On 24th October in Washington DC, Rabbi Sacks received the Irving Kristol Award, the highest honour bestowed annually by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) to individuals “who have made exceptional practical and intellectual contributions to improve government policy, social welfare, or political understanding.” Previous recipients include Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan, Alan Greenspan and in 2015, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Described by AEI President Arthur Brooks, “as one of the world’s greatest living public intellectuals, [whose] work has influenced a generation of scholars and leaders across multiple fields and religious traditions,” Rabbi Sacks said he was “deeply honoured” to receive the AEI’s Irving Kristol Award from “an organisation that is dedicated to defending human dignity and expanding human potential.”
In his keynote address accepting the award, Rabbi Sacks spoke about the current dangers threatening Western freedom and the importance of civil society to liberty. He highlighted how a “politics of anger” was corroding the fabric of American society and that this breakdown was leading to narrower and narrower identities that nurtured a “culture of grievances.” This in turn was impacting on the notion of “a social contract” and “a social covenant” to the point at which “the social contract is still there, but the social covenant is being lost.”
Beloved friends, I want to thank you from the depths of my heart for your generosity tonight. I was almost about to say that I’m moved beyond words, but the truth is no rabbi ever was moved beyond words. (Laughter.) At the Burning Bush, Moses, the first rabbi of all time, said, “I am not a man of words,” and then proceeded to speak for the next 40 years. (Laughter.) So let me say briefly how grateful I am for three things.
Number one, for the company I now join of outstanding individuals and especially last year’s winner, who’s just so embarrassed me, Robbie George, who’s done so much as the voice of vision and moral courage that lies at the very heart of his and your and our vision of American life.
Second, for the American Enterprise Institute itself, one of the very greatest think tanks in the entire world and one from whom I have learned more than any other. And I salute Arthur Brooks for his wonderful leadership of this institution, and I wish all of you blessing and success. (Applause.)
But lastly, and perhaps most importantly because of the name that the award bears, the late Irving Kristol of blessed memory. Elaine and I were privileged to count Irving, of blessed memory, and his incredible wife, Bea, Gertrude Himmelfarb, who is here with us tonight, as precious and cherished friends. Whenever we were in Washington, they invited us to their home. They always encouraged me and my work. They were so kind, they were so gracious, they were so generous of spirit. I always had this cognitive dissonance because Irving was so vigorous, indeed sharp, in his writing and so gentle and loving in his personality that he and Bea were role models who lifted our hearts and expanded the horizon of our aspirations.
There’s a prayer we say whenever we say grace after meals – [Hebrew] ve’nimtzachein v’sechel tov b’einei Elokim v’adam – let us find grace and good intellect in the eyes of God and our fellow human beings. Irving had great outstanding intellect, but even before and above that, he had grace. So I dedicate my words tonight to his blessed memory, and we wish Bea and Bill and all their wonderful family long life and blessing for many years to come. (Applause.)
Friends, these are really tempestuous times. A few months ago, I asked a friend in Washington, “What’s it been like living in America today?” And he said, “Well, it’s a little bit like the man standing on the deck of the Titanic with a glass of whiskey in his hand and he’s saying, ‘I know I asked for ice, but this is ridiculous.’” (Laughter.)
So 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. Just a few weeks ago, Balliol College Oxford, Balliol College Oxford, the home of three prime ministers, of Adam Smith, of Gerard Manley Hopkins, barred a Christian union for having a stall to recruit new students on the grounds that a mere presence of a Christian in a group of students could be construed as a microaggression.
We have seen public discourse polluted by fake news and the manipulation of social media. Not by accident did the Oxford English Dictionary chooses its word that we would remember from 2016 as “post-truth.” And we’ve seen the reemergence in the West, certainly in Europe, of the far right and the far left. And today, according to the rather expert survey that Bridgewater Capital did recently, populist politics throughout the West is measurably at its highest levels since the early 1930s.
Hegel said that modern man has taken to reading the daily newspaper in place of morning prayer. Today, when you finished reading the daily newspaper, you need morning prayer. And all this is serious. Richard Weaver once said the trouble with humanity is that it forgets to read the minutes of the last meetings. And so for anyone who actually remembers history, the politics of anger that’s emerged in our time is full of danger – if not now, then certainly in the foreseeable future.
And although this is affecting the whole of the West, I want tonight, for reasons which will become quite clear, to focus my remarks on you and the United States of America. And the reason is that I want to give an analysis that I think the late Irving Kristol would have understood because a love of Judaism was absolutely central to his life. And because he knew that in America, democratic capitalism had its roots in the Judeo-Christian heritage, specifically in the Hebrew Bible.
