Controversial rabbi

Former UK chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks was the face of the Jewish community to the outside world.

Rabbi Sacks and Pope Benedict XVI  521 (photo credit: TOBY MELVILLE / REUTERS)
Rabbi Sacks and Pope Benedict XVI 521
(photo credit: TOBY MELVILLE / REUTERS)
One would not describe Britain’s former chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, as a warm personality. Sitting with him at his official residence a few weeks before the end of his tenure, Sacks comes across as measured and formal, and is clearly eased by the presence of an aide, whose main task seems to be ensuring the rabbi doesn’t go over the 60 minutes he’s allotted for the interview.
Even the home’s decor appears to be carefully crafted. The doorway to his study is framed by two identical bookshelves, one weighed down with oversized rabbinic tracts, the other with the wisdom of 2,000 years of secular philosophy. The message is clear.
For Sacks, there is no contradiction between these disciplines, and he has dedicated his career to finding harmony between the two schools.
Few individuals in the Jewish Diaspora have maintained a higher profile than Jonathan Sacks since he assumed the role, in September 1991, of Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and few have been as controversial. Supporters say the rabbi is a trailblazing moral voice, who has used his platform as chief rabbi to challenge secular society and to shake up the rabbinic establishment in Britain and abroad.
But critics on both the right and left call him spineless and cowardly; Reform and Liberal groups say he has occasionally tested the waters of change and acceptance but quickly backtracked in the face of criticism from ultra-Orthodox circles. For their part, Haredi groups criticize Sacks for waffling on what they view as fundamentals of Orthodox faith. For example, during a 2012 discussion with Oxford University Professor Emeritus Richard Dawkins, a noted secularist and author of “The God Delusion,” Sacks refused to clearly answer yes to Dawkins’s challenge about whether or not the rabbi believes in the historical accuracy of Biblical stories, such as the Binding of Isaac.
That episode, broadcast on BBC television, was evidence to many ultra-Orthodox Jews of Sacks’s questionable qualifications as an Orthodox personality. This, in addition to their belief that the rabbi is too chummy with non-Orthodox groups, led many Haredim to dismiss Sacks as a fully-fledged philosopher and interfaith personality, and view him merely as a partially kosher rabbi.
And yet, while the rabbi is not exactly forthcoming about the legitimacy of both critiques, he appears not only to recognize their validity, but also to revel in the contradiction. He says he “certainly feels a rabbinical calling,” and he insists that his “ambassadorial role” as the public face of the Jewish community takes no more than 10 percent of his time.
“It is the nature of this position to be the face of the Jewish community to the outside world; and it is the nature of the beast that this part of the job garners the most press,” Sacks tells The Jerusalem Report. “But the bulk of my work is to be there for the Jewish community and to care for the institutions of our community.”
Even if his work inside the Jewish community takes up the lion’s share of his time, the rabbi appears happiest when namedropping and regaling visitors with stories of his dealings with international luminaries such as Elie Wiesel, Nelson Mandela, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a host of current and former British premiers, including Margaret Thatcher, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and others.
STILL, THE fact that in truth Sacks represents no more than half of Britain’s 275,000 Jews has led many members of the community to question the need for a chief rabbi in the 21st century. The rabbi rejects this argument out of hand, noting that his relations with non-Jewish leaders and his prominence on the national stage is an important part of the reason why Jews in England have a public voice in the country that other, larger minority groups lack.
“I don’t think you can overestimate the importance of having a chief rabbi here,” Sacks says. “Without a clear, titular head of the Jewish community, we would have absolutely no ability to get our views across. We have, today, more sway with public opinion, with the government and anyone else who matters than the Muslim community, which outnumbers us 10 to one, than the Hindu community that outnumbers us at least four to one, than the Sikh community, which is slightly larger than we are. We get better press than the Christian communities, and the government has made it clear privately to the leaders of our community that our community has the presence and influence it has davka because there is a chief rabbinate.”
What Sacks does acknowledge is that the role of chief rabbi has changed since 1991, and he predicts it will continue to do so as the Jewish community in Great Britain continues to grow and develop. He says his first order of business upon taking office was to bolster Jewish education, doing so initially by asking community leaders and officials a simple, but loaded, question: Will we have Jewish grandchildren? As a result, the community embarked on a massive school-building program, constructing more Jewish day schools during Sacks’s tenure than at any other period in British Jewish history. Significantly, that program was made possible thanks to a lack of church-and-state restrictions that govern public spending in the United States. The British government subsidizes 80 percent of the capital costs for starting a school, and pays for the entire secular part of the curriculum, meaning the cost of Jewish education is not prohibitively expensive in England as it is in the United States, Australia and elsewhere.
But building the schools was the easy part, Sacks says. Once the buildings were in place, parents had to be convinced to send their kids there, an issue that proved far more challenging than securing funding and constructing classrooms.
“You’ve got to understand, Jews here used to shrink away from the public spotlight,” Sacks says. “After I took office, the first time we held a hachnassat sefer Torah ceremony [a celebratory parade to inaugurate a new Torah scroll] in the streets, all the Jews around here hated it. The gentiles loved it, but the Jews were mortified. So with that sort of community mindset, it took a lot of work to convince parents to stand up and be proud to be Jewish, to the point that they would send their children to Jewish schools.”
