Questions Answered - Episode Two

The “Ask Rabbi Sacks” project

We invited the world to send in their burning questions in time for Rosh Hashanah 2016.
Then we filmed Rabbi Sacks’ answers.

In this second episode, Rabbi Sacks answers the following questions:

  • Who created God?
  • How we can concentrate better on our prayers?
  • How we can come to terms with an all-powerful God who allows bad things like the Shoah (Holocaust) to happen?
  • What’s the difference between antisemitism and anti-Zionism?
  • Can we have both a belief in God and a belief in science?
  • How do we sanctify Torah when sometimes parts of it appear to go against the realities of the world in which we live?


Hello Rabbi Sacks. I want to ask you a question. Before God was… before Hashem was born, who was born to make him?

Rabbi Sacks:

Hey Harry, how are you? Thank you for your wonderful question. Before Hashem was born, who was there to make Hashem? Well, actually there was no “before Hashem was born”, because Hashem is beyond time, which means there was no time before Hashem. We have time because we live in a physical universe and the Earth turns on its axis, it revolves around the sun, the moon revolves around the earth and that gives us day and night. It gives us months, it gives us seasons. Only physical things exist in time.

And because Hashem isn’t a physical thing, He doesn’t exist in time. He interacts with us, but He is beyond time. So there was no time before Hashem, so Hashem doesn’t have a Mummy or Daddy. There was no person who brought Him into being. He was there for all time, and will be there for all time. Anyway, thank you for a beautiful question and Shanah Tovah. Have a good year.

Samuel Zulberg:

Hello Rabbi Sacks. My name is Samuel Zulberg, I am 13, and my question to you is: how are you able to focus on your three different parts of davening every day? Is it from learning the passages and understanding what it is, or is it just from constant reading all of it and just getting used to it?

Rabbi Sacks:

Hi Samuel. I think it must have been your bar mitzvah quite recently so mazal tov on that, and thank you for your question. How can you concentrate on all the elements of davening each time? The short answer is, of course you can’t. You can concentrate a lot more on Shabbat, when you’re not so pressed for time.

So what I would recommend is: number one, try and understand the meaning of the prayers, that’s stage one, at least know what you are saying. And if you don’t have time during the week, just do it every Shabbat, that’s a good time, or on yom tov itself. Just read the translation and work your way into it.

The second thing is that I wouldn’t even try to focus on all the elements of prayer time. The thing I do is that I choose one verse and I just focus on that, and that’s enough for a day, and I kind of live on that line for the day and it kind of stays with me a little like a piece of music or a poem, and it inspires me.

So if you can do that, one little sentence each day or as often you can, if you can’t concentrate all the time, listen, which of us can? And I’m an ex-chief Rabbi, so if I tell you I can’t do it, you know, you shouldn’t feel bad if you can’t.

Just focus on one sentence per day and let that sentence stay with you. Roll it around your tongue, let it inspire you, and that will be great. So that was a really good question. Have a really good year. Shanah Tovah.

Judith Coret-Simon:

Dear Rabbi Sacks, Shalom. I’m Judith, a 55-year-old physician currently living in Canada. The Shoah stands very close to my heart as my father is a survivor and many of his family members perished.

I have struggled with the concept of the Shoah and other heinous events of genocide, how such terrible things can happen. And while I gained valuable insights from reading the Holocaust literature from Viktor Frankl, Elie Wiesel, some of your books, and testimonies of survivors, I did not arrive at a satisfactory answer.

So Rabbi, how do we make sense of an all-powerful God who lets such things happen? Can freewill really be a sufficient answer? This question keeps haunting me.

Rabbi Sacks:

Judith from Canada, thank you so much for your question, and of course I so very much feel for you as the child of a survivor. Look, the question you ask is the hardest question of all. In essence, it’s the question asked by Abraham, HaShofet kol ha’aretz lo ya’asseh mishpat? – Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice? [Gen. 18:25] Moses asked lamah hareyotah la’am hazeh? – why have You done evil to this people? [Ex. 5:22] Jeremiah asked it, Job asked it. The entire book of Job is basically this question extended through forty-plus chapters. So it is the question of questions. And the truth is that only one answer ever made any kind of sense, which is that God somehow or other had to engage in some self-limitation to give space to human beings to choose between good and evil.

And I have to tell you that when I stood for the first time in Auschwitz-Birkenau, where a million and a quarter innocent individuals were gassed, burned, and turned to ash, I asked myself the same question. But in truth, I knew the answer. Where was God in Auschwitz? In the words lo tirtsach – Thou shalt not murder. [Ex. 20:13] In the words ‘Don’t oppress a stranger’. [Ex. 23:9] In the words Kol d’may achicha tzo’akim ay’lie min ha’adamah, God’s words to the first murderer in history, Cain, saying to him, “Your brother’s blood cries to Me from the ground.” [Gen. 4:10]

That’s where God was in Auschwitz. And if God cries and human beings don’t listen, then even God is powerless because He made a rule that He would never interfere to restrict the freedom that He gave human beings. And that is as near to an answer as we will ever get.

