Lucian J Hudson
30 April 2012
A sign of a good book is that one rereads it. A sign of a great book is that it produces a change. It is too early to tell the impact of Rabbi Dr David J Goldberg’s latest work, but for me at least things will never quite be the same again. It is compelling and required reading.
One of the worst features of any religion is its ceaseless inwardness and introspection. David takes us out of our comfort zone to confront what’s really going on, and proves to be one of our most progressive – and prophet-inspired – rabbis.
This is not simply a deft reworking of David’s favourite themes, many of which will be known to congregants at The Liberal Jewish Synagogue. This book niftily shifts the plate tectonics of current debate… if only we listen. David is our masked crusader, our Zorro. Dashing, elegant and precise in his light-touch use of the sword, he cuts through humbug and uncritical assumptions. We have made a mistake as a movement in not making more of his challenging intellect to influence future policy direction.
The book is replete with thought-provoking arguments for a change in the way we think of our relationship to being Jewish, Judaism, Israel and the Diaspora. Every chapter stimulates a discussion which could justify a book in itself. What underpins every page is a Renaissance, even Socratic, spirit of inquiry. We think that history is about inexorable progress, but the truth is that it is more like a game of snakes and ladders. Our age, for all its claims to pluralism, betrays a certain tunnel-vision. David’s work jolts us into appreciating that there are other perspectives.
He argues that many of the sacred cows of the Jewish establishment, especially in the USA, are exaggerated or false. It is wrong to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. One can be a critic of Israeli policies without being hostile to all Jews. As David writes: “Zionism as an ideology should no more be protected from critical analysis than capitalism, socialism, colonialism or Islamism.”
His approach to the question ‘Who is a Jew?’ is Occam’s Razor sharp. A Jew is simply anyone who insists that he or she is one, because ultimately what can be truer than self-definition.
David is a great ambassador for Progressive Judaism because he has effortlessly cultivated a rich network and hinterland outside religious circles. He puts his faith in Judaism’s contribution to culture, as this better reflects what we are increasingly about.
The challenge for somebody in my position is to see myself more as a chair of a cultural movement than a religious one. I have some sympathy for broadening our appeal without losing what God and spirituality mean for many of us. Perhaps we should see ourselves as explicitly spawning Jewish cultural centres across the UK?
David unintentionally underplays the concept of kavannah (intention or meaningful concentration of head and heart) which I think we as a movement do not do enough to bring out in our ritual and philosophy. The post-modern world needs to tap into something deeper than materialism and Progressive Jews should offer an alternative to fundamentalism, religious or scientific.
In praise of David’s book, Bishop Richard Holloway said: “Great writing always takes us from the particular to the universal. Though This is Not the Way is ostensibly about Jews, Judaism and Israel, it actually spreads its light upon the deceits and hypocrisies of all religious forms today.”
Agree or disagree with David Goldberg – and I cannot bring myself to be as radical as David on God and Israel – we can appreciate that in this respect at least, he is the most traditional of rabbis: he challenges us, without fear or favour, and if we pause to reflect, we realise that he is not the challenge but our own view of ourselves and of our existence.
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