Jonathan Sacks closed his eyes and cupped his salt-and-pepper bearded chin. England’s urbane chief rabbi was asked to explain the state of Orthodox Judaism in light of the publicized censoring of books about Judaism by fervently Orthodox representatives of the "People of the Book."
Rabbi Sacks, dressed in a well-tailored black suit, carefully considered the recent incidents in which Orthodox rabbis banned "Making of a Godol," written by the fervently Orthodox Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky about his father and other sages, and forced the cancellation of a book tour by a Reform and Orthodox rabbi.
Even the British chief rabbi was not immune. His new book, "The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations" (Continuum 2003), was publicly criticized as blasphemous by some fervently Orthodox British rabbis.
Rabbi Sacks had gone too far, they said, by writing that Christianity and Islam are also valid expressions of the Divine, and Judaism is not the whole, or only, truth.
Like a biblical prophet, he had warned of a world where religious fundamentalism and anti-Semitism are dangerously rising to accept the validity of other faiths or face global chaos.
The internal Jewish spat became a public embarrassment when the British media reported that his critics forced Rabbi Sacks to alter passages.
Now several months later, Rabbi Sacks is sitting with his wife, Elaine, in the lounge of a Midtown hotel during a brief visit to promote the revised second edition.
Opening his eyes from behind rimless glasses, Rabbi Sacks explains the editorial changes, rejecting as "entirely false" news reports that he was summoned by a rabbinical court and strong-armed into revisions.
Instead, he defends his actions, done for the unity and safety of the Jewish people.
The trouble began in September when a fervently Orthodox Manchester rabbi told his congregation that "Dignity" was not fit to be brought into Jewish homes.
"Just before Sukkot I heard that two rabbis, only two, had difficulties with the book," Rabbi Sacks, 55, recalled. "They were in Manchester. I invited them to come to my house in London. They said it’s [the holiday], it’s busy, and couldn’t make it. I said fine, I’ll come to Manchester. I wasn’t summoned."
He said as soon as the critics expressed their concerns, "I said fine. We’ll do a second edition. I have no idea why there was such controversy. It was a storm in a teacup."
Rabbi Sacks, chief rabbi since 1991, believed the book’s message of religious tolerance was too important to be overshadowed by internal squabbles.
Indeed, rewriting the offending passages was "an incredibly easy thing to do. You know how long it took? Maybe three hours." He called the revisions "stylistic, not substantive" (see box).
Rabbi Sacks insists the book’s theme remains unchanged: If one is confident in his faith, he need not feel threatened by anyone else’s faith. Jew and non-Jew alike.
What he learned from the controversy is that "the world of the yeshivas and chasidism have to be respected," he said. "There’s a big split in America between Modern Orthodoxy and others. I don’t want such a split in British Jewry. I don’t want there ever to be a rift between right and center. And anything I can do to prevent or to heal it, I will. Otherwise Orthodoxy becomes very weak."
That is not to say Rabbi Sacks agrees with the incidence of book banning. While declining to discuss books he has not read, Rabbi Sacks said the ban on of "Making of a Godol" (whether or not to reveal the lives of great Jewish figures with all their human foibles) is a "deep and long-standing argument" in Jewish tradition.
"The problem in certain quarters is about how to present history," Rabbi Sacks said. "In the days of Rabbi Akiva, [2,000 years ago] the sages had the same arguments. Did Yaakov [the biblical Jacob] sin, or didn’t he? Maimonides says ‘is it better never to have any inward struggles or is it better to have struggles and overcome them.’ Which is greater?"
For Rabbi Sacks, the answer seems clear, noting that the Torah details the lives of Elijah, Jeremiah and Jonah: warts and all.
"When I read Chumash (Scripture), what impresses me is to understand how many profound emotional difficulties [Moses] faced," the rabbi said. "[God] did not leave that out, he left it in."
During an interview the rabbi, a graduate of Cambridge, frequently quotes Maimonides, Prophets and Talmudic sages but also discusses Shakespeare and the Beatles.
Asked what book banning says about the state of Orthodoxy, he responds: "If we want the world to act generously to us, I think we have to act generously to one another."
But perhaps more crucial is the external threat: the rising violence against Jews, which prompted his new book. He began writing in April 2002 after the suicide bombing in Netanya known as "the Passover Massacre."
"I felt we were in the presence of an old new phenomenon of great danger," Rabbi Sacks said.
He likened his response to that of three 19th century figures who sounded the alarm about rising anti-Semitism, including Theodor Herzl, the newspaperman and founder of Zionism.
"For them, the first response to anti-Semitism was talking to Jews: ‘Leave here, go to Israel’ was the message," Rabbi Sacks said. "Nowadays we have the State of Israel and we still have anti-Semitism. Therefore we can no longer address anti-Semitism adequately by only speaking to Jews. We have to speak to humanity as a whole. That is exactly what I did."
But unlike the secular Herzl, Rabbi Sacks argues for tolerance from a religious perspective.
"You cannot expect a religious Muslim to accept a secular argument for tolerance, but he might accept a religious one. I have had conversations with Muslims both in Great Britain and the Middle East, often in private," he said. "We are able to establish an understanding because they take very seriously people who take religion very seriously."
But the rabbi added: "Do I think it that will change the mind of a single religious extremist? No.
"What I did want to achieve was to win support amongst religious moderates in other world faiths because if they would become our allies in the fight against extremism, it is, at the end of the day, the only answer."
Is he optimistic?
"It takes time to grow a lawn, it takes time to change the human heart," Rabbi Sacks said.
Is there time?
"In the short run what ends wars is superior military force. In the long run what ends wars is the power of the ethical imagination. While we can’t hang around waiting for the long run … the long run is what we need," Rabbi Sacks said. "So you write a book like this and you hope that other people will respond and you know in time."