A Christian view on popular rabbi


Jonathan Sacks is a prominent rabbi from London. In 2016 two of his books appeared in The Netherlands: ‘To heal a fractured world’ (On Jewish ethics) and ‘Not in God’s Name’ (A Jewish remedy against religious violence). He seems popular, but he is also criticized. Not in the least within Judaism. He is, for instance, rejected by its two extremes; the Haredi (ultra-orthodox) and progressive Judaism. Where does he stand compared with Christianity?

By Marco van Putten

While Sacks was studying philosophy he began to have all kinds of questions about his faith. He asked advice from different Jewish teachers. The Lubavitcher rebbe Schneerson (the most remarkable Jewish teacher of recent times) urged him to become rabbi and to focus on bringing Jews back to their faith. He followed that advice. He graduated, got married and had three children and became rabbi (1981) in London. He also became professor Jewish studies at several universities. He took on a political career as independent member in the House of Lords (senate) of the United Kingdom and started using the name ‘Baron Sacks’. From 1991 until 2013 he was chief rabbi for the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. Currently he is retired but still highly influential.

Main messages of Sacks
What sticks out is that Sacks, born in London (1948), goes against the Jewish tradition by not limiting his message to its own religious community but directing it to the world. That’s remarkable. In so doing he also hopes to combat anti-Semitism. According to him, in contrast to the majority stance, religion is not the problem, but the solution for the current challenges. Even more so, because the secular (non-believing) world cannot provide the solution. Especially because they disconnect religion from politics and regard it as a private matter. Sacks however thinks that religion will have a growing influence in the 21st century. Specifically Judaism would be beneficial for the West, because according to him it is the most civilized religion. Therefore he promotes it, but claims also to reject missionary work. Non-Jews should not try to become Jews, but they can learn from Judaism and respect it.

Consistent with Judaism, in which the emphases is on deeds and not so much on believing, Sacks puts emphasis on taking responsibility for the current crisis. Religious and cultural prejudgments should not be a hindrance. The aim must be to heal the fractured world (the Jewish mysticism of ‘Tikoen Olam’ (restoration of Creation), to make it possible that finally God can live in it. Only being involved with God is not enough. Social justice is also required. Hence, God would trusts man to be able to take that responsibility. Man is totally free. Without fate. According to him men is good and divine and the domination of evil is not a fixed given (Gn 4:7). Due to centuries long Torah observation Jews have now fulfilled the New Covenant announced by the prophets; Torah is ‘written on their hearts’.

His explanation of the Bible is remarkable. Very cunningly he portrays situations and persons from the Bible very positively. He has based this partially on rabbinic, but also on scientific literature. For example, Ishmael and Esau were not casted aside by the patriarchs, but God gave them their own blessed place next to Israel. Traditionally however these two are seen as being cast out by God. When Christianity and Islam would look at their sacred texts in this positive way then religious violence could be prevented.

On some matters Sacks has a very clear stance. For example, he is against individualism, consumerism, too much focus on the end-of-days, sharply distinguishing between good and evil and connecting politics to religion. But he strongly believes in the marriage of a man with a woman.

Comparison with Christian belief
His message has remarkable touch points with Christianity. Most important is his universalism (focus on the whole of humanity). Christianity has that characteristic also. But universalism is in conflict with Judaism, which has its main focus on the Jewish people. This is contradictory and thus confusing. This alternative form of Judaism of Sacks is called ‘modern orthodoxy’, but this is too positive and therefore it needs to distance itself from others. Especially the ones closest; the so-called ‘brother religions’ (Christianity and Islam).

Sacks has a positive social liberal view on man which is well received in north-western European Christianity wherein humanism is a virtue. Based on this view Sacks expects to receive respect for ones religion or culture. Learning from each other and showing respect would solve problems. But this is too naïve and is too distant from day-to-day reality. It offers no answers to radical, violent and irrational world views. But Sack is right to state that religions will have an increased influence on the world and that non-believers will have to adapt to that. However, this will have consequences for social liberalism.

Many Christians have a tendency towards the universalistic all-reconciliation view (all will go regardless into God’s paradise), religion relativism (every religion is pointing towards the Same God) and hope for the brotherhood of the ‘three religions of Abraham’ (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). His emphasis on social activism however is less welcome in Christianity, since that puts more emphasis on individual believes and Heaven. A strong demand for works of faith is often condemned as legalism. Only a minority of socially involved Evangelical Christians will be open for this point that Sacks raises.

Most Christians will be skeptical about his teachings. Judaism is interesting for them, but only few Christians are able to understand it at the core. The Jewish world remains closed for them and they often do not get much further than some facts based on caricatures.
But there are some serious objections against his teachings. For example, he limits his intellectual message to Judaism, Christianity and the ‘Jewish-Christian-humanistic’ culture. In other words, it is only based on similarities. In this way he ignores Islam, while Islam is firmly aimed on setting its mark as a ‘power’ with which had to be reckoned.
Also, while he promotes the separation of Church & State he is in British politics whilst being a rabbi.
But most worrying is his rather inaccurate explanation of the Bible that is often untrue and contrary to the Bible and its ‘spirit’. The same goes for his humanistic middle-position.
However, he might get approval from mainstream Christians, but not from hard-line believers.