Postcards from the Edge

This first issue of Judaism Today appears – ironically – in the aftermath of the Chief Rabbi’s criticism of the Masorti movement’s modus operandi within Anglo-Jewry. A nerve was touched and heat flowed. Despite the acres of coverage in the Jewish press and beyond, little light was shed on the important issues. Indeed, the epicentre of the eruption for many correspondents was the centrality of tolerance. Yet this too became a political football when community grandees from all sides decided in the name of unity that this was the high ground to be captured. In the midst of all the obfuscation, the question still has to be asked – what sparked off this controversy?

While Masorti has projected a higher profile and thereby catalysed greater interest in its deliberations, the casus belli was the issue of marriages. Increasingly, couples who decided to marry in a Masorti synagogue were warned that such an act might lead to an uncertain future for themselves and any potential offspring. What was implied was that non-recognition by the Chief Rabbi’s office was one and the same as non-recognition in Jewish law. Naturally, some couples backed off and took an easier path to an easier life without all the hassles of rabbinical argument.

This issue still hangs in the air and no authoritative explanation of what is meant by ‘two competent witnesses’ at a Jewish marriage has been given. The lack of tolerance or even any semblance of intellectual discourse opened a can of worms which many insisted had been sealed over 30 years ago in the wake of the Jacobs affair. Yet as the Jewish Chronicle mailbag indicated,’ exclusivism’ as a creed concerns broad swathes of British Jews.

Both sides of the debate subscribe to Torah min ha’ shamayim (Torah from Heaven) and that the Torah is of divine origin. The difference is over interpretation and our understanding of ‘min’- ‘from’. A crucial prop to this understanding is the interpretation of time and thus Jewish history.

In one of his Sherman lectures in 1989, Jonathan Sacks wrote:

Time for Judaism, is the vehicle of revelation, and with the shift from revelation to interpretation, a new concept of time took hold, one that dominates both halakhic and aggadic imagination. All time becomes a simultaneous present. There is no concept of anachronism:

There is no ‘before’ and ‘after’ in Torah” (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 6b). In the rabbinic readings of the Torah, the patriarchs inhabit the world of sages. Jacob contemplates the Roman conquest. Moses hears a legal exposition by Rabbi Akiva and learns that it is “a law given to Moses at Sinai”. In halakhah, the same atemporality applies. A single legal argument extends from a first century mishnaic teacher to a talmudic interpreter to a medieval commentator to an eighteenth century codifier with no sense of innovation or discontinuity. (Crisis and Covenant: Jewish Thought after the Holocaust).

It is this new ‘concept of time’ which many Jews have difficulty in accepting – and particularly its domination of ‘the halakhic and aggadic imagination’. All too often, the placing of time in abeyance effectively demotes it and promotes a distortion of factual history.

Unfortunately, the very idea that it is a facet of the imagination, no matter how vivid, has become of secondary concern. In reality, the much-heralded movement to the Right in Anglo-Jewry has been the triumph of the spiritual imagination – the displacement of history as the constituent of time by history as solely a vehicle for revelation.

And its defence has become the lonely ship of faith, buffeted by hostile waves, it navigates serenely and directly towards its ultimate direction. For all too many, however, such telescoping marks the point of supernatural departure from their understanding of mainstream traditionalism towards the margins of belief. Is this not the fundamental and essential difference between the readers of the Jewish Tribune and the Jewish Chronicle? Is this not the chasm which Jonathan Sacks has to bridge?

If history is demoted or even abolished in order to enter the minds of the great masters of the Torah, then it follows that history’s effect on Jews and Judaism is negligible. From this point of view, to talk about a sociology of Judaism is meaningless – Jews were not simply banished to the margins of history, they stood outside it. This is a view which most students of Jewish history – and the history of Judaism – do not accept. All were affected by the period in which they lived. For example, Maimonides was one of the most brilliant thinkers of all epochs and we rightly pay tribute to his rationalist insights. Yet in the first four chapters of his Mishnah Torah, Maimonides espoused the view that the Sun moved around the Earth because it was the dominant thought of his time.

Jews have been influenced by the societies in which they have lived and by the catastrophic events which they have experienced. Indeed, we utilise the past to survive and structure the present. At this time of year, the participants in the seder are asked to regard themselves as if they had actually tasted the bitterness of slavery and the joy of liberation. To endorse an approach which takes history into account is not the precursor of the fragmentation of the faith and the loss of identity, it is more the intellectual enrichment of Judaism. It is a rejection of the privatisation of Judaism by those who have renounced the significance of history.

Clearly, this present calm in the aftermath of controversy obscures the re-alignment of Judaic practice during the last three decades. Jonathan Sacks has the unenviable task of being a religious ‘Gorbachev’ in the shifting sands of a polarizing community. One thing is for certain, the events of the past few months are no mere blip on the Judaic landscape. Ironically, it will be history that will record that this watershed was an instance much more profound.

Judaism Today Spring 1995


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