Barry Lerer
Senior Rabbi, Central Synagogue London

What History Means to the Jewish People

Over the last week, we have continued to see some shocking scenes in the USA and here in the UK, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd.

In the USA Statues of Confederate leaders and Christopher Columbus have been torn down, as pressure grows on authorities to remove monuments connected to slavery and colonialism.

Here in the UK, the attention has also turned to street names, and gravestones. Residents of Colston Road, Bristol have covered over their street sign and placed a suggestion box for new names underneath, four days after a statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled into the city’s harbour.

Paint was thrown at a statue of Admiral Lord Nelson at Deptford Town Hall in South East London, while the gravestone of famed music hall singer GH Elliott was covered up in East Sussex.

With a website entitled toppletheracists.org, 92 statues and monuments in the UK have been earmarked as being racist or connected to slavery, as well as names of public buildings, pubs and streets.

Perhaps there is an argument that it does not make sense to continue to honour people who are essentially famous for doing things which were clearly unacceptable, such as people that fought to defend the practice of slavery. But it hasn’t stopped there.

Along with this, major corporations have withdrawn classic TV comedies and  Films from digital platforms- it feels as if Britain is trying to erase and revise its past.

In his seminal work 1984, George Orwell wrote: “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped.

There is no word in the Hebrew language for History. In Modern Hebrew, we use the word Historia but that’s been borrowed from the Greek.

This is because there is no such thing as “history” in Judaism.

As far as Judaism is concerned, history is not about the past. It is about the future. We look back to look forward.

One of those who has come under criticism for racist views and had his statue in Parliament square vandalised, on the Anniversary of D-DAY no less, Winston Churchill once said “the farther backward you look the farther forward you can see.”

A Kosher animal has two signs-it must chew the cud and have split hooves. Chewing the cud is regurgitation – it is a connection to the past. Split hooves represent movement- it’s the future. Because the Jewish people is manifested by a deep respect and reverence for the past­…. and at the same time we have a confident faith and hope in the future and glory that it holds.

Much of Jewish tradition and ritual draws on the re-enactment of past events. On our festivals, it’s not just about practicing certain rituals, rather it’s experiential- we relive our experiences from the past. And that’s why after 2000 years we still sit on the floor and mourn the destruction of the Temple on Tisha b’Av and why we sit in booths on Succot to memorialise the booths that our ancestors dwelt in, in the wilderness 3,5000 years ago.

On Seder night we actually have an obligation to see ourselves as if we were freed from Egypt. So, to recreate those feelings of slavery – we have saltwater, bitter herbs, Matza– the Bread of Affliction and to celebrate our freedom we have four cups of wine, and we lean as we drink them. We do this because our future is predicated on our past.

This week’s portion of Behaalotecha, and indeed much of the book of Bamidbar is replete with unpleasant episodes of the Children of Israel’s journey in the wilderness. The complainers who are dissatisfied with the manna from Heaven and the bringing of the quail. The incident of Eldad and Meidad. The story of Miriam speaking Lashon hara about Moshe’s wife.

Yet Hashem felt it was important to keep these negative stories in the Torah for us to learn from going forward.

There is an apocryphal story told of a village that was getting a brand new sefer Torah and there was much excitement. One of the women in the community had spent months decorating the most ornate and beautiful Torah cover to go on the new Torah. But at the Hachnasat Sefer Torah when the new Torah arrived it was clear that the cover was too small for the Torah. What a shame. This woman had spent so much time making it and it wasn’t the right size….then one of the people in the town came up with an idea—cut the Torah and that should make it fit!

We don’t cut the Torah. It is there for us to learn from warts and all. It does not need revision.

One of the first words we teach our children to sing are “Torah Tziva Lanu Moshe Morasha Kehillat Yakov” The Torah that Moses Commanded us, is the heritage of the Congregation of Jacob. If we look back and learn the lessons of the past, from our Torah-then our children and grandchildren will have a morasha, a heritage safe for them -going forward – to pass down to the future generations.

If you take away our past, you take away our future.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
A community Rabbi for over 18 years, Rabbi Lerer is Senior Rabbi at Central Synagogue London. He also teaches in the Beis 6th Form Programme at Hasmonean High School.
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