Jonathan Sacks: A Chief Rabbi of Distinction

by Professor Leslie Wagner CBE

Chief Rabbi

In 2013, reflecting on Rabbi Sacks' 22 years as the Chief Rabbi of United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Professor Leslie Wagner shared his account of the day of his induction into the chief rabbinate, and a potted history of the remarkable years that followed.

The early September day was oppressively hot, as the leaders of Anglo Jewry and the wider community sat in a packed St. John’s Wood Synagogue awaiting the induction service for the new Chief Rabbi. Many were, no doubt, thinking how they might keep awake during all the formalities, as the temperature rose and the air conditioning was non-existent. Solemnity and somnolence were the moods of the day.

The service began, as usual, with Minchah, and everyone turned dutifully to the page with the opening prayer, Ashrei. Only the new Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, the Cantor, Lionel Rosenfeld, and the members of the relatively new Shabbaton Choir knew what was about to happen. A new melody for Ashrei had been composed. Instead of the normal subdued opening, there burst forth an Ashrei of assertiveness and joy, breaking through the humid stillness of the atmosphere and uplifting the spirit. Like the sound of trumpets, it was a clarion call that gave notice that a new and challenging Chief Rabbinate was about to begin.

The mood continued in Jonathan Sacks’ induction address in which he called for a Decade of Jewish Renewal. He explained that this was not a personal programme imposed on the community, but a project which required communal engagement to be successful.

‘I want to encourage leadership in others; to be a catalyst for creativity; to open closed doors and let in the fresh air of initiative and imagination. I want to start a process that will gather momentum over time. I want to listen to and involve everyone willing to work with me in three great areas: leadership, education, and spirituality’.

Rabbi Sacks

The heightened expectations and enthusiasm which greeted the new Chief Rabbi were not just the result of the induction service and address. For Jonathan Sacks had come to office with an impressive record. Born in the east end of London and brought up in Finchley he was recognised as an academic high flyer with a first class honours degree from Cambridge and a equally highly rated post graduate degree from Oxford. A glittering academic career beckoned, but influenced by the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rabbi Joseph Solovetchik, among others, he decided to become a rabbi. His distinguished academic supervisor, who was a glatt atheist, could only understand the decision by considering the future Chief Rabbi as ‘a lapsed heretic.’ The best humour, of course, contains great insights, and it is Jonathan Sacks’ deep understanding of the modes of thinking of secular philosophers that has made him such a persuasive and powerful opponent of their ideas, when they clashed with Jewish religious thinking.

His first synagogal appointment at Golders Green in the late 1970’s was combined with lecturing at Jews’ College. He moved to Marble Arch Synagogue in 1983, and has kept a relationship with the community there throughout his time as Chief Rabbi. Becoming Principal of Jews’ College in 1984 (now known as LSJS) he initiated major changes to make it more relevant to communal needs, including setting up the first ‘practical rabbinics’ programme in the community, focused on supporting rabbis in their pastoral work.

For someone who has written 24 books and who gives the impression that he writes faster than most people can read, Jonathan Sacks took some time to get going, and his serious writing began almost at the same time as he became Chief Rabbi. But he had become increasingly known to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences in the 1980’s through his electrifying lectures and speeches, as well as his appearances in the media, stressing the relevance of Judaism to modern life. His status as the Jewish thinker best able to communicate with both Jewish and non Jewish audiences was strengthened when he was invited to give the 1990 Reith Lectures.

While expectations were therefore high, the challenges the new Chief Rabbi faced were enormous. External commentators in the late 1980’s were damning about the state of Anglo-Jewry. Organisational life was described by the distinguished American historian Howard Sacher as ‘pedestrian’ and the religious establishment as a ‘bore’. Stephen Brook accused the Jewish establishment of revelling in its ‘mediocrity, shallowness, and Philistinism’, while Professor Daniel Elazar wrote that ‘Anglo-Jewry’s pre-eminence in world Jewish affairs has almost disappeared and its cultural creativity has been stilled.’

To change this depressing picture the Chief Rabbi threw himself into the fray with numerous initiatives. Some such as the communal walk and the Chief Rabbi Awards scheme were well supported, but relatively short lived. Others such as the Jewish Association for Business Ethics, flourished and became independent organisations. The Women’s Review was controversial, not least because, initially, it raised expectations beyond the capacity of an orthodox body to deliver. But it also set an agenda on issues such as women’s tefillah, agunah, and lay leadership roles, which, over the succeeding 20 years, have been addressed and largely resolved.

