The rebellion of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Where we rabbis feared to go, he traveled on his own to challenge not only the Jewish community but the world at large.

July 9, 2013 23:08
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Pope

Jonathan Sacks and Pope 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Let it be said. Jonathan Sacks has been a rebellious chief rabbi.

Over the years, most of us rabbis have become irrelevant on a global level. We wanted to be spiritual leaders, teachers, serve our congregants, and become heads of yeshivot. But we shunned the idea of going beyond these noble tasks and taking on the world.

That religious faith was challenged worldwide as never before did not bother us. It was for the goyim to deal with. We buried our heads in the sand and lived happily ever after.

By doing so, however, we robbed the rabbinate of one of its most powerful tasks: to challenge, disturb, rebel and send a strong, passionate message that is not always to our liking.

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once observed that religion has to function like a thunderstorm, but that over the years it invented sundry lightening-conductors and lost its purpose. The same is true about the rabbinate. It has become a pleaser, a comforter, as opposed to a biting critic of our moral failure and our spiritual and intellectual mediocrity.

The rabbinate was meant to be a test tube in which its own foundations could be challenged and new ideas experimented with. It was supposed to redeem Judaism to once again become a vibrant experience.

Instead it denied its task of being “a light unto the nations” and decided to be a dwindling night-lamp.

That is why Rabbi Jonathan Sacks became a rebellious man. He was bold enough to challenge the very institution he headed. Where we rabbis feared to go, he traveled on his own to challenge not only the Jewish community but the world at large.

His confidence in the power of Judaism and its infinite wisdom enabled him to enter the lion’s den, taking on famous philosophers, scientists, religious thinkers and sociologists and showing them that Judaism had something to teach that they couldn’t afford to miss if they wanted to be at the forefront of philosophy and science.

He showed us that science had to justify itself in the eyes of religious belief, and not just the other way around. His observations disturbed and put arrogant people, who spoke in the name of science and philosophy, in their place.

The truth is that Rabbi Sacks left the chief rabbinate years ago and went his own way, becoming a lonely chief rabbi, little appreciated by his own colleagues. While we rabbis convinced ourselves that to engage and challenge the academic world was not possible, the chief rabbi showed us that we were using this argument to cover up our own limitations.

We knew there were Jewish Orthodox institutions that taught how Judaism could exist in a secular world and even thrive, but to maintain that Judaism could actually challenge the scientific, philosophical and academic communities was unheard of and belonged to the sphere of wishful thinking.

Rabbi Sacks was able to do so only because he didn’t learn in conventional yeshivot. He had to discover Judaism on his own, guided by some great teachers. People can grow into outstanding leaders only when they encounter doubt, struggle with their own faith and are challenged to the extent that they nearly fall off the cliff. They cannot grow in an environment where religion is taken for granted and observance is obvious.

Of course, this is not the case for most of us, for whom a yeshiva education is crucial in order to avoid falling into the abyss; but for truly great men such institutions are only obstacles.

What Rabbi Sacks did and what few have done is to lead the ship of Torah, in full sail, right into the heart of some of the most gifted and influential people in the world. He took them all by storm. And along the way, he also disturbed the Jewish religious establishment, making him a rebel and often the object of suspicion.

When faced with the failure of the Israeli chief rabbinate, one can only admire Rabbi Sacks even more. One does not have to agree with all of his policies, decisions or philosophical insights, but nobody can doubt his contribution of many splendid theological ideas to Jewish tradition, ethics and general philosophy. The Israeli chief rabbinate, in contrast, has been silent on all these fronts since the days after chief rabbi Shlomo Goren stepped down.

Not only have its rabbis made no contribution to the development of religious thought in the general world, they have not even made an impression on the intelligentsia in Israel. This should have been their first concern, because it is the intellectuals who determine Israel’s future. The rabbis probably do not even understand some of Rabbi Sacks’ writings, since they lack all background in religious and secular philosophy, have never contemplated the issues that Rabbi Sacks struggled with, and have never learned the art of thinking independently.

They are seemingly unacquainted with works of other important monotheistic religions, with Hinduism and Buddhism, and with the writings of people such as Avraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Buber, Mordechai Kaplan, David Hartman, David Weiss Halivni, Arthur Green, Paul Tillich or Reinold Niebuhr.

With the stepping down of Chief Rabbi Sacks, British Jewry’s most illustrious institution will cease to be a world player. In whatever form the chief rabbinate will continue – and we wish the new chief rabbi every success – it will lack its influence on the broader Jewish and non-Jewish world. World Jewry has bitterly failed to educate a young man who would be able to take over the task that Rabbi Sacks had laid out for himself, and move beyond him, confronting many important matters that Rabbi Sacks couldn’t or didn’t want to deal with, correctly or incorrectly.

There is an urgent need to address the issue of the Reform and Conservative movements, as well as to ensure that Zionist rabbinical judges will sit on London’s Beit Din. It is crucial to deal with the status of women and conversion in Jewish law, as well as to see that halacha is viewed as something exciting and ennobling, not just as a dry legal system that has stagnated, becoming irrelevant to most secular and even religious Jews.

But the most important pursuit is to ensure that a highly intelligent Jewish religious voice will continue to speak to the outside world – especially to the academia and to the policy makers in government and high-ranking institutions.

British Jewry will yet regret having let Rabbi Sacks go. Although I fully understand his decision to step down – it must have occasionally been frustrating, boring and lonely at the top – his resignation is not just a loss to British Jewry but to all Jewish and non-Jewish communities the world over.

We can only hope that he will become more and more challenging, disturbing and daring. He no doubt has more up his sleeve, and we pray that he will have the courage to persist and do what needs to be done. It may sometimes be painful, but the benefit will be priceless.

Rabbi Sacks surely believes in God, but more important is the fact that God seems to believe in him, and that’s what counts. The best is yet to come! The author is the dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem, author of many books and international lecturer.

He pens a weekly “Thought to Ponder.”

Related Content

August 23, 2019
Whatever happened to nuance in politics?


Cookie Settings