Some Thoughts on Harmony In Judaism

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg explores the presence of harmony and disharmony in Judaism, acknowledging that there is "an obvious Hebrew equivalent for ‘harmony’, the familiar word Shalom. Generally rendered in translations of the Hebrew Bible or liturgy as ‘peace’, the root meaning of shalomis ‘wholeness’."

I – Harmony and disharmony

I experience harmony and disharmony on an almost daily basis. I find harmony in the quiet of listening, to the wind, the birds, the sound of running water, the words of favourite poems and prayers; I find it in absorbed attentiveness to another person’s memories, reflections, soul. My heart settles and I feel at one.

I encounter disharmony in the unrelenting news of disaster, shootings, a suicide bomb in a crowded market, desperate refugees drowned at sea, floods, drought, children, animals, trees all weak with thirst; I experience it in lies from political leaders, abusive conduct, gratuitous cruelty, casual heartlessness and contempt. I shrink back, afraid. I don’t know precisely of what nature the trouble will be; I don’t know exactly from where it will come. But the intuition of imminent disaster, from which I find it ever harder to escape and only for diminishing periods of time, sometimes leads me close to despair.

I often feel as if the good in the world, the gracious, the compassionate and the harmonious, is discontinuous with the discordant, the violent, and the cruel, as if they formed two distinct and separate worlds. I would like to draw the causes of disharmony and everything which perpetuates it closer to where the influence of harmony can disentangle, calm and ultimately transform its terrifying discord. The brief reflections in this essay, rooted in classical and mystical Jewish exegesis, are directed toward that end.

There is an obvious Hebrew equivalent for ‘harmony’, the familiar word Shalom. Generally rendered in translations of the Hebrew Bible or liturgy as ‘peace’, the root meaning of shalomis ‘wholeness’. Brown, Driver and Briggs, compilers of the classic Hebrew-Aramaic Lexicon, explain shalom first as ‘completeness’, followed by ‘soundness, welfare, peace’. (BDB 1022b)

Shalomis the final word of the central Jewish prayer recited three times on every weekday, as well as on every Sabbath and festival without exception. Known as the Amidahor ‘standing prayer’, it opens with praises of God, and on weekdays contains a series of petitions for knowledge, forgiveness, healing, sustenance, justice and hope. It always concludes with thanksgiving. The final paragraph is a request for ‘peace, goodness, blessing, grace, loving-kindness and mercy’; the closing word is peace. Thus, shalomis the culmination not only of all spiritual but also of all practical aspiration; it is the goal of our struggle for physical and moral restoration, for the wellbeing of nature and the attainment of social and political justice.

This key prayer is followed by a short meditation ending with the hope that God ‘who makes peace (shalom) on high will make peace for us and for all Israel’. Today many worshippers add ‘and for all the inhabitants of the earth’.

In a fanciful, but telling, flight of imagination the rabbis try to envision what peace ‘on high’ might look like. They understand it not as an undifferentiated unity in which all existence passively reflects the radiance of God’s glory. Rather, it is a domain of co-existence and reconciliation between what would normally be regarded as mutually exclusive opposites, fire and water, heat and hail. This has obvious implications for peace on earth: it does not imply passive abandonment to the rule of God which will one day come to rest like a magic mist, ending the strife of a conflicted humanity. Rather, it will involve the challenging effort to reconcile and harmonise the aspirations of different people, diverse cultures and above all the needs of humankind and the natural world. Shalom is the wise and insightful transmutation of discord into the mutuality of harmony.

We cannot begin this task of transformation unless we are categorically honest about the disharmony, disunity and destruction with which we have to work.

