Let this year be a really new one

It is time to get out of the comfort zone and engage with life in fresh, confident ways

By Ned Temko, September 24, 2009

Maybe it’s the time of year. But, after a few years’ gentle withdrawal from most things communal — a period when my Jewish sensitivities were as often engaged by Spurs as by a siddur — I was powerfully struck by a message from the Chief Rabbi in last week’s JC.

His was an elegant essay, teasing out a grand theme from the detail of our Rosh Hashanah liturgy. It began with a refrain from the New Year prayers: hayom harat olam — “today, the universe was born.” It celebrated Judaism as “the most child-centred” of faiths. It lamented the scourge of drugs, under-age sex, educational drift and family break-up afflicting (by implication, non-Jewish) British children. And it built in a moral crescendo: the need to “put children first”.

All of it important. All hard to argue with. But also, it seemed to me, a shade too comforting, too self-congratulatory, for our annual period of stock-taking and reflection. It is not as if we lack problems to ponder. Two familiar ones, above all, seem virtually to howl for attention: Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, and our Jewish community’s conflict with itself. And, if in a slightly different way than the Chief Rabbi was suggesting, the words hayom harat olam struck me as especially apposite.

“Today the universe was born.” A message of renewal, of course. But more than that, it is an invitation to self-confidence, to break out of an intellectual ghetto in which so many Jews, Israeli or diaspora, seem to prefer the comfort of old fears to serious engagement with the issues that will determine our future.

First, Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians. The “comfort zone” approach dictates a single-minded fixation on the enemy without, above all Hamas. Fair enough. The enemy is real. An intellectually coherent argument can be made, though it is not one I happen to accept, that this justifies everything done in last year’s Israeli counter-assault in Gaza, and its current strategy of ceding the absolute minimum possible on settlement-building in response to President Obama’s search for some way to restart meaningful peace negotiations.

But where is the serious engagement with the core issues of Israel’s future? A settlement freeze is portrayed simply as an issue of diplomatic concession, something the Palestinians want and only the most weak-kneed of Israeli governments could countenance. But that is based on the intellectually lazy, and palpably wrong, assumption that a land-for-peace deal — the best, and very possibly the only, workable alternative to open-ended conflict — is something Israel itself does not need.

Criticisms of human-rights violations in the Gaza war are similarly dismissed as the prattling of the usual suspects, the blood libel of those who hate Israel, hate Jews, or both —even when they emanate, as they did last week, from an internationally respected (Jewish) jurist like Richard Goldstone. Where is the Rosh Hashanah self-confidence and self-reflection that would allow us to distinguish hateful invective from real issues of military tactics, of ethics and human rights, which it is surely in our own interest to confront?

British Jewry’s battles are, thankfully, less bloody. But, if only because of Chief Rabbi Sacks’s clarion call for us to “put children first”, the ongoing legal farce concerning JFS admissions offers a timely reminder of our similar reluctance seriously to engage with issues about our future.

At the heart of the matter is that old familiar tussle: “who is a Jew?” The real question is “who is a rabbi”? Who decides who is a Jew? Some of the dividing-lines are clearly here to stay; there is never likely to be common ground between Orthodox and Progressive over matrilineality. But even within Orthodoxy, there is ample space in teachings and tradition for a more modern, self-confident approach to applying halachah.

With an institution like JFS, under the Chief Rabbi’s aegis but clearly with a wider constituency, surely the whole range of our communal leaders might begin contemplating a strategy more stable than the fragile work-around represented by the school’s new admission criteria? If a legal appeal is won in the Lords, there will in any case be pressure from all sides to unpack the issue all over again.

These are all tough questions, each likely to generate anguished debate. Still, as Rabbi Sacks reminded us last week, hayom harat olam.

Ned Temko, a former editor of the JC, writes for the Observer

    Last updated: 1:06pm, September 24 2009