Background and Education
At Cardiff High School c. 1950
Cardiff, capital city of Wales, was still a major port, and came under attack from the air in World War II. It was a great place to grow up, enlightened, tolerant, with a vigorous musical life in which I was able to take part. There was a small but active Jewish community, inclined to Zionism (they were fond of pointing out that Israel was comparable in size and population to Wales); they were not on the whole very religious, but I came under the influence of some families of refugee German Orthodox Jews.
From Cardiff High School I entered St John's College, Cambridge in 1951 with no break; though National Service was still obligatory HM King George had declined my offer to serve in his Air Force, accusing me of being flat-footed. I read Moral Sciences for Tripos Part I and Music for Part 2, gained a teaching diploma at Bristol University, collected an ARCM in Composition, a B.Mus. degree from London, and in 1961 a Rabbinical Diploma from Jews' College, London. In the summer vacation of 1953 I spent some weeks at Gateshead Yeshiva. In 1955 I married Devora (Doris) Strauss, with whom I enjoyed 43 happy years of marriage until her death in 1998. From her I have four children and four grandchildren. In 2000 I married Hilary Nissenbaum.
My first congregation was the recently-founded one at Whitefield, Manchester, where I stayed from 1961-66, at the same time completing my PhD at the University of Manchester on ‘The Analytic Movement in Rabbinic Jurisprudence: Hayyim Soloveitchik and his Circle’ (published in 1993). I had not grown up in a rabbinical household, so it was a novel experience to feel the pressure not only on myself (for instance when fanatics attempted to prevent me taking part in a panel which included a Reform rabbi) but on my family, of being constantly in the public eye. On the other hand, there were lasting friendships to be made, and the opportunity for some modest literary efforts in the synagogue magazine I edited. I took my first steps in interfaith work, meeting with a local clergy group, and in the broader public sphere as chaplain to some local mayors. Kennedy was assassinated at 5:30 pm on Friday, November 22, 1963; I was in the Synagogue at the time, welcoming the Sabbath.
In 1966 I accepted a call from the Greenbank Drive congregation, Liverpool, an older congregation justly proud of its traditions. There I became involved in educational activities, including supervision of religious studies at the local Jewish school, much to the embarrassment of those of my children who were occasionally the butt of ‘impartiality’ (i.e. showing them no favours) in my classes. Again, there were opportunities for interfaith work and for involvement in the life of the city, at that time undergoing the trauma of industrial unrest, as well as the university, touched but not to excess by the student rebellions of the 60’s. I lived just a few hundred yards from Penny Lane, and I buried Brian Epstein, the Man Who Made the Beatles, though I seriously underestimated the significance of his achievement. In June 1967, following an Egyptian blockade of Israeli shipping and Arab threats of invasion, Israel attacked pre-emptively, defeating their opponents in Six Days and gaining control of extensive territories; Jews felt proud. On Yom Kippur 1973 I was conducting services in the Synagogue when news came through that Arab armies had attacked Israel; it was a tense time, testing for leadership of the community.
Liverpool had embraced us warmly, but in 1974 we made the break and headed south, to The Hampstead Synagogue, London, where I found myself at the heart of mainstream Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy. I continued my educational and interfaith activities and enjoyed the opportunity to engage in a range of public undertakings. I had preached on environmental issues since Whitefield days without being noticed, so it was gratifying to serve on a committee set up by the Board of Deputies of British Jews to make recommendations on those matters; my attempts to persuade them to deal with business ethics in a similar fashion were less successful, but eventually contributed to the formation of the Jewish Association for Business Ethics. My first academic papers were also published at this time.
In 1979 the Shah fell and the Islamic Revolution took hold in Iran, undermining any confidence I might have retained in the inevitable progress of enlightenment. These were the years in which my children grew up. Soon enough they were ready to leave the nest, I was feeling the need to focus on a project rather than spread myself across pastoral and communal activities, and much as I liked my congregation I was uncomfortable in the formal conventionality of the United Synagogue and the need to tow the ‘party line’. It was time to seek pastures new. My only subsequent return to the pulpit was in 1994, when I agreed to act as rabbi to the Central Synagogue, Birmingham, for a few months while they were selecting a new rabbi – a rewarding enough experience, but not one I wished to prolong.to top
In 1983 I accepted an invitation from the Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham, to set up a Centre for the Study of Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations there in parallel with the existing Centre for the Study of Islam and Muslim-Christian Relations. At that time there was probably nowhere better in the UK to pursue interfaith relations. Birmingham had vigorous Muslim, Hindu and Sikh populations as well as a full range of Jewish and Christian denominations and smaller representations of other religions. Also, the University and the Selly Oak Colleges boasted a circle of scholars and theologians deeply committed to interfaith dialogue; many were disciples of the late John Hick, under whose influence I published my first book, Judaism and World Religion, in 1991. I was also able to participate in productive consultations of Jews with the United Reformed Church, from which I learned much about the nature of dialogue.