In a much-quoted aphorism, the Hasidic teacher Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotsk observed that ‘there is nothing more whole (shalem) than a heart that is broken’. [1] He was surely not advocating heart-ache; rather, he wanted to emphasise how the journey toward wholeness must begin with acute sensitivity to the pain about us and within us. We have to acknowledge not just life’s wonder, but also its cruelty and injustice. Abraham Joshua Heschel, a spiritual heir to the Rebbe of Kotsk, responded with moral outrage to those who blithely claimed that God was at home in the world. God is not at home in our world, he insisted. [2] On the contrary, our conduct has repeatedly driven God into exile. Yet God longs for an enduring home in our souls and societies. Our task is to transform the world into a place where God is no longer an outcast, an unwanted refugee.

II – Where shall I find You not?

Where, then, is God? Few lines sum up the all-present, ever-absent, elusive nature of the divine as succinctly as the opening of a famous composition by the eleventh century Jewish-Spanish poet Yehudah Halevi:

God, where shall I find you? And where shall I find you not?

‘Where shall I find you not?’ To the mystics, God is present in all things. ‘Do not say, “This is a stone”, wrote the sixteenth century Kabbalist Moses Cordovero. ‘God forbid! Rather, all existence is God, and the stone is a thing pervaded by divinity’. [3] This is presumably a deliberately provocative expression of the understanding that the world, creation itself, is revelation.

‘The world was created in Ten Utterances’ teaches the Mishnah, a central second-century rabbinic code of law and lore. (Avot 5:1) The reference is to the ten times the word Vayomer ‘And God said’ is repeated in the first chapter of Genesis, from ‘God said “Let there be light”’ until ‘God said, “Let us make humankind”’. The Talmud, which never lets inaccuracies pass without comment, notes that there are in fact only nine such declarations. This difficulty is resolved by claiming that Bereshit,the opening word of the Hebrew Bible, is itself an utterance, the articulation of the beginning of the beginning. These Ten Utterances at creation correspond to and complement the Ten Commandments and the giving of the Torah at the later theophany at Mount Sinai. Like the Torah, nature itself must be understood as sacred text, replete with the divine presence. [4]

To the mystics, God’s speech is not a momentary fiat, fulfilled and finished once the world has been created. Rather, God’s speech is continuous and unending. It is the unceasing flow of energy which animates all existence, always. The daily morning prayers speak of God as ‘renewing each day the work of creation’. This is not meant as metaphor; rather the constant movement of night into day, bud into leaf, seed into harvest, is an expression of the ceaseless sacred vitality present in all life, throughout all time. Perhaps this is what Wordsworth intended when he wrote, in Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey, of

A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

This understanding of nature does not imply a theology in which all that happens is for the best. On the contrary, in so far as God is present in creation, God is rendered vulnerable to its shocks and sorrows. As the rabbinic saying goes, despite all perversity and wrong ‘the world continues to be conducted according to its natural course’. [5] Any ultimate pattern of justice remains at best inscrutable. Life moves on, often unjust and unfair, causing pain even to God. As Isaiah well understood, ‘In all [the people’s] affliction God was afflicted’ (63:9). Where humanity suffers, God suffers too; the world gives not only us but also God ample cause for anguish.

Yet in moments of attunement and intuition, in contemplation or prayer, we may nevertheless apprehend a deeper music. For all creation sings, as Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the great twentieth century Hasidic teacher, known after his martyrdom as the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, wrote:

The fundamental reason all beings are created is so that they should sing, for in this way they reveal the greatness of God. Every single created being sings, as we know from the Chapter of Song. Thus, each and every being reveals a spark of the glory of the God of blessings. [6]

True prayer occurs when the melody within us, stirred by intuitions of harmony, joins with the song of all existence; when God’s presence inside us calls out to the presence of God in everything all about us. Even in the most terrible months of starvation, murder and deportation in the ghetto, he maintained this understanding that the voice of God can be heard in all life.

From a spiritual perspective, the pursuit of knowledge has as its goal not the amassing of information, but the repeated attainment of such awareness. It is to this that the Hebrew word da’at, knowledge, in its deepest sense refers. The daily prayer includes a blessing to God who ‘grants the grace of da’at, knowledge’. Maimonides explains such knowledge as deriving from the love of God, which inspires us to step forward in wonder and study the world as God’s work. Overwhelmed by the majesty of creation, we then take a step back in humility and awe. To the mystics, the sphere of da’at, knowledge, derives from the coming together of the spark of wisdom, chochmah, and the depth of intuitive understanding, binah. Thus, when we pray each day for knowledge, what we seek is not to be better informed but to have a more comprehending soul.

