Britains chief rabbi tries to fend off Orthodox fury

LONDON — You can't please all of the people all of the time.

That seems to be the lesson for Britain's Orthodox chief rabbi after he published the revised edition of a controversial book.

In the second edition of "The Dignity of Difference," Rabbi Jonathan Sacks removed statements suggesting that Christianity and Islam are as valid as Judaism.

The publication of the first edition in August 2002 sparked a storm of criticism from fervently religious rabbis in Britain and Israel.

The attack culminated in an advertisement in London's Jewish Chronicle newspaper last October from two leading fervently religious British rabbis, who called the book "a grave deviation from the pathways of traditional and authentic Judaism."

Rabbi Joseph Dunner and Rabbi Bezalel Rakow demanded that Sacks "repudiate the thesis of the book and withdraw the book from circulation."

Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv of Jerusalem, one of the world's greatest living Torah scholars, backed their complaint. There even were rumors that Sacks would face charges of apostasy.

To the dismay of many British Jews, Sacks backed down and let it be known in November that he would issue a revised edition of his book — which, perhaps ironically, is subtitled "How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations."

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, director of Yakar, an Orthodox Jewish study center in London, said he is disappointed that Sacks retreated.

"I am very disappointed that the thinking side of Torah Judaism allowed itself to be bullied by the side that has no philosophical training," he said.

Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain echoed Rosen's view, calling the new edition of the book "a victory for the dinosaurs."

He said Sacks's original view "that other monotheistic religions have validity" was "normative for Judaism."

In his preface to the new edition, Sacks wrote that some people maintained "that certain passages could be understood in ways incompatible with Jewish belief.

"I believed I had guarded against this possibility by making it clear that I was writing as an Orthodox Jew, implying that any interpretation incompatible with the classic tenets of Jewish faith was misinterpretation.

"In the event, the caveat proved insufficient. Certain passages were misunderstood. I therefore decided to restate them in less problematic terms," he wrote.

Sacks's original book contained the passage, "God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to the Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims…God is the God of all humanity, but no single faith is or should be the faith of all humanity."

The new edition, published March 1, substitutes: "God communicates in human language, but there are dimensions of the divine that must forever elude us. As Jews we believe that God has made a covenant with a singular people, but that does not exclude the possibility of other peoples, cultures, and faiths finding their own relationship with God within the shared frame of the Noahide laws.

"God is the God of all humanity, but between Babel and the end of days no single faith is the faith of all humanity."

Sacks prepared an extensive list of rabbinic sources backing his position and posted them on his Web site,

He was not available for comment for this article.

A spokesman for the fervently religious Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations in London said the new edition "has taken care of the concerns."

Although the debate over the book focused on theology, historian Geoffrey Alderman says the real issue was showing who's boss.

"This was the world of Torah Orthodoxy telling Jonathan Sacks, B.A., Ph.D., that he was a very small player and they were big players," Alderman said.

Alderman, the author of a definitive history of British Jewish history, says Sacks is "trying to ride two horses" by satisfying both liberals and conservatives.

Alderman remembers talking to Sacks when he became chief rabbi in 1991.

"I told him, 'You have inherited an office weaker than it has ever been because the extremes are vastly more important than they have been in 100 years,'" he said. "And I advised him to say nothing on every subject because you can't ride both horses."

The theological controversy was not the first one raised in connection with "The Dignity of Difference."

Last summer, Sacks provoked a furor by appearing to criticize Israel in an interview with Britain's Guardian newspaper, which is considered by some to be anti-Israel.

"I regard the current situation as nothing less than tragic," he said in an interview to promote the book. "It is forcing Israel into positions that are incompatible in the long run with our deepest ideals."

Two days later, The Jerusalem Post called on Sacks to resign.

In an interview with the BBC in January, Sacks said his comment had been misinterpreted and taken out of context.

In an editorial four days later, the Guardian all but accused him of lying.

At the end of February, however, he made a five-day solidarity trip to Israel, where he was warmly received.