The place of a non-believing Jew

A conversation with Charlie

At a simchah recently, I bumped into the father of an old friend, whom I hadn’t seen for many years. Charlie was always known as a forthright person, and it was good to see that the passage of twenty years hasn’t changed anything. He asked me what I consider to be the place of a Jew who doesn’t believe in God. He also told me that he remains a proud member of the community and of the Jewish people (he is, and always was, a staunch member of an Orthodox synagogue), but doesn’t believe in God. Charlie confided that he had asked his own rabbi and claimed that he had ‘been unable to handle the question’.

I think that while it’s a matter of great regret that Charlie doesn’t believe in God, and it would be desirable to discuss his beliefs with him in detail, his question deserved an answer.

My response (admittedly unprepared and delivered while struggling to hear over blaring music) was simple. I suggested to Charlie that even if he doesn’t believe in God, Judaism can certainly provide him with meaningful ideas, practices, and occasions for inspiration that will enhance his existence immeasurably. By continuing his association with the Jewish world, he will benefit from a way to contextualise major life-events, from the support of others and from unparalleled opportunities to enhance the lives of others.

How would you have answered?

A version of this article appeared on Cross-Currents

Ironies and opportunities

Reflections on the JFS ruling

Last week, the new Supreme Court of the UK dismissed the appeal of JFS, an Orthodox Jewish school, against a judgment that had branded its admission policy discriminatory. The details of the case (which hinged on how the Law views the unique blend of ethnicity and religion that defines Jewishness in the context of the Race Relations Act) are mystifying even to insiders; the final result is deeply disappointing.

Despite this, there are fascinating and surprisingly positive aspects to the judgment, as well as some delicious ironies that cannot go unmentioned. The ruling itself, which was handed down by only the slimmest of majorities (5-4) offers the most extraordinary vindication of Judaism, the motivation of the Chief Rabbi and of the governors of JFS. Is it not remarkable that Lord Phillips, the president of the court, should open a judgment about Jewish status with excerpts from Deuteronomy about intermarriage? All of the justices asserted that the Chief Rabbi (who is the arbiter of Jewish status for the Orthodox community) acted in the best possible faith and that ‘no-one doubts that he is honestly and sincerely trying to do what he believes that his religion demands of him’. The governors of JFS were also deemed ‘entirely free from moral blame’. Put simply, despite falling foul of the Law, the school’s admission policy, and, by extension, Judaism itself, are not ‘racist’ according to any normative understanding of the word.

Yet the greatest irony is the justices’ realisation, in the words of Lord Phillips, ‘that there may well be a defect in our law of discrimination’. How astounding that legislation drafted to outlaw anti-Semitism, among other evils, has been utilised to achieve what Lord Rodger calls, ‘such manifest discrimination against Jewish schools in comparison with other faith schools’. Catholics and Muslims are entitled to admit children to their schools according to their faith criteria, but following yesterday’s ruling, Orthodox Jews are now not. Lady Hale, who, incidentally, voted against JFS, reflected on whether Jews ‘should be allowed to continue to follow [Jewish] law’ in this regard. Indeed, could one fail to agree with Lord Rodger’s assertion that ‘one can’t help feeling that something has gone wrong’? It is good news that several of the justices felt that there may be a problem with the law. However, while any legislative remedy will certainly be very challenging, we will need to muster the support of those who are able to influence this process to ensure that Judaism is treated on a par with other faiths.

Jewish schools like JFS will now have to continue with the chaotic practice test forced upon them by the ruling. While compliance is, of course, mandatory, it undermines everything that the Jewish schools’ movement holds dear: the universal delivery of Jewish education to Jewish children regardless of practice or affiliation. Yet the Jewish community is renowned for its resourcefulness and ability to turn a crisis into an opportunity. Orthodox synagogues have been inundated with new families seeking schools’ ‘practice certificates’ for their children. Many have no previous affiliation to the Jewish community and their attendance at the synagogue is an unparalleled chance to reach out to them and share with them the beauty of Jewish life and observance. It may well be that this unwanted and unfortunate decision has quite unexpected consequences.

