As the Jewish delegates strolled to the opening of last week’s interfaith conference on the environment at Windsor Castle, one in particular would have caught your eye: a man with a white beard, black hat and a multi-coloured tallit. Its wearer is one of the true innovators in contemporary Judaism, the neo-Chasidic rebbe who gave birth to the Jewish Renewal movement, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, over here on a rare visit here from the United States.
For much of our history, it was perilous for observant Jews to engage in politics. Successful statesmen risked jealousy from within the Jewish community and almost anyone who accepted the patronage of a gentile knew that at some stage, they would be forced to compromise their religious beliefs or endanger their lives by upsetting their political masters.
When I was 18, some 20 years ago, I worked for a summer doing Camp America in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. But this was a camp with a difference: it was run by an Orthodox Jewish organisation which catered for children with physical disabilities and learning difficulties (or “mental retardation” as it was referred to at the time).
The problem with Jewish prayer books is that they are full of the statutory prayers, such as the Amidah and Alenu. To be fair, that is their job. But most Jews come to synagogue with other matters weighing on their minds, whether business, family or health issues. It is to fill this vacuum that a book of specially-written prayers has been produced by the Assembly of Reform Rabbis UK to cover specific everyday situations from miscarriage to bankruptcy, insomnia to retirement, suicide attempt to drug addiction. They offer words to say when you don’t know what to say, or pray.
The scene that plays itself out on Simchat Torah each year in synagogues across the country is invariably the same. A small hard core of dedicated men with Torah scrolls in their arms do their best to circumvent the bimah against a riotous backdrop of noise and out-of-control kids fuelled by too much candy and fizzy drinks. Off to the side stand the rest of the adults, mostly parents and the occasional indulgent grandparent. Some are mildly amused. Most are bored stiff and cannot wait for the whole thing to be over.
‘How can you watch heart-rending scenes of the contorted bodies of starving people dying in Africa, then switch off the television, pour yourself a cup of cocoa and go off to bed, oblivious to everything you have just seen?” The challenge of balancing a well-attuned conscience with the humdrum of day-to-day life was first put to me by my history teacher, Mr Neville Ireland and it has haunted me ever since.
At the cemetery recently I caught myself unconsciously doing something which took me by surprise. I was reading the inscriptions on the graves of friends, many of them young, among them children, when I heard myself quietly singing the melody which forms the leitmotif of the Yom Kippur prayers: “God, God, merciful and gracious”.
The second I became aware of what I was doing, I thought to myself: “Stop! How can you sing about the God of love here?” Yet I continued to do precisely that.
On Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, we celebrate God’s reign over us and His creation. But the great Chasidic leader Rabbi Nachman of Breslav suggests that this event is as much a handover as a coronation. Just as God created the universe with divine utterances, so He would have us recreate ourselves and our worldview during the Aseret Yemey Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, that begin on Rosh Hashanah and culminate with Yom Kippur.