I’ve never met Jonathan Sacks. But his writing has had a deeper impact on my life than any other rabbi’s.
I first came across it in a London synagogue in November 2010. Stapled together was Sacks’s commentary on the week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayetzei, in which Jacob — after tricking his brother and father — flees to the house of his uncle.
In his commentary, Sacks compares Jacob to the character of Br’er Rabbit, who according to the Harvard literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., is depicted in African-American folklore as possessing “a fragile body but a deceptively strong mind.” Faced with his physically imposing brother, Esau, and his financially imposing uncle Laban, Sacks argues, Jacob pursues the same strategy as Br’er rabbit. “Using their intelligence to outwit their stronger opponents” both “are able to deconstruct and subvert, in small ways, the hierarchy of dominance favouring the rich and the strong. They represent the momentary freedom of the unfree, a protest against the random injustices of the world.”
I still remember my wonder upon reading those words. For an Orthodox rabbi to read African-American literary theory is unusual enough. For a rabbi to use it to interpret a biblical patriarch is astonishing.
Since that day, Sacks’s words have been a constant presence in my life. I have read, and reread, his books of commentary on the first four books of the Torah and eagerly await his book on the fifth. I lead Seders with his Haggadah. I pray from his siddur. I used to watch his lectures at my desk, and now I walk around New York listening to his podcasts. I even print out his weekly Torah commentaries and try (with mixed results) to read them to my children on Saturday mornings.
I’ve read so much Jonathan Sacks that I’ve become accustomed to his quirks. His love of the chiasmus , his fondness for the work of the Harvard leadership scholar Ronald Heifetz, his penchant for quoting the inaugural addresses of American presidents, his tendency to compare the British and American to the French and Russian revolutions. I’ve been affected by his ideas on parenthood and tried to incorporate his advice about marriage (give your spouse at least one specific piece of praise each day).
Friends joke about my love of Jonathan Sacks. But to me, it’s serious. I’ve never encountered a rabbi who combines such eloquence, breadth of worldly knowledge, depth of Jewish knowledge and insight into the struggle to live a good life.
And yet, in this age of horrors, in which the Israeli and American governments abuse the stranger and threaten liberal democracy itself, this great man, Jonathan Sacks, has not challenged a single action of either Benjamin Netanyahu or Donald Trump’s.
His voice would carry unique weight. Thus, his silence constitutes a unique failure.
Sacks’ voice would carry unique weight because despite being British, Sacks has arguably become the most acclaimed rabbi in the United States.
In 2015 he won his fifth American National Jewish Book Award. In 2016 he won the Templeton and Bradley Foundation prizes. In 2017 he won the American Enterprise Institute’s Irving Kristol award. He holds public conversations with David Brooks, who has called him “brilliant.”
Sacks is also, in the words of Tablet magazine’s Yair Rosenberg, “beloved in the American Modern Orthodox community.” The growing number of Orthodox synagogues that use his Shabbat and holiday prayer books testify to the fact that he has become “far and away the best-known and most successful spokesperson for Modern Orthodoxy.”
That means Sacks enjoys his greatest influence in that segment of American Jewry most supportive of the assault on human rights taking place in Israel and the United States.
The Orthodox are far more supportive of settlements in the West Bank, and far less open to a Palestinian state, than American Jews as a whole. They’re also far friendlier to Trump. Last October, an American Jewish Committee poll found that while 77 percent of American Jews disapproved of Trump’s performance as president, among the Orthodox, the situation was reversed: 71 percent approved, a higher level than among evangelical Christians.
It’s possible that Sacks privately agrees with them. But I doubt it.
I doubt it because, in his writing, he again and again claims that living a Jewish life requires struggling on behalf of the very people Trump and Netanyahu oppress.
“To have faith, as Judaism understands it,” Sacks writes in his Haggadah, “is to recognize God’s image in the weak, the powerless, the afflicted, the suffering, and to fight for their cause.” In a commentary on Parshat Pekudei, he writes that, “The entire experience of slavery in Egypt is to teach the Israelites what it feels like to be enslaved so that they will not enslave others.” In the introduction to his book of essays on Leviticus, he declares that, “God will not hear your prayers if you fail to hear the cries of those around you.” In April, in a commentary on anti-Semitism, Sacks told the BBC that, “Each of us, especially we leaders, have to take a stand against the corrosive power of hate. All it takes for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing. Today I see too many good people doing nothing and I am ashamed.”
How can a man who writes such words say nothing as the Trump administration imitates the people of Sodom: torturing those who come seeking refuge. How can he remain silent as the Israeli government prepares to bulldoze the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, and give its land to settlers, on the pretext that the village lacks building permits — permits that Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank, who live as non-citizens under military law, cannot get. Why does Rabbi Sacks’ silence not violate his own understanding of Judaism?
