What does the Messiah have in common with Arsenal FC?

Israel Hayom interview

15 November 2013

This article was written by Omer Lahmanovitch and first published in Israel Hayom on 15th November 2013.

It is hard to think of an Orthodox Rabbi anywhere in the world who is capable of defeating Richard Dawkins in an argument. By virtue of his popular book “The God Delusion,” the British researcher is every religion’s worst nightmare.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, however, is not just another Orthodox Rabbi. So when Dawkins came out with a statement declaring that religion was the domain of naïve and foolish people, Sacks made note of the number of Jews who captured the Nobel Prize.

“After he was informed of the number, Dawkins acknowledged that, yes, Judaism was apparently a different sort of religion,” Sacks said with a smile.

“He understood that while not all Jewish Nobel laureates were religious, all of them came from a tradition that was religious in nature throughout generations. He understood that Judaism encourages thought-provoking questions. And this is pretty rare in our world today — to be religious and at the same time to ask questions.”

Lord Jonathan Henry Sacks is a rabbinical superstar in the positive sense of the word. He is light years away from the "Celebrity Rabbi" industry which has been nurtured by Rabbis and others who have exploited the weak for economic gain. Sacks has gained status not just as a rabbinical leader but also as an intellectual who knows how to identify social, cultural, and universal trends that transcend religion.

Maimonides, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, are three individuals whose names often come up in conversations with Sacks. This is no accident, for Sacks, who recently finished a 22-year term as the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, absorbed a great deal of spiritual and personal inspiration from these three giants of Judaism.

This week, Sacks paid a visit to Israel to officially launch the Hebrew translation of his most recent book, “The Great Partnership: God, Science, and the Search for Meaning.” He had a very busy schedule during this visit. On Sunday evening, a few hours after landing, he had already delivered a speech before hundreds of English-speaking congregants in Beit Shemesh. On Tuesday, he delivered a speech at the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem. On Wednesday, he held a public debate with Rabbi Yuval Cherlow at Bar-Ilan University. The next day he held a discussion about Jewish thought with Dr. Micah Goodman, also in Jerusalem.

His wife, Elaine Sacks joined her husband for the trip. They were appropriately joined by their two Co-Directors from London who make sure that the logistics and time-keeping are in order. Sacks came here after a series of lectures he gave in Spain. Once he is finished in Israel, he will continue to New York, where he will spend a few weeks teaching at Yeshiva University. Between putting on his tie and taking his photograph on the patio, the Rabbi takes an interest in how his interview with Spanish media went.

Sacks is a classic model of a Western, intellectual Rabbi. He is the type of Rabbi who represents an ilk that in recent decades has become foreign to the Orthodox rabbinical establishment in Israel. The ideological and political restraints compelled the establishment to barricade itself in the world of Halachah.

In Britain, Sacks is considered by many to be a thinker in the service of the entire public, not just the Jews. He is a frequent guest on BBC television and radio programs. The list of academic institutions from which he has obtained degrees tells the whole story. His rabbinical training was done at the London School of Jewish Studies and the Etz Chaim Yeshiva. He also earned a degree in philosophy from Cambridge and New College, Oxford.

Since 2009, Sacks has been a member of the British House of Lords. He has also maintained strong relationships with many British leaders, from Prince Charles to Gordon Brown. He is considered a strong orator and a sought-after lecturer. One only needs to take a glance at his viewer numbers on YouTube in order to grasp just how important and popular a figure he has become.

Our golden age is the future

Sacks’ decision to appeal to the widest common denominator rather than “0.5 percent of the British population” did not come without a price. He was subject to harsh criticism from the ultra-Orthodox community in Britain. Sacks, however, isn’t just concerned with getting his message out to a wide audience. He is also interested in interfaith dialogue and cooperation. In defending monotheistic religions, he often places the three main faiths under one umbrella, creating a united front to combat atheism and to drive home the importance of “worshiping God.”

