Chief Rabbi I must say, I was profoundly touched and flattered that you should have thought of inviting me to join you here this evening to mark your distinguished tenure as Chief Rabbi. It is a very sad moment for many of us who have grown to value and admire the truly extraordinary contribution you have made to our national life over the past I can hardly believe it! twenty-two years. As we were both born in the year of the State of Israel’s birth, I realize of course that we have both reached the official age of retirement but I hope yours is going to be a bit more realistic than mine!
1991 seems like only yesterday and yet the world has changed so much. It was the year they say the Cold War finally came to an end and when the first Gulf War began, with all the consequences for Britain and the Middle East. Throughout that entire time you have kept your community on a steady keel during some of the greatest political and cultural changes of our generation.
Although, perhaps more important than anything else, 1991 was also the year when Arsenal began their new season as League Champions... And then that triumph quickly turned to disaster when they were promptly knocked out of the FA Cup by Fourth Division Wrexham - a very good Welsh club. Thank goodness my younger son was too young to be aware of such a disaster! But perhaps Wrexham had “God on their side” on that occasion?!
I must say, in all that time, not only have you been a loyal Arsenal supporter, you have also been a steadfast friend. As a valued adviser, your guidance on any given issue has never failed to be of practical value and deeply grounded in the kind of wisdom that is increasingly hard to come by.
I read recently an article by you in which you explained the Talmudic ruling that a parent has a duty to teach a child a craft or trade so that he or she can one day earn a living. And you quoted Maimonides, that “The highest step and the summit of Charity’s golden ladder apart from anticipating Charity by preventing poverty is to assist the reduced fellow man either by a considerable gift or by teaching him a trade, or by putting him in the way of business, so that he may earn an honest livelihood and not be forced to the dreadful alternative of holding out his hand for Charity”. In this you reminded us of the enduring importance of charity and of doing to others as you would have them do to you. And here, again, the Jewish community sets us a remarkable example one which has made a profound difference to so many valuable causes in this country and elsewhere, as I know so well from the immense generosity I have been shown for my charities and from my involvement with, and admiration for, World Jewish Relief.
Incidentally, Maimonides must have been a remarkable character. He also said at one point “When I find the road narrow and can see no other way of teaching a well-established truth except by pleasing one intelligent man and displeasing 10,000 fools I prefer to address myself to the one man!”. In addition to all you do, you have somehow been able to write a book every year for the past twenty-two years, all of them critically acclaimed. I would single out three: “To Heal a Fractured World, The Ethics of Responsibility,” “The Home We Build Together” and “The Great Partnership.” Each of them has been a tremendously important contribution to the debate about how we live our lives and nurture positive and supportive communities. Your counsel reminds me of that of Solomon. “Those who trust in him will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love.”
But, it is, above all, that lightness of touch and elegant wit that I am sure many here tonight have cherished, just as much as the inspiration that comes from your spiritual awareness and your comprehensively informed philosophical and historical perceptiveness a feeling that goes way beyond your own community. Not only have you won the affection of four Prime Ministers, you have been a particular friend to two Archbishops of Canterbury and rightly earned the admiration of the newly retired Pope Emeritus when he visited these shores as Pope.
Within your own community I know just how hard you have worked to make a difference to the lives of young people, particularly through your work with the Union of Jewish Students who can all stand a little taller, I am sure, because of your ideas and guidance. If you add to this the countless international awards you have received, all of them a testament to your role as a brilliant ambassador for Jewish values and ethics, what becomes clear is the scope and depth of a life devoted not only to putting the British Jewish community on the world stage, but to keeping alive the essential importance of faith in an increasingly God-less age.
And running throughout your time as Chief Rabbi has been that all-important principle of which this country has long been an exponent the principle of tolerance. I sometimes fear not enough recognition is given to the rÃ´le of the faith communities in the life of our country in promoting such a critical principle, and I join with you, in mounting anxiety, at the apparent rise in anti-Semitism, along with other poisonous and debilitating forms of intolerance.
Might I just add at this point that this country owes a great debt of gratitude to the Jewish community? Their contribution to British culture, both in the past and today, is incalculable. The Bevis Marks synagogue, as you well know, is the oldest continuously functioning synagogue in Europe and Jewish Members of Parliament have long been at the forefront of the development of religious thinking. They were integral to the evolution of religious ideas throughout the Nineteenth Century which saw such a transition from the confessional attitude that prevailed at the start of it to the freedoms in religious ideas that had come to be by the end of that century. And that contribution continues to this day not least with your own considerable efforts as a modern day Jewish parliamentarian.
All three of the great Abrahamic religions are responsible for the foundations of so much that we now take for granted in our modern world not least the very existence of our moral framework. Which is why I think that they all have a role to play in helping us out of the impossible environmental and economic impasse we have created for ourselves. They are the custodians of a timeless wisdom, born out of the scripturally-rooted truths about God’s relationship with the created world which, of course, includes Humanity. Your thoughts and words, Chief Rabbi, have played such an important part in the process of reminding the world of this dangerously neglected relationship and the importance of our sense of the sacred. Not only that, but you make people think; you inspire consensus and you teach tolerance.
I have no doubt that you have been of such help in this matter because of your own tireless efforts to make the Bible and the Talmud visible amid the increasingly secular attitude that now prevails in Western culture. I can only imagine how difficult that challenge has been within your own community this is, after all, a community famed for its capacity for debate! What is it they say? Put ten Jews in a room and you’ll quickly have eleven opinions... To paraphrase Alan Bennett’s observation about being The Prince of Wales, being the Chief Rabbi is, I suspect, “not so much a position as a predicament...” I have every sympathy!
I feel sure, though, that it is probably the case that you and Lady Sacks have paid a very high price for working as you have done to reconcile differences and achieve consensus. I know it has sometimes been hard to carry the torch you were handed twenty-two years ago. And yet you have done so with such apparent ease and such dignity and devotion to the community you serve. If I may deliberately misquote Isaiah, you have been “a light unto this Nation.”
Long may you continue to keep that light burning bright with your ever more urgently needed wisdom and your unique capacity for interpreting the future through a profound understanding of the past. We all pray that you will enjoy the happiest and most fulfilling of semi-retirements and that you will do so with our affectionate wishes ringing in your ears.