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.

Isn't our meat good enough for you?

A meaty tale

A rabbi goes to heaven and is invited to sit at a banquet attended by Moshe himself. He makes a discreet enquiry and discovers that the food is under Divine supervision. The rabbi whispers in a waiter’s ear, ‘I’ll take the fish!’

Many people are puzzled by the suggestion that a rabbi might endorse some area of religious life but be reluctant to partake in it himself. For example, it troubles people that some rabbis won’t eat from certain kosher butchers; others won’t carry on Shabbat, even inside an area enclosed by an ‘eruv’. One hears the obvious concerns about inconsistency expressed in blunt terms: ‘is it kosher or not? If it’s kosher why won’t you eat it, and if it’s not kosher, why should I?’

It is not possible to make sense of this phenomenon without examining some of the underlying principles of halachah – Jewish law – and how they differ from common assumptions. Some rabbis, for whatever reason, have been unwilling to teach these ideas, perhaps considering them too uninteresting or abstruse for the average Anglo-Jew. I disagree. Indeed whenever I have tackled this topic, be it in conversation, writing or public lecture, it has been met with appreciation and, I hope, greater understanding.

Jewish law is fascinating and complex. Even the word ‘halachah’ (lit. a way to go) indicates a process rather than a ruling. It is a complete system that regulates every area of life, from the mundane to the most profound. Halachah cares not only how we act, but also how we think and feel about ourselves, other human beings, the world itself, and, of course, God. As such, it is all-encompassing in its scope and the opportunity that it gives us to maximise every instant, imbuing it with meaning and purpose. From cradle to grave, boardroom to bedroom, halachah is ever-present, allowing every moment to be experienced through the lens of the Divine.

Yet the comprehensive nature of halachah should not be confused with the desire to create a monolithic society in which everyone behaves identically. Indeed, disagreeing is the halachists’ favourite pursuit: unresolved arguments appear on each page of the Talmud and halachic code; in fact, there is only one chapter (in over 500) in the entire Mishnah that doesn’t contain a disagreement! While there are, naturally, established processes by which practical decisions are made, halachah might best be described as ‘organised disorder’ – a vast array of disagreements built on earlier disagreements. Some view this as an insanely unworkable system; others, me included, consider it to be one of Judaism’s greatest strengths. Disorder and multiplicity indicate range and diversity and are actually powerful tools that allow halachah to be applied in a responsive and case-driven manner, rather than as a blunt, insensitive instrument.

For example, there is an ancient dispute between major kashrut authorities concerning the pulmonary condition of cattle. While some overlook certain lesions of the lung, others (notably Rabbi Yosef Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch) are of the opinion that animals with such lesions are forbidden. This unresolved disagreement broadly manifests itself in a disparity of practice between Ashkenazim (lenient) and Sephardim (stringent). Yet, understandably, many Ashkenazim choose to be stringent. Another example of this phenomenon is the mediaeval dispute about the distinction between a private domain (where one may construct an ‘eruv’) and a public domain (where one may not). This disagreement resurfaces throughout halachic literature and influences the approaches of modern experts as to where and how one may create an eruv.

Although there are well-established community norms in almost every area of law, we have shown that halachah does not offer a single answer to any legal issue, but an array of possibilities, within a carefully defined framework. Because of this, halachah is able to deal not just with ‘regular’ circumstances, but is flexible enough to accommodate emergency shortages, unexpected financial hardship, and the needs of the spiritually sensitive.

Despite the intricacies involved, Jewish life is greatly enriched by the application and validation of this multiplicity.

Talmudic sources conflict about whether the halachist should incline to leniency or stringency: ‘the power of leniency is preferable’ (Brachot 60a) appears to be contradicted by any number of Talmudic statements. Yet there really is no argument, as it is a given that the rabbi is to be lenient when ruling for others, yet stringent for himself and those who are striving for spiritual perfection. After all, his job is to make Jewish life as manageable, enjoyable and uplifting as possible. This demands leniency, where possible, especially when nurturing the spiritual needs of a disparate community. While there are many complex factors at play, inclusivism seems to me to be critical: given the constituents of a community, a ruling (certainly always based on proper sources and expert advice) must enable as many people as possible to observe their Judaism and feel comfortable within it.

