The Inaugural Sacks Conversation with The Rt Hon Tony Blair
As we approached the first anniversary of Rabbi Sacks’ passing, The Rabbi Sacks Legacy Trust held the Inaugural Sacks Conversation featuring The Rt Hon Tony Blair and Matthew d’Ancona who discussed the continuing impact of Rabbi Sacks’ teachings and ideas on public policy and society today. The event was held at Spencer House in London on Monday 11th October 2021.
Family members and close friends attended the event in person, and the conversation was also streamed online, live, for everyone else to watch at a safe distance. You can watch the recording and read a transcript of Rt Hon Tony Blair’s opening remarks below.
The Sacks Conversation also marked the publication of a new volume entitled The Power of Ideas: Words of Faith and Wisdom, a collection of Rabbi Sacks’ writings and broadcasts published by Hodder Faith. The book also features a beautiful foreword from HRH The Prince of Wales in which he writes: “Although this volume represents a mere fragment of his contributions during his lifetime, it demonstrates, once again, Rabbi Sacks’ unique capacity for interpreting the present and predicting the future through a profound understanding of the past.”
Thank you so much, Henry [Grunwald]. And Elaine [Sacks], it’s a real honour to give this opening lecture in the series. To you and to Joshua, and Dina, and Gila, my very warmest good wishes. And to your nine grandchildren, right? Yeah. Jonathan Kestenbaum was just reminding me of one of the first occasions that Jonathan Sacks and I had a chance, really, to speak together. As you’ve just learned, he’s got his granddaughter, new granddaughter. We have a new grandson. We’re working on what this may mean for the future! But he reminded me that next month is the 26th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, and that Jonathan and I, one of the first conversations we had in depth together, was flying out to the funeral where he just gave me the most wonderful exposition and lesson in biblical scholarship. It made a deep, deep impression on me, and really, I think, was the beginning of the foundation of our friendship.
The Sacks Conversation, a great idea for a series commemorating Jonathan, and as I say, an absolute honour for me to give the inaugural lecture. It so completely typifies the man whose life we celebrate and who made such an impact on our lives. Because of course, conversation was Jonathan’s specialty. Open-minded, eager to exchange views, bringing those in discord into dialogue, seeking answers but always with a deep inner humility and willingness to acknowledge the other and their point of view. It’s a good starting point in discussion of what Jonathan represented and of the influence his teaching continues to exert. In a world often dominated by debate within the frequently poisonous confines of social media, his calm reason, cerebral but accessible manner, and intellectual curiosity reminds us of how conversation even over the most sensitive subjects should be conducted. The Power of Ideas: Words of Faith and Wisdom, this collection Henry referred to of Jonathan’s prolific array of speeches, broadcasts, and lectures, illustrates both the range of his output and most telling his ability to dive into profound and delicate worldly questions, and yet bring spiritual clarity and new dimensions of understanding to them.
He was not a politician and eschewed party politics, but he never hesitated to enter the “small-p” political arena when he felt it was demanded by the seriousness of the issue or the danger of keeping silent. His polemic against antisemitism remains one of the finest explanations of why it happens, why it matters to Jews and non-Jews alike, and why it requires early confrontation to avoid catastrophe. But even here, his case his made with passion, for sure, but also logic and reason and philosophical depth.
For this lecture, I re-read some of his books and the anthology published today. What’s interesting studying the writing is, as you would expect, the coherence of thought, but also what I feel will be an enduring relevance. Jonathan was for many of us a teacher, guide, and mentor as well as our friend, but it’s the teacher role which for me stands out. He was a Jewish Rabbi, but he was also a Rabbi for the universe, his teaching grounded in Judaism but somehow never constrained by it.
In particular, I identify three elements which seem to me great lessons for our time, but also for any time. First, he is well-known for his brilliant exposition of why the “We” must come before the “I.” However, the importance for me of the way he draws this distinction is that he does so on explicitly moral grounds and does so recognising that the competitive and selfish side to human nature is not something which can be crushed. The competitive and the compassionate, the selfish and the unselfish, co-exist in humankind. Our job is not to believe that the “I” can be eliminated, but rather that by conscious effort, we make a moral choice to relegate it.
The again “small-p” consequence for politics of this is quite crucial. It means that political ideology which rests on the assumption that collective power can abolish individualism is fatally flawed. Political decisions based on a belief there are scientific answers to all our problems are falsely predicated. We need ultimately to make a moral decision. So whether it’s dealing with COVID or climate change, the “We” should come forcibly into play, but it is a choice we make to put aside the purely self-interested approach, a choice conditioned by the covenant which binds us together as humanity, not simply a transaction to be negotiated or amended as we think fit. Seeing it in this way gives our decisions the power and the strength to stick even when the going is tough, even when the price seems too high.
And in the realm of technology innovation, that great engine of change transforming the way we work, live, think and interact with each other, this “We” as a moral covenant prevents us turning technology into a God and obliges us instead to place science at the service of humanity, not be ruler of it.
