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The Jewish Response to the Economic Collapse – Exclusive Algemeiner interview with Britain’s Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

June 5, 2009 7:26 am 1 comment

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I understand a main purpose of your trip to the states is the promotion of your new siddur, published by Koren, what prompted you to undertake this task?

I think many people really don’t connect with prayer at the deeper levels of the mind or the emotions. Prayer should be uplifting, moving, poetic, sometimes joyous and sometimes reflective. We can’t just go through the motions. It is difficult to stop yourself each time and say, now what does that mean? How does that relate to me? And of course you can’t do that with every word in prayer but you can try as I do, that each time I pray , I try and be surprised by something so that a thought will stay with me after I finish praying.

So the siddur is an attempt to capture that?

Yes, why do we say, what we say, when we say it. You know when you glance at your bookshelf and notice a book in the wrong place, you try and think back to why you put it there, and that is very much what I did with the siddur. Why is that prayer there? In some cases the overall structure is very clear but no-one really took the trouble to spell it out before, and the search to find an answer to that turned out in every case to be a huge voyage of discovery.

So what is next in the pipeline following this?

I have agreed with Koren, though it’s a huge project, to work on a new Chumash. A new translation and commentary that is kind of like a life’s work. A machzor a little further down the line.

Moving on from the siddur, to some contemporary topics, specifically some of the challenges that are facing Jews today. In your book the Dignity of Difference you discuss the basis in the Torah for Free market Capitalism, what would you say is the Jewish message to the business community in the face of the economic crises and the challenges that capitalism has recently faced?

In the two major lectures that I delivered on economics in Britain, I spoke about markets and morals.  Markets need morals that are not produced by markets and without morals markets will eventually collapse. Markets tend to erode morals therefore they need to come from an independent source.  The financial collapse happened because basic principles of accountability were not followed. We have a whole portion in the Torah, Pekudei, which is all about publishing accounts.  In addition, there is a principle in Judaism that one should not put a stumbling block before the blind, and here were mortgage companies signing people on for loans knowing that they couldn’t repay.

The kind of business ethics that are at the core of Judaism and have been for a very long time were broken. The wisdom of Judaism tells us that if you ignore morality, markets will eventually collapse, because they are based on trust.

What would you say are the biggest challenges that face the Jewish people today?

The biggest challenge is spiritual, if we have real pride in who we are, faith in the vocation to which we have been called and a real sense of spiritual commitment and engagement then we can handle all the problems.  The three great challenges are 1.The return of Anti Antisemitism 2.Isolation of Israel 3.Continued assimilation and out-marriage. Programs, funding, conferences and organizations are all necessary, but they will not solve the problems in themselves, rather as Zechariah’s statement says ‘not by strength, not by might but by spirit says G-d’. So I think the deepest challenge is spiritual and that’s why we produced the siddur.  It is to renew the Jewish spirit by a renewed encounter with prayer and the rest will follow, without spirit we are going to find it hard to deal with these problems.

So is this need for renewed spirituality also connected to the economic difficulties we discussed earlier?

OK here goes, just on the brink of the financial collapse, the English artist Damian Hurst put up a sculpture for sale at Sothebys which fetched ten and a half million pounds. It was called the Golden calf and was the most beautiful perfect epitome of everything that was going wrong, because the golden calf happens when you stop thinking of gold as a medium of exchange and you start thinking of it as something to be worshiped. When that happens some fateful split happens in society and the individual mind, and we begin to focus on the price of things and we forget about the value of things. We know the value of a house is that it is a home, it is where a family gets together to relate and love but people stopped thinking about the value of the house and started thinking about the price of the house. People borrowed more and took out bigger mortgages creating an upward spiral in house prices and thus loans which could not possibly be sustained.  It all collapsed because people were obsessed with the price of things and not the value.

If you read the Torah immediately before and after the sin of the golden calf, Moshe relates the same commandment in Ki Sissah and Vayakel, Shabbos. So how is Shabbos the antidote to the golden calf? The answer is because Shabbos is the day we concentrate on the things that have value but not price, family, personal and community.  We give thanks to G-d for what we have instead of worrying about what we don’t have, including all the things that seem to get edged out in a consumer driven competitive environment. Judaism sees nothing wrong with a market run economy, but there is a limit, you mustn’t let it take over your whole life, 6 days out of 7 is quite enough. You have to have a day for the things that have value but not a price or in the language of time management the things that are important but not urgent.

People seem to be wondering where are today’s Jewish visionaries and what can be done to cultivate a new generation of leaders that are driven by vision and courage?

This is the subject of my next book which appears next week in bookstores in Britain. It’s called ‘The future tense, Jews, Judaism and Israel in the 21st century’.  It is a challenge to a new generation of Jewish leaders to think differently about the Jewish future, to stop thinking of ourselves as victims, stop thinking of ourselves as the people that dwell alone and start thinking about Judaism as a way of life, as a faith and as an approach to the world.  I offer in this book my one line definition of Judaism “Judaism is the voice of hope in the condescension of Humankind”.  Nowadays when you read about Jews it’s about Antisemitism, the holocaust, boycotts, Israel’s  50% out -marriage rates, but that is not who we are, these are the problems.  Where do I read in the news about Judaism having a message of hope for humankind, yet when I lecture in America at various institutions, they are hungry for a Jewish message and they certainly don’t want a Jewish message which says ” the world hates Jews”. We are the world’s oldest and most persistent victims, I don’t think anyone wants that message. If you tell a young generation of Jewish teenagers, we want you to know about Jewish history come to Auschwitz, Bergen Belsen and Treblinka and you’ll know what it is to be a Jew, then they will have 2 or 10 thoughts before marrying another Jew and having Jewish children. Who wants to confer the status of victimhood onto their children and grandchildren? I’m afraid we have been walking in precisely the wrong direction by focusing on all the negatives of recent Jewish history and the Jewish present and have failed to connect with the spirit. We have failed to connect with the positives and we have failed to connect with the message of Jews to humankind “through you will all the families of the earth be blessed”. When you give over this message everyone responds, Jew and Non-Jew alike so I wrote this book to challenge the next generation of Jewish leaders and the generation after to think about Judaism in a completely new way.

