May 11, 2022, London
by Mary Noble
Jonathan Wittenberg was born into a family with a long rabbinical tradition going back several generations in Germany and Eastern Europe. Having earned his degree in literature at the University of Cambridge, he studied for the rabbinate at Leo Baeck College in London, and in Jerusalem. He has been the Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism since 2008 and the Rabbi of New North London Synagogue, with approximately 2400 members, for over 25 years. He is a leading writer and thinker on Judaism. He is also a member of the Elijah Interfaith Institute Board of World Religious Leaders.
The Feminenza team first met Rabbi Wittenberg whilst he was hosting a Zoom meeting for the Parents Circle in April 2022. Touched by his humanity, I reached out to him for an interview at his home, which he kindly agreed to. In the run-up to our meeting, I read his wonderful book ‘The Silence of Dark Water, An inner journey’. After reading a very moving chapter entitled ‘The Heart’s Education’, I remembered a poem I had read many years earlier, written by the Russian poet Nik
olai Panchenko who served on the Voronezh front and was wounded twice in the Second World War, called ‘The Ballad of the Shot Heart’.[i] I hoped it might make a suitable gift.
On 11th May, Brugnello (our Policy advisor) and myself drove from Norfolk to North London, bringing a copy of the poem with us.
At the beginning of our meeting in the Rabbi’s small sitting room, surrounded by the warmth of his books, a freshly cooked apple strudel,, and and his very friendly dog, who was enjoying morsels of Brugnello’s strudel, I presented Rabbi Wittenberg with the poem. He read it quietly, and then began our conversation by telling me about another poem it reminded him of, by Avraham Sutzkever, about the lead plates of the Rom Printing Press, the best Jewish press in the world.
RJW - There is a story, written in the Vilna(Vilnius) Ghetto, about the resistance fighters as they go raid the Rom Press - the Rom Press was the most famous press for Jewish books in the 19th century in Eastern Europe. And they're taking the lead letters to turn them into bullets; and it’s talking about this process of taking culture and turning it into weapons of war, and all the thousands of years of culture that become part of war. And what comes across so strongly, is you can turn the lead letters into bullets, but you can't turn the bullets back into culture. So, I relate that to this poem, it's very powerful.
A couple of days later, he wrote a letter to his community about our meeting, which he forwarded to me: The first part read as follows:
I was given a poem this week, an entirely unexpected, wonderful gift. It’s called ‘The Ballad of the Shot Heart.’ It relates to much I care about; let me explain why.
It was written by the Russian poet Nikolai Panchenko who served on the Voronezh front and was wounded twice in the Second World War:
At walking pace, my horseshoes ringing,
I know: my heart is getting smaller,
And suddenly – I have no heart!
With each burst of fire, he ‘donates’ a piece of his heart, losing it ‘bit by bit’ until there’s nothing of it left, because there’s an order ‘Don’t have a heart at war!’
He grows ever stronger; he helps save his country; he survives. But he’s lost his heart. Since then, he goes about trying to reassemble it:
“Give me a heart!” I shall knock at entrance halls.
“Give me a heart!” I shall cry through the door.
“Don’t you know, a man without a heart
Is more terrible by far than a beast who has one.”
These lines at once reminded me of another poem, by Avraham Sutzkever, about the lead plates of the Rom Printing Press, the best Jewish press in the world. The Rom Talmud serves to this day as the prototype for further editions. I’m lucky enough to have a set from the 1870’s, complete with the stamp of the Tzarist censorship. When I use a volume, I feel generations speaking from its pages, rich with the indentations of the letters. Sutzkever describes, in Yiddish, how he and other resistance fighters steal out of the Vilna Ghetto to seize the lead plates at the Rom printing works.
We were dreamers, we had to be soldiers,
And melt down, for our bullets, the spirit of the lead.
One can turn a heart into heartlessness, and generations of culture into ammunition. But how does one turn them back?
MN – Yes, yes, exactly. I came across the poem years ago, whilst I was living in Florida. I was the Academic Director of a language school, and I invited a Vietnam war veteran to come and give a talk to my students. He inspired me to find that poem, because he sent me a poem, from a book of Russian poems. I suddenly thought of it last night and I thought, I must give it to you...
RJW - No, I really appreciate that poem, it is a wonderful poem.