One welcome, albeit unintended, result was what Sacks calls an “explosion of Jewish pride and creativity.” He points to a wave of Jewish activity today – the establishment of the London Jewish Cultural Centre, a Jewish Book Week attended by thousands of people earlier this year, and perhaps most significantly, the 2010 Man Booker Prize that was awarded to Jewish author Howard Jacobson.
“Any way you look at it, the Booker Prize was an enormous victory for a Jewish novel,” the rabbi says. “To me, it really is a sign that we’ve come into our own. We’ve gone public, we’ve become exuberant, and that energy is catching. That’s obviously been terrific for the individual members of our communities, but it’s also been a real boon for Israel and a strike against anti-Semitism, because we now have a public presence for Judaism that non-Jews can relate to.”
Asked for a concrete example of the impact of his high profile, Sacks does not hesitate to cite a host of domestic and international examples. He has advised four prime ministers on issues including crime, economic policy, business ethics and more. Sacks also served as the public face of the community during several periods of national mourning – for Princess Diana in 1997, following the London Underground bombings on July 7, 2005, and for Margaret Thatcher earlier this year.
There is no area in which Sacks has had more grief over the past 22 years than his fractured relations with non-Orthodox Jews, and non-Orthodox Judaism, and his efforts to repair intra-community relations over the past 15 years, he claims, have yielded impressive results. He admits that the controversies with non-Orthodox groups during the first decade of his tenure – most notably his refusal to attend the funeral of Rabbi Hugo Gryn (rabbi of the Reform West London Synagogue) in 1996 and his subsequent letter to Haredi critics describing Gryn as “one who destroys the faith” – were “counterproductive.” This led him to devise a series of guidelines to govern community relations. “Firstly, on all matters that affect us as Jews, regardless of religious differences, we will work together, regardless of the religious differences between us; and, secondly, on all matters that touch on the religious difference between us, we will agree to differ – with respect.”
“THOSE PRINCIPLES,” he says, “have proved themselves many times over the past 15 years, because they have integrity, they are not political, they are ethical, they make sense.
I sit with Reform rabbis, Conservative rabbis, Liberal rabbis, the Council of Christians and Jews, on defending Israel, promoting welfare, or any number of interfaith issues.
On other matters, we agree to differ but we do not criticize each other in public. So for the last 15 years, the relationships have been exceptionally good, and I cannot think of a single incident in which somebody stood up and said, ‘Hey, the chief rabbi wasn’t speaking for me.’” The second issue that created fireworks, both domestically and internationally, was Sacks’s 2002 book, “The Dignity of Difference.” Orthodox groups harshly criticized Sacks for his assertion that “no one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth.” He also caught flak from the other side when he amended the text to read, “No one civilization encompasses all the spiritual, ethical and artistic expression of mankind.” For his part, Sacks says the storm surrounding the book was little more than a proverbial tempest in a teacup. He claims to remember little about the controversy, other than the fact that the revision took him all of about three hours. “The important thing to remember is that the main point of the book did not change at all,” he notes.
It is unclear whether Sacks is correct that intra-community relations are better today than they were in the mid-1990s; but even if they are, the rabbi also appears to harbor some deep illusions about the depth of nonOrthodox dissatisfaction with his chief rabbinate.
“He may have gained worldwide acknowledgment and praise for his supposed tolerance and pluralistic attitude, but that open mindset was decidedly not the case when it came to internal Jewish relations, as the Rabbi Hugo Gryn affair illustrates,” says Rabbi Uri Regev, the former head of the Reform movement’s Israel Reform Action Committee who now heads Hiddush, a Jerusalem-based organization for religious freedom and equality. “Unfortunately, to Rabbi Sacks, only non-Jews are to be granted the dignity of difference, but not nonOrthodox Jewish movements that interpret Judaism differently. I sensed this derogatory attitude when he testified before the Ne’eman Commission on who is a Jew, when he advocated the superiority of Orthodox conversions,” Regev tells The Report.
And then there is Israel. Here, too, Sacks has seemed chameleon-like for much of his tenure. He has occasionally leveled criticism at Israel for military policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, claiming in 2002, for instance, that the ongoing conflict “is forcing Israel into postures that are incompatible in the long run with our deepest ideals.” Compare that to his speech last March at the annual AIPAC convention in Washington, where he told delegates, “Anti-Zionism is the new antiSemitism… Israel is the sustained defiance of hatred and power in the name of life because we are the people who sanctify life.”
Like other controversies, Sacks demurs from discussing the seeming contradictions, but when asked whether he identifies with an idea common in Orthodox Zionist circles in Israel – that the State of Israel marks the first flowering of the ultimate redemption, Sacks laughs dismissively, and almost seems insulted at having to answer such a dumb question. “Let’s wait and see, shall we?” he responds. “Shmuel, the third-century Talmudic scholar, said ‘the only difference between this world and the Messianic time is that [in the Messianic era], the Jewish People will not be subject to rule by the nations of the world.’ “So we have a place in the world where we rule ourselves. After 2,000 years we have a country where we have the right to do what other nations take for granted – the right to construct our own society, according to our own principles. That’s enough for me, and the question really isn’t too much on my radar.