Stepping Down as Chief: The Jewish News interview
on being Chief Rabbi, working with Prime Ministers, battling cancer, and on the future
This interview with Justin Cohen was published on 21st August 2013. On the 1st September 2013, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis officially became the new Chief Rabbi (see featured image),
Lord Sacks retires next week after 22 hectic years as Chief Rabbi. Here, in a fascinating conversation with Justin Cohen, he talks frankly about battling cancer and depression, his relationship with Progressive movements, working alongside four prime ministers and how British-Jewish life has changed during the past two decades.
Jewish News: What would you consider to be your greatest achievement as Chief Rabbi?
Lord Sacks: I don’t use that word “my” but rather “our”. These 22 years have really been the community showing its strength in depth, rising to a challenge, and I’m glad we played a part in posing that question: “Will we have Jewish grandchildren?” But for me the most important thing has been the community. Look at the number of schools and new institutions it’s built. Look at the way Jews feel more confident to be public in their faith. These are communal achievements. So I think using the first-person singular is a mistake. Ours is a community that’s undergone a renaissance at every level.
JN: Political and religious leaders recently lined up to pay tribute to you. How did it feel to hear such plaudits and to know that your books have influenced the likes of David Cameron and Gordon Brown?
LS:There are a lot of Jews who keep their identity hidden for much of the time. But when there is a moment that they can feel Jewish pride, they affirm their identity. I thought that evening was a great evening for Jewish pride. If some of my work and some of my writings have helped contribute to that then I’m very touched and very humbled. One of the privileges of being Chief Rabbi is you’re not sitting in an ivory tower just talking ideas, you’re actually given the chance to road test them. I got a chance to road test that idea with four prime ministers and I discovered that Judaism does have something to teach the world, as I had always thought. The privilege of actually being able to do it and to see the results was huge.
JN: Is it surprising that so many people read your books?
LS: Yes. My late mother once said to me, ‘Jonathan, when are you going to write a book I can actually understand?’ If anyone actually reads my books I count that as a bonus, and when it’s a Prime Minister even more so.
JN: Is there anything that you would like to have achieved that you didn’t manage?
LS: No, because if there were I would have done it or at least tried to do it. I think we achieved all we could achieve in 22 years, but that does not a all mean that there is nothing more to be achieved. I’m very thankful for the fact we got to the point where women could become chair people of shuls. We had many of those battles to fight. There were no women on synagogue boards, there were no women, except in observer status, on United Synagogue council. We had to make that a gradual change and I’m glad that within my term of office women were able to become chair people.
JN: What do you make of suggestions that your chief rabbinate has been too outward looking and hasn’t focused enough on its own community?
LS: Ninety-five to ninety-eight percent of my time is spent with the Jewish community. I do Thought for the Day which takes little time and people say, “Oh, he’s spending all his time on the outside world.” Actually, almost all my work has been inside the community. The vast bulk of my writing has been directed to community – the siddur, the haggadah, the machzorim, and Covenant & Conversation. I’ve visited communities who haven’t seen a Chief Rabbi in more than a century and spent time with the organisations, students and with small communities.
JN: What are your plans for semi-retirement?
LS: It’s not a semi-retirement. It’s the same direction but in a global way – writing, teaching, broadcasting and speaking on a more global forum. There’s a hunger around the world for the message that we’ve been delivering of a Judaism that engages the world. So more teaching, more writing and seeing the possibilities of the web because I don’t think we have really touched the surface yet.
JN: Any specific writing plans?
LS: I didn’t think I was going to this summer but I’ve written all 54 essays of Covenant and Conversation 5774, which is going to break new ground because it is completely thematic. The essays are all on leadership because, for the first few years, I will be trying to inspire and recruit a new generation of young leaders for the Jewish world. That’s the first thing. Then I have two machzorim to do, three volumes of Covenant and Conversation to edit. I will then sit down and take a deep breath for the really big one which is a Chumash to succeed the Herzog edition, which is almost a century old.
