The Jewish contribution to an Interfaith Conversation on the theme of Compassion and Mercy at Chichester Cathedral, 1 November 2016, which also included contributions from Catholic, Muslim and Buddhist religious leaders, concluding with Revd Dr Martin Warner, the Bishop of Chichester.

Good evening everyone. It is pleasure to be here and participate in this Interfaith Conversation about compassion. As I share a Jewish perspective with you, I am mindful of the date. On 18 July 1290, King Edward the Confessor signed an edict of expulsion determining that the Jews of England had to leave his realm by All Saints Day.[1] It was not until Oliver Cromwell extended an invitation to the Jews of Holland in the 1650s that there was a Jewish community in this country once more. [2] Much has transpired during the past 360 years. The last time I was here at Chichester Cathedral was for National Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January, when we commemorated the kindertransports that brought unaccompanied children from Europe to England.[3] In this way, 10,000 children, mostly Jewish, were saved from the horror of the Sho’ah[4] by the kindness and righteous action of strangers.

Compassion: a deep feeling of concern and care for others. If only there was more compassion in the world. If only people were less self-centred and indifferent to the needs of others. Perhaps, if there was more compassion, there would be less cruelty, persecution, oppression and tyranny. Perhaps, if there was more compassion Lord Dubbs, a former kindertransport child, would not feel compelled to dedicate his efforts to reminding the government of its commitment to allow 3000 unaccompanied refugee children to come to Britain.[5]

From the perspective of Jewish teaching, compassion – rachamim – is a quality, almost exclusively, of the Eternal One.

The Eternal One is essentially unknowable, but of course Judaism, like other religions, makes statements concerning the nature of the Divine and about the relationship of the Eternal to humanity. In the Torah, in the Book of Exodus, in the midst of the narrative of the Revelation of the Divine at Mount Sinai, we read in chapter 34 that the Eternal is “compassionate and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in love and truth” – rachum v’chanun, erech apayim, v’rav chesed ve’emet.[6]

The adjective, rachum, ‘compassionate’, and the noun, rachamim, ‘compassion’ are based on the Hebrew root, Reish Cheit Mem. And both are related to another noun based on the same root: rechem, meaning ‘womb’. In Psalm 103, we read: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Eternal has compassion on those who revere Him.”[7] However, contrary to the image of the Divine as compassionate ‘Father’, the compassion of the Eternal emanates from the womb.

So, what of human beings? We read in the first account of the creation in the Book of Genesis chapter 1 that ha-adam, ‘the human’ is created – both male and female – b’tzelem Elohim – ‘in the image of God’[8] Human power is not simply an ad hoc gift of the Divine. The first creation narrative seems to suggest that the human created ‘in the image of God’, is God-like in every respect and has absolute power over the rest of creation.[9]

But there are limits to the power of the human. The second account of creation in Genesis chapter 2 makes it clear that being ‘in the image of God’ is not the same thing as being God. The human, whose domain is now confined to a garden, which the human has the responsibility ‘to work and to keep’, is subject to the power of the Divine, and must not transgress the boundaries imposed by the Divine.[10]

The Book of Leviticus sets out the specifically Jewish way of negotiating our relationship as human beings with the Divine. Leviticus chapter 19 often referred to as the Holiness Code, which focuses on a host of ethical teachings, opens with these words:[11]

The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the entire congregation of the Israelites and say to them: You shall be holy – k’doshim – because I, the Eternal One Your God, am holy – kadosh.

According to the Book of Exodus, the slaves were liberated from slavery in order to serve God. “Let my people go that they may serve Me” is a repeated refrain.[12] And so, we find alongside the narrative of the Exodus and subsequent wanderings, the laws governing the social, economic, civic and political dimensions of society. The mitzvot, ‘commandments’ provide a framework for behaviour and action in the family, in the community, and in the wider world, which includes both ritual and ethical dimensions. Moreover, the law codes in the Torah are not simply an adjunct to the narrative. Significantly, although Jews and Christians share ‘the Ten Commandments’ – known within Jewish tradition as Aseret ha-Dibrot, ‘the Ten Utterances’ – the way in which they are read is slightly different. For Christians, the first commandment is, ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’[13] However, for Jews, the preceding verse constitutes the first commandment: ‘I am the Eternal your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.’[14] According to Jewish teaching, God is a liberator. Created in the image of God,[15] human beings are called to be liberators. Liberated from slavery, the ex-slaves who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, and their descendants, have a particular obligation to liberate the oppressed.

