News broke a few days ago that Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Britain and popular speaker and author across the Jewish denominations, had collaborated with Mike Pence on his speech in the Knesset.
To many people, including several on a Facebook group for progressive Orthodox Jews and their friends I am a member of, the news was deeply disappointing and shocking. A dozen or more expressed outrage and disillusionment, with more than one saying they would turf the rabbi’s books.
I was disappointed by the news, but not that surprised. For some time now I’ve been following the rabbi’s career and writings, and after seeing him speak live in Vancouver a few months ago I came to the conclusion that the rabbi, in fact, embodies a communal failure which threatens both the Jewish soul and future.
Over a decade ago I was considered becoming a rabbi and hanging out at rabbinical colleges and yeshivot. At the time then Chief Rabbi Sacks had written a couple of books which were very important to the young Jews I was hanging out with — the Dignity of Difference and To Heal A Broken World.
The first book presents Judaism as a religion which inherently defends diversity, arguing that its refusal of totalizing truth claims and universality should be seen as a strength, not a weakness, and even a gift to the other peoples of the world as a role model for defending ethnic and philosophical pluralism. The second book painted Judaism as the religion of ethical and social engagement par excellence, a religion whose very raison d’etre lay in repairing the world (“tikkun olam,” the rallying cry of liberal Jewish self-understanding in the last 10 years). Both of these ideas, which Sacks helped popularize, became important ideas in presenting the value of Judaism to younger Jews.
Those books and Sacks’ others were not without their problems. In his writing, Sacks often worked in simplistic caricatures, presenting a monolithic, whitewashed Judaism which supported the positive image he was selling. He often contrasted his version of Judaism with straw-man caricatures of other religions and philosophies in order to show the superior value of Judaism. He also paid a lot of lip service to what Jews could give to the world without outlining any practical measures to actually help non-Jews, leaving behind a feeling that he was more interested in praising an enlightened Judaism than enacting it in the real world. To put it bluntly, Sacks began to seem like more of a cheerleader than an activist, and one who was less than intellectually honest in his presentation of Judaism or other religions and philosophies.
When I saw Sacks speak in Vancouver, I was struck by the same thing: he spent the speech praising the seven things Jews have to give to the world, but I was left feeling his real purpose was to shore the audience up in their Judaism, not to give things to the world.
A look at a certain incident in Sacks’ career is revealing. When the widely popular Reform Rabbi Hugo Gryn passed away, Sacks refused to attend the funeral due to the ceremony not being Orthodox. Instead, Sacks agreed to attend a memorial service in recognition of Gryn “not as a Reform rabbi, but as a survivor of the Holocaust”. In subsequently leaked private correspondence, Sacks wrote that as a member of the Reform movement, Rabbi Gryn was a part of a “false grouping” and one of “those who destroy the faith”. The dignity of difference? Apparently not.
This is not to mention Sacks’ opposition to gay marriage in Britain. Seen through the lens of the rabbi’s actual behavior, his assertion of the dignity of difference is clearly seen for what it is: a defense of the right of Orthodox Jews to be different than others, but not the rights of anyone else. It is fundamentally self-serving, a defense of the tribe dressed up in cleverly progressive language.
Back in the day, I knew many Jews who clutched Sack’s To Heal A Broken World like a new Bible. Leaving aside Sacks’ record as a staunch apologist for all things Zionist and his failure to take any kind of stance for justice that doesn’t serve his own interests or that pose any risk to himself (like addressing Zionist abuses of the Palestinians or standing up to the right-wing Orthodoxy in his own country, to site two of many possibilities), Sacks’ decision to work together with Mike Pence, a collaboration Sacks has called “a great tribute to the Jewish people” further clarifies where Sacks really stands.
Just for a quick reality check, Mike Pence is a right-wing evangelical Christian who has received heavy criticism for his views on gender equality, reproductive rights, and LGBQT people, including being a supporter of “conversion therapy,” a practice some liken to torture.
More importantly, Pence is the running mate and now VP of Donald Drumpf. That’s the serial sexual predator and pathological liar, friend to white supremacists and neo-Nazis, he who demonizes immigrants and minorities in a way which Goebbels would admire, the bogeyman in the nightmares of undocumented children, the robber of the poor to give to the wealthy, he who has opened up God’s creation to the depredations of big business in a way not seen in decades, the climate denier who disregards the future and the very life of all of our children for the sake of power and money. Pence is literally that bastard’s right-hand man, and Sacks thinks being approached by him was “a great tribute to the Jewish people”?
Rabbi Sacks has defended himself by saying he was only informing Pence about the ties of the Jewish people to Israel. The New York meeting “centered around how best to frame elements of the speech — in particular, the biblical and historic connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel, and the American and Jewish stories,” according to Sacks’ spokesperson Dan Sacker.
In other words, Sacks collaborated with Pence in order to strengthen the Zionist aspects of Pence’s speech. The choice Sacks made, then, was to work together with a politician complicit in one of the most dangerous and unethical political careers in the history of the modern world in order to score some points for the ongoing Zionist project.
In doing do Sacks has chosen once again to do what he has done so many times before: he has chosen Jewish tribalism over Jewish ethical values. If he had refused to work with Pence, he might have taken a stand for Jewish ethical demands such as “love of the stranger,” the greatness of peace, stewardship of the earth, responsibility towards the poor, and defense of the vulnerable. Instead, he has chosen to sell out for Jewish power and glory.
In working with Pence, Sacks has also sided with all the other members of the Jewish establishment who have chosen Zionist power over the Jewish soul. This problem is far greater than Sacks. As the CEO of the Jewish Agency warned recently, young Jews are turning away from Israel in record numbers, a trend that has increased since Drumpf got elected and right-wing Zionists formed their diabolical alliance with him. The essence of the disease lies in emphasizing Jewish tribalism over Jewish values, and enacting those values only when it serves the interests of the power of the tribe, a pattern of behavior Sacks has shown long before he sat down to advise Mike Pence.