The Chief Rabbi on his new book and his new title
By the time his long-awaited peerage was announced, the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, had already gone into seclusion. Around this period of year, he closes his public diary and turns his mind to writing a new book.
The latest of his 18 books, Future Tense, appeared only last month and he has called it the “most important” he has written, an attempt to produce a “satellite navigation system” for Jews and Judaism in the years ahead.
While the book warns of the rise of “the new antisemitism”, its message is that the Jewish agenda should not be defined by external threat.
Instead of turning defensively inward, Jews should instead seek to renew engagement with the wider world, inspired by prophetic values of hope and be at the forefront of such causes as fighting poverty in Africa and environmental responsibility.
Israel, meanwhile, needs a “new Zionism” encompassing Judaism’s concern for “the weak, the poor, the socially marginalised, the neglected and unheard”.
The book is, above all, a critique of the idea that Jews can rely only on themselves, a defiant isolationism expressed in the biblical slogan of “a people that dwells alone”.
That embattled introversion is a sentiment he finds “wherever I go”, he said, in an interview shortly before his literary hibernation.
But in a world where there is a sovereign, independent Jewish state and a diaspora which enjoys liberty and equality, the sentiment is “counterproductive”, he argues. “Feeling we are embattled and powerless is simply dysfunctional, it’s not a good way of proceeding.
“In Britain, we constitute half a per cent of the population of the country, and yet we can punch above our weight if we take the care to communicate with the wider society. This has driven my Chief Rabbinate since the beginning.”
While Jews have enemies, he said, they also have “friends, very good friends. Let us never cease to make those friendships and then sustain them.”
In fact, British Jewry, he pointed out, is “the first Jewish community where the fight against antisemitism is led by non-Jews, by people like Denis MacShane and John Mann. I think the international conference of parliamentarians in February, hosted by the Home and the Foreign Office, was an extraordinary achievement.
And it really had an impact on the Americans there, like Abe Foxman of the ADL.”
But there has been growing introversion here too, he believes. “I must bear a share of the responsibility for that,” he said.
“I wrote a book called Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren? That created ripples and 15 years later we have more Jewish children at Jewish day schools than certainly within living memory and possibly within the history of British Jewry. We turned the community inward.
“But some years ago, I realised that we now have to balance that so that within our Jewish schools kids are taught their responsibilities to wider society and to humanity as a whole…
“That’s always been the classic Anglo-Jewish excellence, that we had Jews out there, very loyal to Britain and at the same time very loyal to Judaism.
“A couple of weeks ago I officiated at the stone-setting for the late George Gee [former United Synagogue president]. I can’t remember in which order the words appear, but on his stone it says ‘a proud Englishman and a proud Jew’. That was a very special type — and it was British Jewry at its best.
“Of course, we are in a different kind of world today, but I am not going to give up on that combination. In fact, I wrote The Home We Build Together [his 2007 book] just to encourage all of us, Jewish or non-Jewish, to feel proud of being British.”
For Israel, the challenge is to develop a “new civic Judaism” — as the Chief Rabbi puts it in the book — that “embraces religious and secular, Jew and Palestinian alike”.
This may help motivate a nation that might otherwise despair in the face of the protracted struggle for peace — a situation for which he holds continued Palestinian rejectionism responsible.
Recalling a conversation he had with Bill Clinton who hosted the 2000 Camp David negotiations, Sir Jonathan said the former American president used “the most astonishing words. He said ‘Ehud Barak offered more than I thought he would, and more than I thought he should.’”
One of the Chief Rabbi’s “passions” has been to try to involve more secular Jews in the “Jewish conversation”. Leading Israeli writers he has talked to such as Amos Oz, Dovid Grossman and A B Yehoshua “have become part of that conversation.
"I don’t think that conversation often takes place in Israel between those three very secular novelists and the religious world, and yet it’s clear that there is a very strong prophetic consciousness in them, especially in Amos Oz. They are voices to whom we should be listening.”
But he believes that “we haven’t fully reached out to the extraordinary numbers of Jews who are leaders in their field and whose work is clearly Jewish in inspiration but where the connections are not made explicitly, like the work of Jeffrey Sachs, the world’s greatest developmental economist.”
Making connections between Judaism and the wider world of ideas has been one of the hallmarks of his own writing and broadcasting.
But as Sir Jonathan wryly observes: “It always surprises me, though, that non-Jews tend to be more interested sometimes than Jews in what I have to say.”
‘Future Tense — A Vision for Jews
and Judaism in the Global Culture’ is
published by Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99