Unity? How totally unrealistic

By David Aaronovitch, September 19, 2008

The community will never be as one as long as the Orthodox believe they are better Jews than the rest.

It was with some antiquarian pleasure that I learned last week about the Stanmore Accords. Of course, many readers already knew all about the peace document that was signed between the different factions of British Judaism some time back in the misty 1990s. But I didn't, and I had only the haziest of recollections of the row that followed the Chief Rabbi's refusal to attend the funeral of Rabbi Hugo Gryn (until his death one of Britain's most celebrated Jews), and which led up to Jewry's own Runymede.

But that delight in being able to put a new history on a familiar ground was tempered by an empathic sadness at the almost plaintive tone of the Liberal, Reform and Masorti leaders when they expressed their frustrations on how the Stanmore Accords had not really brought Orthodox and non-Orthodox closer together. There was Danny Rich talking about how the representatives of the Orthodox still sought to "delegitimise other Jews" and displayed a lack of compassion and respect for other denominations, refusing to "even permit the giving of hespedim [eulogies] at controlled burial grounds".

And I thought, "what's the point?" Or rather, I thought, "that is the point". The Stanmore Accords, even if you didn't know about them till yesterday, were always an exercise in futility, because they were all about trying to be loved by those who enjoy resisting you.

The accords, an exercise in compromise, agreed that there were big differences between the denominations and added that this was "not surprising, since the fundamental concepts of Jewish life are in issue: divorce, conversion, indeed the question itself as to who is a Jew". But it is clear to me, at any rate, that these are the symptoms, not the cause of the difference.

That cause is the belief on the part of the Orthodox that the others are not really proper Jews at all. They, the Orthodox, are the real McCohen, being what God intended Jews to be. They are the Elect, the Chosen. What is the point of being Chosen, and doing all that work to deserve the title, if any old Saul, Shmuel or Hymie can also claim to be Chosen?

This desire for exclusiveness - to define yourself partly by who you don't let in and who you won't consort with - is by no means just a Jewish trait. The path to heaven, Puritans were told, is a narrow path and most will not be able to negotiate it. All the more pleasurable, in a virtuous sense, was it for those who felt they could tread the stony way, to contemplate the falling by the wayside, and the winnowing of the chaff.

And the same is often true in heavily ideological politics.

There is the famous joke about the two Trotskyist parties who held a unity conference, and emerged with five parties. It is what I would call the sectarian impulse. When, many moons ago, I was in the Communist Party, much though we disliked the Tories, the real hatred of us Eurocommunists was reserved for the Stalinists, and it was returned with interest.

The discomforts and inconveniences, the eccentricities of the very religious or the very ideological life may often be softened by the knowledge of one's own superiority. It can, in fact, become a major feature of the political or religious institution itself.

Stephen Moss, the Reform chairman, was quoted in these pages as believing that the unity task was urgent because of demographics and that "being prepared to demonstrate that what is common - a desire to perpetuate Jewish life - is of more value... than that which divides".

But the Gryn episode proved, if it wasn't clear enough already, that the Orthodox don't regard Mr Moss's as being, in their sense, a Jewish life. It's something else; a watered-down and thus doubly worthless version. Subversive, even.

"Only your Honour can know," the Chief Rabbi had written of Hugo Gryn, "what conflict I experience in praising a person who is amongst those who destroy the faith."

Even though the Chief Rabbi repented of these astonishing words, the fact is that this is either what he thought, or what he thought he should think. This was his honest belief, just as it is the honest belief of some African bishops of the Church of England that homosexuals are condemned to hell-fire and of other Anglicans that the biggest barrier to episcopal office should be the lack of a penis.

At some point or other, you just have to admit that the unity game is up. One reason, it seems to me, why this doesn't happen is the strange cultural cringe that ordinary Jewish people perform in front of the very Orthodox, as though, in some sense, these censorious sectarians do indeed carry the true flame. Which they don't.

None of the above means that Orthodox Jews or their representatives should be persuaded out of their own observances and their own choices. But, just as there is an Archbishop of Canterbury and a Cardinal at Westminster, and they rub along separately, perhaps there should be a Chief Rabbi (frum) and a Chief Rabbi (non-frum), and they can get together every year and talk politely about an ecumenicism that never, ever happens.

Last updated: 9:47am, October 31 2008



Thu, 09/18/2008 - 22:29

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All Jews are one community and membership of one or another synagogue is irrelevant. We Orthodox have our own many divides -- Modern and Haredi, Ashkenazic and Sephardic, Litvish and Yekkish[Lithuanian and German], Satmar and Lubavitch, Gur, Belz and Bobov, Yemeni and Spanish and Portuguese. We don't look down on Reform and Liberal because we know their compromises were caused more by adjusting to Western society than to any conscious rejection of Halacha. As close relatives we feel a need to remind them of what we once all accepted as normal -- Shabbos, Kashrus, taharas mishpacha etc.