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A Conversation With Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Podcast)

By , New York

In the following conversation, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, speaks with Baila Olidort, Editor-in-Chief of Lubavitch International and on current concerns: Anti-Semitism, Jewish particularism, G-d, the High Holy Days, and teshuvah. 

Click to listen to the podcast. The transcript is below. If you do not see a blue play button below on Internet Explorer, please try another browser while we work on the problem.

Baila Olidort: It’s now 100 years since World War I—”the war to end all wars”—and yet wars are being fought everywhere. We are seeing more brutality, terrifying violence, and chaos. In many ways it seems like society is regressing to a primitive order.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: The prophets Isaiah and Micah were the first people in history to envisage a world without war; it is the words of Isaiah in chapter two and Micah chapter four that are engraved opposite the United Nations building. In the ancient world, and in the modern world, war was regarded as a normal part of nature, of the human condition. 

The first Western thinker to envisage a world of peace was Immanuel Kant. In the late 18th century he wrote an essay called Perpetual Peace. 

But the prophets of Israel were the first by more than two and a half millennia to even dream of that possibility. And you cannot have peace until somebody has dreamed of peace. You first have to have the dream before you can even remotely aspire to the probability. So the first thing that we as Jews have to do is to keep that flame of hope alive. 

Now whereas Western thinkers tend to see the basis of morality in reason, emotion or calculation of consequences, for us, from the very beginning the key word was zakhor, remember [the lessons of the past]. It’s one of the themes of Rosh Hashanah. Memory is the moral tutor of humankind. 

It is astonishing how across Europe in the buildup to the First World War, normally sane human beings were looking forward to the war. They had a century in which there were relatively few wars in Europe and they were beginning to feel that war is where we purify our motivations, sacrifice for the sake of common good. 

But they forgot. They simply failed to remember that all war begins with high hopes and ends in bitter tears and bereavement. And we never forgot. No Jew is an enthusiast for war. Jews fight wars, but always reluctantly and only when every effort of peace has failed. Maimonides codifies in Hilkhot Melakhim that you are not allowed to wage war against anyone, including the Seven Nations, even Amalek, without first offering peace. So I think Judaism remains a very, very important voice and humanity tends to forget. 

BO: Having said that, how do we sustain faith in the idea that the world is moving toward redemption when it seems rather like a perpetual cycle in which patterns are repeated: times of war followed by quiet periods, times of moral decay followed by a return to standards, but no real measurable change or improvement? 

RJS: There have been two theories of times in the history of civilization. Number one, cyclical time, which is at the beginning of Ecclesiastes. All the ancients believed that time is a cycle, we are born, we grow, we mature, we age and we decline, the world goes on and on, and nothing really changes. 

Then along came the birth of science, the Industrial Revolution, and people thought in terms of linear time, constant progress. 

And we remember a third kind of time, which says it always takes longer than you think it’s going to be between the starting point and the destination. And there are many wrong-turnings and there are many reverses and there’s a golden calf and there’s the sin of the spies, but we get there in the end. It just takes longer than we think. 

BO: I recently saw a video clip of a session on Israel in the British Parliament during the Gaza War, and every single MP who spoke condemned Israel.  We are now—still within living memory of the Holocaust—seeing a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe. It is exploding and not just from the street, but from people in leadership. Are we to accept as an abiding principle that Eisav soneh et Yakov “Esau harbors enmity towards Jacob”?  

RJS: Whatever the debates in Parliament are, we’ve had a succession of prime ministers who were incredibly supportive of Israel. I think we have to acknowledge that.

Now what you are hearing is the reaction to the impact of television news. You see an image of destruction in Gaza, of children dying. Which human being would not weep at such a moment? I weep at such a moment, that we have to live in a world in which children are used as shields for terrorists. You know that it says when Jacob is about to meet Esau, “Yaakov was greatly afraid and distressed,” and Rashi, quoting the Midrash, says he was very afraid lest he be killed, and he was distressed in case he would kill. 

Now there’s an obvious question that all the commentaries on Rashi ask: [there is a principle in the Talmud that says that] “Somebody comes to kill you, kill him first.” That is the right of self-defense without which there is no right to life. So why is he distressed if in self-defense he kills his brother? Answer: because that is what it is to be a Jew. Even if you kill in defense of your own people, you are still distressed by that.