So you mention that Judaism in the Religion of Hope, you have also written a book called the politics of hope, there is a prominent politician that has written a book called the audacity of hope, where could he have got the idea from?

No -When I can’t sleep at night which is quite often, I surf Amazon.com. Three years ago I discovered that somebody else had written a book about politics with the word hope in the title so I decided I must buy this book and read it, he must be a kindred spirit. I thought he absolutely got the plot and understood exactly the message that our generation needs.  I had never heard of him before, who was this Barack Obama? But when I heard he was a presidential candidate, I had no doubt that he would win, because there was no way that Hillary Clinton or John Mc Cain could connect with that message. At times of turbulence people turn to their leaders to provide them with a compelling narrative of hope, and that is what Obama did. I sometimes advise politicians, and that is what I advise then to do. There is a big difference between optimism and hope, optimism is easy, hope is hard, knowing what we know of our people’s history, no Jew can be an optimist, but you can’t be a Jew and lose hope. It is no accident that after 2000 years, when Jews returned to their own land they chose a national anthem and called it Hatikvah (the hope), this I think, is Judaism’s greatest message to the world.

You turn to the Greeks for tragedy, Christianity for an account of original sin, Islam for an Idea of submission and you turn to Judaism for a message of hope.  I feel non-Jews want that even more than Jews, the need of our time is to find hope. Now, Jews are no strangers to economic recession, for a thousand years Jews never knew if tomorrow they would lose all their possessions whether it was due to a tax or expulsion, Jews were expelled from every place in Europe.  We know what it is to live through insecurity and still have hope and that has got to be the big message of Judaism to Jews and to the world.  I’m glad that Barack Obama came up with the same message, but than his name means Blessing, so maybe there is a connection.

There is a growing concern with regard to European Jewry and the growing Anti Israel sentiment, as it overlaps with anti Antisemitism. 1. Is that a concern?  2. How can it be dealt with? 3. How can American Jews help? And what is the role of a Rabbi in political dialogue where it relates to this?

No, I have exactly the opposite approach which is that Jews can’t fight anti Antisemitism alone, the victim cannot cure the crime, so in Britain we have actually succeeded in getting the campaign against anti-Antisemitism led by non-Jews. There was a parliamentary inquiry into anti- Antisemitism three years ago and an inquiry into that inquiry.  John Mann and Dennis Mac Shane are two wonderful non-Jews, as well as others from all parties that are fighting the good fight.  There are 300,000 Jews in Britain and nearly 60 million non- Jews in Britain, so that is how we are doing it and that is the way it has to be done in Europe, there is no doubt about it.  America is America, here there is a much bigger population, 20 times the size of Anglo Jewry, but England is a very different culture from America and therefore anti -Semitism is confronted one way in America and another way in Britain.

In February of this year, the British government hosted an international conference on anti -Antisemitism with 40 different countries represented from throughout the world.  Almost all of the people were not Jewish and they came together to pledge to fight anti-Antisemitism in those countries, it was tremendous. However, what was really tremendous was that it was not under the auspices of any Jewish Organization, it was under the auspices of the British government, Gordon Brown as prime minister has provided the funds for every single school to send children and a teacher Auschwitz, something like this doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. In every school in Britain kids should know about anti – Antisemitism and fight against it.  We need allies and we have found Allies.

Are we seeing similar things around the continent?

Yes, we are active as the conference of European Rabbi’s. We held a special seminar for the European cabinet 18 months ago on how to fight anti-Antisemitism and we have been guiding the Rabbi’s through this. We have also been in dialogue with the EU the European Commission and the European Parliament.

Another topic of concern that is obviously tied into this is the rise of Islamism in Europe, and also in Britain the rise of the BNP (British National Party). Is it possible that the failure of the mainstream British parties to face the growing infiltration of Islamist representation in mainstream representative bodies is causing the BNP to gain momentum, because the British street feels they will address this issue better?

We will know when the results of the June 4th European elections come out. It may be that for the first time there will be BNP members elected to the European parliament, if so that will send a signal throughout Britain. The government in Britain has realized over time that it must not appease the radicals but must confront the radicals, and there has been a significant shift in government policy since 9/11 and 7/7. However, I think if there are BNP members voted in at the European parliament, and the current guess is that there may be 2 or more elected, then that suddenly puts far right politics in Britain into the mainstream, where it has not been since the 1930’s and that will send signals to all the parties.

Your message for American Jewry?

American Jewry is the most exciting, energetic, dynamic in the world and coming here has been a thrilling experience. I really believe we must do more trans-Atlantic encounters, because this is a global age and the Jews are the world’s oldest global people.

1 Comment

  • I am deeply troubled regarding the upcoming election. When I consider what is happening in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East (not to mention the economy) we certainly must have a skilled leader. I’m not at all convinced that President Obama or any of the Republican candidates so far have the experience or skills it takes to get the job done the way it needs to be done. Being president of the U.S. is an hugely hard job. Is there anyone out there with the experience, skill, and moral conviction to do the job?

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