Press Column

Easter is a terribly important week in the life of the newspapers: it lets them fill acres of newsprint with suddenly topical religious lucubrations. When the Christian festival coincides with Passover, then you can get a feature writer to do a huge story about the Jews, which fills even more space; and so it came to pass that Graham Turner did a three part series in the Daily Telegraph on Judaism in Holy Week. What made it memorable was the last part, on how Jews hate each other. The most spectacular examples of this, of course, are found in Israel: there was an interview with an American Jewish woman who had hired a car in Jerusalem one Saturday and driven by accident into an ultra-Orthodox area: "Immediately, we started being pelted with stones, and people shouted 'slut', and 'prostitute', at me because my forearm was bare. My husband, Sheldon, actually had to drive the car through a barrier to get us out of there. They could have killed us."

Her family had only just escaped from Hitler in 1939.

But it is not stuff like that which makes me wonder at the way in which Orthodox Jews manage to get themselves taken seriously as arbiters of morality. Jerusalem has a maddening effect on any religion: only this morning, I stumbled on a "messiah cam" focussed on the city by a group of messianic Christians. The most thought-provoking thing in the Turner piece was among the mildest: Lord Winston, the fertility doctor, and an observant Orthodox Jew, was asked whether he felt the Reform had an inferior religion: " ‘Well, yes, I do,’ he admitted, ‘because I don't think you can make your own rules, which is what they do. If you decide to do X but not Y - not eat pork but be perfectly happy to have beef in a non-Jewish restaurant - what's the rational or moral basis for doing anything?

‘If you don't keep the rules, you become completely immoral and, if you're immoral, you lose your humanity. Of course, I'm not saying that a Reform Jew can't be a good person’ …" of course not, my Lord,. You have just explained that a reform Jew who freely and knowingly eats a bacon sandwich has lost his humanity, so he can't be any kind of person at all. But if he were one, he'd be completely immoral.

What is it about the way that people talk about morality which lets them say things like that? I don't mean that Lord Winston believes that a single bacon sandwich could turn — say – Robert Maxwell into a completely immoral and inhuman being (it took more than one, as Mae West said, in another context). But it is more or less what he said. So the mystery is, why are people so extraordinarily sloppy in their language on subjects were precision and clarity are so especially necessary?

I’ve only met him once. We were both on the Moral Maze, as it happens, talking about humanity in what you might call a professional context. And he struck me then as someone whose practical reasoning was entirely trustworthy. But that just makes odder his language about humanity when he’s being pious: in a professional context he spends his life fiddling around with test-tubes, deciding whether or not a particular glob of jelly is going to be fully human. He does not then say ‘Aha! I think that this one might in later life eat bacon sandwiches. We'll flush it down the drain.’ He wouldn't dream of doing so. So how has his theoretical language, his rhetoric, if you like become so completely disengaged from his practical reasoning? If we understood that, we would understand a huge part of the crisis of ‘organised’ religion, and the sense that anyone talking about ‘humanity’ as a large abstraction is doing so through his hat.

The previous piece in the series also had an instructive vignette of an orthodox couple in Washington: "When the family go on holiday in America, Diana asks her kosher butcher to freeze meat and FedEx it to wherever they are staying. If they are going to Europe, they take a suitcase full of tuna and frozen chicken. Kosher food costs approximately a third more, but Diana prefers not to say so because it might imply that following God's law was some sort of punishment."

Nor does she sound like a woman who would notice if the food bill went up by a third: when they started worshipping at an Orthodox synagogue, the couple brought a second house within walking distance of it, for use on Fridays and Saturdays only.

A curious example of debate-stirring (I think that’s the term) in the Times, where Tony Howard considered the future of the Church of England. "George Carey’s … reign at Lambeth is now moving reasonably peacefully towards its close.

"After a disastrous start … Carey has not proved a wholly inadequate occupant of the chair of St Augustine. However, in the annals of the 103 Archbishops of Canterbury, he is hardly likely to go down as one of the most illustrious or more inspiring." All this was by way of throat-clearing to launching Richard Chartres as a candidate for the job, on the grounds that he could provide the opposition to Blairism that William Hague can’t in the same way as Runcie stood out against the tide of Thatcherism. . The only other serious candidate, says Howard, would be Rowan Williams. "The two men could hardly represent more conflicting views about the Church of England’s future — the world of Anthony Trollope as opposed to that of Reinhold Niebuhr. Upon which one of them the lot eventually falls will depend not just the future character of the Church of England but also the nature of the role that it plays in the life of the nation."

Now some of this overplayed: the future character of the Church of England and its place in the life of the nation will not depend on the next Archbishop any more than it can be attributed to the present one or even his predecessor. But the article does show that there is a definite Chartres-for-Canterbury movement and it will do a lot to colour future speculation if only because everyone wheeled out to write "Carey after ten years: what next?" will look at Howard’s piece and assume that he knows what he is talking about.

The Sunday Telegraph billed its interview with Desmond Tutu as "The last" because he has cancer. No one seems to have told the Archbishop, who told the paper: " ‘I've been having cryosurgery to zap the cancer. They freeze the prostate, freeze it and zap it’. But laughing, he added: ‘They don't freeze everything around there, man. I want to celebrate my golden wedding in style.’"

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