Monthly Archives: April 2016

A challenge for unity and acceptance

Shalom Chaverim,

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book, Not in God’s Name, is a masterpiece, an essential, brilliant and necessary dissertation which combines the best of Jewish ethics, theology and vision in one book. It is no surprise that Rabbi Sacks received, and well deserved, the prestigious Templeton Prize 2016 for his exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.

The theology presented in Rabbi Sacks’ book is the most perfect response to a world that has been plunged into interfaith conflict, due to the rise of religious and political extremism. And it is extremism, whether it be Islamic, Christian, Jewish or secular, which threatens to destroy us in its murderous agenda of bloodshed and intolerance.

Our very hope for coexistence and understanding of each other, especially in the area of interfaith dialogue, depends upon a new framework of religious vision that encompasses the “other”, and Rabbi Sacks has mastered the religious response to terror and extremism.

“Us” Versus “Them”

Both religious and secular extremism in the past and today divides the world into a dualism that splits the world into an “us” versus “them” mentality. The “good guys” take on an ideological position that soon warps the human soul by justifying a contrived and diabolical need to destroy the ”bad guys” and, as Rabbi Sacks demonstrates so lucidly in his book, allowing for the most violent and dastardly murderous activity.

This need to be rid of all ideological and religious competitors characterised the Jewish Dead Sea Sect (from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st Century CE) whose religious stance divided the world into the “children of Light and Darkness”.

The Christian crusaders separated the heathens who rejected Christianity from the pure faithful. Hitler and Stalin crushed the Jews and all their other ideological opponents as “evil ones” preventing the pure race or righteous ideology from victory. Today’s Islamic fanatics have made cruel war against anyone who defies Islamic sharia law and the establishment of Islamic dominance.

Embracing the Other

However, true monotheism, as we read in Sacks’ book, finds a way of encompassing us all in a family of nations. If we were only to read our Scriptural sources carefully, maintaining our unique religious callings while, at the same time, finding a theology that embraces the other due to an enlarged and appropriate understanding of monotheism – one God, one humanity – then the problems of terror, fanaticism and dualism would find no followers.

I am not an Orthodox rabbi but I have relied upon my brilliant teacher, Rabbi Sacks, for wisdom, Torah, insight and more. I, for one, marvel at the breadth and depth of Rabbi Sacks’ knowledge and insight and believe that everyone should read his brilliant book.

However, there is one caveat to his Not in God’s Name that needs to be addressed, and sooner rather than later.

While Rabbi Sacks has presented a coherent and necessary theological framework for

interfaith relations, in my view the time has come for a similar ideological and theological basis to improve “intra-faith” relations, i.e. the way Jews should look upon their fellow Jews. The intolerance that exists, the apartheid we have created in our own Jewish world, both in Israel and the Diaspora, are appalling and, unfortunately, getting worse.

There are constant spats regarding praying at the Western Wall, whether non-Orthodox rabbis should be granted the right to officiate at weddings, funerals or conversions, prohibitions on Orthodox rabbis from even stepping foot in Masorti, Reform or Liberal synagogues, let alone engage in classes, worship or dialogue with each other, in a dark side of Jewish life today that we too often ignore.

Unnecessary Division

In fact, we live with the absurdity that an Orthodox rabbi, even here in the UK, finds it easier to attend a church or mosque than to be present at a nonOrthodox synagogue or institution.

The time has come to rethink this preposterous and unnecessary division within our small Jewish world. The fighting and division weaken us at the very time when we need to stand united in the face of rising anti-Semitism, constant attacks against the state of Israel, and rampant assimilation and acculturation.

Not only are we, the Jewish people, weakened by such divisiveness. We appear as absurd, empty proponents of the kind of mutual respect for all that our world desperately needs at this time in history, unless we become determined to undo the walls we have erected to keep the other Jew out.

We must be one people, for the underlying principle of the Torah is the Oneness of God, and the correlation to that is the oneness of the people of Israel. The divisions among us lead to a disqualification of our ability to testify to the world regarding God’s unity and the unity of nations and religions. As the Midrash tells us: “The Divine Presence does not dwell among a people with a divided heart.” (Numbers Rabbah 15:14)

A Diverse People

This call for unity does not mean that we Jews need to be the same in our various approaches to Jewish life, law, ethics and tradition. We are a diverse people and that has always been a salient fact of Jewish history, whether it be Pharisees vs Sadducees, Rabbis Shammai vs Hillel, Ishmael vs Akiva, kabbalists (mystics) vs Maimonidean rational philosophers, or Mitnagdim (traditionalist opponents) vs Chasidim (thought illiterate revolutionaries when the movement arose in the 18th century).

