Rabbi Tony Bayfield’s latest book, Being Jewish Today, is not, he tells potential readers, one for dipping in and out of. Rather, he prefers people to read it “from cover to cover”, in the hope that they will get a sense of the spiritual and emotional journey which has driven him to write.
Today, he says with a grin, he is “the guy in the pews, and I love it” at his daughter’s synagogue, Finchley Reform. (His daughter, one of his three children, is Rabbi Miriam Berger).
But for decades — as a congregational rabbi, then as director of the Sternberg Centre and as head of the Reform Judaism movement — the affable rabbi has been among the movers and shakers of Anglo-Jewry, helping to shape community direction and carve out the footprint for Progressive Judaism in this country,
His book is an exploration of his own story, from home in Romford to a place at Cambridge — and a decision not to proceed with post-graduate studies in criminology. Instead, with the encouragement of his wife, Linda (who died in 2003, and to whom he pays tribute in the book), he went to Leo Baeck College to train as a rabbi.
But, along with his own biography and informed discussion of the influence and radical thinking of rabbinic Judaism, Rabbi Bayfield offers an intriguing dialogue with God, following in the age-old Jewish tradition of arguments with the Almighty. “I describe my relationship with God as an angry, challenging, questioning, one. The idea [of the dialogues] may have started as a bit of a device, but it certainly doesn’t end like that.
“Every time [during his career] I did the intellectual arguments against the existence of God, and every time I reached that point of real questioning of belief — I got a kick up the backside.” But wasn’t that just from himself? “I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t. I can’t be sure of anything… but I think I come to the conclusion that God is. I end up, having struggled — not just bloodied but unbowed, but defiant. You have forced me to admit — God wins.”
His book, he says, “reclaims rabbinic Judaism, for the many Jews like me who don’t want to start with 13 principles [of faith] and big statements that you can’t challenge. I think what I have produced is something of a rarity for British Jewry, and is certainly the first systematic Jewish theology since Rabbi Louis Jacobs, my teacher, wrote 40 years ago.”
The book picks its way delicately through the minefields of Progressive and Orthodox disputes, though there is a passage about the 2007 row over Jewish status for the purpose of pupil admission at JFS. But Rabbi Bayfield prefers to look at what each strand of Judaism can offer. From his own perspective, he thinks both Progressive Judaism and Lubavitch have had a knock-on influence on the United Synagogue, since both, he says, are concerned with “outreach” and conveying the joy of being Jewish. “I think there is a sense in learning from each other. It’s a jolly good thing.”
- Being Jewish Today: Confronting the Real Issues, by Tony Bayfield,
is published by Bloomsbury Books at £14.99
Thank you for helping to make Jewish News the leading source of news and opinion for the UK Jewish community. Today we're asking for your invaluable help to continue putting our community first in everything we do.
Unlike other Jewish media, we do not charge for content. That won’t change. Because we are free, we rely on advertising to cover our costs. This vital lifeline, which has dropped in recent years, has fallen further due to coronavirus.
For as little as £5 a month you can help sustain the vital work we do in celebrating and standing up for Jewish life in Britain.
Jewish News holds our community together and keeps us connected. Like a synagogue, it’s where people turn to feel part of something bigger. It also proudly shows the rest of Britain the vibrancy and rich culture of modern Jewish life.
You can make a quick and easy one-off or monthly contribution of £5, £10, £20 or any other sum you’re comfortable with.
100% of your donation will help us continue celebrating our community, in all its dynamic diversity...
Being a community platform means so much more than producing a newspaper and website. One of our proudest roles is media partnering with our invaluable charities to amplify the outstanding work they do to help us all.
There’s no shortage of oys in the world but Jewish News takes every opportunity to celebrate the joys too, through projects like Night of Heroes, 40 Under 40 and other compelling countdowns that make the community kvell with pride.
In the first collaboration between media outlets from different faiths, Jewish News worked with British Muslim TV and Church Times to produce a list of young activists leading the way on interfaith understanding.
Royal Mail issued a stamp honouring Holocaust hero Sir Nicholas Winton after a Jewish News campaign attracted more than 100,000 backers. Jewish News also produces special editions of the paper highlighting pressing issues including mental health and Holocaust remembrance.
In an age when news is readily accessible, Jewish News provides high-quality content free online and offline, removing any financial barriers to connecting people.
Voice of our community to wider society
The Jewish News team regularly appears on TV, radio and on the pages of the national press to comment on stories about the Jewish community. Easy access to the paper on the streets of London also means Jewish News provides an invaluable window into the community for the country at large.
We hope you agree all this is worth preserving.