Forward Thinking

Jonathan Sacks and the Twin Danger Facing Jews

By Liam Hoare

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Jonathan Sacks

Jonathan Sacks, the outgoing British chief rabbi, is warning of a twin threat to Judaism from assimilation on the one hand and ultra-Orthodoxy on the other. At his retirement dinner, he said that “those who embrace the world and reject Judaism, and those who embrace Judaism and reject the world” represent a “global danger” to Jews and Judaism.

Assimilation and ultra-Orthodoxy, Sacks said, are phenomena that presently “dominate the Jewish world”. Pointing to secularism and intermarriage, he called it a “tragedy” that “one young Jew in two (decides) not to have a Jewish marriage, create a Jewish home and build the Jewish future.” In the next breath, he blasted Haredim as a group that “segregates itself from the world and from its fellow Jews.”

“This is very dangerous, because if there is anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism in the future, who is going to fight it?” Sacks asked. “The Jews who abandon Judaism? Or the Jews who abandon the world?”

As the spiritual leader of the United Kingdom’s Orthodox community, Sacks has reason to be concerned. According to a 2010 study produced by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, 73% of Jewish households are affiliated with a synagogue, yet the percentage of affiliated households across the denominations has fallen by 17 percentage points over the past 20 years. Orthodox households still represent over 50% of affiliated households, but their number has contracted by one third. At the same time, the percentage of Jewish households affiliated to an ultra-Orthodox synagogue has more than doubled from 4.5% in 1990 to 10.9% in 2010.

Sacks expands on this theme in his new pamphlet, A Judaism Engaged with the World. Since he first became chief rabbi 22 years ago, and faced with the challenge of a shrinking, disengaged population, he has seen a massive effort to respond.

“British Jewry has responded magnificently to the challenge. The new schools we have built, the cultural creativity British Jewry now shows, and the higher profile we have in the public square, will, I believe, mean that we will have more Jewish grandchildren than might otherwise have been the case,” he writes.

“But I could not live with myself,” Sacks continues, “if I did not continue to do everything in my power to continue to try to make Judaism more compelling for the next generation, intellectually, ethically and spiritually. We must be prepared to engage with the world, unashamedly and uncompromisingly as Jews. Otherwise we will find yet again that the choice will be either to assimilate or segregate, leaving no one left to challenge the world or make a contribution to it as a Jew.”

Of the Haredim, Sacks says “there is no reason to turn our back to the world. …Now is the time [for the haredim] to turn outward and share its energies with the rest of the Jewish world.” The Times of Israel’s Miriam Shaviv reports that such words represent a departure from his previous tone towards the ultra-Orthodox. Previously, Sacks has been accused of being too deferential to Haredi rabbis as part of a desire to accommodate this burgeoning sector of British Jewry. In 2003, Sacks amended his book The Dignity of Difference after leading Haredim deemed the work too relativist regarding the truthfulness of other faiths. Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv described the book as being “contrary to our faith in the Holy Torah.”

But whatever his fight with the ultra-Orthodox, Sacks is perhaps more saddened by those who have chosen the path of assimilation. With intermarriage and disaffiliation, “a family tree that had lasted a hundred generations comes to an end with them. a chain of continuity that held strong for a hundred generations has broken”:

While the two extremes are growing, the centre is shrinking. Jews are either drifting away from mainstream synagogues or starting small, new, breakaway communities. Shuls that once brought together Jews from a wide range of commitment are declining. A certain kind of Jewish identity – proud to be Jewish, proud equally to be an active citizen of the wider society – is waning. …The Jewish world is spinning apart.

The question Sacks’ pamphlet never quite answers, however, is where the boundaries of this Jewish center extend to. It is certainly not the case that Sacks believes only Orthodoxy constitutes Judaism or Jewishness. After all, Liberal and Reform leaders were part of Sacks’ retirement celebrations, and Sacks spoke of God and Judaism in broad terms. Indeed, the percentage of households affiliated with the Conservative Masori movement has almost doubled in the last 20 years, while in the past five years the share of Liberal Jewish households also went up.

Sacks’ Jewish center would seem to be one with faith and belief at its core, which does appear a little pinched. Sacks wants the new generation of British Jews to be “ambassadors of the divine presence, living Jewish lives, energised by Jewish texts, sustained by Jewish prayers, driven to share our legacy of hope”, which is a noble ambition. But can one not be energised by Jewish texts, or embody “the Jewish values of study, intellect, independence, iconoclasm”, without being a believer-in-God-who-believes-in-us, as Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger have argued?

Sacks later asserts that secular Israelis “are maaminim bnei maaminim, ‘believers, the children of believers,’ who have simply not yet encountered a Judaism that speaks to them,” noting them to be the most receptive audience to his ideas. But are secular Israelis – or secular Jews more widely – any less Jewish or in some fashion incomplete or less whole simply for their lack of affiliation or belief in the supernatural?

Whatever these reservations, Sacks’ closing speech and new pamphlet do highlight quite rightly the ongoing need to sustain Judaism and Jewish life, as the face of the community changes and the demographic balance between the denominations shifts. A Judaism Engaged with the World certainly gives a good indication that this is precisely the work that Sacks will go on to dedicate himself to when he officially leaves his post in September.


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