You know, we often think of the Hebrew Bible as simply a religious book, but it is actually a political text. I used to study Bible with Tony Blair in 10 Downing Street when he was prime minister. It was done under the strictest possible secrecy because God forbid the prime minister should read the Bible. And he once turned to me and said, “Jonathan, how come your book is more interesting than our book?” (Laughter.) And I replied, “Prime Minister, obviously, because there’s more politics in our book than in your book.”
So I want to just look at one little element of biblical political theory, which I think is unique and which shows remarkable relevance to the situation we’re in today. And I want to begin at a strange point, at a key moment in political history in biblical Israel. You remember when the people came to Samuel and said, “Appoint us a king.” And Samuel got really upset because he thought the people were rejecting him and God said, “That’s nothing. I’m even more upset they’re rejecting me.” They sound very much like two Jewish mothers sitting together discussing their children. But God said to Samuel, “Spell out what having a king will actually mean. He’ll seize your sons, your daughters, your produce, your land, i.e., taxes, and if they’re still willing to pay the price, give them a king,” which is what happened.
And the commentators were all puzzled by this, and rightly so because does the Bible approve of kings or not? If it does, why does God say that they’re rejecting him? And if it doesn’t, why did God say give them one if they ask for it? And the reason the biblical commentators were puzzled is because by and large, they weren’t political scientists. But, actually, the meaning of that narrative is very simple.
What happened in the days of the Prophet Samuel is precisely a social contract, exactly on the lines set out by Thomas Hobbes in “The Leviathan.” People are willing to give up certain of their rights, transfer them to a central power, a king, a government, who undertakes to ensure the rule of law internally and the defense of the realm externally. In fact, One Samuel, Chapter Eight is the first recorded instance in all of history of a social contract.
But what makes the Hebrew Bible unique and really fascinating and makes it completely different from Hobbes and Locke and Jean-Jacque Rousseau is that this wasn’t the first founding moment of Israel as a nation, as a political entity. It was in fact the second because the first took place centuries earlier in the days of Moses at Mount Sinai when the people made with God not a contract but a covenant. And those two things are often confused, but actually they’re quite different.
“The market is about the creation and distribution of wealth. The state is about the creation and distribution of power.”
In a contract, two or more people come together to make an exchange. You pay your plumber – I have a Jewish friend in Jerusalem who calls his plumber Messiah. (Laughter.) Why? Because we await him daily, and he never turns up. (Laughter.) So in a contract, you make an exchange, which is to the benefit of the self-interest of each. And so you have the commercial contract that creates the market and the social contract that creates the state.
A covenant isn’t like that. It’s more like a marriage than an exchange. In a covenant, two or more parties each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other come together in a bond of loyalty and trust to do together what neither can do alone. A covenant isn’t about me. It’s about us. A covenant isn’t about interests. It’s about identity. A covenant isn’t about me, the voter, or me, the consumer, but about all of us together. Or in that lovely key phrase of American politics, it’s about “we, the people.”
The market is about the creation and distribution of wealth. The state is about the creation and distribution of power. But a covenant is about neither wealth nor power, but about the bonds of belonging and of collective responsibility. And to put it as simply as I can, the social contract creates a state but the social covenant creates a society. That is the difference. They’re different things.
Biblical Israel had a society long before it had a state, before it even crossed the Jordan and enter the land, which explains why Jews were able to keep their identity for 2,000 years in exile and dispersion because although they’d lost their state, they still had their society. Although they’d lost their contract, they still had their covenant. And there is only one nation known to me that had the same dual founding as biblical Israel, and that is the United States of America which has – (applause) – which had its social covenant in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and its social contract in the Constitution in 1787.
And the reason it did so is because the founders of this country had the Hebrew Bible engraved on their hearts. Covenant is central to the Mayflower Compact of 1620. It is central to the speech of John Winthrop aboard the Arbela in 1630. It is presupposed in the most famous line of the Declaration of Independence.
Listen to the sentence. See how odd it might sound to anyone but an American. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Those truths are anything but self-evident. They would have been unintelligible to Plato, to Aristotle, or to every hierarchical society the world has ever known. They are self-evident only to people, to Jews and Christians, who have internalized the Hebrew Bible. And that is what made G. K. Chesterton call America “a nation with the soul of a church.”
