The voyage of the bagel

27th October 1995 at 00:00
The Jewish Religion: A Companion. By Louis Jacobs Oxford #163;25. - 019 826463 1.

Judaism in Modern Times: An Introduction and Reader. By Jacob Neusner Blackwells #163;40. 1 55786 683 X #163;12.99. - 1 55786 6848

The Sacred Chain: A History of the Jews. By Norman F Cantor Harper Collins #163;20. - 0 0025 5601 4

Tradition and Change: A History of Reform Judaism in Britain1840-1995. By Anne J. Kershen and Jonathan A. Romain, Vallentine Mitchell #163;25. 0 85303 297 1#163;15. 0 85303 298 X

The numbers of Jewish books being published each year in Britain is staggering. As Jewish organisations worry about the apparently terminal decline of Jewish communities, writing about Jews and Judaism has never been so popular or so mainstream, and Jewish humour, Jewish music, Jewish theatre, and Jewish films are now part of our regular cultural diet, as bagels have simultaneously become available in supermarkets.

Louis Jacobs is without doubt the greatest living Jewish scholar in this country, and arguably in the world. He is also the most honest, leading to his disgraceful expulsion from the ranks of the United (orthodox) synagogue in the 1960s and the start of the Masorti (Conservative) Jewish movement. His breadth of knowledge is breathtaking, and he is one of the few people who could produce a companion to Judaism which would be really worth having. For The Jewish Religion: A Companion he selects the entries carefully, and then gives short, well-referenced accounts. I can imagine this volume becoming as much of a traditional rabbinic standby as are his volumes What Does Judaism Say aboutI? (Keter) and A Jewish Theology (Darton Longman and Todd), both published in 1973.

He is also one of the most prolific writers on Jewish themes, yet his books are never dull. This one has some surprising gems in it, such as the most cogent brief explanation of modern Jewish reluctance to engage in missionary activity I have ever seen (there are many long theses on the subject). Jacobs argues that two factors combine. The first was the experience of Jews being subject to proselytising activity from "sometimes unscrupulous missionaries" in the early Middle Ages onwards, and the second was the teaching that "the righteous of all peoples have a share in the world to come". The combination makes for a powerful dislike of active missionary activity; hence a position that welcomes sincere converts but does not always make it easy for them.

Jacob Neusner is another polymath, although he used often to be accused of publishing too much, in too academic a form for general use. This volume, however, is superb. He postulates seven different kinds of "Judaisms". Whether Jews should integrate or keep apart was the key question of Judaism in the early 19th century as Jewish disabilities and ghetto walls were removed.

One answer was the self-imposed ghetto. Another was thoroughly integrationist, with Reform, Conservative and orthodoxy all making a stab at living in a secular world, as Jews. The debates are not over in the 20th century, which brought the Holocaust, and the greatest shock the Jewish people had ever known.

Responses - in what he calls a post-Christian century, a highly debatable description - were Zionism, Jewish socialism and Yiddishism, a largely early 20th century phenomenon, and a peculiarly American kind of Judaism, "American Holocaust and Redemption". The latter asked the question: "What does Jewish existence mean after the Holocaust?" It found the answer in the creation, redemptively, of the state of Israel. This led to an essentially political Judaism, where the concerns were expressed in relation to what was on the Israeli agenda, using proof texts from Bible and rabbinic sources to justify an already held position.

Neusner adduces readings for all these "Judaisms". He faces the student, in a country where Jewish studies flourishes on many campuses, with questions about how long-lived these Judaisms can be, and how valid they are in the context of history. He is often tendentious, irritating, and over-sentimental about dangers to the Jews. But this volume is sufficiently thought-provoking to be on every Jewish studies student's table.

Norman Cantor's The Sacred Chain suffers from the exact opposite. Full of opinion, he rarely adduces a proof-text. His assertions are often surprising. He sees no future for the Jews, while arguing that Jews have transformed modern thought, citing as examples Freud, (whose anti-Judaism went so far that he would not allow his wife to light the Shabbat candles, because he regarded it as a ridiculous ritual), Wittgenstein, Albert Einstein, Emile Durkheim, and Franz Boas. He adds the post-modern thinkers who are the new thought transformers, and again suggests four Jews, Jacques Derrida, Noam Chomsky, Harold Bloom (a surprising inclusion) and Claude Levi-Strauss. He argues that the fact they were Jewish "by race" was no coincidence.

His "race" assertions are offensive. He thinks it acceptable, post-Holocaust, to use the term, arguing that that is how the Bible and Jews have thought of themselves. But there is no recognised uniquely Jewish gene-pool; whatever Jewish authorities like to think, there has always been intermarriage and rape. His "scientific sanction for viewing Jews as a distinct genetic group, and furthermore one exhibiting extraordinary creative behaviour patterns", is unproven. Yet he persists in using the term race, and argues that intermarriage will be the death of Judaism, when, if non-Jewish spouses were treated differently, and if more Jewish authorities accepted as Jewish, children of one Jewish parent even if it were the father (traditionally Jewish descent passes down the female line), Judaism could adapt and flourish, as it always has.

Reform Judaism is trying to do just that. In Tradition and Change: A History of Reform Judaism in Britain 1840-1995 Kershen and Romain tell its story in this country, from anything but radical beginnings to its attempt now to hold the middle ground of Anglo-Jewry on the one hand, and to welcome non-Jewish spouses on the other. It is a fascinating piece of work,and does much to explain the political origins of the reform movement. But they miss out on the early reformers' attitude to women.

There is a passing reference: "The role of the female in the foundation of British reform Judaism appears, on the surface, to have been negligible". Yet they quote a contemporary account which states that "no more than half-a-dozen ladies' seats were ever left unoccupied during the services".

In fact, in the Reverend D W Marks' consecration sermon for the West London Synagogue in 1842, he specifically referred to the education of girls as a key element in the new reform movement: "Woman, created by God as a 'help mate for man' and in every way his equal; woman, endowed by the same parental care, as man, with wondrous perceptions, that she might participate, (as it may be inferred from Holy Writ that she was intended to participate) in the full discharge of every moral and religious obligation, has been degraded below her proper station Isince equality has been denied to her in other things, as a natural consequence it has not been permitted to her in the duties and delights of religion.

It is true that education has done much to remedy this injustice in other respects; yet does memory live in the indifference manifested for the religious instruction of females."

Nor do they quote the wonderful descriptions of 19th century West London Synagogue life from the novel of the brilliant young university-educated woman writer Amy Levy, Reuben Sachs. They would also have done better to finish in around 1970. The most modern section has very little dispassionate analysis in it, and is too much a justification after the event. Nevertheless this is a volume which has drawn together a mass of material never before available, and is well worth reading.

Rabbi Julia Neuberger teaches Bible at Leo Beck College. Her new book, On Being Jewish, will be published by Heinemann on November 13. Pounds 16. 99

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