I’m New Here! Rescuing the Hebrew Covenant One Blog Post at a Time

Robert Cohen for Patheos blogLike the title of my blog says, I’m writing from the edge.

But which edge? And who says the Hebrew Covenant needs rescuing anyway?

Well my Jewish edginess comes from a number of places and I can assure you the Covenant is not in a good shape.

First, some edgy geography.

I’m writing this from the unfashionable side of the Atlantic, from a small, wet island called Britain that used to have an empire and is now struggling to hold its own internal union of nations together and is distinctly ambivalent about its continental neighbours.

My edgy geography could perhaps be excused if I was writing from the trendy metropolitan bubble of London (where most British Jews live). But I’m more than 250 miles from the capital in the county of North Yorkshire better known for the rugged scenery of the Dales than for its robust cultural and political debate, let alone the quality of its chicken soup.

In Britain Jews make up barely 0.5% of the population. Although where I live the percentage is whole lot smaller than that. So, geographically speaking, I’m on the tasseled fringes of the Jewish world.

But distance gives perspective and I won’t be holding back on giving you my take on the big issues facing the Jews of Britain from concerns about the rise of antisemitism to the arrival on our shores of John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel.

And the appearance of well-funded pro-Israel American Evangelical movements to Britain leads me neatly from edgy geography to edgy politics.

When it comes to Israel/Palestine I hold a radically dissenting position that puts me firmly on the edge of the mainstream Jewish outlook.

For the last four years I’ve been exploring exactly what that forward slash line between ‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine’ means for me, Jews in Britain and around the world. Along the way I’ve been called ‘shameful’, Marxist’, ‘narcissistic’, ‘traitor’ and much worse. My Christian readers are far more polite.

From where I’m standing, our relationship to the Palestinian people is the single most important challenge facing the future of Judaism and Jewish communities worldwide. And right now we are making a terrible hash of it.

So I’m expecting to draw some fire on these pages too when Israel/Palestine crops up, which it undoubtedly will do.

But my Jewish edginess on Israel has a very clear Jewish context. My comments, however critical of the actions of the Jewish State, will always come rooted in love and respect for the religious values, cultural heritage and collective historical experience that have informed my Jewish identity.

If nothing else, I hope to demonstrate that in Britain, just like in the rest of Europe and north America, there is a growing diversity of opinion when it comes to Israel that’s rarely reflected in the official pronouncements of our communal and rabbinic leadership. We Jews may be monotheistic but we have never been monolithic!

And all this brings me to the state of the Hebrew Covenant. After 4,000 years of Jewish history, what’s left of the Covenant that still makes sense?

Judaism began evolving from Land theology and sacrificial Temple worship more than two thousand years ago. The genius of rabbinic Judaism was to make ‘being Jewish’ entirely portable.

We no longer needed land or a Temple to understand our place in creation. The mission set for us at Sinai to build a God-centred society founded on justice, turned out to have meaning beyond The Promised Land. Prayer, the observance of Jewish ritual, and a practical application of Jewish law became the way to maintain Jewish peoplehood. The Hebrew prophet Micah had already provided us with the guiding principles of what really mattered as early as the 8th century BCE:

“And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

It’s hardly been an easy ride over the last two thousand years and the mid-twentieth century was an all time low with the implications of the Holocaust still playing themselves out.

But in the last 70 years we have thrived like at no other period in our history. We, the down-trodden of every place and time, have finally found ourselves with power and influence.

But we are struggling to make the adjustment.

Our strong ethical outlook was forged through centuries of oppression and a victimhood sensibility runs deep in our collective psyche. Today we find ourselves the oppressor in the very land where we first gave moral priority to the ‘widow and the orphan’. But most of us don’t quite see it that way.

Hence a Hebrew Covenant in need of rescue.

To finish this introduction I need to introduce you to my family.

Like Moses marrying Zipporah, I too have married out of the tribe. But Anne isn’t from the outskirts of the Egyptian desert, she’s actually from Kendal in Cumbria. Although for a nice Jewish boy from the London suburbs, Cumbria was just as foreign as Midian. Anyway, I promise to make no more chutzpah-like comparisons to Moses.

But wait, it’s gets more interesting…and edgy.

While I’ve been on my journey of Jewish self understanding, Anne has followed her own path, requiring far greater levels of study and commitment, and finding her faith guiding her to ordained ministry.

Anne now serves as a Rector in the Church of England, serving five parishes in mixed rural and town settings in North Yorkshire.

I like to think we have taken interfaith relations to a whole new dimension! We’ve certainly encouraged and supported each other over our quarter century of spiritual journeying and discovered just how rich the conversation can be between Jew and Christian.

So, expect some musings and insights on the love I have experienced as a Jew who often finds himself at prayer sitting on church pews.

We have four children (two girls, two boys, from 9 years to 19) and I suspect they may occasionally find their way on to these pages too, displaying the best of both their parents and with plenty of heritage and religious wisdom to last at least one lifetime.

If you’ve got this far then I’ve given you more than enough reasons not to sign up for this blog or visit this little corner of Patheos ever again.

However, if you’re intrigued, or supportive, or just like to be annoyed, then sign up for my on-going Jewish edginess.

 

About Robert A. H. Cohen