Rabbi Sacks was right to help Mike Pence write his Israel speech

We should applaud, rather than criticise, our rabbis when politicians seek their counsel


It’s rare for an evangelical Christian, let alone the Vice-President of America to speak like a Jew, but Mike Pence did. His recent speech to the Knesset drew liberally on our sacred texts as Pence reflected on the romance of Jewish history and the return of the Jewish people to its land.

Times of Israel journalist Raoul Wootlif was struck by the uncanny resemblance between passages in Pence’s speech and the writings of Emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks. At first, he suspected that Pence had plagiarised the rabbi’s words, but a little research revealed that the Vice-President had sought Rabbi Sacks’s help in crafting the religious sections of his speech.
While many saw this as a badge of honour, others complained it was wrong for a rabbi to assist a politician whom they regard as deeply flawed. 

Judaism envisions transforming the world into a place of justice and loving-kindness. We work towards that goal every day and people of faith see it as well within their reach. They are surprised by those who do not buy into that vision and try hard to show them its value. Yet, Judaism also cautions rabbis to be pragmatic. For the foreseeable future, not every ill can be cured instantly or entirely. 

The Bible records that Na’aman was a powerful Aramean general. He had defeated Israel in battle and taken captives. He even kept a young Jewish girl enslaved in his home. When faced with a wretched illness, he followed the young girl’s advice and sought support from the Jews. 

The prophet Elisha treasured the opportunity to perform an act of kindness and to demonstrate the Jewish people’s spiritual wealth to their enemies: “Let him come to me, and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel,” he said ” (II Kings 5:8). 

Na’aman travelled to Israel with a chariot and horses. According to Abarbanel, the Spanish medieval commentator, the general hoped to impress Elisha, so that he would receive a grand reception, the best possible attention and a splendid display of ritual from the prophet. But Na’aman was disappointed; Elisha sent out a messenger with simple instructions: “Bathe in the River Jordan seven times”. The treatment worked and Na’aman proclaimed, “Now I know that there is no God in all the land, except in Israel”. Yet, he never became a Jew. The Book of Kings states he returned to Aram and its pagan culture. 

In Elisha’s parting words to Na’aman, he did not try to disabuse the general of his beliefs. “Go in peace” is all that he said.  Abarbanel suggests this was not just a farewell greeting. Elisha recognised that the general was caught between his newly found monotheistic beliefs and the demands of his Aramean masters. Arameans were expected him to pray in their idolatrous temples. Any hint that Na’aman had accepted the Jewish faith would have disastrous consequences. 

Therefore, with great compassion, Elisha advised him to “go in peace”; to do whatever was necessary to keep himself safe. With these words, Elisha acknowledged that even a prophet cannot change human nature. Na’aman’s leprosy was cured and he had a better grasp of monotheism, but his beliefs and practices would always remain far from perfect. 

There is, however, one rabbinic tradition that Na’aman eventually moved to Israel. Even according to this interpretation, Na’aman never embraced our faith entirely, but he lived as a moral, monotheistic gentile (ger toshav) among us (Talmud Gittin 57a).

Whatever the final outcome, Elisha showed enormous sensitivity in his care, attention and empathy for this enemy general, paying no regard to whether he would embrace our faith or not. In this, he foreshadowed Rabbi Sack’s statement that “We have to learn to speak to those we do not hope to convert, but with whom we wish to live” (The Persistence of Faith). Elisha’s actions also demonstrated that when we respect others, they will invariably show greater respect for us and our beliefs.

Because of his brilliance, Rabbi Sacks is constantly called on for advice by rabbis and members of the Jewish community. Quietly and without receiving reward, he has counselled political leaders of every complexion from Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown on the left to David Cameron and Mike Pence on the right.  Prince Charles, church leaders and a dazzling array of others have also sought his guidance.

Not all these people are perfect, nor will Rabbi Sacks transform them into angels. But each time he helps someone, Rabbi Sacks inspires them to be a little better, he sanctifies God’s name and he brings kudos to our people. 

As Rabbi Sacks approaches his 70th birthday next month, princes, priests and politicians line up to seek his guidance. Yet, the rabbi continues to dedicate most of his time to teaching and guiding our Jewish communities in his caring, non-judgmental way. We are indeed privileged to learn from such a towering figure.

Gideon Sylvester is Israel rabbi of the United Synagogue

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