January 13, 2014
Return of the Exilarch, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
For over a millennium, the Jews of Babylon and by default, the rest of the Jewish Diaspora had titular religious leadership in the form of the Exilarch, the Resh Galuta (Head of the Exile). Often it was a political appointment, at times it was a role empty of any substance, more one of pomp and ceremony. However, there were many great Exilarchs who indeed provided much needed central leadership to the far-flung Jewish people. Some of the greatest scholars in history served as Exilarchs. They were often the only intermediary between the Jewish people and capricious rulers. The Exilarch spoke out on behalf of the Jewish nation, representing them, explaining our different customs and ways, seeking out the well-being of all Jews, everywhere.
There has not been an Exilarch for almost 900 years. The growing separation and fragmentation of the Jewish people throughout the world would argue against such a fanciful possibility. However, today I heard our Exilarch speak, and his name is Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.
Upon his recent retirement from serving as Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, Rabbi Sacks announced his plans to move to New York and teach at both Yeshiva University and New York University. I read an article bemoaning his decision – claiming he should have made Israel his residence. I have no doubt Rabbi Sacks would have made a significant impact on the Israeli scene, and he may yet do so, but I believe he will have an even greater impact (for now) centered in what is arguably the current foci of the Jewish Diaspora.
I recall once being asked rhetorically why there were so many Rabbis in New York and so few in New Zealand. The answer: because New York is where the Jews are.
On the international stage, Rabbi Sacks has been undoubtedly head and shoulders above almost any other Rabbi living today, in terms of influence, reach, prestige and ability to connect and communicate with the general world. He is one of our greatest orators, thinkers, writers and statesmen. He is on a first name basis with some of the greatest intellectual, political and religious figures of our time.
But what impressed me today, was how far Rabbi Sacks has reached in representing us to the general world. He was interviewed by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. I can’t think of any other rabbi of Rabbi Sacks’ caliber that is so presentable, so honorable, so understandable, that shows Jews and Judaism in such a favorable light, to such a global audience as Rabbi Sacks does.
Rabbi Sacks is too modest and self-deprecating to admit to such an incredible and historic service of the Jewish people. But those closest to him should. They should realize the jewel, the gift and the still untapped potential Rabbi Sacks represents for the positive representation and improved organization and even association of the Jewish Diaspora. He is already doing this to a great extent, in a way that works well for our fragmented, decentralized, social-media driven, Twitter/Facebook/YouTube reality. But as I am sure we all realize, there is much more that can and should be done.
In his time in the Office of the Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Sacks reached monumental achievements. It is perhaps too high a goal, too lofty a dream, too naïve a hope – but I believe that not only is the Office of the Exilarch possible, not only do the Jewish communities of the world need to reengage with each other under a banner of brotherhood, understanding and common purpose – but it is necessary. We can no longer afford to march individually into the night.
Long Live the Exilarch!