Lambeth Palace speech by the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations in England, Ephraim Mirvis
Thank you very much your Grace, Bishops, Priests, Rabbis.
This is just such a wonderful occasion and I feel so thrilled to be part of it and so privileged to be co-hosting it, together with my good friend the Archbishop of Canterbury, a man for whom I have the highest regard and admiration.
Thank you so much your Grace, for welcoming us into your home today, thank you for your wonderful, inspirational opening words and I would like to thank you and the members of your team at Lambeth Palace for all of the organising that has preceded today’s event. In our office, our team headed by Dan Bacall, have been working so closely with Lambeth Palace over a long period of time, with a great deal of thought and planning and we have produced today’s wonderful programme. Thank you so much to all of you for joining us – this will indeed be a very special day.
In our Jewish tradition, we have a custom that every week, we draw some inspiration from the portion of the week – it is called the Parashat Hashavua. We divide up all the portions of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, into 54 sections – our cycle starts on a festival called Simchat Torah, which was three weeks ago, and it concludes on the day of Simchat Torah. So, on one and the same festival, we conclude the annual reading and then we immediately recommence it.
You might be wondering why 54 portions? Well sometimes we have a leap year and then we add an additional month, so we need more portions, and also some of our festivals fall on the Sabbath and then we have Festival readings and not Sabbath readings, and then during a regular year, we then sometimes have double portions in order that we can reach our target date.
So we have just started the Book of Genesis and on Saturdays we read the third portion of that Book. So allow me please to share some insights with you from the first three portions of the Torah that we have read over the last three Saturdays.
The first is called Bereishit, it takes us from the beginning of the Torah until the end of Genesis, chapter 5. The Talmud in the tractate Sanhedrin asks the following question – why is it that God originally created only one person? Surely God should have created the first couple on earth? Maybe the first family on earth? Perhaps the first community or even the first nation?
The Talmud gives a number of answers; the main ones is as follows: God created only one person in order that for all time, every human being should know that we are part of the same family. We come from the same parent. Even if it had been the first couple on earth, then as is the case in some families, some will say that ‘I’m from him’ and others will say ‘well I’m from her’! God wanted to prevent a ‘them’ and ‘us’ scenario for society and that is why the world started with one single person.
And then the Talmud goes on to say, when Adam alone existed in Paradise, the entire world was there just for that one person. Similarly, every human being created in the image of God is as unique as Adam was and therefore we learn that when you save one life, it is as if you have saved an entire world. And if God forbid, you destroy one life, it is as if you have destroyed an entire world.
Today, we are gathering together as family. We come from distinct, different religious traditions, but we are mindful of the fact that we are all children of the one true God.
The first Chief Rabbi of the Holy Land, Rabbi Kook, used to use the analogy of the symphony orchestra. He would describe how in an orchestra you have different instruments each playing its own unique sound, but under the baton of the conductor, they produce perfect harmony. So too, within our society, our goal should be to respect differences, to learn about others, where they are coming from and what they are about and to provide the space and the opportunity for them to express themselves in their own way, to flourish and to blossom. And under the baton of human cooperation, our aim should be to produce peace, unity and harmony and that indeed is our goal today and on all days.
The second portion of the Torah is called Noach, the Hebrew name for Noah, it comes obviously from that section which describes the flood. It takes us from Genesis chapter 6 to Genesis chapter 11. When Noah though that the waters of the flood had abated, he sent the raven and then the dove. The dove returned back to Noah with an olive branch in its mouth, a sign that the earth was ready to welcome mankind and all the animals on earth back on to it.
Interestingly, the word in the Torah, in the Bible, for a dove is Yonah, and one of my illustrious predecessors, Lord Jakobovits pointed out that in the Hebrew language, the word for pigeon is also Yonah. So if you want to describe a dove, you say Yonah and if you wanted to describe a pigeon it is Yonah and I suppose you would have to test the context to see what exactly one is talking about.
So why is it that we have one and the same term for a dove and a pigeon? Lord Jakobovits explained that the dove is a symbol of peace because, coming back to Noah, it represents the opportunity for renewed peace on earth. The pigeon represents communication – it is a carrier bird; it takes messages from one place to the other. They have the same name in order to teach us that you can never have peace without communication and the strongest path to peace is constructive communication – that too is what this day is about.
We’re coming to communicate, to share thoughts. Lots of niceties, lots of pleasant conversations but we have purposely built into the programme some challenging issues because we do need to raise them. We don’t want there to be any ‘elephants’ in the room – if there are issues that we might differ about, let’s air them, let’s hear what others have to say because it is only with constructive and friendly communication that we have a chance to get on well together and to establish unity and peace.
