LONDON – In December 2010, British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks announced his retirement. Within 18 months, he was followed by the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and then this year, by Pope Benedict XVI.
“I told Rowan Williams we started a fashion,” said Lord Sacks. “He said ‘yes, and I’m worried about the Dalai Lama!’”
Never before, and probably never again, will Britain’s Jews have a leader whose name can so naturally be included amongst the world’s top religious figures, and on Tuesday night at the Barbican, Europe’s largest performing arts center, they showed every indication of knowing it.
The 2,000 tickets for the May 21 evening in his honor, organized by the United Synagogue, Britain’s largest group of Orthodox shuls, sold out within 72 hours, and successive speakers waxed lyrical about his influence on them, the Jewish community – and British society at large.
According to president of the United Synagogue, Stephen Pack, Sacks, who has been in office for 22 years, was not only “the best communicator in the Jewish world today,” but had become “the moral compass of the country… the major moral voice in the country.”
“The office is part of it, but this is the man who took the office to a level that’s quite remarkable,” he added.
The highlight of the evening was a conversation between Sacks and Sir David Frost, the legendary British journalist responsible for the Nixon interviews, who now works for Al Jazeera English. The wide-ranging interview alternated at sometimes startling pace between personal reminiscence, philosophical musings and political comment, but remained mostly light-hearted, with Sacks displaying a deft sense of humor.
He told Frost that his greatest accomplishment was presiding over a Jewish community that had ‘transformed itself,’ growing numerically for the first time since 1945, revitalizing its Orthodox shuls and trebling the number of children going to Jewish day schools
He told Frost that his greatest accomplishment was presiding over a Jewish community that had “transformed itself,” growing numerically for the first time since 1945, revitalizing its Orthodox shuls and tripling the number of children going to Jewish day schools.
He sidestepped a question about what he would have done differently, saying that “leaders always make mistakes” and that he looks forward, not backwards.
Sacks alluded only indirectly to the 1996 scandal that marred his early years in office, when he declined to attend the funeral of Reform leader Rabbi Hugo Gryn and in a private letter that was later leaked, said he was “among those who destroy the faith. The episode severely hurt his relationship with the non-Orthodox denominations, which do not accept his authority but have growing influence in the Orthodox-dominated Anglo-Jewry.
“Fifteen-sixteen years ago we had one of those moments, you know when you’re on a plane and the pilot says, ‘Fasten your seatbelt, turbulence ahead.’ We had one of the moments of turbulence,” he said.
Striking a conciliatory tone, he said that regardless of denomination, “everyone is precious in the eyes of God,” and that in such a small community, cooperation is essential, particularly over non-religious matters such as standing up for Israel, welfare, and interfaith relations. When it comes to religious differences, he added, “let us agree to differ” respectfully.
Politics in the Jewish community was inevitable: “I think God chose the Jewish people because he loves a good argument,” he said.
‘I think God chose the Jewish people because he loves a good argument’
He dated his influence on the wider political stage to 1993, when the murder of toddler Jamie Bulger by two 10-year-old boys shocked the British nation, and following an opinion piece in The Times, he was summoned for an audience with then-prime minister John Major.
“He said to me, ‘Jonathan, what should I do about crime?’” related Sacks. “I think I said, ‘Be against it.’”
Sacks developed close relationships with subsequent premiers as well, in particular Labour’s Gordon Brown. He strenuously denied that he had “come out strongly” against same-sex marriage, currently a major issue in British politics, arguing that while Judaism has “a strongly defined sexual ethic,” it was inappropriate to seek to impose it on society as a whole.
He added that he cherished his relationship with gay and lesbian groups in the Jewish community and that they must not be shunned.
“When you cannot buy into every single one of the elements of the faith, then buy into those you can buy into,” he said. “We welcome everyone. At the United Synagogue we believe in keeping the door open and leaving judgement to God, who does it much better.”
‘When you cannot buy into every single one of the elements of the faith, then buy into those you can buy into’
Asked whether he knew God existed or merely believed it, he replied: “I think I know there’s a God. The great news is that I think he believes in us, which is much more important than our belief in him.”
On the personal front, Sacks revealed that his first memory was being lifted up by his father to place the bells on a Torah scroll during a Shabbat service, and that when he met his wife Elaine in his third year at Cambridge University, he wooed her by cooking a chicken for the first and last time in his life.
After asking Sacks for his definition of love – “giving, forgiving” – Frost, sporting his trademark red socks, retorted that he had once asked actor Richard Burton the same question, and was told, “love is staying awake all night with a sick child or a very healthy adult,” prompting one of the biggest laughs of the night. The chief rabbi appeared to chuckle politely with everyone else.
Lord Sacks, who will officially step down in September, gave no indication of what his plans are for the future.
The evening ended with a musical tribute by 300 children from 11 London Jewish primary schools, who together with the Shabbaton Choir performed a version of the “Anim Zmirot” prayer specially composed for the event and reprised the hit version of “Oseh Shalom” which the Chief Rabbi recorded for Israel’s 60th anniversary. Since 2008 it has had over 1.7 million hits on Youtube, clearly demonstrating the secret to Lord Sacks’s success: an unusual ability to combine outstanding intellect and philosophical acumen with a common touch. It was on full display Tuesday night.