Judaism Faces the 21st Century

London Encounter Conference 1998

Published 6 December 1998
JPA encounter conference Rabbi SAcks speaks with the Jewish Police Association 2005

On 6th December 1998, Rabbi Sacks delivered the opening keynote address at the Encounter Conference at the Institute of Education in London. This is the transcript of that speech.


Dayan Ehrentreu, Rabbi Zneimer, Rabbi Roll, Ladies and Gentlemen: Welcome to this fourth Encounter Conference and let me share with you the feeling that these conferences have generated a buzz in Anglo-Jewry that to me is moving and humbling. I must say that the sheer enthusiasm of every one of you for these occasions is something that shows us that our community is alive and well and I must say that ten days ago – in Manchester – standing in front of a thousand people to begin the Manchester Encounter Conference, only discretion and a severe dose of good sense prevented me from doing my Julie Andrews impression and singing “The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Learning”!

But may today be an inspiration to all of us and may we grow in Torah by sharing Torah. Amen.

Friends, you have asked me to speak today about Judaism facing the 21st century – a “little subject”. And it reminds me of that great occasion when George Bernard Shaw was asked to deliver a lecture on the history of English literature. He said, “How long have I got?” They said, “Seven minutes.” He said, “How am I supposed to say all I know about English literature in seven minutes?” They said to him, “Speak very slowly.” [Laughter]

So speaking very slowly today, I put aside all the other matters on which so much can be said and doubtless will be said during the rest of today and focus just on three issues that I think globally – not just for us but for every human being on this planet – will dominate the 21st century and will certainly have an impact on us as Jews.

These are the three things: the family – number one; number two – globalisation; and number three – personal identity.

Let me begin with the family. Friends, we are living in extraordinary times. The sheer progress that has been made in the past hundred years in every field of human endeavour has been little short of astonishing. Indeed, in terms of science and technology we have moved further forward in the last hundred years than in all the history of humanity beforehand since man first walked on earth.

Just think about what has happened to our world in one hundred years. Think back a hundred years. For instance, in the year 1900 had there yet been powered flight? You know? By 1900? The answer is: No. First powered flight: 1903 – the Wright brothers. Had there been radio transmissions by the year 1900? Again the answer is: No. The first radio transmission: Marconi – 1901.

The sheer pace of change has been overwhelming. Let me give you an example. On the shelf of my library I have a book (which I bought a couple of years ago) called “Mega Trends 2000”. This book was published in 1990 and it contains a set of predictions of what the world is going to be like when the 21st century begins. Now it does not take an enormous advanced degree in nviut, in prophecy, to be able to tell what the world is going to be like in ten years’ time. However, in this entire book published in 1990 one word does not appear anywhere. The word Internet.

And look at this: here is something that is affecting our lives on a daily basis. I personally am keeping Amazon.com in business. [Laughter] And yet a mere ten years ago even futurologists had not even heard of it!

Ours has been the century of the car, the plane, the jet engine, the space shuttle. We have sent rockets into the furthest reaches of outer space. Mind you, try getting into London in the rush hour!

Ours has been the century of the computer, the laser, interactive CD Roms, microsurgery. We have photographed the birth of galaxies and decoded the human genome – the very secret of life itself. Never, in all of human history, have people lived so long, travelled so freely, had so much choice, and so much affluence.

And yet – are we happier for it? The short answer is: Yes, some are. Some are. But some aren’t. And who are the worst affected in our community? I will tell you. It’s our children. By every measurable index – whether we take depression, stress-related illness like eating disorders, drug abuse, alcoholism, suicide, suicide attempts – on each of those indices things have got worse by a factor of between 300 per cent and 1000 per cent in a mere 50 years.

Ribbono shel olam! [Lord of the universe!] What is going on here? For whom do we labour? On whose behalf do we seek to make the world a better place if not our children? And yet throughout the liberal democracies of the West children are suffering.

Listen to this. Listen to this. In 1940 – 1940 – teachers were asked: “What are the seven most serious problems you face in school?” 1940. You know what their answers were? Here, listen: talking out of turn; chewing gum; making noise; running in corridors; cutting-in line; not wearing school uniform; dropping litter.

