New Life: resurrection, restoration and hope in Jewish and Christian faith

(Photo: Unsplash/Jake Givens)

In this latest installment of their Jewish-Christian dialogue, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Baron Williams of Oystermouth, and Hebrew scholar Dr Irene Lancaster discuss their different faith perspectives on resurrection and restoration, particularly in the context of the environment.

Rowan: Irene, you've been writing recently about death and resurrection in Jewish thinking and practice - a really wonderful piece, I thought - and I was reflecting on what this tells us about Jewish attitudes to the material world. Most of us are aware that Judaism is a faith that expresses what it believes about God in specific actions, actions towards others, actions of obedience to God. And what is hoped for is not some disembodied heaven but a restoration and transfiguration of the actual world we know. When we were corresponding recently about the sad death of Prince Philip, you remarked that he showed a practical concern for the environment that sometimes seemed more Jewish than Christian!

Can you say more about those aspects of Prince Philip's legacy that illustrate this? And perhaps also something about the particular resources that Judaism offers for how we approach our environmental responsibilities?

Irene: Rowan, thank you for your very kind words. I think you may be referring to this article written in August for CT about the Jewish way of death and dying. The article discusses the death of my father, my mother and then more recently, the rabbi who helped me with the death of my mother. This rabbi is now himself buried on the Mount of Olives.

It is true that we are all thinking about death at the moment. This is to be expected one year after the trauma of the Covid pandemic which has killed so many of our friends and family. And then, the Duke of Edinburgh dying just before his 100th birthday gave us all pause for thought. It was good that his funeral on April 17th included two Psalms that are particularly popular in the Jewish community, i.e. Psalm 107 and Psalm 104. Both about nature, the sea, G-d's creation as a whole, and sung beautifully by three men and one woman.

I don't know if people will take any comfort in my own definition of resurrection, which is based very closely on the Hebrew phrase 'techiat ha-metim'. This phrase means 'bringing the dead back to life' and the English verb 'remember' springs to mind. This idea is mentioned in the vision of the prophet, Ezekiel (chapter 37), in which he prophesies that the 'dry bones' of the exiles will come to life again, and that the people will become as one in their own land.

This image is crucial for Israel and in fact a popular cartoonist in the contemporary Israeli press is called 'Dry Bones'. To remember is to put the limbs back together again. For me and for many Jewish people, the main 'remembering' starts with Pesach in the spring month of Nissan ('the first of the months') followed by the triple Jewish holiday period of Yom Ha-Shoah, Yom Ha-Zikaron and Yom Ha-Atzmaut.

Coming after the commemoration of our Exodus from Egypt when we were all slaves, and which we enact around the table (Covid permitting) is the day on which Jews round the world remember the Shoah with candle lightings and intergenerational discussions of our families.

Then, one week later in the 2nd month of Iyyar, we commemorate Fallen Soldiers Day which, 24 hours later, morphs into Israel Independence Day. The word 'independence' in Hebrew is aligned to the words for 'bone' and for 'self'.

It is impossible for a people to feel free from slavery and servitude if they don't have a home to go to. I'm sure that's how you feel about your beloved Wales, for instance. That's how we feel about the reborn and re-limbed State of Israel, as described by the prophet Ezekiel in chapter 37 of his Book.

So, the coming together of these three festivals, straight after the Pesach festival of remembering our exodus from slavery and difficult journey to the Promised Land, brings back huge memories of Holocaust victims, present-day Jewish victims and the sense of self-hood gained by Jews now that we have our own political State once again.

By way of illustration of the intergenerational education done annually on this subject by grandchildren with their grandparents, is this article by my daughter, Kalela. Kalela's article about my late father, Max Rosenstrauz, elicited a huge response from around the world. On Yom Ha-Shoah I had spent some Zoom time with her, her husband and the grandchildren in Israel, retelling the tale, as I do every year, of the story of the escape of my own Mum and Dad at the time of the Shoah in Poland.

But this time, my daughter used the additional tool of a virtual map in order to drive home to the grandchildren precisely what my own father did to escape the Shoah in Poland in order to get to the USA and Canada, via Russia, Siberia and Japan. And, once settled in North America, why and how he decided to return to Europe and fight for the allies. After that, he worked for British Intelligence and attended the Nuremberg Trials.

So my father was no longer a victim, but actually a hero of the Shoah. This is the reinterpretation by the next generation of our family story - something I'd never - as a member of the second generation of Holocaust survivors - thought of before.

Therefore, in the view of many Jews, it is above all family, land, enjoyment and rejoicing which makes up the Jewish sense of resurrection and rebirth - something profoundly physical and ongoing - a process started by the idea of the rebirth of the Jewish people in their own land as 'the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.'

