My last article was about our collective inability in the community to speak up to a minority of bullies who have taken upon themselves the mantle not only of bossing us around, but also speaking on our behalf to outsiders. No better example of the latter phenomenon can be found than the recent disinvitation of the Chief Rabbi to the Daf Yomi Siyum, a move that has quite understandably disgusted many people who are otherwise relatively sympathetic to our kehilla.
It would be a waste of time trying to come up with a coherent reason why Rabbi Mirvis had his invitation rescinded. He has made controversial decisions, such as choosing to attend Limmud or working with KeshetUK, but these were all a matter of public record long before the invitation was made. Common manners dictate that you cannot take back an invitation purely because you decide that you don’t like the recipient after all.
The embarrassing truth, however, is that the disinvitation was not a matter of any principle, even a stupid one. What happened is that the usual suspects launched a campaign threatening to stage a public walkout when the Chief Rabbi made his appearance. The organisers of the siyum were terrified at the prospect of a public spectacle and thought the lesser of two evils was to publicly snub one of the most influential and widely respected Jews in the country. Once again, the bullies won and they did so with no more effort than furiously typing a few semi-literate text messages during their 17th coffee break at kollel.
I’ve surveyed a range of opinion in Stamford Hill, and have yet to find anyone who thinks that rescinding the Chief Rabbi’s invitation was reasonable or justified. Many, especially those who for professional reasons are in regular contact with Jews from other communities, are mortified. There’s an all-too-familiar feeling of powerlessness while a motley crew of fanatics and cowards speak in our name.
A common sentiment, however, which I feel is misplaced, has been that it would have been best to avoid trouble of this sort by simply not inviting the Chief Rabbi at all, since, at the end of the day, he has no connection to the Charedi community, culturally or institutionally. It is true, of course, that Rabbi Mirvis has no automatic right to be invited to any of our kehilla’s events, but this misses the point. Always looking to do the bare minimum when it comes to contact with the wider Jewish community puts us on the back foot when dealing with the rabble who make offending everyone else as much as possible a positive goal. More than that, though, it means forfeiting the benefits that come from constructive friendships and alliances with other communities.
The default, inward-facing attitude in the Charedi community is a legacy of an earlier era when we were a tiny minority that everyone else thought would quickly fade into obsolescence. Shunning contact with the outside world was both a feasible and a logical response to the likelihood of being swallowed up by bigger fish. The reality today, however, is that we are the fastest growing section of the Jewish people both in the UK and around the world. Everyone in the Jewish community knows we exist and an increasing number view us with great interest. Hunkering down and hoping no-one pays any attention is simply not an option when, at the same time, you’re hosting a packed out siyum at Wembley Arena. We should be proud that we have reached this point as a community, but we should also recognise that it comes with a new set of opportunities and responsibilities.
This is about more than simply being rodfei shalom, though that’s surely an important value in and of itself. Organisations like the Board of Deputies and the United Synagogue have an ability to participate in and shape the wider British conversation that we currently lack. This is crucially important in the light of social and cultural changes that threaten our religion and way of life. Some of these, such as sex education only threaten our community, others, such as Shechitah are equally threatening to all orthodox groups, and some, such as bris milah, are of concern to the entire Jewish community. In all these cases, however, it’s in our interest to try and rally as much support as we can. As far as I know, the Chief Rabbi hasn’t made any particular effort to reach out to us, but, frankly, we need him more than he needs us. Far from burning our bridges, we should be looking for ways to reach out.
Acting in a way befitting our current demographic status, of course, comes with many challenges. How to engage with Reform, Progressive or secular Jewish organizations, in particular, is a complicated issue beyond the scope of this article. Having cordial relations with different Orthodox denominations, though, should really be a no brainer. Some members of our community are currently scrambling to undo the damage caused last fortnight and will, no doubt, be smoothing out the fallout for months, or even years, to come. What they really need to do, however, is to make a fundamental change in the way they do business with the wider Jewish world. Not causing pointless offence is a sorry goal for a community of our stature to have and, what’s more, if we raised our sights a little we wouldn’t so consistently fail to meet it.
Over the course of my lifetime, we have grown enormously as a community; now it’s time to grow up.