This blog has been taken from an article written in 2012, published by The Jewish Chronicle. Simchat Torah is the Jewish holiday that celebrates and marks the conclusion of the annual cycle of public Torah readings, and the beginning of a new cycle. Its Hebrew name translates as “rejoicing with/of the Torah”
At Simchat Torah, death and life are linked by just two beats of the heart. Our Torah reading cycle reaches its final episode, the death of Moses. A single heartbeat later, we are once again “In the beginning”, as we restart the cycle, affirming life through Bereshit, the Creation of the world.
This beating of the heart is the seam that welds together the end and the beginning: our tradition points out that the final letter of Devarim (Deuteronomy) is lamed and the first letter of Bereshit (Genesis) is bet, which in Hebrew together spell lev, meaning heart.
We celebrate the Torah cycle by re-enacting circles in our customary rituals. We carry the Torah, dancing and singing, circling our synagogues seven times in hakafot, processions . Our circling is reminiscent of the seven circles at a wedding, the joining together of a couple which continues the work of Creation, completed in seven days.
The symbols of Simchat Torah are direct and free of distraction. We cast aside the intense inward focus of the High Holy Days. Our focus is joy, fasting rescinding into the past. We also leave behind the trappings of Succot that were our companions for a week — no lulav, no fragrant etrog.
We suspend the yearning for Zion and lavish no attention on the Land of Israel. Our focus is unashamedly narrow: only one subject, only one symbol — arteries scribed in black ink on parchment, forming our Torah.
The emphatic change of mood contrasts sharply with the intensity of the Days of Repentance and with the sense of vulnerability engendered by sitting in makeshift shacks during Succot. It is a moment of release: we face the magnificence of taking all the Torah scrolls out of the ark at the same time, the parading of the Torah scrolls to sing and dance with them.
Simchat Torah affirms that our introspection surrounding the Days of Repentance leads us to joy rather than to melancholy. Sometimes we may need to draw on hidden resources of strength to be so upbeat and to dance and sing but this is the command: to be joyous.
We parade our Torah scrolls, which are our real riches, and proudly place them on show. It is the Torah that is honoured, that is kissed, turned to, passed lovingly round. The rabbis and synagogue dignitaries mostly play second or third fiddle.
The interwoven moment of endings and beginnings, the heartbeat between death and life ends this period of the year and shoves us forward: we may have looked inwards, repented, made our peace with ourselves and with our own understanding of our Creator, but that is not enough.
Moses’s journey may have ended just short of entering the Promised Land but the shove towards creation and re-creation (not recreation) means that we cannot rest. We have prayed, fasted, sung, but that isn’t it. We aren’t let off the hook. Let us celebrate: our circle is still turning.
Until this month, Laura Janner-Klausner was the Senior Rabbi for Reform Judaism
 A ritual in which people walk or dance around a specific object, generally in a religious setting. The word literally translates as “to circle” or “going around”.
 The Lulav and Etrog are the four species of plants which are held together and waved in ritual of Sukkot.
While the Jewish community are celebrating the High Holy Days Fr Charles Coyle of our committee reports on a meeting of Christian and Jewish clergy.
In March this year I was due to attend a Rabbi-Clergy Conference in London, that would have addressed issues facing Christian and Jewish communities today, and, of course, the conference was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In its place the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) organised a zoom meeting for Jewish and Christian leaders where participants could hear from pastoral leaders and academics and reflect together on the creative ways Jewish and Christian communities are responding to these unprecedented times. We were welcomed to the zoom meeting by Bishop Michael Ipgrave, who is the Anglican Bishop of Lichfield and chair of the CCJ.
The first speaker of the meeting was Rabbi David Mason of the Muswell Synagogue in London. He began his presentation by reiterating that in the Jewish faith all Jews are responsible one to the other, and in the other, which can otherwise be called the feeling of continuity. Rabbi Mason reminded us that we live by being social, and certainly during the lockdown we had to learn how to continue to be a community online. For our communities though we will be seen, by some, as someone to be annoyed at, but during these difficult days we must remind ourselves that we are only human, and in need for care as well. Rabbi Mason believed every faith leader should have some form of supervision, such as regular meetings where we can discuss our current situation, any enriching or difficult experiences, he himself told us that he has therapy every week.
How do we now come out of lockdown? He suggested we have review meetings in our communities, to continue the sense of connection, where a whole range of contributions are sought and encouraged, this will give the review meetings a sense of authenticity.
