I had the privilege of attending a dinner last Friday evening that hosted the former Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. It was a sublime experience for me. Because if Centrist Orthodoxy has a leader, he is it. He addressed the overflow crowd that evening and I could swear that he was card carrying subscriber to my blog. Now I’m sure he does not have the time to read blogs. He probably never even heard of me. But it was truly uncanny. I felt like I was listening to a far more erudite version of myself.
He began by saying he was asked to speak about Modern Orthodoxy. He does not, however, like the term and never uses it himself. He explained that the word modern does not exactly fit religious Jews. That’s because even though we are modern we are not fully modern. There are aspects that we may not engage in. Just because there is a Zeitgeist about a certain issue in the modern world, that doesn’t make it ‘kosher’ for Jews engage in it. This is something I have repeatedly emphasized (as I have recently have with respect to 2st century feminism) and a view with which I obviously agree.
He doesn’t like the word Orthodox either. That’s because of the way that word came about. Prior to the French Revolution – there was no prefix to the word Jew. We were all Jews… some of us more religious than others and some not at all – but all part of the one people. But Napoleon wanted to create a new Jew that would assimilate to the point of considering themselves Frenchmen first and Jewish second. He convened a Sanhedrin to see how Jews could assimilate this way under Rabbinic guidance. There were Rabbis that opposed this and refused to participate. They were immediately labeled Orthodox. A negative term used to refer to those of us who insisted on remaining insular.
Lord Sacks prefers the term Jews Engaged with the World (JEW). This is how those of us who participate in society (and are not insular) should see ourselves. And not as Modern Orthodox.
Here I have a minor quibble. What Lord Sacks was then really doing was defining a sociological rather than philosophical construct. Under this construct many Charedim would fit in quite easily – those that I call moderate who also engaged with the world to one degree or another. As a Hashkafic construct Modern Orthodoxy (which I also do not like and prefer the term Centrist) has distinct features that are separate from even moderate Charedim in the sense of why we engage with the world and the value we place on both secular studies and engaging in the culture.
But his message that evening is something I could not agree with more. And it applies to the sociological grouping that includes Centrists and Moderate Charedim.
Lord Sacks made a point that evening that I heard an elementary school Rebbe make when I was 5th or 6th grade. He said that the scarcer something is, the more precious it is. The Jewish people are the smallest segment of the world population. So every Jew should feel how precious that makes them. Orthodox Jews are even scarcer, and therefore feel even more special.
Lord Sacks then added that since those of us in Orthodoxy that are engaged with the world is the smallest segment of Orthodoxy – that we are the most precious of all. A position that he attributed to the late Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Lubavitch via the directive of the Rebbe engages with the world. Big time. They have Shiluchim (emissaries of the Rebbe) that reach the far corners of the earth, ministering to to any Jew that happens to live there – even if there is not another observant Jew in sight. This is unlike any other segment in Orthodoxy whose rabbinic leadership discourages living in non Jewish areas for fear of being overpowered by the assimilationist influences they find there. Lubavitcher Shiluchim however do not go off the derech (OTD).(I hate that term too – but I digress) They remain as religious as when they came and raise their children to be the same despite those influences. This, said Lord Sacks is in contradistinction to other streams of Orthodoxy where there has been an explosion of people going OTD.
The reason for that, he said, is that Lubavitchers are proud of who they are. They wear it on their sleeve. And this should be an object lesson for all of us. We are the ones that are out there. And we are the ones that the rest of the world come into contact with. It is up to us to present a positive view of Judaism. He did not use the term – but clearly he means that we should be an Or LaGoyim – a light unto the nations. Surely in matters of ethics and morals. But especially, he said, in the areas of spirituality. He then gave numerous examples of great people of the past that were engaged with the world and inspired others spiritually.
In this vein Lord Sacks told the story about the time a Muslim (I believe he said it was an Imam) approached him and thanked him for what he had written in one of his books – which was serialized in the Times of London. This was in 2002 during Operation Defensive Sheild where Muslim enmity was at a pretty high level. The IDF entered the Jenin Refugee camp because it was determined to be a launch site for terrorism during the 2nd Intifada. At the time Palestinians claimed that thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians were killed by that action.
Instead of expressing anger against Israel to a Jewish rabbi might have been expected from a Muslim cleric he received praise for what he wrote about the Jewish commitment to their faith. That inspired that cleric to see his own faith that way.
Lord Sacks said that non Jews look to religious Jews for inspiration and even validation for their own spirituality. And as such we should be engaged with world and wear our religion publicly and proudly. When that happens we get respect for our beliefs and become role models. Being insular is counterproductive to that. God does not want to keep our beliefs secret from the world. He wants us to spread the light of His truth.
Taking pride in how we live has the added benefit of keeping us observant Jews. When one does not share his spirituality – and keeps it to himself, he is in the greatest danger of going OTD. Unlike those observant Jews that insist on being insular – sharing our spirituality is something all those of us who are sociological centrists and engaged with the world are in a position to do. And Lord Sacks urged us to do so.
This only scratches the surface of his address last Friday night. There was a lot more detail that I do not have the space for. But I believe that this is the gist of what he said. And as I indicated, it reflects my own world view and am proud to present it here.