These are all schisms which predate the differences that now exist in the Orthodox world (including Chasidim, Charedim, religious Zionists and antiZionists) and Masorti, Reform and Liberal Jews.

We Jews have never shared the same understanding of Jewish tradition and law. But as Rabbi Sacks so eloquently said at Jewish Book Week in February, we do, however, share the same fate despite our faith differences.

We are of a rabbinic tradition in which each daf or page of the Mishnah and Gemarah (together making up the Talmud) and Midrash (rabbinic literature expounding the Bible) reminds us that there are different voices on any subject. Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim – these views and those views are all part of a living God. To differ is divine.

We are continuously reminded by our sages that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed not because there was no study of Torah or because of laxity in the observance of Jewish law. The rabbis taught that the cause of our destruction was sinat chinam, causeless hatred. The rabbis said that the sin of sinat chinam was equal to the three major transgressions of murder, idolatry and harlotry. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot 62b)

Rabbi Sacks so eloquently called for an end to the political power of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, stating that the existence of a highly politicised rabbinate in Israel has destroyed the moral and religious credibility of Judaism. The dislike for much of our beautiful Judaism among the masses of secular Israelis is an appalling legacy of their politicised rabbinate.

The fact is that with the onset of the Enlightenment, Haskalah, in the 18th century, Jews were divided as to the direction of Judaism, on the degree of acculturation, the meshing of the new values of modernity with the sacred values of our Jewish tradition.

There were Reformers, beginning with Moses Mendelssohn’s disciples, followers of Immanuel Kant, who called for the dismantling of the authority of Jewish Law.  The mid-19th century saw Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, whose neo-Orthodoxy called for integration into modern European society while freezing Jewish law as promulgated in the Shulhan Aruch, the definitive religious framework of Orthodoxy today.

A few decades earlier saw the birth of Wissenschaft Judentums, the “science of Judaism” the scholarly framework of what became the Conservative or Masorti movement, that called for a maintenance of the authority of Jewish law, accompanied by the understanding that Jewish law has always evolved and changed in accordance with circumstances at various stages in Jewish history.

Different responses to modernity, different outlooks on what constitutes Judaism and Jewish law. It has always been that way and we have to find a way of recognising the authenticity and the seriousness by which Jews of different paths approach their understanding of Judaism.

Healthy Whole

There has never been an “Orthodox” Judaism – that is, One Way, a “right” way of Judaism. We are a proud and diverse people, and each branch and stream contributes to the healthy whole of klal Yisrael, the community or congregation of Israel.

Getting stuck in the view that “we are the right way” and “you are the wrong way” will weaken us and dismantle our ability to teach our various approaches with passion. We must look with admiration on Orthodox Judaism’s maintenance of Jewish tradition, the ability to flow against the stream of assimilation, preserving our yeshivot and reverence for our sacred texts and halachah or way of doing things. But at the same time, we have to admire the creativity and advances made by Masorti, Reform and Liberal Jewish scholars and communities in their efforts to make Jewish life fit the patterns and mores of our contemporary society.

Jewish scholarship in Bible, rabbinics, history, literature and halachah has been enhanced by the contributions of my own teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the heart of the Conservative, or Masorti, movement – luminaries such as Saul Lieberman, Louis Finkelstein, Ismar Schorsch, Mordechai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Jewish Apartheid

The time has come for leadership to come from United Synagogue, led by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who knows very well that the tear in the fabric of Jewish collectiveness and unity is damaging us and our future. We must prevent our own extremists from hijacking our wonderful Judaism, so that we may build together a unity that will enhance the state of Israel and Jews everywhere in the world, destroy the scourge of anti-Semitism that has found new life around the world, and struggle together to create a Judaism, with different shades, that will enhance the great name of God and the Torah.

We live apart, we seldom speak to each other in our different machanayim (camps). We do not pray with each other and we do not meet each other enough. What is this Jewish apartheid doing to the next generation, our children, when they see their parents divided, when the rabbis of one camp will not enter the domain of another synagogue community?

I have been told that it is impossible but, yes, I am willing to dream and to challenge the way things are, because they are simply wrong. I invite Rabbi Sacks to come and speak to my synagogue, Belsize Square Synagogue, where he is respected and admired, and where his knowledge and Torah will be as revered as in any Orthodox synagogue.

We are all the brothers of Joseph and we will merit the greatest part of our future when we stop fighting, when we end the barriers and truly become am echad, one people, with diverse paths to Jewish law and Jewish genius.