JN: Can we expect to see you here much or will you be concerned about stepping on Rabbi Mirvis’s toes?
LS: Most of my time will be spent in London. But I have a rule to never enter the arena of your successor. That’s something I will observe with absolute fastidiousness. If there’s ever anything he wants me to do, I will do it. If there is ever anything that only I can do, I will do it. I’m not going to abandon the community but I have to give him absolute space. I will teach at the London School of Jewish Studies, Kings’ College, work in the House of Lords and have a heavy writing agenda.
JN: And are there any books you are looking to write in the coming years?
LS: That’s a very dangerous question because I started very late. I’ll be honest, I wanted to write a book when I was 20 and I worked on it for 20 years – 20 years of sustained failure and not for want of trying. At aged 40 I read George Bernard Shaw’s preface to Plays Unpleasant in which he writes ‘If you are going to write a book, do it by the time you are 40’, so I said to myself ‘It’s now or never’. I wrote my first book at the age of 40, since when I have done one a year, but I have carried a list around in my head for many years and I’ve done less than half of it. The Great Partnership is going to come out in Ivrit – that is important for me. There are not all that many voices like that in Israel, and that is tremendously important for me, and very much part of our long-term thinking.
JN: What has been your toughest moment in the job?
LS: There is no question that the toughest moment actually came in 2002 with Jenin when people were accusing Israel of perpetrating a massacre against Palestinians -they were talking about 5000 people dead and it was a horrendous moment. I had to make a calculated decision – I’m not the Israeli ambassador but is this just too serious to leave? I went on The Today Programme and I told listeners that when the full facts emerge, two things will be known; the death toll will be nothing like this figure and there will emerge a disproportionate number of Israeli deaths because of the risks the army are taking to avoid any innocent casualties. Four days later, at the Trafalgar Square rally, the facts became known for the first time – 52 Palestinians dead and 23 Israelis. People asked how did I know, and the answer was that the director of my office at the time, Syma Weinberg, phoned up Israeli soldiers in Jenin and she got the facts from them. we had the facts before anyone else and I was able to defend Israel on the BBC. That was a very difficult moment, but a very important one because I thought, ‘GOd forbid, if we let that story run then we will never be able to bring it back round again’.
JN: What have you enjoyed most about the job?
LS: Visiting communities. In this respect I hope the Chief Rabbi and Rebbetzein are not different from the average Jew in the pew in that they can go right around the world, right around the Commonwealth being welcomed in different communities and feeling the strength and intensity of Jewish communal life; this is thrilling. You go to Aberdeen on the one hand, you go to Wellington, New Zealand, you go to Montreal and you have that same feeling of being part of an extended family.
JN: On to Jonathan Sacks the man… How has your battle with cancer affected the way you live your life?
LS: I’ve always felt grateful for every day. You get up and say thank you to God for giving you back your life. Anyone who reaches 65 has seen friends lost, lives lost, and I came through. I feel a sense of gratitude every day, I really do.
JN: Was that one of the toughest times in your life?
LS: No. My late father didn’t have a Jewish education. He left school at the age of 14 but he had terrific faith. I saw him go through five operations when he was in his 80s. He used to sit there praying and I sensed from him that he had decided to place himself in God’s hands. I did like-wise. I’ve stood eyeball to eyeball with the angel of death and I said, “Hashem, I leave this one to you.” I was not afraid on either occasion. I was extraordinarily relaxed. I’m not sure if one should be, but I put my faith in God and the surgeons and both of them did what they had to do.
JN: One of the criticisms levelled against you concerns your non-attendance at Limmud. Why did you decide not to go when you indicated to your Rabbis that they were free to do so?
