A Shiur at The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies
In May 2014, the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem welcomed Rabbi Sacks to the Pardes Beit Midrash to address the student community. Rabbi Sacks spoke about the issue of Jewish particularism.
The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies welcomes Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks to the Pardes Beit Midrash.
This is really a terrific honour and a privilege for us to have Rabbi Lord Sacks with us. In a moment I’m going to ask Leslie Wagner, our board member (and long-time friend of Pardes), formally to introduce Rabbi Sacks. And we owe Leslie our thanks because it was through Leslie that this was arranged. So, thank you, Leslie, very much.
I learned this morning that the Pope tried to get a ticket for this event and he was so upset when we could not accommodate that, that he left the country. So, you’re all very fortunate and the Pope is not. Just a word, Rabbi Sacks, about who we are, what Pardes is, Leslie will introduce you to Pardes, but I’d like to introduce Pardes tyou for just a moment.
Pardes has been around for over 40 years. We’re very proud of our legacy and what we’ve achieved over the years. Pardes is an open, egalitarian, non-denominational, and most importantly, diverse centre for Jewish study. We pride ourselves on the study of Jewish text principally, if not exclusively. And you come at a very appropriate time in our academic year. Our students, who are with us here today, along with some board members and others, are completion of a year, and in some cases, more than a year of study here in Jerusalem. And they’re about to embark on a variety of different paths, many, most in North America, but not exclusively. And we’re very proud of them and very proud to have you here to send them off into the world.
A little bit about logistics. Rabbi Sacks will speak for a little bit, maybe 45 minutes, maybe a little less, and then we’ll open the floor to questions. And our Dean, David Bernstein, has kindly agreed to moderate the question and answer period. With that, it’s my pleasure to turn the floor over to Leslie Wagner, who will introduce Rabbi Lord Sacks.
Thank you, Michael. As you said, it’s an honour for Pardes, and it’s certainly a privilege for me to be able to introduce Rabbi Lord Sacks. I’ve had this privilege before. I know how difficult it is, because to try and do justice to Rabbi Sacks’ achievements would require the introduction to be longer than the talk. So, I’m going to be very brief.
As most of you know, Rabbi Sacks was the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Britain and the Commonwealth. He was that for 22 years, 1991 to 2013. Now, you don’t just wake up one day and become Chief Rabbi so there’s a record of achievement even before that, but let me concentrate on the Chief Rabbinate.
For those of you not from the UK, I think most of you may wonder what the Chief Rabbi does, but he has a very busy life, both in being a spokesman for the community and within the community, dealing with halachic issues through his Bet Din, supporting his rabbis, visiting communities. This is a very, very full time job. And yet, Rabbi Sacks was able, during those 22 years, to write a book virtually every year or every other year.
And just some highlights of those books to draw your attention, the first I would draw your attention to was Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren, published in 1993, which is 21 years ago. So, I think it’s referring to our students here. Will we have Jewish grandchildren? And his answer in the UK was to set up an organisation called Jewish Continuity to make sure that answer was yes.
Later, at the end of the decade, he produced a book called Radical Then, Radical Now, published in the USA as A Letter in the Scroll, which tried to and did answer the question of why be Jewish. In 2002, his personal response to the events of 9/11 was to write The Dignity Of Difference, a controversial book, but also a book that has won many awards, and which essentially argued that the unity of God in heaven allows a diversity of ways of reaching him on earth.
In 2009, he published a book for the Jewish community worldwide called Future Tense, addressing many of the issues which I looked at only recently, and unfortunately, it still as relevant today, five years on as it was then. And then, in 2011, 2012, he produced a book called The Great Partnership, arguing that science and religion are partners in understanding the world, and not competitors and rivals. These are monumental works in their own right, and have had a major impact on thinking.
But he’s also done other more rabbinical things that we know about. One, he has produced a new translation and commentary of the Siddur which found its way… most people know it as the Koren Siddur written by him. He has produced a translation and commentary on the machzorim for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Pesach. Each one of these is monumental works in its own right, requiring detailed scholarship and work. And to do that while you’re, at the same time, dealing with problems of being a Chief Rabbi is really quite remarkable.
