The Right Man in the Wrong Job

Is Jonathan Sacks Great Britain’s Last Chief Rabbi?

By Lawrence Grossman

Published May 12, 2010, issue of May 21, 2010.
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Future Tense: Jews, Judaism, and Israel in the Twenty-first Century
By Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Schocken Books, 304 pages, $26.95

Another Way, Another Time: Religious Inclusivism and the Sacks Chief Rabbinate
By Meir Persoff
Academic Studies Press, 450 pages, $65

‘Of Another Time’: Many speculate that the position of Britain’s chief rabbi will be abolished, upon Jonathan Sacks’s retirement.
‘Of Another Time’: Many speculate that the position of Britain’s chief rabbi will be abolished, upon Jonathan Sacks’s retirement.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, is the great enigma of the Jewish world. He is a tactful and dignified representative of the Jewish community to the British public, and articulates a compelling vision of Judaism that inspires many on both sides of the Atlantic. Influential British Jews, however, including some who were involved in his selection, rue the day Sacks was named chief rabbi and expect that when he reaches the retirement age of 65 in 2013, the position will be abolished.

Chief rabbi since 1991 and recipient last year of a life peerage, which comes with a seat in the House of Lords, Sacks is an esteemed figure in Britain. A rough Jewish analog to the Archbishop of Canterbury, he has the ear of government ministers, frequently appears on radio and television, and is the most recognizable and respected Jewish voice on issues of the day. Sacks is also blessed with brilliant oratorical skills and a sharp intellect, honed by university training in philosophy. These help make him a sophisticated exponent of Modern Orthodoxy — traditional Judaism explicated in the language and categories of contemporary thought — a synthesis popular at Yeshiva University a generation ago, but more recently eclipsed by forms of Orthodoxy indifferent or hostile to secular intellectuality. Among the nearly 20 books Sacks has published is the Koren Sacks Siddur, a highly praised prayer book with English translation and commentary, clearly conceived as a Modern Orthodox alternative to the popular but intellectually premodern ArtScroll edition.

Sacks’s latest book, “Future Tense: Jews, Judaism, and Israel in the Twenty-first Century,” demonstrates once again Sacks’s ability to construct a compelling, forward-looking vision of Judaism from classical texts of the tradition. The book’s central insight is the seeming paradox that Judaism, as set forth in the Bible, is the religion of a particular people but serves a universal God. The God who rules over everything, who created humanity in His image and desires the recognition of all mankind, does not approve of a universal religion — the aspiration of both Christianity and Islam — because that would erode human diversity and produce uniformity. Judaism, for those who profess it, indicates that God wills the preservation of group identity, “the dignity of difference.”

To be true to themselves, then, Jews must remain separate from other faiths even while engaging with them in the common task of doing God’s will. Sacks shows how this delicate balance has been upset in modern times as some Jews have opted for versions of universalism (humanistic or Marxist) and left Judaism, while many of those who remained (especially among the Zionists and the Orthodox) turned inward, convinced that the world hates Jews or that secular culture undermines traditional Judaism. Sacks calls on Jews to reject this “segregationist orthodoxy” that imposes “the ghetto of the mind” and engage freely with other cultures and religions.

Since, he continues, “a people that dwells alone will eventually be full of people who dwell alone,” Sacks also bemoans the corrosive effects of internal Jewish intolerance. Denying legitimacy to our fellow Jews, he writes, is not authentically Jewish; it is contrary to “the rabbinic ethic of the pursuit of knowledge as an extended argument between differing views within a fellowship of learning.” In place of intra-Jewish, no-holds-barred ideological warfare, Sacks calls for reviving “the Jewish conversation.”

Meir Persoff, a British historian and veteran journalist, wants the same thing, but charges that Sacks himself has repeatedly stifled respectful conversation within British Jewry. Persoff’s new book, “Another Way, Another Time,” is the first full-scale study of the Sacks chief rabbinate, and the picture presented is devastating.

With the aid of copious original sources such as newspapers, correspondence and interviews, Persoff shows how Sacks’s top priority has been staying in the good graces of the Haredi, or strictly Orthodox, faction, whose high birthrate has made it the fastest-growing component of British Jewry. To achieve this, he has repeatedly acted to delegitimize the non-Orthodox movements — Reform, Liberal and Masorti — sometimes in ways personally insulting to their leaders. He has even gone so far as to delegitimize himself, withdrawing the first edition of a book he published in 2002 that aroused Haredi complaints, and rewriting the offending passages before republication. Ironically, it is clear from the documentation that Persoff has gathered that the Orthodox circles Sacks strives to placate will never consider him Orthodox enough no matter what he does.

Persoff makes his case that Sacks, by nature a thinker rather than a politician, made a poor career choice in seeking the chief rabbinate. But the book does not come to grips with the question of whether even someone far more politically adroit could have succeeded, given the structural constraints of the position that Persoff himself describes in detail. Simply put, a man who represents only the most moderate form of Orthodoxy — which used to be, but is no longer, professed by most British Jews — cannot also speak for the entire spectrum of the Jewish community, which today ranges religiously from far left to far right. In that sense Sacks may be an unfortunate victim of history. If so, the book’s title is certainly apt: The position of chief rabbi was “another way” for “another time,” but not for the religiously fractured present.

Sacks draws standing-room-only crowds on his speaking tours of the United States, where there is no chief rabbi and where the beleaguered Modern Orthodox consider him a breath of religious fresh air. Both his eloquent exposition of traditional Judaism and his commitment to respectful disagreement would be unconstrained by extraneous considerations should he wish to retire to an American pulpit or university campus. We should be so fortunate!

Lawrence Grossman is editor of the American Jewish Year Book.

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