For the past 21 years, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has served as the chief rabbi of the Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. He is not, however, an authority for Masorti, Reform or liberal Judaism. A remarkable personality, he is the award-winning author of more than 20 books, a profound and original thinker and an eloquent and persuasive orator. As a recipient of a life peerage, he occupies a seat in the House of Lords.
As a sympathetic exponent of modern Orthodoxy he has denounced religious extremism. In his book, The Dignity of Difference (2002), he writes, “Fundamentalism has burst into our society like a dinosaur at a cocktail party.” He warns that when it is coupled with nationalism it often leads to wars of religion. Religious extremism, he asserts, is all too often bound up with obscurantism, oppressive legislation and terror, which inevitably alienates those who might have been attracted to religion.
Rabbi Sacks, who is retiring later this year at the age of 65, advocates a “counter-fundamentalism based on the conviction that God has given us many universes of faith.” He insists that there is no exclusive way to God and that we must recognize the image of God “in the person not like us… Religions do not need to be authoritarian to possess authority, nor exclusive to be authentic.”
In his latest book, Future Tense (2009), a keen analysis of Jews, Judaism and Israel in the 21st century – he makes clear that “Jews have friends among many faiths, and among secular humanists, and that we should cherish them all, making common cause with them in defence of freedom, human dignity and moral responsibility. We should rest secure in our unparalleled past and face the future with vigilance but without fear.”
His Jewish outlook is inclusive rather than exclusive. “I know that not every Jew is Orthodox, and not all believe in God, and find some aspects of our faith unintelligible at best and many find fault with Israel, and others with Diaspora Jewish life. Yet every Jew who stays loyal to his or her people and contributes to it in some way thereby adds something to the story of the Jewish people and becomes an agent of hope in the world, God’s partner in redemption.”
It should come as no surprise that the rabbi’s views have aroused the ire and opposition of the haredi community which refuses to accept his interpretation of Judaism. When The Dignity of Difference appeared in its second edition, the Rabbi made redactions to please opponents, but refused to remove the book already in bookstores.
In his book Another Way, Another Time, British journalist Meir Persoff maintains that “the Orthodox circles that [Rabbi] Sacks seeks to placate will never consider him Orthodox enough no matter what he does.”
Evidently there is no easy road to the New Jerusalem.