III – Where shall I find You?

Deeply conscious of God’s omnipresence, Yehudah Halevi nevertheless asks, ‘Where shall I find you?’ as if God was hidden and undiscoverable. However present in the world God may secretly be, there are ample reasons for experiencing God as absent. In the face of the brutality, injustice and cruelty of life, this can often seem like a conclusion hard, if not impossible, to escape.

Jewish theology has repeatedly been forced to confront the issue of God’s apparent absence. In the Hebrew Bible, entry into the Promised Land represents the fulfilment of God’s providence. Yet defeat and exile was not understood as the opposite. It did not portend the death of God or the negation of God’s power; rather, it was interpreted as punishment for Israel’s misdeeds. ‘I will surely hide my face’, said Moses of God in his final song before his death. (Deuteronomy 31:17) With the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 576BCE, and, more enduringly, by Rome in 70CE, it became a cornerstone of rabbinic theology that, far from abandoning the Jewish People forever, God had concealed or withdrawn the divine providence temporarily only, until both the people had repented and God’s long-delayed appointed time had arrived. This hope and faith sustained the community and its scholars in the face of repeated marginalisation, ghettoisation, persecution and expulsions throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, especially in Europe. It was the rabbinic response to the claim that God had permanently forsaken the Synagogue and taken the Church as the new bride in its place.

Yet even then the very God who, reluctantly and painfully, allowed the Jewish people to be driven into exile was also experienced as suffering alongside them. The Talmud records how, in the second century, Rabbi Yossei entered a ruin to pray, a metaphor for contemplating the sacking of Jerusalem. When he emerged, Elijah asked him what he had heard during his meditations. ‘A sound of moaning like a dove’, he replied. The prophet explained that this was the voice of God weeping and mourning the destruction of the temple and the dispersion of the people: ‘Alas for the father who has exiled his own children’. [7] To the mystics, even though God the father might now be distant, the Shechinah, the feminine aspect of the divine presence, nevertheless remained with the people wherever they were driven throughout their many exiles. From the root shochen, ‘dwell’, the Shechinah represented the immanent, indwelling aspect of the divine, itself in exile from the transcendent Kadosh Baruch Hu, Holy Blessed One, with whom she longed to be reunited. Without this sacred union, which occurs periodically on the holy Sabbath, and will become permanent in the much-awaited end-time of redemption, God’s ultimate providence would remain hidden.

The popular nineteenth century Hasidic teacher, Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Ger, added a profound twist to this idea of the hidden God. He noted that the Torah uses the double-form of the verb ‘hide’: haster astir, ‘I will hide, surely hide’. This intensive form of the verb is referred to grammatically as the infinite absolute. But he interpreted it to mean that the fact that God is hidden will itself become hidden: ‘I will hide the fact that I am in hiding’. In other words, we won’t even realise that there is anything ‘out there’, any spiritual reality at all, for which we ought to be searching. [8]

Given the context of a rapidly encroaching secularism, he may have been trying to explain the increasing abandonment of traditional faith and practice. Confronted since then both with the negation of God’s manifest presence in history in the Nazi Holocaust, and with the vastly increased capacity of science to offer persuasive materialist explanations of virtually all phenomena, it is not difficult to reflect on both human and natural history and come to the conclusion that faith is absurd, disproven, a fantasy readily explained away in psychological or anthropological terms. In such a context Yehudah Halevi’s opening line feels less like a question and more like a cry of despair: ‘God, where shall I find you?’

