The UK’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, or, to give him his full title, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, will shortly conclude his 22-year tenure leading Britain’s Orthodox Jewish community.Sacks’s contribution to Jewish life in the UK as well as to the broader societal discourse in Britain is well acknowledged, but he has also dedicated much time and effort to the realm of Jewish thought and philosophy.The forthcoming launch of a new book, Radical Responsibility, which uses Sacks’s work on Jewish thought as a launching pad for further exploration in a variety of fields, gave The Jerusalem Post a chance to sit down with the rabbi, albeit over the Internet and divided by a continent, to discuss some of the ideas to which he has devoted his career and some of the more contemporary challenges facing Israel and the Jewish people.Radical Responsibility, a compilation of essays by several Jewish scholars, focuses on Sacks’s effort to bridge the world of religion with the social and academic disciplines outside of it – what the rabbi terms “the relationship between Torah and hochma,” wisdom.“Hochma is encountering God in creation,” says Sacks, explaining that the concept refers to the natural and human sciences, the arts “and everything that allows us to see the universe as God’s work and humanity as God’s image.”“Torah is encountering God in revelation,” he continues.“Because the God of creation is the God of revelation in Judaism, there is natural kinship between the two.” For Sacks, the concept of hochma, the exploration and development of science, philosophy and literature, does not threaten that of Torah, but, as he expresses it, constitutes “different ways of encountering the ultimate reality that we call God.” And he takes it one step further. The two concepts must be married together, he explains since “only by applying revelation to creation can we get redemption.”What does this mean? Hochma tells us about the world; Torah tells us about the world that ought to be. So to create the world that ought to be, we have to understand the world.These heady and rather lofty concepts are the basis of what Sacks has sought to achieve in his teachings and his tenure as the UK’s chief rabbi, he says.According to him, the world at large needs a religious voice and the religious world needs the wider world. But the two realms, he says, are not in effective communication with each other – something that applies as much to the Jewish world as to wider society.“There are more yeshiva students now than ever before and more Jews in university than ever before, but there’s less dialogue between these two worlds than ever before,” says Sacks.But on a similar theme – the religious-secular divide in Israel – Sacks lays the problems squarely at the nexus to be found between religion and politics.“I believe very profoundly that a deep reading of the Torah tells us that religion belongs in the society and not in the state,” he says. “It belongs in families, communities, hessed [lovingkindness] projects and charity, rather than in politics.” As much as possible, he says, religion and state must be separated in Israel.“It’s actually a fundamentally Jewish idea that religion belongs to civil society. When it becomes part of party politics it just becomes divisive.”And religious figures in Israel must be completely non-judgmental toward the secular public. “They should leave the judgment to God; He does it better than us,” the rabbi quips.TURNING TO more contemporary affairs, Sacks talks about the danger of isolation for the Jewish people and for Israel, a theme that he has written and spoken about in the past.“A nation that dwells alone...” was one of the blessings spoken by the biblical character Balaam to the Israelites, but Sacks sees it as a potentially self-fulfilling prophecy and one that should not define Jewish identity.Citing a passage from the Talmud that explicitly states that all but one of Balaam’s “blessings” turned into curses, he says that this notion, which is embraced by some as an inescapable part of the Jewish reality, could leave Israel alone and the Jewish people alone.What aspect of the utterance was intended as a blessing, then? “We’re different, but that doesn’t mean that we’re alone; there’s a very significant difference,” Sacks explains.Being different necessarily entails having qualities that others do not possess – while the reverse is also true.“What I lack you have and what you lack I have. Every deficiency we have connects us to someone who doesn’t have this deficiency.“Jews have something unique which we have to share with the world. We have to be distinctive,” he says and, riffing off the Hebrew word metzuyan (outstanding), relates the concept back to Israel. “Tziyon [Zion] comes from the same root as metzuyan,” he says – to be distinctive.“But not alone,” Sacks avers.Nevertheless, there are currents in contemporary life that leave the Jewish community feeling isolated, regardless of its own attitude.Two recent and rather ugly incidents in the UK highlighted this problem: an incendiary cartoon in the UK’s Sunday Times showing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu cementing Palestinians into a wall with blood, and Liberal Democrat MP David Ward accusing Jews of persecuting Palestinians in a similar manner to how they themselves were persecuted during the Holocaust.“It is a matter of great concern to me that since the collapse of the peace process in September 2000, Israel has not always won the argument in Europe,” says Sacks.He points out that The Sunday Times was quick to issue an apology, as was Rupert Murdoch, whose News International group owns the paper and whom he describes as “one of the finest friends Israel has in the world.” But he also notes the ongoing challenges facing Israel in the media and the court of public opinion.“There has been a very determined lobby which has systematically gone though the constituencies one by one, the media, parliamentarians, academics, trade unions, human rights NGOs and now the churches. There has been this sustained campaign by the Palestinians to delegitimate Israel in those groups, and ours in the opposite direction has been less effective.”In light of this, European communities are feeling very vulnerable, Sacks notes, pointing specifically to Jewish communities in France, Holland and the Scandinavian countries, as well as to the threats against ritual slaughter and circumcision that have occurred in Holland and Germany, respectively.“Britain is as tolerant a country as you’ll find,” he says, but even there, specific pockets exist, such as university campuses, where extremely anti- Israel voices are heard.On anti-Semitism, Sacks is unequivocal.“We have to have a policy of zero tolerance,” he says, pointing to the campaign against the phenomenon in the UK. “We’ve been very particular to make sure the campaign against anti- Semitism is led by non-Jews,” underlining the work of the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Anti-Semitism in this regard.AS FOR his future plans after he steps aside – not down, he emphasizes – Sacks is somewhat coy but stresses that he will continue on the educational path he has taken.“I’ll be trying to reconnect those two hemispheres of Torah and hochma, to communicate Judaism,” he says. Especially to Jewish students and “tomorrow’s Jewish leaders,” using all the tools of modern communications technology, which he says was sent down from heaven for the benefit of the Jewish people.“Jews were scattered all over the world for 2,000 years, connected by the Torah, the world’s first Internet, so this technology has a Jewish feel about it and I’d like to see how we can use that creatively,” he continues. “What does the eBook have do to with the People of the Book? Can we become the people of the eBook – at least for the rest of the week, if not on Shabbos?” Much work remains for Rabbi Sacks, especially in his quest to convince the skeptics that Torah and worldly wisdom can be completely reconciled, both outside and inside the Jewish community.But as a self-confessed “Maimonidean,” he says that everything in the Torah can be understood while keeping faith with the world of hochma, and it is this challenge that he will no doubt continue to pursue.
On February 12, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, together with Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau and Professor Moshe Halbertal, will take part in “The Leader, the Rabbi & the Professor: Varieties of Jewish Leadership.” The event, at the Jerusalem International Book Fair at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, marks the launch of Radical Responsibility: Celebrating the Thought of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Doors open at 7:45 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.