So [in that video you saw] you were hearing immediate emotive reactions to a situation where all the photogenic moments are happening on the other side. And when Israel develops the most remarkable defense against missiles that the world has ever seen, when it develops the technologies of saving life, not G-d forbid of destroying life, nobody is interested because it’s not news. But I wouldn’t take that as indicative of anything but a very passing mood. 

However, in this particular instance G-d has reminded the entire world that it is not Israel alone that is at risk from extremists; it’s the whole world of free societies that are currently under threat. And there is not one country in Europe, there is not one country in the West that does not know in its bones that it is facing a situation that Israel has faced ever since it was born. So I think that, yes, there is hostility to Israel; it flares up while the fighting goes on. It happened in 2011, it happened in 2009 and it happened in 2006. It flares up and then it evaporates as quickly as it came. Please believe this; it’s very important. 

BO: It’s very comforting to hear you say that. 

RJS: It’s very important for you to know that. Yes, anti-Semitism has returned to Europe and yes I am very, very concerned about it. I spoke about it first in February 2002 when I saw it coming and I spoke about it for the next four years on the BBC and The National Press. I spoke about it to the leaders of Europe; I spoke to Angela Merkel about this in May 2007. I told her exactly what was coming. I take it very, very seriously. 

But on this occasion, we are going to stand and fight, and we will not be alone because right now Christians are also at risk throughout the Middle East, in Nigeria, in Mali and Somalia, you name it. Christians are being wiped out in the Middle East, they are at risk in sub-Saharan Africa, Hindus are at risk in India. On this we are going to stand together with allies and we will not be alone. 

Now, I also want you to know that the person who said that “Esau harbors enmity towards Jacob” was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and it is Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who says that when Esau met Jacob again after twenty-two years, at that moment he was overcome with compassion and he kissed him with a whole heart. 

So if there can be reconciliation between Esau and Jacob according to the individual who thought there’s eternal animosity between them, then there can be a friendship between Jews and Muslims. So I think none of us should see anti-Semitism written into the fabric of the universe; it isn’t. It is not inexorable and we have to cure it. 

BO: In your book The Dignity of Difference you write that if faith is a mere burden, not only will we not value our own faith but we will not value the faith of someone else, and you speak about the danger of wishing that everyone should be the same. Tell me about that danger. 

RJS: Difference is what makes us human. The fact that every one of us is different from every other one of us, including genetically identical twins, means that none of us can be substituted for any other, the fact that each of us is unique means that each of us is uniquely valuable. 

We are the only minority in history not to assimilate to the dominant culture or convert to the dominant faith. Therefore, it has been the Jewish burden throughout history to carry the message of the dignity of difference. If anti-Semitism is the paradigm case of dislike of the unlike, of hatred of difference, it follows that a country that has no room for Jews has no room for humanity. We do wrong to call it anti-Semitism. The hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews. 

It wasn’t Jews alone who suffered under Hitler, it wasn’t Jews alone who suffered under Stalin, and it will not be Jews alone who suffer from Islamist extremism. Right now the whole world is at risk from this and therefore we are going to fight anti-Semitism not alone, but alongside people of all faiths and people of no faith. And we have to carry that message to the world. 

BO: And yet Jews themselves are often uncomfortable with the idea of difference. Today, Judaism is widely defined as a tradition of social justice, with some Jewish leaders even advocating for intermarriage and a dismissal of halakha and all the particulars that distinguish us as Jews. How are we then to reclaim Judaism’s particularistic tradition with all the differences it insists upon, between man and woman, Jew and non-Jew, sacred and profane?

RJS: My major task as chief rabbi, as a rav and as an educator, was to make people value particularity. That’s why I wrote The Dignity of Difference. We know what it feels like to be chosen, special, different. And Jews only survived because they had the courage to be different.

I became Chief Rabbi in 1991. [That year] you had the publication of the National Jewish Population Survey of 1990, and as soon as I saw those figures, I said American Jewry is facing great dangers and unless we radically change the community, there wouldn’t be an Anglo-Jewry by the time I finish my chief rabbinate.