We are preparing for Passover, knowing that the path of freedom will require greater love, ahavat Yisrael, a respect for each other that we can then pass on to the rest of humanity, waiting for our own example of what it means to be a loving servant of God, with a love of all God’s Creation and life And the same is true for non-Orthodox Jews toward Orthodox Jews and Judaism. The intolerance goes both ways. Our intolerance of our fellow Jew knows no ideological borders today.

Please accept this invitation, Rabbi Sacks, for God’s sake, for our people’s future, for our children and for the full fruition of your brilliant plea for oneness

among all peoples. Let us follow the advice of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who taught us that only causeless love, ahavat Yisrael, may overcome the ruination of causeless hatred. It is no dream but a matter of our very Jewish future that we share together.

Rabbi Stuart Altshuler

This is a version of the article published in the Jewish Chronicle on 1 April.


The responsibility of safeguarding freedom

Passover is coming soon, later than usual this year because of the extra month, a leap year in the Jewish calendar, so we are already well into the swing of spring, sunshine and the renewal of greenery all around us.

The overall theme of Passover is not only particular to the Jewish people, as we retell the story of our nation’s origins from slavery in Egypt to freedom on the road to Eretz Yisrael. It also has universal implications.

Freedom, both of the physical and spiritual kind, is a special gift. We know that the human soul cannot function for long without it. Unfortunately, even today, most people on this earth of ours do not enjoy full freedom.

We also know that even when democracy takes place at the ballot box, there is no guarantee that freedom will flourish. The will of the people can be a dangerous thing, as we know from 20th-century history, when the National Socialist Party – the Nazis – gained power in Germany under the guise of a fair democratic election. In Gaza, Hamas, a violent terrorist organisation, was “elected” by the people. And now we are experiencing the wildest election campaign I can ever remember in the United States, with all the features of mudslinging, baiting, occasional violence, promises that can never be fulfilled and plenty more.

Freedom can also lead to a breakdown in Jewish education and commitment. Physical freedom is not enough to sustain our faith and people. As a result of our love affair with being unburdened from the weight of commandments, study, tzedakah and all those other obligations that Jewish tradition imposes on us, we are liable to disintegrate quite quickly.

That is why Passover leads into Shavuot, why we carry out sefirat ha’Omer, counting the Omer for 49 days leading up to the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai, in order to remind us that freedom without the acceptance of responsibility cannot sustain itself. It is our ability to accept the notion that with freedom comes the mitzvah, the sense of obligation to others, that ensures our survival not only as Jews but as a viable society.

Making Visits Meaningful
We have yet another month at Belsize Square offering opportunities to make this Nisan/April, the month of Passover, a meaningful one for us all.

Firstly, Dr Jack Wertheimer, professor of history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, will be our scholar-in-residence and special guest. On Friday night, 1 April, after the evening service, there will be a Shabbat dinner when Professor Wertheimer will speak on Judaism in an Age of Recession. Next morning after Shabbat service and Kiddush, he will address the congregation on The Religious Lives of Ordinary Jews.

At the Sunday Morning Adult Discussion Group from 10.00am-12.30pm on 3 April, he will present Orthodoxies in Transition, followed by a discussion. In the evening there will be a reception at the home of Miriam and Richard Borchard for those who contributed to making this weekend possible, and an opportunity to hear a final talk in an intimate setting on Community in an Era of “Do-it-Yourself” Identity.

Do take advantage of this incredible opportunity to learn from one of the scholarly luminaries of our day.

Secondly, on Sunday 10 April and Tuesday 12 April we will be visited by Reverend Craig Brown, a Methodist bishop from Southern California, who is coming to London with a party of 30, including leading Christian clerical figures. Rev’d Brown, who is a dear friend of mine, will speak to our Sunday Morning Adult Discussion Group on 10 April. On 12 April the whole group will visit our synagogue to meet me with Reverend Paul Nicholson of St Peter’s (Church of England) and anyone who would like to join us. Another great opportunity!

And thirdly, Passover. It is time to clear the house of chametz and make the final preparations for Pesach, which begins Shabbat evening, 22 April. There is a wonderful mitzvah that is too often neglected, the mitzvah of Ma’ot Hittin, selling the chametz and making a wonderful contribution to the poor. This is a great way to make the message of Passover clear and relevant.

The freedom we have must be shared with those who have less than us, and we are collecting funds for Manna, an organisation that raises critical funds for Jewish poor in Israel, and with a special purpose of subsidising Holocaust survivors. Ten per cent of these now elderly survivors, mostly from the former Soviet Union, live in poverty conditions. Help them celebrate the yom tov!

A time for renewal, new hopes for freedom and a greater commitment to Judaism and to our shul. Come and learn and give to those in need.

I wish you and your loved ones a delicious and blessed Pesach.

Chag kasher v’sameach,
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler