Dan Cohn-Sherbok: the rabbi who sees another side to anti-Semitism

Who would dare to suggest that anti-Semitism has had some positive effects for the Jewish people? Maybe only a rabbi. Sholto Byrnes meets Dan Cohn-Sherbok and discusses the controversial ideas outlined in his new book
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The Independent Culture

When Dan Cohn-Sherbok was growing up in Colorado, his parents were on the fringes of the Wasp world that made up the Denver upper class. They were listed in the city's social register; his father was a surgeon. But the young Dan was aware that there were areas of Denver that were off-limits to Jews. In certain residential districts, no one would sell houses to Jews or blacks. The Country Club and the University Club would not admit Jews as members. "No matter what I might achieve," he remembers, "I knew that the door to that Gentile world was firmly shut." It made him feel "uncomfortable", "marginalised", "an outsider". "I have experienced anti-Semitism," he says, "and I hated it."

But now Cohn-Sherbok, a Reform rabbi, professor of Jewish Theology at the University of Wales, and author of many books, including The Dictionary of Jewish Biography and Rabbinic Perspectives on the New Testament, has done something that many people will regard as extraordinary and others as downright irresponsible. He has written a book which claims that anti-Semitism has had positive effects.

According to Cohn-Sherbok, this prejudice has "frequently led to the enrichment of the Jewish heritage", because by turning in on itself the community has reaffirmed its traditions. But then he goes further. Without it, he says, "Jews may not be able to withstand the pressures of the modern world." The "paradox of anti-Semitism" which forms the title of Cohn-Sherbok's book is that "Jews need enemies in order to survive... in the absence of Jew-hatred, Judaism is undergoing a slow death." Without anti-Semitism, he writes, "we may be doomed to extinction."

Cohn-Sherbok, a pale, slightly intense, humorous man, does not come across as an out-and-out contrarian in the flesh (though his wife Lavinia, who has co-written some of his books, did once accuse the Chief Rabbi of being "all mouth and no trousers" in a newspaper review). He insists that his thesis is purely descriptive. He's aware that it could be misread, though, and is on occasion a little jumpy. Isn't he worried, I ask, that his book may provide comfort to anti-Semites? "I'm not an anti-Semite!" he says excitedly (although I have suggested no such thing). "I'm a rabbi! I hate anti-Semitism. I want to stop hatred, not encourage it. But we must see that there's a converse side to what we want. We want to be loved, and we want Judaism to survive intact. What I'm saying is that these are incompatible desires."

The Cohn-Sherboks live in a farmhouse in the Welsh countryside, where their nearest neighbours are sheep. Nobody there is going to object to his thesis. The world of education to which both Dan and Lavinia belong (she is a former headmistress of West Heath school in Kent, the alma mater of Princess Diana) is also generally tolerant of views which would raise eyebrows elsewhere. But to share the view that there may be positive aspects to anti-Semitism by publishing a book about it; doesn't he expect to be attacked for this, not least by his own community? "What I'm saying may sound controversial," he says, "but I would expect Jews to feel a resonance in this thesis."

Rabbi Dan's view is that historically it was the barriers imposed by anti-Semitism that helped Judaism survive. In the ghetto, Jews studied the Talmud, kept kosher and observed the commandments of the Torah. In earlier times, when the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, it was the institutions that were created because the Jews had no homeland that bound them together. "I don't think it's a miracle that the Jewish religion survived so long," he says. "Other religious groups died out - Roman, Greek, Assyrian, Arcadian - they're no longer here. But we are. Why do we endure? Because we're hated. When we're given no choice, we remain loyal to the tradition."

It was when Jews began to be given choices, he says, when they began to be emancipated, accepted and welcomed, that they gradually abandoned their heritage. "Without persecution, Jews are attracted to the outside, Gentile world. They leave their own culture behind. We choose not to be observant." He suggests that this is true generally of minority groups living in majority cultures. "It would be nice to think that the members of a minority group could live a double life: being at home with their faith and culture, and simultaneously at home in the majority culture. But I think that the tension is overwhelming. The majority culture sucks everything else in."

Dan Cohn-Sherbok's great-grandfather was a kosher butcher in New York. "He was Orthodox," he says. "But Jews like my great-grandfather who went to the US with yarmulkes, fringes on their garments, and speaking Yiddish, felt alien; and they were alien. Jews who had assimilated into the American way of life exerted enormous pressure on them to conform, because they looked like they'd come from another planet. So they melted into American culture as soon as they could.

"And that Torah-observant Judaism that was practised for thousands of years has had a slow death. When we were hated, we thrived. When we're loved, and opportunities are offered us, what happens? We forsake our tradition. That's precisely what has happened in the modern world."

Cohn-Sherbok points to Jewish festivals and holy days as instances of a positive response to hatred being deeply embedded in tradition. He describes the narrative recited at Passover as being: "The Egyptians hate us; they want to kill us; we escape with God's help; we miraculously walk on dry land; our enemies are destroyed and eventually we become the possessors of the promised land." Likewise Purim: "We're hated; our enemies want to kill us; we're rescued in the Book of Esther." When the name of Haman, who wanted to massacre the Jews, is mentioned during the Purim celebrations, he says, "we make noise and say 'whoopee, we've survived and triumphed.' That, really, is the theme of Judaism." Only now, he thinks, the relative absence of anti-Semitism means that there's nothing to triumph over. He cites the great Zionist Theodor Herzl: "He warned that if our Christian hosts were to leave us in peace for two generations, the Jews would merge entirely into surrounding races."

Not all would agree, of course. A former classmate at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where Cohn-Sherbok studied over 30 years ago (he later took doctorates in New York and Cambridge) was not impressed. He told Dan that this thesis was the most ridiculous thing he'd ever heard; and he was a Reform rabbi. How much stronger is the reaction likely to be from Britain's Orthodox establishment? If the Chief Rabbi responds to Cohn-Sherbok's book, he may prove himself to be both mouth and trousers on this occasion.

"But the Chief Rabbi wants to have it both ways. He wants all the opportunities of the modern world, he wants us to be loved, and he wants us to be observant. But the Jewish community is not going to live that way, with one foot in one world and one foot in another. The vast majority of Jews in the world are not observant. They don't even know the Jewish law they're abandoning. They don't know the 613 commandments they're supposed to keep, let alone the thousands and thousands that form the Torah. The only way that would happen, to my mind, is if we had no choice."

This is Cohn-Sherbok's paradox. The Judaisms of the assimilated Jews, he says, are "very attenuated forms of Judaism, if they are Judaism at all". He mentions one of the non-theistic forms, Reconstructionist Judaism. "It's a doughnut," he says. "It has a very large hole in the centre: the absence of God. If you take that out of Judaism, you may have a form of ethnicity, but it's not Judaism as the thriving tradition that it was."

Isn't this one of the special problems of anti-Semitism, though? It doesn't just target religiously observant Jews. It can target anyone who is deemed to be Jewish, because of Judaism's dual nature as both race and religion. I mention friends of mine whom Orthodox Jews would not recognise as being Jewish, their mothers being Gentiles; but who describe themselves, accurately and not without some bitter humour, as being "not Jewish enough for the Synagogue, but Jewish enough for Hitler".

"You're asking about choice," he says. "Do you have a choice not to be Jewish? Let's put it this way. Let's say that you are a rabbit. That is an empirical phenomenon. You have long ears and you hop. But you're not going to find anything inside a Jew that's going to identify that person as being Jewish. It's purely convention."

He mentions the traditional matrilineal convention, and then the decree by American Reform rabbis that having a Jewish father is enough to confer Jewishness; and expresses a hope that the confusion around identity could be settled by the general adoption of the Humanistic Jewish position: "if a person sees himself or herself as Jewish, then they are. It's like being a supporter of Tottenham Hotspur or the Labour Party. You sign on the dotted line."

Before reading Cohn-Sherbok's book, I hadn't even been aware of Humanistic Jews. They do sound a little strange. "They've taken God out of all the religious services," says Rabbi Dan, who is a friend of Sherwin Wine, the movement's founder. "I've heard of a candidate for the rabbinate, a woman, who said that if she'd admitted to believing in God when they interviewed her, she wouldn't have been allowed to be ordained."

Even those who are far from being traditionally observant, however, can suffer from the effects of anti-Semitism. When Dan and Lavinia were researching a previous book, The American Jew, they interviewed a former debutante. "She married a multi-millionaire and lives in a gigantic mansion with surrealist art on the walls. But she said: 'You never know, I could be carted off tomorrow, just like with the Nazis.' This fear flows through the blood."

This fear may have reaffirmed the former deb's Jewish identity, but it's hard to see anything positive in it. Even Rabbi Dan tells me that sometimes he feels thankful that, if necessary, he could "escape" to America. "I live in Wales, I feel very secure," he says. "But I like to have portable objects of value, jewels, that I could take with me in an emergency. It could happen anytime, anywhere. I think we're all haunted by the spectre of the Holocaust."

That, of course, was the ultimate expression of anti-Semitism. "Quite. That's the real danger of hatred - if it's so extreme that there won't be any Jews at all. I'm not saying that we should all go back to the ghetto and have stones thrown at us, and I'm certainly not recommending genocide. But I recognise the positive consequences of Jew-hatred."

It's one thing to detail this paradox, I say to Cohn-Sherbok. But his book leaves one wondering what the answer to it is. "There isn't a solution!" he says, heated again. "You want me to give you a formula for a rosy future for the Jewish people. I can't give you that. I'm saying that if we're hated we'll probably continue as we did in previous centuries, and if we're loved, we may be loved to death. It shouldn't be so, but that's the fact."

Dan Cohn-Sherbok aims to be "clear-eyed and clear-headed", and has previously examined other areas of religious controversy, editing a book on the Salman Rushdie affair and suggesting that Messianic Jews - who include the "Jews for Jesus" - should be considered part of pluriform Judaism. But I suspect that the reaction to this new book could be stormier than he expects. He may be glad that he only has sheep for company in Wales, for a while at least.

'The Paradox of Anti-Semitism' by Dan Cohn-Sherbok is published by Continuum at £14.99. To buy a copy (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 or post your order to PO Box 60, Helston TR13 0TP