In the Jewish world today, there are few thinkers and communicators more influential and able than the soon-to-retire chief rabbi of the UK, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. This week he made it known that we should not expect him to go into a quiet retirement from Jewish life, but that rather he is just beginning the next part of his Jewish journey. And thank God for that. The Jewish world desperately needs the immense talents Rabbi Sacks has to offer.
Despite sensational headlines following his final address as Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks has made some very serious and important observations and commitments going forward. He has just 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. People who used to be in the center are either becoming more Haredi and isolationist, or they are moving in the opposite direction and assimilating. This is a very powerful observation and one which needs to be addressed.
Yet the question begs to be asked: why is this happening? Why are Jews abandoning the center in droves?
Tragically, I think the answer is that the center has not been successful at communicating a compelling case for itself and at the same time has been subjected to a sustained attack from all sides. From the Haredi perspective, those in the center, let’s call them Centrist or Modern Orthodox, are seen as slackers and insincere about their Judaism. From the secular perspective, being committed to Judaism involves sacrificing many of life’s material “joys” for little perceived reward. As an Orthodox Jew you can’t enjoy your kid’s soccer game on a saturday morning, the places you can eat at are extremely limited, the pool of people you can date is staggeringly small, the list goes on. In the final analysis, there needs to be a compelling reason to remain in the center.
Despite the strong efforts of great communicators such as Rabbi Sacks and others, the message seems not to be getting through with sufficient success. For example, there are few decent websites dedicated to disseminating Torah from a Centrist or Modern Orthodox perspective. Those that attempt to fill that void charge steep fees for downloads and have only very poorly organized written content. You thus have to be highly motivated to use those sites. Haredi-style sites, conversely, offer their classes for free, have a much greater selection and contain a huge amount of well-organized written content. Of course secular knowledge and ideas are ubiquitous.
In addition, Rabbi Sacks talks about the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik who was a brilliant exponent of Centrist Judaism. Yet most of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s books and teachings are written in a manner that is inaccessible to the layperson. Rabbi Sacks himself has worked hard to make the center more compelling, and his output of Centrist-style Torah has been outstanding. In Israel there are others who are working hard on these issues. But all of this fades into insignificance compared to the magnitude of the problem.
Centrist Judaism needs to communicate its case in a compelling manner to a wider audience and Rabbi Sacks is the prime candidate to lead the way. And now that he is retiring, he has decided spend his time doing just that — in his words: “teaching, writing, broadcasting and using new media…to inspire Jews of all ages and backgrounds to engage with the world as Jews, abandoning neither their Jewishness nor the world.”
Yet, even a man of Rabbi Sacks’ talent cannot do this on his own. It needs to be a team effort. It seems that he realizes this when he writes, “Now I begin the next challenge: to try to inspire a new generation of Jewish leaders, to deepen the conversation between Torah and the wisdom of the world, and to do so globally.”
Thus, to Rabbi Sacks I say Mazal Tov on your retirement and Hatzlacha Rabba (wishes for much success) on the new leg of your journey. And know that I and many others are inspired to join your team in expanding the appeal of the center and forming a Judaism that is engaged with the world. Let’s do this, together.
Rabbi Levi Brackman served as a rabbi in the United Synagogue in the UK under Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ aegis from 2001-2005. Since then he has lived in Colorado where he also serves as rabbi of Judaism in the Foothills, a synagogue he founded.