An Interview with Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks


An Interview with Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

BY: Shlomo Zuckier


As Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, how is your role different from that of an ordinary rabbi?

It means that I have to look after the welfare of all the congregations under my aegis in Britain, and it means that I have to be there for other rabbis.  And, of course, to some extent throughout the Commonwealth in general there are she’eilos that come to our beis din.  As such, I try to look after the pastoral concerns of our rabbis as they would look after those of their congregations.  So it is a more global, policy-shaping role, and it takes me a little way away from direct encounter with individual congregants, which is the kind of work that ordinary rabbis do and is at least as important. 


Could you tell us more about how you became the person you are today? Who are some of your role models?

I had the enormous privilege, as a 20-year-old student in 1968, of having two life-changing meetings, one with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, and one with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, of blessed memory.  The Lubavitcher Rebbe challenged me to be a leader, and Rav Soloveitchik challenged me to be a thinker.  Those two moments, long, long ago, shaped my life.


What do you think are the largest issues facing Diaspora Jewry today? Do you envision any possible solutions?

I think it is fairly clear that assimilation and anti-Semitism are the key issues.  We have now reached the point at which people understand that education in Jewish day schools is the only effective way of combating assimilation, and those sections of the community that have adopted that belief have, by and large, cut intermarriage by a large margin. 

Anti-Semitism remains a big problem in Europe, though, and we must have allies in combating it.  Jews cannot fight anti-Semitism alone; the victim cannot cure the crime, the hated cannot cure the hate.  So we have worked on this problem in Britain, and succeeded at being the first country where the fight against anti-Semitism is led by non-Jews. 


As Jews living in a secular world, how should we balance or harmonize our religious and secular values?

I prefer integration to compartmentalization.  I see a huge number of Jewish doctors fighting disease, economists fighting poverty, lawyers fighting injustice.  I wrote a book called To Heal a Fractured World because a Jewish lawyer once asked me, “I know perfectly well how to serve God at home or in the beit midrash, but how do I serve God for the 12 or 16 hours a day when I’m being a lawyer?”  So I wrote that book for him, and I hope it answered at least some parts, if not all, of his question.  But I do believe that we need to bring our Jewishness into everything we do, whatever we do.  I once met a Jewish bus conductor who took it upon himself to cheer up all his passengers.  This was a beautiful ruchani (spiritual) act, and it was clear that he had done it throughout his life – and this man was already in his 80s!  He was larger than life.  He had found a way to serve Hashem as a bus conductor.  And every role any of us has can be turned into a mode of serving Hashem. 


While living in the Diaspora, how can we best support our brethren in Israel?

Through constant hasbarah (public diplomacy).  Many people do not understand the existential threat that Israelis live with every single day that began with the moment of Israel’s birth and that has continued to intensify ever since.  We have to explain that Israel is the last great bastion of hope in the Middle East for democracy, with both an independent judiciary and a free press – in essence, a liberal democracy.  If we lose Israel and that last best hope, God forbid, the Middle East will be impoverished, the world will be impoverished; freedom will have suffered one of its greatest defeats ever. That is why I ask not only pro-Israelis to support Israel, but pro-Palestinians and those who are pro-Arab to support Israel as well, because Israel really has shown how a small country can achieve greatness in an area where a full-fledged democracy and open society had never been achieved before. I have defined Judaism (in my latest book, Future Tense) as “the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind,” and Israel is the home of that hope. It has significance far beyond the Jewish people as a testimony of the power of faith in life after the Holocaust, and we must do all we can to defend it against its enemies, who are, in truth, enemies of freedom itself.


How should fully observant Jews relate to their nominally Orthodox but at times heterodox (and/or heteroprax) brethren? 

With total friendship.  Stand firm by your principles and do not compromise one syllable of Halachah, but go and make friends with all the people who do not believe as you believe.  Friendship can achieve much that intellectual argument cannot. 


Do you think that we should be involved as individuals or as communities in interfaith dialogue?

