Most clergy can be expected to help heal rifts within their own congregations, perhaps even their own denominations. Rarely is a minister called upon to transcend the boundaries of his own faith to help a totally different religion's leaders find common ground.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, 66, found himself in exactly that position six years ago when the worldwide Anglican Church was fracturing over the ordination of a gay bishop in the United States.
Rabbi Sacks addressed an assembly of hundreds of Anglican bishops in a speech credited with helping mend divisions in the church. Then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said Rabbi Sacks' words were "undoubtedly one of the most significant addresses" of that session.
Indeed, Rabbi Sacks has forged alliances with clergy of many faiths in Britain, including Hindu and Muslim leaders, cooperation seen as especially valuable after the July 7, 2005, terrorist bombings in central London.
"If you're going to fight for the liberty of one religion, you have to fight for the liberty of all. You can't be a sectional advocate," Rabbi Sacks said in a telephone interview from London. "You have to be willing to stand alongside other faiths (even) when your own liberties are under attack."
His interfaith work and his passion for religious freedom were recognized Thursday by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty with its 2014 Canterbury Medal, an annual prize recognizing "an individual who has 'most resolutely refused to render to Caesar that which is God’s,’ ” the group said.
Becket Fund President William Mumma said in a statement that the emeritus chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth "has been a clear and compelling voice for religious liberty. Supporters of religious liberty from all faiths and from all parts of the globe are grateful for his leadership."
Helps calm waters
Rabbi Sacks may have seemed an unlikely person to help calm Anglicanism's troubled waters. But it turned out that, in the summer of 2008, he was just the man for the task.
The global Anglican Church — known in Britain as the Church of England, with its U.S. branch being the Episcopal Church — was divided over the American group's 2003 ordination of the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, a homosexual then living with another man, as bishop.
The contentious debate over the ordination reached its zenith that year at the Lambeth Conference, the decennial assembly of 650 Anglican bishops from 185 countries representing 85 million members.
But in the middle of this near-chaos, Rabbi Sacks was called to the gathering to speak about covenant, and how that concept was applied in Judaism, words that resonated with the Lambeth congregation.
"(A) covenant is a way of holding together two or many millions of individuals who may be very different indeed, but who come together to achieve together that which they could not achieve alone," Rabbi Sacks explained. "And (a) covenant respects the difference, and integrity of that difference, of the different parties to that covenant. So I think that perspective from an outsider helped people."
Archbishop Williams, in an email, said the talk "did a great deal to give a common language to a very diverse group of Christian leaders."
Rabbi Sacks was born in London in March 1948, two months before pioneering Zionist leader David Ben Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the state of Israel. He studied philosophy at Cambridge's Gonville & Caius College, continuing at New College, Oxford and King's College London. In 1981, the year of his doctorate from King's College, Rabbi Sacks was ordained from Jew's College and the Etz Chaim Yeshiva in London. The rabbi has been married to his wife, Elaine, since 1970, and they have three grown children and seven grandchildren.
After leading London's Golders Green synagogue for four years, Rabbi Sacks led the congregation at the Marble Arch synagogue, as well as serving as principal of what is now the London School of Jewish Studies, the former Jew's College from which he received his ordination. Sacks began his 22-year tenure as chief rabbi in 1991, retiring last September.
Rabbi Sacks was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2005 and recommended for a non-hereditary life peerage, taking his seat in the House of Lords in October 2009 as Baron Sacks of Aldgate in the city of London.
As chief rabbi, his communications outreach — publishing one book per year and appearing in numerous media outlets — grew his national and global reputations. In Britain, he was regarded as a thought leader who elevated the Jewish community's standing, Archbishop Williams said.
Prince Charles, heir to the throne, agrees. At a dinner noting the end of Rabbi Sacks' tenure as chief rabbi, the Prince of Wales lauded the honors given the clergyman as "a testament to your role as a brilliant ambassador for Jewish values and ethics the scope and depth of a life devoted not only to putting the British Jewish community on the world stage, but to keeping alive the essential importance of faith in an increasingly God-less age."
Looking back on his chief rabbinate, Rabbi Sacks said Britain's "Jewish community is stronger than it's ever been," noting there are "more children in Jewish day schools than ever (before). According to a survey published just a few months ago, in the Jewish community, on every index of religiosity, the younger you are, the more religious you are, and that's across the community."
Rabbi Sacks credited this, in part, to the relatively small size of Britain's Jewish population, approximately 263,000 people, just 1/20th of America's 5.3 million Jews.
And while Jews were at one time the most conspicuous non-Christian minority in Britain, Rabbi Sacks said, "there are now 40 to 60 different ethnic groups represented in any given public (state-run) school in the country. Therefore, it's important for leaders to band together and defend religious freedom across the board."
European issues remain
Those interfaith sentiments, and a defense of everyone's religious freedom, stood the nation in good stead, Rabbi Sacks noted.
After the July 7, 2005, terrorist bombings in central London, the government had "a fear of major conflagrations," he said, "but there were none of any kind." Thanks to the interfaith work he'd engaged in with other faith leaders, he said, "all sorts of moments that could have been dangerous were defused."
Yet issues remain in Europe, the rabbi allowed, citing recent controversies in the Netherlands and Denmark over religiously approved methods of slaughtering meat and circumcision. (The Anti-Defamation League, in a survey released May 13, found 74 million people in Europe expressing anti-Semitic beliefs.)
One key is for Europe's thinkers — its professors, philosophers and authors — to deal with the causes of anti-Jewish thinking and, in the 1930s and 1940s, anti-Jewish genocide. Rabbi Sacks suggested that, somehow, the enlightenment's advances veered sharply off course.
"We're touching on some very profound, deep issues here," he said. "Precisely that post-enlightenment Europe gave rise to the worst form of anti-Semitism the world has ever known. Its epicenters were not in little villages in Poland, but in Paris, Vienna, and Berlin."
The rabbi said today's enlightenment-influenced scholars have not "wrestled" with the question of how "all of its leading thinkers, from (French Enlightenment writer) Voltaire to (philosopher and Nazi Party member) Martin Heidegger," expressed anti-Semitism, unlike "the Catholic Church (which) has really wrestled with its past."
The cleric praised the United States for its fundamental focus on religious freedom for its citizens: "Americans more than anyone else on earth understood that religious liberty was a religious achievement as well as a political one," he noted. "America is the only country on earth founded by people in search of religious liberty."Comment on this story
Asked what message he'd give Americans about religious liberty, Rabbi Sacks initially demurred: "America told the world about religious freedom," he replied. But on reflection, he said the American experiment not only has a lesson for other nations, but also a warning for its own citizens.
Rabbi Sacks said Thomas Jefferson's statement in the Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights" didn't arise "from Plato and Aristotle. Whether he was theist or a deist, Jefferson could not have made that sentence without the entire history of the Judeo-Christian tradition."
However, he added, "If religious freedom in America is threatened, America will be severing the roots of its very own tree of liberty."
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