Jonathan Sacks, he’s coming to America

Jonathan Sacks, you’ve just completed 22 years as the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, authored more than a dozen books, and become a respected voice in national affairs. What are you going to do next?

No, he’s not going to Disney World. He’s coming to New York.

This week it was announced that Sacks has been appointed to a dual professorship at New York University and Yeshiva University. Beginning in late January, Sacks will spend several months in New York in each of the next few years, teaching at both schools and continuing his longstanding efforts to bring Jewish wisdom to bear on issues of international importance.

“It is the most exciting in the world,” Sacks said of New York. “But it is the most exciting Jewish city in the world as well.”

Ever politically astute, Sacks quickly qualified that Israel was and will remain the heart of the Jewish people.

After some early missteps in his tenure as chief rabbi, Sacks has developed an enviable ability to thread narrow ideological needles, a necessity for an Orthodox rabbi dependent on not provoking his conservative flank even as he aspires to speak a wider secular audience. He has (mostly) artfully dodged thorny questions that have plagued Orthodoxy in recent years, including the role of women in religious leadership and interfaith and interdenominational dialogue.

Now out of office, it appears Sacks is loosening the reins. At his retirement dinner this summer, he decried a Judaism that “segregates itself from the world and from its fellow Jews,” a comment that the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel perceived, probably correctly, as an attack on its constituents. Asked this week about Limmud, the wildly successful Jewish learning conference that he skipped throughout his tenure as chief rabbi, Sacks had only good things to say, calling it “one of the greatest Jewish experiments in the last quarter century.”

“When you’re no longer captain of the team, you are much more able to express yourself as an individual,” Sacks told JTA. “I didn’t feel I was imprisoned. I just felt that sometimes I wanted to go a little faster than the community was prepared to go.”

Soon to be ensconced in Greenwich Village with his wife Elaine, Sacks will presumably be even more unencumbered. Sacks told JTA he plans to do “a lot of wandering Jew kind of stuff” and will spend his Shabbats “with as many different communities as we can.” As for the denominational skirmishes much in the news of late, Sacks says they’re a sideshow.

“This is a complete distraction,” Sacks said. “Little border disputes between the denominations might capture the headlines, but I don’t think they capture the real issues.”

The real issues, Sacks continued, are described in the recently released Pew study that has caused so much angst among American Jewish leaders. As a self-described “outsider,” Sacks declined to offer any prescriptions, but he did note that the “educational and cultural renaissance in Anglo Jewry” has been brought about by surging enrollment in day schools, with the tab picked up largely by the government. Some 70 percent of Jewish children are now enrolled in publicly funded day schools in Britain, Sacks reported, and the British Jewish community is now growing for the first time in history without relying on immigration.

Sacks promised he would have more to say on the subject in two years, after he has acclimatized to American Jewish culture. In the meantime, he will continue to bring the wealth of Jewish tradition to bear on pressing American issues — specifically the moral pitfalls of a market economy, among them reduced social mobility and skyrocketing income inequality. The United States may, he said, offer more fertile ground for a public Jewish voice than England.

“It’s very, very paradoxical,” Sacks said. “England has an established church, but no prime minister can ever talk about God. Whereas in America, presidents constantly talk about God, but you have separation of church and state. America is a much more religious culture.”

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