Why have we Jews forgotten what we’re all about?

Published 19 November 2013
rabbi sacks speech steps above check tie 1

This interview with David Horowitz was published in The Times of Israel on

Having stepped down two months ago after 22 years as Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth, Lord Jonathan Sacks is going to be spending part of his time in the next few years teaching at Yeshiva University and New York University. He is also going to be in Israel more often, and was here last week to speak at a session at the Jewish Federations’ General Assembly and at a packed event in Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue. The visit also coincided with the publication in Hebrew of his book “The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning” — which marks the start of an effort to engage Hebrew-speaking readers through his writings.

The Times of Israel met with Sacks, 65, for a lengthy conversation which ranged from the most current of current affairs to far more philosophical areas. We began by discussing the challenges Israel faces in its dealings with the Palestinians and in seeking to thwart Iran’s advance towards a nuclear weapons capability. This may not be the territory into which Sacks customarily ventures, but he offered heartfelt insights.

On the Palestinian conflict, for instance, while emphasizing that he shares Israel’s “sense of betrayal post-handshake on the White House lawn in September ’93,” he spoke of the need to try to honor and avoid humiliating the Palestinians in the effort to bridge the chasm between the sides. And on Iran, he argued that Israel’s imperative was to be part of “an overwhelmingly powerful coalition” determined to prevent an Iranian bomb, rather than out on its own.

In more familiar territory, Sacks set out his understanding of the essence of Judaism, lamented the absence of “prophetic” voices guiding Israel but predicted that they would arrive, and offered an alternative, upbeat interpretation of the recent Pew survey of American Jewry.

At one point of the interview, unprompted, he also ventured into a lament that Jews had “suddenly forgotten what we’re all about — which is bringing spiritual and moral values into the heart of society.” Those comments culminated the sense, as we spoke, that Sacks was a little torn between a desire to avoid being overly critical of Israel and of directions in modern Judaism, on the one hand, and, on the other, deeply anguished about misplaced priorities that he felt obligated to highlight. It made for an earnest and fascinating conversation. 


The Times of Israel: I am very interested to get your take, and I know it may not be the kind of thing that people usually ask you about, on how the Jewish state should be grappling right now with the enemies all around it. What can religious-inspired thinking teach us about our current affairs dilemmas?

Lord Sacks: Israel was born amid the conviction, entirely correct, more than 100 percent correct, to the core, that nobody else is going to help us and we just have to do it ourselves.

What made Israel a moral necessity is the conference at Evian in July, 1938. Thirty-four countries around the world, knowing what was going to happen to the Jewish people, gathered together to see what they could do to help, and all 34 closed their doors. That was the moment when Jews discovered that on all the surface of the earth, there was not one square inch they could call home — in the sense of the place where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in. So, Israel was born in a sense of isolation.

[But] I wrote a whole book called “Future Tense” to say how dysfunctional I believe in the long run the phrase “A people that dwells alone” to be, because it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you think you’re alone, you’ll find yourself alone.

David, I was once asked by The New Statesman who were the most influential people in my life. And I said my late father, who would rather lose a friend than compromise a principle, and my late mother, who kept all the friends my father lost. So right now the State of Israel needs a mother, you know? (Laughs)…

It is clear that there is a huge cultural chasm between Israelis and Palestinians. Judaism is a guilt culture. The Palestinians have an honor and shame culture.

You want to make peace with the Palestinians? Honor them, however much it hurts.

You know the story about Pearl Harbor and Ruth Benedict? After Pearl Harbor the Americans understood they were going to have to wage a war against an enemy they didn’t understand. So they commissioned one of their best anthropologists, Ruth Benedict. They said, please go explain the Japanese to us. So Ruth basically explained to them what is an honor culture, which is a completely foreign language to Americans. And that helped America. It didn’t help America to win the war. It helped America to win the peace.