MN - So I am about halfway through your book, the Silence of Dark Water. It’s one of those books which you savour, you can't just read it from cover to cover. I find that with every chapter, it really makes me stop and pause, so thank you so much for writing it and for sharing your inner journey. So as I wrote to you, I was really inspired by that little meeting that we had with the Family Forum Parents Circle….
RJW - They are such an organization, aren't they? It’s really, really important.
MN - So I wanted to ask to start with, what is your story of your involvement with them and what has moved you about them? and how you met them? Anything...
RJW - It goes back a long way, I can't say exactly, at least 15 years, when in the middle of.. it may have been around the second Lebanon war actually, and I was looking for who can I relate to here, and I made contact with the founder. He couldn't come, but somebody else came and spoke, and since then I have been connected to this organization. I have met their leadership in Israel, I've met the Israeli leadership more than the Palestinian, but I have met both, I have been involved in the creation of the Friends here, and one of the key people is Judith Elkin and she died recently. We hosted dinners with them on a few occasions here or welcomed them or thanked them... and they remain, I think, a very significant human voice and a very significant moral voice, and it is hard to deny the moral authority that they have, although the latest episode shows that people are trying to...[Explain what's happening?]
MN – Yes, absolutely…
RJW - It's very dismaying...
MN – Absolutely… So may I ask what moves you most about the work of the Parents’ Circle and Family Forum? In terms of thinking about the future, and hope for the future?
RJW - In some respects I would start in a slightly different place. Which is people who have suffered profound and shocking grief and had the internal capacity and the courage to use that not to increase hatred or anger but to deepen their understanding, and those journeys are, I would have thought, somewhat different for each and every person, but they are very significant journeys. One of the places that recorded them - do you know the Forgiveness Project?
MN - Very much so, yes - Marina Cantacuzino, she is fantastic..
RJW - So that's what moved me I think above all. I am not less moved by hope for the future, I just worry about, even then, what strength does this have in the face of the powers aligned in conflict?
MN - The gathering storm. Yes, absolutely...
RJW - Yes, and what impact the war in Ukraine will have on it, this could go in the worst direction, and it could potentially go in a better direction...
MN - Right... so here’s another question that one of my team asked: “Have you been able to affect the community or religious leadership to influence their youth into a more forgiving state of mind?” This is one of the questions that we often get in the work that we do. I have my 25 top questions that people ask me about forgiveness, having done forgiveness workshops for many years. The one people most often pick is “How do you counsel a young person who is bent on revenge?” I meet that everywhere... older people wringing their hands going - I do not know how to get across to this impetuous youth or these passionate young people that revenge is not the way forward... and I just wondered what your thoughts are about that? Whether that's something you come across, how you would address that?
RJW - I haven't directly come across that. I mean, I do come across people who have got a hard-line angry view, in both directions. The Parents Circle's voices are well thought of in my community, which is slightly left of centre, (not massively), rather than the right of centre. So I haven't been involved in such questions in any depth… One of my thoughts would be, is there an elder from the Parents Circle or from their own community, with whom I could put them in touch, because they carry a moral authority that as an outsider I don't... I would be inclined to go in that direction if I could.
MN – So another thing I often meet, is the view that these kinds of alternatives to revenge - whether you call it reconciliation or the path of forgiveness - is a luxury. Like currently with what's going on in Israel, I have a lot of friends there, and they feel hard pressed up against the overall view which is, how can you possibly talk about such things when there is terrorism and there is fear? What we try and do is continually provide an opportunity for people to stop and reflect My view about it is that it’s the one thing that isn't a luxury. Hatred for me is a luxury, revenge is a luxury, if you want to put it that way, but holding on to the idea of a higher humanity is not a luxury. But it seems that mostly it is the other way around.
RJW - I am coming at it from very much the place that you are, I think it’s important to acknowledge the reality of there's plenty to be afraid of, people are up against war, there is terror, there is cause for anger, but on what journey does it take one? And where does it lead? And also, what does it do to our own humanity, as in that poem "I am losing a portion of my heart"… So actually it’s not a luxury, but one is paying a price for carrying the feelings of hatred, which inevitably diminishes one’s own humanity as well. So I would probably say I would want to travel a similar path to the one that you have.
