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After 22 Years as Chief Rabbi of the U.K., Jonathan Sacks Wants To Go Global

He’ll teach in New York, lecture around the world, and publish more books to foster ‘a new generation of Jewish leadership’

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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. (Blake Ezra)
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By most accounts, Jonathan Sacks was having a very successful run as chief rabbi of the United Kingdom. He’d published dozens of well-received books on Judaism and its place in the modern world. He had a popular column in the Times of London, and was a frequent face on the BBC, where he would do a yearly Rosh Hashanah special on faith with such guests as atheist ideologue Richard Dawkins and author Howard Jacobson. The most visible voice of religion in Britain’s public square, he’d been called an “intellectual giant” by Tony Blair, who cited his work while teaching at Yale, and “a light unto this nation” by Prince Charles. And yet, this past August, Sacks stepped down as chief rabbi.

What exactly did he hope to accomplish now that he couldn’t or didn’t achieve as chief rabbi? I put this question to Sacks recently, at the Union League Club in New York. He answered simply: “to go global.” A few decades ago, the influence of a public intellectual or spiritual leader was significantly limited by both the impositions of geography and the speed of communications. But with the advent of the Internet, mass social media, and affordable and efficient international travel, this is no longer the case. And so Sacks intends to greatly expand his global profile.

He’s embarking on a lecture tour through the United States, Canada, South America, and Israel—“major Jewries where I really haven’t spent enough time.” In an effort to reach out specifically to young Jews, he’ll be partnering with Hillel Houses and teaching at both Yeshiva University and New York University, “to do what I can to encourage a new generation of Jewish leadership.” (So that no one misses the point, all 54 of Sacks’s online weekly divrei Torah this year will be about leadership.) And of course, he’ll be publishing more books. “I’ve written 25 books,” he said, “but I’ve had a list that I’ve carried around with me for many years, and I have more than 25 still to write.” What’s on the list? A systematic account of Jewish ethics; a new commentary on the Torah; a comprehensive Orthodox response to modern biblical criticism; and a multivolume record of Sacks’ personal philosophy of Judaism. “These are not books I write because I want to write books; they’re books I write because I want to read them,” he added.

But there was no way for Sacks to minister to the world while also guiding Anglo Jewry at home, which is why the 65-year-old father of three resigned his position after 22 years as chief rabbi. “You leave a career move like that too late and you can’t do it,” he said. “So, I had to leave the earliest moment that I could leave without being seen to be failing to fulfill my duty to British Jewry.” Sacks hopes to create “a role for which there is no position”—to be a sort of roving Jewish intellectual without formal portfolio.

The promise of Sacks’ ambitious agenda, coupled with his prodigious communication skills, is obvious. “In America, since Reinhold Niebuhr and maybe [Paul] Tillich, how many Christian theologians have really had an audience in the mass media? How many Jews?” asked Shalom Carmy, assistant professor of Jewish philosophy and Bible at Yeshiva University. “Here we have somebody who might actually break through to those mass intellectual journals which currently are closed to any kind of serious intellectual religious message.”

But can Sacks really speak for the notoriously fractious and fragmented Jewish world? Can an Orthodox rabbi foster a new generation of Jewish leaders, even if they do not share his beliefs? And can anyone overcome the deep divides within American Jewry surrounding the state of Israel and its policies? At the outset of Sacks’ second career, these are the questions he will have to answer.

***

Sacks didn’t originally intend to be a rabbi, let alone chief rabbi. Raised in a traditional Jewish home by parents with little formal Jewish education, he studied philosophy at Cambridge and went on to do graduate work at Oxford and King’s College London. But along the way, under the influence of several rabbinic mentors, he switched careers and made his way to Jews’ College (now known as the London School of Jewish Studies). He was ordained there, and—after 12 years as a pulpit rabbi in London—became the school’s leader, before being appointed chief rabbi in 1991.

As comfortable at the synagogue lectern as he is at the university podium, Sacks has continued to straddle both the academic and rabbinic realms, explaining each to the other. He has brought Jewish tradition to bear on contemporary concerns, from the market economy to globalization, and applied the insights of secular disciplines like political philosophy and neuroscience to religion. His background in academia is evident in his approach to Judaism, which prizes questions, conflicting voices, and debate, even as he balances this commitment with his own Orthodoxy. But if Sacks is to assume a global role, it will put his dedication to open discourse to the test in many ways, beginning with world Jewry’s most contentious debate: Israel.

I asked Sacks two questions currently preoccupying some American Jews: Should the Jewish community have red lines when discussing the Jewish state? And how should major Jewish organizations and campus Hillel Houses react to a rising generation of younger Jews who are more critical of Israel and its policies? Sacks’s response walked a characteristically fine line. “I think the greatness of Judaism is that it always included many voices. You’ve got Hillel and Shammai, you’ve got Abbaye and Rava—the argument for the sake of heaven is our greatest strength,” he said. “So, I think we have to have the strength of nerve and the faith in young Jews to empower them to say what they feel and say what they believe, and listen to those who disagree with them, and make every one of those voices part of the conversation.” (Indeed, Sacks himself has been critical of Israel’s chief rabbinate, whose coercive religious power he sees as an inappropriate and counterproductive.)

But then came a caveat that reveals the tension between Sacks’ commitment to openness and his commitment to Orthodoxy—in this case, of the political kind: “I think there are voices that are not part of that conversation,” he said, “and those are the anti-Zionist voices, the ones who deny Israel’s right to be, and I think those are voices that cannot be part of the conversation because they deny the premise of the conversation.”

Sacks has long faced a similar challenge in dealing with non-Orthodox Jewry. On the one hand, his personal philosophy venerates argument, divergent perspectives, and the value of diversity, to the extent that he has written at length about the spiritual integrity of non-Jewish religions. On the other, Sacks’ Orthodox orientation necessitated him keeping non-Orthodox denominations at arm’s length during his tenure as chief rabbi. As one critic put it, “what Sacks approves in the world at large is something that he cannot endorse within Judaism.”

“In his heart, he’s broadminded,” said Rabbi Jeremy Gordon, who heads the Conservative New London Synagogue. “But time and again, when there was a choice of either reaching toward non-Orthodoxy or even the left-reaches of Orthodoxy, he didn’t.” Faced with the difficult task of balancing the preferences and politics of Anglo-Jewry, in particular its substantial ultra-Orthodox community, Sacks charted a more conservative course. He declined to attend the funeral of Reform Rabbi Hugo Gryn, to the chagrin of liberal Jews, but then spoke at a memorial service for him, angering some Haredi constituents. Similarly, Sacks never participated in Limmud, the U.K.’s annual pluralistic educational gathering, yet allowed his rabbis to do so.

For non-Orthodoxy and Gordon, the “big question” is whether Sacks will act differently now that he has been freed from the institutional pressures of his prior position. “What I’m sure will happen is that he will raise issues which are contentious, and I’m equally sure that the further right edges of Orthodoxy will challenge those edges, and what happens at that point is going to be incredibly interesting,” Gordon said.

Sacks has hinted that he will be taking a bolder approach in the coming years, telling JTA, “When you’re no longer captain of the team, you are much more able to express yourself as an individual. I didn’t feel I was imprisoned [as chief rabbi]. I just felt that sometimes I wanted to go a little faster than the community was prepared to go.” Of late, Sacks has certainly has not shied away from forthrightly disputing traditional approaches with which he disagrees, even ones espoused by his own mentors. In his recent book The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning, Sacks argues that religion and science are complementary rather than in conflict. In the process, he accepts and celebrates the findings of evolutionary biology and contemporary cosmology regarding the origins of life and the universe. Yet these very findings were famously rejected by one of Sacks’ most influential teachers, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who suggested that the Earth was created with the appearance of an ancient prehistory.

“I didn’t agree with the Rebbe on the dating of the universe, but I didn’t do that lightly,” Sacks told me. “I did it because I knew perfectly well that the three greatest early Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages—Saadya Gaon, Yehuda Halevi, and the Rambam [Maimonides]—all three took the view that when the plain sense of scripture is contradicted by established scientific fact, then you don’t read a text ki-pshuto [in its plain sense].” For Sacks, the argument is not with tradition, but within tradition.

He offered a parable to explain this relationship to his predecessors. “They used to say to Rav Nachman of Bratslav, ‘Why don’t you follow the derekh [path] of your father?’ And he said ‘I do! My father didn’t do what his father did, so I don’t do what he did.’ ” He laughed. “That is a basic axiom of Judaism, that once your teacher has said yoreh, yoreh—I give you permission to teach—you have permission to see it as you see it. Ein lo le-dayan elah mah she-einav ro’ot. A judge must rule in accordance with the facts as he sees them.”

***

One can learn a lot about Sacks from his many books. But to understand him, it is just as crucial to recognize what’s not in them. Though he seldom mentions it, Sacks battled cancer twice, once in his 30s, and later in his 50s. Yet unlike many other rabbis and scholars of religion, from Rabbi David Wolpe to James Kugel, who incorporated their bouts with cancer into their theological reflections, Sacks makes no reference to it in his voluminous output. I asked why.

“It’s very simple,” he said. “I saw my late father in his 80s go through four, five major operations. This was not cancer, it was hip replacements and those things. And when you have operations in your 80s, they sap your strength. He got weaker and weaker as the decade passed. He was walking on crutches at my induction—he was alive for my induction, and that was very important to me.”

“Now, my late father, alav ha-shalom, didn’t have much Jewish education, but he had enormous emunah [faith],” Sacks continued. “I used to watch him saying Tehillim in the hospital, and I could see him getting stronger. It seemed to me that his mental attitude was ‘I’m leaving this to Hashem. If he sees that it’s time for me to go, then it’s time for me to go. And if he still needs me to do things here, he’ll look after me.’”

“And I adopted exactly that attitude. So on both occasions I felt, if this is the time Hashem needs me up there, thank you very much indeed for my time down here; I’ve enjoyed every day and feel very blessed. And if he wants me to stay and there’s still work for me to do, then he is going to be part of the refu’ah [healing] and I put my trust in him. So there was no test of faith at any point—just these simple moments at which to say, ‘b’yado afkid ruchi’ [‘In his hand, I place my soul’]. That was my thought. And since we say that every day in Adon Olam, I didn’t feel the need to write a book about it. It was for me not a theological dilemma at all.”

“I had faith,” said Sacks, “full stop.”

***

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After 22 Years as Chief Rabbi of the U.K., Jonathan Sacks Wants To Go Global

He’ll teach in New York, lecture around the world, and publish more books to foster ‘a new generation of Jewish leadership’