As Britain Seeks a New Chief Rabbi, Extremists Rise

January 2, 2012 12:08 pm 8 comments

UK Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

Two forms of religious extremism confronted me last week as lectured in the United Kingdom and launched my book Kosher Jesus at a press conference in Jerusalem. The first was at Limmud where a full one percent of all Jews in Britain gathered for a Jewish studies conference that has by now become the most successful Anglo-Jewish export in recent history. Every Jewish group was represented, that is, with the exception of the orthodox Rabbinate who boycott the event because of the Reform and Conservative (Masorti) Rabbis present. This is in sharp contrast to Limmud NY where, for example, Yeshiva University – responsible for ordaining the vast majority of modern orthodox Rabbis in the United States – sends an official delegation.

The second and more insidious example of frightening religious intolerance hit me as I landed in Israel and discovered a country up in arms about a Haredi (poorly translated as ultra-orthodox) man who had spit on an orthodox eight-year-old girl for immodest dress and another Haredi man arrested for calling a female Jewish soldier a ‘whore’ for refusing to move to the back of a bus. On New Year’s eve Haredi activists donned holocaust prison garb with yellow ‘Jude’ stars in a vulgar attempt to allege Nazi-like persecution at the hands of Israeli society when in truth all they accomplished was to trivialize the gassing of six million Jews. The finishing touch was placing their own children in concentration camp garb before the world’s media which added the violation of innocence to the defamation of the Jewish state.

There is a common thread uniting these stories. Religious extremism festers when decent lay people are cowed into submission by fanatics whom they falsely believe to be more religious than them. But there is nothing holy about Rabbis refusing to teach 2500 young Jews who are pining for Jewish knowledge. More importantly, it is an abomination to faith for men to treat women abusively. A black coat will never redeem a dark heart and a long beard is poor compensation for a shriveled soul.

Their defenders pointed out that these heinous acts are perpetrated by only a small number of Haredim. True. But in the face of Islamic terror outrages, we in the West rightly demand that mainstream Islamic leaders condemn the extremists, lest their silence make them complicit in the violence. The Jewish community must be judged by the same standard and Rabbis of every stripe must condemn this abuse as sickening and contrary to the core of Judaism.

Other defenders maintained that while the behavior was deplorable secular women were also at fault by insensitively visiting religious neighborhoods immodestly attired and inflaming local sensibilities. Sorry. Judaism’s core value is freedom of choice and men calling themselves religious can choose to transcend even the most incendiary provocation. Violence in the name of God is never allowed, a point we have repeatedly made to some of our Muslim brothers who justify Palestinian suicide bombers with arguments that “Israeli humiliations” provoke the murders. The Jews suffered extermination at the hands of the Nazis. But that never led them to blow up nurseries and buses, and Haredim who feel provoked must register their protests respectfully and lawfully. The Talmud is clear: a religious man who humiliates a woman by calling her a whore in public has lost his place in eternity.

In the UK draconian standards have long governed what purports to be a modern orthodox community. Travel to any College campus where Chabad and other orthodox groups are active and you will see female students serving as presidents of Jewish student organizations and regularly delivering Torah speeches at prayers. Yet in Anglo-Jewry the question of whether a woman can serve as a mere officer of an orthodox Shul or deliver a Dvar Torah remains hotly contested.

There is something magical about England’s Jews. They proudly hold on to their Jewish identity, generously support an endless array of Jewish social welfare organizations, and have a higher percentage of children in Jewish education then we do in the United States. But there are now only 250,000 Jews in all the United Kingdom and the community can ill afford any kind of internal, civil strife, especially given the rapid rise of anti-Semitism in the UK where Israel is regularly lambasted as being more wicked than North Korea.

But British Jews are curiously submissive to their Rabbinic leadership, even when they feel in their gut that some of the rulings contravene basic Ahavas Yisrael and basic decency. The Baal Shem Tov extolled the virtue of ordinary Jews who were not Rabbis. Even non-scholars are aware of common  courtesy and must pressure their spiritual leaders to work with non-orthodox  colleagues to increase Jewish learning  and defend the State of Israel.

