RABBI JONATHAN SACKS

A brilliant, captivating, cheerful orator with a gift for pardes--creating layers of deep, profound meaning from the Torah--Rabbi Sacks was simply a treasure. He exuded joy, hope, and chesed. In describing Judaism, Sacks wrote: "To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair. Every ritual, every syllable of the Jewish story, every element of Jewish law, is a protest against escapism, resignation, or the blind acceptance of fate. Judaism is a sustained struggle against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet. Throughout history, when human beings have sought hope, they have found it in the Jewish story. Judaism is the religion of hope." In describing himself, Sacks said, "I've tried simply to give voice to the twin imperatives of Judaism: to be true to your faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith."  Mission accomplished. Below are videos of some of his best lectures and interviews. But, first, a couple of my favorite Sacks expositions:

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1. MORALITY & ETHICS

Sacks was uniquely eloquent about the difference between morality and ethics:

 

"Relativists asserts there is no single, absolute, uncontroversial moral truth. Conflicting, irreconcilable views on morality can be held with conviction and argued with cogency. Morality is nothing more or less than what we choose it to be. A relativist might say that football needs rules, but he could go on to say that not everyone need play football. There are many moral 'games' and hence no one set of rules that constitute the good life. There is no ideal game against which we can judge the merits of the particular games we have so far developed. There are many ways of understanding morality, of living a good life, or resolving ethical dilemmas, and there is no metamorality which has the power to rule one way better than another. Outside our moral world are many others, each of which is entitled to equal dignity and respect, and none of which may make claims on society that are exclusive of any other. A relativist asserts that on morality we cannot agree.

"How true is the relativist's analysis? What can we say about morality?

 

"Anthropologists have charted for us the great principles which have been arrived at independently in one culture after another, and which sum up what we know about the universal requirements of society: general beneficence, loving our kin, duties to parents, elders, and children, and the prohibition of murder and theft. None of these phenomena suggests that morality is relative, subjective, chosen, invented, the product of will, whim, or desire. These principles are configured somewhat differently from one civilization to another. But they share sufficient of a family resemblance to suggest that they form the objective boundaries of social life, and without them and their maintenance no assemblage of humans can live stably together for long. We need them if we are to live peaceably in a society in which there is considerable diversity. There are skills we need if we are to coexist with others over an extended period of time: trust, courtesy, generosity, tolerance, fairness, compromise, mercy, and sympathy. Without them we could not achieve the minimum of social cooperation.

"But the principles and skills of morality conflict sometimes. For much of the time they happily coexist, but sometimes they come into collision. Dilemmas arise. There is no unequivocal answer to all moral questions. Moral uniformity becomes the ground of ethical diversity, but this is not to deny morality's binding character. Society depends on morality. The fact that we have different points of departure (ethics) does not imply that we cannot arrive at something like consensus on the practical points of convergence (morality) that are the root of common life. We do not need a single view to prevail before we can have a common life. There is moral universality (represented by the covenant with Noah) and ethical particularity (represented by the covenant with Abraham). Therefore, human life is a fugue between our commonalities and our differences. We have the attributes, dispositions, and virtues that allow us to get along despite our differences. We develop morality because we seek community. The task of restoring community and morality is one and the same, and derives from the same need: to rescue the self from solitude."

  • Does Judaism have a meaningful role in this template? Does it matter? Is it needed at all? Sacks' insight continues:

"You don't have to be religious to be moral. But we have lost the habit of telling the stories that explain ourselves as moral beings. What has been eroded is not our moral sense--our choreography of altruism--but the institutions which sustain it and the language in which it is expressed. Morality is taught in narratives, enacted in rituals, celebrated in prayer and song, embodied in traditions, passed on in families. Judaism tells what happens when we meet together--with love, loyalty, and trust--as spouses, parents, neighbors, colleagues, and friends. Judaism is a tradition within which the key terms of morality have lucidity and coherence. Judaism gives them context and a narrative continuity between generations. The task of creating a society built on morality cannot be achieved by one generation alone. It is a continuous struggle in which each of us has to play a part, thus the Jewish idea of a covenant extending over time. We build on the achievements of our ancestors and hand on our ideals to those who will come after us.

 

"Hence, Judaism's most important institutions are the family and education, the twin vehicles through which society passes on its accumulated wisdom to the next generation. Judaism is an institution which teaches moral principles and inculcates virtues, giving them vitality. It provides a language and customs in which these things can be said, shared, and sustained. Judaism is a mechanism through which we endow life with a meaning and teach it, engraving morality on the hearts of our children, and they on theirs, and so on to the end of time."

