Last Tuesday night, I had the pleasure of attending a book launch. The book was a tribute to the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, Lord Jonathan Sacks, and was designed to celebrate his remarkable intellectual legacy in this, his retirement, year. The book, “Radical Responsibility”, has been edited and assembled by a stellar team of editors: Rabbi Dr. Michael Harris, one of Britain’s most intellectually probing and sophisticated rabbis, along with Drs Tamra Wright and Daniel Rynhold, two tremendous scholars of Jewish thought.
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To hold this book in my hands was already quite a treat; three wonderful editors having worked for years to assemble a fitting tribute to one of my favourite living Jewish voices. And then, you turn to the contents page, and get a sense of the personalities that have seemingly queued up to pay tribute to Lord Sacks in ways that demonstrate serious engagement with his copious writings. In one book there are contributions from many of the world’s most prominent philosophers of Judaism (David Shatz, Moshe Halbertal, and Menachem Kellner), many of the world’s most prominent Modern Orthodox rabbis (Jacob Shachter, Michale Broyde and Binyamin Lau), and an impressive array of world-leading secular Jewish and gentile philosophers (including Michael Walzer, Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre). Which Jewish thinker, alive today, could inspire such a varied array of heavyweight personalities to write articles that engage with his or her work? I can think of only one: Lord Sacks.
People who know me are quick to find out that I’m something of a chief rabbi fanatic. Among American and Israeli Jews, I am equally quick to find allies, but sometimes, when talking to other British Jews, my boundless admiration for the chief inspires blank stares, or even incredulity.
Having spent over 20 years as a leading spokesperson for Judaism, and as the rabbinic head of the United Kingdom’s biggest synagogal body, it’s fair to say that Lord Sacks has ruffled a few feathers. Who can honestly claim that they’ve spent 20 years in a high-profile political position without sometimes causing some offence, and - let’s face it - without making some mistakes?
Politics is hard. Politics is often dirty. Politics is very often about uncomfortable compromises in the face of conflict. I haven’t agreed with every public stance that Lord Sacks has taken over the last two decades, but if anyone had been doing that job for that amount of time, they would have been bound to do something with which I disagreed, for reasons that wouldn’t always have been clear to me. Gosh, if I was doing that job for twenty years I’d probably end up doing things that I didn’t agree with from time to time. Who can do a political job in a community as conflicted as Anglo-Jewry without absorbing some of that conflict into your own soul?
I once got into a Facebook conversation where people were discussing Lord Sacks’ career. A list of what they took to be high-profile policy blunders was quick to tumble down this particular Facebook wall. When probed about my undying loyalty, I was quick to point to many of the chief rabbi’s path-breaking publications. “But what difference does it make?” was the general response, “For all of his open-minded progressive Orthodoxy, for all of his lofty words, Anglo-Orthodoxy is as stale, and as stuck in the past, as it was when he took to the helm.” But, having seen this latest book – this book of tributes to the chief among rabbis – I must beg to differ: books do make a difference.
Had he not have had the office of the chief rabbi to his name, he may not have achieved the international notoriety that he can lay claim to today. He may not have published as widely, and his thought may not have been in as much demand. And thus, he made a tremendous use of his office to become a world statesman for enlightened Orthodoxy; a voice with a prophetic quality that resonates with prime ministers, presidents, Jews and Gentiles, intellectuals and laity.
Let’s take one example. When do most Jews go to shul? On Yom Kippur. The chief rabbi has written the most exquisite translation and commentary to the Yom Kippur prayer book. The book is being snapped up by communities across the globe. This may well not have happened had he not had the weight of his lofty office behind him. I held that prayer book in my hands this year, and it inspired depths of prayer that I had never experienced before. And it will do the same for me next year, and for thousands of Jews for generations; Jews in rabbinical schools like me, and Jews who only come to shul once a year.
The chief rabbi’s growing series of commentaries on the weekly Torah reading, his prayer books for regular and high-holidays, and the dozens of books that he has penned, have touched hearts around the world; every paragraph he writes testifies to the depth of his soul and to the breadth of his knowledge; these words will long outlive the controversies that political engagement brought upon him.
When I was 18 years old, I found myself in a dark and lonely place while I was struggling in a yeshiva to find my way in life. I wrote an email to the chief rabbi, and his heartfelt response to me lit a flame in my heart that hasn’t been extinguished since. Who knows how many others there are whose lives have been shaped for the better by this peerless spokesman for Judaism?
Dr. Samuel Lebens studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.