Hail to the Chief

Deborah Ross talks to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
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Indy Lifestyle Online
SO, to St John's Wood in north London, to meet Dr Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi. The Chief Rabbi! Yes, I stopped going to synagogue a long time ago. ("I don't want no, syna-go-go," I used to protest to my father until eventually he gave in.) But, still, I'm very excited. My mother is even more excited. My mother had spent much of the previous day calling me with instructions that ranged from "wear a DRESS" through to a less certain "do you even have a DRESS?" and finally culminating in: "I'm off to BRENT CROSS, to get you a DRESS!"

So, in a stupid dress (from Next, I think) and tights and lipstick and everything you're meant to wear when you come from Golders Green, as I do, and are about to meet The Chief Rabbi, I arrive at his official residence. Malcolm, his skull-capped, personal bodyguard answers the door. Malcolm says: "The Chief's just on the phone." And: "The Chief will be down in a minute." I love the way Malcolm says "Chief." He says it like Dennis Waterman used to say "Guv" to John Thaw in The Sweeney. When The Chief eventually comes down, I tell him if that if anyone ever decides to make an orthodox Jewish version of The Sweeney, then he and Malcolm would be top of the casting list, no question. I doubt they'd even need to audition.

The Chief laughs politely, but blinks rather blankly. I don't think The Chief has ever watched The Sweeney. Later, he confesses he doesn't really watch telly at all, although he likes the odd film. The Shawshank Redemption was pretty good, he says - "a wonderful film about hope" He wasn't too sure about Schindler's List. "I wrote to Stephen Spielberg afterwards to say you've made a magnificent film about how Jews died, now how about one about how Jews lived? Then, a couple of months ago, I had a wonderful treat. One of his partners at Dreamworks phoned to tell me they were doing a film about the Exodus, with special effects and everything." The Chief looks well pleased.

We go into the living room. There are framed photographs of his wife, Elaine, and their three children - Joshua, Dina and Gila - everywhere, of course. Plus bookcase upon bookcase of books. Hebrew on one side, English on the other. He has all the classics. Byron, Austen, Thackeray, Shakespeare, the complete works of Dickens, but it would be wrong to assume he was of the stuffy, "no decent novels have been written for a 100 years" brigade. As he says: "When I'm depressed, I like John Le Carre. The Honourable Schoolboy. Now, there's a good book." Dr Sacks has a very kindly, slow, patient, soothing voice, the sort of voice you'd like to melt into and never come out of. He has a wonderful face, too. He looks rather like Peter Sellers trying to be Topol.

Although Dr Sacks is, technically, only leader of of the United Synagogues in this country - the main Orthodox grouping which represents mainstream orthodoxy - he is also widely regarded as the public face of all Anglo- Jewry, which includes the ultra-Orthodox (with their long black coats and dangly bits of hair) to the right, and the Reform (who are much more relaxed about observance) to the left. As such - and to keep the community together - Dr Sacks has had to walk a kind of quivering tightrope between the two. He isn't always successful.

When Rabbi Hugo Gryn - head of the Reform Movement and popular broadcaster - died last year, Dr Sacks didn't go to his funeral, for fear of offending the ultra-Orthodox. Instead, the Reform were offended. So, to placate them, he did go to Gryn's memorial service, where he gave a most moving speech. However, in so doing, he offended the ultra-Orthodox. He subsequently wrote a letter to an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, in which he spoke of his hostility to "the various kinds of Reform Jew" and described the conflicts he suffered "in praising a person who was amongst those who destroy the faith". The letter was leaked to the Jewish Chronicle. All hell let loose. Chief, do you feel terribly torn apart? "I did for a period of about a year. Now, I understand that I should no longer try to reconcile the two extremes. In the end, I have to speak with my own voice, expounding the tradition as I see it." Chief Rabbi? Nice job if you can get it? Perhaps not.

The size of the Jewish community in Britain has fallen from 450,000 in the early 1960s to barely 300,000 today. These days, there are only around 1000 synagogue weddings a year. ("If so, how come I seem to be invited to all of them," cries my brother). Still, the falling numbers reflect, probably, the increasing number of Jews like me. Jews who, in effect, do nothing to keep Judaism going. Jews who stopped going to shul because it was too cold and boring, except on Yom Kippur, when you could keep a tally of how many old ladies fainted, and things livened up a bit. Jews who eat bacon. Jews who send Christmas cards (albeit with pictures of robins rather than baby Jesus on them). No, I haven't married out, but only because I haven't married. Still I've slept out with great enjoyment over the years and have a son who probably won't think of himself as Jewish to prove it. How do I make you feel, Chief? Disappointed? Angry? Sad? Betrayed? Resigned? Sickened? He says, perhaps predictably: "How do you feel abut it?" (Moishe to Hymie: "Hymie, why do you always answer a question with a question?" Hymie: "Why shouldn't I?")

I say I'm not sure. I say I find it confusing. On the one hand, I know I'm Jewish. But, on the other hand, what right do I have to say so, when I no longer observe any of the rituals, and don't even especially believe in a God. He says: "Let me tell you a story in parenthesis here." (Let me tell you, in parenthesis, that if you ever want a direct answer to a question, ask a Gentile).

"I was fascinated by Isaiah Berlin, who claimed to be a secular Jew. He used to say to me 'Chief Rabbi, don't talk to me about religion. When it comes to God I'm tone deaf'. Yet he requested that I officiate at his funeral. Now why did Isaiah, a secular Jew, want me to officiate? To me, it suggests we may be using the word 'secular' too loosely."

