The kashrut war of cultures

November 24, 2016 23:26

The latest "kashrut war" tells us something profound about the social demography of Jewish Orthodoxy in Britain. But we might be forgiven for missing the lesson that it teaches. On the surface, the latest spat involving the London Board for Shechita and the Federation of Synagogues (to which I belong) appears to be the re-emergence of an old quarrel, which we might trace back to the very origins of the Federation (1887) and the attempts by the then parent bodies of the LBS to prevent the Federation joining it and sharing in its profits. However, the origins lie in a very different set of circumstances, which has everything to do with the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations.

The Union (established 1926) was the brainchild of Rabbi Dr Avigdor Schonfeld, a strictly Orthodox Hungarian Jew who was then ecclesiastical head of the Adass Yisroel synagogue in north London. Following Schonfeld's untimely death in 1930, the Union came to be led by his controversial though charismatic son Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld. Both the Schonfelds, father and son, possessed university doctorates, and both had had a thorough secular as well as religious education. My point is that, in its early decades, the Union appealed to a certain type of educated Orthodox Jew, who if he (or she) had one foot planted firmly in the next world certainly had the other planted equally firmly in this. The Hasmonean School that Solomon founded in 1944 was designed to provide a high-quality secular education alongside strictly Orthodox religious instruction; it has regularly sent pupils to top UK universities.

But the Union as it exists today is very different from that over which the Schonfelds presided, and the religious outlook of the bulk of its present-day membership bears little resemblance to that which they nurtured. This membership - bolstered by waves of post-1945 immigration from eastern Europe - comprises a colourful if quarrelsome miscellany of adherents of various pietistic, excessively narrow-minded and anti-intellectual sects, each following a particular rabbinical dynasty, all recognisable by very distinctive styles of dress, and each family doing its very best to bring into the world as many children as possible. Most of these Charedi communities view the secular world with a scarcely concealed contempt.

A university education is prohibited - certainly if it involves residential study away from home. In a BBC radio programme broadcast in September 2010, Rabbi Abraham Pinter (whom, following the recent death of Elchonon Halpern, we might regard as the leading spokesperson of north London Charedim) opined that foregoing a university education was a price "well worth paying" as universities were characterised by "decadence and drug taking" - perhaps forgetting the example of the Schonfelds and the prevalence of illegal drug-taking within contemporary Charedi circles.

Three years ago, the world of the black-hatted Charedim of London was rent asunder following allegations directed at a member of the Halpern family - or rather, following the hamfisted manner in which the Charedi-dominated religious leadership of the Union attempted to sweep the matter under the carpet. The North Hendon Adass Yisroel synagogue (whose members tend to be professional men and women) actually seceded from the Union. To paint this crisis in terms of a clash of cultures - between the ultra-conservative Stamford Hill and the less ultra-conservative Golders Green - is in my view an oversimplification.

There can be no doubt the religious groupings are divided

But there can be no doubt that the religious groupings from which the Union was hitherto accustomed to draw an unqualified deference are now deeply divided. To put it bluntly, a certain clientèle that the Union could once call its own is now "up for grabs." And both the United Synagogue and the Federation are determined to grasp as large a slice of this clientèle as they can. One way of doing this is to offer a mehadrin ("embellished") shechita that the disaffected of the Union will accept.

Federation man though I am, if I thought that the Fed was to blame for the present "kashrut war" I would have no hesitation in saying so. But I don't think it is.

November 24, 2016 23:26

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