LS: Don’t forget that I came in as Chief Rabbi in the early nineties and I saw the Conservative Party tear itself apart over Maastricht and a decade later we saw the Anglican Communion almost tear itself apart over gay priests and women bishops. The thing you don’t do as a leader of a group is let that group tear itself apart. It struck me as absolutely natural to go to Limmud, I’d been there before becoming Chief Rabbi, but I discovered this was an issue that had the power to tear the rabbinate apart so I did the best I could, saying those who go go with my blessing, those who don’t I understand and respect. But I don’t want either of you to cast aspersions on the other. Going there personally would, in that context, have been a very divisive act within our rabbinate.
JN: Did the controversy over The Dignity of Difference cause you to feel that you had lost your freedom to write and say whatever you believed?
LS: Absolutely not, not for one second. Since then I have done more interfaith work not less. I have never stood back from the attitude I took then, which is an absolutely well known, non-controversial Jewish position, that we never seek to convert the world because we believe that righteous people of any nation or any faith have a share in the world to come. That was one of the Rabbis’ greatest insights and of course it comes straight from the Bible. Jews had been criticised for 2,000 years for being inward looking and exclusive, and I think the time has come in the twenty-first century to say that is not what we are about. We are about the dignity of difference. God creates diversity, let us respect that. Unity in heaven creates diversity on Earth. It’s a very important message and it allows us to turn around a feature of Judaism for which we have been criticised for many centuries.
JN: We also had the controversy surrounding your decision not to attend Rabbi Hugo Gryn’s funeral. How did personally cope with these tough episodes and the criticism?
LS: You move forward. Elaine was a great source of strength. You try and make things better in the future. As a result of the turbulence at that time, I was forced to think this whole issue through and I came up with these two principles; on all matters that affect us as Jews regardless of our religious differences we work together regardless of our religious differences, and on all things that touch our religious differences we agree to differ, but with respect. As a result of those two principles relations between Reform and Orthodox have got much better and are actually a model for the rest of the Jewish world. Progressive Rabbis sit with me on the top table of the Council of Christians and Jews, we stand together for Israel. All of this flowed from those two principles. Until then there had been a view never to do anything with the non-Orthodox movements but once you thought it through you saw that there were all sorts of opportunities.
JN: Would you debate on the same platform with leaders of other strands of Jewry?
LS: I sat with a large group of young Jewish leaders about 15 years ago when there were turbulent relations, and said: “Would you like me to have a public conversation with a non- orthodox Rabbi?’ and they said, ‘No. We’d like you to tell us what you really believe, give us a set of lectures on faith’. The truth is that young people all know that there is friendship between us, and I don’t think they want our differences dragged out in public. But privately I’ve always had these discussions. Any non-Orthodox Rabbi that comes here knows they can discuss matters of theology and faith with me, and they do.
JN: Was there ever a time when you wondered why you’d taken on this role – and perhaps even considered stepping down?
LS: I had a very low moment after the death of my late father. He was a man who didn’t have much chance in life. He was opening the Ark at my induction and I felt, ‘I’ve done this for you so you can hold your head high.’ When he wasn’t there any more I was very depressed for two years. Eventually I wrote a book called Celebrating Life, to write myself out of depression. That was the real crisis. It’s things that happen in your personal life that touch you deepest.
JN: Did you consider quitting at that point?
LS: Whenever I thought, shall I move on and do something a little less stressful, I was stopped in my tracks by a voice, call that the better angel in my nature, that said ‘If you leave now, you will let down everyone who ever put their faith in you and what you stand for’, and that was a very important moment for me. As soon as I had that thought, that you don’t leave the field in the middle of the battle, that thought just turned my life around and I got more relaxed again.
JN: You recently spoke out against the shunning of gays in the community. What more can be done to make gay Jews feel more welcome in the US?
LS: They haven’t made any further requests of us, but I think they appreciated the stand we took and we constantly ask ‘is there something we can do’. For instance they said to me, could you not please emphasise on Holocaust Memorial Day that there were gays taken into concentration camps with Jews, and I do that as a regular thing. Whatever they’ve asked we’ve done because they’ve been very, very respectful because they know how far an Orthodox Jew can go. They’ve never ever asked me to do something that they knew I couldn’t do. I think it’s been a model relationship in some ways.
