The world has lost a giant, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. May his memory be for a blessing and may his wisdom be a legacy from which we continue to learn.
His final book, Morality, is riveting, its prose sings like poetry. Within its pages, he expressed concerns about many contemporary issues we wrestle with today. His observations, insights, and lessons are illuminating.
Rabbi Sacks loved God and the family, the foundation upon which he built his life and his blueprint for living a moral life. But he found it worrisome that both the foundation and its plan are being subverted. He expressed concern over the ever-increasing loss of faith, the fragility of family, the solitude of social media, the divisiveness of identity politics, unsafe safe spaces, public shaming, subversion of human dignity, and the diminution of morality.
He waxes eloquent when he describes that our common humanity is characterized by a diversity of dreams and yearnings. There are those who dream of an imaginary utopian world while the others yearn for that golden age of yesteryear, that never was. Although reaching utopia and yesteryear are beyond our grasp, we can still strive to achieve them without falling victim to the punishment of Sisyphus. Dreaming of tomorrow releases unfettered possibilities, yearning for yesteryear secures us steadfast to the bedrock of experience. Without the former we have no future and without the latter we have no past. To make us whole, we need both.
Concerned about the emergent age of intolerance, Rabbi Sacks disapproves of the demonization of others just because their views do not agree with the prevailing sentiment of the group. Universities, once the bastions of free speech, have become ivory towers of cultural conformity. They have retreated into safe spaces with like-minded thinkers, thus shunning individuality and shutting free thinkers out. The consequences are often devastating, loss of family, friends, jobs, and the respect of those who you care for the most.
He assures us that for every opinion there is always a source that will contradict yours, but that does not negate the validity of your opinion. The opposite is true as well, finding a source that supports your opinion does not mean it is correct. Sometimes there is a clash between right and right; a difference of two incompatible ideas. As George Orwell wrote, “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.
Rabbi Sacks shared his profound wisdom in passionate prose in an opus of love he bequeathed to us. He advised that in today’s overheated political climate knowing the difference between arguing for truth or arguing for victory is fundamental to honest debate. If you argue for truth, and lose, you are also victorious because you have learned the truth. Failing to recognize that sometimes our allies have faults, and our adversaries have virtues, is a failing in us. On the other hand recognizing our common humanity and behaving accordingly is the essence of “Morality” and ultimately will bring us closer to understanding the answer, not to “What is the meaning of life”, but rather “What meaning do I bring to my life?”