The centrepiece of Jonathan Sacks’ efforts in these early years was the creation of Jewish Continuity focusing on innovative ways of keeping (particularly young) Jews, Jewish. Using shock advertising tactics to make the community aware of the practical implications of assimilation and out marriage, it funded new approaches to Jewish learning and culture. Inevitably, it was controversial. Not everyone supported everything it funded, and occasionally its decisions seemed somewhat capricious.

Meanwhile, major publications were beginning to emerge from the Chief Rabbi. One People? sought ways in which the fracturing of the Jewish people might be avoided. Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren? set out the arguments for Jewish Continuity. Both these addressed Jewish community issues. But with Faith in the Future in 1995 and The Politics of Hope in 1997 the Chief Rabbi took the Jewish message to wider society. Together with his contributions to the Thought for the Day BBC programme, and later, the Credo column in The Times, as well as his frequent Op –Ed articles, they brought his views to the attention of senior politicians. The Chief Rabbi became a regular visitor to 10 Downing Street.

There is at the heart of the Chief Rabbinate a contradiction which has been the cause of controversy over the years. Formally, the Chief Rabbi only has religious authority over the central orthodox community. This was the dominant religious body in the community for at least the first 120 years after the institution was founded in 1844, and it was natural therefore that the Chief Rabbi should be seen as the spokesman for the whole community. As religious movements to the right and left of the centre have grown in number, this spokesman role has been challenged, although even now the majority of synagogue members in Britain belong to synagogues affiliated to central orthodoxy.

The major challenge publicly has come from the Masorti, Reform, and Liberal movements which have emphasised that the Chief Rabbi does not speak for them on religious matters. Nevertheless, wider society, and many members of these other movements, still regard Jonathan Sacks as the spokesman for the whole community, not just because he is Chief Rabbi, but because of the inspirational wisdom of what he says.

Within the community however, this contradiction has caused controversy during his period as Chief Rabbi on a range of issues such as whether the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group could officially take part in his walk, to whether Jewish Continuity could fund non-orthodox religious activities. It became a major issue however, following the death of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, a respected leader of the Reform movement.

Having attended the shiva, the Chief Rabbi participated in a memorial meeting organised by the Board of Deputies, at which he spoke movingly about Hugo Gryn’s contribution to Jewish life. Some ultra orthodox sections of the community, in a letter to the Chief Rabbi, strongly criticised his actions. In what he acknowledges was an error of judgement, resulting largely from his deep grief at the death of his father, the Chief Rabbi acted hastily and out of character in sending a private response to an ultra orthodox leader, subsequently leaked, condemning Reform Judaism and Reform Jews in the strongest terms.

The religious issues surrounding Jewish Continuity were resolved through the ingenious solution of merging it with the JIA, to create the UJIA, the United Jewish Israel Appeal. This major strategic move meant that the same organisation would now explicitly raise funds for Anglo Jewish education as well as for Israel, recognising the imperative of investing in a strongly educated home community to enable future generations to understand the continuing need to support the Jewish State.

The Chief Rabbi’s publications continued into the new millennium at almost an annual rate, all well received, and some having profound impacts on religious and political thought. Inevitably there was controversy, particularly over The Dignity of Difference in 2002. In truth this was a storm in a kiddush cup. The book was a courageous and successful attempt to confront the issues of religious difference which had been highlighted by the terrorist attack in New York on 11 September 2001. The book was written speedily during the first half of 2002, while the Chief Rabbi continued with his communal responsibilities and when he was also active in the media defending Israel’s actions following the Netanya bombing. Uncharacteristically, the first draft was allowed to go to print before the usual check from his team of editorial readers.

Once again the right was up in arms, this time about supposed heresy, and called for the book to be withdrawn. The Chief Rabbi stood firm. He was willing to rewrite a few paragraphs to say the same things in slightly different words to avoid misunderstanding. But the book remained, received international acclaim, won prizes, and has regularly been reprinted. Its core messages influence, and are regularly cited by, leaders of all religions to this day. The Chief Rabbi continued to speak to the great issues of the day with publications such as To Heal a Fractured World, The Home We Build Together, and The Great Partnership. His books have been translated into many languages including Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, German, Italian, Dutch, and even Korean. These major works have been supplemented by frequent writing and lecturing at some of the most prestigious venues in Britain and the rest of the World.

