U.K. Jews Bid Farewell to the Teflon Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks

More than any other religious figure, Lord Jonathan Sacks managed to articulate a place for faith in an increasingly secular society.

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On Friday morning, people listening to BBC Radio 4’s popular Today program heard a familiar voice addressing them on “The Thought for the Day” slot. It was Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks making his final appearance. On Sunday afternoon, Rabbi Sacks will formally step down from the post he has filled for the last twenty-two years and induct Rabbi Eprhaim Mirvis as Great Britain’s new chief rabbi. Some 1,400 guests, including Prince Charles, will attend Sunday’s ceremony at St. John’s Wood Synagogue in London. However, it was that two-and-a-half minute homily on the importance of faith that encapsulated the farewell of a religious leader who has succeeded like no other rabbi before him in crafting a message palatable to much wider audiences than his congregation, and transcending the confines of the Jewish community.

In the short broadcast, Sacks ticked all the right boxes. He thanked British society for its respect for different beliefs, highlighted the civic responsibility of the Jewish community, name-checked the Holocaust, the quest for peace and even managed to include a tiny dig at atheists for elevating science above religion. It was classic Sacks: elegant, mellifluous, open-ended and shying away from controversy. He repeated his favorite slogan, “the dignity of difference,” the title of one of his many books, and the catch-phrase with which he has sought to dampen down discord, although it often hobbled him in his dealings within the Jewish establishment.

Ironically, it was another recent appearance on his favorite program that created the last hiccup in his public career. At the height of Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza last November, as he completed another “The Thought for the Day,” BBC presenter Evan Davis, addressing him familiarly as Jonathan, asked “any thoughts on what’s going on over in Israel and Gaza at the moment?” Sacks sighed and said “I think it’s got to do with Iran actually.” At this point, co-presenter Sarah Montague quickly whispered “we’re live.” Sacks immediately reverted to a reverential tone offering a “continued prayer for peace, not only in Gaza but the whole region.”

Within hours the BBC was being accused of having “ambushed” the chief rabbi and the corporation apologized to Sacks. He had only made a very tame observation, but even this was too much. The brand must not be tainted with anything that seems too political or partisan.

Sacks’ detractors often describe him as being “the rabbi of the goyim,” highlighting his visible comfort in the company of royalty, prime ministers and journalists and what they see as his lack of relevancy to Jewish communal life. His supporters see the success with which he filled this ambassador’s role as his greatest strength and attribute growing self-confidence among Jews in Britain to him. They comprise less than half a percent of Britain’s population and the chief rabbi officially leads only a portion of them (he is chief rabbi of the United Synagogue but the ultra-Orthodox community and the liberal streams do not recognize his leadership), but no other religious figure has achieved such media stature in the country, articulating a place for faith in an increasingly secular society.

Master of the sound-bite

Perhaps Sacks’ greatest achievement was realizing at some point during his tenure the limitations of his position, identifying the areas in which he could excel and concentrating on them. He is an extremely industrious and tenacious man, as his literary output of a book each year proves, and he was willing to learn. “He was open to all our suggestions on presentation,” says a television producer who worked with him in the early 1990s. “He listened to everything and went away. Next time we met he had changed his glasses and his ties in the space of a week but most importantly, he mastered the art of sound-bites, of crafting a message in five seconds and that can’t have been easy for a man used to writing books. He was the first religious leader in Britain to understand you have to appear differently on television.”

And as he developed his media presence, Sacks tried to elude controversy, of which there has been no lack in the Jewish community. Earlier in his term he fell into a number of pitfalls. For example, he allowed himself to be browbeaten by a group of senior ultra-Orthodox rabbis who claimed that the assertion he made in his book “The Dignity of Difference” that “no one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth” amounted to heresy, and he published a revised edition. An even earlier episode, which greatly soured his relations with part of the community, was when he refused to attend the funeral of the venerated Reform Rabbi Hugo Gryn, and wrote a vitriolic letter to another rabbi saying Gryn had been one of those “who destroy the faith.”

These episodes typify what to many in the community has been Sacks subservience to the Haredi elements in both the British and Israeli rabbinical hierarchy. They blame him for not reforming the London Beth Din, the religious court that rules over matters of conversion and matrimony, and continues to adhere to the ultra-Orthodox edicts of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. His glaring absence from Limmud, the largest annual Jewish educational event, is due to those same rabbis’ objection to him sharing a venue with the rabbis of progressive streams. This has also long been a bone of contention. Early on, he shelved a report that he himself commissioned on the role of women in religious services, and it took the United Synagogue, of which he was spiritual head for nearly 22 years, to come round to addressing the issue of women’s seating. His fear of dealing with the thorny conversion question has contributed to a situation where Jewish schools are forced to deal with legal challenges over their admissions policy.

Some believe his reluctance to take on the Haredim is due to the fact that he spent very little time studying in traditional Yeshivot and that, despite his undoubtedly impressive academic and intellectual credentials, he is not seen as a major Talmid Chacham. He is held in high regard outside the rabbinical establishment (“how do you sum up someone who is the greatest scholar you know, the greatest philosopher you know, the greatest writer you know, one of the greatest thinkers of our time?” asked former prime minister Gordon Brown in a video tribute produced for Sacks), but the contrast between admiration from non-Jewish leaders and the lack of respect from his rabbinical contemporaries may have left Sacks with a lingering sense of inferiority.

But Sacks has coasted over these troubles and evolved into a Teflon rabbi. His evolution over Israel has also been fascinating. Despite coming out quite forcefully in Israel’s favor in during the Jenin Siege when the IDF was being accused of massacring Palestinian civilians in April 2002, effectively filling in for an inarticulate Israeli ambassador with poor English, he found himself under attack within the community only a few months later. In an interview with U.K. daily The Guardian, he said that the situation with the Palestinians “is forcing Israel into postures that are incompatible in the long run with our deepest ideals,” and that “there are things that happen on a daily basis which make me feel very uncomfortable as a Jew.” This experience made him much more circumspect. As he said in an interview with Haaretz in 2007, “I don’t get involved in politics at all. I write books on political theory.” When the Olmert government came under fire from Jewish Orthodox leaders in the United States for negotiating over the future of Jerusalem, Sacks refused their calls to join them, saying “It’s not the job of rabbis. The connection between religion and politics has always been historically disastrous, without exception.”

From Sunday on, Sacks is no longer encumbered by the constraints of his office. “He is certainly not retiring” says one of his aides and at the age of 65, he plans to stake a more global role for himself, both as a Jewish educator and an advocate for religious values. A private foundation has already been set up by a number of Jewish philanthropists to support his work and many, not just in Britain are pinning their hopes on him as the new spokesman for Modern Orthodoxy. Recent statements and essays seem to indicate that he is freeing himself from the Haredi shadow. At one public appearance he criticized the ultra-Orthodox community which “segregates itself from the world and from its fellow Jews” equating them with assimilated Jews “who embrace the world and reject Judaism,” while the Haredim “embrace Judaism and reject the world.”

Is this a brave new Sacks out to reform the Jewish World? He would certainly like to, but for all his success in communicating with the wider world, in 22 years he has not proven capable of reaching a wide Jewish audience.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Credit: Reuters

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