Colour Among The Black Hats?

Are they all black?

The students of a prominent Eastern-European rabbi were about to join him to light the Chanukah candles. The rabbi noticed a broom near the window next to his Menorah and asked for it to be removed; apparently, he was concerned that in their zeal to emulate him, his followers would place a broom by the window before lighting their Menorahs too. There is a humorous (and definitely fictitious) end to the story: having visited the rabbi, each of his students went home, placed a broom by the window and then removed it before lighting his candles!

A common perception of a significant part of the Orthodox world is that it is narrow, monolithic and stifles individual expression. Detractors often point to the restrictive nature of Jewish law, conformity in dress-style (this criticism is levelled especially at those visible communities with distinctive garb) and the seemingly limited range of educational and other life-choices available to its adherents. There is a sense that the ‘men in black’ all think the same way and live cloned, indistinguishable lives.

There is some truth to this: traditional Judaism is predicated on a belief in the historical truth of the Sinaitic revelation and the eternal imperative of halachah. Its followers will create communities that share religious aspirations, educate their children in a certain way and where religious and social needs can be met. This may create a certain narrowness of experience, but devoting one’s life to a complete system of belief and practice involves accepting that some of the wider experiences of an unfettered life must be surrendered to a higher ideal. The intensity of experience that the religious crave may also lead them to form tightly-knit groups with their own exacting standards and social norms and look to charismatic leaders for guidance in their quest for individual perfection and constant communion with the Divine.

The Modern Orthodox world has attempted to combine serious commitment to Mitzvah observance and Torah study with aspects of contemporary scholarship, culture and engagement with the modern world. But for the rest of the Orthodox world, must fervour and spiritual ambition lead inexorably to conformity and the crushing of individuality, or is there room for personal expression and creative thought?

There will always be those who take refuge in the crowd, preferring to follow rather than to think for themselves; choosing to evade personal responsibility by relying on others. The Orthodox community harbours no fewer such people than any other group, but surely no more.

One can certainly observe those within the community who fear individual expression to the extent that they try to suppress it in others. There have been a number of unfortunate high-profile examples of this. They include banning of books that deviate from a narrow ideological line, attempting to limit higher education, abolishing concerts and other forms of entertainment, and restricting access to even the unobjectionable parts of the internet. Is it possible that some feel threatened by the very individual expression that is one of Judaism’s greatest strengths?

Yet despite these regrettable attempts to recast Judaism as a system requiring all its adherents to think and behave identically, most Jews are pretty resilient in their individual expression! Despite the superficial appearance of conformity and group behaviour that delegitimizes individuality, one readily finds a vast range of ideas, aspirations, ideologies and modes of religious expression. These differences are evident both between and with Orthodox groups. In traditional Jewish teaching, there is a spectrum of opinion on nearly every subject: the nature of God, Man’s free will, how to understand human suffering, the appropriate attitude to art and music, secular studies and even modernity itself, as well as about virtually every area of Jewish observance.

This multiplicity translates into diversity of lifestyle and belief. Even in the most Orthodox of circles, there are those who visit art galleries, love classical music, tour China, learn Arabic and even consider these essential to their religious experience. Others prefer to incorporate ‘secular’ modes of expression into Jewish contexts; in recent years, some highly professional and innovative music, art and literature have emerged. Among the ostensibly monolithic Orthodox, there are staunch Zionists, political lefties, recycling macrobiotics, DIY enthusiasts, aficionados of Kabbalah and those who reject it as mumbo-jumbo. In my own experience I have come across a Chassidic university chancellor and a number of Charedi avant garde musicians.

