What does the Lord require of you, but to behave justly, love chesed and walk unobtrusively with your G-d. (Micah 6:8)
The world is currently mourning the death of Issur Danielovitch at the age of 103. Issur was born in 1916 to impoverished parents who had fled the pogroms in eastern Europe and made for the 'goldene medinah' of the United States.
But in order to succeed in his chosen career, Issur decided to change his name to something slightly more swashbuckling, and thus Kirk Douglas was born. Unfortunately, however, though praising his performance as a slave in the 1960 epic, Spartacus, quite a few news outlets didn't announce the significant fact that this huge star of stage and screen was actually Jewish, even though they immediately turned to an item on the huge rise in antisemitism recorded in the UK this year.
Yes, being Jewish isn't always fun. In fact many would say it's a burden – all that talent and yet you have to hide your origins. Maybe because of all this anti-Jewish hostility in the Promised Land of the USA, Douglas didn't live a very Jewishly observant life once he left home (and was imprisoned because he had nowhere else to go, or slept rough), but then he made it – the American dream – he became a star, and lived the life that goes with it.
But, later in life, the now famous celebrity miraculously survived a near-fatal accident and decided from that moment on to devote the time he had left to what matters. And so, towards the end of his life, Kirk Douglas and his wife spent all their money and energy on building children's playgrounds in parks around the USA.
How serendipitous therefore that the Jewish community have just finished celebrating the biblical passage of Beshalach.
This famous Exodus narrative, which anticipates the spring festival of Pesach, includes the crossing of the Reed (not Red) Sea, the ups and the downs of the children of Israel themselves, the manna from heaven and the back-stabbings from Amalek, who pretends to be their friend and then betrays them at their weakest point. And this coming Shabbat we reach the biblical section of Yitro, the Midianite priest and father-in-law of Moses, who gives the latter some good advice.
What a contrast with Amalek, also not Jewish, whose main aim in life is to destroy the children of Israel by stabbing them in the back, the worst way possible. And how often has this type of treacherous behaviour been repeated in our history?
The biblical reading of Yitro also includes the famous Ten Utterances (to translate the Hebrew correctly). And here too there is a discrepancy. For in the original Hebrew version we have:
'I am the Lord your G-d, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.'
But many (some would say most) Christians don't include the words about slavery or Egypt in their changed version of the 10 'commandments'. For instance, as an acclaimed biography by Lyndal Roper, Regius Professor of History at Oxford University, makes clear with the unearthing of compelling evidence that had been deliberately repressed, Martin Luther hated Jews so much that he expunged all reference to them in his new Germany liturgy, simply censoring, editing, or drastically reinterpreting any mentions of Jews or their self-understanding of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).
As Rowan Williams has reminded me, however, even the 1662 Book of Common Prayer Holy Communion service (finalized a mere six years after Oliver Cromwell had permitted the Jews to return to England after their expulsion in 1290) omits the crucial phrase: 'who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery' (though Rowan also remembers being taught the whole text in his Welsh Sunday School as a child, in the days when people actually learned things by heart).
For many though, G-d is regarded as being so aloof and distant that He doesn't bother with the historical significance of what has just happened to the former slaves, once they have managed to escape Pharaoh's clutches, traversed the Reed Sea, and begun their 40-year wanderings in the desert – symbolizing the transition period between slavery and freedom.
For us Jews though, G-d wouldn't be G-d without having brought us out of slavery to freedom. Being a Jew is knowing what slavery is about and embarking on the long journey out of that state. For Jews, slavery is the very worst of evils. In emulating the G-d of our fathers, we are constantly trying to remove ourselves and others from all forms of slavery, servitude, shackles and unwarranted restrictions. In other words, we Jews constantly ask ourselves – what does it really mean to be free?
This is of course the $1,000 question. I take it to mean that you recognize your limitations at the same time as striving for what is right. What is right involves taking into account the needs and aspirations of your neighbours. This doesn't mean being weak, or a 'soft touch'. It means using empathy to its limits and being open - but at the end of the day remembering that there is a G-d out there who cannot be fooled.
So integrity is sacrosanct. If there is a conflict of interest between friendship and integrity, doing what is right must be paramount. Loving chesed means walking the tightrope between love of neighbour while keeping the precepts, which for observant Jews are 613, and often extremely difficult to do. And for a religious person (whether Jewish or Christian) walking unobtrusively with G-d means not coming over as 'holier than thou'. This is often the most difficult of all - internalizing religion while working for justice is a life-time's work, given that we are all mortal and prone to making mistakes.
But to throw out the baby with the bath water is also not to be recommended, and I believe that justice and mercy go together and are exemplified by the Hebrew word 'tsedakah', meaning both justice and mercy joined together. I believe that Christians could learn a great deal from Jewish teaching on this.
Micah's famous condensation of the 613 utterances into three core principles is more of a challenge for us than we might think, because all three are equally important.
Behaving justly while loving chesed and walking unobtrusively, but always with one's G-d in mind, is not at all easy. The temptation to privilege one or two of these injunctions at the expense of the third is difficult to resist. But for a life to be lived well, all three working together are essential.
Take heart, though. If we try and bear all these three principles in mind before we act, that is probably the best we, as mere mortals, can do.
Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.