Originally published in Living Judaism: Journal of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain.
Could you tell me something about your background and education?
I had a conventional Jewish education, except in those days they expected you to go to Hebrew classes every day, and I had a very unusual teacher. He had all sorts of ideas: for example, I remember that when we read the sidra about the building of the sanctuary he took us into his carpenter’s shop and made a model of it. He had various schemes for reading. I remember if we could read a few verses without any mistakes, there was a sort of time game that we played. The record was about 4 seconds. I remember all that particularly because he did make the thing live. Although, if the truth be told, I now feel that he was rather limited in his outlook and was pretty fanatical as far as orthodoxy was concerned. But he was a good teacher.
What about your own family? Did you come from a rabbinic family?
No, not at all. My parents were average Jews of the Manchester community. We always kept kashrut in the home but they were not terribly observant.
At what age did you start learning Hebrew?
I think about 6 or 7 and then, chiefly because of the encouragement of this man, I went to Manchester Yeshiva in the evenings after Barmitzvah. When I left school I could have gone to University but in fact I went to Yeshiva and took up my University studies later. The truth is I would have gone to University before but the Rosh Yeshiva was very much opposed to University education for some of us. I mean, it was rather odd: he did not disapprove of the less successful students in Talmud going to University but he disapproved very strongly for others of us. I felt a sort of moral obligation not to go until he was no longer alive. Later I came to University College, London to do Semitics.
How about your own religious development—how did your ideas change?
I suppose that came naturally because, studying and eventually teaching Semitics, it was clear that one needed some reconsideration of questions I had take for granted in Yeshiva days.
So University forced you to question what had previously been unquestioned?
Yes. It wasn’t so much rebellion—I don’t recall any Sturm und Drang—it was just that one saw that things that were never discussed in the Yeshiva, had to be considered. I mean the whole notion of development and change in Judaism was unknown. One had never heard of people like Zechariah Frankel or Z.H. Weiss. I think the Yeshiva education was very deep in many ways but also very narrow.
When you started to see that there had been a development in Torah and that the five books of Moses were not all written at one time from a single revelation, was this difficult for you personally?
I realized pretty early on that this was a problem and one tried to cope with it. As I said, I don’t remember any particularly violent revolution in my own mind.
You feel that it wasn’t something that happened during Yeshiva days, but that it was because of, or coincidental with, studying at University?
No, now I think of it, that is not entirely correct. You see because of my parents’ background I wasn’t really “in it” perhaps to the extent that some of the others in the Yeshiva were. I mean, it gave me a certain degree of detachment and because if that one threw oneself into it more than the others perhaps. I suppose looking back on it there were earlier reservations. I didn’t swallow everything whole.
What about the other areas that you are interested in? Chassidism, Mysticism and Ecstasy for example?
That was actually because of the Yeshiva. The Yeshiva was a Litvischer (Lithuanian) Yeshiva and the Rosh Yeshiva belonged to the Musar school. But one of the teachers was a Chassidic Jew, a Lubavitcher chassid of the old type. He studied in the special Lubavitch Yeshiva in the last century. This man is still alive and is nearly 100 now. He was a very lively person and he used to take one or two of us on Shabbat in chabad thought and so on. I now see that he didn’t understand what he was talking about, but his personality and fervour and way of life and interest in these things awakened an interest for me too and I have always been attracted to it because of that.
Is your interest now academic or does it really affect your way of life?
Yes, I think it has some sort of effect. I think one has to explore the possibilities of Jewish mysticism for religious philosophy today.
But of course, there again, one realizes that it is difficult to swallow the Kabbalah whole and there are elements of it one cannot possibly accept. I read the other day that Leo Baeck at one period began to study the Kabbalah because he felt that there was something there—some ideas of permanent significance for his life; but he was trying to discover what exactly they were!
What is your own religious position now?
Because of my background I suppose I am more or less traditional in outlook and I try to be as observant as I can. I am certainly not as observant as I was in the Yeshiva. When I discovered Zechariah Frankel for example I felt that here was a line that was more or less valid for me—what is called in the United States ‘Conservative Judaism’. Not that I feel that this can be transplanted over here. I am talking about the ideology of the movement.
You suggest you have arrived at this position out of your background and you presumably feel that one has to find one’s own religious outlook in this way?
I don’t see how you can avoid it. You can’t get out of your own skin! I mean obviously if I had belonged to a family of Rabbis I would have felt differently about it. On the other hand if I had been born into a Reform family I would also have felt differently. As I said, my parents were not terribly observant.
Where now do you find authority within Judaism—within yourself?
