1st Day Rosh Hashana 5779 – Rabbi Tony Bayfield

ROSH HASHANAH 5779         10TH SEPTEMBER 2018

Finchley Reform Synagogue



My granddaughter Francesca – aka Chessy – is doing A Level music, constantly demonstrating a talent she certainly hasn’t inherited from me!  A couple of months ago, she texted late one evening with a question: “Why,” she wanted to know, “did the Jewish orchestra at Terezin play Verdi’s Requiem more times than any other piece of music?”

The great advantage of a text is it gives you time to consider your response – i.e. google the answer.  For the person sitting next to you, Terezin was the camp near Prague to which many central European Jews were sent, particularly whilst extermination capacity was being increased in Poland.  It was designed as a façade to fool organisations such as the Red Cross into thinking it was a Jewish Care facility – and, of course, it did.  It’s not just today that people readily buy into blatant lies.

It was to Terezin that Leo Baeck, leader of German Jewry, was sent and where he responded by teaching Greek philosophy as well as Jewish ethics.

There was an orchestra at Terezin whose conductor was a youngish man of considerable repute, Rafael Schächter.[i]  And the orchestra – the membership of which had repeatedly to be reconstructed due to ‘resettlement’ of members in the East – did play Verdi’s Requiem sixteen times, more than any other work.  Chessy was right.

So how did I reply?  I suggested to her that Jewish music had no suitable equivalent at the time – neither Mendelssohn nor Mahler wrote requiems.  But, much more significant, German-speaking Jews of the first four decades of the 20th century saw themselves as integral to modern western culture.

Judaism had played a part you can’t over-estimate in its formation – directly through what is disparagingly still called the ‘Old Testament’[ii] and indirectly through the Christian Scriptures and the Qur’an, in both of which the presence of Judaism and its teachings – from ‘One God’ to ‘love your neighbour’ – is overwhelming.

Just as Leo Baeck – by teaching Plato and Aristotle – was saying ‘this is our culture, part of us too,’ Schächter was also affirming the place of Jews in modern western culture.  It was, I texted Chessy, a characteristic example of Jewish spiritual resistance: ‘It’s you, Herr Hitler and your barbarous National Socialists who have no place in civilised society, not us and this is one way in which we – in this place built entirely of fake news – can resist your lies.’

Some weeks later, Jacqui and I went to the Festival Hall to hear Chessy singing with the Bach Choir.  It’s an annual event in which girls nominated by their school get to sing with a famous choir in a venue guaranteed to make their family swell with pride. But what do they always sing?  Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion – in English, noch.

We Reform Jews increasingly read, chant and sing the traditional liturgy – from Un’taneh Tokef to Kol Nidrei – in Hebrew.  It helps if you don’t understand what you’re singing!  Similarly, I like my Bach sung in German; the English text, however, is inescapable: it was the Jews, not the Romans, who betrayed and murdered Jesus; it was the Jews, insists Matthew, and no one else who failed God and crucified love.

At the end of the performance I was overwhelmed – with both love and admiration for my granddaughter and by a wave of incandescent fury.  Why must we Jews forever be the incarnation of evil at the heart of western culture, the people who betray everything that’s good?  Shakespeare’s Shylock, Dickens’ Fagin, T.S. Eliot’s Bleistein “The rats are underneath the piles. / The Jew is underneath the lot / Money in furs.”[iii]  The question is both theological and strategic.  But today I want to concentrate on strategy – and not one but three JCs.

Anti-Semitism is a complex, persistent phenomenon – hideous in its effects, bewildering in its many manifestations and frequently disavowed by those infected.  In a book I published last year, Bishop David Gillett exposed the English origins of the blood libel.[iv]  There was a small Jewish community in 12th century Norwich which rubbed along reasonably well, despite its terrible press in the Gospels.  A little boy – William – was found dead and there were murmurings about the local immigrant community but they subsided: it was small, unthreatening and useful.

But a little later a monk, Thomas of Monmouth rode into town charged with taking a PWC-style look at the Cathedral’s finances.  He heard the story of William and it sparked a marketing idea worthy of a top 21st century political advisor.  He insisted the Jews had murdered the boy, for ritual purposes – to use his blood at Pesach.  Thus was William turned by a medieval tweet into a Christian martyr and given pride of place at Norwich Cathedral – establishing it as a shrine worthy of visiting.  Soon pilgrims were flocking to Norwich and the finances of the Cathedral boomed thanks to enthusiastic religious tourism.  The idea caught on, spread like wildfire to Europe without the need for border checks or a formal customs union and persisted well into the 20th century.  It’s our – British – contribution to the many gargoyles of anti-Semitism.

