The Chief Rabbi's Achievement

Future Tense: Jews, Judaism, and Israel in the Twenty-First Century
by Jonathan Sacks
Schocken, 304 pp., $26.95

Koren Sacks Siddur, Hebrew/English Prayerbook
Koren, 1244 pp., $24.95

To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility
by Jonathan Sacks
Schocken, 288 pp., $14

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' Haggadah: Hebrew and English Text with New Essays and Commentary
by Jonathan Sacks
Continuum, 256 pp., $24.95

The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations
by Jonathan Sacks
Continuum, 224 pp., $19.95

One People? Tradition, Modernity, and Jewish Unity
by Jonathan Sacks
Littman Library, 276 pp., $27.95

Tradition in an Untraditional Age: Essays on Modern Jewish Thought
by Jonathan Sacks
Valentine Mitchell & Co., 311 pp., $40

Arguments for the Sake of Heaven: Emerging Trends in Traditional Judaism
by Jonathan Sacks
Rowman & Littlefield, 274 pp., Out of Print

Robert Frost may be right when he says "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," but it isn't the Jewish people. We love walls. The rabbis insisted on a siyyag la-Torah, a fence around the Torah to protect its laws, and we welcome requirements and boundaries. Walls insulate; they shelter; they keep in and keep out. Of course we don't love walls when they no longer serve our purposes. Then we do what we can to render them more flexible, or move them. Despite rabbinic legends to the contrary, walls just don't give. When we try to bend or move them, they tend to break.

This dilemma is at the heart of much of the work of Lord Jonathan Sacks, an Orthodox rabbi who has sought to work both within and beyond the walls that protect his faith. The most gifted expositor of Judaism in our day, Sacks has written more than twenty books that are both deeply learned and very accessible. From his perch as Britain's Chief Rabbi—which he plans to leave in 2013 after 22 years—he has constantly endeavored to breach the walls separating Jews from one another, and Judaism from the larger world. Again and again, Sacks addresses the questions: how elastic can the tradition be? And at what point does ecumenism snap from the counter-pressure of authenticity? His latest work, Future Tense, reminds us of the scope and ambition of Sacks' teaching, but also of its problematic character.

Wolpe - SacksIn Tradition in an Untraditional Age, one of his earliest books, Sacks rejects the "adjectival Jew"—the labels so many in our tradition seem to need. "Adjectives of ideology have no place in the ongoing life of Torah," he writes. But the adjectives (and the walls they betoken) have long served many purposes and it's hard to escape the implications of doing away with them. What Orthodoxy requires is precisely what Conservative and Reform Judaism reject. Unity for the Orthodox can mean nothing more than inclusion: The non-Orthodox are wrong, but still Jewish. Unity for liberal Jews, however, means pluralism, even allowing for significant differences between the Conservative and Reform movements. The Orthodox must affirm the legitimacy of non-Orthodox ideologies as authentically Jewish. But this is precisely what the Orthodox cannot do.

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About the Author

David J. Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, and the author of, most recently, Why Faith Matters (Harper Collins).


noam.zion on November 19, 2013 at 2:19 pm
Excellent review, David.
Rabbi Sacks' critique of the rationalist universalism of Plato in favor of national particularism of Israel echoes what I heard many time from David Hartman zal. Because Judaism does not claim to be universalist or missionary in terms of particularist way of life, it necessarily validates other particularities. It precisely the totalitarian Platonist rationalism of Maimonides that makes him such an anti pluralist. As long as Orthodoxy does not universalize its own way of being Jewish or being religious by identifies its halacha with the truth, it necessarily leaves cognitive and normative space for other embodiments of halacha in other Jewish denominations.But if Judaism is only defined by halacha, then it needs for walls will necessarily be exclusive. It can share universal ethics and monotheism but can it share multiple halachic communities which are the identity boudnaries of its community?

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