He’s produced his own Haggadah and he continues, now that he has retired from that job, to do more writing, the fruits of which we shall see shortly. Since retiring, as well as writing, he has spent quite a bit of time in the USA. He is, at the moment, a visiting professor at Yeshiva University and New York University. And those of you students who are going back to the States or are in New York, will have the opportunity of hearing him if you visit and attend those institutions next year.
All that means that Rabbi Sacks is a remarkable individual, and we’re absolutely delighted that, on his very busy schedule, “schedule”… I’m sorry, we’re in America. I forgot, when in America these days… Busy schedule, he has found time to come to us in Pardes, and I now ask him to speak to us. Rabbi Sacks.
Michael, Leslie, friends, thank you so much for those lovely words, and thank you for the privilege of being able to be here with you in Pardes, a wonderful, wonderful institution with great teachers and you, an extraordinary group of students. I think both of my daughters spent time studying here. My brother, Eliot, who lives in Yerushalayim, has spent time studying here, may even have taught here, I’m not sure. Did he teach here at all? He certainly sat here and learn. And this is a really, really wonderful place.
Strange things happen to you in Yerushalayim. You know, Hashem parachutes in various angels whom you meet out of the blue. And we were walking on the Tayelet a few days ago and a complete stranger… no one around, and out of nowhere materialised an elderly French Jew who saw me, came straight up to me, knew who I was, and posed one simple question. He said, “How come the Rabbis have managed to turn the most beautiful religion in the world into something so ugly?” Which was a good question really.
And I took it that that was Hashem speaking, Shechinah medaberet b’toch krono, and therefore, let me issue a challenge to you. If you have found something of true beauty here in ya’hadut, in Yerushalayim Ir Hakodesh, in your teachers, in any of your experiences, go back home and take that fragment of beauty with you and use it to transform your communities, or your circle of friends, or even just your own life. Cling onto that fragment of beauty, because this really is a religion bigger, greater, and more lovely than we have sometimes allowed it to be.
Michael, you mentioned the Pope. I will tell you a little story about his predecessor. I have to say, you know, I became the first Chief Rabbi to retire before the age of 70. Couple of months after I announced my retirement, the Archbishop of Canterbury announced his retirement, the first Archbishop of Canterbury ever to retire before time. And then, lo and behold, Pope Benedict the 16th! So I said to Rowan Williams, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury who retired, I said, “Rowan, we seem to have started a trend.” He said, “Yeah, we have. And I’m worried about the Dalai Lama next.”
But one of the more interesting moments I had was in 2010, September, when Pope Benedict the 16th, the predecessor of the present Pope, visited Britain. And I was asked to welcome him on behalf of all the non-Christian faiths in Britain. And the day he came was Erev Yom Kippur, which was a little difficult. It was the day of Kol Nidre night. And it was in the afternoon, not easy.
And lo and behold, here we are, mentally getting ready for Kol Nidre, and here appears a Pope wearing a white yarmulke and a white robe, a white kittel. And I claim my reward in Olam Haba, when the time comes that I did not say, “Good Yom Tov, pontiff.”
Az b’seder. Guys, you’ve asked me to speak a little about Jewish particularism. I remember Jackie Mason, the comedian, who used to begin his routine back in the sixties, long before he was famous, with one of the greatest lines I ever heard.
He said, “I may start slowly, but little by little, I die out completely.” And Jackie Mason used to say, “They’ll laugh at my jokes. And then they say…meh, too Jewish.”
So that is the issue, we’re embarrassed to be to Jewish. We’re embarrassed to be different. To be a Jew is to suffer as it were a permanent identity crisis. Which has precedence, because if you look at what Moshe Rabbeinu’s first question to God was… what was it? His second question to God was, “Who are you?” But his first question was, “Mi Anochi?” “Who am I?”