Good story.  But how’s it relevant?  Let me take you to Damascus in 1850.  An Italian friar and his Muslim servant disappeared; local Christians accused the Jews of murdering the two men in order to use their blood at the Seder. Charges were then brought by the French Consul in Damascus, supported by the city’s Egyptian Muslim Governor.  Seven leaders of the Jewish community were arrested and tortured – two died and one accepted Islam to save his life.  Sixty-three Jewish children were imprisoned and many Jewish homes destroyed in the search for the Friar’s body – before it emerged that he’d been killed by a Muslim. The Christian blood-libel had infected the Arab world.[v]

Jews were never treated as equals in Christian or in Muslim lands; never granted the same rights as the Christian or Muslim citizens of the same countries; never – right up to the re-establishment of Israel – free from the threat of violence anywhere.  At best tolerated, often seen as useful, we were always murderously expendable.  As I say, anti-Semitism is complex and has many faces but the picture of Jews both in the Gospels and the Qur’an – the result of our refusal to accept and follow Jesus and Mohammad – has a lot to do with the origins of a killer virus which stubbornly persists.  Often by mutation.

In an article in The Times, Danny Finkelstein put his finger on the latest mutation:

“Israel,” he wrote, ”is a tiny country.  It’s the size of Wales. At one point you can cross the country on foot in less than two hours.  But to Mr Corbyn and his allies it is a symbol of the one thing that they battle against more than any other: the evil of western imperialism.”

“Zionism,” Finkelstein continues, “has, for them, ceased to be a description of the desire for a homeless refugee people to make a small state for themselves in their ancient homeland.  Instead, it stands for an ideology of occupation and world domination.  This translation of the practical project of Jews seeking security into a world conspiracy to spread imperialism is, by its nature, anti-Semitic.”[vi]

Finkelstein’s right: the contemporary mutation of the virus which started with the admirers of a first century JC has metamorphosed and infected many of the supporters of a 21st century JC – and JC himself.

However, the fundamental unacceptability of a Jewish homeland is not just incorporated in the anti-imperialist narrative of the Labour Party.  I mentioned a book earlier which was the product of five years dialogue between leading Jews and leading Christians.  The Jews in the group, despite trust, friendship and much hard work found certain Christian doctrines – such as incarnation – hard to get our heads round.  But this was nothing compared with the problem the Christians found, not with Jewish doctrine but with Israel.  At one point a leading Catholic, Sister Teresa Brittain told the group that she, as a Sister of Sion, frequently lectures to Christian groups about Judaism.  But these days – she said – however her talk is billed, the only subject her audience want to discuss is Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. They insist that the Christian narrative is one of always being on the side of the weak and the oppressed and Israelis – like the all-conquering Romans before them – are manifestly oppressors of the weak.

And then there’s the Muslim narrative – that the whole of the Middle East is part of the Muslim Caliphate and Israel represents continuing western intrusion and colonisation.  Not a home for their closest sibling but a foreign body to be violently rejected.[vii]

Those whose goal it is to bring the hard Left to power – whether they understand their portrait of Israel as an imperialist aggressor is in fact the anti-Semitism virus in its latest guise or not – don’t give a hoot either way.  In the pursuit of political power, collateral damage is to be expected and Jewish support is expendable.  If the Labour Party now wants to draw a line under the present episode – even though the narrative may play well with their constituency, just as Boris’ well-paid articles in The Telegraph ridiculing Muslims play well with his despicable supporters’ club – it’s only because it’s become a distraction and divisive.  That’s why the NEC overruled their own party leader.  Not because many don’t think he’s right.

The Times published a cartoon in which Jeremy Corbyn says to the NEC: “We must show the country we’re not anti-Semitic” but then adds “But what if it’s a Zionist trap?”[viii] The mutually reinforcing narratives of the hard Left – Israel is an imperialist state; of grass-roots Christian support for the dispossessed against the powerful Israeli oppressor; and Muslim opposition to colonialist invaders are each rooted in a vicious bacillus, an ineradicable plague[ix] at the very heart of western culture.  Yet many members of the hard Left, many rank and file Christians and many in the Muslim world don’t recognise it. So what do we do?