Those who wish to damn with faint praise acknowledge his influential voice in public affairs but ask what this has to do with being Chief Rabbi. They ignore that Tikkun Olam is one of the highest Jewish values, that more Jews receive a message from the Chief Rabbi through Thought for the Day and Credo, than through any other medium, and that he has regularly addressed Jewish issues through for example Radical Then, Radical Now, and Future Tense. The Chief Rabbi’s contribution to public affairs is always made from a Jewish perspective and students and other young people, in particular, are inspired by his engagement and leadership on the major issues of the day. Every time the Chief Rabbi contributes to public debate Jewish pride grows, and Jewish identity is strengthened, as is the community’s standing within wider society.

Moreover, the Chief Rabbi’s teaching of Torah to his own community far outstrips his work with the wider community. In 2004 he began his weekly commentary on the sedra, Covenant and Conversation, which now has 13,000 subscribers throughout the world. The numbers who see it each week are much larger, because many synagogues make photocopies for synagogue attendees. In 2003 he produced his Haggadah with its unique commentary and insights, and in 2006 his revision of the Singer’s Prayer Book with his own translation and commentary. The Koren version came out in 2009 and has taken the USA by storm as an alternative to ArtScroll. More recently, he has produced inspiring translations and commentaries for new machzorim for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Pesach. These core books of Jewish prayer take his message throughout the English speaking Jewish world. His Letters to the Next Generation has had a profound effect on students and young people.

Working on translations and commentaries requires hours of painstaking effort, and would be a major achievement for any scholar with nothing else to occupy him. That they have been produced by a working Chief Rabbi, dealing daily with communal issues, visiting communities, resolving disputes, giving, on average, at least one major lecture a week, appearing frequently in the media, and continuing to write serious works in other areas is nothing short of astonishing. Moreover the Chief Rabbi never disappoints. Whether he is speaking or writing, whether it is a short radio item or a more scholarly lecture, an Op-Ed or a full book, a brief dvar torah, or a full hour’s shiur, his audience and readers come away stimulated and inspired. He continues to hammer home his message that Torah and the corpus of Jewish values offer guidance and insight to understanding and resolving modern dilemmas.

The honours have inevitably come, not just a knighthood in 2005 and a peerage in 2009, but more nuanced recognition of his standing. These include the Jerusalem Prize in Israel and the Grawemeyer Prize in the USA. In 2006 he was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Divinity by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, and many universities have also awarded him honorary doctorates. In 2008 the Chief Rabbi was invited to address the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops from around the world, a first, and in 2010 he delivered the keynote welcome address on behalf of all faiths to Pope Benedict XVI on the occasion of the papal visit to Britain. Given the attention his words receive both at home and abroad it is easy to forget that Anglo Jewry comprises around 2 per cent of World Jewry, and less than 0.5 per cent of the UK population. The Chief Rabbi has enabled his community to punch well above its weight.

He leaves the community in a much better state than he found it, as the critics of 25 years ago would no doubt acknowledge, were they to return. Around two-thirds of the community’s children now attend Jewish schools, which are flourishing. Adult education in all its forms is booming. Synagogues are being transformed into community centres, some with a variety of minyanim to cater for different tastes. The attendances at Jewish Book Week grow larger each year. The London Jewish Community Centre is about to open. Jewish students are proud to be openly Jewish on campus and are prepared to fight whenever this right is challenged by anti Semitic or anti-Zionist activity. The community is full of initiatives and a generation of younger leaders is taking the helm.

Of course, not all this is due to the Chief Rabbi or to him alone. But return to the words of his induction address.

‘I want to encourage leadership in others; to be a catalyst for creativity… I want to start a process that will gather momentum over time. I want to listen to and involve everyone willing to work with me in three great areas - leadership, education, and spirituality.’

That manifesto has been delivered with interest.

Jonathan Sacks has been an outstanding Chief Rabbi, raising the eyes of both Anglo Jewry and wider society beyond the mundane to the world of hope and faith, inspiring his readers and listeners to find meaning and purpose in Jewish values, and strengthening individual and collective Jewish pride and identity. His period in office has been a blessing for Anglo Jewry.