A legacy limited by labels - Opinion

We are amidst an emergency here in Israel, reminiscent of the days before the destruction of the second commonwealth and Temple, when the country is torn apart by its leaders' says Rabbi Goldschmidt.

 Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt (photo credit: ELI ITIKIN)
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt
(photo credit: ELI ITIKIN)

A young rabbi at Yeshiva University once asked Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z” tl,  whether modern Orthodoxy is overrated. 

Rabbi Sacks answered, “If you in America get up and define yourself as a modern Orthodox Jew, you define yourself as a minority of a minority of a minority.”

Rabbi Sacks, as I knew him, was an expansionist at heart. He did not believe in limiting ideas to one group, to one community — he spoke to everyone, and even today, after his untimely passing, his works continue to be quoted by Jews and non-Jews, by both Haredi and Reform Jewish thought leaders alike.

While the trust which bears his name tries to define his legacy by inviting scholars and educators to study and disseminate his philosophy — it is striking to notice that the focus of the trust’s work is almost exclusively on the English-speaking modern Orthodox milieu, particularly with the organization’s focus on cultivating Sacks scholars.

Perhaps because it is easily within reach. It is, after all, a certain comfort zone for this community. Perhaps the British Jewish community has experienced a sort of Brexit of its own with his passing, losing interest in other communities to some extent, turning inward rather than ambitiously outward as he once did.

Yet all of this goes against both Sacks’ unabashed universalism and his deep attachment to European culture.

As political temperatures rise, as we enter the Nine Days, and our nation is ever more divided — I cannot help but wonder if there is a missed opportunity for Rabbi Sacks’ philosophy and approach to be taught intensively across sectors.

In the religious Zionist community, which is playing a central role in today’s government and culture, we witness the struggle between two schools of thought: That of Meir Kahane and that of Rabbi Sacks. Particularism and isolationism versus universalism and engagement with the wider world. There is an existential tension between those who want to see Israel as a Middle Eastern theocracy and those who want Israel to remain part of the Western world. 

Today, the philosophies of the founding fathers of religious Zionism, Rabbis Reines Kook and Soloveitchik, are seen as less applicable to today’s challenges — and today, it is the philosophies of Kahane and Sacks which are locked in battle for the soul of religious Zionism, and as a result, for the spirit of the Jewish state. Which one will prevail? 

Both Haredi and the Religious Zionists pray for a messianic utopia — but while the Haredi leaders see this as an eschatological dream, the Kahanists of the world seek to implement this system today. 

In this generation, neither the Haredi nor the progressive movements in Judaism have produced an equivalent public philosopher of the stature of Sacks, someone who addresses the ills of today’s society in the spirit of Judaism. 

Over the course of my rabbinic career, working closely with rabbis of both religious Zionist and Haredi backgrounds, I have been closely observing both sectors’ growth and shifting values, and particularly troubling, their increasing tribalization. 

Consider the difference between the generation that left Egypt in the Exodus and that of their children. The first felt a common bond with one another, having gone through a harrowing and miraculous experience, and knowing the hostile outside world. But their children who grew up in total isolation from the rest of the world, cocooned in clouds as they wandered the desert — it is they who begin to divide themselves by tribal affiliation. As the land of Israel was divided among the tribes, their tribal identity begins to supersede their commonality as the children of Israel.

Today, while we are not in a desert, the Israeli experience has recreated a nation of tribes almost entirely isolated from one another, as former President Rivlin once noted. 

In this time of inner conflict, when an Israeli political activist can dare to say that he wishes Hitler would kill another six million — we must open the windows. And all sectors of Israeli society would benefit deeply if their leadership would be introduced to Rabbi Sacks’ Torah with open hearts and true curiosity.

We are amidst an emergency here in Israel, reminiscent of the days before the destruction of the second commonwealth and Temple, when the country is torn apart by its leaders. 

And it is Rabbi Sacks’ voice that is desperately needed. 

It is needed less in the polished tea rooms of Hendon and the gleaming sanctuaries of New Jersey, and more in the batei midrash of Beth El and of Neve Daniel, in the shtiblach of Beitar Ilit and Jerusalem. It is here in Israel that we need more Hebrew-speaking study of Rabbi Sacks’ Torah, a worldview that calls for engagement rather than isolationism, for dialogue rather than violence— for the sake of Israel’s very survival.

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt is the President of the Conference of European Rabbis. He served as the chief rabbi of Moscow in the years 1993-2022.