MN – Right. So here's a comment that I recently came across from a young Russian man, in a post about the war in Ukraine. It was on You Tube, and he was utterly hopeless, and he said, “Look, I have learned all about love and kindness and I understand the theory all of that, but I am a realist and I have come to see that kindness can't stop a tank”. His view was, “what's the point”? That particular comment kept me up all night.
RJW - If you could forward me this interview, I would be really interested in seeing it...
MN - I will...
RJW - That said, Judaism is not a pacifist religion and there are times when people have to fight, and I think it’s extremely significant and important that Ukraine is fighting…
MN – Absolutely.
RJW - And I think there is a very large consensus with that, including by people who never thought they would be saying such a thing, but it is really, really important. And I wouldn't have said the endeavour to stop a tank and kindness are in mutual contradiction with each other. There's a place for kindness, a really significant place. The place for kindness is - if the crew bale out of the tank and surrender, are you going to shoot them? Or behind the lines, are you going to bomb a school?
MN - So you don't have to surrender your humanity...
RJW - And are you going to help a refugee on your own side get out of a bombed building even as you're trying to defend it, which Ukrainians have... So I don't think they're in contradiction.
MN - It makes me think… You've probably met Robi Damelin of the Parents Circle? We met her in Tel Aviv some years ago, and she told us the whole story about her son David and that his attitude to being at the checkpoints was that he would meet every single person who came through that checkpoint with kindness, that was his way of saying “Look, I am still doing my duty, I still have to do this BUT…” And there was a Palestinian man who then came up to Robi some years later in a meeting somewhere, and said, “Look, I have to tell you this story Robi. The day before your son died, I went through that checkpoint and I was so touched by the kindness of your son in that moment, that I went away thinking, there is hope, and then I heard the next day that he had been killed, and I’m so sorry…” And I know that's a theme that comes across a lot in your book as well, that no act is irrelevant, no small act of kindness or compassion can be said to never make a difference because actually you never know what it does...
RJW – Yes, but there is also the reality that fighting is sometimes inevitable and I think that's woken up the worst in the world, a lot of it.
MN - So this was another question: Do you manage to keep that reverence, the cherishment and awe that is with you about God, at all times? Do you ever notice that it's diminished or absent? What do you do then?
RJW - The honest answer is - NOOOO I don't... I try to nourish it, but I don't manage to keep it at all times, and sometimes that's about feeling angry about things, sometimes it’s about exhaustion and I know that sometimes it's absent, but what I have learned to do, and only recently, is to recognize its absence and to think that one of the most important things I need to do is to get back to that place.
MN – Right, right. There is a chapter in your book when you talk about waking up every morning and the importance of that first moment. I know that one so well.. and you can feel it all sort of escaping as the day descends upon you, but... So these are some hefty questions here which they wanted me to ask you.
RJW - Who are they?
MN - They are the team I work with in Feminenza. We have been running a programme for the last 2 years with about 85 youth workers from Europe and the Middle East on managing mental trauma and building resilience, and inside that, I am particularly an advocate about forgiveness, but we weave that in because that's not something that people very often initially get or relate to or understand...
We do monthly seminars with these youth workers and it's been a very interesting journey. We have people from all over Europe, from Jordan, from Northern Iraq.. We managed to get to Kurdistan in 2019 just before Covid and met the Yezidi community there, so they are very dear to my heart as well, because of what they've suffered. And so yes, the reason I was really happy to come and meet you is because I feel these voices, like yours, need to be heard and I would like to do whatever I can to amplify those voices. So we can take a few extracts of this, I can put it on the website and bang, suddenly a lot of people are reading this. That's one way I feel we can push back the other narrative, which is “It is all hopeless", and “Humanity is too lost or too cruel to pick itself up”...
So... How do you keep going, Jonathan?
RJW - I think, quite a few things I find nourishing, and I imagine that's typical of many people. People like yourselves. People who inspire me or move me, who do things in the world that really touch me, and then you feel motivated. That's one big part of it. Another is a sense of animals, nature - that's a very big part, the garden, that's kind of a need for the soul, sometimes for the body…
MN - Your garden is gorgeous by the way, seeing it coming in.
RJW – Yes, we got lucky with a huge garden for London, and I couldn't imagine being without it.. I didn’t grow up with dogs, so I can't imagine being without a dog... I'd have more animals if we could, it feels kind of calm and a sense of being simplified in the presence of animals. There is also, I think, the nourishment from Jewish tradition, and I am not arguing that one wouldn't draw it from a different faith tradition, but I think Jewish tradition is immensely resilient, it’s been through a very, very great deal and it is immensely resilient and that keeping going, keeping learning, keeping engaged with Torah… family... ordinary things...
