Whilst I cannot claim to have read every obituary and post-mortem appreciation of the late former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, Jonathan Henry Sacks (who died on 7 November 2020), I have certainly read a great many.
With very few exceptions, they follow a common pattern. If they mention the multiple failures and shortcomings of his chief rabbinate at all [and most do not], they are notoriously economical with the truth, treating these as aberrational, incidental to his life and peripheral in their significance and impact. They concentrate rather on his reputation in the wider world, beyond the orbit of British Jewry, and they argue that if that reputation was high – even outstanding – then his numerous communal embarrassments must be discounted, or even entirely ignored. This is not a view that I share.
Sacks, who succeeded Immanuel Jakobovits as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew
Congregations in September 1991, was certainly an accomplished academic philosopher
and communicator. He came from a traditional but hardly sectarian
But as far as the largely black-hatted world of Torah Orthodoxy was concerned, Sacks’ credentials were always open to question. He had not been born within this world. He entered from the outside a world which is notoriously suspicious of outsiders and, to make matters worse, his loudly proclaimed policy of ‘inclusivism,’ of entering into dialogue with Jews of every persuasion, served merely to deepen these suspicions.
Faced with the need to bolster his claim to
‘represent,’ in however nebulous a sense, the entirety of British Jewry, Sacks
evolved a theology designed to serve this end.
In a brilliantly written exposition, One
People? (1993), he set
forth a description of the Jewish condition, both in
Sacks rejected the view that the duty of Orthodoxy was to stand idly by, in its spiritual redoubt, while the forces of division did irreversible damage. He accepted the argument that there was no prospect of a return to Halacha [strict adherence to orthodoxy] in the foreseeable future, by the overwhelming majority of those who had abandoned it. That being so, Sacks argued, it fell to the Orthodox to be inclusivist rather than exclusivist: not to speak of other Jews “except in the language of love and respect,” to see to it that the Halacha is applied “to its widest possible constituency” - meaning that rulings are given with an eye to leniency wherever possible; perhaps most controversially, to attach “positive significance to the fact that liberal Judaisms have played their part in keeping alive for many Jews the values of Jewish identity, faith, and practice.”
One People? became the prospectus, so to speak, for Sacks’ incumbency of the Chief Rabbinate (1991-2013). What he attempted to do was to put inclusivism into practice. He failed, primarily because he attempted, at the same time, to retain the loyalty – or, at least, the respect - of the Torah Orthodox, whose deference he clearly felt he needed in order to assert and bolster the credibility and the majesty of his office. The battle was fought on several fronts: the role of women within the United Synagogue; the treatment of non-orthodox Jewish movements within and by orthodoxy; the universalist outlook of “Jewish Continuity,” Sacks’ financial engine designed to drive the spiritual renewal of Anglo-Jewry. They culminated in three very public confrontations, in 1995, 1997 and 2002, each triggered by what the sectarians believed was an unacceptable leniency and deference towards the non-orthodox.
The first flashpoint arose from Sacks’ attitude towards the Masorti movement, which experienced considerable growth in the early 1990s. In 1994 it emerged that Sacks, as an ecclesiastical authority of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, had some time previously signalled his intention to certify Masorti congregations as “congregations of persons professing the Jewish religion,” for the purpose of their obtaining government recognition of their marriage secretaries. Because of such certifications, Masorti claimed that its brand of orthodoxy had the Chief Rabbinical imprimatur. The sectarians pursued Sacks relentlessly on this issue, and in January 1995 he attempted to calm their fears by declaring, in the Jewish Tribune, that in his view adherents of Masorti had severed their links with the faith of their ancestors. Exactly a week later, in the Jewish Chronicle, though continuing to speak of Masorti in harsh terms , he stressed his belief in an Orthodoxy “uncompromising in its tolerance, its compassion, its warmth, intellectual openness and challenge to spiritual growth.”
We might note that Sacks’ continued determination to provide certifications for Masorti synagogues played a major part in his very public reprimand, at the hands of the UK Supreme Court in December 2009, when that Court ruled that in using a racial rather than a purely religious criterion when refusing a place at the Jews’ Free School to the son of a mother who was a convert to Judaism, Sacks had acted contrary to current race-relations legislation. Sacks’ lawyers had argued that he could not accept the mother’s religious conversion because that conversion had been carried out under non-orthodox auspices. In fact it had been carried out under the authority of the Masorti movement, and the child was accepted as fully Jewish by that movement which (as the child’s learned counsel pointed out), was deemed – by Sacks himself - to consist of congregations of persons “professing the Jewish religion.”
The death of Reform Rabbi Hugo Gryn, in 1996 provided the second major casus belli. Sacks contrived not to attend Gryn’s funeral, but, faced with unprecedented public criticism, he announced that he had agreed to address a “memorial meeting” in Gryn’s honour. He did so, on 20 February 1997, hoping that it would never be discovered that he had already (20 January) written at length to Dayan Chenoch Padwa, spiritual leader of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, apologising in advance for his appearance at the meeting, and confessing in no uncertain terms his distaste for what he was about to do, and his deep private antipathy to Hugo Gryn and his religious faith. When the Jewish Chronicle published an expurgated version of this extraordinary Hebrew letter, Sacks was publicly reviled as a hypocrite and denounced in the newspapers and on radio and television as such. Never has the reputation of a ‘Chief Rabbi’, and of the office, sunk so low.
