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We have lost our greatest teacher

Jonathan Sacks was a teacher who sought to frame the common ground between Judaism and other religions and to export Jewish values in the service of humanity
Source: Elijah Interfaith Institute
At the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders in Amritsar, in 2007. Source: Elijah Interfaith Institute

Judaism has just lost its greatest teacher and the world has just lost the most important Jewish voice, one of the few that was able to address the concerns of all of humanity. In the flood of sound-bytes appreciating and commemorating Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, especially those uttered by Jewish spokespersons, he is recognized as very valuable, but one of many. I see things differently. He was unique, in a class of his own. He is irreplaceable. There is not a single personality in all of Jewry’s leadership worldwide who can fill the gap created by his departure. This is why his loss is so painful.

Rabbi Sacks was erudite. So are others. He was exceedingly eloquent, but probably not uniquely so. He was an important community leader, but not beyond dispute, when it comes to communal politics. His true greatness lies beyond these specific manifestations of greatness. It is rooted in a comprehensive vision of Judaism and the world, in expansive knowledge both religious and secular-scientific, and above all in the uncanny ability to formulate a message of relevance that addresses simultaneously multiple audiences and therefore gives Judaism a relevance on the global stage in a way that no one else in recent memory (or ever?) was able to.

He was Judaism’s foremost ambassador, representative, public voice, thinker. Beyond the thousands of thoughts and dozens of key ideas, he was a model for how a deeply rooted Jewish message can speak to the entire world. Rabbi Sacks authored over 20 books. It would be impossible to adequately illustrate these claims here. A fuller treatment of his approach, its strengths as well as limitations, is planned for a forthcoming volume I will be publishing at the Littman Library, titled Jewish Thinkers on World Religions.

I was blessed to be associated with Rabbi Sacks in the framework of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders. Over the course of nearly two decades of partnership, we had the opportunity to share ideas, publications, public messages and in-person meetings with other religious leaders. Today I would like to offer a taste of Rabbi Sacks as his presence extends to other religions and as his teachings address Judaism and other religions as part of one comprehensive vision for humanity.

The images shared below were taken during the meeting of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders in Amritsar, in 2007. It was Rabbi Sacks’ first, and I believe only, visit to India and the first time he met with the Dalai Lama. The images radiate presence, engagement and friendship across religions, an ideal to which he was committed. The texts shared below illustrate Rabbi Sacks’ unique voice that is at one and the same time deeply Jewish and expansively universal. Rabbi Sacks was able to expand the “we” of Judaism, addressed by our particular wisdom, and to make it the “we” of all religions and all of humanity.

Source: Elijah Interfaith Institute

Let us consider the Shoah, that particular moment of Jewish suffering. Here is how Rabbi Sacks skillfully negotiates the particularity of our suffering with a broader message, that is shared with leaders of other faiths, during an interfaith “pilgrimage” to Auschwitz, on the eve of Kristallnacht, the very moment that we recall this week:

In 2008, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, or close to it, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and I took a group of representatives of all the major faiths in Britain, not just Christian but Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian and Bahá’í to Auschwitz. I can’t remember a bonding experience like it.
One of the effects of the Holocaust has been to bring faiths much closer together….The truth is that we need to stand together because, as I’ve often said, Jews cannot fight antisemitism alone. The victim cannot cure the crime. The hated cannot cure the hate. We need other people to be there fighting that battle alongside us.

And the corollary is that we have to be there for other faiths when they face their difficulties, just as Christians have been facing in the Middle East and in parts of Africa today, and that’s a battle I tried to fight as hard as I could. We need to be there for one another…

And therefore I think that in, human terms, possibly the worst crime of man against man in recorded history might just lead us to a meeting of minds and faiths and peoples that will ensure that such things never happen again.

The perspective is not only social-practical, “human” as he calls it. Rabbi Sacks articulates the universal lessons that the holocaust teaches us, drawn from the particular theological language of Judaism:

The Holocaust should be able to unite the world faiths around three fundamental principles. Firstly, the dignity and sanctity of every human life as the image of God. Secondly, the covenant of human solidarity, which we call the covenant with Noah in Genesis, chapter nine, although it doesn’t matter what theological basis you give. The truth is we are all responsible for one another. The covenant of human solidarity. And then, thirdly, the most difficult but poignant remark of Martin Luther King, “in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”. When our friends are in trouble, we must not be silent.

Source: Elijah Interfaith Institute

How a particularly Jewish concept becomes the force for broader social action is seen in the following passage:

Mitzvah is the word we give to a good deed, especially when the love of God leads us to act lovingly to neighbours and strangers. It’s what we try to do throughout the year.

