Having the titles rabbi and lord in front of your name conveys to others a certain gravitas, sense of purpose and accomplishment, and emeritus chief rabbi of the UK Lord Jonathan Sacks can certainly be said to fully merit that perception.
Though he stepped aside from that position in 2013, he has persevered in his role as a public voice of religious and moral clarity, and continued to speak out on some of the most pressing issues facing modern society today.
In conversation with The Jerusalem Post
during his visit to Israel this week, Sacks addressed some of the most knotty problems currently facing Israel and the Jewish world, including the Diaspora’s relationship with Israel; religious radicalization, especially among Muslims in Europe; Jewish radicalism; and challenges to Israel’s democratic character and the fabric of its religious identity.
The rabbi’s visit to Israel is multi-pronged in its focus, but one of the central purposes of his current sojourn was to participate in the Unity Day event on Wednesday organized by the families of Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel, the three yeshiva boys abducted and murdered last summer.
Speaking at the event, Sacks was passionate about the united national identity of the Jewish people from across the seas and closer at home in Israel, expressed during the dark days of the 2014 summer.
And although he acknowledges the differences and problems that have troubled the relationship of late, such as tensions between Israel’s Orthodox establishment and the large non-Orthodox movements in North America, he remains enthusiastic that they can be overcome by greater mutual understanding between the different communities, if not through the communities’ respective leaders.
“There have been times when we saw the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora through the lens of religion, and there have been times – which we’re in at the moment – that we see Israel through the lens of politics, whether we agree or not with the policies of the Israeli government,” asserted Sacks.
“These are the wrong ways of relating to Israel. We need to look at Unity Day, for example, in which we see Israel’s extraordinary ability to take to its heart as a nation the trials and tragedies of individual families.
I don’t know of any other country in the world where you would get a group of three sets of parents, and feel there is a direct connection between their individual tragedy and the feelings of a nation.”
Although reticent to wade deeper into the frustrations felt by the US sector of Diaspora Jewry, and particularly those of the non-Orthodox denominations with Israel’s Orthodox-dominated religious establishment, Sacks did express more vocal concern for what have been seen as threats to Israel’s democratic and liberal values.
In reference to legislative proposals to circumvent the High Court of Justice and aspects of the controversial Nation-State bills proposed during the last government, Sacks maintained that the consequence of such steps, should they be actualized, could damage the country and how it is perceived.
“Israel must be careful not to go down a road that would open it up to legitimate criticism from morally committed people outside of Israel. I think we understand that,” he said gently.
But he also insisted that Israel faces complex challenges to its security, challenges which are now being faced by countries in Europe and beyond – where radicalized Muslims who have fought with Islamic State are returning to their countries of origin and posing a threat to the security of those states.
“Britain right now is wrestling with the question of to what extent do we protect ourselves from jihadists coming back from Syria, and to what extent do we let that erode our own culture of human rights.
This is an active question which the UK, France, Germany and others are asking,” he stated.
But when asked about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial and widely criticized comments on election day, in which he warned that “droves” of Arabs were going to vote, the rabbi was unequivocal.
“It was the wrong thing to say,” said Sacks plainly.
“It was just wrong. Judaism begins with a statement that each one of us is made in God’s image, and I would hope that politicians, wherever they are, speak to the better angels of our nature.”
In referencing his concern, and that of many European nations, with the ongoing radicalization of not-insignificant numbers of Muslim youth on the continent, Sacks drew attention to his latest campaign – and book – to help channel the yearning of youth for meaning and moral convictions in the opposite direction of the destructive forms such desires sometimes lead.
He says that his latest work, Not in God’s Name, is a protest against religiously motivated violence, but espouses the theory that theology must become part of the solution to this modern malady.
“Young people are hungry for ideals, so woe betide us if we reach a situation in which, as the poet W. B. Yeats said, ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ “We’re talking about a small and fringe group, but it’s still dangerous and a matter for national concern.
“So we have to be full of passionate intensity.
If these young radicals are being attracted by religious ideals, we have to set forth a different kind of religious ideal that will speak to young Christians, Muslims and Jews that will lead them in the opposite direction.”
In seeking to disseminate his message, Sacks says he is not directing his work in a top-down manner towards other religious leaders, but to young religious people, in particular Muslims, who he says he as worked with in recent years.
“I found an extraordinary, warm response from Muslim students, from young Muslims working in the City of London, lawyers, those in the financial industry and others.
“We must find a common language that young Jews, Christians, Muslims can relate to, in the sense that we all see ourselves as heirs to Abraham, and have similar narratives we share. I’m really retelling those narratives from a 21st-century stance and showing that they point in the opposite direction from that being taken by the Islamists.”
While discussing religious radicalization, Sacks clearly acknowledges that he is aware of the danger of religious fundamentalism within the Jewish world as well. The recent storm over the ban by London’s Belz Hassidic community on women driving their children to school is just one such indicator of increased radicalism in the UK, while the efforts by haredi leaders to prevent the integration of their flock into IDF service and the workforce is well-documented here.
Sacks says he is troubled by the inward-looking inclinations of haredi society, and argues that Jews have to make “a Jewish contribution” to wider society and the human project as a whole.
“This is the way forward, to show you have the confidence to go out into wider society and take your values with you without being afraid of people whose values are different.
“The word ‘haredi’ itself means I am afraid, I tremble, but it says in Deuteronomy 1, ‘Do not be afraid of other human beings.’ That’s a biblical command and it’s reflected beautifully in Psalm 27, which says, ‘God is my light and my savior, whom shall I fear, he is the fortress of my life, from whom should I be afraid?’ “Faith should generate confidence, not fear,” the rabbi averred.
One immediate consequence of what could fall into the category of fear that has risen to prominence recently is attempts by the Chief Rabbinate to cut short the tenure of much-loved and prominent Modern Orthodox leader Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.
His liberal and open attitudes to issues such as women’s religious leadership and conversion have drawn skepticism and suspicion from the conservative and less progressive, mostly haredi figures dominating Israel’s religious establishment, and his continued tenure as municipal chief rabbi of Efrat is not yet secure.
Sacks described Riskin as “a cherished friend,” and warned the Chief Rabbinate that it needed to take a more open attitude to Orthodoxy to remain relevant.
“If the rabbinate in Israel is to be effective, it has to make space for a diverse rabbinate.
A rabbinate which doesn’t have room for Rabbi Riskin doesn’t have room for creativity, but if God can recreate the world every day, should we not seek to imitate Him?” Sacks says he opposes calls to dismantle the established synagogue in Israel, but repeated that it must be “inclusive and sensitive to the Jewish people as a whole, without losing its integrity.”
Not wishing to end the interview on a negative note, Sacks once again sought to highlight what he describes as the ongoing importance and centrality of Israel to the Jewish people as a whole, whether living in the Jewish state or the Diaspora.
“Whenever we come here, which is frequently, we see the passion, energy and creativity of the most remarkable small nation on the face of the earth.
“Israel should make every Jew in the world feel proud, but that is not a political or religious statement. It is a statement about what happens when you get a lot of Jews together in a country that is the arena of Jewish history, and you say, ‘Now, write the next chapter of the Jewish people.’’