Question: One of the most powerful moments of the Yom Kippur service is the haftarah from Isaiah where he questions the point of fasting if we don’t support the vulnerable and oppressed. If you were taking a moral audit of the community, how far do we measure up to the prophet’s values?
Rabbi Naftali Brawer: I honestly do not feel qualified to undertake a moral audit of our community.
Firstly, which community? Anglo-Jewry is comprised of many communities that define themselves along religious denominational, political and cultural lines. One can no more speak of a single Anglo- Jewry than one can speak of a single world Jewry.
Secondly, when I listen to this demanding haftarah each year, my thoughts are about myself. How do I measure up to the prophet’s aspirations? Judging others mutes the critique.
With this caveat, I will try to answer your question. Broadly speaking, I see across our diverse Jewish community a considerable investment in supporting the vulnerable and oppressed. It takes many forms, relating to the full spectrum of needs; financial, emotional, physical and social. It is expressed through charitable giving, volunteering, and leadership. It extends to the Jewish community and to the wider non-Jewish community both in this country and abroad.
This giving is expressed through individuals, families, schools, synagogues and communal institutions. Of course, there are blind spots, areas that have been overlooked, needs that are not yet sufficiently understood. But on the whole, Anglo-Jews are incredibly generous, caring, concerned and responsible. I am proud to be part of this extended community.
If there is any critique, it is that not enough Jews recognise that their generosity is sacred, religious work.
Judaism proceeds on two planes, vertical and horizontal. The vertical plane comprises ritual acts between the Jew and God such as Shabbat observance, prayer, tefillin and mikveh. The horizontal plane is made up of acts between people such as hospitality, charity and caring for others.
Too frequently, I meet charitable, socially responsible Jews who identify as non-observant, or non-religious. In this they are mistaken and they sell themselves short. Isaiah does not see social responsibility as an important addition to Jewish religious life, but rather he sees it as comprising religious life itself. A Jew who cares for others is not less religious than one who prays. But prayer that does not lead to caring is hollow and meaningless.
“I was praying with my feet”.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 -1972) when reminiscing about his civil rights march in Selma, Alabama with the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, said, “I was praying with my feet”.
One Yom Kippur, Rabbi Israel Salanter (1809-1883) was on his way to shul when, passing through a narrow alleyway he heard a baby crying. He followed the sound into a small Jewish home. There he found an inconsolable infant. The parents had left for synagogue, thinking the baby would sleep until their return. Rabbi Salanter dried the child’s tears and proceeded to rock it to sleep. Mystified as to their rabbi’s absence, the congregation began Kol Nidre without him. Eventually, a search party found the rabbi with the sleeping infant in his arms. “Shh,” he said, “it took many hours to get him to sleep, you mustn’t wake him.”
I often wondered how a contemporary congregation would react if their rabbi didn’t show up to Kol Nidre because he was waylaid by some pressing social concern. Would the board of management be guided by Isaiah’s haftarah and recognise that prayer purchased at the neglect of a fellow human being is meaningless? I have my doubts.
That is not to say we are not a caring and charitable community. Only that there is always room for improvement.
Naftali Brawer is chief executive of Spiritual Capital Foundation
Rabbi Jonathan Romain: As I was going into prison for one of my monthly visits as Jewish chaplain, the governor was coming out and stopped for a chat. “One of your lot came in today who is very religious,” he said. “He had a big black hat, long black coat, beard, side curls, and he’s asked for kosher food.”
“What did he come in for?” I asked. “Fraud”, he replied, “£15 million.” “In that case,” I responded, “he may be ritualistic, but he’s not religious.” The governor looked at me puzzled, started to say something, then stopped and said instead “Right, must be going, bye for now.”
I am not sure if he understood my point, but Isaiah would have done so. Of course, there are also non-practising Jews who transgress, but his fulminations were against those whose outer trappings are pretences and false piety.
It is partly that Isaiah despises hypocrisy. In this spirit, those who think it is okay to park round the corner should resolve that in future they will either walk or join a synagogue where it is not an issue and they can use the shul car park.
However, Isaiah’s words also carry the strong implication that our priorities are wrong. In any comparison between Jewish observances and Jewish behaviour, ethics always trump rituals.
This is not to dismiss rituals. They are enormously important as personal reminders, family binders and communal structures. The acts, for instance, of keeping kosher, sharing Kabbalat Shabbat and gathering together in synagogue both enrich our lives and foster social relationships.
However, it is noticeable that Isaiah does not say the reverse elsewhere in his long book, lambasting those who behave well but fail to keep the fasts and sacrifices. A non-ritualistic Jew is a sadness, but an immoral Jew is a blasphemy.
In assessing our current moral audit, three areas stand out. First, a quick glance at charities shows an astonishing array within the community, while British Jews are well known for being just as generous in wider causes. They include vulnerable groups, from physical disability to mental health to social deprivation.
Still, the fact that we need charities trying to mitigate self-created evils such as domestic abuse indicates severe lapses in personal morality and even instances of communal collusion.
Second, we excel at social action, with both Jewish taskforces seeking to heal the world and Jews involved in national activities, from food banks to animal charities, climate change to Third World relief.
Once again, though, such causes are often playing catch-up, with those who care about fellow humans and communal values working to repair the damage done by those who do not.
Third, the relationships between the different Jewish groupings have definitely improved since the Stanmore Accords (of 1998), with the virtual disappearance of the Orthodox-Progressive mud-slinging that used to be commonplace.
However, the vitriolic language used in the Dweck controversy this year indicates that there are still those who need to learn how to argue with grace. With the Charedi sector becoming more engaged with the rest of the community, it will be important to encourage co-operation and avoid Talibanisation.
Overall, the verdict might be: British Jewry does remarkably well, but there is nothing claustrophobic about the room for improvement. The messianic ideal— of a better version of ourselves — challenges us to keep striving.
Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue
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