News

Heythrop College presents Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks with an honorary degree

08/12/2006

The University of London, through Heythrop College, last week awarded Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks an honorary doctorate of Divinity in recognition of his outstanding contribution to religion in public life at a ceremony also attended by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.

The Cardinal congratulated Sir Jonathan Sacks following the presentation of the honorary degree to the Chief Rabbi by Heythrop principal John McDade SJ.

“It is a sign of the growing respect between Catholic Christians and Jews that it now seems to us perfectly natural that a College in the Roman Catholic tradition should acknowledge the contribution of the Chief Rabbi to religious and intellectual life in this country,” said the Cardinal.

“This is the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Nostra Aetate, one of the most significant documents of the Second Vatican Council, dealing with the relations of Christians and other religions, but particularly our relations with the Jewish people. Nostra Aetate means ‘in our time’ and as you know, spoke about the continuing spiritual bonds between the Church and those who were the first to receive the Word of God. The remarkable speed and depth of the change is one of God’s acts among us: Catholics now think of themselves as related positively to Jews and their God-given mission to the world.”

John McDade spoke of the Chief Rabbi’s distinguished engagement with the public square, particularly his ability as a gifted communicator to make complex issues intelligible for the general public without reducing them to banality.

“In his writings, Rabbi Sacks has argued that unless they are very attentive, the different religious communities will be weakened by the prevailing liberal, secular culture which accommodates them,” said Fr McDade.

“Religious communities think that they are influencing the secular world around them, but often the truth is that they are being re-shaped in another form and that is not good for them; nor is it good for society which depends for its spiritual energy on the distinctive contribution which religious traditions alone can make. We need, he argues, a community of communities, each centripetally strong, in touch with its rich tradition and core identity.”

For further information contact
Alexander DesForges 020 7901 4807

Picture of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks and Fr John McDade SJ

Full speeches of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor and Fr John McDade SJ below.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s speech in honour of Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks

Heythrop College Presentation Ceremony 6th December 2006
I am delighted to be here today and to offer my congratulations to the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, on the award through Heythrop College of this honorary doctorate of the University of London. It is a sign of the growing respect between Catholic Christians and Jews that it now seems to us perfectly natural that a College in the Roman Catholic tradition should acknowledge the contribution of the Chief Rabbi to religious and intellectual life in this country.

This is the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Nostra Aetate, one of the most significant documents of the Second Vatican Council, dealing with the relations of Christians and other religions, but particularly our relations with the Jewish people. Nostra Aetate means ‘in our time’ and as you know, spoke about the continuing spiritual bonds between the Church and those who were the first to receive the Word of God. The remarkable speed and depth of the change is one of God’s acts among us: Catholics now think of themselves as related positively to Jews and their God-given mission to the world.

Chief Rabbi, you will know that the one who led the Church so strongly in this matter was the late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, a man whose boyhood friendship with Jews led him to understand and respect them in a profound way. In 1982, he said that Christianity and Judaism are ‘linked together at the very level of their identity’, and he said that this unique relation is ‘founded on the design of the God of the covenant’.

What a simple and revolutionary statement for a Pope to make. Perhaps, the Pope was telling Christians, God wants the witness of the Jewish people to accompany the witness that Christians are called to give. And if that is so, then Jews and Christians are meant together to be a blessing to the world. But they can be a blessing to others only if they are a blessing to one another. I hope you will see this doctorate as a sign not only of our respect for you as a religious leader, but also of our regard for the people whom you represent so well.

During the dark days of the Second World War, a Jewish couple in Poland, sensing that they were going to be caught in a destructive whirlwind of evil, asked their Christian neighbours to look after their little son until they came back. But if they didn’t come back, they were to send their son to members of their wider family in America. Like so many million others, they did not come back. After the war, the Christian couple went to their parish priest and asked his advice: should we keep the child and raise him as a Catholic or should we send him to his Jewish relatives in New York? The priest insisted that they send him to America, which they did. He grew up there and eventually became a rabbi. A remarkable story, you’ll agree, a small moment in history of a rare Christian respect for Jewish distinctiveness, which I know has been a theme in so many of your writings, Chief Rabbi. What we should also remember is that the name of the parish priest in this story was Karol Woytila, who went on to become Pope John Paul.

So, Sir Jonathan, this is a happy day for us, for you too as you receive this doctorate as a recognition of your contribution to the religious and public life of this country, and for the Heythrop College and the University of London which are graced today by your presence. Thank you very much for all that you have done for all of us.

Speech in Honour of Sir Jonathan Sacks, at the award of an Honorary Doctorate from the University of London
Heythrop College Presentation Ceremony
6th December 2006

With some trepidation last week we read the account of the ceremony at St James’ Palace celebrating the 350th anniversary of the re-establishment of the Jewish Community in Britain by Oliver Cromwell. (They had been expelled by King Edward 1st in 1290.) The Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, presented her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, with a menorah, the symbol of light, timed to coincide with Hannukah, the Jewish Festival of Light later this month. During the ceremony there was a powercut and the room was plunged into darkness. According to reports, the Queen ‘remained professional and continued talking to her guests in the dark’. We have no doubt that Sir Jonathan remained equally unperturbed. We have to tell you, Sir Jonathan, that Senate House is being rewired at the moment. If anything untoward should happen, remain calm. It’s nothing that you’ve done. It’s nothing personal.

