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Rabbi Sacks speaks to The Marshall Society at Yale University


Yale President Peter Salovey and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in conversation to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Marshall Scholarship.


President Salovey:

Welcome, everybody. Good afternoon. Thank you. You’re such a quiet, serious audience. Must be because we’re in the law school, right? So, this is a very special occasion and I thank all of you for joining us. This is Yale’s celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Marshall Scholarships, and the scholarships, as you know, are named in honour of George C. Marshall’s plan to rebuild Europe’s economy and restore stability following the Second World War. They were designed as a reflection of the spirit of the Marshall plan, that is, the scholarships were, to provide opportunities for further international understanding and dialogue by bringing outstanding U.S. scholars to the UK to pursue advanced study.

In the programme’s first 60 years, more than 1,800 Marshall Scholarships have been awarded, 118 of them to ‘Yalies’, and six in the most recent cohort. So welcome everyone, students, faculty, and staff who are here as Marshall Scholars, and also to our distinguished visitors from the fellowship programme.

As you know, today we are joined by a very special visitor, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, and I will tell you a little more about his background in a moment, but first I want to speak to the special connections among the occasion we are celebrating, the visitors who have joined us today, and Yale. So the presence of religious dialogue at universities, at this University, is as old as universities themselves. Yale, as you probably know, was established more than three centuries ago by colonial clergyman. Ezra Stiles, president of Yale in the late 18th century, was a congregationalist minister who travelled to Rhode Island in 1763 to be present at the founding of this country’s first synagogue. So Yale’s very core is a history of the kind of understanding and dialogue championed by the Marshall Scholars, and a conversation between a Yale president and the leader of a faith community is perhaps not as unusual as one might think.

One of the Marshall Scholars who is here in the room today is on stage with me now, or he will be in a moment, and that’s Andrew Klaber. He is a remarkable example of the qualities that these scholarships celebrate and promote. He graduated Summa Cum Laude from Yale College in 2004, where he was Phi Beta Cappa President and won too many awards and other honours for me to name them here. Ac ouple of them, though. He received the David Everett Chandler Award at graduation for best exemplifying the qualities of courage, strength of character and high moral purpose, and the Hadley Prize as Valedictorian of his class. Andrew was a 2004 Marshall Scholar who went to Oxford, earning Master of Science degrees in financial economics and economic history. He also holds a JD/MBA from Harvard.

Among his many, many distinctions, Andrew received the President’s Environmental Youth Award at the White House for his commitment to improving the environment, served with the United Nations Interagency Task Force on Orphans and Vulnerable Children and presented Even Ground, the nonprofit organisation he founded to support South African and Ugandan children orphaned by or vulnerable due to HIV/AIDS. He presented it at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. A tireless public servant, he is the co-author of the book Social Entrepreneurship in the Age of Atrocities: Changing Our World. He is now an investment professional at Paulson & Co. in New York and President Elect of the Association of Marshall Scholars. It was Andrew’s idea to bring Rabbi Sacks to Yale and I thank him for that excellent idea, and I’d like you all to join me in welcoming Andrew, who will speak just for a moment about the Marshall Scholarships.

Thank you.

[To Andrew: Thank you, thank you. It was a great idea!]

Andrew Klaber:

A close accord between our two countries is essential for the good of mankind in this turbulent world.” So wrote George Marshall in a letter to the first class of Marshall scholars 60 years ago. George Marshall was a soldier, a statesman and a humanitarian. As a soldier, he served as the Secretary of Defence and the US Army Chief of Staff, organising the largest military expansion in US history during World War II. As a statesman, he served as secretary of state and as a humanitarian, he served as president of the American Red Cross. For all of this and his eponymous plan, George Marshall received the Nobel Peace Prize, the only career officer in the United States military to garner this honour.

A word about the Marshall Plan, a word about the Marshall Scholarship and then onto our main event. Consider the Marshall Plan’s scope and scale. A $13 billion undertaking, when it was announced in 1947, that is equivalent to $160 billion today. For perspective, our entire Foreign Aid budget last year, $52 billion. The Marshall Plan was three times that amount.

As a thank you to America for the Marshall Plan, the British created the Marshall Scholarship six decades ago as an enduring expression of gratitude, and an enduring expression of faith in our US- UK special relationship.

Marshall Scholars include Nobel Prize winning scientists, Pulitzer Prize winning authors, professors and university Presidents, including the most recent past Dean of this distinguished law school, Harold Koh, a Supreme Court justice, musicians and visual artists, astronauts, start-up, hedge fund banking and private equity titans, non-profit trailblazers, physicians, soldiers, cadets, marines, public servants, and as I recently learned from our quarterly newsletter, a discoverer of dinosaurs.

Marshalls who are currently on the scholarship in the UK often have the opportunity to meet with members of Parliament, Cabinet Secretaries, the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street and our honorary patron, his Royal Highness, Prince Charles. Not even George Marshall got to meet Prince Charles.

