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Interview: Jonathan Wittenberg, senior rabbi, Masorti Synagogue UK

03 November 2017

‘A relationship with a dog touches the same things as the heart feels’

Ben Gold

I’d describe Masorti Judaism as open-minded traditional Judaism, or historical-positive Judaism.


There’s much I admire across the spectrum of Jewish practice: the social conscience of the Reform movement, and I appreciate their efforts to make religious values relevant in today’s world. I admire the faithfulness and self-discipline of traditional Jewish practice; and I have a lot of interest and respect for the Jewish mystical tradition, as well.


I see my job as caring about people, teaching, listening, and responding in writing and preaching, trying to engage as many people as possible in different ways in community life, fostering the central values of chesed — loving kindness — and tsedek — social justice and charity.


Days are long and full, thank goodness, meeting and listening to people, planning interesting community activities. . . Prayer is quiet time, time to listen, be, to remember our key values.


I wrote my new book, Things My Dog Has Taught Me, out of a conversation with my publishers. I do love dogs. My dogs have been faithful and constant companions for many years now. But, as I wrote it, I became increasingly aware that this was taking me into some of the serious themes of human experience: abandonment, cruelty, loving kindness, hospitality.


There’s a lot in it about caring for each other and about values; so it’s not just for dog-lovers. Had I been writing a book about pastoral care, I would have included many of the same things, because a relationship with a dog touches the same things as the heart feels.


I’m also taking the reader with me into a Jewish household; so it’s a very light-hearted introduction to what a Jewish home looks like.


That could be for Jewish readers, [too], because it’s part of our difficult and complex recent history that some Jewish people want to rediscover their culture and traditions which weren’t passed on to them. But I was thinking more about the non-Jewish reader. The dog is a way of taking someone into a Jewish home and thought.


The most important part of the book is more universal: the feelings and the association of feelings that dogs bring. But dogs are also fun, and I hope the book has its entertaining moments.


With dogs, it’s about feelings rather than mindfulness. Mindfulness is a bit strong — too focused. Dogs are very emotional beings, very responsive. It’s about companionship, above all: their sensing of people’s needs for affection, consolation; and also with their senses very alert to the world, and helping us to be alert to the world. There are many dimensions to what dogs bring to us.


We had Safi for 15 years. He was a mixture of various breeds, and was found in the street by a member of the congregation. He was a very well-trained dog, and we sensed that he was unfailingly grateful to us for giving him a new home. He was so hurt about being turfed out of his first home, and felt that to the end of his days. We named him Safi after a Rabbi Assaf in Jerusalem who had a dog who accompanied him everywhere, even to the synagogue.


Mitzpah — well, we were on holiday with our children in Wales and saw a sign saying “Border Collie puppies” . . . and one came home with the car. Mitzpah means a “watchtower” or a “look-out”, and it comes from the Torah.


I can’t remember my first experience of God. A sense of awe and wonder has grown, through what others have taught me, through how life speaks.


I believe God is present in all living being, that we carry responsibility here on earth for how the presence of God in all life is respected. Salvation means finding ultimate value in life; that nothing doesn’t matter.


My parents were both refugees from Nazi Germany. The circle of my grandparents’ friends — and I was very close to them — were all refugees. This has had a huge influence on my values: welcoming people, opposing prejudice. I grew up in a Masorti synagogue, but my father’s family were strictly Orthodox in Germany before the war.


It’s complex. It’s a hard world to grow up in, whatever one’s faith. It’s essential to try and create bridges between the traditional language of faith, and how life is now for young people.


Yes, I experience racial hatred from time to time. Others most definitely do, and I believe we must stand shoulder to shoulder.


The Elijah Interfaith Institute is an important organisation, created by a friend to foster interfaith understanding and explore spirituality. My own contribution is very small.


I love the sound of mountain streams and running water. I love the sound of the voices of people I love and care about.


The greatest influences on my life have been encountering good people; the beauty and wonder of nature; being with people who are dying. My own teacher, Rabbi Louis Jacobs, in his book A Jewish Theology, says that one should be an agnostic about death. We don’t know the landscape of what lies beyond. I think the most important thing here is to listen, to offer companionship so that people feel that they are not alone, to be present and quiet, and to enable people to be in touch with their spirit.


When I’m not working, I’m walking the dog, gardening, running, reading.


I wish I didn’t get angry. What gives me a sense of indignation? Cruelty.


The things that make me happy are my family, gardens, woodland walks, the sheer beauty of the world, beautiful poetry.


The goodness of people — the desire to do good of so many people — gives me hope for the future.


I’ve no idea who I’d choose to be locked in a synagogue with, but, in default of any human being, I’d choose my dogs.


Jonathan Wittenberg was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. Things My Dog Has Taught Me is shortly to be published by Hodder & Stoughton at £16.99 (CT Bookshop £15.30).

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