IN 2003, after a long fight with cancer, Linda Bayfield, mother of three, respected head teacher, and for 40 years soulmate of Rabbi Tony Bayfield, died. In the weeks and months that followed, her widower shared his feelings with many, as a true rabbi even in deep distress teaching others.
It is safe to say that a process begun 16 years ago has reached its apotheosis in Being Jewish Today: Confronting the real issues. The book is divided into four parts, each with sub-sections: “Being Both Jew and Jewish Today: You can’t ignore the context”; “Being a Jew Today: Identity and peoplehood”; “Judaism Today: Light and weight”; and “Jewish Faith Today: God, suffering and silence”.
The sub-sections focus on both some of the fine-detail issues as well as the broader ones. For example: identity: women and the scandal of patriarchy; modern political Zionism and the end of exile; Sefer Torah, dual Torah, Jewish teaching; covenant, catastrophe, and crisis; reasoning about God; experiencing God; Jewish survival, messianism, and the goal of the journey.
It is quickly apparent that Bayfield has ranged widely for decades in his reading and research. Being Jewish Today covers a vast range of scholars and thinkers, synthesising their ideas, rendering them in comprehensible language, and using them as a springboard to expressing Bayfield’s own thoughts and responses. In spite of the seriousness of the subject, Bayfield allows his sense of humour to emerge from time to time, and the book is enhanced by this; those who might assume from the title that it is a heavy read for clergy and scholars only can be reassured that this is a book for everyone and anyone.
The aspect of the book which makes it unique is what Bayfield himself calls the “Marmite” interjections that some of his colleagues told him to remove from the draft. Throughout the book, in bold and italics at the end of sections, the voice of God in Bayfield’s head and his responses are heard, reflecting on what the author has written. It is a quirk that some may find distracting, though it serves to bring God even more intimately into the text, and, in my view, it is a quirk that works.
Being Jewish Today is not just a monument to the extraordinary woman whose life was cruelly cut short: it is a testament to the indomitability of the human spirit and the intellect and courage of its author.
This is arguably the most approachable and comprehensible book on Jewish theology and the challenges of Jewish living to be published so far in the 21st century. It is also a perfect text for anyone who seeks to understand what it means to be a Jew today.
Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh is Dean and Director of Jewish Studies at Leo Baeck College.
Being Jewish Today: Confronting the real issues
Church Times Bookshop £17.10