The Chief Rabbi this week hailed a “renaissance at all levels” of the Jewish community over the past two decades as he opened his heart for the first time about the personal battles he has overcome while in office.
The comments came in a wide-ranging interview, as Lord Sacks prepares to step down after 22 years in the role, in which he also reflected on improvements in relations with the Progressive community, set out his agenda for the coming years and addressed head-on some of the very public controversies of his leadership.
He also spoke openly about his private struggles against cancer and depression following the death of his father. “When he wasn’t there anymore, I became very depressed for two years. That was the real crisis.” Asked whether he ever considered stepping down at that point, he added: “Whenever I thought, shall I move on, and do something a little less stressful, I was stopped in my tracks by a voice–call that the better angel in my nature that said: ‘If you leave now, you will let down every- one who put their faith in you.’ That was a very important moment.
“As soon as I had that thought, that you don’t leave the field in the middle of the battle, it turned my life around and I became much more relaxed.”
Lord Sacks also discussed his battle with cancer for which he twice underwent treatment 20 years ago. Referring to seeing his father go through five operations in his 80s, he said: “I sensed from him he had decided to place himself in God’s hands and I did likewise. I’ve stood eyeball to eyeball with the angel of death and I said: ‘Hashem, I leave this one to you’. I was never afraid on either occasion. I was extraordinarily relaxed, I’m not sure if one should be, but I put my trust in God and the surgeons and they both did what they had to do.”
Describing what he saw as a communal “renaissance at every level” since he called for a decade of Jewish continuity on becoming Chief Rabbi, he pointed to the growth in Jewish educational and cultural initiatives as well as the greater confidence of Anglo-Jewry in celebrating its faith in public.
He insisted the achievements had been a team effort by Anglo-Jewry that had taken up with relish the challenge he set. Acknowledging that his national media appearance have been seen by some as a distraction from his communal role, Sacks countered: “Ninety-five percent of my time is spent with the community and the majority of my writing is directed at the community. I’ve visited communities who haven’t seen a Chief Rabbi in a century.”
Turning to one of the key controversies of his tenure, the Chief Rabbi said the tensions that followed his decision not to attend the funeral of Rabbi Hugo Gryn led to him setting out key principles for engagement, which became a model for relations. He said: “Until then, there had been a view never to do anything with non-Orthodox movements, but once you thought it through, you saw there were all sorts of opportunities.”
Asked if there was anything the Orthodox could learn from Progressives, he hailed youth movements as their “greatest strength”. Despite an overall drop in the number of British Jews belonging to shuls from 1990- 2010, he was optimistic the community’s growth and greater educational opportunities would lead to a hike in those becoming members over the next quarter of a century.
Asked about the fall in central Orthodoxy members, while Reform and Liberal numbers have remained steady, he said: “Out-marriage has made an impact and that becomes problematic with the United Synagogue. But the bigger issue is we need more confidence and a more potent message within this classic Jewish position of being committed to Jewish faith and law, while engaging with the world. I’ve taken that as my mission for the next as many years as God will allow.”
Lord Sacks said he would work globally to recruit Jewish leaders as well as broadcast, teach and undertake a “heavy writing agenda”. Of his successor, he said: “When I became Chief Rabbi, they said: ‘You have an impossible act to follow’. That is said to a new Chief Rabbi. He will do absolutely superbly.”