And I then spent two or three years researching every statistic, not only on Jewish continuity, but every kind of minority continuity, Catholic continuity in Canada, in Australia, everywhere. We looked very carefully at the demographics of every Jewish community in the world; it just happened to be that the American one is the biggest in the diaspora, and it is also the best documented, so all of that informed our policies in Anglo-Jewry.

We know that the single most critical variable is what parents do at home. But that’s very hard to change. So the second most critical variable was Jewish day school education—the number of years spent at Jewish day schools or a number of years spent exposed to serious Jewish education. And that was a variable that we could change. 

In 1993 I began my campaign. I realized if kids don’t grow up knowing anything about Judaism, they are not going to see anything special and worth keeping. So I said we are going to have to get Anglo-Jews to send their kids to Jewish day schools. 

First we had to persuade the government to build them and pay for them. Second we had to persuade the Jews to want them. We had to make them feel that it’s good being a Jew. 

BO: What have the results yielded?

RJS: In 1993, twenty-five percent of Anglo-Jewish children attended Jewish day schools. In 2003, seventy percent. That’s treble the number of children going to Jewish day schools. Now, between 1945 and 2005, every single year there was a decline in the number of Jews in Anglo-Jewry. In 2005 the decline stopped. And from 2005 to today, every year, there’s a small increase in the number of Jews. It’s not through immigration—we send lots of people on aliyah—this is entirely endogenous growth. I didn’t think we’d do it that fast, but we did. And that’s not only our statistics—it’s the government census figures. So we managed to stop the demographic decline. 

In 1991, the out-marriage rate in Anglo-Jewry was around twenty-four percent. In 2013 the official figures: twenty-four percent. So we didn’t stop out-marriage, but we stopped the growth of out-marriage. It was in those days about what it was in America, and now it’s half what it is in America. 

So you can successfully fight universalism, assimilation and out-marriage. But to do so you have to make a compelling case for being different. And I had to make that case not only for Jews, but for non-Jews as well. I had to create a climate of opinion in Britain it says it’s okay to be different. 

BO: I want to bring G-d into the discussion because I just saw an interview with a Reform Jewish leader who is quoted as saying that he often advised his associates to put the brakes on making references to G-d. Westerners are quite uncomfortable invoking G-d’s name; something about it seems antiquated, parochial, and with so much blood shed in His name, downright negative. How can rabbis help their congregants make G-d personal to them?    

RJS: I think G-d has to be personal to the rabbi before he can make G-d personal to anyone else. I always talk about my late parents of blessed memory; they never really had a chance. My father had to leave school at fourteen and sell shmattes on Commercial Road, our equivalent of the Lower East Side in New York. They never had an education, but we saw from our parents how they loved Yiddishkeit; it made them walk taller. 

I don’t know if my father could even understand all the davening but he knew who he was. And I had the biggest privilege in my life seeing him walk on crutches up the steps of the S. John’s Wood Shul to open the Ark at my induction as chief rabbi.

And I thought: “Dad, I love you. You never had the education that I had, but you made sure I had the education you didn’t have. I hope I gave you a little pride, but I want you to know that I learned emunah [faith] from you. You taught me what it is to have a personal relationship with [G-d] Hakadosh Baruch Hu.” And when you do that, you can communicate it to anyone, but first you have to feel it. 

BO: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are especially times when we try to deepen our relationship with G-d. Which of all the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy resonates most with you?

RJS: There’s a wonderful line in Unetana tokef: “A great shofar sounds, and a still small voice is heard.”  Here is G-d Himself, blowing the shofar. He doesn’t scream in your ears; it’s a still, small voice. And then, it says, “The angels tremble.”  That still small voice is what terrifies the angels. Not the big noise. But if G-d whispers in your ear and tells you you’re an angel, that’s terrifying. You think to yourself, “Wow, I could be that big and look how small I am.” 

