One trenchant critic privately — and pejoratively – refers to him as ‘Jonathan Henry’. Read the ultra-orthodox press in the United States and he is transformed into `Yonoson’. These different labels symbolise the different worlds which the British Chief Rabbi — Professor Jonathan Sacks of the United Hebrew Congregations of the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth – is destined to inhabit. The latest controversy relates to the re-publication of his last book ‘The Dignity of Difference’ — ostensibly a plea for tolerance based on orthodox Judaism in an age of extremes. Such arguments for the sake of heaven went unnoticed in haredi circles — their attention was drawn instead to the suggested relativity of all religions, that all are equally true. Under a barrage of insults and accusations, the Chief Rabbi requested his publisher ‘to refrain from further printing or promoting’ the book until ‘a clarification — not a retraction’ could be made in a revised edition.
Most British Jews — for different reasons — would not sing ‘Hail to the Chief’. Why? Essentially because his desire for inclusivity across the entire range of Jewish self-definition has left him identity—less. ‘Who is Jonathan Sacks?’ is an unanswerable conundrum.
A visit to his website exudes a plea for appreciation. It will inform you of the long list of prestigious honorary doctorates that he holds, a detailed list of speeches and articles plus a comprehensive explanation of the fourteen books published.
Despite his manifest good intentions and the energy which he injects into his work, he has come to personify the man in charge of moving the goalposts. Someone who eloquently and elegantly proclaims a fascinating idea on Monday, only to ‘clarify’ it on Tuesday. Someone who is pushed and pulled by the ebb and flow of powerful forces in the Jewish world.
Jonathan Sacks became the sixth Chief Rabbi in 1991. The post-war generation had come of age — and the future spelled ‘openness’. Women, secularists and the non-orthodox were quietly positive. His inauguration was a quintessentially English affair with Jewish grandees sporting top hats and tailcoats amidst a plethora of Christian ecclesiastical dignitaries. Yet British Jewry was shrinking at an alarming rate. In contrast, the ultra-orthodox were literally going forth and multiplying. The demographic situation has therefore considerably weakened Sacks’s position and the ultra-orthodox have threatened to delegitimise him, to cast him outside the definition of authenticity. Unlike Sacks, they do not accept the dignity of difference, only the self-conferred holiness of their own interpretations.
His other problem is that he is actually Chief Rabbi of only one group of Jews — middle of the road orthodoxy — the United Synagogue. The Reform, Liberals and Masorti do not regard him as their Chief Rabbi. To the outside world, he is seen as the Jewish answer to the Archbishop of Canterbury — seemingly representing a united Jewish opinion. This has suited the political needs of the community in terms of representation for well over a century. But in recent times there have been demands for a Reform Chief Rabbi and today the British Government well understands the devolved nature of British Jewry.
Bridging the gap between the ultra-orthodox and the non-orthodox is not only a thankless task, but probably an impossible one. Thus when the much loved leader of the Reform Synagogues, Rabbi Hugo Gryn died, as Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks had to acknowledge his standing and his contribution but simultaneously not to recognise the Reform. Sacks tunnelled his way out of this dilemma by speaking at a memorial meeting on neutral ground while at the same time writing a long private letter explaining himself to the Av Beis Din of the Union of Orthodox Congregations, Dayan Chanoch Padwa. In his letter, he referred to ‘Mr’ Hugo Gryn as `oto ha’ ish’ — a phrase historically utilised to describe apostates and undesirables including Jesus of Nazareth. The letter, probably leaked by the ultra-orthodox, found its way to the Jewish press which embroidered its front pages with every last degrading syllable. Clearly not a high point in Sacks’s odyssey.
When Sacks became Chief Rabbi, he wished his tenure to be regarded as the realm of the word. He hoped to entice both the secular Jewish intelligentsia and to import Jewish teachings into the national agenda. Hence his warmth towards Tony Blair and New Labour and his cultivation of Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer — both of whom come from religious backgrounds.
Yet every time he attempts to meet the challenge of the times with a ground-breaking thesis, he plummets to a new disaster which sidelines his innovative ideas. Sometimes this is of his own making, when scintillating exuberance overcomes good judgement. Depressed by the rejection of lesser beings, he once more vows to return to the fray with new concepts to make the ultimate breakthrough.
Jews are from Mars, but Jews are also from Venus. Jonathan Sacks regards them as the same planet. Many have pleaded with him not to be a man for all seasons and to risk the wrath of the ultra-orthodox. He is modern orthodox, a powerful speaker, a Zionist appreciated above all by young people and deep down a person of liberal values. The torture of looking in the mirror each morning and asking ‘who am I supposed to be today?’ is both confusing and counter-productive — and ultimately deeply humiliating to someone of Jonathan Sacks’s undoubted abilities. Clearly he has made a decision not to make a decision, to plough on in the hope of cementing the centre. The choice, as he sees it, is not between good and bad, but between bad and worse. Perhaps the tides of history cannot be reversed, but all the same common-sense traditional Judaism is being allowed to atrophy.