Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Vatican Radio

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks was on Vatican Radio this week after his meeting with the Pope. Sacks is quite chipper about the future of British Jewry, the wonderful relations between Orthodox and liberal Jews in Britain, and the prospects for a two-state Middle East peace. In this interview, when asked if his interfaith views are Orthodox – he grounds his interfaith pluralism in the righteous non-Jews of the Bible (a shift from his book). His new point in this interview is that Jews have to love and forgive others, including the Catholic church. And that we are to treat them with the assumption that they love us. Nevertheless, I am disappointed that when the pope stated “his belief in our shared belief in the God of Abraham, our shared commitment to the Ten Commandments,” that Sacks did not say that we follow Torat Moshe and not the Pauline “faith of Abraham” and Jews don’t separate the ten commandments from the rest of Torah. It seems, he acquiesced to the religious language of the Catholics.

Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth, met with Pope Benedict on Monday to discuss interfaith relations and their common concern for the decline of spiritual values within European culture.

I’d like to ask you about your conversation with the Pope this morning – this was your 2nd meeting after you welcomed him to the interfaith meeting in Twickenham last September?

I had been asked to welcome him on behalf of the non-Christian faiths in Britain and it was actually a very moving encounter, I think we felt that something had happened at the moment and it was, you know, a sharing of faith across the boundaries and it was very moving. The Pope at the time told me he wanted to deepen that relationship so I felt this visit was a way of moving that a step further.

In the Jewish community we do not feel marginalized, we find more and more people coming to synagogue, more and more parents wanting to send their children to Jewish schools and the impression is growing that there is something lacking in the wider secular culture when all that matters is “what I am, what I spend, what I buy, what I earn” instead of “what I am” and I think parents are beginning to say we “don’t want that for our children, we want our children to learn about a much older and more spacious heritage”.

Were you able to discuss the current state of Jewish-Christian relations with the Pope today?

Well the Pope himself raised it and continually wanted to know how was that state of relationship in Britain, where in fact of course it’s as good as you’ll find anywhere in the world. He also wanted to know, just to reaffirm, his belief in our shared belief in the god of Abraham, our shared commitment to the Ten Commandments and our shared belief that society must have a spiritual dimension.

You’ve written a lot about interfaith relations, notably in your book ‘The Dignity of Difference’, yet in trying to reach out to other faiths you’ve been accused of heresy against traditional Orthodox teachings – what do you say to your accusers about the truth to be found in other religions?

Well, what is absolutely clear from the Bible is that you have some very godly individuals who are not part of the Abrahamic covenant. Famously you have Melchizedek, the contemporary of Abraham who is called by the Bible “the priest of the most high God”, you have Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, a Midianite priest, and, my favorite of all, which is Pharaoh’s daughter who, at great risk to herself, saves the young Moses. Without a Pharaoh’s daughter there wouldn’t be a Moses, so the Bible is not partisan at all in the way it sees righteousness and godliness. It sees it in all sorts of places.

Jewish attitudes towards the Catholic Church also seem to be divided with some applauding Benedict and John Paul before him for implementing the spirit of Nostra Aetate – others still seem to see the Church only in terms of the possible beatification of Pius XII and a perceived failure to apologise for not speaking out enough against the Holocaust?

My view is axiomatic and fundamental. The God of love and forgiveness created humanity in love and forgiveness, and asks of us to love and forgive others. And that is the attitude I bring to Jewish-Christian relations. And I hope it’s the attitude Christians bring to that same relationship. We recognize the extraordinary about-turn that occurred in the Catholic Church at really the inspiration and depth of compassion of Pope John XXIII, which set in motion the process that culminated in Vatican II, the result of which is that Jews and Catholics, having been estranged for many centuries, now meet again today as cherished and respected friends. You would find it hard to find a transition like that in the whole of European history. So I see the hope vastly outweighing the anxieties, and the good news vastly exceeding the bad.

Divisions between Liberal and Orthodox, reformists and traditionalists, in Judaism as well as within the Christian Churches, sometimes seem as damaging as the tensions between the different faiths – do you see an increasing polarisation within the Jewish world?

No, in Britain we have actually solved the problem, and we had to solve the problem because we cannot make peace with the world if we cannot make peace among ourselves. And when relationships got a little tense, some fifteen years ago, I sat down and said to myself “we have to develop fundamental principals of a relationship that has integrity.” In the end I formulated two principals – and they work. Number one: on all matters that affect us as Jews, regardless of our religious denomination we will work together regardless of our religious denomination. On all matters that touch on our differences, we will agree to differ, but with respect. The result of which is that orthodox and non-orthodox Jews in Britain are closer together today than they were at any other time, Of course, a famous Jew, Abba Eban, once said “we’re the people who can’t take yes for an answer”. So there are some people who have not quite caught up with reality, but the fact is that for the first time in history, I, as an orthodox chief rabbi, sit together with reform and liberal rabbis as joint presidents of the Council of Christians and Jews, and on inter-faith matters, as in all matters that touch on our common fate, we work together.

How much do you see the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the heart of these other problems in the Middle East and even behind the rise in anti-Semitism?

I refuse to accept that for one simple reason, and I tell this to my Muslim friends and I tell this to my friends of all faiths: we must be sending a message of coexistence from Europe to the Middle East. We must not allow ourselves to import a message of conflict from the Middle East to Europe. If the already difficult situation between Israelis and Palestinians is difficult enough in itself, that the whole of Europe should be made a proxy battle field for that conflict will not bring peace but on the contrary will devastate the outstandingly good relations that exist between the faiths in Europe.

The political process seems to be in stalemate there – do you see any signs of hope for an end to the conflict?

There is still a genuine majority on both sides in favor of a two state solution. And although the political process may have reached a momentary stalemate, as it seems to have done, nonetheless the underlying attitudes on both sides embolden my hope to believe that a peaceful settlement is possible and will be reached.

You’ve said you’ll be stepping down from your job in 2013 – what do your see as your most significant success over the years, what would you most like to be remembered for?

We tried to do three things and I think we succeeded. First, I made a pledge that we would increase the level and depth of Jewish education. And we have seen in twenty years the percentage of Jewish children at Jewish day-schools go-up from around 25-30% to nearly 70%. So we’ve built more Jewish day-schools in the last twenty years than at any previous time in our over 350 year history.

And finally, I took it on myself, as far as I could by just doing it, to allow the Jewish voice to be heard in the public square. I believe that Jews should not simply keep to themselves, we should seek to be a voice in the conversation of humankind, in fact I define Judaism as the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind. The British public has been quite extraordinarily warm in welcoming that sharing of Jewish wisdom and I believe we are all enriched when the great faiths share their wisdom with those of any faiths and those of none.
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