Lecture by Britain’s Chief Rabbi Assesses ‘The Future of Judaism’

December 3, 2012

World-renowned scholar Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of England’s United Hebrew Congregations, delivered the Robbins Collection Annual Lecture on Jewish Law and Thought Nov. 26 at UC Berkeley School of Law. An estimated 500 people—a capacity crowd inside Booth Auditorium and an overflow gathering watching on video in a nearby room—attended Sacks’ compelling presentation on “The Future of Judaism.”

UC Berkeley Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer introduced Sacks, a prolific author who was knighted by the Queen of England in 2005. Breslauer recalled how powerfully Sacks’ book The Dignity of Difference affected him when he read it on a flight from Paris eight years ago. Setting high audience expectations, the Provost quoted a colleague who called Sacks “the most electrifying speaker he’d ever seen.”

Sacks delivered, engaging a rapt audience with a stirring lecture. He began by expressing gratitude for the “tremendous influence” two UC Berkeley faculty members have had on his work: Robert Alter, an esteemed professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature who retired last year, and the late David Daube, a prominent biblical law scholar who taught at Berkeley Law from 1970-1993.

Sacks’ remarks, which drew multiple standing ovations, were often humorous. He recalled joining the new Archbishop of Canterbury at a soccer match just after being named Chief Rabbi. The match pitted Sacks’ favorite team, Arsenal, against Manchester United. After meeting the players and being introduced to the crowd, Sacks watched in dismay: “Arsenal suffered its worst home defeat in 63 years, 6-2. A news reporter wrote, ‘Does this not prove that God does not exist?’ to which I responded ‘No, it just shows He supports Manchester United.’”

But Sacks also struck a serious tone in arguing for the importance of what he called the “Jewish voice” in Western Civilization. He contrasted two distinct strains in Western thought, Greek civilization’s belief in both fate—a future determined by the past—and tragedy; versus the Jewish tradition’s contrary orientation embracing free will and the hope that the future can be different.

Sacks stressed the importance of this second legacy in critiquing the development of scientific atheism, which he described as undermining the notions of free will and hope. In his view, atheism has troubling implications for issues of social justice ranging from criminal law to public morality.

Describing the Hebrew Bible as a “principled defeat of tragedy in the name of hope,” Sacks also called it a plea to “not take freedom for granted.” Judaism, he said, is centered on a mutual covenant of “each respecting the dignity of the other.” This, too, is a key insight for Jewish survival: “We have been a people for 4,000 years, and the three times we went into exile were caused by the inability of brothers and sisters to live together. Too many factions were too busy fighting each other.”

In addition to his public lecture, Lord Sacks met with undergraduate students at Hillel and with a gathering of campus deans, faculty, and community leaders at Berkeley Law.

A collaborative approach

Sacks and Breslauer both hailed the law school’s Robbins Collection and Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Law, Economy and Society, which co-sponsored the lecture. The two groups, which collaborate frequently, presented a conference last April that explored the shared relationship of Jewish and Islamic legal traditions.

The Robbins Collection ranks among the world’s best research libraries in the fields of religious and civil law. It is an international center for comparative legal and historical studies that attracts students and leading scholars from around the world. This year, the Robbins Collection is sponsoring three post-doctoral fellows studying legal traditions in Jewish Law, Islamic Law, and Canon Law. Robbins fellow Leon Wiener Dow is teaching two undergraduate Jewish Studies courses: Modern Jewish Thought and Israeli Cinema and Society.

“I think it’s significant on many levels for Cal students to have personal exposure to researchers from Israel and people working closely on issues related to Israel and Jewish studies,” Dow said. “To engage in that discourse, and to have teachers who bring a different mindset to the classroom, generates the kind of richness that only diversity can offer.”

The Berkeley Institute, which launched in April 2011, seeks to broaden Jewish and Israel Studies offerings at UC Berkeley. Its initiatives serve undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty by developing opportunities for research, programming, visiting scholars, colloquia, and classes to strengthen academic inquiry and discourse across campus.

“There’s a lot of interest in this type of scholarship, as evidenced by the turnout for Rabbi Sacks’ lecture and for our courses, conferences, and other programming,” said Professor Kenneth Bamberger, the institute’s faculty director. “Our 16-member faculty board spans many campus departments, including Economics, History, Sociology, Jewish Studies, Political Science, and Music. That has helped us expand existing offerings and develop new opportunities. It’s truly a campus-wide, interdisciplinary endeavor.”

The institute is supporting eight courses during the current school year. It also runs a monthly colloquium in which faculty, graduate students, and outside scholars present their work; and provides mentorship and support for graduate and undergraduate students. This spring, the institute will host a public lecture by novelist and journalist Sayed Kashua, who also developed the first-ever sitcom centered around a Palestinian-Israeli family, “Arab Labor,” which won the Israeli Academy Award for Best Israeli Series 2012.