Sarah and Rebecca and Leah and Rachel and Bertha and Julia

Rabbi Julia Neuberger offers a vision of Judaism which is both true to tradition and open to the future. By Helen Freeman; On Being Jewish by Julia Neuberger Heinemann, pounds 16.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Julia Neuberger was a Liberal rabbi for 12 years and this is reflected in her choice of Claude Montefiore, one of the founders of Liberal Judaism inBritain, to define what is, for her, Judaism at its best. He said that "the best spirits in Israel showed

Her approach is clearly personal. She begins with her Hampstead childhood and her awareness of being the offspring of a refugee generation. That takes her straight to the Holocaust and the Jewish community's struggle to deal with the enormity of that event. She explains why modern Jews can't forgive the Nazi perpetrators: only the victims can forgive them, and most of those are dead. Otherwise, forgiveness is for God and not for human beings. Forgiveness is not the issue, it is remembering that is important: we must never forget what happens when dictatorship flourishes.

But why should this book be of interest to everyone, not just to those who are Jewish? It is because Julia Neuberger is both prepared to criticise her own tradition for its limitations and concerned to praise its insights and their value for society in general.

She bemoans the lack of role models for Jewish women. We pray that our daughters should be like their ancestors, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel. True enough they were strong women - but they were also scheming and manipulative when the occasion demanded it. She advocates highlighting other Jewish women as role models, such as Bertha Pappenheim, an Orthodox Jew and feminist who campaigned for an end to the slave trade.

But she also praises Jewish tradition with such love and respect that some traditionalists might be surprised. She talks of how, historically, Judaism never denigrated the body, so that sexuality was seen as a gift from God within a sanctified relationship. She quotes a 13th-century text, which explains how a man should approach his wife with love in order to arouse her desire. This was remarkably enlightened for medieval times, as was the absolute emphasis on the sanctity of human life, which meant that abortion was always permitted if the mother's life was in danger.

Neuberger also reveals the effect of that respect for the sanctity of life at the other end of the life cycle. As someone involved in the setting up of the North London Hospice, she is well qualified to make the comment that Jewsknow how to deal with death, but are poor at dealing with the dying: because of the absolute value of a single minute of life, nothing may be done to shorten someone's suffering.

Yet what makes this book special is that it doesn't end by highlighting the problems within the Jewish community. It ends with hope, that we can look forward to a future in which the Jewish community will be more knowledgeable and open, and will be able to use its passion for social justice in the struggle to build a better society in which equity and morality take precedence over bigotry and intolerance.

Comments