Yom Chamishi, 13 AdarI 5781
Ta anith Esther Thursday, 25 February 2021
A lesson in generosity of spirit PDF Print E-mail

TROUBLE-MAKING JUDAISM by Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah ISBN: 9780954848293 Reviewed by LUCIAN J HUDSON

EXACTLY a decade ago Jonathan Sacks wrote a most important book, The Dignity of Difference. Lord Sacks introduced a new paradigm into the pursuit of coexistence, arguing that we need to do more than search for common values; we must also learn to make space for difference. For Sacks, the global future requires something stronger than earlier doctrines of toleration and pluralism.
To understand the full import of this powerful message, one needs to go beyond that book and read the newly published Trouble-Making Judaism, by one of Liberal Judaism’s finest and most engaging rabbis – Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah.

With Rabbi Elli, as she is affectionately known, there is the grit in the oyster which produces the pearl. As a congregational rabbi – who takes pride in having built a thriving and welcoming community in Brighton & Hove – Elli can truly explain what the dignity of difference is about when it is lived and practised day in, day out. She possesses that quality of experience that resonates with all Jews, whatever their denomination.

The book is a revelation, not least about Elli herself. Her partner, her wife, Jess Wood, who is a distinguished community leader in her own right, designed the eyecatching cover. One of Elli’s most memorable childhood incidents was going away to a three-week summer camp next to Beachy Head, which is of course in her current catchment area (God does indeed move in mysterious ways). Early morning before breakfast, the eight-year-old bespectacled Elli managed to fell a tall 12-year-old, who had made antisemitic comments. She also recalls “the puzzlement and pain and fierce anger” when a school acquaintance told her that Jews had killed Jesus. “Even at the age of nine, I knew it wasn’t true and the injustice of it made me wild.”

Elli turned trouble-making into a virtue and a gift. Her book is an inspiration to any of us who are troubled by what makes us different, but who take the small yet crucial steps to express it and make something of it. This call to courage is Elli’s most far-reaching contribution. We are not just Liberal Jews, but Liberating Jews.

Every sentence in her 300 page book exudes that basic enthusiasm and authenticity that make a congregational rabbi successful. Of course, being a rabbi is about teaching, especially Jewish teaching. Elli’s insights are thoughtful and erudite, a salutary reminder of the value of the Progressive rabbinic education provided by Leo Baeck College. Not one of Elli’s arguments is short of diligent and discerning rabbinic scholarship, informed by a rich hinterland of other spiritual, political and intellectual influences.

Virginia Woolf and other feminist writers pervade her work. She is also generous in attributing ideas to other rabbis, including the great Hugo Gryn, Reform’s Rabbi Tony Bayfield and our own Rabbi Alexandra Wright. Elli’s book promotes Progressive Judaism and reflects the thinking of a generation of Liberal and Reform rabbis, whose intellectual contribution has previously been undervalued.

Although Elli does not say it of herself, I found reading this book a lesson in generosity of spirit and, that much neglected soul trait, awe. There is an innocence about Elli that never goes away, and we would all be poorer without it. That absence of guile and calculation is refreshing and, not surprisingly, it is persuasive. In generations past, the heart was the seat of learning, and it is still for me – and I suspect Elli too – the shortest route to
the soul. This flame is kept alive in Elli’s life and work.

My message, derived from Lech Lecha, is Go Out and Buy this Book!

Lucian J Hudson is chairman of Liberal Judaism and editor of Zionism: A Jewish Communal Response from the UK