Will courage prevail? – an essay on Jonathan Sacks
Why was the British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks forced to withdraw his recent book ‘The Dignity of Difference’ and reissue an amended version? What sort of man would sail so close to the wind and face the anger of his own constituency? Is he to be commended, or are there problems in his intellectual position? Is his thinking a logical development from earlier works such as ‘The Politics of Hope’, or a radical shift in position because of world events such as September 11? Now that a rabbinical scholar has succeeded in becoming a respected voice in the national discourse on civil society, does this open the door for others in Britain’s multicultural and multifaith milieu?
Sacks enjoys a position of influence both in the world of interfaith dialogue and the corridors of power. It was said of his predecessor, Lord Jakobovits, that he had almost replaced the Archbishop of Canterbury as the spiritual leader of Mrs Thatcher’s Britain. Sacks, ever watchful of Jakobovits’s legacy, already has a close relationship with Gordon Brown. The Chancellor, in his foreword to Sack’s book ‘The Politics of Hope’ states that the work has had a “profound influence” on his thinking(1) - Sacks has reciprocated by declaring that his connection with Gordon Brown is one of his “loveliest friendships”(2). In ‘The Dignity of Difference’, Sacks writes that “I owe a special debt to Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown for his consistent interest in the dialogue between faith, politics and economics, and for the strong commitment he has shown to the moral dimension of global economic policy”(3). Unless the Orthodox diehards force him to resign, Sacks will ascend. We need to take measure of the man, the unorthodox orthodox.
Sacks’ route to the rabbinate has been unconventional. He has described a defining moment when he came into contact with the mystically oriented Lubavitch Hassidim, and its leader Yitzchak Block:
When I was privileged for the first occasion to meet the Rebbe, to walk into his presence, to share a conversation with him, I discovered something quite stunning. I had met dozens, dozens of other leaders, and from every other leader I had asked questions and I had received answers. The Rebbe was the only one who asked me questions. And what questions they were! "What are you doing for Jewish life in Cambridge?" I remember beginning my answer. "Well," I said, "in the situation in which I find myself"-what a wonderful English beginning-and the Rebbe interrupted me in the middle of the sentence and he said to me, "No one ever finds himself in a situation. You put yourself in a situation. And if you put yourself in one situation, you can put yourself in a different situation." And at that moment I understood that the Rebbe was not interested in creating followers. He was interested in creating leaders(4).
"The Rebbe took a young man with questions and made him into a Chief Rabbi", states Sacks(5).
After Cambridge he undertook his religious studies at the Jew’s College – later renamed the London College of Jewish Studies - as well as from London's Yeshiva Etz Chaim, qualifying as a rabbi in 1976. Even then Sacks was not sure what to do next:
I had just obtained my rabbinic ordination and I went to the Rebbe to ask his advice as to what to do next. Should I go back to my first career as a teacher of secular philosophy or should I pursue my real ambition which was to be a barrister? And I had been led to believe that what one did was one presented choices to the Rebbe and he said either this or that. Well, he said neither. He said, "You have to become a rabbi. You have to become a rabbi in Anglo-Jewry." He directed every single part of that conversation to the Rabbinate. He spoke to me about how to revive Jews' College, which was then near to closure. He even told me to change the subject of my doctoral thesis, which at that time I was writing in secular philosophy. He said, "Make it something about the Rabbinate." Eventually I chose the topic of the principle that all Jews are bound together-are collectively responsible(6).
In addition to the Rebbe’s inspiration, three other influences were at work in the journey to the top. These included the community’s own planning and traditions for nurturing future leadership. After qualifying, Sacks stayed on for ten years at the College, lecturing and editing its magazine ‘Lee’la’ before his appointment as Principal. The post of Principal of Jews’ College is seen as a stepping stone to the chief rabbinate. An influential figure in this nurturing of talent would have been Sir Stanley Kalms, Chairman of Dixons, chair of the Jews’s College and a leading light of the United Synagogal grouping, which is a chief rabbi’s core constituency. A second essential for a future community leader is public presence, and a successful media campaign helped to bring Sacks to public attention. The BBC invited him to deliver its Reith Lecture in 1990, on which his book, ‘The Persistence of Faith’ was based. In the same year an interview with Barbara Amiel received full-page treatment in The Times. She allayed the concern that Sacks had not had enough practice in the day-to-day running of rabbinical affairs by remarking, “I wouldn’t worry about that. It’s much harder to buy the brains and judgement which he already has then the people he might need around him to organise administrative matters”. (7)
Thirdly, is the psychological factor, a quest for self-advancement. An observation by fellow Rabbi David Goldberg, related to Sacks in marriage, conveys this urge, “we both view our East End origins with sentimentality, not to say poetic licence, since truth to tell, I spent less than a year within the sound of Bow Bells and Jonathan, despite his plangent reminiscences about poor but honest forebears, actually was brought up in suburban Muswell Hill; and we both belonged to that large batch of post-war Jewish boys sufficiently imbued with Judaism's traditional respect for learning as the path of advancement to brush aside quotas and low-grade, endemic anti-Semitism and make the transition from grandparents' Polish shtetl to Oxbridge college in three generations”(8).
