Lord Sacks served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. He died on 7 November 2020, and we wish to pay an homage to this great figure of world Judaism and philosophy. Therefore, as an act of respect, we republish this interview made in 2012.
“THE MISSION OF RELIGION IS HOPE”
You’ve been the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth since 1991 and are also a writer, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and author of various books including ‘The Dignity of Difference’, which takes on the problems of today’s world, from the economy to globalization to education and family…… Where do we find ourselves today, Lord Sacks?
We’ve established excellent relationships among different religions in the United Kingdom, but Europe is going through a very trying time with crises and unemployment issues that are difficult to take on.
Is it also a difficult time for Israel?
Certainly. There’s been a change in the war, from kamikazes that blew themselves up to the use of missiles. That means Israel is vulnerable and Hezbollah is dangerous. Then there’s the nuclear threat in Iran. Israel is on the front lines just as Jews have always been, seen as being different for a thousand years in Christian Europe and now in the Muslim Middle East. I defend these differences in my book because there’s no humanity without these.
Do you think Syria and other Middle Eastern countries pose serious problems?
They destabilize the world and their region. What comes to mind is the anecdote about the American student who goes to Oxford and asks why the grass is so green there. An Englishman tells him that it’s easy to achieve. All you have to do is hoe, add fertilizer and seeds, and then wait a thousand years! Democracy is not created overnight.
In a secularized world, what is the role of religion?
For me, the Jewish religion is a voice of hope in the discourse of mankind. A few days ago, I took part in a television show with the famous atheist Richard Dawkins. He said that he also believed that we need to have hope. I asked him to explain why he thought that. He said that it was only an intuition. But religion is intuition as well. The role of religion in the Jewish faith is also hope for those who are poor and powerless. In that sense, Isaiah is certainly the most important voice. For me, Jews are never optimists, given our history, but they never lose a sense of hope.
How many Jews are there in the United Kingdom?
There are about 300,000 and about two-thirds are members of synagogues and send their children to Jewish schools. Twenty years ago, only one-fourth of Jews went to Jewish schools.
What has changed?
We have worked very hard. I wrote a book in 1993 that I don’t think many people actually read though they know the title.
What is it called?
What is the situation for Jews in England?
England is one of the few countries where the war against anti-Semitism is fought by non-Jewish members of parliament. And the government has always been sensitive to the issue. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown allocated money to send two students and one teacher from every school to visit Auschwitz so they could learn about it and understand what happened there. And the current government is taking the same path.
You’ve spoken about anti-Semitism, but isn’t being against Israel the same as being anti-Semitic?
Often, those who are against Israel aren’t necessarily against the Jews. Some criticisms are valid while others aren’t. Not all criticisms are anti-Semitic. But any criticism that challenges Israel’s right to exist is anti-Semitic and any criticism that only blames Israel for the problems in the Middle East is anti-Semitic. As the poet Robert Frost says, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” For me, the Évian Conference in 1938 was a pivotal moment, when they brought together the top leaders in Europe, knowing full well that something terrible was about to happen to the Jews. But nobody was ready to take them in. Jews realized then that there wasn’t one centimetre of land they could call home.
What are relationships like with Muslims and Christians?
Excellent. In 2010, I had the Pope in London. Then I went to see him in Rome, and I taught a class at the Pontifical Gregorian University. It’s a bit more difficult to communicate with Muslims in the United Kingdom. There are 2.5 million Muslims and there isn’t just one leader or a unified community. But I have very good relationships with moderate Muslims.
Is it true that you are going to retire soon and teach?
That is my passion. I will go to the United States and Israel to train new rabbis.
In your opinion, where are we now with religion?
I think the fundamental book on this topic is still Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Religion is about family, community, and reinforcing the desire to live alongside one another. But the political parties need to stay out of it.
You are orthodox. What does this mean?
It’s the grand tradition of the prophets, of rabbis, and those who wrote the rules and paved the way throughout Jewish history, but I am a firm believer in not judging those who aren’t orthodox because they are Jews just like all of the rest.
First published in La Stampa, July 8th 2012.
PEACE BE UPON HIM