Judaism – A Voice of Hope in the Conversation of Humankind

26 November 2008
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Published in The Times on 26th November 2008

I will start with there being two major challenges facing the Jewish community today and then turn it around and reflect on those and say what the Jewish community and what the Jewish perspective have to say about one or two of the major problems that confront us all.

Now let me begin with a sad and bothering issue which has become one of our leading concerns. And of all things that have happened in my life time the least expected is the return of anti-Semitism I must mention it because our community is very concerned about it. Somehow we are a small community but we seem to attract a disproportionate amount of attention some of which is not always positive. I mean perhaps I should begin by reminding you of just how small we are. You never count Jews they never stand still long enough to count them anyway but they are approximately give or take 12 million Jews in the world today, which means very simply for every Jew today they are 100 Muslims and 183 Christians so we are a small people although sometimes people tend to exaggerate our size.

I remember when I first became Chief Rabbi in 1991 I was presented because people knew we were/would be travelling around the world somebody presented me with the directory of Jewish communities throughout the world and under each country they gave the population of the country and the Jewish population of the country and in 1991 this is no exaggeration the entry under China read: China population 1 billion Jewish population 5 and when I read that I said to my wife Elaine ‘I guarantee you if there are five Jews in China then two things are certain. Number one there are at least six synagogues and number two someone somewhere is saying the Jews are running the country. And that is the problem that is the problem because against all expectation anti-Semitism has returned to the world. Europe is not an exception although it is not the epicentre of it. Just to give you a small sense of what that actually means at the end of 2000 a young student - very gentle young man was sitting on the upper tier of a bus in North London studying a volume of the Tanach when an assailant attacked him – stabbed him 22 times as a conspicuous Jew and he was very lucky to survive with his life I visited him in intensive care – the Queen visited him and he did recover but it was a scary reminder of something of what we have not known or seen in a long time.

Elaine and I happened to be in Italy in April 2002 and we were walking through Florence with a French couple when they received on their mobile phone a call from their son in Paris which said ‘Mum, Dad we have to leave Paris it is no longer safe for us here’ in that week in France five synagogues had been fire bombed and a Jewish school in Marseille burnt to the ground. The situation was such that my counterpart in France the French Chief Rabbi actually issued a guideline to his community not to be seen wearing a Jewish head covering in the street it was simply too dangerous to do so.

If you go throughout Europe look out for the Jewish schools and the synagogues and you will see they are all guarded by armed police. In Britain we have not got quite that far yet but every single Jewish school every Jewish event every synagogue has to have security partly by police partly by our own volunteers and no other ethnic or religious minority has to do this.

What I found terrifying having grown up - having gone to non Jewish schools and to Christian schools indeed and feeling nothing but love and respect for them and indeed those Christian schools showed nothing but respect for us. To suddenly in 2002 when I really became aware of the nature of the problem and realised that anti Semitism had returned it was a deeply shocking experience for me as this had happened after 60 years of holocaust education, 60 years of interfaith dialogue, 60 years of racism legislation and to see it return was quire frightening.

What is anti Semitism? Exceptionally difficult to define - In the 19th and 20th centuries Jews were hated because they were rich and because they were poor, because they were capitalists, because they were communists, because they kept to themselves, because they got everywhere and they infiltrated everything because according to the Voltareans in 1761 they are attached to an ancient and superstitious and barbaric faith, because said Stalin they are rootless cosmopolitans who believe nothing. So anti Semitism is not a doctrine it is a set of contradictions – how are we to understand it. The only way I can do so is speaking about anti Semitism as a virus. That attacks the body politic just as a virus attacks the human body. Now the human body has one of its most miraculous mechanisms that is called the immune system - that is extraordinarily effective. It recognises viruses that initially pose as friends and build up defensives against them. How then do viruses succeed in penetrating the immune system – the answer is they mutate.

That is in fact what has happened throughout history to anti Semitism over 2000 years anti Semitism has mutated three times and each with a significant event in the history of Europe and we are living through the forth mutation.

In Hellenistic times the ancient Greeks and the Roman writers sometimes wrote quite critical things about the Jews but I always feel about this the way the mafia feel when they are just about to shoot you when they whisper in your ear ‘it’s nothing personal.’ So the hostility of Hellenistic writer to Jews was nothing personal they felt that about all non Hellenistic cultures they called them barbarian and regarded them as sheep. Therefore the anti Jewish sentiments you find in classical Greece and then Rome are xenophobia they are non anti Semitism at all.

