Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wants people to get along.
The author of more than 30 books, former chief rabbi of Great Britain and the winner of the 2016 Templeton Prize has written and spoken for years on the importance of interfaith relationships.
And the message couldn’t be more timely.
His most recent book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, looks at the rise of religious extremism and violence as well as the relationship between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
“It’s a very strong statement about the historic relationship between the three Abrahamic monotheisms — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — and why that relationship has been such a violent and tragic one, and it’s a book that makes you think again,” Sacks said from London in a phone interview.
“And it’s a book that I wanted to be read not just by Jews, but by Christians and Muslims and it has been very widely read by Christians and Muslims both in the states and in Britain. It has had a bigger impact than any other book I ever wrote.”
The reaction to his book, which he rewrote four times before its 2015 publication, has been a resoundingly positive and rewarding one.
To Sacks, who will be visiting Kohelet Yeshiva High School and spending a Shabbat with the wider community from March 17 to 18, one of the biggest challenges the Western world faces right now is a sort of “battle of ideas.”
“I do believe we are all being asked to think again as to what it is to be a Jew or Christian or Muslim in the 21st century,” he said. “Can we make space for the people whose faith is different from ours? That is the fundamental question we face. We’ve always faced it, but never as acutely as now.”
He’s taken his message and the ideas of his book to the wider community through speaking at such events as the National Prayer Breakfast in February 2017 (where President Trump called for a prayer for the ratings of Celebrity Apprentice).
“And if religion is part of the problem, for heaven’s sake, let religion be part of the solution,” Sacks said in his speech.
His upcoming visit to Kohelet comes in the wake of the recent bomb threats to JCCs across the country and acts of vandalism in Jewish cemeteries.
He urges the community to be alert, though he is “not remotely surprised” by the recent events.
“This is part of a massive assault on the state of Israel, essentially. We are suffering collateral damage in the assault on the state of Israel,” he said. “This is not the 1930s all over again, it really isn’t, and the real assault actually is on the liberal democracies of the West. Jews just happen to be, as they have so often been, the first target, but we are by no means the only target.”
Today’s world has also seen rapid advancement in technology, which Sacks himself has taken advantage of with a video series and a social media presence.
At the end of February, he released an animated video explaining the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and the dangers behind it. It’s been shared widely on Facebook and has more than 40,000 views on YouTube.
“I’ve realized for some time that the internet is being used to spread hatred, so we have to use the internet to counter that,” he explained of the inspiration for the video, which has been translated into about 10 languages.
A core audience of the video is college students, and he hopes this video will serve as support for them.
“Students feel that number one, we’re there for them, and number two, that we’re giving them a way of presenting the case in a way they might find helpful,” he said. “We’ve heard from American university students and campuses that they’ve found it very helpful.”
The video explains that BDS fails moral tests and “therefore we had to make the argument in a simple and powerful way because it’s a very bad campaign,” he said.
“I do not like to live in an age where Jewish students feel threatened on campus,” he said. “That should be unacceptable anywhere, especially in the West.”
Changing technology is also a reminder of the importance of faith in today’s world.
“Faith has an enormous role to play right now,” he said. “We are moving into an area, an age of uncertainty when technological change is remaking the world almost faster than we can bear and throughout history, faith has been a very important anchor of stability when the world is changing very fast.
“We need strong faith in the 21st century,” he continued, “but we are only going to get it if the faith leaders of different faiths can work together. Because to go back to where we were 100 years ago or 1,000 years ago is not going to work for anyone.”
With pressures from technology, he also noticed that the dynamics of family life have changed.
He created a video series on YouTube — the first of many, he predicts — on parenting as it’s a subject many people seek advice about.
“I wouldn’t say I was the world’s best parent. I happened to get married to the world’s best parent, which was very useful,” he said.
He is looking forward to returning to Kohelet for the third year and creating an immersive experience with the community.
“I want to get students to dream of a world that could be but is not yet, that they in their future lives can help to build,” he said. “We really can do more than we think we can. So I challenge them to dream dreams and then work to make them reality.”
For more information about Sacks’ visit, see koheletyeshiva.org/rabbisacks.
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