In praise of Sir Jonathan Sacks

The Chief Rabbi is one of the few true in­tel­lec­tual lead­ers in the UK, and we should all be proud of him

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment & Analysis - DANIEL FINKEL­STEIN

GOR­DON BROWN IS in want of a motto. And he’d like you to think of one. So a con­sul­ta­tion is to be launched, hop­ing that the per­fect five-word de­scrip­tion of Great Bri­tain will pop into some­one’s head. Since I in­formed peo­ple of the motto search on my Times Com­ment Cen­tral blog, I’ve been in­un­dated with sug­ges­tions. “Dipso fatso bingo asbo Tesco” was one of my favourites. “Math­e­mat­i­cally we could still qual­ify” was witty. The win­ner? I think it’s hard to beat: “We apol­o­gise for the in­con­ve­nience”.

Laugh if you like. But as you do, re­mem­ber — this idea is the fault of the Jews.

Ac­tu­ally, it’s the fault of one Jew. It’s the fault of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

In his latest book, The Home We Build To­gether, Rabbi Sacks be­gins with this brac­ing sen­tence: “Mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism has run its course, and it is time to move on.” He urges us to en­gage in a con­scious act of cre­ation — build­ing a new na­tional iden­tity. He says: “Free­dom needs a so­ci­ety as well as a state. We need a na­tional nar­ra­tive; we need col­lec­tive mem­o­ries; we need some ar­tic­u­late an­swer to the ques­tion: who are we?”

It is this think­ing that has in­flu­enced Gor­don Brown, who for years has fol­lowed the Chief Rabbi’s writ­ing. There have been other in­flu­ences, of course there have, but fos­ter­ing a stronger sense of Bri­tish­ness is at the cen­tre of Gor­don Brown’s mis­sion as Prime Min­is­ter, and that is thanks in no small part thanks to Rabbi Sacks.

The idea of a na­tional motto falls nat­u­rally out of Sacks’s book, and as he builds up his ar­gu­ment, cyn­i­cism drops away. He’s right. Be­ing more ex­plicit about who we are as a coun­try is an es­sen­tial first step to a more in­te­grated so­ci­ety.

It’s an im­pres­sive in­tel­lec­tual and po­lit­i­cal achieve­ment. And I be­gin with it to make this point. We aren’t very nice some­times, we Jews, are we?

If you men­tion Rabbi Sacks to an­other Jew, there is a rea­son­able chance that what you will get back is a dis­parag­ing com­ment. To a cer­tain ex­tent, of course, this is just what we are like as peo­ple. We re­gard pok­ing each other in the stom­ach and say­ing “you’ve put on weight” as a friendly greet­ing. But there is more to it than that. There’s pol­i­tics too. The Re­form and Lib­eral move­ments will say heat­edly that Sacks is not “our chief Rabbi” and might bring up Hugo Gryn. The mod­ern Ortho­dox feel dis­ap­pointed that there hasn’t been more change on the Chief’s watch. The strictly Ortho­dox are for­ever on their guard against be­trayal and com­pro­mise.

Well, here is the counter case. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is one of the few truly big fig­ures in this coun­try, a mighty voice, and we should all, what­ever flavour of Jew we are, be in­tensely proud of him. I am.

At a time when re­li­gion is un­der at­tack, many re­li­gious fig­ures are reel­ing. The Arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury, for in­stance, is scarcely ca­pa­ble of co­her­ent speech. He takes refuge ei­ther in ob­scure rhetoric, hard to un­der­stand, or in naïve po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ven­tions. Rabbi Sacks is one of the few still ca­pa­ble of ar­gu­ing re­li­gion’s cor­ner. I do not share his Or­tho­doxy, but I never hear him put an un­wor­thy ar­gu­ment, one I can’t re­spect, one I don’t feel I have to think be­fore re­spond­ing to.

At The Times, when a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter oc­curs — the tsunami, say — and we feel our read­ers would want to try bet­ter to un­der­stand how such a dread­ful thing could hap­pen, we turn nat­u­rally, and first, to Jonathan Sacks. And we are never dis­ap­pointed. He has a very spe­cial way of ar­tic­u­lat­ing his thoughts and feel­ings, a way which makes sense even to the coolly scep­ti­cal.

And then there is his in­flu­ence on pol­i­tics. Jonathan Sacks is one of the in­tel­lec­tual lead­ers who has shifted the de­bate on both sides of pol­i­tics away from the purely leg­isla­tive to the tricky prob­lems of per­sonal be­hav­iour and so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity. The most se­nior politi­cians in the coun­try, I know from per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, take him very se­ri­ously in­deed. His is a pow­er­ful voice for the ideals of our re­li­gion in the high­est coun­cils of the na­tion.

He has also played the dif­fi­cult ques­tions of com­mu­nity and eth­nic co­he­sion well, never sound­ing shrill, while firmly pro­mot­ing in­te­gra­tion.

Should we just shrug our shoul­ders and pre­tend that such things don’t mat­ter? Do my fel­low Re­form Jews, for in­stance, re­ally think that our ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences with Rabbi Sacks and our dis­putes with the United Syn­a­gogue are more im­por­tant? Do some of his fel­low United Syn­a­gogue mem­bers value this lead­er­ship in the world so lit­tle that they put them a dis­tant sec­ond be­hind some in­tracom­mu­nity prob­lems?

I hope not. I think we’re big­ger than that. Long live Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Daniel Finkel­stein is As­so­ci­ate Ed­i­tor of The Times

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