Rabbi Tony Bayfield: After a struggle I have to admit that God wins
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Rabbi Tony Bayfield: After a struggle I have to admit that God wins

New book by leading progressive rabbi offers an exploration of his spiritual and emotional journey

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

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

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