Shift from fads and whims

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT - Ge­of­frey Al­der­man

EV­ERY MON­DAY NIGHT, I tune in to Sal­ford City Ra­dio’s Jewish Hour. The con­tents of this lightly chore­ographed mag­a­zine pro­gramme al­ways pro­vide food for thought, and the edi­tion of June 23 proved no ex­cep­tion. Shoe­horned into its last few min­utes was a dis­cus­sion in­volv­ing Andrew Chan­dler, chair of the Manch­ester Lib­eral Jewish Com­mu­nity.

Lib­eral Ju­daism, Chan­dler ex­plained, was “a rad­i­cal po­lit­i­cal kind of Ju­daism.” It was “com­pletely egal­i­tar­ian.” Men and women sat to­gether — nat­u­rally. Jewish iden­tity could be trans­mit­ted through the male as well as the fe­male lines. Nat­u­rally. Ob­ser­vance of halacha, lis­ten­ers were as­sured, was far from be­ing “a com­pul­sory ac­tiv­ity.” All this was highly pre­dictable.

But then, in the very last mo­ments of the in­ter­view, Chan­dler ad­mit­ted some­thing truly shock­ing: not only were bar­mitz­vahs mak­ing a come­back, but more gen­er­ally (it ap­pears) Lib­eral Jews were be­com­ing “more tra­di­tional.” My ghast was flab­bered!

Af­ter all, Lib­eral Ju­daism was con­ceived, 110 or so years ago, as a re­volt against any­thing and ev­ery­thing that was “tra­di­tional.” That’s what its founders (the gen­tle­man scholar Claude Mon­te­fiore and his fe­male devo­tee Lily Mon­tagu) meant it to be. Out went rit­ual. Out went ref­er­ences to Zion. Out went old-fash­ioned ideas about Shabbat and kashrut. For the Lib­er­als, Jewish iden­tity was de­fined pri­mar­ily in terms of the re­jec­tion of ev­ery­thing that Or­tho­doxy stood for.

Ju­daism was re­duced to noth­ing more than a set of moral prin­ci­ples. Mon­te­fiore him­self ex­plained that as far as he and his dis­ci­ples were con­cerned, to be a good Jew amounted to no more than to be a good cit­i­zen, mean­ing “right­eous­ness in ac­tion and truth­ful­ness of the heart.” Who could pos­si­bly quar­rel with that?

But within this no­ble-sound­ing for­mu­la­tion there was, and re­mains, a sys­temic flaw. In re­ject­ing the divin­ity of the To­rah, Lib­eral Jews ac­tu­ally found them­selves lack­ing in moral cer­tainty. What does “right­eous­ness in ac­tion” mean, if it is not grounded in di­vine­ly­or­dained pre­cepts?

The an­swer has been sup­plied most re­cently by the cur­rent chief ex­ec­u­tive of Lib­eral Ju­daism, Rabbi Danny Rich. Re­fer­ring to Lib­eral Ju­daism’s March 2011 de­ci­sion to “up­date” its liturgy to ac­com­mo­date mar­riage for same-sex cou­ples, Rich ex­plained that “the ev­i­dence sug­gests that on this mat­ter Lib­eral Jewish thought and pol­icy were in tune with the chang­ing pub­lic mood …”

Are we there­fore to con­clude that it is in fact “the chang­ing pub­lic mood” (rather than — say — God Almighty) that trig­gers

I sus­pect a re­turn to halachah for the Lib­er­als soon

mod­i­fi­ca­tions to Lib­eral-Jewish the­ol­ogy? It would ap­pear that we do. If so, Lib­eral Jews are tread­ing a very slip­pery slope. Over the past two decades we have cer­tainly wit­nessed changes in pub­lic at­ti­tudes to­wards sex­ual de­viancy. But sup­pose “the pub­lic mood” took, or seemed likely to take, a dif­fer­ent turn? Would Lib­eral Ju­daism then meekly and obe­di­ently re­vise its dogma to suit the whim of the mo­ment? If (God for­bid!) “the pub­lic mood” turned against brit mi­lah, what would be Lib­eral Ju­daism’s re­sponse?

But this wor­ship of “the pub­lic mood” is not con­fined to Lib­eral Ju­daism. Writ­ing in the In­de­pen­dent (Oc­to­ber 9 2012), Rabbi Dr Jonathan Ro­main (a for­mer chair of the As­sem­bly of Rab­bis of the Move­ment for Re­form Ju­daism) pro­claimed that “any­one who takes sa­cred re­li­gious texts lit­er­ally needs to move on with the times... the Bi­ble is not the lit­eral word of God, but the in­spi­ra­tion of God, as per­ceived by people of that era and sub­ject to the lim­i­ta­tions of the pe­riod. It there­fore has to con­stantly adapt ac­cord­ing to new knowl­edge and new in­sights.”

Where moral­ity is con­cerned, people need cer­tainty. Re­liance on “the pub­lic mood” – or mov­ing on “with the times” – re­moves that as­sur­ance: the firm foot­ing of dogma is re­placed by the shift­ing sands of cur­rent fads and fash­ions.

I sus­pect that this ex­plains why we are ap­par­ently wit­ness­ing the be­gin­nings of a re­turn to halachah within the Man­cu­nian chap­ter of the Lib­eral Jewish move­ment. For the founders of Lib­eral Ju­daism this rep­re­sents an un­com­fort­able de­feat. For Ju­daism it rep­re­sents a strik­ing vic­tory.

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