The Americans didn’t understand, what is the Japanese emperor? He has no power at all, so for them he didn’t count. And Ruth Benedict says to them, don’t misunderstand. The emperor is the symbol of Japanese continuity, so they look to the emperor. Once you’ve won the war, you can do whatever you like to Japan so long as you keep the emperor there. So, whatever change is taking place, the Japanese look to the emperor and they say, ah, things are ok. Nothing’s changed. Because of that, the Americans were able to win the peace with Japan. They made the effort to enter in [to the Japanese mindset].

So put that in the Palestinian or Iranian context.

Well, in the Palestinian context, you want to make peace with them? Honor them, however much it hurts. If that is going to save lives, if that is going to help them come to terms with what must be for them a very difficult act, to let go of the dream of, you know, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, if that’s what it’s going to take to give them honor and respect, then you’ve got to do it. And it’s very, very counter-productive to rely on military means to resolve a profoundly cultural impasse.

Do I think that’s the only answer? No, but I think it’s part of the answer. Any country that has had sovereignty for a very long time knows that…

Which one of us cannot understand Israel’s sense of betrayal post-handshake on the White House lawn in September ’93. There really was this feeling that somehow or other there never was a serious attempt on the other side, and I understand that and to be honest I share it. The whole peace camp in Israel has felt itself betrayed by the Palestinians and I don’t dispute that at all. I really don’t. But our attitude is fixed forever? Well, not until we’ve tried every alternative…

There’s no answer to Iran except to gather together an overwhelmingly powerful coalition against it.

I can begin to understand where that may have an impact in the Palestinian context. How does that work in the face of a regime, and by the way, we’re fighting an ostensible religious imperative that wishes to see our demise…



It doesn’t help with Iran. There’s no answer to Iran except to gather together an overwhelmingly powerful coalition against. As far as I can see there’s no argument to be won on Iran. Iran is a massive danger. But it is a massive danger to the West as well as to Israel and it’s a massive danger to most of the regimes in this part of the world. So it’s quite important, I think, that Israel should not be on its own on this one, because there’s no need for Israel to be on its own. Saudi Arabia feels threatened. Europe feels threatened. America feels threatened. Everyone feels threatened. So, they’re all on your side.

But the concern here is that apart from everyone feeling threatened, they’re not going to do anything about it – a growing concern.

If I were an Israeli, I would share that concern. I would share that concern that America might be dangerously moving towards one of its periodic isolationist phases. But I’m not sure that you try public dissent without exploring a more constructive way. You know, you had a massive coalition against Iraq in the First Gulf War. And actually Israel not only wanted to but had to step back from that, and it became somebody else’s fight. We know, because we were here, that Israel still suffered 39 Scud missile attacks and if ever Iran does go nuclear, that is unbearable – it’s really unbearable.

Politics is the art of cultivating allies. But there’s no negotiation with Iran. Israel cannot negotiate with Iran. America’s finding it pretty tough. So, there’s got to be a coalition. Israel cannot win this one on its own.

Let me take you back into more customary territory, and a semi-scandalous question about the Jews as the chosen people. Judaism has taught the world and can give the world a moral compass, but why do the Jews themselves need to maintain their separation, and the egotistical sense of being the chosen people? Doesn’t that make everybody else not the chosen people?

Look at the first recorded syllables of Jewish time. God says to Abraham, leave your land, your birthplace, your father’s house. Travel to a land which I will show you. And you ask yourself, you know, there’s something strange here. Why a land? Why not the whole universe. Why not go and conquer the world? Or why not just have an individual, personal relationship with God?

God says to Abraham, “You go and be different, to show the world the importance of difference.” Without difference you cannot have a free society.

You’re very small. Here’s a group of believers. Or it could be huge. One God, one way, one truth.

And somehow Judaism chose neither of these. Christianity and Islam both developed the one God, one way, one truth [approach]: You can’t find salvation outside of us. But Judaism never went down that road. That was the one bit of Judaism that Christianity and Islam did not borrow.

At the same time, Bereishit (Genesis) is followed by Shemot (Exodus). Not just a family relationship with God, it’s a national relationship with God. And the best way I have been able to explain this is that Judaism is a sustained protest against empire.