Traditionally synagogues bid for the best rabbis by offering attractive entitlement packages. The post of Chief Rabbi is endowed with entitlements beyond the imagination of other faith communities. The accounts published by the United Synagogue show that the highest earner on its payroll enjoyed a pay package of over £100,000 - the highest earner is believed to be the Chief Rabbi. In addition the incumbent is provided a substantial house in St Johns Wood near Regents Park, London(9). The size of the Orthodox Jewish congregation is perhaps a third to a half of the total British Jewish population estimated to be 438,000 (the 2001 Census result for England, Wales and Scotland of 266,740 has been disputed by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research(10)).
Sacks has emerged as a cut above previous Chief Rabbis, perhaps because he is very much a product of unique cultural and ideological interfaces: an Orthodox rabbi drawn from an Ultra-orthodox movement; a Cambridge Philosophy graduate who believes in the divinely revealed nature of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Torah; British-born and bred, but aware of his Polish roots. As is often the case, this existence on the boundaries is a well-spring for intellectual energy and creativity. Sacks has emerged as a clever man good at raising big questions on religion and society but whose own moral short-cuts are beginning to be problematic.
In two recent books, ‘The Politics of Hope’ and ‘The Dignity of Difference’, Sacks addresses a set of conceptual issues and problems with references to Talmudic and modern Jewish sources. ‘The Politics of Hope’ begins with a critique of moral relativism and then extends to identifying the flaws in libertarianism – the ideology summarised in Margaret Thatcher’s famous remark “There is no such thing as society”. In ‘The Dignity of Difference’ Sacks examines globalisation and its challenge to religion.
Moral relativism is the view, Sacks writes,” that all moral convictions are equally valid, or that morality is a subjective affair, or that moralities are simply invented by our choices …belief in relativism plays havoc with our ability to discriminate between good and evil, to justify our beliefs, or to say why one way of life is better than another”. (11)
He establishes the link between logical positivism and moral relativism, citing A.J. Ayer, whose work on language in the 1930s took the view that moral statements were meaningless because they could not be verified, tested and checked for truth or falsehood. Words such as humility, fidelity, justice, righteousness, grace have become denuded of content and context. Sacks has a memorable phrase: the devastation of our rain-forests of moral language(12).
Sacks’s skill in connecting the world of moral philosophy and political economy is evident in the way he develops the argument:
[Moral relativism] makes it virtually impossible for us to make public judgements of any kind, and to sustain a coherent moral conversation. This is why our moral language is dominated by two concepts, autonomy (our right to make our own choices without having to give reasons) and rights (the claims we make against others without having to give reasons)…. …..Morality, relativised, was seen as private choices of individuals…The task of the state was to be neutral between such choices, to give everyone as far as possible the resources with which to pursue their vision of the good life, and to mediate impartially when conflict arose. The public conversation was a dialogue for two dramatis personae, the individual and the state….The libertarian revolution was a revolution too far….it flowed from the assumption… that everything of significance could be contained in the abstract individual and the procedural state. But as the 1980s progressed it grew evident that the very actions governments, courts, schools and social planners had taken to solve social problems in fact tended to exacerbate them. And as a decisive shift was taken in the 1980s away from state intervention to a laisser-faire regime of privatisation, deregulation and individual initiative, it became clear that the moral infrastructure which had sustained society in the earlier age of liberalism no longer existed. What happens to ‘care in the community’ when there is no community? How are we to rely on the family when stable, intact families are all too rare? What becomes of parental responsibility when fathers cannot be found?”(14)
Sacks has cultivated New Labour, in the same way that the previous chief rabbi, Lord Jakobovits, cultivated Mrs Thatcher’s ‘get on your bike’ market economics. In a profile on Sacks, The Guardian reports that “the chancellor has apparently called Sacks into No. 11 for several conversations on how the latest New Labour thinking ‘plays out in the Jewish sources’”.(15)
Sacks’s narrative in both ‘The Politics of Hope’ and ‘The Dignity of Difference’ is always Eurocentric with an exaggerated importance on the redeeming role of Judaeo culture. This is not withstanding the great prophets of moral relativism – Marx and Freud, Popper and Isaiah Berlin – were very much the products of that Judaic culture. Sacks does not satisfactorily address this paradox.
