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Jews without Borders

January 27, 2011 | by Yitzchok Adlerstein

Exploring the Jewish responsibility to the broader world.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, kindly agreed to be interviewed for this special section of Jewish Action exploring our responsibility to the broader community. The Chief Rabbi has spent his life in the public arena, influencing society at large and providing a living example of the Torah’s universal truths.

Yitzchok Adlerstein: There is little doubt that you have become identified in the Orthodox world with successfully distilling Torah messages for consumption by the non-Jewish world. Presumably, you have enough to keep you occupied as Great Britain’s chief rabbi without seeking out such a role. Why did you step into this role? Or did you perhaps inherit it from your predecessor, Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, z”l, who was also a public figure, as well as a great influence on Margaret Thatcher?

Jonathan Sacks: First of all, I want to stress that this vocation of mine is not a function of being the chief rabbi. I don’t want people to think that I fill it because I occupy that office, nor that you need to be the chief rabbi in order to convey Torah ideas to non-Jews. I began broadcasting to the general public before I became chief rabbi. After some time, I was invited to offer the Reith Lecture on the BBC. [Each year the BBC invites a leading figure to deliver a series of lectures, called the Reith Lectures, on radio. The aim is to advance public understanding and debate about significant issues of contemporary interest.]

I firmly believe that Torah can and must be able to provide guidance to general culture.

The very first Reith lecturer was the philosopher Bertrand Russell. I became the second religious figure in England to be invited to speak.

The fact is that articulating the Torah’s message to the general culture is something I very much wanted to do, and I made a conscious decision that I was going to do it. It seemed to me that the best way to go about it was to become – for lack of a better term – a public intellectual. This may sound more presumptuous than it is. A public intellectual is someone with background in serious analytic thought who can be counted upon to share his thinking with the general public. My secular training was in philosophy, and I am passionate about Torah. I also firmly believe that Torah can and must be able to provide guidance to general culture. Thus, I had a few of the necessary tools to offer some of the Torah’s illumination to whomever wanted to listen, and I set out to do so.

The prestige of the Chief Rabbi’s Office helps, of course–as did the precedent of my predecessor, the late Lord Jakobovits, z”l. But I would like to think that the receptivity to my messages extends beyond the ex officio reach of the head of the British rabbinate. The next few months alone will take me to places that are not organically connected to the religious hierarchy of English life. In October, I will be at Emory University in Atlanta, as a panel participant alongside the Dalai Lama and a Wahhabi imam. From there I will travel to the Jefferson Rotunda to deliver a three-part lecture series for the University of Virginia.

Related Article: WorldPerfect

YA: So it would be appropriate to say that you spotted a crack in the edifice of centuries of non-Jews’ rejection of everything Jewish, and you stepped into it?

It is important to understand just how greatly beholden modern Western man is to Hebrew Scripture.

JS: Absolutely not. It would be inaccurate to see receptivity to the Torah’s wisdom as a new phenomenon. It is important to understand just how greatly beholden modern Western man is to Hebrew Scripture. Many of the pillars of modern political thought rest on a bedrock foundation of Torah. Thomas Hobbes cites Tanach some 700 times in The Leviathan. John Locke’s Letter on Toleration similarly leans on Scripture; and these are not isolated examples. The Reformation encouraged people to return to the Bible. Prior to the Reformation, the Catholic Church had taken a dim view of laypeople studying Scripture on their own. One of the foundational elements of Protestantism was sola scriptura – that Man needed no other accessory to connect to the Creator than what was contained in His Word.

The Reformation restored the primacy of the revealed Word of God in contradistinction to the authority of the Pope. Protestants welcomed the invention (or Western rediscovery) of printing, and the proliferation of printed Bibles in the vernacular in the sixteenth century. They saw the invention of the printing press as a clear sign that Divine Providence had blessed their enterprise. Through the Reformation, the Bible assumed enormous power, which was quickly reflected in the political stirrings of the period that followed. Some of the themes of the Bible essentially inspired and breathed life into these stirrings. In the Jewish Bible, prophets can criticize kings! In America, Thomas Paine, the father of the American Revolution, saw himself as an atheist. Yet, he began Common Sense with a political reading of Tanach.

YA: Surely there is a difference. Christians in the past were willing to accept the Word of God found in the Bible as a document disembodied from the people who first gave it to the world. They still generally scoffed at the notion of going to Jews, whom they often detested, for enlightenment. People today are seeking you out, not the Bible.

JS: What I am saying is that Jews are far too reticent in acknowledging the pride of place that Torah has in the shaping of the world in past centuries. Would they realize it, they would be less surprised that Torah today has an enormous amount to offer a world in which people are ready to learn from anyone, including Jews.