And of course, Moshe Rabbeinu had an identity crisis because he grew up as a Prince of Egypt. He spent his adult life as a shepherd in Midian. And therefore when God asked him to lead the Jewish people, he asked, “Who am I?” So identity crises go all the way back. They go back to Yosef. They go back to Yaakov. They go all the way back.
And I don’t find this so often among Christians or Muslims or Hindus or Sikhs or Zoroastrians. When was the last time you met a Zoroastrian with an identity crisis? It is something that we suffer from. And I want to know why. And I began thinking about this sometime back. And I found myself searching for an answer in the early chapters of Torah. Because, it’s how the Jewish story begins that’s really interesting.
And I was struck immediately by something very obvious and very strange indeed. And it is this, what is Torah about? What is Tanach about? It is about a people and a land. It is about two individuals, Avram and Sarah, and their family, which became an extended family, which became a tribe, which became a collection of tribes, which became a nation. And virtually the whole of Tanach is about a journey: once in the days of Abraham, another time in the days of Moses, all the way to our own time. The journey to a specific place. Eretz uMedinah k’Yisrael.
So the Torah is a particularistic book. It doesn’t speak about all humanity, it speaks about one particular section of humanity. It doesn’t speak about the whole world, it speaks about one specific place in the world. And yet the Torah doesn’t begin that way. That is what is odd. It begins with a purely universal set of narratives, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, Babel and its builders. And only with the 12th chapter of Bereishit, do we hear the first recorded syllables of Jewish time, “Lech lecha, mayartzecha, umimmolad’techa, u’mibeit avicha, el ha’aretz asher ar’eka.” (Gen. 12:1)
How come that line is delayed for 12 chapters? What are the first 11 chapters about? And it seems to me pretty clear that if we look at the first 9 chapters, from the creation of the world, out of chaos and void… Tohu va-Vohu, to the re-creation of the world after the Flood…1-9 are a self-contained unit, which end with God making a covenant with all humanity through Noah. Those are self-contained, they’re understandable. And therefore the real shift from wide-angle to close-up, the explanation must lie in Genesis 10 and 11.
What is Genesis 11 about? It’s about the Tower of Babel. And we all know the story, or at least we think we know the story. It’s a story about a people, about humanity, who commit a sin. What is this sin? They build a city and a tower that would reach heaven. And the result is they fail to observe the principle that Hashamayim shamayim laHaShem veha’aretz naan lifnei adam… Heaven belongs to God, it’s our job to live down here on Earth. And the result is that that tower remains unfinished and becomes a symbol of the failure of hubris, of aiming too high.
That is the story, as we know it. But actually, if you look carefully at the narrative, that is not the story as the Torah tells it. The Torah regards these details as incidental. The story actually begins with something else completely. “Vayehi chol ha’aretz saffa echat u’devarim achadim.” (Gen. 11:1)
“The whole land,” not the whole earth, the whole land, “had one language and a shared vocabulary.” And the story ends with God confusing their languages. One way or another, this is not so much a story about a tower as a story about language. And the one thing we forget when we read Genesis 11 is to think about Genesis 10. Do you know what Genesis 10 is all about? The chapter immediately prior to the tower of Babel, anyone know? Yeah?
It’s about the division of humanity into 70 languages. Exactly, so. 70 nations with 70 languages. In other words, the confusion of language already happened before Babel, not after it, if we assume at least as the Talmud Yerushalmi assumes, that chapters 10 and 11 are in chronological order. You can solve the whole problem by saying “Ein mukdam ume’uchar baTorah.” [Rashi on Shemot 31:18:1-5] “The Torah isn’t in chronological sequence”, but usually it is. Not always, but usually it is. And if we say that, then humanity had already been divided into 70 languages. In which case, what’s this story about? “Vayehi chol ha’aretz saffa echat u’devarim achadim.” (Gen. 11:1)
First thing to note about the Tower of Babel, the whole narrative takes only 9 verses. And so it looks like a myth, a parable, an etiological story. But the odd thing is that we have more archaeological evidence for the accuracy of the story of the Tower of Babel than virtually any other story in the Torah. We know that the most striking thing about Mesopotamian city-states was their towers, their ziggurats.
