An insider on the outside

by
10 August 2012

Rabbi David Goldberg's latest book challenges cherished attitudes in the State of Israel and the Jewish diaspora. He talks to Robert Cohen

AT HIS Kentish Town home in London, where he has lived with his wife, Carole, for more than 35 years, Rabbi David Goldberg is reluctant to embrace the label of "troublesome, radical Jew": "I honestly don't know how I'm perceived. I seem to provoke extreme reactions, though. Either deep loathing for speaking out, or admiration for articulating what many Jewish people would wish to say, but don't have the opportunity to do so."

Rabbi Goldberg is the heir to a liberal Jewish tradition of rational­ism, and a willingness to challenge religious dogma that may have outlived its usefulness. The liberal Jewish movement has its origins in 19th-century Germany, and estab­lished itself in Britain at the turn of the 20th century, with the opening of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in t John's Wood, London, where Rabbi Goldberg served as a con­gregational rabbi from 1975 to 2004. The lo­cation, across the road from Lord's, also allowed him to indulge in his other great passion, cricket.

We sit down, surrounded by art and literature that is testament to Rabbi Goldberg's pride in both his Jewish and English heritage. He was born in the East End of London, and grew up in Manchester, before study­ing at Oxford. As we talk, his border terrier, Daisy, dozes by our feet. "She enjoys listening in on a bit of intel­ligent conversation."

In his latest book, This is Not the Way: Jews, Judaism and Israel, Rabbi Goldberg highlights the long-running tension between two strains within Judaism: particularism and universalism. In biblical description, the contrast can be seen by pairing "a people that shall dwell apart" (Num­bers 23.9) with the call from Isaiah for the people to be "a light unto the nations" (42.6).

FOR better or worse, he aligns him­self with Isaiah. "I have always counted myself among the Jewish universal­ists," he says, "preferring to take my chances in wider society, learning from other cultures, mixing with other peoples."

Advertisement

It is an attitude that has led him to extol the great contribution of the Jewish diaspora to European civilisa­tion, and question the wisdom of creating more faith schools for Jews - or indeed any religious com­munity.

He recognises the "particular versus universalist" tendencies in the other great monotheisms as well, and be­lieves that dogmas about "election" and "chosenness" have to be modi­fied, or else "interfaith dialogue will never advance beyond its current level of banal platitudinising and declarations, calling for world peace and harmony."

Rabbi Goldberg feels that he was lucky with his congregation, who were open to (or "at least tolerant of") his intellectual and highly questioning teaching of Judaism. He borrows a phrase from his friend and fellow iconoclast Bishop Richard Holloway, in describing himself as a "devout agnostic".

By the end of his time in the pulpit, he speaks of feeling a "degree of intellectual dishonesty" as he led the traditional liturgical acknow­ledge­ment of God's omnipotence and omniscience. He always knew when to hold his doubts in check, though. "My role is to teach, not to destroy people's faith. Often, as a minister, you are with people at moments of great trauma, such as bereavement. If they were to ask me if there was an afterlife, I would want to give them the consolation of loved ones' living on in spirit. And after all, we have no evidence to rebut that consolation."

 

BUT, once God can no longer be counted on as a firm foundation, what is left of the Jewish edifice? For Rabbi Goldberg, the answer is to be found "in the glue of culture, of shared history, ethnicity, values, and religious ritual". And is the glue sticky enough to hold the Jewish people together? "I don't know if it's sufficient, but I hope so. Based on three-and-a-half-thousand years of Hebraic history, I'm reasonably optimistic that we will muddle through for a while yet."

There are other Jewish "hot topics" where Rabbi Goldberg takes a radical dissenting position. On the "Who is a Jew?" debate, he rejects the traditional rabbinic definition of matrilineal descent. "Modern Jewish identity is fluid, fractured, and self-defining," he says. "Ultimately, a Jew is anyone who says he or she is one."

As for male circumcision, "It's another tribal practice, dating back thousands of years, that perhaps we should be willing to reconsider, in the light of misgivings by a growing number of Jewish mothers about the ritual."

Although he may question the authority of religious scripture, chal­lenge traditional rabbinic teaching, and question the "meaning"of Jewish history, it is his views n Israel that have attracted the most con­troversy throughout his career.

It is an indication of the centrality that Israel now has in modern Jewish identity that Goldberg has been accused of being a "self-hating Jew" for his outspokenness on Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, and the occupation of Palestinian land. In fact, he was tempted to call his book Reflections of a Self-hating Jew, before his friend, the journalist and historian Sir Max Hastings, pointed out: "David, the public doesn't do irony."

HIS criticism of Israel stems from his understanding of justice as being at the heart of Jewish ethics. "I am a staunch advocate of the right of Israel to exist within secure, inter­nationally recognised borders," he says. "But, as a Jew, I can't be un­aware of ethical responsibilities."