However, Judith, I don’t want to leave it there. I want to tell you something else which I think is terribly important. If we knew the answer to why bad things happen to good people, then we would accept that bad things happen to good people. We would say, “This is the will of God. It’s for some ultimate good.” God does not want us to accept that. He wants us to live with the question and He wants us to get sufficiently angry that we don’t have an answer, that we ourselves will become His partners in fighting evil whenever we see it and in doing all we can to make the human condition a little more gracious and compassionate and just.

So I think the fact that Jews have asked that question really since the beginning of Jewish time has meant that Jews have lived with that lack of answer, with that cognitive dissonance between the world as it is and the world as it should be. And that is what made Jews, in quite disproportionate numbers, teachers fighting ignorance, doctors fighting disease, lawyers fighting injustice, business people fighting unemployment and poverty, therapists fighting depression and despair.

It is that lack of an answer that energises us to make the world that is a little closer to the world that ought to be. Now that will not end your questioning, which probably will stay with you for a lifetime as it has stayed with many for a lifetime, but I hope it will energise you to continue to work to honour the memory of the victims and indeed of the survivors, and to continue to work for a world in which such things never happen again. Let me wish you and your family Shanah Tovah, a good new year.

Victor Dweck:

My name is Victor Dweck from the Syrian community of Brooklyn, New York. I’m standing here on the campus of Brooklyn College with the following question: is there a difference between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, and if so what is it?

Rabbi Sacks:

Hi Victor, thank you for your question. What’s the difference between antisemitism and anti-Zionism? The truth is that we need to make two distinctions here. Number one, between criticism of Israel, justified or unjustified, and anti-Zionism. That’s a key distinction.

People ask me, non-Jews ask me, is criticism of Israel antisemitic? And I say, no, of course not. It’s part of the democratic process and that’s fine. And I explained it to some school children in Scotland who wanted to know the difference, so I said, “Which of you believes that it’s okay to criticise the British government?” Everyone put up their hands. Then I said, “Which of you believes that Britain has no right to exist?” None of them put up their hands. So I said, “Now you understand the difference between criticism of Israel and antisemitism.” And they all understood.

So anti-Zionism, the belief that Israel brought into existence by a vote of the United Nations on the 29th of November 1947, the denial of Israel, a denial of its right to exist, that is the form of antisemitism of our time.

So now I have to make a second distinction. What makes anti-Zionism different from the classic form of antisemitism? Well, you will see the answer to that if we remember one very simple fact, the word ‘antisemitism’ was coined by a German journalist, Wilhelm Mahr, in 1879. Now work that out. You know hatred of Jews has been around a long time before 1879. It’s there in the Book of Esther, to some extent it’s there in Greek and Latin writers and so on. So why did somebody in 1879 feel the need for a new word, antisemitism? And the answer is because the nature of the hatred of Jews changed. In the Middle Ages, even in ancient times, Jews were hated for their religion. But of course in Europe in the 19th century, in Germany (in the second half of the 19th century), which prided itself on being one of the most enlightened cultures the world had ever known, you couldn’t hate somebody because of their religion. So along came a new kind of hatred, Jews were hated because of their race.

You may think that is untenable nowadays, but that’s because we’re living with the knowledge of the Holocaust. In those days, there were two so-called sciences that seemed to justify this, one was called Social Darwinism, the other the so-called Scientific Study of Race. It was kind of mix of biology and anthropology. So that new word was coined, but it was essentially a mutation of the original virus.

Now, anti-Zionism is this further mutation. Jews are not hated for their religion or their race, but because of their nation state. So, new terms are coined because there are new mutations, but the principle is the same. Antisemitism is denial of the right of Jews collectively to exist as Jews with the same rights as every other nation and faith in the world. The fact that Israel is the only one of the 193 member states of the United Nations to find its right to exist regularly called into question means that we are dealing here not with legitimate political criticism, but with the latest mutation of the world’s oldest hatred. I hope that makes it clear and I wish you Shanah Tovah.

Olivia Zemmel:

Hi Lord Sacks. My name is Olivia Zemmel and I’m in year 10, Yavneh Girls School Manchester. My question, is what is the balance between belief in God and belief in science? How can you understand the laws of physics while still believing that it is Hashem who controls every aspect of the earth?

Rabbi Sacks:

Hi Olivia from Yavneh, one of my favourite places as I’m sure you… well, you don’t know actually, but I opened it many, many years ago, 25 years ago, and it’s a great school. And your question is: how do we reconcile our faith in God and our belief in science, and the short answer is, please know this, know this absolutely and with total conviction: there is no contradiction between the findings of science and the faith of Judaism. And the reason is that we believe the God of creation is the God of revelation. It’s the same God whose wisdom is evidenced in the universe and its physical, chemical, and biological laws, and whose command is evident in the Torah.

