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In Defence of Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks
Last uploaded : Monday 28th Oct 2002 at 03:17
Contributed by : The Associate Editor



No person?s name can generate an argument more quickly than that of the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Great Britain, Dr Jonathan Sacks. In fact, in recent weeks I have found myself defending his honour at one dinner engagement and condemning him at yet another. Does this make me a hypocrite? Hear this.

A fortnight ago I found myself amongst a group of observant Jews at a kosher hotel in a resort town. I had not met them before; we were thrown together by the circumstance of a family reunion, to which friends of the family had also been invited. When Jews get together, there is a camaraderie that evolves through the evening and one never feels as if ?we haven?t met before.? Jewish souls have travelled a long journey like that of no other beleaguered people, and we can congregate from all corners of the earth and kvell over gefilte fish, chrain, tsimmes and cholent.

The evening had progressed reasonably well -- I had assiduously avoided mentioning that I have many gay and non-Jewish friends, have a woman rabbi and do not keep a kosher home. However, as the dinner was coming to a close, the conversation turned to Rabbi Sacks. Consternation was being voiced by several diners that he had written a new book ?praising the goyim.? (Translation: Sacks has written a new book, ?The Dignity of Difference,? in which he has acknowledged that other faiths have something to contribute on earth and in heaven.) Needless to say, the book has raised a storm of controversy to the point that even the mainstream British press has been reporting on the saga of Rabbi Sacks and his battle royal with the Dayanim. (See http://www.guardian.co.uk 26 October 2002)

At the dinner table I decided to defend the Chief Rabbi, reminding my fellow diners that in recent months he had shown independence of thought in his reflections on Israel (I stress to my readers that I do not begrudge this eminent scholar and rabbi his criticism of the Sharon regime, even if he did offer his thoughts to ?The Guardian,? because his sentiments are light years away from the hate-filled rantings of the usual Israel-bashers.) At the table, I reminded the others that Rabbi Sacks was offering a view that was nothing new: how on earth could interfaith relations, with which I had been involved for years, be progressed if our religious leaders did not acknowledge the validity of other faiths?

This of course provoked outrage from the entire table, with the assertion that ?interfaith relations? meant intermarriage. It has to be acknowledged that the richly diverse life that American Jews live in a nation populated for the most part by friendly Christians has engendered intermarriage at a rate that alarms Jewish leaders. Or as Dennis Prager said in one of his monologues, the problem is that ?the goyim are nice!?

As benching was about to begin, my dinner companions were thoroughly disgusted with me. Whether I felt it was time to truly put the cat among the pigeons or just a whim, I blurted, ?Of course, I have never forgiven the Chief Rabbi for not attending the funeral of Hugo Gryn.? This caused a veritable earthquake at the table. To a man, everyone began shouting at me in a deafening din, reminding me that Rabbi Gryn -- a Holocaust survivor and one of the most eloquent emissaries of reconciliation and compassion to have lived in Britain in the postwar era -- was ?not a rabbi.? They reminded me that Rabbi Sacks would have been violating every imaginable ?law? had he attended the funeral, at which point I lost my composure. There I was, having been defending the honour of the Chief Rabbi a few moments before -- ironically, Hugo had been a champion of interfaith understanding, the issue on which Sacks was now being hauled over the coals -- but nothing I said could convince my dinner companions that the Chief Rabbi had made a terrible, hurtful blunder in August 1996 by shunning Hugo?s funeral and then muddying the waters even more by writing to Dayan Padwa that Rabbi Gryn was a ?destroyer of the faith.?

The people at the table railed at me that Rabbi Sacks could never have set foot in a Reform synagogue nor could he have ?given validity? to the status of Rabbi Gryn by attending his shiva. I countered that the death of a great man transcended rabbinic law and that it was the duty of a fellow Jew to honour the memory of a Holocaust survivor whose honourable life had been a gift of pride to the Jewish people. I found myself shouting in an undignified manner as benching started, the others peuce with rage. As I was being ?shushed? I reminded them of the hurt that Rabbi Sacks had wrought upon the West London Synagogue family, but my fellow benchers were so livid with me by then that they just glared at me.

The issue of Rabbi Sacks and the new book is a deeply disturbing one. According to the ?Guardian,? a letter to the paper from one Gerald Baron Cohen states, ?..Jewish leaders with any knowledge of our history should never call for books to be banned.? The crux of the crisis derives from a passage in ?The Dignity of Difference? in which Rabbi Sacks says ?In the course of history, God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims ? truth on earth is not, nor can it aspire to be, the whole truth?in heaven there is truth, on earth there are truths. Therefore each culture has something to contribute.?

On Friday October 25th, Rabbi Sacks was accused of heresy by Rabbi Elchenon Halpern of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, insisting that the Chief Rabbi atone for his ?sins? and assure the Dayanim that all copies of the book be recalled and destroyed. Rabbi Halpern is reported by ?The Guardian? as having refused to refer to Dr Sacks as a rabbi in his condemnation and urged other rabbis to spurn him or lose their jurisdiction, whilst citing Proverbs 10:7 : ?the name of the wicked will rot.?

What is happening here? For twenty-seven years as an American in London -- having grown up in the USA of Broadway, Hollywood and the Borscht Circuit -- I have always found Anglo-Jewry hard to get to know. Even amongst my Progressive co-religionists I have encountered horror at my open attitudes towards all faiths and permutations of human life -- I will attend a charity benefit for a Gay helpline just as I will support an evening for homeless people of no faith. That the British Beth Din can assert that Rabbi Sacks? book ?is inconsistent with basic Jewish beliefs? is indicative to me of a deeply retrogressive attitude that causes me great embarrassment in the wake of an unprecedented wave of post-war anti-Semitism in the past two years.

According to both ?The Jewish Chronicle? and ?The Guardian,? Rabbi Sacks has issued a statement acknowledging that there is a ?problem? with words such as ?faith,? ?truth? and ?language.? He has agreed to amend future editions.

I do not purport to be a rabbinic scholar, and I write this editorial as an observant Progressive Jew. (Yes, it is possible, having been brought up in the rich tapestry of Jewish life that is the United States diaspora, to be an observant Progressive) It is not at all upsetting to me to read Rabbi Sacks? assertion that other faiths have validity. What has upset the Orthodox community -- ?outrage? is the word used by the British media -- is the vision Sacks has of religions learning something from one another, and that the message of the Almighty is not the exclusive terrain of any one faith. Have these Dayanim so narrow a view and so small a library (I?ve just had to send 1,000 books to storage until I move to a bigger house) , that they are unaware of a wealth of writing by theologians on the subject of the influence of the world?s faiths upon one another?

So what does all of this mean? Rabbi Dr Sacks has enraged many during his tenure as Chief Rabbi. He has been unable to assuage the Right after his recent scolding of Israel in The Guardian , and long ago lost the goodwill of many in the Progressive movement because of his behaviour during the shiva of Hugo Gryn. In fact, the various controversies he has aroused become iterative after a fashion. (The tragic saga of the Gryn funeral even set a precedent by generating the frist ever leader editorial in a broadsheet, in this instance the Times, issuing a view on a Jewish religious matter.) Through it all, one must admit that Rabbi Sacks is as brilliant a scholar as Harold Pinter is a playwright. (See the article after this one) In a period of Jewish history in which we, and Israel, are coming under attack from the most unlikely quarters -- the academic world, for instance -- it is deeply disturbing to me that the London Dayanim can create such a schism when we need a state of nexus.

I choose to end with a quotation from Yalkut Reuveni: ?We are worthy of being called human only if we are charitable.?


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