The Meaning of Jewish Renewal

“The Kotzker [rebbe] thought that the pursuit of wealth tended to demean a person. The universal passion for ever more possessions was an abomination to him. As long as it was voluntary, poverty was a preferable goal to strive for He apparently thought that it was never despicable. Poverty released a person to go his way unobtrusively, uprightly, serenely, humanely.” (A Passion for Truth by Abraham Joshua Heschel)

In his inauguration speech last September, the new Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks proclaimed a “Decade of Jewish Renewal” to the assembled religious and lay leadership of British Jewry. The thrust of the address was clearly directed towards a reclaiming of Jewish identity through an unleashing of the creative talents of the mainstream and the marginalized, through argument and dialogue. For the audience, bedecked in the Victorian regalia of top hats and morning suits—the centrist datirati of the community—the address must have resonated with an unaccustomed radicalism. Indeed, a public relations exercise brimming over with pomp and circumstance about the grandeur of Jewish endeavour in Britain would surely have been more accommodating. Yet this mismatch between deliverer and receiver crystallized the very real conflicts which confront a shrinking community: not only the question of how to remain Jews in the absence of overt anti-Semitism, but what sort of Jewish values should be presented and projected.

It was perhaps that rare occasion when there is official recognition of the disappearance of creative and questioning people into the invisibility of the wider world—people whose worst nightmare is conjured up by the imagery of communal life. For many who have become prickly assimilationists, it was often a reaction to organized Judaism and Jewishness that provoked their journey into exile. A reaction to the reactionaries rather than to the issue.

Jonathan Sacks alluded to a failure of imagination.

For a moment we lived in the moment; and we forgot what the past should have taught us, what the future consequences would be, and we forgot that there is always an accounting, a moral price to pay . . . a failure of historical imagination: we forgot where we came from; a failure of prophetic imagination: we forgot what we were travelling to. Or a failure of spiritual imagination: we forgot before Whom we stand.

Early twentieth-century history is, of course, strewn with figures who moved successfully from what they considered to be the parochialism of the Jewish community into the wider expanses of British society. A large proportion were driven by the finest of ideals—to repair the world, to seek truth and justice, and not to put one’s trust in the ruling power. And such ideals were also expounded b) those who remained within. Whether they embraced the Talmud or Das Kapital, they had tasted discrimination and expressed a profound determination for change. The opportunity for a decent life was not a privilege. they argued, but a right which should be within the reach of all They would have warmed to Jonathan Sacks’s invocation that “we must play our full part in carrying [Britain] forward as a caring and compassionate society. As Jews we must care about the environment, about social, medical and business ethics, and about the image of God in our fellow human being, Jew and non-Jew alike”.

But what of the reality? Art Jews—as Jews—involved in issues a social justice today in Britain? Or this area of Jewish endeavour no comfortably relegated to those Jews estranged from the community and marginalized by its lifestyle? Unfortunately, this important moral imperative of contributing towards the wider society seems to be a relatively minor consideration for many who strongly identify as Jews and who could not be labelled as peripheral For sure, British Jewry is a band of efficient professionals, wealth creators and diligent charity workers, but where are the non-conformists, the radicals, those who break down today’s stereotypes, the fiery orators  who demand profound change in society? Nearly fifty years ago, Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz appalled and embarrassed South African Jewry with his passionate denunciations from the pulpit of the apartheid system. Yet where are his religious and secular equivalents today?

Voluntarism is certainly part and parcel of the Jewish communal ethic but drawing upon similarities between the inner community and the outer society leads to a false analysis. It is a matter of choice as to membership of the Jewish community—not so the host society. Voluntarism cannot be a substitute for dealing with social ills such as urban deprivation which are a responsibility of the state. It is often argued that times have changed and that British Jews as well as British society have moved on. This is undoubtedly true, but unlike American Jews—of whom 70 per cent consistently vote for the Democratic Party despite their affluence—many British Jews tend to be serenely oblivious to the existence of a national underclass, the have-nots in society. As Geoffrey Alderman implies in his article on the 1992 British General Election in this issue, London Jewry voted in terms of its economic self-interest. What mattered was the individual and not the collective.

