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Beacon of Faith: A Conversation with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

October 28, 2021 | by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Rabbi Sacks on faith in God, making prayer meaningful, Jewish music and more.

In 2018, I had the opportunity to interview Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks who was visiting our community in Boca Raton. To commemorate his first yahrtzeit, here is a condensed and edited transcript of that conversation.

You are a beacon of faith - you promote faith, you teach faith, and you inspire faith, not only among the Jewish community and Jewish people but around the world. Do you ever struggle with faith? Do you ever feel that you confront doubt? And in those moments of uncertainty, what do you do to overcome it?

Let me be very blunt with you. I have had many crises of faith. But I have never had a crisis of faith in God. I have had many crises of faith in man. One crisis began as soon as I began to understand the Holocaust and to understand that this took place in the heart of civilized Europe, not some third world country in some medieval century.

I have never had a crisis of faith in God. I have had many crises of faith in man.

The biggest question of faith I had was: knowing all this was going to happen, how come God had faith in us? But I never lacked faith in God because I never expected the impossible from Him. I know perfectly well that He placed each of us here for a purpose and we are supposed to discern that and to walk ahead.

For me, the critical moment that defined my faith was achieved when I learned the Torah portion of Chayei Sarah. It begins with the death of Sarah. There is Abraham, having lost his life companion at the age of 137. At that point, he has received from God three promises: Number one – I will give you the land. He promised that to him seven times. Number two – I will give you children – He promised that to Abraham four times. I will make you a great nation, they will be as many as the stars in the sky, as the sand on the seashore. And finally, I will make you not one nation but many nations.

But he has only one son.

Where was the father of many nations? Where was the infinite number of descendants? What did Abraham do at that moment when he should have had a crisis of faith?

He understood that God said “Walk on ahead of me.” So, he bought the first plot of land. He then made sure his son got married so he would have Jewish grandchildren. Later, in a strange episode, he takes an additional wife named Keturah and has six more children, who become the fathers of many nations.

In other words, instead of expecting God to do it for him, Abraham realized that God was expecting him to do the hard work for Him. Once I understood that I never ever had a crisis of faith.

What do you do when you run into a rough patch when you’re having trouble connecting with praying, when you feel distant, when it’s not flowing, and you don’t feel as much the presence of the Almighty?

There are several things one can do: Number one I try to listen as I’m praying and be surprised by one phrase or one sentence in the prayer book, and that will be my meditation for the day. I’ll focus on that. It may stay with me for a week.

Rabbi Sacks obm, with Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

For example, we say every day "God creates the cosmos and knows the name of every star." That’s God the Creator. Then it says "God builds Jerusalem and ingathers the exiles." That’s God as the shaper of history. But in between those two verses is a middle verse: "Who heals the broken heart, administers to their wounds." There is King David, the author, telling us that sometimes healing one person’s broken heart is as important as creating a universe or shaping history. You can live off that one sentence for a year.

Concentrate on one little thing at a time.

Concentrate on one little thing at a time. The second point is that prayer has to be sung. I’ve said many times that when language seeks to break free of the gravitational pull of earth, it modulates from speech to song. I’ve spent a lot of time in my chief rabbinate encouraging chazzanim to write new liturgical music, to use songs to make the service more participative, and to encourage shul choirs. I’m not an expert in music but I made that a key element. We used a lot of musical creativity I think that music frees the spirit and if you are ever short of meditative intent, you need to have the song to pray with.

Thirdly, something might just catch you if you create the silence in your soul to listen. When I’m at a critical point in my life, which is pretty much every day, I just listen: God, what are You telling me? Somehow prayer orients you. I call prayer “Jewish cognitive behavioral therapy.” It changes the way you look at the world; it changes the way you feel about the world.

We are always promoting more Torah learning and kindness opportunities. Some are involved in social action and social justice. What do you think that the Jewish community can be spending more productive time promoting that is being overlooked? Are there initiatives and emphases we should be focusing on that we are neglecting?

I think all that goes with the affective dimension of Judaism, the emotional life, is being neglected. There’s some nice Jewish music here, but some of the most popular music is actually non-Jewish pop music set to Jewish words or acapella, which is great. I love it. The Maccabeats - I’m their biggest fan. But I like to see music coming from the Jewish soul. I think we haven’t done enough with the affective dimension, and music is probably the most important.