In other words, the difference between science and the Torah is: science tells us the world that is and Torah tells us the world that ought to be, and they’re about different things.

Science is about explaining why things happen, by and large, things that happen because the objects or the beings that make them happen don’t have freewill so they happen because of scientific law, whereas the Torah is about human choices, we do have free will. Therefore there will never be a total science of human behaviour, only rough approximations. But God gave us certain laws to explain why the universe is that way and other kinds of laws to tell us how we ought to behave. So that’s the world that is and that’s the world that ought to be.

There is never, ever, ever an ultimate contradiction between science and the Torah because the God of science is the God of Torah.

Now, that does not answer all your questions, but then you haven’t given me any further details so I can’t see which particular bit you find difficult. But the truth is, the way God operates in the universe is through the lawfulness of the universe. And do understand that that is the belief that Judaism introduced into the world.

Before Judaism came along, people thought the whole universe was as it was because of the random and arbitrary behaviour of the gods. So you can never predict what would happen next. Judaism comes along and says, “No, God created the world as a place of order, “Let there be”, and we now are beginning to understand some of the laws of that order.” And we understand that the God of Judaism is the God of law. And all we need to understand is that there are two kinds of laws, scientific laws that tell how objects behave and religious laws that tell us how we should behave.

So I hope that’s made things clear. If it’s not, then try my book, The Great Partnership. It’s not an easy book, but have a go anyway. And in the meantime, to you and all your fellow pupils, students at Yavneh, Shanah Tovah.

Moshe Klein:

Rabbi Sacks, my name is Moshe Klein, and I am a Jewish student at the University of Maryland. Firstly, I would like to thank you for all you have done to help Jews around the world, and secondly for offering this incredible opportunity.

My question is as follows, as Jews in the modern world, we love talking about instances when the Torah is a progressive document advocating for human rights, sustainability, respect for each other and other such things. However, there are also many instances when the Torah is not only not progressive, but even seems counter to modern morality. Some examples of this can be things like the essentialism we find in Jewish philosophy, the seemingly condoned rape of a woman when at war, zealotry that is supported by God such as Pinchas, and others.

My question is how do we as Jews in the modern world engage with this text and sanctify it when so much of it goes against so much of what we believe in? Thank you for your time, Rabbi Sacks, and I hope that you get to answering this.

Rabbi Sacks:

Hi Moshe, thank you for your question winging its way from Maryland and it’s a really good question. How are we to reconcile the bits of the Torah that are radically different from where we are today?

Short answer is that as Jews we believe that there is a Torah Shebichtav, a Written Torah which never changes, and we have a Torah Sheba’al Peh, an Oral Torah which is, as it were, subject to ongoing interpretation so that we can hear in the word of God for all time, the word of God for this time.

Now that’s a very, very tricky process and it’s entrusted to the great Sages of each generation. And the end result is of course, the Rabbis did do extraordinary things. I mean, they so circumscribed the law, for instance, of the stubborn and rebellious son, a child who is basically sentenced for death for being a juvenile delinquent and they so hedged it around with qualifications that one Rabbi, Shimon bar Yochai, said, lo hayah velo atid lihiyot ben sorrer umoreh, that this law never was applied in reality and never will be applied, it was just given for us to understand how serious it is to begin the road to delinquency, and so on and so forth.

So Judaism has really from the days of Joshua, Moses’s successor, or even in the days of Moses himself, we have some good examples of the laws of inheritance, the five daughters of Tzelophehad came to Moses and of course he had to ask God directly. So that was one kind of indication of what we call the Oral Torah, which is Torah applied to a time or a circumstance that is different from the one where it was given. And that is the ongoing thing that means that Judaism has this unbroken continuity, but at the same time relates to the challenge of each age, in each age.

At the same time, the Torah does not capitulate to the zeitgeist, to the ethic of the time, because heavens above, we surely know that many societies that considered themselves very civilised turned out to be actually quite uncivilised, no more classic example than Europe in the second half of the 19th century where in Berlin and Paris and Vienna, the capitals of the most intellectually sophisticated Western Europe, that was where the most horrendous disease called antisemitism was incubated and became an epidemic.

So there are all sorts of things in the ethic of any given time about which a Jew has to say I’m not going to go down that road, please forgive me, but I have to fight against the idols of the age, whatever the idols, whatever the age.

So how you maintain that balance between faithfulness to the Torah of Moses given 33 centuries ago, faithfulness to the Oral Tradition as it is developed since then and responsiveness to the challenges of our time, that is the ongoing process of Judaism. Somebody once said about Judaism, “it isn’t an -ism, it’s an is.” It’s a kind of subject to ongoing interpretation, and that’s what makes it so beautiful and so challenging. Hope that answers your question. Shanah Tovah.