In 1990 teachers were asked the same question and here are their answers: drug abuse; alcohol abuse; teenage pregnancy; suicide; rape; robbery; and assault.

In the United States, every three hours somewhere, a gun takes a child’s life. Every nine minutes a child is arrested on a drug offence. Every minute an American teenager. Every 26 seconds a child runs away from home. Is that progress?! I’ll tell you what kind of progress that is. It’s the kind of progress of which the fabled Russian politician spoke when he got up and said, “Comrades, yesterday we stood on the edge of the abyss. But today we have taken a giant step forward!”

[Laughter]

What happened? What happened to us? The answer is very simple. In Britain 40 per cent of marriages end in divorce. In the United States – 50 per cent. In both countries more than 30 per cent of children are born outside of marriage. Today, fewer than one child in two will know what it is to grow up in some stable relationship with the two people who brought it into existence.

Rabosei: [Friends] today we can do things our grandparents never even dreamt of. But the one thing they knew how to do – we have forgotten! How to make and sustain a marriage.

Today, we have divorced sex from love; love from commitment; commitment from marriage; marriage from having children; and having children from bearing responsibility for nurturing them and bringing them up. It is as if somebody had planted a bomb in the very midst of our most sacred institution and all we have left is fragments. All the bits are there but they are not longer connected.

We have lost – or we are losing – that one institution that brought together sex and love and companionship and trust and stability and fidelity, and bringing new life into the world and caring for it in its dependent years. The most majestic achievement of human civilisation. The Beethoven’s Ninth of the moral world. That thing called marriage. Or what we call kiddushin – the sacred bond between husband and wife.

Friends, today at this Encounter Conference we miss somebody who was always there and who today – his place is empty. We miss somebody who did so much for these Encounters: the late Lord Jakobowitz of blessed memory ztz”l. And I want to say something in his name.

Shortly before he died he said this in the House of Lords. He said: “The Talmud says that when a couple divorce the altar sheds tears.” I asked, “What has an altar got to do with marriage or divorce?” And listen to his answer, because it is very beautiful. He said:

“An altar is the place where we make sacrifices and when a marriage fails, it is because the couple weren’t prepared to make sacrifices for one another. They put their own happiness above their partner’s. And that is why when they divorce the altar sheds tears as if to say: “Chaval [What a pity] that I didn’t teach them my lesson – that to achieve happiness you have to make sacrifices.”

Or, as he put it rather cutely on another occasion. He once said,

“We have two words in the English language and they differ by only one letter. But they are perfect symbols respectively of the material and the spiritual.”

He said, “The word ‘soil’ represents the material. The word ‘soul’ represents the spiritual. What is the difference between their spelling? The answer is very simple. The word ‘soil’ contains an I. The word ‘soul’ contains a U. When I think only about I, that is a material way of life. But when I think about the U [you] I have begun to become a spiritual being.”

Friends, successful marriages don’t just happen: they take hard work. They need a supportive environment and our secular culture is not a supportive environment. That is why we need Judaism. Nobody in the whole history ever said that marriage or the family came easy. You have only to look at the sidra [weekly Torah portion] we read yesterday or the one we are going to read this coming week to know that families can be fraught, full of conflict and full of pain, but there is nothing like Judaism for taking that and, nonetheless, making a marriage survive.

There is nothing like a Shabbos [Sabbath]; like a Friday evening meal; like a Seder service; like our concept of veshenantom levonecho [“and you shall teach your children”] – our idea of education as a conversation between the generations.

There is nothing that historically and still today has more beautified or sanctified relations between husband and wife and parents and children. And though nothing is guaranteed, nothing is universal, nothing is just magic – still, as a rule, wherever Judaism is strong, families are strong.

That will be one of the great testing grounds of the 21st century. On it, our children’s and our grandchildren’s chances of happiness will depend. And in the whole world today there are few things more powerful or more beautiful than a Jewish family imbued with the shechinah – the divine presence.

So that is the family.

