In Memorium: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (1948-2020)

In contrast with my typical postings that relate to some aspect of economic or health policy, this one aims much higher.  In this piece, I cite the words of Orthodox Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013, to illuminate a set of values and principles needed to transcend the moral and political chaos that presently envelops American society.

On November 7th, 2020, Rabbi Sacks passed away from cancer.  The American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) blog post in his memory really intrigues me.  That posting highlights the 2017 AEI Irving Kristol award that was given to Rabbi Sacks as well as the address he gave at the annual AEI dinner when he accepted the award. (Rabbi Sacks address starts at 15:30.)  In case the labels Orthodox rabbi and American Enterprise Institute ring your “guilt by association” buttons, read the November 8th article in the British newspaper The Guardian, known for its “progressive” views.

In order to encourage you to listen to the inspiring words of Rabbi Sacks linked in the above video, consider the following sample of his thoughts.

We’ve seen the emergence of what I call a politics of anger. We have seen the culture of competitive victimhood. We have seen the emergence of identity politics based on smaller and smaller identities of ethnicity and gender. We’ve seen the new politics of grievance. We’ve seen the silencing of free speech in our universities in the name of safe spaces.

………

Instead of a culture of freedom and responsibility, we have a culture of grievances that are always someone else’s responsibility. Because we no longer share a moral code that allows us, in Isaiah’s words, to reason together, in its place has come something called emotivism, which says, I know I’m right because I feel it. And as for those who disagree, we will shout down or ban all those dissenting voices because we each have a right not to feel we’re wrong.

………

We need people willing to stand up and say, rich and poor alike, we all have collective responsibility for the common good. And we need a culture of responsibility, not one of victimhood, because if you define yourself as a victim, you can never be free. We have to have people to have the courage to get up and say that earned self-respect counts for more than unearned self-esteem. And we have to say the fundamental truth that is at the heart of the Hebrew Bible and of American politics that the state exists to serve the people. The people don’t exist to serve the state.

For those who prefer a shorter talk, listen to Sacks’ Ted Talk delivered in April 2017 which has the theme: “We can face any future without fear so long as we know that we won’t face it alone.”


One thought on “In Memorium: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (1948-2020)

  1. Thanks for sharing this video. I watched it several times, took notes, and did some supplemental reading. He is an excellent speaker and makes some statements that are compelling. Yet I believe the parallels he attempts to draw between the Hebrew Bible and America are either very tenuous or, in some cases, just wrong.

    Early on in the speech he asserts: “…democratic capitalism has its roots in the Judeo-Christian heritage, specifically the Hebrew Bible.” In fact, at least in the New Testament, the Book of Acts contradicts that statement directly. C. S. Lewis asserted that socialism best reflects the Christian heritage.

    Next, let’s consider his notion of a covenant. He draws a parallel between the American Declaration of Independence and Mosaic Law and identifies both as covenants. First of all, I did some reading on the nature of covenants. A covenant, in the biblical sense, is an oath taken by two parties that requires a kind of quid pro quo performance by each party. You do X and I will do Y. The implication is that the oath is between parties of unequal stature (God and man; lord and vassal; etc.). The stronger party to the oath will punish in the event the weaker party doesn’t fulfill the oath. In the Mosaic Law, the people are required to worship God and in return God will make the land fruitful. If other gods are put before God, then there will be trouble. The DOI is a general statement of principle. There are no quid pro quo performance requirements. It holds that all men are endowed with certain unalienable rights (except of course if you don’t own property, are a woman, or a slave). To say that these are equivalent doctrines is more of a stretch than I”m willing to make.

    He makes the statement that the Hebrew Bible was “engrained on the hearts of the founders.” This statement is simply wrong.

    “The genius of the founding fathers is they understood that Christianity could not only stand on its own but would thrive without being written into the laws and founding documents of the country. In fact, it was likely their own “faith” that led them to this conclusion. Many of the founding fathers—Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison and Monroe—practiced a faith called Deism. Deism is a philosophical belief in human reason as a reliable means of solving social and political problems. Deists believe in a supreme being who created the universe to operate solely by natural laws—and after creation, is absent from the world.” ( N. Rathod, “The Founding Fathers Religious Wisdom”, Center for American Progress, January 2008.)

    “Deism refers to what can be called natural religion, the acceptance of a certain body of religious knowledge that is inborn in every person or that can be acquired by the use of reason and the rejection of religious knowledge when it is acquired through either revelation or the teaching of any church.” (Wikipedia)

    In short, the Hebrew Bible was certainly not engrained on the hearts of the founding fathers. It was rejected by them. They were products of the Enlightenment not the Reformation.

    The statements that I really have trouble with near the end of his talk concern his assertion that half of Americans (I don’t know where he comes up with that number) are losing (or have lost) the social covenant. That covenant is characterized by “strong marriages, families, and communities…”. He simply makes that statement without any attempt to explain why the “covenant” has been lost or for whom. The implication is that this half of America is beset with “grievances”. Similarly, the “common moral code has been replaced (presumably only for this particular half of America) with emotivism. “I know I’m right because I feel it.” Without more explanation these statements could almost be considered stereotypical and discriminatory. I’d like to know, specifically, who these 50% of people are and to what social group they belong. I believe he is correct that the social covenant has been severely damaged but I have a different culprit: a deeply flawed capitalist system that has dragged down wages that would support “strong families” and corrupt corporate and political organizations who have enabled the damage. (See Christopher Lasch).

    I found a paper that discusses Irving Kristol. I recall liking him when I was in my 20s and early 30s. I doubt he would approve of the nature of our current “capitalist” system.

    Kristol’s vehicle for measures to promote bourgeois flourishing was what he called the “conservative welfare state.” Not only did he say it was fruitless to believe that the welfare state could be overturned; he also said that a welfare state was, in principle, compatible with conservative politics.

    How? “The demand for a ‘welfare state’ is, on the part of the majority of the people, a demand for a greater minimum of political community, for more ‘social justice’ (i.e., distributive justice) than capitalism, in its pristine, individualistic form, can provide,” he wrote in 1976. “It is not at all a demand for ‘socialism’ or anything like it.”

    He went on:

    Nor is it really a demand for intrusive government by a powerful and ubiquitous bureaucracy — though that is how socialists and neo-socialists prefer to interpret it. Practically all of the truly popular and widespread support for a “welfare state” would be satisfied by a mixture of voluntary and compulsory insurance schemes — old-age insurance, disability insurance, unemployment insurance, medical insurance — that are reasonably (if not perfectly) compatible with a liberal capitalist society.

    Sounds a lot like what David recommends in his book. Here is a link to the entire article:

    https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-theological-politics-of-irving-kristol

    B

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