‘The Politics of Hope’ places the Judaeo contribution at the fountainhead of all developments:
“Western society was largely formed from two primary influences, ancient Greece and ancient Israel, and it owes their combination and dominance to Christianity, formed in the encounter between these two civilisations…..Both Greek and Jewish civilisation have a philosophical tradition. The most distinguished representative of the first is Aristotle, of the second, Moses Maimonides….Aristotle described man as a political animal. Maimonides described man as a social animal...the ancient Greeks emphasised political structures as the context of the good life. Jews, with their long history of dispersion, tended to create it within the family, the community and the educational system”.(16) “Rabbinic Judaism was perhaps the first, and surely the most remarkable example of a civilisation which sustained itself, without political power, as a civil society. It is no coincidence that as contemporary analysts search for a way out of our current impasse they are beginning to discover the same themes that once inspired a group of teachers almost two thousand years ago”. (17)
“Jews were and are a particular people, a religious community bound by a covenant to be faithful to God…In the context of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, however, Jews represented differentness. But it was just differentness which the Enlightenment proposed to overcome. Its solution, brilliant in its simplicity, was that people should be regarded as individuals, regardless of birth, class or faith. But Jewish identity is precisely not represented regardless of birth. It is usually conferred by it. Jewishness therefore represented a problem for the Enlightenment, an anomaly within the terms it had constructed for itself”.(18)
Judaic values are thus the best safeguard for restoring a moral vocabulary and creating civil society. The notion of this Judaeo pre-eminence shuts off other contributions. Can anyone really purport to talk about society without reference to Ibn Khaldun? Would someone of Sacks’ erudition be unaware of the scholarship of Lisa Jardine (daughter of Jacob Bronowski) on the Ottoman contribution in forming the cultural identity of early modern Europe?(19) Sacks laments the loss of moral language – and this includes words like humility, modesty, a sense of limits, generosity of spirit – but does not lead by example.
Sacks’ books are a window into other aspects of Judaeo thinking. He provides an interesting comparison of the trajectories of three different groups in the pre-Christian period – the Sadducees, the Essenes and rabbinic Judaism. The Sadducees relied on the authority of the state. Once the instrumentalities of political society were lost, this brand of Judaism was unable to survive. The Essenes, a pietist sect, expected the apocalypse, and prepared themselves to meet it in small and separatist groups. They too no longer exist, having committed mass suicide in some cases. Sacks then notes that the only group with staying power after the Jews were dispersed was rabbinic Judaism. In another telling phrase, Sacks observes that this is because it converted its Ministry of Defence to become its Ministry of Education(20) . There are hints here of reproach directed at Israel, particularly when he states “the Sadducees, like many today, vested their hopes in the state”.(21)
For those familiar with Jewish history this is more than a mild reproach. Muhammad Asad, formerly Leopold Weiss and descendent of a long line of Polish rabbis, notes the Sadducees at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple and their dispersion by the Emperor Titus, “openly denied the concept of resurrection, divine judgement and life in the Hereafter and advocated a thoroughly materialistic outlook to life”. (22) The Zionist politicisation of religion in Israel has led to neo-Sadducees corrupting the soul of the nation. The London-based writer on Palestinian issues, Dr Daud Abdullah provides an example of this politicisation of religion: Sharon is on record for saying “the first and the most supreme value is the good of the State. The State is the supreme value”.(23)
Asad was a person of high integrity who after visiting Palestine in 1922 rejected Zionism as a racist aberration. He knew first-hand that Palestine was not a ‘land without a people’. Sacks falls short of this standard of integrity. On the one hand he is aware that a neo-Sadducee Israel is in moral crisis and “the current situation as nothing less than tragic. It is forcing Israel into postures that are incompatible in the long run with our deepest ideals”.(24) But then Sacks’ inversion of the conflict can be amazing: “Now the Arabs are putting Israel through a spiritual crisis, by investing daily living with uncertainty. That is what terrorism is really about – spiritual destabilisation.”(25) Sacks has pandered to extremists, sharing platforms with the likes of Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb who believes there is no such thing as Palestinians.(26)
Sacks also made no statement to condemn the IDF for its massacres in Jenin in April 2002. Sacks’ attempt at denying ever making the statement on Israel’s incompatibility with Judaic ideals led to The Guardian observing, “The chief rabbi’s Anglo-Jewish critics have often accused him of lack of backbone; it would be deeply regrettable if a lack of truthfulness was now added to that charge sheet”. (27)
A difference between ‘The Politics of Hope’ and ‘The Dignity of Difference‘ is that the latter acquires a socio-economic perspective, recognising for example the importance of the tribal instinct in Britain during World War I, as young men went off to fight for King and Country(28) .