Remember that Judaism is a religion of this-worldly redemption. So much of our Bible resonates with the chief preoccupations of contemporary civil society. When organizers of a large undertaking of international debt belief looked for a name a decade ago, they hit upon “Jubilee 2000.” They understood exactly where the notion of restoring economic wholeness to society was sourced.

Many non-Jews almost instinctively recognize that ideas that animate them must have been dealt with in the older Jewish tradition. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown once asked for my assistance in launching a program of government-sponsored care for children. I told him about the time the Alter Rebbe of Chabad came upon the Mittler Rebbe, deeply engrossed in learning, apparently oblivious to the cry of a small child in another part of the house. The Alter Rebbe tended to the child, and returned to chide the Mittler Rebbe, “If you could be deaf to the cry of a child, it could not have been Torah you were learning.”

Related Article: Jewish Values for a Secular World

YA: Assuming we accept your premise that Jews can offer a tremendous amount of wisdom to the non-Jewish public, why should we? Oftentimes, in our past, when Jews spoke out or took positions, their words came back to haunt them when there was a regime change or a cultural shift. Why should we not concentrate on our internal needs, and suffice it to be good but silent neighbors in relationship to the non- Jewish world?

JS: Firstly, we have to recognize that the world has indeed changed. In the West, we live as part of the collective, not on its margins as a begrudgingly tolerated minority of outsiders. The issues that face the collective – the environment, inequities in sharing wealth, the clash of cultures, the loosing of Man from his previous moral moorings – all of these are our problems alongside our fellow world travelers. Even if we were to somehow tell ourselves that Hashem wants us to focus on a different contribution to the world through our unique role as Jews, our neighbors think differently. For the privilege of participating in society as equals, they expect us to use our talents and resources for the betterment of society as a whole – in the here and now, and not in the hastening of a Messianic redemption alone. It is the price they expect us to pay to live alongside them as co-equals.

Secondly, there is good reason to reach out to the non-Jewish world for purely self-serving reasons. It is sometimes easier to reach them than to reach other Jews! Some of our greatest prophets spoke volumes, and no one listened. Yonah needed only five words – “Od arba’im yom veNinvheh nehefechet,” “In 40 days, Ninveh is overthrown,” and the non-Jews repented! When I became chief rabbi, I made a point of trying to meet as many British Jews as possible. I made the rounds to every shul I could. Not everyone was warm to my message. At the same time, I started broadcasting more often and writing for the general public. Jews who had disagreed with me were startled when their non-Jewish associates sauntered over to them and spoke approvingly of their chief rabbi and what he said. The approval of the non-Jews convinced many a Jewish skeptic to reconsider the points I had made.

Can we afford not to participate in the great conversations that will shape our culture and the human future?

Time and time again, I have met up with leading Jewish non-observant intellectuals and asked them why they battle on in their personal crusades for various causes. Almost invariably, they respond with some Jewish phrase, like tikkun olam or “tzedek, tzedek tirdof!” “you shall assiduously pursue justice.” Some of the most gifted Jewish minds like Leon Kass on medical ethics and Michael Sandel on political philosophy are clearly animated by Jewish tradition even though they do not cite it explicitly. Others, like the psychotherapists Aaron T. Beck, Martin Seligman and the late Viktor Frankl, have developed a distinctively Jewish approach to refuat hanefesh, healing the soul, as opposed to Sigmund Freud whose inspiration lay in the ancient Greeks and, as a result, took a tragic view of the human condition deeply incompatible with the Jewish sensibility of hope. Can we afford not to participate in the great conversations that will shape our culture and the human future? Whenever this happens I hear the heavenly voice that, according to the sages, cries every day, “Oi le’elbonah shel Torah, Woe for the humiliation of the Torah.” There is an aspect of Torah – kedushah, the code of holiness – that is particular to the Jewish people. But there is a no less significant aspect of Torah – chachmah, its Divine wisdom – that is universal, addressed by the Creator to the whole of creation. That too is one of the tasks with which we are charged as the People of the Covenant.

YA: You make it sound so easy. Why aren’t more Jews effective in wowing the non-Jewish world?

JS: Some of our efforts in the past failed because Jewish intellectual figures were too condescending, particularly nineteenth-century German Jews. Their message was paternalistic: “We Jews have long had the truth, and you people have not quite reached it yet.” No one was ready to listen to that. Our times have been described as the age of “the death of deference.” People are not going to accept what you have to say because you represent an ancient tradition or because your role is robed in authority. People will tune out if you tell them what they must think, rather than present the reasons why they might agree. Our approach has to be more subtle and inviting, offered with humility, rather than speaking from on high. We should say to them, “Here is some thinking that has worked for us. Try it out and use it if you find it helpful. If not, that is fine with us as well.”

YA: Thank you, Rabbi Sacks, for giving generously of your time and insight.

JS: You are most welcome.

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union (fall 2010). Visit their site at

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