And so, in conclusion, this afternoon we’re in for a very special treat. Just as George Marshall and his Marshall Plan played an invaluable role in strengthening the cherished bonds between the United States and the United Kingdom, so too has Lord Rabbi Sacks strengthened the bonds of understanding between faith communities at home and abroad. And so too has President Salovey strengthened the bonds of understanding between Yale and New Haven, and Yale and the rest of the world. Urim V’ Tumim, “light and truth”, is Mother Yale’s motto. I have no doubt that today’s discussion will yield ample amounts of both. Please join me in welcoming President Salovey and Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

President Salovey:

[In an undertone to Andrew Klaber: Thank you, that was great.]

Thank you, Andrew and thank you once again for suggesting the idea of today’s programme. Once again, thank you all for coming. This is a wonderful assemblage of the Yale community and the greater New Haven community, and I’m delighted to see so many of you with us this afternoon.

It is now my great honour and pleasure to introduce our guest of honour, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Sacks is widely recognised as one of the world’s foremost religious leaders and as a philosopher, an author and a moral voice of our times.

He’s the Ingeborg and Ira Rennert Global Distinguished Professor of Judaic Thought at New York University, the Kressel and Efrat Family University Professor of Jewish Thought at Yeshiva University and a Professor of Law, Ethics and the Bible at King’s College, London.

From 1991 to 2013, he served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, only the sixth incumbent since that role was formalised in 1845.

He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2005 and made a Life Peer, taking his seat in the House of Lords in October 2009. Through his philosophical contributions to Judaism, and to society more widely, he is in the words of his Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, a light unto this nation (and I might add, to this world.)

Rabbi Sacks has published extensive writings, I know so many of you are familiar with them, including a widely read series of commentaries on the Torah and works on heritage, tradition, faith and religion and science. A book to be released in the United States this fall will examine the phenomena of religious violence and extremism.

Today, I’ll be talking with him more about faith, about the shifting global landscape, about education and about current affairs, and if we have a little time at the end I have some questions that some of you submitted on cards and we will try to get to them as well. So please join me in welcoming Rabbi Sacks.


Okay. Let me just get set up here and we’ll get started. Okay. There we go. So, Shalom Aleichem. You know, Yale University, and institutions of higher learning like it, are no longer religious institutions per se. And yet there seems to be a role that universities can play in promoting interfaith dialogue and promoting understanding and in promoting scholarship on religion itself.

And I’m curious how you view that role for a modern contemporary research university like Yale.

Rabbi Sacks:

Well, Mr. President, if I may, first of all, I want to say thank you on behalf of Elaine and myself for this wonderful invitation. It is the first time we’ve had the privilege of visiting Yale, and I regard this as a day we will never forget, to set foot in these holy acres, five United States Presidents, four of them since the ’70s, 19 Supreme Court Justices, 52 Nobel laureates. In the immortal words of that classic of American literature, The LEGO Movie, “Awesome!”

May I say, Mr. President, I am even more awestruck to be in your presence. To be number one, 23rd president of Yale, number two, the scion of surely the most distinguished rabbinic dynasty of recent times and number three, a pretty cool banjo player of bluegrass music. You don’t just teach multiple intelligences, you are multiple intelligences. So this is a huge privilege.

I think, in this context, a University set up by Congregationalists as a religious institution should remind us of a truth that we’re in danger of forgetting, that it was religion, the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Abrahamic tradition if you like, that understood the pursuit of knowledge as something that God wants from us.

And if I may, because this is really, you know, we’re just coming up to our festival of Passover. I think to myself, if you read the biblical narrative of Exodus 12 and 13, absolutely fascinating narrative.

Here you are, you’ve got the opportunity to make a speech that will go down in history as one of the great speeches of all time. Your people have been in exile for 210 years. They’ve been enslaved. They’ve been subject to slow genocide. And you, after a series of miracles, you as Moses, you’re just about to lead your people to freedom. You gather them together. What do you talk about?

You might talk about liberty. You might talk about the destination that lay ahead, the land flowing with milk and honey or if you were made of sterner stuff, you might talk about the difficulties you will encounter on the way, what Nelson Mandela called the “Long Walk to Freedom”. Any one of those things would have been a great speech of a great leader.

Moses did none of those things. Which made him a unique leader. Three times in those two chapters he comes back again and again and again to the same subject. “When your child asks you in the future this, answer him that…” When your children say ‘this’, answer them ‘that’. “You shall teach your child on that day.”

They want freedom and he is talking about education. He’s talking about the distant future. Why? Because to defend a country, you need an army, but to defend a civilisation, you need education. That is why Yale and places like it are the very foundation of a free society.

That was not the original vision of Yale’s founders, which was a specific faith. But now, Yale has widened it to accept two lobuses like us, two people from the other side like us, to sit together and join you in this collaborative pursuit of truth, and so, really has earned the basic concept of the University, the ‘universe of discourse’, where we put aside our prejudices, where we listen respectfully to those whose views are different from ours and where we realise that by arguing together, we may be able to avoid fighting together and that I salute Yale for and all it has shown from the day it was founded, but above all today.