This doesn’t always mean being lenient: a stricter ruling will sometimes be more inclusive, but it is obvious that responsible rabbinical leadership must always incline to leniency when regulating public religious services such as butchers’ shops. Ill-conceived stringency could result in price increases, restricted availability and fewer people observing kashrut. The same applies to building an eruv: the advantages of a community eruv are so clear that they outweigh the need to accommodate every halachic view, which might result in not building it at all.

Well-founded leniencies are squarely within the boundaries of halachah; yet this does not mean that everyone will want to rely on them. Halachah accommodates (and even celebrates) a range of practices for different circumstances and there have always been individuals who have elected to follow stringent practices. Yet while it is entirely reasonable for rabbis to adopt personal stringencies, they certainly ought to explain what they’re doing and why!

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle

Letter to Jewish Chronicle July 2009

Letter to the editor

I sent the following letter for publication to the Jewish Chronicle. It appeared in part in today's edition.

Dear Sir

I write to thank Rabbi Tony Bayfield for unequivocally supporting the Chief Rabbi in his attempt to fight the recent Appeal Court ruling against JFS. Rabbi Bayfield’s admirable response illustrates a point I made in my recent JC article – that acknowledging our differences, rather than pretending that they can be smoothed over, enables us to work together on issues that impact on us all. Unlike your columnist, the predictable Mr. Alderman and a number of other ill-informed correspondents, Rabbi Bayfield understands that the JFS ruling rejects the definition of Jewishness accepted by every Jewish movement in the UK, not just the Orthodox, as it insists that Jewishness is defined by practice, not by descent or conversion by any standard. By this criterion, a Sabbath-observant member of ‘Jews for Jesus’ is considered more Jewish than a non-observant born Jew or one converted by any movement. It is lamentable that so many have used this nadir in Anglo-Jewish history to attack the Chief Rabbi, when the ruling so obviously equally affects his detractors, whose interests he is fighting hard to protect.

Yours faithfully

Harvey Belovski (Rabbi), Golders Green Synagogue, 41 Dunstan Road, NW11 8AE

JCoSS: not cross-communal; at best non-Orthodox

Thoughts about a the new JCoSS school

The imminent opening of JCoSS (Jewish Community Secondary School) has generated unprecedented interest. Adorned with the slogan ‘excellence, choice, openness, inclusion’, its website describes it as ‘the first cross-communal Jewish secondary school in the UK’. JCoSS takes pride in its admissions policy, which ‘will treat on an equal basis all pupils recognised as Jewish by any of the UK’s mainstream movements’ and its intention to deliver Jewish studies ‘while being non-judgemental between the various mainstream Jewish traditions’.

JC readers will not be surprised to discover that ‘JCoSS worries Orthodox (United Synagogue) rabbis’ (14/05), nor that in a spurious comparison with Limmud, Miriam Shaviv (21/05) opined that rather than fighting a war already lost, the rabbinate should ‘face facts’ and ‘embrace JCoSS’. The battle-lines seem drawn already.

Before exploring further, I acknowledge the certainty that numerous children from US-type homes will attend JCoSS. However the Orthodox rabbinate might prefer the world to look, we will support and nurture the Jewish lives of our communities’ children, irrespective of the educational choices made for them by their parents. It is no secret that in a rare display of virtual unanimity, US rabbis have strongly opposed formal involvement with JCoSS. Yet this has no bearing on our commitment to our children in the school. There is spirited and evolving debate about how to achieve this: some will run out-of-school programming; others are grappling with alternatives to support JCoSS pupils. And it is with deep sadness that we currently feel unable to work within JCoSS: this painful decision is informed by real concern for our children expressed in the context of legitimate anxieties about its identity.

Unfortunately, behind the happy ‘cross-communal’ picture painted by JCoSS’s professional website and cautiously-worded literature, there lies a confused ideology that conflicts squarely with basic Orthodox principles.

