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Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of days, is a time when we do more than confess and seek atonement for our sins. It's the supreme day of Teshuvah, which means "returning, coming home." To come home we have to ask who we are and where we truly belong. It is a day when we reaffirm our identity.
There were times when this was high drama. Periodically, from Visigoth Spain in the seventh century to Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth, Jews were confronted with the choice: Convert or be expelled. Sometimes it was: Convert or die. Most did not convert but some did. They were known in Hebrew as anusim (people who acted under pressure), and in Spanish as converses or (as a term of abuse) marranos. Outwardly they behaved as if they were Christians or Muslims but secretly they kept their faith as Jews.
Once a year, at great risk, they would make their way to the synagogue as their way of saying, "A Jew I am and a Jew I will remain." This may explain the prayer before Kol Nidrei, giving permission to pray with "transgressors" (abaryanim). It may also be why Kol Nidrei became so deeply engraved in the Jewish heart, because of the tears of those who asked God to forgive them for vows they had taken through fear of death. On Yom Kippur even the most estranged Jew came home.
Today, thankfully, Jews are under no such threat. But being Jewish hasn't always been easy in the contemporary world, not just because of antisemitism and attacks on Israel but also because the whole thrust of our culture has little time for religious faith. So I have written this little book hoping it will help you answer some of the questions you may be asking as you reflect on how you will live in the year to come. I've written it in the form of letters to two Jewish students. They aren't actual people, but their questions are those I'm most often asked.
Writing it, I've held in mind the memory of four very special people: the late Susi and Fred Bradfield, whose lives were a sustained tutorial in Jewish commitment and generosity; the late Marc Weinberg, one of the leaders of his generation, who died in Israel last year at the age of 35; and my late mother Libby who died on the first night of Sukkot 5771, to whom I and my brothers owe so much. May their memories be a blessing.
May God be with you and the Jewish people in the coming year. May He forgive us our failings, heed our prayers and write us in the Book of Life.
Letter 1: A belated reply
DEAR RUTH, DEAR MICHAEL, you've been writing to me from time to time over the past year and somehow I was always too busy to reply. But now, as the holy days are approaching I feel guilty at not having taken the time. So, belatedly, I'm writing back.
I don't know if you know one another, but I know that you are both at university, both thinking about what lies ahead: for you, for Jews, for humanity. From your letters and many others
I receive, I know that you are both concerned about the hostility to Israel on campus. You fear a return of antisemitism. You wonder what the future holds for Israel and for Jews.
You have deep questions about religion in general and Judaism in particular. Does faith make sense? Aren't the new atheists right? Isn't religion based on ideas that have been disproved or at least overtaken by science? Can we really believe in a God who cares for us when He doesn't prevent a 9/11 or the Japanese earthquake? Can we believe in the Jewish God after the Holocaust?
As for Judaism: Yes, it may have given humanity world-changing ideas. But the world now has those ideas. Do we really need to stay different, distinctive, set apart? Isn't Judaism simply irrelevant to the twenty-first century?
Besides which, you tell me you are underwhelmed by what you experience of Jewish life. You find synagogue services boring. The rituals of Judaism leave you unmoved and perplexed. If Pesach is about freedom, Shabbat about rest, Yom Kippur about feeling sorry for the wrong we do, why so many laws? Why not just focus on the essentials?
You put it very well, Ruth. You said that Judaism sometimes seems to you like one of those large packages that arrives in the post. You open it and find that most of it is foam wrapping and the object inside is actually very small. Why does Judaism need to surround itself with so much protective packaging?
I will try to answer these questions as best I can, though time is short, yours and mine. But first I want to try to answer the question you haven't asked but which I feel is there, just below the surface. For what you are really asking is why be Jewish? Why stay Jewish? Why live a Jewish life? How does it help you be the person you want to be?
Why when the pressures are so great, of finding a job, keeping a job, handling all the demands on your time, spend that time on a faith you find difficult and a way of life you find uninspiring? Why bother? That is the first question. From it all else follows. Tomorrow I will try to write you an answer.
Letter 2: A historian's honour
DEAR RUTH, DEAR MICHAEL, I said yesterday that I would try to give you an answer to the question why stay Jewish. There are many answers, and to understand them is the work of a lifetime. But we have to start somewhere and probably the more unexpected the starting point, the better.
Like you I studied at university, so I knew vaguely about an eccentric Oxford don, a historian and a writer about English literature. He was a Fellow of All Souls, which meant that he was one of the brightest minds of his generation.
His name was A. L. Rowse and he was best known for his theory about the identity of the "dark lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets. He died in 1997, and shortly before that, in 1995, he published a book called Historians I Have Known. I was reading it one day and I came to the last page.
There – it was the penultimate sentence of the book – I came across a remark that left me open mouthed with amazement. Nothing had prepared me for it. A. L. Rowse was not Jewish and as far as I know he had no connection with Jews other than those he knew at university.
This is what he wrote. "If there is any honour in all the world that I should like, it would be to be an honorary Jewish citizen." What an extraordinary remark from a wise man nearing the end of his life, reflecting on all that life, especially history, had taught him.
The British know about honours. So I could understand an Oxford don who had written over a hundred books admitting that a medal, an award, a knighthood would not go amiss. But "to be an honorary Jewish citizen" and to count that not just as an honour, but the one above all he would like to have – that was an extraordinary thing to say.
Why did he say it? I never met him. I did not know anyone who had. And by the time I read the book he was no longer alive. So I can only speculate.
Was it that Jews more than any other people in history cared about learning, education and the life of the mind? That they had contributed, vastly out of proportion to their numbers, many of the greatest intellects of the modern world?
Was it that they were the first monotheists, the first to believe in a God who transcended the universe, creating it in forgiveness and love, making humanity in His image and endowing us with a dignity no other faith has ever equalled?
Was it that they had survived for so long – twice as long as Christianity, three times as long as Islam – and under some of the most adverse conditions ever experienced by a people? Was it, given that Rowse was a historian, the fact that Jews were the first historians, the first to see God in history, the first even to think in terms of history?
Was it, given that he was a writer on literature, the fact that the Hebrew Bible is the greatest work of literature ever written?Was it the vision of Moses, the poetry of psalms, the social conscience of Amos, the hope of Isaiah, the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, the passion of the Song of Songs? Or that Jews had given humanity its most basic moral concepts: freewill, responsibility, justice and the rule of law, chessed and the rule of compassion, tzedakah and the principle of equity?
Who knows? But I know this – that if they offered to make you a dame, Ruth, or a knight, Michael, you wouldn't refuse. You wouldn't consider it trivial or irrelevant. But if Rowse was right, it turns out that you have already been given an honour greater than these. Don't forget it or give it away.