In doing so, Sacks derives inspiration from multiple sources, and this is evident in his book. From Nietzsche’s preoccupation with the Christian deity to Albert Camus and his existentialist anxieties, from Jane Goodall’s research on monkeys and chimpanzees to his own affection for Maimonides and Aristotle, it is evident that Sacks holds dear the nexus between Judaism and Western philosophy.

Nonetheless, Sacks says that after all the commonalities are dispensed with, Judaism has the advantage because it allows for a wide variety of questions.

The citizens of Athens sentenced Socrates to death because he corrupted the youth by encouraging them to ask questions,” he said. “What was perceived as sin in Athens is considered the greatest mitzvah in Judaism. You can’t start the Passover Seder without the children’s questions. For us Jews, the child who is thought of the least is the one who doesn’t know to ask.

If so, then the question is a philosophical tool. In practical terms, however, how does this advantage manifest itself?

There are religious people from all faiths who are opposed to things like genetic engineering. They say it’s forbidden because it’s akin to ‘playing God.’ We, the Jews, say on the contrary. Genetic engineering is being a partner to the act of creation. But the most important practical aspect is that Judaism is the only civilization in the modern world whose golden age is in the future. While all the other religions strive to recreate the glorious past, we want to bring the Messiah. Judaism is a faith that has a futuristic orientation. When you look at the Middle East, you see that everyone is fighting about their past. Israel is building the future. These are things that people who aren’t Jewish respect and admire about Judaism.

When Prince Charles bid you farewell upon the end of your tenure as Chief Rabbi, he joked that wherever you have 10 Jews, there are 11 opinions.

Doesn’t the ability to countenance polar opposites and different positions eventually become a weakness of Judaism which may find itself “creating a monster?”

One of the most important things for any religion is the ability to contain a number of disparate streams of thought. Judaism is based on disagreements that are discussed with the best of intentions in mind. When Moses delivered to the Sons of Israel the final commandment, which is to write the Torah, he didn’t say to them, ‘OK, write this specific Torah as follows.’ He tells them ‘Now write this poetry.’ Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, called Aruch Hashulchan after his most famous work, spoke about the benefits of a multitude of voices. Judaism is a complex harmony that boasts of the ability to look at things from numerous perspectives.

In the Bible, Jews argue with God. This is something you won’t find in any other religion. Life is filled with many perspectives, and no religion has embraced these perspectives like Judaism has. One reason for this is in addition to the fact that we are a religion, we are also a nation. Even if we don’t agree with each other on issues of religion, we can still be united as a people.

I wrote a book for the government.

As someone who has become an integral part of the spiritual life of Britain, Sacks made sure to publish a book a year for each year he served as Chief Rabbi. He wrote about a wide range of topics, from Halachah to family issues to inter-religious affairs. Sacks said that some of the books were intended to “help the British government on various issues,” including the matter of Islamic immigration to British cities and what to do about multiculturalism.

In his 2007 book “The Home We Build Together,” Sacks surprised readers when he compared the multicultural reality to that of a hotel in which every nationality stays holed up in its own room.

In a multicultural state, there is no conversation, and there is nothing that unites people,” Sacks said. “Instead of multiculturalism, one needs to see the religions and cultures as parts of one project. There are many builders, but they all need to strive to build one home. Wherever multiculturalism has been tried, it has failed. Angela Merkel acknowledged that it has failed in Germany, and Tony Blair said the same regarding England. We also saw the failure in Holland. I consulted with ministers in the British government as to how we proceed and what we do out of this failure, and I wrote this book in order to help both governments — the Labour-led government of Blair and Gordon Brown, and the Conservative-led government ruled by David Cameron.

How did a situation come about where a Rabbi easily and naturally gains the trust of a public that is in large part secular and not religious, as is the case with you in Britain?

"We’re all people,” he said, a wide smile streaking across his face.

