The exceptional Judaism of Jonathan Sacks

The Prince of Wales called Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “A Light to the Nations”. Rabbi Sacks was also “a Light to the Nation” — his nation, the people of Israel.

Rabbi Sacks had a feverish compulsion to teach, to write, and to speak to others. His output was prodigious: countless books, public addresses, lectures, interviews and commentaries on the Bible, rabbinic literature, Jewish liturgy and contemporary culture. Now that more than two months have passed since his untimely death, we may be better able to distill his conception of Judaism and its place in the world.

Of his many ideas and messages, three grand themes pervade nearly all of his writing: The centrality of morality, the legitimacy of pluralism, and the imperative for Jews and Judaism to speak to the world.

Morality

Jonathan Sacks’ last book was Morality: Restoring the Common Good. He also wrote among others, Not in my Name: Confronting Religion and Violence, and To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility. His book on the weekly Torah portions is entitled Essays on Ethics. He did a series for the BBC on morality in the 21st century. Those of you who like me who regularly read his weekly Bible commentary, Covenant and Conversation, know that they were shot through with electrically charged ethical messages. And the festschrift in his honor was aptly called, Radical Responsibility.

Jonathan Sacks studied moral philosophy at Cambridge and Oxford, rebelling against the popular academic theories of subjectivism, emotivism and radical empiricism — theories that claimed moral values are neither objective nor provable, but more akin to the subjective tastes of persons and societies. However he and mentors felt deeply that moral values are real and objective, and are neither personal preferences, nor expressions of emotions, nor merely individual points of view. For him moral values were fundamental to the cosmos, to civilization, and to correct religion in general and Judaism in particular. That is why he wrote Not in God’s Name, which is a furious refutation of the legitimacy of religious violence and extremism. Rabbi Sacks knew that religious violence is not only morally mistaken; it is an intolerable theological error on an objective level. The God of the Jewish covenant, who urged his covenantal partners, Abraham’s descendants, to teach “justice and righteousness,” could not possibly support religious violence.

Throughout his works Jonathan Sacks argues strongly that morality is critical to the Jewish people, Judaism and Torah. Without ethical values, the Jewish people forfeit their role in history to be “a nation of priests and a holy people.” Shorn of ethics, individuals lose their sanctity and grandeur, known in biblical parlance as Tselem Elokim, the Image of God. Without morality, there can be no holiness.

According to Sacks’ reading of the Torah, Jews are bidden to establish morality as the core building block of their society. A Jewish society without justice, hesed, equality, respect, civility, forgiveness, commitment and responsibility to others is unworthy of its name and doomed to collapse. While this is acutely true for Jews, it is also a truth for all peoples. Ethics is at the center of all healthy societies, for without morality, our lives become, as Thomas Hobbes observed, “short, nasty and brutish.”

The Value of Pluralism

The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations—arguably Rabbi Sacks’ most important book—is a paean to human diversity. In it he boldly argues that religious differences are not the result of error or defective faith. On the contrary, religious diversity is a blessing and part of God’s plan for humanity. Sacks, it seems, agreed with Abraham Joshua Heschel that, “God is a pluralist.”

He was fond of quoting the midrash from Genesis Rabbah regarding the creation of the human species: Immediately before creating Adam and Eve, God consulted the angels. The Angel of Mercy (Rahamim) advised, “Create human beings, they will do acts of hesed (loving-kindness)”, but the Angel of Truth (Emet) pleaded otherwise: “Don’t create humans, they will be full of falsehood.” What did God do? He threw truth to the ground, splintering on impact. As Sacks explained, in the heavens above or in Plato’s realm of pure ideas there is one Truth, but on earth, where humans dwell, there are many truths.

He saw Judaism and Jewish theology as exorcising “Plato’s Ghost,” the dangerous idea that “my truth must be the truth for everyone.” He learned from his teacher Isaiah Berlin that the belief in one grand universal truth leads not to utopia, but to conflict, violence and rivers of blood. Jews know this in their flesh, since they were persecuted by every universal scheme in history, from the ancient Roman empire to medieval Christianity, to 18th and 19th century Enlightenment rationalism to Communism and Socialism in the 20th century, and to radical Islamism today. In their enduring difference Jews are the true “scandal of particularity”.

Human diversity is true not only socially, politically and morally, but also metaphysically. Uniformity, monism (the doctrine that there is one truth for all) is inhumane because human beings are made differently. Rabbi Sacks considered the famous Mishna (Tractate Sanhedrin 4:5) as teaching a fundamental truth: “The King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed be He, minted all humanity with the single template of the first Adam, and yet not one person is like another.” ֹ

Even though God created all humanity from the same prototype, no two people are identical. Human diversity is God’s will and therefore should be seen as a religious value. All efforts to flatten out human differences, to make everyone the same, produce only dehumanization and oppression.

In the realm of theology this means that no single religion has a monopoly on truth. Every religion contains a bit of divine knowledge and can teach us something about God. Rabbi Sacks saw this distinctly modern idea as basic to the original covenantal theology of the Torah and rabbinic tradition.

Significantly, human difference creates the need for covenant, of which he spoke so often. If there is only one great truth, there is no need for agreement, compromise or consultation. We only need an authority or despot to dictate that truth to everyone else. (This is the dark side of the biblical Babel and Plato’s Republic.) Yet human differences are indelible and so God entered into covenants first with Noah and humankind, and then more particularly with the Jewish people. Like God, we humans also create covenants — whether formal or informal — among ourselves. These are the humanizing institutions of marriage, community, civil society, and democracy.

