Let it be said. Jonathan Sacks has been a rebellious chief rabbi. Now that he is stepping down, we had better keep an eye on him and hope he will become even more of an insurgent.
Over the years, most of us rabbis have become irrelevant on a global level. But isn’t that what we craved? Yes, we wanted to be spiritual leaders and teachers of our communities, serve our congregants, and become heads of yeshivot. Some of us did very well. But we shunned the idea of going beyond this noble task and taking on the world. We preferred to stay put, teaching conventional Judaism, creating our own comfort zone where our beliefs would not be challenged; where we wouldn’t get upset or begin having doubts and experiencing religious crisis. We wanted to ensure that Tradition would survive and be passed on to future generations. Once we succeeded in achieving that goal, we indulged ourselves in self-satisfaction, content with our own arguments, divrei Torah and Talmud classes. This was our Judaism.
The fact that outside our little world there was religious and moral turmoil was not our business. That religious faith was challenged as never before did not bother us. It was for the goyim to deal with. We buried our heads in the sand and lived happily ever after.
By doing so, though, we robbed the rabbinate of one of its most powerful tasks: to challenge, to disturb, to rebel and to send a strong, passionate message that is not always to our liking. After all, Judaism “is not a sustained, comfortable state of consciousness, but rather a painful, hard-worn and impermanent conviction—a breathing spell in the midst of an ongoing conflict” (*). Great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once observed that religion has to function like a thunderstorm, but that over the years it invented sundry lightening-conductors and lost its purpose. The same is true about the rabbinate. It has become a pleaser, a comforter, not a biting critic of our moral failure and our spiritual and intellectual mediocrity. It was not prepared to challenge its own institution, the Jewish tradition; it wouldn’t dare to take a fresh look at its holy texts, at Halacha, and at the spiritual conditions and needs of its own people.
The rabbinate was meant to be a test tube in which its own foundations could be challenged and new ideas experimented with; where it could take Judaism aus dem kindes in das mannenalter (from its yet undeveloped state to its maturity). It was supposed to lift Judaism out of its encounter with galut, where it waited to be redeemed and become a vibrant experience once more. None of this was part of the rabbinate’s mission, we decided. Instead, the rabbinate saw its task as creating and preserving the necessary fermentation to keep Judaism constant. It denied its task of being “a light unto the nations” and instead decided to be a dwindling night-lamp.
That is why Rabbi Sacks became a rebellious man, wishing to disturb the status quo. He dared to challenge the very institution he headed. He told us that we got it wrong. Where we rabbis dared not go, he traveled on his own to challenge not only the Jewish Community but the world at large. His confidence in the power of Judaism, its infinite wisdom, and its many new faith opportunities enabled him to enter the lion’s den, daring to take on famous philosophers, scientists, religious thinkers and sociologists and show them that Judaism had something to teach that they couldn’t afford to miss if they wanted to be at the forefront of philosophy and science. He showed them that religion is of the utmost importance and is inescapable; that science had to justify itself in the eyes of religious belief, and not just the other way around. His observations disturbed and put arrogant people, who spoke in the name of science and philosophy, in their place. But he also started to disturb us rabbis, telling us that we must learn to dare the world, to have the courage to ask it to respond and meet the expectations of Judaism’s values without letting up.
The truth is that Rabbi Sacks left the chief rabbinate years ago and went his own way, becoming a lonely chief rabbi. Little appreciated by his closest colleagues, he found enormous response from a much larger, often non-Jewish audience, which had been waiting for years to hear a powerful, religious Jewish voice. And like a spiritual warrior he delivered as nobody had done before. This was a tour de force of the first order. After all, how does one remain the head of a mainstream institution and rabbinical court, which became more and more cramped and was incapable of growing with him, and still far surpass it? Goethe’s famous maxim—in der beschränkung zeigt sich erst de meister (only in limitation is the master revealed)—became the hallmark of Rabbi Sacks’ career.
This must have been far from easy. He wanted to show the world what Judaism is all about; that it is a blissful and continuous adventure for all of mankind. That to be religious means to defy and to dare, and that every religious custom must be carried out in an uncustomary way. It must be a fight against inertia, indolence and callousness. To do so when one is an independent, Jewish Orthodox thinker is hard enough, but to do it as the head of a highly conventional, mainstream, religious institution is beyond thinkable. Indeed, Rabbi Sacks has taught us that it is possible to achieve the unachievable.
While we rabbis convinced ourselves that to engage and challenge the intellectual and university world and be taken seriously was unattainable, the chief rabbi exposed our mistaken judgment and showed us that we were using this argument to cover up our own limitations and our own conviction that Judaism was really incapable of competing with the secular academic world. Sure, there were Jewish Orthodox institutions that taught how Judaism could exist in a secular world and thrive, but to maintain that Judaism could actually challenge the scientific, philosophical and academic communities was unheard of and belonged to the sphere of wishful thinking.
