Spirit of Things interview (excerpt)
Rabbi Sacks gave an extended interview to RN’s Rachael Kohn in 2004. You can listen to an excerpt from that conversation by visiting abc.net.au.
Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth, is one of the most influential religious figures in the UK today.
He’s also known for his ‘Credo’ column in The Times, where he shines a light on the values we can’t live without, but often have trouble living with. Rabbi Sacks’ insights into the meaning of life, love, death and suffering, have given hope to millions of readers, many of whom would never darken the door of a synagogue or church. He explains that the experience of writing for a wide audience has changed the way he thinks about faith.
Rachael Kohn: A contemporary rendering by composer [Shelley Olson] of an ancient part of Jewish liturgy, known as the Hallel.
Hello, I’m Rachael Kohn and on The Spirit of Things, I’ll be talking to one of the most influential religious figures in the UK today, the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
Rachael Kohn: Through his broadcasts for the BBC’s ‘Thought for the Day‘, his contribution to The Times, his ‘Credo‘ column, and his many books, Jonathan Sacks manages to communicate some wisdom, consolation and insight from the past in a culture he says has tipped the balance too much in favour of the clamorous present.
But even in the rat race of central London, there are islands of calm, and for the Chief Rabbi it’s an historic synagogue, as told in this BBC broadcast.
Reporter: I’m in the heart of London’s financial district, in search of one of the city’s hidden treasures. Built 300 years ago, the Bevis Marks Synagogue is these days dwarfed by modern high-rise office blocks, tucked away behind railings between Aldgate and Bishopsgate. One of the best preserved houses of worship of its period, the Synagogue is the oldest still in use in Britain, and it’s been nominated by the Chief Rabbi, Professor Jonathan Sacks as his favourite spiritual place.
Jonathan Sacks: I feel in Bevis Marks tremendously close to God. It is a solemn place, a serious place. And to be a Jew, to be connected with God is also to be connected to the hundred generations of Jews who came before you. This is a place where you can almost sense the Divine Presence.
Reporter: Chief Rabbi, when you leave the Synagogue, do you feel changed as a person?
Jonathan Sacks: It is a feeling of re-dedication that you get when you pray in any Synagogue. God has posed a question to which our behaviour is the answer, so when I leave Bevis Marks, I feel Right, now, let’s get on with it. We’ve been given the mission to change the world and bring it just a little closer to a place of justice and compassion. So it’s a bit like refuelling, recharging the batteries, re-engaging, with that mission which began 4,000 years ago with Abraham and Sarah, and has not ceased to impel us and compel us since.
Rachael Kohn: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom for about 300,000 Jews. He is speaking to me from London. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, welcome to The Spirit of Things.
Jonathan Sacks: Hi, it’s wonderful to be with you, I can hardly imagine how we’re talking so clearly and closely while we’re so far away. I think there’s a spiritual lesson there, actually.
Rachael Kohn: I’m sure there is, and one that listeners of The Spirit of Things get every week. Now it’s rare for a minister of religion to have the ear of the general public as you do, and especially through your regular contributions to the ‘Credo’ column in The Times; has that affected the way you think about faith?
Jonathan Sacks: It’s made a huge difference. The ‘Credo’ column in The Times, and some of the broadcasting I do in Britain means that you broadcast rather than narrowcast.
Now narrowcasting means that you’re speaking to people of your own faith, of your own community, and that’s easy to do. But broadcasting means you’re talking to people of many different faiths, and a great number of people who have no faith at all, and that means you have to find a common language. You have to be inclusive. Sometimes it means you have to be generous, because you can’t take anything for granted, and you mustn’t drive people away. And also it means that you have to speak about the very bedrock of humanity, the points at which people can identify with an experience you’ve had, or you identify with an experience they have.
So I think there’s something very spiritual about broadcasting and about the national press, and I’ve found it’s made a huge difference to the way I think and speak.
Rachael Kohn: How important is The Times ‘Credo’ column?
Jonathan Sacks: Well Britain is very secular, it’s certainly true, and that’s exactly why I love taking religion out of the house of worship into the public square.
‘Credo’ means ‘I believe’, and none of us can live without beliefs, beliefs about our place in the universe, the meaning of a human life, our ideals, the things we think are worth living for and even making sacrifices for. And I think those things really are common to us and form our public conversation. And therefore they really deserve a much wider hearing than the congregation that’s actually in a synagogue or in a church.
