Thursday, 27 Mar 2014

Written by Danny Newman

Dear Readers
Please do not believe everything I write. I am a human being, which means that (as I understand it), by definition, I have limited intellectual (and emotional, physical and spiritual) capabilities. I have been conditioned by the books I have read, the teachers who have taught me and the experiences to which I have been exposed. So please don’t believe everything I write.

This week’s Torah reading is called Tazria. The main topic it deals with is a peculiar affliction called in Hebrew “tzara’at”. This is often translated in English as leprosy (when it affects human beings) and is described as a rather unpleasant non-contagious skin condition, which requires the sufferer to dwell alone outside the camp until they heal. Now the interesting thing about this condition is that a person is not technically afflicted by it until they receive a positive diagnosis from a priest.

Contrast this with contemporary illnesses. If a person is ill with cancer, a positive diagnosis from the doctor does not mean that the person only has cancer following the diagnosis. Rather, the person already had cancer and the diagnosis is merely to inform the person of a condition they already had. So, in respect of “tzara’at”, it is the very act of informing the person that they have the condition that makes it real in this world.

This idea of something only becoming real in the world when it is acknowledged by an objective third party, led me to reflect on what kind of things are going on in our world, that we don’t consider to be real until they are pointed out to us; until someone speaks out and acknowledges something that may threaten the vested interests of powerful people and institutions. It takes courage to speak truth to power.

The most important thing I have learned at the College is that the role / duty / task of the Jewish people / religion / nation is to point out to the inhabitants of this world their hypocrisies, injustices and abuses of other human beings (and our planet); to critique the most egregious elements of secular, materialistic, consumer capitalism, and then to take action. As one of my teachers says, the mission of the Jewish people, should they choose to accept it, is “to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.”

These ideas are present in many of the narratives we have been telling our children for thousands of years. Think of our archetypal ancestors Sarah and Abraham, known as “ivri’im” because they had the audacity to walk “on the other side” of the rest of humanity. They didn’t follow the crowd and find ways to fit in with the prevailing culture and norms; they were iconoclasts, they smashed idols. Their task was to “extend the boundaries of righteousness and justice in the world” (Genesis 18:19).

Think of the prophet Isaiah speaking in the name of YHVH, regarding Yom Kippur, and telling the ancient Israelites: “the fast that I desire is the unlocking of the chains of injustice, the loosening of exploitation, the freeing of the oppressed, the breaking of the yoke of servitude; it is the sharing of your bread with those who are hungry, providing housing for those who are homeless, providing clothing for those who do not have clothes and not hiding from your fellow human being in their time of need” (Isaiah 58: 6-7). Think of Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm in arm with Martin Luther King, protesting against the oppression of human beings on the basis of their skin colour.

Almost two years ago I swapped the profits of the law for the law of the prophets. Prior to starting at the college I had worked for many years in law and finance. I trained and worked as a lawyer at a firm that many consider to be the most prestigious corporate law firm in the City of London. My sense is that it is unlikely that Isaiah would have been impressed with the prevalent values and ethics I encountered in the City. I rarely encountered true compassion, humility or love. Most of my work as a lawyer consisted of attempting to assist individuals and companies with vast financial wealth to accumulate even more money without transgressing any laws. It didn’t matter how many human beings were affected, how much tax was avoided and how much of our environment was destroyed, so long as it was legal.

If Starbucks, Amazon and Google don’t want to pay corporation tax, do we care? They can afford to pay the huge fees of lawyers and accountants (who are often smarter and / or more incentivised than the lawyers and accountants employed by the government) to help them structure their businesses in such a way that they can avoid paying corporation tax. I thought Starbucks had over 700 outlets in the UK? Apparently, a good chunk of the money we spend on their lattes and muffins ends up in a Starbuck’s business unit in the low tax jurisdiction of Switzerland.

Last week Oxfam informed us that the five richest families in the UK have acquired the same amount of financial wealth as the poorest 20% of the UK. Sorry, what did I just write? This is the UK in the 21st century and it turns out that 5 families have the same amount of financial wealth as the poorest 12 million people in the UK, 12 million people. I write these words and feel a strange sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach. How is it possible that we silently collaborate in being part of a society that allows for this amount of wealth inequality?

Last week a report published by the Bank of England informed us that the theoretical basis underpinning the government’s austerity measures is flawed. These are the measures that have contributed towards a situation where many people are reliant on food banks to feed their families and the creation of ‘heat poverty’, not being able to afford to heat your home. Is this Britain in the 21st century?

So what am I doing about this situation? I guess I’m doing what lots of Jews have done for centuries. I’ve taken an idea from this week’s Torah portion and have attempted to make it relevant today as a call to acknowledge the structural economic injustices in our society.

What are we as a society doing about this situation? Well, with a general election on the horizon, we have a year to tell our democratically elected leaders what type of society we want to create, and be part of, for the next six years. What shall we point out to them? What do we want them to do for us, our children and our grandchildren?

Student rabbi Danny Newman

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.