TORONTO — Despite his presence on Twitter and Facebook, extensive interfaith work, a PhD from London, England’s King’s College, and frequent media appearances, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks doesn’t use the term “modern Orthodox.”
Speaking to a capacity crowd at Shaarei Shomayim Congregation Nov. 2, the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth said he is critical of “many of the values of modernity.”
Rabbi Sacks was interviewed by Torah in Motion co-founder Elliott Malamet at a program celebrating the modern Orthodox educational organization’s tenth anniversary. He spoke the following night on “The Future of Religion in a Secular Age” at the University of Toronto in a second TIM program that also featured philosopher Charles Taylor.
Among the values Rabbi Sacks takes issue with is individualism, which he said has ruined the institution of marriage. Britain, he noted, has the largest percentage of teen pregnancies and single-parent families in the world, at 46 per cent.
Rabbi Sacks, the author of 24 books, including last year’s Future Tense, has had “a transformative impact on British Jewry and beyond,” said MP Irwin Cotler, former minister of justice and attorney general of Canada, in an introduction. His voice “carries a unique moral authority beyond the Jewish community,” Cotler said.
When the rabbi’s 2004 book Radical Then, Radical Now was serialized in the London Times, he asked the non-Jewish deputy editor why he wanted to publish it, given the small size of the Jewish population in Britain. The answer, recalled Rabbi Sacks, was, “because you’re our chief rabbi.”
Cotler said that the book, known here as A Letter in the Scroll, offers an understanding of Jewish values, and validates the message of religious Jews.
Malamet noted that many Jews today view Judaism as somewhat antiquated, while the chief rabbi views it as “revolutionary.”
The rabbi said that, at a conference on climate change, he spoke about weekly Shabbat observance – including abstention from driving cars and riding in airplanes – as a solution to the world’s energy crisis.
At the same time, he recognizes what he calls “the dignity of difference” among religions and cultures. “We each have something unique to contribute.”
Religious extremism is on the rise in every religion, he noted. “The groups in the middle are in decline everywhere… this is incredibly dangerous.”
He said that he and his wife, Elaine, host and are friendly with leaders of other faiths, including Jains, Zoroastrians and Baha’is.
As well, he recalled encouraging university students who were experiencing antisemitism to “do the unexpected thing” and lead the fight against Islamophobia on campus.
The result was the Coexistence Trust, an organization formed in 2005 to fight Islamophobia and antisemitism.
“We need friends and allies,” he said.
Within Judaism, one of the biggest changes during his term as chief rabbi, which began in 1991, has been the growth in Jewish day school education in Britain.
Twenty years ago, 25 to 30 per cent of Jewish children were educated in Jewish day schools, compared to nearly 70 per cent today, he said. The chief rabbi noted that, unlike the situation in Ontario, the government covers the cost of tuition.
A proponent of integrated curriculums and leadership programs, Rabbi Sacks cautioned against underestimating kids’ intelligence.
“We have to give our children challenges that give our children the ability to give us pride.”
Rabbi Sacks sees Judaism and Israel as “voices of hope” – Judaism for its ability to outlast civilizations that once seemed invulnerable, and Israel, with its accomplishments in arts, science and humanities, for setting an example for small, young nations.
He urged audience members to “wear [their] Judaism with pride… it will be good for us and it will be good for the world.”