MN – In keeping going with the Torah, what is it that really motivates you, picks you up?
RJW – It’s very varied. I like Hasidic writings, which is kind of an emotional spiritual reflection on the portions of the Torah. Through lockdown, actually from long before it, but particularly in lockdown, I've been working on, I wrote - not sure if you have seen The Eternal Journey on the festivals of the Jewish year? So I wrote that, and it’s now 15 years ago at least, maybe more, twenty years ago, that I am working on something on every portion of the yearly readings, a couple of essays and reflections on them. So working on them, and now editing them and preparing them hopefully for publication, that's a several times a week writing discipline. So there is a discipline to it, and a responsibility towards my community, and I am very fond of my community, so there is a lot of support in both directions there.
MN - And you do a lot of hospice work?
RJW - I don't do hospice work now, I did, but not for a long time, it’s incidental, if members of the community are in a hospice. I miss it in some ways…
MN - Do you?
RJW – Yes.
MN - Why? Why do you miss it?
RJW - Because it was moving and humbling and I felt close to people... and it was centering, focusing one on the things that matter in life.
MN - That's one of the threads of the work that I do - developing bereavement counselling, and I think this is where it ties up for me with the whole path of forgiveness. Often, the bereavement counsellors I work with say that when people are close to death, very often it’s not the physical pain that is the worst pain that they struggle with, but it’s the things that they’ve not resolved, or not let go of, or not managed to somehow deal with, either something that they haven't forgiven themselves for, or something they haven't forgiven somebody else for. So my message always is, why wait till you're on your death bed to resolve these issues, if you can? (Of course, not everything is that easily resolvable.) That's ongoing work for me too, I am going to be 70 this year. I am not getting any younger,
RJW - Something obviously motivated you both on this path as well.
MN - Yes, absolutely… The other day somebody said to me, “Are you about to retire?” Because we're moving house, he said, “Is that about retiring?” And I said no, we are moving to buy a place where we can run a small educational centre for my charity. And the words that came out of my mouth were, “you can never retire from being human”. And I think that's what drives me and what drives us, the desire to understand what it means to be human, and I think part of that is very much recognizing that we are one humanity and that there is a journey, as you write so beautifully in your book, that journey inward. At the end of the day, what are you doing every day? What qualities are you developing every day? What difference can you make every day, however small? And that for me is the essence of being human. Without that, I would feel bereft. I would feel like a robot. I would feel like somebody just living out my days in some kind of robotic fashion, and I don’t believe that’s what we are here for.
RJW - I appreciate that, I really appreciate what you are saying. Thank you.
MN - So I got very inspired reading your book because that message for me was jumping off every page as well, however hard it gets. And I love what you said about the resilience of the Jewish tradition. I was brought up as a Catholic, but I have studied different religions and I get a great depth and richness from reading your book, it’s like every page I go “YES, I can relate to that”, and I find that really touching. So thank you very much for that.
[i] From: Ballad of the Shot Heart by Nikolai Panchenko (1924 -2005) At walking pace, my horseshoes ringing, I know: my heart is growing smaller, And suddenly - I have no heart! And bullets, seeking my heart, Whistle vainly, like fools, these bullets… And there is no heart, There’s an order in me: Don’t have a heart at war. And where shall I find it afterward, Once my military oath has been fulfilled? In my cartridge pouches and knapsacks There is not even room for a heart. You donated a piece of your heart With each burst of fire, to the whistling of your bullets! You lost it bit by bit soldier. You shot it bit by bit, soldier. And such was your mastery of this miracle That, overcoming your enemies, you grew stronger! For a long time it will seem odd to me To go about, assembling a heart. “A heart for this poor invalid! I saved the country, kept disaster at bay!” With this entreaty on my lips, like a prayer, I shall walk, a living crucifixion. “Give me a heart!” I shall knock at entrance halls. “Give me a heart!” I shall cry through the door. “Don’t you know, a man without a heart Is more terrible by far than a beast who has one.” This poem was written by a Russian poet who was a young front-line soldier in World War 2. Read more - Part 2