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Jewish Journal

Q&A with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

by Jared Sichel

February 26, 2014 | 4:18 pm

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Photo by David Miller

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Photo by David Miller

Jewish Journal: What are you able to do differently now that you are no longer Chief Rabbi?

Rabbi Sacks: My first passion has always been teaching and rabbi means, “my teacher,” and although I did a fair amount of teaching as Chief Rabbi I didn’t have the chance to really focus on it. I think the first and most important thing is to be able to teach. We have not gotten there yet but I hope one day I will have a little more time for writing because I’ve written 25 books so far but the list of books I have still to write, which I’ve carried around in my head for many years is many more than 25. I haven’t even gotten halfway yet.

JJ: What do you see as your role both to the Jewish world and the non-Jewish world?

Sacks: First, as the Jewish people are concerned I repeat, I just hope to be a teacher. Anyone who has had the privilege as I had of leading a community for 22 years has to set as his or her main priority to raise up a generation of successors. So the most important thing that I’ve set myself to do is to try and inspire young Jews to become leaders. That’s what I’m doing here; it’s what I’m doing wherever I travel. I’ve said many times, for many years, that my decisive encounter was with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. And I said about that encounter, “A good leader creates followers, but a great leader creates leaders.” My great ambition was simply to travel as far as I could and encourage young people to lead. I once called Judaism “God’s call to responsibility.” What I’m really saying to young Jews is, “Don’t complain about the Jewish world. Go and make the Jewish world.”

JJDo you have any thoughts on followers? Every leader needs people to follow.

Sacks: I’ve been very touched by the extent to which Jews I’ve met in America and in fact around the world have been reading [my work]...the kind of letters and emails they send, the kind of thanks that they give is just incredibly humbling. I just feel that there a lot of people out there who welcome the chance to sit and learn together about what it is to face the challenges of our time through the Torah. And I just find this big audience for that. It’s not a massive audience. But it is an audience of people who think hard.

JJ: Any thoughts on Orthodoxy’s tendency to remain insular?

Sacks: One of the many things I tried to do and, indeed, my late predecessor, Lord Jakobovits also did was to bring the Jewish voice into the public domain. And when you do that people really appreciate it. Whether they agree with you or they don’t, they like the fact that we are joining the conversation. And a lot of non-Jews say, “You know what? Judaism makes sense to me.” It doesn’t mean they are about to become Jewish but they feel reinforced by the knowledge that we are fighting for the same things as they are. And I’d love to see that happen in the States as well. One of the things we did a couple of weeks ago together with Yeshiva University was we had 500 kids who were doing what they called the Model United Nations. I was in a room with 500 kids around 18 years old…all of whom want to play a leadership role, and all of them feel very engaged with the big wider social issues of the day. So I’m getting the feeling that Orthodoxy is developing that sensitivity.

JJ: What should be the goal of Orthodox Jewry when engaging with non-Orthodox Jewry?

Sacks: I think the goal of Orthodox Jews should be to welcome every other Jew in love and respect. I think the rest either follows or it doesn’t follow as a consequence. I just think that anyone who takes a stand on being Jewish, who makes sacrifices for Judaism and the Jewish people is worthy of our respect. As for all other matters, I leave that to God. He does that so much better than we do.

JJ: It sounds like you believe that Orthodox Jews are inheriting the mantle in the U.S. of representing Judaism. If you agree with that, how can the Orthodox prepare for that role?

Sacks: You had sequences of immigration to the States. You had, essentially, the Sephardic Jews who came over, ultimately from Spain, in 1655 and thereafter. And then you had Jews, mainly from Germany, who came in the 1820’s. Little by little those communities kind of married out and assimilated. Orthodoxy found itself in the minority in the United States. There are only two places really where that was true. The United States and Israel. It’s one of the great ironies that America was predominantly non-Orthodox and Israel predominantly secular. So it took a long time for Orthodox Jews to be able to develop the techniques and the skills…to allow them to hold their own. Now, with the Pew report, it has become really clear that Orthodoxy is the only element of the Jewish people in America that’s growing. I’ve really been encouraging, as you noticed, throughout the weekend, Orthodox Jews to begin to look outward...They have been very focused inward, “How do I keep my kids frum [observant]?” And that was the challenge of the previous generation. The challenge of the next generation: “How am I going to get my kids to lead?” And that means looking a bit more broadly outward. Facing the challenges of the world.

JJ: Do you believe that religious Jews should disseminate the message of the Torah through any medium possible?

Sacks: Every new form of communication or information technology, whenever it appears, I hear kol dodi dofek [listen, my beloved knocks]. I hear God knocking at our door saying, “Use me. Use this gift that I have given you to spread my message.”…I came into the office the morning after the 27th of January 2010 when Steve Jobs launched the iPad. We all knew that the iPad wasn’t a massive technological breakthrough. It’s basically a big iPhone. But I came into the office, I said, “I have seen the face of the future.” This is the game changer. We just haven’t had enough time, to be honest with you, to develop the real resources for the Web and the iPad.

JJ: Is the Orthodox world coming around?

