One of contemporary Judaism’s most outstanding thinkers and spokesmen, Lord Jonathan Sacks, retires from his position as chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth at the end of this month. His ability to bring the Torah into conversation with Western thought with supreme grace and lucidity has earned him followers and disciples across both national and religious boundaries.
Any exploration of Rabbi Sacks’s intellectual legacy must begin with what he calls “Torah Vehokhmah” (Torah and Wisdom), the deep and creative encounter between Jewish tradition and secular wisdom.
Torah Vehokhmah is the overarching theme we chose for the volume we recently published in tribute to him: Radical Responsibility: Celebrating the Thought of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. The book consists of essays by luminaries of Jewish and Western thought who use the pillars of Rabbi Sacks’s lifework to explore ideas within each of their own scholarly disciplines. On being presented with the volume in London earlier this year, Rabbi Sacks remarked that it contained essays by all his “heroes.” In truth, the participation of these eminent scholars in the book is itself testimony both to the esteem in which he is held by leading intellectual figures around the world and to the influence of his writing.
One of the most significant areas in which Rabbi Sacks has made an important contribution to contemporary thought is ethics. Although he has read widely and deeply across a broad range of academic disciplines and secular literature, philosophy was Jonathan Sacks’s first love and the core of his formal academic training. It is no surprise, therefore, that the interface of Western philosophy and Jewish ethics is one location where he has had a major impact.
The great contemporary moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, a Catholic, has shown how Rabbi Sacks’s thought, while thoroughly grounded in Jewish tradition, helps to resolve the dilemma faced by any religiously committed moral philosopher who must remain faithful to his or her faith while, as philosopher, remaining open to further debate.
A particular theme within the field of ethics which has been one of Rabbi Sacks’s major concerns in both his communal leadership and his intellectual work is that of responsibility. His book To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility has been an important influence not only on younger Jewish activists but also on a new generation of thinkers who have reflected on the nature of individual and communal responsibility in Jewish tradition.
A second context in which his thought has been widely influential is the larger one of the relationship between religion and contemporary society.
Here his book The Dignity of Difference has been particularly significant.
Another leading philosopher, Charles Taylor, like MacIntyre a Catholic, has focused particularly on the chief rabbi’s observation in that work that “those who are confident in their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faith of others.”
Precisely the same statement has been highlighted by a major contemporary Jewish philosopher, Menachem Kellner, who has challenged contemporary Jews not to reject the spiritual nourishment available from non-Jews who seek God. Sacks’s ability to embrace the universal without compromising on the Jewish particular is very refreshing and, one senses, strikes a deep chord with many Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers.
A third and highly significant component of Rabbi Sacks’s intellectual legacy is the way in which his thought is capable of stimulating new directions in a variety of disciplines in creative ways. Over the years, Rabbi Sacks has mentioned specific areas of secular wisdom which could be fruitfully studied together with Torah to generate new insights into both domains.
One particularly intriguing suggestion relates to contemporary approaches to psychology, particularly cognitive behavior therapy and positive psychology. In his book Future Tense, Rabbi Sacks argues that these approaches to psychology are more in keeping with the spirit of Judaism than with Freudian psychoanalysis, and could therefore be combined with Torah to create a new “Musar” movement.
This is one of many examples of the scope for creative dialogue between Judaism and secular wisdom inspired by Rabbi Sacks.
If one wanted to provide a nutshell summary of the special contribution made by the thought of Rabbi Sacks, it would perhaps be this: He not only continues the venerable Jewish philosophical tradition of defending traditional faith in the face of external intellectual challenges, but also succeeds in demonstrating how core Jewish teachings can address the dilemmas of the secular world itself.
Fortunately, Rabbi Sacks is not leaving the domain of intellectual endeavor but only formal office.
Any comprehensive assessment of his legacy will have to await the great deal more that is surely still to come from this extraordinary thinker and communicator.
Michael J. Harris, Daniel Rynhold and Tamra Wright are the editors of Radical Responsibility: Celebrating the Thought of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (London School of Jewish Studies, The Michael Scharf Publication Trust of YU Press and Maggid Books, 2012).
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