As a child, Prince Philip was largely saved by Jewish family members, or friends who admired Jews and Judaism. He was then taught by Kurt Hahn, the Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, who founded Gordonstoun, where Philip was very happy.

It was Kurt Hahn who advised Prince Philip to start his Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. I well remember the excitement in Haifa in 2007, when Prince Edward visited on behalf of his father and met those Israelis who had won awards. This included the daughter of one of my friends, who managed the Haifa Technion choir. However, the British Embassy made it clear that this visit was unofficial - and therefore tried their best to cancel out any good will.

This had already been the case when Prince Philip visited Yad Vashem in 1994 to honour his mother who was being celebrated as a Righteous Gentile. Princess Alice of Greece had saved the lives of a Jewish family in Athens during WWII.

The tragedy is that the British Foreign Office apparently disdained in this context to give official recognition to the significance not only of Yad Vashem but of the commemoration there of 'Righteous Gentiles' like Princess Alice. Yet, we've seen just how important this background of maternal heroism is to the understanding of Prince Philip's character and priorities.

So, Judaism esteems those who perform meritorious deeds - not those who simply pay lip service. In Judaism, the Shul is a focal point for all to learn and continue learning, and this makes sense of the fact that science and health play a crucial role in Jewish understanding and, in some circumstances, will outweigh the obligations of attending the physical meeting at Shul. These are priorities already stressed in the teaching of the Babylonian Gaonim, teachers working in what's now Iraq between about 700 and 1100 CE.

This is why Jews have done so well in the last year in responding to the challenges of Covid 19, acting responsibly and staying at home.

One of the things many Jews find difficult about Christianity is that it's hard to see churches as places where learning takes place. The Church is a hierarchical organisation and in my experience often doesn't seem interested in creating an educated laity and a real community where people learn together and act together for their common good. Meanwhile, clergy themselves are inadequately educated in the riches of the Church's Jewish origins, and we still hear language that echoes the ignorance and scapegoating of previous ages.

If you must have priests, at least make sure they know their own scriptures - and this includes knowing Jewish scripture properly. On top of this, there is still the legacy of generations of Christians who have stressed the hope of a distant heaven in a way that lessens their commitment to working for change on earth.

To my mind, Prince Phillip's plain speaking, love of the armed forces, emphasis on science and technology and devotion to duty spring from a source that I've never encountered among Christians, but have encountered all over the State of Israel. The way the only Jewish country in the world dealt with the coronavirus was nothing short of miraculous. And this even though Israelis are notoriously freedom-loving and disputatious! During this traumatic time, individual Israelis who love to be outside visiting their friends, put devotion to family and country first.

The UK could learn a great deal from the State of Israel, and also from Prince Philip, in my view. No wonder Prince William loved his time in Israel in 2018 - surrounded by enthusiastic young people, science and technology. And many of those young people, scientists and researchers are also religious. They go to Shul, keep all the festivals and generally see no differentiation whatsoever between religion and science. Of all the members of the royal family, it appears that Prince Philip came nearest to that ideal, and William seems to be following in his grandfather's footsteps.

When Prince William visited Israel in 2018 he happened to be on a street in Tel Aviv where he heard my daughter's Liverpool accent. Prince Williams started engaging my daughter in conversation, letting her know that her Scouse accent was beginning to fade and that she should do something about it. Esther gave as good as she got and changed the subject to Kate and the children.

However, one can imagine Prince Philip behaving like that and let's hope that Prince William's fun-loving nature and sense of humour keep him sane during the days ahead and during the time when he himself becomes king.

But I see Prince Phillip's early beginnings as having been crucial to his later outlook on life. Incidentally, given your nerve-racking experiences preaching sermons at Windsor, which, according to the press, had to last no longer than 8 minutes, this also seems pretty Israeli to me. I have also been in that situation, in a Shul in the centre of Jerusalem, where I had to preach a sermon in Hebrew in 5 minutes - and Hebrew isn't even my first language.

And, as in your own case, where Prince Philip knew the Greek NT very well, as you can imagine, most of that Jerusalem congregation knew the Hebrew Bible very well indeed, as well as Talmud and Midrash, and started quizzing me on my sermon as soon as the service was over. But I always took this as a compliment, Rowan. Nothing is more satisfying than having a congregation who knows more than you do - and that is something else that Christians could learn from Jews, in the eyes of many.