Sacks: I hope it is. I don’t mind whether it is or it isn’t. If we have to lead the way, we’ll lead the way. T.S Eliot wrote a poem called, “The Waste Land.”...There’s the poem, right? [Using an iPad app] You want all the commentaries to the poem, mikraos gedolot [great scriptures], right? You’ve got all the commentaries. You want to see the original manuscript with the notes of Ezra Pound. Can you see? But what is magic about this, what is absolute magic is 34 videos from the greats in the world telling you about “The Waste Land.”

[Related: 4 days, 7 venues, 11 events]

JJ: How can this be used for Judaism?

Sacks: Hang on. This is magic. This is the masterpiece...This is a performance of “The Waste Land.” It makes the whole play. This is like going to Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and getting the world’s greatest people to give you lectures. [Playing from the app, the voice of actress Fiona Shaw says, “The Waste Land. The burial of the dead.”] Can you imagine having a siddur where you’ve got the text? [Where] you’ve got the translation? You press one button, you get the commentaries. You press another button, and you get half a dozen shiurim [lessons] on that paragraph. You press another button, and you get Lionel Rosenfeld and the Shabbaton Choir singing it for you. The whole thing comes alive.

JJDo you want to bring your commentaries on the prayer books to the iPad?

Sacks: It’s not a project yet because I won’t have time for the next couple of years. It is a dream of mine to make Jewish texts come alive in this multimedia way. It will need time and I just don’t have it this year or next year. But eventually we must do something like this. This will make text come alive like nothing you’ve ever seen.

JJ: Do you ever learn Torah on your iPad?

Sacks: Only when I’m traveling. Have you seen this? This is a free app, Uvelechtecha Baderech [on your way]. This has every Jewish text you’d like and it’s a free app. Instead of shlepping five volumes of Ramban...the whole Gemara here, Shulchan Aruch. Everything you want is on this one free app.

JJ: What message would you give to the Christian world?

Sacks: I find that with Christians our biggest issue today is defending what has come to be known as the “Judeo-Christian ethic” against very aggressively secularized tendencies, which exist in America, but are much more powerful in Europe. They have a bad effect on people. Number one, everyone focuses on money. Money is a means to an end. It is not an end in itself. We focused on hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure is great but that’s not a recipe for a meaningful life. We have to start mending some of the great institutions of life, like marriage...the divorce rate in Britain has just started falling dramatically. Little by little people are beginning to realize that if you want happiness in life you have to have, number one, a sense of spiritual values, number two, a strong sense of moral values, number three, strong institutions, of which the single most important is marriage and family. And when we talk about those things we find, I find, immediate common ground with Christians and with many others as well.

JJ: If you were Chief Rabbi of America for a day, would you have any prescriptions for American Judaism?

Sacks: [Laughter]. One thing the universe does not need is people from afar pontificating on issues that are not their own. The solutions for American Jewry will be discovered by American Jews, not by an outsider coming in and saying, “I know better than you.’ I really don’t believe in people coming up with prescriptions from the distance. Each Jewry knows its own challenges and finds its way to its own solutions. The big difference between American Jewry and British Jewry is because we have this thing called the Chief Rabbinate and other things as well, British Jewry is very centralized.  And that’s a strength but it’s also a weakness. American Jewry is very decentralized. And they are just different cultures. So there’s no one Archimedean point in which you can move the world in American Jewry. Los Angeles Jewry is not the same as the Jewish community in Dallas, or Baltimore, or Philadelphia, let alone New York. In America everything is decentralized, and that’s the strength of American Jewry, but it does mean that there’s no instant solution. Things have to be worked out on the ground.

JJ: What keeps you up at night?

Sacks: What keeps me up at night, and I’ve spoken about this endlessly, is these two movements to the right and to the left. There are Jews moving very far away from social engagement, turning inwards. And there are Jews who are very engaged in the wider society, but have very little engagement with Judaism...The people that feel we are heir to both worlds, that we are both Jewish but at the same time engaged with society, those are getting fewer, and that’s the one thing that concerns me. It concerns me wherever I go. It exists in America, it exists in Israel, it exists everywhere. And classically Jews did do both. We were firm in our faith and in our way of life and at the same time we were doctors, we were lawyers, we were scientists, we were academics, businesspeople, and we have to strengthen that center.

JJData shows that only twenty three percent of American Jews regularly attend synagogue. Is that a problem?

Sacks: I think a shul is the matrix, it’s the home. A beit knesset means a home of the community. I think it’s very, very hard to replicate that in any other way. I don’t think people have understood what a miracle a shul actually is. No other people have survived for 2,000 years without a land, without independence, everywhere a minority—what do you do? No nation ever survived without the infrastructure of a nation. And in the end it was the shul that did it. The shul was a kind of fragment of Jerusalem and in it you felt connected to Jews throughout the world, who felt connected to the Jewish past, the Jewish future. You spoke the Jewish language. You spoke to the Jewish God. You turned your body towards Yerushalayim [Jerusalem]. I don’t think any institution ever quite performed as many miracles as the shul. You can’t replicate that in something that isn’t a shul. JCC is great and we’ve just had our first JCC in London...Anglo Jewry is much more shul-based than American Jewry, because American Jewry did have JCCs. It’s very hard to replicate in a JCC, the kind of strengthening of identity that you get in a shul, or the sense of commitment you get in a shul. There’s a professor of sociology at Harvard, Robert Putnam, who actually has done all the research on this, in churches as well as shuls, and he has found that it is regular involvement in a house of worship and a community of worshippers that makes people into altruists. He said it doesn’t matter, even if you don’t believe, as long as you go regularly to a house of worship, you will be changed. I think there’s something magical about the fact that Jews created and sustained communities in shuls. I don’t think any other institution has ever rivaled it, or ever will.

