Sunday 15 November 2020

The Retraction of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

In honour of the memory of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, this is a re-post of an article I wrote some years ago. Rabbi Sacks had read it and had the dignity to acknowledge even thank me for it.



While walking through a Modern Orthodox institution recently, I was chatting to a colleague who noticed I was holding a copy of the book; ‘To Heal a Fractured World’, by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Being a great admirer of Rabbi Sacks, I was rather taken aback when he asked why I was reading such ‘controversial literature’. Intrigued to find out what was so contentious about the man, I discovered that in 2003, Rabbi Sacks was pressured into retracting and deleting sections of his book; ‘The Dignity of Difference’. 

Apparently, his own Beit Din had said that parts of the book were “inconsistent with basic Jewish beliefs.” 

And Rabbi Elyashiv said it was “contrary to our faith in the Holy Torah”, and was unfit to be brought into the home.

What did Rabbi Sacks say that brought about such scathing attacks?

In the ‘censored’ version, he wrote:

G-d is universal, religions are particular...G-d has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims... G-d is greater than religion...He is only partially comprehended by any faith...He exists in my faith, but also in yours.

However, this sentence had been deleted:

No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth.

Some felt that he had gone too far in accepting the ‘validity’ of other religions.

I can understand why some felt he had gone too far. There are some major and fundamental differences between Judaism and other faiths. Many of these differences are theologically and philosophically irreconcilable.

However, as an intellectual exercise, and in the interest of freedom of (Torah) expression, take a look at some very different perspectives on other religions, by some of our leading rabbinical thinkers.


Rabbi Moshe Maimonides (1135-1204) writes that in general, both Christianity and Islam pave the way for universal acceptance of Mashiach. As a result of the emergence of both these religions:

[T]he world has become full of the ideas of Mashiach, Torah and commandments, which have spread to distant lands and nations.[1]

Notwithstanding this broad and sweeping statement, the Rambam bluntly considers Christianity to be a form of idolatry. He says this in a number of different places[2], and is quite outspoken in his reference their houses of worship as:

[P]agan houses of worship without any doubt.

His view on Islam is very different:

The Ishmaelites are not idol worshippers at all and they worship the singular G-d properly and without blemish.[3] 

As a consequence of this view, Jews and Muslims have often shared the same houses of worship.

Then, in a surprising and dramatic turnaround, the Rambam adds a caveat: When it comes to social and religious interaction with members of both faiths, he says:

It is permitted to teach the commandments to Christians and to attract them to our religion, while one should not do the same with Ishmaelites.

This is because Christians accepted the authority of the Torah and never denied its authenticity. Whereas Muslims, he says, although their books describe the giving of the Torah to the Jews, consider every point of difference between them and Jews to be either a falsification of, or mistakes in, textual transmission on the part of the Jews, and that they (the Muslims) indeed have the correct tradition.

The Rambam’s view is clear albeit rather paradoxical: Christianity is idolatry. Islam is monotheistic. Yet, theologically, Christians may be engaged with in preference to Muslims because they accept the basic authority of the Torah. Yet overall, both are indispensable in terms of core principles and preparation for Mashiach.

Concerning the oft-quoted Talmudic statement that “the pious of the nations have a share in the world to come” (San.105a) -  Rambam is of the view that this is only when they declare their commitment to upholding the seven Noachide laws[4] before a Jewish Beit Din.[5] This, not being a common practice, puts a very different pragmatic spin on the popular perception of this famous statement, and is indicative of the Rambam’s uncompromising stance on the matter.

RASHBA (1235-1310):

The Rashba[6], holding a similar view to the Rambam, says that Moslems are not idol worshippers, but:

all other gentiles are considered to be idol worshippers.

