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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

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More brilliant than brave

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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, is due to retire at the end of this month. The Wikipedia entry about him cites an article in the London Jewish Chronicle in which I described his refusal to attend the funeral of a well-known and highly respected Reform rabbi in Britain as “neurotic and cowardly.”

I’ve written about Rabbi Sacks in a similar vein when I reviewed one of his books, in which he made changes in a second edition because some of his Orthodox colleagues objected to a passage they perceived to be too liberal.

In all my reviews, I’ve expressed my admiration for his erudition and gladly admitted to having learned much from his writings. He’s one of the most articulate and incisive exponents of contemporary Judaism, not least when speaking to non-Jews.

Rabbi Sacks’ message to Jews has, alas, been more complicated. Seemingly trying to placate his right wing as the price for surviving 22 years in office, he has often been grossly unfair to non-Orthodox Judaism. In his writings, he has even avoided quoting arguments in support of his views because they were put forward by non-Orthodox Jewish thinkers.

However, on the eve of his retirement, Rabbi Sacks seems to be starting to show his urbane and – yes – more liberal colours. Speaking at a star-studded dinner last June in his honour, he’s quoted as having described the growth of ultra-Orthodox Judaism as “a threat to world Jewry.” He wouldn’t have said anything like that when in office.

A former president of Britain’s United Synagogue, the group of mainstream Orthodox congregations that’s the major sponsor of the office of the Chief Rabbi and himself a Sacks supporter, admitted to the London Jewish Chronicle that “as chief rabbi, he was politically constrained by the position” and speculated that “perhaps now he feels freer to express himself in the way he would like.”

A rabbi who doesn’t say what he or she believes out of fear of criticism deserves to be called a coward. But a rabbi who’s prepared to make amends and now tell it as it is, even if some may consider it too little, too late, deserves applause and encouragement. That’s why this column is intended as a tribute.

Non-Jews, not constrained by internal Jewish squabbles, have always had high praise for Rabbi Sacks. Britain’s current prime minister and all his living predecessors, as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury and those who preceded him in office, together with many other leaders in Britain and abroad have heaped praise on him. They’ve spoken about how much they’ve personally benefited from his wise counsel.

 Perhaps now also his Jewish colleagues, who appreciate Rabbi Sacks as a teacher and wish to learn from him even though they don’t share his Orthodoxy, will be able to say the same. Many non-Orthodox rabbis have sat, literally or figuratively, at the feet of such giants of contemporary Orthodoxy as rabbis Joseph Soloveitchik, Eliezer Berkovits and David Hartman.

I believe that exponents of Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Judaism, rabbinic and lay, would like to add Rabbi Sacks to this list. They’d want to join him in his expressed endeavour to bring back to the centre of Jewish life the assimilated and the fanatics, whom he characterized in his pre-retirement speech as “those who embrace the world and reject Judaism, and those who embrace Judaism and reject the world.”

It’s the challenge of all the mainstream religious movements in contemporary Judaism, not least those whom the now outgoing chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations has hitherto shunned, and even vilified.

He said in the same speech that only the Jewish centre is capable of fighting the anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism that’s poisoning the minds and hearts not only of the ignorant and gullible but also, more ominously, of Jewish and non-Jewish intellectuals. I hope that this means that instead of seeking to distance himself from centrist religious movements, which he seemed to have been doing while in office, he’ll now want to co-operate with them.

Mercifully, the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth has had no jurisdiction in Canada, but Rabbi Sacks has many readers and admirers in this country. We look forward to continue to be inspired and motivated by him without being given the cold shoulder because we pray in a different shul.

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