Future Tense – A Must Read Book by The Chief Rabbi

Jun 17, 2011 | Uncategorized

Future Tense – A Must Read Book by The Chief Rabbi

Twenty years ago a young man I knew died of a ruptured cerebral aneurysm. A flat mate found him dead on the kitchen floor.
There had been no prior warning, no early intimation of illness; all who knew him felt keenly the loss of a talented young life.

Mike was a political radical who embraced most unpopular causes. Routinely, he upset the Party leader who was incandescent when, in the midst of a General Election, Mike and his friends published an alternative Manifesto.
After that election I was elected Chief Whip and, as the dust settled, I invited the poacher to turn game keeper: he joined my staff. Later, I encouraged his appointment as editor of the party’s newspaper, which he rapidly transformed. Then, he died.
Not long before his death, he accompanied me on a political visit to Hungary.
As we travelled, he surprised me by mentioning that despite his ultra radical credentials (or, in retrospect, perhaps because of them) he thought my opposition to abortion was right. I had just resigned as Chief Whip to promote a Private Member’s Bill challenging the abortion laws.
Another surprise was when he told me that his family were secular Jews who had fled during the Holocaust. It was why he had wanted to come to Hungary but didn’t feel ready to come with me to what remained of the Jewish quarter.
200,000 Jews had lived in Budapest before the War . With 125 synagogues Budapest was the centre of Jewish Hungarian life.
All that ended when the Germans occupied the city in 1944. With the fascist Arrow Cross Party they murdered thousands of Jews. Thanks to the bravery of the Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, some were given false documents and escaped; others were placed in safe houses. When Budapest was liberated in 1945 around 100,000 Jews had managed to survive.
A few months after our return to England I had a further surprise when I received a post card from Mike.
The card depicted the famous and restored Dohany Street synagogue in Budapest.
He had returned to Budapest – this time to discover his identity, his roots, and something of his ancestral faith.
A few weeks later he was dead. The recitation of the traditional mourner’s Kaddish at his funeral seemed to point to a personal journey concluded in peace.
Mike’s story was on my mind this week as I read “Future Tense”, the masterly new book by Sir Jonathan Sacks.
Britain’s Chief Rabbi is also the country’s pre-eminent spiritual leader. Like Cardinal Basil Hume, he has assumed this unappointed mantle by virtue of his thoughtful, sensitive, intelligent approach to spiritual and religious issues – much admired well beyond the Orthodox Jewish community.
“Future Tense” builds on the arguments eloquently expounded in “Dignity in Difference” and “The Home We Build Together” – which is a brilliant critique of the interplay between faith and secularism and the challenge of balancing integration and diversity.
This new book is aimed at people like Mike – who first lose their religious identity and then their Jewishness. It is also aimed at the secular state if Israel: “Jews”, he says, “have lost touch with their souls”; and he reminds his readers of Emil Fackenheim’s injunction that “Jews are commanded to stay Jewish in order to deny Hitler a posthumous victory.”
There is also plenty here that has relevance and application to a non Jewish audience: a renewed Judaism will enrich its conversation with the rest of us. There are, he says, two modes of knowledge: “Chokhmah is the truth we discover; Torah is the truth we inherit. Chokhmah is the universal heritage of humankind; Torah is the specific heritage of Israel.”
The “imago Dei” is a resonant and strong theme which runs throughout this new book: “The God of Israel is not only the God of Israel. He made all human beings in his image.”
Jonathan Sacks says that Moses and the prophets of the Hebrew Bible saw Judaism as unique while simultaneously having a message for all humankind.
He emphasises the importance of listening to the “argument for the sake of heaven” – hearing the other side’s point of view. In arguing for a “new Zionism” he disentangles the differences between what constitutes a society and a state; he examines the biblical nature of social covenant; the importance of not “lowering the bar” to reach a younger generation (who readily embrace tough and challenging ideas); and how Jews can maintain their identity ion a changing world: “In this tense and troubled century, Jews must take a stand, not motivated by fear, not driven by paranoia or a sense of victimhood, but a positive stand on the basis of the values by which our ancestors lived and for which they were prepared to die: justice, equity, compassion, love of the stranger, the sanctity of life and the dignity of the person.”
As you would expect from a great rabbi – first and foremost a teacher – this book provides many fresh insights into religious and philosophical ideas.
I was particularly struck by his exegesis of the story of Moses being denied entry into the Promised Land.
The Israelites were without water. God told Moses to take a stick and speak to the rock and water would appear. But he hit the rock instead: a repetition of his exact action forty years earlier when he had made the same request for water after the Israelities crossed the divided Red Sea.
But, says Dr. Sacks, four decades before, Moses had been leading slaves; now they were free people. Times and people had changed. The stick was no longer needs – just words. Moses had failed to change and was no longer the man to lead the people; and like so many of us, Moses had failed to listen carefully enough.
Which takes us to the title of the book: “Future Tense”.
Many Christian editions of the Bible translate God’s answer to Moses’ question “Who are you?” (Exodus 3:14) with the words “I am who I am”. In the original Hebrew the answer is in the future tense: “I will be what I will be.”
For people of faith – and for those like my searching young friend of twenty years ago – this offers the certainty that in every generation God is waiting for us, in an unknowable and uncertain future: a God of the future tense. A God who remains full of surprises.

Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

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