Archaeology has discovered some 32 of them around that Tigris-Euphrates Valley. There was one particularly big one in a town which, for a while, was the capital of the region called Ur Kasdim where Avram was born. But we know the largest of them was indeed in Bavel, in Babylon. It was over 300 feet high and it carried the inscription (Archaeologists have found this), that this is “Sha’ar HaShamayim”, this is the “Gateway to Heaven”. And therefore this is, historically, extremely accurate. The realia are extremely accurate.
We also know that Mesopotamia, this area in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, was the world’s first civilisation. And we still carry with it traces. For instance, how many angles in a circle? 360. How many hours in a day? 24. This is due to the hexadecimal system of Mesopotamia that counted in sixes. And so they were the first astronomers and they divided the heaven into six-times-60 angles. They divided the day into six hours before noon, six hours afternoon, and a parallel number of hours in the night, hence 24 hours. They invented the calendar. They invented accurate astronomy. They invented writing. The first writing ever created was cuneiform, in that part of the world.
But more consequentially, it was there that something else was born. What was born in Mesopotamia was the world’s first empire created by Sargon. The Akkadian Empire, which conquered all the local cities-states. Italy for instance, until Garibaldi, was a lot of little princedoms and little city-states. And Sargon conquered all those and turned them into the world’s first empire.
We know, because archaeologists have discovered this in the last 100 years, we have inscriptions from Sargon the Second and Ashurbanipal the Second, which read as follows. They tell about how they conquered smaller nations. And they say, “And we imposed our language on the nations that we conquered. We, in other words, rob them of their language, of their difference, of their culture. And we imposed ours on them.” And we have this, as I say, is inscriptions from Sargon the Second and Ashurbanipal the Second. We also know, although we don’t have an inscription to this effect, that that is exactly what Sargon did. He made the whole of that region speak Akkadian.
And this is therefore what the story of the Tower of Babel is about. The Tower itself is only a symbol, but the real issue is imperialism. That is the real story of Genesis 11. The attempt to conquer the world and impose your culture or your religion on the people you conquer.
And now we begin to understand how Judaism was born. Judaism was born as a protest against empires and imperialism. Against the attempt either to conquer or to convert the world. In effect, what God was saying to Avraham Avinu: “Lech lecha, m’artzecha, umenoladecha, mibeit avicha…” is: ‘Leave this place,’ this great empire of Ur Kasdim, of Bavel, of Mesopotamia, ‘Leave this empire and go off and create a new kind of society’ … and it should be a society in a land which, on the one hand will always find itself surrounded by empires who want to conquer it, because Israel is the great strategic location in the Middle East. It is the one place where three continents join: Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Every empire must want to conquer Israel, but Israel can never become an empire because it lacks the geography for empire. What do you need if you’re going to start an empire? You needed, in the ancient world, some very flat land in which you could have massive populations and huge cities and monumental buildings. That is why the first civilisations were in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley and the Nile Delta. You cannot ever found an empire in Israel. In fact, Jews are the only people who ever created a nation-state in Israel. Israel has been conquered by almost everyone who ever conquered anything. But no nation ever created a nation-state in Israel, only Jews. At all other periods, Eretz Yisrael was an outlying province of a major empire whose centre was elsewhere.
And what I suddenly realised is that Abraham and Sarah were being told: “Leave the home of empire and be different, in order to teach humanity the dignity of difference.” And that is what Judaism actually is.
And that, incidentally, is the single deepest explanation for antisemitism. If we want to understand antisemitism, we have to listen to the first antisemite or one of the first antisemites, Haman in Megillat Esther, who says these words: “Yeshno am echad mefuzar u’mefo’rad bein ha’ammim… v’dataihem shonnot mikol-am…” (Esther 3:8), “There is this one nation scattered among all the nations whose laws are different from anyone else.” Jews were hated because they were different. Antisemitism is the paradigm case of dislike of the unlike. And you will say, “Every country, every nation is different.” And they are. But Jews were the only people who consistently throughout history insisted on the right to be different, the duty to be different, the dignity of difference. They were the only nation throughout history not to convert to the dominant religion, nor to assimilate to the dominant culture. And that explains the unique feature of Judaism. That is, (and no other religion has this shape. And I include here the two other great Abrahamic monotheisms, Christianity and Islam, who borrowed much from Judaism, but not this.) Judaism is the only religion that says, in effect, “Our God is the God of all humanity, but our religion is not the religion of all humanity.”
