At the beginning of November, the Mandel Leadership Institute hosted Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi Emeritus of the United Kingdom and an outstanding thinker on issues of pluralism and religion in multicultural states. Rabbi Sacks frequently meets with political leaders and clerics around the world in order to generate discourse between religions. He sees himself as a philosopher who is nonetheless involved in real life, seeking to acquaint the world’s leaders with Judaism's approach to philosophical and ethical issues.
Dr. Eli Gottlieb, director of the Mandel Leadership Institute, opened the meeting with an introduction to Rabbi Sacks and his work, recounting on a personal note that as a Jewish student of philosophy in England in the early 1990s, Rabbi Sacks’s writings were a source of inspiration to him and many other Jewish students. Dr. Gottlieb remarked that in his commitment to vision-driven leadership, Rabbi Sacks combines thought and practice – a synthesis that lies at the heart of MLI’s activity.
In his lecture, Rabbi Sacks presented his philosophy, based on the principle of “the dignity of difference,” which he expounds upon in his 2002 book of the same name. According to this approach, Judaism is the sole monotheistic religion that does not claim a monopoly on religious belief, engendering a relationship of dialogue with other denominations.
Rabbi Sacks related in his remarks to issues of Jewish continuity in Great Britain and the United States, and to the question of how it can be maintained in the face of growing assimilation. The question that preoccupies him is “why”: Why be a Jew in the 21st century when there are so many other possibilities?
Though the answer is ostensibly simple, and rooted in the Torah and Jewish tradition – “You have chosen us from among all peoples; You have loved us and taken pleasure in us” – the use of the term “Chosen People” is incompatible with contemporary liberal attitudes and may even smack of racism. If so, asks Rabbi Sacks, how can we combine the concept of the chosen people with the modern-day notion of liberal democracy?
In answer, he highlights the profound opposition, entrenched in Judaism, to empires that impose their religion and beliefs on other peoples. In his view, it was no accident that God sent Abraham to a stretch of land that, for geographical reasons, had never produced any empire. The historical role of the Jewish people, as seen by Rabbi Sacks, is to raise the banner of difference, of the uniqueness that characterizes each of the world’s peoples. The answer to why be Jewish is that the Jews have a mission: to defend the right of every people to be different. This is also the only formula that allows the great religions to coexist peacefully.
At the conclusion of the lecture, Rabbi Sacks was asked how he perceives the notion of “the chosen people,” that is, how he reconciles his approach of tolerance – in which the role of the Jewish people is to extol the differences between peoples and the uniqueness of each – with the prevailing attitude in Judaism, whereby the Jewish people is exalted above all others?
Rabbi Sacks related that this issue has concerned him for many years, and that he sees the Jewish people as the living example of “the dignity of difference” – the nation that was given the task of embodying God’s words by surviving as a people despite its tribulations and centuries of exile. According to Rabbi Sacks, this is also the uniqueness of Judaism as compared with Christianity and Islam: in those religions, there is one God, one truth, and one way, whereas the Jewish concept is of one God, but many languages and many paths to His presence.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks at Mandel Leadership Institute 11-11-2013