Well, I suppose roughly the answer would be within the Jewish tradition conceived of in dynamic terms. There are whole areas where one has to adopt an attitude of religious agnosticism. One is searching for further truth, if that is not too grandiose a term. But I have enough confidence in what has developed up to now to feel that it offers a basis for Jewish life of a pretty adequate kind.
Each person has to study and find a way for himself?
Yes, I think that is inevitable. I mean even people who say we accept the tradition in toto without reservations—they also do it from personal choice.
What about particular problems of Jewish status. Get, Agunah and so on?
On the whole (perhaps this is emotional), I find very few difficulties in accepting the traditional pattern. One has to have ritual life to have a pattern, and tradition provides it for me. So I don’t have too many difficulties with observance, for example, of tefillin, kashrut. But I agree that the real area of difficulty for people who view as I do is where the law is unjust. There are very few examples of this kind. They chiefly have to do with relations between Jew and non-Jew and in that area already there has been, even in the most orthodox circles, a reassessment. For example, the question discussed recently whether it was right to save the life of a non-Jew on Shabbat has been more or less dealt with.
The other areas which still await a solution are: the question of Agunah; the blackmailing husband who refuses to give a Get; and particularly the question of mamzerut. I can’t see any defence for the law of mamzerut penalizing the child for something for which he was not responsible. Not only the child but his children too and their children. The simplest thing would be to say, “give it up”. The only problem there, and it is serious, is the question of Klal Israel. One doesn’t want to create a situation, if one can avoid it, where members of one community can’t marry members of another community. What the solution is I really don’t know.
What about conversion?
Conversions don’t bother me a great deal. We would perform conversions in accordance with the Din for the same reasons—so that our children could marry into the most orthodox families if they wished. But I would disapprove most strongly of the attitude taken by the London Beth Din of making the conditions so severe that hardly anyone can be accepted. In other words I would demand a period of study and evidence of sincerity, but I wouldn’t ask whether they switched on lights on Shabbat as I understand London Beth Din does.
What is your attitude to Reform conversions?
My attitude would be that it is a conversion where the people concerned are responsible people, there is evidence of sincerity and the converts have thrown in their lot with the Jewish people.
I would definitely regard this as a conversion but would have to recognise that a technicality hasn’t been satisfied—namely the Mikvah, which is essential according to the Din. I wouldn’t say that these people had not been converted and I would say that the technical irregularity could be rectified in half an hour. In fact when I belonged to the United Synagogue I argued with Reform Rabbis that, for the sake of unity in the community, there seems to me to be no real reasons why they shouldn’t have Mikvah. After all the London Beth Din can only challenge Reform conversions on the grounds that this technicality hasn’t been satisfied. I can see the difficulties because if you don’t believe in Mikvah as an essential why should you do it? It compromises your principles. But I think on the moral grounds one’s conscience ought not to be too bothered by this, and for the sake of the unity of the community why not do it?
You seem to accept Mikvah because it is part of Jewish tradition and not in any sense Halacha as “law”?
Yes, I would go further than that—really on this level an element of expediency comes in. But I don’t think there is anything wrong with this. If you want, particularly in the area of marriage, to preserve the unity of the Jewish people then this is one of the ways of doing it.
Such technical questions often seem trivial to young people who ask why remain Jewish, why stay within the Jewish world? What sort of answer do you give them?
Reb Chaim Soloveitchik used to say there are two kinds of questions and because of that two kinds of answers. One is a question to which you have a solution. The other is no question at all. The ideal solution is to show that the question is invalid. I think this particularly applies here. When a person is at the level when he is asking “Why should I be Jewish?” I don’t know that there is much one can say to him at that stage. But one has to work at it in the hope that intelligent Jews would see that this is not a valid question. I mean I think if one is exposed to Judaism one sees its value and the question becomes meaningless.
Putting the question the other way—is there any answer to the query “what is the purpose of Judaism?” or does each person have to find this within themselves?
Yes, the person who asks that is still “outside”—to use a cabalistic term. Of course I am not by any means saying that one hasn’t to speak to people of that kind. One tries to bring them “within”, but I don’t think any answer is adequate till they have been exposed to Judaism and know what it is all about.
What then about more particular questions, like the role of the synagogue? Is the same answer true?
