A discordant note rumbled in the background when I visited Jonathan Sacks last month at his home in north London to discuss his love of music. It was not the traffic.
At the time of our meeting, alarm about coronavirus had begun to grow in the UK but it had not yet reached the shrill pitch of preoccupation that has now driven all other thoughts from people’s minds.
“This is the moment of all moments for faith communities,” the former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth tells me over the telephone two weeks after my trip to his house.
“People are really acting like angels, I’ve never seen anything like it. In his book American Grace, Harvard sociology professor Robert Putnam documents the extraordinary power of faith communities to generate social capital. That is people reaching out to one another to help. We are seeing that right now. Faith communities are being judged not by what they believe but what they do.”
Like billions of others around the world, Rabbi Sacks is in lockdown, confined to the house he shares with his wife Elaine. “For me, the Book of Psalms as a whole speaks to this particular moment,” he says, before quoting Psalm 23, which is recited over a dead body before burial in Judaism: Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, yet will I fear no evil, for you are with me.
“That’s the most important line for me in the Book of Psalms,” he explains. “It resonates through Jewish history and it resonates with me personally. The ancient Greek philosopher Plotinus, who wasn’t Jewish, of course, is good on this. He called faith ‘the flight of the alone to the Alone’.”
Music is capable of similar moments of uplift. That was the reason for my visit a fortnight previously to Sacks’s home. It is a passion of his, inculcated by trips to classical concerts at the Royal Albert Hall with his father in the 1960s. “I’m not remotely professional. I can’t read music and I can’t play music. I love it with a completely untutored joy,” he told me as we sat in his living room.
Let’s rewind back to that vanished world of face-to-face contact. The scene is a neatly carpeted room lined with books and pictures, in a house off a busy road. Rabbi Sacks, who is 72, lives in Golders Green, a centre of London’s middle-class Jewish community. Nearby is Hampstead Heath, where, in summer, Sacks’s wife Elaine pursues her own passion, swimming. “What music is for me, the Hampstead pond is for her,” he says.
Sacks wears a dark blue suit, white shirt and yellow tie. His bespectacled face is framed by tidily trimmed grey hair and a beard. There is a skullcap on the crown of his head. A painting of musicians and dancers hangs on one wall, adjacent to another covered in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. On a table are framed photographs of him with the Queen, Prince Charles, the Dalai Lama and other dignitaries.
Sacks was chief rabbi between 1991 and 2013. Under him, the role gained new prominence. The British Jewish population is only 260,000, but that makes it the fifth largest in the world. Sacks was determined to place its voice at the centre of national life. “I wanted to try to move Anglo-Jewry from a community that was immensely proud of its past to one that was actively building its future,” he explains.
Since retiring as chief rabbi, he has remained busy on the public stage. He is a member of the House of Lords, having been made Baron Sacks of Aldgate in the City of London in 2009. His steady tones, the acme of reasonableness, are often heard on the radio and television.
His new book Morality follows a Radio 4 series that he presented on the subject. In it, he argues that social cohesion depends on people sharing the same morality, but that in the west these bonds have been weakened by individualism.
Three separate developments are identified. The first is the advent of the permissive society in the 1960s. The second is the entrenchment of free-market ideology in the 1980s. The third is the spread of identity politics and Big Tech in the 2010s.
Running through its pages is a belief that morality is not exclusively religious, but rather the product of co-operation and mutual respect. “This is not an evangelising book,” he explains. “It doesn’t say, let’s move back to God, let’s move back to the Bible.
“We are in difficult territory, economically, politically and socially. We can’t do this on our own, so let’s do it together. Let’s resolve what principles will take us forwards such that we can work for the common good.”
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The book draws on his pre-rabbinical background studying and teaching philosophy at Cambridge university. His PhD supervisor was the philosopher Bernard Williams, an atheist from whom he learnt the importance of “openness to otherness”.
Sacks was the first person in his family to go to university. His father Louis came to Britain from Poland as a child in the 1920s 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, which functioned as an informal community centre for new Jewish immigrants to the East End.
“Music was my connection with my father,” Sacks says. Louis was an amateur violinist (“Not a very good one”) who adored Mahler. “He really wanted to lift me up from this nonstop stream of The Beatles and 1960s stuff,” Sacks says. Their joint trips to see concerts at the Royal Albert Hall had a deeper emotional purpose, too. They helped the teenage Sacks to establish common ground with a parent who possessed a difficult, even oppressive, personality.
“He was judgmental to the nth degree,” Sacks recalls. “To be honest with you, it was difficult to live with a judgmental person. Very, very few people met his standards.”
The first concert they went to was an extravagant staging of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, complete with cannon and mortar effects. “It got to me. Once that started, the rest was simple. From Tchaikovsky we got to Shostakovich, then to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, The Firebird and Petrushka. I loved that journey of the soul. And eventually we got to the quartets of Beethoven, which to me are the ultimate spirituality in music. I had to wrestle with them, just to climb that mountain.”
