I was brought up to be an outsider. My late father, Kopul Rosen, was born in London, educated primarily in Mir in Lithuania, and served as the Principal Rabbi of the Federation of Synagogues in London. In 1948 he resigned to establish a Jewish residential school in the English countryside. That’s where I was brought up. It was outside of the established Jewish community, in a fiercely and proudly Orthodox atmosphere, in splendid isolation. My father was a contrarian. A passionate Zionist, he resigned from the Religious Zionists when they went into politics. He was fiercely proud of old yeshiva (my Hebrew name, Yerucham, is that of the Mashgiach, the spiritual adviser who had a profound impact on him). Yet he had no patience for obscurantism or narrow-mindedness. My father believed in our getting the best education possible, Jewish and secular. So I went eventually to the best yeshivot in Israel and to study philosophy at Cambridge University.
But I did not really belong in either completely. My spiritual life was on hold during my university years, and my rational, intellectual life shut down while I concentrated on fitting in and studying hard in yeshiva. But I knew I loved Judaism and that I wanted to represent it in an alien and unfriendly world.
My distaste for politics in Israel, particularly religious politics, drew me back to the diaspora. My antipathy towards religious establishments meant that I sought out independent Orthodox communities rather than the “big jobs”. I had no interest in committees, politics, or manipulation. I particularly disliked the way religious, not just rabbinic, organizations tended to be bureaucratic, insensitive to individual needs, and concerned more with power than spirit. So I reinforced my sense of not belonging, of being an outsider even as I strived to teach and represent an established religion.
My philosophical training meant that I could not just accept cliches or religious dogma without examination or questioning. And my passion for Torah meant I could not disregard or stand aside when anyone was suffering in the name of, or because of religious exclusivity. I tried to become a champion of the alienated and the disenfranchised. This was as true of the outside world as it was of my inner Jewish world; I joined and rose within the ranks of the anti-Apartheid movement in Britain.
So after all these years of being a rabbi, a lecturer, a teacher, on three continents, I am still fundamentally a misfit. I have spent time in and amongst the most extreme Chasidic sects and rabbinic courts and loved them. Not a day goes by when I do not delve into Talmudic intricacies and concepts, when I do not feel close to God. Yet few days go by without classical music, philosophy, and Western ideas. I am all but none exclusively. Reform Jews do not understand my commitment to Jewish law, and many ultra-Orthodox Jews do not understand why I care so much about those who are not. I can sit at any table and feel relaxed and happy, but only part of me is there. My late mother used to call me a chameleon. I am more Jewish than non-Jews, more non-Jewish than many Jews. I am more secular than religious and more religious than secular. I am more left than right and more right than left.
Let me just give you a snapshot of my discombobulation.
In the USA I feel repelled by Tea Party Republicans and by evangelical Christians who want to convert me and by Muslim extremists who want to kill me. I do not trust protestations of Left Wingers who claim to be disinterested. I do not trust Bill De Blasio not to undermine the wonderful and safe atmosphere of New York that I enjoy so much. Yet I know I am exceedingly privileged and fortunate to be able to live the life I live. I agree, the gap between rich and poor is unacceptable, and big business dictates spending, rather than need and poverty.
Now switch eastwards. I do not understand why Jews would still want to live in a European world increasingly antagonistic towards Jews and Israel. Further eastwards I badly want peace in Israel and an end to occupation, and yet I cannot bring myself to believe that Hamas will ever tolerate a Jewish state right there in the middle of the Dar al-Islam.