Reflections can also be posted out to people who do not use the internet, so that they feel included as important members of the community. We really need to learn from this experience, one of the steepest learning curves for most people has been the use of social media, including the plethora of meeting apps; how can we continue to use these platforms in the post covid world? We have to release that there is simply no alternative, that these platforms have become necessary parts of our work. It is encouraging to see how many people are adapting to them and using them successfully.
We next heard from Dr Alana Vincent an Associate Professor of Jewish Philosophy Religion and Imagination at the University of Chester, who reminded us that communities have been through these experiences before and where a need arises there is always a response. She highlighted the First World War prayer for the dead, which was reintroduced to the Church of England prayer Book during those extraordinary times. Dr Joshua Edelman of Manchester Metropolitan University was the final main speaker of the meeting, and he pointed out that ritual change happens, but it is not often controlled, and innovations are not being developed as well as they could be, and in order to best effect these innovations constant dialogue is essential.
the CCJ met once again in July for another meeting, this time the title was: Living with Lament: Resources for faith leaders in time of reconstruction. The chair of the meeting Rev Nathan Eddy a Deputy Director of CCJ, pointed us to a website which may be of use: https://tragedyandcongregations.org.uk/ One of the speakers, Revd Dr Carla Grosch-Miller of the United Reformed Church, talked about trauma as a whole-body experience, and underlined the necessity of being present to what is going on in our body. We also need to remember and be sensitive to the fact that the same experience will not affect people in the same way. Many members of our community will be experiencing the effects of trauma, and she pointed out that trauma breaks the connection with our thinking processes, leading to anxiety and stress. An important way to deal with this is to name our griefs, and thus allow ourselves to recover. One of the things we are all going through presently, not just faith communities, is what she called collective trauma. This can cause a sense of helplessness, powerlessness and shattered assumptions, which may take us two to five years to recover from and is based upon research work done with communities who have suffered natural disaster. She then described the phases of collective trauma • Disillusionment phase This phase leaves us feeling tired and low • Rebuilding and Restoration phase This phase can not be made to happen, we really need to allow ourselves to grieve first.
One of the most interesting points made is that western culture has forgotten how to lament, and we really need to regain a capacity to lament. Western civilisation was motoring along accomplishment after accomplishment, thinking we no longer needed a sense of lamentation; well we are now realising that we need it after all. It’s important also to note that lamenting is a primary emotion, and is processional, moaning is a secondary emotion, and we can find ourselves stuck in this emotion. Its better to lament, to have a sense of proceeding.
One of the last speakers Rabbi Barry Lerer who is based in London then spoke to us about burn out and warned us not to underestimate the effects of stress; we need to set boundaries in our work. Rabbi Alexandra Wright also based in London, spoke about the process of grief, which follows is own rules and there are no short cuts. She spoke of the three weeks in Jewish culture of Lament, which helps us to move from one emotion to another, which is an important and healthy process.
Inter-religious Action and Aid and Development Agencies
byDr Duncan MacLaren: Former Executive Director of SCIAF and Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis, and member of the Scottish Bishops’ Committee for Inter-religious Dialogue. He is an Adjunct Professor at Australian Catholic University and completed a PhD on Integral Human Development in 2019. He was made a Knight Commander of St Gregory the Great by Pope Francis in 2016.
One neglected part of inter-religious dialogue is the talk and action between the Catholic aid and development agencies (for example, SCIAF in Scotland) and those from the Islamic faith tradition (such as Islamic Relief). My introduction to this topic was stark.
In my early thirties, I was looking at projects supported by SCIAF in the Islamic City of Marawi in the Philippines. One of them consisted of advocating for free water supplies for the poor. The clean water was supplied by standpipes throughout the town but they had been taken over by local warlords who were charging what was a fortune for the poor. Many people then bathed their children and themselves in Lake Marawi, and took drinking water from the lake with cows defecating just along from them. There was, obviously, a spike in waterborne diseases for all the family.
I was being accommodated by a young, activist Muslim family in their modest flat. They asked me about Catholic Social Teaching and, since they had a blackboard in their living room, I illustrated the principles, where they came from and how they helped us discern the common good. The couple said ‘But we have the same principles in the Qur’an and they told me about them. The trip was cut short when a policeman came to the door and said the ‘American’ would have to leave as his life had been threatened. I was bundled into a car while protesting I was Scottish, and taken down the mountain to a safe house in an Islamic Centre in Iligan City.
