Big Think Interview With Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Question: How did you become England’s Chief Rabbi?

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: Well, there aren’t that many Chief Rabbis.  I’m only the sixth since 185… 45, so we’ve served on average about 30 years each and that’s a great luxury because you start young and then you have a lot of time.  A lot of people who said to me when I was chosen at the age of 42, aren’t you a little young for the job, and I replied, no, in… believe me in this job I’ll age rapidly.  So… and indeed I found so every 30 years or so there is a year or so of search for the next Chief Rabbi.  There’s a vote and I won.

Where did the idea of having a Chief Rabbi originally come from?

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: It was established because in Britain, throughout Europe actually, the Jewish communities constituted as a religious community.  And that means that the community must have a head, an official spokesman, if you like, who represents the community, vis-à-vis, the public, vis-à-vis, the other religious leaders, the royal family, the government and the prime minister.  It’s a kind of semi-ambassadorial semi-diplomatic role and obviously there is a Chief Rabbi of Britain for the same reason, Lehavdil as it were, it’s not quite the same thing, as there is an Archbishop of Canterbury in Britain.  So there’s a head of the Christian church, so there’s a head of the Jewish community which is constituted, as I say, as a religious rather than as an ethnic community.

What did you set out to accomplish as Chief Rabbi?

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: I wanted to turn a rather staid and quite predictable Jewish community, not very creative one, into a much more effervescent community and I think the community really has been transformed.   We do things in Anglo Jewry today that are not done anywhere else in the world or if stimulated developments elsewhere in the world, we have something called Limmud where almost 3,000 young people come together to study for a week at the end of the year, studying 600 different courses.  Now Limmud has been exported to 47 other places in the world from Moscow to New York and Los Angeles and almost everywhere else, so we have a very vibrant cultural life, which we didn’t have before.  I wanted to make Anglo Jewry a more religiously knowledgeable community and in 1993, a couple of years into my Chief Rabbinate when I launched my program Jewish Continuity, 25 percent of Anglo-Jewish children went to Jewish day schools.  Today, 17 years later, that figure is 65 percent and rising.  That means we have built more Jewish day schools in the last 15 years than in all the previous 350 years of Anglo-Jewish history so I’m pretty proud of that.

But in particular I wanted to take the Jewish voice and make it a voice in the human conversation.  So I do a great deal of broadcasting for the BBC and other national broadcast media.  I do television programs, a lot of radio.  I write for the national press.  Seven of my books have been serialized in the National press.  And when you consider that the Jewish community in Britain is only one-half a percent of the population of Britain, it means that we have an influence out of all proportion to our numbers.  I’d like to see the Jewish voice much more self-confident and willing to engage with the world.

Why isn’t the Jewish voice more self-confident?

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:  Because we’re paranoid. We have defined ourselves as the people that dwells alone.  We are nature’s victims.  Everyone hates us.  We always find ourselves alone.  When push comes to shove, our friends desert us.  Now, that is the negative self-image of Jewish life that has developed since the Holocaust, since 9/11 with the isolation of Israel, the return of anti-Semitism to Europe.  And I wrote this book because I believed that is the worst possible self-definition… it will be… first of all it isn’t true.  Second of all, it’s thoroughly miserable and self-pitying.  And thirdly, it has an enormous risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If you think you’re alone, you’ll probably find yourself alone.   And I see the Jewish world pursuing these policies and they are disastrous.

Why has being Jewish become a burden?

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:  That is the residue of anti-Semitism.  There’s an anti-Semitism out there but if you’re subjected to it for long enough, it begins an anti-Semitism in here.  In its very extreme form, self-hatred, but it can take all sorts of other forms.  I mention in the book that wonderful remark of the late Shlomo Carlebach, who went around university campuses all his life, loving everyone and he used to say, I ask people, what are you and I know when somebody says I’m a Catholic, I know that’s a Catholic.  Somebody says, I’m a Protestant, I know that’s a Protestant.  Somebody says, I’m just a human being, I know that’s a Jew.

Now, you know, let’s move beyond that and so I have defined in the book a Judaism that we can share with the world.  I define Judaism as the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind.  And that’s why I really share my Judaism with the British public, that is 99.5 percent not Jewish.  I do so, broadcasting to them, be they Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Muslin or secular, and we try and share our wisdom and, you know, the result is I’m probably better known by the non-Jewish public than even by the Jewish public and people like that.  There’s nothing really threatening about Judaism because we don’t try and convert anyone.  So we say, look, guys, this is how we say things.  If it makes sense to you, please have it and if it doesn’t, that’s okay.

Why are we in the "fourth mutation" of anti-Semitism?

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: anti-Semitism is a virus that mutates.  I begin, you know, with the Hellenistic Age where a lot of people think anti-Semitism began.  Actually I say although the Greeks and Romans didn’t all like the Jews, there was nothing personal.  It’s exactly like the mafia say when they’re about to shoot you, nothing personal, strictly business.