President Salovey:

So first of all, thank you once again for being here. You’re very nice to recognise my family. I don’t think the Soloveitchik heritage has fully appreciated bluegrass music yet. You’re bringing the two together.

Rabbi Sacks:

You give them a bit more emotional intelligence, they’ll get it.

President Salovey:

Anyway. It’s interesting, sixty years ago, you’re right, when the Marshall Scholarship programme was founded, it would have been unthinkable for the two of us to be sitting here in front of an audience at Yale University having this conversation.

Maybe less unthinkable that a visiting Rabbi would have a dialogue with a University President, but there are probably other more unthinkable parts of this dialogue.

As I think about that and I think about how universities have changed in the sixty years of the Marshall Scholarship Programme, what about the future? What is our highest priority as a university pursuing the truth in the next decades ahead? What should we be doing?

Rabbi Sacks:

You know, just listening to Andrew talking about the Marshall Scholars, I think it is very important, you know, for me as an Englishman to pay tribute to George Marshall. I mean, here was a man who was not only great in winning a war, but greater still in winning a peace. It takes courage to win a war, but it takes wisdom and generosity of heart to win a peace.

I would have thought that is what has to be born here on campuses like this. Here is the place where people of all cultures and ethnicities… you know, I think this is true about universities throughout the world.

I remember going up to the University of Aberdeen just a year or two ago, thinking, [and by the way] that’s right in the North of Scotland. The only thing that really knows about Aberdeen are herrings. It’s the centre of the herring industry. I’m there for the sort of degree awarding ceremony and I see that almost every country under the sun, a large East European contingent, a lot of Chinese students are up in the North of Scotland – I think they heard about the malt whiskey, they didn’t hear about the weather – and I think, the university becomes as it were the matrix of that mindset that we will need if we are to successfully negotiate the 21st century: to respect, at one and the same time, both our commonalities and our differences.

We collaborate in pursuit of the truth, but each of us comes to that sacred arena from a different starting point, and it’s those differences brought to this common good of the pursuit of truth, of wisdom and understanding, that the world so badly needs nowadays. We are going through one of those periods when the pilot says, “Fasten your safety belts. We’re going through a period of turbulence.”

I don’t know if you saw the little editorial David Brooks did just a day or two ago, talking about what happens to leadership in troubled times. It gets more primal. It gets more defensive, aggressive. It begins to generate and deepen tensions, and that’s why you need a counter-force, and that counter force is the role of the university.

A great Scottish philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, once said, “Don’t ask of an institution, what does it do? Ask of it, of what conversations is it the arena?” The university is the place where people of all cultures and creeds can come together as voices in that conversation.

President Salovey:

So, let’s imagine for a minute stepping out of the University and into the public square. One of the conversations we’ve been having here is about the role of faith and faith communities in the public square.

Tony Blair was here and talked to us, taught our students about, in a way, his own personal faith journey and how it informed his work in Northern Ireland. I’d be interested in your own thoughts about the proper role of faith in the public square, both as a motivator of individuals and as a potential way of reconciling conflict.

Rabbi Sacks:

You must understand this, President, that British and American cultures are polar opposites in this respect. When Tony Blair was Prime Minister, everyone knew he was a very religious man. But whenever anyone asked him about religion, his Press Officer, Alistair Campbell intervened and said, “We don’t do God.”

It was actually forbidden to utter that word during the whole of his Prime Ministership. In America, every Presidential Inaugural Address since Washington’s first, (with the sole exception of Washington’s second), from 1789 to 2013 has mentioned God, which created a very interesting situation because President Barack Obama came to Britain a couple of years ago and addressed both Houses of Parliament. And I was standing next to a Bishop and I said, “Let’s see how he negotiates this. Because as an American President he’s got to mention God, and in the English Parliament he can’t.” We listened and he invoked “the Creator.” So he managed to signal deference without mentioning the ‘G’ word.


But the truth is, the role of religion in the public square – really, the first and last greatest word on this was really said by Alexis de Tocqueville back in 1832, the wisest observer of this of all time who, coming from France, understanding that religion had power but very little influence, coming to a country where First Amendment, separation of Church and State, where religion had no power at all, he expected to find it had no influence and found exactly the opposite, that it had an enormous amount of influence. He called it the first of America’s political institutions or as we would say nowadays, the first of its pre-political institutions.

What he realised was that religion did not get involved in party politics. He asked Ministers why, and they said because politics is divisive and if we got involved in it, we would become divisive too.

And so, they kept their role of supporting individuals, families, communities, charities, what he called the ‘art of association’, which he called the ‘apprenticeship of liberty’. And in general, maintaining the moral landscape, the moral garden, if you like.