And therefore, that most fundamental principle of Judaism, “Chassidei umot,…yesh lahem chelek m’olam Haba”. You don’t have to be Jewish to get to heaven. You don’t have to be Jewish to be righteous. You don’t have to be Jewish to speak to God. We have extraordinary, righteous Gentiles in Torah and Tanach. We have, well, Noach, of course, the only person in the whole of Tanach, who’s called a tzaddik. We have Iyov, “Job”, the most righteous person in the whole of Tanach, who isn’t Jewish. We have Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, who teaches him how to lead, who isn’t Jewish.
And to my mind, the most poignant and in some ways the most moving of all, Pharaoh’s daughter. I mean, here she is, the daughter of the tyrant. She’s as far from us as it’s possible to be, and it is her courage and her humanity that rescues this child, adopts it, brings it up and gives him the only name by which he is known, Moshe. What was the name of Pharaoh’s daughter? We don’t know. The Torah doesn’t say. But Divrei Hayamim mentions a name, Batya bat-Paroh. And they said that is the daughter of Pharaoh, who saved Moses. And what does Batya mean? It means “the daughter of God.” And there is a Midrash that I think is incredibly beautiful. And it says God said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Even though this child was not your child, you treated it as if it was your child. You adopted it as your child. So even though you are not My child, I adopt you as My child, My daughter, Batya, God’s daughter.” These are righteous people who aren’t Jewish.
The second thing is that God speaks to Malkitzedek, Abraham’s contemporary. “Vehu Kohen l’el elyon.” (Gen. 14:19) He is “the Priest of the Most High”, but he isn’t Jewish. God speaks to Avimelech, Melech Gerar (King of Gerar). (Gen. 20:3) God speaks to Lavan. Most remarkable of all, He sends Yonah to Nineveh, to the capital city or at least the military centre of Israel’s greatest enemy at the time, Assyria. And He sends Jonah to them to get them to do teshuvah and to save them. (Jonah 1:2)
Equally remarkable is the story of Abraham himself. In Chapter 14 of Bereishit, we see him fighting on behalf of the people of Sodom. He wages war and rescues the hostages. In Chapter 18, we see him praying for the people of Sodom in the most audacious prayer in religious history. “HaShofet kol ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat?” (Gen. 18:25). So Abraham fights for his neighbours, he prays for his neighbours, but he doesn’t becomelike his neighbours. He remains true to himself, the result of which is, when his wife dies, the Hittites, when he wants to buy land, look at him, and they say, “Nasi Elokimatah betocheinu.” You are a prince of God in our midst.” (Gen. 23:5) And that is the meaning of God’s statement right at the beginning, first call to Avram. “Ve’h’yai brachah,” “Be a blessing”, “…v’nivrechu vechakol mishpechot ha’adamah”, “so that through you, all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Gen. 12:2-3)
The result is that Judaism is a unique fugue, counterpoint, field of tensions between the universal and the particular. We have a universal form of knowledge, which the Sages called Chochmah. And we have a particularist form of knowledge, which we call Torah. Chochmah is the truth we discover, and you don’t have to be Jewish to discover it. Torah is the truth we inherit. [Torah tziva lanu Moshe, morasha kehillat Ya’akov.
And of course the Sages acknowledged this, and they coined a blessing over seeing non-Jewish Sages. “Baruch attah… Shenatan mechachmato lebasar vedam”. One that I have made over all the Nobel Prize winners I’ve met. It was actually very moving. I remember a few years ago … Sadly, he’s no longer alive. … making that brachah over Seamus Heaney, a wonderful … the great poet, the great Irish poet, and a great ohev yisrael . And he pointed at his lapel badge, which you get when you win the Nobel Prize. Okay, so make sure you got room on your lapel, guys. And you know, he blushed and he said getting that blessing meant as much to him as getting that badge. It was beautiful. But it shows how open-minded the Sages were that they coined a blessing over Chachmei umat Olam.
