Standing at the Bridge

Written by Rabbi Elliott Karstadt — 26 February 2022

Yesterday someone sent me a cartoon of two people sitting in a library. One is saying to the other: ‘Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.’

On Thursday, as the news of the invasion of the Ukraine was coming through, someone asked why this is happening again – why dictators and aggressors emerge in every generation; why humanity has not learnt to move past it; why those who shood stand against them, those who could stop them, do not.

And so this week I have been thinking a lot about the outbreak of the First World War, and particularly a trip I took in 2018 to the Balkans as the educator on kayitz perach, Liberal Judaism’s trip for those in Year 12. Having spent the summer of Year 11 in Israel on Tour, the year after they get the opportunity to think about what it means to live in Diaspora. The participants are encouraged to think about what it means to live as a minority, and to explore their own identity through an engagement with the landscape and the built environment.

In our first destination, Sarajevo, we stood at Princip Bridge, the place where the First World War began in 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot by a member of the Black Hand, a radical group committed to winning statehood for ethnic Serbs, who were otherwise suppressed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but supported by the Russian Tsar who was committed to rebuilding the Russian Empire.

And at the end of the trip we stood in the Stadttempel, the oldest synagogue in Vienna, where there is a photograph of Jewish soldiers gathered in their Austro-Hungarian uniforms before going off to fight. Jewish soldiers on the German/Austro-Hungarian side who may well have fought against Jewish soldiers on the British/French/Russian side.

The fact that many of the Progressive rabbis and communal leaders in the UK and America at the outbreak of war 108 years ago had German or Austrian backgrounds, meant that they reacted with horror at the idea that the country they had been born in was now at war with the country they lived in. It felt like a reversal of all the progress the world had made.

A report form the Jewish Chronicle in August 1914:

Devoting his sermon to the subject of the War, the Rev. Morris Joseph [rabbis in the UK were referred to as reverends back then!]  preached as follows from the pulpit at the Berkeley Street Synagogue [West London Synagogue] last Saturday: We resume our Sabbath Services this week in circumstances all but unparalleled in the history of mankind … the lust to destroy and slay has taken possession of minds hitherto chiefly concerned to heal the hurt of the world, and to set the feet of mankind more firmly on the highway of progress. It is a terrifying paradox, a cruel blow to our optimism and our most cherished ideals. It makes us doubt the value, the reality of our civilization, the stability of righteousness, the fixity of purpose of God.

Although he goes on to insist that it is our duty to ‘brush such doubts aside’ and ‘rally to the help of our beloved country in her hour of need’, the very fact that the countries of Europe were again at war with one another was clearly a deep source of anguish for Reverend Joseph.

Many of us have been shaken this week – those of us for whom peace and stability was the norm and the expectation in Europe have had the ground taken out from under us in a way that has been traumatic and unsettling. We are not scared for ourselves, but perhaps for friends and loved ones who find themselves in harm’s way, and certainly discombobulated by the sense of a sudden deprivation of certainty and security. This kind of thing was not supposed to happen again in Europe; history was not supposed to repeat itself here.

As Rabbi Josh pointed out yesterday, as Jews we feel a historical and textual connection to many of those places in the Ukraine that are under attack – as we sang the words of gesher tsar me’od by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the place in which he wrote those words, the place where he is buried, were being shelled. Rabbi Nachman’s famous dictum, that ‘the whole world is a very narrow bridge’ takes on a whole new meaning when we receive news from Jews in the Ukraine that they have destroyed the bridges in their town in order to halt the offensive assault.

Does it seem hubristic of me to suggest that in our ancient religious texts we have a blueprint for how to break free of these historical cycles of violence? I’m going to try.

As Rabbi Noa Sattath reminded us yesterday evening, our Torah portion this week is a repetition of history – we heard the same instructions for the building of the Mishkan (the Tent of Meeting in which the Israelites will have a place to encounter God) that we had heard just a few weeks ago in Parashat Terumah. And yet these two accounts of the building of the Mishkan are separated by a break: the deviation from that fixity of purpose of God which occurred in the Israelite’s building of the Golden Calf.

Rabbi Nachman himself said that it was necessary for the Israelites to fall to the depths of the Golden Calf in order that they could rise to the building of the Mishkan.

But the building of the Golden Calf and the construction of the Mishkan are not all that different. They involve the same process of bringing things that are precious to us to the building of something that the community can use to gain access to the divine. The difference is that in building the Golden Calf, the Israelites were building something that they could point to and say: this is our God of gold – whereas Mishkan simply means ‘dwelling place’; in building the Mishkan the Israelites were building something that they could point to and say: this is a palace of gold, in which our God lives. The substance of God remained invisible. And this meant that, when they stood in a circle around the Gold Calf, all the Israelites could see was the Golden Calf – when they stood in a circle around the Mishkan, all they could see was each other. So, the building of the Mishkan was a kind of repair to the fissure in the relationship between God and the Israelites caused by the Golden Calf. But they were also repairing their relationship with each other.

In the midst of the pandemic, our catch phrase at Alyth has been Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh bazeh – all Israel are responsible for each other. We even made a song about it. And we would surely extend this to others – to all humanity.

It is this willingness to see the person in front of you that is so important – for that connection to be instrumentalized or obscured by the promise of riches or fame or glory, is the trap we can all too easily fall into.

It can seem so simple, but it happens to us all the time every day, when our own search for satisfaction or our own idea of how the world ought to be can get in the way of our responsibility to others.

I think back to the photograph I saw of those Austrian Jewish soldiers on the eve of the Great War – of the fear and resolve in their faces. And once you have looked upon those faces it is difficult to justify any war of aggression. Their fear is not the same as ours. But their sense of fracture of global stability is the same, and their sense that on our continent such a thing should be a thing of the past.

And we can only hope that those in power who are deciding how to respond, will also be thinking not simply of strategic interests, nation by nation, but of how to work together as an international community to do what is necessary for the real individuals that are stuck in a terrible situation.

In building the Mishkan, in bringing their half sheckel to the communal pot, the Israelites were recognizing that life – all of life – is communal and interdependent. That the fate of one depends upon the fate of everyone else. That is the value that we express when we come together on a Shabbat morning.

So, are we doomed to repeat history, or can we look to those parts of our history – our collective heritage – that push us to be better – to acknowledge each others’ humanity, to recognize that the good of the individual is bound up with everyone else?

[1] Quoted in Saperstein, pp. 299-300