Lord Sacks – more at home with establishment than unorthodox jews
More than any other religious figure, Lord Jonathan Sacks managed to articulate a place for faith in an increasingly secular society.
By Anshel Pfeffer. Ha’aretz
September 01, 2013 |
On Friday morning, people listening to BBC Radio 4’s popular Today program heard a familiar voice addressing them on “The Thought for the Day” slot. It was Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks making his final appearance. On Sunday afternoon, Rabbi Sacks will formally step down from the post he has filled for the last twenty-two years and induct Rabbi Eprhaim Mirvis as Great Britain’s new chief rabbi. Some 1,400 guests, including Prince Charles, will attend Sunday’s ceremony at St. John’s Wood Synagogue in London. However, it was that two-and-a-half minute homily on the importance of faith that encapsulated the farewell of a religious leader who has succeeded like no other rabbi before him in crafting a message palatable to much wider audiences than his congregation, and transcending the confines of the Jewish community.
In the short broadcast, Sacks ticked all the right boxes. He thanked British society for its respect for different beliefs, highlighted the civic responsibility of the Jewish community, name-checked the Holocaust, the quest for peace and even managed to include a tiny dig at atheists for elevating science above religion. It was classic Sacks: elegant, mellifluous, open-ended and shying away from controversy. He repeated his favorite slogan, “the dignity of difference,” the title of one of his many books, and the catch-phrase with which he has sought to dampen down discord, although it often hobbled him in his dealings within the Jewish establishment.
Ironically, it was another recent appearance on his favorite program that created the last hiccup in his public career. At the height of Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza last November, as he completed another “The Thought for the Day,” BBC presenter Evan Davis, addressing him familiarly as Jonathan, asked “any thoughts on what’s going on over in Israel and Gaza at the moment?” Sacks sighed and said “I think it’s got to do with Iran actually.” At this point, co-presenter Sarah Montague quickly whispered “we’re live.” Sacks immediately reverted to a reverential tone offering a “continued prayer for peace, not only in Gaza but the whole region.”
Within hours the BBC was being accused of having “ambushed” the chief rabbi and the corporation apologized to Sacks. He had only made a very tame observation, but even this was too much. The brand must not be tainted with anything that seems too political or partisan.
… a Prince
Sacks’ detractors often describe him as being “the rabbi of the goyim,” highlighting his visible comfort in the company of royalty, prime ministers and journalists and what they see as his lack of relevancy to Jewish communal life. His supporters see the success with which he filled this ambassador’s role as his greatest strength and attribute growing self-confidence among Jews in Britain to him. They comprise less than half a percent of Britain’s population and the chief rabbi officially leads only a portion of them (he is chief rabbi of the United Synagogue but the ultra-Orthodox community and the liberal streams do not recognize his leadership), but no other religious figure has achieved such media stature in the country, articulating a place for faith in an increasingly secular society.
Master of the sound-bite
Perhaps Sacks’ greatest achievement was realizing at some point during his tenure the limitations of his position, identifying the areas in which he could excel and concentrating on them. He is an extremely industrious and tenacious man, as his literary output of a book each year proves, and he was willing to learn. “He was open to all our suggestions on presentation,” says a television producer who worked with him in the early 1990s. “He listened to everything and went away. Next time we met he had changed his glasses and his ties in the space of a week but most importantly, he mastered the art of sound-bites, of crafting a message in five seconds and that can’t have been easy for a man used to writing books. He was the first religious leader in Britain to understand you have to appear differently on television.”
… an editor of The Times, the admiring James Harding, now News Editor at the BBC.
And as he developed his media presence, Sacks tried to elude controversy, of which there has been no lack in the Jewish community. Earlier in his term he fell into a number of pitfalls. For example, he allowed himself to be browbeaten by a group of senior ultra-Orthodox rabbis who claimed that the assertion he made in his book “The Dignity of Difference” that “no one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth” amounted to heresy, and he published a revised edition. An even earlier episode, which greatly soured his relations with part of the community, was when he refused to attend the funeral of the venerated Reform Rabbi Hugo Gryn, and wrote a vitriolic letter to another rabbi saying Gryn had been one of those “who destroy the faith.”
