Shrinking of moderate center is ‘global danger,’ says British chief rabbi

Superstar rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks stakes out a strong role in promoting a centrist Orthodoxy at his star-studded farewell dinner

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks escorts Prince Charles at his farewell dinner. (John Rifkin/ courtesy)
Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks escorts Prince Charles at his farewell dinner. (John Rifkin/ courtesy)

LONDON – Retiring British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has launched an attack on ultra-Orthodox Judaism, which “segregates itself from the world and from its fellow Jews.”

Speaking at his own retirement dinner Monday night, Sacks drew an equivalence between assimilated Jews “who embrace the world and reject Judaism, and those who embrace Judaism and reject the world.”

That the center is shrinking is “worse than dangerous,” said Sacks. “It is an abdication of the role of Jews and Judaism in the world. We are here to engage with the world, to be true to our faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith.”

During his 22-year tenure, which will come to a close on September 1, Sacks was often accused of deferring too much to Haredi rabbis – including amending the text of his book, “The Dignity of Difference,” in response to criticism by ultra-Orthodox leaders – leading some in the audience to speculate that he will take a harder line post-retirement.

Monday night, the last in a series of communal events marking his departure, highlighted his position as a leading religious voice in Britain today.

The guest of honor was Charles, the Prince of Wales, who in a deliberate misquote of the prophet Isaiah, called Lord Sacks “a light unto this nation.”

Lamenting the declining status of religion in modern Britain, Prince Charles praised Lord Sacks for “keeping alive the essential importance of faith in an increasingly God-less age.”

He also thanked him for promoting the principle of tolerance, expressing “mounting anxiety” at “the apparent rise in anti-Semitism, along with other poisonous and debilitating forms of intolerance.”

Prince Charles praises Lord Sacks as 'a light unto this nation.' (photo credit: courtesy)
Prince Charles praises Lord Sacks as ‘a light unto this nation.’ (photo credit: John Rifkin/courtesy)

On a personal level, Prince Charles admired Lord Sacks’s “lightness of touch and elegant wit,” and said that he had personally benefited from his advice.

“Your guidance on any given issue has never failed to be of practical value and deeply grounded in the kind of wisdom that is increasingly hard to come by,” he said.

Prince Charles singled out three books by the Chief Rabbi for particular acclaim: “To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility“, “The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society” and “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning.”

This turned out to be a running theme, with successive British leaders citing the influence of Sacks’s writing on their own thinking. In a video message, former prime minister John Major said, “As a student of your books over many years you have absorbed more hours of my time than I can possibly remember,” while Labour’s former prime minister Gordon Brown, with whom Sacks was reputed to have had a particularly close relationship, praised his book “Politics of Hope” for suggesting a way “between markets and state… He saw that the ethics of markets were an issue long before the financial crisis.”

Prime Minister David Cameron said that “The Home We Build Together” “had a significant influence on my own mission to build a bigger and stronger society right here in Britain,” which was a cornerstone of his platform in the early years of his premiership.

Introducing Sacks to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at Downing Street several weeks ago, Cameron described him, ‘without thinking… as “my rabbi”’

Introducing Sacks to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at Downing Street several weeks ago, he described him, “without thinking… as ‘my rabbi,’” Cameron revealed.

“It was a symbol of the impact that you have had on this country far beyond the Jewish community,” he said. “Because over the past two decades you have been not just a leader for Jewish people but for all of us. You have challenged us to stand up for the place of religion in modern society. You have promoted the importance of ethics and responsibility providing not just a religious voice but frankly a moral voice in our country too.”

The 800 guests at the dinner in central London included Conservative government minister Iain Duncan Smith and Labour’s shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Ed Balls. Also in attendance were former Labour foreign minister David Miliband, Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub and, of course, chief rabbi elect Ephraim Mirvis

In a rare display of solidarity amongst Britain’s Jewish religious leaders, there were representatives from all the denominations, including Reform’s Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner and the Liberal movement’s Rabbi Danny Rich.

The evening was supported by the Chief Rabbinate Trust, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Orthodox United Synagogue, which officially employs the chief rabbi.

In Sacks’s own address, he thanked the British Jewish community for transforming itself, building more day schools, creating new institutions and enlivening cultural activities.

‘Anglo Jewry is just less stuffy than it used to be. There’s less “oy,” more joy’

“Anglo Jewry is just less stuffy than it used to be,” he said. “There’s less ‘oy,’ more joy, and that’s how it ought to be.”

Although the Chief Rabbi has not yet indicated what formal position he is likely to accept after September, he seemed to stake out a strong role for himself promoting a centrist Orthodoxy, pledging to work to “inspire a new generation of leaders for the Jewish world, rabbinical, educational and lay, who will have the courage to face the world and all its challenges without fear, will have the responsibility to lead and the spirit to be a source of light in a sometimes dark and difficult world.

“I want to inspire young Jews throughout the world to believe in and live a Judaism that is tolerant, inclusive, embracing, non-judgmental; that is intellectually open and ethically uplifting; that is neither defensive nor arrogant, but that lives the life of faith in such a way as to enhance the life of others within and beyond the Jewish community.”

He expanded on the vision in a new pamphlet, “A Judaism Engaged with the World,” which was personally signed and handed to every guest, and is available for free download.

As in the previous event for Lord Sacks, an interview with journalist David Frost in front of 2,000 people at the Barbican, the evening was marked by humor, with several digs at the chief rabbi’s favorite football club, Arsenal.

Lord Sacks himself recalled the time he went to an Arsenal game with the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, only to see their team lose 6:2 to Manchester United. Asked by a newspaper whether this proved that God did not exist, he responded, “No, it proves he’s a supporter of Manchester United.”

He also described his meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in September 2010, on erev Yom Kippur.

“There was the Pope dressed entirely in white, dressed in a white yarmulke, dressed as if he was a chazzan,” or cantor, said the Chief Rabbi, drawing laughter from the crowd. “I will claim my reward in heaven for not saying, ‘good yontiff, Pontiff.”

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