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A Frog's-eye view

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Friday, August 30, 2002
Today's Jerusalem Post is filled with angry responses to British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sach's comments about the corrupting nature of Israel's war against the Palestinians, a summary of which is available at The Patroniser's website.

I agree entirely with Tal G. who tells us: "Jacky Levy on Army Radio's "Last Word" said cynically that he's sure that in a few hours some spokesman will announce that Rabbi Saks' words were taken out of context. Reading the Guardian's summary of the interview it's easy to imagine how they might have done that." Little that the Chief Rabbi said could be construed as terribly contentious, were it addressed to the right audience, namely, an audience that is genuinely concerned about the nature of Israeli society and of Jewish values. However, Sachs addressed these comments to perhaps the most anti-Israel newspaper in Britain, a newspaper that just happens to be publishing his book, "The Dignity of Difference".

The best piece of writing that I have seen on Sach's comments - and I cannot claim to have carried out a wide survey - comes from Douglas Davis, a London correspondent to the Jerusalem Post. The fact that Davis comes from London and understands well the slighter nuances of British society as a whole and Anglo-Jewry in particular makes this article especially worthwhile. Although Davis's article concludes "that the chief rabbinate has become little more than a platform of self-promotion and a stepping stone to greater glory - whatever and wherever that may be" , I feel that Davis has been a little too sparing in his criticisms of Sachs. He describes Sachs as a "muscular intellectual, one of the most brilliant men of his generation, with a breadth of knowledge and a clarity of vision that are harnessed to an eloquent tongue".

An eloquet tongue, certainly, and it was this tongue that charmed the powers that be into getting him the Chief Rabbinate in the first place. He was seen as the Great White Hope who could save Modern Orthodoxy from decline both the perils of Reform and the intransigence of the Ultra Orthodox. But it wasn't too long before Sachs was knifing his constituency in the back, sending nasty little messages about the Reform to Haredi Rabbis. Moreover, I am not convinced that he is one of the most brilliant men of his generation. A characteristic story may suffice. When asked some years back by British TV presenter and journalist Melvin Bragg whether he literally believed in Revelation at Sinai, Sachs replied that he didn't really know what happened at Sinai, and that he thinks that he would not really understand it even had he been present. However, at that time all sorts of new ideas came into the world. Perhaps it had something to do with the invention of writing. (I am citing all this from memory of course.) One doesn't have to be the most brilliant men of the generation to know that writing goes back at least a couple of thousand years before the supposed date of the Exodus.

If Sachs is expert at anything, it is at avoiding difficult theological issues (such as "What is the meaning of covenant if one doesn't believe in divine revelation?", a question that he almost addresses in many of his works but manages to just miss each time). I shall be honest: I have found little in Sach's writings that is worth reading. The historical background of the rise of Modern Orthodoxy seems to be based very heavily on the work the late Jacob Katz, a scholar of statue whose ideas, while not universally accepted, were always worth reading. To the best of my knowledge, he has written nothing of a truly scholarly nature on Judaism, and by all reports cannot hold his own with serious Talmudists. In fact, Sachs has given his time and energies as Chief Rabbi away from the Ango-Jewish community and towards upper circles of British society. He is, essentially, the apostle to the gentiles, of little relevance to the Jewish community itself.

The accusation that Sachs has no time for the Jewish community is primarily interested in himself is reflected in Davis's article, but more poignantly in a letter to the Jerusalem Post from Yona Baumel. The letter is mostly self-explanatory:

Sir - I remember visiting Jonathan Sacks several years ago on behalf of the IDF [Israeli Defense Force] soldiers missing in action. At the time the MIAs included not only my son Zecharia but Manchester-born Yossi Fink. During the five minutes the chief rabbi was able to spare us he looked at his watch continuously, despite the fact that the meeting had been pre-scheduled by the Jewish Board of Deputies. He did nothing for the MIAs. A better title for Sach's new book would be The Indignity of Indifference.

Sachs chose to make his comments in the British newspaper that is the least sympathetic to Israel, a fact that is well known to him. In doing so, he was essentially saying, "I'm not like them; I'm one of the good Jews", even though he must have known that making such a statement in such an arena would be very damaging to Israel in the propaganda war, a war that is as real as the fighting that is costing so many lives.

While considering Sach's prudence in opening his mouth, I recalled the lines of Henry V:

In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility.
But when the blast of war blows in our ears
Then imitate the actions of a tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard favoured rage.

However, on reflection, these verses seemed totally inappropriate. It may be the time to "diguise fair nature with hard favoured rage", but I hardly think that "modest stillness and humility" can be applied to the current Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth. Moreover, the real blast of war blows not in his ears; it blows in mine.

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