The Unyielding Orthodoxy of Anglo-Jewry
I want to tell you a story of Chelm (the mythical community of Jewish fools) that is, in fact, true. True of Anglo-Jewish establishment Orthodoxy.
I have known the Jesner family, the pillar of Orthodoxy in Glasgow, Scotland, since 1968. They, as a successful business family, took responsibility for Jewish life in Glasgow, supporting its rabbis and its yeshiva. The family has always been passionately committed to Judaism and Zionism. It suffered a great loss when one of its very talented children, Yoni Jesner, was killed in a terrorist attack in Israel. His family has devoted itself to keeping his memory alive by funding causes that promote Torah and peace. In short, they are a treasure of a family — the sort that keeps Judaism thriving.
As in any family, succeeding generations have chosen their own paths. Some are in the rabbinate, some are outstanding lay leaders and others are simply upholding and sustaining Jewish life. It therefore strikes me that something is terribly wrong with Orthodox Judaism if it can ostracize and try to silence one of them simply because he chooses to take an independent line.
Elie Jesner is a very gifted communicator who, according to a recent article in the UK Jewish Chronicle, has been blackballed by certain Orthodox institutions. He is a Cambridge University graduate and has studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Gush. He is not a professional educator. He has worked in finance, and he is a psychotherapist. And having heard him personally, I know him to be a great teacher and a first-class exponent of committed Torah Judaism. He combines an intellectually open approach with an analytical and critical mind. He belongs to and regularly attends an Orthodox synagogue. Above all, he is a really good, caring human being. Yet the Anglo-Jewish Orthodox establishment has declared him persona non grata.
What are his terrible crimes and heresies?
He teaches a non-fundamentalist, nuanced Orthodoxy — and therefore was banned from teaching at the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS) and from the educational programs of Kinloss (Finchley United Synagogue), the Orthodox synagogue where he is a member.
The London School of Jewish Studies is the last remnant of what was once Jews College, an academic institution that trains rabbis and other clergy for the Anglo rabbinate. Its alumni include internationally known Jewish academics of impeccable credentials and reputations, such as Isidore Epstein, Kopel Kahana, Naphtali Wieder and H.J. Zimmel. The school began its decline in the late 1950s, when senior lecturer Louis Jacobs was blocked from succeeding Epstein on the debatable grounds of his heterodoxy. The final nails in its coffin were the supremacy of Israeli yeshivot and Chabad, whose graduates competed for the same market and in effect took it over. The LSJS has emerged from this experience to become a center for adult education. It is pretty good at most of what it does — except that it is under the scrutiny and control of the Chief Rabbinate and the London Beth Din, which see their role as protecting Jewry from unsuitable ideas.
I have personal experience of this. Jews College once produced a magazine called L’Eylah, which was devoted to scholarly articles. I used to write for it, until I submitted a book review that said that the exclusion of someone as significant as Rabbi Louis Jacobs was a loss to Anglo-Jewry. For that alone, the editor told me, on superior instructions, my articles would no longer be accepted.
One can argue about what Rabbi Jacobs said and meant, and whether he made mistakes or not. But the undisputed fact is that he, personally, remained punctiliously observant. He cared deeply for Torah Judaism and was committed to it until the day he died.
Why are people so fearful of some sort of heretical virus, that anyone who reads, likes or teaches anything Jacobs wrote, or tries to keep his memory alive, is regarded as a dangerous heretic?
Another issue has become the testing ground of heresy: women. Highly educated and committed Orthodox women want to play a more active part in religious services, while still remaining committed to the Torah and its commandments. In Israel, women have long been running services for women. I used to encourage them when I was in Yakar in London. There was no attempt or desire to interfere or change the established Orthodox tradition, just to allow for an extra dimension — an option that would encourage the desire to pray together in an atmosphere of female spirituality.
Yet, according to these Orthodox Jewish institutions, this kind of worship constitutes a threat to Judaism.
I know Elie Jesner to be a man committed to Torah. Are we to assume that there is no place in Orthodoxy for such a person? Are they scared that he will undermine the foundations of Torah? Obviously so.
Thank goodness for Israel. For there, at least, in addition to the obvious haredi options, you can find enlightened, Orthodox communities and synagogues that can offer such people a warm welcome. These are universities and academic institutions where independent, open-minded thinkers are encouraged, not muzzled or excluded. And they are where scholarship and Torah flourish. Were Elie to go east or west, he would be welcomed with open arms, and it would be yet another loss for Anglo-Jewry.