Rabbi Richard Jacobi
With the arrival of parshat Lech Lecha, the stories of Bereishit move from the universal to the particular, though they always keep the universal in mind. The name of the portion is the instruction from God to Avram and Sarai to “Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house, to the land that I will show you …” (Gen. 12:1).
Knowing that I would be writing this Thought For The Week, the question running around my mind has been: “Where would I go, and what would I do, because God told me?” That I was pondering this while on a short course at St. George’s House, Windsor Castle gave the question additional resonance. Being at our late Queen’s resting place, staying so close to a seat of civil and religious power, and then debating the relationship between world faiths and human rights, all created a swirling storm of thoughts, matched by the rainstorms that came and went while we were there.
We all know that people have done wonderful things because of what their God ‘told’ them, just as we all know that people have done terrible things based on the same prompt. The monarchs whose resting place I visited while at Windsor included Henry the Eighth, whose abuse of his own religious and political powers is so well known. Sadly, we can see parallels in this twenty-first century of people whose interpretation of their “divine” instruction places their faith in direct opposition to the human rights of others.
Here in this country, we can see this in the treatment of refugees, especially the fire-bombing at Dover and the awful conditions at the Manston Camp. I condemn those who state such refugees have no right to complain about their treatment and the conditions in which they are held, as was stated in the House of Commons on Monday.
This week in Israel, we have seen a growth of support for the Religious Zionism Party, whose leaders can, through their own words and deeds, be justifiably described as racist, misogynistic and homophobic. I look on in horror at the prospect of those leaders being given roles in the next government.
We all know that the religious texts of most faiths, including Judaism, can be used to justify such words and deeds as I have just alluded to. Elsewhere, there is plenty of justification in such texts for the views that we as Liberal Jews will tend to hold. So, is it heresy to subject the texts of faith traditions to a sifting through such a text as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Would we be serving ‘false gods’ if we did this?
I’d argue that this is categorically not heretical, indeed it is essential. Our understanding of Judaism, and any sound interpretation of a faith’s teachings and injunctions, has to be justifiable from outside that faith as well as inside it. I would suggest, having explored it while at Windsor, that the UN Faith for Rights initiative offers a template for comparison, through its 18 Commitments. (You can find them here, and I caution you that they are somewhat wordy! The wider context is introduced at https://www.ohchr.org/en/faith-for-rights).
There are plenty of other templates that could be used to validate or challenge what we might sometimes think our “God” is telling us to do. Here, I use the inverted commas to serve as a warning that it might not be a Divine or divine message we are heeding. I also know that many readers of this, like me, feel discomfort with or would outright reject any sense of “God told me to do this.” The truth for me is that whatever our motivating, compelling, instructing, or guiding force, we have to allow always for the possibility that we are wrong in some way or form.
The inherent problem for all those who agree with what I’ve just said is that those who claim certainty often speak with more unbridled force and passion. They garner praise, support, and votes for being charismatic, or for providing clear (often simplistic) answers to the many problems that modern societies face.
How effectively people of ‘good faith’ respond to the threat posed by people of ‘bad faith’ is going to be the challenge of this century. Arguably, it’s the challenge of every century! We need to understand parshat Lech Lecha as a message to leave our homes and our comfort zones and get out into the world. The messages we have about freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, about hospitality to strangers (at the start of next week’s parasha), about the common good, about just treatment of the poorest and weakest in society, about loving our neighbours and hope not hate, are all vital ones.
We can no longer hold such messages as being self-evident to all, so we all need to state them and live them out as if new. Every time we do this, I feel we merit the blessing promised to Avram and Sarai two verses later, that “through (us) all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
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