Judaism

Judaism in the UK

Introduction: Judaism: Origins, History and Divisions

Judaism in terms of historical records is about three and a half thousand years old.  The account of Jewish origins is contained in the first five books of the Bible; the Torah.  Thus Moses is the prophet who leads his people out of slavery towards the Promised Land (Judea/Israel), and during the 40 wilderness years receives the revelation of the Law on Mount Sinai, which shapes the Jewish people.  How far this is historical is a matter of debate.

Judaism is associated with the land known today as Israel/Palestine. Jewish history, however, has been marked by several significant events which has affected its development, and much of its history has been one of exile.  Jerusalem, capital of Judea, became the main focus of Jewish presence after the destruction of the Northern kingdom (Israel) by the Assyrians in the ninth century BCE. As a consequence of the Babylonian invasion and destruction of the First Temple (537 BCE), Jewish communities developed whilst in exile (diaspora) in Babylonia and Egypt.  With a partial return from exile beginning in the fifth century BCE, the Second Temple was built in Jerusalem.  This lasted until 70 CE and its destruction by the Romans. After 70 CE, the rabbinic tradition developed when Jewish communities were displaced in a new diaspora; the hope of a return to Jerusalem forming a major part of Jewish identity.  Jewish communities living in Europe over the next two millennia experienced periods of toleration interspersed with persecution and expulsion.  The most significant of these prior to the Modern period was the expulsion from Spain (1492). In the Modern Era, the Enlightenment and the pogroms in nineteenth century Russia and Eastern Europe both played a major role in the formation of modern Jewish identity.  But the most significant historical factors in modern Jewish consciousness was the experience of the Holocaust (Shoah), and the creation of modern Israel (1948)

Historically, European Jews have been classified into two major groups: the Ashkenazim (or “Germanics”), denoting their Central European base, (speakers of Yiddish) and the Sephardim, or “Hispanics” denoting their Spanish and Portuguese base. Ashkenazi Jews represent the bulk of modern Jewry, estimated at between 70% and 80% of all Jews worldwide.[1] Prior to World War II and the Holocaust however, it was said to be in the region of 90%.[2]

Modern divisions in Judaism have formed over the nature of revelation and scripture (how literally true) and over liturgical practice.  There are also major differences over political attitudes to modern Israel, although the land of Israel plays a central role in Jewish identity.

History of Jewish Presence in the UK

Jews were present in the UK in the medieval period, but were expelled in 1290 by Edward I.  In 1656, under the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, they were readmitted.  The oldest synagogue in continuous use, Bevis Marks in London, which serves the Portuguese and Spanish Sephardic community, dates from 1701.  The oldest Ashkenazi synagogue is in Plymouth and dates from 1762.  By the nineteenth century there were 20,000 Jews in Britain, increasing to 60,000 by 1881.[3]  A large-scale expansion in the Jewish presence took place at the end of the nineteenth century as a consequence of immigration from Eastern European Jews fleeing from pogroms in the Russian Empire.  Another wave came in the 1930s and 40s, escaping from Nazi persecution.  By the mid twentieth century there were over 400, 000 Jews in Britain.[4]  In reaction to recent socio-political developments there has been a new influx from France.  At the same time, after 1948, some Jews have left the UK for Israel.

Jews make up about 0.5% of the UK population numbering about 269,000.[5]  Of these about two thirds live in London and its surrounds, with one fifth living in the London Borough of Barnet alone.[6]  There appears to be a growth in the areas where orthodox communities are located, and a decline in areas of non-orthodoxy.  Greater Manchester is another important area of Jewish presence.

Jews in the UK

According to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, three quarters of Jewish households belong to a synagogue, of which there are 409  in the country.   They are divided as follows: Central Orthodox (consisting of the United Synagogue, the Federation of Synagogues and independent Orthodox synagogues) – 54.7%  ; Reform (Movement for Reform Judaism and Westminster Synagogue and Chaim V’Tikvah) – 19.4%; Strictly Orthodox (synagogues aligned with the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations and others of a similar ethos) – 10.9%; Liberal (Liberal Judaism and Belsize Square) – 8.7%; Sephardi (of Iberian origin) – 3.5%; Masorti ( a modern conservative movement) – 2.7%[7]

Who Speaks for British Jews?