Rowan: It's true that a lot of popular Christianity has given the message that the actual material present world is a bit of an embarrassment, and we ought to look forward to the day when we could do without it. But of course Christianity begins in a context where this would have been almost unthinkable. Certainly when Jesus himself talks about the resurrection that is promised for God's people, or about the 'world to come', he isn't thinking about anything vague and disembodied. Just as much as the Hebrew prophets - and in line with the Pharisees of his own day - he is looking towards a fulfilment of God's presence in the real, material creation. This is why the gospels emphasise in the stories about Jesus' resurrection the element of material presence; he isn't a ghost, he shares food and drink with his friends, he walks and speaks with them and he tells them to wait in Jerusalem for the gift of God's Spirit which will be a sign of the fulfilment of prophecy in the actual here-and-now world. It's another area where we often don't begin to understand the Christian Scriptures because we don't pay attention to the Jewish world in which Jesus - and even Paul - spoke.

Paul certainly thinks in terms of the material creation being transformed and restored; and he has the interesting analogy that our present physical body is the 'seed' of something greater - not a sort of polythene wrapper to be discarded but the core of some fuller and richer material life. When Jews talk about resurrection, is that at all part of what they have in mind, the idea of the present material world and our physical bodies as a 'seed' or a 'core', the beginning of something we can't yet fully grasp but which is still part of this actual world?

Irene: Judaism holds the view that 'without flour there is no Torah', a seminal aphorism from our most popular Mishna, Pirke Avot. This Mishna is always read between Pesach and Shavuot, so we are studying it now.

In this case 'flour' stands for wordly assets and having a job. Jobs are necessary in order to enjoy the luxury of Torah learning, which is the goal of life. It is Torah learning which enables us to carry out the mitzvoth - i.e. activities that are beneficial to ourselves and to others, to our own little corner, as well as to society at large.

So, Judaism doesn't regard money, for instance, as intrinsically evil, or at least, dirty. In Judaism, money is essential. In fact, a recent Zoom seminar I attended dealt with this very subject. It was stated that for Torah learning to be successful and flourish, material wealth is essential. I am not sure I would go that far. However, there is the idea in Judaism that some people are like the tribe of Issachar and others like the tribe of Zebulon. Issachar are the scholars and Zebulon provides the wherewithal for Issachar.

This was literally the case with the great Maimonides, for instance (1135-1204), whose brother David was a rich merchant who supported Moses financially. But, one sad day David was killed in a shipwreck, and Moses then had to practise as a doctor. Luckily, aged 13 (just after his bar mitzvah in 1148), Moses had had to flee Muslim Spain with his Cordoban family, and made for northern Spain. There, the young Maimonides picked up the rudiments of medicine, for which he became famous later on in life, during his final years in Fustat (Old Cairo) in Egypt, as doctor to the Caliph. This aspect of Maimonides' teen years isn't generally known - but is one rare example of mediaeval Christianity being helpful to Jews.

Maimonides felt very strongly that rabbis should not be paid as such but have a little job on the side in order to be able to support themselves, and not be dependent on the congregations who might very well not like what they had to say. There are many cases of hirings and firings of rabbis in the last few years of Jewish experience, so Maimonides might very well have had a point. It seems counter-intuitive in a way that the community chooses a rabbi but can then fire the same rabbi if he should say something they don't like.

A case in point are the wonderful 'Rabbi' books, based on a small congregation near Boston. These books are fictional, but hit a nerve, and experience has demonstrated again and again that in our modern age, and especially with a learned congregation, rabbinic independence is an essential ingredient, however accommodating any particular rabbi might try to be.

Again, this emphasis on self-reliance and not being dependent on any feeling of superiority, pomp, or ceremony, is intrinsic to Judaism - and, in the view of many, looks very different from the way most churches seem to work.

Getting our hands dirty in daily living is essential to a respected religious life in Judaism. For instance, I have just re-potted a plant in the garden. As you know, this entails a lot of soil and literally getting one's hands dirty. So, similarly when people are studying Talmud, they are warned that if immersion in the text leads them to miss a baby crying in another room, or an older child falling down the ladder to the attic, these would-be scholars are actually being remiss. In other words, the physical comes first, and enhancing the physical is what Judaism is all about.

I believe there is something similar in a sermon by the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, about being ready to abandon the heights of contemplation if you know a hungry man needs you to feed him.

People who have 'green fingers' and who care about the environment are very important in Judaism. I was struck on translating the biography of Chief Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen of Haifa that his mother, Sarah, a saintly woman who helped many people in Jerusalem, first studied agriculture and botany in the Ukraine, her birth-place. Only when she was knowledgeable in this subject did she then make Aliyah (i.e. emigrated to Israel), in order to be useful in the up-building of that malaria-stricken area through knowledge of afforestation and the care of plants. Afforestation was essential to the upbuilding of the area, which had been neglected under the Ottoman Turks.

