The pushing and pulling of Jonathan Sacks

It is Jonathan Sacks’s destiny to inhabit several disparate worlds. Sacks is the scholarly British chief rabbi who heads the United Hebrew Congregations of the UK and the British Commonwealth

Controversy seems to stalk him.

His latest imbroglio relates to the republication of The Dignity of Difference, Sacks’s most recent book – ostensibly an Orthodox Jewish plea for tolerance in an age of extremes.

But haredi attention was drawn to the book’s suggestion of the relativity of all religions; that all are equally true.

Under a barrage of insults and accusations the chief rabbi requested his publisher “to refrain from further printing or promoting” the book until “a clarification – not a retraction” could be made in a revised edition.

Who is Jonathan Sacks? His desire for inclusivity across the entire range of Jewish self-definition has left him identity-less. A visit to his Web site informs you of the long list of prestigious honorary doctorates that he holds, a detailed list of speeches and articles, plus a comprehensive explanation of his 14 published books.

Despite his manifest good intentions and the energy he injects into his work, Sacks has come to personify the man in charge of moving the goalposts.

He is someone who eloquently and elegantly proclaims a fascinating idea on Monday, only to clarify it on Tuesday. Someone who is pushed and pulled by the ebb and flow of powerful forces in the Jewish world.

Jonathan Sacks became the sixth chief rabbi in 1991. The postwar generation had come of age – and the future spelled openness. Women, secularists and the non-Orthodox were quietly positive. His inauguration was a quintessentially English affair with Jewish grandees sporting top hats and tailcoats amid a plethora of Christian ecclesiastical dignitaries.

Yet mainstream British Jewry was shrinking at an alarming rate. In contrast, the haredim were literally going forth and multiplying.

The demographic situation has therefore considerably weakened Sacks’s position and the haredim have threatened to delegitimize him; to cast him outside the definition of authenticity.

Unlike Sacks, they do not accept the dignity of difference, only the self-conferred holiness of their own interpretations.

His other problem is that he is actually chief rabbi of only one group of Jews – middle-of-the-road Orthodox – the United Synagogue.

The Reform, Liberals and Masorti do not regard him as their chief rabbi.

On the other hand, to the outside world, he is seen as the Jewish answer to the archbishop of Canterbury – seemingly representing a united Jewish opinion. This has suited the political needs of the community in terms of representation for well over a century. But in recent times there have been demands for a Reform chief rabbi and today the British Government well understands the devolved nature of British Jewry.

Bridging the gap between the haredim and the non-Orthodox is not only a thankless task, but probably an impossible one. Thus when the much loved leader of the Reform Synagogues, Rabbi Hugo Gryn died, as chief rabbi, Sacks had to acknowledge his standing and his contribution, but simultaneously not to recognize Reform Judaism. He tunnelled his way out of this dilemma by speaking at a memorial meeting on neutral ground while at the same time writing a long private letter explaining himself to the Av Beit Din of the Union of Orthodox Congregations, Dayan Chanoch Padwa.

In his letter he referred to Mr. Hugo Gryn as oto ha’ish – a phrase historically utilized to describe apostates and undesirables including Jesus of Nazareth. The letter, probably leaked by the haredim, found its way to the Jewish press, which embroidered its front pages with every last degrading syllable.

It was clearly not a high point in Sacks’s odyssey.

When Sacks became chief rabbi he wished his tenure to be regarded as the realm of the word. He hoped to entice both the secular Jewish intelligentsia and to import Jewish teachings into the national agenda.

Hence his warmth toward Tony Blair and New Labour and his cultivation of Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the Exchequer – both of whom come from religious backgrounds.

Yet every time Sacks attempts to meet the challenge of the times with a ground-breaking thesis, he plummets to a new disaster which sidelines his innovative ideas. Sometimes this is of his own making, when scintillating exuberance overcomes good judgement.

Depressed by the rejection of lesser beings, he once more vows to return to the fray with new concepts to make the ultimate breakthrough.

Jews are from Mars, but Jews are also from Venus. Sacks regards them as the same planet. Many have pleaded with him not to be a man for all seasons, to risk the wrath of the haredim.

He is modern Orthodox, a powerful speaker, a Zionist appreciated above all by young people – and deep down, a person of liberal values. The torture of looking in the mirror each morning and asking “Who am I supposed to be today?” is both confusing and counterproductive – and ultimately deeply humiliating to someone of Sacks’s undoubted abilities.

Clearly he has made a decision not to make a decision, to plough on in the hope of cementing the center. The choice, as he sees it, is not between good and bad, but between bad and worse. Perhaps the tides of history cannot be reversed, but common-sense traditional Judaism is being allowed to atrophy.

Jerusalem Post 28 March 2003

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