Seeing sense in City synagogue

One would not normally associate the ceremonial of a City livery company with the forging of a revolution in the Orthodox Jewish world. But if, perchance, you had been at the Bevis Marks Synagogue of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews' Congregation of London on one day late last month, you would have witnessed just such a revolution in the making, courtesy of The Worshipful Company of Environmental Cleaners.

I must confess that, when the name of this particular company was first mentioned to me, I honestly thought my leg was being pulled. I know - or at least thought I knew -something about City livery companies, having been educated at a school established by one such - namely, the Grocers, which ranks second (after the Mercers) in the Order of Precedence established in 1515.

Then come the Drapers, the Fishmongers and a host of others such as the Tallow Chandlers and the Cordwainers. These names trip off my tongue without the slightest unease. But Environmental Cleaners?

Well, not only is there such a company, but it ranks 97th in the Order of Precedence, having been founded - as a humble guild - as far back as 1972. Like all livery companies, it engages in a wide range of charitable endeavours and, again like all companies, it holds a special ceremonial - in the presence of the Lord Mayor - whenever a new Master is installed.

As Chaim Bermant put it, 'Sephardim are less schismatic and more tolerant'

On April 28 last, it installed as its new Master, Peter Holt. Because Mr Holt is Jewish, the service took place, naturally, at Bevis Marks. In charge of the service, naturally, was the rabbi of Bevis Marks, Martin van den Bergh. But because (as I understand) Mr Holt is a member of the Maidenhead synagogue, the address was given by Rabbi Jonathan Romain. Thus, a Reform rabbi was permitted to play a formal part in, and address the congregation of, an Orthodox synagogue.

What has ever impressed me about the Sephardim is that they have always done their own thing, mercifully free from those obsessions with outward appearance and religious one-upmanship that bedevil the Ashkenazi world.

As Chaim Bermant put it long ago (in Troubled Eden), the Sephardim "are less schismatic and more tolerant" than the Ashkenazim: "The drawn-out debates on liturgy and ritual," he continued, "which one found in the United Synagogue, the charges and counter-charges of heresy, the squabbles over being more kosher than thou, are unthinkable among Sephardim."

This confidence - in simply doing what they themselves believe to be right - has enabled them to apply to their religious life a pragmatism, grounded always in Orthodoxy, that is almost unthinkable in the worlds we Ashkenazim have fashioned for ourselves and choose to inhabit.

It enabled them to hire an Ashkenazi (Moses Gaster) as their Haham -Chief Rabbi - in 1887 and to fire him in 1918. It has indeed enabled them to survive long periods - and to flourish and grow - without a chief rabbi at all (the last one, the late Dr Solomon Gaon, resigned some 34 years ago).

Faced with the need to raise money to support the living, they found a way to dispose of the dead -– they sold a cemetery in London's East End and reburied the bodies at Brentwood. The inevitable geshrei that this triggered - courtesy of certain Charedim - left them totally unmoved.

More recently, they have permitted the executive committees of constituent synagogues to elect female members. Again, they have found the confidence to outface their critics. In short they are (to quote Bermant again), "respectful of usage without being paralysed by it".

But did you know that there was a time, in Britain, when Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis exchanged pulpits? Long before you or I walked upon this earth (in 1893, to be exact), the Orthodox Simeon Singer preached in the Reform synagogue in Manchester and the non-Orthodox Morris Joseph, of the West London Reform Synagogue, preached at the Orthodox synagogue in Liverpool.

The heavens did not fall in then, nor did they when, in 1964, the Sephardi congregation at Lauderdale Road, London, permitted the followers of Rabbi Louis Jacobs, newly expelled (so to speak) from the United Synagogue, to use their communal hall for divine services.

The Bevis Marks congregation that Rabbi Romain addressed three weeks ago was of course very special. I doubt that the precedent set will be frequently repeated. But I do offer my congratulations to the management of Bevis Marks, both spiritual and lay, in permitting it to be set in the first place.

    Last updated: 11:04am, May 19 2011