First, we have to acknowledge that the policies of Israel’s present government – cuddling up like Stormy Daniels to President Trump – are not only antithetical to Jewish values but play straight into the three deeply embedded narratives.  They reinforce the very prejudices we desperately challenge.  As does the recent Jewish nation state legislation which reinforces the slander that Israel has nothing to do with Judaism[x] only with Jews and, therefore, has a racist basis.

Second, we must equally acknowledge that turning into pariahs those young Jews who articulate Jewish values in the face of anti-Semitism and acknowledge the genuine plight of innocent Palestinians is utterly contemptable.

Third, we need to calm down, regain our clear sight and adopt the strategy most likely to keep our community secure while allowing it to act in accordance with the vision and responsibility of Judaism.  The mutated virus is so well-established and defended in the narratives of the Left, grass roots Christianity and political Islam that it can only be tackled by investing large amounts of time and resource in patient dialogue far below the level of JC headlines, working with all three groupings to help them understand what they’re wittingly or unwittingly doing.  We have skills in these areas and they need to be brought from the margins to the centre of communal strategy, deployed alongside our physical protection.

The high-profile JC headlines should be focused on that which is much more widely recognised for what it is.  When Labour MPs like Luciana Berger are drowned by traditional anti-Semitic abuse; when politicians like Margaret Hodge who’ve never associated themselves with the Jewish community before become the victim of hideous personal attack from within the Labour Party – that’s what we challenge publically; that’s what we argue remorselessly must be dealt with.  It’s so much harder to be self-deceiving about.

Of course we have to remain vigilant and under no illusion – but we have to be vigilant for a purpose going beyond security.  Rafael Schächter and his orchestra played Verdi’s Requiem sixteen times because it was the only way they could demonstrate that Jews – not party power brokers, cynical media exploiters and political thugs – represent the true values of modern western culture.

We aren’t, thank God, in a concentration camp – so we can defend the stranger and the immigrant – for we were once strangers and immigrants in the Land of Egypt[xi] – in a way that contradicts and resists the rising tide of populism all over Europe (from Hungary to Sweden) and North America.  We can continue to advocate for the poor and the needy, the widow and the orphan both in this country and globally as the Prophetic tradition which the first JC represented and we taught the west commands us to do.  And, we can point to the threat to the globe, the crisis of the environment of which Genesis taught us to be responsible stewards[xii] – whatever self-serving untruths President Trump and his followers may exploit.

Yes, we’re cast as the incarnation of evil at the heart of western culture – in the Diaspora and Israel alike – and we always will be.  (I wonder where the 40% of the community whom the JC says will consider leaving Britain if JC comes to power think will be safe?)  But we’re also major contributors to the just, compassionate and good that western culture embraced.  It’s our culture too.

This Rosh Hashanah I wish us a cool, clear-headed strategy for dealing with our enemies; and continued passion for what is just, truthful and life-enhancing for everybody.

[i]         Rafael Schächter, b. Romania 1905, came to Brno as a teenager, studied and performed in Prague.  d. Auschwitz or another death camp, 1945.

[ii]           ‘Old’ – superceded by the ‘New’.

[iii]          T.S. Eliot, Burbank with a Baedeker. Bleistein with a Cigar. (1920).

[iv]          Tony Bayfield, Deep Calls to Deep. (London: SCM, 2017), pp.103–116.

[v]           Martin Gilbert, In Ishmael’s House. (New Haven: Yale UP, 2010), pp.108–9.

[vi]          The Times, Wednesday, 25th July 2018, p.21.

[vii]         All three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are major contributors to modern western culture.

[viii]         The Times, Tuesday 4th September 2018, p.31.

[ix]          Self-indulgent reference to the last paragraph of Camus’ masterpiece The Plague.

[x]           Judaism has always had a geography as well as a history and still does.

[xi]          Deuteronomy 10:19 and, in all, 36 places in the Torah.

[xii]         Genesis 1:28 has always been understood as responsible stewardship and the best part of two thousand years ago Rabbinic Judaism placed the following words in God’s mouth: “Do not corrupt and desolate my world; for if you corrupt it, there is no one to put it right after you.”  Ecclesiastes Rabbah VII.28.


Rabbi Professor Tony Bayfield CBE, DD (Cantuar)