Yes I think in a way. I don’t want to generalise—I mean, a lot depends on what goes on in the synagogue and what kind of synagogue it is. But because of this (I know this is trite, we are all saying it) I would stress Jewish education in the synagogue. Except that one always presumes that education is all for the youth and young people and perhaps we should concentrate rather more on adult education. I would go so far as to say that certain aspects of Judaism can’t be understood until people are more mature. Particularly in the realm of ideas I wouldn’t myself stress a profound knowledge of Hebrew, not because it’s not desirable—it’s not possible in this world in which we live. But there are many highly intelligent educated people; and there is no reason why they shouldn’t be introduced to Jewish ideas. Why shouldn’t they, for example, read the Talmud with an appreciation of its background? Why shouldn’t they study Jewish mysticism? But naturally since this is the kind of world in which we are living it should be done with an element of criticism, that is to say it shouldn’t be just analysis but be critical investigation too. I mean I don’t think you’ll get very far if you tell them “Here’s the tradition, you either accept it or you leave it”. You have to point out quite honestly the problems that the teacher finds. You try to get your people to engage with you in a ‘quest’, which is why in. our synagogue we always stress the idea of ‘quest’. I don’t know all the answers. I think it’s ridiculous for anyone to tell me that he does know all the answers. But you can say to people: well, look, we’re on the road, we’re searching together—we have the degree of conviction and certainty that religion requires in that it is not a futile quest, we’re getting somewhere. We know this because it is how it’s happened, rightly understood, in the history of Judaism all along.
In the context of a modern middle class community has the synagogue changed to meet new needs?
In my experience I haven’t found that the picture of a comfortable middle class synagogue indifferent to social progress and social ideas is at all true. I think this is a bit of a bogy. It hasn’t been true of any synagogue that I have experienced. My first synagogue in Manchester was a working class congregation; they certainly weren’t smug middle class. When I was at the New West End which certainly was middle class I did not find much smugness there. In fact, on the contrary, some of the social rebels were particularly active in that group; much more so than I found in Manchester.
What about the role of the Rabbi? Has that changed at all?
Of course it has changed. The modern Rabbi is quite different from the Rabbi of Eastern Europe and here again I don’t know that one can generalise. Some people have talents in one area and some people in another.
How do you divide your time?
I am fortunate in having a congregation that do a tremendous amount of voluntary work in the synagogue. So this relieves me of some of the burdens; for example, social and charitable work are virtually taken from me, not because I don’t want to do them, but it leaves time for other pursuits and the former are carried out quite adequately—better than I could do them—by members of the congregation. So my emphasis is on preaching and teaching.
How do you see the Anglo-Jewish community?
It has its strength, though I think part of the trouble is that it’s becoming less ‘Anglo’ and no more Jewish. I am a strong believer in each community having its specific approach. I think it a good thing that we had Frankfurt and Vilna and Lublin and it seems a pity that Anglo-Jewry is busy at the moment copying other communities, very worthy ones, surrendering in the process its own specific insights. One can laugh at it very easily, but I think there is something about ‘the English gentleman’ which, wedded to Judaism, has had some interesting results, and I think this has been completely; thrown overboard. There is no attempt made to develop the specific British approach. For example, in Germany one had the yecke—one poked fun at the yecke but he was a particular Jewish type, he made a contribution. You had the Litvak. And at one time we had an Englischer chaya (beast). He was someone who had a different approach to Jewish life because he had a different approach to life in general. The marriage of the ‘British tradition’ to the ‘Jewish tradition’ was sometimes fruitful. It had its darker side as well. But all this has gone. You have communities of Jews who are trying to model themselves on Samson Raphael Hirsch, or Geiger, or Lithuania, and you don’t have any specific Anglo-Jewish approach. And this is equally true of the Orthodox as the Reform Jews. Maybe it isn’t still possible because we are in a smaller world, and we are all Jews together, and we all recognise this. But I think there is something valuable going out none the less.
What about your own position in the Anglo-Jewish community? You were once called by Rabbi Maybaum ‘the timid hero’. Was this because you found yourself a central figurehead—a position you were not expecting and did not want?
Yes, I think that’s true. But I think Dr. Maybaum was really saying that I was silly because I didn’t become Reform and lead my congregation into the Reform fold. The answer to that is that I have no inclination to do this nor has my congregation. I mean the issue behind the formation of the New London Synagogue was fundamentalism, which is in the realm of ideas. So far as our services are concerned we’ve made one or two minor alterations, and in fact we did this at the New West End and they did it before I came on the scene. We are quite happy with what has emerged. We are not saying that it is the pattern for everyone else. But it’s the pattern for us.
Can you make any basic distinction between your community and the Reform as you could between you and the Orthodox?
No, I don’t think so. And I wouldn’t want to. But I would be equally embarrassed to be called Orthodox. In fact it is printed in the constitution, that if orthodox means fundamentalist then not only are we not orthodox, but we’re proud not to be orthodox. But if it means, as it used to, that we are observant, then we are entitled to this. We are no less observant than the United Synagogue which calls itself Orthodox.
