This article looks at Orthodox Judaism, the Orthodox UK community and the contemporary Jewish scene.
By Rabbi YY RubinsteinLast updated 2009-08-13
This article looks at Orthodox Judaism, the Orthodox UK community and the contemporary Jewish scene.
Judaism's beginning starts strangely enough without Jews. The Bible records twenty generations of humanity before the appearance of the First Jew, Abraham.
His personality would act as a paradigm for his descendants who would eventually become the Jewish people. He was a religious revolutionary who refined his spirituality to such a degree that G-d spoke to him, in other words, he became a Prophet (although his wife Sarah became a greater Prophet) He was an iconoclast who openly challenged the universal beliefs of his time and insisted that there was only one G-d. He was stubbornly willing to give up his own life rather than compromise his beliefs.
The people that would evolve from Abraham would have to manifest all of those qualities in order to perform the role that G-d had set for them. In fact the only time the Torah defines the nature of the Jewish people it is to identify them as a 'Stiff necked' or stubborn. Still, if G-d required a people to carry a message through Crusade, Inquisition, Pogrom, and Holocaust, stubbornness would be the essential character trait.
Orthodox Judaism believes that the Jewish people left the slavery of Egypt and rendezvoused with G-d at a mountain called Sinai. There, through Moses, they would be given the Torah. Moses was also taught the deeper meaning of that book and that explanation was passed from teacher to pupil and was known as the 'oral tradition'.
The Torah's insistence of "An eye for an eye", for example, was never meant to be taken literally, Moses was taught that it meant the financial value of the lost eye. The Oral tradition was in fact a system which allowed the 304,805 letters that are contained in the Torah to expand into a set of legal rulings that covered, building law, agricultural law, criminal law, sexual Law, business law and in fact a complete set of legislation for every conceivable aspect of a society.
The form that the Talmud takes is a key set of statements know as the Mishna, which draws its information from the Torah. These statements are then discussed at great length sometimes comparing the information in one Mishna with another and clarifying seeming contradictions. Once the discussions reach a conclusion that becomes the Jewish legal ruling or Halachah. The Talmud also carries background to the stories in the Torah and so the dialogue in Genesis between Rachel and Jacob is expanded upon and a deeper insight gained.
After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70, the Talmud needed to be written down. Those who carried it in their minds were being systematically persecuted and killed by Rome. There was a danger that it could become lost and so the oral law too became written. Its' scope is vast and it is contained in twenty huge volumes as thick as a telephone directory and twice the height.
Those unfamiliar with Orthodox Judaism, sometimes believe that it became fossilised some time in the past and is not an evolving and dynamic religion. This is certainly a myth.
The legal precedents and principles that were given at Mount Sinai are elastic and capable of expansion or contraction to meet any given situation. The range of the topics covered in the legal rulings of the great recent and contemporary authorities makes this quite clear. Rabbi Moses Feinstein (1895 -1986) was among the top three Jewish legal authorities in the world. His legal rulings range from In-vitro Fertilisation to advising the Surgeon General of America on surgical procedures. All his judgements are sourced in Halachah. The greatest current authority is Rabbi Eliashev of Jerusalem. The leading Jewish courts in the UK and throughout the world consult him. The scope of his decisions, demonstrate the ease with which the Halachah applies itself to contemporary issues.
The emergence of Rabbis with that degree of expertise and authority involves a process of intense study that spans many decades. Such Rabbis will be expected to have mastered the entire Talmud as well as all the later legal conclusions of people like Maimonides to present day authorities. They will have been rigorously tested, not just in their mastery of the Jewish Legal process, but their absorption of Judaism's highest ideals into their own personality and behaviour.
The first Jews to settle in England probably arrived here with William the Conqueror in 1066. Sizeable Jewish communities existed in London, York and several other centres for the next three hundred years. All of these Jews believed in the core beliefs that became known as Orthodox Judaism. In fact, York contained many Rabbis whose commentaries on the Talmud became standard texts still used to this day. Medieval anti-Semitism saw the security of these communities eroded until they were officially expelled in 1290.