  • What is an example of a story that explains ourselves as moral beings?

Here is where Sacks' talent shines. Among his best teachings regards the Torah portion about Noah:

"Noah is the classic case of someone who is righteous, but who is not a leader. In a disastrous age, when all has been corrupted, when the world is filled with violence, when God 'regretted that He had made man on earth, and was pained to His very core,' Noah alone justifies God’s faith in humanity, the faith that led God to create humankind in the first place. That is an immense achievement, and nothing should detract from it. Noah is, after all, the man through whom God makes a covenant with all humanity. Noah is to humanity what Abraham is to the Jewish people.

 

"Noah was a good man in a bad age. But his influence on the life of his contemporaries was, apparently, non-existent. That is implicit in God’s statement, 'You alone have I found righteous in this whole generation.' It is implicit also in the fact that only Noah and his family, together with the animals, were saved. Noah preserved his virtue by separating himself from his environment. 

"What exactly was Noah supposed to do? How could he have been an influence for good in a society bent on evil? Sometimes people do not listen even to the voice of God. We had an example of this just two chapters earlier, when God warned Cain of the danger of his violent feelings toward Abel. Yet Cain did not listen, and instead went on to murder his brother. If God speaks and people do not listen, how can we criticize Noah for not speaking when all the evidence suggests that they would not have listened to him anyway?

 

"The Talmud teaches that when bad things are happening in society, when corruption, violence and injustice prevail, it is our duty to register a protest, even if it seems likely that it will have no effect. Why? Because that is what moral integrity demands. Silence may be taken as acceptance. And besides, we can never be sure that no one will listen. Morality demands that we ignore probability and focus on possibility. Perhaps someone will take notice and change their ways – and that 'perhaps' is enough.

"This idea did not suddenly appear for the first time in the Talmud. It is stated explicitly in the book of Ezekiel: 'Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against Me; they and their ancestors have been in revolt against Me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious people—they will know that a Prophet has been among them.' 

 

"God is telling the Ezekiel to speak, regardless of whether people will listen.

"The Hasidim had a simple way of making this point. They called Noah 'a righteous man in a fur coat.' There are essentially two ways of keeping warm on a cold night. You can wear a thick coat, or you can light a fire. Wear a coat and you warm only yourself. Light a fire and you can warm others too. We are supposed to light a fire.

 

"The Torah sets a high standard for the moral life. It is not enough to be righteous if that means turning our backs on a society that is guilty of wrongdoing. We must take a stand. We must protest. We must register dissent even if the probability of changing minds is small. That is because the moral life is a life we share with others. We are, in some sense, responsible for the society of which we are a part. It is not enough to be good. We must encourage others to be good. There are times when each of us must lead."

 

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2. THE JEWISH CONCEPT OF FREEDOM

"To have a free society there has to be some basic order, some rule of law. That is why Passover, which marks liberation from slavery, is followed by Shavuot, which marks the giving of the Torah at Sinai. As part of the Jews' freedom, they had to receive the law. 

"But how free were they at Sinai to say 'Goodbye God, it’s been nice knowing you, thanks for getting us out of Egypt but now we’re on our own'? They hadn’t yet crossed the Jordan. They hadn’t entered and conquered the land. They didn’t really know it was theirs. They were entirely dependent on God's protection. They weren’t entirely free. They needed God’s help and they couldn’t really say no. So the Rabbis say that was not a truly free acceptance of the law.

"When is the first moment they were free to actually say 'yea or nay?' After the conquest of the land, at the conclusion of Joshua’s career as a leader. That is when freedom begins. Joshua reminds the people of the journey they’ve taken since the days of Terach (the father of Abraham), when 'long ago your fathers worshipped other gods,' and so on and so forth.  The people accept the law voluntarily.

"The people’s memory and understanding of this journey compels them to accept a basic order that underpins their free society. If you understand the story behind the law, there is an alignment between what the law is and what you know it has to be. It’s not something externally imposed on you, but it’s something that flows from your memory of what brought us here and why. Given that memory, the law has to be the way it is.

"There are two ways you can make an inscription; you can write it with ink on paper or parchment or you can engrave it in stone. What’s the difference between those two things? An inscription that is engraved is not an additional imposition of a new material from the outside. It is of the stone itself and it’s engraved into the stone so it can’t be rubbed off. And engravings last much longer than any writing under normal circumstances. Engraving doesn’t add anything external, it becomes something internal to the stone. And that is what the Rabbis understood engraving as the supreme metaphor for the Jewish relationship to freedom under the law. You understand why the Torah is as it is. You understand that out of your own experience and therefore the law is not something alien to you. It is something that is engraved in you, within your heart, within your mind, and that was the metaphor that led the Rabbis to coin a new word for freedom: cherut.