You are teaching at the Leo Baeck College. How important do you find what is going on there?
I find it very stimulating, and very exciting. One of the most important things, and I don’t know how many people appreciate the importance of this (I do because I have seen the other side) is that it is a postgraduate college in the main. You have people with trained minds and you can get somewhere; the level of appreciation is different and you don’t have this fear of exam failure which hangs over a pre-graduate institution. I don’t think it matters that the students often have little Jewish background knowledge because they can pick it up and you are at least talking to equals and not children. This is very encouraging, and one certainly hopes that the college will develop further. It is clear now that the other institution, Jews’ College, is quickly surrendering its scholarly objectivity: the whole area of Jüdische Wissenschaft is being surrendered. It looks as if what we are going to have at Jews’ College is a Yeshiva where the Talmud is taught in English instead of in Yiddish, but the methods of study will be the old ones. And the curriculum will be narrowed. Various subjects that once were taught will not be taught. There won’t be any of that breadth that Jewish scholarship in modern times should have. I may be wrong here but this is how it seems to be developing.
You mentioned earlier the Conservative movement in the USA. What are your feelings about it?
I am quite sure that if we were in the USA we would be a right-wing Conservative synagogue and some of our people feel that we should adopt this name. My main objection is that it has American connotations and I would not like us to be a wing of American Jewry for the reasons that I mentioned before: I think that Anglo-Jewry has to stand on its own feet and make a particular contribution. But if there is a ‘middle of the road’ view I suppose it is to be found in the New London Synagogue, though I would say that it is also to be found in other congregations, both reform and orthodox. Whether we should get together and organise a movement I don’t know. I should be inclined to say, if this desire exists, let it develop organically.
Do you think similar problems face Jews in America and England?
America is quite different. We are more staid, less in turmoil, more traditionally minded. America is very exciting and the Jewish education that goes on there is unbelievable. I always feel ashamed when I go there. But I think that the Anglo-Jewish community has virtues as well, and I am not myself in favour of copying American Jewish life, or even of transplanting some of its aspects here.
What about the relationship between the Anglo-Jewish community and Israel?
Well this is as strong as it can possibly be. Why not? I do not overdo speaking about Israel—not that I am in any way indifferent to it, but I certainly would not wish the congregation to get the idea that all that matters is Israel. Israel is very important to me, but Judaism is a religion and I think there is something in the old problem of whether it’s a nationalism or a religion. I don’t think that now is the time to heighten the conflict but I think there is tension here and one must be careful.
You see a long and continuing role for diaspora Jewry?
I think this is inevitable.
What of the world generally? Has that changed much and do you on the whole approve of disapprove of it?
On the whole I approve of it though I don’t know how far one can talk about the ‘world’. Can w talk about the world and not people? Should one approach it in this way “What’s the modern world like?” or “The permissive society?” They are human beings with the faults of human beings and with the kind of problems that human beings have. I am not such an old fashioned liberal, I hope, to think that things are automatically getting better; but I think that one can overdo the idea that everything is automatically getting worse.
Do you thing that people have changed very much?
I don’t think that they have, except that possibly they’re less cruel than they were in the Middle Ages. It probably seems silly to say it in the age when we have had the concentration camps and Hitler. But that was a horrible aberration and I don’t think myself, therefore, that one can conclude that the whole Western experiment has failed—Hitler was against that as well.
Do you have much contact with the non-Jewish world?
I have a few contacts with non-Jewish people on the academic level and I find them most rewarding. One is astonished at the breadth of theological vision of some of these scholars. They are really on a good level, though I don’t know how far this is true of the average Christian—I am pretty sure it wouldn’t be. But on this level there is a good deal of freedom of thought and openness of mind, and it’s all very encouraging, except that they don’t know anything about Jews or Judaism.
Do you find the theological problems facing the Jewish and non-Jewish world similar?
In many areas they are—the problems of society, of faith and reason, obviously these are common to both, except that one rarely finds among Christians any problem any longer about fundamentalism or the verbal inspiration of the Bible. They fought this out 100 years ago and it’s old hat.
What about the problem of belief and action? Do you make a distinction between, for example, study and action?
I think Judaism has this in any case but I would say that here in fact we can learn from our Christian friends the virtues of quietism. I mean we have been so long on the interaction and the social gospel and all of it and the secular society we don’t have to be sold on this—this is Judaism. But perhaps we do have to be sold on the value of the unseen, the mystical approach and even the quietism. And as I understand Judaism they are essential to it, as they are in every religious system, and one must not overdo one side at the expense of the other.