The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) observes that God makes each human being different from every other; as such, everyone should be able to say with confidence, ‘the world was created just for me’. A great Chassidic thinker understood this to mean that each of us has strengths and weaknesses that distinguish us from every other person; consequently, each of us has a unique spiritual task. Indeed wrestling with one’s own relationship with God is a Biblical role of the Jew. When Jacob was attacked by an unknown assailant, his name was changed to Israel, ‘because you struggled with God and with Man and you prevailed’ (BeReishit 32:29). ‘Struggling with God’ to forge a religious identity that is individualistic, yet firmly within the portals of tradition, is intrinsic to Judaism. The paraphernalia of Jewish life exist to facilitate this lofty goal, rather than stifle it. On its own terms, Judaism thrives on and celebrates individuality.

Fusing staunch commitment to a specific version of traditional Torah life with a tolerant attitude to the range of valid alternative views is a challenge which has its successes and disappointments. Yet respect for the multiplicity of views and lifestyles that the Torah accommodates is central to its system. We fail the Torah itself by stifling genuine creativity and individuality; but when we validate the legitimate religious choices and ideas of others, we not only create a harmonious and tolerant Orthodox society, but confirm the beauty and breadth of the Torah.

A version of this article appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

A version of this article appeared on Cross-Currents

The Pope And Praying In Hebrew

Jews and Hebrew

The London Times reports that the Catholic Church is discussing reintroducing the Latin Mass largely abandoned in the aftermath of Vatican II. See here for details. Apparently, the Pope is writing to every seminary urging them to ensure that priests are trained to conduct the Tridentine Mass, which was replaced in the 1960s by the vernacular liturgy said in most churches today. While before Vatican II, every Catholic Church in the world conducted Mass in Latin, today it is recited in the local language.

Readers may wonder why I’m interested in the Latin Mass, something one can safely assume to be of marginal concern to most readers! The answer is brief and simple. It helped me to realise how blessed we are to have a Hebrew liturgy, which (with a few minor differences here and there) is the same the world-over. Indeed, among the supportive ultra-conservative remarks appended to the article, are a few thoughtful ones that welcome the return of a universal liturgy, allowing people of every nationality and tongue to celebrate Mass together.

The early 19th-century German-Jewish and later reformers genuinely meant well when they replaced certain Hebrew prayers with vernacular equivalents: they hoped to make them more accessible and comprehensible to their worshippers; presumably, this was successful. However (and this is apart from the theological and halachic issues raised by their versions of the prayers), a great deal more was lost than gained. They underestimated the universal value of Hebrew prayers: the capacity of a Jewish national language, the language of God and the Bible, to unite and inspire people; to erase boundaries between those of different cultures and unify them in devotion.

To be fair, this has now been recognised by some non-Orthodox groups, who have re-introduced greater Hebrew content into their services: I’m sure that they have been greatly enhanced by so doing.

But many Westernised Jews have little or no knowledge of Hebrew – not much has changed since 19th-century Germany (where the vernacular was introduced) in that regard. This is a problem that has a solution – learn Hebrew! It’s easier said than done, but the opportunities available (courses, CDs and internet sites, etc.) have never been greater or the rewards (especially the chance to communicate with the natives on a visit to our own Hebrew-speaking country) more evident. Anyway, there are excellent translations of the Siddur available, each serving a different need, which one can consult throughout the prayer service.

I think that the Pope has this one right: the vernacular alternatives to their (and our) prayers are, in the words of one comment to the article in The Times, ‘improvised’ and ‘fabricated’. Do you agree?

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Sacred Or Superficial?

A Visit to the 'Sacred' Exhibition

Encouraged by a number of my congregants, my wife and I recently visited the impressive ‘Sacred’ exhibition at London’s British Library. Billed as ‘the rarest and most exquisite sacred books and manuscripts presented and explored, side by side, in a major UK exhibition for the first time’, it didn’t disappoint. Balanced between Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy books, the 202 exhibits are absolutely magnificent (get a taste of them here) and left me wanting to return to see them again soon. As the exhibition doesn’t end until 23rd September, if you live in the UK or are planning to visit, do make it a priority. I hope to get there at least once more.

