Owning Judaism: Preserving Faith With Lord Jonathan Sacks
by Maxine Dovere
Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth, Lord Jonathan Sacks was interviewed by Professor and author Ari Goldman at the 92nd St Y October 30. Beginning with comments on the essential role Jewish education plays in the preservation of Judaism, Sacks said the “fourth generation is without memories and must be educated. If you want to have Jewish identity, you have to own it.”
Segwaying from the sacred to the secular, interviewer Ari Goldman asked about the connection between faith and social responsibility, and how the two concepts work together. “Social capital,” said Rabbi Sacks, “is alive and well – and exists in churches and synagogues.” Empirical evidence indicates that membership in a religious community is the most effective way to promote good neighborliness. “Religion works – whether you believe in it or not.” He stressed that community, not theology, seems to be the determinant. Commenting on America’s obsession with “God,” the Rabbi mused that in America, “everyone has to talk about God – in England it’s different … we don’t do God.”
Sharing a bit of social gossip, the Rabbi recalled his enjoyment of the Jewish (some might say “Old Testament) based music included in the recent royal wedding ceremony, and noted that he had enjoyed watching the Queen shepping nachas from the kindelach. (He attended the ceremony in a “civic capacity,” representing the Jewish community as loyal subjects of Her Majesty, the Queen.)
The Rabbi recently authored a new Siddur and the Machzor, which, he said, “gives us God back and makes prayer a complete experience.” His editions add commentary, introduction, and explanation. “Prayer is our blue tooth connection with God – the connecting energy.” We “must rediscover how to pray.” Prayer and ritual, he said, were a “constant” that provides a “readiness… constantly making you aware of something bigger than you – the antidote to individualism. Prayer was a major force in the continuity of the Jewish people and its return, after 2000 years, to the land of its origin.”
Commenting on the international protests from Wall Street to Tel Aviv to London, Sacks said that the “global economy is widely disproportionate, thus unsustainable in the long term. CEO’s no longer have a direct relationship with those who work for them. New wealth has no organic connection to anything human.” While Judaism, said the Rabbi, “is in favor of wealth creation, there is a codicil – wealth must go hand-in-hand with responsibility. We must acknowledge the need to share the blessings: if you are a leading Jewish business person, you have to be a role model of integrity.”
Questioned about diversity within the Jewish community, Sacks called it “a fundamental issue of two centuries.” As Chief Rabbi, he has developed 2 principles: on all matters that affect us as Jews, we will work together; on all matters that touch on our differences, we will agree to differ – but with respect. He “will not allow any rabbi to say anything derogatory about any other movement,” and is willing to dialogue with all – even secularists like Amos Oz.
Saying he “believes in every Jew,” Sacks was challenged to discuss the place of Gay and Lesbian Jews in the community. He “was very moved” said the Rabbi, by the situation of Orthodox Gays and Lesbians, and was trying to develop “an understanding relationship.”
Asked the inevitable question about the Shalit exchange, Rabbi Sacks said “it could be said that Israel is politically wrong, and the exchange could be perceived by Hamas as a victory. Even according to Halachah, it could be said that Israel is wrong.” “But,” he continued, “I am proud to be a member of a people that can do a wrong thing like that.” “Freedom demands an unconditional respect for every individual life. Israel has shown the world that if you want freedom, you just give value to every human life,” he concluded.
Sacks will retire in 2013 at 65 and says he has no plans to slow down. He simply has “no time to be Chief Rabbi.” He wants to “go more global,” spending time in the United States and in Israel, does not “want any more politics” and looks forward to teaching Torah.