The false dignity of departure

By Geoffrey Alderman, June 4, 2013

Last week, London's Barbican Centre staged the glitzy spectacle of the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, being interviewed by David Frost. According to one report, "successive speakers waxed lyrical" about Sacks's influence on them, the Jewish community, and British society at large. United Synagogue president Stephen Pack apparently declared that Lord Sacks had become "the moral compass of the country".

In answer to a question from Frost, Sacks declared that his greatest accomplishment had been presiding over a Jewish community that had "transformed itself," growing numerically for the first time since the end of the Second World War, revitalising its Orthodox shuls and tripling the number of children going to Jewish day schools."

He denied that he had "come out strongly" against same-sex marriage. But he avoided a question about what he would have done differently, preferring to concentrate instead on his numerous frightfully important visits to 10 Downing Street. As for the Hugo Gryn affair, he brushed that aside as "one of those moments of turbulence".

As a historian of British Jewry (I am currently updating a text on the subject that I first published some 20 years ago), I feel the need to plug one or two gaps in the Sacks legend that is now being created, and which was clearly being previewed at the event.

The first myth that I need to expose is that Sacks himself has had anything to do with the transformation of the community over which he has presided - the United Hebrew Congregations. The welcome numerical growth in the numbers of British Jews has had nothing to do either with him or with his community: it has happened within the Anglo-Charedi world, over which he most certainly does not preside - but which he unquestionably fears. Inasmuch as there has been a "revitalisation" of what one might term "centrist" Orthodox shuls, this can be traced to the enthusiasm and hard work of a relatively small number of individuals, working mostly outside the Orthodox establishment.

Admirers hasten to give him a hero's farewell

The Jewish day school movement is an undoubted success story - but Sacks has played no part in its fulfilment. For the record, the major catalyst in ensuring this success has been the Huntingdon Foundation, expertly directed by its founder, Benjamin Perl. Lord Sacks's one foray into the arena of spiritual renewal with Anglo-Jewry was "Jewish Continuity," an initiative that foundered spectacularly - not merely on account of strictly Orthodox objections to what the sectarians believed was unacceptable leniency toward the non-Orthodox, but also because of Lord Sacks's blatant inability to confront this bigotry.

As his term draws to a close and his admirers hasten to give him a hero's farewell, I need to remind them that Sacks came into office waving the banner of "inclusivism" (his phrase). In One People? he had argued that it fell to the Orthodox to be inclusivist rather than exclusivist, and that this meant, among other things, not speaking of other Jews "except in the language of love and respect". His infamous letter of January 1997 to the late Dayan Padwa, famously leaked to the JC, gave the lie to this pious platitude, for in it he spoke of Gryn in scathing and I would say spiteful language. In January 1995, following an outcry from the right over his recognition of Masorti marriages, he saw fit to publish an article in the Jewish Tribune condemning Masorti adherents for having "severed their links" with the faith of their ancestors. Yet a week later, in the JC, he had the chutzpah to stress his belief in an orthodoxy "uncompromising in its tolerance."

But Sacks did indeed "come out strongly" against same-sex marriage. Last July, in his official capacity, he stressed, on the record, that marriage was a sacred union between a man and a woman and that any redefinition would undermine it. Why does he seek to belittle now what he publicly affirmed then?

Finally, I need to remind us all that, in 2002, in order to placate the strictly Orthodox, he agreed to rewrite key passages in The Dignity of Difference, in which (like Chief Rabbi Hertz before him) he had argued that Judaism could learn from other religions.

In short, his tenure does not strike me as having been guided by any "moral" compass at all - but rather by the politically expedient dictates of the moment.

Last updated: 9:45am, June 4 2013