Then the idea was born of bringing together all our voluntary groups one day a year to extend the hand of friendship beyond the boundaries of faith. Almost immediately this struck a chord with the Hindu community who instituted their own Sewa day along similar lines. Soon other groups were joining in, Christian, Muslim, Sikh and many others. Until this year it’s become something called A Year of Service, in which all the faith communities in Britain are undertaking projects of social action to help those in need. It sounds simple but I think it may prove to be one of the more transformative experiments of our time.

This is an instance of Sack’s broader approach to engaging religions on the ground:

There are two different ways. One is face to face, by doing dialogue, sharing our respective beliefs, but it’s a long, slow process, undertaken by rare and special people, and can easily be undone. The other is what I call side by side, which happens when people of different faiths, instead of talking together, do social action together, recognising that whatever our faith we still need food, shelter, safety and security. Our basic humanity precedes our religious differences.

At a small gathering celebrating 19th of Kislev, the feast of redemption of Ba’al Hatanya, with non-Jewish friends joining in. Source: Elijah Interfaith Institute

Sacks was not really a champion of interfaith dialogue in the sense of reciprocal study. He was a champion of interfaith friendship and collaboration. He was a teacher who sought to frame the common ground between Judaism and other religions and to export Jewish values in the service of humanity. The following summarizes his approach, which is both theological and practical.

There are two conflicting attitudes that do a real injustice to faith. One is the belief that any friendship across religious boundaries is a fatal compromise of the self-sufficiency of revealed truth. That is a nonsense. In every faith there were great souls who saw beauty in creeds and codes other than their own.

The other — all too common — is the opposite belief that there are no real and irreconcilable differences when it comes to religion. We should all be able to pray together, eat together and endorse one another, as if nothing in religion mattered very much beyond the fact that there is one God and one humanity. That too is absurd. Each great faith is a universe and none is reducible to any other.

What matters is the ability to respect differences and yet be friends. A true friend is one who honours our principles though they are not his or her own and who never asks us to compromise our conscience as a condition of friendship.

Source: Elijah Interfaith Institute

The following text, delivered in the presence of Pope Benedikt, illustrates how magnificently he was able to identify a “we” that includes all religions while sidestepping engagement with details and theological differences.

In the face of a deeply individualistic culture, we offer community. Against consumerism, we talk about the things that have value but not a price. Against cynicism we dare to admire and respect. In the face of fragmenting families, we believe in consecrating relationships. We believe in marriage as a commitment, parenthood as a responsibility, and the poetry of everyday life when it is etched, in homes and schools, with the charisma of holiness and grace.

In our communities we value people not for what they earn or what they buy or how they vote but for what they are, every one of them a fragment of the Divine presence. We hold life holy. And each of us is lifted by the knowledge that we are part of something greater than all of us, that created us in forgiveness and love, and asks us to create in forgiveness and love.

Each of us in our own way is a guardian of values that are in danger of being lost, in our short-attention-span, hyperactive, information-saturated, wisdom-starved age. And though our faiths are profoundly different, yet we recognize in one another the presence of faith itself, that habit of the heart that listens to the music beneath the noise, and knows that God is the point at which soul touches soul and is enlarged by the presence of otherness.

The following interview with Rabbi Sacks was conducted for Elijah’s Friendship Across Religions project. It illustrates the practical approach described above. But it also suggests why mutual sharing of wisdom would be beneficial to all.

Q: Should differences in faith be an obstacle to deeper unity or interreligious harmony?
A: In Judaism we have a wonderful idea. It’s called: arguments for the sake of heaven. Because Judaism is all about arguments…This is a wonderful idea: arguments for the sake of heaven. This means that we hear many different views, many different opinions, and when we do this, our grasp of truth expands, as we realize how many different strands there are in the tapestry of faith…when we realize the complex harmonies of the divine choral symphony, as we as humanity sing our praises to our creator. It is this diversity that means that our vision of God becomes ever wider the more differences it embraces.

I would like to conclude this post with a prayer that captures Rabbi Sacks’ spirit and vision. Rabbi Sacks was invited to inaugurate a session of the US senate with a prayer. These days of post-election and new beginnings are an apt moment to recall and revive this prayerful moment.

Sovereign of the universe, Who created all in love, Teach us to love all that is good and beautiful in this world. Teach us to honour the dignity of difference, recognizing that one who is not in our image is none the less in Your image; never forgetting that the people not like us, Are still people – like us.
At this fateful moment in the human story, bless us that we may be a blessing to others. Guide the nations of the world to honour You by honouring one another. So that by reaching out in love, we may turn enemies into friends, and become your family on earth as You are our parent in heaven.

About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.
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