The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Jonathan Sacks and Cool Britannia: British Orthodoxy, the Chief Rabbinate, and Religious versus Social Interplays

The appointment of Jonathan Sacks as Chief Rabbi in Britain coincided with and reflected some of the broader societal shifts that were shaping the Jewish community in Britain and British society more broadly in the 1990s. If Immanuel Jakobovits as Chief Rabbi was seen in some quarters as Margaret Thatcher’s spiritual guide, paving the way for his elevation to a peerage, following Sacks’ appointment, he formed a close relationship with Tony Blair. In both cases these chief rabbis thereby acquired a more influential national voice in British discourse than previous Jewish leadership figures had experienced. They also took this role seriously, articulating a distinctive Jewish message to an increasingly multicultural British audience.

Acquiring positions of power and influence on a national stage did not, however, necessarily reflect their status within British Jewry. The theological message at the heart of both chief rabbis’ ministry emphasised a shift in focus. For Jakobovits this could be captured in his call to move from a focus on ‘rights to duties’. Sacks’ argument was neatly summarised in his critique of the culture of the “selfie”, urging a mindset switch from ‘self to other’. The challenge came in addressing how best to translate these views from rhetoric into practice. This paper will examine some of the core themes that Sacks addressed – across his public lectures and published writings – vis-a-vis the wider British society, and consider to what degree these were manifested in his more specific leadership role within British Jewry. In particular, it will analyse the disconnect between lofty themes and the application of these ideas into community life. This is a question that can be assessed from two perspectives: in terms of British Jewry, it offers an opportunity to consider how the community responds to top-down initiatives and understands its relationship to established institutions. In relation to Sacks it asks the broader question of how effective he was at progressing beyond words to actions, to bring about the types of change he championed.