The American Declaration of Independence talks about ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ Indeed, humanity shares one fate, one goal. The problems are the same for everyone: how to strengthen the family unit, the community, the region; how to build inter-generational bridges that will facilitate communication between fathers and sons. I speak to the people as a public intellectual, not as a spiritual leader. Today, England is a secular society, and most of its citizens don’t want to hear the voice of a religious person. Instead, they want to hear a person who’s somewhat smart, who understands situations and offers solutions, like a mentor. That’s the person I decided to be, not just a Chief Rabbi.

We experienced a renaissance.

According to Sacks, the biggest challenge he faced during his 22-year stint as Chief Rabbi was education, or, as he put it, “to persuade the Jewish community in Britain to build Jewish schools.”

When I took up the post in 1991, just 25 percent of Jewish kids learned in Jewish schools,” he said. “Today that number is 70 percent. That is a real revolution that took place within the community. For the first time in the history of English Jewry, we have a generation of Jews that knows more about Judaism than their parents.

How did this change come about?

I didn’t say a word about education. What I did instead was create a kind of crisis when I published my book ‘Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren?’ That sparked a debate on assimilation. Sometimes you have to generate a crisis and allow people to solve it by themselves. And amazing things happened. We experienced a renaissance in education, social involvement, the level of energy among the people.

At the same time, I persuaded the British government to subsidise Jewish schools, and in time prime ministers became the most ardent admirers of the Jewish education system. Why? First of all, they know that when Jews build schools, these are schools that will be good. But, more importantly, they understand that Jews connect to their tradition, and they become better citizens as a result. They do good deeds, donate to charity, are involved in the community. It’s good for Britain.

In Israel, Modern Orthodoxy is blossoming to some degree, but at the same time the fringe margins of Charedi Judaism are expanding. Do you notice this trend in all religions?

“Of course. The Western world is moving in the direction of secularism. It’s harder today to connect religion with the contemporary world than it was in the past, and this is the reason that the Charedi world is becoming very attractive for certain kinds of people, because it keeps out the enticements of the secular culture, and a person feels much more secure in his world. This linkage between religion and secularism is very hard to do, and it represents a crisis for modern Orthodoxy and, to some degree, for religious Zionism. But in my view it’s a challenge. An easy choice isn’t really a true experience.”

As a rationalist who once wrote, “Judaism is a religion that glorifies the law,” how do you see the Kabbalah trend that has washed over the globe?

We all love miracles, but it’s not wise to trust that they will happen. I prefer to act according to the Maimonides method, which holds that a man needs to act on the basis of the laws of nature, but throughout history Jews have not always followed this path. After a huge calamity, like the Spanish Inquisition, Kabbalists and Messianists came along and there was a real awakening and revival in Safed. The current trend is in my view still a result of the Holocaust. It’s very hard to believe in a civilisation of learning after the Holocaust. Learning did not prevent this disaster, and people lost faith in rationality.

The victim will not heal the crime.

In one notable chapter of his new book, Sacks recalls his days as a Cambridge student studying philosophy in the 1960s. He writes:

The words ‘religion’ and ‘philosophy’ went together like cricket and a thunder storm. Occasionally one can have both at the same time, but the latter usually puts an end to the former.

The Great Partnership

Alongside the theological challenges and the swarm of atheism with which he had to contend at Cambridge, Sacks also recalls the trepidation and fear for the wellbeing of the state of Israel just before the ’67 war, particularly for someone who was born in the generation after the Holocaust. His concern was compounded by the unique perspective that British Jews had on the Holocaust, being the only Jewish community in Europe that remained intact after the war.

It is thus no surprise that Sacks is critical of the instrumental use of the Holocaust.

“For me, the Holocaust was a major disaster, but it isn’t anything that derives benefit,” he said.

“It is not the basis of Jewish identity.”

Sacks endorsed Blair’s initiative to declare 27th January "International Holocaust Day", yet the Rabbi recalls that,

We changed the narrative and said that the Holocaust was a human disaster. The victims were Jews, but the crime was committed against humanity. Now, in every school in England, be it Jewish or not, students learn about the Holocaust. The government subsidises trips for two students and a teacher from each school to travel to Auschwitz, and they return and give speeches before the kids and the teachers about the experience they had. The Holocaust is part of the national culture, or the international culture, of Britain.