Rachael Kohn: Well some might think that you’re actually going against the mainstream of secular society, but I want to ask you whether you have any evidence that it’s the mainstream that responds to you as much as anyone else, like the believers?
Jonathan Sacks: Oh, absolutely. My best audience, the most active respondents, I love the responses that I get from some of my articles and broadcasts. You know, going against the mainstream is the only thing that’s really interesting.
Somebody, an angler, I don’t fish, but an angler once said to me ‘If you want to know the difference between a fish that’s alive and a fish that’s dead and just looks as if it’s alive, see if it can swim against the current.’ So therefore, a faith is alive, if and only, if it can go against the mainstream.
If you give an alternative voice, a counter-voice, you get huge responses. My most active responses tend to come for instance from politicians, from teachers, in the case of celebrating life they come from people who’ve been bereaved because I wrote this book partly as a way of working through my grief at the loss of my father, and just seeing how you work your way back to happiness.
Rachael Kohn: Well the book you mention is in fact Celebrating Life. One of the points you make in it is the importance of thankfulness. Can you elaborate on that?
Jonathan Sacks: Thankfulness means not taking things for granted. You know, for me, not just for me, for the prophets of ancient Israel. Faith was like a marriage, the word emunah in Hebrew, really means faithfulness, rather than faith. And so Hosea and Isaiah and Ezekiel and Jeremiah all compare the relationship between God and humanity as the relationship between husband and wife in a marriage. And one of the things that keeps the marriage going is saying Thank you. I wonder if there is any more effective marriage therapy in the whole world as always saying thank you for the kind deeds that somebody in the family does for you.
Rachael Kohn: Well it’s certainly contrary to the thing we read about most often in the press, which is greed, having more, indeed having more than one spouse. But is thankfulness, you know, suggesting it, encouraging it the way you do, is that enough, is it the cure for our greed?
Jonathan Sacks: Well I think so. If you’re greedy you find two things happen: in the short run you get indigestion and in the long run you get overweight, neither of which are very good for your health.
I think if you go through a discipline of being thankful, that leads to a very important thought, namely that what I have, I don’t actually own, I merely hold in trust. And that leads to a sense of responsibility for others, and giving back.
It’s been one of the privileges of my life that I’ve come to know some incredibly successful business people, people who’ve made huge fortunes, and they’re amongst the people I most admire, because of all the people I know, they are the ones who give most back to others, both in terms of money and in terms of time. They spent an enormous amount of time giving it back. And that really is the cure for greed, and when I see big businessmen doing this, then I realise I’m not just being naïve.
Rachael Kohn: Now being thankful when you’re successful is pretty easy, but what about the failure, the pain, that so many of us experience in life; what’s the good in being thankful about those things?
Jonathan Sacks: None whatsoever. I do not believe in being thankful for pain, for suffering, for grief, for stress, for bereavement, but you know, there’s something in Judaism that’s very beautiful, it’s called the Sabath, Shabbat. You take time out one day in seven, and you just think of the things you have and you stop thinking about the things you don’t have, or that you’ve lost. It’s a kind of pause for thankfulness in the midst of pain and in the midst of stress, and that I think is tremendously important to recovery.
I’m in public life, and nobody in public life today, certainly in Britain, is without a lot of hassle and criticism and so on, and it is very stressful, and I don’t see any reason to be thankful for it whatsoever. But to take one day out in seven and remember there are other wonderful things, your family, your children, the sunshine, the beauty of the universe. I think thankfulness is a kind of interlude in the midst of pain that sometimes keeps you going and is actually better than any pain relief tablet I know.
Rachael Kohn: Are they the measure of happiness for you, the family, Shabbat, those things that you just mentioned?
Jonathan Sacks: Well this Shabbat I happened to be together with our children we were staying with, my son and daughter-in-law, and our youngest daughter has just got engaged, and her fiancée was there, and eight months ago we became grandparents, we had a lovely, lovely granddaughter.
My goodness me, I’m just sitting there at the table seeing them all round the table, seeing their happiness, I suddenly felt well that lovely line from Wordsworth that C.S. Lewis took as the title of one of his books, ‘surprised by joy’. That’s what really counts, not fame, not wealth, not success, just seeing what love brings into the world.