We even have two different names for God, one which is universal and one which is particular. “Elokim” is a universal name for God. Non-Jews talk about Elokim. Pharaoh, when Joseph interprets his dream says, “Hanimsa chazeh ish asher Ruach Elokim bo.” ].(Gen. 41:38) Elokim is known to non-Jews, as to Jews. “Hashem” is God’s special Name when relating to the Jewish people. We have a universal and a particular covenant, the Brit Bnei Noach, and the Brit Bnei Avraham, and eventually, of course, the Brit Sinai.
And the result is Judaism has these two commands of love. Once we learn to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might, we are commanded, one: “Ve’ahavta lareicha kamocha. You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Because if you’re living in this part of Jerusalem, your neighbours are pretty much like yourself. But also, 36 times in one form or another, the Torah tells us, “ Ve’ahavta et ha-ger”. “Love the stranger.” Because even the stranger is part of the ambit of the command of love. Or to put it more simply, if God created all of us in His image, then even somebody who’s not in my image, whose colour or language or ethnicity or faith is different from mine, is still the image of God. And that is ahavat ha-ger, which allowed me, having made this intellectual journey, to sum up what I see as the Abrahamic imperative, which I sum up in a single sentence: Be true to your faith, and a blessing to others regardless of their faith.
And I believe that is a remarkable and powerful statement. What it meant was Jews never created an empire. Christianity and Islam did create empires. Christianity created two of the greatest empires in history: in the West, the Holy Roman Empire, and in the East, the great Empire of Byzantium. Islam created empire, after empire, after empire, the Umayyads, the Fatimids, the Ottomans, and so on and so forth. And the result was not a happy one if you have read your history.
And the real problem Jews had was when they encountered cultures that were purely universalistic. Christianity and Islam were two, but there were two others that were not particularly religious, but nonetheless were universalistic. One, the first, was the Hellenistic world, the world of Greece and Rome, which in the days of Antiochus IV attempted to wipe out the practice of Judaism and under the Romans, especially under the emperor Hadrian, pretty much massacred almost all the Jews in Israel.
So Greece and Rome, known for their enlightenment, were actually among the world’s first purveyors of antisemitism. Among the world’s first racists, to be honest with you, because the Greeks believed that every person who was not Greek was not fully human, they were sheep, “baa-baa”. And hence the Greek word for a non-Greek, barbaric, the barbarisms, the barbarians.
The other one of course, much more recently, was the European Enlightenment, that had no time whatsoever for particularities of identity. And sadly, in the reaction against the Enlightenment, sophisticated Europe gave rise in the 19th century and early 20th century to the worst anti-Semitism there has been. The worst crime against humanity that there has been since Homo sapiens first set foot on earth. It follows, therefore, that the Jewish insistence that we must be both universalists and particularists, that we must engage in the common enterprise of humankind, but we must be able to do so each following that which makes us different, is a vital contribution to civilisation, and I do not believe it has ever been as important as it is today in the 21st century.
In August of 2000, I had the privilege of being in the United Nations, I had the zechut of speaking there with 2000 other religious leaders from around the world. It was modestly entitled, “The Millennium Peace Summit”. So you can see how successful we really were. Less than a year later we got 9/11, or just over a year later, we got 9/11. It was “terrific”.
But an Indian guru came up to me during that conference and said, “Rabbi Sacks, would you please be a keynote speaker at my counter conference in Delhi?” And I said, “What’s your counter conference?” He said, “The World Conference of Non-Evangelising Faiths.” And you have no idea how much that means to Hindus and to Sikhs, to Indians, the people who get assaulted by Christianity and Islam, trying to convert them or conquer them. And our stand here matters a very great deal. So if Bernard Lewis and after him, Sam Huntington, are right, that we face in the 21st century, a clash of civilisations, it becomes incredibly important to deliver a Jewish message that our humanity is this fugue, this counterpoint between what makes us the same and what makes us different. Our commonalities and our particularisms. As I said once, if we were completely different, we couldn’t communicate. But if we were exactly the same, we’d have nothing to say. And that is why the Jewish message is important.
