The Greatness of Torah: in Memory of Rabbi Sacks

“Moses commanded us in Torah, it is the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” (Deut. 33:4). Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l, whose Hebrew name was Ya’akov Zvi, endeavored with every fiber of his being to ensure that this inheritance would be widely and deeply transmitted to the Jews worldwide and perpetuated in the next generation. He fervently demonstrated that Torah leads to human flourishing because it is in sync with human nature. Authentic Torah “is a tree of life to those who hold on to her” (Proverbs 3:18), now as ever.  He tackled every modern attempt by contemporary secularism to undermine religion and its transmission.

Science tells us what is. Religion tells us what ought to be.” Employing his uncanny ability to make complex ideas accessible and to clarify ideas through pithy contrast, Rabbi Sacks would not allow  science to encroach on the space previously reserved for morality. He posited that   “religion needs science because we cannot apply God’s will to the world if we do not understand the world. If we try to, the result will be magic or misplaced supernaturalism…By the same token, science needs religion… for each fresh item of knowledge and each new accession of power raises the question of how it should be used, and for that we need another way of thinking.” Without minimizing the importance of science, he restored religion to its rightful place. Rabbi Sacks similarly reminded religion, that it too cannot answer all of life’s questions. With incredible clarity, he provided an organizing principle with the power to navigate life’s noise. It is this ability to explain essential life lessons that made Rabbi Sacks so sought after.

Philosophy posed the second secular challenge to Judaism by providing alternative answers to life’s moral questions. Rabbi Sacks showed that while philosophy, especially of the Enlightenment variety, might offer neat answers to the deepest questions of life, Torah offers better ones. Torah’s “Virtues may be out of fashion, but they are never out of date.” Torah remains current, without yielding to passing intellectual or moral fashions. It contains the answers to life’s deepest questions and leads to human flourishing. To ensure a coherent account of the religious life, Rabbi Sacks promoted a philosophy of Judaism. By this I do not mean apologetics. Rather, he continually demonstrated that when deeply understood, Torah offers a vision of the life well lived. Torah is Israel’s “wisdom and insight to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and insightful people’” (Deut. 4:6). The Dignity of Difference explains that Greek and Enlightenment ideas lean toward intellectual imperialism. Judaism and Torah emphasize particularism and the importance of difference and diversity. It eschews uniformity. In Rabbi Sacks’ glorious words, “The miracle of creation is that unity in heaven produces diversity on earth.”

The Torah’s approach to life is not just abstract, like the philosophies of Plato or Kant; it needs to be lived and experienced. “Descartes’ Error” is that he assumes that everything can be understood through reason. Instead, Rabbi Sacks posits that the statutes of the Torah, those mitzvot difficult to explain on a purely rational basis, are “designed to bypass the prefrontal cortex, the rational brain, and create instinctive patterns of behavior to counteract some of the darker emotional drives at work in the human mind.”

Rabbi Sacks similarly promoted the essential nature of the family, not just of the autonomous individual. His The Home We Build Together (which for me served as the sequel to The Dignity of Difference) explores how diverse communities should live in unity. At the most basic level, communities with strong families raising their children according to their values have lower crime rates and high trust. In a diverse community, unity can be achieved when these differences are respected and everyone works toward the common good. Communities of broken families have higher crime rates and lower trust. This makes it incredibly difficult to respect difference and to build a community.

Judaism’s ability to provide essential messages about the values that lead to human flourishing is not new. Rabbi Sacks demonstrated how Judaism, almost single-handedly, changed the course of history through overhauling core moral beliefs. For example, Joseph is the first person in history to forgive. This is because the Torah cultivates a guilt society, where people can accept responsibility and improve, not a shame society where people are cancelled. Similarly, monotheism led to morality. Belief in God means that life is intentional and therefore has meaning. Belief in one God means that there is a unity and coherence in the world, even if we cannot see it. In a polytheistic society, bribing the right god brought blessing, while a monothieistic one requires righteousness. Specifically, the Torah’s insistence on the evil of child sacrifice catalyzed its eventual demise, while the story of the Exodus led the Western world to abolish slavery. But Torah did not not forcefully impose these ideas, radical in their time, on others the way that Alexander the Great or Napoleon did; it acted as an Or Goyim, a “light of nations,” a beacon to demonstrate that a different, more peaceful and humane, but better way exists. This allows each nation to learn these values, but then apply them differently to their own unique character and traditions.

These few words do not do justice to Rabbi Sacks’s greatness. He enlightened, inspired and changed me, and I looked forward to reading each of his books as it came out. I am overwhelmed by his passing. In describing the humility of Moses, Rabbi Sacks explains that humility “does not mean undervaluing yourself. It means valuing other people.” Rabbi Sacks valued God, Am Yisrael and humanity. Instead of living the life of an academic philosopher, his initial choice, he dedicated his life to others and we were “surprised, uplifted, by [his] goodness.” He authentically transmitted the inheritance of Jacob.

יהי זכרו ברוך.

About the Author
Rabbi Rafi Eis is the Executive Director at the Herzl Institute.
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