Erica Brown
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WWJSD? (What Would Jonathan Sacks Do?)

In his absence, I survey what he's written, recall when I learned from him, and work to shift the outsized role politics plays in our lives these days
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. (Courtesy Core18)
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. (Courtesy Core18)

We stand two weeks before another polarizing mid-term election in the United States. The United Kingdom has gone through two prime ministers in quick succession. Israelis will be going back to the polls next week for the fifth time in four years. Trust in government is eroding globally. A Pew research study conducted this year revealed that only two in 10 Americans say they trust the government to do what is right “just about always” (2%) or “most of the time” (19%). These numbers are incrementally decreasing year after year, resulting in the frightening conclusion that public trust in government is near a historic low.


“What would Jonathan Sacks do?” I ask myself. My teacher, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who died in November of 2020 and spoke with prophetic lyricism about leadership was suddenly not here to guide us as a voice for faith and ethics at a time when the world needs him most. In moments of ambiguity, he consistently found the right words to restore hope and to help us aspire to a better society. He advised David Cameron, Tony Blair, and John Major. Prince Charles (now king) mourned his death and the loss of his friendship. He was a leader of leaders.

But now he is not here. The thought that we would have need of his wisdom occurred to me most painfully on the night I found out he died. It was the Shabbat of November 7th. We were tensely awaiting the prolonged results of the American presidential elections. Being Sabbath observant, I waited for havdalah and then heard with relief that the vote had been decided. Then my daughter called me with the news. “Rabbi Sacks died,” she blurted out. I was shocked and silent. My mind quickly conflated the two events. I knew we would be entering a time of deep civil unrest, and now, the one person I trusted to guide us  — even across the Atlantic Ocean — was no longer there to provide reasoned and thoughtful direction through the uncertainty, to remind us of the better angels of our nature.

In his article in The Daily Telegraph (November 11, 2016), Rabbi Sacks understood the choppy waters of leadership we were in: “What we are witnessing is the birth of a new politics of anger. It is potentially very dangerous indeed.” More than five years ago, he predicted this political disequilibrium and the impact it would have on the public in Washington and Westminster: “The first sign of breakdown is that people stop trusting the ruling elite. They are seen as having failed to solve the major problems facing the nation. They are perceived as benefiting themselves, not the population as a whole.” Anger, he cautioned, is “a mood, not a strategy.”

His weekly column Covenant and Conversation addressed this in “The Politics of Freedom,” where he argued that Mosaic leadership was about the balance of freedom and responsibility that is shared by all equally. “Biblical Israel is the first example in history of an attempt to create a free society.” This begins with trustworthy leadership. In an interview with Professor Lynn Kaye conducted in 2016, Rabbi Sacks was asked about the American presidential election. He demurred. He was concerned about rabbis who used their pulpits to support particular candidates: “You mix religion and politics, you get terrible politics and even worse religion.” At the same time, he understood that something was amiss in current political discourse: “…I do miss the prophetic voice. Prophets were people who related faith to history, to events.” When we remove religion from political life, we also remove a humanizing voice that speaks truth to power. “There are many current issues that are religious; poverty is also a religious issue. Discrimination is also a religious issue. The difficulties women have is also a religious issue.” Elsewhere, Rabbi Sacks claimed that what society lacks today, faith can confer but politics cannot: a sense of dignity and worth for all, not just for those with wealth and power.

WWJSD? My sense is that he would, as any great teacher, turn the question around. What should we do? We should not retire the duties of citizenship when politics gets ugly. Tyranny lies just on the other side of democracy. This is when we need to strengthen civics education, to volunteer to work polling stations for free and fair elections, to lean into our own leadership and bring others along. We cannot wait for another prophetic voice to emerge. We must be that voice. We need to argue respectfully and restore trust by dispensing it. Most of all, we need to recognize the outsized role that politics plays in all of our lives that it never played before. It’s time to shrink its influence so that we can find other, meaningful and joyful ways to interact with those unlike us. Thus begins the politics of hope.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).
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