A Torah Haven in the Geordie Heartlands

A Sabbatical Trip to my Alma Mater

I have recently spent a week in Gateshead, a Yeshiva town in the north of England, where my wife and I lived when we were first married and I was a student at the Gateshead Yeshiva.  I remain eternally indebted to Gateshead for the outstanding Torah education I received there, and particularly for the encouragement I received to develop into an independent rabbi and halachist.  Yet it was the first time since my departure for the rabbinate some 13 years ago that I’d spent more than the odd day there.

On the surface, very little has changed in Gateshead: the same spiritually-striving and hospitable Torah families hidden behind gloomy ‘Coronation Street’ terraces; the same economic challenges.  Yet the community has doubled in size since the early 90s, necessitating expansion into areas that were once exclusively Geordie, and there is a greatly enhanced infrastructure including a community health-centre (in our former home).  But the most significant ‘news’ has been the appointment of Rabbi S.F. Zimmerman as town Rav following the passing of the esteemed Rabbi Rakow.  A brilliant, articulate and thoughtful American, he seems to have struck just the right balance between preserving Gateshead’s conservative character and instigating changes vital for the community’s development.  These include modernising the education system by facilitating alternatives to long-term Torah study for adults, and encouraging working families to settle and start businesses in Gateshead, fostering greater religious and social diversity and increasing local prosperity.

I am delighted that I found the experience overwhelmingly positive: I was royally hosted by dear friends, sat in my former seat in the Yeshiva for Shacharit, and enjoyed a visit to the colossal Lehmann’s bookshop, where I picked up a couple of hard-to-come-by mediaeval commentaries on Rashi.  I also had the privilege of private meetings with the Rav, the Rosh Yeshiva and the Yeshiva’s spiritual supervisor.  Of course, much of this is nostalgia: it felt good to retrace familiar steps and to show the children where ‘Daddy used to learn’.

I was especially struck by the mature attitude of many of the people I met when confronted with someone (me) whose outlook and objectives differ considerably from theirs.  I recall that this had always been my experience in Gateshead, especially at the Yeshiva.  When I joined in 1990, I was several years older than my class-mates; they had strong backgrounds in Torah learning, I did not; whereas my wife and I had recently graduated from Oxford, most of them had no intention of attending university; they wore the sombre ‘yeshiva kit’, and I was none too keen on the dress-code.  But from the very first day I was welcomed as a full member by staff and students alike.

Those contrasts of twenty years ago are now more manifest.  I spent the entire week in Gateshead working on my doctoral dissertation.  It is well-known that the ‘Yeshiva World’ tends to view academic Jewish studies with distrust, and the potential holder of a ‘Rabbi Dr.’ moniker with suspicion.  Yet everyone, without exception, from the people I met casually to the Rav, were interested in what I am doing, and genuinely enthusiastic about my achievements.

My experience was repeated in conversations with old friends, some of whom have children of the same ages as ours.  I was asked a number of times what our eldest daughter Michali, who is now in school-year 11, will be ‘doing next’.  Here, the differences couldn’t be more pronounced: it is the norm in Gateshead for children to leave school after GCSEs to go to yeshiva or seminary, whereas Michali is choosing her A-Level subjects in preparation for university.  Again, I found the people with whom I spoke to be supportive and encouraging, even though Michali’s plans diverge so greatly from what they would consider appropriate for their children.

I think that this phenomenon reflects the fact that the Gateshead community contains many people who are not just thoroughly decent, but happy and secure with their own life-choices.  I’ve noticed that unhappy and insecure people within our religious world feel a need to run down others in order to validate their own positions; those who are secure can celebrate the choices of others, even when they strongly disagree with them, without feeling threatened.  And while I’m sure that that there are those in Gateshead who do not behave like this, I have realised that this is why I have continued to feel comfortable with the people there, despite the considerable gulf between our aspirations.

Thinking more broadly, this is a good working model for cross-communal cohesion.  Even those individuals and communities with radically different styles and understandings of the world can peacefully co-exist, but this is unlikely to happen unless their leaders are happy and secure with their own identities, and make this manifest in the message they preach.  Regrettably, this is uncommon – in many places, religious life thrives on delegitimisation.  Much rests on our ability to convey a sense of contentment and joy to our children and students.

I was encouraged by my visit to Gateshead: for all its pious insularity, it is a community of people who appear to be secure in their choices, something that can only contribute to harmony in an otherwise fragmented religious world.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle here.

