This Yom Kippur, Ask ‘Who Am I?’
Our task on Yom Kippur is to spend time thinking about where we stand in this world: Who are we? What are we? Every year, we should go through this cathartic, painful process of self-examination.
In my case, it’s all the more necessary because I live in two cultures: Jewish and non-Jewish. Within Judaism, I am part conformist and part anti-establishment. I can recognize the need for authority, and I rebel against it. I am a rootless cosmopolitan, and proud of it. Yet I am passionate about my homeland, for all its problems. Of course, I reflect on these issues often. But somehow Yom Kippur gives me an added urgency — and time without distractions.
I had a modest, but privileged and isolated, upbringing. My father received a haredi yeshiva education, and lived an Orthodox life. He became the principal rav of the Federation of Synagogues in the UK. But he was also brought up in the Fabian political climate between the two world wars, which gave him an anti-establishment, intellectually-curious and socialist outlook on life.
He left the rabbinate, turned his back on the Anglo-Jewish establishment and founded his own public school in the English countryside, where boys from 11-18 were given a first-class, secular liberal education. I grew up in his world, beyond the Anglo-Jewish community.
As a pupil in his school, I worshipped him, feared him and loved him. But as his son, I suffered twice. He punished me as a headmaster and then a few hours later as a father. And I had to share my father with 300 other boys. I became an outsider, the son of an outsider.
I was not a good student — and as a 16-year-old, my father sent me to a yeshiva in Israel. After a period of difficult transition, I came to love the yeshiva world, with its intensity, spiritually and intellectual rigor. Yet I remained the son of a liberal, critical, rational father. Fundamentalism never made sense to me.
In the several yeshivas I attended, my intellectual life was on hold, while my Jewish life flourished. When I went to Cambridge and studied philosophy, my secular world flourished while my religious life marked time. Where did I belong? Who was I? An Orthodox Jew or a liberal intellectual?
To make matters worse, my father died at the age of 48, when I was just 18. I lost my paternal guidance, the benefit of his counsel and the restraints of his authority. The result was that I combined the characteristics of a well-educated, successful Jewish leader with the willfulness of a rebellious and even lost child.
The path of my career exploded from the start. While I decided to devote my life to the Jewish world, I sought out jobs that offered me freedom and independence. No one was going to tell me what to do. I have enjoyed every position I have occupied — from the largest Orthodox synagogue in Scotland to serving as the principal of my alma mater.
I have had enormous freedom to say and do as I pleased. The minute that I stopped enjoying it, I simply upped and left, waiting for the next opportunity. And there always was one. The benefit was that I remained excited, enthusiastic and positive, while many of my contemporaries became jaded and frustrated, wedded to their jobs rather than their morality or their souls. But the downside was that I became more and more self-centered. But did it matter?
There are many young, highly-educated and talented rabbis, scholars and experts serving the Jewish community worldwide. As the Talmud says, “When others go out into the world (to teach, preach, and encourage others), you may turn inwards. And when others are concentrating on themselves, then you should go out.”
I was educated in a Mussar yeshiva. Mussar is the movement of strict self-analysis and self-discipline in the pursuit of spirituality. In my yeshiva, I was taught to be introspective and self-critical — but I always felt that I was not doing well enough.
My Yom Kippur is concerned with my soul. And although my spiritual soul has flourished over the years, I am ashamed at the opportunities I missed, the people that I have let down and hurt, and the betrayals of friends, loved ones, pupils and congregants. I often think of how I was not a good son to my late mother, because I was too wrapped up in my own struggles. We all have our regrets.
I know that some will want to reassure me, and say that I should look at the positive side, at all the good things that I have done. But that’s too easy. It avoids the issue of Yom Kippur — which is precisely to recognize one’s failures and try to do better, all the time.
Every Kol Nidrei, my father would get up before the whole school and ask them for forgiveness. And you could see that he meant it.
This is a really painful process. But it needs to be done. I hope others try it. So, thank you, God, for Yom Kippur — and for the good pain that comes with it.