Community Blog A Tale of Two Countries

By Rabbi Michael Shire

I was privileged to lead the High Holy Day services again this year at the Oxford Jewish Community in Great Britain. The OJC is unique in Europe in having a single community with multiple “minyanim,” including a regular Orthodox, Masorti and Liberal Jewish service on Shabbat and Hagim.

The community incorporates members from “town and gown” as well as students studying at the various Oxford colleges. A modern synagogue building has been designed to enable different minyanim to pray in parallel and then to join for kiddush or break fast, etc. The community does not employ a rabbi by design, and so most services in all minyanim are conducted by laypeople. However, there are numerous rabbis in the community, including eminent scholars of Judaism as part of the Oxford University faculty as well as university rabbinic student chaplains.

For the High Holy Days, I led the non-Orthodox minyan utilizing the British liberal “Machzor Ruach Hadashah.” The Orthodox minyan is led by Clive Lawton, a well-known Jewish educator and activist who was one of the founders of the Limmud organization. For the first time ever in British Jewish history, we conducted a joint Orthodox-progressive Yom Kippur “shiur” on the theme of pluralism.

I am grateful to President Lehmann for providing me with various texts from our tradition that illustrated the various types of pluralism. Clive Lawton gave his own three categories: the washing-powder type of pluralism where everything is packaged differently but it really is all the same; the Western medicine model, where Western-trained doctors generally hold that Western medicine is effective and “true” and Eastern medicine is ineffective but harmless; and the Parliamentarian model, where reasoned and vigorous debate between opposing ideologies is the only way to find resolution to good governance.

Oxford University and its glittering spires, historic hushed Bodleian Library, classic lecture theaters and the Blackwell’s bookshop was contrasted for me by my visit between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to our partner college in Israel, the Pardes Institute. Located on the second floor (above a car dealership) of a modern Jerusalem building, Pardes is a busy hive of a different kind of study. Here, “havruta” is the norm, with students studying in the beit midrash, in the dining room, in the basement – wherever two chairs and a table can be found.

The warm audible buzz of the beit midrash resounds with students discussing the texts while using the textual resources scattered around them (including on their smartphones!). Then, suddenly, the room is transformed into a house of prayer as a “mechitzah” is pulled across and “minchah” begins with an option for an egalitarian minyan next door, to which the majority of the women and a handful of men go. In smooth succession, the room becomes a house of study once more, and as if without break, study and prayer are intermingled in the hearts and minds of students and teachers.

Reflections on both Western and Hebrew styles of learning reminds me of the pluralism within learning. There is a qualitative difference, but is there a judgment about which one is better or more refined?

The Hebrew concept of study as an interpretative collaborative endeavor based on close reading of a text is becoming something that even our schools and colleges here are keen to expand. The critical scholarship and Wissenschaft study of 20th-century learning has certainly influenced our study of Torah, liturgy and rabbinic literature. Could we now say we are studying and praying “oxford b’yerushalayim”? At least we can affirm with Talmud Eruvin 13b: “These and these are the words of the Living God.”

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