Last night the LJS hosted 250 people of all faiths and none, including: the local MP, Karen Buck, Westminster City Councillors, representatives of the Israeli Embassy, members of the clergy and congregations from our local community and further afield, including representatives of Christian communities, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Hare Krishna. Interfaith networks, including the Council of Christians and Jews, the London Society of Jews and Christians, and the Joseph Interfaith Foundation. Members of local charities and societies and teachers and students from local schools. And members and representatives of charities with whom the LJS has a connection: Langdon, enabling independent living for young people and adults with learning disabilities; Freedom from Torture providing support to victims of torture and promoting and protecting the rights of survivors; Salusbury World providing educational, social and emotional support for refugee children and their families.
These are the words of welcome I gave at the start of the event:
The story of Chanukkah is briefly summarised on the service sheets that were on your seat this afternoon. In brief though, the celebration of Chanukkah extends back more than 2000 years and represents the celebration of freedom to practice one’s own faith and redemption from oppression and intolerance. Later, the emphasis moved from military triumph to the victory of light over dark – the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights inspired the lighting of our candles each night of Chanukkah for eight nights.
I want to dwell just for a moment on this theme of light because it is on that theme that our readings have been chosen which will be read out by our faith representatives in a few moments.
There is a very famous story (Bereshit Rabbah 39:1), in Jewish circles, that asks the question – Why was Abraham chosen by God to begin his journey towards faith. Suddenly, out of nowhere he is called to leave his family home and go to a new land and to be a blessing. But why? What merit did Abraham have that he was worthy of this Divine task?
The answer given, in one commentary, is that Abraham can be likened to a person who was travelling from place to place when he saw a palace full of light, or perhaps a palace in flames. Is it possible, he asks himself, that there is no one who cares for the palace? Imto; the owner of the palace looks out at him and says, “I am the owner of the palace.” Similarly, Abraham wonders, ‘Is it conceivable that the world is without a guide?’ At which God looked out to him and said “I am the Guide, the Sovereign of the world”. Now go forth.
In other words, Abraham is worthy because he has a realisation of the world. I’m not the first to say *this, but his realisation of the world can be interpreted in two ways. A flame has at least two properties – on the one hand it gives light, like our chanukkah candles, but on the other hand we know that a flame can be destructive and damaging.
When we look at the world we can see it is in flames – it is need of our care and attention. There is unimaginable horror in the world, there is insecurity, fear for one’s life and one’s family, devastation wrought by human hand and suffering that we ignore. I know that many of you who share our celebration with us today have experienced and sometimes continue to experience the inhumanity one person is capable of showing to another. You may have experienced the disadvantage that is entrenched in society’s attitudes and behaviours because it furthers the selfish interests of others. The world is aflame with violence, with prejudice and with suspicion.
And yet, Abraham understood that the world was also a palace of light – of wonder and amazement. Just like a candle, a flame that can burn, also gives light. What made Abraham worthy was that he also understood that it was his responsibility to make a difference – to give light and not to destroy.
We sit here today, an example of what is possible, a light, a beacon. We must tell our friends, our coreligionists our neighbours, “Do you know today we sat in friendship and harmony – a group of people of different faiths and none, people of all ages, of all races and of many different nationalities. No one’s background or faith was denigrated or ignored. We celebrated the Jewish faith’s festival of light, but do you know what, it was really a celebration of the human spirit.” I am delighted to welcome you all and, with a little bit of chutzpah (of cheek) let me demand that we share this example of what is possible.
* See this brief reading of Heschel’s commentary, which is found in his book, ‘God in Search of Man’ and is, I think, misrepresented in Sack’s book ‘Radical Then, Radical Now’. I think Heschel is more circumspect about the role of humanity in putting out the flames than Sacks, but his idea seems more realistic and noble, “The world is in need of redemption, but the redemption must not be expected to happen as an act of sheer grace. Man’s task is to make the world worthy of redemption. His faith and his works are preparations for ultimate redemption.” But my issue with Sacks is really that he appears to be unaware that Heschel uses the term ‘Palace full of light’ and ‘Palace in flames’ (see page 53 of Radical Then Radical Now).