The kabbalists had other ways of explaining the seeming absence of God. If, in the words of the Zohar, the Book of Splendour, the central text of Jewish mysticism, God was everywhere, ‘filling all worlds and mover of all worlds’, then there could be no space free of the divine essence in which physical matter could endure. In order to fashion the world, God therefore ‘withdrew’ the divine self in an act of tsimtsum, contraction. In this seemingly God-free zone creation could now take place. And yet an impression, or shadow, of the divine stayed, and remains within all things.

In a later development, Lurianic Kabbalah offered a different aetiology for this presence of the holy within the material world.  The vessels intended to contain the divine energy as it flowed down stage by stage to form physical matter shattered under the pressure. The sacred sparks from this cosmic catastrophe then lay, and still lie today, scattered across creation and concealed within all things. The task of the God-seeker is to find them and, through the awareness of their presence, reunite them with the sacred whole to which they truly belong.

The need to rediscover and reinstate the holy, both in contemplation and action, haunts and inspires me. I long for such connection, when the seemingly invisible sacredness which sings in all existence like a river frozen over, which we know to be there but cannot perceive, becomes apparent in moments of awareness and awe. Afterwards, not only the vivid reality but also the memory of such experiences demands response: what are we doing to respect, protect, speak out on behalf of the voice of God crying unheard, weeping as well as singing from within all nature and all humanity? How can we allow ourselves to fail, betraying God, ourselves and all creation? How can we go on living the same as before, now that we know, now that we’ve heard?

God’s very hiddenness calls out, a paradoxical, counter-intuitive revelation through the eloquence of silence and seeming absence, amidst our ignorance and frequent contempt. It commands us no less compellingly than any direct voice from heaven. It forces us to ask ourselves: How must I now act?

IV – The cry of the earth and our response

In a final public address just days before his death, the moral philosopher Hans Jonas surprised his audience by not talking about the Holocaust. His mother had perished in Auschwitz and he had spoken eloquently on the subject on previous occasions. Instead, he observed that humanity now faced a challenge which made even the horrors of racism seem trivial in comparison:

The latest revelation – from no Mount Sinai, from no Mount of the Sermon, from no Bo (tree of Buddha) – is the outcry of mute things themselves that we must heed by curbing our powers over creation, lest we perish together on a wasteland of what was creation. [9]

Jonas’s address was published posthumously as The Outcry of Mute Things. He died in 1993; his warning has only become more urgent since. What he considered mute has proved to have discomfiting modes of expression: silence, where there used to be birdsong; drought and flooding where there used to be a reasonably beneficent climate; hurricanes and tsunamis where there were once endurable storms and strong winds.

Yet Jonas’s choice of the word ‘mute’ remains apt. In the public square, in the profit-oriented discourse of multinational finance, in the angry short-termism of political self-interest, nature has neither votes nor money and therefore no voice.

To the outcry of mute things must be added za’akat dalim, the cry of the poor, which Pope Francis included with compelling, heart-felt eloquence in his encyclical on the environment Laudato Si:

I will point to the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet, the conviction that everything in the world is connected, the critique of new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology, the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress, the value proper to each creature, the human mean­ing of ecology…[10]

It is not a morally adequate response to withdraw permanently from the anguish of life into the happier soul-space of its hidden harmony. Whether through prayer, silence, yoga, music, quiet companionship or forest walks, we need to replenish our spirits by listening to and experiencing ourselves as part of that melody. But the purpose of such retreat must be to regain the inspiration and energy to work within the pain and disharmony of the world as it patently is. Contemplation is not enough; unless it translates into ethical action, it risks degenerating into spiritual narcissism.

Three things, wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel, compelled him to enter the fray of public political action: the countless onslaughts of world events on his inner life, the realisation that ‘indifference to evil is worse than evil itself’, and the powerful example of the moral passion and outspoken courage of the Hebrew prophets. [11] I aspire to following him, for precisely the same reasons.

Judaism has always understood that human beings are created to act, ‘to perform the mitzvot’, the divine commandments, as Jewish tradition has understood and continues to interpret them. They are co-extensive with life itself, and address every aspect of the existential challenges which confront us.