In light of all the changes, I came to the realisation that Jews alone cannot defeat anti-Semitism,” he said. “The victim cannot heal the crime. The war against anti-Semitism must be led by non-Jews, and this is happening in Britain. Another thing I understood was that to be Jewish is to be a messenger of hope for all of humanity. One cannot be a victim of anti-Semitism. As the Jewish theologian Emil Fackenheim once said, continuing Jewish life and denying Hitler a posthumous victory was the 614th commandment.

Still, it appears that antisemitism is partly responsible for academic boycotts against Israel, with the overwhelming majority of these boycotts originating in Britain. Some of the boycotts stem from political motives, but others are the byproduct of antisemitism and hatred of Israel.

This is true. Britain is the lead player in academic boycotts against Israel. I’ll tell you what we do. For over 10 years, Elaine and I have hosted events with representatives of England’s national student union. I give lectures to all of the union’s senior leadership, and every year the students express support and prove to us that they are on our side. The government is also on our side. The problem lies at the level of professors and lecturers. We can get to the government, we reach the students, but we can’t get through to them, the middle layer. This is an essential problem, and we are working on it, quietly, behind the scenes. We are working and working.

For years you have worked to engage in interfaith dialogue. What can we find in Christianity and Islam that is similar with Judaism?

Take a look at something interesting. I wrote a book called ‘Radical Then, Radical Now,’ and I was surprised to learn that many Muslims read the book and liked it, even though the entire book basically pays homage to Jews and is a statement of Jewish pride. There’s no mention in the book of Islam or Christianity. Afterward I understood that if a man of faith remains steadfast in his beliefs in the face of secular society, and he has something useful to say, then he also strengthens the believers of other faiths. One does not need a common language that is shared by various faiths.

When the West talks with Iran, there is no joint basis of faith. The gap between the religions is quite extensive.

The Muslims have managed to preserve their faith in an era of tremendous secularisation, and when I speak with Muslims I need to speak with a deep sense of belief in everything I say. It is a language that they understand and appreciate. In every dialogue, there is an appropriate language, and Muslims need to be spoken with from a sense of belief, which is something they understand. Antisemitism is another matter altogether. Throughout history, anti-Semitism initially targeted Jews but it then proceeded to others. Europeans know that Iran is a major threat to the entire West. In France, they know this very well, and this was evident this week. In England, they also understand this.

Sacks is an avid lover of British culture. It’s not just the result of rubbing elbows with the royal elite, nor is it his daily interactions with the public. It is the byproduct of a natural attraction and a sense of refinement that is ingrained in him.

“Shakespeare, particularly Shakespeare,” he said when asked what his major love is.

He’s one of the only ones who made the language sing, simple as that. Forty-five years ago, when I was a student at Kfar Chabad, I read Shakespeare in the evenings. My friends thought I was crazy, but Shakespeare is God’s gift to humans.

Like the average Englishman, however, when the subject turns to soccer, Sacks’ face changes. He is known as an ardent supporter of Arsenal. In his farewell ceremony, Prince Charles said to him: “In 1991, you became Chief Rabbi, and this was also the year in which Arsenal began the season as the champion.”

Sacks admits that he is quite pleased with the current standings in the Premier League, where the Gunners are leading at the moment, but our interview was held on Sunday, just one hour before his club would face the hated rival Manchester United.

“Don’t jinx it!” he exhorted when I brought up the subject. “No, we are not going to talk about Arsenal, because it wins only when I think about other things. Like the Messiah. This, too, comes to its peak when we are distracted.”

So where will you watch the match?

I will watch after it is over. Forget it. I don’t want to be bad luck for Arsenal.

It didn’t help. Manchester United defeated Arsenal, 1-0.