When I asked to interview Rabbi Sacks about this, his spokesperson, Dan Sacker, said he lacked the time. But Sacker offered an explanation.
He suggested that while Sacks “is intensely involved and interested in the spiritual and historical dimension of political and public life, he does not comment on or get involved in party political issues nor on discussions surrounding specific policies — of the British, Israeli or American governments, or any other governments.” Sacker also pointed me to a 2005 essay in which Sacks declares that, “religion and politics should never mix.” The reason is that “the secular democratic state has no ambitions to proclaim the truth, fulfill the metaphysical longings of the soul, or pass judgment on the great questions of ethics.” Religion does precisely that, and thus, if intertwined with state power, its moral absolutism may lead to “the imposition of truth by force and the suppression of dissent by power.”
These are valid concerns. When clerics wield state power, their belief that they possess access to absolute truth can lead them to suppress other people’s truths. They can also be corrupted by power, and thus sully religion’s good name. Both dangers are on display in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and to a lesser degree, in the Israeli chief rabbinate.
It’s also true, as Sacker implies, that there’s a danger in religious figures associating themselves too closely with the details of public policy since those details are beyond their expertise, and require tradeoffs that can muddy the broad ethical propositions they advance.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel enhanced their moral authority by opposing the Vietnam War. But they might have undermined that authority had they endorsed a specific timetable for American troop withdrawal or the terms of a final settlement with Hanoi.
That Sacks seeks to place guardrails around his political commentary is understandable. The problem is that he does not apply them consistently.
When doing so is popular in the Orthodox community, Sacks endorses specific government policies and associates himself with political organizations that promote specific government policies. When doing so would spark opposition, he retreats to the safety of ethical abstractions and false equivalences.
It is simply not true, as Sacker claims, that Sacks avoids “discussions surrounding specific policies — of the British, Israeli or American governments, or any other governments.”
In 2002, Sacks was reportedly quite specific about the circumstances under which he would support an American and British invasion of Iraq. According to The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland, Sacks said (according to Freedland’s paraphrase): “He would support military action on three conditions: If there was a clear objective and endgame, a broad coalition of support, and very strict safeguards against civilian casualties.” In 2011, Sacks called for the British government to “recognise marriage…in the tax system.” In other words, tax married people at a lower rate than single ones, a position that at the time was being promoted by the Conservative Party but opposed by its Labour and Liberal Democratic opponents.
Last year, Sacks produced a video condemning the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. And earlier this year, he declared that, “I welcome today’s decision by the United States to recognise as the capital of Israel, Jerusalem.” In fact, he helped write Vice President Mike Pence’s speech to the Knesset celebrating that recognition.
One might argue that these latter interventions are different — beyond the normal definition of politics and public policy — because they involve Jewish self-protection. But in the case of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — which has destroyed America’s credibility with Palestinians and made it harder to broker the two-state solution that Israel needs to remain a democratic and Jewish state — what constitutes Jewish self-protection is hardly self-evident. What’s more, Sacks himself has repeatedly and beautifully stressed the interconnection between Jewish self-protection and the protection of the rights of others.
But if that is the case, surely the hate exemplified by Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigration doesn’t end with Muslims and the hate exemplified by his comparison of Salvadoran immigrants to insects doesn’t end with Latinos. So if Sacks can endorse Trump’s policy towards Jerusalem in the name of Jewish self-protection, why can’t he condemn Trump’s demonization of Muslims and Latinos in the name of Jewish self-protection too?
In truth, what links Sacks’s political interventions is not a coherent principle; it is their popularity among Orthodox Jews. And in service of those interventions, Sacks goes beyond silence to denial. He doesn’t just avoid criticizing Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights — he denies that Palestinian human rights are being violated at all.
In lauding the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Sacks wrote that, “Jerusalem remains one of the few places in the Middle East, where Jews, Christians and Muslims are able to pray in freedom, security and peace.” Really? Palestinian Christians and Muslims living in the West Bank require a special permit from the Israeli military to visit Jerusalem. According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, “many applications are denied without explanation, with no real avenue for appeal.” And “Israel refuses to issue such permits to residents of Gaza, with rare exceptions.” Which is why the Israeli human rights lawyer Daniel Seidemann has observed that, “It is easier for a Palestinian Christian living just south of Jerusalem in Bethlehem to worship in Washington’s National Cathedral than to pray in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher.”