From the first, we are required to ‘fill the earth and rule it’ (Genesis 1:28). The meaning of these words has been much disputed. It has been quoted as the basis of the claim that the so-called ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’ is essentially anthropocentric and imperialist: humankind has an unlimited right to dominate and exploit nature. But sensitivity to the Hebrew Bible overall makes it clear that this is not the relationship between God, humanity and the world which the text communicates. Rather, human beings are entrusted by God to be stewards and caretakers of creation, as in the often quoted and disturbingly contemporary warning which the rabbis put into God’s mouth: ‘Do not destroy my world because there is no one who can come after you and put it right’. [12]

A more apposite and significant Biblical source on which to base our responsibilities is the verse from the second chapter of Genesis: ‘God took the human being and placed him in the garden to work it and keep it’ (2:15). The garden represents the world; whereas human beings are entitled to work the earth, we are above all responsible for caring for it and protecting the fullness, diversity and sustainability of creation. Ellen Davis offers an acute insight into the key verbs, ‘work’ and ‘keep’. Avad, ‘work’, generally denotes not just work itself, but working for and serving, as in its frequent usage to indicate the service of God. Hence humanity’s task should be viewed as ‘working for the garden, serving its needs. Even the connotation of worship (cautiously implied) may inform our understanding’. Similarly, Shamar, ‘keep’, indicates not only preserving but also observing and obeying, as in the fourth commandment: ‘Shamor – Keep the Sabbath day and make it holy’ (Deuteronomy 5:12). Hence, she concludes, ‘the human is charged to “keep” the garden and at the same time to “observe” it, to learn from it and respect the limits that pertain to it’. [13]

The kabbalists understood these divinely mandated tasks as tikkun, restoration or reparation. According to the doctrine of Lurianic Kabbalah referred to earlier and popularised in Hasidism, the purpose of life is to discover and gather back together the scattered sparks of divinity concealed within all creation. This is achieved spiritually by trying to maintain an awareness of the deeper reality hidden within outer, material appearances; to remember always that, as Hopkins writes in God’s Grandeur, ‘There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.’

Such sensitivity is both developed by and responded to through carrying out the mitzvot, God’s commands, the building blocks of all traditional Jewish life. We are under the ceaseless obligation to do. No opportunity, no action is irrelevant. Saying a blessing before eating constitutes an acknowledgement that we do not, in the deepest sense, ‘own’ anything and that life and everything which sustains it is a gift from God. Leaving the corners of the fields unharvested for the poor and refugees is a reminder that we are all ‘strangers on the earth’ (Psalm 119:19) dependent on its gifts and on each other. Nowhere is devoid of God’s presence; nothing is too insignificant to matter. Everything demands our spiritual and ethical response.

The contemporary theologian Arthur Green maintains the Kabbalistic discourse while stressing what we as human beings must contribute to a world which appears spiritually and ethically indifferent:

The flow of life as we experience it is morally blind. Recent Jewish memory can give more than sufficient testimony to that truth. But as humans we are here to direct that flow of life, to lead the divine energy in the world in the direction of compassion. We affirm that compassion is divine, that it is the presence of Y-H-W-H within us that causes us to give, to love generously, and to care. In this way, we truly become the viceroys of Y-H-W-H on earth. [14]

His reference to ‘compassion’ is rooted in the Kabbalistic understanding that hesed, loving-kindness, is one of the ten Sefirot, the sacred energies which permeate existence. Yet the presence or absence of hesed in this world depends on us, on our willingness to transform it through our conduct from invisible potential into practical social, political and environmental realities. Our awareness of the divine has limited value if it does not motivate us to turn the ‘morally blind’ flow of existence into repeated acts of compassion and solidarity. In spelling out God’s name as a transliteration of the Tetragrammaton, derived from the verb ‘to be’, Arthur Green emphasises how God’s presence in the world is in a state of constant becoming, because the actualisation of God’s implicit will depends overwhelmingly on us. In this material world the infinite and omnipresent deity needs us to bring about the realisation of what Hans Jonas described as God’s dreams and God’s ideals. [15]

Perhaps, therefore, the most compelling answer to Yehudah Halevi’s question, ‘God, where shall I find you?’ is: wherever we enable you to be.

