Lord Chief Rabbi - but is it good for the Jews?

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester on the blessings a rabbi can bring to the national stage


For much of our history, it was perilous for observant Jews to engage in politics. Successful statesmen risked jealousy from within the Jewish community and almost anyone who accepted the patronage of a gentile knew that at some stage, they would be forced to compromise their religious beliefs or endanger their lives by upsetting their political masters.

These considerations weighed heavily on the rabbis who counselled observant Jews to stay well away from politics. “Do not seek the acquaintance of the ruling power,” warns the Mishnah (Ethics I: 10). So what would they have made of the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks taking up his seat in the House of Lords?

Engaging in national affairs is bound to create controversy; so classically, rabbis focused on leading warm, caring, observant communities — holiness at a local level. But perhaps there is also a price to be paid for not expressing Judaism’s views on the issues that may lead to a more ethical society.

A midrash depicts Mordecai pacing up and down outside the gates of Shushan, weighing up the risks and benefits of entering political life. As he struggled with his dilemma, he drew inspiration from the example of Joseph, who became Grand Vizier of Egypt; protecting the Jewish people and saving the Egyptian economy. If it was good enough for Joseph, he thought, it is good enough for me and so, despite the dangers, Mordecai became the second most powerful man in Persia (Yalkut Shimoni Esther 2).

Like Joseph, Mordecai was bruised by jealousy and intrigue. Some contemporaries criticised him for taking time away from his Torah studies to deal with matters of state. They recognised that an occasional foray into public affairs may be necessary to defend the Jewish community, but they argued that politics had little intrinsic value and that Mordecai should have spent less time on it, focusing his attention on the study and observance of Torah.

Engaging in national affairs is bound to create controversy

Most Jews were satisfied with Mordecai’s performance and recognised his contribution to the recovery of Shushan and the re-integration of its Jewish community. The Talmud explains that in addition to our day-to-day observance of the commandments, there are other ways in which we should make a profound impact on the world. Simply by interacting pleasantly, decently and ethically with our non-Jewish neighbours, while proudly declaring our Jewishness, we can create a positive impression, bringing credit to God and the Jewish people. This is called a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of the Divine.

Maimonides believed that since our religion represented the fulfilment of God’s will and the holiest form of living, eventually all non-Jews would also recognise the benefit that Judaism brings to the world, appreciating the genius of the Torah and the people who live by it. He looked forward to the day when gentiles would eye us with admiration, proclaiming: “What a wise and understanding people” (Deuteronomy 4: 6). But in order to achieve this, Maimonides said we would need to develop an intelligent understanding of Torah and advance our ability to present Jewish ideas in a sophisticated fashion to the nations around us. Perhaps this is why some rabbis have answered the call to refine their explanations of the commandments and present their ideas in a manner not only palatable to observant and non-observant Jews but also to a wider audience.

I vividly recall the emotional speech given by my rosh yeshivah, Rabbi Yehuda Amital when, in the aftermath of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister Shimon Peres invited him to join the Cabinet. Rabbi Amital spoke movingly about his life, from the tragedy of seeing his family deported to Auschwitz to his participation in the struggle for a Jewish state. These experiences, he explained, led to his personal commitment never to shirk responsibility, so although it was unprecedented for a yeshivah head to leave the study hall to take up a seat in government, if the Prime Minister believed he could help to heal the wounds of a deeply divided society, he felt obliged and honoured to do so.

Working for Rabbi Amital’s successor, Minister for Israeli Society and Diaspora Affairs, Rabbi Michael Melchior, I saw how his belief that Orthodox Judaism could create a fairer, more ethical society formed the basis of his political manifesto and set the agenda of his governmental work. Our weekly meetings in the Prime Minister’s Office opened with a dvar Torah and our ministry dedicated its time to protecting the rights of minorities, fighting injustice, and furthering the cause of peace.

So Lord Sacks has biblical and contemporary Israeli precedents for entering Parliament. Closer to home, he follows the distinguished example of former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits who was the first rabbi to be ennobled since medieval times. “I have been elevated,” Rabbi Jakobovits said, “not because I renounced my Jewish beliefs or modified them... but on the contrary because I held strictly to them and proclaimed them without adulteration and without concessions.”

The Chief Rabbi has already made his mark on the Jewish world and on the British people. The House of Lords will give him a new and important platform to extend his influence by spreading his groundbreaking, tolerant and compassionate teachings. Meanwhile, our communities are honoured and enriched by a leader who combines a scholarly commitment to halachah and Jewish particularism with an unsurpassed ability to explain our traditions to others, offering a compelling vision for the wider world.

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