When the Jewish Chronicle asked for readers’ opinions in the weeks leading up to the election, the overwhelming majority proffered tax and commercial reasons for their choice of party. Very few advocated a moral stance or stated an ideological belief, and even fewer expressed a desire to help those who were unable to help themselves. The columnist, Hugo Young, commented shortly after the campaign that the election had given idealism a bad name.

What do I mean by idealism? At the core of it is a certain selflessness, a sense that the community may in some ways be worthy of more attention than the individual, a belief that some cause beyond oneself might offer a more inspiring reason for action than the simple gratification of Number One. Ask not what your country can do for you, Kennedy said. A modern aspiration for idealism might be to create, somewhere in the arena, a force which does not merely ask what your economy can do for you, nor what your country can do for itself. For the barrenness is not only within our borders, it is directed around the world. What high politics needs is high ambition. (Guardian, 16 April 1992)

The cult of the individual and his or her economic well-being was often cited as a central factor in bringing Mr Major back to No. 10 Downing Street. Should the Jews in spite of their embourgeoisment have climbed so readily upon that bandwagon? Sociologists would no doubt compare the Jews to other upwardly mobile ethnic minorities in Britain, and thus satisfactorily explain this trend. Even so, isn’t this development somewhat disturbing in the light of Jewish experience? Are the Jews, in reality, therefore no different from other ethnic groups? To paraphrase Jonathan Sacks, have we forgotten where we came from? Is this, then, that failure of the historical imagination which has created an internal assimilation and an inward indifference to a central Jewish moral tradition.

There has always been a creative tension between individual and community in Jewish history—perhaps to an extent that the latter has obscured the former. But the emphasis on the idea of peoplehood helped the Jews to understand the plight of other groups with similar problems. But is the reverse now true?

While there is a political consensus that we have now entered a post-Thatcherite era, the Lady’s legacy still permeates. There are still many who hold her in glad adoration. Indeed, in her Newsweek article in April, she lauded “the sanctity of the individual and his accountability for the use of his talents and abilities: the belief that liberty is a moral quality based on the Old and New Testament”. Some would say that one woman’s poison is another man’s meat since there is little doubt that such straightforward sentiments produce a deep resonance within influential parts of the Jewish community. In turn, this colours the values which our children imbibe. Despite Mr Major’s efforts to distance himself from his predecessor, the Jewish generation of the nineties is truly Mrs Thatcher’s kindele. For they know nothing else.

In his survey of 1,400 Jewish school students in 1988, the City University’s Dr Stephen Miller asked: “Do Jews have a special duty to help anyone in trouble?” Perhaps it is not surprising to note that less than 20 per cent replied affirmatively. In itself, this was a cause for concern, but the fact that it hardly raised an eyebrow is a measure of the task that confronts Jonathan Sacks and his rabbinical colleagues. And what of the practical consequences? If a deeply resentful underclass is offered the decaying carcass that once was the welfare state and is incapable of extricating itself from the poverty trap—and if it has no legitimate political grouping to advocate its just case—then it will move swiftly to the xenophobic right. There is no need to spell out what this means for Jews.

In his address, Jonathan Sacks said that Judaism recognizes “not shinui but chiddush, not change but revitalization”. Indeed, the recession has shown the transient—and dangerous—nature of capital accumulation and communal glorification of those who possess this talent. If the future is therefore to embody the past, British Jewry must be reconstructed in a meaningful sense; those at its centre must produce and exhibit a body of values and a set of ideals which will attract the outsider and the alienated as well as the committed and the -conformist. A difficult task, perhaps, but one to which academics, writers and intellectuals should strongly lend their support. If the “Decade of Jewish Renewal” proves to be just another empty slogan, then the future will only offer a shallow assimilation or a meaningless obscurantism to those who come after us.

Jewish Quarterly Summer 1992




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