On 3 November 1998, in an effort to prevent further outbreaks of the harmful publicity that the affair had triggered, the lay leadership of the United Synagogue agreed to put its seal to the ‘Stanmore Accords,' which, inter alia, established a ‘Consultative Committee’ consisting of representatives of the United Synagogue, the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues, the Union of Liberal & Progressive Synagogues and the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain. But any hope that the non-orthodox might have entertained - that these Accords would lead to mutual recognition of the legitimacy of each of these different expressions of Judaism - was soon shattered, when the United Synagogue’s Beth Din vetoed any participation by rabbis under its auspices in attending non-orthodox religious services. Not one United Synagogue rabbi blessed the Accords, which remained an exclusively lay document. The Accords did not carry Sacks’ signature. And they have remained, largely, a dead letter.
Four years later Sacks faced a much more serious crisis – one that he himself subsequently admitted (in public) might have led to his enforced resignation. In 2002, in the wake of the war that al-Qaida had launched against the western democracies, Sacks determined to enter the debate about whether there was indeed a “clash of civilizations.” Climbing on the bandwagon of ‘multiculturalism,’ he published The Dignity of Difference, in which he announced that “Judaism … believes in one God, but not in one religion, one culture, one truth,” and that “no one creed has a monopoly on [sic] spiritual truth.”
In a multicultural society these platitudes
might have struck a sympathetic chord. But in the world of strict orthodoxy
they smacked of unadulterated sacrilege.
On 30 October the revered Jerusalem-based sage Yosef Elyashiv (at that
time the undisputed ultimate religious authority of Ashkenazi Jewry following
the Polish-Lithuanian tradition) issued against the book a psak [decree]
forbidding any Jew from keeping the book in his home. Sacks, who had already tried and failed to
placate British-based orthodox rabbis whom he had agreed to meet in
There was to this story a pitiable post-script. Five years after the débâcle Sacks cynically turned his back on the multiculturalism that had caused him such a headache. In 2007, in The Home We Build Together, he declared: “Multiculturalism has run its course, and it is time to move on … It gave dignity to difference… But there has been a price to pay.”
Nor had Sacks fared any better in his efforts to encourage the spiritual renewal of Anglo-Jewry through educational initiatives. In 1993 he had announced the most ambitious educational project ever undertaken by Anglo-Jewry, “Jewish Continuity.” But four years later Continuity was dead. Its failure was the result in part of a number of structural weaknesses, but overshadowing these was – again – Sacks’ unwillingness to confront the Orthodox sectarians. When it became clear that Continuity’s Allocations Board was prepared to fund applications from non-orthodox bodies, the sectarians were in uproar. Rather than face them out, Sacks acquiesced in a reconstitution of Continuity, which, to save face, was tactfully merged with the Joint Israel Appeal.
Very few indeed of the obituaries of Sacks that I have read dealt even en passant with any of these failures. The text that the Guardian ran (8 November 2020), elegantly penned by Jewish News columnist Jenni Frazer, and the anonymous, peppery obituary that appeared in The Times (online and in print, 8-9 November 2020), did, however, deal in some detail with the Gryn affair and the furore over Dignity of Difference, while for good measure The Times listed Sacks’ multiple failures on a range of issues affecting Jewish women, not least his unwillingness to act on the issue of agunot – “chained” wives who cannot remarry under orthodox auspices because their husbands refuse them a religious divorce. And an article that appeared in the Jewish Chronicle (13 November), authored by the paper’s obituaries editor, Gloria Tessler, was devoted entirely to these feminist-related matters.
But none of these obituaries mentioned the JFS case, nor other cases in which Sacks caused untold misery to parents because he declined to permit their children to enter schools under his religious auspices, controversially claiming that the Israeli conversions of their mothers, although carried out under official orthodox rabbinical auspices, were somehow invalid. And none referred in any detail to the time Sacks spent as Principal of Jews’ College, whose world-renowned lecturer in Talmud, Rabbi Simche Lieberman, who had voiced private criticisms of him, Sacks contrived to dismiss.
But if I were to pick out any one of Sacks’ behaviours for special mention, it would be none of the above. I would point, rather, to his refusal to publicly condemn the convicted paedophile Professor Sidney Greenbaum, who had assisted in the English translation of the centenary edition of the Singer’s Prayer Book, which was published in 1990 under the formal auspices of Immanuel Jakobovits.
In August 1990 Greenbaum had pleaded guilty to charges of indecent assault on three boys, all of whom happened to come from orthodox London-based Jewish families. Neither the outgoing nor the incoming Chief Rabbi condescended to make any public statement of censure or regret.
Let’s not beat about the bush. Idolised (there can hardly be any doubt about this) in the non-Jewish world, Jonathan Sacks was unloved in many Anglo-Jewish quarters. His silence over the Greenbaum scandal was deafening.