Rabbi Sacks was able to do so only because he had the great merit to have not learned in conventional yeshivot. He had to discover Judaism on his own, guided by some great teachers. He didn’t fall victim to mass education; instead, he benefited from individual tutoring. People can grow into great leaders only when they encounter doubt, struggle with their own faith and are challenged to the extent that they nearly fall of the cliff. That is exactly what turned Rabbi Sacks into a great leader. As in the case of Moshe Rabbeinu, only those who are not handed Judaism on a silver platter, but have to fight for every bit of it, are destined for real greatness. They cannot grow in an environment where religion is taken for granted and observance is obvious. Of course, this is not the case for most of us, for whom a yeshiva education is crucial in order to avoid falling into the abyss and never being able to recover; but for truly great men with unusual intellectual and soul capabilities, such institutions are only obstacles.
What Rabbi Sacks did and what few have done is to lead the ship of Torah, in full sail, right into the heart of some of the most gifted and influential people in the world. He took them all by storm, thus teaching us that those who speak in the name of Judaism must be vehement and create an uproar that will scare the wits out of some of the leaders and thinkers of the secular intellectual world. But, along the way, he also disturbed the Jewish religious establishment, making him a rebel, and often the object of suspicion among many.
When faced with the failure of the Israel Chief Rabbinate, one can only admire Rabbi Sacks even more. One does not have to agree with all of his policies, decisions or philosophical insights, but nobody can doubt his contribution of many splendid theological ideas to Jewish tradition, ethics and general philosophy. They have informed Jews and gentiles; religious people as well as atheists. The Israel Chief Rabbinate, in contrast, has been silent on all these fronts since the days after Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren stepped down. Not only have its rabbis made no contribution to the development of religious thought in the general world, they have not even made an impression on the intelligentsia in Israel, something that should have been their first concern because it is the intellectuals who determine Israel’s future. Instead, they have become rabbis in absentia. They probably do not even understand some of Rabbi Sacks’ writings because they lack all background in religious philosophy, have never contemplated the issues that Rabbi Sacks struggled with, and have never learned the art of thinking independently. While they are familiar with Judaism, they are unacquainted with works of other important monotheistic religions, with Hinduism and Buddhism, and with the writings of people such as Avraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Buber, Mordechai Kaplan, David Hartman, David Weiss Halivni, and Arthur Green. Had they climbed intellectual mountains, had the courage to go their own way, and seen the need for an overhaul of Orthodox Judaism, they would have been great leaders. But alas, there is no indication that they ever went through religious doubt and pain, and one sincerely wonders how they can guide many Israelis who live in doubt and in desperate need of seeing the beauty of Judaism.
With the stepping down of Chief Rabbi Sacks, British Jewry’s greatest and most illustrious institution will come to an end. In whatever form the chief rabbinate will continue, it will lack its influence on the broader Jewish and non-Jewish world. The United Synagogue has bitterly failed to educate a young man who would be able to take over the task that Rabbi Sacks had laid out for himself, and move beyond him, expanding on his ideas and dealing with many important matters that Rabbi Sacks couldn’t or didn’t want to deal with, correctly or incorrectly. There is an urgent need to address the issue of the Reform and Conservative movements, as well as to ensure that Zionist rabbinical judges will sit on London’s Beit Din, and that Halacha is seen as something exciting and ennobling, not just as a dry legal system that has stagnated, becoming irrelevant to most secular and even religious Jews. But the most important pursuit is to ensure that a highly intelligent Jewish religious voice will continue to speak to the outside world—especially to the academia and to the policy makers in government and high ranking institutions. All this, however, has been lost with the abdication of the chief rabbi. To prevent that from happening should have been the first concern of the United Synagogue, but alas, it was not to be.
While it is true that there are many religious thinkers around who can compete with Chief Rabbi Sacks’ philosophy, not one of them has the exposure and contacts throughout the world, combined with the organizational infrastructure that has backed him as British chief rabbi.
British Jewry will yet regret having let him go. Although I fully understand his decision to step down—it must have occasionally been frustrating, boring and lonely at the top—his resignation is not just a loss to British Jewry but to all Jewish and non-Jewish communities the world over.
On a personal note, I want to thank Chief Rabbi Sacks for his inspiration, his wonderful teachings, and his many books and essays from which I have learned so much. I urge him to continue not just as Emeritus Chief Rabbi but as a man, unrestrained by the chief rabbinate, who will speak his mind on many issues, which until now was impossible. Reading between the lines in some of his books, we detect many unspoken, daring ideas.
Above all, I ask him to become more and more challenging, disturbing and daring. He surely has more up his sleeve, and we pray that he will have the courage to persist and do what needs to be done in order to enrich his many pupils as well as the Jewish tradition. It may sometimes be painful, but the benefit will be priceless.
Special thanks are due to Rabbi Sacks’ wife, Elaine, who surely gave up so much of her private time with her husband for the sake of the community. This is a huge sacrifice, which few of us are ever asked to make.
Rabbi Sacks surely believes in God, but more important is the fact that God seems to believe in him, and that’s what counts. The best is yet to come!
* Abraham Joshua Heschel, A Passion for Truth (London: Secker & Warburg, 1973.) p. 90.
With thanks to Channa Shapiro