People from back home in America and my friends elsewhere in the world often ask what it’s like to live in Jerusalem. I want to tell them it’s a little like living in New York, with its feeling of it being an important address for cultural life, its international visitors traipsing around to see the sights, its wildly different communities jostling for space. But it's also like Washington, with the feeling of being in the country’s political nerve center. It's even a bit like living in Vatican City or Mecca or Qom or Varanasi, because this city is swimming with seekers looking for something holy and profound, or at the very least, wise and meaningful.
And so I felt slightly guilty sitting in my up-front press seat at one of the most sought-after events at the Jerusalem International Book Fair this week – the launch of “Radical Responsibility – Celebrating the Thought of the Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.” Guilty, that is, because several hundred seekers were gathered at the gates of the no-tickets-necessary event to hear the outgoing chief rabbi of Britain, and they had to be all but physically pushed back by ushers so as to not create a fire hazard in the room, which seated about 800.
The book, published by the Maggid imprint of Koren Publishers, is tied to Rabbi Sacks’ retirement later this year and his upcoming 65th birthday. A collection of original essays “that celebrate the intellectual legacy of one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of our time,” according to Maggid, the book was born of an invitation to 13 luminaries of Western thought to explore themes central to Rabbi Sacks’ work: ethics, justice, religion, and leadership. The book, according to the publishers, helps “bring Jewish tradition into conversation with secular wisdom, highlighting the relevance of Judaism to the dilemmas of the 21st century.”
Sacks used the occasion of the launch to speak out against what he sees as two different extremes the Jewish people are moving in – either assimilation or segregation.“Huge movements of Jews have been engaging with the world by turning their backs on their Jewish identity, and the fastest growing group is people who have secluded themselves – the Jews who have turned inwards,” he said. He indicated that the flourishing of various ultra-Orthodox communities is a “tremendous achievement,” but added: “On the other hand, were we mean to turn our backs on the world? To be Jewish is to fight against the evils of this world, to engage with it.”
It’s not by coincidence, he noted, “that Jews are disproportionately represented among doctors fighting disease, lawyers fighting injusticeand therapists fighting depression and despair.
“We have always said it is our job to bring the world that is,” he paused, “closer to the world that ought to be.”
It wasn’t just Sacks’ remarkable way of weaving his own intellectual prowess into an accessible, entertaining oratorical performance that drew the massive crowd. Alongside him were two opinion-shaping heavyweights from Jerusalem’s modern Orthodox world: Dr. Rabbi Binyamin Lau, of the Ramban Synagogue and the Israel Democracy Institute, and Professor Moshe Habertal, of Hebrew University and New York University. To top it off, the event was introduced and moderated by a young woman who is on her way to becoming one of the more outstanding Jewish thinkers of the next generation, Gila Fine.
Fine, who makes it look chic to be frum, is the Editor in Chief of Maggid Books and can give over a shiur – as they say in these parts, referring to a talk interpreting religious texts – which sends heads scrambling to keep up. I would know, because not long ago, I sat next to her in a Hebrew University class called “Psychoanalysis in Literature,” and watched her spin scholarly circles around the rest of us. One to watch in the years to come, Fine could one day reach the renown of Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, the author/lecturer who brilliantly weaves her profound knowledge of psychology and Western literature with Biblical exegesis – and also leaves Jerusalem’s seekers waiting in the hallways when she gives a free lecture.
(Incidentally, Zornberg is one of only two female contributors to the new anthology in Sacks’ honor, which includes an essay by Dr. Tamra Wright, the academic director at the London School of Jewish Studies. Wright is one of the three editors on the book, along with Michael J. Harris and Daniel Rynhold.)
Beyond the celebratory launch at the book fair Tuesday night, Maggid is planning to release a series of Sacks’ books in Hebrew, starting with “To Heal a Fractured World – The Ethics of Responsibility.”
“We want to expose Rabbi Sacks to Israelis who don't know him that well,” Fine told me ahead of the launch. “He represents a quality of thought which is really lacking in our discourse. He represents a way of thinking that some critics have said is overly idealistic, but we'd say it's optimistic.”
Indeed, Sacks seems to have a fervent following almost everywhere but Israel. He’s not widely read or discussed in the yeshiva world here, though his name is occasionally, quietly raised by a curious student or two who’ve “heard” about an interesting rabbi in England, joked Lau. “The Jewish people are divided into two personalities: one that writes and expresses itself in Hebrew, one in English, and they don’t read each other,” Lau said.
Some of Sacks’ opinions have been criticized in more conservative Orthodox circles, particularly following the publication of “The Dignity of Difference,” which Haredi rabbis said was arguing for a cultural and religious relativism, taking away from the “absolute truth” of Judaism. Even now, Sacks says, he gets censured for suggesting too much engagement with the world, which other rabbis fear will “dillute yiddishkeit.”
They’re thinking in the wrong direction, he said; this is no zero-sum game. “Spiritual goods are the opposite of material goods, because with spritiual goods, the more you share, the more you have,” he said, arguing for a discourse with the larger world.
While ethics and moral responsibility are his calling card, more liberal Jews in the UK and in Israel say he should have been more vocal about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. He opposes gay marriage. And he’s never come to Limmud, held every year at Christmastime in England, one of the most sought-after Jewish events on the planet. The reason, it seems, is Conservative and Reform rabbis are given an equal platform with Orthodox ones.
“It’s been disappointing that he has never come to Limmud, but I realize it’s all politics,” said one veteran Limmud UK participant at the launch. “I hope now that he’s retiring, he’ll feel freer to do so – because this talk was very inspiring.”