UK Jewry

Lord Jonathan Sacks In Retrospect

Paul Usiskin reviews the ambiguous career of the outgoing British Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks.

There is no chimney at the headquarters of the Chief Rabbinate in north London. No blue and white smoke billowed out at the appointment of a new Chief Rabbi, to succeed Lord Jonathan Sacks, last December.

Sacks was the tenth in the post and the third British-born to achieve it. He was a superb academic and has several degrees and professorships to prove it. He was media-friendly, and filled a vacuum left by other British faith leaders at a time of growing disenchantment with faith, and he spoke with a British accent. He also spoke Hebrew with an Ashkenazi pronunciation, which may not have endeared him to the progressive community. And he became "Chief," as those working with him were allowed to call him, at the time of a leadership vacuum in Anglo Jewry.

The office of Chief Rabbi is not a secular creation; it evolved as the small Anglo Jewish community's needs grew. Sacks became the Labour party's Chief Rabbi having nurtured one of the "loveliest friendships" with Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, a unique achievement. Ambition is essential to become Chief Rabbi, but that and academic prowess may not have been enough to make Sacks's tenure a glowing success. Lord Stanley Kalms, an "enthusiastic patron" of Sacks's candidacy, said in 2010 that Sacks was not a collective leader. Though he promised inclusiveness, Kalms said,"he tried but he failed." The result? Antagonism between Reform, Liberal, Masorti, and Modern Orthodoxy—the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth—Sacks's fiefdom. Kalms added that Sacks had an inferiority complex about not being as learned as the Dayanim, the judges of the Batei Din, the religious courts, and the men Sacks once referred to as "my fundamentalists." He wanted to be all things to all men, but that only made him appear ambiguous.

One controversy that highlighted that and cast a shadow over the Chief Rabbinate ever since centered on a leaked letter Sacks wrote to one of Britain's most haredi British rabbis about Reform rabbi and Holocaust survivor Hugo Gryn. The two were known to be good friends but Sacks wrote that he wouldn't attend Gryn's funeral because Gryn was a destroyer of Judaism. He went to a memorial service instead, which also infuriated the haredim.

On Israel, Sacks equally failed to placate. His predecessor, Immanuel Jakobovits, the first Chief Rabbi to attain the peerage, was an overt dove, opposed the occupation and advocated compromise with the Palestinians. In his book, The Dignity of Difference, first published in 2002, Sacks said that Israel's policies were incompatible with Judaism. More incendiary still, he declared that "no one creed has the monopoly on truth." Communal and Orthodox leaders demanded he withdraw his book. He caved in and withdrew it, republishing it later without the offending words. To many that symbolized weak leadership; he had the courage to write what he thought, and should have stood by it. Three years ago he admitted that had he done that, he would have had to resign. When pushed on the occupation, he said he'd always thought Israel should return the land it took in 1967, but that his father never believed Israel's neighbors would make peace. Perhaps he has followed too rigidly the advice of the Lubavitcher Rabbi: "You put yourself in a situation, and if you put yourself in that situation, you can put yourself in another situation."

So Sacks quoted from Exodus, "You shall not wrong a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Halfway through his term, Sacks noted that this was a commandment repeated 36 times in the Books of Moses and said that not ignoring it was for him "a core project of the state." The Hertz Chumash, used throughout all British synagogues and first edited by another Chief Rabbi, Joseph Hertz, in 1937, has a prescient footnote, explaining why this "exhortation" is so often repeated. It is because "those who have been downtrodden repeatedly frequently prove to be the worst oppressors when they acquire power over anyone."

In a recent valedictory address to AIPAC that would have gladdened the Glen Becks and the Danny Danons of this world, Sacks expressed no such sentiments. Israel is deeply unpopular in the UK. The Conservative lead government, though it professes friendship with Israel, is tired of Jewish leaders lecturing the Foreign Ministry on Israeli victimhood. Who better than a Chief Rabbi to have the strength to shift that perception? Perhaps the next Chief can and will.