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
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