Books: One man’s dialogue

A collection of essays by a diverse set of thinkers is appropriate testimony to the work of former UK chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (photo credit: Courtesy)
Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Yehudah Amital, the co-head of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut, once responded to a talk by his famously erudite and eloquent colleague, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, by saying that he completely agreed with the latter… even though he hadn’t understood a single word! Add a dignified British accent and, for many, the work of former British chief rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks garners the same reaction.
It brings pride and appreciation about the Jewish heritage, even while remaining difficult to actually understand.
Rabbi Sacks, who stepped down as chief rabbi in September this year, has, however, found a unique way of getting Jews to look more carefully at his writings, namely by attracting the interest of the wider world around him. Much more than Rabbi Lichtenstein or even Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik before him, Sacks has generated an unusally large crossover audience. He has done so by making a conscious effort to not just address contemporary Western thought, but to engage contemporary Western thinkers as well.
As Sacks recently described it in “Judaism Engaged with the World,” a booklet published this year, “I tried to see whether it was possible to bring a Jewish voice to the public conversation, showing that Judaism has insights, compelling not just to Jews but non-Jews also, into politics, economics, civil society, philosophy, psychology and global ethics… Could a religious figure engage in public dialogue with leading intellectuals of the age without being defensive on the one hand, or dismissive on the other?” to which he answers in the affirmative.
And nowhere is the international response Sacks has gotten in return more palpable than in a recent festschrift honoring him on the occasion of his 65th birthday. “Radical Responsibility,” edited by Michael Harris, Daniel Rynhold and Tamra Wright, shows just how far-reaching Sacks’s conversation has become. The unusually diverse and, in the case of world-class philosophers like Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre, prominent set of contributors is a truly appropriate testimony to Sacks's work.
This fairly readable collection of essays is certainly a most meaningful tribute to his accomplishments. Apart from his intellectual contributions, his speeches and newspaper articles have won him a global following among both Jews and non-Jews, and he has presided over a slow but undeniable religious renaissance among British Jewry.
Still, it is primarily his books and essays that have earned Sacks his sterling reputation.
And to read his work is to understand why.
Sacks has a unique talent for bringing the Jewish tradition, in all of its particularism and detail, into conversation with the most pressing issues of the day. And by pressing issues, I don't mean gay marriage or women being called up to the Torah. Sacks’s interests are bigger than these narrower topics and that is what makes him so interesting.
As political scientist Samuel Huntington once put it, nations are no longer asking whose side are we on, but rather who we are.
And on some level, it is this question that Sacks has sought to address: What does it mean to be a Jew in our time and what does it mean to be human? But for Sacks, even more important than the question of who we are is the question of who we should be. This has led Sacks to issues such as the future of the liberal state, the role of faith in society and the the impact of the marketplace on communities and on ethics.
Reflecting some of these concerns, “Radical Responsibility” is broken down into four sections, based on Sacks’s contributions to ethics, justice, religion in contemporary society and leadership. Each section opens with a piece by a leading scholar, which is then followed by articles from Jewish Studies professors and other notable Jewish thinkers.
This collection is one more indication of Sacks’s incomparable stature. Many of the essays contained in this book try to do what Sacks does, but for one reason or another they all come up short. The contrast with Sacks reminds us that his unique mastery of two intellectual traditions, together with his charming eloquence and religious passion, is simply unmatched.
But being outshone by Sacks can hardly be viewed as a weakness. Almost every article shares novel insights, combining the traditional wisdom of Torah with cuttingedge thought in a variety of disciplines. That being said, the nature of such collections is that some contributors take the task more earnestly than others. Several articles are rehashes of previous works or simply less rigorous than I would have liked. Still, there is more than enough here to justify the book's purchase.
Among the many outstanding essays, I particularly enjoyed Hebrew University philosophy professor Moshe Halbertal on the dynamic nature of justice, and senior lecturer in Bible at Bar-Ilan University Joshua Berman on a community’s ethical responsibility to create an appropriate moral climate.
Both show themselves highly sensitive to the tone of the traditional beit midrash, in general, and “Rabbi Sacks’s more eclectic beit midrash” in particular. Original thinkers themselves, Halbertal and Berman seamlessly weave relevant insights from outside of Torah to better our understanding of Jewish ideas, and likewise suggest important contributions from Torah back to the outside world.