The Art of Judaism

Jewish Literacy

 ‘Illiterate Jew’ is an oxymoron. (Attributed to Lord Jakobovits)

Literacy is not a luxury; it is a right and a responsibility. (Bill Clinton)

Torah, Torah, die beste sechorah – the best merchandise. (Yiddish saying)

Promoting Jewish literacy – familiarity with classical Jewish texts and the ability to manipulate them – is something that every rabbi holds dear.  Happily, the recent growth in Jewish schooling and other educational initiatives has improved Jewish literacy within our mainstream communities, which had for years viewed synagogues as the sole panacea for their existential ills.

Yet there is a recurrent issue with the relatively low level of textual Jewish studies taught in high schools serving the centrist Anglo-Jewish communities.  This is evident from my numerous conversations with British students about their post high-school experiences in Israel: I have lost track of how many times I have heard bright and motivated British teenagers grumble that they lag behind their American fellow-students; this is corroborated by their perplexed and rather frustrated tutors.

It is important to recognise that the US Jewish high school system differs greatly from ours: the separation of Church and State there means that the schools operate independently from the mainstream system, which apart from making them eye-wateringly expensive, allows them to determine their own agendas.  Although UK graduates generally perform better in secular subjects, there is no escaping that notwithstanding the opportunities they have had for extra-curricular learning, ‘text clubs’ etc., the alumni of our schools are usually much less Jewishly literate than their US counterparts.

I have previously mentioned my view that the greatest impediment to Anglo-Jews engaging seriously with Jewish observance and Torah study is the certainty that it will inhibit, rather than enhance, their life-aspirations.  This conviction lies at the heart of the Jewish literacy issue: parents and even some educators associate textual competence with religiosity and poor social integration; as such, they resist including too much of in the school curriculum.  As far as many Anglo-Jews are concerned, Jewish literacy is only for ‘frummers’.  I have even heard from directors of school Jewish-studies programmes that they are often pressured by parents and board members not to increase the quantity or intensity of their provision.

In contrast, many American educators have realised that Jewish literacy is actually the entrée to every aspect of Jewish life.  They understand that training their students to read Bible commentaries and Talmud, as well as teaching them to speak good Ivrit, are valuable ends in themselves – they regard them as indispensable components of a decent Jewish education.  Interestingly, this attitude cuts across the observance spectrum: Orthodox high schools that would describe themselves as ‘very modern’, along with Conservative educational institutions, devote many curriculum hours each week to high-level textual study.  They realise that every facet of their students’ Jewish lives is enhanced by being able to understand and discuss Judaism ‘in the original’.  Irrespective of their commitment to observance, ‘textual aficionados’ gain an unmediated appreciation of their Jewish origins and identity, connect profoundly with other Jews and communities around the world, form a unique bond with Israel and its people, and, quite simply, internalise a deeper sense of the history, development, challenges and aspirations of the Jewish people than their less-literate friends.  It is clear that many American Jews, irrespective of their degree of commitment and conviction, buy into the idea that proper Jewish literacy enhances their lives and expands their horizons.  Sadly, there is no equivalent educational culture among their British counterparts.

Our children have a right to real Jewish literacy and it is our responsibility to deliver it.  Our communities face many challenges; meeting this responsibility is one of the biggest.  Some adult education centres are pioneers in this field; I am proud to be associated with a number of transformational programmes.  I am also aware that some established schools are improving their textual provision and imagine that the newer ones will build their curricula around it.  But until real Jewish literacy is a central aspiration for our children, they will always be playing ‘catch-up’.

I understand parental resistance to intensive textual study: it can seem alien, consumed with obscurities, and for many who have managed adult Jewish lives without it, a diversion from reality.  Yet in reality, attaining Jewish literacy is a, perhaps, the focal aspect of the ‘Art of Judaism’:  Torah study, more than any other endeavour, including even prayer and mitzvah observance, paints the world ‘Jewish’.  It’s not just about the language, although that’s clearly very important, but about the excitement of learning to see every part of the human condition through a Jewish lens.

At the end of a list of important social responsibilities, the rabbis add the dictum ‘but the study of Torah is equal to them all’,[1] on which the Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hasidism) comments that ‘through the Torah, everything can be fixed’ – Torah study opens doors to every aspect of Jewish life.


[1] Mishnah Peah 1:1; TB Shabbat 127a

Israel Sabbatical

Israel Sabbatical Thoughts and a Pressing Need

Having been in Jerusalem for most of the winter, I’ve been thinking a lot about Israel, my love-affair with it, and how that plays out in our lives in the UK, where we actually seem to live.  Before sharing these, a little about what I did when not sitting the library staring at a laptop.

