It was only a short drive but felt like a long journey. I had joined a meeting of Leeds Citizens, a local civic coalition of churches, mosques, unions, schools and other civic organisations on supporting refugees.
About twenty-five of us met in a small, squat community building dwarfed by tall, anonymous flats on a nondescript council estate. Poverty is etched in the stones here; depersonalised and tucked away from the hustle and bustle of an otherwise vibrant and booming city. We met with representatives of refugee organisations, discussed the current crisis and strategised how we could campaign for private sponsorship schemes, not unlike the famous Kindertransport that saved so many Jewish lives during the Second World War.
I had to leave the meeting early to go to my next one: at the local Jewish Community Centre in my neighbourhood. I had been invited by the Jewish Welfare Board to attend an awareness-raising evening on learning disabilities. As I slipped into my seat in one of the light rooms of the beautiful, new(ish) centre, nestled in leafy suburbia, and listened to how we can become more supportive and caring for children with these needs and identities, I was struck by how different this environment was.
And yet how similar the passions, concerns and dreams are. Dreams of respecting, protecting and celebrating difference and vulnerability.
‘Lo merub’chem mikol ha’amim, chashak Adonai bachem—vayivchar bechem, ki atem ham’at mikol ha’amim’ – ‘The Eternal did not set His love upon you nor choose you because you were greater than any people but because you were the smallest of all peoples’ (Deut. 7:7)
This verse from the Book of Deuteronomy reminds me time and again that vulnerability and difference are beautiful in the eyes of God and the Jewish tradition.
Our foundational narrative is not of glory but of slavery. Our identity is rooted not in grandeur but in humility.There is greatness in our smallness, power in our vulnerability. This ethos shapes our self-perception and our values as a religion and a culture.
A well-known maxim states that we judge a civilization by how they treat their most vulnerable members. Deuteronomy essentially tells us the same through the lens of Divine love.
These last years, months and weeks we’ve seen these existential questions crystallise in very tangible realities. The effects of economic austerity, the refugee crisis, the contentious march towards the American elections and even the future of the European Union are all contingent on how we engage with vulnerability, how we embrace the stranger in our midst or even inside of us. Judaism may not necessarily speak on how to resolve these issues—that is the domain of politics—but will breathe through us the values with which we should approach these issues.
In our tradition, it is not merely a matter of sympathy.The Torah demands more of us: absolute empathy with the vulnerable on the premise that each one of us is called to self-identify as such. We are called to strip ourselves down to our common humanity and to expose our souls and selves to the travails of life. What would it be like for us to struggle for survival and fight for dignity—as a refugee or migrant, as a child with special needs, as a person who is economically vulnerable, as a patient who desires health—as full human beings worthy of love.
Our greatness lies in our smallness, in our kindness and openness of heart. Regardless of what the outcome may be in the realm of politics and economics, we get to elect the kind of power we want to wield; that of empathy and compassion.
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Image credit: Folkert Gorter