'No Jew worthy of the name gives up hope'

Caroline Wyatt
Religious affairs correspondent
@CarolineWyatton Twitter

  • Published
Media caption,
Lord Sacks talks to Caroline Wyatt about how to deal with so-called Islamic State, and the state of Judaism in the UK

Former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth Lord Sacks has been awarded the Templeton Prize, worth over £1m, in recognition of his contribution to the spiritual dimension to life.

Lord Sacks, 67, a familiar voice on BBC Radio 4, does not believe science and religion live in opposition to one another - rather that "science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean."

In a secular age, Lord Sacks has been credited with leading a revitalisation of Britain's Jewish community during his service as Chief Rabbi from 1991 to 2013, and urging Britain's Jews to share the ethics of their faith with the broader community.

He promotes respect for all faiths, and argues that recognising the values of each faith is the only way to combat successfully the global rise of violence being committed in God's name.

"Religion, or more precisely, religions, should have a voice in the public conversation within the societies of the West, as to how to live, how to construct a social order, how to enhance human dignity, honour human life, and indeed protect life as a whole," he said.

"Each religion, and each strand within each religion, will have to undertake this work, because if religion is not part of the solution it will assuredly be a large part of the problem as voices become ever more strident, and religious extremists ever more violent."

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Mother Teresa was the inaugural winner

Templeton Prize:

  • Founded in 1972 by the late philanthropist Sir John Templeton and awarded each year to honour the person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming the spiritual dimension of life.
  • Former recipients include Mother Teresa, who received the inaugural prize in 1973, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1983), and philosopher Charles Taylor (2007).
  • Last year's prizewinner was Canadian theologian Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche, an international network of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers.
  • The 2014 laureate was Czech priest and philosopher Tomas Halik, following Desmond Tutu, the former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, in 2013, and the Dalai Lama in 2012.
  • In nominating Rabbi Sacks for the prize, former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey wrote: "There are public intellectuals and religious leaders, but few who are both at the same time. There are academic scholars and popular communicators, but he is both, reaching out far beyond his own constituency through the spoken, written and broadcast word."

His most recent book, Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence, examines the causes and the possible solutions for extremist interpretations of faith. For many years, he says, people thought religion and the spiritual "would wither and die, and we'd all end up being secular or atheist or agnostic".

So why hasn't it?

"There are three questions any reflective individual will ask in the course of a lifetime: Who am I? Why am I here? How, then, shall I live?" he says.

"Those questions can't be answered by science or resolved by technology, or dealt with by market economics and the liberal democratic state. They're questions about meaning - and ultimately they are religious questions."

I ask him whether - in a lifetime of study and teaching - he has come to any answers on the biggest questions, and he laughs.

"I'm about to simplify what is probably the most complex subject in the universe: that the God who created the universe in love and forgiveness asks us to love and forgive others."

'Bad things'

So how does he explain the rise in violence being committed in the name of God in so many countries in the world?

"In many areas, there were secular revolutions and secular nationalisms, which, to many people, seemed to fail to deliver either prosperity or freedom," he says.

"We are seeing a kind of series of religious counter-revolutions, done in the name of some very, very extreme religious attitudes very hostile to the modern world. Throughout history, when religion has become allied to the pursuit of power, bad things happen."

Lord Sacks believes religious counter-revolution cannot be quelled by either military or political means alone.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The so-called Islamic State is thought to have targeted the Shia population in a twin suicide bomb attack in Beirut last November

"Radical religion of any kind, certainly radical Islamism, is the result of decades of effort of constructing educational institutions globally to put forward a very extreme version of Islam.

"The only response is to devote the same time and the same effort to educating young people to a different approach to religion altogether.

"The one that I've advocated is to say monotheism isn't about one God, one truth, one way. The miracle of monotheism is that unity up there creates diversity down here.

"Educate young people in that way, and then you generate another kind of idealism: an idealism that warms instead of an idealism that burns."

Lord Sacks says that when religion seeks power, it can become dangerous, as history and recent years have shown.

"Whenever religion invades the territory of politics, it finds that not only can it not resolve the differences between its faith and other faiths, it can't even resolve the internal schisms within its own faith. And the end result is sectarianism of the worst kind, and then you get a civil war within a faith."

He compares the current split between Shia and Sunni Islam to conflict in Europe between Protestants and Catholics in the 16th and 17th Centuries.

"The only thing you can do is to develop a counter-idealism that speaks to the real passions of young people today. Many of them are searching for meaning," he says.

"They don't find it in a culture that's terribly materialistic: they want ideals, and we have to make sure that the messages that deliver a set of ideals about inclusiveness and tolerance and respect for the other are as powerful and altruistic as the hate-filled messages that are hitting young people through the internet all the time."

Worrying times for Jews

Lord Sacks says these are worrying times for Europe's Jewish minority, with many Jews leaving France, Belgium, Holland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

In 2007, he visited leaders in Europe to warn that Jews were beginning to ask whether there was a future for them in Europe.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Jewish sites in France received military protection after last year's attacks

"That is one of the most shocking things I have ever had to do in my lifetime. To think of Europe without Jews within living memory of the Holocaust and of all the countries of Europe saying, 'Never again.'"

"One of the things that happens in an age of global communication is that a conflict anywhere can become a conflict everywhere. And so we import some of the tensions of the Middle East into the streets of London.

"That is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. Instead of importing conflict from the Middle East, we should be exporting values like British co-existence from here to there."

So, despite the rise of radical religion in many countries, does he remain an optimist?

"Optimism is the belief that things are getting better. Hope is the belief that if we work hard enough, together we can make things better.

"No Jew who is mindful of Jewish history can be an optimist. But no Jew worthy of the name ever gives up hope."

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