Many years later, when I was Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis in the Vatican, this informal ‘dialogue’ led to a partnership between Catholic aid agencies and Islamic Relief, a Muslim aid and development agency founded in 1984 by an Egyptian doctor, Dr Hany El-Banna, and his fellow students at the University of Birmingham. Dr El-Banna came to the Vatican twice to enquire about setting up an international network of Islamic Relief and he established what is now called Islamic Relief Worldwide, partly based on the Caritas model. Caritas Internationalis is a confederation of 165 official Catholic aid, development and social service agencies, SCIAF being the Scottish representative. They are part of the Church not an adjunct to it and work together throughout the world bringing the option for the poor to life. Given that Islamic Relief put its own religious values at its heart, just as SCIAF does, we were also a natural partner for them. SCIAF and other Caritas agencies have worked together with Islamic Relief in humanitarian programmes for earthquake survivors in El Salvador where the Catholic agencies took the lead and in a similar programme in Bam, Iran where Islamic Relief took the lead.
In Christianity, a special place is accorded the poor throughout the Old and New Testaments and becomes solidified in Jesus’ proclamation in the Last Judgement (Matthew 25) that those who stood in solidarity with the poor were ‘Blessed’ while those who did not were condemned. Similarly, in Islam, help for the poor is regarded as a central part of the faith. People who deny religion are even equated with those who neglect the poor. The Qur’an (107: 1-3) says, “Have you observed him who denies religion? That is he who repels the orphan and urges not the feeding of the needy”.
The values of both faiths are the wellspring for Catholic and Islamic aid agencies to move from orthodoxy to orthopraxis (*), as agencies do on the ground in programmes. Increased sharing of those values would enrich both. For Catholics, it would also be fulfilling what the Second Vatican Council document, Nostra Aetate(the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) encouraged the faithful to do, urging “that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding [between Catholicism and Islam] for the benefit of all, let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values”(par. 3). Catholic and Islamic aid agencies are blazing the trail.
(*) Leonardo Boff defines orthopraxis in Christological terms as “correct acting in the light of Christ” as opposed to the “correct thinking about Christ” of orthodoxy. (In Leonardo Boff, Jesus Christ Liberator: A Critical Christology of Our Time, (London: SPCK, 1990, seventh impression). 46)
A personal reflection on why we engage in interreligious dialogue – by John Stoer, Member of the Bishops’ Committee For Interreligious Dialogue
After some years of academic study on how the Catholic Church understands other religions and how, as Catholics, we should engage in dialogue with others, I have recently had the opportunity to practise what I have studied. Over the last few months, as a member of the Scottish Bishops’ Interreligious Committee, I have been privileged to engage in discussions with representatives of the Shi’a Muslim community in Glasgow and take part in two prayer services via Zoom when we came together to pray. What follows is a reflection on that experience and my study.
For me, one of the most helpful explanations as to why we should engage in dialogue is found in Pope St John Paul II’s encyclical, Redemptoris missio (1990), henceforth referred to as RM. The Pope explains that the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit can be found “not only in individuals but also society and history, peoples, cultures and religions” (RM 28). In the next paragraph he repeats his well-known but not uncontroversial statement that the interreligious meeting held in Assisi in 1986 confirms his conviction that “every authentic prayer is prompted by the Holy Spirit, who is mysteriously present in every human heart” (RM 29). Later, in the same encyclical, he gives a wonderful explanation of both the way dialogue should be conducted and its purpose. We should begin with our own tradition and convictions but should be open to understanding others “without pretense or close-mindedness, … with truth, humility and frankness, knowing that dialogue can enrich each side. There must be no abandonment of principles nor false irenicism, but instead a witness given and received for mutual advancement … and the elimination of prejudice, intolerance and misunderstandings. Dialogue leads to inner purification and conversion” (RM 56).
These words of the Pope have guided my involvement in the dialogue and prayer, and their value and insight have been confirmed by my experience. I have come away with an enhanced respect for our Muslim brothers and sisters. Their quiet dignity, wonderful courtesy and the strength of their religious convictions has had a real impact on me. I have no doubt in my mind that the Holy Spirit is present and active in them and in their religion. This does not diminish my faith in Christ, on the contrary, it encourages it. Their example has led to think about how I should change, how I should be converted, how I can be more faithful to Christ.
