We need Sacks to lead the battle against synagogue 'apartheid'


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks's Not in God's Name is a masterpiece that should be read by all of us. The book is an essential and brilliant dissertation which combines the best of Jewish ethics, theology and vision in attempting to explain and extirpate the problem of religious and political extremism. It is no surprise that Rabbi Sacks received the prestigious Templeton Prize 2016 for his exceptional contribution to affirming the underlying unity of our shared monotheistic beliefs, the oneness of God and the oneness of humanity.

On each page there is a warning to all religions and political ideologies today: do not create a dualism that separates the world into the "good guys" who need to destroy the "bad guys", whether that be like the separation of Light and Dark from the Jewish Dead Sea Sect, or the Christian crusaders, or the Islamic jihadists, or from Hitler and Stalin in its secular varieties, Such bifurcation of the world into all good and all evil can only lead to bloodshed, terror and hatred of the "other".

I am not an Orthodox rabbi - my ordination is from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the academic centre of the Conservative, or Masorti, movement. I have been trained from some of the great luminaries of rabbinic scholarship to revere Jewish learning from whatever source and Rabbi Sacks's books and commentaries are at the top of my own personal list.

However, what is noticeably missing in this fine theology is any acknowledgement that the problem of intolerance exists within our own Jewish world, both in Israel and in the diaspora. The apartheid, that is, the quarantine, separation and denunciation of our fellow Jews, is appalling and it is worsening. As the Midrash teaches us: "The Divine Presence does not dwell among a people with a divided heart" (Numbers Rabbah 15:14).

This call for Jewish unity does not mean that we Jews need to be the same in our various approaches to Jewish life, law, ethics and tradition. We are a diverse people and that has always been a salient fact of Jewish history, whether we are reminded of the debates between Pharisees and Sadducees, the school of Shammai versus Hillel, Rabbi Ishmael and Akiva, the kabbalists and Maimonidean philosophers, Mitnagdim and Chasidim, Zionists and anti-Zionists, Orthodox and non-Orthodox streams.

We Jews have never shared any monolithic understanding of Jewish tradition and law, and as Rabbi Sacks said recently at the Jewish Book Week, what we Jews do share is the same fate despite our faith differences. We are of a rabbinic tradition in which each page of the Mishnah, Midrash and Gemara reminds us that there are, and have always been, different voices on matters of Jewish law and ethics - Eilu v'eilu divrei Elohim chayim-these views and those views are all part of a Living God. (Talmud Eruvin 13b; Gittin 6b). To differ is divine.

The time has arrived - the leadership of all parts of the Jewish community, who know very well that this apartheid we have created tears at the fabric of Jewish collectiveness and unity and that the barriers we have created are damaging to our very future as a people. We must prevent our own extremism, our own dualism, from hijacking Judaism so that we might instead look forward to truly building a unity that will enhance support for the state of Israel and Jews everywhere in the world, destroy the scourge of antisemitism that threatens us all, and struggle together to create a Judaism with all of its different shades so that we can truly enhance the name of God and the wonder of Torah.

We live apart, we seldom speak to each other in our different machanayim (camps). We do not pray with each other and we do not meet with each other enough. And the question remains: what will this Jewish apartheid do to the next generation, our children, who too often see their parents divided?

We are continuously reminded by our Sages that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed (in 70 CE) not because there was no study of Torah or laxity in the observance of Jewish law. The rabbis taught us that the cause of our destruction was sinat chinam, "causeless hatred" of each other, and that the sin of sinat chinam was equal to the three major transgressions of murder, idolatry and harlotry (Talmud, Yevamot 62b).

I have been told that it is an impossible dream, but I am willing to dream and to challenge the way things are, because the way we are doing things today is simply wrong. I invite Rabbi Sacks to come and to speak at my own synagogue, Belsize Square Synagogue, a congregation founded by Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria before the Shoah, a synagogue where learned rabbis of all backgrounds are revered as in any Orthodox synagogue.

And the same is true for non-Orthodox Jews - the attitude of denunciation and disfavour of the Orthodox is equally intolerant and abhorrent.

What a gift this would be before the coming of Passover, the celebration of our origins as a free people - please accept our invitation, Rabbi Sacks, for God's sake and for the sake of our children. Let us together follow the advice of the late Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook who taught us that only causeless love, ahavat Yisrael, may overcome the ruination of causeless hatred. It is no dream, but a matter of our Jewish future, one that we share together.

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