Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (center) marches side-by-side with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams (right), demanding action to halve poverty worldwide by 2015. (photo: Cate Gillon/Getty Images)
I interviewed Rabbi Jonathan Sacks twice in our recent days at Emory, and these separate encounters offered an interesting glimpse of the range of this man. If you heard our show with him on stage discussing happiness with the Dalai Lama, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Shori, and Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr, you experienced an exuberant storyteller who captivated a room of 4000. But I first met him for a one-on-one conversation two days earlier, on a Friday afternoon as Sabbath approached. That day, as in the happiness discussion, he offered my favorite new definition of Sabbath — a time to focus on “the things that are important but not urgent.” And he was in an altogether quieter, reflective mode. This is the man you’ll encounter in this show.
I’ve been wanting to interview Jonathan Sacks for several years, intrigued by what I’ve read of him and, in particular, by the evocative and helpful phrase he’s developed: “the dignity of difference.” This suggests a kind of sacred alternative and addendum to the language of “tolerance,” the limits of which I discussed with Evangelical leader Richard Mouw several weeks ago. Jonathan Sacks is in a unique position to ponder faithful, theological approaches to life in a multi-religious, globalized world. The Office of Chief Rabbi was a creation of Victorian-era Britain, a kind of imperial Jewish corollary to the Archbishop of Canterbury. He is himself an Orthodox Jew, and holds formal religious authority in that community alone. But as chief rabbi, he is the public voice of British Judaism.
And as a deep thinker and wise voice, Jonathan Sacks has carved out his own kind of moral authority in the modern United Kingdom — a relatively secular culture in what remains an officially Christian state. He is asked to advise government ministers and the royal family. He reflects on issues of the day in media and public venues. He is a masterful writer.
I focused in, for this conversation, on his understanding of “difference” in Jewish and religious perspective. For what could be more urgent? Behind our great contemporary political, ecological, and social challenges, we struggle to find new ways to see and live with the “other” — and to understand the well-being of the other as linked to our own. Science itself is revealing that this kind of awareness can make a profound biological and behavioral difference — leading us towards forgiveness over revenge, peace over war. And Jonathan Sacks is one of the most articulate champions I’ve found for intentionally tapping the vast resources of wisdom on “the other” that his tradition has carried forward across time and through no small amount of tragedy.
Some of Jonathan Sacks’ convictions might sound counterintuitive culturally and religiously. The unity of God is itself the source of diversity, he notes, pointing from the Bible to the natural world. And moral imagination in a pluralistic world is about finding more substantive and thoughtful ways to bring the fruits of our particularities to bear. “By being what only I can be,” he says, “I give humanity what only I can give.”
At the depth of our traditions, Jonathan Sacks says to the faithful, we are called to see a God who is bigger than us, who will surprise us, who will show himself in places we never expect God to be: in the face of the stranger, and in the practice of a radically different faith. Jonathan Sacks embodies the mix of humility and boldness, of a passion for both mystery and truth — something I’ve experienced in the wisest individuals I’ve interviewed across the years. Listen, or watch (!), and enjoy.