At Limmud I was peppered by journalists asking whether I was a candidate for British Chief Rabbi and the strange speculation reached a fever pitch when The Jerusalem Post published a long feature on the conference’s third day exploring the possibility.

I spent eleven years of my life building Jewish student life in Oxford and six of my nine children were born in Britain. I am deeply attached to the country and the community. But the office of a Chief Rabbi which muzzles its occupant from reaching out to thousands of young Jews for fear of offending right-wing sensibilities cannot cater to anything but vanity and egotism. And while I am certainly not immune to those ills, I have never allowed myself to be silenced for any title and never will. A Chief Rabbi is not an Ambassador but a leader. The office must be expanded from its current focus on mesmerizing the BBC, thereby perpetuating a myth of Jewish subservience and the need for Jews to win non-Jewish approval, and focus instead on electrifying Jewish youth, before it can attract serious candidates.

The Jewish homo religiosus is not the submissive man of the spirit but rather Yisrael, the rebellious man of faith. And if we Jews are enjoined to emulate our patriarch Jacob who wrestled with an angel, then surely we must also respectfully challenge our spiritual leaders and reclaim our human voice.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach was the London Times Preacher of the Year at the Millennium and will this month publish Kosher Jesus, a ten-year study of Jesus’ Jewishness and his life as a Rabbi, based on early Christian and Jewish sources. www.shmuley.com

8 Comments

  • The Chief Rabbi did respond to the Bet Shemesh event BEFORE Botech wrote this piece.
    http://www.thejc.com/news/israel-news/61219/lord-sacks-bet-shemesh-intimidation-has-no-place-society

  • Nice article, but factually wrong.

    Get your facts right Shmueley. No one called a lady a “whore”. Thats a pure lie! The word used was “Prutza” which means “immodest” which is not even close to “whore” in official or slang hebrew.

    See his version of events here:http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4170357,00.html

    (So shift+delete half of your article).

    Regarding the use of the Yellow Star:

    (1) I do not condone the usage of the Yellow Star. But on the other hand, who says a Holocaust against the Charedim isnt unfolding in Israel? As a rabbi, why havent you spoken out against the atrocities commited by police and citizens alike to religious peoples. (I am not speaking of Mea Shearim residents, i am speaking of mainstream).

    Have you seen how many innocent Charedi Men, women and children have been physically attacked over the last few months? No, because no one is reporting it on their behalf. Just like in WW2.

    Have you heard Israeli radio or seen the newspaper articles using individual events to collectively villify 800,000 people, just because they dress alike? Goebbells would be proud of the Israeli Media.

    If you have the guts to speak about Kosher Sex & Kosher Jesus, speak out and preach Kosher Secularism!

    (2) See the below history of usage of the Yellow Star in Israeli protests. Did anyone care then? Was it a media sensation worldwide? No. Only now, because it’s Charedim.

    It was used by Nationalist protestors in Yamit, Israel in 1982 when the town was razed and handed over to Egypt.

    It was used in Chadera, Israel in 1988 by non religious during a workers protest over govenment involvement in their factory (Alliance)

    It was used IN KNESSET by left-alligned Members of Knesset (!) in 1991 in protest of Rehavam Zeevi’s appointment as Minister.

    It was used in Kiryat Atta, Israel in 1993 by terror victims who protested the Oslo Accords.

    It was used in Gush Katif, Israel in 2004 protesting the removal of families from their homes (even though they were fully compensated with houses worth much more).

    And lo and behold, it was used by Holocaust survivors in 2005 at a celebration of 60th Victory Day over the Nazi’s at the Knesset. They protested a WW2 compensation law.

    Used again in 2007 by Holocaust survivors protesting the sum of the compensation they were receiving.

    see: http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4169817,00.html

  • The thematic centrepiece of this article – namely an attempt to equate the actions of mentally ill thugs who ahve attacked children, with the mainstream orthodox attitude of non-co-operation with the non Jewish religions named ‘Reform Judaism’ and ‘Progressive Judaism’* – is downright hysterical.