JJ: What encourages you the most about the Jewish People?

Sacks: When you look at Los Angeles...[its Jewish community] built up its strength in the past generation or two beyond any imagination. The first time I came here in 1968 as a student, I remember there was one Jewish bookshop, one Orthodox shul; people were just beginning to talk about Young Israel beginning to make an appearance. Today Los Angeles is one of the great Jewish communities of the world. I think we’ve seen tremendous growth and strength in Jewish life.

JJ: I sense that you believe that religious non-Jews are more receptive to your message than non-Orthodox Jews. Can you respond?

Sacks: The non-Orthodox Jewish world always had a strong sense of tikkun olam [repairing the world]. And what I’ve tried to show is we in the Orthodox world can have that sense as well. It’s very important. There are universal dimensions to Judaism and particular dimensions to Judaism and the important thing is to get that balance between the right and the left...There [were] non-Orthodox [Jews] in shul yesterday morning and they were equally accepting to the message.

JJ: Do you make the time every day for Torah study?

Sacks: Of course. I live Torah study. Always I am learning whatever the problem is I’m trying to solve. So for the past year I was trying to solve the problem of how to speak to people about leadership in a Jewish way. Is there such a thing as a distinctive kind of Jewish leadership? We know many of the schools of leadership in the universe. Moshe gets lessons from Yisro [Moses’s father-in-law], who’s a Midianite...I am learning Torah to solve problems...I’ve always learned Torah that way. “Covenant & Conversation” is a distillation of the Torah that I learn trying to solve problems we face.

JJ: How long each week does it take you to write “Covenant & Conversation”?

Sacks: I don’t write it each week. I write it in advance because I don’t have time. I wrote the whole of this year’s “Covenant & Conversation” last summer. I couldn’t do it otherwise. It takes very intense concentration. I don’t have a spare moment so I make time during the summer.

JJ: How do you decide each week’s topic?

Sacks: The first thing you do is you’ve got a problem. The second thing you have to do is listen. You really have to listen very carefully to the text. I always let the text speak to me before I start reading mefarshim [commentators]. You begin to see things that you never saw before because you never had that particular slant, that particular starting point. I don’t know how to explain it except by saying it’s a form of deep listening. Whenever something in the Torah is not quite smooth, not quite obvious, I’m listening and I will not stop until I understand why the Torah has taken this slightly strange or unexpected way of saying things.

JJ: Do you feel comfortable speaking to people whose views differ from yours?

Sacks: I began my career as an academic. Academics can sometimes talk in language that’s very, very difficult for lay people to understand...If you are talking to a congregation you can’t be academic. You have to use much simpler language. Then I took up broadcasting where I was speaking to an audience, 99.5% of which wasn’t Jewish. So that forced me to be even more simple in my language and more universal. You learn to speak certain languages by putting yourself in a situation in which you have to communicate simply and directly to people whose views may be very different from yours.

JJ: What are some elements of Western culture that you enjoy?

Sacks: I love Western culture; I love music—music of all kinds. Especially classical music, but I love all sorts of music...I haven’t watched television for about 25 years. You’ve got to sacrifice something. I have a feeling that I haven’t missed much. What I did watch was, I realized that I had to take some exercise because I wasn’t getting enough exercise in my job, so I managed to watch the entire six years of the West Wing while I was doing my exercises. I thought that it was terrific. I thought Aaron Sorkin is an absolute genius, the scriptwriter. I only get to see films on planes. I thought the “Shawshank Redemption” was a wonderful film because it’s a film about hope, the power of hope. I fell in love with the music of the man who wrote the music for the “Shawshank Redemption” [Thomas Newman]. Once in a while when I see a film I find that a very rich experience. We happened to have a spare motzei Shabbat [Saturday evening] in Jerusalem a few months ago and we went to see that film called, “Gravity.” Sandra Bullock, “the lonely woman of faith.” How you need that faith to get you through and to allow you to survive. I thought it was an extraordinary film. That’s why I said already twice on this trip that I would so love to see a film not just about how Jews died but how Jews live, and I’m afraid I haven’t seen enough of those. I have so many script ideas that would make wonderful films and would make Jews proud to be Jewish and would speak to non-Jews as well. So I don’t see as many films as I would like but I did used to make a film each year. I made one film a year for the BBC and making those films was very creative actually. I had to deliver a spiritual message and a Jewish message to an almost completely non-Jewish public. And that was very, very challenging.

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