Judaism

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ICCJ President’s Greetings for Pesach and Easter

Life goes on and what seemed as abnormal has become ”the new normal.”

It is human to celebrate. To nature and animals, all days look the same. It is human to give each day its special character. Actually, the purpose of all religion is to make us more humane and remember that human means godlike.

Jews and Christians celebrate holidays because, in separate ways, we share a common history. When we celebrate Pesach and Easter, it’s because God has done something new in our lives. Celebration is communal but no Holiday has caused as much conflict between Jews and Christians as this. To Jewish-Christian dialogue it’s a constant task to see how this holiday unites us more than it divides.

Both Pesach and Easter are stories of beginnings. It all starts with Pesach and Easter. You cannot define yourself as a Jew or a Christian without considering them. In this way the holidays define who we are.

This is my last greeting as President of the ICCJ. It’s been a privilege to write these greetings. As everything else, all good things come to an end. I will still be engaged in dialogue work between Jews and Christians, doing what I can and I hope we soon can meet again.

I write this greeting on behalf of the Executive Board of the ICCJ and the General-Secretary Anette Adelmann, with the staff of the Martin-Buber-House in Heppenheim, Germany. Working with you has been wonderful, a pleasure. Still, our co-work will go on but in other ways.

I wish all a Happy and Blessed Pesach and Easter!

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A Holocaust Memorial Day Like No Other

Guest blog by Nathan Eddy, Interim Director of the Council of Christians and Jews, taken from the 22 January CCJ Newsletter

cb0debf7-3ae7-4bc4-ac0c-6e67444d282fHolocaust Memorial Day, observed across the country on January 27th, will be unique. A year ago, I remember queueing in the rain to get into Methodist Central Hall in Westminster for the national ceremony and seeing friends and colleagues there. This year we gather in front of laptops, tablets and phones to remember, to hear stories of survival and loss, and to be together. And HMD is different this year for another reason; last year, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, was the last major anniversary at which survivors will likely be present. We now enter a new era of commemoration, with new ways of remembering, educating and gathering together.

During lockdown I was helped by reading the poetry of a Holocaust survivor, Dan Pagis, whom I first encountered on a CCJ Yad Vashem seminar. Born in 1930 near the Bukovina area of present-day Romania, Pagis lost most of his family in the Shoah, was interned in a concentration camp, and emigrated to Israel as a teenager. There he learned Hebrew for the first time and, remarkably, became one of the prominent Israeli poets of his generation and a world expert in Medieval Jewish literature. Life went on after the horrific events he experienced as a young person, but haunting and ambiguous images fill his poetry. ‘I was a shadow’ — a tzel, in his Hebrew original — he writes in his poem ‘Testimony’. Yet perhaps the very act of sharing his testimony is his poetry’s power — at least, it is for me.

The theme this year chosen by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust is ‘Be the light in the darkness’. For survivors of the Shoah and other genocides, as was the case for Pagis, the shadows are present even in the light of liberation and a conflict’s ending, and this testimony of survivors can challenge those of us who want an easy ‘happily ever after’. As may be the case in the current pandemic, trauma changes lives forever. Yet there is a curious power, a healing power, in hearing testimony and reflecting on lives like Pagis’. The testimony of survivors can be a light in the darkness for us all, giving us courage to be a light in our communities today. That light will be shining brightly on Wednesday, encouraging and empowering us all.

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Lord Jonathan Sacks

From the blog of Sr Isabel Smyth  SND – Interfaith Journeys  –  Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

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Last week Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks died at the age of 74 which is not so old in this day and age.  Although it was known that he was ill his death came as a shock to everyone who knew him, either in person or through his writings.  He was a highly respected leader within his community and a great champion for Judaism but was also a towering public figure in national and civic life. He was a regular contributor to the BBC’s Thought for the Day; he sat in the House of Lords; he wrote over thirty books; he was a popular public speaker who affirmed the spiritual dimension of life and the place of religion in public life. He had a message for us all. But he was also a human being, a man who dearly loved his wife and family and perhaps the most moving tribute of all was that of his youngest daughter spoken with heartfelt sorrow and love at his funeral which had to be small because of Covid restrictions.

Two books in particular that I found helpful and inspiring were the Dignity of Difference and The Home We Build Together, both of which were a reflection on civic life and a call to face up to our responsibility for the future of the world and the society in which we live. They taught us to appreciate diversity and our unique identities within the context of a common civic identity. They taught us how to hold the tensions between the values and beliefs of our individual faiths and a secular world, all the time seeking and working for the common good.    Rabbi Sacks was unashamedly and proudly Jewish. The platform from which he spoke was that of Jewish wisdom and theology but he communicated it in such a way that it spoke to the human condition and was seen as relevant to national and civic life. This is a gift I think. Religion has a lot to offer the public sphere but is often dismissed or ignored because its relevance is not obvious or understood. Those of us, like myself, who are not Jewish heard echoes of what he said in our own faith and were encouraged to reflect on how we too could speak about our faith and values in a meaningful and relevant way. This is necessary if we are to show the world that religion, which is considered by many to be problematic, can indeed by part of the solution.

The Dignity of Difference was first published in 2002 and republished twice that same year – a sign of how popular it was. Coming as it did in the aftermath of 9/11 and the talk of a clash of civilisations it was “a plea for tolerance in an age of extremism” and suggests that “One belief, more than any other…is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals. It is the belief that those who do not share my faith—or my race or my ideology—do not share my humanity.”

