Q&A with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Jewish Journal: What are you able to do differently now that you are no longer Chief Rabbi?
Rabbi Sacks: My first passion has always been teaching and rabbi means, “my teacher,” and although I did a fair amount of teaching as Chief Rabbi I didn’t have the chance to really focus on it. I think the first and most important thing is to be able to teach. We have not gotten there yet but I hope one day I will have a little more time for writing because I’ve written 25 books so far but the list of books I have still to write, which I’ve carried around in my head for many years is many more than 25. I haven’t even gotten halfway yet.
JJ: What do you see as your role both to the Jewish world and the non-Jewish world?
Sacks: First, as the Jewish people are concerned I repeat, I just hope to be a teacher. Anyone who has had the privilege as I had of leading a community for 22 years has to set as his or her main priority to raise up a generation of successors. So the most important thing that I’ve set myself to do is to try and inspire young Jews to become leaders. That’s what I’m doing here; it’s what I’m doing wherever I travel. I’ve said many times, for many years, that my decisive encounter was with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. And I said about that encounter, “A good leader creates followers, but a great leader creates leaders.” My great ambition was simply to travel as far as I could and encourage young people to lead. I once called Judaism “God’s call to responsibility.” What I’m really saying to young Jews is, “Don’t complain about the Jewish world. Go and make the Jewish world.”
JJ: Do you have any thoughts on followers? Every leader needs people to follow.
Sacks: I’ve been very touched by the extent to which Jews I’ve met in America and in fact around the world have been reading [my work]…the kind of letters and emails they send, the kind of thanks that they give is just incredibly humbling. I just feel that there a lot of people out there who welcome the chance to sit and learn together about what it is to face the challenges of our time through the Torah. And I just find this big audience for that. It’s not a massive audience. But it is an audience of people who think hard.
JJ: Any thoughts on Orthodoxy’s tendency to remain insular?
Sacks: One of the many things I tried to do and, indeed, my late predecessor, Lord Jakobovits also did was to bring the Jewish voice into the public domain. And when you do that people really appreciate it. Whether they agree with you or they don’t, they like the fact that we are joining the conversation. And a lot of non-Jews say, “You know what? Judaism makes sense to me.” It doesn’t mean they are about to become Jewish but they feel reinforced by the knowledge that we are fighting for the same things as they are. And I’d love to see that happen in the States as well. One of the things we did a couple of weeks ago together with Yeshiva University was we had 500 kids who were doing what they called the Model United Nations. I was in a room with 500 kids around 18 years old…all of whom want to play a leadership role, and all of them feel very engaged with the big wider social issues of the day. So I’m getting the feeling that Orthodoxy is developing that sensitivity.
JJ: What should be the goal of Orthodox Jewry when engaging with non-Orthodox Jewry?
Sacks: I think the goal of Orthodox Jews should be to welcome every other Jew in love and respect. I think the rest either follows or it doesn’t follow as a consequence. I just think that anyone who takes a stand on being Jewish, who makes sacrifices for Judaism and the Jewish people is worthy of our respect. As for all other matters, I leave that to God. He does that so much better than we do.
JJ: It sounds like you believe that Orthodox Jews are inheriting the mantle in the U.S. of representing Judaism. If you agree with that, how can the Orthodox prepare for that role?
Sacks: You had sequences of immigration to the States. You had, essentially, the Sephardic Jews who came over, ultimately from Spain, in 1655 and thereafter. And then you had Jews, mainly from Germany, who came in the 1820’s. Little by little those communities kind of married out and assimilated. Orthodoxy found itself in the minority in the United States. There are only two places really where that was true. The United States and Israel. It’s one of the great ironies that America was predominantly non-Orthodox and Israel predominantly secular. So it took a long time for Orthodox Jews to be able to develop the techniques and the skills…to allow them to hold their own. Now, with the Pew report, it has become really clear that Orthodoxy is the only element of the Jewish people in America that’s growing. I’ve really been encouraging, as you noticed, throughout the weekend, Orthodox Jews to begin to look outward…They have been very focused inward, “How do I keep my kids frum [observant]?” And that was the challenge of the previous generation. The challenge of the next generation: “How am I going to get my kids to lead?” And that means looking a bit more broadly outward. Facing the challenges of the world.
JJ: Do you believe that religious Jews should disseminate the message of the Torah through any medium possible?
Sacks: Every new form of communication or information technology, whenever it appears, I hear kol dodi dofek [listen, my beloved knocks]. I hear God knocking at our door saying, “Use me. Use this gift that I have given you to spread my message.”…I came into the office the morning after the 27th of January 2010 when Steve Jobs launched the iPad. We all knew that the iPad wasn’t a massive technological breakthrough. It’s basically a big iPhone. But I came into the office, I said, “I have seen the face of the future.” This is the game changer. We just haven’t had enough time, to be honest with you, to develop the real resources for the Web and the iPad.
JJ: Is the Orthodox world coming around?
Sacks: I hope it is. I don’t mind whether it is or it isn’t. If we have to lead the way, we’ll lead the way. T.S Eliot wrote a poem called, “The Waste Land.”…There’s the poem, right? [Using an iPad app] You want all the commentaries to the poem, mikraos gedolot [great scriptures], right? You’ve got all the commentaries. You want to see the original manuscript with the notes of Ezra Pound. Can you see? But what is magic about this, what is absolute magic is 34 videos from the greats in the world telling you about “The Waste Land.”