And that is the role of religion today. It is in civil society as opposed to party political discourse, and its role is absolutely vital because look at America or look at England, you know, marriage is disappearing as an institution. 48% of children in England are born outside of marriage. Fewer people are marrying. They’re marrying later. 40% of marriage is ending in divorce. This is horrendous.

As for communities, a British medical charity did a research exercise two years ago and found the average 18 to 30-year-old British citizen has 237 Facebook friends. When asked, “On how many of those could you rely?” The average answer was “2”. We’re losing families. We’re losing communities. We’re becoming ‘the lonely crowd’.

And we need religion in the public domain as a unifying force by staying away from party politics, but as a moral force. I once called the religion, ‘the redemption of our solitude’ and we need it right now.

President Salovey:

Your comments remind me of a study done by my undergraduate advisor at Stanford University. He has now passed away, his name is David Rosenhan. And he was very interested in the role of religion in students’ lives and the way they thought about their religious commitments when they entered larger society after graduation.

Among his findings through surveys that he conducted was that 95% of college ctudents, this was at Stanford, actually, so California college students, endorsed the statement that ‘I believe in God’. 95% say yes. And then he asked, “Do you believe that this God is essentially involved in your daily life and is aware of the decisions you make and your everyday behaviour throughout your life?” And something like, I don’t remember the exact number, but something like two thirds of the students says, “Yes, I believe in a God who is aware of me as an individual, what I’m thinking and what I’m feeling.”

My guess is if David Rosenhan had also asked them, “And when you leave the University and you enter the public square, whether it’s the business world or professional world or public service or leadership, will your faith guide you in decision?” They would have rejected that. “No, no, no, no, no. That’s private. That’s my own…” Why the disconnect? Why the discontinuity between people’s beliefs and their sense of the role that faith can play in their role in the broader world?

Rabbi Sacks:

I wish I had an answer to that, because it seems to me that neither the founders of Yale, nor us today can possibly accept that. I mean, we grew up with the Prophets of Ancient Israel, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah. These were social critics, the world’s first social critics. They would’ve said a great deal, frankly, about what happens. Is there any nation state today that can actually control a multinational corporation, for instance? I mean, work this out: If they don’t like the tax regime here, they’ll go and base themselves there. If they don’t like the labour laws here, they’ll go move to another country. You are creating as a value-free zone, international capitalism.

Now, I mean, Adam Smith who wrote The Wealth of Nations, also wrote a book called Theory of Moral Sentiments. He did not believe you can run an economy without those moral values. And of course, we know from the most famous little bit of mathematical innovation of the 20th century, John von Neumann’s invention of Game Theory and the iterated prisoner’s dilemma, which tells you that two individuals pursuing their own interests will not maximise the good for either of them individually or collectively unless they trust one another. In other words, all the Adam Smith’s Wealth of the Nations market economics in the world will not get you the ultimate outcome that Adam Smith thought it would do, without the presence of trust. In fact, Adam Smith himself even gave it a quasi-religious description. He spoke of ‘the invisible hand’. And if that is not Divine Providence, I don’t know what is. But it was near to saying it as you could in Edinburgh, with David Hume, the atheist, within hearing distance. But you know, it was pretty good, nonetheless.

So the idea that you can leave God at home, and not when you go out into the market or into the professions [etc.]… Those demands for honesty, integrity, transparency, accountability, those things that the Prophets insisted on, we need even more today. So I never believed you could leave God at home, besides which, even if you tried to, He was there ahead of you in the marketplace.

President Salovey:

Very good. Given what is happening in the wider world and the topic of your new book [Not in God’s Name], I’m wondering if you’d be willing to entertain some questions about current affairs? And maybe we should start with recent events in Europe, the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the kosher supermarket attacks. Everybody is deeply troubled by these kinds of attacks by often young men with ties to extremist Islamic groups who use violence. How are we to understand religious extremism among Muslim communities in Europe? What do we think is driving it? What do we take accounts for it? And is it any different in the UK than on the continent?

Rabbi Sacks:

It’s a really tough one, which is why I wrote the book, because you know, if you can’t get it in a soundbite, you have to spend the 90,000 words to explain it. But let me, in the context of today’s conversation, tell you what I think has happened.

I think there was a huge move in Europe beginning in the 17th century, after a century of wars of religion. And we’re back there today, I mean, we’re really back in the 17th century and the great wars of religion. What happened then, of course, is a series of individuals sat down and said, are there things on which we of different faiths, whether we’re Catholic or Protestant, we can agree on? And out of that came not only the philosophy of Descartes and the science of Newton, but the political theory of Hobbes, and Locke, and Spinoza, and the birth of the modern.

And there was a feeling somehow that if you said goodbye to religious identity, which had been the cause of a century of war, then you can move into a universal order of reason and observation, whose twin deities would be science and philosophy. It was a beautiful dream, the 18th century dream, a dream of reason.