The firmness of their commitment puts mine to shame. The strength of their community binds them together and bridges the generational gap in a way that is not found in ours. Whilst they are keen to engage with the secular world, they are not willing to compromise on their convictions. Whilst some of these strengths, if over emphasised, can become weaknesses and even cause harm, their example should encourage us, as individuals and as a community, to reconsider how we live and even change our ways. I am not sure what I have to offer the Muslim men and women who have engaged with us. I do not know whether this dialogue has led to “mutual advancement” but I do know that it has made me more humble and has led me to question whether I am too willing to compromise with the demands of my own faith and with the secular world in which we live. My experience has confirmed Pope St John Paul II’s understanding that the ultimate aim of dialogue is “inner purification and conversion”.
If you want to build understanding between faiths then you have to build understanding between hearts. I’ve often thought that the best way to describe faith is as a love affair. Beyond their own particular theology, people of faith, it seems to me, are primarily motivated by a deep love for something which is ultimately transcendent and indescribable. Over the past few weeks I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to share in a dialogue with someone from a different faith background to explore this.
Margaret is a neighbour of mine who moved in across the road a few years ago. As we got to know each other better we discovered that we had a shared interest in the Divine and our friendship has flourished. Margaret’s faith background is Christian and mine is Baha’i. It became apparent to me that Margaret was an independent thinker with a deep knowledge of and love for the Bible and she described her relationship with Christ in a way that intrigued me. I had some knowledge of the Bible but had never studied it. I was conscious that if there was one book that speaks directly to the meaning of Jesus’ life, it was probably the Gospel of John and so I asked Margaret if we could study it together. She was delighted to do so and so for the past 7 or 8 weeks we have been meeting together for an hour on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The first few weeks were on Skype but then we were able to move to the garden (on good days and with social distancing).
The experience of reading sacred scripture and then reflecting together on it has been very powerful for both of us. Progress through the book has been slow but I now realise that that was unavoidable as we have no deadline and almost every verse of the text generates substantial comment. The study is largely led by Margaret because she has a much more extensive knowledge of the text and the context of the whole Bible. After reading 2 or 3 verses she will generally make comments and I will then ask questions and contribute comment. The conversation then often develops in exploring the implications of what we have read in our understanding and our reading of the world today.
So what have I learned and what questions are still unfolding? I have learned that John is direct and unambiguous about who Jesus is – his uniqueness, divinity and his eternal nature ;that his call to his contemporaries was rooted in the Hebrew scriptures and that he points towards a fulfilment yet to come. An example of this and a passage that really struck me is John 3:14 “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up..”. I was fascinated to learn that this is both a reference to Numbers 21:9 and a pointer to Jesus’ crucifixion and the healing and new life to humanity that that would bring. I would not have been able to glean this from a study by myself. A profound moment during the study occurred when we shared the well-known verse from Matthew – “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” – and realised that that was exactly what we were doing.
My own perspective on the text is greatly influenced by the Baha’i commentaries on the Bible which are unequivocal in their recognition of Jesus but which point to a more spiritual rather than literal interpretation of many key passages. This has presented a challenge to us reaching a common understanding at times. However, our dialogue is based on a strong friendship and a mutual respect for each other’s faiths and this has allowed both of us to gain new insights. It seems we have reached a stage beyond “agreeing to differ” into “agreeing to continue to explore”.
Currently in the middle of chapter 7, I find our studies refreshing, challenging and invigorating and I look forward to every meeting. We have tentatively planned to move next to the Revelation of St. John which probably shows a confidence verging on the foolhardy. It has stimulated my own wish to deepen more on the sacred scriptures of all faiths. However rather than just picking up the Qu’ran or the Guru Granth Sahib, I now might seek out a Muslim or Sikh to study it with.
In over 27 years of stimulating and varied interfaith activity, this has been the most profound and exciting experience I have taken part in. I think it points to the next stage that is required if faith communities are to fulfil their potential to contribute to the real peace that humanity cries out for – to work together to understand each other and find the common threads that can be woven together in common purpose.
