Good ideas and good practice

Judaism has always been changing. The customs and practices that some argue can never be changed are all derived from some previous changes, says Daniel Finkelstein

March 23, 2017 11:53

A few months ago, Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian — and JC —had a great idea. He has lots of great ideas does Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian — and JC — but this one involved me so it struck me as an even better idea than usual.

His idea was that the two of us should appear together at Jewish Book Week and discuss politics. 

For more than 20 years, we have been talking about political issues and puzzling over how we ended up on the left and the right.

Why not, said Jonathan, talk in public about how our religion — our Jewish background — had impacted on our politics? See what I mean? Good idea.

So we both told our stories. In Jonathan’s case, talking brilliantly and movingly of his Uncle Mick and his history in the Communist movement. 

I responded by telling of my father’s rather different Siberian encounter with Communism. And, after a while, we opened it up to the audience to ask questions.

I’ve been thinking about one in particular, and that is only partly because it was asked by my sister.

“We’ve now heard of how your religion has influenced your politics,” said Tamara. But how has your politics influenced your religion.” See what I mean? Good question.

A few years ago, I was at some prayers and I was pushed forward. I’d been standing with the women and I should have been up front with the men. 

Suddenly, something that had never much bothered me before, something that I’d sort of buried underneath tradition, bothered me too much to ignore.

Suddenly, the clash between politics and religious practice was too much. I simply couldn’t live with the idea of suggesting women would be at the back, whatever practice may have been.

It wasn’t the time or the place to make a fuss, so I stood ambiguously between the two genders. And there remain many occasions where the celebration isn’t about me, and my political views just have to live with it. I am not going to make a big political song and dance at someone else’s big moment.

But the incident did make me think more deeply about how religious practice and political principle fit together.

And, over time, my basic politics and my religion have become reasonably well aligned. Not just in terms of respect and love for other people, but in terms of my view of change. 

I believe that tradition is important and have a predisposition towards existing institutions and practices. 

But I believe that we pray and we think in order to understand. And from that understanding we realise when we need to change. This is true in politics and as a Jew.

Let me take an issue that is important to me. Gay rights. Can we really pray for thousands of years without absorbing any understanding of gay people and without accepting their right to be treated equally? 

I was much more willing, a few years ago, to accept that my liberal political views on gay issues were important to me, but Judaism was, as it were, another country. I’m much less willing to accept that now. I think that illiberal attitudes to gay people aren’t just bad politics, they are bad religion, too. 

Judaism has always been changing. The customs and practices that some argue can never be changed are all derived from some previous changes. Often, the moment at which the music stops is sort of randomly selected, by historical accident. Judaism has always been a reform religion. It is orthodoxy that is unorthodox.

And this is also true of Britain and British institutions.

Judaism teaches the value of conserving, and the danger of upheaval. It shows that in mysterious tradition there is wisdom if only we unlock it, and that when we change we need to be careful of what we lose as well as mindful of what we can gain.

This thinking has made me a conservative in politics — cautious about change but open to it — and a Progressive Jew. Deeply attached to Judaism, but insistent that it grows, that it breathes, that it lives.

This weekend at Northwood and Pinner Liberal synagogue, will be the Kabbalat Torah service for my middle son and his class. The theme of their service will be change, and a well-selected theme it is.

Daniel Finkelstein is associate editor of The Times

March 23, 2017 11:53

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