But the trouble is, that you know, there was a philosophy professor in Columbia called Sydney Morgenbesser. He was trying to explain to his students how Plato’s Theory of Forms didn’t quite work out. So he took them to a Jewish restaurant and he ordered soup. And the waiter said, “What do you want? Chicken soup, borscht, vegetable soup?” And Morgenbesser said, “No, I don’t want any of those. I just want soup.” Not having taken a course in philosophy, the waiter gave up in despair. But you cannot have identity in general. You have to have it in particular. Because that’s the only way you eat soup, and that’s the only way you speak a language. There is not a meta language. There are the 6,000 languages spoken today, plus the 6,001st, which is Google Translate. Have you noticed how Google translates everything into a language somewhat resembling English, devoid of any kind of comprehensibility? Anyway.

So you know, people in the 19th century rebelled against the age of reason, and the 19th century was the age of nationalism. It was the age of returning identities. And that, in the 20th century, led to two world wars. So the West has embarked on actually an almost unprecedented experiment, on a world without identities, in which all that matters is ‘the self’. And any larger affiliation is something we don’t talk about. Now, a world without identities, this hugely individualistic world in which moral relativism is the creed, postmodernism is the philosophy, whose icon is ‘the selfie’. (We are in the age of the selfie.) You cannot have a world without identities. You can’t take refuge in the universal, and you can’t take refuge in the individual. The tribes will somehow return.

And that is what’s happening among Muslim youth. They come from a tradition that venerates tradition, which has a very strong religious identity, and they cannot take a world in which there are no identities, in which religious commitments or loyalties are just laughed at. And religion in Europe is ridiculed. They can’t take it.

And I actually think there’s nowhere else for them to escape to. Are you with me? Because nationalism and national identities have disappeared. No European country today has a national identity. You ask an Englishman, “what makes England English?” They don’t know. They haven’t got a clue. We’ve abolished national identities.

America hasn’t. It still has a narrative. That narrative is still rehearsed by every President of America, every four years on January the 10th or 20th, or whenever it is, in his inaugural address. America has a narrative. England has no narrative. When I start talking to politicians about national narratives, they don’t even know what you’re talking about.

So trying to have a world without identity forces people to escape into identities. And when those identities are adversarial, when they are built on hostility to the modern world, then you get religious extremism and you get violence. And we have some very, very dangerous years ahead of us.

President Salovey:

So when Marta and I have difficulty sleeping, we often turn the radio on and listen to BBC World at night. Not because it helps us sleep, but because-

Rabbi Sacks:

It’s very good.

President Salovey:

It’s probably the best radio news that you can listen to in this country.

Rabbi Sacks:

It’s the best you can sleep to.


President Salovey:

And I believe this is where this came from: There was a BBC poll that showed that one out of four British Muslims felt some sympathy for the Charlie Hebdo attackers. And I wondered whether we should be concerned that one out of four British Muslims felt this way, or actually relieved that three out of four British Muslims do not feel that way. How do you understand that statistic?

Rabbi Sacks:

I will tell you very candidly that the people who are most concerned are the Muslim parents whose children are being radicalised. Because what is happening, of course, and this is why it’s happening now, what created the wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries was a revolution in information technology. It was called printing. The end result is that all the ideas really put forward by Martin Luther in his 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral had already been said at Oxford, one of my alma maters, (I’m sorry to bring up such things.)

But they’d been said by John Wycliffe in Oxford two centuries earlier. But Wycliffe was before printing and Luther was after printing. And the second you have a revolution in information technology, you can subvert all existing structures of authority, because you can reach people directly through the book. They don’t have to listen to the priest delivering the sermon.

And that is what is happening now. I mean, Islamist radicalism was really born in 1928 by the creation by Hassan al-Banna of the Muslim Brotherhood. But it has suddenly exploded into life now because of the internet. And the internet, not merely demolishes the authority of the mosque, it demolishes the authority of parents. These are parents whose kids are being radicalised by the internet and they don’t know how to control them. So we are in a very, very difficult situation. And it’s pretty scary for everyone in Europe right now, including, as I say, three-quarters of the Muslim community, scary to them as well.

President Salovey:

Let me follow that up with a little bit of a question on how we should talk about it. You know there’s been, in this country anyway, a sense that ‘Radical Islam’ is a misnomer maybe, or at least difficult to talk about. President Obama has been criticised for saying that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS, ISIL, is not about Islam at all. It’s not Islamic. The Prime Minister of France has said it’s the responsibility of Muslim leaders to step forward and combat extremism. Who should be talking to whom, and in what way?

Rabbi Sacks:

It’s a really tough one. I think, first of all, you are not going to solve a problem if you can’t actually talk about it, I think that’s a contradiction in terms. And we have to be able to talk about it without animus and without prejudice. And we have to talk about it with real humility. I mean, we as Jews know what it is to have civil war within Judaism. That was the situation in the first century as Vespasian and Titus were besieging Jerusalem. If you read Josephus, you will see that the Jews inside the besieged city were more intent on fighting one another than the enemy outside. Christianity was there in the 16th and 17th centuries.

