Every Fifty Years, We Must Begin Again

May 17, 1992
rabbi sacks 1990 black and white BBC Reith

Read the transcript of Rabbi Sacks’ address to the Council of Christians and Jews, delivered in May 1992 on the 50th anniversary of the CCJ.

There is a very powerful verse in the Bible in Leviticus, Chapter 25, which describes the nature of such an occasion as this – a Jubilee. It says: “Vekidashtem et shenat hachamishim sham,” you shall sanctify the fiftieth year by proclaiming freedom throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee to you and each of you shall return to his rightful possession and to his family. The biblical law of the Jubilee year tells us that a fiftieth anniversary is more than a celebration, more even than a re-dedication of that year. Slaves were set free, debts were cancelled, properly that had been sold through poverty returned to its rightful owners. Why? Because the Bible is telling us what history has been telling us ever since: that human freedom, liberty, dignity, human rights are never once and for all time. They must constantly be fought for and re-affirmed. And every fifty years we are summoned by God and by the Jubilee year to begin again.

Two Meetings

I find that text and that idea peculiarly relevant to our meeting here tonight. Let us remember that fifty years ago two fateful meetings took place which defined then and for all time the outer boundaries of the human condition. The first meeting which took place in 1942 was the Wannsee Conference. It was convened by Reinhard Heydrich, who had been recently appointed by the Third Reich as plenipotentiary for the preparation of the Final Solution of the European Jewish question. At that meeting was planned the extermination of all 11 million Jews in Europe, including the 330,000 then in the yet unconquered Britain.

At the same time a second meeting took place in London between Archbishop William Temple and Chief Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz, out of which came Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ).

The Bible tells us that when God came to create man and made us “afar min ha’adama,” of dust of the earth, “vayipach be’apav nishmat chaim,” (Genesis 2:7) but He breathed into us the breath of life to teach us those outer boundaries of the human condition: that when we are mindful of God we are higher than the angels, but when we try to displace God we are lower than animals.

In those two meetings fifty years ago, mankind reached the two extremes. At one meeting an ancient hatred turned towards genocide. But in that other meeting an equally ancient distance and distrust were buried and laid to rest. Jews and Christians came together to affirm their common humanity, their common ancestry, their common commitment to the image of God that is man, and it was in that meeting the CCJ was born.

At times of crisis and tension and turmoil and upheaval and insecurity, each of us is faced with a fundamental and decisive choice: are we dust of the earth or are we the breath of God? Do we go along with humanity’s natural base instincts towards fear, fear of the other, about which the Archbishop has spoken most eloquently not only this evening but consistently since coming to office. Do we let fear dominate us and turn from hatred into violence or do we stand up against those instincts and fight them knowing that every human being, whoever he or she is, is the image of God.

All too few take that second course. But Archbishop Temple and Rabbi Hertz did so then and CCJ and all its members have done so ever since, and they have done collectively no small deed in redeeming humanity from the darkness of those days.

Let us this evening be thankful in our memory of their work. What did they teach us? They taught us quite simply this: I don’t know how better to put it than the way the Bible puts it itself, in a passage which we are shortly to read in the synagogue. I think there is no clearer paradigm of fear and envy and rivalry and distrust, than the relationship between the biblical brothers Esau and Jacob. Jacob had to flee as Esau was plotting to kill him, thinking that Jacob had robbed him of his inheritance. For twenty-two years they had to live apart in mutual fear and perhaps even in mutual hatred. When twenty-two years were up and Jacob returned home, he was full of fear at meeting his brother again and he had to undergo the most profound wrestling with himself to overcome his fears. The Bible says he wrestled with an angel, and yet when the two brothers met what do we read? “Vayaratz Esav likrato,” Esau ran to meet him, “vayechabkehu,” and embraced him, “vayipol al tzavarav” and he fell on his neck and “vayishakehu,” he kissed him, “vayivchu” and they wept, weeping for how much mutual suspicion had robbed them of what in the end was brotherly love. (See Genesis 33:4) 

Overcoming that fear and tension is what CCJ has done for the past fifty years. Jew and Christian have come together and wept at all the distrust over the centuries that has existed between them and that is a truly great contribution to the human spirit and to human redemption.

Now, at this point, I have to make a confession. I was not always convinced of the need for CCJ. After all, those like myself, born after Holocaust, felt as we were growing up that the evils of antisemitism, xenophobia, racism, and ethnic cleansing were things of the past. “Surely,” we said to each other, “after Auschwitz such things can never happen again”, and history seemed to bear it out. Fascism was dead, communism was dying in 1989 as the walls were falling throughout Europe, as the Cold War was coming to an end.

But we know, in this Jubilee year of the CCJ, how prophetic the Bible was in telling us that every fifty years we must begin again and fight again all the battles that we once thought over and finally won.

A Darkness You Could Feel

Last Tuesday, one week ago, I was standing in Czechoslovakia, in Theresienstadt, which was a town to which Jews were brought before being transported to the concentration camps.

We had spent that morning, a week ago, in Prague where for eight or nine hundred years Jews had lived lives of piety and scholarship, where the buildings still remain. Even though the Nazis destroyed synagogues all over Europe, those in Prague were left to stand as a museum to an extinct and exterminated race. And that is what Prague is today: a museum. Because the Jews of Prague, as all the rest of central and Eastern Europe, perished in the camps. We left Prague at midday and in the afternoon went to Theresienstadt where we saw mass graves. We saw for the first time that document, the original from the Wannsee Conference, scheduling all European Jews for extinction. And I saw for the first time – I had not been aware of it – that the Jews of Britain were included in that plan; I realised, and a pang went through me, that but for an accident of history I and my family would not be here today.

