Religion in the United States and England, as Influential English Rabbi Sacks Claims to See It

11/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

It's almost always beneficial to see ourselves as others see us. It can be useful whether those giving us the once- or twice-over are wearing rose-tinted glasses or glasses with tints not so rosy. And it's not only as individuals that we reap rewards but as a country. How do others see The United States, and what can be learned from another perspective?

I was thinking about this on a recent late London night when BBC One ran an address by Jonathan Sacks, the United Synagogue chief rabbi. Rabbi Sacks often speaks for Great Britain's Jewry, although factions will tell you he doesn't speak for them. Nevertheless when he speaks, he does so eloquently, as he did in the BBC One speech called "Rosh Hashanah; A More Gracious Future."

In many ways, it was the sort of positive talk a Jew -- or anyone, for that matter -- would want as the Jewish new year 5770 begins. And it was not simply Rabbi Sacks talking. He spoke in the context of an obviously expensive production that had him traveling across England to consult others.

In one especially impressive sequence, Rabbi Sacks interviewed Northern England boys of bar mitzvah age on their values and was pleased -- as many viewers must also have been -- that the youngsters didn't cotton to footballers who take home big salaries but were more intrigued by the Barcelona team players who wear Unicef logos on their uniforms and contribute to the organization.

Calling by implication for more BBC spectators to see the schoolboys as role models, Rabbi Sacks also had praise for other potential role models. Foremost was the United States, which he contrasted to his bailiwick. In Rabbi Sacks's estimation, much of what he sees in the United States as religious practice is far superior to what's happening in England. From where the rabbi stands, he sees only admirable images worthy of his countrymen and -women studying and emulating.

Watching the program (it came on at 11:05 in the evening and therefore was not primetime -- but close), I was startled. As someone who lives and works in London for close to two months every year, I wasn't used to this kind of unqualified rave review for the United States on any issue, let alone religion. I'm much more familiar with ambivalence about my country. Much is liked across Great Britain, but much is also criticized -- often rightly, I think, but just as often out of a kind of national jealousy. Indeed, I suspect the reasons for resistance to United States manners and mores go deep and are based on complicated psychological impulses difficult to undo.

But here's Rabbi Sacks lauding the United States populace for unqualified progress in religion. In the process, he wasn't taking into account contemporary drawbacks. Never once did he point out that the United States was founded on the principle of separation of church and state or acknowledge there are stateside forces today determined to undermine valuable Constitutional precepts. As far as he indicated, there's nothing occurring in the U. S. today that smacks of religious intolerance. Of course, that's patently not the case.

To me, his failure to note the negative aspects of religions as perpetuated in the United States today bordered on dangerous denial. Because Rabbi Sacks greatly influences the thinking of Great Britain's Jews -- and perhaps not only Jews -- his pronouncements concerned me. As my concern mounted, I wondered if there was anything I could do to ease it.

I wasn't, of course, about to demand a rebuttal, much less a retraction from the BBC. It did occur to me, though, that I might make my feelings known to Rabbi Sacks. I thought it would be helpful if he'd consider rethinking his assumptions and making any reappraisal(s) known, if not by Yom Kippur -- ironically, the day of atonement -- then sometime in the near future.

I went about contacting him by phoning the United Synagogue office, where I was advised to email him at another URL. I did so. I received this prompt reply: "The Chief Rabbi thanks you for your email, the contents of which have been noted. Please note that no one else has commented. Thank you for your interest in the office." It was signed by the woman whom I was told handles these affairs.

There's something hinting at a standard reply here. Although the sentence "Please note that no one else has commented" is in response to a question I'd included, the "Thank you for your interest in the work of this office" has the ring of boilerplate."

I understand Rabbi Sacks is too busy to answer every letter he receives, but I'm nonetheless hopeful he'll reconsider his unadulterated encomia. I'm equally hopeful that his sanguine view of religion in the United States isn't wide-spread at a time when serious homeland self-reassessment is required.