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Saturday, 14 December 2013

‘An Excuse for Squalid Triumphalism’

There is a tipping point in religious extremism where the ultra pious of all faiths meet. They live monochrome lives in a monolithic world desperate to re-create a golden age that never was.

All confuse entrenched superstition with religious tradition; enjoy an absurd obsession with dividing the sexes; insist on a similarly rigid dress-code for the sake of artificial female modesty and demand a particular interpretation of antiquated law as the exclusive path to salvation.

But I am not qualified to discuss minor  Catholic orders, non-conformist Protestant sects or the differences between Moslem Sunnis and Shi’ites. Instead, I feel forced to relate how members of the ultra Orthodox Jewish community will resort to quite astounding tactics to secure their perceived power base.

Such an occasion was May 31 1982 when Pope John Paul II visited North Manchester, U.K. to celebrate a public Mass for  more than 200,000 people in Heaton Park. While  in the area, he met Jewish dignitaries including Chief Rabbi Sir  Immanuel Jakobovits.

But not every Jewish leader was present. One notable absentee  was Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, then head of the local Jewish community’s ecclesiastical court. He declined his invitation, not because the pope represented the Catholic church and all that implied but because it would have meant his being in the company of a Reform counterpart, Rabbi Dr Reuven Silverman, minister of  Manchester Reform Synagogue, Jackson’s Row.

On removing to London, Dayan Ehrentreu’s views about Progressive Judaism did not change. If anything, they became sterner. So I suggest that the damage his restrictive practices have caused far outweigh his great accomplishments in areas like improving the status of Orthodox Jewish women, which I must acknowledge.

Here I shall confine myself to observing that Dayan Ehrentreu’s idea of authentic Judaism is not mine and that the draconian edicts uttered by him and his colleagues have and continue to cause terrible divisions not only among erstwhile friends but also blood relatives.

Until the mid-20th century, Anglo-Jewish clerics of all stripes wereAnti.Limmud publically cordial and even ‘swapped’ pulpits on occasion. The idea of that happening now is absurd. Instead, insult is heaped on opprobrium because, as I see it, the growing ultra-Orthodox community is determined to make Anglo-Jewish life ‘Progressive Judenfrei’ – free of non-Orthodox Judaism. 

This, I believe, is why Dayan Ehrentreu and his colleagues are frightened – not too strong a word – of the international educational movement Limmud and why they have been making a concerted effort to stop new Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis from attending its annual international winter conference, which is due to start with a crowd  of 2,500-plus on 22 December at the University of Warwick.

While modern Orthodox rabbis like Yitzchak Shochet and Barry Marcus were right to urge Limmud to distance itself from the London branch of the Kabbalah Centre – which is indeed nothing short of a weird and dishonest cult – it is a pity that more of them do not imitate the bearing of their Israeli colleagues. Many of those I’ve met here wear their deep scholarship with such light, engaging amity that it is only when serious religious matters are discussed that the true extent of their knowledge begins to emerge.


Moreover, they are prepared to visit non-Orthodox synagogues to teach (if not to attend services), have warm personal friendships with their Progressive counterparts and are happy to work with them on matters of mutual concern.

I thought about this in June when I attended a hugely entertaining one-day Limmud fest in Karmiel  and again during Chanucah, when I understand that more than 70 people attended a Limmud conference hosted in Rosh Hanikra, the town whose famous caves abut the Lebanese border. Limmud.GalilThe theme was ‘Let My Prayer’ based on  a line from from  Psalm 69, Verse 14: ...   וַאֲנִי תְפִלָּתִ

Then I read the opinions of three modern Orthodox rabbis, which are measured, fair and markedly honest. So here I shall quote a few lines from them all and then conclude with an extract from Emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks’s  festive collection of mini essays Eight Short Thoughts for Eight Chanucah Nights. Rabbi Sacks, I must point out, attended Limmud prior to taking office but has never done so since.

    •  Rabbi Michael Harris: “… I struggle to understand the purpose of calling non-Orthodox Judaism “pseudo-Judaism”, language which only serves to drive many people further away from our tradition.  I struggle to understand a simplistic Manichean view of the world in which Charedi Orthodoxy is the sole, direct and simple continuation of Torah miSinai (Torah from Sinai) and every other contemporary form of Judaism is deluded. The signatories of the gilui da’as (open letter) included rabbis who deliberately live lives totally secluded from the mainstream British Jewish community. One doubts whether they understand that community, let alone Limmud”.
    • Rabbi Jeremy Rosen: “… The more successful Limmud became, the stronger the opposition from Charedi and not-so-Charedi rabbis in the UK. But why? Because Limmud commits the cardinal sin in UK Charedi eyes of welcoming all Jews regardless of denomination or degree of religiosity and gives everyone a platform ... It is truly independent. It is not affiliated to any movement inside Judaism or out … It’s a Jewish free for all. And UK religious authorities hate independence or anything they can’t control …”
    • Rabbi Gideon D. Sylvester: “If we cannot find ways to sit down with our fellow Jews, learn Torah and mend the world with them, that should be a source of deep distress and soul searching, not an excuse for squalid triumphalism”.
    • Emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks: “… When I use the flame of my faith to light a candle in someone else’s life, my Jewishness is not diminished. It grows, because there is now more Jewish light in the world. When it comes to spiritual goods as opposed to material goods, the more I share, the more I have. If I share my knowledge, or faith, or love with others, I won’t have less; I may even have more. … So share your Judaism with others. Take the flame of your faith and help set other souls on fire”.

Should he happen on this piece,  Rabbi Sacks will almost certainly charge me with taking his words and those of his colleagues out of context. I shall reply that he does his job and if I’ve ruffled a few monochrome feathers, then I’ll have done mine. I conclude by wishing Limmud Conference 2013 every success.


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