Miriam Shaviv has penned one of the most important articles in recent memory. It highlights what we will truly be missing when the current Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom officially enters retirement in September.
This may sound a bit fawning or overblown. But I don’t think it is. Rabbi Sacks is all that is right with Judaism. He is a brilliant thinker who has written numerous books on Jewish thought. Largely through his efforts Jewish education for the masses has increased to record numbers in his country.
Those items alone makes his retirement regrettable. But in perhaps one of his most important functions as a Chief Rabbi – he has done the ultimate Kiddush HaShem. He has made Judaism among British leadership something to look up to. Something to respect and admire. A religion that more than any other has taught lessons about ethics and leadership to world leaders. In short he has done a lot to spread the light of Torah.
His final farewell dinner was attended by not only British government leadership, both past and present, it was attended by British royalty. From the Times of Israel article:
The guest of honor was Charles, the Prince of Wales, who in a deliberate misquote of the prophet Isaiah, called Lord Sacks “a light unto this nation.”
…Prince Charles admired Lord Sacks’s “lightness of touch and elegant wit,” and said that he had personally benefited from his advice.
“Your guidance on any given issue has never failed to be of practical value and deeply grounded in the kind of wisdom that is increasingly hard to come by,” he said.
The heir to the British throne actually read his books to much acclaim. The effusive praise did not stop there:
In a video message, former prime minister John Major said, “As a student of your books over many years you have absorbed more hours of my time than I can possibly remember,” while Labour’s former prime minister Gordon Brown, with whom Sacks was reputed to have had a particularly close relationship, praised his book “Politics of Hope” for suggesting a way “between markets and state… He saw that the ethics of markets were an issue long before the financial crisis.”
Prime Minister David Cameron said that “The Home We Build Together” “had a significant influence on my own mission to build a bigger and stronger society right here in Britain,” which was a cornerstone of his platform in the early years of his premiership.
Lord Sacks had an excellent relationship with clergy of other faiths as well, particularly with the Chief cleric of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
It is also rather well known that former prime minister Margaret Thatcher thought so well of Lord Sacks’ wisdom that she turned more often to him for advice than she did to clergy of her own religion.
It is also a tribute to Lord Sacks that clergy of other Jewish denominations attended this event too:
In a rare display of solidarity amongst Britain’s Jewish religious leaders, there were representatives from all the denominations, including Reform’s Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner and the Liberal movement’s Rabbi Danny Rich.
The only ones apparently not in attendance were England’s Charedi establishment rabbis.
The well deserved accolades from the distinguished speakers were far too many to quote here. But aside the huge Kiddush HaShem that Lord Sacks has made during his 22 year tenure, another important issue was addressed that evening. It was on the subject of the shrinking moderate center at the expense of the growth of Ultra- Orthodoxy. He considers this phenomenon ‘worse than dangerous’:
Lord Sacks drew an equivalence between assimilated Jews “who embrace the world and reject Judaism, and those who embrace Judaism and reject the world.”
“It is an abdication of the role of Jews and Judaism in the world. We are here to engage with the world, to be true to our faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith.”
It is important to point out that Lord Sacks does not reject the philosophy of Charedim. I’m sure he supports their right to interpret ‘Talmud Torah K’Neged Kulom’ as learning Torah full time and leading as holy a life as possible. What he rejects is their isolationist approach to the world. This is something we should all reject.
Rejecting the world is much of what the extreme right wing in Judaism is all about. One need not go far to see this in action. Take a walk in Williamsburg, Kiryas Joel, Square town, or any Charedi neighborhood in Israel. The ‘walls’ separating these communities from the rest of the world are getting higher every passing day. There is no effort spared to assure that outside influences do not penetrate ‘holy’ ground. Any and every device, electronic, print, or otherwise that can enable a connection to the outside world is condemned and banned with serious consequences for violations.
These bans are spreading. Last year’s internet Asifa at MetLife Stadium is a case in point of how the right eschews any contact with the outside world. And by outside, I mean outside their own Charedi environment. Anything outside of that is vilified, including Centrist Orthodoxy. Let’s be honest. The purpose of that Asifa was not only to prevent coming into contact with pornography. It was also to prevent coming into contact with other Hashkafos.
I have been lamenting this trend for some time now. Lord Sacks is right. The right is growing by leaps and bounds – simply by virtue of their much higher birth rate. And the center, though growing as well, is shrinking by comparison. That is not a good thing. Isolationism is not what Judaism is about. Isolationism is over-protectionism. And yet, because of the nature of the right to see the world only through the eyes of their leadership – whether it is a Chasidic Rebbe or ‘Daas Torah’ – and because of their naturally high birth rate, the isolationist philosophy may very well prevail.
All is not lost, however. One of the reasons I write this blog is to counteract that trend and influence those who may waiver between Isolationism from the world and interaction with it. (Although it’s kind of like spitting in the wind compared to the much wider influences outside of the web.)
But there is another phenomenon that is hopeful. I have mentioned this before – many times. The truth is that, at least outside of Israel in places like England, America, Canada, and Australia there is a vast and growing middle class that consists of moderate Charedim and Centrists like myself. Although our Hashkafos may be different, our lifestyles and values are not all that different. It is this center that should be listening to Lord Sacks lament. They should follow that up by engaging with their environment rather than shrinking from it.
For Centrists, that is a natural path. For moderate Charedim… well let us just say that they need a bit more convincing that engagement with the outside world will do more good than harm. Look what Lord Sacks engagement with the world has wrought. Would that any of us could accomplish in our entire lives – a fraction of what he accomplished his 22 years as Chief Rabbi.
I do not envy Chief Rabbi Elect, Ephraim Mirvis. Lord Sacks’ shoes will be hard to fill. As for what Lord Sacks will do next… I don’t know. But wouldn’t it be nice if he were to become the next Chief Rabbi of Israel? That would be a mind blowing event that would restore the integrity and confidence in that institution to what it once was – giving it the respect it had under the first Chief Rabbi, Rav Avrohom Yitzchok HaKohen Kook. And it would change the direction of the Chief Rabbinate from the right – back towards the center where it belongs.
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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at email@example.com.The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.
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