Last week Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks published a pamphlet entitled, “A Judaism Engaged With the World,” that describes his mission post-retirement. In it he poses the following dilemma. Judaism is losing Jews to assimilation, and at the same time we are losing Judaism to the world because of Haredi-style isolationism and fear of the outside. Fewer and fewer people are inhabiting the center where they are committed to Judaism and deeply engaged with the world simultaneously.
This has elicited an angry response from the Haredi Agudath Israel of America. They accused Rabbi Sacks of an “astounding ignorance of reality,” stating that, “not only are charedim in the workplace and the “outside world,” but the charedi universe has played a leading role, if not the leading role, in outreach to the rest of the Jewish community.” They conclude that, “Rabbi Sacks appears not to know the world he arrogates to judge.”
The statement then goes on to argue that whilst the Haredi world does work hard “shutting out pernicious elements of the surrounding culture,” they claim that “shielding oneself and one’s family from such negative influences is precisely what Judaism asks of Jews.”
This is a very mean spirited and dishonest attack on Rabbi Sacks. Clearly Rabbi Sacks is talking about a Judaism that engages with the world because it respects what secular society and wisdom has to offer and what Judaism can contribute to it. Members of the Haredi Agudath Israel of America engage the world exclusively in order to serve their own aims such as making a living or in order to protect their own interests. They shut virtually all the rest out. They certainly do not engage the world in the way Rabbi Sacks is suggesting. Neither is Rabbi Sacks suggesting, by any means, that the “pernicious elements of the surrounding culture” become part of the life of a Jew.
All of this is simply a distraction from the fact that Rabbi Sacks has made powerful observation about the shrinking Jewish Center and one which needs to be addressed. Agudath Israel of America are afraid and threatened by the fact that this issue will now be addressed properly by those who have the talents to remedy it. Simply put the Haredi community may start to shrink as the Jewish Center grows.
The fact that the likes of Agudath Israel of America are protesting in such a manner is a source of encouragement for those of us who want to recreate the Jewish Center as Rabbi Sacks has so eloquently described. In the statement of Agudath Israel of America I hear the words: March on, march on. And so we shall.