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Are You Sure You’re Not Jewish?

Patrick MoriartyFilmed at Limmud Conference 2014

Why would a Jewish school want a trainee priest as its Headteacher? And why would the trainee priest accept the job? As a Christian living and working among the Jewish community all my life, I offer a different perspective on being Jewish, on passing for Jewish, on the challenges facing religious groups in a secular world, and on how to do minority status with style.  What tips might Jews and Christians be able to get from each other, and what does it take to get a selfie with Boris? What does interfaith mean?

Patrick Moriarty is the Headteacher of JCoSS, the UK’s only pluralist Jewish Secondary School.  Having taught Religion and Philosophy in North London schools for over 25 years, he has lived amongst the Jewish community throughout his life, but he is almost certainly the first Headteacher of a Jewish school to be training for ordination as an Anglican priest. The training has included modules of interfaith study at the Woolf Institute, reflecting his commitment to dialogue within and between religions and traditions. He is married to Lucy Caperon, and is a father to 7 children.

“Are you sure you’re not Jewish?” I’ve chosen that as the title to my talk because it’s one of the questions I am most often asked, as people try to figure out what this Christian is doing in charge of a Jewish School. It’s a question I absolutely love and which I see as the highest of compliments that could be paid to me.

I love it for three reasons. First of all, because it speaks to me of generous acceptance by this community that I love. I can pass for Jewish, yes! If that’s true it’s because I’ve spent the last 50 years, best part of, in North London, and along the way I’ve picked up a fair bit of ‘Jew-ish’ knowledge. I grew up in Hampstead Garden Suburb, I got the train to Habs from Golders Green every morning; I then went on to study Theology as my degree at university and picked up a little bit more. Then I taught, and I still do teach, Religious Studies in North London schools for 25 years; and now I work at the Jewish Community Secondary School. I’ve got a decent network of Jewish contacts, I’ve even picked up – I am told – the occasional Jewish mannerism or inflexion; I’ve been commended by a Golders Green rabbi, no less, for my impressive understanding of Jewish cultural references. You want that I should contradict him?

I should add that I have only tried this out in North London. If you were to put me in a more alien or hostile environment, like South London, it probably wouldn’t work. But then again, perhaps that’s yet another thing I have in common with most North London Jews.

Secondly it’s a question I love also because it speaks of boundary crossing: people are not quite sure what to make of someone who would do what I do. And there’s an energy in that – a dance with definitions. Because, after all, what was Avram, the father of the Hebrews who took his name, if not a boundary crosser, taking the enormous risk of listening to the Almighty and passing from Ur into Canaan and all the rest that followed.

So it raises that wonderful issue – ‘who is a Jew?’ – but it raises it, if you like, through the back door. It’s an issue that was absolutely central to the foundation of JCoSS, my school 4½ years ago. But here is a new way of asking that question.

I love it thirdly, ‘Are you sure you’re not Jewish?’, because it speaks of what in Christian theology is called ‘incarnational enculturation’. If Christians believe that God self-immerses into creation as the person of Jesus (and by the way, if there are any Christians listening, that’s what you should have been celebrating these last four days of Christmas)…if that is what Christians believe, then Christianity should immerse itself in each culture it encounters and learn as much as it teaches.

So: ‘incarnational enculturation’. Put more simply, for a Christian, to pass for a Jew among Jews is a mitzvah.

I am honoured to be the first non-Jew to be invited to do a JDOV talk, but when I’ve tried to gain some kudos from this in the past few weeks I have been undermined by people saying, ‘Well, you kind of are Jewish…’ So now it strikes me with a kind of existential urgency: ‘Am I sure I’m not Jewish’?

One of the key times I have asked myself that, ironically enough, was at the first residential weekend of my training course of training as an Anglican priest. The weekends run from Friday night to Sunday lunchtime, so I go straight from school and I arrive there, all ‘Jewed-up’, Kabbalat Shabbat in my ears, and the taste of challah on my lips. And the first thing that I am pitched into is Evening Worship, which I can only describe as “very Christian”. It felt extremely alien for a good long while.

I feel the force of Ruth’s words to Naomi: “your people will be my people, and your God will be my God” – not this bunch of weirdoes, and this Jesus they insist on worshiping. When my fellow ordinands ask me “Are you sure you’re not Jewish” I think what they really mean is that I might not be, in Anglican terms, well, kosher.

So having said all that, what’s the answer? Am I sure I’m not Jewish? Yeah, I’m sure. For all its madnesses, for all its frustrations – maybe because of its madnesses and frustrations – I am sure that Christianity overall, or at least my bit of it, feels like home.

But having now immersed myself in a role of leadership in the Jewish community for the last five years, what has struck me is what Christians need to learn from Jews, about being more Christian by being more Jewish. And it has a lot to do with how to live on the margins.