While Rabbi Sacks believed in multiple truths, he held firm to his belief in the singular moral and religious truth of Judaism, the Torah and rabbinic tradition. His position on pluralism is not relativism, but a nuanced understanding sometimes entailing paradox. In fact, he claimed early on that “pluralism should be a fundamental principle of Orthodoxy.”

Of course questions quickly arise: Just how far can you take this pluralism regarding other religions? Can they all be true? And how far can you apply this generous spirit within Judaism? Can an Orthodox believer, like Rabbi Sacks, really acknowledge truth in heterodox forms of Judaism? Like the ensnared ram in the biblical akedah, Rabbi Sacks was sometimes trapped in these dilemmas, as we shall soon see.

The Imperative to Talk to the World

Rabbi Sacks believed that God gave the Jewish people a mission to the world. This is the original berit with Avraham and his descendants: “Be a Blessing—to all the families of the earth.” (Gen. 12:3) The purpose of Torah and the Jewish people is to change and improve the world. We are not supposed to be a cloistered or ghetto people.

He claimed that “to change the world, we must understand the world,” and so we must study all human wisdom. Now the fundamental assumptions in this understanding of the Bible’s theology are that Jews have a spiritual and religious imperative to speak to the world and the Torah contains truths that are critical to human flourishing. Jews are called upon to teach these values to humanity through reason and exemplary behavior.

So when Jonathan Sacks reflected on morality, difference and social commitment after reading Aristotle, Descartes and Kant, these teachings resonated with his understanding of God and the Torah. He was convinced that the most profound wisdom of Judaism applies to human experience per se and to cultures across the globe.

It was this conviction that enabled him to speak as a learned Jew to kings and queens, to popes and presidents, to archbishops, professors, intellectuals, writers, common citizens and even atheists. These people sought advice from this wise rabbi, and in sharing his wisdom he exercised enormous influence on Western high culture. Jonathan Sacks was more than a scholar: He was the foremost public intellectual of our generation.

None of this was easy, and often his mission did not go smoothly. His insistence on the centrality of morality, the legitimacy of pluralism, and the mitsvah to speak to the world, ran against the grain of much Jewish religious life. He was privately belittled by the Orthodox rabbinic establishment — his colleagues who saw themselves as more traditional and more faithful to Judaism than he was. Some even cynically dubbed him, “chief rabbi of the gentiles.” In their eyes he was too open to the world, too Anglicized and too cultured to be authentically Jewish. To them, his original sin was that he didn’t confine himself to the narrower world of Talmud, halakhah and rabbinic literature. In 2003 they forced him to retract, in Galileo-like fashion, passages from The Dignity of Difference and revise the original to conform to what they deemed more “Orthodox”, i.e., doctrinally correct. The original text was too accepting of other religions, acknowledging that they too might understand God and contain some of God’s truth. So he was forced to extend dignity to pious gentiles, but not religious truth.

This dynamic and its consequences continue today. We like to pay lip service to the idea of morality, but in our religious life Jewish ethics too often takes a back seat to ritual. In today’s religious communities uniformity and authority dominate, not diversity and tolerance. For most Orthodox rabbis, pluralism is a four-letter word; to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate it is the ultimate unthinkable sacrilege. Finally, much of Torah, mitsvot and observance today have turned inward. Our religious life tends toward isolation, with only paper-thin concern for the outside world or even with non-religious Jews. Rarely are we interested in speaking to those not like us, whether Jewish or gentile, or engaging the wider world.

* * *

One of Jonathan Sacks’ earlier books is entitled Radical Then, Radical Now. We don’t think of Rabbi Sacks as a radical — brilliant certainly, different probably, but not a radical. Yet he understood himself to be radical in the word’s original sense, from the Latin ‘radicalis’ meaning root. He saw himself as returning to the roots of Judaism and Torah: to the critical need for moral commitment, to acknowledging human diversity, and to responsibility to the world.

If you want to understand the secret of Jonathan Sacks’ passion and his compulsion to teach others, listen to his 2011 address to the Chabad shlichim (emissaries), readily available on YouTube. Toward the end he explains what underlies the legal disagreement between Rav and Shmuel found in Tractate Shabbat. Is someone allowed to use one Chanukah candle to light another Chanukah candle? Rav, with whom halakhah usually agrees, forbids such use because it would drain off some of the oil of the first candle, thus diminishing its light and weakening the status of the mitsvah. Shmuel disagrees, allowing a person to use the first candle to light another Chanukah candle. He knows that using one candle to light another creates even more light, thus enhancing the religious imperative to illuminate the world and publicize the miracle of Chanukah. Atypically, in this case Shmuel’s opinion became the accepted halakhah.

Rav Sacks understood that this metaphor was perfect for the Chabad shlichim, who leave their safe intimate monolithically religious communities to go to far-flung places around the world to teach, illuminate and spread sanctity to Jews wherever they are. They are living proof that Shmuel’s opinion is spiritually correct.

This truth also applied to Jonathan Sacks, yet he went further than the Chabad emissaries. He spread holiness not only to Jews, but by teaching Judaism as he knew it, he lit up wider culture and humanity.

He saw in contemporary culture and politics a fracturing, a breakdown of common moral values, and an undermining of civilization and freedom. (One chapter in Morality is “The Death of Civility.”) So he taught far and wide about the Jewish values of morality, diversity, and our responsibility to society.

Prince Charles was correct. Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was a light to the Jewish people, as well as to all people in the world.

Yehi zichro barukh — May his memory be a blessing to all of us.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn is the former Academic Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding in Jerusalem, and senior research fellow at Bet Morasha of Jerusalem’s Institute for Religion and Society. His forthcoming book, "To Be a Holy People: Jewish Tradition and Ethical Values" will appear in 2021.
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