The death of the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, has led to an outpouring of grief and affection from within the Jewish community and beyond. Our own Archbishop, Justin Welby, suggested that it was his ‘profound depth, and equally profound commitment to relating with others’ that made him such a great leader. ‘When you met him,’ he said, ‘you couldn’t but be swept up in his delight at living, his sense of humour, his kindness, and his desire to know, understand and value others.’
What Welby called his depth was a feature of someone trained in philosophy and Jewish theology. His PhD examined rabbinic ideas about taking responsibility for others. In his obituary for Jonathan Sacks Daniel Taub, a former Israeli Ambassador to the United Kingdom, talked of Sacks’ enormous range of erudition and his particular focus on matters of morality. He was indeed highly intelligent and erudite but his intellect and experience enabled him to have something much more profound -- the gift of wisdom. And with that gift of wisdom came an ability to communicate that wisdom to others, never to talk above them. This was a gift he brought to his Thought for the Day broadcasts; he spoke so that everyone could understand. Not only could they understand, they could also take away something for themselves. Prince Charles, in his tribute to Sacks, noted that his wisdom meant that he was able to ‘cut through confusion and clamour;’ when asked a question to which the answer might seem to be either a or b he would show how both were based on false assumptions and that the real answer was c.
What I wish to do in this tribute is to look at some of Jonathan Sacks’ thoughts and beliefs which are of relevance to us as Christians, for I believe that we too, not just his Jewish colleagues, can learn from him – and can benefit from his wisdom.
How Might Faith Communities View One another?
In 1997 Samuel Huntington’s book about what he called the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ was published.[i] Huntington’s thesis was that there was an inevitable clash between the western and Muslim worlds – between two civilizations. In 2002 Jonathan Sacks published a response in which he suggested that Huntington’s thesis was wrong – there was no inevitable clash.[ii] Instead, Sacks argued that in the modern world there needs to be an acceptance of cultural and religious difference. Accepting this would make the concept of any such clash irrelevant.
With the attacks of 9/11 in the recent background as he was writing, Sacks argues that people of different faiths ‘need to search --- each faith in its own way – for a way of living with, and acknowledging the integrity of, those who are not of our faith.’[iii] Although he says that he is an orthodox Jew, he asks whether he can hear the echoes of the voice of God in a Hindu, Sikh, Christian or Muslim. In writing about the relationship between the different faiths Sacks got himself into trouble with members of his own faith community. In the first edition of his book he wrote, ‘Judaism, Christianity and Islam are religions of revelation – faiths in which God speaks and we attempt to listen.’[iv] In other words, he was suggesting that Judaism’s God is the same as that of the Christian and the Muslim and that God can speak to each. He argues that the heart of monotheism is not what it has traditionally been taken to be: one God and therefore one faith. Instead, he posits the idea that unity creates diversity. This is why difference is to be welcomed and accepted; hence the title of his book, the Dignity of Difference.
Publication of the first edition resulted in uproar in some sections of the Jewish community. Two senior orthodox rabbis asked Sacks to recall the book. When he failed to do so an expert in Jewish law was asked for his opinion; he concluded that the book contained views contrary to the Hebrew scriptures. Sacks agreed with his publishers that a second edition should contain amendments to the first.
In the second edition of his book he ‘toned down’ the idea that God can speak through other faiths. Whereas in the first edition he suggested that Judaism believes in a variety of faiths and truths, in the second he said simply that there is not one exclusive path to salvation. Here we had someone who was wrestling with the question of the validity of other faiths from a Jewish perspective. Judaism is not an evangelistic faith, so how might God ‘deal with’ those who are not Jews? Originally in the first edition he argued that we should not see truth as a universal concept: he suggested that religions and ethical beliefs will be diverse. He argued that ‘God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims.’[v] In the second edition, however, he argued instead that God made a covenant with the Jewish people and that other people and faiths should find their own relationship with God through obeying the Noahide commandments.[vi]
Jonathan Sacks wanted to be inclusive: he was trying to demonstrate that people of different faiths need not be in conflict because there was a way in which the diversity of different faiths was held together in a unity. He wanted to affirm and value faith traditions other than his own. In seeking to hold together different faith communities and beliefs there is a challenge for us as Christians, and as protestant Christians in particular. Roman Catholic teaching embodied, for example, in the Nostra Aetate declaration says that ‘The Church regards with esteem... the Moslems. They adore the one God...’[vii] This is an inclusivity similar to that for which Sacks was calling. More recently, Pope Francis signed the Document on Human Fraternity alongside the Grand imam of al Azhar which said that ‘the pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom.’[viii] This was a statement that echoed the idea put forward by Sacks in the original edition of The Dignity of Difference; as with Sacks, the Pope too was criticised for being too inclusive.