Secondly, in an era where parts of the west have turned their back on religion, certainly the organised kind, and yet in other parts of the world religious belief remains foundational, Jonathan taught us that coexistence is inherent to God’s plan. So he makes the case both for religious belief in its centrality and against abusing religion by making faith, any faith, a badge of identity in opposition to those who do not share it. There is, of course, a consistency between his emphasis on the “We” which transcends boundaries of self or nation, and the view that those of different faiths have a duty to reach out and treat the other as of equal value to themselves.
The Dignity of Difference written in the aftermath of 9/11 remains an extraordinary clarion call for interfaith harmony. It does so marshalling arguments which are not only plainly necessary for our security and stability, but it does so also in theological terms. He shows how critical for all faiths is the belief in neighbourliness, respect and care for the stranger, or “the sojourner” as the Bible calls it, of treating those others as you would have them treat you.
In this way, Jonathan rescues faith from fundamentalism, doctrine from dogma, the spiritual from the temporal. He recognises that none of this means that your own faith is downgraded or melded into one with others, but that is a universal essence in faith, which is worth preserving, and that this combination of diversity alongside a common belief in God is healthy and worthy. In this manner, he demonstrates that religious conviction need not be in contradiction to shared humanity, but can rather be a route to making it real.
I believe this teaching will be of vast significance to later generations trying to make sense of how in a globalising, open world, you stay true to your own faith without excluding or disrespecting those of a different faith.
Thirdly, by rooting his teaching in the Torah, that most ancient and historic of documents, Jonathan explains in vivid terms the complex relationship between tradition and modernity. I loved discussing with him the stories in the Torah, marvelled at his capacity to give them contemporary relevance. From him, I saw the Exodus has a supreme masterclass in leadership, learned that Israel meant to strive with God after Jacob spent the night wrestling with the Lord, understood that every story from Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers to be exiled to Babylon, from the book of Esther to the preaching of Ezekiel, had a meaning and a wisdom to which we should pay heed today.
I think this is so vital. Our world is one whose chief characteristic is the scope and the scale and the speed of change. Everything around us disrupted and transformed. Now we can disagree on whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But I think we can agree on the fact of it.
The biggest risk, then, becomes that we reject the lessons of our history because we cannot think them meaningful for our present or future. Yet the experience of our ancestors, the traditions they ascribed to, the values they learned through the disciplining hand of God, need to be studied. The physical context of those ancient lives may be completely alien to us. The attitudes that practices is utterly quaint, sometimes even repellent to us now, but the struggles of human nature, the search for enlightenment are not. Obedience to moral precept, duty to those less fortunate than ourselves, humble contrition and acknowledgement of wrongdoing, the sin of pride and the inevitability of correction, or what the Greeks would call hubris followed by nemesis.
The teaching may come through old scrolls and texts from thousands of years ago, but we can see clearly that modernity has not erased their power. That was the very unusual gift Jonathan had: to explain the past to the living, and to show that it should be treated with respect, not as tradition alone, but as wisdom passed from one age to another.
Finally, a thread that runs throughout all of this is his role as a unifier, someone capable of taking seemingly opposite concepts and through intellectual creativity and imagination showed them to be compatible and even complimentary. If you believe, as I do, precisely because of this huge accelerating change, that we will look for ways of reconciliation between community and individual, spirituality and religious difference, the world that was and the world that is and will be, there could be no better guide than Rabbi Sacks.
I once asked Jonathan from whence he derived this great desire to unify and overcome division. “Possibly from my experience in trying to lead the Jewish community,” he replied dryly. We used to joke about who had the hardest leadership job, me or him. But I also used to say to him that it was that insistence on holding opinions, expressing them and debating them, that was such a great Jewish virtue. The Jewish mind is restless, inquiring, striving with God, not to defeat them, but to stretch the frontiers of human endeavour.
And in that sense, Jonathan was quintessentially Jewish, but whilst he is rightly revered amongst Jewish communities the world over, I regard him as my Rabbi too. And I know that he will continue to inspire succeeding generations, Jewish or not.
So, what was the essence of his genius? Well, in the book, The Power of Ideas, which is a collection of his speeches, (if I can find the right passage…) the speech he gave in 1991, when he became Chief Rabbi and he quoted – and you’re going to have to forgive me, my pronunciations are going to be really bad here, so you’ve got to be extremely generous – Akavia ben Mahalael said, Jonathan quoted, “Reflect on three things, and you will not transgress, go wrong, lose your way.” Da me’ayin bata, “know from where you came,” ulean ata holech, “and where you are going,” velifnei mi atah atid liten din vecheshbon, “and know before whom you will have to give an account.'” (That’s the toughest part of the speech, that!)
So he quoted this and then he wrote something I think is so insightful. He said, “For a moment, we live for the moment, and forgot what the past should have taught us, what the future consequences would be. And we forgot there’s always an accounting, a moral price to pay.” And he said, “All this arose because of a failure of imagination. We can go astray, simply because of a failure of imagination. A failure of historical imagination; we forget where we come from. A failure of prophetic imagination; we forget where we’re travelling to. Or a failure of spiritual imagination; we forget before whom we stand.”
The truth about Jonathan is that there was never any failure of imagination with him, not historical, prophetic or spiritual. And that’s the reason, that extraordinary power of imagination, is the reason why I didn’t merely like him as a person, I admired him deeply as a teacher. And that teaching, I believe, will live on long, long after the physical body has perished.