The last two nights have brought a small number of members of Manchester’s Jewish community into the living rooms of the UK. Primetime viewers of ITV1 who watched ‘Strictly Kosher’ will have seen a snapshot of one particular element of the UK’s Orthodox community, rather uncomfortably juxtaposed with the story of a Holocaust survivor. The world of twitter revealed that most viewers (presumably non-Jewish) were intrigued by this glimpse of a strange, almost alien, world, while those non-Orthodox Jews watching tweeted with increasing desperation that this was not representative of Judaism in this country or the world.
I fear that the Liberal approach to Judaism would not make such compelling viewing. Liberal Jews do not arrange marriages for their children, their rabbis do not wear rubber gloves in order to inspect vegetables in their or anyone’s kitchen, and they encourage women to play an equal role in the practice and leadership of Judaism. A TV broadcast depicting Liberal Judaism would not feature assertions that Jewish festivals and religious customs have been unchanged since biblical times, nor that they were delivered to Moses by a mysterious figure known sometimes as ‘the Lord’ or ‘Ha-shem’ ( = ‘the Name’), atop a desert mountain more than three thousand years ago.
A TV camera in a Liberal synagogue would show men and women seated together, reading in unison prayers that would as likely be in English as in Hebrew. Instrumental music might accompany some of the singing; perhaps played on a keyboard or a guitar. The celebration of a child’s coming of age ceremony, such a renowned landmark in Judaism, would be as likely to feature a thirteen year-old girl reading from the Torah, as it would a boy, or rather than bar- or bat-mitzvah, a ceremony of Kabbalat Torah (Confirmation), where a mixed group of teenagers jointly declare their commitment to their Jewish heritage.
It wouldn’t make especially compelling primetime viewing for an audience that seems to yearn for unusual, eccentric and even bizarre behaviour from those who appear on its TV screens. Nevertheless, it would offer its own version of the moving and tragic tale of Jack Aizenberg, one of an ever-diminishing number of Holocaust survivors who are a part of every British synagogue congregation, and whose shared story we regularly commit to remember and retell.
In the TV programme ‘Strictly Kosher’, Holocaust survivor Jack remarks on the reference to his religion that was included in his passport all those years ago, and comments that the only such description he wants in that document is ‘human race’. Whatever elements of Jack’s post-Holocaust faith are still intact might be encouraged by the frequent references in Liberal Jewish prayers to ‘all of humanity’ rather than exclusive prayers talking only of the people Israel. Liberal Judaism demands of its adherents a recognition that their religious heritage draws its inspiration from the teachings of Israel’s ancient prophets, and that they take responsibility to contribute to the establishment of a just society.
This requirement is based on a belief that the purpose of religion is to guide humanity to improve itself and establish justice and harmony on this fragile planet. Liberal Judaism asserts that this vision was first expressed by prophets such as Amos or Isaiah, and that this, rather than a mysterious desert experience, inspired the writing of the Torah. A Liberal Jewish, scholarly, view would point to a wealth of evidence that the document at the heart of Jewish faith is of human invention. If there is anything Divine to be discerned in it, it is the inspired insights of those who wrote it, seeking to improve the human condition and recognising that human beings must take responsibility for their actions, for each other and for their world.
The beliefs and the religious practices that derive from that document are intended to remind those who adhere to them of those human responsibilities and obligations. Judaism is not alone in playing host to a series of esoteric customs that purport to represent a manifestation of the Divine, which, with the passage of time, have assumed more significance than the message they seek to impart. Every religion needs its liberal voice, to remind its followers of the humane vision of justice and peace that first inspired its creation, whatever are the traditions that have now attached themselves to it, however colourful or bizarre they may be. That underlying message may not make for very entertaining TV, but it will remind the world what religion is meant to be for, and how much it needs it.