The vexed, holier-than-thou question

Religious Notes
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OF ALL the challenges that face us in the Millennium, religion must surely be one of the greatest. In the Western world, cynicism and the worship of the superficial, the idolatry of physical form, has replaced spirituality, at least where religion was once celebrated as an edifice of national hope.

Jewish people confront this age of secularisation in different ways. For a start they look to the state of Israel as a pinnacle of hope. Rooted in biblical Israel and dispersed throughout the world, many Jews regard the country as a state of mind as much as an actual place; it has the allure of a mirage even for those who have lost faith in its politics. Yet the politics of the Jewish state radiate beyond its own sphere of influence in the Middle East. The bitter conflicts within the country are not simply concerned with Israel's attitude towards the Palestinian question, but relate crucially to its own identity and its Judaism, which is mirrored back to Jews in Britain and the rest of the world.

In Britain there are new, if precarious hopes for a reconciliation between the Orthodox and Progressive Jews, ending that vexed, holier-than-thou question of who is a Jew. In Israel, such a deal would be harder to secure, not least because the Progressives have very little power and the right to the sanctity of Orthodox life appears to be a battle for the soul of Israel. What might be considered a watered-down Judaism would be regarded there as a risk to the life-blood of the religion as well as to the state itself.

In Britain, the majority of most Jews belong to the United Synagogue, a mean average of Jewish Orthodox observance. Yet ironically, membership of the United Synagogue may well be the only Jewish act of faith some of its members will ever make. Many of them lead otherwise secular lives and following the "party line" on religion offers the opt-out clause of having someone else do your thinking for you. Many Progressives, on the other hand, though criticised for not facing up to the rigours of a demanding religion, have made a stand for a Judaism with which they can more honestly keep faith.

The disharmony between Orthodox and Progressives in Britain could be seen as a pale reflection of the internal disarray within Israel itself, denuded of a leader of skill and vision. In Israel there are few shades of Jewish thought and opinion manifest in the attitudes of the state itself. There you are either religious or secular. While Judaism has always survived as a religion encircled by opposition and persecution, a Jewish state fought for and won by the intellectual socialists of 50 years ago has paradoxically risked the weakening of its religious fabric. Why? The secret, they say, is in the soil and toil of Israel, so much of it reclaimed from the desert which has bred a philosophy of practical realism.

A recent report stating that 64 per cent of the ultra-Orthodox population opted for turning Israel into a theocracy shocked some of Anglo-Jewry's modern Orthodox followers - those who adhere strictly to the principles of their faith but still recognise as Jews those Progressives whom they might once have derided an worshippers of a lesser god. And along with the signing of the peace treaty in Britain, as delicate as those stumbling, hesitant accords of Oslo and Wye, there are auspicious beginnings in Israel, too. In recognition of the need for Jewish cohesion, many religious Jews in Israel are burying their differences and holding out the hand of friendship to those they still term the secular citizens of the state.

So, for British Jews the hope of spiritual enlightenment in any real sense is a true challenge for the Millennium. In a Britain where Sunday has become just another shopping day, it is often left to the minority faiths to preserve that focus on their own gods. And Jews of all complexities will, one hopes, remember their Sabbath.

Gloria Tessler is the author of `Amelie: the story of Lady Jakobovits' (Vallentine Mitchell, pounds 20)