‘The Dignity of Difference’ begins with an account of what has changed in the world and the need to accommodate tolerance and pluralism:
“Throughout history and very recently, most people for most of their lives were surrounded by others with whom they shared a faith, a tradition, a way of life, a set of rituals and narratives of memory and hope…That is not our situation today. We live in the conscious presence of difference. In the street, at work and on the television screen we constantly encounter cultures whose ideas and ideals are unlike ours…”(29)
He takes up the problem of globalisation, with strong critiques of the ‘McWorld – “a largely American culture conveyed by multinational corporations, branded goods, media stars, cable and satellite television and the Internet”(30) .
He notes that the world is getting less equal by the year - a third of the populations of developing countries have no drinkable water. “Americans spend more on cosmetics, and Europeans on ice cream, than it would cost to provide schooling and sanitation to two billion people who currently go without both”(31) . "A consumer-driven, advertising-dominated culture militates daily against ongoing attachments. It is constantly inviting us to switch to a different brand, try something new, go for a better deal elsewhere. It should not come as a surprise that this begins to affect human relationships as well. A society saturated by market values would be one in which relationships were temporary, loyalties provisional and commitments easily discarded."(32)
He defines globalisation as a form of totalitarianism, because it stifles pluralism. Sacks then has a difficult circle to square – the traditional defender of pluralism is moral relativism, which he has previously rejected, and continues to reject. His impulse is to turn to the Judaeo-Christian heritage – but here finds its teachings do not support pluralism. The Church for example has the doctrine of extra ecclesiam non est salus, ‘outside the Church there is no salvation’. Sacks boldly embarked on a new Judaic theology to show that Judaism, for all its emphasis on the Chosen People, can accommodate pluralism.
His fellow rabbis were not impressed. They saw it as the relativising of religion, and called for book-banning. A power centre within the Orthodox establishment, the Beth Din or religious court, described ‘The Dignity of Difference’ as a book “open to an interpretation that is inconsistent with basic Jewish beliefs”.(33) Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, of Jerusalem, regarded as a leading Orthodox authority on Jewish law, said the book contained views "contrary to our faith in the Holy Torah" and was therefore unfit to be bought into the home(34) .
Sacks withdrew the original edition and made changes, some of which are noted below:
These passages make clear Sacks’ original intention, and his humiliating volte face. The contention that Judaism does not possess the doctrine of extra ecclesiam non est salus was undermined. It is a tricky area, and undoubtedly there are issues facing each of the Abrahimic faiths on what comprises ‘Truth’ in this context, as highlighted by Dr Abdol Karim Suroush.(39)M A Sherif
Outsiders may commend Sacks for seeking to build a tolerant society. However he did not choose to resign on a matter of principle. Could it be because he was not really convinced of the principle himself, and the pluralist message was for public consumption?
This was not the first time that Sacks has promoted a spirit of tolerance and inclusiveness, but then backtracked in the face of criticism. When a respected leader of the Progressive Jewish community, Rabbi Hugo Gryn died in 1996, Sacks attended the memorial service and made an eloquent address. This did not go down well with the Orthodox rabbis who regarded it a sign of recognition of Reform Judaism. Sacks then wrote a ‘confessional letter’ in classical Hebrew to the Beth Din judge, Dayan Chanoch Padwa, “expressing his pain at having to honour a man he regarded as a destroyer of the faith”.(40)
A biography of Amelie Jakobovits, wife of the previous Chief Rabbi, observes that Sacks “appears to speak more from expediency than conviction”. (41) In an interview with Barbara Amiel, Sacks praised the Jewish model of developing “two languages”: a private language of ritual and a public language that adapts to the customs of England.(42)
The journalist Jonathan Rosenblum makes a more serious allegation: “by failing to write from a particularistic Jewish perspective, but rather as a spokesman for religion in general, [that] Rabbi Sacks may have exacerbated inter-religious tensions rather than alleviated them. In response to his critics, he has explained that Dignity of Difference was written for a gentile audience. The implication is that the book's distortions of the most basic Jewish principles are justified by the intended gentile audience. It remains to be seen how gentiles will react to the implication that it is permissible to lie to gentiles about the true views of Judaism”(43).
