Chief Rabbi Gives Masterclass in Humour

Posted on 17 August 2013

Lord Sacks retires as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation this month.

He’s probably the best orator in British public life.

Here’s an example of how speaking means combining a good script with a willingness to perform. This is how he set up his contribution to a conference on medical ethics in San Francisco. A transcript is underneath.

I love the following story about a British academic philosopher who went to the philosophical academy in Beijing to deliver.

They invited him to deliver a lecture on some very complex philosophical topic, not speaking fluent Mandarin. They arranged for him to have a Chinese interpreter.

So he came before this vast gathering of Chinese philosophers. He began his lecture, said a sentence, waited for the translator to translate.

The translator said no, no, carry on, I’ll stop you when I need to stop you.
So he went on said a second sentence.

He went on for 15 minutes.

And then the translator said, stop, I’ll say four words in Chinese to the audience.

Ha, heech, ha

And then he said.

“Carry on.”

The philosopher spoke for another 15 minutes, the translator said stop. He said four words in Chinese.

The same after 45 minutes.

And at the end of an hour, at the end of the lecture. He delivered three words to the audience in Chinese and all the audience duly stood up and filed out.

And the British philosopher went over to the Chinese interpreter and said: “I’m stunned. I have just given the most complex lecture. How on earth did you sum it up in so few words?”

And the Chinese interpreter said, very easy.

After 15 minutes, I said: “So far he hasn’t said anything new.”

After half an hour I said: “He still hasn’t said anything new.”

After 45 minutes, I said,

“I don’t think he’s going to say anything new.”

After an hour I said:

“I was right, he didn’t.”

Friends, I want to do one of the hardest things on earth, I want to try and say something new.

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