There is a line in Mima’amakim, Psalm 130, that says that “G-d forgives, that’s why we are scared of Him.” If he didn’t forgive, that’s fine, you know, Hashem and I have reached a complete understanding; He doesn’t believe in me, I don’t believe in Him, it’s fine. But G-d never gives up on us, so we can’t give up on ourselves, that’s what’s scary. G-d is calling us to greatness and all we have to do is listen. And I find those are very powerful passages. 

BO: You are a scholar of Chabad Chasidut and were a student of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teachings. What does Chabad bring to the experience of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to the avodah of teshuvah?         

RJS: There was a very great rabbi in Anglo-Jewry; his name was Dayan Yechezkel Abramsky. He was in Jerusalem after he retired. I was at university with one of his grandsons and when after university I went to learn in Kfar Chabad, this friend asked me to go and see his grandfather. 

He was ninety years old when I met him. “You’re in Kfar Chabad, what are you learning about?” he asked me. Isaid, “I’m learning about teshuvah.” He said, “Ah, that is the difference between me and Chabad. I think teshuvah is what you need when your car breaks down. In Chabad, they think teshuvah is the engine that drives the car.” 

And I suddenly realized that is the difference. For him, teshuvah was something you do during this time of year; you beat your chest and admit, “I did a few wrong things.” In Chabad, teshuvah is something you are doing the whole time. You are returning to G-d, you are returning your soul to G-d. 

The Alter Rebbe in Likkutei Torah, in the discourse on the verse [“A person, when he brings from you a sacrifice”] Adam ki yakriv mi’kem korban l’Hashem, says that the order of the words is wrong. He explains, “What are you offering up is mi’kem—“from you.” You are offering up not an animal; you are offering up the animal soul. That really is a constant thing. The whole of Chabad breathes that, but the Rebbe in particular breathed it, constantly. And so teshuvah is not something you only do between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but it is the culmination of what you should be doing the whole year round. And it’s a very powerful message. 

BO: What do you think the Rebbe would want of you now? 

RJS: I have a picture of him by my desk in London. I think he’s asking, “Nu, what did you do today bring Moshiach?” 

The Rebbe did all the prep work; he did all the cooking, now why aren’t we enjoying the meal? We are worried about all the assimilation in America; we are losing Jews even here in NYU. So there is not one moment when you don’t hear the Rebbe saying, “Reach out to one more neshama.” 

For twenty-two years I was Chief Rabbi of Britain, the Commonwealth. It was a lovely position and a great honor and privilege, but then I thought, “Okay, twenty-two years I think we’ve done something, we brought back Jewish day school education, we stopped the decline in the population, we held the out-marriage rate, and now what next?” 

And then I went back to those days, 1968, when I as a young student who never thought at all about being a leader, and the Rebbe spent time with me and encouraged me to be a leader. And I suddenly realized I’ve got to do for other people what the Rebbe did for me.

So we are sitting here, having this conversation, in New York University where I am teaching leadership. I’m working right now in virtually every Jewish leadership program in America and in Israel. 

I said a good leader creates followers, a great leader creates leaders. So I felt the next thing I had to do was just to share a little of what the Rebbe shared with me, in a very small way to do that with young Jews, charging them to be leaders, which is really my avodah [service] now. 

BO: As you look back upon those 22 years, what were some of the moments that gave you most joy as Chief Rabbi?

RJS: There were so many. In England Jews tended to keep a very low profile, so the first time we did a Hachnasat Sefer Torah, [Torah dedication]and we took the Torah scroll through the streets, it was a big life-cycle moment for us. We’d never done this. By the time I finished, the local police chief came and danced under the chuppa with the Torah; the policemen were dancing along with us. 

So the fact that we took that joy out into the public domain, into the streets, the way the Rebbe did with the menorahs on Chanukah—we light a menorah in Trafalgar Square with the mayor of London and we do it at 10 Downing Street with the Prime Minister and we do it in Houses of Parliament with the Jewish members and the non-Jewish members come along—this for us was a very, very important thing. And the thing we discovered is that when you do this you bring joy to the world. 

When you light a Chanukah light it brings light to the world; it’s light for the public domain. So there were a lot of those really, really joyous moments and some of them really very remarkable. The big message is, if you enjoy your Yiddishkeit you will bring joy to others, Jews and non-Jews.


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