For all his appeals to men of faith to unite in their response to the challenges of globalisation, Sacks has a deaf ear for Muslims. Because of September 11, he propagates the view that the real danger to global peace is Islam – Muslims are part of the problem. Sacks states that the perpetrators were not “groups driven by interests or raisons d’etat”, or “rational considerations” but by “violent religious hatred”, “willing to commit, even righteously embrace, suicide as a means of entry into paradise….within the foreseeable future they may have access to weapons of mass destruction”.(44) More provocatively, he writes, “religious leaders cannot stand aside when people are murdered in the name of God or a sacred cause”.(45)
Sacks conceptualises the event in the following terms: “September 11 happened when two universalist cultures, global capitalism and an extremist form of Islam, each profoundly threatening to the other, met and clashed”.(46) This is perpetuating the myth of the clash of civilisations – and conveniently ignoring his own earlier analysis of the tensions generated through the unequal distribution of wealth and power in today’s global village. He could have analysed the feeling of disenfranchisement when corrupt dictators are imposed on populations to preserve the interests of superpowers – but does not.
There remain many unanswered questions on who masterminded the atrocity but ‘The Dignity of Difference’ is certain where to apportion blame. Sacks is not an septuagenarian Mrs Thatcher, whom one could excuse for being oblivious to the statements of Muslim scholars the world over disassociating Islam from indiscriminate acts of murder. Sacks is unwittingly fanning religious misunderstanding rather than acting as a conciliator.
Sacks’ fluency and command on the issues of the day, his ability to draw on Judaic traditions to sustain and enrich propositions, and a willingness to risk radical theology cannot but be admired. Imam Shatabi offered a piece of advice to Muslim scholars in the Eighth Century: when presenting an argument, always make sure that your audience agrees with you on the soundness of your starting premises; if these appear far-fetched to them, they will never accept your argument(47). Sacks’ books are an exemplary example of this principle. He is a bold and innovative thinker who can do much to uphold the religious point of view in national affairs, though he has still to demonstrate that he possesses the backbone and courage to stand by his opinions, and has yet to dispel concerns that his views are tailored to the audience. Till then his scholarship will be one of false hopes.
© Salaam, 2003
|1-The Politics of Hope, Vintage, 2000|
|3-The Dignity of Difference, Continuum, 2002; p. vii|
|7-The Times, 13 March 1990|
|9- Robert Mendick, ‘Chief Rabbi tops spiritual earnings league table’, Independent on Sunday, 11 August 2002|
|11-PoH, p. 35|
|14-ibid, p 36, 49, 129-130|
|15-The Guardian, 27 August 2002|
|19-See ‘Global Interests – Renaissance Art between East and West’ by Lisa Jardine & jerry Brotton, Reaktion Books, 2000|
|22-Note 17, Surah 44, The Message of the Qur’an, Dar al Andalus, Gibralter, 1984|
|23-Dr Daud Abdullah ‘Why the whitewashing of Zionism will remain a dirty business’, paper presented at the Durban Conference on Racism and Xenophobia, September 2001. The Sharon quote is from ‘The Land of Promise: A Critique of Political Zionism’ by A.Elmessiri, (New Brunswick: 1977), p.12|
|24-The Guardian, 27 August 2002; http://www.guardian.co.uk/israel/Story/0,2763,781675,00.html|
|25- The Times, 19 January 2002|
|26-Jewish Chronicle, 6 December 2001|
|27-The Guardian, Leader of 6 January 2003|
|28-DoD (revised ed.), p.47|
|29-DoD (original & revised), p.10|
|30-ibid. p. 61-62|
|31- ibid. p. 106|
|36-ibid. p. 17-18|
|37-DoD Original, p.52-53; DoD revised, p.52|
|38-DoD (original & revised), p. 54-55|
|39-A. Suroush, ‘Truth, Reason, Salvation’, published on http://www.seraj.org/PlURALSM.pdf|
|40-Amelie – The Story of Lady Jakobovits, by Gloria Tessler, Vallentine Mitchell, 1999, p. 282|
|41-ibid. p. 270|
|42-The Times, 13 March, 1990|
|43-‘Blurring of Differences’ by Jonathan Rosenblum, Hamodia’ October 25, 2002; http://mrbounce.compsoc.man.ac.uk/~yy/essays/blurring.htm|
|44-DoD, (original & revised), p.8|
|45- ibid. p.9|
|46- ibid. p.20|
|47-From ‘Ulema and the New Era’ (Urdu) by Maulana Wahidudeen Khan, Dar-ul Tazkira, Lahore. 1992; p.52-53|