Before Jonathan Sacks became the Chief Rabbi of the UK he was the Rabbi of Marble Arch Synagogue in London’s West end. After he took up that prestigious role, I was invited to speak as a scholar in residence in his old shul.
With typical kindness, the now Chief Rabbi called me to make sure, as I was staying in his old shul apartment, I knew where everything was. As far as I knew I was simply there to speak over Shabbat. As far as some in the shul were concerned, (I learned afterward from a relative who davened there) they were assessing me as the next Rabbi.
I gave a lecture on Friday night which I felt went well and the sermon on Shabbat morning which was also well received. Before lunch, some young un-marrieds invited me to take part in a panel on the subject of Jewish education.
There were three other panelists. One had recently returned from a private dinner with Henry Kissinger, one was a very wealthy lady who had recently become interested in education and one who was at that time devoting some of his considerable wealth and influence to changing the religious direction of British Jewry and moving it to the left.
Halfway through the event someone asked a question about what a Rabbi should speak about from his pulpit and the left-leaning billionaire spoke in very forceful terms.
“He should never criticize his congregation. He should never tell them what to do.” He had many more similar conditions which he emphasized by banging his fist on the table and turning purple.
As this fellow made his millions in electronics, it occurred to me that he could design a lifelike robot that sits in the Ark. It would be called the “PR1,” the Perfect Rabbi One and it could be programmed to come out on a rail after the Torah goes back in and deliver a sermon.
The genius of the PR1, is that the important members of the shul get turns to write his speech and then upload it. The PR1’s lips move in sync with the words and delivers your words guaranteeing that the “Rabbi” always says precisely what the congregation want him to say!
Rabbi Sacks caused a stir recently for criticizing American Rabbis for becoming involved with politics when he stated, “Don’t mix religion and politics. You mix religion and politics, you get terrible politics and even worse religion. It’s an absolute and total outrage.”
He continued that he has never taken a party-political stand, never used his pulpit for a political address and never said how he votes. And added, “I can see that that is not the case in America. And I’m afraid American Jewry is making a big, big, big mistake. This is not a small thing. It’s a very, very big thing.”
He immediately faced criticism, unsurprisingly from American Rabbis who argued that as he was not an American Citizen and didn’t live here, he had no right to comment on matters outside his purview. British intellectuals like Melanie Philips challenged the basic assumptions of his argument.
In the interests of full disclosure, I have known Rabbi Sacks for some forty years. It would be hard indeed not to like and admire his towering intellect, academic achievements and kind phone calls telling you how to use the fridge in his old apartment.
So it will come as no surprise that in general, I think he is, as we Americans say, “right on the money.” Rabbis should stay out of politics.
It’s just that living as he does in the UK, he might not be fully aware of how far these are from normal times and normal politics. The political situation now in the U.S. is akin to the recent situation in the UK when Jeremy Corbyn had unleashed the forces of Racism and anti-Semitism in the British Left. The result was an existential threat to British Jews with many planning to leave.
Corbyn and his hordes of Jew-hating Labour supporters provoked an almost complete unanimity amongst British Jews with 85% stating they believed him to be an anti-Semite.
Rabbi Sacks’ successor Chief Rabbi Mirvis had no hesitation in speaking out against Corbyn’s Labour. In an article in the Times of London he said raising his concerns “ranks among the most painful moments I have experienced since taking office,” but, “the overwhelming majority of British Jews are gripped by anxiety” at the prospect of a Labour victory in 12 December’s (2019) general election.
Painful or not he spoke out. It was not a normal election and the Jewish community faced an abnormal threat.
In fact the threat was so real and dangerous that Rabbi Sacks spoke out too.
In an interview with the new Statesman in 2018 he said Jeremy Corbyn was, “an anti-Semite” who has “given support to racists, terrorists and dealers of hate” and continued, “Now, within living memory of the Holocaust, and while Jews are being murdered elsewhere in Europe for being Jews, we have an anti-Semite as the leader of the Labour Party and her majesty’s opposition.”
The Democratic Party has also unleashed the forces of Racism and anti-Semitism. It’s supporters riot across America and daub anti-Semitic slogans on synagogues in Los Angeles. Nothing like this happened in England even with Corbyn leading Labour.
This is a time for Rabbis to speak out against an existential threat to American Jews.