Rachael Kohn: Well outside of that wonderfully warm family scenario, in society out there, a lot of people equate happiness with the free society, indeed the libertarian society. Isn’t this the inevitable outcome that everyone is free to pursue their own form of happiness in their own way?
Jonathan Sacks: Well look, I wouldn’t say anything against a free democratic and liberal society. I think they’re important values, that they’re rooted in the Hebrew Bible, but in the precise way you’re using the word, and that’s the difference between liberalism and libertarianism, liberalism is the freedom to do what we ought, and libertarianism is the freedom to do what we like.
I think you’re confusing happiness and pleasure. Pleasure you can pursue, any way you choose; but happiness is something quite different, and much, much deeper. When I was at university I used to love Wittgenstein who was the great hero at Cambridge, he died long before I got there, but Wittgenstein was a tormented, tormented individual, but his last words were, ‘Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life’.
Happiness is something you don’t pursue, you don’t chase after it, it kind of comes when you least expect it. And it comes not from doing whatever you feel like doing, it comes from doing good to others. That is the only route to happiness, and it’s always a by-product, never something you aim at directly.
Rachael Kohn: Happiness as a gift, something you give and receive. My guest this week on The Spirit of Things is the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, Jonathan Sacks.
Unfortunately, Britain’s Jewish community has been the recipient of the opposite of happiness, hate. Here on the BBC’s ‘Thought for the Day’, Jonathan Sacks addresses the recent spate of attacks on the Jewish community.
Jonathan Sacks: Good morning. It’s been a bad fortnight for the Jewish community in Britain. First, a Rabbi in Manchester was beaten up, then there was an arson attack on a synagogue in South Tottenham. The next day a Jewish Community Centre and synagogue in Hendon suffered one of the worst arson attacks in recent years; then a Jewish cemetery in Middlesbrough was desecrated. Luckily, three of these attacks were on property, not people, but they hurt, because they were deliberate assaults on things we hold holy.
In Hendon, Torah scrolls, our most sacred objects, were thrown on the floor and ripped apart. In Tottenham, among the books destroyed were several that had been rescued from Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when synagogues throughout Germany were set on fire. How ironic that they survived the flames of Hitler only to be burned here in London.
Rachael Kohn: You’ve written extensively on the role of the religious community as the preserver of values which protect our humanity. Aren’t our social institutions meant to be doing that, do we need religious communities to do it?
Jonathan Sacks: Yes, of course, because our social institutions should be doing it, but they aren’t. And just yesterday I officiated at a wedding, a young couple, I’d known the groom since he was Bar Mitzvah’d, since he was 13, so I had to officiate at his wedding, and you know, you stand there under the wedding canopy and you think, What is society doing out there, television, the media, to strengthen that marriage? And the answer is, absolutely nothing, probably it’s telling him he’s a bit of a fool for limiting his options by getting married in the first place.
So society is not right now, supporting marriage. But when that couple stood under the bridal canopy, they were being surrounded by 4,000 years of Jewish tradition and custom, and values and laws, so religion will be there, supporting them, every inch of the way, and I wish society were, but it isn’t.
Rachael Kohn: How much do you think religion should mirror the values or support the values of society?
Jonathan Sacks: Right now I think religion should be counter-cultural, and that’s where it becomes really, really strong and surprising and radical.
I remember some years ago I launched something we called in Britain, National Marriage Week, and somebody said to me, ‘Chief Rabbi, marriage, isn’t that terribly politically incorrect?’ And I said, ‘Of course it is, it wouldn’t be worth saying if it weren’t. I mean everyone out there is politically correct, so it’s only interesting to be politically incorrect.’ I think religion today has to be a counter-cultural force, and remind us that in pursuit of wealth and affluence and freedom, we’ve forgotten some very important basic human things.
Rachael Kohn: Rabbi Sacks, you’ve been famously conservative on the Jewish belief that the Torah and the Talmud come from heaven, are divinely revealed. Now some other Orthodox Rabbis believe that the Torah should be interpreted in light of modern knowledge.
Jonathan Sacks: Oh, absolutely, the two go hand-in-hand. There are two very interesting principles in Judaism; one is called Torah from Heaven, and the other one, which is a quote from the Torah from the end of Deuteronomy, is the Torah is not in heaven; it’s from heaven, it’s not in heaven. And that’s the distinction between revelation and interpretation.