I am certain that JCoSS will indeed try to teach its pupils ‘about all the mainstream traditions within Judaism’, in a non-judgemental way and ‘to understand and respect all the UK’s mainstream Jewish traditions’. This inclusivism may even succeed at a practical level - the school intends its kitchens to be kosher and its weekend programmes to be Shabbat-observant, even if it can’t commit to closing on second-day Yom Tov. But ideologically this descends into pluralistic incoherence. Presumably, pupils will be taught that some believe the Torah to be the unmediated word of God, while others think that it was authored by human beings; that some consider traditional Shabbat restrictions to be optional, but others consider them absolutely binding; that while the Torah itself expressly forbids certain types of relationships, some movements consider them to be valid life-options. And while this dissent is simply a statement of fact, the ethos of JCoSS demands that each of these contradictory options is taught as equally legitimate. Apart from the obvious fact that children need certainty, a sense of imperative and firm ideas to help them build a meaningful connection to their faith, this type of pluralism is theologically untenable from an Orthodox perspective.

In a seminal 1990 essay, later developed into ‘One People’ (Littman 1993), the Chief Rabbi masterfully explains the ‘incoherence of pluralism’ by observing that it ‘presupposes the absence of absolute or normative truth and hence the falsehood of Orthodoxy’. Orthodoxy stakes its being on the existence of some truth that transcends the relativities of time. This is the rock on which pluralism founders… Where truth and falsity are at stake, the idea that both sides of a contradiction are true is itself a contradiction’.

A school whose raison d’être is the validation of conflicting stances on key issues of belief and practice must be considered at best non-Orthodox; in reality it is theologically completely and irreconcilably at odds with Orthodoxy. In that landmark essay, the Chief Rabbi demonstrates that ‘the literature (on pluralism) proceeds on the explicit or hidden premise that Orthodoxy is false’. The somewhat clumsy phrase ‘pan-non-Orthodox’ is a more theologically accurate description of JCoSS than ‘cross-communal’.

I understand the motivation of JCoSS’s founders. The educational world is dominated by Orthodoxy: in varying degrees, the non-Orthodox denominations disagree with Orthodox beliefs and practices, and most acutely with its definition of Jewishness. Why shouldn’t they create a school that incorporates their brands of Judaism? Actually, JCoSS acknowledges that in the event of over-subscription, it will prioritise those ‘who are not considered to be halachically Jewish by… all other Jewish schools’ – i.e. children considered Jewish only by the non-Orthodox. I respect their objectives, albeit tempered by genuine concern for the children of US communities, but I challenge the founders of JCoSS to reciprocate that respect by abandoning the term ‘cross-communal ’ in favour of a more candid representation of their school’s ideology. And I reach out with love to potential parents and urge them to recognise that they may be inadvertently depriving their children of their Torah heritage.

Unsurprisingly, JCoSS has provoked an identity crisis for the United Synagogue. The US has always been good at asserting what it isn’t (too frum, too Zionist, etc.), but imprecise when stating what it actually stands for. Are we too afraid of the consequences to admit that even the welcoming, inclusivist version of Orthodoxy that we champion has clear beliefs and some ‘hard edges’? Sometimes it is necessary to state the obvious: pluralism and Orthodoxy are antithetical. In the words of the Chief Rabbi, ‘pluralism is no more tolerant than Orthodoxy’, since ‘each represents a way of viewing the relationship between belief and truth, and each excludes the other’. We need not be scared of this truth, nor be anything other than respectful of others, such as the founders of JCoSS, who advocate pluralism. Again, the Chief Rabbi’s words seem prescient: ‘the search for unity does not resolve the tensions in the Jewish world. Instead it merely reproduces them’. Failing to articulate the unbridgeable gulf between Orthodoxy and pluralism misrepresents both ideologies and creates false hope for a unified Jewry. In fact, I believe that it hinders cross-communal cooperation in those areas where it is possible.