The second dominant category of the 21st century is globalisation. Friends, globalisation is a mechaya [delight]. It really is. We are living through one of the great revolutions in human history. I saw in this morning’s Sunday Times that Gutenberg who invented printing has just been declared the “Man of the Millennium” – beating even Alex Ferguson! [Laughter] And if there is one way of understanding what we are living through, it is to understand that we are living through an epoch-making revolution at least as radical as happened in the second half of the 15th century when Gutenberg invented printing.

Well today we have instantaneous worldwide communication and the word everyone is talking about today is globalisation.

Let me tell you a story. Elaine and I have a little challa cover, a Shabbos challa cover. Nothing special about it except this: that it was designed by a Russian Jew living in Jerusalem, manufactured in China and distributed in Hongkong. To everyone else, it’s a challa cover. To us, it’s the global economy! [Laughter]

Friends, there is nothing newer, more typical of what we are expecting from the 21st century, than globalisation: something unprecedented in the history of the world – with one exception! There is only one group on earth to whom globalisation is not new. And that’s us.

I want you to think about it. You know, from two and a half thousand years ago with the destruction of the First Temple, certainly from two thousand years ago with the destruction of the Second Temple, what was the condition of Jews? The short answer is: they were scattered over the face of the globe. All over! And yet they saw themselves – and they were seen by others – as one people: am echad, goy echad. And they were one people. The world’s first global people.

For others, globalisation is new. For us, it is one of the oldest things we know. And this is in a very real sense. Let me give you a very simple example. Take a moment. Let’s take the 12th century: one of the darker moments in the Middle Ages.

In the 12th century when Rabbeinu Tam was studying Talmud in France, 300 years before the invention of printing, and he wanted to check whether the manuscript in front of him was correct, what did he do? I’ll tell you what he did. He spoke to one or other of the traders in his community and he said, “Next time you’re on a travel, look and check in this particular tractate of the Talmud – in Cordoba, in Cairo, in Constantinople – just check the reading.”

Rabbeinu Tam is already thinking globally.

At the same time, several hundred miles away, in Fostat in Egypt, there lives a Jew called Moses Maimonides who is conducting an active correspondence – you can still see parts of it today in Cambridge University Library in the Cairo Genizah – an active correspondence with Jews as far apart as France in the north, Yemen in the south, Babylon in the east. In one of the most parochial ages of all human history, when most people cannot think beyond their village or their town – Jews are thinking and communicating and corresponding across the world!

They are thinking like a global people. And they are acting like a global people. And why? What allowed them to? The answer is very simple but I want you to understand it.

The internet is going to change – it is already changing – our most basic concepts. Let me give you a very simple example. Take the word community. What was, until today, a community? The answer is that a community was roughly what you are here, what we are together here, a group of people in the same place. However, today, as you know, through the Internet, you have a completely different concept of the community. Today, you know, you can enrol as a student online already. In five years’ time I have no doubt that somebody can be giving a Talmud class in the Hebrew in Jerusalem or in a yeshiva in Gush Etzion and be speaking to a class of people all the way from St Petersburg, Russia to St Petersburg, Florida and all points between. He can see them. They will be able to see him. They’ll send in their essays by email. He’ll mark them back and send them back by email. It will be quicker to study in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem if you are living in Los Angeles than if you are living in Jerusalem.

That is what today we call a virtual community. And what is a virtual community? A virtual community is not people in the same place. It is a group of people doing the same thing at the same time. A virtual community is a community not in space but in time.

Now what kept the Jewish people together for 2000 years? Very simple facts: that we all kept Shabbos on the same day; we all kept the chagim, the Festivals, on the same days. Not only that, but throughout the world: take a particular day, a particular Shabbos – Jews throughout the world would be saying more or less the same words wherever they were and they would be reading the same portion of the Torah, the same parshat hashavua [portion for the week] wherever they were. The Jewish people was something that in those days we didn’t have a name for. But today we have a name for it. The Jewish people was a virtual community. The only one in the world! A community not in space but in time: in holy time. The transcended space.

And that is why we were a global people.

I want to put a thought to you this morning, a difficult thought. But still, let us wrestle with it. If I were to search for one phrase that summarised all the tragedy and all the triumph of modern Jewish history: one phrase responsible for almost everything that has happened to us in the last 200 years – I would choose the phrase “the nation state”.