This week I went to an online interfaith meeting on solitude, something that has been a reality for some people during the self- isolation of this coronavirus period. For everyone it’s been a difficult time. For some it’s been the separation from friends and family that’s been hard while for others it’s the juggling of working from home with home schooling and entertaining children that’s been stressful and exhausting. For others it’s been keeping alive their businesses and organisations. That has been true of the interfaith world. There have been so many possibilities to join in interfaith dialogues, not just at home but all over the world. Sometimes it has felt that there have been just too many invitations and I’ve resisted a lot of them because I’ve appreciated the space and time for solitude away from diaries and meetings. I’ve resisted filling up my time with too much busyness. Of course there have been zoom and skype contacts so that I’ve not been at all lonely.
Solitude has a place in the Christian tradition. The celibate life of nuns and priests is seen as a legitimate calling which frees a person from the responsibilities of family to devote themselves to prayer and contemplation as well as service to the community. Being without a lifelong partner means there is a certain solitude about religious life, an aloneness even when living in community though that doesn’t necessarily mean loneliness. We have probably all experienced a feeling of loneliness in the middle of a crowd and a feeling of connectedness when alone by ourselves. But not all faiths value solitude.
Judaism is a religion that focuses very strongly on the family and community. Private, individual prayer is not as important as community prayer or living according to a tradition that re-members the past and reinforces membership of a people in a particular relationship with God. The text chosen for our recent scriptural reasoning event on solitude was the story from the book of Exodus of Moses spending 40 days and nights on Mt Sinai in conversation with God and in preparation for the gift of the Torah. The interpreter on the passage asked: was Moses truly alone if he were in the presence of God and since this time of solitude was a preparation for the giving of Torah then it was directed towards community which is at the heart of Judaism.
The Muslim presenter talked about three kinds of solitude in Islam which connects well with the Jewish view: preparatory solitude, whispering solitude and forbidden solitude. All the prophets including Mohammed, Moses, Jesus spent some time in solitude, in prayer and fasting, as a preparation for revelation. For Moses this revelation was the giving of the Torah, for Mohammed it was the revelation of the Qur’an and for Jesus it was the revelation of his mission to preach the presence of the Kingdom of God amongst us. Prophets are spokespersons, mirrors that reflect the greatness of God. To be effective they need to be purified, emptied of self and totally open to God’s voice and for this, a time of intense prayer and solitude is necessary. Whispering solitude occurs at moments when we can withdraw and disconnect from all around us to enter into the inner silence of our hearts to pray, listen to God, to remember that God is closer to us than our jugular vein. Forbidden solitude is the kind of solitude that leads us to withdraw totally from family, community or society responsibilities. It’s the kind of solitude that stops us engaging with the reality of the world around us, rather than preparing us to enter into it and serve it.
The Christian presenter was from the reformed tradition which, he pointed out, didn’t, until recently, value solitude in the way that the Catholic and Orthodox traditions did. The text he commented on was the Gospel of Mark’s account of Jesus’ time in the desert after his baptism in the River Jordan. We are told in Mark that is was the Holy Spirit, the One who is said to have descended on Jesus at his baptism who drove him into the desert where he remained for 40 days and 40 nights without eating, living among the wild beasts and ministered to by angels. In the other gospels there is an account of how Jesus was tempted during that time as to his identity and mission. This side of solitude shows the reality of having to face ourselves, our fears, compromises, our masks, our desire for ease and approval. Solitude is not just about communing with God or discerning His will. It is also about facing the wild beasts within all of us – wild beasts that we happily ignore or suppress in the busyness of life. But wild beasts that we need to face and even befriend if we are to be free and loving human beings. For people of faith solitude is important but it has to be understood correctly. We’re never alone because we are in the presence of God and interconnected to all of creation; it’s good for us to face up to and be honest with ourselves; it’s important that our solitude does not lead us to disregard the world in which we live but becomes a preparation for honest and loving service, even if that be mainly through prayer. It’s an opportunity to see things afresh. Coronavirus has offered us that opportunity. I hope we haven’t squandered it.
A Guest Blog by Niamh Margaret Dillon. Niamh is a parishioner of St Augustine’s Church, Milton, and has spent lockdown on Holy Isle during her gap year. Niamh will soon go to study law at Edinburgh University.
The Holy Isle lies across from Arran, spanning only two miles in length but 1000 ft high, and is, at certain times of the year, almost totally obscured by the mist and rain typical to this climate. Unassuming as it may sound, the small island is home to something very big: a vibrant spiritual community, with a remarkably rich history that marks it as having long been a sacred space, and a place where people – irrespective of background or faith – gather together on retreat, or to work in service of the land.
