more violence and counter-violence, and ultimately total disaster: they love their people more, because on the policies they advocate the very survival of the State of Israel and of its people will ultimately depend. They are not worse Zionists: they are better Zionists!

At any rate, if we Jews have anything significant to say to humanity in this hour of darkness, it is surely this threefold teaching of the Prophets: that righteousness is everything; that it is universal, transcending nationalism; and that what is morally right will ultimately prove to have been politically expedient. If we wish to be a light to the nations, that must be our message. And if the message is heeded, a time will surely come when the people that walked in darkness will see a great light? (Isa. 9:1) Bimherah b?yameynu. Amen.

(The Liberal Jewish Synagogue, Yom Kippur Morning, 27 September 2001)


** If JewishComment readers would like to read Rabbi Dr David J Goldberg's controversial High Holy Day sermon please go to the website of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue: http://www.ljs.org


Jewish Comment is grateful to Rabbi Rayner for allowing us to reprint his sermon in its entirety.


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