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The secret dialogue between Orthodox and Progressives

Former JC journalist Meir Persoff documents the history of the dialogue between Chief Rabbi Jakobovits and Liberal Rabbi Sidney Brichto

    Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits (right) and Liberal leader Rabbi Sidney Brichto at a conference in the 1970s (Photo: Peter Fisher)
    Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits (right) and Liberal leader Rabbi Sidney Brichto at a conference in the 1970s (Photo: Peter Fisher)

    Closed Doors, Open Minds — British Jewry’s Secret Disputations
    Meir Persoff
    Academic Studies Press, £30.50

    In August 1966 Immanuel Jakobovits accepted the post of Chief Rabbi. British Jewry was still reeling from the divisive and traumatic Jacobs affair and from attacks by Orthodox leaders on the validity of marriages performed in Liberal and Reform synagogues. The Board of Deputies had convened a meeting of religious leaders to try to resolve tensions but their discussions had failed to progress.

    In agreeing his appointment, Rabbi Jakobovits stipulated various requirements of the non-Orthodox. They were to respect the Chief Rabbinate as an Orthodox institution, to leave the determination of Jewish law to qualified experts and to refrain from “subversion, abuse and denigration”. Rabbi Sidney Brichto, executive director of the Liberal and Progressive Union responded that the Liberals could not accept the Chief Rabbi as their representative unless he was willing to acknowledge there were non-Orthodox views and at times be prepared to attend certain Progressive services.

    This exchange was the first round in over 50 years of frequently fiery dialogue between leaders of the various Anglo-Jewish synagogue groups that has for the best part been purposely concealed from public gaze. The discussions were eventually formalised as the Consultative Committee on Jewish-Christian Relations (although interfaith matters are the least of its concerns). Meetings until 1998 were generally held at 85 Hamilton Terrace, home first of Chief Rabbi Jakobovits and then of Chief Rabbi Sacks.

    In Closed Doors, Open Minds, the distinguished former JC journalist Meir Persoff documents the history of this dialogue. It is a rigorous, balanced and thoughtful presentation, made all the more striking because what one might have expected to be a straightforward liaison between the religious leaders of British Jewry turned out to be an emotional and spiritual roller coaster for its participants. 

    Yet one does not have to dig deeply into the book to realise how remarkable it was in fractious British Jewry for dialogue to take place at all, given the deeply, held opposing convictions of the parties, each pulled and provoked by extreme elements on their wings. Both sides found it nearly impossible to isolate the significant social and political matters of common concern from the severe ideological differences that set them apart.
    The tensions were evident even in the wake of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, which some hoped would prove propitious for communal unity. A row broke out over the possibility of a cross- communal service in May 1968 to celebrate Israel’s 20th anniversary. In the event two services were held, with the Chief Rabbi stating that it would have been a gross act of betrayal to share his pulpit with those who “reject traditional Judaism”. Accused by the Liberals’ Rabbi John Rayner of failing to accept that there can be legitimate differences of opinion, Rabbi Jakobovits replied that he had made it clear all along that sharing services with those who do not share his religious convictions would have violated his innermost conscience.

    The catalysts for dispute were often seemingly minor issues. Who should be the ecclesiastical authorities of the Board of Deputies? Why should there not be a non-Orthodox as well as an Orthodox president of the Council of Christians and Jews? There were, after all, five Christian presidents. But these issues were not really minor at all; they all hinged on the question of the legitimacy of the Reform and Liberal movements in Orthodox eyes. Far more serious, and still unresolved to this day, were matters of personal status: the validity of conversions, divorces and marriages not carried out under the auspices of an Orthodox Beth Din.

    One is struck in the book by the intensity of language and yet a sense of underlying bonhomie. The vituperative accusations were not gratuitous insults but indications of frustration and anger. There was humour too; Rabbi Tony Bayfield asking whether the intention was to reach peaceful co-existence or to conduct the armed struggle in a more civilised way; John Rayner characterising the unity of British Jewry as a myth, the Consultative Committee as a sop, the purpose of the sop being to maintain the myth.

    Could it have been done better? Probably not. The Consultative Committee was reconstituted in 1998 as a result of the Stanmore accords; 20 years later it still seems to be working. Pluralism is a fact of communal life, however much Orthodoxy rejects it. Strictly Orthodox rabbis continue to hurl barbs — witness the Dweck affair last year —but any student of rabbinic history knows that they always did. As for the failure to resolve the major issues of Jewish status, despite the efforts of those who dedicated their careers to searching for a solution, the answer never resided with British Jewry. If and when a solution is found, it will be in Israel or North America. 

    Dr Freedman’s book Kabbalah: The Story of a Fashionable Mysticism will be published in 2019