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British Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks is the premier public intellectual of Judaism in the English-speaking world and has no obvious counterpart in the communities of Judaism conducted in other languages. No one in Israeli intellectual life competes.
As a social philosopher he succeeds Martin Buber (Jerusalem) and Abraham Joshua Heschel (New York). He brings a first-class analytical mind to the problems of contemporary society and culture and draws on the entire Western tradition of social and political thought as he systematically solves those problems. He engages in dialogue with the political thought of the West and contributes a particularly Judaic perspective to the conversation. He embodies all that Judaism has to offer to the solution of the contemporary social crisis of culture: the collapse of Europe.
The problem he addresses in The Home We Build Together is the multicultural dilemma, which affirmed the right of ethnic and religious minorities to be different but led to self-segregation: "Multiculturalism has led not to integration but to segregation," he writes. "It has allowed groups to live separately, with no incentive to integrate... It was intended to promote tolerance. Instead, the result has been... societies more abrasive, fractured and intolerant than they once were."
But he sees multiculturalism as a symptom of the "social breakdown in liberal democracies," the collapse of the family, the shattering of political consensus, the decay of culture, including civility and good manners. He does more than lament, he proposes a way forward: "We need to reinvigorate the concept of the common good."
He holds that "culture is fragmenting into non-communicating systems of belief in which civil discourse ends and reasoned argument becomes impossible."
The book is in three parts. First Sacks describes the origins of the crisis: "the loss of moral consensus, the impact of technology on culture, the failure of national self-confidence, the breakdown of the family and the inward turn from society to community."
His account entails three parables: "In the first, a hundred strangers have been wandering around the countryside in search of a place to stay. They arrive at the gate of a large country house. The owner comes to the gate..." and welcomes the strangers as guests. The strangers remain guests: Society is a country house.
"The second: a hundred strangers in search of a home find themselves in the middle of a big city. There they find a hotel... they book their rooms, unpack and stay." It remains a place where everyone is a stranger and sojourner. That is society as hotel.
"Third: a hundred strangers arrive at a town... they are met by the mayor... 'We have a patch of empty land... We will help you build there... let us do this together...' They invest their energies in what they build. Their relationship with the place is not purely contractual. They helped build it, it is of their making. What we build embodies something of us. At the same time the people of the town have made it clear that the houses they build must be... congruent with the architectural character of the town as it is. So the homes they build are recognizably of the place where they are, not the place they have come from... They have the sense of being part of a team... that is society as the home we build together."
This parable prepares the way for the second and third parts of the book. In the second part, Sacks sketches "the rudiments of a theory of society building," and in the third he proposes how to strengthen civic nationalism, "the identity that comes not from color or creed but from the fact that... we come together to build something larger than any of our groups could achieve alone. Society is the home we build together."
Part 1 of the book, "how did we get here," covers these topics: society as country house, hotel or home; a brief history of multiculturalism, the defeat of freedom in the name of freedom, victims, technology and the fragmentation of culture, the inward turn. Part 2 is devoted to a theory of society creation: social contract, social covenant, telling the story, the responsible society, the home we build together. Part 3, "where next," covers these topics: the uses of covenant, who am I, face-to-face, side-by-side, civility, multiculturalism or tolerance, mending the broken family, a religious defense of liberal democracy, a time to build.
The key conception of Sacks's account, which runs through the book, is the theme of covenant. He distinguishes between state and society, law and free association, social contract and social covenant. The social contract, "which creates the state, is between individuals and the body to which they delegate power. That is the political domain. It has two places... the individual and the state. But there is a different domain... civil society. Here relationships are covenantal, not contractual. They have nothing to do with the market or the state... they are voluntary associations..."
Sacks speaks of Britain, but his observations encompass the US as well, and he draws generously upon the American political tradition. He finds much to admire in the American amalgam of deep religiosity in the private domain joined with the separation of church and state, in the American resort to religious rhetoric on public occasions and in the American tradition of cultural diversity joined with political unity. His heroes include not only Locke but Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Kennedy, de Tocqueville and CrÃ¨vecoeur. Judaism's social thought plays a modest outward part in the exposition, but it forms the entire foundation on which he builds.
This book joins with its predecessors - including One People? Tradition, Modernity, and Jewish Unity (1993); Faith in the Future (1995); Radical Then, Radical Now: The Legacy of the World's Oldest Religion (2001) and The Dignity of Difference (2004) - to form an oeuvre of moral authority and compelling logic. For a corpus of writing substantially less ambitious than this some have received the Nobel Prize.
The writer is distinguished professor of the history and theology of Judaism at Bard College in New York state.
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