Berkoff v Finkelstein: row over Jewish law

By Jennifer Lipman, July 22, 2010
Steven Berkoff

Steven Berkoff

Two high profile Jewish writers are engaged in a public dispute over the purpose of religious law.

Actor Steven Berkoff has accused Daniel Finkelstein of making “a sad reduction” of Jewish ritual and suggested his comments would make sense only to someone who “came from another planet.”

The war of words follows a column in The Times, in which Mr Finkelstein, the paper's executive editor, called many Jewish laws “inconvenient and hard to explain to outsiders”.

In his weekly opinion piece, Mr Finkelstein, who is also a JC columnist, described traditions, including fasting on Yom Kippur, as instances of “a costly sacrifice” used to signal “willingness to be part of a group”.

Drawing on his own experience, he gave the examples of “walking to synagogue on Sabbath even when it’s raining or “waving a lamb bone in the air on Passover.”

But in a letter to the paper, the onetime Bond villain Mr Berkoff said this was a “strange assertion”.

He said: “Laws are not meant to be ‘convenient’. They are there to protect and guide us out of the morass of self-importance and indifference to others.”

Mr Berkoff, who grew up in the Jewish hub of London’s East End, said walking on a rainy Shabbat was not “an arduous task.

Laws are not meant to be ‘convenient’ - Berkoff

“One respects the Sabbath as a day when the entire race is not only united, but when all labour stops, as well as all indulgence. Calmness and contemplation among family is the focus of the day; not looking for a parking space.”

Mr Berkoff, who recently wrote and directed alter native versions of four Old Testament stories, also berated Mr Finkelstein for making “a sad reduction of one of the greatest of all Jewish rituals” by using the Passover example.

“Passover is symbolic of the Jewish ideal of freedom.

“It is a solemn reminder of other times when the race was imprisoned, expelled or simply murdered.”

However Mr Finkelstein’s article, which called on the Prime Minister to reject the intolerable “intolerance” of banning the Muslim burka, also said it was “rather wonderful” to see fellow Jews following these customs strictly.

He added that even though customs like separating women and men during synagogue services were not for him: “I can see why they do it.”

It is not the first time Mr Berkoff has been involved in a feud with a JC writer. In 1996 he successfully sued Julie Burchill for libel for suggesting he was "hideously ugly".

Last updated: 1:29pm, July 22 2010