Climbing to the Top of the Greasy Pole

In February 1868, Benjamin Disraeli became the first person of Jewish birth to become Prime Minister.  On achieving this lofty position, Disraeli announced that he had succeeded in climbing to the ‘top of the greasy pole.’ It is unclear whether this comment refers solely to the political difficulties that he faced in that climb, or whether it was connected with Disraeli’s Jewish origins.  It is interesting to note, however, that he had been separated from those Jewish roots when, at the age of twelve, Disraeli’s father had the young Benjamin baptised (apparently as a consequence of a dispute with his local synagogue).


Disraeli’s arrival at the top of the pole exemplifies to some extent the conflicts and contradictions implicit in being Jewish in the UK.  His climb represents one extreme of the attempt to balance being Jewish with being the citizen of this country with the demands and obligations of one’s religious faith.  He chose to reject the latter completely. 


At the other end of that extreme are those who immerse themselves completely in their religious tradition and heritage, to the exclusion of anything from the outside world that does not accord with their beliefs or practices.  These Jews effectively seal themselves into a form of ghetto, maintaining ancient customs, including even language and clothing, to shield themselves from the intrusion of modernity.


The majority of Jews in twenty-first century Britain fall somewhere between those two extremes; ground which is fertile for conflict, both between them and the secular, British world, and between the various factions of Jews themselves.


Nowhere is this conflict better demonstrated than in the poles of Borehamwood, erected to be part of what is known in traditional Judaism as an eruv, and atop which have recently been placed flags bearing the cross of Saint George.  Coinciding with the current World Cup, this seems to suggest an opportunistic act of patriotism; responses in the local paper to an article about the flags and the poles suggest that there is something more sinister at play.


According to traditional, Orthodox Judaism, certain activities are prohibited on the Sabbath.  One of these is carrying items from one’s own private domain into a public area.  Strict application of these regulations means that Orthodox Jews are not permitted to push prams or wheelchairs beyond the confines of their own property.  The establishment of an eruv, a kind of fence using already existing boundaries and artificially constructed ones of poles and wire, effectively declares the whole area within its boundary to be a single, shared property, thereby allowing these activities to take place without breaching this Jewish law, which Orthodox Jewry considers to be God-given.


As a Liberal Jew, I find the whole concept of an eruv to be absurd.  It seems to me to be, literally and metaphorically, an artificial construction, designed to create a legal fiction, a loophole in biblical regulations. The Liberal Jewish view on such matters is entirely clear: biblical regulations were introduced to deal with situations that prevailed in biblical times.  Every biblical law needs to be considered firstly in its historical and social context before a decision is made as to whether it can and should be applied to the life of a Jew – or anyone else for that matter – in a modern, twenty-first century society.  Thus the concept of the Sabbath – a day of rest that occurs every seventh day – is no less vital in our hyperactive, materialistic society than it was in the agricultural one of three thousand years ago, though the decision as to how we choose to observe it can and should be left to individual preference.  The prohibition against carrying things from one place to another, and the idea of putting a wire around an area to overcome that prohibition, are, to the Liberal Jewish mind, anachronistic and completely missing the point of what Judaism is meant to be about.  (For the record, I believe the point of Judaism is to promote the peace and justice envisioned by the prophets of that ancient faith).


Does that mean that, as a Liberal Jew, I should oppose the eruv?  Insofar as I believe it undermines my Jewish faith, by placing too much emphasis on contrived legal niceties, then yes, I believe I should.  But as a liberal in a modern, multi-cultural society, should I not support the rights of a minority group to implement measures which enable that group to express its religious beliefs, as long as those measures to not impinge on the civil or human rights of others?


This latter question is thrown into even starker relief when the poles of the eruv are adorned with white flags bearing the cross of Saint George, and a discussion forum in the local newspaper includes pertinent questions such as "When will the Jewish Zionist Oppression of other faiths end in this world????", and exhorts local residents in these terms: “WAKE UP HERTSMERE! WE, THE 'ORDINARY' PEOPLE OF BOREHAMWOOD DO NOT WANT THESE EYESORES AROUND OUR TOWN.’


One imagines that this refers to the poles rather than those who have chosen to erect them.  But Jews, Liberal or otherwise, should recognise that it is perhaps us, rather than the outward manifestations of our religion, who are the ‘eyesores’ that our non-Jewish neighbours would apparently like to be removed.  One of the dangers of reaching the top of a greasy pole is that it is difficult to remain there and there is always the danger of sliding back down again.
May 2010