V –Practical action

From the Torah onwards, Judaism requires us to engage in specific areas and responsibilities in order to fulfil a vision of rightness or wholeness in every domain of life. In the words of the ancient Aleinu prayer which concludes every Jewish service, our duty is letakken olam bemalchut Shaddai, ‘to repair the world under the sovereignty of God’. The comprehensive goal of such reparation is ge’ulah, redemption.

Ge’ulahin its most general sense refers in the Bible to ultimate salvation under the sovereignty of God. All things are in service to redemption, even liberty itself. Thus, Moses never challenges Pharaoh to ‘let my people go’, but always to let them go so that they can serve God. The goal is not freedom for freedom’s sake, but a world governed by justice practised with compassion. In a redeemed word, everything exists in its appropriate place in relation to everything else; it is a world of shalom, at peace, whole; a world in which nature, humanity and God are in harmony with each other.

The central and defining feature of a redeemed world is that the earth belongs to God and that life must be ordered accordingly. At the heart of this vision is the understanding that land, and life, are ours on loan only, because ‘the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof’ (Psalm 24:1). That very earth has a relationship with God and may not simply be exploited to satisfy human need; it too has the right to respect and restoration. All life is God’s creation, not just humankind; God has ‘pity for the earth and mercy for all creatures’ (the daily morning service). The aim and ideal of every human life is the acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty through how we treat each domain of creation, land, nature, animal life and one another. This is the purpose to which we are commanded to put the privilege of freedom and national sovereignty. It is towards this goal that our work of tikkun, the daily work of reparation in all things great and small, must be oriented.

Admittedly the Torah legislates for Ancient Israel. But it is both possible and essential to extrapolate from these principles a universal ideal of liberty and dignity as well the specific areas in which we must urgently engage to move away from destruction and towards redemption.

In these local, national and international tasks of tikkun, we are collectively and without exception responsible towards each other. This has rarely been expressed with such eloquence as in the letter Martin Luther King wrote from Birmingham City Jail in response to the accusation that he was an interfering outsider who had no business in the affairs of the State of Alabama:

All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality. [16]

Martin Luther King’s close friend Abraham Joshua Heschel walked beside him at the head of the famous march for civil rights in Selma. When asked afterwards what he, a teacher of Hasidism and spirituality, had been doing there, he replied: ‘I was praying with my legs’. [17]

We have to pray, and act, with our hearts, minds, hands and feet. In no sphere is this more urgent than in preserving the earth itself and healing the damage we have inflicted on it. Only the awareness of the depth of our mutual responsibility and the urgency of the need for collective action can save us and our planet.

VI Maintaining hope

Commenting on the duty to keep alight an everlasting flame on the menorah in the temple, the rabbis attributed to God a pithy saying consisting of just four words in the original Hebrew: Neri beyadecha, venerecha beyadi: ‘My light is in your hands, and your light is in mine.’

We are collectively responsible for God’s creation, for all life in this world. We have it in our power to put out the light, to destroy everything. We are entrusted with the opposite task: to serve, work and care for all living things, including not only our fellow human beings but animals, birds, plants and the health of the very elements, air, earth and water.

Creation, which, according to the great poem with which the Biblical narrative commences, began with God forming order out of chaos, is now in our hands and at our mercy. Our shared task, across all faiths, philosophies, nationalities and ethnicities is to transform cruelty into co-existence and disharmony into the harmony of true shalom. On this the lives of everything depend.

