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Ephraim Mirvis

Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth of Nations, United Kingdom
In Jewish tradition, the ultimate compliment that one can pay to another person is to say, “You are a mensch”. The term ‘mensch’ is a Yiddish word, meaning human being. It is a compliment which conveys humanity - you are a wonderful human being because of the manner in which you engage with other human beings. And the term is not merely an incidental reflection of Jewish ideology - it actually comes right to the heart of Jewish belief. For example, the Talmud records how Hillel, the great Rabbi of two thousand years ago, was asked to teach the entire Torah whilst standing on one leg. He famously responded, “Don’t do to others that which you would not want to be done to you - this is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary”.
Similarly, when the Talmud asks “what is the most important principle of the entire Torah?” the great Rabbi Akiva answered that it must be Leviticus 19:18 – ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ - a wonderful answer, which makes clear that responsibility towards our fellow human beings is the very essence of our Torah. And yet, Ben Azzai, a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva, disagreed. He believed that there is a more important verse – Genesis 5:1 – “This is the book of the generations of man, on the day that God created Man, in the image of God He created him.” Ben Azzai was saying that it is not good enough for us to relate to our neighbours with love and compassion. Rather, our consideration for our fellow human beings must reach every single person in the world, because everyone is created in the image of God.
As Jews, we are blessed to have a faith tradition which is unique. We have a rich and timeless theology which we treasure. But, our particular identity exists for the sake of our universal aspirations, because we believe that God is the parent of all of humanity. Therefore, humanism, with a small ‘h’, sits at the centre of what it means to be a Jew. Indeed, this is a sentiment shared by adherents of many other great faiths around the world.
But there is a different Humanism, with a capital ‘H’, which I fear is becoming ever-more combative in the way in which it regards faith communities.
The Amsterdam Declaration of 2002 comprises seven principles of modern Humanism. Of those seven, six are readily found in Jewish tradition: Ethical values are at the centre of everything we do. All of our engagement with our fellow human beings is based on sound, rational principles. We are committed to democracy and Human Rights. We champion the value of artistic creativity and imagination. We seek to guarantee that every human being can live a life of deep personal fulfilment, so that each one can reach his or her full potential. And, finally, social responsibility is an integral part of our way of life.
But there is one principle which separates us: “Humanism is a response to the widespread demand for an alternative to dogmatic religion.” Now, to some degree I can accept that notion. There are, of course, many outstanding people who are highly motivated to assist others. Not being religious, they do not believe in God, but they are content to live amiably alongside established faith communities. Unfortunately however, today this is not the case with many Humanists.
I want to stress at this point that, of course, Humanism means many things to many people, so let me restrict my comments to the Humanist movement in the UK right now. We are finding that, often, Humanism, and other secularist approaches, seek out opportunities to attack faith. I have always believed that when it comes to self-definition, the finest way for people to describe themselves is by explaining what they live for. It is a failing of human nature that, increasingly, people self-define according to what they are against.
I often use a cricketing metaphor - that we should all be batsmen and not bowlers. It is our responsibility to score runs for our team and to help support our teammates to do likewise. Our role is not to bowl any other team out. Yet, unfortunately, we find that that is exactly what some proponents of Humanism do.
Let me share with you two examples of this in the UK. The first relates to faith schools. The Humanists UK website declares, “We aim for a secular state...with no privilege or discrimination on grounds of religion or belief, and so we campaign against faith schools, and for an inclusive secular school system...We challenge faith schools’ admissions, employment and curriculum policies as well as the privileged processes by which new faith schools continue to open”.
Now, for us, and I know this is a view shared by others, education means our future. Do I not have the right to educate my children in accordance with the values that I hold dear? Do I not have the right to teach them to be proud of their heritage so that hopefully they will, in turn, teach it to their children? Those Humanists who campaign against the existence of faith schools are in effect campaigning against my freedom to raise my children in accordance with the tenets of my faith.
Another example relates to circumcision. Stephen Evans, the CEO of the National Secular Society, has written, “the demand for religious freedom to be respected is often little more than a demand for the state to turn a blind eye to the violation of other’s rights and freedoms when done in the name of religion”.
Circumcision in the Jewish faith is the sign of our covenantal relationship with God. For Jewish men, it is an essential part of our existence. An attack against our right to perform circumcision is an attack against a most fundamental element of our belief.
So to my Humanist friends, I call out to you in friendship and with respect. By all means, live your lives according to the values you hold dear. However, if it is freedom you seek, please do not campaign against our freedom to practice our faith. If you are calling for tolerance, please do not stoop to intolerance of faith communities and religious practice. If you wish to prevent religion from imposing its values on our society, please don’t do just that, by seeking to impose Humanism on our society.
In the Book of Proverbs, King Solomon described our tradition as a ‘Tree of Life’. As opposed to a vegetable patch which is uprooted and sewn afresh every year, Abraham and Sarah, the founders of the ‘Abrahamic faiths’, planted a tree which survives to this day. It has many different branches and a great deal of sweet fruit. It ennobles our societies and enhances our existence. To cut it down at the trunk would be a great loss to humanity.
Our Abrahamic tradition has inspired societies across the globe to live lives of decency, dignity and morality. We attack that at our peril.
So, let us instead model our societies on the symphony orchestra: We may play different instruments, each one with a unique sound, but when we all play together under the baton of respectful cooperation, we can create beautiful harmony.