No single organisation speaks for British Jews. The Board of Deputies of British Jews is prominent in CCJ, Three Faiths Forum and Inter Faith Network, but is not recognised by Haredi/Ultra Orthodox Jews. The Chief Rabbi represents the central Orthodox block. The Jewish Leadership Council was set up in 2003;[8] It comprises the chair people of the major organisations in each sector of communal life, together with key individual leaders of the community.

Character of British Judaism

Who is a Jew? Dan Cohn-Sherbok writes “Jewish identity is ultimately based on descent rather than on religious conviction”.[9] You are traditionally born a Jew, by having a Jewish mother. In modern times this understanding has been watered down: in 1983 the Reform movement in America widened the definition of Jewishness to include those with a Jewish father.   It is also possible to convert to Judaism though this is a complex process.

The question of “Who is a Jew?” is also tied up with Jewish identity.  Are you a Jew because you are born a Jew, because you practice the religion, because you identify with a set of cultural norms or because you are descended from Jewish ancestry?  When we talk about Judaism, we are not talking about religious faith in the same way as we would talk about Christianity.  We are talking ultimately about identity as a people, and in religious terms this has meaning, linked with Torah and the concept of Covenant.  But in modern times this has been developed to include a sense of belonging to a people of shared experience (anti-Semitism over the centuries, The Holocaust) and shared belonging (Israel)

The majority of British Jews according to David J Graham  do not define themselves as being religious, but certain ritual celebrations are important; the most important being Pesach, as a family celebration.  Modern Judaism is family focused; thus Shabbat holds a special place for British Jews with 60% of Jewish households celebrating it on a regular basis.  But in terms of the stricter observance of religious laws, only 15-20% keep the observance.  Just over 50% of Jews in UK describe themselves as secular, but the majority of them will celebrate Shabbat.

Israel plays a special role in the Jewish community and acts as a unifying factor.  Most Jews agree with the statement that “Israel is the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people”, although only half would agree with the statement that God gave Israel to the Jewish people. 72% of Jews described themselves as Zionist (2001 survey) and 95% of Jews have visited Israel.

The British Jewish community historically has been encouraged to assimilate culturally into UK society.  But concerns about loss of Jewish distinctiveness has grown in recent decades because of the effects of intermarriage and secularisation

Main Features and Beliefs of Judaism

The Character of God: Judaism’s understanding of God is something which has evolved over centuries.  Jews tend to use the nomenclature G-d to maintain the tradition of not articulating the name of God.  Modern Judaism emphasises monotheism as reflected in the core statement of Jewish belief, the Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One” But there is also Biblical evidence of syncretic and pluralistic culture.  God is the transcendent Creator, but also involved with his creation (the shekhinah, the divine light or presence) God is eternal, omnipotent and omniscientAlthough the Biblical concept of God is of a God who controls and guides the universe, the place of providence in a modern understanding of Judaism would be dependent on attitudes to science.

Scripture and Revelation

Judaism is a revealed religion.  Thus scripture holds a special place.  The term “Torah” has a disputed meaning.  It might refer to the first five books of the Bible, which traditionally was thought to be the Torah revealed to and written down by Moses, or it might refer to the whole collection of the Jewish scriptures (what Christians call the “Old” Testament), otherwise called by Jews Tanakh or written Torah, consisting of the Pentateuch, the Neviim (prophets) and the Ketuvim (writings).  NB they are not in the same order as the Christian scriptures.

In addition Moses was said to have been given the “oral” Torah, which was handed down by generation to generation and then recorded as the Mishnah from the 2nd century ADThis focuses on interpretation of the Law or Torah.

Over the next few centuries, additional commentaries elaborating on the Mishnah were written down in Jerusalem and Babylon. These additional commentaries are known as the Gemara. The Gemara and the Mishnah together are known as the Talmud. This was completed in the 5th century C.E.

Covenant and The Chosen People

“The Jews were chosen by God to be ‘peculiar unto Me’ as the pioneers of religion and morality; that was and is their national purpose.” (Lord Jakobovitz).  Jews theologically understand themselves as called to model ethical living and holiness, keeping the law (both ritual and ethical), known as the Torah.  This is the covenantal expectation placed on them by G-d in return for his protection.

