Sermon: Shabbat Matot (Rabbi Maurice Michaels)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 30 July 2016

On Monday morning I received a telephone call from the Bournemouth Echo asking if I would be prepared to join other religious leaders in giving a comment on the current spate of attacks in Europe.  Always happy to be of service I agreed, but said that I wanted a few minutes to assemble my thoughts rather than shoot from the hip.  My apologies for such an awful phrase, but you know what I mean.  I assumed that the journalist wanted a sound-bite, so I sent her the following:

We are witnessing a phenomenon in absolute contrast to our western value of the sanctity of life.  In the past when such atrocities occurred, it was natural to think that the perpetrator was insane.   That is why it is so shocking now, recognising that these murderers are perfectly aware of their actions, indeed delighting in them. 

I noted that there was, of course, much more that could be said and offered her more if she wanted it.  She replied:

Perhaps if you are able to state the feelings on behalf of the synagogue and how these atrocities directly oppose the teachings within the Jewish faith I would be most grateful.

Not having had the opportunity of polling the Synagogue members, although conversations over kiddush on Shabbat gave some clue as to their thinking, I responded with three short paragraphs, in what I hoped would be an acceptable position for the Synagogue, inviting her to use as much or as little as she wanted:

Over the centuries Jews have generally found themselves in a minority situation, but have striven to integrate and make a useful contribution to society, because Judaism places great emphasis on people living in harmony together, whatever their religious or cultural background. 

People are concerned that the conflicts of North Africa and the Middle East are being transported into Europe along with the immigrants trying to escape the horrors there.  This places a need for greater security and protection here in Europe, as evidenced by, for example, more of the Synagogue’s security team turning up for the duty rota for Services this Shabbat.

It has been noted by some people that Europe is having to learn to deal with a situation that has been operating in Israel for many years, the fringe terrorist creating havoc, for which the innocent majority are blamed.  

It seemed to me that while as human beings we are completely at one with the feelings of the general public, as Jews we do have a special understanding of what it is to be innocent victims, particularly when the perpetrators declare that they are committing their actions in the name of religion.  And so it is important that the specifically Jewish voice is heard.  I had understood that my comments were for an article for the Faith Page, which is published on Saturdays, so I had no idea if any of it would be printed, but while that may still be the case, in fact, an article was put on the newspapers website and the reporter used several quotes from what I’d given her.

On my journey back to London on Tuesday I listened to a radio programme that interviewed specialist psychologists about the impact that these attacks have on the public.  Their general view was that with the growing frequency of incidents, each had a lesser effect on those not directly involved.  Therefore in order to create the havoc and fear they intended, the terrorists had to ‘up their game’, go for a greater number of victims, become more outrageous in their targets.  This is, of course, very frightening, especially as we realise that there are actually no safe places and that everyone is, for the terrorists, a legitimate target.  Children in a shopping centre; a catholic priest on the steps of the altar;  holiday makers on an esplanade in Nice, who came from many countries and all religious backgrounds.  The French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, has been heavily criticised for a statement he made after that attack: “This is difficult to say, but more lives will be lost.  Terrorism will be part of our daily lives for a long time.”  Unfortunately, Europe, not just France, is finding that to be true.  They are discovering that it is far easier to send war planes over Syria and Iraq than it is to police every inch of their towns and villages against lone attackers.

Reverting to the Bournemouth Echo, the first sound-bite I wrote referred to ‘our western value of the sanctity of life’.  Many years ago, I had an MP who always talked about the Judeo-Christian values and I suppose that was what I had a mind when I wrote ‘western’, because I didn’t want to suggest this wasn’t a value shared by other faiths.  However, when I looked at this week’s sidrah after the section we read this morning, we learn that this was not consistent with the actions of the ancient Israelites, who slaughtered their Midianite foes in cold blood, including women and children.  Does this mean that Jewish values are post-biblical?  Rather, it is about the rules that don’t apply in existential situations.  If the Israelites had not demonstrated their might when opposed by others, there may not have been an Israel.  Similarly, the wars of Joshua were to achieve the promise made to Abraham.  And the battles since 1948 have been necessary to retain the existence of the State.

And, in some way, this is how we must consider the  actions of Daesh and lone jihadis.  From their perspective, they are in an existential fight to re-establish the Caliphate, to regain the domination that Islam once had, to bring to heel those Muslims who want to live in the 21st century, and to subjugate once again the adherents of Christianity and Judaism.  Unless we understand where they are coming from, there is no possible way in which a solution to this international problem can be found.  And I am not convinced that the world’s leadership do understand.  Or maybe – the cynic inside me says –  maybe Muslim Governments like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey provide extremist groups funding to keep them at bay domestically – although Turkey has found to its cost that doesn’t necessarily work.  And maybe European Governments are too mealy-mouthed to say it as it is, but talk in code, for fear of giving offence.  And maybe it suits the purposes of countries like Russia and America and China to use the terrorists as pawns in their own power struggles.

The only consolation is that there is still a disunity about the extremists.  Sunni and Shia are at each other’s throats.  Government forces, rebels and Daesh are all fighting each other in Syria.  Factions of Al Quaeda are opposing Daesh and too many other groups to name are trying to retain the small areas of territory they may currently hold in parts of Africa and the Middle East.  Of course, one of the grave dangers of such confusion is that the American led coalition doesn’t know who to support and there are some very strange bedfellows being created, not least Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Israel.  Indeed, Israel is apparently actively supporting Egypt in Sinai, Saudi Arabia in the Yemen, and developing or re-establishing relationships in a number of African countries, who all want access to Israel’s military acumen.  Who knows, in light of their own catastrophes, perhaps Europe will have a little more tolerance for the Government of Israel, which has had to face similar problem for nearly seventy years.  And perhaps they will also have a little humility and seek Israeli expertise to assist them in their own fight against terrorism.  And perhaps …. I’m just an optimist!