Some time ago I had an interesting conversation with a well-known Catholic journalist in which we both wondered about Ed Miliband and his Jewish background. How Jewish was he? Had he or had he not had a bar mitzvah?
This last question is given an answer in the current edition of the New Statesman, which focuses on all matters Jewish, and which carries an article by Ed Miliband which you can read here.
Ed says: “I am not religious. But I am Jewish. My relationship with my Jewishness is complex. But whose isn’t?” He goes on to say: “They [his parents] assimilated into British life outside the Jewish community. There was no bar mitzvah, no Jewish youth group; sometimes I feel I missed out.”
Can one be Jewish and not religious? This is really a matter for our Jewish brethren to discuss among themselves, but it is of great interest to us Catholics as well. There are many people who identify themselves as Catholics and who never go to Mass. That said, when Ed Miliband uses the word “religious” he intends it in a somewhat different way to us. Judaism is the religion of doing, as much as believing, it is commonly said. So, does Ed mean that he is Jewish, but not religious in the sense of not keeping the Law, not the sort of person who is observant of the Torah?
But metaphysically where does he stand? He may well eat in the House of Commons canteen, but what does he actually believe? “Sometimes I feel I missed out” strikes me as eloquent. Does he mean that he missed out on the sense of community that being an observant Jew would have brought with it? Or does it mean that he feels the absence of God in his life? Or both?
I find myself quite touched by what Ed says here:
Although my wife Justine is not Jewish, my Jewishness is part of me, so when we got married last year, we broke a glass at our wedding, an old Jewish ritual. I will explain our heritage and the connection to my boys. I will encourage them to identify with it and, when they have got past CBeebies, I will sit down and watch Woody Allen with them.
This is not just schmaltz (to use a Yiddish word, as, yes, Ed is right about Yiddish – “there is no better language for idio¬matic expressions”) but rather something important. Ed wants to pass on a tradition to his children. This desire is something without which religion cannot flourish. Goodness knows what he is going to do, though, when they start asking awkward questions about Santa Claus.
Again, Ed says something that needs no comment from me or anyone else:
One night, I went to a dinner with Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, where we sang a traditional prayer. I remember thinking my grandparents – their grandparents, too – would have said the same words.
Finally there is the expression of an ethical faith. He says:
Above all, what I see in so many parts of the Jewish community is a desire to leave the world a better place than you found it.
Some people may disagree with me, but in answer to my original question about how Jewish is Ed Miliband, my answer is, after reading this, pretty Jewish indeed.
Two last points: at no point does Ed Miliband say he is an atheist. He just says he is not religious. In Catholic terms he is what we would call a “non-believer”, a non-theist rather than an atheist. I think this is an important distinction. He is not in the Dawkins camp.
Secondly, Labour’s spin doctors could allow themselves an extra glass of champagne this weekend on the strength of this article. Given the vacuum that is the content of Dave’s Big Society, this article seizes back some important territory from the other side. It lays claim to concepts such as community and tradition, which will be music to the ears of many of Labour’s longstanding supporters, which includes, or has included, the vast majority of British Catholics.