A rare thing happened in Northwood just before Pesach. A United Synagogue rabbi shared a platform with a Liberal one at a synagogue lunch club , swapping thoughts on Creation , the afterlife and the Jewish attitude to pets. Thunderbolts did not hurtle across the sky , the walls did not cave in, the columns of the Jewish Tribune remained silent…
Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis have appeared together in public before but not actually to talk about Judaism , at least for many years. It’s a fact which says something about contemporary British Jewry , where the dead hand of religious politics and institutional conservatism has too often stifle discussion on the issues that matter.
Now a group of younger Jews want to break through the walls of silence and set up a forum where people from different walks of Jewish life can talk, exchange views and argue with each other. Sociologist Dr Keith Kahn-Harris and musician Daniel Jonas are two of the founders of New Jewish Thought, which exists now as a website but which they aspire to turn into a fully fledged think tank sponsoring publications, events and research.
“I’ve always been fed up that public debate in Jewish life seems to be the repetition of fixed positions by people representing long-established organisations,” Jonas says. “We’re not constrained by the need to represent a particular constituency nor is anybody we’ve involved. We’ve sought out people who we believe have interesting, worthwhile, well-thought out opinions. We want to provide a platform to air them.”
Contributions are welcome from any wing of British Jewry, from charedi to secular (though the line is drawn at Jews for Jesus). But participants must be ready to face the heat of debate. “If somebody from a mainstream Orthodox perspective wants to write something for us to say that if you don’t accept Torah min Hashamayim [the doctrine of divine authorship ofthe Torah], you are not a proper Jew, we’d be perfectly happy to put that in. But together with people [arguing]against that position,” Kahn-Harris says.
And there is one other principle . “You can be cutting, you can destroy somebody’s argument. But you can’t be abusive. We’re not going to allow terms like ‘self-hating Jew’ or ‘Orthodox bigot.’”
The first few articles have been posted as samplers on the website , on “anti-anti-Semitism” and “what’s the point of interfaith dialogue?” But all lines of inquiry are possible. Is modern Orthodoxy being pushed out by the “Artscroll” tendency? Could there be any benefits from mixed faith relationships? Do some young Jews feel excluded from Jewish society by the “cult of the young professional?”
What do we mean by Jewish renewal or outreach? What are the issues for Jews today? So far the project has a core organizing group of half-a-dozen, with aring of 20-30 associates. “We are quite a disparate group,” says Kahn-Harris.“ The thing that links us together is that we are all interested in finding how to deal with the fact that there’s a lot of diversity in the Jewish world . For us, pluralism means more than just getting people into a room together. It means getting people to engage with often really tough questions.”
The two men knew each other from school — Haberdashers’ Aske’s in Elstree — and are winter Limmud regulars. They became better acquainted after Daniel met Keith’s wife, Deborah — an assistant rabbi at Southgate Reform Synagogue —through interfaith work.
Extending interfaith dialogue is one of Jonas’s passions. “It’s been very much a rich man’s playground…We’re interested in getting dialogue to the grassroots. It’s shocking to seethe level of ignorance about others’ culture and religion that I hear around the dinner table. I know the same is true in the Islamic world and in the Christian world.
“If we can’t speak from our own personal experience of what it’s like to know other people, we’re simply going to fall back on the stereotypes we’ve always entertained.”
But Jews of different stripes also need to learn how to talk to each other , too. It may be all well and good , Kahn-Harris observes, for the heads of the different synagogue bodies to meet regularly behind closed doors —as they have done since the 1998 Stanmore Accords (a peace agreement following a particularly rancorous bout of religious infighting)
But the Faustian bargain, he argues , is that the accords inhibits more open dialogue between the various groups. “That doesn’t help the evolution of British Jewry,” he says. “It doesn’t help create a more exciting, effervescent , thinking atmosphere.”