Although I usually visit Israel frequently, I hadn’t been there for two consecutive weekends in at least 20 years; this meant that my visits usually follow a pretty conservative schedule.  But during my Sabbatical, I made it to a reasonable number of places around the country, mostly near to Jerusalem, although I did tour in the Galil and venture to the wilds of Ma’ale Gilboa.  I particularly enjoyed visiting the Neot Kedumim nature reserve and hiking to Sataf, although, for the record, I’ve still never been to either Eilat or Bnai Brak.  I’ve had wonderful Shabbatot with friends in Modi’in, Ramat Beit Shemesh, Kfar Sava, Efrat, and in various Jerusalem districts, as well as at Kibbutz Lavi.  I’ve generally preferred to ‘sit in the audience’, although I did speak one Shabbat at the Eretz Hemdah community in Katamon; I also delivered a Friday-night shiur in Kfar Sava and I lectured to a post-graduate group at Bar Ilan University about the challenges facing Anglo-Jewry.  In Ramat Beit Shemesh I was asked unexpectedly to speak at a Kiddush, although after I’d finished, I discovered that they’d confused me with someone else!

But the abiding memories of my extended stay will be of the pleasure of just being there: the sheer numbers of Jews; the view from the bus window of the incredibly beautiful Harey Yehudah; daily duchaning, the melting pot that is the National Library of Israel, where everyone from Chasidic men to non-religious women share ideas in a tolerant and open environment; the deafening Sephardic music so beloved by taxi-drivers; the small Shul which attracts the weirdest group of people imaginable; the American Christians on a solidarity tour wearing tzitziot tied to their belts; the man who could ‘prove’ to me that my watch didn’t need a new battery (and was right).  It cannot be overemphasised that Judaism and Jewish life thrive best in Israel, not elsewhere, and although we do our utmost to create vibrant, meaningful Jewish experiences in the Diaspora, often even succeeding, they will always be a pale reflection of the ‘real thing’.

This thought leads me to more weighty matters.  I have watched from afar the recent controversy over remarks about Israel from Mick Davis, a prominent Anglo-Jewish lay-leader.  I won’t evaluate the entire saga here; both the Chief Rabbi and the Israeli Ambassador offered considered responses at the time, as did pundits from across the political and religious spectrum.  The debate will undoubtedly rumble on as to whether it is appropriate to criticise Israeli government policy, and if so, how, by whom, and in what circumstances.  There is nothing new about this.

The Chief Rabbi was correct to point out that the debate over Davis’ remarks is a ‘sideshow’ (albeit one worthy of serious debate), given that many of Israel’s enemies base their policies on their principled denial of Israel’s right to exist.  Yet this opinion is no longer confined to Arab administrations and would-be governments: while even a few years ago, questioning Israel’s legitimacy only occurred on the fringes of the British media, it is now disturbingly mainstream.  And if, with a heavy heart, I admit that not all forms of anti-Zionism are anti-Semitism, denying Jews a right accorded to other peoples - self-determination in our historic homeland - surely is.

We dare not be oblivious to the impact of media delegitimisation, as well as from boycotts and anti-Israel campus activity.  It has a ‘drip-drip’ negative impact on every member of the community, especially on those without strong convictions or a good grasp of the facts.  It is no longer uncommon to meet Jews, especially young men and women, who have unintentionally internalised the narrative of Israel’s enemies, and at best are embarrassed by Israel and ambivalent about her legitimacy.

More important than debating the rectitude of criticising Israel, and perhaps even more pressing than fighting external threats, the community needs a strong and effective strategy to ensure that Jews of all political and religious affiliations are convinced of the legitimacy of the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel and will promote and, when necessary, defend it.

Tenach, ancient and modern Jewish history and political thought are no longer just part of a rounded Jewish education, but are indispensable for meeting the exigent realities of an Israel-hostile environment.  Many of our schools and other educational institutions already do this, some admirably.  Yet it needs to be pushed higher up the agenda, especially among university and high-school students and in communities where few children attend Jewish schools.

Success in this area also confers other advantages.  It transcends denominational and political feuds – a left-leaning liberal and a staunch religious-Zionist rightist may disagree fiercely about almost every aspect of Jewish life and certainly about how Israel should respond to its challenges, but can share a belief in  the legitimacy of the Jewish claim to the Land and the synergy between Judaism, Israel and the Jewish people.  But most importantly, mobilising a corps of informed, Israel-positive activists, who comprehend and unabashedly celebrate the miracle of the Jewish return to the Land should enable us, rather than our detractors, to frame the Israel debate.

