Good ideas and good prac­tice

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - Daniel Finkel­stein

AFEW MONTHS ago, Jonathan Freed­land of the Guardian — and JC —had a great idea. He has lots of great ideas does Jonathan Freed­land of the Guardian — and JC — but this one in­volved me so it struck me as an even bet­ter idea than usual. His idea was that the two of us should ap­pear to­gether at Jewish Book Week and dis­cuss pol­i­tics.

For more than 20 years, we have been talk­ing about po­lit­i­cal is­sues and puz­zling over how we ended up on the left and the right.

Why not, said Jonathan, talk in pub­lic about how our re­li­gion — our Jewish back­ground — had im­pacted on our pol­i­tics? See what I mean? Good idea.

So we both told our sto­ries. In Jonathan’s case, talk­ing bril­liantly and mov­ingly of his Un­cle Mick and his his­tory in the Com­mu­nist move­ment.

I re­sponded by telling of my fa­ther’s rather dif­fer­ent Siberian en­counter with Com­mu­nism. And, af­ter a while, we opened it up to the au­di­ence to ask ques­tions.

I’ve been think­ing about one in par­tic­u­lar, and that is only partly be­cause it was asked by my sis­ter.

“We’ve now heard of how your re­li­gion has in­flu­enced your pol­i­tics,” said Ta­mara. But how has your pol­i­tics in­flu­enced your re­li­gion.” See what I mean? Good ques­tion.

A few years ago, I was at some prayers and I was pushed for­ward. I’d been stand­ing with the women and I should have been up front with the men.

Sud­denly, some­thing that had never much both­ered me be­fore, some­thing that I’d sort of buried un­der­neath tra­di­tion, both­ered me too much to ig­nore.

Sud­denly, the clash be­tween pol­i­tics and reli­gious prac­tice was too much. I sim­ply couldn’t live with the idea of suggesting women would be at the back, what­ever prac­tice may have been.

It wasn’t the time or the place to make a fuss, so I stood am­bigu­ously be­tween the two gen­ders. And there re­main many oc­ca­sions where the cel­e­bra­tion isn’t about me, and my po­lit­i­cal views just have to live with it. I am not go­ing to make a big po­lit­i­cal song and dance at some­one else’s big mo­ment.

But the in­ci­dent did make me think more deeply about how reli­gious prac­tice and po­lit­i­cal prin­ci­ple fit to­gether.

And, over time, my ba­sic pol­i­tics and my re­li­gion have be­come rea­son­ably well aligned. Not just in terms of re­spect and love for other people, but in terms of my view of change.

I be­lieve that tra­di­tion is im­por­tant and have a pre­dis­po­si­tion to­wards ex­ist­ing in­sti­tu­tions and prac­tices.

But I be­lieve that we pray and we think in or­der to un­der­stand. And from that un­der­stand­ing we re­alise when we need to change. This is true in pol­i­tics and as a Jew.

Let me take an is­sue that is im­por­tant to me. Gay rights. Can we re­ally pray for thou­sands of years with­out ab­sorb­ing any un­der­stand­ing of gay people and with­out ac­cept­ing their right to be treated equally?

I was much more will­ing, a few years ago, to ac­cept that my lib­eral po­lit­i­cal views on gay is­sues were im­por­tant to me, but Ju­daism was, as it were, an­other coun­try. I’m much less will­ing to ac­cept that now. I think that il­lib­eral at­ti­tudes to gay people aren’t just bad pol­i­tics, they are bad re­li­gion, too.

Ju­daism has al­ways been chang­ing. The cus­toms and prac­tices that some ar­gue can never be changed are all de­rived from some pre­vi­ous changes. Of­ten, the mo­ment at which the mu­sic stops is sort of ran­domly se­lected, by his­tor­i­cal ac­ci­dent. Ju­daism has al­ways been a re­form re­li­gion. It is or­tho­doxy that is un­ortho­dox.

And this is also true of Bri­tain and British in­sti­tu­tions.

Ju­daism teaches the value of con­serv­ing, and the dan­ger of up­heaval. It shows that in mysterious tra­di­tion there is wis­dom if only we un­lock it, and that when we change we need to be care­ful of what we lose as well as mind­ful of what we can gain.

This think­ing has made me a con­ser­va­tive in pol­i­tics — cau­tious about change but open to it — and a Pro­gres­sive Jew. Deeply at­tached to Ju­daism, but in­sis­tent that it grows, that it breathes, that it lives.

This weekend at North­wood and Pin­ner Lib­eral syn­a­gogue, will be the Kab­balat To­rah ser­vice for my mid­dle son and his class. The theme of their ser­vice will be change, and a well-se­lected theme it is.

Il­lib­eral at­ti­tudes to gays are bad pol­i­tics and bad re­li­gion

daniel.finkel­stein@thetimes.co.uk

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