So you can actually see that a clock ticks in the history of the Abrahamic monotheisms which says, roughly 1,500 years after the birth of religion there is civil war within the religion, and we know the outcome in each case, which is that eventually wise counsel say you have to separate religion from power. It is the only way, and it will be the only way within Islam, just as it was the conclusion reached by Christianity and by Judaism.

So when we talk about the civil war within Islam, between Sunni and Shi’a, extremists, moderates, all the rest of it, then we have to do so without the slightest sense of triumphalism, with a genuine sense of fellow feeling. Because whether we are Jew or Christian or other faith, we have been there before. We know what it feels like to be part of that. And I think we have to be able to talk about it, honestly, with humility and with humanity.

President Salovey:

Along those lines and in the spirit of fairness, traditional Judaism has had to deal with religious extremists within our own community. And I’m wondering if there are lessons to be drawn from how we have done so.

Rabbi Sacks:

Standing when they transferred World Economic Forum to New York in January 2002 out of sympathy to New York. And I stood with the Chief Rabbi of Israel, the Archbishop of Canterbury, with Imaums, and Gurus, and so on from the world at Ground Zero. I said, “if religion is part of the problem, it better be part of the solution.” And I resolved then to write a book to be published on the first anniversary of 9/11, which I did. It was a book called The Dignity of Difference.

Now, I was Chief Rabbi, but my own extremists in the community thought that this book went several miles too far. And I was accused of heresy. In fact, Rowan Williams had just become Archbishop of Canterbury and just a week or two before he became Archbishop of Canterbury he attended a Druid ceremony in Wales, i.e., a pagan ceremony. And I should have cut it out, but I never did. But there was a headline in the national press saying Archbishop of Canterbury and Chief Rabbi accused of heresy. I said to Rowan, there couldn’t have been that headline too many times in history. We really should have cut it out. I said, it’s got a wonderful flip side to it, that even if you’re a heretic, you can become a Chief Rabbi or an Archbishop of Canterbury.


Look, we all have extremists, and I think one of the beautiful things about Yale in particular, but about the university in general, is it facilitates not only interreligious engagement, but intrareligious engagement – people who wouldn’t necessarily have come together outside the university come together here. And so while you’re healing the rifts between faiths, you discover in a magical way that you help heal the rifts within faiths as well.

President Salovey:

I appreciate your saying that. Because I think it is something that the Jewish community on this campus is proud of creating, [rightly so] an ecumenical community, if that’s the right word, of people who believe very different things, and contradictory things, quite contradictory things, coming together and actually experiencing Yale and their Judaism together.

I think it was in yesterday’s paper – it might’ve been in this morning’s, but I think it was yesterday’s New York Times – an article about a westerner going off to fight in Syria. Or maybe it was joining ISIS, I’m not sure. And I was, as a psychologist, sort of wondering what would motivate someone to do that? And should we be worried when such individuals come back and re-join society. Are they going to grow out of it? I know that sounds completely ridiculous, but it’s a very odd phenomenon.

Rabbi Sacks:

It’s not phenomenon, and you can map it you know. There were these two extraordinary discoveries in the ‘40s, the famous made in Qumran of what came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the discovery in ’47. But two years, or slightly less than two years earlier, there was an equally fascinating discovery not that far away, called the Nag Hammadi manuscripts, which contained a series of texts that had been known in theory because they were condemned by Irenaeus in 180. But although people knew the titles of these books, they hadn’t seen them before and they kind of get known generically as the Gnostic Gospels. Now the Dead Sea Scroll sectarians were Jews. The Nag Hammadi devotees, Coptics, were Christians. But fascinatingly, since Judaism and Christianity are both monotheisms, what they had in common was they were both dualists. They saw the world as divided into the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, or “the Chosen” against Satan, and so on and so forth.

It’s very unusual to find monotheism giving rise to this kind of dualism. And it only happens in times of extreme turbulence where cognitive dissonance is too deep to bear, where the way the world is, is so unlike the way it ought to have been that you can no longer deal with this by saying all of this came from God. You’ve got to say the good stuff came from God, and the bad stuff came from the Devil or Satan, the AntiChrist, or what have you. You have to divide the world. That’s also, when you get the politics of the apocalypse, Messianic politics. There always were… there was Exodus politics, which is the mainstream Prophets, which is ‘we can get from here to there within normal history.’ But then you get a kind of despair beginning with a Prophet like Zachariah, Book of Daniel, and of course, New Testament, Book of Revelation, where the world seems so far from where it ought to be, that we can only get from here to there by some great cosmic encounter, some great cataclysm. And when you get dualism and the politics of the apocalypse, that is telling you that cognitive dissonance within a culture is just unbearable.