THE MEIRI (1249-1315):

Rabbi Menachem haMeiri[7], on the other hand, has probably the most radically liberal view on Christianity and Islam that is to be found in all of Torah literature.  He posits that the notion of idolatry has absolutely disappeared from society (barring what he refers to as some fringes or ‘extremities’ of civilization). Idolatry, in his view, has essentially become extinct, and replaced by more developed religions, with Christianity and Islam both falling under the broad rubric of monotheistic religions. He refers to them as ‘umot ha-gedurot be-darcei ha-datot’, or ‘nations restricted by ways of religion’, as opposed to the idolaters of old who thrived on total anarchy.[8]

Jewish law does contain several references to inequality between Jews and non-Jews. For example; If a Jew’s animal damages the property of a Gentile, the Jew is not liable. But if a Gentile’s animal damages the property of a Jew, the Gentile is liable. According to the Meiri, the ‘non-Jews’ in such examples of asymmetry in Jewish law, are specifically the ancient idolaters, who lost their rights to be protected by the very laws they sought to undermine.  He says of the ancient pagans; “All these people possess no religion and submit to the fear of no divinity”. Contemporary Gentiles, however, were to be treated no different from Jews, because their religions gave them a sense of law and order.

The Meiri continues:

Discriminatory rules such as this were instituted in times when those Gentiles were devout in their idolatry. But now their idolatry has come to an end in most places, and there is accordingly no need to be stringent with them as in the old regulations.[9]

In a similar vein, the Meiri offers a remarkable explanation in his commentary to a text in the Gemara:

A Notzri (Christian) may not be traded with” -This refers (not to Christians but) to the (idolatrous) nation of Nevuchadnetzer , the Babylonian King.[10]

Commenting on the Gemara in Bava Kama, he says:

All the people who are of the nations that are restricted by the ways of their religion and worship the divinity in any way, even if their faith is far from ours, are excluded from the principle of inequality. Rather, they are like full-fledged Jews with respect to these matters, with no distinction whatsoever.[11]

Regarding the mitzvah of returning lost property, which only has to be performed to “your brother[12], and not to Gentiles, the Meiri says:

The reference is to everyone who is ‘restricted by the ways of their religion’.[13] 

Accordingly, the Meiri regards contemporary non-Jews to fall under the technical category of ‘achicha’, your brother, and ‘re’ehu’, your peer.

Again, commenting on Bava Kama, he says:

All those who follow the seven laws of Noah are treated in our courts as we are treated in theirs, and we do not accord ourselves favourable treatment. It goes without saying that the same applies to nations restricted by ways of their religion.[14]

Significantly, here the Meiri seems to regard contemporary non-Jews as having a higher status than those who merely observe the seven Noachide laws.

As demonstrated, the Meiri differs spectacularly from the view of the Rambam. So much so that some simply couldn't accept his radically tolerant outlook and insisted that he wrote these commentaries specifically for the censors in order to appease the non-Jews. The Chatam Sofer[15], for example, wrote about a Meiri text:

It is a mitzvah to wipe it out, for it did not emerge from his holy mouth.[16] 

The implication here is not just that the Meiri wrote to appease non-Jews but that his views on that issue were outright forgeries.

The interesting thing though is that the Chatam Sofer never gave any reasons for his sweeping statement[17]. And he never saw the writings of the Meiri on Bava Kama first hand, because he only quoted them through secondary sources (such as the Shita Mekubetzet in the above example). Also, he couldn't have been familiar with the Meiri on Avodah Zara (where the “nations bound by religion” concept was formulated), because it was only published in 1944, more than 100 years after his passing. Yet, notwithstanding all this, from then on, the views of the Meiri regarding non-Jews lost much of their credibility.[18]

RAMO (1520-1572):

Rabbi Moshe Isserless explains that in Jewish Law, the Trinity is considered to be “Shituff” or “partnering” G-d with another being. For a Jew, “Shituff” would be absolutely forbidden. The question is whether or not it is forbidden for a non-Jew.  The poskim (halachik authorities) are divided on this issue. As we have seen, the Rambam holds that it is forbidden even to a non-Jew, to the extent that if he practices “Shituff”, he is considered an idolater. The Ramo, however, takes a different view. He maintains that partnering G-d with another being is permitted to non-Jews.[19]

MAHARAL OF PRAGUE (1520-1609):

The Maharal[20], taking a similar tack, writes:

Anyone who accepts upon himself to worship the First Cause, falls into the category of a ‘ger toshav’[21] (a resident stranger), who is not discriminated against by the laws (as in Bava Kama 4,3).

