Along the rocky road

‘Although Jews like to say that they are exceptionally argumentative, their internal bickering is little different from many other narrow communities’ 

“A Rocky Road” by Abraham Levy: Reminiscences and moral appeal provide important warnings and hopes

The endless public debates over the summer involving Britain’s Jews have been increasingly bitter, divisive, alarmist and sometimes extreme. Apart from the ongoing battle between the Board of Deputies of British Jews and Jeremy Corbyn, there was so much Jew-against-Jew mud-slinging involving Israeli actions on the Gaza border that the United Jewish Israel Appeal felt obliged to call a meeting at London’s Jewish community centre in a failed attempt to promote civility.

It may be an illusion to look back to days of greater tolerance and moderation within Anglo-Jewry. However, I found considerable comfort in reading A Rocky Road (Halban Publishers, £20), Abraham Levy’s recent memoir of his half-century as rabbi of the UK’s oldest Jewish congregation. It turns out to be far more important than the standard rabbinical autobiography. It is significant at two different levels — for its insight into the workings of the Sephardi (Spanish and Portuguese) Jewish congregation, whose main synagogue at Bevis Marks in the City of London has been in continuous operation since 1701, and for its reflections on the increasingly divided character of Jewish religious life in the UK and, by implication, in much of the Diaspora.

Though Jews like to say that they are exceptionally argumentative (“two Jews, three opinions”), their internal bickering is little different from many other narrow communities, whether schools, churches or Oxbridge colleges. London’s Spanish and Portuguese congregation, formed when Oliver Cromwell permitted Jews to return to Britain following their expulsion in 1290, has played a distinguished role in the life of the metropolis. It has nurtured merchant statesmen such as Sir Moses Montefiore, the economist David Ricardo, the pioneer boxer Daniel Mendoza, Haham Moses Gaster, who played a leading role in the events leading to the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and the Bletchley Park codebreakers Ernest Ettinghausen, Richard Barnett and Miriam Rodrigues-Pereira. Sephardi Jews were responsible for introducing fried fish to London, a sabbath dish soon to become the apparently indigenous staple of fish and chips.

Calm, open self-government was never the strong point of the Kahal (congregation). It was the quarrelsomeness of the Mahamad, the ruling junta, which led Isaac Disraeli in 1817 to terminate his membership and to have his son Benjamin baptised, thereby enabling him, before Jewish emancipation, to become MP, Conservative leader and Prime Minister. During the next century and a half, and indeed to the present day, oligarchic congregational rule persisted and with it bitter power struggles.

 Levy did well to survive, though not unbruised. He gives a grandstand view of a series of postwar crises, both among the Sephardim and in the wider Anglo-Jewish world. They include the alleged heresies that led in the 1960s to the exclusion from the modern orthodox Ashkenazi United Synagogue rabbinate of Dr Louis Jacobs and to the formation of the Masorti (conservative) movement in Britain. Though his sympathies were with Rabbi Jacobs, and though he reveals that he seriously considered the offer to succeed him, he was criticised at the time for conforming with the ban on the controversial rabbi.

The Gentlemen of the Mahamad and the Elders make repeated appearances in the book. Some are fine characters, such as the ramrod High Court judge Sir Alan Mocatta, who asked Levy in an early interview whether he played cricket. Levy recounts how Sir Alan insisted on the strictest time-keeping at Saturday morning services at the Maida Vale synagogue. My own childhood memory is that on Test match days, the cantor would be expected to end in time to allow Mocatta to reach the nearby Lord’s Cricket Ground by the start of play at 11.30 a.m. He would leave during the lunch break to say the traditional Sabbath blessings over wine and bread before returning to Lord’s in the afternoon in full flannels for a spell in the nets. Lest this seem a caricature of the Jew who was determined to be more English than the English, there was no conflict between his civic activities, his legal career and his deep religious attachment. In 1945 when he was a Lieutenant-Colonel in the War Office, it was only because of his decision that it was agreed to release the film of Belsen which it had previously been decided was too horrific to show to the general public.

Levy’s life task, supported by a close family, has been to promote Jewish religious and moral education as the key to Jewish continuity, establishing both a primary school and a college to train orthodox rabbis, currently the only one in the country. While uncompromising in his loyalty to accepted Jewish religious law, his Beth Din (religious court) favoured lenient interpretations where possible. He has opposed on the one hand the abandonment of accepted religious practice by those who are prepared to assimilate or radically to modify it in a process of reform. On the other hand, he has found unattractive the growing appeal of Charedi ultra-orthodoxy with what he sees as undue focus on the smallest details of observance.  For Levy, it was not only a matter of the substance of decisions on religious issues involving marriage, divorce, kosher food and the like: equally important was to foster a tolerant approach and to stress basic moral decency in his teaching.

It is too early to tell if his efforts to promote the virtues of communal openness and moderate orthodoxy will have a lasting effect. The current trends among the few thousand British Sephardi Jews and the quarter-million-strong Jewish population at large are not altogether encouraging. To those who feel as I do that much of Anglo-Jewry is plagued by petty personality politics, outdated secrecy and needless divisions, Rabbi Levy’s reminiscences and moral appeal provide important warnings and hopes.

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