Awraham Soetendorp is a household name in the Netherlands so an English language symposium to celebrate his life and mark his formal retirement as rabbi of a Reform Jewish congregation in the Hague last month was quickly over-subscribed. Those lucky enough to attend were in for an eclectic treat: wise words, history, politics, provocative suggestions, music, and theology all woven together with good humor. It was a well timed reminder, at a time when Dutch politics are often tense and polarized and many Muslim immigrants meet intolerance, of what is finest in the Dutch traditions of pragmatism and spirit.
The Symposium combined religious and political themes in celebrating Soetendorpâ€™s long career as a rabbi and a social activist. Awraham Soetendorp was born in 1943 in the Netherlands, a time of acute crisis for the Jewish community. This community, which numbered some 150,000 before the war, was long established. The example of how the Dutch welcomed the Jewish diaspora from Spain and Portuguese and how different religious communities lived in harmony is proudly cited as an ideal.
But Soetendorp was born in a dark era. His parents were deported to concentration camps. He survived only because a Dutch family hid and saved him through the war years. After studying to be a rabbi, he returned to the Netherlands and helped to rebuild the shattered community. His base for the last 40 years has been his congregation in the Hague.
But Soetendorpâ€™s work has taken him far afield and he has many decades of engagement on international issues, whether conflict resolution, care of the earth, and fighting poverty. Combining the local and immediate and the global and vast is part of Soetendorpâ€™s gift and he moves from the daily lives of his congregation to global interfaith meetings with ease and grace.
The tributes at the Symposium were profound and touching. They began with comments from Ruud Lubbers, the Netherlandsâ€™ former Prime Minister. Lubbers described Soetendorp as his spiritual twin, though one is Catholic, the other Jewish, and credited Soetendorp with deep influence on his policies in many areas, national and international. Soetendorp was at his doorstep decades ago, urging him to focus on the environment and to support the citizen manifesto embodied in the Earth Charter. Then, later, he was back again, this time urgently pressing for a nationwide campaign to revive the flagging Dutch traditions of tolerance and true respect for diversity. Soetendorp was a leader of what is now established as a national Day of Respect which takes the message to schools, churches, and town halls and works to counteract the fears that are behind much of the tension among different communities in the Netherlands. And today he is also an inveterate and tireless advocate for the Millennium Development Goals and the global fight against poverty which he sees (as do I) as the leading challenge of our time. He campaigns for education, for business engagement in society, for youth, and he brings opposing sides to dialogue and even understanding.
Many other tributes echoed similar themes. The Netherlands takes pride in their outspoken, brilliant, and gorgeous young princess, Mabel of Oranje, now with the Open Society Institute. She highlighted Soetendorpâ€™s role in advancing the goals of freedom and civil liberties. Rabbi Mark Saperstein now directs the London rabbinical institute where Soetendorp studied and underscored his wisdom and scholarship. And the leader of Indiaâ€™s 500,000 imams spoke of his work for interfaith harmony, himself carrying a strong message that Islam stands for respect, dignity and tolerance, a message that the moderator asked him to repeat several times as it obviously differed from standard fare.
In short, the symposium wove together different strands affecting a fast changing country caught in contemporary tensions but with deep and proudly held traditions of pluralism. It was held in an ancient synagogue and the Portuguese Jewish community which took refuge in the Netherlands after they were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula after 1492. The sad history of that Jewish community was never far away (the community almost vanished with the war), but its steady revival in recent years was offered as a symbol of faith in core values and traditions of respect.
The Insolent Waters?
I was utterly baffled as I tried to figure out what to say in my presentation for the Symposium as I pondered its title: â€œThe Insolent Waters: Moral Choices for an Endangered Planetâ€. What was it all about?
Google was little help, for once. I knew the basic theme was environment, because Rabbi Soetendorp has been one of the leaders of a long-standing citizensâ€™ effort embodied in the Earth Charter. And surely global poverty would be involved. My assigned topic was water and conflict, a link not hard to discern in a technical meeting (many project that the major conflicts of the next decades will be sparked by scarcity of water), but could that be the theme at an event marking 40 years of service as a rabbi?
As a deeply but practically spiritual man, I suspected there must be a biblical reference, but my biblical knowledge was far to thin to find it.
As my conscious and subconscious minds explored the themes of water, conflict, poverty and the environment, my first thought was of tears. Soetendorp is a passionate man and his tears rise freely, whether he is speaking about the Holocaust, about the pain of the Palestine Israel conflict, wars in Africa, poverty, or the destruction of the environment. The idea of tears served as the ideal link among the different currents in Soetendorpâ€™s life. They evoked both pain and hope, peace and war, hunger and harvests, helplessness and creativity, and devastation and beauty.
But the â€œinsolent watersâ€? The reference, it transpired, was to Psalm 124, and an unusual translation. Psalm 124 has as its theme that the Lord was â€œon our sideâ€ and without him, according to one version, â€œthe flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us, the raging waters would have swept us away.â€ Rabbi Soetendorp suggested the phrase as a theme as it harked back to his doctoral thesis. Exploring images and themes suggested by that tantalizing phrase and reflecting on how waters could be insolent, led me and others at the Symposium, as was the intention, deeply into the moral choices we confront daily for our endangered planet.