Thinking Sabbatical

Thoughts from a returning rabbi

It’s hard to believe that it’s almost over, but I will be returning to ‘normal’ in a few days, following a wonderful winter Sabbatical.  I’ve spent much of the last few months in one of my favourite places in the world, the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, where I’ve had the opportunity to study, write and consult world-class scholars in my field of Jewish studies; I have even managed to make good progress on my dissertation.

I’m finishing this period feeling renewed and refreshed in many ways: I have in mind ideas for family activities, exciting new projects for my community, fresh perspectives on Israel and Zionism, and complete courses that I hope to teach over the next year.

But most importantly for me, I’ve had the chance to think, something that is a rare and precious commodity.  Away from the concrete commitments, deadlines for sermons, pastoral emergencies, meetings and teaching schedules that characterise my professional week, I’ve actually been able to think for the first time in years, not just about my research, but about every aspect of life.  I brought my mp3 player to Israel, convinced that I’d need to fill the frequent lacunae with music; I’ve used it once.

Without space and time, essential issues scarcely surface, let alone get addressed – I cannot overestimate the benefit of having had an extended period of contemplation and self-discovery, with, I hope, some tangible, long-term results.  While I appreciate that few are accorded the privilege of a Sabbatical, small snippets of personal time and space for contemplation can be carved from even the busiest of weeks.  I know this because my wife has been doing it for years, despite juggling numerous overwhelming personal and professional responsibilities, including managing the rabbi.  I know that many people, including me, are nervous of doing this: we wonder what fears, insecurities or unresolved issues will surface and so avoid it all costs, instead filling our spare time with noise and other diversions.  Yet we sell ourselves short by not conquering these fears.

And during this period, I’ve come to realise something very important.  If we don’t appreciate the need to give ourselves space and time, we are unlikely to recognise and encourage its fulfilment in others.  For community leaders, this is a stark message: our ability to understand, guide and nurture growth in others is impaired by our neglect of our own emotional and cerebral needs.

I am truly grateful to Golders Green Synagogue and the United Synagogue, for granting me this period to think, and most of all, to my family, who have been wonderfully supportive, despite my extended absences.

The Art of Judaism

Shabbat and Self-Awareness

More than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel. (Ahad ha-Am)

Rav Yehudah quoted Rav: anyone who delights in Shabbat is given all the desires of his heart. (Shabbat 118a)

I am, indeed, a king, because I know how to rule myself. (Pietro Aretino)

As I’m on Sabbatical, I thought that I’d begin my ‘Art of Judaism’ series proper with some thoughts about Shabbat and self-awareness.  I realise that even for Jewish aficionados, the connection between them is not obvious and may even be counter-intuitive, but I will try to explain.

Apart from having a few months of Shabbatot when I’m ‘not the rabbi’, while I’ve been in Israel on my own, it’s been a rewarding experience being the Shabbat guest rather than the Shabbat host.  I've had a chance to think about what Shabbat means to me rather how I can make it meaningful for other people.

In a previous life, I used to conduct pre-Bar and Bat Mitzvah basic Judaism tests.  One of the questions was, ‘tell me four things about Shabbat’.  Invariably, the response started with ‘can’t watch TV and can’t drive a car’ and continued in the same negative vein; in effect, the answer was always, ‘all the fun things that I want to do when I’m not at school, like going out and watching TV, I can’t do on Shabbat’.  This reflects the prevalent Anglo-Jewish ‘straight-jacket’ perception of Shabbat observance: a tedious day of unfulfilling and largely meaningless prohibitions.  It’s no wonder that most people wouldn’t even consider giving it a try.  Yet for the experienced Shabbat-observer, who ‘calls Shabbat a delight,’[1] the restrictions provide only the lightest of backdrops to what is an overwhelmingly positive experience.

I’ve been struck by the references to Shabbat as a ‘queen’ or a ‘bride’.  This idea may enable me to unravel some unfamiliar aspects of Shabbat, so I’d like to explore it a little.  It originates with two third-century Galilean scholars, Rabbis Hanina and Yanay, who would dress in their best clothes to greet Shabbat.  The Talmud[2] records that Rabbi Hanina would say to his disciples: ‘Come!  Let us go out to greet the Shabbat Queen’, whereas Rabbi Yanay would proclaim: ‘Come, O Bride, come O Bride’.  This practice was revived in sixteenth-century Tzefat, where the circle of mystics around Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (Ari) would go out into the fields at sunset on Friday to welcome Shabbat.  Rabbi Shelomoh Alkabetz, a prominent member of this coterie, composed the most cherished of all Shabbat hymns, ‘Lekha Dodi’ – ‘Come my beloved’, sung in all communities on Friday night; the most famous line of this song is: ‘May your God rejoice over you like a groom rejoices over his bride’.