These episodes typify what to many in the community has been Sacks subservience to the Haredi elements in both the British and Israeli rabbinical hierarchy. They blame him for not reforming the London Beth Din, the religious court that rules over matters of conversion and matrimony, and continues to adhere to the ultra-Orthodox edicts of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. His glaring absence from Limmud, the largest annual Jewish educational event, is due to those same rabbis’ objection to him sharing a venue with the rabbis of progressive streams. This has also long been a bone of contention. Early on, he shelved a report that he himself commissioned on the role of women in religious services, and it took the United Synagogue, of which he was spiritual head for nearly 22 years, to come round to addressing the issue of women’s seating. His fear of dealing with the thorny conversion question has contributed to a situation where Jewish schools are forced to deal with legal challenges over their admissions policy.
… an archbishop.
Some believe his reluctance to take on the Haredim is due to the fact that he spent very little time studying in traditional Yeshivot and that, despite his undoubtedly impressive academic and intellectual credentials, he is not seen as a major Talmid Chacham. He is held in high regard outside the rabbinical establishment (“how do you sum up someone who is the greatest scholar you know, the greatest philosopher you know, the greatest writer you know, one of the greatest thinkers of our time?” asked former prime minister Gordon Brown in a video tribute produced for Sacks), but the contrast between admiration from non-Jewish leaders and the lack of respect from his rabbinical contemporaries may have left Sacks with a lingering sense of inferiority.
But Sacks has coasted over these troubles and evolved into a Teflon rabbi. His evolution over Israel has also been fascinating. Despite coming out quite forcefully in Israel’s favor during the Jenin Siege when the IDF was being accused of massacring Palestinian civilians in April 2002, effectively filling in for an inarticulate Israeli ambassador with poor English, he found himself under attack within the community only a few months later. In an interview with U.K. daily The Guardian, he said that the situation with the Palestinians “is forcing Israel into postures that are incompatible in the long run with our deepest ideals,” and that “there are things that happen on a daily basis which make me feel very uncomfortable as a Jew.” This experience made him much more circumspect. As he said in an interview with Haaretz in 2007, “I don’t get involved in politics at all. I write books on political theory.” When the Olmert government came under fire from Jewish Orthodox leaders in the United States for negotiating over the future of Jerusalem, Sacks refused their calls to join them, saying “It’s not the job of rabbis. The connection between religion and politics has always been historically disastrous, without exception.”
From Sunday on, Sacks is no longer encumbered by the constraints of his office. “He is certainly not retiring” says one of his aides and at the age of 65, he plans to stake a more global role for himself, both as a Jewish educator and an advocate for religious values. A private foundation has already been set up by a number of Jewish philanthropists to support his work and many, not just in Britain are pinning their hopes on him as the new spokesman for Modern Orthodoxy. Recent statements and essays seem to indicate that he is freeing himself from the Haredi shadow. At one public appearance he criticized the ultra-Orthodox community which “segregates itself from the world and from its fellow Jews” equating them with assimilated Jews “who embrace the world and reject Judaism,” while the Haredim “embrace Judaism and reject the world.”
Is this a brave new Sacks out to reform the Jewish World? He would certainly like to, but for all his success in communicating with the wider world, in 22 years he has not proven capable of reaching a wide Jewish audience.
… a Prime Minister. Photo by Lewis Whyld/PA Wire
Multiculturalism has had its day, says outgoing chief rabbi of Great Britain
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says British Muslims should learn from the U.K. Jewish community’s centuries of experience as a minority and abstain from imposing beliefs on the majority population.
By Anshel Pfeffer, Ha’aretz
August 19, 2013
LONDON – The outgoing chief rabbi of Great Britain, Lord Jonathan Sacks, criticized the British government in an interview with The Times on Monday, saying that Prime Minister David Cameron and his ministers have not done enough to encourage the institution of marriage, and also saying that multiculturalism has “had its day.”