When I first arrived here in early March, expecting to stay for just three weeks, talk of coronavirus was barely on the radar. My thoughts were more directed on how I was feeling to be embarking on this new and wholly unfamiliar adventure. Yet not for a moment did I expect to love and be moved by it quite so much in the way I have, nor to still be living here two months on.
Upon reflection, as someone who had only known city life till this point, it was a much bigger transition than I even realised at the time- but an apt and welcome one. The island is populated more by animals – goats, soay sheep, and Eriskay ponies – than by people and, during March, the winter retreat was ongoing; meaning, for the most part, the centre and its inhabitants were in silence. So stirring was trying to process a completely new perspective on living, it’s easy to miss how this environment gradually moulds you over just a short space of time.
There’s a concept in Buddhism of ‘voidness’- the closest English translation from the original Tibetan phrase- fully explained to me by 80-year-old Yeshe Sid, long-time resident, as well as my only fellow Glaswegian on the island.
“The best mediation is awareness,” he says. “[The principle of] voidness is recognising the empty space that exists within everything. The space that fills us is the same as the space that is in nature.”
This relates to why many choose to spend their time on Holy Isle in silence.
“By choosing not to speak, you become more mindful of your words and what you’re filling the empty space with. By not putting energy into filling this space, you allow yourself to direct your energy to your mind.”
It allows you to look within, and is rooted in mindfulness in all you do- reflecting on the question of ‘Is it meaningful?‘ It’s easy to practice this when in meditation or prayer, but exercising these principles in everyday life is the real task for all of us. I feel, without even being fully aware of this development as it was happening, I’ve gained more clarity; a heightened awareness of my own habits and thought processes.
That sense of meaningfulness is palpable in all aspects of life here. One realises the gravity of even the smallest tasks when rooted in the value of service, and carried out in honour of the island. It’s been a real lesson observing the mindfulness and heart that volunteers apply to duties such as preparing meals, cleaning, and harvesting – to name a few. It’s a special way of making everyone feel involved and part of the holistic body of the land, showing us how powerful what we do and say can be; an expression of working together towards similar, yet simple, outcomes.
I’ve delighted so much in learning from the wonderful residents of the island, exploring with them skills that are as fulfilling as they are practical, but that seem to be dying out in modern-day life. There’s something spiritually significant and rewarding about relearning trades that would have been commonplace for our ancestors. Being able to source a material back to its origins in the earth – a hat made from gathering wool the sheep begin to shed at this time of year, or planting something you know will eventually end up on your plate – is a gratifying, significant process. It is fruit of the hard work and devotion of the Holy Islanders, and now, an important aspect of living I had never before considered. Lockdown aside, so greatly was I revelling in exploring all these new practices, and in the joy of the company, I had already begun thinking about extending my stay.
The coronavirus has brought the world to a halt. It’s further exposed the fragilities and unsustainability of an already-ailing system, and brought into focus what we really value. In amongst the inevitable fear and confusion have arisen heartening stories that speak to the resilience of communities. There’s a special synchronicity apparent to me here – both on Holy Isle and ‘the outside world’, communities were the thing that came to the forefront. Whilst it seemed like everything else our society knows was crumbling, community was the thing that demonstrated both effectiveness in dealing with an unprecedented challenge, and the staying power to match. It’s been uplifting hearing stories from my own area of Glasgow, about the generosity among neighbours, and to see the endless dedication of our local food initiative and similar projects in ensuring no one falls through the cracks during lockdown.
Many people have commented how glad I must be I didn’t opt to spend my gap year in Thailand, or some similar quintessential destination, and they’re right. However, this isn’t just because of the uncanny timing in relation to the pandemic. How fortunate we on Holy Isle are to be some of the only people in Europe who can be close to one another, share meals together, and be in nature as we please is not lost on me for a moment. But, moreover, because connecting with the communities and cultures on my doorstep, in my own country, has been infinitely more fulfilling and fruitful than travelling to a far-flung destination ever could have been. Sitting so close to home just off the west coast of Ayrshire, to me this enchanting island is an exciting hub of interfaith work in Scotland. Both an accumulation and inspiring vision of all our nation can be and has to offer, epitomised in the warmth of the community – devised of residents, notably, from all walks of life and parts of the world-, the enigmatic energies that have been recurrently and inexplicably drawn to it throughout the ages, and the story of St Molaise himself – the son of Scottish and Irish royalty – who spent ten years here in solitude.
