In January, Bar-Ilan University held the first international conference on the ideas and influence of Rabbi Lord Professor Jonathan Sacks. The title for the three-day academic gathering was “Rabbi, Professor, Lord” and the distinguished speakers reflected on each of these titles and the interaction among them.
On the surface, Sacks wrote little that was specific to the Israeli condition and he was minimalist about giving prescriptive political solutions. As someone who believed Sacks’ thoughts could be part of the solution for Israel during his lifetime, I found this frustrating. But in reality, everything he wrote is particular to the Israel condition. Indeed, whether by plan or by accident, the fact that he didn’t write specifically about Israeli politics and rarely if ever took a side gives us a greater opportunity to draw some important lessons.
Universal or particular – the answer is yes
Sacks saw Judaism’s particular and perhaps unique contribution to the world as universalism. Once we realize this, the need for a real-world implementation of that idea in a very specific particular and unique country like Israel becomes clear. For Sacks, it is not a choice between either particular or universal but universal values expressed uniquely by every individual (each of us being a unique expression of God’s creation) and also by the community and the nation-state. Indeed, his message was that through the power of community we can build a more moral society.
Jews of power are uniquely commanded to use that power under the Rubicon of all people being created in God’s image and treating them not only with care and compassion but also with the equality that Jews have seldom enjoyed. Having been enslaved, we should not enslave, having lived through centuries of persecution as a minority, we should be sensitive to the rights of minorities. Sacks’ Jewish politics is not the achievement of power as an end itself but the critique of power that our prophetic biblical story demands be ingrained in a sovereign Jewish country.
This is the deep legacy and challenge that Rabbi Sacks, rather than Lord Sacks or Professor Sacks, leaves us.
Judaism as an influence, not Judaism as power
In order to make Israel genuinely Jewish in the national and political sense we must free Judaism from the shackles of national politics. In order for it to have influence as a light unto the nations we must free it from the politics and power of statecraft. For it to form the basis of our national morality, it must stand apart from and in tension with the political and economic arena. Judaism is not the way we should run the political economy but the language we use to make it moral and covenantal.
If you dream of a government that genuinely wants to promote the Jewish identity of Israel then the government itself must allow the people free will on how to make the country Jewish. This is the very opposite of what governments typically do, aggregating ever greater power for themselves.
Perhaps what is needed is for the government to act in the imitation of God by consciously constricting its power and giving its citizens free rein to build its own version of a moral, Jewish society. Only then can we begin to understand that the wonder that is Judaism can be the way that Jews and non-Jews alike use religion to heal our deeply fractured societies.
Speaking truth to power is the modern prophecy
If we want a system of government that reflects the mitigation of centralized power, then we have to protect and support those institutions that can mitigate that concentration of power. I don’t think that Sacks would have been for or against any given sitting government per se but his ideas of power mitigated rather than power unbridled would be his critique of every government and any branch of government seeking to monopolize power for itself.
Ultimately, Sacks never stopped believing that the message of Judaism is radical and is first and foremost directed to ourselves. Only with that understanding can we be a blessing to all nations. In 2023, democracies everywhere are struggling with the problems of populism, aggressive forms of nationalism, eroding trust in the institutions of state and a battering of the foundational ideas of liberal democracies.
If we are to fulfill the Abrahamic vision of being a blessing for all nations, we must start by addressing those same challenges here in Israel, not only because we are a democratic state but mainly because we are the Jewish state.
Over 3,335 years ago, the Jews were freed by God from Egypt. In 2023, the Jews must free Judaism itself from the bondage of Israeli politics.
The writer is a founding partner of Goldrock Capital and the founder of The Institute for Jewish and Zionist Research. He was a founding chair of the Coalition for Haredi Employment and is a former chair of Gesher and World Bnei Akiva.