My question to the Chief Rabbi— was it OK to fancy him?


Just as Jonathan Sacks is now, Immanuel Jakobovits was a hard act to follow as chief rabbi.

Lord Sacks’s predecessor worked on so many levels. Our own son, for example, owes his very existence to a chance conversation I had with Amélie, Lord Jakobovits’s wife, which led to an introduction to a top fertility specialist.

Lord Sacks’s appointment coincided roughly with that of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, and it was an exciting if terrifying time to be the new religion correspondent of The Times.

In my own case I was succeeding Clifford Longley, the equal to Lord Jakobovits in the formidability stakes. Everywhere I looked, the road seemed strewn with potential pitfalls.

But Lord Sacks could not have done more to make my job and that of our newspaper easier, and he seemed to do it without trying.

How I loved finding out about Judaism in Britain. I will never forget the phenomenal welcome I was given across the community, not just by the Orthodox, but surely at his lead.

From the start, I was invited to Friday night dinners at his home but also those of his friends, to synagogues on Fridays and Saturdays, to New Year, Passover and other celebrations.

But I remember the effort to get things right without causing inadvertent offence. For example, there was the issue of the beard. Chief rabbis surely were meant to have beards. And weren’t they usually long distinguished grey beards? Was it antisemitic stereotyping to think this?

Because here was this dark-haired, tanned young man, not only beard-free, but with a day or two’s growth of stubble making him shockingly handsome. Was I allowed to fancy the new (happily married) chief rabbi?

It turned out to be an interesting issue from the point of view of Jewish law and practice. He had shaved his beard off so that he could safely wear a gas mask in Israel. From my initial, superficial response there came an in-depth exploration of Jewish law as well as the political situation in Israel.

Through Lord Sacks’s unprecedented ability to engage with the secular and the interfaith communities in Britain, I believe our readers, as well as the entire nation, came to a deeper knowledge of the Jewish community and its complex historical context.

He has in his time had to walk the same tightrope between orthodoxy and liberalism that Rowan Williams, who succeeded George Carey, had to walk in the Church of England. Both suffered in their own ways through this and both also succeeded, in their own ways.

Neither job was enviable, and I do believe that the difficulties they both encountered were as much a product of our time, the struggles of faith communities to cope with rapid modernisation, rather than anything peculiar to either man.

It is of enormous credit to Lord Sacks that he has come to the end of his service with his community not only intact, but actually strengthened. History will surely judge him well.

If you were to ask me the one unchanging thing I saw as we met, time after time, over the years, in the context of widely varying news stories, I would say it was faith. Jonathan Sacks always kept the faith.

We in the churches, the newspapers and the wider communities owe it to him, his successor, and the people, never to forget that.

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