For example, Halbertal discusses the late contemporary moral philosopher Bernard William’s challenge to utilitarian conceptions of giving. He then follows this up by suggesting that the Maimonidean distinction between personal and communal giving addreses the concerns of both Williams and the utilitarians alike. Likewise, Berman dips into contemporary ethics and legal theory to see how others grapple with the notion of collective responsibility before presenting what he sees to be the Biblical position. When the editors write about Sacks’s bringing Torah into conversation with Western thought, I imagine this is exactly what they had in mind.
It is one thing for Orthodox Jews to engage in this conversation with each other; it is quite another for non-Jews like MacIntyre and Taylor to engage with the explicitly Jewish elements of Sacks’s thought. Of course, for those who know something about these two rather broadminded yet personally traditional philosophers who – not coincidentally – are frequently cited by Sacks, it comes as no surprise that they return the favor. Yet when Taylor writes that Sacks’s “Dignity of Difference” showed him how the Jewish tradition allows for multiple roads to God, and that this is extremely helpful in today's ecumenical climate, he is going much further than simply engaging in professional courtesy. He is endorsing the important role that traditional Judaism can play in contemporary thinking. For this alone, we would conclude that Sacks has been a major success.
If Sacks has been taken seriously, it means that he has also exposed himself to critique and disagreement. Neither is completely absent from “Radical Responsibility.”
MacIntyre, for example, has too much integrity not to mention that he has “several serious disagreements with Sacks.” Truth be told, it is likely that in such disagreements, even someone like myself who comes with very strong Jewish loyalties, will be more likely to agree with the professional philosopher than with the rabbi. For although Sacks’s discussions never fail to be cogent, original and erudite, some of his arguments are not quite convincing, both in his general analyses and his interpretations of Jewish texts.
For example, when Sacks expresses more optimism than MacIntyre about society reclaiming a national sense of community, one is hard pressed to see what Sacks bases himself upon. And concerning Jewish texts, Sacks makes the claim that John Locke’s liberal position that significant religion be predicated on freedom of conscience is not only obvious but also resonates very well with traditional Jewish teachings. Yet were it so obvious, many books, political movements and entire cultures would have never seen the light of day. And, bearing in mind the myriad Jewish texts that speak about the importance of proper action, regardless of intention, one senses that Sacks is engaging in what he wishes the Jewish tradition to say rather than what it actually says.
It is likely that the demands of the Chief Rabbinate may also partially be to blame for this shortcoming. Rabbis, and especially highly public rabbis, are often expected to give advice on too many subjects and, as a result, often overextend themselves. A rabbi does not need to have a doctorate in every area about which he speaks, but he does need to take the time and effort to truly develop his ideas and carefully understand the source material. In this Sacks is far better than most, but given the limitations on his time, he too was not immune to the problem. As a result, his generally erudite and almost always inspiring essays on the weekly parasha (“Covenant and Conversation”) rarely provide new insights into the actual Biblical texts and so ultimately lack the depth and élan that we have come to expect from him in his more topical works. With his retirement, no doubt, he will have more opportunity to address some of these issues.
But none of this is to take away from Sacks’s monumental standing. Not only has he suceeded in bringing Judaism into conversation with the contemporary world, he has succeeded in getting many Jews (and non-Jews) to understand the role that Judaism can play in creating a better world. For if there is one central idea that Sacks has stressed, it is Judaism’s mission to mankind. Here, the early influence of the Lubaviticher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, on Sacks’s life is readily apparent – but with a twist. For whereas the rebbe’s teachings and strategy focused on creating a highly loyal and motivated cadre of followers, Sacks reaches out to all who might come into contact with him.
The editors of “Radical Responsibility” found an apt title to describe Sacks’s understanding of what it is that Jews and Judaism must teach the world. Whether it means taking a stand on global poverty or the decline of a serious moral ethic, Jews must speak out; but not just speak out, Jews must also take an active participatory role in a world that has become increasingly interconnected and so, increasingly small.
Having found a receptive audience unused to hearing such ideas, there is good reason to believe that we have not yet heard the last from this important thinker.
Rabbi Francis Nataf is a Jerusalem-based educator. He is the author of the Redeeming Relevance series on the Torah and of many articles.
Celebrating the Thought of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (Courtesy)Celebrating the Thought of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (Courtesy)
Radical Responsibility: Celebrating theThought of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan SacksBy Michael Harris, Daniel Rynholdand Tamra Wright (eds.)Maggid Books300 pages; $29.95