The Bible is God’s word to us, but we have to interpret that and make it live in our time, and our place, our circumstances, and that’s something the rabbis were very bold about all the way back 2,000 years back. We call that the Oral Law as against the Written law. So in Judaism you have a very clear view that the Bible, especially the Mosaic books, the direct word of God, but the God has empowered us to interpret and apply them to where we are.
Rachael Kohn: But of course the degree to which that is done varies within Judaism, for example, Orthodox Judaism doesn’t ordain women, although Conservative and Reform Jews do. Is there any likelihood of your wing of Judaism ordaining women in the near future?
Jonathan Sacks: Well I think we’re getting confused here by the word ‘ordain’, which isn’t a Jewish word at all, and it conveys essentially non-Jewish, really Christian views of what ministry is.
In Judaism, the word ‘rabbi’ actually means ‘my teacher’, and a Rabbi is not a holy person as let’s say a Priest is in Catholicism. A Rabbi is simply a teacher. Now in the last couple of generations, really for the first time in history, women have emerged as major teachers of Judaism. There was a wonderful lady in Israel who died some while back, called Nehama Leibovitz, who was the great teacher of Torah of her generation. Today there is an old university friend of mine called Aviva Zornberg who lives in Jerusalem and is one of the great teachers of our generation, and I’m thrilled that our two daughters are following in the same tradition, rather formidable, if I may say so.
So women today for the first time in history, especially in Orthodox Judaism, are performing the great rabbinical role of being teachers of Judaism. So it’s happened.
Rachael Kohn: But in Orthodox Judaism, they are not called Rabbis.
Jonathan Sacks: Well they’re called, well what are they called? They’re called rabboniot, which is the female for Rabbis. It’s not the title, it’s the function that you have to focus on.
We do not have a sacramental priesthood the way Christianity had for so many centuries, and Catholicism still does. That ended in Judaism with the destruction of the Second Temple in the 1st century. Now a Cohen, a priest, had to be a man, but a teacher can be a man or a woman, and there’s some wonderful Biblical examples: the prophetess and the judge called Deborah in the Book of Judges fulfilled that role; it went into eclipse for many centuries, and now it’s come out into the open again, and it’s a beautiful thing.
Rachael Kohn: Rabbi Sacks, in Britain today, what do you think is the greatest concern of the Jewish population?
Jonathan Sacks: Oh well, there’s no doubt there is anxiety in Britain about anti-Semitism. In the last two or three days we’ve had two major arson attacks on synagogues in London, which have caused us great grief, and of course in France and elsewhere it’s also been very bad. Naturally we’re concerned with the fate of Israel and the Palestinians, the apparent collapse of the peace process and so on, and this gives us much grief. So I would say those are the major concerns, together with the obvious fact that Jewish identity, like every other kind of religious identity, does tend to get eroded in a very consumer society.
Rachael Kohn: Well certainly religious communities have focused on their own communities in the main, but do you think that there is more urgency for religious communities to start recognising each other? Do you have any theological insights that would help a religious group see the worth of another?
Jonathan Sacks: I think so. I think Judaism has something very powerful to say about this, which is that you don’t have to be Jewish to win your place in heaven.
It’s an axiom of Judaism and has been for the last 2,000 years that the righteous or the pious of the nations of the world have a share in the world to come, which means that Judaism doesn’t claim to be the sole exclusive route to salvation. And when we tried quite recently to put this into practice in some practical program of action, I think we did rather well.
This was a couple of years ago in 2002, when the Queen was celebrating the Golden Jubilee of her monarchy, and I was discussing, together with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Prince Charles, how we could make a gesture, a kind of Jubilee present to the Queen, of making Britain a more tolerant and gracious society. And I said, ‘Why don’t we put into practice a very simple Jewish idea, which is that we should do acts of kindness to people who are not of our faith?’ And we launched that program, it was called Respect, and the idea was very simple: we invited all the faith communities in Britain, that is, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists, Jain, Zoroastrian and Baha’i to come together and to ask all of their members to take on one act of kindness to someone who wasn’t a member of their faith.
Because we know that faiths are good at creating bonds within the community but they’re not very good at creating bonds across community. I thought that was a lovely project, and obviously it’s the biggest single imperative of the 21st century; we need to live together or otherwise, God forbid, we’ll die together.