BE’ER HAGOLAH (1596-1671):

In a similar vein, R Moshe Rivkes, commentating on the Shulchan Aruch, says that the discriminatory laws were only directed towards the:

idolaters of earlier times, who believed in neither the Exodus from Egypt nor Creation ex nihilo. But concerning contemporary gentiles...since they believe in the Exodus, Creation ex nihilo, and other fundamentals (these laws do not apply), since their intent is to the Creator.


One of the first rabbinic authorities to actually acknowledge the Meiri as a source text, was R Zvi Hirsch Chayes[22]. Fascinatingly, he is the only commentator in the Vilna Shas to hold a PhD. He writes:

Christians, who believe in religion...Torah from Heaven and in the existence of G-d, are absolutely regarded by us as ‘gerim toshavim’, and the seven Noachide laws are built into both Christian and Moslem legal systems.[23]

TORAH TEMIMAH (1860-1941):

About fifty years later, the Torah Temimah[24] writes that the discriminatory laws:

do not apply to those nations who observe the seven Noachide laws, and these are most of the contemporary nations, which are regarded as Jews in regard to these matters.[25]

RAMACH (1874-1950):

R. Chalfon Moshe haCohen[26] ruled that:

The bans[27] only applied to the idolatrous nations of ancient times. But today, when idolatry has ceased to exist in almost all parts of the world, and all the Gentile nations believe in the Creator...we make no distinction with regard to Jew and Gentile in these matters.


The first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel declared that Moslems and Christians living in a Jewish society are to be treated as ‘gerim toshavim’, with full civil liberties, just like Jews.[28] He wrote

The fundamental view is the Meiri’s. Nations bound by descent customs between man and his fellow, should be considered ‘gerim toshavim’.[29]


According to a 10th Century text from Tanna de'vei Eliyahu (ch 9):

I call heaven and earth to witness that whether man or woman, whether servant or maidservant, whether Gentile or Jew, the Holy Spirit rests upon a person according to his deed.


It is well known that throughout our history, some sensitive texts had to be amended because it was feared that the original texts would fuel anti-Semitism. However, no absolute certainty exists as to exactly which texts were amended.  We have taken a look at many texts spanning a period of almost a thousand years. Some may have been written for ‘appeasement’.  But by the same token, some must have been the authors genuine interpretations.

If one does accept the authority of even just some of these texts, the questions beg:

·        Would our modern-day ‘censors’ who confronted Rabbi Sacks, similarly want all these texts to be retracted retroactively?   

·        Would these views also be branded as “inconsistent with basic Jewish beliefs” and unfit to be brought into the home?

Submitting to the fact that our traditional opinions on other religions do differ significantly and dramatically, surely we must also submit that they all still exist within the broad framework of Torah theology. One could find many reasons to take umbrage to what Rabbi Sacks wrote. But one could also, surely, make an argument that the Chief Rabbi was drawn to his way of thinking, by much textual precedent.

I can also understand, as Rabbi Norman Bernhard used to say, that; “There is salvation outside of the synagogue.” He told me he chose the term ‘salvation’ deliberately, because of its non-Jewish connotation. Non-Jews have no need for Judaism and can and should perfectly function within their own belief systems. If another religion is relevant to another creed, why can that religion not be valid for THEM? 

In this sense, could one not also understand the context and tenor of the Chief Rabbi’s pre-censored statements - remembering that he was communicating with an international readership including people of diverse creeds, many of whom respectfully consider him to be a leading thinker of our times? 