Here then is the challenge for the protestant church. Are we able in any way to include the ‘religious other’ in the way that Sacks and the Pope suggested? Are there ways in which we might say on the one hand that Jesus Christ is God’s full and final revelation and at the same time ascribe a religious dignity to Jews and Muslims? Can we say that monotheistic faiths bear witness to the one God or that they worship the one God?
How Might Communities Relate to One Another?
One of the reasons that Sacks was such a good communicator was the way he used stories and pictures to illustrate his point. In so doing he was able to communicate clearly with everyone so that they could all understand the point he was making. One of his books is built around a series of pictures; he even had a cartoon of it made for his website. Watch it, listen to Sacks himself, and you will understand his argument immediately.[ix]
The book in question is The Home We Build Together[x]. In The Dignity of Difference he argued that we are naturally different and that unity and difference are mutually supportive. The Home We Build Together opens by saying that although we are different we must bring our differences as gifts to the common good. Unless we do that what should have been the music that society creates simply becomes noise.
He uses the picture of a country house to illustrate his first model of society. In such a model minorities who have settled in Britain are welcomed by a generous host. However generous their host, however, they remain guests: the country house, however nice, is not theirs. They are only visitors and the country house can never be their home. Sacks says that this is how many arrivals to Britain from other countries experienced Britain, including his own Jewish community, in the late nineteenth century.
The second picture or model he uses is that of the hotel. In this model the visitors are independent enough to be able to pay their own way but, as with a country house, a hotel can never be a home: it is simply a building in which to stay. In this model Sacks suggests that there is no dominant culture; it is a picture of a multicultural society. The danger is that in a hotel society becomes a series of non-intercommunicating rooms. It can soon lead to segregation. This, he argues, was Britain in the late 1950s.
Sacks outlines how, after the riots in northern towns in 2001, the Cantle Report discovered what those who lived there already knew – that different ethnic groups tended to cluster together in enclaves. Certain areas of a city were dominated by a particular ethnic minority; children often went to schools dominated by those minorities and where there was a measure of diversity families tended to mix and socialise with those who shared their background and beliefs. The report painted a picture of British society for its ethnic and religious minorities as a hotel.
Sacks’ preferred model of society is one in which those minorities who have settled in Britain together build their own houses with the help of those who already live around them. Together with those who already live there they become a valued part of a society in which everyone, early and late arrivals, work for the common good side by side. Different groups mix together as they go about their daily lives.
Here again Sacks offers a challenge for our churches. Many are beginning to look at the issues of racial inclusivity and unconscious bias within their own community, especially where that community includes ethnic minorities. How well do we reflect inside our congregations the values of the Kingdom in which, in the biblical picture, ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3: 28)? If we take on board Sacks’ picture of the house we build together we might ask whether the church, where it has the opportunity to do so, might create relationships with ethnic and religious minorities in its local community. Might churches, synagogues and mosques come together to promote what Sacks calls the common good by joining together to examine the issue of climate change? Might they come together to look at issues such as housing, as they have done after the Grenfell Tower disaster? A Jewish student said to me not long ago that she thought that many Jewish students lived in what she called a ‘faith bubble.’ Of course, there is nothing wrong in mixing with people like ourselves, whether in terms of faith, profession or interest; but Sacks encourages us to help make our local communities more integrated.
‘God Wants Us to Change Things’
Jonathan Sacks’ daughter, Gila, said at his funeral that one of the things her father taught her was that God wants us to change things. There are always problems, she said, but her father believed that all problems are solvable. As she put it humorously, her father would want us to solve the issue of anti-Semitism while the kettle boiled. In his last publication, Morality, he suggested the Hebrew Bible expressed an idea that was radical in its day: that time is an arena of change and that human beings and societies can change.[xi] It was this belief that led to his optimism and the belief that all problems are solvable. The belief that man is free and that he can change, and can sometimes change radically, is a belief that is held by both Judaism and Christianity. Neither faith has room for pessimism.
Over the last few years I have enjoyed reading a number of Jonathan Sacks’ books. I was always excited when a new one was published: now I could learn something new! Alas, that will be no more. What I will do, however, is to go back over what I have read and see if I can learn some more! As a Christian I believe that there is much that I can still learn from this wise leader of the Jewish community.
Formerly a Deputy Headteacher at Huntington School, York, David is a Licensed Lay Minister at St George’s Church, Leeds.
[i] Samuel P Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (London: Free Press, 2002)
[ii] Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (London: Continuum, 2002)
[iii] Ibid, 5
[iv] Ibid, 19
[v] Ibid, 55
[vi] A series of seven commandments based on Genesis 9:9. They are outlined and explained at https://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/cjl/texts/cjrelations/resources/sourcebook/Noahide_covenant.htm
[x] Jonathan Sacks, The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society (London: Bloomsbury, 2007)
[xi] Jonathan Sacks, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2020), 292