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Brainstorming the Future of British Jewish Life

Help the homeless, save the planet, and note history of fish and chips

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Fish and chips, which apparently Jews introduced to the United Kingdom.(iStockphoto)

The British Jewish Chronicle asked some locals for suggestions on improving the community. A few of the ideas fit right in with the trends of the moment—one rabbi suggests a comprehensive online community, another proposes the Sabbath as an example of green living. One writer made us groan with his suggestion that we put more emphasis on our food and embrace a “Jews did it first!” attitude: “Fishmongers should remind us that it was Jews who first brought fish and chips to the UK.” But a few voices brought up some intriguing innovations.

Journalist Keren David wants to see synagogue membership fees replaced by a “communal income tax” to support social services, education, cemeteries, and other needs. She cites Amsterdam as an example, where, she says, Jews who opt in “are charged a proportion of their annual income to join—three per cent for the richest members, less for lower incomes.” Jonathan Boyd, executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, sees a sukkah/homeless shelter/soup kitchen in London’s Trafalgar Square: “Could we take a symbol of our own homelessness, and turn it into a shelter for those who need no symbolic reminders of what it means to have no home?” Keith Kahn-Harris, another research expert, envisions taking the trend toward multi-denominational Judaism a step further and incorporating members of other religions: “Jews, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus and others should collaborate to build a space that can serve for worship and community activities. This would allow different groups to pool resources, and improve the often strained relations between religions.” While this is a cool idea, and not entirely without precedent, his acknowledgment that “There would, of course, be difficulties in making this kind of community” may be understating the case.

But to us, the most striking idea comes from Neil Bradman of The Centre for Genetic Anthropology, and it’s more of a plea than a suggestion. Bradman laments the disparity between rabbinical dictates and the actual lives of Jews. We are all too familiar with the tendency of religiously inclined folks to say one thing and do another behind closed doors, and even growing up in a rabbinical family, we vividly remember “parking around the corner” at synagogue to avoid the appearance of breaking the Sabbath. “Let us strike a blow for honesty. If this is the way we wish to live, let us appoint rabbis who say it is acceptable to do so,” writes Bradman. “It is a game of ‘we pretend to respect you and you pretend to be respected’. It is unhealthy and it breeds hypocrisy.” Here, here.

We Need to Transform the Community. This is How. [JC]

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David says:

I hate to harp on something that you’re just citing, but since you cite it so approvingly, I must say that last paragraph takes the cake for most uninformed, unreflective statement I’ve read all week (and I’ve been reading some FOX News recently).

Consider: Those Jewish prophets were an annoying, ornery bunch too. If only we’d shut them up and replaced them with more congenial spiritual yes-men we’d have been so much better off. After all, religious leaders are far more helpful when they conform entirely to our own perception of the world and our obligations within it, and never challenge any of our choices or priorities. This way, we never have to face moral or religious critique, or have to face up to our shortcomings. Let’s just rewrite Judaism, its texts and historical experiences in service of our current whims, instead of (gasp) trying to be intellectually honest in our religion and ethics, even as we rarely live up to them. Then we can end up justifying slavery like Southern Churches did during the Civil War. The sky’s the limit when tradition is the mask for self-interest.

What of the “hypocrisy” of not listening to rabbis like the estimable Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the UK? As Matthew Arnold famously quipped, “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.” The idea is to recognize that preserved even within our hypocrisy lies worthy moral ideals we cannot quite reach. Not to venerate the hypocrisy itself.

Oh, and the phrase is “hear, hear.”


Fortunately, Jews are too intellectually honest – yes, honest – to brazenly bowdlerize their heritage as Bradman suggests. Hear, hear to that.


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Brainstorming the Future of British Jewish Life

Help the homeless, save the planet, and note history of fish and chips

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