I say I accept all this. I, too, have a sense of where I have come from. I would like to go back there when I die, albeit in something other than this silly dress and glutinous lipstick. But, without the religious dimension - without living it in some way every day - is it actually enough? Probably not, he says. There is a cultural aspect to Judaism - the sense of a shared history, a shared suffering, this knowledge that you belong to a certain people. "But to be a Jew and understand Judaism is, ultimately, a religious phenomenon. I doubt personally whether in the diaspora secular Jewish identity can survive. The only place it can survive is in Israel, where the landscape, the language ... where everything reinforces Jewish identity. Judaism is a religious faith, not just an ethnic group."

So, what does all this make me, then? "A human being. Right?" And to be human is more important to be Jewish? "Not all contradictions can be resolved," he says, which isn't really an answer, but seems to be as far as he will go. I do make him sad, I think.

Dr Sacks, now 50, was brought up mainly in Finchley, north London, although he spent his early years in the East End. His father, Louis, had come from Poland when he was two. His father had a formidable intellect, plus great taste in the arts - "he liked Mahler before anyone else had even heard of Mahler" - but, in order to support his family, had left school at 14 to sell cloth in a shop in the Commercial Road. His father was an observant Jew, yes, but didn't know much about Judaism. "I remember, when I was five, walking back from synagogue with him, and asking him lots of questions. My father said 'I didn't have an education, therefore I don't have the answers to your questions. One day, you will have the education I didn't have and you will teach me the answers'. Now, what greater gift can you give a child?" I think this is a rhetorical question. I don't think he expects me to say: "A Nintendo, possibly."

He studied philosophy at Cambridge, and took a double first, as did his three younger brothers. "We did it to give our father pride." His interest in becoming a rabbi had its beginnings at the outbreak of the Six Day War, while he was still an undergraduate. "It had a huge impact on me. Every Jew I knew felt completely involved. For me, it raised the question: 'What made me feel so connected to these people 7,000 miles away? What bound us together? What does it mean to be a Jew?'" What does it mean to be a Jew? "It's the belief that behind the world is another world, that this world is underpinned by a divine presence which constitutes the very heart of reality. And to live that out in terms of Jewish law."

What if one of your children were to come home and announce they were marrying a non-Jew? "It would represent a real crisis for me and my wife. We have tried to show them what it is to have a Jewish home.' One of the great difficulties of Judaism is, I think, this business of where being a protector of the faith transmutes into a kind of bigotry. Sometimes, I just don't get God, if at all.

Certainly, I do wonder about someone like Dr Sacks and God. I do wonder how someone so obviously intellectual - a Professor of Philosophy, even, before being appointed Chief Rabbi seven years ago - can believe. He says Isaiah Berlin used to have the same problem. "He used to say to me, 'what I can't understand is how you, having studied philosophy at Cambridge, can be a believer?' I said, if it makes it easier for you, just think of me as a lapsed heretic. He said yes, he could relate to that."

Seriously, how can you believe in a God when something like the Holocaust has been allowed to happen? Or, as Primo Levi once put it: "You can have God. And you can have Auschwitz. But you can't have both." Dr Sacks says: "Did Primo Levi say that? I am quite familiar with his works, and I don't recall it." Okay, maybe it was Danielle Steele but, still, I would like to hear your response to it.

"My view is this. The real question isn't where was God in Auschwitz, but where was man at Auschwitz? God was there in the command 'Thou shalt not murder'. God was there in the command 'Thou shalt not oppress a stranger'. God was at Auschwitz in the words 'Thy brothers' blood cries to me from the ground'. At Auschwitz, God spoke, and humanity didn't listen. So, to repeat, I ask not where was God, but where was man?

"God gave humanity a code to live by. Terrible things happen when we don't live by that code. One of the fundamental Jewish values is that the moral code is sovereign over all others. That right is prior to might. Therefore, there are moral limits to the use of power. Auschwitz was the final, decisive refutation of the proposition that there are no moral limits to power."

I actually think he rather loses God in all this. Plus, hasn't Israel put might before right at times? "I feel very strongly for the Palestinians, Israel is not just the Promised Land. It is the over-promised land. It has proved one of the epic dramas of which Jewish history is full. Can two dreams co-exist in one land? I think they can co-exist, yes."Is Benjamin Netanyahu the man for the job? "I don't make political statements." You're not keen, then? "I don't think anyone expected Begin to make the great leap with Anwar Sadat. Perhaps in the fullness of time Netanyahu will surprise us in the same way. Whether it will be at the London talks, I doubt."

I wonder, lastly, if the modern Jew in Britain has anything to fear, aside from the Jewish Chronicle tracking us down and claiming us for their own? Does he see anti-semitism around him? "I do think the taboo that existed for 50 years after the Holocaust is beginning to break. I've seen one or two early warning signs. Christopher Hitchens wrote an article in the Evening Standard a few weeks ago where, in effect, he called the Prime Minister of Israel a fascist. That's the sort of thing I wouldn't have seen 10 years ago."

He has to go. He has another meeting. When I get home, I'm not sure I feel any less confused, although it's nice to get the silly dress and tights off. My mother phones. "You'll never wear that dress again? Give it to me - I'll get my money back."

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