Rabbi Reuven Silverman
How would you describe your identity and beliefs in terms of religion?
I am a Reform Rabbi.
Is GB an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to religion and belief?
In general terms, GB is an equal and tolerant society in relation to religion and belief. I would like to see more than tolerance, that there is respect and appreciation for other people’s faiths.
Are there any challenges living in accordance with your faith here? If so, are they social, political or legal?
For me personally there are no challenges.
How does Reform Judaism regard Human Rights?
HRs are a big subject, but I think that if you go to the prophets of Israel you have a very good source for human ethics. Christianity and Islam derive from Jewish sources, the Torah and the prophets, developed later by the rabbis and other teachers. Judaism, therefore, has contributed a great deal to the world’s appreciation of human rights.
Are Human Rights enshrined in law positive for our society?
Asking that question is like asking whether air is good for people! They are unquestionably good for society.
Does your group campaign in relation to Human Rights?
Yes, we campaign. We have the Jewish Council for Racial Equality (JCORE). There are several rabbis involved and you only have to consult their website to realise how active they are. We have a new organisation, TZELEM, which brings together rabbis from Reform, Orthodox and Liberal denominations to campaign for human rights and on the legal side, in this congregation, we have an expert on the subject. David Hoffman, who is a barrister. He has co-authored a book ‘Human Rights in the UK’, which has now been through two editions.
Do you think that Human Rights are generally respected by public bodies?
I think, generally speaking, human rights are respected by the Government and other public bodies in GB. However, action is a different thing. Respect maybe, action is a great area where the answer is not as positive as I would like.
Do public bodies get the balance right when it comes to intervening in the expression of religious beliefs?
I must admit that I find these general questions very difficult to answer, because the answer has to come in very specific terms, and it is difficult for me to think of examples. In general, my personal views tend towards more Government intervention than less. In terms of freedom of religion and belief, I think there has to be freedom within limits and those limits have to be considered in so far as whether one’s religious activities interfere with the liberties of others.
When should the government intervene in the expression of religious beliefs?
The Government should intervene in those expressions of a belief which lead to incitement to religious hatred.
Is living in a democracy a positive thing? Does it make it easier for you to practice your faith?
If you find an alternative to democracy, I shall consider it, but so far Parliamentary democracy is the best! Jews have unfortunately the experience of living under some of the most totalitarian regimes, such as Nazism and Communism. The sort of Parliamentary democracy which we have has certainly benefited us.
Do you believe that you have a duty to vote?
Absolutely yes. I have a responsibility to vote.
Should Parliament have the final say in making law? Would you like to see the judiciary empowered to strike down primary legislation?
That is a very interesting subject which I never heard addressed before. My immediate reaction is to say that the judiciary should have that power. My view is based on what has happened in the State of Israel, where the Supreme Court has had that kind of influence. Certainly, it can exercise enough pressure on the Government to reverse decisions. Something not generally known and I think if you look into it, you can find examples of this. I have always admired the judiciary in Israel in areas where I have been outraged by the Israeli Government. So, in principle, and it can only be in principle, I would like to see the same applied to this country. I think the judiciary must be a safeguard and I would go beyond that. It should have proper powers. I think the Israeli Supreme Court has made important decisions, for instance, concerning the separation wall and disputes in the occupied territories, where Government military decisions have been made and the Supreme Court has overturned them. This has been vital not only for Israel, but also for world peace. I am sorry for bringing examples of a different country from the UK, but if you want a model of something which does not exist here, that is an excellent model.
Is majoritarian democracy a problem for minority groups? Are there barriers to participation?
That is like an exam question really! The problem of answering your question involving the meanings of democracy is about assessing the validity of the electoral system. If my interests coincide with the interests of the majority, then I am represented. Otherwise, I shall not be represented… I suppose that might lead to an argument for proportional representation, but proportional representation has its dangers too, and the parties which don’t embrace human rights, might end up taking seats in Parliament… that is why I suppose parties like UKIP would welcome proportional representation, but whether they represent HRs is another question. It really depends on those issues being thought through and worked out.
Is it a problem that the House of Lords is unelected?
I think it would be much better if the HofL were elected.
What do you think about the presence of bishops in the House of Lords?
I don’t think the CofE represent all Christians, however much they want to. I think you would get the same question from other Christians. I am interested in the statement that has been made that they may represent the voiceless of our society because the bishops I know really do and that includes Rowan Williams and the Bishop of Manchester and others. They are very sensitive people and that is a positive thing, but then you don’t need bishops to represent the voiceless, as you have former members of the HofC who were active in their own constituencies and actually they are now much freer. As far as my faith is concerned, we have a former Chief Rabbi in the HofL. His predecessor was also in the HofL. It is now common for members of the HofL to stand up and speak from Jewish ethical principles. There is the former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and my own colleague, Reform Rabbi, Baroness Julia Neuberger. Our voice is very much represented in the House of Lords.
How do you feel about devolution in Wales and Scotland?
In terms of devolution, well… are you talking only about Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland? Are you also talking about the local dimension, such as the Northern Power House? Thinking specifically in terms of religious communities, there might be an argument for devolution in general terms. If you have concentrations of people of a particular faith in different areas, they may be better represented locally than nationally. However, that is very theoretical.
How should those with power be held accountable?