Rachael Kohn: Well that’s for sure. But I wonder whether in Britain today, the religious scene has changed so much that it’s something near explosive. Do you think religious tolerance itself is under pressure?
Jonathan Sacks: I think religion itself is not the cause of the pressure. The pressure is things like the breakdown of the family, the erosion of community, highly depressed inner-city areas where there’s lots of unemployment.
What happens unfortunately though is groups tend to split across religious lines. Now in Britain, the leaders of the faith communities all know each other pretty well. I count the leaders of the other faith communities in Britain as good, and in some cases very close personal friends So it’s our job to see whether we can send that message down to the grassroots, and be a force for healing, rather than a force for division.
Rachael Kohn: You’re listening to The Spirit of Things on ABC Radio National, with me, Rachael Kohn, and my guest, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, Jonathan Sacks.
A regular contributor to the ‘Credo’ column of The Times, he’s also written many books, including Celebrating Life: Finding Happiness in Unexpected Places.
Rachael Kohn: Where do you stand on the question of Establishment? Do you side with Prince Charles, who famously said he wanted to be the Defender of Faith, not the Faith? Or do you think the Anglican church should be the Church of England?
Jonathan Sacks: Well I don’t see any contradiction between those things whatsoever.
I told a story in the book which actually I told Prince Charles himself, and the story is this [as I heard it from another Rabbi]: He says imagine two people whose job it is to carry stones. That’s what they do for a living, they carry stones. One of them carries big sacks of building material, the other one carries little pouches of diamonds.
And the Rabbi wrote to me as follows, he said: Imagine now you give each of these people a bag of emeralds, how do they respond? The person who’s spent his whole life carrying heavy building materials looks at this sack of emeralds and thinks, ‘Another burden’, whereas the person who carries diamonds knows the stones are precious, so when you give him emeralds, he says, ‘Well those aren’t diamonds, but they certainly are precious stones. They’re not like mine, but I have to value them and take care of them.’
And he said: So it is with faith, if you really regard your own faith as just a heavy weight, a burden, then you won’t appreciate anyone else’s faith either. But if you value your faith, if you recognise that it’s diamonds, then you will value someone else’s faith, which is emeralds; it’s not the same as yours but both are precious. And that is the story I told Prince Charles, and I think what he’s trying to do, to be the defender of the diamonds, the Church of England, while valuing all the emeralds and rubies and sapphires, which are the other faith communities in Britain.
Rachael Kohn: So he wasn’t wanting to disestablish the church in your view?
Jonathan Sacks: No, not at all, not at all. Obviously disestablishment is a debate that happens from time to time in Britain, but Prince Charles wasn’t calling for disestablishment whatsoever. He didn’t see any contradiction between being head of the Church of England and valuing the fact that Britain has many other faiths as well, all of whom are citizens of this country and all of whom will one day look to him as King.
Rachael Kohn: So you don’t find the Establishment of the Church, that is, the Church of England, is in any way eroding the sense of fair play in the field of religion in England? Do you appreciate the pre-eminent position that the Church of England has?
Jonathan Sacks: Well I do actually. When I was a very young child I used to read the books of records, and I used to love the word that they said was the longest word in the dictionary, and it went antidisestablishmentarianism. Little did I realise that I would grow up to be an antidisestablishmentarian, but I am.
I actually like the idea of an established church, and when I explain this to Christians, I say, Imagine coming to an enormous giant hall, and everyone’s sipping cocktails. Supposing there’s a host, somebody in charge, somebody who’s invited you there, well, they come over to you and they say, Welcome, and they make you feel at home. But supposing there’s no host whatsoever, there’s just a lot of people milling around, then you don’t know anyone, and you feel a bit of an intruder, and you certainly don’t feel at home. And I say, Well the Church of England is like the host of that cocktail party; it’s the job of the Church of England, being the premier religious body in Britain to make everyone else feel at home.
And that’s the advantage of having an established church, it imposes on the Church of England a colossal burden of tolerance, and that’s what makes some Christians think it’s a bit soggy, you know, you can’t be that clear in your doctrine if you want to be very generous to lots and lots of people. But that’s how it works out in Britain. Tell that to an American and they don’t believe you, they think you can only get a religiously tolerant society by separating church and state. But Britain I think managed it quite well.