The portion that we read last Saturday is called Lech Lecha, and that takes us from Genesis chapter 12 until chapter 17. We read there about the war between the four Kings and the five. Abraham, the founder of our faith supporting the four kings who were victorious. In the aftermath of the war, Abraham came to Jerusalem, the ancient name for the city was Shalem, Salem, and the King there was Malki Tzedek, a man who has deep significance both in Jewish and Christian traditions.
Malki Tzedek, the king of Shalem, came out – as we read in chapter 14, verse 18 – he brought bread and wine and he was the Priest to God on High.
Very interestingly, to this day, there is a custom that when international Heads of State come to Jerusalem, the Mayor and the Chief Rabbi of the city come out to greet the visiting dignitary with bread and wine, in the same way that Malki Tzedek, King of Jerusalem, greeted Abraham.
Now why bread and wine? Bread retains its freshness only for a limited amount of time. Wine, obviously over the course of time can even become matured, it can even be improved. Bread and wine therefore provide a combination of the timely and the timeless. This presents, I believe, our challenge within our faiths because we have ancient rules and an old prescription for meaningful existence and our challenge is to always provide timely inspiration, to guarantee that our faith is relevant for the age in which we live. The bread and the wine come together.
Within our own Synagogues and communities over this past weekend, we had a wonderful experience through which the bread and the wine came together – it was ShabbatUK. We called upon British Jewry to celebrate a Sabbath like none other. It was the third year in a row in which we had a ShabbatUK and we found that the response was absolutely tremendous. You see, you don’t need a great communications company to think of a way to sell the Sabbath. It is a concept that sells itself because the author of it is almighty God.
Given that opportunity to celebrate the Sabbath together, so many people, who might otherwise be totally disconnected, came forward in their tens of thousands across the country. We have been enormously touched to recognise how a central precept, given millennia ago by God at Mount Sinai, now finds its relevance in contemporary society in a way I believe it has never found before. Because the Sabbath is more relevant in our fast moving, sophisticated and creative era than it has been in the past. Society needs a day of rest from its digital creativity.
So our challenge today, as well as our discussions about programming and ideas, will be how we can improve the way in which we present our age old traditions to a modern audience.
And then there is another idea presented in this portion of Lech Lecha – chapter 15, verse 5 of Genesis – it is the covenant of the pieces. God askes Abraham at night time to step outside and He asked him to look to the skies and to count the stars – if he could count them. And then God said to Abraham, “thus shall your seed be”. So the usual way in which we explain this is, that here we have a description about the numbers of the descendants of Abraham, the Creator and ounder of our faith, who simply over millennia would not be able to be count his descendants. But actually, there is an alternative, authentic reading of this passage.
In our tradition, we explain that God asked Abraham to step outside and he said ‘count the stars if you can count them’ and Abraham started to try and count the stars. Obviously he couldn’t, it was impossible, but he tried nonetheless. And then God said ‘thus shall your seed be’, in times to come, those who will be descended from you will equally try to achieve the unachievable, will never say never, will never say that this is too hard for us, let’s throw in the towel.
I believe that this is our primary task today as faith leaders. There are so many tests, so many challenges that confront us. We are living in a society which is increasingly secular. There is more and more atheism, with attempts to remove faith from the public square. We are living at a time when there is increased tension, and indeed the run-up to the election for American President has brought out such negativity, has unnecessarily and irresponsibly caused divisions within societies. There is so much healing that now needs to be done and tragically, we are living at a time when – and this must be said – sometimes religion is causing murder. Sometimes religion causes terrorism. Sometimes, in the name of God, some of the greatest atrocities on earth are perpetrated.
That is why today we have allocated time for some reflection on extremism within religion. What is going wrong within our faiths? What can we do and what should we do to mend a fractured society which comes about through the abuse of faith?
So today we come together as members of family and within a family friendly context. We share a belief that every human being is created in the image of God and we are all part of the same destiny under the Fatherhood of God. Through our dialogue, through our communication, we will strive to achieve understanding and peace and where we differ, at least we will respect each other for the differences that we hold. Also, we will work together to find ways in which we can enable religion to be fashionable, to be acceptable in our time as indeed it can and should be.
Ultimately, together we will call upon the help of God to enable us to achieve the unachievable, because we are never going to say never and with His assistance may we indeed today and in the future contribute to a betterment within our society.
And may I add that the most important part of today is tomorrow. It is what will result as a consequence of our collaboration. Therefore I give this challenge to you, don’t just reflect in the future of a lovely day that was held in Lambeth Palace, the strength and the success of what we are doing – and this is the entire purpose for the exercise – is to encourage us all to work together, to collaborate together in partnership within our communities, to guarantee that the outstanding relationships that we have at leadership level will trickle down to the grassroots level within our communities, so that indeed as faith leaders, we will make a change in this challenging world of ours.
Thank you very much.