Our God makes demands of us.
As modern, Progressive Jews, we may be unaccustomed and even uncomfortable with the above statement. We relish in a world of autonomy, even permissiveness, and we associate Divine demands with another world entirely—one of unbridled zealotry and narrow-minded fanaticism.
Yet it is true, our God makes demands of us.
Our God demands our relentless pursuit of justice. ‘Tzedek tzedek tirdoff’ — ‘justice, justice you shall pursue’ (Deut. 16:20). Our God demands abiding love. ‘V’ahavta le’arecha kamocha’ — ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Lev. 19:18). Our God demands lives guided by wise lovingkindness — ‘torat chesed al leshonah’ — ‘the law of kindness shall be upon her tongue.’ (Prov. 31:26) Our God demands our unwavering commitment to peace. ‘Sur me’rah v’aseh tov, bakesh shalom v’rad’fehu’ — ‘Turn from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it’ (Psalm 34:15).
These demands take on a particular resonance these last few days in the face of the Orlando Gay Club shooting, leaving forty-nine people dead and in the wake of MP Jo Cox’s murder on the streets of Birstall, part of her constituency Batley and Spen. There is horror and tragedy at every turn of history, yet somehow, these two events affect us a little more, cut a little deeper, ring a little closer to home.
We witness the death of innocents who are much like us and who we can admire.Forty-nine members of the American LGBT community, often belonging to other minority communities, who had traversed the deserts of their own lives to find the embrace of an accepting home. Each of those lives was an account of bravery; facing down systemic homophobia, standing tall despite the relentless attacks of some politicians and religious leaders on the core of their identity and love.
And then, Jo Cox. A woman who, by all accounts, many of us can only aspire to be. She eerily fits my demographic: young mother, professional, two young children only a few years older than mine. She feels close to us for many reasons, I imagine. Her passion to stand up for the disenfranchised, her plea—supported by our own British Movement for Reform Judaism—to admit more unaccompanied child refugees. Regardless of partisan politics, many of her values are intimately Jewish values. In her maiden speech in parliament, she spoke eloquently of being ‘far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.’
She was physically close to us, here in West Yorkshire. I could have imagined meeting her, saluting her for the important work she does, chatting with her about her barge-living adventures (I too lived on a boat once, as a child) and sharing with her in the joys of parenthood. As trite and irrelevant as it may sound, I am positive many of us would have liked her. It is irrelevant in the scheme of the injustice perpetrated against her but it is helpful in a quest to humanise the victims of heinous crimes.
Our God makes demands of us because our God is ‘El Kana’, (ex. 34:14) a zealous and jealous God, for God is zealous for justice, as God reminds us through the voice of the Prophet Isaiah:
‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?’ (Is. 58:6).
It was zealotry of an entirely other kind that drove the murderers – one in the name of ISIS, the other, perhaps, if the witness testimonies hold up, in the name of far-right group Britain First.
It is easy to slip into platitudes calling for tolerance and pluralism, that contrast the work of iniquity of a few lethal fanatics with the peaceful majority.It is too tempting to rehash the old tropes of that ‘most of us – insert whatever ‘us’ means – are not like that. Most of us are unassuming, quiet folk who try to live our unassuming quiet lives on the fault-lines of history. There are vigils and hashtags and articles in print media and beyond. And all that is natural: where else do we take our grief and shock? But it’s not enough. It’s just not enough.
Our God demands more of us.
We need to be zealous. We need to be uncompromising in our commitment to justice, to an open society and to a redemptive faith. We need to not acquiescence to extremism aand fear-mongering but present a viable alternative to hatred and fear. We need to live passionately and proclaim the demands of our tradition; not to drown out the voices of others but to raise our own for a righteous and humane cause. The answer is for us to take centre stage, staking a claim in the political, religious and social discourse that has become so toxic. For every instance of race-baiting, fear-mongering, scapegoating, of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, islamophobia and homophobia, we must present another truth.
Our God makes demands of us because God loves us. There is no greater truth than that the seal of every ethical commandment in the Torah is ‘Ani Adonai’, ‘I am the Eternal.’ God’s love can be seen a transformative reality in our own lives, but for those of us who struggle to experience this in such a direct way, then at least, let God’s love be the philosophical and moral place-holder for human love.
God’s demands are made out of a loving and deep knowing that we can be better than this. The redemptive story of ethical monotheism that our tradition has proudly bequeathed to the world is a story that holds every human life as infinitely precious and eternally sacred. Whether they were dancing with joy and celebration in a Floridian gay club or working tirelessly through Oxfam and beyond to alleviate the grinding poverty that locks in so many in our world.
The sweep of the Jewish ethical tradition reminds us time and again that words can have consequences.How we frame the narrative of our lives, how we engage in the discourse of human civilisation has consequences. How we talk about other people: sexual minorities, politicians, refugees, has consequences. If we sow wind, we shall reap storm. If we do not stand up to the poisoning of our democracies, then who will? If we do not humanise our fellow, protect the vulnerable, advocate on behalf of the destitute, then who will? It is the best and only way to honour what was lost. It is the demands of our great and passionate faith. It is the life-blood of our covenant and the beating heart of our humanity.
God loves us and makes demands of us. To not relish in our own comfort and privilege, to not turn a blind eye or a cold shoulder. But to speak proudly and act wisely and build a better world, one act of loving-kindness at a time. We have so much to lose but also so much to gain.
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Image credit: Folkert Gorter