Rachael Kohn: Do you see there a kind of parallel to yourself as the Chief Rabbi, because of course in Australia, and in America and Canada, we don’t have a Chief Rabbi. Is there some kind of parallel between you and the Archbishop?
Jonathan Sacks: Well sort of, you know. Because the Chief Rabbi is supposed to have his narrow constituency of Orthodox Jews but the truth is, that there are times in which I’m called on to speak for the Jewish community as a whole, which includes non-Orthodox Jews, secular Jews, even anti-religious Jews.
Rachael Kohn: Does that get you into trouble sometimes?
Jonathan Sacks: Oh, constantly. Of course, absolutely. It’s an impossible job, but I mean life is an impossible job, and what you need is a sense of humour, an ability to recover after you slip on a few banana skins, and basically the principle of seeing everyone as a fragment of the Divine Presence. It’s impossible, but wonderful at the same time.
Rachael Kohn: Well in fact how did you become the Chief Rabbi? What was your personal spiritual journey?
Jonathan Sacks: Oh, I never intended being a Rabbi at all, absolutely not. It’s just that when I began university in my first year, we had that thing called the Six Day War in 1967, and many people will not remember this, but in the weeks before the Six Day War, it seemed to us to Jews around the world as if, God forbid, Israel was about to be attacked and quite possibly destroyed.
And this made a huge impact on people like me who were born after the Holocaust, who suddenly found themselves confronting the possibility of a second Holocaust. And that changed my life. It didn’t change it immediately but it was an extraordinary moment which transformed Jewish communities around the world. That’s when, for instance, Soviet Jewry, Russian Jewry began to awake. It wasn’t until six years later that I actually began to study for the rabbinate. But I think that was the awakening.
Rachael Kohn: Does Israel continue to be an important focus of your Jewish identity?
Jonathan Sacks: Oh, very much so. I mean I delayed the Chief Rabbinate for a year to spend a year in Israel. I wanted to find peace of mind with my luck, we found ourselves in the middle of the Gulf War, but that’s just Jewish luck for you. I have two brothers who live there, and I go there six times a year.
Rachael Kohn: Is it increasingly harder to have that focus in a society that is very anti-Israel?
Jonathan Sacks: Well you know, if you’re married to somebody, the whole world might be against the person you’re married to, but if you’re anything like a spouse, you will not find your love diminishing. I don’t find my love diminishing by the criticism of Israel, because the Israel I see and hear in the media of Europe is not the Israel I know.
The Israel I know is a remarkable country that has put up with almost impossible problems since the day of its birth 56 years ago, and yet it has just done wonderful things. I mean wonderful things in areas which we find very puzzling. You know we find asylum seekers very difficult, and I know you do in Australia. Israel was built on asylum seekers from 103 different countries speaking 82 different languages, and out of that it’s built a country, a nation.
We talk about the divide between the developing and developed countries. There is only one country in the last 50 years that’s moved from a Third World economy to a First World economy, and that’s Israel. We talk about the difficulty of democracy in the Middle East, and yet Israel has been a democracy all the way along, and has never ceased to be, despite all the pressures it’s faced. So I love Israel, and what gives me great grief is that it is locked into almost a Greek tragedy with the Palestinians who I think do not serve their own interests by pursuing violence instead of peace.
Rachael Kohn: What would you like to see in the near future?
Jonathan Sacks: In Israel?
Rachael Kohn: Yes, to remedy the situation. Sharon is calling for a withdrawal of the Settlements.
Jonathan Sacks: Well I think the real issue here is the leadership of the Palestinians. I don’t want to say anything about Yasser Arafat, I mean each of us will have our own opinions, but there’s one thing clear from the Bible, even the greatest leader, Moses, was not the man who was destined to take the Israelites across the Jordan and build a country. Each generation demands its own leadership. Now even if you take a positive view of Yasser Arafat, he might have been the leader back in the ’60s when Palestinian identity was just being born, he’s certainly not the leader now when what the Palestinians need most of all is peace co-existence and the willingness to compromise.
Rachael Kohn: Rabbi Sacks, I’d like to talk to you now about “the G-word”, God.
Jonathan Sacks: Oh, right.
Rachael Kohn: That’s your specialty, but a lot of people today, including many Jews, feel embarrassed by the G-word, they reject the image of God the Father, or God the King, and have banished God as part of a patriarchal inheritance that’s no longer viable. How would you describe God to these people in a way that would make sense to them?
