Interfaith Insight - 2020
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Great Britain, died
on Nov. 7, at age 72, following a cancer diagnosis the previous
month. He had been treated for cancer twice in previous years.
Author of over 20 books and hundreds of broadcasts and talks, Rabbi Sacks was considered a major leader in religious thought not only for Judaism, but also for the inclusivity of all religious perspectives, as we seek to learn from difference as well as from a deep appreciation of one’s own faith heritage.
His influence on me has been particularly profound as I followed his daily postings and read many of his books. In a quick review of my previous Insights, I find over 25 columns have referred to and quoted him, including six during this current year. It was my privilege to have met him during my first extended stay at Cambridge University in 2013, and to hear him lecture and then interact with the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who was in his first year as Master of Magdalene College at Cambridge.
Sacks had studied philosophy at Cambridge in the 1960s and at the age of 19 took what he called his “Greyhound tour” of America seeking both academic and spiritual direction. It was on this trip that two rabbis in New York City greatly influenced him. One he describes as having challenged him to think; the other challenged him to lead. So he returned to England to devote himself to study and leadership through further study to become a rabbi. He was ordained in 1976 and later completed his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of London. Following a series of leadership positions at several prominent Orthodox synagogues in London, he was named chief rabbi in 1991, a position he held for 22 years.
Rabbi Sacks was widely recognized in religious, secular, and political communities for his writing and leadership, especially as he interpreted the Jewish vision in ways faithful to its tradition but open to the insights from other faith traditions.
Rabbi Sacks was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2005 and given a life peerage that brought him to the House of Lords in 2009. He was close to former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who said of the rabbi that he “had the rarest of gifts — expressing complex ideas in the simplest of terms,” and called him “a man of huge intellectual stature but with the warmest human spirit.”
Sacks’ latest book, published earlier this year, “Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times,” introduces what he calls the “Cultural Climate Change." It is a change that threatens democracy itself. He writes that within the past half century we have experienced a shift from “We” to “I” with results that could destroy our society and our ability to work together. It has resulted in a loss of trust in public institutions as well as its leaders. It led to extremism in our politics, lack of shared knowledge, and an inability to address major issues like global change and income disparity. Identity politics has abandoned its focus on the nation as a whole while replacing it with what is best for my group, for those who share my identity.
While the emphasis on the “I” would seem to bring more individual happiness, the opposite has happened. Drug overdoses and suicide rates have actually tripled in the past 20 years. Income disparity has dramatically increased and, for example, in California, home to thriving hi-tech and entertainment industries, homelessness is a major problem.
Sacks describes three basic systems required for a functioning society: the economy, about the creation and distribution of wealth; the state, about the legitimization and distribution of power; and a moral understanding as “the voice of society … the common good that limits and directs our pursuits of private gain.” The cultural climate shift away from the “We” to the “I” has led to a breakdown of our shared morality, leading to the loss of caring for others or even thinking about the other.
“Morality achieves something almost miraculous, and fundamental to human achievement and liberty,” Sacks writes. “It creates trust. It means that to the extent that we belong to the same moral community, we can work together without constantly being on guard against violence, betrayal, exploitation, or deception. The stronger the bonds of community, the more powerful the force of trust, and the more we can achieve together.”
Morality broadens our perspective and helps us see that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. Without a shared morality and with everyone in it for themselves, the rich and the strong will tend to use their power to exploit the system for their own benefit.
Rabbi Sacks is calling for a renewal of our shared sense of morality in order to humanize the forces for wealth and power. He writes, “When we move from the politics of ‘Me’ to the politics of ‘Us,’ we rediscover those life-transforming, counterintuitive truths: that a nation is strong when it cares for the weak, that it becomes rich when it cares for the poor, that it becomes invulnerable when it cares about the vulnerable." It is a call for the future of democracy and a call to “recover that sense of shared morality that binds us to one another in a bond of mutual compassion and care.”
Sacks’ book was written before the COVID pandemic had begun and was published in the United Kingdom before the global impact was known. The American publication came out later, for which he added an epilogue in which he asks, what will be the result of this worldwide crisis? Will we reevaluate our priorities or could it even drive us further away from a shared morality? As one who has always lived in hope, he expresses his hope that we will emerge with a stronger sense of human solidarity, a keener sense of human vulnerability, and a stronger sense of our social responsibility. A return from the “I” to the “We.”
This is indeed a message for our nation and for the world. I am so sad that, while we will have his rich store of writings, speeches, and videos, we will not have his personal presence to continue to lead and inspire us in our quest for healing and wholeness. Let us take to heart his message and come together as a stronger “We.”