To look at that question – what I’m doing, as a Christian, as an ordinaned priest, being head of a Jewish school? – I could give you an autobiographical narrative about what led me to apply. A new school, a faith school, a Jewish school…it was sure to have its act sorted out politically, financially, educationally, philosophically, and was sure to have a good whack of parental investment behind it. All of these were draws for me.

But what I think it comes down to is this. As a child, I knew I was a member of the default, background, established mainstream of this country. At school in Hampstead Garden Suburb, in assembly, we sang Christian hymns – my agnostic, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim friends and me – and we said Christian prayers, and no-one was really troubled by it all. The school play was the Ramayana (which was pretty ‘out there’ in 1976) but the fact remained that Christianity, my faith, was the one people were happy to go along with, unless they had specifically chosen a different one. Mine was the place of worship that they didn’t attend.

In the four decades since then, the Church of England has significantly shifted its place in the public square. Despised, rejected, criticised, maybe tolerated as part of the heritage industry, but certainly not taken seriously anymore. I have no truck with those who claim that Christians are persecuted or oppressed in the UK. We’re nowhere near that in the UK, but our position has shifted. And I’m OK with that.

This stripping of power from the Church actually offers us the potential to be put back in touch with our roots. All power corrupts, and over 2000 years, power has corrupted and distracted the Christian Church from bearing witness, as we are supposed to do, to the life and death of Jesus. The words ‘despised and rejected’ are taken out of Isaiah 53 and applied to Jesus, in Christian liturgy. So if we, the Church, can have the experience of being ‘despised and rejected’ maybe that gives us a chance of getting closer to the spirit of Jesus, and seeing the world as he saw it.

Meanwhile, during those same four decades, the Jewish community – at least in my bit of the world – has seemed to have been going on a journey in the other direction: growing in influence, growing in cultural capital, in political influence and muscle. The existence of JCoSS and of numerous other Jewish schools that have been founded or expanded in that time is testimony to the growing influence that the Community has.

This is a minority that knows what it’s doing, that knows how to wear minority status well, and make it work. The way that education, the way that charity, that community, scholarship, that hospitality is marshalled for the good of the community is absolutely awesome – speaking, I guess, as an outsider.

In the last two years, here’s what I’ve been doing: I have walked the corridors of power, been a guest inside 10 Downing Street, met royalty, mingled with the top end of the rich list, hosted senior politicians from Government and Opposition. Here’s me with Michael Gove, with Ed Milliband (they were only a week apart); here’s a photo I took of Ed Balls scrutinizing the work of one of our students at JCoSS, the son of a Senior Labour peer.

And then there’s Boris. There’s Boris with the JCoSS head boy at Chanukah in the Square a fortnight ago. Why did I not get the selfie with Boris? Is it because I’m a little too polite, is it because I lack a certain chutzpah? Am I sure I’m not Jewish? Yes – because if I was, I would have got that selfie.

Not one of these photos, not one of these opportunities has come about from my own experiences: independent education, Oxbridge, three generations in the civil service, the established church. Not a single one. They have all come about because I am the head teacher of a state school for the grandchildren of rootless European refugees.

So maybe that is what I’m doing as a trainee priest in a Jewish school. I’m learning how to do despised minority with style: I see what you do, and I want some of that for my community.

But here’s the last thing before I close. The Church of England still retains the trappings of establishment – its vestigial power, its sense of entitlement, its assumption of permanence – even though its real influence is declining. It has delusions of importance. A really interesting observation of myself is that when I hear about the persecutions of Christians by ISIS, my first reaction is to think, ‘Well you know, they’ve had privilege for all these years, they probably had it coming to them…let’s not be too sympathetic.’ As if I’m some sort of self-hating Christian.

The Jewish community on the other hand seems to me to have the trappings of oppression: its vestigial outsider-paranoia, its sense of insecurity that lurks, its need for stability, even though its influence, as I see it, is growing. It has delusions of inferiority.

Some years ago I was teaching a GCSE class about what Jews do and do not mean when they say they are “the chosen people”. The task for the students was to correct the deliberate errors in a number of statements. The first statement was, “Jews believe they are better than all other people”. Quick as a flash back came the reply from one Jewish student, “We don’t believe we are better than all other people, we know we’re better than all other people”. It was a wonderful answer, that was delivered and received with great humour and great warmth, but it did speak to me of this growing confidence. I’m happy to say the person that said it is now Headteacher of a Church school in Camden Town, so I don’t know what that says.

I wonder if the Jews and the Anglicans can do a deal here. You give us help in embracing minority status, show us how to ‘clan-up’ and survive, safe in the knowledge that no-one else is going to do it for us. We can help in return by sharing our experience of the risks of having too much power. How it can corrupt, can compromise, can distract you from some key cherished goals and make you quite unlike yourself. That’s been the history of the Church for most of 2000 years: we are world experts at it and can gladly hold a mirror if it’s required.

So: do I dare to say that the Jewish community might be distracted from its true nature and mission by having too much power and influence? Or would that show for sure that I really am not Jewish? Thank you.

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