From the beginning of his talk Rabbi Solomon showed his commitment to good relations between faiths. He spoke of his delight that Pope Francis had called for a Year of Mercy and commented on how similar Arabic and Hebrew words sound, a sign of the familial relationship between Judaism and Islam. The hebrew word for mercy is Rachamim which is always in plural form so that it literally means mercies - appropriate because to be merciful is to reach out to all. It is one of the defining characteristics of God and, having the same root as racham,the word for womb, it reveals God as expressing motherly love and compassion for all. For Jews there are thirteen attributes of God, revealed to Moses when he encountered God on Mount Sinai - God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgressions and sins (Ex. 34.6-7). But God's forgiveness and love is tempered by justice.
Mercy and Justice, Rabbi Solomon told us, are the two balancing sides of the divine character. According to the Talmud justice is important but more important is mercy. There is even a rabbinic tradition which shows God praying to Godself "make it my will that my mercy subdues my anger" and a story in which God is depicted as moving from the throne of justice to the throne of mercy. The Jewish names for God show this. One, Elohim represents justice and the other depicts God's mercy - a name so sacred that it's never pronounced, though the name Adonai is used in its stead. The bible then becomes a drama of God's justice and God's mercy. In the first chapter of Genesis, according to the rabbis, justice is to the fore as it's about order and balance. In chapter two, however, when human beings come on the scene, Adonai is also used for mercy is now needed as the balance has been disrupted. By chapter four, when Cain kills his brother Abel, God is seen as the Merciful One who suspends justice in favour of mercy.
Mercy then is a divine attribute but it is also a human concept. The rabbis teach ' as God is merciful so you should be merciful'. Human beings are meant to follow in God's ways and mercy is top of the list in doing so. Perhaps because it's the most difficult? If we desire God's mercy we must show mercy. Each year at Yom Kippur Jews are meant to ask forgiveness of those they have offended. The tradition is that if the apology is not accepted ask three times and then let it go as it's now the other person's problem. For those who have offended us and do not ask for forgiveness Jews are encouraged to pray for mercy for them and forgive them in their hearts. Forgiveness is difficult especially in the face of atrocities such as the Holocaust.For Rabbi Solomon it's not possible to give blanket forgiveness or to forgive crimes perpetrated against other people. Some holocaust survivors have done it and this is a heroic thing but it cannot be demanded of others. And even when forgiveness is given there has to be a reckoning.
In the third part of his talk Rabbi Solomon spoke of how the world needs mercy and that religions have a role in showing the gentlenss of mercy to the world. Perhaps in the past it was important for religions to grow and develop in their own plot of land but now we are living in a world that challenges religions to justify their existence. In this world it's not possible to go our separate ways. We need to recognise the depth of spirituality in other faiths. God is calling us to be more merciful to one another especially when facing the pressing problems of our times.