To Start At The Beginning

I was influenced by my great father Kopul Rosen (the Principal Rabbi of the Federation of Synagogues 1945-1948 and Founder and Principal of Carmel College 1948-1962). He was intensely devoted to Torah as a way of life and believed that without study, immersing oneself in the Talmud and mysticism, one would have a rather limited Jewish religious life, based on frail foundations.

My father was neither obscurantist nor fundamentalist. He was very interested in Western culture, literature, history, art and science and encouraged us as kids to read as much and as widely as possible (of course we preferred playing football). He had an enquiring mind. He was open to all new ideas and received intellectual challenges with relish. He was committed above all else to living a Jewish life based on traditional values, norms and laws.

His view of the authentic Jew was of someone as at home in the secular world as in the Jewish, as at ease in the Talmud as in Shakespeare. Throughout his life he studied Torah and he went to the theatre, the opera and painted (he also played cricket, soccer and was a champion swimmer).

Religion for him was an elevating experience designed to improve one’s relationship with other humans as well as with God. He conveyed a sense of fun and grandeur, I know he was seriously disillusioned with institutional religion. That was why he resigned from the rabbinate and withdrew to the countryside to his beloved Carmel College.

He realized there was a built-in contradiction in religion. The system by its nature is concerned with authority, power and defensive measures to protect. This often leads to caution, conservatism and bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy tends to make life very difficult for individuals. We live in an open society. We can no longer command total obedience. Accidents will happen. Decisions will be made that later create difficulties. Individuals are allowed greater freedom and that means freedom to act against traditional values.

How do we respond? Not by lowering our own standards but by being amenable, tolerant to others and helping them in rather than excluding them. Over the years I have seen so many cases of people excluded and as a result abandoning tradition. How do we deal with this paradox that the very religion that is supposed to elevate people, and bring them closer to God actually drives them away?

I believe the answer lies in attitude. A tolerant attitude can find ways of dealing with awkward situations. But conversely a rigid attitude simply refuses to try to make any concessions at all.

For too long Orthodox Judaism has been on the defensive. It had to face the Enlightenment, German Reform, Secular Zionism, and Modernity, all inimical to its values. So it retreated into its shell. But Orthodoxy today is doing fine. It has survived. It could, if it wanted to, open up a little bit. But it refuses to do so.

There’s another paradox here. On the one hand Orthodoxy today is retreating back into fundamentalism. Its heresy hunters are picking on words and ideas like the Catholic inquisition with its Index of banned books. This is the very antithesis of a loving caring approach. Yet internally it is the most caring, charitable and supportive world I have come across. In a strange way it reminds me of Mother Theresa, a caring worker who devoted her life to poorest of the poor yet declared that using contraceptives was the same as murder and thought Jews were the allies of the Devil. Perhaps we simply cannot expect too much of people. Perhaps the strain of good deeds prevents an openness of spirit and intellectual enquiry.

What troubles me is that I do not want to see people turned off religion, Torah. So I argue that one can accept the need for authority to maintain facilities and the system and for those who have no need or desire to think for themselves. But as individuals we must find our own paths and make our own choices. It’s like a business. The CEO may need to be conservative, cautious and responsible but if he does not have within his company creative minds constantly looking for new ways to go forward the business will decay.

There is another issue here. For most of us synagogues are not places of spirituality. We do not see Judaism as a means of expanding our consciousness. We do not feel it has something to offer us beyond conventions and rituals. Yet there is a Jewish tradition that is a holistic view of life with meditation and yoga-like exercises that we assume can only be found in the East. For various reasons they have been hidden from most of Jewry. It is important to reclaim them.

My message to the doubters or the alienated is not to be put off by authority and bureaucracy. It is needed. But it is only one aspect of religion. This is why every religion has a powerful mystical tradition that is very often anti establishment. Look towards the elevating experiences of Judaism and go on your own journey to the sky or to the centre of the earth. Or to put it simply, "Please don't throw out the baby with the bath water."

Some people say that this is what Isaac wanted to achieve when he tried to keep Esau within the fold by favouring him, rather than rejecting him. Sadly, others say that this was precisely what turned Esau into an enemy! My goodness, things haven’t changed!