Monday, July 06, 2009

JFS Between Ourselves

Britain's United Synagogue has determinedly struggled to portray Judaism as an alternative version of Christianity for as long as I can remember. The clergy look the same as the same as their Christian counterparts and usually sound roughly the same. Most are equally apologetic for any inconvenience their beliefs and customs might cause and equally eager to bend over backwards to accommodate any difference of opinion even at the expense of watering down their own quasi-beliefs.

True, our star does not look quite like the cross, and the crucifixion and resurrection are only remotely mirrored in secular Judaism's holocaust and independence worship, still to the week-end adherent the two religions are differentiated only by superficial minutiae.

I attended a lavish Bat-Mitzva party recently. It was in a popular, very upmarket venue and the menu was kosher style. I, the lone kosher guest was honoured with a specially ordered, enthusiastically cling wrapped and doubly sealed kosher meal. The theme was High School Musical and a talented troupe of 'high school' dancers entertained the guests between the elegant courses.

I had just remarked to my wife how 'normal' it must seem to the goyim who had probably come with a little trepidation to a Jewish religious party, when one of them leaned across the table to me. “I love your Jewish parties,” he screamed above the blaring rendition of Start of Something New. “They are so much more meaningful than ours.”

Israel's Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is unapologetic in his views. His declaration last week that the innocent victims of the holocaust were probably reincarnates who had sinned in previous lives raised a ruckus when it was reported in the media. This apparently is what he believes, based on his vast, intimate and probably unique perception of His workings. The great unlearned in the media, who in their utter ignorance chose to portray it as criticism of the departed are just as entitled to make their point as he was. Rabbi Yosef remains unperturbed and unrepentant.

Unfortunately, our Great British leaders have none of this decisive finality.We can only choose between the U.S. politically correct approach, which teaches us to think we are probably right but also to accept that the others might be right too; So we are the chosen people but if that offends anyone we can negotiate it away. Or, on the other side of the spectrum, the local Charedi leadership, teaching that we are the chosen people and if anybody says different they are fascists and antisemites.

It has not always been so. England's former Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jacobowitz was never one to mince his words. Among other controversial remarks, he risked the ire of his own community to publicly opine that eventually Israel would have to make peace with the Arabs. In a time when that view was considered almost blasphemous in his community, he suffered for his frankness but refused to qualify it. As one paper wrote when he passed away, “He is the one prelate whose preaching did not, in the views of Mrs Thatcher, give God a bad name.”

London's late Rav Padwa was not one to be pushed around either. He once spectacularly agreed to remove his rabbinate's revered stamp of approval from a kosher hotel in Bournmouth, after some pious wankers in his rabbinate complained there were TVs (gasp!) in the bedrooms. After promptly giving in to them he went on to declare that henceforth his hechsher would apply only to the food served there. As his supervision had always been limited to the kitchen and dining room anyway (to the best of my knowledge there were never any hidden video cameras under the eiderdowns) nothing actually changed.

The JFS policy of enrolling only orthodox certified Jews is a cynical attempt at maintaining as Orthodox a Jewish school where most children's exposure to yiddishkeit is practically limited to the school's 'Love of Israel' program and the occasional Bat Mitva bash.

The school will not maintain a Jewish character by refusing admittance to those it does not consider Jewish enough. Empirical evidence has shown that Jewish values are nurtured in the home, not school, and they are rarely eroded by exposure to non-Jews. Conversely the school Purim and Tu Bishvat celebrations so beloved by the secular parents for being universal, normal and inoffensive will not on their own nurture a new generation of committed Jews however goyrein the class.

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