    1) No-one is forbidden from going to Limmud.
    2) Limmud is a big joke where hippy ignoramouses get up to teach about the Jewish attitude to _____ based upon nothing more cogent than their gut instinct and an article they once read in the JC. Everyone leaves feeling better about themselves and then go back to their Judaism free lives.
    3) Most Haredim in Britian have literally never heard of Limmud and spend precisely 0% of their time pressurising the Chief Rabbinate about it.
    4) The United Synagoue has always taken the same attiude to inter-faith co-operation with the Reform, Progressive and Maasorti movements. There is no rise of extremism.
    5) With a tiny handful of exceptions, the only people who complain about the United Synagogue getting “too right wing” are people who not only break Shabbos, but think they have some kind of inherent right to carry their bag into schul into Schul with them and then get an aliyah. Even in such cases it is hard to see how the United Synagogue could be any more accomodating of their *needs*. Far from being too strictly orthodox, the United Synagogue has destroyed itself by creating an environment which those who want to follow halacha feel uncomfortable being a part of. A minority of its young people emerge with a commitment to Judaism and then pursue it in another organisation; the majority give up everything once they go to university and marry out (if they marry at all).
    The kind of lay sensibility Rabbi Boteach wants to encourage often manifests itself in hysterical hostility to the construction of mikvaot, or the dismissal of Rabbis who occasionally mention to their congregants what Jewish law requires of them rather than mouthing contentless platitudes about “our beuatiful tradition”. “Anglo-Jewry”, in reality, has been totally successful in protecting its unique tradition from the blandishments of both Haredim and Modern Orthodoxy (of the type that is actually Orthodox). It is dying not because of the rise of extremism, but because it fails to offer anything that can persuade the next generations to give up their Staturday mornings for what seems to them an empty tradition, more reminiscent of a cargo cult than a serious religion.

    *I agree that Masorti is not such a clear cut case

  • R Botach,
    Not a bad piece, but as your “trustees” in the stataes questioned the need of you coming, now it is all clear why..

  • Rabbi, you are seriously out of date with some of your examples! For example: 1 – women do give Divrei Torah in Orthodox synagogues in England. 2 – There is no official boycott of Limmud by the Orthodox rabbinate in the UK -call the London Beth Din and ask for yourself if you dont believe me! I did.

    If Orthodox rabbis do not want to participate in a pluralistic structure, they are entitled to do so. If they feel that making that point is more important than teaching at Limmud, that is their decision. You might disagree but your tone and lack of appreciation of their decision reflects worse on you than on them I’m afraid.

    I hope your research is more up to date for your new book! I enjoyed the late Hyam Maccoby’s previous writings on Jesus so I look forward to your book adding to the knowledge bank on this topic.

  • I would like to add some balance here. The Chief Rabbi of the UK & Commonwealth is not seen by many as he panders to the Orthodox Right. Not attending Limmud for example is disgraceful. Furthermore, Lubbavitch, whilst it undertakes much good in the world with outreach work has a perfect platform at Limmud to engage with Jews of all paths, however, the ‘cult’, won’t attend as the flock have to obtain instructions from a desk in NY, who will not grant permission – in cash the Charedim, heaven forbid are influenced by the Left.

  • Dovid Scheinbaum

    Reb Shmuel,
    With deep respect for your manifold accomplishments, I must say I found this article disingenuous and harmful. Let me begin by asking you to please not mix in the Baal Shem Tov into your own shitos. If you want to espouse a new shitah (or adopt MO or Conservative), that is one thing, and you have the freedom of speech in this country to do that (though I am not sure why an Orthodox website would publish it).
    But please have the honesty to state that this has nothing to do with the Baal Shem Tov or the Rebbeim and that you have chosen a new path. Never in 200 years of Chasidus has any Chasidic Rebbe suggested that because of the advantage of the simpleton we should ask him what is the halacha!! That would be a distortion of the Baal Shem Tov worthy of Buber and others, but you?! You know better.
    The question of interfaith and interdenominational dialogue is an old question and there are different opinions on the matter, though in general the Rebbe and R’ Moishe were more machmir than say Rabbi Soloveichik. I urge you to issue a retraction of this very misleading and unhelpful article.
    Please continue you your good work and mostly very good articles, and move away from this new trend of trashing Rabbonim.

  • You should be ashamed of yourself. Not wanting to sit with Reform is not intolerance – it is Halacha.

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