Rabbi Sacks will be leaving his post at the end of the month after 22 years as chief rabbi. Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis is replacing him.
Rabbi Sacks’ prominence as one of Britain’s foremost speakers on matters of faith and public values is reflected in the fact that his interview was the Times’ main headline Monday (“Tories have let families down, says faith leader”), and it was widely discussed this morning in the British media, including on the BBC’s main radio program.
The Jewish leader’s criticism of the British government is especially poignant, as it follows the showers of near total admiration he has received from the establishment as his tenure comes to an end. In a farewell video prepared two months ago, Cameron called Sacks “my rabbi” and said, “over the past two decades you have been not just a leader for Jewish people but for all of us.”
In the Times interview, however, Sacks said “the government has [not] done enough at all” to encourage marriage, adding it should recognize marriage in the tax system, and also help stay-at-home mothers with childcare subsidies. “The state has an interest in marriage because the cost of family breakdown and non-marriage, the last time I looked at it, was estimated at £9 billion a year,” he said.
Another controversial subject Sacks addressed is multiculturalism in Britain, which he said “has had its day and it’s time to move on.” Sacks, the leading representative of the Jewish community, was referring to the sensitive issue of relations between another minority, British Muslims, and the rest of the country.
“The real danger in a multicultural society is that every ethnic group and religious group becomes a pressure group, putting our people’s interest instead of the national interest,” he said. He advised Muslims in Britain to learn from the Jewish experience of living as a minority in the country, saying that, “the lessons are — number one, you don’t try to impose your views on the majority population. Number two, you have to be what I call bilingual, you know you are Jewish and you’re English… because it forces you to realize that actually society and life is complicated. It mustn’t and can’t be simplified. Number three, there are times when it’s uncomfortable, when you realize there is such a thing as anti-Semitism. [Being] a minority isn’t always fun.”
While Sacks specifically mentioned Britain’s Muslims in the interview, he could have been referring to the Jewish ultra-Orthodox community, which he previously said “segregates itself from the world and from its fellow Jews.” Sacks made a comparison between them and assimilated Jews “who embrace the world and reject Judaism, and those who embrace Judaism and reject the world.”
…and the late knight of interviews, Sir David Frost
Throughout his more than two-decade term, Sacks has largely shied away from political controversy, both within the Jewish community and in the wider public sphere. One of the main criticisms Jewish circles have leveled at him is that he has done little to address the growing radicalization in the religious establishment, which controls the London Beth Din (rabbinical court). He is the nominal president of that court and rules on matters of conversion to Judaism. Jewish critics also say that, during his term, there has been increasing polarization between the sub-groups that make up Britain’s 300,000-strong Jewish population.
“There is no honour we have received or could receive that is greater than to have a forest dedicated in our name in the place that the Jewish nation calls home.” – Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks. JNF UK planted a specially-dedicated new forest of 25,000 trees in Jerusalem in honour of Jonathan Sacks’ acquisition of a peerage. Lord and Lady Sacks plant the first trees on June 16, 2010.
This photo replaces one that showed Lord Sacks addressing his friends at the AIPAC conference which has disappeared from the Chief Rabbi’s website now the new Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, has been installed.
His recent statements seem to signal that, while he has said he plans to devote his retirement to teaching and writing, Sacks could emerge as one of the leading Modern-Orthodox Jewish voices preaching in favor of both a greater return to traditional Jewish values and increased religious Jewish involvement with the outside world.
...and embracing the diverse groups of Jews in Britain
He was unable convincingly to explain why the dignity of difference does not also mean the dignity of diversity
August 25, 2013
The chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, stands down from his post at the end of the month. Since taking up the role in 1991, he has been a popular figure on the national stage and an effective ambassador for British Jewry as well as for his beloved Arsenal football club. Speaking of his “distinguished tenure as chief rabbi”, the Prince of Wales commented that “it is a very sad moment for many us who have grown to value and admire the truly extraordinary contribution to our national life over the past 22 years”. He took up office just after the beginning of the Gulf war and has steered his Orthodox community through increasingly troubled times in the Middle East. During this insecure period he has provided a focus of pride for British Jewry. This is no small thing.