At the heart of the mitzvot, commandments, is the notion that the Jew, like the human pictured in the second creation narrative, is subject to the authority of the Divine. But this is only the most obvious aspect of the mitzvot. Just as important, the mitzvot centre on action, on practice. Made in the image of the Divine, like the Divine Creator, human beings are destined to create, to be productive, to act in the world. Of course, the underside of our creative capacity is our capacity for destruction. We act in the world for good and also for ill. The purpose of the mitzvot is to regulate our action in a constructive direction. Thoughts and feelings cannot be controlled and dictated, but behaviour can be regulated.

The first rabbis, who interpreted the mitzvot set out in the Torah in order to formulate a framework for Jewish life after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, identified a particular group of mitzvot, which they called g’milut chasadim, ‘deeds of loving kindness’. In Pirkey Avot, the collection of the wise aphorisms of the first generations of rabbinic sages, which is appended to the Mishnah, the first rabbinic code of Jewish law, edited around the year 200, we read:[16]

Simeon the righteous was one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly. He used to say: ‘the world stands on three pillars: Upon the Torah, and upon avodah – worship – and upon g’milut chasadim –deeds of loving kindness.’

Let us consider for a moment these pillars of the world. Torah: the source of Divine teaching; avodah – worship: the way in which we practice Divine teaching by acknowledging the Divine; g’milut chasadim – deeds of loving kindness: the way in which we practice Divine teaching through acts of loving kindness towards others. The emphasis is on practice; on what we do rather than what we feel. This is spelt out in the examples delineated in rabbinic literature of g’milut chasadim – of which, hospitality to guests – hachnasat or’chim – and visiting the sick – bikkur cholim – feature among the most important of the regular responsibilities of daily life.[17] The mitzvah of g’milut chasadim is the obligation to do these things: to practice loving kindness towards others in need.

The TaNaKh, the Hebrew Scriptures – sometimes referred to as the First Testament – in particular, the Torah and the books of the prophets, includes many exhortations to act justly and righteously – chiefly, towards the vulnerable and the marginal, most frequently designated as ‘the stranger, the orphan and the widow.’ For example, we read in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 24: ‘You shall not pervert the justice due to the stranger, or to the orphan; or take the widow’s garment as a pledge; / rather, you shall remember that you were slave in Egypt…’[18] Similarly, Leviticus chapter 19 includes a host of mitzvot that dictate ethical action in all areas of life. It is here that we find the exhortation, not only to love one’s neighbour, but to love the stranger. We read: ‘When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not oppress him. / The stranger that dwells with you shall be as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Eternal your God.’[19]

V’ahavta – ‘And you shall love’. The same Hebrew expression used in connection with love of the Divine in Deuteronomy chapter 6, in the text that became the first paragraph of the Sh’ma,[20] is used, both of love of one’s neighbour and love of the stranger. Of course, love cannot be commanded. The rabbis translated the injunctions to love one’s neighbour and the stranger into g’milut chasadim – deeds of loving kindness towards others, and tz’dakah, righteous action in the economic sphere.

Tz’dakah is often translated as ‘charity’, but this translation is misleading. The word for charity is based on the Latin word, caritas, which essentially, means love. Tz’dakah by contrast, is based on the root Tzadi Dalet Kuf to act justly or righteously, and is related to the word, tzedek, meaning ‘justice.’ In Deuteronomy chapter 16, in the context of a section dealing with the system of justice and the appointment of judges, we read: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue.’[21] Practising the mitzvah of tz’dakah involves participating in putting right the injustice of economic inequality. It is for this reason that the Jewish equivalent to Christian Aid is called Tzedek, an organisation which targets extreme poverty.[22]

While the practice of tz’dakah focuses on the practical alleviation of poverty and the redistribution of wealth, the practice of g’milut chasadim focuses on treating those in need with loving kindness. Both centre on action.