We write everyone else’s music. Irving Berlin wrote “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,”, Mahler’s eighth symphony, Catholic mass. Where do we write our music? I think we are missing the aesthetics of it and music is the most obvious example.

When it comes to a spiritual possession, the more you share the more you have.

Cinema, too, isn’t used enough in this regard. I think we haven’t done enough with that to tell people what the life of faith does for you. I have so many stories that I think ought to be made into film. Stories of ordinary people I know who have done extraordinary things.

I also believe we need to be doing more outreach. The difference between material possessions and spiritual possessions is that the more you share material possessions the less you have. But when it comes to a spiritual possession, the more you share the more you have. When you don’t give, something in your spirit dies.

A personal question: When we look at your life and productivity, whether the trajectory of ascending to the chief rabbinate, publishing 30 books, 17 honorary degrees, being named a Lord, etc., it just seems that you have had success after success, triumph after triumph. Have you ever experienced failure? Have you ever had any challenges that you couldn’t overcome and what gave you the tenacity to persevere?

Ha! Have I ever experienced failure?! My goodness me! Oooh! [Laughter.]

I nearly failed my first year in university. I nearly failed my second year in university. I was turned down for virtually every job that I applied for. Since I was a kid, I wanted to write a book. I started when I was 20 and I gave it every minute of spare time that I had. Even when Elaine and I went to a concert I would be writing notes during intervals or between movements during a symphony. Yet, I failed for 20 years! From 20 to 40 I had a whole huge file cabinet of books I started and never finished.

What changed is I happened to be reading the preface to “Plays Unpleasant” by George Bernard Shaw. It opens by saying that if you’re going to write a book, write it by the time you’re 40 or forget it. I thought it was a sign from God. Someone is telling me something because I had no idea why I happened to read that passage by that writer at that time. I thought to myself that it was my last chance. So, I wrote my first book at 40 and then I wrote a book a year ever since.

Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.

Winston Churchill put it beautifully: success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. The secret was marrying someone who believes in you and then to just keep going. Never stop! Keep on going, day after day.

It is absolutely necessary to key into your mental satellite navigation system, your destination. Because if you don’t know where you’re trying to get to, you’ll never get there. I knew I wanted to write a book. It took 20 years of failure until I finally succeeded in the twenty-first year.

Are there specific moments that you felt God's guiding Hand in your life, that things could have gone in different directions, and those moments specifically stand out that it guided you to where you are now?

I feel that way most of the time! I nearly drowned on my honeymoon. I couldn’t swim and I had just gone under for the fifth time. We were in Italy and there was no one near me. I remember thinking just before I was about to die – what a way to begin a honeymoon. And, what’s the Italian word for help?

Rabbi Sacks, obm, with his wife, Elaine

Every day I thank God for returning my soul to me. I’ve twice suffered life threatening medical conditions, two forms of cancer. Both times I met the people that I needed to meet at the right time. My father a”h, who never had an education, left school when he was 15. But he had a simple faith. He just believed that God would take him where he needed to be. I think I learned that from him. You put your trust in God; He knows better than you. I feel that every single day – without exaggeration. It’s a mental exercise. I will constantly say to myself or to Elaine: why did that happen?

It takes the simple question: what can I do, or what am I being called on to do, given that this has happened?

I’ll give you the weirdest example: In 2010 I received from Princeton Theological Seminary an award called the Abraham Kuyper Prize, awarded to somebody who has made a significant contribution to Dutch Neo-Calvinist theology. I don’t know how many Rabbis have such a thing. I was thinking then: what does God want me to have this for?

Two years later the Dutch parliament banned shechita, kosher slaughter. The Dutch community is quite small, and they asked me to address the Twin Houses of Dutch Parliament. Abraham Kuyper, whose award I won, was Prime Minister of Holland a century ago. He was also Minister of Religion. So, I began my speech by saying that you might be asking what a member of the British Parliament is doing addressing the Dutch Parliament? But I may be the only rabbi that has the prize for his contribution to Dutch Neo-Calvinist theology. It gave me a kind of visiting card and I said, ‘Thank you, God, now I understand why that happened’. But it’s a constant discipline.

It takes the simple question: what can I do, or what am I being called on to do, given that this has happened?


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