You have to realise that Jewish Law is a self contained thing and it is about self governing the Jewish community and our approach to the law of the State is that unless the law radically conflicts with Jewish law, then the law of the land must be respected. The same is applicable to Islam. When I say ‘radically conflict’, I mean extreme examples like the State is ordering us to commit idolatry. We give complete recognition of the State’s powers in general terms, but in terms of limiting powers, as our current democracy does in relation to the Queen for example, within Judaism you have that in the Torah where the king’s powers are very strictly limited. There are strong boundaries as to how the Monarch may behave and I suppose by extension you could apply the same to the elected leaders of the land. Though I don’t think that is discussed in any place of our tradition, because we don’t have any legislation over how powers should operate in general (non-Jewish) society. Accountability is ultimately through the electoral and legal processes of course.
Are Jews proportionately represented in public life?
Yes, we Jews are proportionately and appropriately represented in public bodies. In government that is down to the electorate.
Are the judiciary sufficiently independent?
I think our judges are sufficiently independent. That has created problems in the past. There have been instances in which the Home Secretary has intervened… I think the answer is yes.
How does your group campaign for change when it is felt to be needed?
Whilst there are campaigns, to which I referred earlier when I discussed HRs, in general terms the most important will be dealt with by the Jewish Board of Deputies, which is our representative body going from the XVIII century in this country. They are the most effective body for dealing with the Government, because they represent, by definition, the views of the Jewish population in general and it is only where sections of the community feel that their views are not adequately represented by the Jewish Board of Deputies that we may resort to other means of campaigning. Maybe these days, because we have the internet, people think that is a quicker way to get a lot of people’s points across. I get lots of petitions coming in my direction, not only related to the Jewish community. The latest one, for example, was about refugees in the Mediterranean, where rabbis were contacted and asked to sign a petition to address the PM at a time when a decision had already been made not to support the Italian navy. The decision had been made in Parliament to support the European Union Search and Rescue Operation. It seemed to be a non democratic, even an anti-democratic move. It happened so quickly, it went through the Commons, then the Lords, and there was no time to go through other channels such as the Jewish Board of Deputies. If there is anything parallel to democracy it is direct action for people through the internet.
In terms of Parliament, I have not come across anything which compromises Jewish liberties in general or reformed in particular. There have been those questions in Europe on some circumcision and ritual slaughter, but not in this country. In terms of local government, again, there have been no issues related to religious communities, but related to Jews in general in terms of the State of Israel and actions of the present Government of Israel. For example, raising the Palestinian flag over local government buildings in some municipalities in England and Scotland, there it is a matter of interpretation whether they are considered inimical to Jews or simply a political statement. It has raised objections. In terms of NHS, I don’t know any problems and I visit hospitals a great deal and I haven’t seen any problem or anything reported in the press or the media. The judiciary? I think the judiciary are quite cooperative with matters of Jewish Law, such as divorce and children’s welfare. There is a good track record and in general I have very positive views about the judiciary.
Is it important for you to act within secular law?
Within the Reform community, this is so, but if you are thinking whether conceptually there could be situations in which one could feel constrained to go against the law, of course, there are those possibilities, but fortunately, that is not a big issue in this country. If we were living under a totalitarian dictatorship, that would be another matter. If you think of the Jewish community generally there have been situations where the ultra orthodox Jewish community prefers to police itself rather than relying on the forces of law and order of the land. That has been controversial for the Jewish community as a whole, but fortunately, it is not an area I have had to deal with.
Do your beliefs require you to speak out on behalf of vulnerable third parties?
My beliefs require me to speak for the weak and the vulnerable of our society and against injustice.
Is the Rule of Law applied equally? Do some groups receive either preferential or prejudicial treatment?
The first part of the question… I don’t think there is complete equality. People are discriminated against… there have been too many examples of institutional racism. Secondly, we compare pretty favourably with other countries. If we look at what happens in the USA at the moment, on that scale, I think we are doing quite well.
The second part is a very, very difficult question… the model that springs immediately to mind is security. What maybe is applicable when it is a low security level in a country or in a community, it wouldn’t be applicable when there is severe terrorism threat and the security level is higher. Not so much in connection with the police, but the border authorities, in terms of people wanting to return from Syria and the question about either not being allowed back or if they come back, needing to submit themselves to the judiciary. So, I would say that when things get rough, greater restraints should be imposed. On the other hand, I also think of people whose homes have been broken into when suspected of terrorism… and I don’t know if they had warrants or not, but the powers of the police seem to be too wide. As far as I know they don’t affect the Jewish community, but then we have a right and a duty to speak out about issues concerning human rights and this is an area where human rights can be potentially in jeopardy.
There are no legal rules which have a direct impact on the way I practise my religion in this country. I really have to think hard on this. So, probably that means that the answer is no.
Is there anything which you would like to add?
Well, going back to your original remarks which led me perhaps expecting some questions in that respect… our Constitution is one without separation of Church and State, and I think that is a big area which has to be addressed if you are doing research on Constitution and religion, because that is a defining factor in this country. Indeed the Queen is the Head of the Church of England. I am encouraged by the fact that the next King, if it is to be Charles, would like to be the Defender of Faith, rather than Defender of the Faith, that to me represents the pluralistic nature of our society in terms of religion. I would personally be on the side of separation of Church and State, which is something we really don’t have unfortunately. Just in general terms, not that it affects Jewish people… You have seen in my answer that things are working very well for Jews in society, but I am thinking beyond Judaism, as I do lots of work with other faiths. And the religious landscape in Britain has changed so much that calling it a Christian country… and I don’t mean exclusively in sociological terms but also in legal terms, doesn’t really reflect reality and therefore I would argue for a change.t least is when people relate to each other out of a sense of brotherhood. And so, according to that idea, equality before the law is absolutely essential.
Rabbi Silverman is the rabbi for a diverse and vibrant Reform congregation in the heart of Manchester, which is dedicated to welcoming and caring all people across the spectrum of age, social class and religious leanings.