And this really is what is happening today within the world of Islam. And as I say, we can sort of trace that back to those two great manuscript discoveries, and put those under a microscope and see, in the end, what they led to. And I think that’s what’s actually happening within Islam because Islam is very, very much a monotheism, an austere monotheism. But the world of Isis, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and so on is really a world of the Children of Light against the Children of Darkness. That’s what Boko Haram means. A Western education is heretical and forbidden. So we are seeing Islam go through, as I say, what Judaism and Christianity went through at different times. This is not an unknown. It’s a very, very rare phenomenon.

President Salovey:

I think on this campus, maybe one of the things that impresses me, is the conversation we’re just having right now, this very topic I have watched as Muslim students here at Yale and Jewish students here at Yale, for example, eating food that is both halal and kosher, together, actually have this discussion.

And I’ve seen groups like JAMY, (Jews and Muslims at Yale), actually facilitate this conversation about this kind of thing. And both where does extremism come from, but how unique is it to any one group? And I’m impressed that they can handle a conversation like that and do really on a daily basis.

Rabbi Sacks:

This is an absolutely crucial conversation. When antisemitism began to return to Europe, I picked it up February, March 2002. I’d never encountered it before. I mean, most of my friends growing up were not Jewish, [yet] I never encountered a single episode of antisemitism until past my 50th birthday.

And in April 2002, I called in the leadership of the Union of Jewish Students. And I said, “things are going to get very tough for you on campus.” And they’ve been tough from that day to this. And I said, “We’re going to be there with you.” I was very close to the Jewish students. So, “we’re not going to leave you alone. We’re going to fight this fight with you, but I want you to do what in psychotherapeutic terms, they call paradoxical intervention. I want you to, right now, lead a campaign against Islamophobia.” And that’s what our Jewish students did.

They were experiencing antisemitism, but they were working with Muslims to fight the prejudice Muslim students faced. Out of that grew something called The Coexistence Trust, Jews and Muslims fighting antisemitism and Islamophobia together. It was born in our students circles just like yours, and this is the great hope for the future.

I said to, when he was still Crown Prince, Hassan of Jordan, after the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin, I went over to see him in Amman. And I said to him, “what is going to bring out our two faiths together?” And he gave me a very beautiful answer. He said, “our shared history of tears.” I doubt there’s a faith in the world that has not known suffering and persecution. Certainly, Christianity had its full measure of them in its early centuries and all the way through.

Today, Christians in the Middle East are suffering. I think what is happening to Christians in the Middle East today is the crime against humanity of our time. I think Christian communities are being devastated in Iraq and Afghanistan. The last church was burned to the ground in 2010, you’ve got 5 million Coptic Christians living in fear in Egypt, almost every Christian in Syria who could leave has left. You have one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, Mosul, where today there’s not a single Christian left. So I think we all know tears and I think we have to share those tears. And that can be the way of turning the curse into a blessing, the darkness into light.

President Salovey:

So you’re really arguing for engagement and empathy, and then leadership in some kind of mutual understanding. I’m wondering how that squares with the data on Europeans, particularly French is the data I saw, Jews making Aliyah to Israel. They’re leaving and in greater numbers than ever before. Now, they’re going to Israel, so one might argue that that is a positive thing in its own right. But putting that aside for a moment they’re choosing not to stay and not to engage and not to try to build something different in the spirit that you just described. Should we be concerned about that?

Rabbi Sacks:

Peter, you know, just work this one out. We are 120 years since 1895, since Theodor Herzl, a Viennese Jew, sent by his newspaper to become its Paris correspondent, stood outside the courtyard when judgement was proclaimed against Dreyfus and heard the crowd shouting, Morts Aux Juifs, ‘Death to the Jews’. Now, Theodor Herzl knew that there had been Pogroms in more than 100 towns in Russia in 1881, the notorious antisemitic May Laws in 1882. He knew antisemitism was still there, but to experience it in Paris, the cultural and intellectual centre of Europe, that convinced him Jews had no place in Europe. Now, to know that last summer, 120 years on, those same words were heard on the streets of Paris, that sent shivers down your spine. To know that within living memory of the Holocaust, many Jews feel it is not safe to be a Jew in mainland Europe anymore. I mean, if France loses its Jews, forgive me for saying this, France will have lost its soul.

So this is a horrendous, horrendous situation. And the fact that it’s antisemitism should not blind us to the fact that the hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews. And therefore, it is not Jews who are on the line. It is freedom that’s on the line. The freedom for which Europe fought those intellectual and cultural battles for 400 years. This is the biggest battle of the 21st century for the West. The soul of the West is on the line, and we have to be able to stand together, Jew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, whatever, and my beloved atheists, like my wonderful friend, Richard Dawkins, with whom I have these wonderful fruity conversations. It’s our humanity on the line here because we are seeing a religion, in great pain, regressing to some very emotionally unintelligent territory, and 90% of the victims of Islamist violence are Muslim.

