‘A People That Dwells Alone’

In his new work, British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers a tough critique of Modern Orthodoxy.

08/17/2010
Special To The Jewish Week
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Asked once to distinguish between his office and that of his Israeli counterparts, British Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jacobovits responded that while he possessed “influence but no power” they possess “power but no influence.”

Jonathan Sacks, Jacobovits’ successor, ably demonstrates his intellectual influence in his new volume — “Future Tense: Jews, Judaism, and Israel in the 21st Century” (Schocken Books)

— synthesizing many of his earlier writings on Jewish continuity, peoplehood, and the importance of religious difference.

At the root of Rabbi Sacks’ thinking lies one provocative if controversial idea: Every summer the Torah reading from the Book of Numbers records how the king of Moab hired the soothsayer Balaam to curse Israel, but the latter, acting under Divine instructions, instead blessed the Jews. Chief Rabbi Sacks departs from the conventional interpretation. For him Balaam’s phrase, “a people that dwells alone,” indeed is a curse that was wrongly internalized into the Jewish mindset so as to equate Jewishness with victimhood and Jewish political theory with isolationism. Balaam’s “blessing” persuaded Jews that as a nation they possessed no real friends.

However questionable Rabbi Sacks’ biblical exegesis, his point regarding the perniciousness of such a mindset is compelling. It distorts Jewish history into a narrative of endless persecution and prevents the Jews as a people from articulating their actual story, which is one of hope rather than despair. It endangers Jewish peoplehood by defining Jews as victims and underscores shared suffering as the primary if not sole bond uniting Jews. It ignores Jewish strengths — namely the capacity of Jewish ideas to enhance humanity generally.

Last, the emphasis upon Holocaust education has become harmful in teaching us the importance of learning how Jews died rather than how they lived.

But is Rabbi Sacks correct in dismissing Jewish isolationism? Does not the return of anti-Semitism in the 21st century once again demonstrate the permanence of Jew hatred? Does not the recent flotilla affair indicate that Israel cannot secure a fair shake in the international arena?

Rabbi Sacks agrees that, unfortunately, there is no shortage of anti-Semitism in the contemporary world. But, he argues, Jews are not the only people who face prejudice and hatred. Moreover, when we become convinced that the world hates us unequivocally, we often refuse to listen to the claims (let alone the pain) of those who oppose us. Most importantly, when our rationale for leading a Jewish life rests upon anti-Semitism, we forget our broader purpose in the world generally.

Rabbi Sacks’ message is specifically directed at Modern Orthodoxy, which in his view increasingly has become politically assertive yet overly particularistic. He bemoans the retreat of Modern Orthodoxy from its bold vision of synthesis and integration between the worlds of Torah and modern culture to a far more particularistic mindset that so fears assimilation that it disengages from the general society.

Rabbi Sacks goes so far as to differ publicly with late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the revered intellectual dean of Modern Orthodoxy. Where Rabbi Soloveitchik argued that only a common fate united Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews in Divine covenant, Rabbi Sacks maintains that only a covenant of faith can sustain Jewish peoplehood and the relationship to Israel to world Jewry. Jewish peoplehood unites fate and faith containing within it elements of both nationalism and religion.

To be sure, Rabbi Sacks never fully demonstrates that a common covenant of faith truly exists in today’s world in which Jewry is so disunited save perhaps in its opposition to Jewish detractors. In this respect, perversely, continued Palestinian rejection of Israel inadvertently maintains the cohesiveness of the Jewish body politic. Nonetheless, Rabbi Sacks’ challenge remains compelling: what within Judaism motivates the Jewish people beyond the fact that Jews have too many enemies?

More specifically, Rabbi Sacks’ book is a plea to the Modern Orthodox to recover their sense of purpose and recapture the dialectic between the universal and the particular. Modern Orthodoxy in the 1960s, in Rabbi Sacks’ view, maintained a true dialogue between yeshiva and university, between sacred and secular. Since that time that dialogue has been forfeited. In retreating from engagement with both the broader Jewish community and the broader general society, Modern Orthodoxy’s eclipse has been a loss for the entire Jewish people.

As chief rabbi of Britain, Sacks often has been criticized for conceding too much ground on Jewish communal issues to his right-wing detractors. On one occasion he even removed an offending passage from one of his books. In this latest book, however, perhaps the capstone of his tenure, Rabbi Sacks boldly sets out to articulate a renewed vision of Modern Orthodoxy. That vision remains indeed compelling if only its practitioners possess the necessary courage and fortitude to pursue it.

Steven Bayme is national director of the William Petschek Contemporary Jewish Life Department at the American Jewish Committee.

Comments

while I agree with Rabbi Sacks intellectually when modern orthodox Jews stray too far from what he calls isolationism we can end up in Noah Feldbaum (I hope I've got his name right) territory. I attended Ramaz, the flagship MO school in the 1960s and 70s where we got the message that we were supposed to survive and thrive in two cultures. No one suggested that there might be difficulties, that practices that most of my day school contemporaries took for granted like Shabbos, Kashrus and dating restrictions might prove awkward in a society in which restrictions of this sort are decidedly uncool. At my 25th reunion, I discovered that a good 70 per cent of my classmates had ditched observance almost completely. Another 10 per cent or so stuck with the MO they'de been raised with and another even smaller group (myself included) entered the so called ghetto by becoming Haredi.While I still agree with much of MO's theory, living MO is like walking on a tightrope, too much for most people. If I had to fall off, I'd rather fall on the right side.
"The broader Jewish community and the broader general society", as the reviewer puts it, have degenerated morally since the 1960's, making the task of engaging with these more difficult and problematical.

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