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

Rabbi in Israel - War in Gaza

In Israel during the Gaza operation

I am sitting in the National Library at the Hebrew University on the third day of a visit to Israel. I am in here to catch up with young people from my community who are studying at various institutions in Israel, but have dedicated today, the Fast of Tevet, to rest and to some private study. Yet instead, I feel motivated to write a short post about the atmosphere here. In the interests of brevity, here are a few points that have stuck in my mind:
  • Every minyan I have visited is saying a 'Kapitl Tehillim' - a chapter of psalms - after each service, every day, followed by a prayer for the wellbeing of Jews everywhere. For your interest, so far I have been to a shteibl in Meah Shearim, the minyan of a prominent Chassidic Rebbe, a religious Zionist Shul and the minyan at the Hebrew University library.
  • There is a hand-written note pinned to the door of the lift in the building where I am staying, advertising opportunities to send non-perishable food to soldiers in Gaza. Apparently, there are many such notices, as well as those volunteering to deliver the goods.
  • I spoke yesterday to the head of a 'hesder' yeshivah; some of his students have been drafted and he is expecting most of the rest of the yeshivah to be called in the event of a prolonged or expanded conflict. This is the vision of the 'hesder' programme: enabling its students to combine Torah learning with military duty.
  • I also spoke yesterday to a prominent so-called anti-Zionist rabbi who told me that he has encouraged his community to recognise what he called the 'miracle' in the south of Israel: the incredibly few casualties in the wake of 1000s of rocket attacks. He pointed out to me that while many in the Israeli media are observing that this is 'abnormal', that is insufficient - we must see the hand of God in this phenomenon.
  • How meaningful the additional prayers for the fast day seemed this morning; the primary purpose of a fast day is introspection - I found this rather more manageable than usual. These selichot also contain texts that were, perhaps, easier to absorb than usual: references to the siege on the Holy Temple and our hopes that fast days will be transformed into moments of rejoicing.
  • I was particularly startled by the word חמסנו - we have acted aggressively - which appears in the alphabetic confession said on fast days (every day in some communities). והמבין יבין.

I am impressed by the sense of calm and normality which seems to exist. Of course, for those with husbands or other family members in the IDF or who live close to the area of hostility, it must be a nerve-wracking time, yet Israelis have learned (sadly) to live normally, despite stress and uncertainty. But most of all, I am struck by the sense of unity and real care and fervent hope expressed by everyone here, of whatever stripe or allegiance within the religious community. I'm pleased that I've been here during this difficult time, as I've learned a lot of good things about Israelis and Israeli society.

May the hostilities end soon and the casualties be very few. May we also value the precious unity that this campaign has engendered and realise that it needn't take a war...

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

What’s That For?

Musar from a three-year-old

I am enjoying the privilege of holidaying with my family in the French Alps, so I am far from a minyan. While my children rarely see me davening, especially wearing tefillin, this morning my second daughter Tehilloh (10) and younger son Shmuel Yosef (3) were in the room during Shacharis. When I was laying tefillin, my daughter remarked to my son that one day he would have to don them. As I was putting on the head-tefillin, my son asked her, ‘What’s that for – does it hold his kippah on?’ Then, being three, he suggested that I might need one to hold my neck on and another to keep my leg in place!

Other than causing me some amusement as I was trying to concentrate on davening, Shmuel Yosef left me considering something important. How often do I (or any of us) actually think ‘what’s that for’ when putting on tefillin? It’s so easy for regularly-observed mitzvos to become rote performances, devoid of real meaning. I realised that it’s easy to lay tefillin each day, but harder to experience the ritual as a means of connecting with God: a tool of subjugation of the most powerful human capabilities to the Divine agenda.

Many people say a meditation before donning the tefillin, one which I have just re-read. It reminded me that:

God has commanded us to wear the arm-tefillin to recall the ‘outstretched arm’ (of the Exodus), placed close to the heart to thereby subjugate the desires and thoughts of our hearts to His service; and upon the head, close to my brain, so that the soul that resides in my mind, together with all of my senses and capabilities, are subjugated to His service.

‘What’s that for?’ Three words of powerful musar (ethical guidance) from a three-year-old: God has many agents. It’s a good focal point with which to approach the pre-Rosh HaShanah month of Elul, which starts alarmingly soon.

This article first 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

If You Prick Us Do We Not Bleed?

The Merchant of Venice

Some pupils at the Yesodey Hatorah girls’ high school not too far from where I live have attracted UK and international news overage (see, for example, here, here, here and here) over their refusal to answer examination questions about Shakespeare. Apparently, the pupils declined even to write their names on the papers, in protest at Shakespeare’s ‘anti-Semitism’, despite the fact that they had not even been studying ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and that by doing so they would forfeit the entire examination. As a result, the school has fallen drastically in the performance tables (it was, quite remarkably, first in the entire country last year and is now 274th albeit out of over 3000).

