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
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."
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
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
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?
"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
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
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
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
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.