The Conspiracy

UK Chief Rabbi Wrong on Secularism — The Godblogger

British Religious leaders of every stripe have weighed in on the devastation caused by London rioting. Some, like Rabbi Anna Gerrard of the United Kingdom’s Liberal Jewish movement, took a moment to offer words of comfort. Others, like the Church of England, provided liturgical supplements praying for a stop to the violence.

In the case of Sir Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi to most of the UK’s Orthodox Jewish population, it was an opportunity to remind everyone that perhaps this could all have been avoided. It is time, Sacks proclaimed in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, to realign with our world’s faith traditions and let them show us the way to civility. Because, after all, religion and violence are as far apart as the east is from the west.

Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks (by On Being @ Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0))

Sacks writes, “In virtually every Western society in the 1960s there was a moral revolution, an abandonment of its entire traditional ethic of self-restraint. All you need, sang the Beatles, is love. The Judeo-Christian moral code was jettisoned. In its place came: whatever works for you.” Following this logic, Sacks touches on everything from single parent households to the reimagining of the Ten Commandments as the “Ten Creative Suggestions.” The problem, he concludes, is that we as a people need the ethics and community provided by our great religious institutions.

What’s so distinctly amusing about Sacks’ argument is that it comes on the heels of news about violent Orthodox protests in Israel. Given the tensions between the various faith communities worldwide, and the violence that springs from them, it would be just as easy to argue against religious belief. Even Sacks’ argument that traditional religion has pragmatic usefulness is a modern one.

For centuries, belief in Torah or Quran or the New Testament wasn’t about being pro-social or useful to a wider community—it was about tribalism and obedience. It hinged on the belief that observance was an end in itself. That traditional faith leaders must appeal to a wider social context is evidence aplenty that modernity has also colored them as much as it has seculars. To dismiss the complexity of subsequent modern periods—like the 60s—with off-handed references to free love and the Beatles is laziness.

Modern violence won’t be quelled by forgetting the last 75 years ever happened. And given Sacks’ own struggle to reconcile tensions between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox segments of the U.K. Jewish community, pretending that those of us who are religiously observant are more amiable than our counterparts is a condescending fantasy.

People are people, and religion is a medium for expressing the human experience. That the last century has seen both an influx of fundamentalism and a widening disillusionment with religious practice is a testament to the complex issues at the heart of being a religious person in the modern age. Sacks ignores the issues and parlays them into a weak lecture about how this all could be prevented with a little more religion. Swing and a miss.

John Wofford is a junior at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the current editor of an upcoming interfaith arts hub, a Neo-Hasidic nerd and music journalist of five years. His column, The Godblogger, appears here on alternating Thursdays.

10 Older Responses to “UK Chief Rabbi Wrong on Secularism — The Godblogger”

  1. Geoffrey
    August 25, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

    First, I don’t know if King Arthur would appreciate a Jew at his round table. Sir Jonathan Sacks might be one of few. Although Sir Gawain was a Green Knight. Does that mean his name was Greenberg or that he recycled?

    John, I think you’re right about what Sacks is saying. I think he may not be well associated with less religious people. However he may have a point about what the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition teaches people. While it does teach tribalism and obedience, it also teaches us how to be responsible members of ‘a’ society. Perhaps this is what he was attempting to articulate. Suggesting that adherence at all to any religious structure could have prevented the riots but at the same time could easily have promoted them. Did these people feel as if an injustice had been done to them? The Torah teaches us to correct what is unjust. Sacks doesn’t seem to think so. However he takes a Beatles reference and thinks he’s so cool. When really he’s being a crumudgen.

  2. David Zarmi
    August 25, 2011 at 4:26 pm #

    Sacks was not saying that religion is a panacea to violence (and I am amused that the only example of recent religious violence you could conjure up was some Orthodox protestors I hadn’t heard about it given the recent religiously based attacks on Israelis near the Egyptian/Gazan border – okay, maybe amused is the wrong word…). What Sacks was saying was that it was the antidote, or the prevention, to the particular type of violence in England. And of course he could not say it (or did not have the courage), but he meant Christianity. And he did not really mean religion per se, but the traditions that come with it. It does not really matter why you feel compelled to behave and function within society, whether it’s because you really, really believe G-d wants it or because you’re compelled by a feeling of tradition and duty, but the public religion is a means of embarrassing people into keeping within the norms of society, whether or not they as individuals are true believers. And England has lost that (we might soon follow). And it is a great loss. The rioters were secular nihilists, even if they did not have the education, honesty, and/or intellect to call it that. That is what was dangerous about undermining public religious and traditional institutions and is the direct cause of that particular type of violence in that particular country. It might be analogous elsewhere, such as here, but attack the analogy when it’s made and confront Sacks’s statement on its own turf.

