It ain’t all gloom if you’ve got Zoom,” says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, peering at me from the book-lined attic office of his house via his computer.
The former chief rabbi and mainstay of Radio 4’s Thought for the Day is looking forward. He says we should meet up for “a jammy donut” around Hanukkah, but the way things are going that looks unlikely.
He’s been working to find socially-distant solutions for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, this evening (how do you make a shofar horn Covid-secure?); has just hosted a virtual pre-Sabbath sermon for the Jewish community in Abu Dhabi; is engaged in a rapid US press tour, albeit from his work-from-home station, as the US version of his book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, is published there. “I don’t have a brake pedal,” says Sacks. “Obviously at moments like this you accelerate.”
But, on the eve of Jewish New Year, I want to ask Lord Sacks, who was chief rabbi from 1991 to 2013, if he thinks the Labour Party has made a fresh start. Sacks told the New Statesman in 2018 that Jeremy Corbyn was “an anti-Semite” who has “given support to racists, terrorists and dealers of hate”. A year later Ephraim Mirvis, Sacks’s successor as chief rabbi, accused Corbyn of allowing a “poison sanctioned from the top” to take root in the party. “Yes, they are doing better.” How? “The first thing is a they have acknowledged the problem and its scope. And the second thing is that the leader [Keir Starmer] has shown that he is willing to take responsibility. And thirdly he has reached out to the Jewish community in a way that the Jewish community feel very reassured by.”
He’s heartened by the “mobilisation of relationships between the state of Israel and the United Arab Emirates” too. So, does he think Donald Trump deserves a Nobel Peace Prize? “On that subject I’m going to practise a self-denying ordinance, because I hate getting involved in party politics. I get involved in morality but not in party politics.” He must have agonised, then, before calling Corbyn an anti-Semite, which arguably impacted the election? “Not actually. I just stick to my principle and that’s that.”
On the day we speak, the papers are filled with “is Christmas cancelled?” headlines. The R-rate of infection has ticked over one again and get-togethers are now limited to a maximum of six. So is Jewish New Year wrecked? “There’s a threat to Rosh Hashanah,” admits Sacks. “There’s going to be a lot of social distancing, the synagogue will be empty. Mind you, sometimes the synagogue is empty anyway…” But if it’s holy, it has to be joyous, he insists. “So it’s going to be really difficult. But OK! It’s the difficult things that are worth doing.” Hanukkah on hiatus, though? “Hanukkah is the festival of hope!” he laughs. “I’m not remotely worried about it because Hanukkah is one of those festivals, and there are several, whose primary celebration is in the home.”
What does modern Britain believe in? “I’ve got to tell you something — I think we’ve lost the holy. You know, what are the things that make us feel small, what are the things that induce humility? What are the things that make us feel we are in the presence of some force greater than ourselves?”
Sacks was the first person in his family to go to university (the University of Cambridge, where he took a first-class degree in philosophy). His father Louis came to Britain from Poland as a child in the Twenties and left school at 14 in order to work selling cloth in London’s East End, then a centre of working-class Jewish life. Sacks’s mother Louisa was the daughter of Lithuanian wine merchants with a shop called Frumkin’s in the East End. Family, naturally, is hugely important to him. He and his wife Elaine spent lockdown in their spacious but modest suburban townhouse near Hampstead Heath. Elaine, who trained as a radiographer at Cambridge, loves swimming in the ladies’ pond, while her husband is more likely to be found at home listening to The Beatles, Eminem or Schubert. There are books everywhere — Sacks says he reads 100 a year — and countless pictures of their son Joshua, two daughters, Dina and Gila, and nine grandchildren.
A warm man, his podcast, The Office of Rabbi Sacks, has been one of the more uplifting listens of recent months. So he’s optimistic about the future? “No.” But hopeful? “Totally and absolutely.” Optimism is a passive virtue, but hope is an active one, he clarifies. “It needs no courage, only a certain naivety, to be an optimist. But it sometimes needs a great deal of courage to have hope. As a Jew reflecting on my people’s history over many centuries, I believe no Jew can be an optimist. But no Jew worthy of the name ever gave up hope.”
This is Sacks’s thesis, one he wrote the book on and one he hopes is heeded as we move through the pandemic and its aftershocks. He argues we have undergone a kind of “cultural climate change” that has seen a “move from we to I”. Life has become about what we can get out of it, not what we can put in. And the pandemic has exacerbated our best and worst traits. “I felt that things are unravelling in society, in relationships and in people’s lives,” he says. “When you go through any moment of danger somehow or other everything is lit by a very sharp light. If, God forbid, you come very close to a car accident, then it seems to me that the pandemic was like that. It just showed us ourselves.” What selves? “The Thursday Clap for the NHS was great,” he says. But he’s more fascinated by Sir Tom Moore, the centenarian who raised £33 million for the NHS by walking laps of his garden. “He answered in the affirmative what all of us wonder from time to time, which is: can one person make a difference?”
In the book, he states that “our children and grandchildren are paying the price of abandoning a shared moral code” in the wake of the sexual revolution. I want to know what the rabbi’s position is on extramarital sex. “As a general rule I never talk about negligence. I am not of the finger-wagging school of religion. So I don’t talk about extramarital affairs or any such things.”
He also tells me that he and Elaine celebrated their golden wedding during lockdown. On Elaine, he’s unequivocal. “I saw this young lady who was the person most unlike me I had ever seen. She was radiating sunshine and joy. And I just thought, that’s it. I’m ashamed to say it took me three weeks to propose to her.” He proposed to her in Oxford Circus, with a ring he’d bought at Woolworths. “It’s the people not like us who make us grow.” Although he laments the atomising impact of technology in Morality, lockdown has been “electronic communication’s finest hour”. “We’ve always said ,‘What does this make possible?’ That is my standard response to anything bad that happens. The only thing is that after thousands of years, it is possible to mute a rabbi at the push of a button.” He pauses to laugh. “This is a formidable power and I hope people will use it with restraint.”
Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times is out now (£20, Hodder & Stoughton).