Of the brilliance of Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, there has never been any doubt. In his little more than a decade at the helm of British Jewry, he has established himself as one of England’s leading public intellectuals.
In one of his works, Rabbi Sacks quotes approvingly Prince Charles aspiration to be not the Defender of the Faith (i.e., the Anglican Church) but the defender of faiths. And to a large extent, Rabbi Sacks has himself achieved the role of defender of faith in general. At a time when the Anglican Church has declined into mindless political correctness and irrelevance, Rabbi Sacks, like his predecessor Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovitz before him, has emerged as the most articulate and serious religious thinker in England. Given the endemic anti-Semitism of the British chattering classes, that itself is no mean feat.
Despite (and sometimes because of) his high profile media brilliance, Rabbi Sacks has nevertheless become of late something of a lightning rod for criticism. In early September, he confessed in an interview with the Guardian, the most notoriously anti-Israel British newspaper in a very crowded field of competitors, ``that there were things that happen on a daily basis [in Israel] which make me feel profoundly uncomfortable as a Jew." He opined that many of the actions undertaken by the Israeli government are incompatible with the highest ideals of Judaism. The Guardian interview triggered a firestorm of criticism by supporters of Israel both in Britain and around the world, with calls heard by prominent Zionists in both Great Britain and Israel for his resignation.
Yet the furor provoked by the Guardian interview turned out to minor compared to that generated by the Chief Rabbi’s latest book, the Dignity of Difference, which is being serialized in the Guardian and for which the interview was a preface. This past week Rabbi Betzalel Rakow, Rav, Gateshead Hebrew Congregation, and Rabbi J.H. Dunner, Rav, Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, issued a restrained but firm call on Rabbi Sacks to withdraw the book from circulation on the grounds that it ``is irreconcilable with traditional Jewish teachings."
In Dignity of Difference, Rabbi Sacks argues that religion need not be a source of clash between rival civilizations, as it historically has been, but can serve as a source of tolerance and mutual respect in an era when globalization has increasingly thrown widely different cultures together. Unfortunately, in the process of constructing a general theory of religion, Rabbi Sacks blurred many key distinctions between Judaism and other religions in ways that can only mislead Jewish readers, as well as those of other faiths.
In particular, Rabbi Sacks ignored the crucial role of the Revelation at Sinai. Rabbi Yehudah Halevi, in his classic defense of Jewish faith, The Kuzari, emphasizes that Judaism alone of all religions is based on Divine Revelation to an entire people, not to a solitary prophet. Yet Rabbi Sacks ignores this crucial distinction, instead lumping together all religions: ``G-d has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, through Islam to Muslims."
How G-d is alleged to have spoken to Christians and Moslems, Rabbi Sacks does not specify. While these religions might arguably have carried forth the monotheistic ideal brought into the world by Avraham Avinu, that is a far cry from saying that they are the word of G-d, as Rabbi Sacks seems to imply.
The Torah emphasizes that the Revelation at Sinai was a unique event never to be repeated in history. Thus any prophet who attempts to abrogate or alter any part of the Torah reveals himself as a false prophet, no matter what signs and wonders he may amass. What, then, can Rabbi Sacks possibly mean by comparing Judaism to Christianity and Islam as manifestations of G-d’s having spoken to segments of mankind?
The effect of equating Judaism with other religions is to relativize all religions and to deny the Torah’s claim to absolute truth as the revealed Word of G-d. As Rabbi Sacks writes, Truth is only in Heaven, but on earth there are only multiple "truths." No faith, including Judaism, can lay claim to absolute truth or to fully comprehending G-d, according to Rabbi Sacks.
It was this last point that Rabbis Rakow and Dunner seized upon in their demand for the withdrawal of Dignity of Difference "Any implication that Judaism does not contain absolute truth represents as grave deviation from the pathways of traditional and authentic Judaism," they wrote.
The damage caused by the blurring of distinctions between Torah Judaism and all other religions is inestimable and explains the fierce response to the book. More than one British rabbi must have asked himself what he will say to a young congregant who announces his or her intention to intermarry and brandishing a copy of Dignity of Difference argues that a marriage between adherents of different religions, each reflecting the truth, but only part of the truth, will only result in access to a greater portion of truth.
The sad thing is how unnecessary all this was. Like all Sacks works, Dignity of Difference, is filled with elegant formulations and much wisdom. Had Rabbi Sacks been less intent on constructing a general theory of religion – in becoming the defender of faiths rather than a teacher of his own particular faith – he could have avoided the controversy that now threatens his public career.
More modestly, he could have offered Torah Judaism as a model of how religion need not lead to wars to extend the faith to the heathens, defined as anyone who does not share that faith. Judaism does not envision the entire world becoming Jewish, even with the coming of Mashiach. Nor does it deny a place in the World to Come to adherents of other religions who observe the seven Noachide Laws. Judaism has never been a proselytizing religion, and Jews have never believed that the truth of their faith would be proven by the amount of territory captured or the number of those who adopt their faith, at the point of the sword or otherwise.
The final irony is that by failing to write from a particularistic Jewish perspective, but rather as a spokesman for religion in general, that Rabbi Sacks may have exacerbated inter-religious tensions rather than alleviated them. In response to his critics, he has explained that Dignity of Difference was written for a gentile audience. The implication is that the book’s distortions of the most basic Jewish principles are justified by the intended gentile audience. It remains to be seen how gentiles will react to the implication that it is permissible to lie to gentiles about the true views of Judaism.