He did not learn music at home, where he was the oldest of four brothers. “There were certain things they never taught us,” he says of his parents. “They spoke Yiddish but did not teach us a single word of it, because they wanted us to be proper Englishmen.”
Sacks was in his first year at Cambridge when The Beatles released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967. “Totally stunning. That was the music at Cambridge for me, that and Beethoven’s quartets.”
He met Elaine while studying there. Unlike his father, she was non-judgmental, “infinitely patient”. For their engagement, Sacks was given a state-of-the-art stereo by her father. “I immediately played the A minor Beethoven quartet, the opus 132. I have rarely been closer to heaven than that.”
Music is crucial to Judaism. “Any sacred text is never read, it is sung,” Sacks explains. Despite its spiritual significance, however, the focus on voice has acted as a brake on the artistic scope of Jewish religious music.
“The Christian tradition of music, whether orchestral or choral, is wholly magnificent and there is no equivalent in Judaism. Partly because of our lack of orchestration and partly because of our individualism,” Sacks says with a smile.
He laughs. “Getting Jews to sing in tune! Quite difficult, actually. It did happen once, the ‘Song of the Sea’ in Exodus 15. We remember that because we recite it every single day. But it’s rare.”
Orchestral music used to feature in Judaism. But the tradition was abandoned after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70CE. Afterwards, non-sung music was banned. A similar prohibition of musical instruments can be observed in certain strands of Protestantism and Islam. Is there something in the very nature of music that inspires religious distrust?
“It’s not distrust at all,” Sacks says adamantly, fixing me with a stare. “There’s no distrust, none, zero. This was grief. We will not allow ourselves to be happy while the Temple is in ruins. The Psalms are clearly set to orchestral music.
“No, it was this way of saying we will never be completely happy until this world, our world, has been rebuilt. It was a terrible loss. We lost that entire orchestral tradition until basically the 19th century when Jews assimilated enough to move into the musical mainstream.”
In 2002, Sacks took several cantors and a synagogue choir to the Israeli coastal city of Netanya, where a suicide bomber sent by the militant Palestinian group Hamas had killed 30 people and injured 140 at a Passover feast in a hotel.
“We were sitting in England thinking, what can we do to help? In the end we decided to take music to comfort the injured, the bereaved. We had somebody who was in a coma for seven days coming out of it as we were singing. So that’s a very Jewish way in which we took music and tried to use it for healing.”
He encounters an unhealable pain in one composer. “I am completely non-prescriptive with this,” Sacks says, “but I refuse to listen to Wagner. Absolutely and totally. His ‘Judaism in Music’ essay, published in 1850, was one of the classic texts of anti-Semitism.
“Had he merely reflected a view I would have forgiven him but he didn’t, he created a mood. So I refuse to listen to him. Even though my late father of blessed memory, who had exactly the same attitude to Wagner as I did, nonetheless said to me that the ‘Siegfried Idyll’ is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written.”
Sacks’s outlook — in music as in religion and politics — is essentially conciliatory. Despite his father’s campaign to wean him off The Beatles, he still likes pop music, even to the extent of admitting to an admiration for Eminem.
“Look, he has descended into all sorts of violence, misogyny and homophobia, but open yourself to this guy as though he’s sitting there with you and then he gets to you,” he says.
His desire to find common ground has faced tests. In 2002, he published his book The Dignity of Difference, in which he called for religious toleration in the aftermath of 9/11 and argued that “no one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth”.
The controversy that it caused among conservative Orthodox Jews was compounded by an interview with The Guardian newspaper in which Sacks was quoted critiquing Israeli policies towards Palestinians.
He later claimed to have been misquoted, but the article led to an editorial in The Jerusalem Post demanding his resignation. He has described it as a period of “black despair” during his chief rabbinate.
“At the real moments of pain, I listened to Schubert’s string quintet,” he remembers. “I just felt that it framed the concept that art is turning pain into beauty. Which Schubert does in a profound way, I can’t think of anyone who does it better. Leaning into Schubert at that time took me through the valley of the shadow and out the other side,” he says, again invoking Psalm 23 — a beacon for the present time of crisis too.
“Morality” (Hodder & Stoughton) is available now
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Jonathan Sacks on musical moments
Gustav Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde, Tel Aviv (Spring 1967).
This was the only bonding trip I ever did with my father. I had just started university. He had left school at the age of 14. To avoid us growing apart, he showed me what he loved: Israel and Mahler. The music remains my memory of him.
Simon and Garfunkel, America (1968).
That was the year when it all happened. I went to America and met Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who changed my life. In Cambridge I met Elaine, fell in love and proposed just before midnight on New Year’s Eve. I associate these memories and more with this haunting song.
Beethoven, Song of Thanksgiving to the Deity from a convalescent in the Lydian mode, third movement of the op. 132 Quartet.
This is for me the musical equivalent of Psalm 30, a song of recovery and redemption. This is music as pure spirituality. When Beethoven wrote this, he was in heaven with the angels.
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