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Tony Lerman reviews the Chief Rabbi’s new book ‘Future Tense’

futuretenseGhetto of the mind

The Guardian, 9 July 2009

Antony Lerman is unconvinced by an analysis of Judaism’s place in the world

Jonathan Sacks [Future Tense: A Vision for Jews and Judaism in the Global Culture Hodder & Stoughton £16.99] begins by issuing stark warnings about the current state of the Jews. They have lost their way, lost touch with their soul: “the Jewish people today [is] as divided as it was in the last days of the Second Temple.” There’s fear abroad and a dangerous sense of isolation. How did things reach this pass? After all, “Jewish life in the diaspora is flourishing”, so these are neither the worst nor the best of times, he says, “but they are the most challenging”, and the challenges cannot be met by turning inwards.

Buy Future Tense at the Guardian bookshop

What’s wrong, Sacks argues, is that Jews see attacks on Israel and diaspora Jews as confirming that the Jewish fate is to be “a people that dwells alone”. But this isn’t the Jewish story. It leads Jews and Israel wrongly to take “every criticism as a form of antisemitism or Jewish self-hatred”. There are external threats, but he stresses that many of the problems Jews face are internal. They no longer have a larger idea of what being Jewish is for. Their sense of being a community of fate has faded. Numbers are dwindling and ersatz forms of Judaism are mistakenly being seen as ways to ensure Jewish continuity. Sacks believes that Jews who turn to universalism lose their identity; Jews who turn to particularism are in danger of retreating “into the ghetto of the mind”.

What to do? Most important, have faith, for without it, Jews are “a body without a soul”. “Judaism is the voice of the other throughout history … That is why the way a culture treats its Jews is the best indicator of its humanity or lack of it,” Sacks insists. “Judaism is both particularist and universalist”, so its most important engagement with the world is in Israel, where the creation of a Jewish society – one based on eternal Jewish values – is now necessary. In the diaspora, he says, the task is to heal divisions, and not to exclude dissident voices. To apply Torah to the world, Jews must understand the world and have the courage to engage with it. “The God of Israel is the God of the future tense.” Judaism is all about hope for the future.

Sacks’s warnings about isolationism are welcome, but not original. Jewish dissidents were there first, and they are shunned by the Jewish establishment. So to hear such strong words from him will no doubt surprise many. Nevertheless, as he told the Times in 2007, “I am the acceptable face of fundamentalism”. And for all the book’s apparently liberal prescriptions, his mission, which he first embarked on in 1991, when he was appointed Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue (covering 40 per cent of Britain’s approximately 300,000 Jews), is clear: to reverse Jews’ weakening attachment to Judaism by uncompromisingly making “faith” the indispensable base of Jewishness.

His call for a more open Judaism is at odds with much of the rest of the book. If faith is the key to continuity, it is natural for him to reject cultural or ethnic means of transmitting Jewishness, even though they are an integral part of the flourishing diaspora Jewish life he is keen to acknowledge. And it leads him to be insulting about “easy and undemanding” versions of Judaism such as the Reform movement: “more suitable to the attention span of a YouTube generation”.

Sacks declares that Judaism must understand the world to engage with it, but when he has a go, the result is unimpressive. He endorses Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilisations” theory, yet this is hardly compatible with his call to reconnect with the Jewish values of “justice, equity, compassion, love of the stranger”. He trashes multiculturalism, but his description of it is a straw man. He tells us: “Today the nation state hardly exists,” which suggests he’s not noticed the remarkable reassertion of state power in tackling the global economic crisis. When he says that Israel has accepted all two-state proposals “between the Balfour declaration and today” and “its neighbours have rejected them all”, truth and understanding are smothered by propaganda.

What’s most troubling about this book is the immense gap between principle and practice. Sacks says that since Jews are the “archetypal other” they must protect “the dignity of the human person without regard to race, colour or creed”, but this does not seem to apply to the Palestinians. In his chapter on Israel, their story is ignored, though they feature as the villains “who checkmated every Israeli move to establish peace”. He wants space for dissident voices, yet repeatedly gives credence to the notion of Jewish self-hatred, a bogus concept that serves no other purpose than to demonise Jewish dissent. He calls on Jews not to see all criticism of Israel as antisemitism, but he endorses wholesale the idea of the “new antisemitism” – basically, that Israel is the Jew among the nations – which licenses Jews to do precisely what he says they shouldn’t.

Sacks argues for a Judaism that engages with the world, that emphasises the radical Jewish belief in human freedom. It’s sorely needed. But when the case is undermined by an analysis that often negates these attributes, that Judaism is a chimera. Future Tense singles out the prophets as exemplars of the voice of conscience, speaking truth to power. Had Sacks followed their example, he might then have better formulated a Judaism for the 21st century than he has done with this book’s honey-coated homilies.

• Antony Lerman is a former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, and is writing a book reflecting on his personal experience of Zionism and Israel.

Buy Future Tense at the Guardian bookshop

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