Hence the true great beginnings of Judaism. The first empire of Sargon in Mesopotamia and the neo-Assyrian empire — and Abraham’s journey away from that. And the second great empire, the Egypt of the Pharaohs, which was, after all, the longest-lived empire of the lot… This is the world’s superpower. Everyone’s trying to get in. And the Israelites are trying to get out. I only understand this as protest against empire.

The way I put it in my book, “The Dignity of Difference,” is that the truth at the heart of monotheism is not one God, one way, one truth, but unity up there creates diversity down here. Just as today we understand the importance of bio-diversity, so right at the beginning the Torah understood the importance of human cultural diversity. God says to Abraham, You go and be different, to show the world the importance of difference.

Without difference you cannot have a free society. That was Aristotle’s critique of Plato’s “The Republic.” Plato eliminated the poets from The Republic because they encouraged people to think for themselves. And Aristotle said, no, politics is about difference. Essentially, that was the Netziv’s (19th Century sage Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin) reading of the Tower of Babel: The whole land was of one speech in the same words. He calls that, in effect, though he doesn’t use the word, the first totalitarianism.

So Judaism is protest in the name of the sanctity of the individual, in the image of God, and the equal dignity of all of us, under the sovereignty of God. And the task of Judaism — which was a very challenging one, for which we paid a very high price historically — is to show that a small nation can still teach humanity what human dignity is all about, what human freedom is all about.

Now is that how you would characterize Judaism today? Not necessarily. But that’s the Judaism I read in Tanach (the Bible). And that is the Judaism to which I believe we are being summoned today by the existence of the state of Israel.

Jews have been to every part of the inhabited earth and yet in 4,000 years there only ever was one place on earth where Jews could do what they are called on to do — to construct a society in accordance with our deepest beliefs. That is what I call the second task of Zionism. The first task of Zionism: build a Jewish state. The second task: now build a Jewish society. A society on biblical lines.

What does that mean in practical terms?

It means a society of tzedek, mishpat, hesed and rahamim (justice, law, kindness and mercy), which means a society where everyone feels, I have dignity and I have a place here. I am not excluded.

What I’m missing from Israel today is the prophetic voice.

I understand your wariness about telling Israel what to do, as someone who is not choosing to live here. But let’s look at some of the dilemmas we’re grappling with internally, about ultra-Orthodox military service, economic inequalities, treatment of Israeli Arabs…

What I’m missing from Israel today is the prophetic voice. One of the fascinating things about biblical Judaism is that long before Montesquieu and long before the Federalist Papers, the Bible saw this central need for the separation of powers.

You had government: kings in biblical Israel, democratically elected Knesset today — functionally equivalent, as Rav Kook wrote in “Mishpat Kohen.”

Then you’ve got the religious establishment. In biblical times, the priesthood. Today, who knows? I leave that to your readers, David.

We need a Baal Shem Tov. We need an Amos. And they will both appear in Israel in the next 25 years. And then Israel will feel a whole lot healthier as a society.

But where are the prophets? There were prophetic voices. There was the Jeremiah of our times, no longer alive, the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz. I think he was more Jeremiah than Isaiah, if you know what I mean, but very sharp. And there were the secular Israeli novelists. I always felt they needed to be much closer to the beating heart of the tradition, but clearly they felt alienated from religion here, and also they saw themselves as continuous with European enlightenment.

I am looking in the future for two things in Israel, which will come. They will only come from Israelis. Number one: The rebirth of prophecy, except instead of visions from heaven, they will appear in the op-ed columns. We will have prophets. Maybe we have them already. And number two: Israel’s own, autonomous, indigenous, functional equivalent of the Hassidic movement in 18th century Eastern Europe. You know, a group of Jews who suddenly get up and say, Who is caring about the guys who don’t go to shul? Who is giving a sense of dignity to people who don’t know shas ba’al peh (the books of the Mishneh from memory)? So, we need a Baal Shem Tov. We need an Amos. And they will both appear in Israel in the next 25 years. And then Israel will feel a whole lot healthier as a society.