From this base I was privileged to take part, as a Jewish delegate, in high-level international interfaith dialogue. First came the Anglican-Jewish Consultations, of which I was co-convenor in 1987 and 1992, as well as Jewish Consultant to the drafting committee for the 1988 Lambeth Conference document on Jewish Christian relations. IJCIC (the International Jewish Committee for Interfaith Consultations – I was never actually a member) welcomed me aboard for consultations with the Vatican, the World Council of Churches, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Orthodox Churches, and the African Council of Churches. Colloquia of the International Council of Christians and Jews were held in several member countries (Dublin 1985, Salamanca 1986, Montreal 1988, Lille 1989, Prague 1990, Southampton 1991, Eisenach 1992, Kiev 1999, Riga 2002). HRH Prince Philip, who has a talent for banging heads, joined with Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan and Sir Evelyn de Rothschild to convene The Interfaith Foundation, which brought Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders together at St. George's, Windsor and in Amman, Jordan, focusing their minds and producing joint declarations on conservation and on business ethics. In 1989, as all this was going on, communist rule in Europe collapsed and the Berlin Wall came down, enabling us to work openly with colleagues from Eastern Europe.
I have served on the National Executive of the Council of Christians and Jews, as President of the Birmingham Inter-Faiths Council (1984/5), Vice-President of the World Congress of Faiths, and as Trustee of the Interfaith Dialogue Trust and of the International Interfaith Centre. In 2010 I participated in an International Interfaith Consultation on Pilgrimage at Santiago de Compostela, and in 2012 at an International Interfaith Conference in Bern, Switzerland. From 2013 to 2015 I served as a member of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life: Community, Diversity and the Common Good (http://www.corab.org.uk/national.php).
Among the awards I have received are the Sir Sigmund Sternberg CCJ Award in Christian-Jewish Relations (1993) and the Distinguished Service Medal of the University of San Francisco (2000).to top
I have not given up on interfaith work, but by 1994 I felt the time had come to focus on the academic studies I had always cherished. Oxford was my saviour.
I had been Visiting Lecturer at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies since 1985, and in 1994/5 was Koerner Visiting Fellow. My association with Oxford was put on a firmer footing in 1995 when I was appointed Fellow in Modern Jewish Thought at the Centre and Hebrew Centre Lecturer in Theology, University of Oxford. I retired in 2001 but remain a Senior Associate of the Centre and a member of the Oxford University Unit for Teaching and Research in Hebrew and Jewish Studies, based at the Oriental Institute.
My first book following arrival in Oxford was the popular A Very Short Introduction to Judaism, translated into more than a dozen languages. The Historical Dictionary of Judaism appeared in 1998, The Penguin Classics Talmud: A Selection in 2009 and Torah from Heaven in 2012. I have also published more than 80 papers and numerous book reviews.
I was Specialist Adviser to Council for National Academic Awards (1989-92) and to the Open University Validating Service (1994-7), and President of the British Association for Jewish Studies (1994).
Member of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life (2013-15).to top
In Desert of Sam, Rajasthan India, 2010
Photo: Hilary Nissenbaum
First and foremost comes my family.
Next is my life-long love, music. I miss the chamber music sessions I used to have with my first wife Devora, a fine violinist, and friends, and since her death in 1998 have not touched my cello, but I still keep in practice on the piano, play duets, and occasionally compose. I am a Trustee of the Jewish Music Institute, and was active in the revival of the International Ernest Bloch Society, of which I am treasurer; I am co-editing a volume of Ernest Bloch Studies for Cambridge University Press.
As well as charitable work (Devora and I founded the Nordev Trust), I have been involved in organisations as diverse as the Jewish Law Association, the British Interplanetary Society, Rotary International (I was President of the Oxford Club in 2004/5) and the revived Lunar Society.
I have never been a sports enthusiast, but late in life took up running and completed two marathons (London 1995 and New York 1999), though now my exercise is restricted to walking and cycling. Together with my wife, Hilary, I also enjoy travel, experiencing different cultures and observing wildlife.to top