Religion, law and the constitution

Balancing beliefs in Britain

Rabbi Lord Jonathan SacksHow easy is it for you to live in accordance with your beliefs? Are there any challenges, and if so, are they social, legal or political in nature?

Challenges? Of course…..there are some specific ones. Periodically, challenges are raised against some very, very ancient religious practices that Jews have….specifically shechita, which is the Jewish way of killing animals for meat, which we believe is as humane as the most humane method available. And Brit Milah, the circumcision of males, usually at the age of eight days or when they are healthy enough to do so, both of which go way, way back. Circumcision goes back to Abraham, the dietary laws to Moses and they are challenged from time to time. Those are legal risks. There is a cultural risk, the return of Anti-Semitism to Europe within living memory of the Holocaust, the one thing none of us born after the Holocaust thought was possible. That is of great concern to Jews in Britain and Jews in other European countries.

What do you think about the presence of Church of England bishops in the House of Lords?

I testified there suggesting that other religious traditions should have a voice but not a vote, that representatives should be chosen ad hominem not ex officio.

But the existence of 26 Lords Spiritual reflected an historical legacy which has ongoing significance. For instance, an event like a memorial service for the victims of 9/11 or the tsunami, these things are usually in St Paul’s or Westminster Abbey. They are Church of England services, but representatives from other Christian denominations take part and representatives from other faiths are seated in a place of honour at those services. That seems to be an admirable British way of doing things. Every country works its own way of doing things. There isn’t one way, every country finds its way through the topography. The fact that you will have a service at St Paul’s, presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury at which all of the major faiths are there in a place of honour, that seems to be an admirable way of doing things. I do not think there is any way to end the presence of the Lords Spiritual, who are involved in very good and important work.

Do you think that public authorities understand and respond appropriately to the needs of the Jewish community in Britain?

What I do worry about is the hijacking of certain civic occasions for political ends: Holocaust Memorial Day for instance, this was boycotted by at least one well known Muslim group on the grounds that it did not make reference to the ongoing events in the Middle East. Holocaust Memorial is a civic occasion and stands above party political divisions on matters relating to contemporary politics, whenever you politicise a civic occasion you begin to kill it.

I am worried about the civic space that we call a university. There are campaigns that enter the campus that have a seriously corrosive force on freedom of speech and intellectual freedom. I regard it as an absolute principle. Roman Law, I’m not quoting Jewish Law here I’m quoting Roman Law, holds as a condition of justice: audi alderam partem, hear the other side. I think on many issues today the other side is not heard, the area where I would raise most concern is university campuses, an area where local and central government have limited control, but I do see this as a treat to the continued health of British civil life. We are in some danger in some universities of encountering the intellectual organisation of political hatreds, which is a huge danger to the future of British civic life.

An international religious leader, philosopher, award-winning author and respected moral voice, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was awarded the 2016 Templeton Prize in recognition of his “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” Described by H.R.H. The Prince of Wales as “a light unto this nation” and by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as “an intellectual giant”, Rabbi Sacks is a frequent and sought after contributor to radio, television and the press both in Britain and around the world.
Since stepping down as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth – a position he served for 22 years between 1991 and 2013 – Rabbi Sacks has held a number of professorships at several academic institutions including Yeshiva University and King’s College London. He currently serves as the Ingeborg and Ira Rennert Global Distinguished Professor at New York University. Rabbi Sacks has been awarded 17 honorary doctorates including a Doctor of Divinity conferred to mark his first ten years in office as Chief Rabbi, by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey.