Ever since, at University, I became interested in politics and religion at the same time and under the influence of two Australians, one an aspiring politician and the other a radical priest, I have always felt that religious leaders have a role to play in the small p politics of a nation.
Not so that they can support one Party or another, but so that they can elucidate and educate the nation, to explain what it means to be a community of people with shared values, a shared spirit, a sense of a shared future.
This task they can often do, with a credibility and a connection, those involved in the hurly burly of Party politics cannot.
But it requires a religious leader of exceptional talent and sensitivity to do it.
Jonathan Sacks was undoubtedly one of the cleverest people I ever met. There was never a wasted conversation and believe me, in political life, that is a high bar. Every time we met as we did many times over the years, I came away with fresh insight and improved understanding.
But his outstanding quality was not his intellect but the use to which he put it.
He didn’t shrink back from confronting the difficult questions. His book the Dignity of Difference came out in the shadow of 9/11.
It was a passionate defence of religious tolerance, and an open-minded invitation to religious dialogue.
Most of us would agree with those sentiments, but at the time, it was a brave case to make.
Jonathan Sacks was undoubtedly one of the cleverest people I ever met. There was never a wasted conversation and believe me, in political life, that is a high bar.
Throughout his work, time and again what shines through is his humanity, combined with an infinite willingness to engage, no matter how difficult the subject or the audience, the mark of true intellectual confidence.
He could interpret and make come alive as no other, the Torah. I would love to hear him speak about Judaism, take me through Biblical stories so familiar to me, yet in his words they would take on new meaning and best of all contemporary relevance.
He understood both the perils facing religion, the attempts to demonise it, to use its dark moments in history to obscure its capacity to light up a path to the future; and the essential place of religious belief in society: the right of those with religious belief not to hold the power but to speak up to and occasionally against the powerful.
He could see how easily secularism was becoming its own religion, and was one of the last great articulators of the danger of such a position and how it would subtly but deeply undermine a part of what gives a nation a grounding in the best of human nature.
In one of his last broadcasts – for Tortoise – he spoke with brilliant clarity of the difference between a society based on ‘I’ and one based on ‘We’. About the need for collective and not just individual responsibility. A society governed not by self interest but by the common good.
I said I thought I had the toughest job of the two of us. He smiled, then laughed, then literally put his head back and roared with amusement.
We had another subject to discuss however. One of my earliest conversations with him, after both of us at an early age had been given the leadership of our respective organisations, me of the Labour Party, he of the Jewish community, was about the challenge of leading. I said I thought I had the toughest job of the two of us. He smiled, then laughed, then literally put his head back and roared with amusement. ‘I think not’ he said. ‘But then,’ he said ‘I wouldn’t want it any other way. The Jewish people produce great leaders, but not many great followers.’
Jonathan was one of my heroes. Someone I loved and admired. His physical presence has left us and Elaine and his beautiful family far too soon; but his spiritual presence will remain with me until my own moment of passing comes.
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