Jonathan Sacks delivers a beautiful treatise.

In November 2014 Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the UK and Commonwealth, addressed Humanum: The Complementarity of Man and Woman. The conference was held in the Synod Hall at The Vatican.

Austen Ivereigh, writing in Catholic Voices Comment, describes his speech as the standout and supplies a full transcript. Apparently the audience was brought to its feet. What particularly caught my eye was Ivereigh’s claim that Sacks used ‘dazzling oratory’. Shall we see whether we agree?

Sacks is in huge demand as a speaker, which is hardly surprising when he is one of the world’s foremost spiritual leaders. Why then has he failed to master possibly the most important skill connected with the process of public speaking (and in many ways the easiest)? Why is he wedded to his script? Why does he think he is unable to shoot the whole thing from the hip?

I worded that last sentence carefully. He is able to dispose of his script – anyone is. He merely thinks that to do so is beyond him. Or, perhaps more likely, he believes that to do so would be too great a risk to be undertaken in a circumstance as important as this. Possibly he has assembled for himself a great many reasons to justify that bloody paper, but they are all wrong.

This is a beautiful treatise, wonderfully put together and argued. It deserves so much better than to be delivered by the top of a head. If you want to get some idea of how good it would have been, then watch carefully and feel how the sun comes out on the all-too-few and all-too-short occasions he lifts his face, bypasses that wretched script, and just speaks with us.

It should all be like that, and it so easily could be.

One of his rationalizations for the script probably concerns timing – it’s a commonly offered excuse. It didn’t work though. I’m assuming a half-hour slot that over-ran by nearly a minute and a half. Furthermore he knew it was going to: why else was he rushing – particularly in the early stages? And that was never going to work either: speaking more quickly and truncating pauses sounds wrong and makes a negligible difference to running time. The only way to save time is ruthlessly to cut something out. Murdering part of your own creation is difficult, though never hurts as much in the execution as in the expectation. After the deed is done, the missing bit is quickly forgotten. Ten minutes later you’ve forgotten where it was.

My frustration over Sacks’ reading of this speech reaches its peak when he does. The passion with which an auxesis heralds his peroration  at around the turn of the 26th minute merely makes his script an even more unwelcome impediment. And then finally he turns to a re-interpretation of three verses from Genesis. Now at last his face lifts to us and, in the main, stays there. I described this earlier as the sun coming out, but still it keeps going behind the clouds. The final couple of minutes of this speech would have been sublime – if not marred by those eyes still occasionally flickering unnecessarily downward instead of holding ours.

Was this dazzling oratory, as claimed by Austen Ivereigh? Not unless you enjoy drinking champagne through a veil.

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