Having been the Chief Rabbi of the UK for more than 20 years, what do you think of the wellbeing of that community, and of the Jews of Europe more generally?

This is the real Dickens line of the best of times and the worst of times. I think we showed in Britain that you can take a Jewish voice into the public domain and for that to be respected — not just as a voice of faith, but a leading voice of faith. Whether you looked at broadcasting and journalism or you looked at inner councils of government, that Judaic voice turned out to have huge influence, if you really went for it.

Give me a concrete example.

I was consulted in 2006 by a number of government ministers who were worried about multiculturalism in Britain. They had seen what was happening in Holland. They saw what was happening in parts of Britain, that multiculturalism, instead of creating tolerance, was creating inward-looking, segregated communities. They were consulting me and I suddenly realized that one of the problems that politicians have is they don’t always have time to think things through. I think the job of religious leaders and/or public intellectuals, is to think things through. So I wrote a text called “The Home We Build Together,” which actually influenced government policy even before it was published and became government policy by the time it was published under [Prime Minister] Tony Blair. Then Gordon Brown and David Cameron continued that policy. The result was a very close working relationship between us as a community and the [various British] ministers for community.

They’ve really looked to Jews for guidance here because the truth is, we’ve had 26 centuries of experience in being a minority, so we know what makes an integrated society, that makes space for its minorities. Multiculturalism is far too crude an instrument and it backfired. The first country to adopt it was Holland and the first country to regret it was Holland. I did a lot of research on the Dutch experience before writing that book.

So, in terms of the Jewish voice, this is the best time ever. Because Jews were always respected, but when was Judaism respected by a non-Jewish public? Even by a Jewish public, for that matter quite often.

In Anglo Jewry we trebled the number of Jewish day schools and we’ve brought the community from 25% of kids going to [Jewish] day schools to 70% of kids. Something then happened not entirely due to the mainstream community. I mean, all credit to the Haredi community. Having suffered from 1945 to 2005, 60 years of unbroken demographic decline, in 2005 we turned the corner and the community has now been growing — slowly, but growing. It’s the only time in 350-plus years of Anglo-Jewish history that the community has experienced indigenous growth as opposed to immigration, so I think we are so much stronger as a community.

That growth is driven by the Haredi sector?

The birthrate of the Haredi sector is such that it is now larger than the ones we’re losing at the margins.

So does that mean that British Jewry is becoming a slightly larger and a considerably more Orthodox community?

The Haredi bit of Anglo Jewry is growing, as it is in every Jewry, and it will be a significant presence 25 years from now, just as it will be here in Israel and just as it will be in America.

So where is the worst of times?

The worst of times is the return of anti-Semitism to Europe, which you see in Scandinavia, in Holland, in France, in Belgium, in Greece, in Poland, in Hungary. You see a lot of it. I felt so strongly about this that I spoke in May 2007 to the three leaders of Europe who were sitting together — [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel, [then European Commission President] Jose Manuel Barosso and [European Parliament President] Hans-Gert Poettering. I gave the shortest speech I’ve ever given and that’s saying something.

I said: Jews in Europe go back a long way, and that encounter introduced many words into the vocabulary — words like expulsion, forced conversion, public disputation, inquisition, auto de fe, ghetto and pogrom, not to mention the Holocaust. All that is history, but today the Jews of Europe are asking: Is there a place for Jews in Europe? And that should be of concern to you, the leaders of Europe.

And I sat down. And they heard what I was saying. The real problem that they have is what exactly do they do about it. That’s the problem. Angela Merkel has been terrific.

As that trend mounted during the years you were in office, and as you look ahead, you’re discouraged?

Britain has had a different cultural tradition to mainland Europe. We still find it difficult to understand how the Jewish question could have been so big throughout Europe in the late 19th century, all the way from the pogroms of Russia, to the Drefyus trial and all the rest of it. Britain never went down that road. Britain had anti-Semites, but they were never part of the public culture. Britain is different and I think a lot of French Jews are moving to Britain.