"Cherut is a cognate of the word for 'engraved' (charut).  The latter word occurs only once in the Torah (Exodus 32:16) and refers to the writing of God, engraved on the tablets. The point of creating a new word that is connected to 'engraved' is to convey that you understand the reason for the law and have made the law part of yourself: you’ve internalized it, you can see the logic behind it. Once that understanding is engraved on you, within you, then your will and the law are one and you’re obeying the law freely.

 

"Judaism is an education-based religion, where the first thing we have to learn is 'What is the law and why is the law?' Therefore it’s not something alien to us, it’s something inscribed within us. Number one, every year, tell the story at Passover so you never forget who you are, where you came from, and what battles you had to fight along the way. Number two, educate the children so those laws will be engraved on their souls. Given who we are and where we’re coming from the law had to be like this because we had to create not a society of slavery but a society of freedom. Then you will have the order that comes from law. 

"Judaism's formula for never losing freedom is to teach and know that the law is not something imposed on you by an arbitrary, tyrannical deity but it emerges out of a bigger experience. However bad the beginning of the story was, the ending is a law-governed liberty, a free world. Freedom is hard work. It’s the work of memory, of telling the story, and understanding the law.

"In Judaism, freedom comes from voluntary acceptance of the law. That is the kind of freedom that is absolutely invulnerable, and will never die and will never be conquered. That is the kind of freedom to which we are called as Jews and which we recall ourselves every Passover.

"Our computers and smartphones have developed larger and larger memories, while our memories--as humans--have gotten smaller and smaller. Why bother to remember anything at all if you can look it up in a microsecond on Google or Wikipedia? Here is where humans have made a mistake. We confuse history and memory. They are not the same thing at all. History is an answer to the question, 'what happened?'  Memory is an answer to the question, 'who am I?'  History is about facts. Memory is about identity. History is 'his story': it happened to somebody else, not me. Memory is my story: the past that made me who I am, of whose legacy I am the guardian for the sake of generations to come.  Without memory there is no identity, and without identity we are no more than dust on the surface of infinity."

The video below shows Rabbi Sacks' daughter, Gila, speaking at the end of the ceremony where Sacks was awarded the Templeton Prize. Her portrait of Sacks as a father is touching. When Gila said her father taught that "happiness is as much something you choose as something you find," it struck me as the best summation not only of his personality, but also of his view of Judaism.

 

As Sacks elaborated in the video directly above:

  • "The first kind of happiness I associate with Judaism is the happiness that comes from challenge, struggle, and the sacrifice for high ideals. You find God in the very act of  asking, doubting, and questioning. There is fulfillment, passion, and moments of exhilaration in the struggle for a noble cause.

  • "The second kind of happiness in Judaism is that of the balance, beauty, virtue, order, and inner peace that comes from rootedness in a wisdom tradition, as stated in Psalm 1: 'Happy is the person who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or taken the path of sinners, or joined the company of the insolent. Rather, the teaching of the Lord is his delight, and he studies that teaching day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields fruit in its season, whose foliage never fades, and whatever it produces thrives.'  In Hebrew the word for 'secular' also means 'sand.'  Why? Because sand gets blown by the wind. It's not rooted anywhere. That's why Psalm 1 further says, 'The wicked are not like the righteous. They are like the chaff that wind blows away.'

  • "The third kind of happiness in Judaism is social, which comes from the concept of covenant. In Chapter 1 of Genesis, we read '...and God saw that it was good...'' repeatedly, but then suddenly in Genesis 2 we read the words 'not good.'  What is not good? To be alone. On the one hand we have the infinite dignity of the individual, but on the other hand we have the inadequacy of the individual being alone. The problem then becomes how to construct relationships of trust and not dominance. How do we establish human bonds based on the recognition of the independence of others? The solution is covenant: a commitment in which two or more individuals--each respecting the dignity and independence of the other--come together in a bond of love and trust to do together what neither can do alone. The most daring, audacious proposition of the Torah is that the relationship between God and humans requires a covenant. What is there that God cannot do alone? Live within the human heart. That requires our partnership, which generates a third form of happiness: the quality and depth of our relationships with the human 'other' and the divine 'other.'"