Jonathan Sacks: Defender of the faith

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The Independent Online

Jonathan Sacks has been in the news for two very different reasons in recent days. First he had refused to attend the UN conference on racism in Durban realising before some others that it had a loaded anti-Zionist agenda. Then he launched an attack on British television for failing in its moral responsibility to strengthen what was good in our inherited culture.

But there could have been any number of other reasons why the Chief Rabbi might have hit the headlines. He might have been defending Sunday trading, attacking government policy on homosexuality, backing Christian schools or having a sly dig at some non-Orthodox group of Jews and accusing them of being "intellectual thieves".

Whatever other accusations might have been laid against Dr Sacks this week – and there have been a few to mark his 10th anniversary as Chief Rabbi of the Orthodox United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth – no one could accuse him of operating on a limited canvas. And, at 53, he is still less than halfway through his term of office – he holds the job until he reaches his 65th birthday – and looks set to range even wider in the years to come.

Dr Sacks is one of the handful of religious figures in Britain today who is as well known outside his own faith community as within it. Among non-Jews he is a figure of some considerable stature, a staunch defender of the interests of his own people, but one whose stance makes a significant contribution to society's debate on the big social issues of the day.

He is about to publish The Dignity of Difference, a book which casts a quizzical eye over the process of globalisation and the dangers posed by the advance of what he calls the "Coca-Cola/ MTV culture". But, through his Reith lectures a decade ago, and in a host of impressive books of social and cultural analysis, he has made stimulating contributions on materialism, individualism, the family, consumerism and "communitarianism" – the missing ground, as he sees it, between the state and the individual in contemporary British politics.

Though not an original thinker, he demonstrates what one of his many admirers, Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, who worked with Sacks for nine years on the Council for Christians and Jews, calls "his extraordinary ability to combine finely-honed philosophical reflection with the ability to communicate at a popular level with ordinary people – it is a combination that almost no other religious leader has." It has won him admirers outside religion. Tony Blair is a big fan. (Sacks and he share political gurus – the philosophers Alasdair Macintyre and John Macmurray). And Gordon Brown – to whose wedding party the Chief Rabbi was invited – provided the foreword to one of Sacks's major works, The Politics Of Hope.

This week the Archbishop of Canterbury paid a tribute of great affection as he conferred a Doctorate of Divinity on him. (He is only the second Jew to be so honoured; the other was his immediate predecessor Lord Jakobovits). Muslim leaders speak warmly of the Chief Rabbi. And though, when it comes to religious issues, relations between the Orthodox and other groups of Jews remain as bitter and vituperative as ever, on non-religious issues even the leaders of Reform and Liberal Judaism have praise for him.

"He has been excellent in building bridges between the faiths," says Sir Sigmund Sternberg, the president of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain as well as founder of the Three Faiths Forum for Christian/Muslim/Jewish dialogue. "He has a brilliant intellect and is an impressive spokesman, even if the position he occupies as Chief Rabbi is increasingly untenable," says David Goldberg, the senior rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue.

You will detect the sting in the tail in that. For if Dr Sacks is lauded as a thoughtful and devoted leader by the wider community, he is a prophet with significantly less honour among his own people. The Jewish Chronicle is currently running an Internet poll on the question "Have Jonathan Sacks's first 10 years as Chief Rabbi been a success?" Voting is still going on, but at one point yesterday a resounding 71 per cent had voted "no".

To some extent this reflects the acrimonious nature of the divisions between the Orthodox and the minority Masorti, Reform and Liberal groups who between them make up 60 per cent of Britain's 300,000-strong Jewish community.

But it is also a manifestation of the disillusion with Dr Sacks in significant sections of British Jewry. In deference to the insistence of the right-wing of the Orthodox he has continued the policy of refusing even to share a religious platform with other Jews. He has attacked the growing Masorti sect (a recent breakaway from Orthodoxy) as "disreputable and unforgiveable" for suggesting that the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, might not have been actually dictated by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. But, perhaps most disastrously, he lambasted Dr Hugo Gryn, a Holocaust survivor and one of the best-known Jewish leaders of recent times, as an "enemy" of Judaism who was "among those who destroy the faith".

All this was a far cry from the glad confident morning in September 1991 when Dr Sacks was installed as Chief Rabbi. It was a Kennedeyesque moment. His predecessor had been a traditional Eastern European Jewish figure, but here was a bright English-born, university-educated modern representative of Orthodoxy who had about him the aura of Camelot. At 43 he was young and handsome, and his expressive black eyebrows and trim beard were without the grey that today flecks them. He had been educated at an Anglican school, Christ's College in Finchley, before going on to Cambridge where, at Gonville and Caius, he gained a double-first in philosophy, which he then went on to teach in a secular university.

Yet from the outset the paradox was that a man trained in the philosophical tradition of suspecting everything had taken on the job of a spokesman for an institutional tradition that meant, in the discourse of his university peers, defending the rationally indefensible. "From the outset," says one who knows him well, "it induced in him a kind of intellectual schizophrenia. He was the wrong man for the job."

He started off nobly. His induction speech announcing a Decade of Renewal to confront the assimilation and secularisation that was depleting his community was inspirational. But soon it became evident that the new Chief Rabbi was better at ideas than implementation. A plan to bring the entire Jewish community together in a charity walk foundered when the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Movement applied to join, and the new Chief Rabbi handled the ensuing row somewhat maladroitly. And so it went on.

