Jewry’s New Pacemaker


JONATHAN Sacks’s elevation to the Chief Rabbinate marks a watershed between the generations: the pre-Holocaust generation and those born after the war.

Unlike those scarred by the years of fascism and anti-Semitism, their sons and daughters do not seem to have that psychological need for survivalist policies and symbols; they are generally more open to creative and different viewpoints.

The caution of the older generation effectively marginalised many groups within Anglo-Jewry, which were striving to locate a Judaism and a Jewry with which they could identify.

“What then should we hope to achieve?” he asked in his radical inaugural address. “An Anglo-Jewry in which we do not pretend that all is right without our community so long as there are groups who feel neglected: women, the young, intellectuals, the less well-off, the provinces, the small communities.”

In recent decades, the response to communal ossification within normative Orthodoxy has been a concerted drift to the uninhibited religious right  and, in the opposite direction, to the Reform and Liberal Judaism.

The centrist position was further weakened by the establishment of the fast-growing Masorti movement which espouses a modern traditional approach to Judaism.

The existence of several wings of Judaism which are not recognised by the Orthodox, is not a new phenomenon, but it is the quickening pace of that polarisation of the centre and the accompanying fragmentation which is a main concern of the new incumbent.

“Are we one people? We are more deeply divided than at almost any time in our history . . . a few years ago Jewish thinkers asked the question: will there be one Jewish people in the year 2000? Today there are already many prepared to give the answer no.”

This is perhaps Sacks’s most difficult problem. He clearly does not accept the approach of those on the religious right that acculturation and assimilation will gobble up non-Orthodox Jews and leave an expanding Torah-true elitist hard core.

“We must reach out to every Jew with open arms and an open heart,” he said. “If we must, let us do so with love and dignity and respect. We can prove the Torah’s greatness only by inspiration not by negation. We are a divided community . . . we have suffered enough from the assaults of others. Let us never inflict them on ourselves.”

Given the past record of petty squabbles, will such an appeal be heeded? The office of the Chief Rabbi has considerable authority for the outside world, but internal power must be earned.

The prospect of Sacks’s transformation into a sort of religious Gorbachev presiding over the disintegration of Anglo-Jewry is one which cannot have eluded him.

He comes to the job with a reputation of a high-flying intellectual of Reith Lectures fame. His background is not one of a religious Jewish institution, but of a Finchley grammar school and philosophy at Cambridge. Indeed, he considered entering the Rabbinate only at the somewhat advanced age of 25. Such a legacy will endear him to many, but to others will be a distancing factor.

Jewish thinkers usually remain outside communal life. Their expertise is hardly used by a leadership which often feels unsafe with new ideas. Yet Sacks’s wffiingness to debate and engage in dialogue has created considerable respect across a wide range of Jewish intellectuals and writers.

Indeed, his address was charcterised not so much by abstract theological concepts as  by questions of identity and destination. “A failure of the historical imagination: we forgot where we came from. A failure of prophetic imagination: we forgot what we were travelling to.”

Sacks’s challenge to Jewish secularists is in part based upon a notion that rejection of Jewish religious thought today is anti-intellectual. How can one reject something without knowing anything about it. Yesterday’s secularists were apik-hoasin (informed rebels) but today’s secularists are largely can ha’aretz (people without knowledge).

And finally, Israel. The new Chief Rabbi is clearly wary of participating in selective media commentary which Lord Jakobovits was adept at walking into. Judging by his television interview on Monday, in reply to whether he would criticise an Israeli government, he said: “No one is above criticism.”

His views are probably quite close to Jakobovits who supported Netivot Shalom, the religious peace movement in Israel, but at this early stage Sacks is keeping his powder dry.

As he knows, Anglo-Jewry, like Israel, is divided between hawks and doves. While the former will be looking to him to defend the Jewish state come what may, others will hope that he will condemn its government when necessary.

Guardian 4 September 1991

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