The answer to this, Rabbi Sacks suggest in many of this talks, is to extend our understanding of the ‘we’ to include the ‘them’ and to recognise our common humanity -but not at the expense of denying difference. Diversity is a gift of God that can expand our horizons and enrich both our personal and social life.  However if we are to live together in peace and harmony we have to make space for one another. We have to recognise one another, learn from one another and above all engage in dialogue with one another.

 The Home We Build Together gives us a vision of how to do this. We cannot live in society as though the dominant culture is like a country house into which others are welcome as long as they conform to the host’s ways nor in a culture that is like a hotel in which we might recognise one another in passing but each living in its own silo, separated from all the others. Rather we should recognise our common home in that we are citizens of both a nation and a world that supports the future and wellbeing of us all. The very last statement in the book says it all:  “What then is society? It is where we set aside all considerations of wealth and power and value people for what they are and what they give. It is where Jew and Christian, Muslim and Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh, can come together, bound by their commonalities, enlarged by their differences. It is where we join in civil conversations about the kind of society we wish to create for the sake of our grandchildren not yet born. It is where we share an overarching identity, a first language of citizenship, despite our different second languages of ethnicity or faith. It is where strangers can become friends. It is not a vehicle of salvation, but it is the most effective form yet devised for respectful coexistence. Society is the home we build together when we bring our several gifts to the common good.”

If the coronavirus and the threat of climate change have taught us anything it is that we surely share a common density, are facing common problems – problems that will only be solved if we work together to change our ways and thus  safeguard this precious home we share together. Rabbi Sacks remains a living inspiration to us all.

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Simchat Torah – an affair of the heart

Why Simchat Torah is an affair of the heart

By Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner

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 .[1] 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.[2]

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

[1] 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”.

[2] The Lulav and Etrog are the four species of plants which are held together and waved in ritual of Sukkot.

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High Holy Days

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.

Fr Charles CoyleIn 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.

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Solitude

From the Blog of Sr Isabel Smyth – Interfaith Journeys

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.

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Jewish Christian Pilgrimage

By The Revd Dr Nathan Eddy, taken From the Newsletter of CCJ.

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.

The Revd Dr Nathan Eddy
Deputy Director 

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Friend or Foe?

Friend or Foe?

From Interfaith Journeys – The Blog of Sr Isabel Smyth SND

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?

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A Lent Reflection – Jewish-Christian Relations during Holy Week

Guest Blog by Dr Clare Amos, Taken from the April Newsletter of the Council of Christians and Jews
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

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Spring Festivals

By Sr Isabel Smyth

A global virus has done what we human beings have been incapable of doing – reducing carbon emissions. For the first time in a long time Beijing is without pollution and citizens can see blue sky, the canals of Venice are clear and fish and dolphins are returning. Is coronavirus the cosmos reaching out for equilibrium and will we humans learn from it?  So much of ordinary life has changed but nature goes on and there are signs of spring everywhere. Even religious services have been cancelled but there’s still much to celebrate in religion. Recently there’s been a rash of religious festivals, all around the 21st March.

On 21st March the Baha’i community ended their nineteen day fast with the festival of Naw Ruz, which is also the Iranian and Zoroastrian New Year. Taking place, as it does, at the spring equinox it symbolises the new life of spring and is associated with the Most Great Name of God. Sending greetings to the Baha’i community, Bishop Brian McGee, chair of the Bishops’ Committee for Interreligious Dialogue commented that there is a lesson for all of us in this, especially those of us who are believers: “For those of us who are believers the sovereignty of God is a counterpoint to the material and consumerist culture of our times.  Coronavirus, climate change and its consequences, conflicts between and within nations are indicative of a world in which humanity has forgotten that life is a gift, that we are all brothers and sisters sharing a common home with a responsibility of caring for creation and one another for the sake of future generations.”  Shall we be more aware of this when the present crisis is over?

Another spring festival which lasts over two days is the Hindu festival of Holi. Like all Hindu festivals there are stories attached to them – one is of a demon Holika who was burned on a pyre in place of Prahlahda who insisted on worshipping the God Vishnu. Another is of the Lord Krishna who being worried that Radha would not accept his blue skin was encouraged by his mother to rub any colour he wished on Radha’s face. So the carnival atmosphere during Holi involves the lighting of bonfires to symbolise the overcoming of evil and throw coloured paint and powder over one another. I was in India once during Holi. We danced round the bonfire but I retired well before the others who danced and sang all through the night. The next day we were bombarded with coloured water bombs that seemed to come out of nowhere. This year Holi was celebrated at the beginning of March, before the virus kept people off the streets.

At the same time as the Hindu community were celebrating Holi, the Jewish community were  celebrating the carnival festival of Purim.  Purim recalls how Queen Esther saved the Jewish community when the wicked Haman had convinced King Ahaseurus of Persia to issue a decree ordering their extermination. The story is told at Purim when the Book of Esther is read through twice in the synagogue. Every time the name Haman is mentioned it’s drowned out with rattles and hooters and boos from the congregation. Children also wear fancy dress and there’s a sense of hope and celebration, a bond of unity within the community and a belief in survival in the face of what in the story seemed a hopeless situation.  I’m sure this festival has taken on added significance since the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews. It’s a lesson for all of us that life can come out of death, that hope can overcome despair, that communities that stand together can and do survive.

Last year these three festivals fell on the same day. This year Purim and Holi were held earlier in March while Naw Ruz was celebrated on 20th. They’ve a certain amount in common, being Spring festivals. Purim and Holi have a carnival atmosphere and all of them a sense of new beginnings, a sense that light can follow darkness. As the world faces these dark days of isolation and quarantine their message can give us hope and confidence that this too will pass, that a new life is possible, that we will one day be able to celebrate once again with family and friends.

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