The Royals, the Rabbi, and the Renegades

The difference between righteous Judaism and venom posing as piety is exemplified by British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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How long will fanatics, crooks, thugs and fools be allowed to spoil Judaism in the State of Israel? While ordinary Jews live quiet lives of decency, piety and integrity, day after day our religious leaders hit the headlines and its rarely good news.

The Talmud itself warns that in the wrong hands, Judaism will become twisted and venomous. (Taanit 7a and Yoma 72b). At times, it feels that we are living out that nightmare. Whether it be assaults on women praying at the Western Wall, attacks on Rabbi David Stav for his tireless efforts to make Judaism accessible to all, the latest allegations against Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger for corruption and molestation or the leader of a religious party attempting to scuttle any chance of making peace with our neighbors even before negotiations have begun, something is profoundly wrong.

It's true that some of the reactions may have been provoked and some of the allegations may be untrue, yet, overall, it does not smell good. Is this really the way of people who are a light unto the nations who live at the dawn of the Messianic age and whose scholars bring peace to the world?

Perhaps it's time for some soul-searching.

This week, Prince Charles; heir to the British throne attended a dinner honoring Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Britain's outgoing chief rabbi. For some, this would have seemed like just another quaint example of British Jews reveling in the pomp and ceremony of England - the Jews taking tea with the Queen writ large.

They miss the point.

Fighting for rational Judaism, Maimonides pointed to a Biblical passage where Moses promises that if we keep the commandments and act appropriately, ultimately, the entire world will respect us for it:

Observe them (the Torah's laws) carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. (Deuteronomy 4: 6)

For the Rambam, it is axiomatic that when the nations of the world see Jewish people living out a decent, thoughtful, caring Judaism with intellectual and ethical integrity, they will recognize an intelligent, well-reasoned and compassionate faith. (Guide for the Perplexed III: 31)

This may seem far-off, but there is a reason why British royalty attended the outgoing chief rabbi's banquet. It's more or less the same reason that former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote a foreword to one of the chief rabbi's books, U.S. President Bill Clinton invited him to offer spiritual advice, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, as head of the Anglican Communion bestowed an honorary doctorate upon him.

World leaders do not pay attention to Lord Sacks because of his political weight - the chief rabbi does not even attempt to exercise power or control over anyone. Rather, through erudite writing, uplifting oratory and a willingness to engage with the wider world, he has inspired and influenced.

Whether in his commentaries to the prayer book or the Bible, through his books about uniting the Jewish people, or works on more universal themes, Lord Sacks demonstrates compassion, modesty and a great love of humanity. He has shown the world a Judaism which is profound, spiritual and compassionate, and the response has been one of overwhelming admiration for the chief rabbi, his faith and the people he represents.

The difference between this type of Judaism and venom posing as piety is best expressed in the words of the chief rabbi himself;

There is a difference between righteousness and self-righteousness. The righteous are humble, the self-righteous are proud. The righteous understand doubt, the self-righteous only certainty. The righteous see the good in people, the self-righteous only the bad. The righteous leave you feeling enlarged, the self-righteous make you feel small. (The Great Partnership p.296)

It is precisely this type of righteous Judaism that inspires Jews and gentiles to justice, peace and ethical-monotheism. This is exactly the type of exemplary religious leadership we need in Israel to make us proud of Judaism in the Jewish state.

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's Israel Rabbi. He also directs the educational program of the Rene Cassin Fellowship Program in Israel.

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