So anti-Semitism stage one, really got personal with the birth of Christianity and the disappointment of Christians that Jews did not accept one of their own as the messiah.  And that really was personal because that was a hatred of Jews not of people in general. 

The next mutation took place around 1096 with the massacre of Jewish communities in northern Europe during the First Crusade.  And that’s when Jews became not just the people who rejected Christianity but a demonic force.  They became the infidel, the anti-Christ, the children of Satan who poisoned wells, desecrated the host and killed Christian children to use their blood to make matzo, the blood libel, that was demonic antic-Judaism. 

Mutation three, we can date to 1879 with the birth of this new word, anti-Semitism.  And that was not religious hostility to Judaism but racial hostility to Jews and that was serious, because in the end Christians could work for the conversion of Jews.  You can change your religion but you can’t change your race.  And therefore all you could do, was, to, God forbid, work for the extermination of the Jews so I’m afraid the Holocaust was already implicit in that word itself.

The fourth mutation that we’re living through now is demonic anti-Zionism.  It’s focused not on Jews as individuals but Jews as a nation in their own sovereign state and it accuses Israel of essentially all the ills that medieval Christians… you know, we don’t poison wells but we do poison the world peace.  We we’re responsible for every kind of distress in the universe.  Seventy percent of Pakistan in the days following 9/11 thought that it had been done by the Israelis.  The Israelis were blamed for the tsunami at the end of 2004.  They’ve been blamed for more or less everything and since ipso facto, every Jew is a Zionist, then every Jew is a legitimate cause for attack.  And that is the new anti-Semitism that’s been born in our time.

It’s every bit as dangerous as the others but my argument is that Jews must never fight anti-Semitism alone.  The victim cannot cure the crime.  The hated cannot cure the hate.  And so I’m glad to say Britain has become the first country and surely won’t be the last, where the fight against anti-Semitism is led by non-Jews.

Who is leading the fight in Britain against anti-Semitism?

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:  Well, it’s led by a parliamentary committee on anti-Semitism.  People of all parties who monitor on a regular basis, all forms of anti-Semitism, that report is fed back into government which assembles an inter-departmental committee, all the departments of government that have any bearing on it, education, health, home office and all that stuff, and all of those committees come together and interface with the Jewish organizations that deal with the symptoms of anti-Semitism.  So it is basically a government led activity.  And in 2009, the British home office and foreign office convened for the first time, an international conference of parliamentarians to fight against anti-Semitism.  Almost all the participants were not Jewish.  And this conference was held and hosted by the British government.  The next government to do so has been the Canadian government which will be doing so this year.  And so we’ve taken this and refused to live by this maxim that we are the people who dwell alone.  It is true that we have enemies but it is also true that we have many very good friends.

How is being Jewish different in the U.K. than it is in the U.S.?

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:  The Jewish community in the United States is 20 times as big as the Jewish community in Britain so you have critical mass.  We were walking through Fifth Avenue as part of the Israel parade in New York.  Now, the hundreds of thousands of people that take part in that—we couldn’t possibly assemble that many people, although you know, we’ve done not badly.  But the maximum we’ve ever got together is 55,000 Jews in Trafalgar Square.  The sheer scale of Jewry in America is a quantum leap from what it is in any European country and that is… that results in enormous diversity, creativity.  American Jewry is exciting in ways that just don’t have the numbers for. 

Should the U.S. have a Chief Rabbi?

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:  The United States does not have an Archbishop of Canterbury.  It doesn’t have central institutionalized religious leadership.  So there’s no model on which the Jewish community could possibly build.  The United States is the United States and I love it and Britain is Britain and it’s different.  I mean we have monarch.  We have, you know, a House of Lords, all this kind of stuff which just looks crazy to an American, or either that or very ancient.  And it is very ancient but it’s very beautiful so I think each country finds its own way of being itself and every Jewish community finds its own way of being Jewish.

What do you say to those who believe the role of Chief Rabbi has run its course?

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:  That statement really has never been more untrue.  It is absolutely clear today that given the smallness of our community, not only are there more Muslims than Jews in Britain, not only are there more Hindus than Jews in Britain, there are more Sikhs than Jews in Britain.  And if we continue to want to have some kind of influence, we’re going to need the two kinds of representative voice that we have.  One if called the Board of Deputies, which defends Jewish interestsa bit like your Conference of Presidents.  And the other is the Chief Rabbi who articulates Judaic principle.  So given that the world if more unstable—Europe especially than ever before—I think every other religious community envies us for this particular office.  The Muslims, the Sikhs and the Hindus would love to have such a thing but they are not constituted to do it and so they don’t.

Recorded May 24, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman

A conversation with the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom.

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Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

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Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

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Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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