Now we had planned to go as a group directly from Theresienstadt to fly to Israel, to Jerusalem, to, as it were, trace that battle from darkness to light, from oppression to the land that Jews have always called home and finally where they have found freedom.

But an extraordinary thing happened; that day, a week ago, suddenly out of nowhere thick fog descended over Czechoslovakia, over Theresienstadt and Prague, so thick that you could hardly see. It was almost like the biblical plague of darkness about which the Bible says “veyamesh choshech.” It was a darkness you could feel and I and those of the group with me felt that darkness in a very profound sense.

After all, we had been reading just that day in the newspapers, seeing just that day on the television, the still raging brutal civil war between Serbs and Croats in erstwhile Yugoslavia. That day we had read the stories of foreigners burned to death in Germany by neo-Nazis. We had read about the rise of antisemitism in Hungary and Rumania. We had heard for the previous weeks and months about the rise of extreme nationalism and xenophobic policies in such countries as France, Italy and Belgium. We were about to read Boris Yeltsin’s message, warning about the rise of fascism in Russia, and as we were stranded in Prague with no planes able to take off or land, surrounded by this thick darkness, I felt as if I was plunged back into some terrible nightmare, as if we were thrown back into the past, as if that which we said could never happen again was indeed beginning to happen again.

And how true is it therefore that on a Jubilee year such as this, rather than saying the work of this organisation is complete, we have to realise that it has to begin all over again.

Two days later, last Thursday, we arrived in Jerusalem, and I happened to be sitting at a dinner, next to the British Ambassador, Andrew Burns. We were reflecting together on this extraordinary sequence of events in Europe, how old animosities and hatred which seemed to have been buried since the First World War have suddenly re-emerged intact after seventy years of hibernation. Even Czechoslovakia is now splitting apart because the Czechs do not like Slovaks and the Slovaks can’t stand the Czechs and hatreds which had been buried for years are suddenly re-emerging as if they had never been away.

And he asked me: “Chief Rabbi, is this telling us something, that there is some terrible inevitability about history that we are destined to play out all the old scenarios again and again?” And I said I did indeed believe that hatred was like one of those prehistoric seeds which is sometimes trapped inside ancient rocks and fossils which, when cracked open, brought to the light of day and planted, sprout all over again. Yet I believe profoundly, I said, in the deepest of biblical beliefs, that there is no inevitability in the affairs of man, that we have freewill, that God gave us the power to choose and exercise moral responsibility and therefore however many times we have been tried and found wanting in the past, we can change. “Yesh tikvah,” there is hope and that gives us strength to begin again and so this evening marks a true Jubilee.

You Must Put Out the Flames

Not since the days of the first founding of CCJ in 1942 has its work, its mission and its message been so directly and urgently relevant to the needs of this hour, and so, together with you, I want to express my deep thanks to all those who throughout these years have worked for CCJ. I want to share with you our congratulations to our immediate past director, Michael Latham, for his wonderful work in the brief period in which he brought his remarkable energies to bear on this organisation. To congratulate on your behalf Paul Mendel, his successor and wish him indeed every success. To congratulate those responsible for the drafting of the statement of rededication affirmed by all six of the presidents. To thank all my fellow presidents and all those of you who are fellow members, who share in the work of the CCJ throughout its more than fifty branches, and to say to you quite simply “chazak chazak venitchazek,” be strong and we will strengthen one another.

I want to end with just one reflection and recollection. Earlier this year, in April, the Archbishop and myself convened a meeting of some thirteen theologians – Jews and Christians – and we spent three days together in Windsor Castle. Three days of absolute honesty in which we dug through all fears and spoke our deepest thoughts. It was a remarkable moment, and I will always remember it. And I remember also, at the time being so moved by the beauty of our surroundings there in Windsor Castle, and I know that he must have been pained, as I was, as indeed we all were, to see the pictures of the castle in flames.

It reminded me of a remarkable rabbinic statement which could not be more relevant to our situation today. It is the rabbinic commentary to the first words spoken by God to the Father of the Covenant, to Abraham. You remember in Genesis, chapter 12, God speaks the words that change human history: “Get thee out from thy land, thy birthplace and thy father’s house to the land that I shall show you.” The Rabbis wanted to know what vision inspired Abraham to follow the path that Jews and Christians, in their different ways, have trodden ever since. They likened Abraham at this moment to a man who was travelling through the desert, and in the desert, he saw a “birah”, a castle, a “birah doleket”, a castle on fire and in flames, and he said, “Is it possible that the castle has no owner?” Immediately, the owner of the palace looked down from the battlements and said: “Yes, the castle does have an owner.”

What does the Midrash mean? It means very simply this, that Abraham, like all people of faith, before and since, looked on this world of beauty and order and perceived that it was indeed a castle. lt had an architect, it had an owner, it had a creator. But one thing he couldn’t understand: The castle was in flames, the world was on fire with evil, hatred and violence, and he wondered what had happened. Had the owner of the castle deserted the castle? Where is God? And God looked down on Abraham, and said: “I am the owner of the castle but you must put out the flames.”

In this Europe of 1992, a Europe of rising nationalism, xenophobia, ethnic and religious tensions, let us pledge ourselves to work together to put out the flames that threaten this civilisation of ours, knowing as we do, that we have been entrusted with protecting the Europe which we know, the world which is the palace, the castle of God.