Jonathan Sacks: [Laughs] Sorry Rachael, I just felt very mischievous at that moment, and I suddenly realised that God is not patriarchal at all, God is actually a Jewish mother, and anyone who’s had a Jewish mother will know exactly what that means, being concerned, solicitous, and so on.
No, I mean obviously we sometimes talk about God as Father, Isaiah called God a Mother as well, “like one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you, says God” and so on. God is not male or female, God is the totality of all there is, and idolatry is worshipping a part instead of the whole.
So for instance, you have political idolatry, you have fascism which was worship of the state; communism, worship of the system; fundamentalism, what I call the attempt to impose a single truth on a plural world. All of those are worshipping less than the totality of everything, and they have disastrous consequences for society.
Let me give you an example, what I would call the materialist fallacy that we are just our bodies, a long strip of DNA or the selfish gene put together by the blind watchmaker. Now we are a body, but that’s not all we are, we are also people capable of love and beauty and art and creativity, and if all you see for instance in love is a biochemical reaction, then you are what I would call tone deaf. So God is that which expands our horizons and lifts us from the part of the whole.
Rachael Kohn: But you know, so many people regard the religious as self-righteous, they have all the answers. What’s the solution to that problem?
Jonathan Sacks: The solution is always to tell the difference between the righteous and the self-righteous, and here is the difference: the righteous see the good in you, the self-righteous see the bad. You came away from meeting with a righteous human being, you feel great; you came away from a meeting with a self-righteous human being, you feel small. The righteous person is thinking about you, the self-righteous person is thinking about himself. A righteous person will praise, a self-righteous person will condemn. That should help you tell the difference.
Rachael Kohn: It certainly does. But then again, there’s nothing like a joke, a good Jewish joke, to get the point across. And even my guest today, the Chief Rabbi of the UK, Jonathan Sacks, knows that. One of the most influential religious figures in Britain today, he can still tell a good joke. Here he is holding forth at a conference in London.
Jonathan Sacks: And I love the story they tell about the Shul [Synagogue] where the Rabbi was so overwhelmed with the emotions of the day, he got up and he said, “Almighty, I’m a nothing!” And the President of the Shul, seized by this religious bashing got up and said, “Almighty, I’m also a nothing!” And the Shamas [Caretaker] got up and said, “I also am a nothing – a Gornisht!” And the Rabbi and the President looked at the Shamas and said, “Look who’s calling himself a Gornisht!”
In Judaism, to be a nothing is to be a something, and that I think is the theme of my talk this morning, to be proud of what we are.
Rachael Kohn: You’ve also said that “the moral enterprise is the greatest religious drama known to mankind. It is our creation under God’s tutelage.” Would you explain and elaborate what you mean by that?
Jonathan Sacks: Rachael, there’s you and me and a lot of other human beings in the world and we all want different things. We have different needs and skills and desires. So the question is, how can we come together to do together what none of us can do alone?
There are three ways of doing it. One way is by using power, coercion, forcing you to do something. And that is the historical way of politics. Then there’s the market way, the economics way of doing things which is I pay you to do something for me. But neither of those actually link us in any bond of mutual care. So there’s the third way, the religious way, which I call the way of covenant.
Covenant is what binds you to me, without my using power over you, or without my paying you. Covenant is that bond of mutual responsibility, of which one example is marriage, another example is parenthood. And once you build up from families to communities, to societies, and maybe to humanity as a whole, you have this ever-wider covenantal bond, and that’s what I call the moral enterprise, as understood by the Hebrew Bible.
Rachael Kohn: What about that connection to people of other traditions and other points of view? In your experience of dialogue with other religious leaders, on issues that are moral, do we share more than we imagine?
Jonathan Sacks: Oh sure. I think everyone who is human has some basic needs for food for shelter, for medicine, for employment, those basic human needs mean there’s some enormous commonality between the world’s great faiths because the covenantal bond means that I have to take responsibility for those around me who don’t have what they need. And then there are other things that link us.
For instance, I once was sitting with Prince Hussein in Jordan, and I asked him What will one day bring Jews and Muslims together in the Middle East? And he said a very simple thing. He said: Our history of shared tears.
