The former British chief rabbi attempts to craft a religious worldview that can save the 21st century West from self-immolation. Important teachings for the eve of Shavuot.
Western civilization is in deep crisis, beset from within by moral decline and struck from without by powerful radical enemies. Avoiding disaster requires recommitment to the values taught by Biblical tradition, and specifically the ethical and ideological principles embedded in Jewish civilization.
But who is capable of articulating a vision of Western renewal that draws on ancient teachings in a way that is relevant and meaningful for the modern world? Alas, so many of our clerics are neither in synch with contemporary affairs nor conversant with the intellectual disciplines required to truly have an impact.
One very different, uplifting figure is Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former British chief rabbi, who is emerging as a unique voice of wisdom for this troubled age.
Rabbis Sacks combines profound Torah insight with breathtaking “chochmah” –knowledge of broad intellectual disciplines – especially the sciences, social sciences and humanities.
He brings his solid grounding in Jewish theology and philosophy to bear on the grand debates underway in modern economics and social policy, psychology, political science, science, art, architecture and engineering.
He brings his enormous erudition in the history of science and philosophy, and the history of religion, into his investigations of the Biblical narrative – in an attempt to craft a religious weltanschauung that can save 21st century mankind from self-immolation.
LAST WEEK, after receiving the prestigious Templeton Prize for promoting religious understanding, Rabbi Sacks issued one of his starkest warnings yet. Western civilization is on the brink of a collapse like that of ancient Rome, he said, because the modern generation does not want the responsibility of bringing up children.
He singled out falling birth rates, alongside the addiction to debt, the breakup of the family unit, and a growing gap between the super-rich and the rest – among a handful of major crises which neither governments nor the market seem able to solve.
He linked these terrible demographic and societal changes to a loss in the West of religious faith, which for centuries has been associated with a high regard for the institution of the family.
Indeed, throughout his written works, and especially in his recent volumes on confronting religious violence and on Leviticus (the “book of holiness”), Rabbi Sacks has tracked the disastrous impact of “secularization” since the seventeenth century, including the secularization of knowledge, power, culture and morality, making religion seemingly redundant.
“What the secularists forgot,” says Sacks, “is that Homo sapiens is a meaning-seeking animal.” Science, technology, the market, the liberal democratic state – “give us choices, but don’t teach us how to choose.” They provide neither identity nor the “set of moral sensibilities that are inseparable from identity: loyalty, respect and reverence.”
The resulting “atomisation of society” has led, among other, to a counter-reaction of religious extremism among those who still seek identity and community, he warns.
In response, Sacks seeks to show how tribalism can be balanced with universality; how spiritual and social cohesion can be synthesized with respect for liberty of conscience and the “dignity of difference” (of others).
Essential to Sacks argument is that religion is truly essential in the modern world; perhaps more necessary than ever! “A sense of the sacred,” he writes, “is what lifts us above instinct and protects us from our dysfunctional drives. When human beings lose respect for God, they eventually lose respect for humanity.”
Sacks demonstrates that people are more forgiving and trusting when they believe that God will punish offenders. The notion that God sees our acts even when no one else is watching gives people a strong motive for self-restraint and for confidence-building in society. On the other hand, secular societies that have lost this belief are forced to resort to all kinds of surveillance devices and police institutions to make sure that someone is watching after all, with the massive invasion of privacy this involves.
ABOVE ALL, Sacks rejects the tragic and fundamentally meaningless sense of life posited by the Greeks and contemporary secular-scientific worldviews. By contrast, he holds out religion as the source of hope for the future; hope that empowers us to take risks, engage in long-term projects, marry and have children, and refuse to capitulate in the face of despair.
While hope cannot be inferred from any facts about the past or present, “our spiritual landscape is informed by the energizing fact God cares about us.” He made a covenant with humanity (and a further covenant with the people He chose to be a living example of faith), and this drives us to strive to perfect the world. “We are summoned to the long journey at whose end is redemption.”
Religions of hope also create healthy cultures of responsibility, says Sacks. If bad things happen to us, it is up to us to put them right. “Blame cultures,” however, externalize conflict and suffering and seek to find another culprit. “Hate and the blame culture go hand in hand, for they are both strategies of denial.” This requires lashing out with violence at any and all contrived enemies. (Sacks identifies radical Islam as a hateful blame culture).
Finally, Rabbi Sacks shows how the revelation at Mount Sinai, which Jews mark this weekend on the holiday of Shavuot, was unique in the history of mankind. It was the moment that a free God made it clear that He desires the free worship of free human beings. All men were created equal and should live in free societies.
Long before Plato and Aristotle, and long before Marx, Rousseau and Hobbes, the covenant of Sinai taught the primacy of right over might, and the courage disobey immoral or illegal orders. “The politics of freedom was born at Sinai.”
And thus, Rabbi Sacks offers a path forward. For Jews: A path grounded in absolute fealty to halacha and authentic rabbinic teachings, while embracing of universal verities and modern intellectual advances. For gentiles: A path grounded in Biblical morality, while embracing the history of liberty. Atop it all: Courage to confront the nihilism that currently passes for “enlightenment.”