‘Stop plac­ing rit­u­als above ethics’

The Jewish Chronicle - - Features -

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.”

PHOTO: EVE ARNOLD/MAG­NUM

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