Sermon: HaShomer achi anochi – Am I my brother’s keeper?

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 14 October 2017

“HaShomer achi anochi”
That is the question that Cain asks in our portion this morning: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

As if it is not enough that he has carried out the first murder, the first act of human violence, his response to God’s knowing question, “Where is your brother Abel” is not to confess, nor to deny that he has done something wrong, but to deny that it matters, to reject responsibility.
“I owe the other nothing”, he says, “Even my brother, my biological brother is not for me to worry about”.

Of course, the point of the story – this foundational, pre-history story – is that he is wrong.  That he does bear responsibility for his brother.  When he finds out his punishment, it scares him because he is terrified of what it will be to exist uncared about, not to matter to others, for his welfare not to be anyone else’s concern, to be no-one’s brother.

He does bear responsibility for his brother.  And, by extension, we bear responsibility for our brothers and sisters too.

But what does this mean?  And, in particular, how far does that real sense of responsibility extend?  In biblical terms, who do we consider to be our brother?

It is a question that comes up in the Sifra, a midrashic commentary on the book of Leviticus, in its discussion of the injunctions in Kedoshim about how we are to behave.  We read in Leviticus 19, “lo tikkom v’lo tittor et b’nei amecha” – “Do not seek vengeance or bear a grudge against members of your people”.

Does this mean, the midrash asks, quite reasonably, that we may seek vengeance, may bear a grudge against others?
Rabbi Akiva answers “v’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha” – “love your neighbour as yourself – This is the general principle in the Torah”.
But the answer of the Sage Ben Azzai is more significant.   He quotes a different verse, stating “this is an even greater principle”: The verse is the first of Genesis chapter 5, the first after the story of Cain and Abel “zeh sefer toldot adam” – “This is the record of the generations of Adam”.

That is, we may not seek vengeance or bear a grudge against others, we may not mistreat others because all are included within the descendants of Adam – that is the most important principle of all.  The obligation to all people is as family – our common humanity means that we don’t get to differentiate on the basis of nationality, ethnicity, religion.

Which is why the events of the last few days in our neighbourhood are so unsettling, so contrary to our values as a community, as Jews.

In July, the Golders Green Hippodrome was sold at auction.  For a few years, it had been owned by an Evangelical church and was known as the El Shaddai International Christian Centre, primarily serving West Africans from across London.  We had pretty positive relationships with them: they were active partners in projects on Mitzvah day, and when we went to visit the church and saw a really impressive set up.

As an aside, on the balconies were signs warning worshippers not to dance too excessively – my kind of prayer!

In July the building was sold to a Shia Muslim group to create “Markaz el tathgeef el-eslami” –the Centre for Islamic Enlightenment, also the “Hussainiyat Al Rasool Al Adham”.  For this group, one of the most holy parts of the year is the month in which they commemorate the death of Hussain ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed – which happens to be about now.  Which is why the Centre for Islamic Enlightenment has over the last few weeks attracted very large congregations, dressed in black.

Over the last week, a petition has been promoted among residents of Golders Green objecting to this new addition to the neighbourhood.
The petition itself, now signed by 5000 people, expresses reasonable concerns about the effect on immediate neighbours of traffic and parking – noise, congestion, inconvenience.  Reasonable concerns.  They are laid on a bit thick – maybe that’s what petitions have to do – and if you’re a pedant like me, there is a definite misuse of the word exponential in there.  But, as anyone who lives near a large community centre can testify, these are real issues.

But the tone of some of the conversation around the petition – on whatsapp, email, and in chat groups, has been less acceptable.  The Centre has been referred to as a “threat”, as “the biggest mosque in Europe” – certainly not the case.

As our member, Laura Marks, wrote in her capacity as chair of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust this week:
“Reading some of the comments on various chat groups by those opposed sent a shiver down my spine.  Comments such as “we don’t know what they are preaching as it’s all in Arabic”, “this will result in violence and terrorism” and “there is a chance of infiltration of bombers” are Islamophobia plain and simple.”

As the leadership of this community, we have been very clear that this is not acceptable.  Together with our partners in this area – colleagues at Golders Green United Synagogue and Golders Green Parish Church – we have emphasised the importance of care in language, and separating the reasonable concerns of neighbours from what is, as Laura wrote, simply islamophobia.  At the same time, we have reached out to the new Centre to encourage them to work with local residents, and offering our support.

As our statement of earlier this week read:
“Alyth has always advocated a London where different religious communities are able to co-exist and be true to their values.   We have and will continue to reach out to this new community in Golders Green so that we can help them to be good local citizens.”

Looking at the names on the petition, it is clear that the concerns have had a particular reach into the Jewish community – and this also struck us as at least a little problematic – we, too are a distinctive community of immigrants into the area.  Mark observed that he imagined the original influx of Jews into Golders Green had probably received a similar response.  In Pam Fox’s history of the Jewish Community of Golders Green, she writes of the differences between the established Jewish community and those arriving from the East End and Eastern Europe – “It appears”, she wrote, “That there was considerable social pressure on the new arrivals to tone down the conspicuous foreignness of their backgrounds”.  We should, perhaps, be wary of projecting onto others that which was once projected onto us.

Yesterday, we received a message from Haidar Nasralia of the Islamic Centre:
“On behalf of the youth of the Islamic Enlightenment Centre”, it stated, “We would like to extend a heartfelt thank you. Our gratitude toward you stems from many reasons, but is based on your stance of open-mindedness, inclusion, and understanding.
We at the Islamic Centre believe in a set of morals and code of justice where man is either your brother in faith or equal in humanity.
As such, we have employed our youth congregation to attend to the needs of our Jewish neighbours in remedying whatever issues the Jewish community believes they are facing. We will proudly continue to serve in the mission of coexistence and peaceful resolutions.”

“We at the Islamic Centre believe in a set of morals and code of justice where man is either your brother in faith or equal in humanity.”
What an amazing sentence.
To put it another way:
In the words of Akiva ““v’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha – zeh clal gadol batorah” – love your neighbour as yourself – this is the great principle of the Torah”
Or, as in the words of Ben Azzai, “zeh sefer toldot adam – zeh clal gadol mi-zeh”
This is the record of the generations of Adam – this is an even greater principle

Each of us is family.  Cain was wrong – we are each of us our brother’s keeper.  At this time, right now, we must do everything we can to demonstrate it.