The Pew Report, which is taken by Americans as a single narrative of failure, is actually three interlocking narratives of success.

But I really think that problem rests squarely on the shoulders of the heads of state of mainland Europe. To think that a Europe 50 years from now could be Judenrein, God forbid. I mean, I don’t think Europe would ever recover from that moral stain on its character.

There was the notion that after World War II, anti-Semitism had been extinguished, and yet after a blip of a generation or two it comes riding back…

Jewish people have survived against all odds. And because we’re always the contra voice in the human conversation, because we’re always critical of the idols of the age, because we’re always against the idea that power — we’re not against power, but we are against the idea that might is right, Jews are usually the most conspicuous dissenting voice…

And that’s discomfiting for others?

Tradition cast Abraham in the role of the iconoclast. Somehow even secular Jews maintain that tradition. And it’s uncomfortable.

And that comes from the fact that Judaism itself is a questioning religion?

Most faiths are born in some kind of certainty or some kind of salvation. Judaism is born in cognitive dissonance. It’s born in the dissonance between the world that is and the world that ought to be. So Jews are pretty restless.

You’re going to be teaching, and spending something like three months of the year in New York. What do you make of the recent Pew Report on American Jewry?

What I make of the Pew Report, which is taken by Americans as a single narrative of failure, is actually three interlocking narratives of success — held by different Jews, at different times, under different circumstances.

The first narrative begins with Israel Zangwill’s play “The Melting Pot,” which Theodore Roosevelt attended in 1911 and said he’d never been so moved by a play in his life. The hero is David, who has come to America from Russia, where most of his family was killed during the Kishinev pogroms. He meets and falls in love with a Christian girl, also from Russia, called Vera. As their relationship deepens he meets Vera’s father and discovers to his horror that Vera’s father was the captain of the Cossack army that killed his parents in Russia. The story’s happy ending is that they get married, because in the old world, in Russia, you had Jews, you had Christians, you had pogroms. In America, you will not have Jews, you will not have Christians, you’ll have a melting pot, and say goodbye to all the pogroms. So for Israel Zangwill, outmarriage was the dream — the dream of social acceptance. And the fact that today 71% of Jews outside of Orthodoxy are outmarrying would be to him the ultimate sign of social acceptance.

Narrative two, some decades later, is a young American Jew who comes from a Lithuanian rabbinical family, called Mordechai Kaplan, who discovers in America that Jews are losing their religion and says, If we are to keep a Jewish community in America, we’ve got to base it on something other than religion, and we’ll base it on what he calls Judaism as a civilization or, as we would put it today, Jews as an ethnic and cultural group. He constructed the model of that which is called the JCC. That flowed from his philosophy. He would look at the Pew Report today, whereby an overwhelming number of Jews in America see their identity in terms of ethnicity and culture, not religion, as a remarkable mark of success. So that’s the second narrative.

The third narrative is of a small group of Orthodox Jews who came to America in the late ’30s, escaping Nazi Germany or Russia, and they had this dream that somehow you could build a flourishing Orthodoxy in what until then Orthodox Jews in Eastern Europe had seen as the treifene medina. In the 1920s, a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University said, We were told our job was to say a kaddish for Orthodoxy. It’s going to die. Make sure it has a decent burial. So the idea that these east European Yeshiva heads and Hassidic leaders could build an Orthodoxy in America was as counter-intuitive as you can possibly imagine. Today, ultra-Orthodoxy is the fastest growing group in American Jewry and according to the Pew Report, the retention rate within Orthodoxy for those 65 or over is 22 percent — in other words, Orthodoxy was losing four fifths of its members. Among the under 30s, it’s 83 percent. So Orthodoxy is now holding its own for the first time in American history. The average family size among Orthodox Jews is 4.1 children. Among non-Orthodox Jews, 1.9. Among Orthodox Jews, the inmarriage rate is 98 percent.

