I was brought up at the South London Liberal Synagogue (SLLS) of which my grandparents had been among the founders. Services and Jewish education were a serious concern, but the most memorable things I was expected to do as a child were what might now be called acts of ‘social justice’. SLLS and its members were an exemplar of one of the founding principles of Liberal Judaism: that ethical mitzvot were of a higher order than the ritual ones.
Liberal Judaism sought from its inception to reflect Judaism of the 7th and 8th century BCE. Hebrew prophets who, while acknowledging the value of ritual actions, declared God would reject them unless they fulfilled the opening chapter of Isaiah, “…aid[ing] the wronged, uphold[ing] the rights of the orphan [and] the cause of the widow.”
This was reflected in the teachings of Britain’s first Liberal rabbi, Dr Israel Mattuck (1883-1954), who held that “on both an individual and collective level it [was] righteousness or good conduct which [bound] the divine and the human.”
It’s unsurprising that Liberal Jews – and Liberal Judaism – should be at the forefront of the campaign to bring Syrian refugees to the UK. From lobbying and demonstrating, to offering practical help with legal procedures and finding homes, our rabbis and members are dedicated.
It is also typical that SLLS became the first Jewish institution in Britain to offer a physical home for a Syrian family, as it launches ‘Abraham’s tent’, a project to convert its former caretaker’s flat above its premises.
This and other campaigns are how Liberal Jews understand the verse (Deut 10:18): “God executes justice for orphans and widows, and loves strangers, giving them food and clothing. Therefore you shall love the stranger, since you were strangers in Egypt.” This divine demand and the Hebrew prophetic call is not a matter of choice.