This practical knowledge is an essential component of what we regard as the Messianic Age and being a 'light to the nations' and 'the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.' That is, being competent in science, medicine and technology is a seminal factor in the flourishing of a people. For me the prime example of this is Haifa

Technion, where I sung in the choir. Most of the other choir members were Russian and Ukrainian immigrants, including the conductor, and practically all of them were also scientists and engineers - with beautiful voices. Many would go on to be experts in their own fields of science and technology - with some of course, wishing to concentrate on music, and these opted to join one of the many professional choirs and orchestras that also flourish in the State of Israel.

So, having good intentions certainly isn't enough in Judaism. One needs education and training, especially in science and technology, in order to be a useful citizen to the Land to which many were fleeing the pogroms. Sadly, many of those who landed in Israel without this kind of knowledge died of starvation, malaria and other illnesses. Judaism has always been down-to-earth and hard-headed - it has had to be to survive. And it doesn't look on sentimentality as a positive trait.

Incidentally, it is fascinating to note that Prince Philip's mother, Princess Alice of Greece, saved a Greek-Jewish family from Salonika, who had worked as advisors to her own family. This is exactly the same Salonika background as that of Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer. Bourla's grandparents and the Cohen family, saved by Princess Alice (even under Nazi interrogation) were among the tiny remnant of the only 4% of that town who survived the Holocaust. As in Lithuania (where I have done research), 96% of the Jews of Salonika perished.

And the same Albert Bourla whose family were saved from the Shoah was a guest at this year's Yom Ha-Atzmaut celebrations in Israel which took place by Zoom on April 15th. It was emotional to hear the Jewish head of the company which has saved so many lives in the pandemic praising the Jewish State - the state of his own people - for having been willing to act as a guinea-pig during our global suffering.

Not only did Israel demonstrate faith by procuring vast amounts of the Pfizer vaccine early on, but she also offered to work together with Pfizer on the data needed for the future.

As we all know, Israel, whose medical service is a beacon for the world, and whose sense of solidarity in times of crisis (of which there have been very many in her short life) is second to none, has now succeeded in opening up and discarding the masks. But she had also initially shut down completely before any other country in the world.

This is to do with the Jewish religion, in which following science and medicine are paramount.

Rowan: I know we've often discussed how Christians don't really grasp how and why the Land is important for Jews. Obviously it's very much tied in with this approach to the physical world: we live *somewhere*, we have roots and relationships, including relationships with where we are.

If God promises his people a future as a community, he must promise them a context in which they can live out that community life, and practise the commandments. You recently shared with me some writings by someone we both greatly admire, Rabbi Natan Cardozo, on these issues. Rabbi Cardozo lives in Herzliya, Israel, and I believe he was one of your own teachers.

But it strikes me too, reading a text like the wonderful Leviticus 25, that the Land isn't treated like a 'thing', a passive bit of stuff that belongs to human beings: it's seen as a source of life with its own rhythms and its own needs. It's the concrete way in which God gives life to his people and to their livestock. Selling land is actually selling harvests (v.16); what is being traded is access to the lifegiving powers of the soil. And so the land itself needs its 'sabbatical', the Year of Jubilee where everyone steps off the roundabout of getting and spending and lets things find their natural level again. Can you say something about the promise of the

Land and about how themes like these once again help us think through our approach to environmental issues and the protection of the natural world around us? It's a question that I know preoccupied you a lot when we were thinking last year about the problems around the proposed Holocaust Memorial in Westminster - and I think too of the way in which in Israel planting trees is regarded as an act of devotion.

Irene: Thanks for this question, Rowan. Nearly 40 years ago, I studied at theological seminary in Jerusalem with Natan Cardozo and other amazing teachers. Natan had himself studied at the most rigorous yeshiva of them all - here in Gateshead - that north-eastern centre of Orthodox Jewish Torah study which at one time was regarded as the best in Europe and as one of the best in the world.

What is remarkable about Natan is how he has come to realize that study isn't enough on its own, that the Land is for all - and that Judaism is an enabling religion which has always modernized in the past. Natan feels that Judaism, and especially Israel, should modernize now in order to accommodate as many of her citizens as possible, with the aim of achieving the greatest benefit for the greatest number. In this,

Natan is walking in the footsteps of the great Rav Kook (1865-1935), mystic and first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Mandate Palestine, who often quoted the following the words of Psalm 18:20: 'And He brought me forth into a large place. He delivered me because He delights in me.'

The idea of G-d 'bringing forth' reminds us constantly of our Exodus story, but always the idea of 'bringing forth' is tied in with producing, as I've mentioned on other occasions. By bringing the Jewish people out of the narrow straits and into the wider expanses, the people themselves feel delivered and beloved by G-d. This isn't simply a rescue operation, but a way of seeing - almost a prophetic quality in our own age. Rav Kook had it and, so does Natan.

Regarding the Jubilee Year, we are actually entering the Shemittah year shortly, when the land should lie fallow in order to restore itself and be able to give of her bounty once again. As you know, I have produced many translations from Hebrew - but one which is particularly close to my heart - was for the Jewish National Fund in Israel, the subject being the greening of Israel and the quelling by natural means of the insects that sometimes beset travellers on some of Israel's most beautiful routes. I really felt that this translation was contributing in a small way to the upbuilding of our people after the Shoah, and am pleased to find that so many media outlets in this country are presently recommending visits to the State of Israel, once foreign travel is permitted. Not only because Israel has been vaccinated and appears to be a safer place to visit than many others, but because of her intrinsic beauty, which contemporary science, technology and expertise in water conservation - for instance - are even enhancing.

As for the plan to build a Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in Victoria Tower Gardens, if it goes ahead it will involve destroying a natural space in a way very alien to Jewish values. Israel does things differently and uses natural space and natural life as a form of commemoration. The VTG plan is too cosmetic, and risks the fate of other Holocaust memorials in inviting anti-Semitic activity and, as presented in the recent Planning Enquiry, is now supposed to be a celebration of British values rather than a true memorial for the Jewish people. All these factors are in total contrast to what we on the original jury in Greater Manchester were told by the proposers of the plan, when we were asked to vote on a fitting memorial to the Jewish people, and one which would blend in with and enhance Victoria Tower Gardens in its present shape and form.

Far better, in the opinion of many, to plant a tree in the memory of the fallen, which has incidentally, also been suggested as a fitting tribute and memorial to Prince Philip.

Rowan: Any concluding thoughts about how Jews and Christians might come together more effectively to follow Prince Philip's example in attending to and caring for the physical world we're in, in all its diversity and beauty and resourcefulness?

Irene: I think there might be three issues on which we can work.

First of all, there is a need for Christians to recover some sense of responsibility here and now for the actual physical environment.

This would surely be in tune with the claims you make about the resurrection of Jesus as well as with the perspective of Hebrew scripture.

Secondly, there is a need to look at the Scriptures we share, especially those passages in Genesis Chapter 1-3 about the Garden of Eden, the importance of trees, and our joint task in safeguarding and preserving these trees. There are also passages, such as for example in Leviticus Chapter 25, on how exactly to approach this task. The land isn't simply there to be dominated, but is a living, breathing entity, just like the human beings who populate her. Therefore, the Land, any land, needs time off and space to recover. The Shemittah Year which occurs every 7 years and the Jublilee Year, which occurs every 50 years, are good biblical examples of people treating the land with respect and granting her respite at regular intervals, in order to 'produce' once again. This is, in biblical language, akin to the freeing of slaves, and the finding of communal sanctity in discipline and obedience to G-d's injunctions.

Finally, we Christians and Jews, who actually share so much that is good, should work together, following an educated approach, based on a sense of joint communal responsibility for the beautiful environment that has been granted to us as a divine gift.

Let me end with a quote from another person whom we both greatly admire, former Chief Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen of Haifa: He used to say: 'A religious teacher or educator is similar to a tree: their essence must be planted deep; their own roots firmly planted in the house of the Lord. But they will only succeed in all their activities if they manage to follow the spread of the branches.

Because those branches provide shade for those poor souls who have spent a great deal of time wandering around in the barren wilderness and are no longer in touch with their religious selves. But eventually even these worn-out souls will surely hunger after the word of the Lord and thirst after the waters of scriptural knowledge.

'With us, everything follows the spread of the branches. That is, if we want to reach out to people who are not rooted in Bible knowledge, we have to speak to them in their own language and style.... We must strive to communicate in a way that appeals to the contemporary reader.'

We all know that green issues are globally of the utmost importance - and the late Prince Philip helped our society to recognize more fully our responsibility for tackling these. But, sadly, most proponents of environmental issues are either unaware of, or even opposed to, living out biblical norms in their work. It would be a great mitzvah, in my view, if our joint article goes some way at least to remedying this gap and helps demonstrate the absolute relevance of Christianity and Judaism to green issues in the modern world.

If this were the case, then as anticipated by Rav Kook, Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen and other greats, a new life of resurrection, restoration and hope might be ours, as Christians and Jews come together in working for the betterment and revitalization of our living environment.