…but not with Rabbi Hugo Gryn, whose Reform views were anathema.
But his public image belies a more complex character, often seen as too much under the thumb of the Orthodox right. Perhaps his least attractive side was revealed in his refusal to attend the funeral of the widely popular Rabbi Hugo Gryn. Unwilling to dignify a Reform event with his presence, he agreed to attend a memorial service in recognition of his fellow Radio 4-er “not as a Reform rabbi but as a survivor of the Holocaust”. Being a member of the Reform movement, Rabbi Gryn was a part of a “false grouping” and one of “those who destroy the faith”, Lord Sacks wrote in subsequently leaked private correspondence. Reform rabbis reacted angrily: “It seems that, constantly, the chief rabbinate is forced into two conversations, embodying two sets of language and two messages tailored to the respective recipients.”
What is especially troubling about this side of Lord Sacks is that it appears to be so out of kilter with his public pronouncements and philosophy. Antisemitism, he has argued, is fundamentally “dislike of the unlike”. Jews “insisted on the right to be different” and that is what has made antisemitism the world’s oldest hatred. Thus the necessity of recognising “The Dignity of Difference”, the title of his most successful and controversial book. Controversial because, in its first edition, it claimed “God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, and Islam to Muslims”. Following publication, he was summoned to a gathering of 20 fellow Orthodox rabbis in Manchester, who duly charged him with heresy and called for a retraction. A second edition was published with the offending passages redacted. Unconvincingly, Lord Sacks called it a “clarification” rather than a retraction.
It would have been better had Lord Sacks stuck to his guns. It was another pickle created by the perceived need to juggle various audiences at the same time and an unwillingness to upset his more conservative colleagues. In this regard, he handled the job in a similar way to that of his fellow beardy and academic, Lord Williams. On lesbian and gay inclusion, Lord Sacks spoke out against equal marriage despite the fact that, as research conducted by YouGov for the Westminster Faith Debates has suggested, British Jews are now in favour of allowing same-sex marriage by roughly the same percentage as the population at large. Indeed, the chief rabbi is chosen by Orthodox synagogues that represent just over half of the roughly 75% of those British Jews who attend synagogue. He certainly doesn’t speak for all.
So, for instance, Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, the chief rabbi for the Reform movement, commented diplomatically: “It has been an honour to represent British Jewry alongside Lord Sacks. He articulated the position of Orthodox Judaism with dignity and erudition. However, it is wrong to assume that he reflects the views of the majority of Jews in Britain, who are aligned with the general population in supporting complete gender equality and the diversity of family life including LGBT families and individuals.”
Lord Sacks’s mellifluous voice may have charmed millions. But he was unable convincingly to explain why the dignity of difference does not also mean the dignity of diversity.
Notes and links
In September 2008 Sacks was ranked as number 30 in the Telegraph’s Top 100 right wingers.
Jonathan Sacks was said to owe his position as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth to Lord Kalms.
Lord Kalms’ father founded Dixons, retailer of electrical goods; Lord Kalms became chairman of DSG International plc (formerly Dixons Group) which owns Dixons.com, Currys, The Link and PC World outlets.
He was the Director of the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) think tank from 1991 to 2001. He was treasurer of the Conservative Party, 2001-3 and a member of Conservative Friends of Israel. He is now a UKIP voter.
Conservative donors threaten to switch to UKIP unless Cameron toughens up on Europe
Daily Mail, May 2013
In yet another blow to his leadership, former Tory treasurer Lord Kalms said he was ‘willing to pack my bags’ and sign up with UKIP unless the Prime Minister adopted more traditional Tory policies.
Cameron faces revolt over Israel
The Times: August 2006.
DAVID CAMERON is facing the first serious revolt within his party after senior Tories disowned frontbench criticism of Israel’s “disproportionate” bombardment of Lebanon.