So you have three stories of success. It just happens that they are very very different stories and you miss them because demographics aggregates everyone into one big statistical bloc. So instead of seeing the Pew Report as a story of failure, you should see it as three stories of success — very different definitions of success. And the lesson American Jewry should draw from it is American Jews can achieve anything they set themselves to achieve. But first they have to decide what they want to achieve.

Are you going to be spending a lot of time in Israel?

I’m going to be spending increasing amounts of time in Israel.

Did you not think of moving to Israel, and if not, why not?

Somebody asked me in Bet Shemesh, “What would it take to get you to Israel?” To which I replied, “Time.”

Israel is where the Jewish future is being made. Israel is the only place on earth where Jews can construct a society. Israel is where it all becomes real. You cannot do that anywhere outside Israel. But I have to work my way slowly.

How is it that when, for the first time in 4,000 years of history, you have sovereignty and statehood in Israel, equality and dignity in the Diaspora, have we suddenly forgotten what we’re all about — which is bringing spiritual and moral values into the heart of society?

We’re a global people. I was able to have a middle-sized canvas, you know, of Britain and the Commonwealth. It was great. I still think that is a third dimension of Judaism. You’ve got America. You’ve got Israel. But there is that commonwealth collection of countries — Britain, Australia, South American, New Zealand, bits of Canada — which are both more traditional and more tolerant; less fractured if you like than Jewry in Israel and America. It’s a kind of third voice that ought to be party to the conversation but it very rarely is.

The most important thing I could do as a Chief Rabbi was to encourage young Rabbis to have the confidence to lead according to their lights. It wasn’t always easy. But it became very important. In America you have wonderful young Rabbis and emerging lay leaders, and I felt I just had to give that a period of time where I was on hand if needed. Then Israel — that’s the next step on the way, because Israel is where it is and Israel is where it will be. That speaks to me very strongly indeed. But I need a little time to get my Ivrit up to speed, I’m afraid.

What I’m saying really is how is it that when, for the first time in 4,000 years of history, you have sovereignty and statehood in Israel, equality and dignity in the Diaspora, have we suddenly forgotten what we’re all about — which is bringing spiritual and moral values into the heart of society? We’re seeing the Jewish world split between those who are in the heart of society but a long way from their Judaism, and those who are in the heart of Judaism but a long way from the mainstream of society. We seem to have been split in two; we’re kind of a schizophrenic people. I want to heal that a little bit just by being a very humble presence on the sidelines, a kind of scholar in residence for the people who are trying to make a better Jewish future.

If you were to ask anyone what are the five major problems facing humanity in the 21st Century, by more or less universal consent they would be: climate change, global warming; the problem of the growing gap between first and third world economies; asylum seekers; terror, and creating democracies in parts of the world that have no tradition of it.

I see Israel as a symbol of hope for every country in the world. Israel has shown what a small nation can achieve under the most adverse conditions.

In all those areas Israel has led the world. It is the only country that had more trees at the end of the 20th century than at the beginning. It was the first country to plant forests rather than tear them down. It is the world’s leading example of a third world economy that became a cutting edge first world economy. Together with the United States it is the only country in the world which is made out of asylum seekers. The last time I looked they came from 103 different countries speaking 82 different languages — probably more than that by now. Somehow out of it, it’s forged an incredibly dynamic nation. It is the country that has developed all the effective measures against terror, and any country in the world that wants to fight terror has to come to Israel or study Israel’s methods. And finally, Israel brought democracy to the Middle East. I call Israel a hyper-democracy. It has the most politically engaged electorate in the world. It is and has remained a democracy with an independent judiciary and a free press. As I think you put it once David, it is the only country where a Muslim can get up and criticize the government and wake up the next morning a free man.

I see Israel as a symbol of hope for every country in the world. Israel has shown what a small nation can achieve under the most adverse conditions. It’s not by accident that Israel’s national anthem is Hatkivah — The Hope — because that is really what it represents to the world. And when you clear away the noise, most of which is critical to Israel, and you listen underneath, you listen to politicians in their private moments, then you recognize that there is a real and genuine respect for Israel’s achievements.