I think tears are a universal language, the only universal language spoken today, and you see that amongst the Israelis and Palestinians, there’s an incredible group called the Bereaved Parents Group of Israelis and Palestinians who’ve lost children in the current conflict, and instead of that leading to hate, they’ve taken that grief, and it’s brought them together.
So I think there are some enormous commonalities and there are some enormous differences. And when it comes to the differences, the real thing is to be enriched by those differences, not to be threatened by them. The way I summarise this is by saying that if we had nothing in common, we couldn’t speak to one another, and if we had everything in common, we’d have nothing to say.
Rachael Kohn: Well when you talk about having shared tears for example, that’s a kind of shared humanity; I wonder to what extent religion is a force here for sharing? Some people would say that it has divided us but someone that you mention in your book, Stephen L. Carter, talked bout religion as the engine of civility.
Jonathan Sacks: Yes. Stephen Carter is a black guy who moved in 1966 to Washington, and Washington in those days was very racially segregated, and he tells the story in one of his books of how he was then 11 years old, how he was sitting with his brothers and sisters on the front step.
They’d just moved in, the first black children in the neighbourhood. And they wanted to see how they would be welcomed, and the short answer is they weren’t. People would walk past them as if they didn’t exist. And he describes how he felt we should never have come here, we’ll never be accepted here, we won’t belong here. And then he writes, ‘As I was thinking these thoughts, I saw a lady across the road whose arms were laden with shopping, and she gave us a breezy smile, and she said, “Welcome”. And she disappeared into her house, and five minutes later she came out with a big tray of fizzy drinks and cookies, and brought them over to the young black children and said, “Welcome, it’s so wonderful to have you in the neighbourhood”. And Stephen Carter said ‘That simple act changed my life’.
He tells us the name of this woman was Sarah Kestenbaum, and she was a Jewish lady, a religious lady, and he said, Jews have a word for this, they call it khesed which means kindness, or what he calls civility: being there for other people even though they’re not like you and even though it costs you effort and time.
And I went back, actually I was in Washington a year ago and I was in Georgetown where all this took place, and although Sarah Kastenbaum is no longer alive, some members of the congregation said, Oh yes, we remember Sarah, that’s the kind of thing she used to do. And I think that’s what Stephen Carter means, he means reaching out to the stranger.
Rachael Kohn: It sounds like that program you were involved with called ‘Respect’, it’s very much –
Jonathan Sacks: Exactly. I tried to take that example and turn it into a program.
Rachael Kohn: Well you’ve said that it doesn’t weaken your faith to know that others find God in different ways. Now that’s a particularly Jewish point of view; do you think it’s a unique one?
Jonathan Sacks: I hope not, because the future of the world depends on our acquiring that generosity of imagination.
Rachael, I was the eldest of four boys, and you know, being the eldest I got quite a lot of my late father’s attention. I didn’t like that, I’ll be honest with you, I wanted him to love me, but I wanted him to love all his other boys, and of course he did really. And he loved us for what made us different. And I never felt diminished by the fact that my Dad loved my three other brothers, on the contrary if I ever felt he was choosing me as a favourite I felt incredibly bad about that.
And I think anyone who’s been a sibling feels that, you know, a good parent is one who loves each of his or her children for what makes them different, but who loves them unconditionally. And that’s what it is to think of God as a parent. He loves Jews, he loves Christians, he loves Hindus, he loves Sikhs, they’re all this children for heaven’s sake, and if he loved one group more than the other, he wouldn’t be a good parent, he wouldn’t be God.
Rachael Kohn: Is there any particular religious leader you most admire?
Jonathan Sacks: Well I knew the Rebbe, the Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn. He was an incredibly far-sighted religious leader who changed my life. Look, when I first met him I was a first-year undergraduate a 19-year-old kid, and nobody, and he had hundreds of thousands of followers, but he took the time out to challenge me to be a leader. That eventually did change my life. It also taught me the difference between good leaders and great leaders. Good leaders create followers, great leaders create leaders.
Rachael Kohn: Wise words. Jonathan Sacks, it’s been great having you on The Spirit of Things, thank you so much for sharing your morning with us.
Jonathan Sacks: Rachael, thanks for being there, and every success with the program.
Rachael Kohn: I hope you enjoyed The Spirit of Things with Dr Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. He was speaking to me from London. A link to his books and speeches can be found on our website.