Until 1992, Holy Isle was in possession of a devoted Catholic woman who, following visions from the Virgin Mary, handed it over to the Kagyu Samye Ling Buddhist Monastery. These origins are, in themselves, magical. The co-operation and unspoken understanding between two different faiths has led to the development of a project as wonderfully blessed, healing, and steadfast as this one.
I have been so impacted by this little island. I think often of how loud life will seem when I step off the train at Glasgow Central Station- whenever that day may come- into a changed post-coronavirus world that I have been so removed from. Yet I’m assured in the knowledge that the lessons and stillness of this precious time on Holy Isle during lockdown is something I’ll carry with me always.
This week the Presidents of CCJ, the leaders of the major Jewish and Christian communities in the UK, started a pilgrimage together. Not physically together, of course; each will use a period of daily exercise to visit the ‘frontline’ of the Covid-19 crisis: a hospital, school, care home, or any place where people are putting themselves at risk. The pilgrimage hit the national press, with coverage in the Guardian..
What struck me about our first pilgrimages was the ordinariness of the hospital entrances at which the CCJ Presidents prayed. Rt Revd Colin Sinclair, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, offered a prayer outside a hospital near his home, which he visited often as a minister. Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism UK, gave thanks outside several hospitals, including one where his children were born, and prayed that a ‘deepened awareness of one another and a deepened loving kindness’ would be ‘part of our new normal’. As the government considers easing lockdown measures, the ‘new normal’ is on all our minds. What will ordinary life feel like and look like in the months to come? What will it be like to return to it?
Rabbi Lord Sacks, in a talk he gave on Yom HaShoah last month, discussed how the word for ‘crisis’ in Hebrew is ‘mashber’, a word which is also used for ‘birthing stool’ in rabbinical literature. A crisis, that is, is also a time of birth. The Targum, the ancient Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, sometimes puns on this by translating the related word ‘mishbar’, breaker or wave, as ‘birthing stool’, as in 2 Sam 22:5.
We hope the current crisis, painful as it is, can be a time of new life and rebirth; a ‘new normal’ that is compassionate, generous, and innovative. There are signs of this already. It is inspiring to hear about churches and synagogues experimenting with services online and food delivery schemes on the ground. It is heartening to see CCJ branches taking advantage of Zoom, and members’ availability, and trying out different ways of meeting online. Our Yad Vashem alumni, Israel-Palestine trip alumni and Student Leaders are all meeting online, as well, in some cases in greater numbers than ever before. Next week we look forward to an event for over 60 rabbis and clergy about pastoral care and ritual innovation in lockdown. And we are now able to easily trial a new resource on Jewish-Christian dialogue with students from around the country. Please see below for more national and local events.
A crisis can indeed be a time of new birth. The hospitals that care for the sick and dying are also the places where children are coming into the world. May the current crisis also be a time of renewal, the birth of a caring and compassionate ‘new normal’, indeed.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness”; so begins Charles Dicken’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. It feels a bit like that today as the world grapples with a deadly virus that is causing havoc to a way of life that we’ve come to take for granted. We see businesses closing, people fearing for their livelihood, families cooped up together, not being able to celebrate with their wider family the great feasts of Easter and Pesach that are taking place this week. Others stranded far from home unable to get flights back from abroad. Some glad to be safe at home but lonely and fearful, not being able to cope while others are afraid to be at home as domestic abuse incidents increase. Some are wise and keep to government guidelines set out for our safety, others are foolish and break them, some are generous in helping others while others stockpile out of fear and insecurity. And for many families there is the pain of bereavement made worse by their inability to accompany their loved ones into death or be at their funerals.
The world is in crisis and it is a global crisis with shows us so clearly how interconnected we all are and vulnerable to hidden threats such as Covid19. It’s not the first virus to cause havoc. We’ve had viruses such as SARS and Ebola before and we’ve been warned that a pandemic was likely at some point. And yet it seems to have taken us by surprise. Yes, we are in crisis. We are at a critical point, a turning point for our race if we are able to learn the lessons that this virus affords us. Many of us talk about getting back to normal, back to business as usual. But it is business as usual that has in a way introduced this virus into our societies.
