The face of British Jewry has been quietly changing over the past quarter of century. More than four in ten Jewish births in the UK now are to a Charedi family and, if current trends continue, the strictly Orthodox will form a majority of the community within a couple of generations.
It’s a phenomenon that would have surprised, even scandalised, the Anglo-Jewish gentry who presided over the community a hundred years ago. But it is not unique to the Jewish community.
As Dr Ed Kessler argues in his audio documentary, We Do Do God, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 this week, intensive forms of religion are on the increase more widely.
Over a quarter of the five million Christians who attend church weekly in this country come from Pentecostalist or similar groups. Salafis, who advocate a return to the pristine Islam of its earliest followers, are the fastest growing sect among Muslims.
Dr Kessler, founding director of the Woolf Institute for the study of Muslim, Jewish and Christians relations in Cambridge, is himself a Progressive Jew. But he takes a largely sympathetic view of what he calls “fervent” religious groups, a term he prefers to “fundamentalist”, with its now generally pejorative connotations.
As one interviewee, Rabbi Hershel Gluck, observes, people tend think of fundamentalism as a narrow and joyless affair, more about “the mentalism than the fun”. In contrast, he says, living an observant Jewish life is “a joy”.
Like Rabbi Gluck, who has long been involved in interfaith activism and educational outreach, the programme’s other Jewish contributors are Lubavitchers, with the exception of the London Beth Din’s Dayan Ivan Binstock: Kate Loewenthal is a London University professor and Rabbi Reuven Leigh a chaplain to Cambridge students. So they can hardly be said to represent the more insular parts of the Charedi community.
While, for some, conservative religion goes hand-in-hand with fanaticism, Dr Kessler believes society should be less suspicious and more willing to recognise the contribution of the devout. Their social attitude can be summed up by Jeremiah’s prescription, “Seek the peace of the city where I have exiled you… for in its peace, you shall find peace” (29:7).
Piety and fervour, he says, are “not a gateway to violence, extremism or terrorism”. Their adherents are not “foaming at the mouth”.
So while Salafism is often loosely used as a synonym for extremism, the programme presents it as a revivalist movement akin to Christian Pentecostalism in that “both are searching for the purity and passion of the early years of their faiths”.
Fervent religion poses a challenge to those who think faith should be confined to private places, little seen or heard. The title of the programme alludes to the famous quip of Alastair Campbell, spokesman of then Prime Minister Tony Blair, that governments don’t “do God”.
While some may see conservative religion as simply a defiant anachronism, several interviewees report a new and growing openness towards faith among the young. Father Jack Noble, a “devout atheist” in his teens who came to Christianity on campus and now admires the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England, finds a receptive ear among those who “are smelling a rat with the gospel of individualism and consumerism”.
Rabbi Leigh — who felt the mainstream Judaism of his Essex youth was a recipe for “mediocrity” — similarly detects “a broader desire to tackle this rampant secularism, which dominates the public square”.
In contrast to the rigid separation of church and state, he says: “Part of what attracted to me to Chabad is its sense of a radical unity, a belief in that there is only one God and God is the only thing… and that permeates all of existence.
“What it means is... there is no place off limits… And so part of my agenda beyond the Jewish community is to try and advocate for this more unified sense of existence, that doesn’t insist that certain religious values have to be left at the door before you can come in.”
Dr Kessler’s willingness to challenge preconceptions is apparent in his visit to the sharia council attached to Birmingham Central Mosque. Sharia courts often get a bad press but here he offers a different aspect, quoting the view of the council’s female chair, Dr Amra Bone, that it “empowers women”, for example by being able to grant a woman in a broken marriage a religious divorce even if her husband doesn’t agree to it.
Society ought to be more accommodating in particular to religiously-inspired social action, he argues. Father Jack, recalling the refusal of a local bank to put up a poster advertising concerts in his church for people with dementia, cites it as an instance of unnecessary wariness of religion.
Rabbi Gluck sees secular lack of understanding in Ofsted’s attitude towards Charedi schools, its failure to appreciate the community’s “cultural particularities” and the richness of talmudic education.
But if there are obstacles, Dr Kessler shows the religiously fervent to be far from defensive. One of the reasons for their growth, he says, is a confident projection of their faith and a willingness to share it with others — what Muslims call dawa (“invitation”). The programme doesn’t say it, but perhaps religious liberals might take a lesson from that, too.
We Do Do God is repeated be on Radio 4, Sunday May 5, 5pm