That first mutation happened with the birth of Christianity a matter of great sadness for me as I admire Christians and Christianity but it was a great disappointment to the early Christians that the Jews did not join the new faith. All of a sudden an attitude grew up that was focused specifically on Jews this was the people from whom our Messiah came and this is the people who did not recognise him as a Messiah and they grew up in the later gospels but certainly amongst the church fathers an entire literature known as the adverso Judaism what the French historian Jules Isaac called the teachings of contempt. Which eventually the Vatican recognised and that recognition led to Nostra Aetate in 1965. So you had the first focused actual hostility to Jews with the birth of Christianity that was what I called theological anti Judaism.

The non Jewish German historian coined the term anti Semitism it had not existed as a word before. In enlightened emancipated Europe the Europe of Rationalism If you wanted to justify anything in 19th century Europe you had to do it on the basis of two pseudo sciences social Darwinism based on the survival of the fittest and the second one was called the scientific study of race. A scientific veneer to a new phenomenon called anti Semitism. Jews were hated not for what they believed but for what they were. Not for their religion but for their race leading to the most tragic consequences of the holocaust. To this day one is shaken how that event can take place in the heart of civilised Europe and civilisation proved to it no defence.

The anti-Semitism is different it is not racial anti-Semitism it is political anti Semitism it has deep connections with the state of Israel but its targets are Jews. Its targets are synagogues, Jewish schools and community centres and it makes no distinction between Jews wherever they are. I have a deep gratitude to Britain- it has been in the modern world the beacon of tolerance in a difficult world and the various moves have been taken across all party provisions giving great comfort to the Jewish community because we know in this fight we are not alone.

Another problem we face in the community is Jewish discontinuity. In order to do something about this in 1993 I created a panic a scare –‘Will we have Jewish grandchildren’ I must say I have a habit of starting controversy in the Jewish community. Frank Field a former politician once said to me ‘I see you have started a controversy well done. If you are not doing so every six months you are not doing your job.’

Professor Lesley Wagner just completed a survey which has found we have moved in a single generation where one quarter of the children attend Jewish education compared to the previous where 60% have done. In other words against all expectation the generation of Jewish children growing up today is more aware and committed then any other in 352 years of our existence.

So we will confront anti Semitism with our many friends across the faiths and political parties and challenges of Jewish continuity which we have done by intensifying Jewish education.

As a Jew I would diagnose the current human situation with number one the family. It is a major grief to us as Jews that marriages are beginning to fade, the covenable bond of marriage being devalued the victims are our children. The image of family is built in our very image that the prophets gave us. The prophets saw marriage as a metaphor for our relationship with God that is one thing that I will say from a Jewish perspective we have to recover faith in the idea of family

Secondly the Hebrew word ‘tzedakah’ meaning justice and charity. In Judaism what we possess we do not own we merely hold it in trust for God. Those who have much have a responsibility to give to those who have little. Nothing voluntary about charity in Judaism you have to give it. In Jewish law which is 2000 years old you have to give people so much charity so they themselves can afford to give to charity. This makes no sense in distributive economics. Giving is essential to human dignity. This system applies to everything: the ownership of the land of Israel, the land should never be sold in parquetry because it belongs to God and we are mere temporary residents it applies to our very position in the world the earth belongs to God. Our existence on earth comes with the condition that we have to protect the environment for generations to come.

Responsibility to others is built into Judaism we are letting our very fragile ecosystem be damaged at a rate which may go beyond repair. We have seen what happens in the financial system in which the pursuit of short term profit is allowed to exist untrammelled without any long term concern for the stability of the system or those who will be the victims of the system’s collapse. You can not have markets without morals, you cannot have wealth creation without responsibility those things are inconceivable in Judaism. Whatever God has given us he had given us so we are its guardians for the benefit of all and that drives Jewish ethics and I believe if a stronger sense of that had been active in the financial institutions this country and others would not have got to a situation where people were being loaned 125% of the value of their house or all the other strange things which were predicated on short term financial gain which is to everyone’s long term loss. So I think in addition to recovering the moral of family we need to recover our sense of moral responsibility.

Finally I called Judaism a voice of humanity in the conversation of humankind because we are living in complex times there is one thing people cannot live with and that is constant relentless change. This makes our generation different from all previous generations. All the movements of nationalism and religious extremism and all the other searches for certainty in rapidly changing world are because we are unable to bear relentless change. We are not equipped to deal with this. That is one voice Judaism has to bring to the conversation. For many centuries Jews lived with situations with uncertainty never knowing if the children would live in the same country as theirs or when the next expulsion would happen. Judaism sees faith as the courage to live with uncertainty. If you have your faith you will not lose your way in a society which is constantly changing. Jews, Muslims and Christians must be agents of hope in a world in danger of despair. The politics of hope are the only alternative to the politics of fear. Faith is essential in a changing world whether it is Jewish or Christian or Muslim it is our nail joining us to something solid immovable and eternal and we will then navigate the winds of change without ever losing hope.