And so, this is the battle of our time, and we have to fight it. As I say, with the wisdom of a Marshall, knowing not only how to win a war, but how to win a peace. And that will need greatness of soul on the part of all of us and the willingness to speak and hold out the hand of friendship across boundaries and the realisation that we are enriched by our diversity, just as we are humanised by our commonality, that the whole of humanity is this metronome between our commonalities and our differences. As I put it, ‘if we were completely different, we couldn’t communicate. And if we were exactly the same, we’d have nothing to say.’ So if we can handle that, what I call ‘the dignity of difference’, we will have a future. If not, I think there are tough and turbulent times ahead.

President Salovey:

Yeah, that’s certainly the case.

Let me return to Yale, to this campus. We have had a struggle, I would say, a bit this year, previous years, around trying to draw lines between legitimate criticism of the government of Israel or of Israel and antisemitism and statements that are antisemitic. And it’s a difficult one, I think. Honest people often don’t come to the same conclusion about where those lines should be drawn, can be drawn. And I’m wondering if you can help us draw those lines.

Rabbi Sacks:

I think the line is simple. Jews have been the most self-critical people in history.

President Salovey:

Certainly my family, well described that way.


Rabbi Sacks:

I remember doing public conversation in Israel with a well-known leading secularist in Israel, the novelist Amos Oz, and he began… his opening sentence was, I’m not sure that I’m going to agree with Rabbi Sacks on everything, but then on most things, I don’t agree with myself. So that’s the Jewish way. We know what it is to criticise the State of Israel. Every Israeli taxi driver does it the whole time. And the essence of free speech is you expose yourself to the vulnerability of being criticised. You cannot have a free society without creating that openness, that freedom of speech, and that vulnerability out of which we grow. It is when there are attempts to silence the voice, that I have serious worries. Academic freedom means being willing to listen respectfully to views with which you do not agree.

Now, we have an Israeli Ambassador in London, the most wonderful man, Daniel Taub, not quite a Yale graduate, but almost. A graduate of Oxford and Harvard, a gentle man, an intellectual man, who went up to the University of Edinburgh and was shouted down for an hour. And I thought, the University of Edinburgh, a 14th century University, the home, in the 18th century, of the Scottish enlightenment, free speech was just abandoned in one of the great universities of Europe. I don’t know how anyone could allow that to happen.

It is not only a Jewish principle and a Christian principle, “Justice shall thou pursue”. It is not only the essence of Judaism, that we have a whole book of the Bible, Job, where Job is given the freedom to criticise God and God doesn’t accuse Job of being an anti-Semite.

So, that’s fine. But it’s not only a Judeo-Christian principle, it is a fundamental axiom of Roman law that justice requires, Audi Alteram Partem, listen to the other side. And so long as a university can guarantee that, and it doesn’t matter how critical it is, that is not antisemitic, that is not an assault on academic freedom.

But when there’s an attempt to ban, to silence a voice, then we reached the stage of which Julien Benda wrote in 1927 in France, looking at what was happening to universities in Europe, and you remember, he wrote a book with a very famous title, La Trahison des Clercs, The Treason of the Intellectuals. It’s a very famous title. It’s not a very famous book because those four words are about the only four words that you can understand in the entire book. Its meaning is elusive, if I can put it that way, but he does say at one point, with Books Et Veritas, no less, he does say that academic life used to be about the pursuit of truth. And however far short of it you fell, you were at least lifted by what you were pursuing. Nowadays, he said, and listen to his phrase, ‘universities have become places for the intellectual organisation of political hatreds.’ Now, if that happens to a culture, we’re in danger. So, no criticism of Israel is anti-Zionist or antisemitic, but the attempt to silence the voice, that is a betrayal.

President Salovey:

Hmm. Thank you. Do we have time for one question from the audience? Yes? One. Okay. So, I’ve been given a stack of cards from all of you on the way in, and I’m going to look, if you don’t mind, I’m going to look for one that’s a little more personal, and I think I just found it. Yeah. Okay.

I think one of our students may have written this question, and we’ll finish on this note: “If you are Rabbi Lord Sacks, is it easier to manage a congregation than it would be for the average pulpit Rabbi in the UK?”


So, I’m just noticing we talked about some of the most controversial things that one could talk about in front of an audience and while live-streaming. And you didn’t pause before any of the other questions.

Rabbi Sacks:

You think they know what is a Lord? In synagogue, we’re all equal. Let me be very blunt with you. Being a Lord doesn’t help you at all. But it does, I think, allow me to answer the question that I am sometimes asked, which is: ever since I was admitted to the House of Lords, they say, which do you prefer, the House of Lords or the house of the Lord? And I say, “given the choice, always choose the house of the Lord, because in the house of the Lord, only the Rabbi gives a sermon. In the House of Lords, everyone gives a sermon.”


President Salovey:

On that note. I think we’d like to thank you Rabbi Lord Sacks. Thank you so much. Thank you. That was great. Thank you so much. That was great.

[Applause and a standing ovation]

President Salovey:

A wonderful note to end on, thank you so much!