JN: Do you feel that there could be a legal challenge against shuls refusing to host gay weddings?
LS: No, otherwise I would have opposed the legislation very, very publically and strongly. We did not let that legislation happen without the most solemn and categorical assurances from government.
JN: How concerned are you about the treatment of Israel by some unions, at some universities and has this changed during your tenure?
LS: Yes, it’s changed very much. It started on September 29th 2000 with the intifada and that’s been a major concern for these past thirteen years. There is a Jewish principle of justice, but it is even a principle of Roman law, ‘If you want justice, you have to hear the other side’. I don’t believe in some environments they are hearing the other side, they are not hearing Israel’s case and you cannot work for peace, you cannot work for justice unless you hear the other side. If Israel’s case is refused admission, then neither justice, nor the cause of peace, will be served.
JN: Have you been surprised by the level of hostility towards Israel in the Lords?
LS: Saddened, but not surprised. I think we as a community should be enormously grateful and proud of our Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub and his predecessor, but there were periods of time when we had ambassadors who weren’t as fluid in English as they might have been, and therefore what we are seeing now is a result of a certain lack of eloquence at the beginning of the process. If you lose the argument it becomes quite hard to regain it. Incidentally I don’t think that’s a permanent feature, as Syria and Egypt continue to dominate the headlines. There are innocent people dying in the streets there. I think people will begin to sit back and say Israel is a democracy with an independent judiciary and a free press. I think the world may step back and say Israel is a beacon of light in many ways.
JN: Do you think people in the circles that are currently critical will recognise that?
LS: No. A young generation may grow up that is more appreciative of Israel’s achievements.
JN: Turning to the future, how do you think Rabbi Mirvis will perform in the role?
LS: He will do magnificently. When I became Chief Rabbi, they said: “You have an impossible act to follow.” That’s said to a new Chief Rabbi regardless of who they are. He will do absolutely superbly and I’m delighted to be able to induct him as my successor.
JN: What does the overall decline of shul membership mean for the future?
LS: We will see over the next generation an Anglo-Jewry that will continue to get stronger and not weaker. I happened to be in Hendon for Shavuot at the end of a tikkun (evening study session) Almost no shuls did a tikkun 30 years ago, but you can be there at 4am and the streets are full of people that have been learning all night. This is a generation where the majority of our kids have gone to Jewish day schools. When they get married and have children, we are going to see shul membership rise again. For 60 years, from 1945 to 2005, we saw a year-on-year decline in numbers. Today, thanks to the growth of the Charedi community – and I salute that growth – we have reversed that decline, and are growing. Not fast, but we are growing. This is the first time Anglo-Jewry has ever grown in numbers without that being due to the influx of refugees. Something extraordinary has happened. You will see shul memberships growing in the next 25 years.
JN: Why do you think central orthodoxy has seen a significant drop in membership from 1990 to 2010 while progressives have remained steady?
LS: I think central orthodoxy, historically in Anglo-Jewry was the default option. If you needed to belong to a shul you belonged to a central orthodox shul. I think out-marriage has made an impact on that community and that becomes problematic with the United Synagogue. But I think that there is a bigger issue which is that we need more confidence and a more potent message within this classic Jewish position of being committed to Jewish faith and Jewish law, whilst engaging with the world, and I’ve taken that as my mission for the next as many years as God will allow me. The Torah is all about the way you construct a society so I feel that is the biggest challenge out there at the moment, and it is one you need to be much more focused on as you can be as Chief Rabbi.
JN: Do you think central orthodoxy might have something to learn from those progressive movements in retaining their numbers?
LS: I think the greatest strength of the progressive community is its youth movements. I think the US has made a very wise and important move in developing Tribe, because we have, at times, taken our young people for granted.
JN: How would you like people to remember your tenure?
LS: Keep learning with me. I don’t want you to remember, I want you to keep learning. I will keep putting out the material, I will keep writing the Covenant & Conversation pieces, I will keep doing the books. Let’s learn together.