When veteran broadcaster Sir David Frost uttered his trademark introduction, “Hello, good evening and welcome”, shortly after a set of Hebrew songs by the Shabbaton Choir, the auditorium erupted in applause. Facing the interviewer of prime ministers and presidents this time was a different kind of leader, the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks.
Probably few events in Jewish communal history have sold out as quickly as the United Synagogue’s tribute to its spiritual leader, who retires in three months’ time. All 2,000 tickets for the event at the Barbican Centre in London were snapped up in just three days.
The Chief Rabbi, who a few hours earlier celebrated the birth of his latest grandchild, was on song, too, drawing frequent laughter as he shared anecdotes and reminiscences from the celebrity armchair.
As an undergraduate at Caius College Cambridge, he had enjoyed the same suite of rooms once occupied by Sir David — “magnificent rooms with huge French windows looking out on a croquet lawn. I spent the whole year playing croquet and nearly failed my exams.”
At Cambridge, too, he and his friend Philip Skelker (later head of Immanuel College) had invited a couple of young women to dinner. “I did something for the first and last time in my life,” revealed the Chief Rabbi: “I cooked a chicken.”
Three weeks later, he proposed to one of them, Elaine, his wife — “the best thing I have done in my entire life”.
Asked about religious politics, he noted the abundance of words in Hebrew for “argue” and suggested that God had chosen the Jews “because He loves a good argument”. When Sir David wondered what he would tell atheist Jews who could not get along with synagogue, he said: “Come after the service and enjoy the whisky”.
The first of Lord Sacks’s visits to
10 Downing Street had been at the behest of John Major. “He said: ‘Jonathan, what should I do about crime?’ I think I said: ‘Be against it, Prime Minister’.”
After he became the first Chief Rabbi to decide to retire before 70, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams also announced his retirement, “then the Pope retired”.
“We have started a fashion,” Lord Sacks had told the archbishop. “He replied: ‘I know, I’m worried about the Dalai Lama.’ Then we heard about Alex Ferguson.”
The relaxed exchanges took a sharper turn when Sir David brought up Israel, suggesting that the death toll after Israel’s Gaza incursion four years ago — more than 1,300 Palestinians compared with 13 Israelis — amounted to a “slaughter”.
The Chief Rabbi responded: “I don’t know how many tens, or thousands of civilians died as a result of the Western campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan and I don’t see the same moral odium attached to it.”
Sustained applause greeted a succession of comments in defence of Israel.
As it had begun, the Sacksfest ended with music: a new setting of the Shabbat song Anim Zmirot sung by 300 children from 11 Jewish schools, and then the Chief Rabbi taking the stage again to join them for a final Oseh Shalom.
On Gay Marriage
The Chief Rabbi has distanced himself from critics of the legalisation of gay marriage. During his interview with Sir David Frost, Lord Sacks rejected a suggestion that he had “come out strongly” against same-sex unions.
He stated: “We have strongly defined sexual ethics in Judaism more than 3,000 years old. But I think religions should never seek to impose their view on society as a whole.”
A Bill paving the way for same-sex marriage is to be debated in the House of Lords. A year ago, a submission sent to the government on behalf of Lord Sacks and his rabbinical court, the London Beth Din, made clear Orthodox opposition to gay marriage.