The nation state was born in 1789 in the French Revolution and it created a problem. Let me explain. Before the nation state there was something called “the corporate state” which had lots and lots of semi-autonomous groups, one of which was the Jews. However, the nation state said: We abolish all those autonomous groups – the guilds, the classes, the trade associations – and we are going to have one nation state in which everyone is supposed to be the same. The same language, the same culture, the same schools, the same identity. And that raised the problem: what do you do with the one group, the only group, who insist on their right not to be the same – the right to be different? Namely, the Jews.

And that is why the birth of the nation state created a terrible problem called der Judenfrage – the Jewish Question. And ninety years later an equally terrible word was born: the word antisemitism. And sixty years after that der Endlösung – the Final Solution. And just over a hundred years ago, some Jews, all farsighted – some religious, some not – understood that there was a solution. They included people like Pinsker and Herzl and Rav Reines and Rav Kook and they said this:

“If the nation state is the problem, then let the nation state be the solution. Let us have a nation state of our own.”

And so another word was born – the word Zionism. And fifty years later, Baruch Hashem [blessed be God], Medinat Yisrael [the State of Israel] was born.

So all the terrible things that happened to us, and all the triumphant things that happened to us, were born in one idea – the idea called “the nation state”.

Friends, in the 21st century, is the nation state going to be the primary reality? The answer is: No! Already we know the answer is: No. In the 21st century the primary reality will be bigger than the nation state or smaller than the nation state – but it will be global and nothing could be more significant for us because we are the world’s oldest global people. And what sustains this global people?

Friends, the answer to that I discovered a few months ago, earlier this summer. Elaine and I had the great zchus – the great privilege – of spending Shabbos up in Scotland at a little place called Stirling. You know Stirling? – where many centuries ago Mel Gibson beat the British. [Laughter] You remember? Braveheart -that’s where it all happened. And we were there for something called the Maccabi Games.

I’ve got to tell you: it was a magical experience. We sat down for Shabbos in the company of 1,500 young people from 27 different countries and within minutes they were a single extended family. Why? Because we were keeping Shabbos together. Because we were making kiddush together. Because we were singing zmiros together. Instantly we had a shared vocabulary of words, songs and deeds. Without that we would have been strangers to one another. But with it – we were friends. We were more than friends. We were mishpocho [family].

Without Torah what ultimately do we have in common with Jews from France or Lithuania or Ethiopia or Australia. What really do we have in common? But with Torah we share with every Jew everywhere in the worlds the bonds of history and memory: the connecting links of mutual responsibility – that lovely thing called belonging.

Friends, the Torah is the greatest Internet in the world! It is what kept us together as a global people – and it is what will let us lead the world in the 21st century in what will be a century of globalisation. And that is my second look into the future.

Finally I come to identity. Chevra, chevra [friends] – identity. Listen. Is there anything sadder? Is there anything sadder than the fact that today we have everything our ancestors ever prayed for as Jews: we have everything our boobas [grandmothers] and zaides [grandfathers] begged for. We have a state of our own. We have a land of our own. We have – freedom and equality and affluence in the Diaspora. Everything. We used to say “ist schwer zu sein ein Yid” – “it’s hard to be a Jew”. Today it’s chic to be a Jew! Can you imagine? – Madonna studying Zohar! [Laughter] Hollywood has become Kaballywood! [Laughter] I mean – it’s unbelievable! [Applause]

And in the midst of all this we are witnessing the biggest voluntary flight from Judaism in all of our recorded history: 50 per cent outmarriage in every country in the whole Diaspora. And for what? For what? Can it be that our young people are trading 4,000 years of glorious history for this magnificent secular culture which has to offer MTV videos! A Millennium Dome! Chevra – a giant Ferris wheel! And, to top it all, the Spice Girls! Gewalt!

[Laughter and applause]

Never was something more precious traded for something so cheap. Chevra, you know? An Oxford don – Oxford dons have a language all of their own. I love this language. He said to me, “You know, Chief Rabbi, what’s the problem with contemporary secular culture?” – Listen to this. Only in Oxford. You need six years of PhD study to say a sentence like this. He said, “You know what’s wrong with our culture today? On the surface it’s profound. But deep down it’s superficial!” [Laughter and applause].

