In mid-December 2013 our Synagogue in London, Alyth, had a uniquely World Union for Progressive Judaism experience. A substantial percentage of Alyth members are of South African origin, many having come to London in protest against apartheid and many others had been part of the anti-apartheid struggle in the 70s and 80s. So when Nelson Mandela died it was fitting that we held a memorial service at which all could gather. Through the World Union we are closely connected to Temple Israel in Cape Town (South Africa) who were also intending to hold a memorial service. So we did it together, with a real-time video and sound connection between the two Synagogues. We prayed together, sang together and heard each other’s stories and readings over 6000 miles.
In recent weeks we were connected with another World Union congregation through grief. For fifteen years Alyth has been partner of the Kerch Reform Jewish Community in the Crimea. Members of the two synagogues visit each other at least every six months, our Synagogue is decorated with art made in theirs and their Cheder thrives every week with the help of ours. Kerch is just a few miles from the Russian coast and was one of the first towns to be held by Russian troops in the incursion back in February. Alyth and Kerch members were in touch with each other every few days by e-mail and phone. We knew that the Synagogue was being used by many older Jews in the town as a place to gather and find out what was going on, that they were managing to continue Shabbat services and even to celebrate Purim. We heard the worries and the pain of our sister congregation.
What we also came to know through our connection was that the vast majority of members of the Kerch Jewish community had a different perspective on the Russian presence than that which we were hearing in the British media. They were happy for the change of regime to occur, being especially fearful of a Ukrainian regime which might veer towards the right and make it harder to be a Jew. The community has a strong folk memory of Ukrainian participation in the Nazi-led murder of five thousand Kerch Jews during the Second World War. This was tough for members of our congregation to hear as the predominant British news story attitude to the Russian takeover of Crimea was to portray it as a wholly negative change. However, almost all of the current Kerch community is of Russian origin and so they say that they feel they are returning to their former nation.
Even so there remains a deep discomfort her in London with what has happened in the Crimea, at the root of which is an issue central to Judaism. This contrasts the man whom we were mourning in our joint service with Temple Israel, Nelson Mandela, with the man who portrays himself as the liberator of the members of the Kerch Reform Jewish Community, Vladimir Putin.
“Love your neighbour as yourself”, Leviticus 19:18 from our Torah portion this week, Kedoshim, is the central statement of Judaism. As Hillel said, adapting the verse, “the rest is commentary, go and learn”. For the critical part of the commentary you need not go far. Read the phrase just before in the same verse – “you shall not avenge and you shall not bear a grudge”. This way of loving your neighbor was exemplified in Nelson Mandela’s life, which is why, whatever most white South Africans thought of him in the past, they admire him today. He taught South Africans to love their neighbour rather than to fear their neighbour. Go one verse earlier in Leviticus 19 and there is how Mandela did it – “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, you shall surely reason with your neighbour and bring neither of you to sin.” Nelson Mandela showed that it is only by reasoning with one another, communication, acknowledgment of the truth of the past and then reasoning how to let it go that you have a hope of not taking vengeance and then having a hope of creating love.
You can see none of this approach, so central to Jewish ethics, in what Vladimir Putin has supported, encouraged and presumably engineered in Crimea. Rather than love of neighbour he has been encouraging fear of neighbour. He has been encouraging people in Ukraine with a strong Russian identity to build a sense of grudge and injustice against the Ukrainian administration. Rather than reasoning together he has used tactics of surprise and precipitate action to create a new reality which gives little choice but to comply.
Judaism is always interested in how we achieve things as much as their result, the journey from Mitzraim, the narrow place, to the Promised Land requires many steps done well. So even though our fellow Progressive Jews in Kerch are comfortable with the change of the administration that they are under, it is right for world Jews to condemn the way in which President Putin and Russia acted. Our Torah holds the world to a standard as well as ourselves.
About the author: Rabbi Mark Goldsmith serves Alyth – North Western Reform Synagogue in London, UK.
The above formerly appeared as #216 in our Torah from Around the World series.