He was speaking as a representative of Judaism to the widest of audiences and was taking full advantage of his honed ability to wax philosophical.

In the final analysis, considering that Rabbi Sacks was speaking Hashkafa (theological philosophy), writing to ‘appease’ - to create tolerance in an age of intolerance - and not to formulate or pasken Halacha (religious legalities) or look for stringencies -  was his punishment not perhaps a little disproportionate to his ‘crime’?


[1] Yad haChazakah.

[2] Hilchot Avoda Zara 9,4.  Commentary to Mishna Avoda Zara 1,3. Avoda Zara 4.

[3] Letter to Ovadya the Convert.

[4] These seven laws are: The prohibitions of committing murder, idolatry, theft, incest, blasphemy, cruelty to animals, and the injunction to establish civil court of law.

[5] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim  8:10-11.

[6] R. Shlomo ben Avraham Aderet, Torat haBayit, book 5, chapter 4.

[7] The Meiri is one of the most monumental commentators on the Talmud. Yet, interestingly, his work was largely unknown until recent times. This is why its influence has been rather minimalised because it was left out of the halachic process. Some authorities, although having great respect for him, will not rely on his teachings because of this.

[8] See “Ones possessed of Religion”, by Dr Moshe Halbertal.

[9] Beit haBechira, Avodah Zara p. 28. (Schlesinger ed.)

[10] Ibid p 4.                             

[11] Beit haBechira, Bava Kama p. 330.

[12] Deut. 22,3.

[13] Beit HaBechira, Bava Metzia, p. 100.

[14] Beit HaBechira, Bava Kama p. 122.

[15] R. Moshe Schreiber (1762-1839).

[16] Kovetz Teshuvot paragraph 90.

[17] See Kotzk Blog 48) ‘Contemporary Daas Torah’; where (unlike traditional halachic rulings), according to the Daas Torah concept, no explanations are necessary.

[18] Even the the Chatam Sofer Institute which published the Responsa Anthology (1973), while quoting our abovementioned statement, added in a note; “The words of our master ‘It did not emerge from his holy mouth’, are puzzling, for the Meiri explicitly stated this view numerous times in his works.”

[19] Darchei Moshe 2 on Orach Chayim 156. (However see Nodah BeYehuda, who says the Ramo holds that worshiping ‘beshituff’ is forbidden to a non-Jew.)

[20] R. Yehudah Loew.

[21] An interesting halachik conundrum, however, is created when a gentile is considered to be a ‘ger toshav’- because the prohibition against intermarriage with them would shift from a Torah prohibition, to that of a rabbinic prohibition. This, of course, would be halachically untenable, (unless the distinction is made that a gentile is a ‘ger toshav’ only with regard to the discriminatory laws, but not with regard to intermarriage, which would remain a Torah prohibition.)

[22] Rabbi Berel Wein calls him the R. Samson Rephael Hirsch of Eastern Europe, and says he was; “simultaneously a talmid chacham and secular scholar. He aimed to fight the haskala with its own weapons, but because of his time and place, he came under suspicion as a maskil himself. The tragic story of this misunderstood genius is the eternal story of the Jewish people, struggling to walk the tightrope between Torah and modernity.”

[23] Compendium of R' Chajes, p. 489  (published by Divrei Chachamim, 1958).

[24] R. Baruch HaLevi Epstein, a bookkeeper by profession, and author of the Torah Temimah commentary to the Torah and Five Megilot.

[25] Torah Temimah on Shemot 21,35.

[26] A leading rabbi of the island of Djerba in Tunisia. In 1943 the Nazis came to Tunisia, and demanded that Rabbi Moshe collect 50 kilos of gold in three and a half hours and hand it over to them; otherwise, they would bomb the Jewish communities of Djerba and Tunis. The next day the Allies conquered Tunisia and the Nazis were gone from Tunisia. The gold that the Jews managed to collect was not handed to the Germans. He was a great Zionist and hatched a plan to establish a League of Nations and a World Court, both of which would have their headquarters in Jerusalem.

