In Britain, you meet quite a few Jews who refer to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks simply as “the Chief.” True, this is an abbreviation of his formal title: Rabbi Sacks is in fact Lord Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the U.K. and the British Commonwealth. But it’s still a bit odd that people speak about him in the way they would talk about the commander of a police department or the head of an Indian nation.
Yet the title sticks, and I suspect that Jonathan Sacks will remain “the Chief” even after his announced retirement from his position next year. Why? Because since taking office in 1991, Sacks has achieved something no other rabbinic figure of our time has come close to doing: He has made the ideas of the Hebrew Bible and Talmud visible again in the great debates over how nations should govern themselves and the best way for human beings to live. Placing Orthodox Jewish teachings in conversation — and also in competition — with the ideas of leading philosophers, politicians, scientists and priests, Rabbi Sacks has sought to revive Judaism as a living force on the world stage.
Consider, for example, his new book, “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning” (Schocken, 2011). For nearly a decade, public discussion of religion has been dominated by the arguments of scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who have heaped contempt and ridicule on the Bible, painting it as a fount of barbarism, ignorance and darkness. They have even questioned the right of parents to raise their children as Jews or Christians, comparing it to child abuse. Yet while Christians have risen to the debate, Jews have largely ignored it — all of our vaunted “defense” organizations standing mute before the most significant assault on Judaism of our time.
Now, finally, a response: Amid this torrent of abuse of Judaism, Sacks’ new book stands virtually alone as a significant Jewish defense of the legitimacy and reasonableness of a life led in light of Hebrew Scripture and rabbinic tradition. In Sacks’ hands, a biblical life becomes not just one option among many — but the most mature and reasonable option available to mankind. The one that we should all want for ourselves, if only we are sufficiently serious about thinking things through.
This, I think, is why so many have come to see Jonathan Sacks as “the Chief.” The Jews are a people that prides itself on being what Isaiah called a “light unto nations” — a source of truth and understanding for all mankind. But is there anything to all this? Or is it just empty talk? Sacks has shown us that now, in our time, this dream of the prophets can be something real. In this he leads the way as no one else.
I recently published an essay in The Huffington Post in which I proposed that the Hebrew Bible could be read as a work of reason — as a text that strives to contribute to man’s quest for life and the good in this world, no less than the writings of Plato or Hobbes and perhaps more so. This is the argument of my new book, “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture” (Cambridge University Press, 2012), which can be seen in many respects as continuing the work that Chief Rabbi Sacks has begun.
On Oct. 14, I had the extraordinary honor of appearing with Chief Rabbi Sacks before a live audience at the Natural History Museum in London to mark the publication of the U.K. edition of my book. Daniel Johnson, the distinguished editor of Standpoint magazine, moderated the 80-minute conversation between us. The video record of my conversation with the Chief, including answers to questions from the audience, appears below.