In these frightening times, when survival itself is at stake, we must not give up hope. We can afford neither indifference nor despair. In her most painful moments, when in the summer of 1942 Eti Hilesum was forced by the Nazis to leave her beloved Amsterdam for the transit camp of Westerbork in the north of Holland from where transports left regularly for Auschwitz, she wrote in her diary:

Dear God, these are anxious times…[O]ne thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold You responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. [18]

We, too, need to safeguard the piece of God in ourselves, and, wherever we can, in each other. Unlike Eti Hilesum, we are not alone, surrounded by enemies determined to kill us. We have allies within our communities, across our faiths and among people all over the world, whatever their ethnicity or philosophy. We all hold a spark of the sacred in our hands and hearts.

The danger is that we close those hands in the endeavour to grasp immediate gain. Instead we must open them, in prayer and action, for deeper awareness and greater commitment to repair and redeem ourselves and the world and bring it closer to the harmony of shalom.


  1. Menachem Mendel of Kotsk: a much-quoted aphorism attributed to him
  2. Abraham Joshua Heschel: Quest for God, 
  3. Or Ne’erav, 2:2, quoted in translation in Daniel C Matt: The Essential Kabbalah, p. 24
  4. For many today, including many Jews, it is in fact easier to appreciate the beauty, wonder and complexity of nature as a sacred text ‘charged with the grandeur of God’, than it may be to regard the written Bible as divine. In Judaism, the ‘Written Torah’ is always accompanied by the ‘Oral Torah’, the unceasing process of – often radical – interpretation and re-interpretation. By this means each generation has, through insight and creative exegesis, striven to encompass within the teachings of Torah all wisdom and every contemporary issue.
  5. Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 54b
  6. Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, Derech Hamelech to The New Year
  7. Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 3a
  8. Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Ger: Sefat Emet
  9. Hans Jonas: in Morality and Mortality, A Search for the Good after Auschwitz, p. 201-2
  10. Pope Francis: Laudato Si, summary
  11. Abraham Joshua Heschel: ‘My Reasons for Involvement in the Peace Movement’ (1973) in Moral Passion and Spiritual Audacity(ed. Susannah Heschel)
  12. Midrash Kohelet Rabbah
  13. Ellen Davis: Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian reading of the Bible(Cambridge University Press, 2009) p. 29 -30
  14. Arthur Green: Seek My Face: A Jewish Mystical Theology (2003) p. 93
  15. Hans Jonas: ‘The Concept of God after Auschwitz’ in Morality and Mortality, A Search for the Good after Auschwitz, paraphrasing p. 141
  16. Martin Luther King: Letter from Birmingham City Jail, widely accessible on the web
  17. Abraham Joshua Heschel: a response widely attributed to him and often misquoted as ‘I was praying with my feet’.
  18. The Diary of Etti Hilesum: entry for July 1942


Jonathan Wittenberg was born in Glasgow in 1957, to a family of German Jewish origin with rabbinic ancestors on both sides.The family moved to London in 1963, where he attended University College School, specialising in classical and modern languages. He further developed his love of literature when reading English at King’s College Cambridge (1976-9). After two years teaching and social work in Israel and England he took a PGCE at Goldsmith’s College, London. Already deeply involved in Jewish life, he trained for the rabbinate at Leo Baeck College London, receiving ordination in 1987, and continued his studies to gain a further rabbinic qualification from his teacher Dr. Aryeh Strikovsky in Israel. Since then he has worked as rabbi of the New North London Synagogue and has taken a leading role in the development of the Masorti Movement for traditional non-fundamentalist Judaism in England. In 2008 he was appointed Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism in the UK.

His publications include: ‘The Three Pillars of Judaism: A Search for Faith And Values’ (SCM Press, 1996); ‘The Laws of Life: A Guide to Traditional Jewish Practice at Times of Bereavement’ (Masorti Publications 1997) and ‘The Eternal Journey; Meditations on the Jewish Year’ (Joseph’s Bookstore 2001); The Silence of Dark Water: An Inner Journey (2008); Walking with the Light (2013); My Dear Ones: One family and The Final Solution (2016) and most recently Things my dog has taught me – about being a better human.

Photograph: Richard Dunne

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