EXCLUSIVE: Britain’s Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks on Shalit Release, Occupy Wall Street
DE: If the great cause of the last century was Zionism as a focal point for what Jews were striving for, what would you say is the greatest cause today? So many mega Jewish organizations always seem to be fighting against antisemitism or against de-legitimization of Israel, what would you say that the Jewish people are, or should be fighting for?
JS: I think we have to fight for a Judaism that actively engages with the world, without fear. You know, we have been praying all these weeks, ‘God is my light and my salvation of whom shall we be afraid.’ (Editor’s note: this is a prayer that is recited in the weeks leading up to the Jewish high holidays.) This means that we take Judaism into the public domain, we are proud and knowledgeable and willing to share our Judaism with the public media the public conversation I think we should be very loathe to define ourselves by these negatives.
For Instance, each year I do a television program for the BBC which is always shown just before Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year.)
This year I did it on the big society, our Prime Minister, David Cameron’s big program is Big Society, which is what Jews have been doing for a very long time. So I take that to the general public, it’s a message to Britain, it’s not only a message to Jews which are only half a percent of the population.
I’ve just written a book on God and Science, and this morning on BBC radio I did a conversation with Richard Dawkins. I think we have reached the kind of maturity where we should have the self-confidence to be a, maybe even the, key voice in the public conversation on all the great issues of the day.
DE: So how would that take form? here in America, Jewish life seems to be structured around mega organizations, whether it’s the Anti-Defamation League, or the Wiesenthal Center of the American Jewish Committee. Fighting for Judaism without fear, what would an organization look like that would have that as its mandate?
JS: Well one of the first things I created when I became Chief Rabbi together with one of our young Rabbis was the Jewish Association of Business Ethics, which is one of the finest organizations of its kind in Britain. I think we have so much to say on all the big issues, and the question is, where is the voice of Judaism? not just the voice of the Jewish community defending its interests and fighting the negatives, but where is the voice of Judaism in the public square. Who is writing the op-eds is the in the New York Times, and the Washington Post and the LA Times, here is our way of seeing issues like the growing economic inequalities, the faltering of the Western economies, the level of poverty and private debt. All of these things are big issues, we have kept a low profile for centuries, I don’t know why we should do so now, we have equality in the diaspora, we have a State in Israel, we should have the self-confidence to walk tall as Jews, as people of religious principle, not just defending sectional interests.
DE: Living in today’s world of globalization, with rapidly advancing technology, how can Jewish communities from around the world be brought closer together? and can the Jewish voice be consolidated and thus amplified, what role can Jewish media outlets play in this regard?
JS: We’ve just developed in our office our own YouTube channel, our own iPhone app, and our own eBook, I think these global media were made for Jews, I cant think of any people for whom they are more relevant, a small people scattered across the world, this is what the internet was made for, and this is global technology, we are the world’s oldest global people.
I love this media, you know we really should be using these media and connecting up Jews across the world. To this day, there is too little contact between British Jewry and American Jewry for instance.
DE: Any thoughts on some of the initiatives that have originated from Jews from the former soviet union, whether Alexander Mashkevitch looking to create a Jewish Al-Jazeera, or the Jewish channel that was recently launched by Ihor Kolomoyskyi out of Ukraine?
JS: It’s the shape of things to come. I think we are going to see the borders between public television and YouTube and between newspapers and the various forms of web dissemination become fuzzier and fuzzier over the next ten years. Yes, I think these are early pioneering efforts one of which at least will surely succeed, you can never tell in advance which one will be the Google of the Jewish world, one of them will become. So I’m very keen to develop these media and I think we should speak with a global Jewish voice.
DE: Over here is in the United States there is a lot of fuss over the Occupy Wall Street movement gathering stream, Jews are involved on both sides, some portrayed as the scions of Wall Street and also, joining the Occupy Wall Street protestors. Of course there is the flip side in the Tea Party calling for smaller government. From a Jewish perspective, to what extent is charity a responsibility of government vs. a private sector obligation?
JS: I think you need both, but I think the growing inequalities will create enormous friction and tension, unless there is a pretty clear sign that the big beneficiaries of the global economy are also engaging on a charitable and human level and sharing some of their blessings with others, I see this is absolutely fundamental. In Europe, Goldman Sachs executives are certainly expected to give ten percent of their income to charity, and I think that all major Wall Street firms should be doing this. I think they should be sending their staff out to work with private communities, communities where the infrastructure is weak, otherwise there will be enormous growing resentment.
DE: At Goldman Sachs is that kind of an internal moral code amongst executives?
JS: It’s an internal moral code yes; it’s the kind of thing we’ve been talking about n our Jewish Association of Business Ethics for years now. Each year on Yom Kippur we put a booklet on everyone’s seat, everyone who comes to shul, saying how there are prayers relating to you and the way you behave in business, I think we see business as an ethical enterprise in Judaism.
DE: All the buzz today is about the release of Gilad Schalit, what is your response to the deal made for his release and the heavy price that has been exacted from the Jewish people?
JS: It is a classic dilemma in Jewish law, it goes right back to Talmudic times and there is great reluctance in Jewish law to pay an excessive price for hostages because it just encourages more hostage taking. So I think the Gilad Schalit release has to be seen under the special circumstances of TzaHaL (the IDF,) which always committed itself to bringing its people back home whatever the price and that is what gives the people in TzaHaL their total commitment, because they know that every effort will be made for them.
All those tensions that are being expressed today have their counterparts in Jewish legal literature, it is a dilemma many centuries old and I would not like to be the Prime Minister of Israel weighing that decision in the balance. The fact remains however that Israel, by paying this very heavy price just is a living role model in the principle that one life is like a universe. I actually find it very moving. We’ve all been praying for Gilad Schalit, we had a big global worldwide prayer session a couple of weeks ago, we have been saying prayers for Gilad in all our shuls (synagogues) for the last five years, I think everyone feels involved in his fate and I think everyone is really happy to feel that he is coming home even if the price that the government has paid is excessive, nonetheless we rejoice.
DE: Do you see any differences between the typical historic questions and today, where the State of Israel has more power, or are the parallels the same?
JS: The real issue here is that Israel, with its civilian army with its conscription has to inspire the confidence of everyone who serves in TzaHaL and the total commitment of TzaHaL of bringing its people back, is part of the whole morale in Israel, therefore it is a necessary price in my view.
DE: Following your upcoming retirement as Chief Rabbi, how do you see yourself spending your time?
JS: I’m going to be teaching Torah, in Britain in America, and Israel and I’ve decided that if the media are going global than I’d better go global as well.
DE: Any new books in the works?
A long list. The book I haven’t written are more numerous than the books I have. I have done one a year for the last twenty years and I will step up the rate.