Chevra, you know what mistake we made? I tell you – we made this mistake. We spoke about Judaism – Yiddishkeit – as if it was something in the past whereas in truth its greatest contribution lies in the future: in things like the breakdown of the family, the disintegration of community, the implications of globalisation. To all of these things Judaism offers powerful, real and beautiful answers.

To give you just one more example – a very simple but a serious one. What will be the source of wealth of nations in the 21st century?

In the Middle Ages the source of wealth was the ownership of land. In the 18th – 19th centuries the source of wealth was what Karl Marx called Das Kapital: ownership of the means of production.

In the 21st century what will be the source of the wealth of nations? The answer is what we call today “intellectual capital”. Education. Creativity. The power of the mind. And is there in all of human history a people who so dedicated themselves so thoroughly and so religiously to schools, to study, to the life of the mind?

Paul Johnson, a Catholic, writes the following sentence. Here it is:

“Judaism is an ancient and highly efficient social machine for the production of intellectuals.”

In every age that was our wealth: intellectual capital. Or what I prefer to call “spiritual capital”. But here again, for thousands of years we have been preparing for the 21st century. Friends, Judaism was more about the future than the past. Every other culture has its Golden Age. And where is that Golden Age? Somewhere long ago in a mistily remembered nostalgically-tinted thought of how things were great in the past.

Judaism is the only culture whose Golden Age is the age that is not yet! Which we wait for daily. Some time in the future. The Messianic Age – about which all we know is: it ain’t happened yet but it’s just there over the horizon. We always were a future-oriented people. A people who loved and revered our parents and grandparents – but when it came to making sacrifices, we made those sacrifices for our children and our grandchildren because we thought about the future.

And friends, we can give our children and our grandchildren no greater gift, no more powerful craft with which to navigate the swirling waters of the 21st century than Torah, than the Book that throughout some of the darkest moments humanity has ever known sustained their faith in the future. And why? Because when you face an unknown future, when things are changing, when you face a future you cannot predict – there is only one thing that will give you the confidence and courage to face that danger and that is the knowledge that lo irera ki ata imati – “I will fear no evil for you are with me”. The knowledge that we are not alone.

And to be a Jew, surrounded by a loving family, by a supportive community, by a worldwide people and ultimately by God Himself as He speaks to us through our ancient texts and through our still vivid rituals – friends, that is what it is to know that we are not alone.

Chevra, a Jew is never alone. I don’t know if I told you this before. It is a very embarrassing admission but many years ago, long ago, more than half-a-lifetime ago – long before I dreamed of becoming a rabbi – Elaine and I had a very unworthy thought. We said – we were living at that time in the epicentre called N.W.11 – and we said, “Wouldn’t it be nice just to get away somewhere where there are [whispers] no Jews?” Very unworthy thought.

[Laughter]

But, as I said – So there we were. So we went away. Little hotel in the country. Here, we thought, we’ll get away from all the yidden. A nachtige Tag! [A night day, i.e. an impossibility.] The entire hotel was full of all the Jews who were trying to get away from all the other Jews! We spent the whole time trying to avoid eye contact.

[Laughter]

And from this I learned: you’re never alone as a Jew.

Friends, the 21st century is about change and there is only one way of facing change without fear and that is to be rooted in friends, community, a family, a heritage – things that do not change. Things that by their very stability give us the confidence to adapt, to be strong, to love life and to embrace the future. And that is what we were and will always be – so long as we embrace the Torah and the Torah embraces us.

Friends, I gather they are saying about an erstwhile candidate as Mayor of London that there is a man with a great future… behind him!

[Laughter]

If I can adapt that phrase, I say: Friends, we are a people with a great past – ahead of us. Because those who are secure in their past can face the future without fear. Those who are confident in their identity can face change without anxiety. A tree that has deep roots will stay standing whatever winds blow and a Jew at home in his or her Judaism will stay firm whatever the future brings.

Chazak! Chazak! Venitchazek!

If we are strong, if our Judaism is strong, then we will strengthen one another and we will find the 21st century is calling us to create Judaism’s finest hour.

Thank you.

[Extended applause]