Why have rabbis and mystics throughout the ages chosen to compare Shabbat to a queen or a bride?  And if Shabbat is the bride, who is the groom?

For Rabbi David Abudirham (fourteenth-century Seville), God himself is the groom: Shabbat and God experience a wedding-like transformation in their relationship over the course of the day.[3]  Friday night is the marriage ceremony, Shabbat morning is the simhah, and in the waning moments of Shabbat, the union of the ‘happy couple’ is consummated.  And as if to mark this transition, the two, separate candles which celebrate the beginning of Shabbat are twisted into a single havdalah lamp, whose luminescence marks the end of the holy day.

For others, however, we are the groom,[4] and Shabbat is a weekly opportunity to consummate our relationship with God, allowing us to spend at least a seventh of our lives basking in the presence of the Divine.

While this seems rather abstract, it has a real and accessible aspect.  ‘Meeting’ God on a weekly teaches us to see ourselves as God sees us and to benefit from a powerful and renewed sense of purpose and self-understanding.  But this can only occur in an environment of mutuality: if we wish to profit from the gift of contact with God, then we must attune ourselves to His way of being on Shabbat.  On the very first Shabbat and on each Shabbat thereafter, God ceased all creative activity, choosing instead to infuse theworld with spiritual meaning.[5]  As such, we can only take advantage of our encounter with the Divine if we emulate God by refraining from creative activity during Shabbat, investing ourselves in spiritual matters instead.  Hence Shabbat observance consists of positive, spiritually-focused activities balanced against a blanket prohibition of creative activity.

During the week, how many of us have the time or composure to think about the purpose of life and who we really are?  How often do we re-evaluate our aspirations and consider whether we are actually achieving them?  Which of us feel that we ever attain sufficient self-awareness to delight in our strengths and address our weaknesses?  Shabbat, with its inimitable combination of delightful family meals, complete cessation from productive activities, opportunities for Torah study and contemplation, special prayers and physical rest, affords us the opportunity to achieve all of these and much more.  As Professor A.J. Heschel notes, Shabbat is ‘more than an armistice, more than an interlude; it is profound conscious harmony of man and the world, a sympathy for all things and a participation in the spirit that unites what is below and what is above’.[6]

Of course, none of this means much to children, not least those who answered my test.  Clearly, for little ones, Shabbat should be filled with wonderful play, delicious treats and relaxing family time.  As they get older, they could also be encouraged to think about what is important to them, their priorities and how a day away from their regular routine focusing on 'meaning' might be valuable.  If Shabbat has always been a delightful and positive day, they will probably be capable of internalising some of its more esoteric and 'adult' aspects as they mature.  This requires us to think hard about how we celebrate Shabbat as families and communities, something that I will address in a subsequent article.

The art of Shabbat observance provides not just a break from the endless banality of weekday activity, but a profound opportunity for self-discovery in a safe, nurturing and holy environment.  This transformational opportunity is, I believe, what the Sages meant by the neshamah yeteirah[7] – the extra soul granted for the duration of Shabbat, something to cherish, cultivate and celebrate.


[1] Isaiah 58.13.

[2] TB Shabbat 119a.

[3] Abudirham, Order of Shabbat Evening Service and its explanation, 1963 edition, p.147.

[4] Commentary of Rabbi Menahem Meiri to TB Shabbat 119a.

[5] Cf. Commentary of Rabbi Hayyim Attar (Ohr ha-Hayyim) to BeReishit 2:2 and Shemot 31:16.

[6] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951, repr., 2005), pp. 31-2.

[7] TB Beitzah 16a.

The Art of Judaism

Prologue – learning from everyone

Ben Zoma asked, ‘Who is wise?’ He answered, ‘Someone who learns from everyone’. (Avot 4:1)

The problem to be faced is: how to combine loyalty to one's own tradition with reverence for different traditions? (Abraham Joshua Heschel: ‘No religion is an island’)

I’ve often thought that Anglo-Jewry, and especially the United Synagogue, is vague about what it actually stands for.  We’re good at defining what we’re not – not too frum, not too Zionist, and generally not too excited about overt expressions of religiosity – but rather poor at settling on who and what we are.  In a world where attractive alternatives to Orthodox Judaism abound, it is unlikely that we will successfully capture the hearts and minds of educated people (who, like all of us today are ‘Jews by choice’), without a clear sense of who we are and what we stand for.

