Jonathan Sacks

Seven Principles for Maintaining Jewish Peoplehood

Starting today (Sunday) with the Fast of Tammuz, we begin a period in the Jewish calendar known as The Three Weeks, culminating in the 9th of Av. During this period we recall the tragedies throughout history that have befallen the Jewish people, many of which, according to the Sages, were brought about as a result of sinat chinam, baseless hatred and discord between individual Jews and within the Jewish people.

Jews are an argumentative people. We say “The Lord is my shepherd” but no Jew was ever a sheep. I remember once having a dialogue with the late and great Israeli novelist Amos Oz who began by saying, “I’m not sure I’m going to agree with Rabbi Sacks on everything, but then, on most things, I don’t agree with myself.”

Ours is the only civilisation I know whose canonical texts are anthologies of arguments. The prophets argued with God; the rabbis argued with one another. We are a people with strong views – it is part of who we are. Our ability to argue, our sheer diversity, culturally, religiously and in every other way, is not a weakness but a strength. However when it causes us to split apart, it becomes terribly dangerous because whilst no empire on earth has ever been able to defeat us, we have, on occasions, been able to defeat ourselves.

It happened three times. The first was in the days of Joseph and his brothers when the Torah says, “They could no longer speak peaceably together.” The brothers sold Joseph as a slave and yet eventually they all, as well as their grandchildren, ended up in slavery. The second followed the completion of the first Temple. Solomon dies, his son takes over, the kingdom splits in two. That was the beginning of the end of both the Northern and the Southern Kingdoms. The third was during the Roman siege of Jerusalem when the Jews besieged inside were more focused on fighting one another than the enemy outside. Those three splits within the Jewish people caused the three great exiles of the Jewish people.

How then do we contain that diversity within a single people, bound together in fate and in destiny? I think there are seven principles.

PRINCIPLE 1: Keep talking

Remember what the Torah says about Joseph and his brothers: “Lo yachlu dabro leshalom”. “They couldn’t speak to him in peace.” In other words, Reb Yonason Eybeschutz says, had they kept speaking, eventually they would have made peace. So, keep talking to one another.

PRINCIPLE 2: Listen to one another

There is good news about the Jewish people and bad news. The good news is we are amongst the greatest speakers in the world. The bad news is we are among the world’s worst listeners. “Shema Yisrael” calls on us to listen to one another in a way that we can actually hear what our opponent is saying. If we do this, we discover it is not just a powerful way to avoid conflict, but profoundly therapeutic as well.

PRINCIPLE 3: Work to understand those with whom you disagree

Remember why the law follows Hillel as against Shammai. According to the Talmud, Hillel was humble and modest; he taught the views of his opponents even before his own. He laboured to understand the point of view with which he disagreed.

PRINCIPLE 4: Never seek victory

Never ever seek to inflict defeat on your opponents. If you seek to inflict defeat on your opponent, they must, by human psychology, seek to retaliate and inflict defeat on you. The end result is though you win today, you lose tomorrow and in the end everyone loses. Do not think in terms of victory or defeat. Think in terms of the good of the Jewish people.

PRINCIPLE 5: If you seek respect, give respect

Remember the principle of the Book of Proverbs: “As water reflects face to face, so does the heart of man to man.” As you behave to others, they will behave to you. If you show contempt for other Jews, they will show contempt to you. If you respect other Jews, they will show respect to you.

PRINCIPLE 6: You can disagree, but still care

Jews will never agree on everything, but we remain one extended family. If you disagree with a friend, tomorrow they may no longer be your friend. But if you disagree with your family, tomorrow they are still your family. In the end, family is what keeps us together, and that is expressed best in the principle “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh”, All Jews are responsible for one another. Ultimately, I do not need you to agree with me, I just need you to care about me.

PRINCIPLE 7: Remember that God chose us as a people

God did not choose only the righteous, He chose all of us. We stand before God as a people, and it is as a people that we stand before the world. The world does not make distinctions. Antisemites do not make distinctions. We are still united by a covenant of shared memory, of shared identity, of shared fate, even if we do not share the exact same faith.

So the next time you are tempted to criticise another Jew, or walk away from a group of Jews that you think have offended you, make that extra effort to stay together, to forgive, to listen, to try and unite, because if God loves each of us, can we try to do anything less?

About the Author
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (1948-2020) was a global religious leader, philosopher, the author of more than 25 books, and moral voice for our time. He served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. Rabbi Sacks passed away in November 2020. His series of essays on the weekly Torah portion, entitled "Covenant & Conversation" will continue to be shared, and distributed around the world,
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