So what of empathy? We read in the Book of Exodus, chapter 23: “Do not oppress a stranger, for you know the nefesh – ‘being’ – of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”[23] In this verse, the commandment not to oppress the stranger suggests that remembrance of our own experience of oppression might motivate us not to oppress others. However, the fact that injunctions concerning the stranger are repeated in different ways, 36 times in the Torah suggests that empathy is not necessarily an automatic response.

According to Jewish teaching, whether or not we feel compassion towards others, we are required to practice loving kindness towards others. This requirement is particularly urgent today in the context of the global refugee crisis. One of the specific expressions of g’milut chasadim identified by the rabbinic sages is pidyon sh’vuyim – ‘redeeming captives.’ Unsurprisingly, given the centrality accorded to the Exodus narrative in Jewish teaching and liturgy, according to the Talmud, edited around 500 CE, which includes the Mishnah, the first code of rabbinic law, and the commentary on it by subsequent generations of scholars, ransoming captives is considered, ‘a great commandment’ – mitzvah rabbah.[24]

The imperative to ransom captives takes on a particular resonance today in the context of the millions of people caught up in deadly conflicts across the globe, not least, in Syria and Iraq. As we think, in particular, of the people of Aleppo, trapped in a war-torn city, subjected to daily terrors and deprived of the basic needs of daily life, powerless in the face of hate-fuelled violence and wanton destruction, it is clear that we have a responsibility to liberate them from their captivity and provide them with a secure refuge.

Of course, it would be wonderful if everyone would feel compassion towards others. However, when it comes to responding to persecution and injustice, feelings of compassion are not enough; we need to act. From a Jewish perspective, created in the image of God, human beings are challenged to use our human powers to practice righteousness and deeds of loving kindness – and to liberate the oppressed.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah, Chichester Cathedral, 1 November 2016

  1. See: A History of the Jews in England by Cecil Roth. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1978. Chapter 4, The Expulsion, 1272-90, pp. 68-90.
  2. Ibid: Chapter7. Readmission, 1609-64, pp. 149-172.
  3. The NHMD event at Chichester Cathedral – – focused on Nicholas Winton’s rescue of 669 children from Czechoslovakia: The kindertransports brought 10,000 children to England – mostly Jewish – and for the most part from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. See: For the programme of the NHMD, see:
  4. Meaning, ‘devastation’; the term used by the Jewish community in preference to ‘holocaust’, which means ‘burnt offering’, and places the Nazi programme of mass murder into an inappropriate sacred context.
  5. For recent news on this, see: Support Refugees, A Jewish Response to the Refugee Crisis JCORE, ‘the leading Jewish voice on race and asylum’ and Tzelem, ‘the rabbinic call for social and economic justice in the UK’ are among other groups campaigning for unaccompanied child refugees to be admitted .
  6. Exodus 34: 6.
  7. Psalm 103:13.
  8. Genesis 1:27.
  9. Gen. 1:28.
  10. For an analysis of the two creation narratives, see: Chapter 1 Making Trouble from Day One: Re-Reading the Creation Stories in Genesis, in my book, Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul Books, 2012).
  11. Leviticus 19:1-2.
  12. Ex. 9:1.
  13. Ex. 20:3.
  14. Ex. 20:2.
  15. Gen. 1:27, states that the human being is created b’tzelem Elohim, ‘in the image of God.’
  16. Pirkey Avot, 1:2.
  17. There are various passages in rabbinic literature giving different examples of g’milut chasadim. See, for example: Mishnah Pe’ah 1:1, Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 127a,
  18. Deuteronomy 24:17-18a.
  19. Lev. 19:33-35. The commandment to ‘love your neighbour’ is found at verse 18.
  20. Deut. 6:4-9. Recited daily in evening morning services, known as the Sh’ma, because it begins: Sh’ma! Yisraeil: Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad – ‘Listen! Israel: the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One.’ It continues: ‘You shall love the Eternal One your God, with all your heart, and with all your being, and with all your might.’
  21. Deut. 16:20.
  22. See:
  23. Ex. 23:9.
  24. The reason: ‘…because captivity is worse than starvation or death’ (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 8b).