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Torah and Western Thought in the UK

From June 2nd to June 6th, 2024, the Straus Scholars of the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought participated in a summer seminar in England. The program featured leading diplomats, writers, academics, and Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. 

The first session was a lecture by the Straus Center Director, Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, entitled “Churchill, the Jews, and the Future of the West.” Rabbi Soloveichik focused on the Jewish character of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, noting that although Disraeli converted to Christianity at a young age, his Jewish identity played a key role in his life story. Rabbi Soloveichik discussed how Disraeli managed to turn his Jewish past into a strength, once famously proudly proclaiming, “Yes, I am a Jew, and while the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.” 

Rabbi Soloveichik suggested that Disraeli’s complicated Jewish identity is reflective of Britain's relationship with the Jewish people more broadly. Britain has produced great friends of the Jewish people, such as Churchill, and yet, throughout its history, has also been the source for a great deal of antisemitism. This frame, he argued, is key for understanding the history of Jews in Britain. 

After this opening seminar, students had lunch with writer and journalist Dominic Green who shared his insights into the current political climate in Britain, America, and the world. This was followed by a tour of Bevis Marks synagogue, led by Rabbi Shalom Morris, the synagogue's rabbi. Bevis Marks is the oldest synagogue in England and the longest continuously running synagogue in the world. Rabbi Morris described the history of the Bevis Marks, its founding and the important role it played in Spanish Portuguese Jewish history. Rabbi Soloveichik then followed with a brief lecture about the synagogue's most famous member, Moses Montefiore, the Jewish philanthropist who is known for his early investment in Jewish settlement in the land of Israel. His seat in Bevis Marks is still sectioned off to this day. 

Next, the students heard a lecture by Rabbi Dr. Dov Lerner, on the topic of “Monarchy & Immunity in Jewish Thought.” Rabbi Lerner opened his lecture by discussing the trial of King Charles I in 1649 as well as cases of presidential immunity. He then addressed issues such as criminal immunity and the rule of law in Jewish law. This timely seminar provided an opportunity for students to engage with both historical and contemporary events through the lens of Torah. 


At dinner that evening students were joined by Andrew Roberts, bestselling historian and member of the House of Lords. Roberts’ enthusiastic and impassioned support for the Jewish people and the state of Israel was a fitting and inspiring capstone to a day that explored the complex relationship between England and the Jewish people. He also eloquently described Winston Churchill’s philosemitism and some of his writings about the Jewish people. 


The next day, the students journeyed to Oxford University. Upon arrival, the students visited the Old Bodleian Library, one of the oldest libraries in Europe. Prof. Judith Buchanan, Master of St. Peter’s College, gave a lecture on the history of Shakespeare’s folios, with a particular focus Henry V. Prof. Buchanan described how the different editions of Henry V presented subtly different messages, often with important political implications. 


To cap off the day at Oxford, the students were led on a walking tour of Jewish Oxford. Although Jews were not allowed in England for much of English history, Jews still managed to make important contributions to towns such as Oxford. The tour guide, Rabbi Eli Brackman, pointed out the locations where the Jewish shul would have stood, where prominent Jewish merchants lived, and where the Jewish cemetery once was. After dinner, Dr. Shaina Trapedo interviewed Harry Freedman, author of Britain's Jews and Shylock’s Venice. The conversation ranged from his writing habits, to reflections on the future of British Jewry, to discussions of the intellectual climate of medieval Venice. At the end, the students continued the conversation informally, focusing on his process as a writer and historian. 


On Wednesday morning the students had the opportunity to hear from Norman Lebrecht, author of Genius and Anxiety. He spoke about how great Jewish thinkers, writers, and scientists have balanced their contribution to the wider world and their Jewish identity. In particular he focused on Einstein and Freud. After his talk, he discussed with students how the various secular Jewish thinkers he had written about dealt with the question of providence. 


Students then heard from Straus Deputy Director Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern on the topic of “Writing (and Editing) Jewishly for a Wide Audience.” Rabbi Halpern provided concrete guidance for students hoping to write for a wider audience. The last seminar of the day was given by Dr. Tevi Troy, who spoke about “The American Presidency and the UK.” As a presidential historian, Dr. Troy explored the relationship American presidents have had to their English counterparts. He spoke about the various shifts in the “special relationship” that has defined American and UK relations for the last century. 


Rabbi Soloveichik then led the group on a tour of the British Museum. The tour included a stop by the statue of Ramesses II, the inspiration for Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.” Rabbi Soloveichik also showed everyone the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser, which includes an image of Jehu, the Israelite king. This is the only known depiction of a character of Tanach found in the ancient world. He also brought everyone to the room that contained the Lachish reliefs, carvings originally found in an Assyrian palace. The reliefs depict the destruction of the Israelite army at Lachish. Rabbi Soloveichik commented that it is truly remarkable that although the Assyrians created a monument to our destruction, it is the Jewish people, not the Assyrians who stand here today. 


While in London, the students also visited the Churchill War Rooms, a museum dedicated to the history of Winston Churchill and his efforts in WWII. At dinner that evening we were joined by Joanna Benarroch, the Global Chief Executive of Rabbi Sacks Legacy. She shared with us some of the impactful work she is doing to promote Rabbi Sacks’ legacy as well as some remarkable and inspiring stories of Rabbi Sacks. 


Thursday morning, we were honored to meet with Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. Rabbi Mirvis spoke about his interactions with the royal family, the challenges he has experienced during his tenure, and his hopes for British Jewry. He also spoke candidly about the difficulties of antisemitism and his work with interfaith engagement. After speaking to Rabbi Mirvis, we were joined by Lord Stuart Polak, who shared with us his political work advocating for Israel on the global stage. He engaged in spirited discussions with the students and shared his outlook for the future of the Jewish community in Britain. 


As Rabbi Soloveichik noted at the outset of the trip, this week was a unique opportunity to see the extraordinary and often complicated relationship England has had with the Jewish people. Straus Center winter and summer seminars provide students the opportunity to engage with leading Jewish, political, and literary scholars and bridge the worlds of Torah and Western thought outside of the strict confines of the classroom. 


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