Skip to main content

JONATHAN HENRY SACKS (1948-2020)

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.

 I have in fact perused with astonishment some of the encomia that have been heaped upon him. Here are very short extracts from three.

                    ·        “He was rooted in history, anchored by ethics … the greatest example of how to apply traditional values to a modern setting.” [Lord & Lady Mendelsohn, Jewish News, 9 November 2020]

 ·        “Rabbi Sacks was among the world’s leading exponents of Orthodox Judaism” [Jewish Tribune, 11 November 2020, p.12]

                 ·        “Jonathan Sacks reinforced the Chief Rabbinate as one of the Great Offices of State.” [Elkan Levy, Jewish Chronicle, 13 November 2020, p. 59]

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 London Jewish family. He read philosophy at Cambridge University and obtained his PhD, in philosophy, from the University of London. As with many of his generation, his encounter with the world of Torah orthodoxy came as a by-product of the mood of imminent redemption which swept over world Jewry during the Six-Day War (1967).  He studied rabbinics at Jews’ College, London, where he later taught and of which he became Principal in 1984.

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 Britain and in the world, which was, in an analytical sense, beyond reproach. His particular concern was with the fault‑line that existed between Orthodoxy and liberal Judaisms, and he traced, with remarkable clarity, the pre- and post-Holocaust routes by which Jewry in general and Anglo-Jewry in particular had arrived at a point, in the 1990s, at which religious schism seemed destined to split the Jewish people into separate peoples, virtually at war with each other.

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 Manchester, was in effect branded a heretic. In a publicly humiliating retreat he agreed to rewrite the book, a new edition of which was published early the following year: many of the offending passages were either reworded or deleted altogether.

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.

___________________________________

 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

THE JEWISH CHRONICLE: BEATING HEART OR BLEEDING HEART?

In recent weeks I’ve given interviews to British, Israeli and even German newspapers on the subject of the fate of the Jewish Chronicle. Naturally I have been careful to declare a number of interests. It was for the Jewish Chronicle that from 2002 until 2016 I wrote the paper’s weekly anchor comment column. I never missed a deadline. Besides filing these columns I wrote others for the paper, including book reviews and obituaries. Then I should add that as part of my academic research I have actually read every edition of the JC, from its very first in 1841. I still resort to its invaluable online searchable archive to check this fact or that. In common with many other newspapers the JC has been struggling financially in recent years. In 2018 it posted a loss of around £1.5 million. Its immediate future appeared to have been secured by donations from (as the Financial Times unhelpfully put it) “unnamed individuals,” but evidently this was not enough to sav
THE LONDON CONGESTION CHARGE Following the announcement by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan that the amount of the London Congestion Charge would increase to £15 a day, with longer hours of applicability  and extending to 7 days a week, I requested Greater London Assembly Member Andrew Dismore to ask the Mayor on my behalf what mandate - if any - he considered he had for these measures. Mr Dismore declined to put such a question, arguing that in the current pandemic emergency situation the Mayor had no choice in the matter, because these measures were virtually ordered by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps as a condition of the government's bailout of Transport for London. I asked Mr Dismore if he could point to that part of Mr Shapps' relevant letter to the Mayor [14 May 2020] requiring the Mayor to make these changes to the Congestion Charge. Mr Dismore pointed to paragraph 12h of the letter. In that paragraph, as a condition of the bailout, the Mayor is req