We have a wide range of self-descriptions for our spectrum of the Orthodox world.  These include ‘Torah im Derech Eretz’, ‘Torah u-Madda’, and ‘modern’, ‘open’, ‘centrist’ or even ‘contemporary’.  Whatever the description, they all believe in two key principles: the historical truth of the Divine revelation at Sinai and the binding imperative of halachah, as understood by the Talmud and other traditional sources, as discussed in more detail here.  While scholars continue to discuss the  ramifications of these ideas, they remain the indispensable tenets of normative Judaism.  As such, they are the principles on which the United Synagogue stands, together with the rest of the Orthodox world.

However, I don’t plan to add yet another designation to the burgeoning lexicon of ‘Orthodoxies’.  Instead, I have in mind a broader project, which leads me back to the theme of this series – ‘The Art of Judaism’.  If the centrist Orthodox community is to have a distinguishing motif, I suggest that it should be ‘to learn from everyone’, in the words of Ben Zoma.  While this can include those within and even outside the Jewish world with whom one may fundamentally disagree, in this series I will focus on the plethora of ideas, outlooks and approaches within the Orthodox world.  The epigraph from Professor Heschel refers to tolerance of traditions outside of Judaism, but I have taken the liberty of applying it within the Orthodox world.

If Judaism is an art-form, then producing an appealing and sophisticated picture requires us to paint with every shade in the ‘paint-box’ of the Jewish world; this means recognising that each part of the traditional world has something to contribute to a modern ‘post-denominational’ Orthodoxy, even if we do not accept any one in its entirety.  While not an exhaustive list, our outlook will certainly draw on the warmth and traditionalism of the Sephardim, the Litvaks' utter commitment to Torah study, the infatuation with God and love of every Jew of the Chassidim, the great Jewish philosophers' intellectual rigour, the passion for the Land of Israel of the Religious Zionists, Chabad's sense of mission, the synthesis of Torah and modernity of the Modern Orthodox, and Rav Kook's mystical zeal and  revolutionary belief in the Jewish people.

I will draw my inspiration from these and other traditions and others in the forthcoming articles, the first of which will discuss Shabbat and self-awareness.

The Art of Judaism

Introduction

Be of glad heart, those who seek God… (Psalms 105:3)

Life is too short, or too long, for me to allow myself the luxury of living it so badly. (Paulo Coelho)

Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about the religious complexion of Anglo-Jewry and why so few of us seem to engage seriously with Jewish ideas and observance.  Of course, many are very generous to Jewish causes, identify strongly with Israel and ‘drop in’ on various festival and life-cycle observances, and all of us enjoy the odd Jewish gastronomic experience.  Yet it is fair to say that despite feelingly proudly Jewish, for most of us, this does not translate into observance or an interest in learning more about Judaism and its approach to life.

This is not a new phenomenon and many explanations have been offered for it.  A popular suggestion is that most Jews simply know very little about Judaism and what it has to say about the world.  Although the recent proliferation of Jewish educational opportunities has improved things considerably, I think that the actual cause of disinterest in Judaism runs rather deeper.

I’ve realised that many of us perceive the prospect of increased involvement with Jewish life as an impediment to achieving our most important life-goals.  As someone who loves Judaism with a passion and has the great privilege of living as a ‘professional’ Jew, this is a difficult thing to admit, but  I’m convinced it’s true.  For those who have thought about it, greater identification with the Jewish world through observance of Jewish law and Torah study is considered stifling a life-option that prevents, rather than facilitates, personal fulfilment.

Torah study is considered a dreary endeavour, focused on antiquated ideas and rules; Jewish law a ‘dead hand’ preoccupied with minutiae that have no relevance to the modern world .  For example, a common view of Shabbat observance is that it consists of a group of random and irritating restrictions, producing a frustrating experience far removed from one’s aspirations for a day off from work.  Scrupulous kashrut observance imposes on one’s social and professional life, not to mention one’s vacation options, and religious life appears to revolve around attendance at synagogue services that even those  familiar with liturgical Hebrew would find it a struggle to sit through.  And I admit that there are members of the religious world who reinforce this view; we have all come across those who seem judgemental and unsophisticated and, sadly, some who are obviously rather unhappy and unfulfilled.

Yet I think that this perception is a distortion of what properly understood and sensitively deployed Judaism can enable us to achieve.  Far from frustrating one’s objectives, serious engagement with Jewish learning and observance offers a powerful opportunity for the realisation of the ideals to which all of us aspire.  While these obviously vary from person to person, they likely include: raising balanced and well-mannered children, developing appropriate values and priorities, sensitivity to the lives and needs of others, social justice and improving the lot of the less-fortunate, contributing to one’s society and to the betterment of humanity, and gaining a sense of the purpose of life and what lies beyond it.  Most importantly, it will certainly include the attempt to attain self-knowledge and to grapple with achieving a sense of personal mission, which empower one to make a unique contribution to the world.  And while happiness and self-fulfilment are not the explicit goals of Judaism, it is correct to say that when its project is properly implemented, contentment and a sense of meaning are a natural consequence.  As King David said, ‘be glad of heart, those who seek God’.

But to achieve this, I suggest a different approach to Judaism and its potential is needed – this demands treating it not as an obligation, but as an art-form.  To master it requires commitment, patience and the investment of time and resources; in common with all worthwhile art-forms, Judaism enables its connoisseurs to understand the mind of its (Divine) creator and be profoundly transformed by the encounter.

In this new series of articles, I will attempt to explain this alternative approach to Judaism and to demonstrate how its majestic ideals can enhance and elevate every aspect of life.  I have entitled them ‘The Art of Judaism’ to reflect this goal.[1] Do join me on what I hope will be an interesting journey.


[1] I am grateful to Rabbi Dr. Steven Gaffin for agreeing to the use of this series-title: several years ago he and I dreamt up the idea of referring to Judaism as an art-form.

The Rock-steady Suspension Bridge

On principles and acknowledging difference

The recent Supreme Court ruling in the JFS case has inevitably re-awakened the topic of the relationship between Orthodox and non-Orthodox denominations.  Many column inches have been dedicated to schools’ admissions policies and other ramifications of the judgement.  Little space, however, has been devoted to explaining the deeply-held principles that underpin Orthodox Judaism; these are obviously inextricably linked to the JFS case and why it came to court.

While Orthodox thinkers may disagree about all manner of issues, they are united in their commitment to certain key defining principles.  Beyond the obvious beliefs in the existence of God and human accountability, these principles may be encapsulated in the following sentence.  Orthodox Judaism believes in the historical veracity of the revelation at Mount Sinai at which God gave the Torah to the Jewish people, and accordingly in the eternal binding imperative of all of halachah (Jewish law), as understood by the Talmud and traditional sources. These ideas are the essence of Orthodox Judaism; all other matters, including the contentious ones, such as the standards of observance required for conversion, flow from them.

The truth of these assertions has been vigorously protected from their detractors for centuries, yet corroborating and defending them (and I believe that they can, and must, be defended very robustly) is not my purpose here.  What is vital is the fact that for me, as well as for every other believing Orthodox Jew, these principles are central to our religious life, and consequently not negotiable.

I am realistic, however, and recognise that sadly, some do not accept these ideas.  The United Synagogue, while proudly Orthodox in its beliefs and objectives for its members, has always welcomed people who represent the entire continuum: those of every shade of observance and conviction, and those of none: that is its raison d’être.  Yet I feel passionately that the greatest achievement of the United Synagogue is its establishment of a non-judgemental environment in which Jews, whatever their beliefs, can share the privilege of being part of the Jewish people and where they can progress towards greater commitment and observance as equal partners on their Jewish journey.

Yet the simple fact is that the Reform and Masorti movements base their religious lives on different principles to those held immutable by the United Synagogue and the rest of the Orthodox community.  As evident from any number of publications and movement websites, Reform does not claim to believe in the historical veracity of the revelation, while Masorti’s redefinition of ‘Torah from heaven’ completely repudiates traditional interpretation.  These alternatives not only reject the very basis of Orthodox Judaism, but attack the foundations upon which every one of its laws and ideas rest.  Consequently, the other movements have beliefs, aspirations and halachic requirements that differ vastly from those of Orthodox Judaism.  It is, of course, the prerogative of each movement to define its own beliefs and practices, but there are clearly intractable disagreements between them that penetrate to the very heart of Jewish belief and identity.

But even when we disagree profoundly, this need not stop us from engaging in courteous, mutually-beneficial conversation.  We live in a small community where despite our intractable differences over almost every aspect of Judaism, we must try to co-exist harmoniously.  While, paraphrasing the words of Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, we are committed to different dimensions of experience, we all profit from civilised conversation, joint representation, and pooling of resources where possible.  Yet it is obvious, at least to me, that any discourse must be based on the principle that each party acknowledges the beliefs of the other without attempting to undermine them.  In short, each must deal with the other on the understanding that it is unthinkable to expect them to forgo beliefs fundamental to their religious identity.  Of course, this does not preclude the possibility of inspiring others to change their views, but ‘outreach’ and meaningful communication between groups with firmly-held and diverse beliefs are entirely different.  Paraphrasing the words of a well-known Muslim story-teller, dialogue must not seek to debate, deny or convince, rather engender understanding and co-operation when it is possible.