The broadside was led by Lord Kalms, a former Tory treasurer, Iain Duncan Smith, the previous leader, and Conservative Friends of Israel.
“Lord Kalms, a prominent member of the Jewish community, accused William Hague, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, of behaving like an “ignorant armchair critic” for criticising Israeli attacks on Lebanese army units and public buildings, and the high civilian death toll. He said that Mr. Hague’s remarks were not just uhelpful, they were downrigfht dangerous.”
Open Zion, March 2013
Lord Stanley Kalms, an “enthusiastic patron” of Sacks’s candidacy, said in 2010 that Sacks was not a collective leader. Though he promised inclusiveness, Kalms said,”he tried but he failed.” The result? Antagonism between Reform, Liberal, Masorti, and Modern Orthodoxy—the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth—Sacks’s fiefdom. Kalms added that Sacks had an inferiority complex about not being as learned as the Dayanim, the judges of the Batei Din, the religious courts, and the men Sacks once referred to as “my fundamentalists.” He wanted to be all things to all men, but that only made him appear ambiguous.
One controversy that highlighted that and cast a shadow over the Chief Rabbinate ever since centered on a leaked letter Sacks wrote to one of Britain’s most haredi British rabbis about Reform rabbi and Holocaust survivor Hugo Gryn. The two were known to be good friends but Sacks wrote that he wouldn’t attend Gryn’s funeral because Gryn was a destroyer of Judaism. He went to a memorial service instead, which also infuriated the haredim.
Obituary: Rabbi Hugo Gryn
The Independent, August 2006
Rabbi Hugo Gryn was probably the most beloved rabbi in Great Britain.
In part, this was due to the self-sacrificing service he rendered for over 30 years to one of the largest congregations in Europe, the West London Synagogue. His students there numbered in the thousands, his admirers in the tens of thousands.
Beyond that, this gentle and great soul who went through the torment of Auschwitz came to serve a far greater community than the Jews of Great Britain and Europe. He was the leading voice in the field of Interfaith where Jews and Christians (and now Muslims) come together in an effort to understand other religions through meetings, lectures and personal encounters.
Hugo Gryn moved freely and openly through that world, preserving his integrity and honouring his neighbours. He was also closely associated with television and the media, as an active participant of BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze and other programmes.
Hugo Gryn was one of the great architects of Reform Judaism in Great Britain. It is significant that a movement initially shaped and carried by the grandees of the Jewish community eventually became influenced by the refugee rabbis from Europe who gave a new and deeper dimension to that earlier, colder structure. In that congregation, Gryn advised the “merchant princes” of British Jewry – but his door was open to everyone, and those who were needy found their way to his door.
During the period of his greatest activity, the Reform movement grew and developed a new liturgy, an expanded youth programme, and a greater awareness of its need to create a new rabbinate which would work in partnerships with the Liberal movement (the ULPS).
From the Office of the Chief Rabbi, March 12 2013.
I have to tell you that what we grew up with, “never again,” is beginning to sound like “ever again.” And at the heart of it is hostility to Israel. Of course, not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. But make no mistake what has happened.
In the Middle Ages Jews were hated because of their religion. In the 19th century and the 20th, they were hated because of their race. Today, when it’s no longer done to hate people for their religion or their race, today they are hated because of their state. The reason changes, but the hate stays the same. Anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism. (Applause.)
And friends, I’ve come here to tell you that I believe the example of AIPAC must now inform Jewish communities around Europe, because we have to stand up and fight and we have to stand up and win. Friends, anti-Zionism is today rife throughout the world. All our students on campuses know about it. And what is our crime? What is Israel’s crime? It’s that we have chutzpah.
Video:Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the Victim Mentality
The trouble with being a victim is that you … have put yourself out of any possible way of improving your situation because if it isn’t your fault you can’t put it right and you thereby hand over your life to somebody else.The Jewish way is to say if I see something wrong in the world let me be one of the first to put it right. That is responsibility … and that is the Jewish way, not to see ourselves as victims….