Caught Between the Chief Rabbi and the Archbishop of Canterbury

Archbishop Justin Welby may have been impressed with Chief Rabbi Mirvis’ interpretation of his favourite piece of Scripture, but I had always learnt that verse the other way round!


Let me backtrack a bit. On Wednesday I was invited, together with a number of my colleagues to an interfaith seminar at Lambeth Palace. There was the usual comic moment when we stopped for Mincha, and I looked around at the Minyan Davenning in the Great Hall; the double height ceiling and the ancient wooden beams going back centuries, and I thought; have you ever witnessed this before? There was also the delight in handling leather bound religious texts printed back in the 1500s. There wasn’t a Rabbi there who wasn’t contemplating a heist!


The last session of this remarkable day was the Archbishop and Chief Rabbi in conversation. They both told us of their favourite verse/episode in Scriptures and invited a response from the other. Chief Rabbi chose Psalm 133: “how good and pleasant it is when brothers sit also together” and, in the words of the Archbishop, unfolded it beautifully with the full rich history of Rabbinical insight. The Archbishop responded and then presented us with his choice; chapter 4 of the book of Ruth. This deals with the ‘redemption’ of Ruth by Boaz and the blessing for them to have children, which resulted eventually in the birth of David. This of course was quite significant for the Christian aspect of history.


But it was the response from the Chief Rabbi that really caused me to sit up and contemplate how one verse can offer two diametrically opposed lessons.


The Chief began his response on how Ruth wasn’t just a stranger, but was in fact a Moabite, a people who had a very strained relationship with the Jewish Nation. This began already with the birth of the first Moabite, born to Lot and his daughter after the destruction of Sodom.  He then reflected on the immodest behaviour of Moab’s mother. For although her intentions were pure, she honestly believed that together with her sister and father they were the only human beings left alive, but nevertheless she should not have waved her sin for all to see. By naming her son Moab, meaning ‘from my father’, she showed a total lack of dignity.


And here was where I differ. For I had always learnt that this was to her credit. She wasn’t proudly displaying her sin, she was in fact courageously defending her faith. She was willing to carry the shame of her licentious relationship with her father, (an act that she believed was unfortunately entirely necessary) rather than allow others to claim her son was Divinely conceived. She specifically named him Moab, so that future generations would know beyond a doubt who his father was. In fact it was as a reward for this selfless act that she merited that her descendant Ruth converted to Judaism and became the ancestor of King David and eventually the Moshiach.


How different from the Chief Rabbi’s interpretation!


As the Talmud tells us though, ‘there are 70 faces to the Torah’, and my point here is not to disagree with the Chief Rabbi. It is to illustrate how easy it is to have two entirely conflicting views of the same verse in the Torah. And to still respect the author of the other view. I spent an entire day in interfaith dialogue, the point of which was not to convince each other of the exclusive validity of our view, but to discover a shared common goal.


Coming on the back of our shared Mitzvah Day project with the Altrincham Mosque it gave me even more to think about. Ideas and thoughts which I hope to share with you over the coming months. In the meantime I can do no worse than to quote the title of a brilliant book by our former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks: ‘The dignity of difference’.