By Rabbi Danny RICH, Chief Executive, Liberal Judaism.
BY VIRTUALLY any measure, Britain has provided a secure environment in which the Jewish community can thrive.
The creation of Jewish institutions and the success of Jews in business, philanthropy, the arts, the law and politics attest to this. And while there is evidence that other minority communities are coming into their own, now is not the time to sound the retreat.
Despite last week’s front page article in Jewish News, the matter is an ideological not a personal one. Overwhelming numbers of the Charedi community are decent God-fearing individuals and I’m an admirer of the work of Rabbi Avraham Pinter.
Nevertheless, the release of the Board of Deputies’ community statistics 2012 hints at a major dilemma facing British Jewry in the next decade or so: will it play its full role alongside the Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and other faith communities in sustaining a cohesive British society in which difference is celebrated and encounter valued or will it become isolated and apart from the rest of the community?
There may be things to admire about the Charedi community. But the nostalgic cry: “They are preserving Judaism” is, as far as I am concerned, untrue.
Perhaps even worse, it promotes the concept of a vicarious Judaism where other Jews can opt out of their religious responsibilities. The “pickling” of Judaism in its eighteenth century manifestation undermines the raison d’être of the Jewish mission which is about ethical impact – not numbers of Jews.
It was in Enlightenment Europe that the Jews first faced the possibility of leaving the ghettos of a pariah people and joining the emerging nation. While anti-Semitism in democratic Europe served as a lesson, the question for Jews remained the same: to what extent could they embrace the opportunities of freedom?
From the Napoleonic times onwards, there were two choices, at the extremes: rush headlong into the new or retreat to the relative safety of the ghetto of the past. The first saw some Jews convert to Christianity in the hope of obtaining advantage and others took on the mantle of nationalism, Communism or another fashionable trend.
This option frequently meant Judaism was jettisoned. Its opposite was the rejection of the discoveries of science, the knowledge of Biblical scholarship and the acceptance of reason. It believed that Judaism had nothing to learn from innovation and required no adjustments to a changed era.
Perhaps it is best summed up in the epigram of Rabbi Moses Sofer (1762- 1839) known as the Chatam Sofer, who observed: “Anything new is forbidden by Torah.” Liberal Judaism, on the other hand, affirms the possibility of a living Judaism in harmony with modern society. While it has rejected some of the more immoral practices of Judaism including, for example, mamzerut, it has sought to create a Judaism which embraces, rather than denies, the findings of science and reason.
Further, Liberal Judaism welcomes those values of modernity including individual autonomy and gender equality, which appear to enhance the fullest expression of Judaism confronting, from the values of Judaism, the challenges of our time. This encounter with modernity brings both opportunity and challenge.
From Moshe Rabbenu himself, Jews have married outside of the tribe and the issue of Jewish continuity is as old as Judaism itself. A community that keeps itself to itself and encourages large families may well succeed in the narrow terms of Jewish demographic success, as outlined by the Board of Deputies’ recent statistics.
Yet marriage is a very reductive way of defining Jewishness. A Jewish marriage does not secure a Jewish life and a Jewish life does not depend on a Jewish marriage. But the matter is wider than Jewish marriage.
Sooner or later, every Jewish community will have to answer this question: is the mission of the Jewish people merely to sustain itself, which it can do most successfully apart from the other nations. Or to engage with others to bring to bear the Jewish exemplar to our needful world?