He believes that the Jewish lay leadership has abdicated those re­spon­sibilities through its automatic defence of Israel's actions. But it is for the religious Jewish leadership - in all branches of Judaism, but especially within his own progressive movement, both in Britain and the United States - that he reserves his harshest criticism. "They have been timorous, willing to wax indignant about so many subjects, but main­taining a lamentable silence on Israel."

On the day we met, the General Synod was about to debate its motion on Israel-Palestine. There was pressure from the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks (a second cousin of Goldberg), and the Board of Depu­ties of British Jews to moderate the motion by removing references to the Ecumenical Accompaniment Pro­gramme, which they described as "anti-Israel".

Reviewing the coverage of the debate in the Jewish Chronicle at the end of the week, Rabbi Goldberg sent me this response: "Obviously, I was not there to hear the debate, but I thought that the JC's front-page headline, charging the Church with endorsing an 'Israel hate agenda', was an irresponsible incitement of Jewish paranoia; and its editorial, accusing the Archbishop of Canterbury of 'an explicit comparison' between the Holocaust and the deprivations of the Palestinians at checkpoints, was a scurrilous distortion of his carefully chosen words."

 

RABBI Goldberg has always been a champion of interfaith dialogue, but he now believes that the Israel question has contaminated Jewish-Christian relationships that have been built up over decades. He recognises that centuries of anti-Semitism, with its origins in Chris­tian teaching, have left Christians in an ethical bind. Who are they to lecture Jews on morality? On the other hand, how can Christians stand by when they see an injustice being committed against the Pales­tinians?

Advertisement

"Israel as a state has become politicised," he says. "When it comes to interfaith dialogue, it's become the elephant in the room, because those Christian organisations that have dared to voice criticism of what goes on in the Occupied Territories suffer the full force of the Jewish com­munity bearing down on them, and risk the ultimate sanction, and ultimate deterrent, of being accused of anti-Semitism."

He is "not optimistic" that the situation can be unlocked, "because it requires honesty on both sides, and I have to say that organisations like the Council of Christians and Jews are too timid to grasp the nettle. They always look for the anodyne consensus that will please nobody. Ultimately, they can't confront the situation, because there is a lack of real openness."

A two-state solution is Rabbi Goldberg's preferred resolution to the conflict. He sees one state and bi-national options as inflicting just another injustice. "I believe the Pales­tinians deserve a state of their own. They have earned it through their struggle."

He says that one problem is that there has never been a coincidence of strong leadership on both sides, with leaders willing to pursue peace and steer their people away from the abyss. The resolution of the conflict, he be­lieves, should be through argument and dialogue. He would not support boycotts of Israeli products or individuals.

"I'm a John Stuart Mill liber­tarian," he says. "I always believe in the ultimate power of free speech. I would prefer to persuade the Israeli government - by reason, prag­matism, and political argument - that it's in their own best interests to end the occupation, and curtail the settlements. Boycotts will make the Israeli government more extreme in their reactions, and make the Jewish community outside of Israel more strident.

"The tragedy is that, the more hopeless the situation can appear, the more extreme can become the actions and reactions; so a terrorist atrocity is followed by an excessive Israeli response, with disproportion­ate civilian casualties. And then the more mired in gloom become the voices you would look for, to find a way out."

FOR those who would support his views, there is a temptation to see Rabbi Goldberg in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets - determined to speak truth unto power, regardless of the consequences. His own view is that it may just come down to personality. "I have never thought of myself as a prophet, but perhaps I am in the prophetic tradition, in that I have always preferred to walk alone, because that way I am not beholden to any party, or group, or com­promise. By nature and tempera­ment, I would much rather be an outsider."

As our conversation draws to a close, he returns to ecumenical challenges. "Christianity says 'Love'; Islam says 'Peace'; and Judaism says: 'Justice'. But how often do you see these religions showing any of these things? If these religious teachings are to mean anything, they must be truly applied, and not just yearned
for."

 As for his hopes for the Jewish future, he says: "I believe the justification for remaining Jewish is to be a moral beacon. Every year at Passover, we recall the Exodus story, and its demand for freedom and justice. We are commanded to act on that cultural memory of the Exodus, and that means we should be passionately involved in justice issues."

Rabbi Goldberg is not by nature a pessimist. Perhaps surprisingly, he chooses a quote from the diaries of the father of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, to back up his innate hopefulness. "Things never work out as well as we hope or as badly as we fear."

This is not the Way, by David J. Goldberg, is published by Faber & Faber at £14.99 ( CT Bookshop £13.50); 978-0-571-27161-0. Free p&p on UK online CT Bookshop purchases throughout August.

Latest Cartoon

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)