Remembering Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Who Extolled the Power of Interfaith Understanding

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who had retired as chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth when he visited the 9/11 Memorial Museum in 2016, raises both his hands as he gestures during a talk about interfaith understanding.
Photo by Jin S. Lee

In April 2016, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who died last Saturday, appeared at the 9/11 Memorial Museum, as part of our continuing series of discussion programs focused on the possibilities of interfaith understanding. By then retired as chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, Lord Sacks maintained an extraordinary level of public engagement, writing, studying, teaching, and lecturing around the world. Perhaps it was the depth of his rootedness in his own Jewish tradition that had, over the years, brought him to the pinnacle of interfaith exchange. He was revered within the Jewish community and by leaders of other faiths seeking a shared path across the landscape of belief.

His recent book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence was the starting point for the conversation he and I shared. As a thinker committed to the sacredness of foundational scripture, Rabbi Sacks sought to understand how these texts could be put to the purposes of violence, how religious fanaticism could emerge from the depths of faith.  Religion itself was not the problem, he argued. Rather, he said, “the human mind is the weapon of mass destruction.”

In this wide-angle shot, which shows audience members at the 9/11 Memorial Museum auditorium in in silhouette in the foreground,  the Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who had retired as chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth when he visited in 2016, raises both his hands as he gestures in conversation with Cliff Chanin.
Photo by Jin S. Lee

His comments at the Museum came at a moment of particular challenge to interfaith understanding. In March 2016, three coordinated suicide attacks in Brussels, Belgium, by followers of the Islamic State killed 32 people and wounded more than 300. Expressing his condolences, Rabbi Sacks recalled coming to pray at Ground Zero in January 2002 with other religious leaders, when the World Economic Forum was moved from Davos to New York, a gesture of solidarity with the US after 9/11.

Rabbi Sacks said, “It was that moment that I saw so vividly that this is the great choice of the 21st century. Religion has such power to move people. It can do that to heal or to harm, to mend or to destroy. I said at the time: 'Religion is like fire. It warms but it also burns, and we are the guardians of the flame.'”

By Clifford Chanin, Executive Vice President and Deputy Director for Museum Programs, 9/11 Memorial & Museum

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