Professor David Gelernter, in the final footnote of his recent book ‘Judaism: a way of being’ (Yale University Press, 2009) suggests that ‘if mutual respect is a suspension bridge, it requires two rock-steady foundations of self-respect to support the towers’.  I think that this is a good working model for respectful interaction between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox movements.

It is clear that the movements have different beliefs, practices, objectives and membership criteria, something that we are often reluctant to face.  Yet I am certain that rather than producing friction between us, recognising this reality is the key to meaningful and tension-free discourse.  Only where principles are stated and differences acknowledged and respected, can a space be created which allows mutually-beneficial conversation to flourish.  It would be wrong of me to speak on behalf of the other movements, but from the Orthodox perspective, this means that purposeful discourse with the Reform and Masorti movements must be based on their accepting that we are committed to the Orthodox version of belief and halachah with all their ramifications.   Of course this includes the unpalatable fact that we cannot, nor will ever be able to accept non-Orthodox conversions, nor will lobbying us to do so in schools, Shuls or elsewhere do anything other than create tension and make communication more difficult.

I accept that confusing messages about conversion have emerged in recent years from the Orthodox authorities in Israel and elsewhere.  This is unacceptable and something that needs to change so that the public have a greater degree of clarity about what is involved.  I hope very much that this will happen over time.  Yet some have mistakenly conflated this lack of transparency with the matter of the validity of non-Orthodox conversions, with which it is not connected.  And it is clear to me that the Orthodox world must accept, at least for the purposes of meaningful communication, that the standards, beliefs and focus of religious life of the other movements are different from our own.

For all concerned, this may be a hard pill to swallow, but it is unavoidable if we are to be partners in those areas where we can cooperate.  We cannot continue craving the religious legitimisation from each other that will never be forthcoming, nor trying to score points in public battles in which both sides will inevitably be seen as losers.  The sooner we acknowledge our differences and their principled nature, the closer we will come to building those ‘rock-steady foundations’ to ‘support the towers’ of a disciplined and loving Anglo-Jewry.

A long-awaited trip to Israel

In Israel with Tehilloh

My second daughter, Tehilloh, is very excited, as in about a month, God willing, she and I will be spending eight days together in Israel. She will become Bat Mitzvah at the end of June, and this trip to Israel, her first, is her special birthday present from me and my wife.

I have the privilege of visiting Israel often, but for various reasons, my wife gets there only occasionally, and my children not at all. As such, it is a challenge to ensure that our children share our passion for Israel and remain aware of the fact that Israel lies at the centre of all Jewish religious, political and national aspirations. It is too easy for them to spend their childhood in the comfort of Golders Green without properly understanding the importance of Israel and the focal role that it ought to play in their lives and objectives. How does one convey to children living in a Diaspora that is largely happy and supportive of their religious lives that living outside Israel is not ideal? How does one teach Diaspora children to comprehend the miracle of the Jewish return to the Land, celebrate Israel’s successes, commiserate with her failings and identify with Israel and Israelis? How does one make them appreciate that the heart of the Jewish people beats not in Golders Green or Boro Park, but in Jerusalem?

One way that we have devised is to try to take each child for a private, intensive tour of Israel as the main part of the celebration of their religious maturity. I took our eldest daughter three years ago, but I hope that as we get further down the family, my wife will be able to take some of the children for their special tour. The rest of the celebration will be modest – a dinner for family and friends and a Se’udah She’lishit hosted by our community – but the trip to Israel is seen as the ‘big’ experience. While we are there, I hope to take Tehilloh to key places of religious and historical interest (she’s been researching where she would like to go), see some friends, engage in a chessed project and visit a couple of famous people. But mostly, I want Tehilloh to have a fabulous time soaking up the incomparable atmosphere of the Land, to experience its smells, sounds, people, craziness and Jewishness so that she too will get the ‘Israel bug’ that will fill her dreams and aspirations, as my wife and I did years ago. I am confident that this trip will do the job and enable her to understand why when I return from one trip to Israel, I can’t wait to plan the next.

As you can tell, I’m as excited as Tehilloh, even though I’ve done it all before, not least to get eight whole days of private daughter-daddy time. But most of all I’m excited and blessed to have the opportunity to contribute to strengthening Tehilloh’s Jewish identity and helping her to build her connection with our Land.