Similarly, in 2013, Sacks told the American Israel Public affairs Committee that, “Israel is the only country in the Middle East where a Palestinian can stand up on national television and criticize the government and the next day still be a free human being.”
As applied to the West Bank, this statement is absurd. Israel manifestly controls the West Bank: Its army — and the army of no other state — can enter any square inch of the West Bank anytime it wants and arrest anyone it wants. Yet the Palestinians living under this control lack citizenship, due process, free movement and the right to vote for the government that dominates their lives. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether a West Bank Palestinian criticizes the Israeli government on television or not. She’s not a “free human being” either way.
It’s worth comparing these concrete political interventions — Sacks’s endorsement of a specific American government policy and his address to a lobbying organization with a specific policy agenda — to his muted and cagey response to Trump’s assault on immigrants and the rule of law. Days after Trump’s election, Sacks did warn about “the rise of extremism in the politics of the West.” This could herald a “demand for authoritarian leadership, which is the beginning of the end of the free society.” But in the more than eighteen months since — as Trump’s racism and authoritarianism have only grown more blatant — Sacks’ statements have grown safer and more equivocal.
This past June, for instance, in a commentary on Parshat Korach, Sacks noted something has happened since 2017: “Parties of the Far Right [have] gained power in Poland and Hungary, and made a strong showing in Austria, France and Holland.” But he conveniently limited his survey to Europe, and thus ducked the question of whether a far-right party has also gained power in the United States. He then added that, “in countries like Spain and Greece, populism tends to be of the Left.” His conclusion: “Regardless of what form it takes, when populism is on the rise, tyranny is around the corner.”
This moral equivalence has become a frequent Sacks theme. He rarely mentions the danger posed by the populist right without claiming that the populist left poses an equal danger to democracy and human rights.
Last year, in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, Sacks warned of “populism, the belief that a strong leader can solve all our problems for us. And that is the first step down the road to tyranny, whether of the right or of the left.”
In July 2016, in one of the few instances where Sacks has mentioned Trump by name, he explicitly linked him to Bernie Sanders. Both men, he declared, were “anti-political politicians [who] raise expectations that cannot be met. When reality bites, the anger becomes deeper and darker.”
Politically, this parallelism is shrewd. Since American Orthodox Jews like Trump but loath Sanders, calling the latter an authoritarian makes it easier to criticize, even obliquely, the former. But it’s dishonest. Obviously, history is replete with examples of left-wing tyranny. Sanders, however, has done nothing to resurrect that ugly history. He’s never implied that “a strong leader can solve all our problems for us.” He’s never pledged, as Trump has, that “I alone can fix it.” Unlike Trump, he’s never expressed envy for the power wielded by dictators. To the contrary, he’s spent his career trying to expand democratic participation.
There is simply no moral equivalence between a presidential candidate who encouraged his supporters to assault protesters and threatened legal crackdowns on newspapers that criticized him, and a candidate who proposed raising taxes on the “1%,” increasing the minimum wage and instituting a national health care system. If Sacks considers Bernie Sanders’ brand of populism a harbinger of dictatorship, he must think Denmark is already there.
Another way in which Sacks mutes his criticism of Trump is by focusing not on the white nationalism that has powered his rise, but on America’s supposedly bipartisan, trans-ideological “culture of competitive victimhood.” In so doing, he equates the imagined victimhood of Trump supporters, who tell pollsters America is plagued by discrimination against whites, with the actual victimhood of African Americans, who face ongoing, quantifiable racism as well as the accumulated burden of centuries of state-sponsored oppression.
In fact, when Sacks discusses the way this supposed “culture of grievances” leads people to “shout down or ban all those dissenting voices because we each have a right not to feel we’re wrong,” he generally locates the problem not inside the Trump administration — let alone among its American Jewish allies — but among campus leftists.
At least four times over the past year , Sacks has decried “the silencing of free speech in our universities.” He frequently condemns “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and “micro-aggressions,” terms that have become code for the excessive sensitivity — and supposed totalitarian inclinations — of black, Latino, female and LGBT students.
He’s thricecondemned an Oxford college’s refusal to allow a Christian group to participate in an event for incoming students (without acknowledging that the college quickly reversed itself and that a spokeswoman for the Christian group called the experience “pretty rare”).
Fine. The campus left does at times threaten free speech.
But it’s striking that Sacks, in his warnings, doesn’t mention Trump’s demand that NFL players who kneel during the national anthem in protest against police brutality be fired or even deported from the country — a demand that has led NFL owners to pledge to fine teams whose players participate in a silent, nonviolent protest. Nor does Sacks warn about the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act currently gaining ground in Congress, which according to the American civil Liberties Union, “risks chilling constitutionally protected speech by incorrectly equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.” Does Sacks really believe that Trump’s attempted suppression of protest in America’s most popular sports league and a proposed law that could ban anti-Zionism on campus — threats backed up by state power — pose a lesser danger to free speech than the “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” promoted by some left-wing and minority students? Or does he ignore these greater dangers because they enjoy the support of many American Orthodox Jews?
