‘Stop placing rituals above ethics’
semichah. The Kopul Rosen spell was not the only one that exerted its influence over the young Levy. He became a fervent admirer of Rabbi Louis Jacobs, the man many think was cheated of the chief rabbinate at the time of the infamous “Jacobs Affair” in the early 1960s. (Jacobs had said that he regarded the Torah as being “inspired” by God, but not completely dictated by Him. As a result, he was barred from both the headship of Jews’ College and from his pulpit at London’s New West End Synagogue.)
Levy says now: “There was a great deal I admired about Louis Jacobs, but I did have issues with much of his theology.”
When Jacobs retired from the synagogue that was created for him, the New London, he asked the younger rabbi to take over. “I wanted to do that,” Levy says. “There would have been no difficulty about its becoming an Orthodox synagogue, which in so many ways it always was. There was separate for seating for men and women. The services need not have changed and any conversion and similar problems could have been sorted out.”
The trouble was Levy wanted to remain spiritual leader of the Spanish and Portuguese organisation and his lay leaders would not accept it.
There are many who think he would have been an ideal New London rabbi — or minister, a title that has largely gone into disuse, along with the canonicals, the rabbinical robes, which even Levy, a stickler for tradition, now only reserves for special occasions. But, sitting in his box at Lauderdale Road, he is never without his top hat. Discarding that — the equivalent of the traditional Ashkenazi biretta — would be considered a step too far.
Somehow, hats always play an important place in discussions on Judaism. Levy loves to talk about the family wedding picture in which he has a notable place. “A sea of black hats with one white one in the middle — my Panama.”
The black hats bring him on to another important issue — relations between various aspects of Anglo-jewry. He says he gets on very well with the Charedim, although they concern him. “I don’t like the idea of so much emphasis being put on their clothes. One’s religion should not be decided by the material you put on your head.” He himself w e a r s a small black kippah. And h e a d d s , revealingly: “I do not approve of people who put ritual a h e a d o f ethics. Judaism is a combination of ritual and ethics. We need both.”
Having said that, he and his community have been affected in recent times by what he considers a lack of respect from other religious bodies, which tend to look down on the men from Bevis Marks and Lauderdale Road. For years, it was the Sephardim who were accused of being snobby, considering the more recently arrived Ashkenazim as upstarts. Today, in matters such as kashrut and conversions, the tables have turned as the non-sephardi Orthodox consider themselves holier than all others.
As Levy said in a foreword for the Jewish Year Book: “I don’t see the right level of respect in Anglo Jewry and I don’t see it in Israel either… I have been suggesting for a long time that the different kashrut authorities should ideally merge, the same should happen with conversions.”
But the real fault is not laid at the men in black hats. He says: “We get on very well with the ultra-orthodox. This is very much a game of the United Synagogue — to be as influential as possible in Anglo-jewry. I keep on saying to the Chief Rabbi that they, somehow or other, have to have the upper hand in everything. I keep saying it is God who has to win. Let’s work together.”