Covid- 19 may have begun in Wuhan, in the ‘wet’ markets that sell live rare and exotic animals and have little concern for health and safety. But this is only one instance of how we as a race have not lived in harmony with nature. Before corona there was real talk of our extinction if we didn’t heed the instances of climate change. Now the universe has shown us how well it will survive without us. There are blue skies in Beijing, clear canals in Venice and the ozone layer is healing. Scientists tell us that the universe will always seek equilibrium and it’s sobering to see it doing that without our interference. And what if we don’t heed this warning? Well the effects of climate change could be even more deadly than the virus we’re tackling at present.
Joanna Macy talks of three approaches to our world – business as usual, the Great Unravelling and the Great Turning. We know business as usual will not work nor will we in the west be able to return to our materialistic and consumerist cultures which often sustained themselves at the expense of those in developing countries. We have known for some time that this way of life is unsustainable. We see clearly the Great Unravelling as the death toll rises, as equipment and protective clothing are in short supply, as businesses and companies go into liquidation, as our usual way of socialising is disrupted, as we are separated from our families etc – an unravelling that was already happening but not heeded and in some instances not even noticed.
But corona also shows us that in the midst of this Great Unravelling is the Great Turning. We have so many examples of people volunteering to help, nurses and doctors exhausting themselves in caring for patients, emergency hospitals being built, neighbours showing a concern and looking out for one another, contacting friends and family by telephone and through the internet, finding ways of working from home, enjoying time with our children. All this shows that when the chips are down we care about one another; that our common humanity is core and that together we can respond to a common threat; that in the face of a common crisis other identities and rivalries take second place. In places like Israel and Palestine there has even been a secession of hostilities replaced by cooperation in tackling the virus.
We have discovered a new way of working. Will we learn its lessons? When all this is over will we remember our common humanity and seek to dialogue rather than wage war, will we recognise that material possessions are not what matter in life and simplify our way of living, will we transform polluting industries and have a care for the environment in future economic growth, will we use global relations for cooperation rather than competition? The future is ours, what will we do with it?
A Lent Reflection – Jewish-Christian Relations during Holy Week
In 2020 both the Christian Holy Week/Easter and the Jewish festival of Passover fall very close in time together. It has, at least in past centuries, been a season marked by hostility, and sometimes violence on the part of Christians towards their Jewish neighbours. This was partly generated by the reading of the Passion narrative – the version in Matthew’s Gospel, which is this year’s lectionary Gospel, is especially difficult because of its suggestion that the crowd present at Jesus’ trial had willingly accepted blood guilt for Jesus’ death (Matthew 27.25). Notably that reference is not in any of the other three Gospels, and its inclusion in Matthew may owe more to Jewish-Christian tensions at the time Matthew’s Gospel was written than to historicity. The highly charged atmosphere of Holy Week led also to several instances of the ‘blood libel’ – the accusation that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood in the making of the matzot (unleaven bread) for Passover. Ridiculous as this libel may now seem, in the Middle Ages it led to several instances of deadly attacks against Jewish communities.
Of course things have now changed. At least we hope so, although recent attacks on Jewish groups have made it clear that violence is never far beneath the surface. But with such a fraught history of relationships Christians need to be very aware of Jewish sensitivities, and acknowledge that the passion provoked by the Passion can be very dangerous. Most churches have revised the traditional prayers used especially on Good Friday – so that (thankfully) we are no longer asked to pray for ‘perfidious Jews’. One of the most important steps Christianity has taken in the last 75 years is an institutional willingness to be self-critical, a step which is a prerequisite if a religion is not going to allow itself to be used as a tool in religiously motivated violence.
Nevertheless there is still ‘room for improvement’. The vexed question of Christianity’s theological relationship to Judaism rears its head during Holy Week. It is expressed most visibly in the increasingly popular practice in some Christian circles of holding what might be called a ‘Christian Seder’. This is a celebration on Maundy Thursday, or a day very close to it, normally by a church, of elements of the Jewish Passover Seder, but with Christian additions drawing on the account of Jesus’ Last Supper. Whether intentionally or not such celebrations often end up conveying to the participants a sense that Christianity has ‘superseded’ and replaced Judaism. For Jews, very conscious of being a small minority, the practice has elements of what some call ‘theological genocide’ about it, a sharp term, but one which reflects the fear among the Jewish community of the damage that well-meaning but clumsy Christians can inflict.
Dr Clare Amos Until her recent retirement Dr Clare Amos was head of the interreligious office at the World Council of Churches, Geneva, and currently Hon Director of Lay Discipleship of the Church of England Diocese in Europe