The answer, I suspect, lies in the recesses of Rabbi Sacks’s career. In the summer of 2002, Sacks, then Britain’s chief rabbi, published his most famous book, The Dignity of Difference. The book, an impassioned and innovative call for religious tolerance in the aftermath of 9/11, claimed that “God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims” and that “no one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth.” On the Orthodox right, it sparked a fierce backlash. Two prominent British rabbis took out an advertisement declaring the book “a grave deviation from the pathways of traditional and authentic Judaism.” The influential Jerusalem rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv called it “contrary to our faith in the Holy Torah.”
To make matters worse, in an August 2002 interview about the book with The Guardian, Sacks appeared to criticize Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. “I regard the current situation as nothing less than tragic,” he declared, “because it is forcing Israel into postures that are incompatible in the long-run with our deepest ideals.” He added that, “There are things that happen on a daily basis which make me feel very uncomfortable as a Jew.”
This sparked another uproar. The president of Britain’s Zionist Federation called Sacks’ comments “misguided.” The Board of Deputies of British Jews declared that, “The views expressed by the Chief Rabbi do not necessarily reflect the opinions held by every section of the community.” An editorial in The Jerusalem Post called on Sacks to resign.
In a recent interview, Sacks called these attacks “so strong and so widespread that I reached a point of what I can probably call black despair.” He said they represented “the defining moment” in his career as a leader. He refused to resign his post. But he did accommodate his critics. He revised the controversial sentences in The Dignity of Difference and declared in a letter to Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau that The Guardian had misrepresented his views.
Since then, Sacks has taken great care not to challenge his religious base. “Talking to Dr Sacks,” a 2003 article in The Telegraph noted, “is rather like being bathed in conversational honey. It is pleasant, but difficult getting him to say what he really means. One suspects that he has found himself at the centre of unexpected controversy too many times for his liking.”
Again and again in his Torah commentaries, Sacks stresses the importance of leaders not getting too far ahead of their flocks.
In a commentary on Parshat Vayelech he writes that, “It is the job of leaders to teach people what they ought to want…they must push people but never too far, too fast, or they will fail.”
In a commentary on Parshat Pinchas, he declares that, “Leadership is not effective if leaders are so far ahead of those they lead that when they turn their heads around, they discover that there is no one following.”
In a commentary on Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech, he suggests that Moses, by doing too much himself, failed to bring along the Israelites. Thus, his successor, “Joshua, would have to engage in participative leadership, encouraging diverse views and listening to them, even if that meant going more slowly.”
The problem is that Sacks, having learned a harsh lesson about the costs of challenging his community, has overlearned it. He is no longer Britain’s chief rabbi. He is no longer obligated to represent anyone but himself. He is, rather, the world’s most important Orthodox public intellectual at a time when many American Orthodox Jews are abetting an assault upon principles of human dignity that Sacks has declared fundamental to Judaism. If he can enter the political fray to help Mike Pence write a speech, he can enter the political fray to say it is wrong for Pence’s administration to wrench the children of asylum-seekers from their parents’ arms. If he can enter the political fray to extol the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he can enter the political fray to say it is wrong for Israel to entrench an occupation that even a former head of Shin Bet has said “makes the lives of millions unbearable.”
If Sacks makes such statements, he’ll grow less “beloved” in the Orthodox world. But he will enhance his reputation among future generations, who will remember him as not only learned, eloquent, charismatic and wise, but also brave.
In the commentary on Parshat Vayetse in which I encountered Sacks almost eight years ago, he wrote about Jacob’s transformation. Early in his life, Sacks wrote, Jacob tried to evade challenges “by clever but ultimately futile stratagems.” But later, after wrestling all night with an angel that some commentators interpret as Jacob’s own conscience, Jacob gains a new name, Israel, and “a new identity.” He is now “unafraid to contend with people face-to-face.”
He is no longer “the quick-witted victor but the hero of moral courage who stands tall in the eyes of humanity and God.”
That’s the kind of hero Jews need Jonathan Sacks to be today.
Peter Beinart is a Senior Columnist at The Forward. Amitai Abouzaglo and Eliot Cohen assisted with the research for this article.
Peter Beinart is a Senior Columnist at The Forward and Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York. He is also a Contributor to The Atlantic and a CNN Political Commentator.