But our ceremony today is very personal. The University of London, through Heythrop College, is recognising the outstanding contribution which Sir Jonathan has made to religion in public life. He became Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth in 1991, only the sixth holder of that post since 1845. Chief Rabbis, it seems, live a long time. Is it said of them, as it used to be said of Karl Barth, the great Swiss Calvinist theologian, that God let him live so long so that God could find out more about himself? If so, then long may that conversation continue, now and in the life of the world to come.

Rabbi Sacks’ engagement with the major social and economic issues of our time is unique in the modern rabbinate and is distinguished by a breadth of concern that ranges from globalisation to the well being of the family. He is formidably well equipped in philosophy, politics and sociology and takes a prominent role in Britain’s intellectual life. He is a gifted communicator, unusually able to make complex issues intelligible for the general public without reducing them to banality. He is also a fine rabbinic scholar with a particular expertise in Jewish philosophy.

His undergraduate studies had been in Philosophy at Cambridge – one of his friends at that time was Professor Graham Zellick, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of London and a Fellow of Heythrop College, and a distinguished lawyer, present here today to see that justice is done – and his postgraduate studies were at Oxford and King’s College, London. Sir Jonathan, at Heythrop we have a particular regard for this conjunction of philosophy, theology and religion: as you have shown in your many writings, often the key factor in an important matters is philosophical and it is only by dealing with it in those terms that clarity and depth of engagement emerge.

Before becoming Chief Rabbi, from 1984 until 1991 Sir Jonathan Sacks had been Principal of Jews' College, London, the world's oldest rabbinical seminary, as well as rabbi of the Golders Green and Marble Arch synagogues. Jonathan Sacks has sought to persuade religious communities that they must learn to exercise public responsibility in a plural society, rather than retreating into their own particular enclaves. He has argued passionately that in responding to each other each faith must learn to affirm the dignity of difference of the other and recognise that God is close to all of us. This does not mean compromising our own truth claims: it is a vital public responsibility and a source of great spiritual enrichment for all concerned.

In his writings, Rabbi Sacks has argued that unless they are very attentive, the different religious communities will be weakened by the prevailing liberal, secular culture which accommodates them. Religious communities think that they are influencing the secular world around them, but often the truth is that they are being re-shaped in another form and that is not good for them; nor is it good for society which depends for its spiritual energy on the distinctive contribution which religious traditions alone can make. We need, he argues, a community of communities, each centripetally strong, in touch with its rich tradition and core identity. He writes as a Jew who, precisely through his commitment to Judaism, is led outward to the realities of a multifaith and globalized world.

Society, he frequently argues, is a ‘shared moral project’ (Faith in the Future, 53); he recognizes that, and I quote, ‘at a certain point in the history of civilizations, a moral consensus breaks down.’ We may now be in a situation ‘in which the law no longer reflects moral consensus, because there is no consensus for it to reflect’.

In his discussion about how we might avoid a disastrous moral relativism on the one hand and a libertarianism which insists that morality is only a private affair – the two unacceptable options that increasingly people, make today – Rabbi Sacks recommends the necessity of conversation. And I quote:

The answer is conversation -- not mere debate but the disciplined act of communicating (making my views intelligible to someone who does not share them) and listening (entering into the inner world of someone whose views are opposed to my own). Each is a genuine form of respect, of paying attention to the other, of conferring value on his or her opinions even though they are not mine. In a debate one side wins, the other loses, but both are the same as they were before. In a conversation neither side loses and both are changed, because they now know what reality looks like from a different perspective…. That is how public morality is constructed in a plural society – not by a single dominant voice, or by the relegation of moral issues to the private domain of home and local congregation, but by a sustained act of understanding and seeking to be understood across the boundaries of difference. (The Dignity of Difference p.83)

Rabbi Sacks argues strongly that the particular covenant with God makes with the Jewish people is the condition of difference that permits other peoples to be different. When God turns to one people and commands it to be different, he teaches humanity to make space for difference. ‘God,’ he says, ‘may at times be found in the human other, the one not like us’ (Dignity of Difference, 53). By exploring ‘the dignity of difference’, Rabbi Sacks puts forward an idea that has religious significance, but that is also a primary perception of the natural and human world, which he describes as ‘a complex interactive ecology in which diversity – biological, personal, cultural and religious – is of the essence.’ (Dignity of Difference, 22)

Sir Jonathan, Catholics are quite good at recognizing the exercise of a magisterium, a religious teaching authority. We have a sense of when it is happening. So it is not difficult to see in your work the exercise of an important Jewish magisterium, continuing the great contribution which the Jewish people have made to human well being and to God’s plan. We are delighted that you are here today to receive recognition from the University of London for the quality of your intellectual and spiritual contribution to religion and public life.

Vice Chancellor, I request you to admit the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, to the degree of Doctor of Divinity honoris causa.