  3. John
    August 25, 2011 at 4:51 pm #


    There’s a joke somewhere in there about King Arthur’s treasurer, but I’ll leave it alone. 🙂

    I’m certainly not suggesting that the Torah, Quran, and New Testament don’t contain pro-social content, only that their operative focus is not one of “Serve god because it benefits societies.” If this is a factor in their rhetoric, it is a mere side-effect, a bullet point in a wider argument for obedience as an end in itself. These days, it has become common to use religion’s possible social goods as a primary reason to be religious. And while there’s nothing wrong with this line of thinking outright, it demonstrates a biproduct of becoming a global society. These days it isn’t enough to be righteous in one’s beliefs. One must also demonstrate that these beliefs are beneficial, or at least, not harmful. (For the record, I’m not saying I agree or disagree with this mode of thought. I’m only pointing out how prevalent it is.)

    It’s one of the reasons the Charedim, Islamic fundamentalists, and Christian evangelicals are often such punch lines in the mainstream: they have never demonstrated their belief system to be anything more than self-perpetuating. Sure, Ultra-Orthodoxy grows (and wanes with equal intensity over decades). It also fails to engage its surrounding environments, which is paramount to survival without becoming a group like the Amish. (Jewish history, for what its worth, has often seen fundamentalist Jewish groups attempting to remain isolated, always failing. Usually, this is because the Jews that constitute these groups leave of their own volition.) That Sacks would reduce these complexities with a wave of the hand is a bit silly on his part, considering the effect they’ve had on Judaism in particular. My point is I’d expect something like this from an Archbishop (maybe not Rowan Williams, but someone else). I wouldn’t expect it from a modern rabbi, even an Orthodox one like Sacks, who has already said some pretty dumb things in the past. The suspension of disbelief required to engage “Religion makes me gentler” is too great.

  4. John
    August 25, 2011 at 5:59 pm #


    I mentioned the Orthodox violence because the argument came from an Orthodox rabbi. I felt the parallel was pertinent. Any act of violence in the name of religion is relevant, and I mentioned in the article that there were tensions across the religious spectrum. Perhaps you missed that bit. Also, for an Orthodox rabbi to define Christianity as the societal antidote to violence does not compute; I don’t think he avoided saying it because he “did not have the courage” (as you propose). I think he didn’t say that because he doesn’t believe it. I’ve never met a rabbi who would advertise Christianity as a cure for the ills of any society, instead of his own society. Mostly on principle (and for obvious reasons). Also, you failed to demonstrate why the London riots were directly correlated to the level of religious observance (or lack thereof).


  5. Adam
    August 25, 2011 at 9:40 pm #

    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has publically said Jews should not donate organs but it is OK to take them from goyim. Why would anyone be interested in what he says about anything?

  6. Robin Margolis
    August 27, 2011 at 3:42 am #

    Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the UK, who is so critical of how other people raise their children and fail to support families within their communities–

    is the same rabbi who has led Orthodox organizations in the UK in a campaign to keep the children of Jewish fathers and Christian mothers — who have converted to Judaism via non-Orthodox movements — out of Jewish schools, even though the parents wish to raise them as Jews.

    Rabbi Sacks has willingly authorized those school authorities to spend thousands of pounds in a legal battle to fight admission of these children to a Jewish education, even though their parents have tried to create Jewish families.

    These schools are funded by the British taxpayers. They are not like the American Orthodox Jewish private religious schools, which are supported by tuition — they are state-funded schools with a religious angle, more like U.S. charter schools.

    The schools already admit children who have a Jewish mother and a Christian father and also admit children with no Jewish parentage at all. But because the Orthodox control most of these schools, they have tried to push the children of Jewish fathers and Christian mothers out of the schools.

    Fortunately, the British courts so far have supported the intermarried parents.

    Before Rabbi Sacks writes essays on how badly other people manage their families, perhaps he should consider how stressful it is for the parents of the patrilineal half-Jewish children to fight prolonged court battles against a well-funded Jewish establishment just to get their half-Jewish child admitted to a Jewish school. That type of stress isn’t good for families and undoubtedly leaves a bad impression in the children’s minds about Judaism.

    Robin Margolis

  7. Robin Margolis
    August 27, 2011 at 3:45 am #

    One more thing — as the Coodinator of the Half-Jewish Network, I have written UK Jewish newspapers several times to protest Rabbi Sacks’ support for expending thousands of pounds to keep small half-Jewish children out of Jewish schools.

    If Rabbi Sacks is interested in building families, he could start by helping these intermarried Jewish families.

  8. John
    August 27, 2011 at 3:08 pm #


    Thanks for weighing in with some wonderful comments. Very insightful stuff. “Grand Poobah” Sacks isn’t interested in family, amiability, or a better society on the whole, unless that includes a disproportionate influence from his Orthodox sector. He’s entitled to his opinion. I’m entitled to mine, which is, by far and large, the Jewish world is better off without figureheads like him.

  9. Robin Margolis
    August 27, 2011 at 10:30 pm #

    Dear John: Thank you for your kind words! You and I are on the same page!


  10. John
    August 28, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    By the way, Robin, I checked out your website. I read some excellent things. Thank you for summing up the Jewish identity question so well. I hope your endeavors are blessed.


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