Thursday, 29 October 2015

Maybe He Heard the Voice of the Angel - Rabbis for Human Rights

Rabbi Arik Asherman, from Rabbis for Human Rights, has spoken New London in the past. In the last week he suffered a particularly bizarre - and awful - knife attack while attempting to film settlers burning Palestinian olive trees in the West Bank. A masked settler, bearing a knife went to attack the Rabbi, kicking and punching him.

It's bizarre - and awful - because this is not how human beings should behave, it is not how religious Jews should behave and, in the midst of other far more deadly knife attacks in and around Jerusalem, the notion that settler should do this to a Jew is particularly repugnant.

The video of the attack has, in that trite phrase, gone viral. But what struck me was that after the initial attempt to stab Rabbi Asherman the attacker runs away, only for Rabbi Asherman to run after the attacker, clearly shouting at him. In a subsequent interview Rabbi Asherman explains he was shouting at his attacker, 'You are desecrating God's name, you are desecrating the Torah.' The attacker kicks out, punches and throws rocks at the Rabbi, but the knife never quite connects, partly a matter of luck, and partly there seems to be something in the attacker's heart which is preventing him from a full attack. Perhaps, Rabbi Asherman wonders, he experiences something like Teshuvah, maybe, he goes on to say, 'like the verses we read in this week's Parasha he heard a voice that made him hold back the knife.'

This is the pre-eminent moment, certainly, in the book of Genesis. God calls to Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice and then the angel calls out twice to stop the patriarch, 'don't send forth your hand against the child.' Is it even possible to read this event, in the hills of the West Bank, as a modern retelling of the story of the Akeidah? A story in which the possibility of violence rises up and - somehow - in the moments of initial plotting and planning it can be justified, explained. We have all, surely experienced moments of anger, and plotted. But then comes the brutal moment when blade is to be placed against skin, and here - at this point - all justification of anyhting which causes harm to another falls away, for there can be no justification. There is something in the encounter between human and human that ought to leech all attempts to justify the hurt of another soul from us. That, taught Levinas, is the essence of the ethical encounter.

Maybe the lesson for those of us living safe from threats of knife attacks from either Palestinian or Jewish terrorists in this strange time, is two-fold.
For those of us for whom plots to damage others occasionally well up in our souls, we need to know that plotting might feel acceptable, but the actuality of hurt can never be justified. We need to train ourselves to listen out for the voice of the angel telling us that the hurt of one human by another can never and must never be justified.

And for those of us who are subject to attack we need to find a way to share our humanity even at the point of a knife. That sounds dangerous. It is dangerous. It's not for everyone, nor for every circumstance. Of course big walls and barbed wire have their part to play in keeping us safe. But someone, somewhere, needs to find the ability to reach towards the humanity of those who wish us harm, and confront that wish with our soul laid bare - as Levinas argues so persuasively. Even writing this feels almost impossibly hard. It is almost impossibly hard. Thank God there are however heroes  - like Rabbi Asherman - who have the strength of soul to fight hatred with Torah and violence with hope. I wish him a speedy healing from the injuries he suffered in the attack and commend the organisation he leads to all,

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Jeremy
You can see the video and interview I refer to here

You can read Rabbi Asherman's reflections on the attack here a URL which offers links to opportunities to find out more about Rabbis for Human Rights and donate to support their important work.

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