Interview in The Texas Jewish Post
This interview appeared in The Texas Jewish Post on 24 April 2014.
Ahead of his visit to Dallas, Rabbi Sacks spoke with The Texas Jewish Post.
Q: How are the different topics you will touch upon during your time in Dallas relevant and important in our society today?
A: They are pretty central whether you think of America or Britain. How do we think through the problems of the 21st century and to what extent can our several religious traditions bring their heritage of wisdom to bear on them? When I was Chief Rabbi for 22 years, there was great interest in the general society and media as to what Judaism had to say about individual ethics, business ethics, medical ethics, social ethics.
In Britain, we are only 20th the size of American Jewry, but somehow voice doesn’t always correlate with numbers. In Britain, the Jewish voice is really important in the national conversation. There are two kinds of Jewish voice that we hear in the media: the voice of Jewish interest and concern – antisemitism, religious liberty, the isolation of Israel. There is a second voice that speaks of Judaic principal and wisdom.
Q: How do you believe faith has been challenged?
A: There are three big challenges in the 21st century. Number one is the challenge of science. How do we relate our very ancient traditions to the latest scientific discoveries? That’s a very creative interface. We are learning so much about the nature of the Cosmos, the nature of the human being and the physiological discoveries. It’s fascinating and challenging.
The second is diversity. Modern societies are more diverse than any in history. For the most part, people grew up with people like themselves. Nowadays, most people are surrounded by diversity. How do you deal with the people not like us? That’s a big religious challenge.
Thirdly is the individualism of contemporary secular culture. Judaism is very much a religion of community. How do you do that with the individualism and the almost infinite options that are offered in today’s world?
Q: What have you found between the relationship of science and religion and what does that mean for Jews today?
A: I find the world of modern science extraordinarily fascinating. First of all, there is cosmology, the birth and structure of the universe. It turns out that the structure of the universe is dependent upon six mathematical constants, and if there was the slightest bit different, our universe would never have formed and life would never had existed.
The second thing is the human genome. We are discovering new things about this all the time. The human genome was decoded in 2001. The more we discover about the cosmos, the more we discover about the human body and the more neuroscience discovers about the plasticity of the brain, we are having to revise our theories in profound and fundamental ways.
None of these prove anything about the existence of God, but they do make the world so much more wondrous and much less likely to have happened by chance.
Many stages of science are in a state of great transition at the moment. Thoughts and preconceptions that have been around for centuries are being overthrown within the last 10 years. All of this is fascinating and it has huge religious implications.
Q: How did your time as Chief Rabbi impact you?
A: When you get to be a Chief Rabbi or a leader of any kind, you get the biggest privilege any of us can ever be accorded. You get the chance to walk the talk. You get the chance to try out your ideas that you’ve had and put them in real life. You see what works and what doesn’t. That really is a huge privilege. It gives you new insights that you never knew before. It was exciting, challenging and very rewarding.
Q: What do you see for the future of Judaism?
A: When God first called Abraham in the first recorded syllables of Jewish time, he said ‘leave the land of your birthplace and your fathers house and go to the land that I will show you. Through you, will all of the families of the earth be blessed.’
The first challenge to Abraham is to be true to his faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith.
Judaism has been around for twice as long as Christianity, three times as long as Islam and has been around for the better part of 40 centuries. In all of that time, never before did Jews have two things simultaneously: sovereignty and independence in Israel and equality and respect in the diaspora.
Today, we have an opportunity to go out and be a blessing to those regardless of their faith and that means looking outward as well as looking inward. I don’t think we’ve ever had greater opportunity to express our Jewishness and share it with others. If we don’t rise to that challenge, that will be our fault and we cannot blame God or the world for that.
When you talk to people, you try to show them how beautiful the world is, how complex society is and just how much of a difference each of us can make. That’s my fundamental message – one of encouragement and empowerment. Let’s go out there and make a difference, not just in the Jewish world, but everywhere.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, is a global leader, author and philosopher. These days, he is going global, spending time in North America and Israel to find ways to inspire the next generation of Jewish leaders.
Sacks is currently the Ingeborg and Ira Rennert Global distinguished professor of Judaic thought at New York University and the Kressel and Ephrat Family University professor of Jewish thought at Yeshiva University. He has also been appointed as professor of Law, Ethics and the Bible at King’s College London.
Born in London, Sacks attended Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge, receiving honors in philosophy. He continued his studies at New College in Oxford, and King’s College London, where he earned his doctorate in 1981. He was ordained at Jews’ College and at Yeshiva Etz Chaim, both in London. He served as the Rabbi for Golders Green Synagogue and Marble Arch synagogue in London and was principal of Jews’ College before his post as chief Rabbi.
Sacks is a contributor to radio and television around the world and has written more than 24 books. He was knighted by Her Majesty The Queen in 2005 and took his seat in the House of Lords in October 2009.
He recently spoke with the TJP from London about how faith has been challenged, the connection between religion and science and the future of Judaism.