And I tested this out on non-Jews. Every year Elaine and I would give a reception for the heads of the National Union of Students. So for two years, I gave them a shiur on what became known as “The Dignity of Difference”. And I could see these Muslims and Sikhs and Hindus walking out of the room, an inch taller. And you could write in the words, in the think bubble above their heads, you could see them thinking, “We always knew we were different, but we always thought that was a bad thing. And here’s the Chief Rabbi telling us it’s a good thing.” And it was lovely. And the University of London students were kind enough in 2004 to put a plaque on the wall of their Student Union in Gower Street with a sentence from Dignity of Difference: Because we are all different, we each have something unique to contribute. Which you’ll see if you go to London University today. And the truth is it is our particularity that is our universality.
Listen, we know that Shakespeare didn’t have a really good literary agent. If he’d have had a really good literary agent, he would have said, “Bill, my boy, you’re doing well in England, but the big audience is across the Atlantic. Let’s tone down the Englishness a bit.” Shakespeare speaks to us because he is the quintessence of what Elizabethan England was. Tolstoy speaks to us because he’s the quintessence of the soul of Russia. Monet and his waterlilies, because that is what it was to be French. By being what we uniquely are, we give humanity what only we can give. And that is that lovely tension between universality and particularity, that is at the very heart of being Jewish. And I believe it is a message that can be shared with the world.
All I can say is this: There are certain moments I had as Chief Rabbi that were just so unexpected, I was totally astonished by it. I’d published my book. I hadn’t yet published Dignity of Difference, but I had published that book called A Letter in the Scroll. In English called Radical Then, Radical Now. (It was translated into Ivrit, and my brother, Alan, who lives in Yerushalayim, has a mischievous sense of humour, and he said, “Jonathan, they’ve just translated your book in Hebrew as ‘Ridiculous Then, Ridiculous Now.’ ‘Radikalit Az, Radikalit Achshav’”) This is May 2002. And Her Majesty is celebrating her Golden Jubilee, 50 years as Queen. And she gives a tea party in Buckingham Palace for all the faiths. And towards the end of this gathering, a very, very Charedi Muslim comes up to me and says, “Are you the Chief Rabbi?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “My wife wants a word with you.”
Now I want you to remember May 2002 – which you can’t, you weren’t born yet. But May 2002 was the time of a little episode called Jenin, when Israel was in quite a bad state, and Jewish-Muslim relations were rock bottom. So I was terrified at what she was going to say to me. And she came up to me, a woman with big hijab, and said, “I just want to thank you for your book, Radical Then, Radical Now.” There’s not one word about Islam in that book. It is a book of Jewish pride. And that was when I realised…
(Incidentally, was serialised in the Times. It was serialised by a gentleman called Michael Gove, who was the deputy editor of The Times. And now he’s Secretary of State for Education. (Sadly, they didn’t appoint Leslie Wagner as Secretary of State for Education. He would have been outstanding.) And I asked this non-Jew in The Times, “Why are you publishing this book? Serialising this book about Jewish pride?” And he replied, “Because you’re our Chief Rabbi.” This non-Jew said this.)
And I suddenly realised that is the power of particularity. If we are proud in our own faith, we lift others to have pride in their faith. And that then becomes very powerful indeed. Or as I summed it up in two sentences in that book, “non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism. And non-Jews are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism.”
So I wanted to say to you: don’t feel there is a conflict between being utterly faithful to your identity as Jews, and going out there and contributing to the human condition and the human enterprise and doing the Jewish deed. The Jewish deed is that which makes the world that is, a little closer to the world that ought to be. It is by being what we uniquely are, that we contribute what only we can give.
So I give you this blessing: Go out, carry on your studies, go home, and be true to your faith, and a blessing to the world. Amen.