I was especially taken with the calligraphy, the accuracy and beauty of which defy description. I am not particularly skilled with my hands: I actually struggle to read my own handwriting. In comparison, the control, artistic flair and accuracy required to produce an illuminated manuscript are quite breathtaking. I am, of course, familiar with beautiful safrus (Hebrew sacred calligraphy), but I have never been exposed to exquisite scripts from other religions written in other alphabets; I found learning about their manufacture fascinating (see here) and consider the final products a remarkable testimony to human ingenuity.

The layout of ‘Sacred’ is also most attractive: the manuscripts are interspersed with religious artefacts, all of great beauty and some of major significance (for example, an original entrance-curtain from the Kaaba in Mecca). There is also tasteful background music, as well as carefully arranged lighting and projections; it’s clear that a huge amount of thought and effort has gone into arranging the exhibition.

While, understandably, great care was taken to avoid mentioning areas of violent religious conflict, the curator was bold enough to address an obvious question: why there are so few very early Jewish manuscripts. In at least one place, the display informs the reader that the extreme rarity of early Jewish manuscripts is explained by the practice of mediaeval Christian authorities of collecting them up and burning them.

The exhibition is not perfect, of course. I was irritated by some of the display panels referring to aspects of Judaism in a rather simplistic and only partially-accurate manner: I also felt that some of the interactive computer displays about Judaism lack depth and substance. I am insufficiently knowledgeable to assess the quality of the displays and computer materials dealing with Christianity and Islam, but I could well imagine a scholar from one of these traditions expressing the same frustrations.

My enthusiasm for ‘Sacred’ is also tempered with some reservations about its objectives. The exhibition is supported by a number of foundations whose mission is to promote understanding between members of different faiths. In a difficult world, where religious tensions run high and especially in the <st1:country-region st="on"><st1:place st="on">UK</st1:place></st1:country-region>, where the benefits (or otherwise) of multiculturalism are the topic of weekly high-level concern, this is certainly a vital and responsible ambition. However, there is a huge gulf between developing mutual respect, understanding and intelligent dialogue between the faiths (an objective that I whole-heartedly endorse) and advancing the notion that what divides the faiths is slight, perhaps even only a matter of style and cultural expression (one that I reject).

One can assert one's beliefs without compromise, even reinforcing why one rejects other religious convictions, without losing one’s tolerance and even acceptance of those who strongly disagree. The differences between the beliefs, practices and aspirations of the different faiths are huge; even the nature of God Himself is hotly disputed, never mind how one ought to live one’s life. We deal ourselves and our attempts at interfaith harmony a serious blow if we pretend otherwise. Reducing religious differences to externalities is unhelpful and misleading.

Perhaps I am over-sensitive, but ‘Sacred’ smells to me a little like an attempt to promote the ‘we’re all really the same it’s just a question of style’ ideology. Rather than being grouped by faith origin, the manuscripts are displayed according to eras, progressing from Jewish through Christian and Muslim tracts. One of the reasons for this is clearly to allow a comparison of the calligraphy of different periods, but to me it also conveyed a sense of ‘look how similar they all are.’ Moreover, I felt that some of the displays went out of their way to present the small number of similarities between the three religious traditions, rather than offer a more balanced picture. For example, as depicted in one of the video displays, Jewish, Christian and Muslim wedding ceremonies do indeed have more than a passing resemblance to each another. However, when it comes to any kind of serious issue, such as basic theology, festival celebration, Messianic belief, and even the value and function of the Bible itself, they differ vastly. And the final computer at the exit leaves the visitor with the explicit message that there is so much that the faiths share, much more than what divides them: in some ways this is true, but in so many other senses, it is not.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

The Herd Mentality

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Tolerance and disagreement

The astonishing capacity of Judaism to welcome disagreement, tolerate and even validate a range of views (albeit within the system) on almost every issue is, in my opinion, one of its greatest strengths. Yet it is, perhaps, the most sophisticated aspect of real Torah thought; the Talmud (Chagigah 3b) acknowledges that it takes tremendous wisdom and effort to think this way, yet it is vital to learn to do so.

