Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and the Desperate Need for Religion in Democracies - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and the Desperate Need for Religion in Democracies
Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks in 2006 (cooperniall/Wikimedia Commons)

Democracies have taken great pains to separate religion and the workings of law and politics. And surely, the intimacy of the religious connection of the human being and God should not be subject to the compulsion of the state. But in the absence of religion, the state, time and again, makes itself out as the required object of worship, with appalling results.

Some of our best minds have worked out how we might integrate religion with government without compulsion to forward human happiness and peace. They have shown us how to connect the deepest intimacy of faith and the faith community with the great needs of public political life to transcend the mere search for and accumulation of power. They have shown us how the divine paradigm of power can be used entirely for beneficence as the guide for human life in all of its practical requirements. For chief of those acquirements is realizing who we are as human beings and harnessing the great gifts we have been given to bring about that world about which the God of Genesis declares, “Very good.”

It is now barely a week since the passing of just such an extraordinary figure, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. An orthodox rabbi who served for a decade as Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, he was also a Cambridge-trained philosopher, an author, a professor, a media presence, a Templeton Prize winner, and a Life Peer sitting in the UK’s House of Lords.

Rabbi Sacks’ message was strong and universal: Modern civilization needs the profound insights that the religious experience and biblical traditions can bring. In America, in Britain, and all throughout the world, his words have made an impact and will continue to do so.

Rabbi Sacks concerned himself first of all with the needs of his faith community, which had raised him to its leadership. He addressed its needs vigorously, inspiring commitment among the young in particular through his willingness to communicate in plain language and in an inviting and inclusive style. He trusted that the eternal challenge offered by God stimulates and enlivens people to rise to meet that challenge. He did not water teaching down; he simply found a way to make sure it was heard in all its power and attractiveness.

But Rabbi Sacks taught that the inner life requires outer expression. As much as religious life starts in the soul, and is nurtured in the privacy of the home and then in the sacred institutions of a faith community, it is never complete until it brings its message to the world at large. He took this imperative very seriously, and became a familiar presence in the press, on radio and television, and online. He spoke of the necessity to society of what religion brings, speaking with a respect and authenticity that enabled him to be heard and valued by all. His messages were heard by the Queen, prime ministers, and common people alike, and by non-Jews in their far greater numbers. He was also beloved and respected in his own religious community.

One of the deepest problems of free societies is how to maintain freedom together with justice and equity. Must it be that if we seek liberty, we must sacrifice societal concern, and if societal concern, liberty?

In a memorable talk from about 20 years ago, Rabbi Sacks proposed that the conflict is the result of not seeing things from the perspective of the Bible and its traditions. He referenced the great controversy, still ongoing, about abortion and American law. He noted that the two sides of the argument each frame their case in terms of rights. The Right to Life movement claims that there is no more basic right than the right to life, and law must protect the unborn accordingly. The Reproductive Rights movement, on the other hand, argues that there is no more fundamental right than that of a person’s control over her own body.

Rabbi Sacks noted that each side claims a right. Rights, he notes, compel us not to compromise. A compromised right is no right at all. Each side is compelled to dig in and not give an inch. Predictably, there is no resolution, no resting place, but only unending war between the two movements.

What we can do, said the rabbi, is to use, instead of the rights framework, the framework of responsibility. I cannot compromise on a right, and I am forced to defend it without compromise. But we routinely handle many responsibilities at once, learning how to best organize and prioritize them. As adults we dare not consider only one responsibility at a time. I am responsible for my work, to my colleagues, to my spouse, to my children, to my neighbors, and to my faith community — all at once. Tending to one exclusively is to be irresponsible to the other.

It is the biblical tradition and the tradition of Jewish law that show us that freedom is meant to lead not to license but to being better able to serve. Let My people go (liberty) that they may serve Me (responsibility).

In constantly teaching this message, Rabbi Sacks was treading the same hallowed ground as did John Adams. Adams too saw the danger of political freedom being used merely as a license for selfishness, which would doom the new republic. Yes, we have a marvelous Constitution, Adams said, but “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

At the core of our responsibility, Rabbi Sacks taught, is the way that we look upon the other — those many people out there who all differ from us. The key is to see us all as the Genesis text tells us is God’s perspective: We are created in the divine image.

Hear the implications of this out in powerful words. In his book The Dignity of Difference, Sacks wrote:

The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideals are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing Him to remake me in His.

In this, the democracies are naturally ahead of the tyrannies, which always put a premium on lockstep compliance and submission to uniformity. Constitutions that guarantee freedoms uphold the differences as part of the Divine plan in which Almighty God steps back to allow us freedom, even though sin may result.

Yes, freedom can result in sin and evil. Such things rightfully can give rise to anger — anger at the perversion of freedom. Yet anger is severely limited in what it can do, for it so easily turns into an excuse for tyranny, whether of the petty sort that destroys friendships and family relationships, or the grand sort, which forges empires of hatred and evil that bring misery and evil on a gigantic scale.

“Anger exposes the problem,” Sacks wrote, “but it can never give the solution.”

This extends into politics. He compared the English and American revolutions to the French and Russian. The English and American revolutions were based largely on biblically driven conceptions in harmony, as noted by Harvard’s Professor Eric Nelson. The later revolutions in France and Russia were based on philosophies of radical equality and fired by anger against the failure to live the philosophical idea.

Sacks wrote,

The Torah is based, as its narratives make clear, on history, a realistic view of human character, and a respect for freedom and choice. Philosophy is often detached from history and a concrete sense of humanity. Philosophy sees truth as system. The Torah tells truth as story, and a story is a sequence of events extended through time. Revolutions based on philosophical systems fail because change in human affairs takes time, and philosophy has rarely given an adequate account of the human dimension of time.

The passing of a great teacher is a time when his teachings begin to take on their full power. We are at a crossroads here in America and in so much of the world. Impatient subscribers to philosophical systems want immediate, radical change to our lives, and are prepared to use angry force to compel compliance.

We who know the deep worth of our own American tradition, rooted in the Bible and its traditions, know that human history is an unfolding story in which we learn each day to see each other better, and must have the freedom to do so. While anger might point out the problems, it will leave us with the problems still in place.

It is up to us now to seek results, not righteous anger. Rabbi Sacks points us in the direction in which we are already going. Our only solution is in demonstrating and uncovering who we really are — not just clones of an idea, but unique human beings. United in the image of the divine, in a humanity that uses its freedom to tackle its problems with love, cooperation, and ingenuity, we will yet unleash the miraculous powers that God has planted within each of us and all of us together.

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