I should interject a word here about the school system in the UK. Many Jewish schools here have what is known as voluntary aided status, which entitles them to state funding for buildings, general studies teaching and a host of other things, leaving the parents to pick up the tab for the Torah curriculum. Of course, this requires the school to meet government educational standards in all relevant areas. The examination in question was a standard government test on material for which the Shakespeare section is a mandatory part of the syllabus.

The principal of Yesodey Hatorah, Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, has been interviewed several times about this curious episode, including on the prestigious BBC Radio 4 ‘Sunday’ religious affairs programme. (You can listen to the interview here: click on the link for ‘Shakespeare and anti-Semitism’). He walks a fine line between supporting the girls in their principled stand, while indicating that he doesn’t really agree with them. It is clearly not the school policy to eschew Shakespeare, since it has bought into a system that requires his works to be taught; at the very least it tolerates its inclusion in the English syllabus and assumes that its students will do likewise.

I think that the issue as to whether Shakespeare was an anti-Semite is irrelevant – it has been debated for centuries. My own opinion (to the extent that I know enough about the subject to have an informed one) coincides with Rabbi Pinter’s. While the portrayal of Shylock has anti-Semitic overtones, there are also very humane, sensitive (dare one say philo-Semitic?) aspects of his character. The bard lived in an age when anti-Semitic sentiments were common; actually it is likely that he was writing with little first-hand knowledge of Jews, as he lived at the end of the 16th century, long after the expulsion in 1290 and some while before the resettlement in the mid-17th century. As such, I am not inordinately troubled by Shakespeare’s alleged anti-Semitism.

However, two other aspects of this incident have given me cause for thought. First, even if Shakespeare was an anti-Semite, should this influence whether his works ought to be taught in Jewish schools? Second, should a school support pupils’ principled objection to a syllabus item even if by doing so it significantly damages the school and its reputation?

Tacking the second question first, one could argue that the students (and their parents, who are reported as supporting them in this case) are bound by some kind of understanding with the school, in which they have agreed to engage fully in the stated programme of study. They ‘breach’ this ‘contract’ if they do not participate in the examinations. I don’t accept this argument, as I feel that the very essence of a quality education must encourage a degree of independent thinking and allow for the students to take informed decisions, especially when they are fully aware of the consequences. This is all part of growing up, something which a school must foster; in that respect, Yesodey Hatorah and Rabbi Pinter should be very proud of their students.

Yet there must be limits to this type of freedom within an educational environment. When I was at high school, one of my co-students became an anarchist, changed his name from Darren to ‘Grover Herbivores’ and refused to wear shoes. This provoked consternation and, finally, rage from the school administration, which eventually excluded him from school life. While this extreme example is no more than quaint, it illustrates the fact that conscientious objection to accepted school norms must have limits, otherwise the institution become ungovernable. Of course, at least in the minds of the students, there is a perceived moral dimension to the Shakespeare issues which is patently absent from ‘Grover’s’ unwillingness to wear shoes. Nonetheless, there has to be a balance between personal expression and potential damage to the school resulting from the students’ ethically motivated objections. If students fail to sit examinations or perform very poorly in them the school will eventually be subject to government scrutiny, which will influence the life of every student in the school. Striking that balance is very difficult – this is a genuine clash between private and public need. We all draw the line in different places, but I would advocate maximising the students’ opportunity for personal expression (based on informed choice and awareness of the consequences), only invoking the need for public responsibility when the potential damage is significant. I, like Rabbi Pinter, do not believe that to be the case in the recent school case.

However, before voting too firmly for the girls of Yesoday Hatorah, I would like to challenge the notion that if Shakespeare was an anti-Semite (accepting this for the purposes of this discussion), Jewish schools should not study his works. I find this incomprehensible, especially in a complex and open world where it is impossible to avoid a broad range of views about Jews and, indeed, everything else. Surely studying Shakespeare, even if one vehemently disagrees with his premises, is of great educational value anyway. Perhaps ‘The Merchant of Venice’ should be discussed in a Jewish school in the context of a lesson on the history of anti-Semitism. Perhaps the students should be encouraged to debate whether Shakespeare actually was an anti-Semite and if so, consider from where he derived his information and attitude. Are we so weak-minded that we need restrict our syllabi to the comfortable, familiar and unchallenging? I certainly hope not.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents