by Hugh Montefiore
195 pp. £7.99 Paperback.
Hodder & Stoughton
Reviewed by Linda Dangoor-Khalastchi
Whereas Rabbi Blue fell in love and nearly converted to the Christian faith, Bishop Hugh Montefiore's conversion was sudden and irrevocable. At the age of 16, while sitting idly in his study at Rugby, he saw an apparition. A figure in white coming towards him uttering the words "Follow me." Montefiore tells us that the figure he saw was that of Jesus and that his conversion was simple and immediate and he has never looked back.
Born into a well-known Sephardi family, Hugh Montefiore was brought up in a moderately strict Jewish home. That is to say that High Holidays such as Rosh Hashana, Kippur Pesah etc., were celebrated. So were Bar-Mitzvahs. And the main food taboos were observed. But the family tended to keep "biblical rather than rabbinical Laws." Not that they were members of the Liberal Jewish movement, he hastens to clarify, but it was more a matter of "partial assimilation to English more. We were distinct from non-Jews.... but as an English family we did not distance ourselves too much from the English ethos, which was much a part of our inheritance as our Jewish culture."
Hugh Montefiore was a boarder at Rugby since there was only one other Jewish boy at the school, his father, at great expense, hired someone to go the Rugby every week-end to instruct the two boys in Jewish religious history and thought. At 16 years of age Hugh was an English Jewish boy who could read Hebrew (as he had done his Bar-Mitzvah) and was well versed in the Bible, the Mishna and the Talmud. Then, suddenly, the course of his life changed when he had his conversion experience. "In the morning, I was a Jew and by the evening I was a Christian." He went on to become a Priest and a Bishop in the Church of England.
The book has 10 chapters. The first chapter which deals with the background is called: "On Being Jewish." The following chapters deal with "Jewry in Christendom," "Judaism in relation to Christianity," "Judaism," "Jewish and Christian differences," "The Jews and the Land," "Jewish and Christian Liturgies," "Convergences in ethics," "Jewish Christians," and finally "A Personal View."
After his abrupt conversion, Hugh Montefiore was cut off from the Jewish Community, an event which he regards as natural because, "For a Jew to become a Christian is to go over to the enemy," and because "it is to identify himself with a religion whose adherents have for centuries and centuries conceived an implacable hatred or dislike of their race, and for which they have never apologised."
That is pretty much all that Montefiore says about his conversion. The rest of the book is partly factual on historical as well as a very controlled comparative study of the two religions, their merits, their wrongs and their rights.
In comparing Judaism with Christianity, which Montefiore does obsessively, one gets the impression that a race is on and that a winner might be announced at some stage. Like a diligent bookkeeper he meticulously records the minuses and the plusses in the right columns never managing to transcend or develop the subject. His account of his Christian experience and his subsequent conversion is a sketchy anecdote that lacks substance. After all, it was a very important event which changed his life dramatically. How did his father feel about it? How did his mother or brothers take it? Did he feel guilty, uneasy? Did he suffer, at all, during these times? We are not told any of this. Hugo Montefiore’s book lacks intimacy. He has played it safe avoiding the mines of awkward emotions hiding behind a very well-written and very informative book. Perhaps, it is because he did not give much of himself that I found his chapter on Israel irrelevant. He was pointing the finger at the Israelis for their harsh treatment of Palestinians, and giving them advice on how to behave. More love and understanding was needed, he said - Yes. Perhaps. But I couldn't help thinking that he was "pontificating" that the whole chapter resembled a sermon and that he was finally glad not to be a Jew anymore. That was my impression.
At the end, in his "Personal View," he laments, "It is sad.... large numbers of Jews marry non-Jews, there is assimilation to Christian customs..... sad because a strong Jewish community is an asset to this country....." But forgets that two pages earlier he wrote: "Naturally, I wish that all Jews would become Christians, in Israel and elsewhere..."
Make up your mind!
I will leave you with the questions: Who was this book written for? and, Is Montefiore apologising to his Christian friends for having been born a Jew? Just a thought....
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