Travel on Shabbat works for me

Far from being a ‘sin’, my journey with London’s new Sheriff on Shabbat was my ethical duty

By Tony Bayfield, December 18, 2008

If there is one term I would love to abolish from the community’s vocabulary, it is “non Orthodox”. I hate it because it implies that people like me are against things rather than in favour of a positive, distinctive expression of Judaism called Reform.

Nearly three years ago, I was at a big cross-communal dinner to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the readmission of Jews to England. Alderman Ian Luder came up to me and introduced himself. We discovered that our fathers had taught together at Upton House School in Hackney. We talked about how they had taught us concern for the educationally underprivileged, a Jewish attitude acquired during their East-End upbringing.

Eighteen months later, Ian phoned me and told me he was becoming Sheriff of London. He asked if I would become his chaplain. Since the Sheriff’s duties consist of looking after the Old Bailey and attending banquets,

I – a former criminologist and enthusiastic glutton – readily accepted. This September, he was elected the 681st Lord Mayor of London, the ninth Jew, the first this century, and the first ever Reform Jew.

Ian is a familiar kind of Jew. He is not a great shul-goer. He does not find the full panoply of traditional observance particularly helpful. But he has a very strong sense of Jewish identity and his long career of public service reflects deep concern for the disadvantaged and strong ethical principles.

Tradition has it that the Lord Mayor is installed on a Friday afternoon at the Guildhall and then attends a service. On this occasion, Ian and I created a special, Jewish service at West London Synagogue, which was attended by 150 leading figures from the City. The service emphasised shared Jewish-Christian values, Jewish civic responsibilities and Jewish business ethics and was followed by the normal West London erev Shabbat service at 6pm, for which many guests stayed on.

However, the arrangements for the following day — a full Shabbat morning service complete with Torah reading at the Guildhall, at 7.30am, after which I joined Ian to watch the procession and, following that, in the Lord Mayor’s coach — have proved controversial.

For this “sin” of travelling on Shabbat I was castigated in a letter in the JC from a correspondent who, with unintended irony, described herself as “not observant”.

In fact, as a Reform Jew, there is no conflict between my decision to participate in the procession and my Judaism. Reform Judaism has always been concerned that the underlying values of a tradition should not be subverted by an accretion of details. Over the centuries, some of the fences built to protect the Torah have come to make its teachings inaccessible for many.

The prohibition against travel, as a more observant correspondent may have realised, has its origins in not breaking off a stick to encourage the horse rather than in expressing opposition to travel per se.

Reform Judaism balances the ritual with the other responsibilities of Judaism. We ask not just “do you travel?” but “for what purpose?”. I regularly drive to Ilford on Shabbat afternoon to visit my parents, judging the danger of breaking off a stick en route negligible, and the work or effort negligible by comparison with the positive commandment to honour my parents.

Reform Judaism respects ritual but we also place huge value on Judaism’s ethical commitments. The Lord Mayor’s show is a statement of the ethical responsibilities of the City of London, so I had few doubts about being with Ian Luder. Any that I did have were banished when we arrived at the steps of St Paul’s. The Dean blessed the Lord Mayor but, instead of using a Christian formula, used the priestly blessing from Numbers. Instead of presenting him with a New Testament, the Dean gave him a Hebrew Bible. There are many Christians in this country who try hard to respect Jewish distinctiveness in what is still a Christian society. We Jews don’t do enough to respond and still seem suspicious and stand-offish when it comes to Christianity and the Church.

I noted with pleasure the Israeli Ambassador’s decision last month to drive from London to Manchester on Shabbat to celebrate the dedication of their new building with our Menorah community. The Ambassador clearly shares the view that the underlying value of supporting Jewish communal life makes travel for that purpose an appropriate rather than forbidden activity on Shabbat.

Far from my decision to participate in the Lord Mayor’s show demonstrating a reckless disregard for Jewish values, it was in fact a very public restatement of those values: Reform Judaism in action. Not something negative but a determination to reach out and engage with Jews where they are, a thinking-through together of how our Jewish obligations can be combined with our civic responsibilities, not allowing form to dominate values.

It would be marvellous if we could eliminate the term “non-Orthodox” not just from our vocabulary but from our attitudes. I don’t ask Jews from other denominations to agree with everything I do or even to refrain from rational questioning. But I do expect to be allowed to ask the same the rational questions and even to come, respectfully, to different conclusions.

Reform Judaism, far from rejecting ancient traditions and beliefs, values them highly. But we also acknowledge the internal conflicts they may create. And we reserve the right to resolve such conflicts from the viewpoint of the modern world: to ensure the relevance of the answers we offer to the way we live our lives today. It is this commitment, and these values and beliefs, which make me happy to support talented and principled Jews like Alderman Ian Luder on their personal Jewish journey.

Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield is the Head of the Movement for Reform Judaism

Last updated: 12:33pm, December 18 2008



Fri, 12/19/2008 - 01:51

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Rabbi Bayfield is of course entitled to his views.When the Lord Mayor was Waley-Cohen he walked behind his gilded coach rather than ride in the coach on Shabbos. That also made a great impression worldwide. I remember reading about it as a child in my native America. I suspect that Waley-Cohen was not the most strictly observant of people, but like Shimon Peres he knew that his public and official behaviour should conform to the highest religious standards. Shame about the Israeli ambassador!