[27] These refer to not having to return a Gentile’s lost articles and not having to return funds overpaid in monetary transactions.

[28] Iggeret 89, Mishpat Cohen 63.                

[29] Igrot ha-Raayah, 89, v. 1, p. 99 (Mossad ha-Rav Kook edition, Jerusalem, 1962). 




  1. The Ramo - and even the Mechaber, as far as I can see, appear to go further than just permitting shittuf to non-Jews. In Yore Deah 124:24, Remo he flat-out asserts that they're not idolaters, apparently on any level. (Of course, it's obvious that that's not the same as recommending that Jews adopt other faiths in any way, shape, or form!) And it's not just the Ramo: he and the Mechaber in Yore Deah 148 (which I'll quote next) quote core poskim as their sources.

    "And in this time, the nations of the world are not idolaters, therefore their contact with wine is considered unintentional...and (the wine is) permitted to be drunk (by a Jew)"
    Note the sources quoted by Ramo in the full text, along with the restriction on publication.

    הגה: ...ובזמן הזה דהאומות לאו עובדי כוכבים הם, כל מגען מקרי שלא בכונה, (מרדכי פר"י והגהות אשיר"י ומהרי"ו בהל' סי' ט"ו); ולכן אם נגע ביין על ידי דבר אחר, אף על פי שיודע שהוא יין וכוון ליגע בו, מותר אפילו בשתיה, דמקרי מגע על ידי דבר אחר שלא בכוונה; והוא הדין אם נגע, אפילו בידו, בלא כוונת מגע או שלא ידע שהוא יין, שרי. ואין לפרסם הדבר בפני עם הארץ)

    Similarly, in Yore Deah 148:12, The Mechaber wrote:

    "And some say that these matters were only meant in those times, but in our times, they are not idolaters. Therefore it is permitted to do business with them on their religious festivals, to lend money to them, and all other activities."
    Interestingly, the Ramo adds:
    "Therefore, if you enter a city and find (the non-Jews) celebrating their festival, join in their celebration because of aivah (arousing hatred)...Nevertheless, a ba'al nefesh should distance himself from celebrating with them if it's possible to do so without arousing aivah."
    When stating those positions, Ramo quotes the Tur and Bais Yosef in the name of the Ran.

    שאין כל דברים אלו אמורים אלא באותו זמן, אבל בזמן הזה אינם עובדי עבודת כוכבים לפיכך מותר לשאת ולתת עמהם ביום חגם ולהלוותם וכל שאר דברים.
    הגה: ואפילו נותנים המעות לכהנים, אין עושין מהם תקרובת או נוי עבודת כוכבים, אלא הכהנים אוכלים ושותים בו; ועוד דאית בזה משום איבה אם נפרוש עצמנו מהם ביום חגם, ואנו שרויים ביניהם וצריכים לשאת ולתת עמהם כל השנה. ולכן אם נכנס לעיר ומצאם שמחים ביום חגם, ישמח עמהם משום איבה דהוי כמחניף להם (הכל בטור). ומכל מקום בעל נפש ירחיק מלשמוח עמהם אם יוכל לעשות שלא יהיה לו איבה בדבר. (ב"י בשם הר"ן) וכן אם שולח דורון לעובד כוכבים בזמן הזה ביום אחד שיש להם סימן אם יגיע להם דורון בחג ההוא, אם אפשר לו ישלח לו מבערב; ואם לא, ישלח לו בחג עצמו (ת"ה סימן קצ"ה).

  2. In all of the commentators you bring, not one assigns a statement of truth, validity or acceptance of belief to those religions. There is a far throw between acknowledging that one can assign truth to another religion vs stating the religion, in essence, does not qualify for idol worship for example.

  3. That's clearly the case, otherwise the Jewish commentators would have stopped being Jewish and they would have followed the other religions, But they didn't. They remained Jewish - indicating that their truth, validity and acceptance of belief all lay within the scope of Judaism.