There is every chance that our book, Rabbi, I Have a Problem, will come to be regarded as a landmark publication by future historians and, for an entirely separate reason, also by Jewish sociologists.
Historians will note that, uniquely, it is written jointly by an Orthodox and a Reform rabbi. Whereas someone not familiar with Anglo-Jewish life might ask “Why ever not?”, those who are part of the community will know that in the past, proponents viewed each other with disdain, or even animosity.
The gulf developed into an obsession that any form of contact might be seen as approving the other side. This led to not being in the same room together, let alone sharing a public platform, with the latter only being permitted if there was a vicar sitting in between at an interfaith gathering. Israel events also offered “cover”.
It was a far cry from 1934 when Chief Rabbi Hertz was guest of honour at the opening of an extension at the West London Synagogue. He did not hide where he stood, but was clear about his priorities: “If I have decided to be with you this morning, it is because of my conviction that far more calamitous than religious difference in Jewry is religious indifference.”
Sadly, his words were not echoed by subsequent generations — a trend that we are seeking to reverse. We do not minimise Orthodox-Progressive controversies, but nor do we inflate them to the point where we cannot communicate. We are writing side by side, with mutual respect, unafraid to differ where we think fit and happy to agree when appropriate.
We hope this can act as a model for the different sections of British Jewry at large. Despite the attempt of the 1998 “Stanmore Accords” (reached between leaders of the United Synagogue, Reform, Liberal and Masorti movements) to bring a truce, the fear of engaging with each other is still active in many quarters and was evident when successive Orthodox rabbinic colleagues turned down our request to endorse this book.
Instead, a leading member from within the United Synagogue gave his imprimatur. This reluctance was disappointing, but indicates what new territory this joint venture is entering. Perhaps it also shows a divide between the laity and rabbinate. Whereas the former appreciate religious differences but are relaxed about them, the latter see it as their duty to maintain boundaries.
We suspect that had this book been written in the United States, there would have been no such problem in gaining rabbinic endorsement. It reflects the more live-and-let-live attitude there, as well as the fact that Orthodoxy is in the minority, with Reform numerically much stronger, and so it has had to come to terms with Jewish pluralism.
This book, therefore, is a positive statement: that we are not lessened by meeting, but we are diminished by refusing to listen to each other. The great effort that has been put into Jewish-Christian dialogue now needs to be put into Jewish-Jewish dialogue.
For their part, Jewish sociologists will be fascinated not by who wrote the book, but by the types of questions that were sent in by readers of the Jewish Chronicle over the last twelve years and the clear trends they reflect.
What stands out is that the highest number of questions concern death and mourning. It indicates this is the area where Jews, who may be lapsed in other parts of religious life, feel the most need to “get it right”.
Having had the shock of a loss, there is a need to reclaim control by busying oneself with various rituals which help structure the void they are experiencing. In addition, there is a desire to honour the deceased by doing what it is thought they would have wanted.
In complete contrast is how few are the questions on Jewish belief. It reflects the fact that although Judaism is a faith, most Jews are concerned with what to do rather than with what to believe.
It is true the life of many Jews revolves around Jewish culture and everyday values rather than thoughts of God. However, if there is no faith behind them, there is the danger that these outer manifestations could crumble and certainly not have the power to be transmitted to succeeding generations. Perhaps rabbis need to talk about God more.
The book also reveals that there is no issue in general life that does not affect Jews too. Thus questions range from having a sex-change to talking to one’s children about drugs to the death of a beloved pet.
They encompass financial misconduct and dementia, noisy neighbours and impossible in-laws. Inadvertently, it is a source book as to the challenges and dilemmas that modern British Jews face.
The Rabbi I Have A Problem book is now available priced at £12.99 — £9.99 to JC subscribers — click here to order
Meanwhile, readers who have a question that has not been addressed should write in to the JC (firstname.lastname@example.org).