Torah from around the world #69

By Rabbi Dr. Charles Middleburgh,

Cardiff Reform Synagogue

, Wales

It has often been said that you can find anything you wish to find on the Internet, and although I cannot assert that this statement is true I know from my own experience that for one reason or another, people have put up in the ether the most obscure material, and that websites like that of the London Library, giving you access to hundreds of thousands of articles and books online are a blessing to academia for the like of which previous generations would have given their eye teeth.

One of the things that I found on the internet which brought me a wholly disproportionate amount of pleasure last year was the 1911 census; and for a small fee I went looking for my father – and to my joy I found him.  In 1911, the Middleburgh family, all 11 of them (another four were still to come) lived at 21 Irene House, Flower and Dean Street, Spitalfields, Whitechapel:  there were my grandparents, aged 36 and 33 respectively, married already for 18 years, place of birth Warshawa, Russia / Poland;  there was my father’s most loved sibling, after whom I am named, then aged 17, my grandparents’ first-born, place of birth Mile End, London; and there was my dad, aged 10, place of birth, Glasgow.  A very weird feeling crept over me as I read the page, mingled with delight, a sense of reaching mysteriously back into history and touching something extraordinarily special.

But censuses fulfil many purposes beyond allowing individuals to delve into their family history.

The Guardian recently published some figures from the 2001 census on the religions of England and Wales, figures likely to be quite different in 2011, when the latest census is being taken, but fascinating nevertheless.

According to the 2001 census 37,046,500 people identified themselves as Christians, with no qualification as to what


of Christian they might be.  Those who entered their religion as ‘none’ were the next largest group, at 7,242,290 and the only other group in seven figures were the Muslims, numbering 1,546,626. The numbers then drop significantly: 552,421 Hindus, 329,358 Sikhs, 259,927 Jews, and 144,453 Buddhists; after that the numbers go down into four figures, or 3, or 2, or even 1.  [I omitted to mention that there were 390,127 people who registered themselves as Jedi Knights, because there was actually an internet campaign encouraging them to do so, thus enabling Jedi Knight to be registered as an official UK religion!  Presumably if any of them were Jewish Jedi Knights the object of their reverence would have been Oy Veh Van Kenobi?  But I digress…]

The Jedis apart, there are some really intriguing statistics in this list:  10,357 people had the courage of their lack of conviction to put atheist, 14,909 hedged their bets and registered as agnostics.  There are twice as many UK Jains as there are Pentecostalists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Baptists and Quakers, and the combined figure for Wiccans, Satanists, Druids, New Agers, Celtic Pagans and Animists, at 12,224, is barely five hundred less than the number of UK Mormons. There are also some intriguing religions that I have never heard of, not that this statement necessarily means anything much other than that, if


have heard of them, I am appallingly ignorant!

123 people said they were Vodun, a polytheistic religion from West Africa, 49 said they were members of the Free Church of Love, and I’m not sure we want to spend too much time considering what


may be about!  93 claimed adherence to Asatru, a pre-Christian Norse religion, and 4 said they practised the delightfully named Tin Tao, which seems to be a Vietnamese version of Taoism (whose official branch numbers 3,532 by the way).

One or two of the answers really intrigued as well as amused me:  639 people said they were Deist, meaning that they believe in the existence of God but not in a divinely revealed religion, and 505 that they were Theist, meaning that they believe in the existence of God with or without a belief in a special revelation.  46 said they were Children of God, 37 said they were Rationalist, 104 said they were Realist and 35 said they belonged to the Bible Pattern Church, which for all I know is composed of a group of embroiderers who worship Kaffee Fassett!

Anyway, all


having been said, the clear picture that emerges from the 2001 analysis of religious adherence in the UK and Wales is that there is plenty of it – even if, knowing the decline in church attendance figures, from 11% of the population in 1980 to 6% in 2010, we may dispute whether the 37,046,500 who identified themselves as ‘Christian’ were really Christian or just representatives of the majority of secular people in the UK who, when asked their religion by an official form often put C of E regardless of whether they have set foot in a church in a year, let alone a month, of Sundays.

It somewhat gives the lie to the idea that the rampant secularism and aggressive atheism of what the philosopher Terry Eagleton calls the ‘Ditchkins’ school is as all-powerful as we might imagine.

So here we are, faced with what is obviously not just a multi-ethnic but also a multi-religious society:  what is the one thing we need – tolerance?!

Tolerance is an interesting word, deriving from the Latin verb


meaning ‘to lift up’, and the dictionary definitions of tolerance include:

the ability or willingness to be fair towards and accepting of different religious, political, etc beliefs and opinions


Yet tolerance is one of the hardest emotions of all for human beings to sustain:  let’s not waste time thinking globally or nationally, just contemplate the lack of tolerance shown in faith communities – especially Jewish ones – for alternative opinions!

Not just close-mindedness, or pathological aversion to organic development (that avoids having to use the word ‘change’ which makes so many religious folk of all hues recoil), but the total unwillingness to contemplate difference, or even to see values in the ideas of others, and the concomitant leap, in a nano-second, to dismiss the opinion and its bearer, often with venomous contempt.

As a long standing congregational rabbi I could fill a several hundred page book with experiences of lack of tolerance, and the damage it does, and I am sure that other clergy colleagues, rabbis and the rest, could do the same.

It is not, in truth, a very hopeful picture.

The Israelites wandering in the desert let the sand get not just in their sandals but in the folds of their cerebella, they were constantly niggling, constantly weak, constantly judgmental, and – the usual corollary of all these – constantly negative; and repeated incidents, some in the book of Numbers, give ample proof of that truth.

The world we inhabit today is a much more fragmented one than it has ever been, and whether you believe that the cause of multi-culturalism has been a triumph or a disaster there is no denying that the society we reside in is light years away from what our parents knew, and our grandparents even more so.

But the future is very delicate, very fragile indeed, and the many and varied storm clouds on the not too distant horizon are coming closer and closer.

When they crash over us they will do much damage, but whether they bend us or break us will depend on the tolerance we show each other, and the ability we evince to transcend religious and ethnic differences and pull together as human beings.

If we fail to do that then much of what we are familiar with and would wish to bequeath to our descendants is doomed – if we can achieve it then maybe, just maybe, there may justifiably be some small degree of hope.

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