Frum move back to the future

A recent Jewish conclave intent on restoring the status quo ante is more likely to shatter communal foundations

By Geoffrey Alderman, April 8, 2010

Three weeks ago, a meeting took place in London that could have fundamental repercussions for the way British Jewry organises itself.

Although held at the Maida Vale premises of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews' Congregation, the gathering owed its existence to the initiative of Jonathan Guttentag, rabbi of the Whitefield Synagogue, Manchester.

Rabbi Guttentag is an active, Orthodox, communal leader renowned for getting things done, and for taking risks. Not all of his experiments succeed but he is an indefatigable warrior for his particular brand of Orthodoxy: right-of-centre but outward-looking – the sort of "modern charedi-ism" that is rare in this country but common in the USA.

Also present at the meeting were Rabbi Dr Abraham Levy (spiritual head of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews), Dayan YY Lichtenstein of the Federation of Synagogues, Dayan Yonason Abraham of the United Synagogue, Rabbi Avraham Pinter (principal of the Yesodey Hatorah school, Hackney), Mr Benjamin Perl (chief architect of the remarkable expansion of state-aided Jewish faith schools in England) and Board of Deputies' president, Vivian Wineman.

Among those deliberately excluded were any representatives from the Movement for Reform Judaism, the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, and the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues. Nor was the conference chamber graced with the presence of Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks. Nor indeed was there a seat reserved for any representative, lay or religious, of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, though I do understand that Rabbi Guttentag had previously had an audience with the Union rabbinate, whose members apparently indicated their willingness in principle to send one of their number to a future meeting on the same topic.

The Victorian structure of British Jewry may be about to change in a major way

And what precisely was this topic? In one sense, the attendance of Avraham Pinter and Benjamin Perl gives the game away. In another it does not.

Ostensibly, the meeting had been convened to consider the legal obligations that now fall upon those in charge of Jewish faith schools following the judgment of the Supreme Court in the JFS case.

Several of those present at the meeting are exceedingly unhappy with that judgment and with the fact that Orthodoxy has been judged guilty of racism (please indulge me here by refraining from arguing this point: the fact of the matter is that this is what several of those present genuinely feel to be the case).

They want the religious authorities of Orthodox schools to be empowered, once more, to accept and reject applicants on the basis of religious precept as they interpret it. They want - in other words - the JFS judgment to be reversed by the high court of parliament. And they want and expect Lord Sacks not to take a back seat if and when this legislative process gets under way.

It is fair to say that some of those present are much more enthusiastic about this course of action than others. But I should point out that, eight years ago, Rabbi Guttentag played a prominent part in the events that led Lord Sacks to hurry to Manchester and there to assure a gathering of angry northern rabbonim that he would rewrite sections of his book, The Dignity of Difference, so as to meet their sundry objections.

Last month, Lord Sacks admitted to an Oxford audience that, had he not done this, he would have had to resign. Put another way, I would certainly not like to be in Lord Sacks's shoes should a delegation of rabbis led by Rabbi Guttentag request him to take a lead in effecting the legislative initiative they have in mind.

But my guess is that the least happy gentleman at the March Maida Vale meeting was Vivian Wineman. The legislative initiative that Rabbi Guttentag and his friends have in mind may or may not appeal to Lord Sacks; it will certainly not appeal to the Reform, Liberal and Masorti movements. Either Mr Wineman will have to occupy the back seat vacated, albeit unwillingly, by Lord Sacks. Or he will have to suffer - and indeed preside over -- a grievous split in the body he currently heads.

We may, in other words, be about to witness a major realignment within the organisational structure of British Jewry that we have inherited from our Victorian forebears.

Last updated: 10:49am, July 9 2010


You must be logged in to post a comment.