The Law (halakkah)  is the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from the Written and Oral Torah. It includes the 613 mitzvot (“commandments”), subsequent talmudic and rabbinic law and the customs and traditions compiled in the Shulchan Aruch.  This code covers all aspects of life

Halakha is often translated as “Jewish Law”, although a more literal translation might be “the path” or “the way of walking”. The word derives from the root that means to go or to walk.  Halakah provides a spiritual or religious basis for all aspects of life.  The halakkah is to be distinguished from the seven noahide laws which rabbinic tradition claims governs all of humanity. Accordingly, any non-Jew who adheres to these laws is regarded as a righteous gentile, and is assured of a place in the world to come (Hebrew: Olam Haba), the final reward of the righteous.

Salvation

For Judaism salvation is available to Jews in this life through their faithful observance of the Torah.  Jews prefer to use the phrase “have a share in the world to come” rather than “salvation” or “redemption” It is possible through the through the quality of Torah living, that is, being faithful to God.

The Promised Land

The history of the Jewish people begins with Abraham, and the story of Abraham begins when G-d tells him to leave his homeland, promising Abraham and his descendants a new home in the land of Canaan. (Gen. 12).  This is identified by modern orthodox Jews as the land of Israel.  In Synagogue services prayers for Israel have a prominent place.

The Messianic tradition

Traditional Judaism expresses a belief in a Messianic figure and a messianic age.  This still retains an important influence in Orthodox Judaism and links with expectations regarding the Holy Land.  But many contemporary Jews have rejected beliefs about an individual Messiah.

Important codes of behavior in the synagogue : For Jews the synagogue is both a place of worship and the centre of community life, alongside the home.

  • Expectations will depend on circumstances; i.e. whether you are observing worship or visiting an empty synagogue.  You will not be expected to take your shoes off.
  • Men and women may be expected to sit separately in formal worship, depending on the practice of the synagogue.
  • Men may be expected to wear a Kippur (skull cap). The synagogue will normally provide this.
  • Modest dress is expected.
  • If you are in an Orthodox synagogue, handshakes across the gender divide are unacceptable.
  • All Jewish liturgical books/orders of service are read from right to left.
  • Non-Jews should stand whenever the Ark is open and when the Torah is carried to or from the Ark, as a sign of respect for the Torah and for G-d.
  • After the service, Kiddush (sanctification by blessings) may be said over wine and bread and this is then shared. You may be invited to receive Kiddush.

Welcoming a Jewish group to your church or school

There may be sensitivities about holding any shared activity in a church space because of sacred images. It is important to check with the Rabbi what will be acceptable.

Security will be an issue; school groups will often bring a security guard with them.

Check beforehand whether your visitors will accept food or bring their own. If you are providing food it is advisable to provide only light refreshments (because of kosher rules) and if providing biscuits/cakes again to ensure they are kosher.

If you are welcoming visitors from different synagogues be aware that there may be internal differences between Liberals and Orthodox traditions over what is acceptable.

Areas of Dialogue/Debate

  1. For Jews, Messiah has not come.  Jesus is at best seen as a Jewish reformer.  The concept of messiahship is different in both faiths.  Jewish concepts are much more linked with the restoration of creation and the establishment of God’s rule.  If we look around, does the nature of the world as it is today reflect the coming of the Messiah?  How can Christians be serious in suggesting that Messiah has come?
  2. For Christians the role of suffering servant, as outlined in Isaiah, is paramount; less so for Jews, for whom the figure of the ‘suffering servant’ is understood as more applicable to the Jewish nation than to one single person, Jesus of Nazareth.
  3. As Jews have been the object of abuse and targets of missionary campaigns over the centuries a deep mistrust and antipathy has arisen amongst some, particularly Orthodox.  Some Jews see Christian missions as continuing the work of the Holocaust by different means.  Jews are very suspicious of organisations linked with Jews for Jesus and Messianic Judaism.
  4. To marry out or convert is seen in some Jewish eyes as undermining the maintenance of purity of Jewish people for whom God still has a continuing purpose as a ‘light to the nations’.
  5. In Jewish eyes the use of the term Old Testament might imply the claims that Christianity has superseded Judaism, and that Christians have replaced Jews as God’s chosen people. Judaism’s survival as a living faith is a challenge to the Christian narrative.
  6. Judaism is a monotheistic faith.  To even give God a name is untenable since this undermines Jewish understanding of God.  Jesus cannot be God incarnate.  Jews totally reject the idea of Trinity.
  7. For some Jews Christianity has still not taken full account of its role in the Shoah, that is, the Holocaust.

Speaking of our Faith to members of the Jewish religion

  1. For Jews, the Messiah has not come.  Jesus is best seen as a Jewish reformer.  The concept of messiahship is different in both faiths.  Jewish concepts are much more linked with the restoration of creation and establishment of God’s rule   Look around, does the nature of the world as it is today reflect the coming of the Messiah?  How can Christians be serious in suggesting that Messiah has come?

Christianity as a religion emerged out of the early followers of Jesus understanding him and experiencing him as the “Messiah”, the “Lord”.  But in doing so there is a development in understanding and change of emphasis in the concept of Messiahship.   Whereas Jewish expectations were linked with a revival of the Jewish nation of Judah/Israel as God’s holy nation, and tended to be communal and quasi-political in focus, Christian views transformed this into a universal messiah who embraced all human beings.  The Good news “Gospel” placed more emphasis on the offer of forgiveness and the restoration of an individual’s relationship with God (Yahweh) as well as taking on board Jewish expectations and hopes concerning justice and “holiness”.  In regard to the latter the emphasis of Judaism on keeping ritual observance was dropped.  That said the model of redemption is very much rooted in Jewish understanding; so the Judaic themes of “Exodus and liberation”, “Covenant”, “justice”, “hope” and so on continue to influence Christian thought.  And although presenting different narratives, both traditions share the experience that redemption is not yet complete, and awaits the “coming” (Jewish) or second coming (Christian) of the Messiah. Judaism continues to emphasise the centrality of the Word (Torah) and the call to observe Torah as the unique calling of the Jewish people.  Christians parallel this with their experience of Jesus Christ as the living Word, the Word made flesh, and the call to follow his Way.

2. The issue of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah is one of difference of interpretation and weight of importance. For Jews, the figure of the ‘suffering servant’ in Isaiah is understood as more applicable to the Jewish nation than to one single person, Jesus of Nazareth. For Christians the role of suffering servant as outlined in Isaiah is regarded as a pointer to Christ and of paramount importance.

For Jewish people the experience of suffering “slavery” has provided a theme of constant reflection from Biblical times onwards, and of course modern Jewish identity has been very much influenced by the experience of the Shoah.  The themes of vicarious suffering and the call to holiness in the face of suffering are developed in Jewish thinking, as is the complex link between human wrongdoing and suffering.  These themes were picked up in Christian thought, but being applied primarily to Jesus as an individual human being and as Son of God, as opposed to the emphasis on Jewish texts which focus on the suffering of the nation.   Christian reflection has focused on suffering as a means of redemption for others, and suffering (self-sacrifice) as a model for holiness.   One key issue which has been raised by the Jewish experience of suffering in the modern era is about the worth of suffering in itself.  Many modern Jewish thinkers emphasize the banality and Godlessness of suffering (as experienced in the Shoah); this is a challenge to some of Christian thinking which has in the past tended to make suffering heroic and salvific.

3. In Jewish eyes the use of the term Old Testament might imply the claims that Christianity has superseded Judaism, and that Christians have replaced Jews as God’s chosen people. Judaism’s survival as a living faith is a challenge to the Christian narrative.

There has been a sea change in Christian thought in this area since the 1950s, and traditional Christian understanding about the fate of the Jews as a condemned people has been rejected.  It is incumbent on Christians to understand that modern Christian teaching emphasises that God has not rejected his first covenant with the Jewish people.   Christians have much to learn from Judaism about the nature of “being” holy and its link with justice and ethics.  Jewish thinking emphasizes the importance of observing (living) the Torah as a model of holiness for the world.  Christian faith has sometimes been stereotyped as belief in a series of creedal statements.  But “Justification by faith” is not simply a matter of belief, but also trust in the purposes for God in one’s life.  It is about living the Way of Christ (early Christians were known as followers of The Way) with ethical and lifestyle implications.  Both traditions accept that all of life and creation awaits redemption.

 

4. As Jews have been the object of abuse and targets of missionary campaigns over the centuries a deep mistrust and antipathy has arisen amongst some, particularly Orthodox.  Some Jews see Christian missions as continuing the work of the Holocaust by different means.  Jews are very suspicious of organisations linked with Jews for Jesus and Messianic Judaism. For some Jews Christianity has still not taken full account of its role in the Shoah.

We must recognize that our relationship with the Jewish people must be seen in the light of the fact that the Abrahamic covenant has never been abrogated. God’s people are still God’s people.  Yet the history of the encounter of Christians with Jews often has been one of Christian persecution of the Jews, leaving a legacy of mistrust and suspicion of our motives for dialogue.  Such dialogue has been regarded by some Jews as surreptitious opportunities for proselytism rather than for mutual understanding and support.  It is not without significance that many Christian denominations which previously had worked specifically for the conversion of the Jews now have changed that purpose to encourage dialogue between differing faiths.

Christians have a responsibility to acknowledge how misrepresentation of Jewish history and anti-Semitic attitudes contributed to the evil that is known as the Shoah.  Christians should approach their Jewish neighbours in a spirit of repentance as taught by Jesus himself.  Christian preachers have a duty to publicly correct the misreading and misinterpretation of certain “difficult” biblical texts which if taken out of context can and have contributed to anti-Semitism in the past.  For Christians all forms of prejudice and injustice are against Christian teaching that each individual is a “Child of God”.

5. To marry out or convert is seen in some Jewish eyes as undermining the maintenance of the Jewish people for whom God still has a continuing purpose as a ‘light to the nations’.

Whilst recognizing that some Jewish religious leaders will have concerns in this area, and being sensitive to those concerns, this is an area where perhaps we have to recognize the social trends of living within a pluralistic society.  It is inevitable in such societies that there will be intermarriage between persons of different faiths.  What is incumbent on religious leaders of those faiths is to highlight the challenges that such marriages can present especially in relation to extended family, children and one’s own personal religious practice and beliefs.  It is also important to support such couples pastorally.  Again what is important is that there should be no assumption that the “Jewish” partner will either have to give up their faith and practice, or “convert” to Christianity.  There is no single way of proceeding in these matters; each family is unique.

6. Judaism is a monotheistic faith.  To even give God a name is untenable since this undermines Jewish understanding of God.  Jesus cannot be God incarnate.  Jews totally reject the idea of Trinity.

Christianity too is a monotheistic faith, and has its unique way of speaking about God in Trinitarian terms.  This is a core aspect of Christian identity.  Having said this understanding of the meaning of the Trinity and of the term “Son of God” is open to exploration and debate even within the Christian tradition, as is the Jewish concept of “G-d” for Jews.  It is important to recognize the limitations of human language in seeking to talk about and come to grips with the concept of divine.  It is also important to recognize that both traditions’ understandings of G-d are not simply philosophical matters, but arise out of worship of the divine. We must acknowledge that the Christian understandings of God and of Jesus are deeply influenced by the Jewish Biblical and philosophical tradition.  This point has not escaped the notice of those involved in the exploration of the historical Jesus of Nazareth, where the scholarship of Jewish intertestamental academics has made a significant contribution.

 

Further Reading

Bayfield, T. (ed) Deep Calls to Deep, Transforming conversations between Jews and Christians SCM pub. 2017

Kessler, E. An Introduction to Jewish Christian Relations CUP pub.2010

Fry, H. (ed) Christian-Jewish Dialogue, a Reader University of Exeter pub. 1998

 

References

[1] Ostrer, H. Skorecki, K. The population genetics of the Jewish people. Hum Genet. 2013 Feb; 132(2): 119–127. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3543766/ Published online 2012 Oct 10. Accessed 21.1.19

[2] Lipka, M. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/02/09/europes-jewish-population/ Pew Research. 2015. Accessed: 21.1.19

[3] 350 Years of Jewish British Life, The Jewish Museum London. 2011. http://www.visitjewishlondon.com/uk-jewish-life/history. Accessed: 21.1.19

[4] Parkes, J. Jews in Britain: Origin and Growth of Anglo-Jewry, Pg. 7. Council of Christians and Jews, 1943.

[5] Jews in Numbers, Board of Deputies of British Jews. (Based of 2011 UK census report.) https://www.bod.org.uk/jewish-facts-info/jews-in-numbers/ Accessed: 21.1.19

[6] As Above.

[7] As above.

[8] History, Jewish Leadership Council. https://www.thejlc.org/history Accessed: 2.12.19

[9] Cohn-Sherbok, Dan. The Jewish Faith. Pg. 1. SPCK. 1993.