I have written about this in a book of mine called The Home We Build Together, and there I contrast, using a famous idea of R. Soloveitchik’s, zts”l, the ideas of being “face-to-face” and “side-by-side.”  I call dialogue an interaction that is “face-to-face” but characterize it as being not at the very heart of the problem.  It is, by its nature, an elite undertaking, conducted by people at the mountaintop of their respective faiths. It does not always filter down to the grassroots, where the problems lie. Of course, I do not criticize dialogue – it has, for example, transformed the relationship between Jews and the Catholic Church. But it is not, in and of itself, sufficient. Liberal voices – the voices that tend to be the most prominent in dialogue – do not always succeed, especially in an age like ours where the extremists tend to prevail in conflict zones. 

So I prefer the “side-by-side” approach of community relations, what we call in halachic terms “darchei shalom” (ways of peace). In that vein, I played a part in encouraging Jews and Muslims in Britain to fight anti-Semitism and Islamophobia together. Both problems affect both of us, so we should fight them together, and that is what I call “side-by-side.”  It does not involve sharing our theologies; it simply involves recognizing that we both have people out there who do not like us very much.  And that distinction between open religious dialogue and communal cooperation is made by Rav Soloveitchik both in his essay “Confrontation”
and in The Lonely Man of Faith.


You recently received the inaugural Norman Lamm Prize recognizing your scholarship and commitment to Rabbi Dr. Lamm’s ideals. Could you tell us what you think R. Lamm’s greatest achievements were in his over 50 years of leadership in the American Jewish community?

First, he saved Yeshiva from closure, from one of its most severe financial crises.  Second, he built up an immense educational institution, and those elements of it that I have seen in my week’s stay here have been truly impressive.  There is no other institution like Yeshiva University in the Jewish world.  It is an astonishing achievement, and it owes an enormous amount to Rabbi Lamm.  And third, he has shown tremendous courage and tenacity in carrying Torah u-Madda forward without any deviation whatsoever.  At times when it was quite difficult to do so, he had the koach (power) to build and the gevurah (strength) to stay true to his principles. 


What would you say should be the intellectual goals of a committed Orthodox college student?

Well, one should learn at least as much about Yahadus as about one’s specialization, and there should be integration between the two. I call them, metaphorically, the right and left hemispheres of the brain. So, to put it more generally, science is a left-brain activity, religion a right-brained one. Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean. That is a fundamental distinction which I hope to write more about in the near future.

In general, we must be Jewishly literate. We have to understand the multi-faceted nature of the canonical texts of our tradition. We have to be able to think as Jews – halachically, aggadically, and with a sense of Jewish history, philosophy, poetry and mysticism. The richness of our heritage is beyond measure. It played a deeply significant part in the unfolding of Western civilization, and it still speaks to the dilemmas of the 21st century with undiminished power.

Ideally, every Jew, in whatever sphere of life he or she chooses to have an influence, should be an ambassador for Judaism and the Jewish people, and that means having internalized the four-thousand-year conversation between Heaven and Earth that is, in the deepest sense, our Torah she-bi-Kesav and Torah she-be-Al Peh, our written and oral heritages.


Do you have any other advice for the students of Yeshiva University?

Learn as much as you can while you are here, and when you leave, never stop learning.  The most important thing is to learn how to learn and to discover the passion for doing so.  That will bring blessing to your life and blessing to the lives of others.  So enjoy this unique and totally wonderful institution. I feel very envious of American Jewry for having it in a way that in Britain, because of the relatively small size of the Jewish community, we never could. 


Rabbi Dr. Lord Jonathan Sacks is the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, a position he has held since 1991.  He was the recent recipient of the Norman Lamm Prize, warranted by his “lifetime of dedication to the cause of Torah u-Madda in all of its facets,” and lectured in a number of settings throughout his recent stay at Yeshiva University.  


Shlomo Zuckier is a senior at YC majoring in Philosophy and Jewish Studies and is an Associate Editor for Kol Hamevaser.