Small pockets of Jews who had been forced by the Spanish Inquisition to accept Christianity appeared as merchants in London during the 16th century and secretly set up synagogues but it was under Cromwell in 1656 that Jews were officially welcomed back to these shores.
By the nineteenth century the Jewish community was almost wholly Orthodox but was anxious, like their German cousins to have their Orthodoxy secondary to their efforts to gain acceptance as members of general society.
The Jew might well be a Jew at home but in the street he was not expected to stand out from his fellow countrymen. This ambiguity is well illustrated by a letter written to the "Jewish Chronicle" in 1857 by the then Chief Rabbi, Nathan Adler defending the idea of setting up the country's first Jewish School:
There are gentlemen who tremble at the idea of an exclusive Jewish School and think it injurious to our present or future social position.
Today, there are literally are over twenty Jewish schools in Manchester alone and Anglo-Jewry does not see their success as inhibiting in any way Orthodox Jew's abilities to play a full and positive role within general society.
The contemporary Jewish scene in the UK still finds the community overwhelmingly Orthodox in affiliation. The last four decades have witnessed an enormous religious renaissance with several organisations like Lubavitch, Aish, The Jewish Learning Exchange (JLE) and Project SEED spearheading the change.
Aish runs packed weekly lectures in its centres in North London and annually takes up to 500 young people for three week study programmes to Israel, Australia or New York. They recently had the success of their programmes endorsed by MORI which reported,
Of those participants who have married or have become engaged since participating in the program, 97% have chosen a Jewish partner. Of those who remain single, 92% are committed to marrying someone Jewish who shares a commitment to Judaism and the Jewish people.
The JLE centre, also in North London, has more than 1000 young people passing thorough its doors every week. They listen to lectures and study every aspect of Orthodox Judaism at every level from beginner to advanced and can make a similar claim of the effects of their programmes.
The trend is for British Orthodoxy and Orthodox Jews to be connecting un-apologetically with their core beliefs and practice; no 'Gentlemen' are trembling now.
Orthodox institutions from the advanced Talmudic colleges and Girls Seminaries of Gateshead upon Tyne (the surprising location of the Orthodox Oxbridge of Europe) are bursting at the seams. Orthodoxy is now reintroducing Jews from the mainstream Orthodox camp as well as individuals from non-Orthodox backgrounds to a more committed and knowledge-based involvement with their religion.
Reaching back to the Second Temple, there were movements like Sadducees, Boethusians and others that rejected and redefined existing Jewish beliefs.
In the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, the world's best minds struggled to emerge from the dogmas of the dark ages and the 'Enlightenment thinkers' began to change European society. The Bible was seen increasingly seen as myth and fairy tale.
At the same time the Ghetto doors had been burst open by the French revolution and Jews for the first time saw the opportunity of merge into mainstream society.
In Germany in particular this opportunity came to be endorsed and accelerated by a redefinition of existing core Jewish beliefs, this was known as the Reform movement. The authority of the Talmud was denied, and its legal conclusions rejected. Synagogues became patterned on Churches. The first such Synagogue opened in Seesen in 1810. An organ and mixed choir (both alien to Synagogue ritual) were introduced, along with German Sermons, German Songs, German prayers and ecclesiastical costume.
Halachah as we have seen is elastic and it is legitimate to stretch it to meet the challenges thrown up by any given era. It goes without saying, there comes a point where the elastic breaks. Orthodox Judaism sees the changes made by Reform in the UK and elsewhere as having passed that point.
Today, the Reform process has continued to edit and alter many other areas. These range from redefining who can be considered a Jew, to omitting certain passages from the public reading of the Torah, because they fail the test of political correctness. The Reform movement is seen by Orthodox Judaism as long since having moved from a position of dissent to one of divorce.
Like most divorces, it can only be hoped that the ex-couples can move on to make their own ways amicably; with one of the partners, perhaps more than a little sad that the other decided to leave.
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