Avoiding differences, facing doubts

Published in the Jewish Chronicle, January 7 2005

Politics can?t help itself. In exceptional circumstances, it tries to put itself to one side, to rise above itself. At moments of great national grief, for example, party leaders of all stripes vow to transcend their usual differences and stand together. But the resolve never lasts for long. The political impulse is just too great and eventually ? usually within a matter of days ? the old combat resumes.

So it has been in the aftermath of the calamity in the Indian Ocean. Petty politics was dwarfed for a while but normal service was restored after about a week. In this case, the issue of the hour has been leadership. Was Tony Blair leading Britain?s response ? or was he hopelessly catching up with a lead set by the generosity of the public? More directly, should he have abandoned his Egyptian holiday and come home?

Ground-shifting events have a habit of testing leadership ? and not only when they shift the ground as literally as an earthquake below the ocean. That is true even in a community as small, and as far away from the action, as our own.

On this score, I think Anglo-Jewry can be proud of its initial reaction. The main communal organisations set aside their institutional and religious differences and united to endorse a special appeal by World Jewish Aid. But specific praise ought to go to one man who, on other occasions, certainly gets his share of specific criticism: the Chief Rabbi.

He made two moves that deserve respect. First, he recognised the exceptional nature of this catastrophe early, agreeing with Gordon Brown that it was a ?disaster of biblical proportions.? In that spirit he called on UK Jews to dig into their pockets and give.

Maybe this sounds uncontroversial, but my expectations of world Jewish leadership have grown so low that I appreciate it when someone does the straightforward, right thing. I wouldn?t have put it past some Jewish leaders to insist that our first priority had to be other Jews, that ?charity begins at home? and therefore Israel needs our money more and that the victims in Asia would have to come second. I would have been disappointed if one of our elders had said such a thing ? but not shocked. So full credit to Sacks for getting it right.

His second move was more subtle. Inevitably, many people of faith found themselves grappling with the implications of this horror. They asked themselves the perennial question: how can we believe in a God who allows such suffering to befall the innocent?

The Archbishop of Canterbury raised the question himself, admitting that his own faith can be shaken by such cruelty. This was part of the burden carried by religious people, he wrote. But, in a calmly effective essay for the Times, Sacks addressed this ancient dilemma head-on.

He quoted Moses Maimonides?s belief that God, by placing us in the physical world, had chosen to set life within the parameters of the physical. ?Planets are formed, tectonic plates shift, earthquakes occur, and sometimes innocent people die,? the Chief Rabbi wrote. ?To wish it were otherwise is in essence to wish that we were not physical beings at all. Then we would not know pleasure, desire, achievement, freedom, virtue, creativity, vulnerability and love. We would be angels ? God?s computers, programmed to sing His praise.?

It follows, wrote Sacks, that we should spend less time fretting over why the tsunami struck and more time working out what to do now that it has. In little more than a paragraph, the Chief Rabbi had come up with a clear and manageable answer to a timeless and searing dilemma. It does not solve it, of course not but it finds some sense in the senseless.

There are other struggles. For my own part, I have found myself grappling with the scale of this event. The notion of 150,000 dead is simply too large to take in. Instead, it is the individual stories, told in harrowing detail on the evening news, that strike home: the mother searching for her children, the village where every child is an orphan. These tear open our hearts the way a numb number never can.

And yet I have found myself having what I hope is not a parochial thought. We must be able to empathise with others without always coming back to ourselves, but I have not been able to escape the memory of the Shoah.

For one thing, if I cannot digest the figure of 150,000 dead, how much more impossible is the number of six million? The first death toll is too large; no one can picture that many lives shattered, that many moments of pain, that many grieving families left behind. But if that is true of the dead of Asia, where do we even begin with our own dead in Nazi Europe?

And there is, of course, a crucial distinction. What happened in the Indian Ocean was a natural disaster, susceptible to the logic so elegantly laid out by the Chief Rabbi. But the Shoah was man-made. We cannot call on that soothing explanation of divine will so easily.

In the case of the Holocaust, the numbers are so much bigger and humankind inflicted the wound on itself. Is it any wonder that, sixty years on, we have barely begun to come to terms with it?