It has been a particularly reflective and momentous week. The U.S. elected Joe Biden as its 46th president and Kamala Harris as vice-president, the first Black woman and first woman of Asian and Indian descent elected to that high office. Around the world, there were nearly audible sighs of relief and cries of jubilation as the count trickled in and it became clear that president-elect Biden had cleared the 270 Electoral College threshold, even as the counting of ballots continues and results are not certified until early in December. More solemnly, this week was the commemoration of the 82nd anniversary of Kristallnacht and of Remembrance Day. And, right at the dawn of this emotional week, we learned of the passing of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Britain’s former chief rabbi, Sacks died of cancer on Shabbat at age 72.
Formally called chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Sacks held the role from 1991 to 2013, during which time his scholarship in philosophy helped him elucidate Jewish theology to general audiences as a regular guest on BBC Radio. He was admired and his death lamented by leading figures in British society, not least the heir apparent to the throne, Prince Charles. He was good friends with now-retired Anglican bishop George Carey, who was the head of the Church of England, strengthening interfaith relations.
Sacks’s time in leadership was not without controversy. He has been viewed by some as too accommodating of orthodoxy and not adequately inclusive of progressive or liberal strains of Judaism. Sacks skipped the 1996 funeral of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, the leading figure in Reform Judaism, drawing rebukes from liberals. In contrast, a book Sacks authored, The Dignity of Difference, implied that all religions and streams therein are equally valid, a thesis that was deemed too ecumenical by some British Orthodox Jews. One rabbi accused him of “heresy.”
In other words, Sacks leaves behind a mixed legacy, though few among us in this generation have left such a lasting mark on contemporary Judaism. The sort of centralized religious leadership that British Jewry and others in Europe have is unfamiliar to North American Jews. But anyone in a position of responsibility in the Jewish community knows the perils of presuming to speak on behalf of all – or most – Jews. Anyone in a job like Sacks’s would draw admirers and detractors. Chief rabbi is, of course, not a political role, but it must be a profoundly political one nonetheless, to elicit an accusation of heresy.
The concept of heresy seems to have seeped from the theological into the political realm in recent years. Fanaticism and extreme loyalty have always played a part in politics. But, in the highly polarized situation we see in the United States and many other places, differences of opinion are magnified into civilizational, even existential, divisions. This certainly seemed to be the case in the U.S. elections. Not everyone likes the incumbent President Donald Trump but, to paraphrase a beer commercial, those who like him like him a lot. While Biden won the support of a vast majority of Jews, surveys suggest that somewhere between 20% and 30% of American Jews voted for Trump’s reelection, a higher vote for a Republican than in many of the last presidential elections. The vehemence of opinion on both sides – some decry Trump as antisemitic while others claim he is the most pro-Israel president ever – would be confusing to the proverbial Martian.
We are assimilating this news in a week where we reflect on the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust, the world wars, the bloody history of the 20th century and all the conflict and misery and bloodshed it wrought. The 21st century seems similarly full of divisions and conflicts. Political polarization in democratic countries, as well as growing authoritarian tendencies in several democracies, call for a response.
Biden ran as a unifying figure bent on restoring a sense of moderation and respect to public discourse. Whether one individual can alter the trajectory of a divided society will be seen as the president-elect navigates a narrowly divided House and Senate to shepherd his legislative vision into reality. The unexpected tightness of Republican-Democratic splits in both chambers may exacerbate his challenge. A small tail of far-left Democrats and of far-right Republicans could wag the dog that is their respective party. On the other hand, this challenge could present an opportunity, if there are those willing to fight for what is right and to compromise across the aisle when appropriate and necessary. Such a shift from the failure of bipartisanship in recent years would be monumental indeed. But it could effectively reduce the influence of extremes.
Perhaps what these disparate events illustrate is that conflict – from the cataclysmic to the mild awkwardness of politics at the Shabbat table – is innate to humans. But so is confronting conflict and difference intellectually and with open hearts. Seeking moderation and compromise has lost currency in the age of social media and 24/7 cable news. Nuance is blurred and enlightenment darkened by ideological certainty.
We should seek understanding wherever we might find it and avoid elevating mere mortals to unattainable standards or demonizing them beyond all reasonable recognition. In our spiritual and political realms, in our daily work and home life, we can all commit to some additional humility, to deeper listening and to finding wisdom wherever it might be, even in unexpected places.