Who would we choose as our Jewish patron saints?

Jeremy Corbyn has called for extra bank holidays to commemorate the home nations' patron saints. But if we had a Jewish equivalent, who would they be?


One of Jeremy Corbyn’s first election promises was to unify the country by having four extra bank holidays every year, one for each of the four national patron saints in Great Britain.

But how might we apply that to Jewish life? Which figures would we deem worthy of celebration to link our own disparate communities?

At the moment, the Jewish calendar is bizarre in its choice of those given a high profile: we recall the last governor of Judea in Tzom Gedaliah, but nothing for King David, while mention of Moses is severely limited at the Seder. As for rabbinic figures, the memory of Shimon bar Yochai is held high at Lag ba’Omer, but the greater claims of Yochanan ben Zakkai and Judah Hanasi have no public expression. 

So if we had spare bank holidays, who would we select for their over-arching contribution to Jewish life since the end of the first century?

The following names will be open to fierce debate, as will the suggestion that we need at least six categories to do justice to our various groupings: two tribal — Ashkenazi and Sephardi; two ideological — Orthodox and Progressive; two geographical — Israel and diaspora.

The stand-out person for the Ashkenazim has to be Rashi, who is the most quoted Jew in the world. The 11th-century French rabbi wrote the definitive commentary on the Bible and ever since then, scholars have agreed with Rashi or disagreed with Rashi, but he has always been the focal point. He also composed the equally definitive commentary on the Talmud. It is rare for a Hebrew edition not to have his words printed alongside the main text, with his voice still speaking to us ten centuries after his death.

Meanwhile, the equivalent in Sephardi circles is Maimonides, who spent much of his life in 12th-century Egypt. His writings covered all aspects of Judaism; Mishneh Torah summarised rabbinic decisions up till his time, Guide to the Perplexed addressed complex philosophical realms and his Thirteen Principles of Faith tackled Jewish theology. He also found time to be a doctor, communal leader and businessman.

Among his most quoted passages are his “eight degrees of giving to charity” — still relevant for an age of homeless shelters and food banks – which culminate with the person who helps break the cycle of poverty and enables the dependent to become self-supporting.

Alongside the ancestral division is the religious one. Among the Orthodoxy luminaries, surely the most influential was Menachem Schneerson, who turned a relatively small Chasidic sect from the Russian town of Lubavitch into a vast network, based in Brooklyn, that spans the globe.

Chabad centres can be found wherever there is even a handful of Jews, while the movement has successfully infiltrated mainstream Jewish institutions, providing a significant percentage of rabbis in the United Synagogue. The death of the Rebbe in 1994 led to almost idolatrous worship by some followers, but has not stopped hundreds of others dedicating themselves to invigorating Jewish life across all boundaries.

For the Progressives, Leo Baeck stands high above others. He was already a highly respected rabbi and writer in pre-war German Jewry and then became the acknowledged leader for all German Jews during the Nazi era.

He achieved near-sainthood by bringing children to safety in England and opting to return to Germany to remain with his community. Sent to Theresienstadt, he not only survived the camp, but became an inspirational figure for post-war Jewry as it sought to rebuild itself, both physically and theologically. The college for training Reform and Liberal rabbis for Britain and Europe was renamed after him upon his death in 1956.

Another major category arose after the rebirth of Israel, with a new centre of gravity emerging. David Ben-Gurion remains its foremost figure. Born in 1886, he made aliyah and became one of the architects of the future state, combining political will, military leadership and extraordinary vision.

His core principles — gathering in Jews from all over the world, free education, using the army to weld the disparate ethnic groups into one nation, and promoting science and research — all paid off handsomely.

The most influential person in the diaspora is more debatable. Marx, Freud and Einstein made massive contributions to wider society, but within Jewry it might be Elie Wiesel, whose writings influenced perceptions of the two other great events of the 20th century.

His books on the Holocaust led to his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, while his report, The Jews of Silence, both chronicled the re-awakening of Soviet Jews from their enforced slumber and kick-started the campaign to free them, eventually succeeding and leading to a massive population shift.

The fact that all six personalities are male reflects the nature of Jewish leadership so far, but this is fast changing. Only one has a day associated with his family — the Maimuna, observed by Moroccan Jews the day after Pesach  — but all have helped shape Jewish life in distinctive ways. 
Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue and author of Confessions of a Rabbi  

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