Leading from the Front: Sir Jonathan Sacks Talks to Ziauddin Sardar about the Holocaust, Al-Qaeda, the Future of Palestine-And Why He Has Not Changed His Views on Monotheism

By Sardar, Ziauddin | New Statesman (1996), April 10, 2006 | Go to article overview

Leading from the Front: Sir Jonathan Sacks Talks to Ziauddin Sardar about the Holocaust, Al-Qaeda, the Future of Palestine-And Why He Has Not Changed His Views on Monotheism


Sardar, Ziauddin, New Statesman (1996)


Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, has just returned from delivering his Thought for the Day on Radio 4. "When in history did a rabbi have to deliver a message to an audience which was 99.9 per cent not Jewish?" he jokes. Preaching to people who are not fellow believers--indeed, not believers at all--is a challenge. It's about "empowering moderation", he says.

Dr Sacks, who describes himself as "an anti-establishment figure in an establishment position", knows all about moderation. He is not just a noted theologian but also a philosopher: he came to prominence with his 1990 Reith Lectures, a polished look at the persistence of faith. Since then, there has been a steady flow of philosophical works, from The Politics of Hope (1997) to the controversial The Dignity of Difference (2002). But surely theology and philosophy, like oil and water, do not mix. "Think of me as a lapsed heretic, if it helps, " he says, chuckling. "Today you need voices within the great faiths that are both with-in and without"; without that, he says, "very bad things happen".

Yet why should anyone need faith in a secular age in the first place? Dr Sacks dismisses the idea that we are living in secular times. On the contrary, "we are undergoing the de-secularisation of the world". Secular nationalism died in Europe after the Second World War, and "it is dying throughout much of the Arab world at the moment". The power of "reason without presuppositions" has evaporated. Even our belief in science is in crisis. Far from curing all evils of the world, it has become "the source of a whole new load of evils". The notion of the greatest good for the greatest number has been reduced to a "personal-choice ethic which says, 'let everyone do what they like so long as they are willing to pay the price'". None of those systems actually delivers meaning. "They don't even deliver happiness or safety, for that matter." So religion is the only place you can find meaning.

But the perpetual search for meaning need not end with enlightened religion. "Religion does not do power very well, " he says. "The Bible is terribly sceptical of political power." Hence there is always a danger of "politicised religion". Just look what happened in former Yugoslavia; look at what is happening in Iraq now.

Can religious authority ever be responsible or accountable? "That's a tough one, whichever way you look it." There are two kinds of religious authority. There's the top-down ideology, as in the Catholic Church, and the bottom-up model that Judaism and Islam are a part of. Both have inherent dangers. "If it is a top-down system you worry about dictators and hate-mongers, and if it is bottom-up you worry about waves of mass emotion. The only safe path is to make religion in some sense accountable to reality."

Reality--or rather, the "reality principle"--figures large in Dr Sacks's thought. The religious personality, he suggests, has become rather schizophrenic. "There are more young Jews in religious seminaries today than at any other time in history. There are also more young Jews in university today than ever before in history. And the contact between them is less than ever before in history. I compare this to a cerebral lesion, a rare form of brain damage where the left and right spheres of the brain are intact but the connection between them is broken. Then you get a dysfunction in the personality."

It is the reality principle that connects the two sides. It stands outside faith and breaks through totalising systems and persecution complexes. Religion as a total system is invulnerable to the outside. "You can get a Jim Jones, or a David Koresh. Somehow you have to make religion accountable to democracy, to health, to education, and somehow you have to make it accountable to modernity."

It was exposure to the reality of modernity that changed Judaism. However, the process of exposure does not happen all at once.

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