Now, what is more, every covenant comes with a story. And the interesting thing is the Hebrew Bible and America have the same story. It’s about what Lincoln called a new birth of freedom or, by any other name, what we know as an exodus. The only difference is, in America, instead of the wicked Egyptians, you had the wicked English. (Laughter.) Instead of a tyrant called Pharaoh, you had one called King George III, and instead of crossing the Red Sea, you crossed the Atlantic. But it’s OK. As a Brit, I want to say, after 241 years, we forgive you. (Laughter.)
But that is why Jefferson drew as his design for the great seal of America the Israelites following a pillar of cloud through the wilderness. It is why Lincoln called Americans the “almost chosen people.” It is what led Martin Luther King on the last night of his life to see himself as Moses and to say, “I’ve been to the mountaintop and I have seen the Promised Land.”
Now, why does this matter to America and to the American Enterprise Institute? Because America understands more clearly than any other Western nation that freedom requires not just a state, but also and even more importantly a society, a society built of strong covenantal institutions, of marriages, families, congregations, communities, charities, and voluntary associations.
Alexis de Tocqueville rightly saw that these were the buffers between the individual and the state and that what essentially thought to democratic freedom, he thought all that exercise of responsibility and families and communities was in his lovely phrase our “apprenticeship in liberty.” And we can now say exactly what has been going wrong in American life in recent times and indeed throughout Europe.
But, in America, the social contract is still there, but the social covenant is being lost. Today, one half of America is losing all those covenantal institutions. It’s losing strong marriages and families and communities. It’s losing a strong sense of the American narrative. It’s even losing e pluribus unum because today everyone prefers pluribus to unum. So in place of the single collective identity, you find a myriad of ever smaller identities, local ones based on gender, whatever it is next week.
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.”
And because half of America doesn’t have strong families and communities standing between the individual and the state, people begin to think that all political problems can be solved by the state. But they can’t. And when you think they can, politics begins to indulge in magical thinking. So you get the far right dreaming of a golden past that never was and the far left yearning for a utopian future that never will be. And then comes populism, the belief that a strong leader can solve all our problems for us. And that is the first step down the road to tyranny, whether of the right or of the left.
But there is good news, which is that covenants can be renewed. That’s what happened in the Bible in the days of Joshua and Josepha and Ezekiel and Josiah and Ezra and Nehemiah. It happened in America several times. Nations with covenants can renew themselves, and that has to be our project now and for the foreseeable future. We need to renew the covenant, which means standing with Robbie George and friends and strengthening marriage and the family. It means rebuilding communities.
And I don’t know if you noticed, significantly, just recently, Mark Zuckerberg has changed the mission statement of Facebook from connecting friends to building communities. And, of course, you need communities if you ever are to have friends. You know, a British charity six years ago did a survey – medical charity, called Macmillan Nurses, did a survey six years ago, in 2011, and it came up with the discovery that the average Brit between the ages of 18 and 30 has 237 Facebook friends. When asked on how many of those could you count in an emergency, the average answer was two. When you belong to a church or a synagogue or a real community, you have real friends, not just Facebook friends. And now, Facebook itself is beginning to realize this.
It means – and forgive me for saying this – but it means teaching every American child the American story without embarrassment. (Applause.) Because you and I remember what people forget – namely, the distinction made by George Orwell between nationalism and patriotism. Nationalism is about power. Patriotism is about pride. Nationalism leads to war. Patriotism works for peace. We can be patriotic without being nationalistic. (Applause.)
It means enlisting not just our cultural heroes but our children and grandchildren’s cultural heroes. I mean, you know why we have grandchildren: because they tell us how these [smartphones] things work. And they have icons, and we need to find their peers of stage or screen or sports who are willing to say, we believe in e pluribus unum. We believe, like the University of Chicago, in free speech on campus because we believe that the only safe space there is is one in which we give a respectful hearing to views unlike our own. That is what a safe space actually is. (Applause.)
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. (Applause.) 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. (Applause.)
Friends, those are the values that made America great. And they are still what make America the last best hope of freedom in a dark, dangerous, and sometimes despairing world riven by those who fear and fight against freedom.
Friends, you have been so generous to me tonight. The American Enterprise Institute has given an award to someone who is not American, not terribly enterprising, and in the words of the great philosopher Marx – I mean, of course, Groucho, not Karl – I’m not yet ready to be an institution. (Laughter.)
So, therefore, let me as an entirely unworthy outsider beg you, don’t lose the American covenant. It’s the most precious thing you have. Renew it now before it’s too late. Thank you. (Applause.)