In an attempt to modernise the role of women in Orthodoxy, he set up the equivalent of a Jewish royal commission. Two years later it reported with recommendations for sweeping changes in social and religious rules, which included a Jewish singles dating agency, reform of the divorce system and changes to prayer ceremonies and rituals to make them more relevant to the spiritual needs of women worshippers. But the main recommendations were, in the words of one critic, "booted into the long grass". Many of Dr Sacks's most ardent admirers became disillusioned.

But it was the row over Hugo Gryn that brought matters to a head. When Dr Gryn, a Reform rabbi, died, Dr Sacks refused to attend his funeral, on religious grounds. But to avoid scandalising the public – for Gryn was a well-loved national figure from his appearances on Radio 4's Moral Maze – he decided to speak at his memorial service. He found himself condemned by ultra-Orthodox Jews. In an attempt to placate those on Orthodoxy's extreme right, he then wrote, in Talmudic Hebrew, a letter to Rabbi Henoch Padwa, the late principal rabbinic authority of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations.

When, subsequently, the text of the letter was leaked, the entire Jewish community became aware that Sacks had written: "Only your Honour can know what conflict I experience in praising a person who is amongst those who destroy the faith." The Reform, like the Liberal and Masorti movements, he wrote, should know "they have no enemy or opponent equal to the Chief Rabbi". An outcry ensued in which Dr Gryn's widow, Jacqueline, said that she was "distressed beyond words".

Dr Sacks defended himself by saying that he had been trying to make peace among the community, which was a rabbinical requirement. But many people were not convinced. His integrity and authority were darkened by a cloud that, some critics say, has still not left him. Sacks later admitted that at the time he had been suffering a crisis of his own. His father had died and he had taken it very badly. He had come close to clinical depression. "I could not read, write or concentrate. I made mistakes and, being a public figure, I suffered for them. For two years I felt as if I were drowning," he later wrote.

Critics saw a terrible inevitability in it all. "The previous Chief Rabbi had believed it all unquestioningly," said one insider. "But Jonathan's western education set up a tension for him. His trouble is that he has never known quite where to position himself between the diehard traditionalists and an openness to modernity." Other critics accuse the Chief Rabbi of excessive secrecy and a lack of courage.

Yet others are more forgiving. "It is an incredibly difficult job," said one Liberal rabbi, "and Jonathan is not temperamentally suited to dealing with conflict." "He is an incredibly shy man," says one Orthodox friend. For all his hard line against Jews who marry non-Jews, there are many examples of his personal kindness to individuals who married out.

Dr Sacks has shown signs of overcoming the handicaps he created by his own mistakes. Many of those Jews who were furious or disillusioned with him five years ago now seem ready to give him another chance. Sir Stanley Kalms, the head of the high-street chain Dixons and a leading figure in the Jewish community, five years ago called on Sacks to resign and return to academic life.

Last week he wrote more ambiguously in the Jewish Chronicle appealing for Jews to allow the Chief Rabbi – "an outstanding, articulate and gifted leader" – a fresh start but insisting that Dr Sacks must cease his involvement in aspects of the job to which he is not suited and instead play to his strengths. "He shouldn't be chained to minutiae or subsume his talents in trying to reconcile the irreconcilable things that have divided Jews for so long. Instead he should use his great talents to address the core problems of our confused society."

Whether he will be given that space is another matter. Non-Orthodox Jews are once again threatening to create their own Chief Rabbi via the mechanism of demanding that one of their number becomes a full president of the Council for Christians and Jews – with equal standing with Dr Sacks – when the Reform rabbi, Dr Albert Friedlander, retires as associate president of the council soon. Dr Sacks, they insist, could well find that he is the last undisputed Chief Rabbi of British Jewry. He may have a long 12 years ahead of him.

Life story

Born: Jonathan Henry Sacks, 8 March 1948, Muswell Hill, London.

Family: father, Louis David Sacks, a textile seller; mother, Louisa Frumkin, member of a family of leading Jewish wine merchants

Married: 1970, Elaine (née Taylor, right); one son, Joshua and two daughters, Dina and Gila.

Education: Christ's College, Finchley; Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (MA 1972); PhD London, 1981.

Career: Lecturer in moral philosophy, Middlesex Polytechnic, 1971-73; ordained a rabbi, London, 1976; lecturer, then Professor of Modern Jewish Thought, then director of the Rabbinic Faculty, then Principal at Jews' College, 1973-90; rabbi, Golders Green Synagogue, 1978-82, and Marble Arch Synagogue, 1983-90. BBC Reith Lecturer, 1990. Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, since 1991.

Publications: 'Tradition and Transition', 1986; 'Tradition in an Untraditional Age', 1990; 'The Persistence of Faith', 1991; 'Crisis and Covenant', 1992; 'Will we have Jewish grandchildren?', 1994; 'Faith in the Future', 1995; 'The Politics of Hope', 1997; 'Morals and Markets', 1999; 'Celebrating Life', 2000; 'Radical Then, Radical Now', 2001.

He says: 'If a rabbi is popular, that doesn't mean he's any good.'

They say: 'To non-Jews he's a wonderful Chief Rabbi; but internally he's been a disaster' – leading UK Liberal rabbi.

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