Do Not Underestimate the Determination of a Quiet Rabbi

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Gloria Tessler considers the welcome activities of some of our rabbinate but decries the misguided priorities of others.

When we think of great rabbis we sometimes look back to philosophers of the past. Maimonides, the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Nachman of Breslau, Abraham Heschel, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Great thinkers who have died and left us their spiritual legacies. But in the modern world we are often used to seeing conflict within the spiritual leadership; the left versus the right, orthodoxy versus progressive, modernism versus tradition.

The purported portrait of w:Maimonides from which all modern portraits are derived. It first appeared in volume 2 of Thesaurus antiquitatum sacrarum …in quibus veterum Hebraeorum mores, leges, instituta, ritus sacri, et civiles illustrantur… (Thesaurus of sacred antiquities in which are illustrated the customs, laws, institutions, sacred and civil rites of the ancient Hebrews…) a 34-volume Latin anthology on Judaism by Blasio Ugolini (b. ca. 1700), published in Venice by the house of Giovanni Giacomo Hertz from 1744 to 1769.

In past centuries such conflicts may have been less prevalent, or even non-existent during times when Jews seemed more cohesive, forced to fight poverty, survival and pogroms. Today there are Beth Din rabbis so concerned over a man’s finer feelings that they will block him from giving his wife a GET, a Jewish divorce because it would mean forcing the poor man to do something he doesn’t want to do, even when the secular courts would clearly rule in the wife’s favour.

An Orthodox wife, of course, denied a GET, even if she is granted one by the civil courts, cannot re-marry because she is still tied by Jewish law to her husband. Such is her commitment to her faith that she will remain an aguna, (chained wife) literally chained to a man she no longer loves, through disaffection or even abuse.  Is that the message of understanding that our faith wishes to convey?

Lord Immanuel Jakobovits

The father of the late Emeritus Chief Rabbi, Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, could not agree and recalled that his father was haunted on his deathbed by his failure to alleviate the plight of the agunot. He said: ‘My son, I cannot die. My heart is so heavy with pains and agonising aches for all the agunot I could not help….I cannot let life go before it gives me the opportunity to do some superhuman thing about the terrible tragedy of the agunot.’

Yet for all their goodwill and hard struggle neither he, nor his son, nor his successor, the late Jonathan Sacks, really succeeded in solving this problem, which persists to the present day and has reared its head once again in the Jewish media. It has driven one columnist, Miriam Shaviv to protest in the Jewish Chronicle that women may fear getting married in case they be might be tied for years to an unhappy marriage. Speaking about her teenage daughters, she writes: ‘What if – heaven forbid – one of their marriages doesn’t work out and their husbands won’t give them a get, a Jewish divorce? They could be trapped in unhappy marriages for years, their young lives over before they have really begun.’

The problem of Jewish divorce raised so many years ago, shows no sign of going away; some rabbinic courts remain unbending, and it does raise the ugly spectre of an Orthodoxy so rigid that it would prefer to keep tradition itself enchained rather than listen to the truly chained spouses in our society who may be the victims of abuse or even have witnessed the abuse of their children at the hands of their father.  What about the Progressives? Movements within Progressive Judaism have been prepared to re-interpret Jewish law with this issue in mind.  The Reform Beth Din in Britain says they will grant religious divorces to women with or without the husband‘s consent on the grounds that an unethical law cannot be a Jewish law.

However, it is not true to suggest that the Orthodox communities did nothing for the agunot.  Intensive lobbying for changes in the law to protect both men and women from ‘unsatisfactory divorces’ resulted in the Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act in 2002. The legislation (compels) the Beth Din to issue a religious divorce if either party to a civil divorce requires it. The Act is supposed to safeguard against religious divorce being withheld from either party as a bargaining tool. While this protects the majority of Jewish women – it is normally the wives who suffer – a minority will not be protected if their Beth Din does not regard it as essential, or regards encouraging the other party to issue a get against their will as coercion.

But this horror story goes much deeper. It begs this question: what really concerns us within Judaism? Are we prepared to cling to an outdated and often misogynistic religious concept that can only bring pain and emotional suffering to the victim-spouse? Or can we use the compassion and sensitivity which truly endows our faith to say – stop? Enough. Move on. Let’s concentrate on other areas of Jewish thought which truly bring enlightenment to us.

Professor Naftali Loewenthal

This question brings to mind philosophers like Dr Naftali Loewenthal, an author and Teaching Fellow at UCL, who lectures on Jewish spirituality. Quietly and without pomp, he offers his time to bring Chasidic and kabbalistic teaching to people of all Jewish persuasions, every Tuesday night – currently by zoom. Tali, as he is called, invites open and reflective discussion on the commentary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and anyone, Charedi or not, can join in.

Then there are the quiet, Progressive rabbis. I am thinking of Steven Katz, Emeritus Rabbi of the former Hendon Reform Synagogue, who rather than spend his time condemning ‘antisemitic’ attacks on shechita, the kosher slaughter of animals, can’t stand killing animals by any method, and quietly goes vegetarian. As he told me: ‘I have embraced the view of Isaac Bashevis Singer – “I am a vegetarian for the sake of the chicken“.’

I am also thinking of the Reform movement’s former Senior Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner who last year during Holocaust Memorial Week addressed a Board of Deputies’ solidarity event with the Uyghur community at the House of Commons.

She joined Rahima Mahmut of the World Uyghur Congress and the Government Adviser on Islamophobia, Imam Qari Asim and said: ‘To all those politicians who have stood on platforms this past week and delivered that so often repeated line ‘never again’ – we ask you: to what lengths are you prepared to go to make that statement reality?.

There are many people like these. I single them out simply because I know and deeply admire them. I single them out because they are the people who will take Judaism into the future. Judaism without cruelty.

But, speaking of animals, what really moved me this week, are the words of New North London Masorti Synagogue’s Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, who has written in the Jewish Chronicle with depth and quiet passion about the death of his beloved dog, Mitzpah. He writes in the deepest pain and yet with a truly spiritual vision about his canine friend who used to accompany him to synagogue: ‘I often said the Shema with him,’ he writes. ‘This wasn’t just because I’m sentimental. I felt connected through him with that invisible consciousness which flows through us all from the source of life. We were equally part of a great and humbling world, embracing humans, animals and trees. He helped me feel God’s oneness.’

Having not long ago lost my own 13-year-old Yorkshire terrier, Pickle (Piccola) I found Rabbi Jonathan’s sentiments deeply resonant.  In the months after her death, I began to understand the words that Rabbi Jonathan was yet to write. That an animal brings a special link to the universe of the unspoken word; a word which expresses nature, trees, birds, grass and flowers, which grow within you when you grieve for a lost pet.  

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, senior rabbi of Masorti UK

Jonathan Wittenberg is particularly attuned to animals and the natural world. But at the same time as his eulogy to Mitzpah was published in the Jewish Chronicle, a letter appeared in The Guardian which he co-signed with three other rabbis expressing their ‘profound concern about the government’s plan to withdraw the £20 uplift to universal credit as of 1 October.’ The signatories quote the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which estimates the government action would result in 500,000 more people falling into poverty, including 200,000 children ‘even before taking into account the effects of the increase in fuel prices and national insurance.’

Jonathan’s co-signatories are Rabbi Alexandra Wright, Senior Rabbi, Liberal Jewish Synagogue, Rabbi David Mason, of Muswell Hill Synagogue and Rabbi Rebecca Birk of Finchley Progressive Synagogue, who protest that the £20 benefit cut will affect many of those who have already suffered disproportionately from Covid. They call on the government to rescind this proposal with immediate effect.

Iain Duncan Smith, the prominent Brexiteer and former Conservative Party leader

Even Tory politician Ian Duncan Smith, who once said of himself: ‘Do not underestimate the determination of a quiet man’, writes in The Telegraph – ‘It’s surely time to re-think the cut to Universal Credit, or at least delay it until we know where we are in four months.’

Whether or not it is surprising to hear clergy, as well as politicians, enter the debate on poverty, the natural world, and the plight of refugees (surely a Jewish issue if ever there was one), it is heartening to know that what is facing society need not be confined to politics alone. As many Jews rail against antisemitism – often engendered by poverty – yet may seem content to look no further than their noses at anything outside their communal world, I welcome the gentle activism of the quiet rabbis who move among us in our time.


Gloria Tessler is a journalist, author, playwright and poet. She is the biographer of Lady Amelie Jakobovits, and her two plays, The Windmill and Unveiling Hagar, both on Jewish themes, have been performed on the London fringe. She is presently obituaries editor at the Jewish Chronicle and art correspondent at AJR Journal. 
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