It is fascinating to note then when an outstanding attribute is native to the Jewish people, even outsiders can recognise it. A year ago, I read a fascinating book called ‘The trouble with Islam today’, by the controversial author Irshad Manji, which contains a number of really thought-provoking observations. In a chapter provocatively called ‘Seventy virgins?’ she considers the subject of herd mentality:

What I knew was that believers in the historically ‘reformed’ religions don’t operate on a herd mentality nearly as much as Muslims do. Christian leaders are aware of the intellectual diversity within their ranks. While each can deny the validity of other interpretations – and many do – none can deny that a plethora of interpretations exists. As for Jews, they’re way ahead of the crowd. Jews actually publicise disagreements by surrounding their scriptures with commentaries and incorporating debates into Talmud itself. By contrast, most Muslims treat the Quran as a document to imitate rather than interpret, suffocating our capacity to think for ourselves.

Now, Manji is hardly an expert on Judaism, but her comments really set me thinking about the parameters of tolerance and disagreement within Jewish thought. That more than one view in halachah (Jewish law) can be tolerated within the system is apparent from the proverbial ‘elu v’elu’ (a statement acknowledging that more than one view can be the ‘words of the living God’) but the imperative to accord respect to other views is less well known. In summarising three years of disagreement between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai (the schools of Hillel and Shammai), the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) comments:

As both (the views of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai) are the ‘words of the living God’, why did Beit Hillel merit that the halachah (Jewish law) be fixed according to their view? They were gentle and tolerant and they taught their own views and those of Beit Shammai and even expressed the views of Beit Shammai before their own view.

In his introduction to BeReishit (Genesis) the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, pre-eminent 19th century European sage) suggests that lack of tolerance for Torah viewpoints other than one’s own is the very cause of destruction. Writing about the religious leadership of the Templeera, he observes:

They were righteous, pious and toiled in Torah, but they were not diplomatic. Because of the hatred in their hearts for one another, they suspected anyone who conducted his religious life not in accordance with their view of being a Sadducee or a heretic. As a result, they came to horrible bloodshed and every known evil, until the Temple was destroyed. This vindicated what happened to them (the destruction of the Temple). Since God is upright he does not tolerate such ‘righteous’ people unless they are also diplomatic, not crooked, even if they act for the sake of heaven, for this causes the destruction of creation and the ruin of society.

I realised why I was thinking about Irshad Manji this week: her observations were dredged from the depths of my mind by my sadness at the monochromatic nature of much of the contemporary Jewish world, especially in Israel. Her comments depict the Judaism I know and love, the one I see in the Talmud and classic Jewish sources, the one taught me by my own rabbis and role-models, the one I try to practice and teach my children and students. They don’t, however, describe the Jewish world I see around me, one in which authoritarian pronouncements have become common, strongly-worded decrees seem to limit thought and practice, and variant opinions and their exponents are trashed, not discussed. We have reached the stage at which there is only one ‘acceptable’ view on most topics, the opinions of previously-well-respected Jewish thinkers are no longer considered party line; we have our own censored publications to ensure that no-one finds out about them anyway. Suggesting that this impacts only on a small part of Israeli society is to bury our heads in the sands of a global Jewish reality.

Hardly a week goes by without another decree: a few weeks ago it was the banning of higher-education courses for Israeli women, last week, the emphasis on policing ‘kosher’ clothes shops in religious districts. Is Manji right? Are we really ‘way ahead of the crowd’? Only just, I fear.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents