OPINION: When it comes to rabbis, the more diverse and pluralistic the better

OPINION: When it comes to rabbis, the more diverse and pluralistic the better

By Rabbi Natan Levy, Interfaith and social action, Board of Deputies

Rabbi Natan Levy
Rabbi Natan Levy

“Aren’t there any Orthodox rabbis here today?” The volunteer from the Detention Action charity, is looking at us with an equal measure of bewilderment and shock.

A group of 12 rabbis stand clustered at the gates of the Harmondsworth Detention Centre, (really just a prison with a slick coat of new paint), where hundreds of people whom the Home Office would rather forget about sit indefinitely behind bars waiting months and even years for Kafkaesque letters from nameless case workers to decide their fate.

And as we stand there in Passover week, clutching boxes of matzah, and not knowing if we are brave or foolish to be here at all, the Detention Action volunteer, a feisty Jewish women and a regular visitor to these inmates whose only crime is not being British enough, is scrutinising each of us rabbis with a discerning eye.

“Are you the only Orthodox rabbi here today?” she asks me pointedly, “shouldn’t there be more of your type?” I assume she means, if Orthodox rabbis can be so exacting with stuffing just the right amount of shmura matzah into their freedom-espousing mouths just two days previously, where the hell are they in the face of clear modern enslavement occurring just shy of Heathrow airport. I mumble apologetically and point at the only other Orthodox rabbi among our number; two out of 12, it’s not a good turn-out and the Detention Action lady is not impressed.

So, instead of writing a short piece about the horrors of the detention centres (they stink of sterility) or the fact that the UK is the only country in the EU that has no time limit on detention (“It’s worse than prison,” one inmate tells me, “I cannot even count down the days of my sentence”), I am obsessed with that woman’s sharp question. Where are the Orthodox rabbis when the call goes out that a cross-denominational group is visiting a detention centre during Pesach?

Well, I can tell you where three of my local Orthodox rabbis were at that exact moment. They were at a Jewish funeral. The Orthodox rabbis dropped everything – their family outings, their learning sedarim – and went to honour the dead and comfort the mourners. The Reform rabbis dropped everything to visit Mark from Tanzania, Sunday from Sierra Leone, George from Nigeria, Ousman from Gambia, Fabian from Jamaica and Isuru from Sri Lanka.

Let’s not ask who is the better rabbi, and which the better act. Instead, let’s appreciate that we have rabbis who do both.

Like the overly famous maxim of Hillel, if I am only for myself, what am I? Anglo-Jewry requires a rabbinical voice that reaches a prophetic pitch, and simply calls for justice with total disregard for any tribal demarcation between Jews and non-Jews. Progressive Judaism trains its rabbis to do this and to do it well. We need these voices and their good acts.

And yet, if I am not for myself, who will be for me? Anglo-Jewry requires a rabbinical voice that is attuned to the daily attritions of a minority community that is threatened by external extremisms and internal apathy. Orthodox Judaism trains its rabbis in those small steady deeds that knot together the loosening bonds of communal life that keep Anglo-Jewry whole. We also need these voices and their good acts.

This does not imply, of course, that Orthodox rabbis should avoid the detention centre, or that Progressive rabbis don’t care about funerals or ritual. But can we please acknowledge that what makes our fragile community so special is a leadership model with a diverse focus? That if we could only celebrate the achievements happening on the other side of the denominational spectrum instead of ignoring them, or worse, dismissing them as ‘not really a mitzvah’ or ‘crazy frumkite’, we could then claim them as our own.

Could an Orthodox rabbi stand before his congregation and extol the Liberal synagogue down the road for opening its doors month after month to asylum seekers? Could the Liberal rabbi declaim from the pulpit that if any lonely Jew in her community should need a Shabbat meal, they should call the local Orthodox rabbi?

This year we denigrate, next year let us celebrate the plurality of a multi-vocal, multi-talented and multi-passionate Anglo-Jewish rabbinate.

For the question our Jewish lady from Detention Action asked so pointedly, had a rejoinder. When we finally made it through the three locking doors, and fingerprint station to see Mike from Tanzania (denied asylum because the last death threat against him was more than two years ago. “Perhaps they have changed their mind about killing you?” the judge suggested), he smiled. “Rabbis!” he exclaimed. “Here in Harmondsworth, God bless you!” Mike did not see Orthodox and Liberal, Reform or Masorti. He just saw rabbis; and sometimes that is enough.

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