Why religious fundamentalism is fundamentally wrong

In days of yore, when an Ambassador Bowling Alley stood proudly in Edgware High Street, a huge Classic cinema dominated Hendon Central and Orange Hill and Spur Road were schools, not fading memories, things were different in North West London’s Jewish community.

The Northern Line reached Hendon in 1923 and Edgware in 1924, but it was two towering clerics, Rev Saul Amias and Rev Leslie Hardman, who developed the post World War 2 communities with verve, commitment and – yes, I’ll say the word, moderation.

Amias, with his fashionable pink kippah and dog-collar, came to be tagged the “Bishop of Edgware”, in his later years, he was one of few rabbinical figures to drive around in a rather swish Jag, he was chaplain to the JL & GB and led prayers at the annual summer camp.

Both he and Hardman said meaningful things in their sermons, relating Jewish tradition and the Torah to contemporary issues of interest and concern to their communities. More than once, Rev Hardman berated his congregation for being more concerned with the performance of ritual than the pursuit of ethics. Barmitzvah boys were given an interesting – often inspirational – message to galvanise them during their journey to adulthood.

Although, theoretically, politically neutral, both – at one stage or another – tended towards the Conservative MP of the time, John Gorst. On one famous occasion, during hustings in 1974 at Edgware shul, chaired by Amias, a member of the congregation accused him of bias, he immediately took up the football chant: “Champion, Champion!”

The name of the Labour candidate was John Champion.

The practice of parking around the corner on Shabbat, whilst frowned upon, was tolerated; it’s less prevalent now, not so much because of increased religious observance, rather, the imposition of Controlled Parking Zones, with the risk of a hefty fine, something no one wants on the day of rest.

At Hendon cheder, led by the admirable, Mr Rosslyn, among our teachers was an elderly German woman called Mrs Warhaftig, who encouraged us to sing. Had Simon Cowell been around then, who knows what might have happened!

In those days, religion was the roadmap to fulfilment, a means to an end, not an end in itself. Don’t get me wrong, I admire religious observance and spirituality, I’ve graduated from being a three-times-a-year Shul-goer, to regularly attending a United Synagogue each Shabbat: this may make me a better Jew, but doesn’t necessarily make me a better person.

What makes a good person is not being pious, profound or religious – it’s being good and performing good deeds.

The cult-like excesses of some Jewish religious sects are such that intermarriage between members of different denominations is frowned upon. Why? We are a small enough community as it is, we do not need yet further division.

During many outreach visits to communities in eastern Europe, I have been inspired by the remarkable achievements of Chabad, who seem to have an outpost almost everywhere. My friend, Rabbi Nachum Ehrentreu, has helped to develop a fantastic community in the heart of the industrial city of Zaporozhye, Ukraine, despite on one occasion, having to cope with a grenade being thrown into the synagogue grounds.

What makes a good person is not being pious, profound or religious – it’s being good and performing good deeds.

He may be frum, but he is not judgmental, he and colleagues in many other remote areas, have re-established communities that were either damaged or decimated by the Nazis or Communists – they’ve done so, by being inclusive. They are the Saul Amias’ and Leslie Hardman’s of the 21st Century.

With this in mind, I am going to try to encourage the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations to re-affiliate to the Board of Deputies. It may be difficult, but it’s in the best interests of the community to have a representative body that reflects all its’ parts.

The great patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob made a unique contribution to civilisation – the Ten Commandments still form the backbone of the Judeo-Christian hegemony in Western society. But, let’s be honest, if any great prophets or patriarchs were able to return and see our world today, they would learn a great deal more from us, than we, from them.

That’s not to denigrate the vast contribution made by so many of the world’s great religions and their exalted pioneers. I wonder what Moses would google first? Golden calf? He led quite an unruly tribe to the Promised Land and showed immense tolerance, forbearance, understanding and leadership to eventually get them there.

Recent controversies over the wearing of a burka or niquab, could equally relate to a sheitel or headscarf, my own view is very much, live and let live; observant Jews, Moslems or Sikhs can wear what they like, in my book – as long as they respect the right of others to wear what they like.

Sometimes, religion is used as a crutch to seduce the vulnerable and those at a low ebb. In the 1970s in the US, I saw young people befriended on the streets of New York by followers of Sun Myung Moon and Scientologists; at a ‘Christ is the Answer’ presentation at a huge marquee in Washington DC, we were emotionally blackmailed by adherents who asked us to stand up and give ourselves to Christ, whilst dramatic music was played over loudspeakers. Anyone not standing at the end was made to feel like the devil incarnate.

Recent problems in the UK relate to Ofsted inspections of Muslim and Orthodox Jewish schools, where inspectors complained of historical texts being redacted and a failure to include details of gay and transsexual lives in relevant lessons. Inspectors must respect religious beliefs and traditions, equally, religious communities and groupings who reject liberal Western values should understand that the lifestyle they enjoy – democracy, plurality, free healthcare, a free press and 21st Century comforts – arise from them.

Whilst respecting religious freedom and the right to worship, we also have a duty to regulate society to enable all groups and individuals to live freely, as long as they obey the law and respect the rights of others.

Freedom of religious practice should not be at the expense of others, it should provide a role model for kindness, tzedakah and decency, not become a recipe for conflict towards those with different views or beliefs.

Religious fundamentalism is fundamentally wrong.

About the Author
Michael went to school in Colindale and Edgware, before moving to Clapton, Hackney, he is the second longest serving councillor on Hackney Council, was civic Mayor in 2013/14 and stood in the last two General Elections for Labour in Faversham and Mid Kent.
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