THE former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks has been awarded the 46th Templeton Prize, it was announced this week. He described it as “one of the greatest moments of my life”.
Lord Sacks, who is 67, used his acceptance speech to defend the place of religion in the public square, and to warn that “If religion is not part of the solution, it will assuredly be part of the problem, as voices become ever more strident, and religious voices ever more violent.”
As Chief Rabbi from 1991 to 2013, he urged adherents of his own faith to “turn religion outward. . . At times of great turbulence and change, cultures can become hedgehogs. They roll up and focus all their energies inward, presenting only sharp, prickly spines to the world outside. . . Faith should be the great antidote to fear.”
Jews in mainland Europe “undeniably feel under threat”, he said on Monday. By devoting time to broadcasting and writing for the general public, he had helped them to “feel that the wider world did value a Jewish message and Jewish presence”. Jewish students on some British university campuses felt “intimidated”, he said.
Asked about recent debates about freedom of speech on campuses, he said: “If John Stuart Mill could see what has happened to free speech in Britain, he would be horrified. . . Germaine Greer suffered, and everyone suffers from this. This is thought control, and unacceptable.”
He spoke warmly of atheists, including his doctoral supervisor, Sir Bernard Williams (“I learned a great deal from him”), and Sir Isaiah Berlin, who was “probably agnostic” but asked him to officiate at his funeral. “You learn more from people who disagree with you than those who agree,” he said.
Knighted in 2005, and made a life peer, he has sat in the House of Lords since 2009. “The thing I am most passionate about is that [the Lords] should see its function not just as a revising second legislation chamber, but also as the place where some central conversations take place about the kind of society we seek to create for our grandchildren not yet born,” he said.
The prize, which is valued this year at £1.1 million, honours a living person “who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works”. Lord Sacks is the third Jewish recipient.