Originally published on December 12, 2012 in the Washington Jewish Week
by Meredith Jacobs, Washington Jewish Week Managing Editor
Pictured: American University students Scott Lorsch, Aaron Stein and Carson Merenbloom, with Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, second from left.
Explaining that "university is where identities are made or lost," Britain's Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks announced to a room filled with Hillel directors and university students that he will be retiring in September to become the "scholar in residence" for future Jewish leaders.
Sponsored by Hillel's Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Experience, Sacks was joined in conversation with Hillel CEO, Wayne L. Firestone on Wednesday of last week at the organization's national offices. He had recently traveled to various North American college campuses including Harvard, Princeton and the University of California to discuss his new book, The Great Partnership: God, Science, and the Search for Meaning (Schocken, $28.95).
One of the foremost religious and social thinkers of our day, Jonathan Sacks is chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. He is the author of numerous books including To Heal a Fractured World and Dignity of Difference, for which he won a Grawemeyer Award in Religion.
"This is an intellectual problem," said Sacks. "How do you persuade young Jews that Judaism means something to them? That it is their responsibility?"
Firestone noted that "Jewish students that travel with Hillel to repair the world or explore Israel are seeking meaning - and Hillel's professional staff then takes the opportunity to begin the conversation about what it means to be Jewish and find meaning in the secular world."
Sacks believes that while learning leads to doing, doing can lead to learning. He believes in Jewish social action accompanied by study of source texts. "When we help the sick, the driver is 'what is the face of God?' The driver is the religious experience. If not, we are running on empty."
When asked by American University student Aaron Stein how to talk about God without scaring people, Sacks replied, "What do we stand to lose if we lose God?" He listed three ideals at risk without God: the concept of human freedom, human dignity and hope.
"You can talk to secularists about these three without talking about God," he told Stein. At the same time, however, he noted that we should not be afraid to talk about God.
Sacks sees Judaism as unique in the belief in God as the God of all humankind, but Judaism is not the religion of all. We are not imperialist in our attempt to impose a singular truth to the entire world and in this way, we can find God outside of Judaism.
It is this thinking that allows Sacks to engage with all, including atheists like Amos Oz and Steven Pinker. He told the story of Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Niels Bohr who hung a horseshoe in his house. When asked if he believed the horseshoe would bring him luck, Bohr, as Sacks related, replied, "No, I don't believe in it, but I've been told a horseshoe brings you luck whether you believe in it or not."
He sees science in tandem with religion, that while "science takes things apart to see what they can do, religion puts them back together to see what they can mean."
As to young Jews today, they are much like the fourth generation of a wealthy family, "If you want to be wealthy and you are a member of the fourth generation, you have to make it yourself," said Sacks. "The same for religion."
When asked about the role of Evangelical Christians in the pro-Israel movement, Sacks replied, "The English Zionists and Lord Balfour were Evangelical Christians who believed that when the Jews went back to their land, Jesus would convert them." However, he said, "Israel would not exist without them," and "we need to accept friendship where we can."
He believes the Orthodox world is "going haredi" and that "in one generation from now, the largest and most active group will be haredi." This, he believes, is a group that shuts out the world and that there is a need for a Judaism that engages with the world, and "a voice that will engage without fear."
Hoping to be that voice, the chief rabbi had his office contact Hillel last year to explore ways of delivering his messages about Jewish values to a wide audience - with particular interest in North American college students.
His first involvement with Hillel International this year was a posting on the Ask Big Questions blog. As the chief rabbi looks towards the future, Hillel is in conversation with him about how his work and ideas can inform and educate Jewish students.