Faith Lectures: What is Faith? (1)
This is a transcript of the conversation recorded in September 2000 as part of the ‘Faith Lectures’ series.
Lecture 1 of 6.
Dear friends: Welcome to the Chief Rabbi’s new lecture series on faith and thank you all for coming. We are very grateful to the Chief Rabbi for giving of his time to prepare and deliver lectures to us over the coming months.
This is a six-part lecture series and, whilst each lecture stands alone, the most benefit will be attained from attending all six. This series is in response to overwhelming demand from young members of the Jewish community who, recognising the need for regular inspiration through education, contacted the Chief Rabbi. Thanks very much to all those who initiated and promoted this lecture series.
After the Chief Rabbi’s lecture we will take two or three questions from the audience. Please keep the questions relevant to this evening’s topic. Additionally, please feel free to place in the box at the back of the room any written feedback and questions that you would like the Chief Rabbi to deal with in future lectures.
Now, if you have all turned off your mobile phones, we present: “What is Faith?” by the Chief Rabbi, Professor Jonathan Sacks. [Applause]
Howard, thank you very much and my thanks to you and to the steering committee who have been working with you for asking me to do this, and especially, thanks to all of you who have agreed to at least join with me for the beginning of a journey which, for me, is the most exciting kind of journey we can have. That is – a journey of ideas.
Let me begin with a story that I love, about an English philosophy professor who is invited to deliver a philosophy lecture in Beijing in China. Not knowing Chinese, he was of course provided with an interpreter. He began his lecture and, after a sentence or two, stopped in order to let the translator translate. But the translator waved him on. He said, “Carry on; I’ll tell you when to stop.” So he carried on, uninterrupted, for about 15 minutes. After 15 minutes the Chinese interpreter turned to the audience and said four words in Chinese. You’ll have to excuse my Chinese. It’s not that great! Something like, “Tā zhǐshì zài fǎnchú.”. Four words, and then “Carry on. Carry on.”
The same thing happens after the next 15 minutes. He speaks for 15 minutes, complicated philosophical stuff and, at the end of it, the translator says four words. The same thing happens after 45 minutes and, at the end, the translator gives three words in Chinese. As the audience files out, the English philosophy professor turns to the Chinese interpreter and says, “That was unbelievable! I gave the most complicated lecture on metaphysics and you compressed it into those few words. What did you say?”
And the translator said, “Oh well, that was easy. After 15 minutes I said, ‘So far, he hasn’t said anything new.’ After 30 minutes I said, ‘He still hasn’t said anything new.’ After 45 minutes I said, ‘I don’t think he’s going to say anything new,’ and after an hour I said, ‘I was right.’ [Laughter]
Now, friends, I want to do a very risky thing. I’ve never done anything like this before, but I want to do a risky thing. I want to see if it is possible to say something new – even systematically and radically new – about a religious tradition that is twice as old as Christianity, three times as old as Islam and whose history covers three-quarters of the entire history of human civilisation.
Can we say something new about Judaism? I believe we can and I believe we ought to try. I wish every one of you a shanah tovah. But just think about that one Hebrew word shanah. You know that leshanot, the verb from which shanah comes, means – what? Leshanot. It means, on the one hand, ‘to repeat’ – mishneh. To do something a second time exactly as you did it before. But leshanot also means ‘to change’, to do something a second time differently from the way you did it before. In other words, two words that are contraries, even contradictories, in most languages – ‘repetition’ and ‘change’ – in Hebrew are represented by the same word.
In other words, every time we repeat our experience of Judaism we find in it something new. What is new is old: what is old is also new. I want to see if we can do that in the course of lectures that I am about to begin this evening.
For me, obviously, this is a huge adventure. I mean – I’m going to turn up each time to see what I’m going to say because I haven’t got a clue where we’re going to land up! But I do know this: I am going to try and do what I never did before – to express my own personal philosophy. Judaism as it has become clear to me over the years. I will not engage in apologetics. That is, simply defending Judaism or Jewish tradition against its critics. I think that is an admirable thing to do but I am not going to spend any time doing that. Nor am I going to deliver polished lectures which, as it were, represent something that we all – or I personally – knew in advance.
I am, as I say, going to take a risk. Work in progress; thoughts that I am currently thinking. And if I succeed, I will say “Baruch haShem” and if I fail I will say, in those lovely words of the great mishnaic teacher Rav Nachum Ha’amsoni [?] who, when all his life’s work was refuted, said this beautiful thing: “Keshem shekablti schar al hadrishah” – “Well, just as I received a reward for the exposition,” – “kach akabel schar al haprishah” – “so I will take it back and get the reward for the retraction”.
So if I get it wrong, I hope I won’t be unrewarded anyway. But here we are and I am going to begin with two stories. Very simple stories because this is a tough journey and I am going to begin lightly.
Once in a while I find myself, on average every couple of years, in Yerushalayim at the precise moment that I need a haircut. I always go to the same hairdresser in a little alleyway in Yerushalayim. The guy there, who must be well into his ’70s by now, is an old-fashioned, old, Oriental Sabra who is not kindly disposed to the British Empire. Because I do not go there very often, he always forgets who I am and he says, “Me’ayfo ata?” – “Where are you from?”. I say, “Me’Anglia”. “England?!” He gets, you know, all tense. He says, “Lehamti neged haBritim be’arbaimvesheva.” “I fought against the Brits in ’47.” And he goes on and on and on. And then he stops and he pauses and he smiles and he says, “Aval ha’Anglim hem gentlemanim“.
Now listen to this. Even to say the word, even to express the concept, he has to use the English language. There are some words that are untranslatable.
Let me give you another example. I had the great privilege, back in 1995, to receive something called ‘The Jerusalem Prize’. Extremely nice. You receive it on Jerusalem Day, in Jerusalem, at the Knesset. On the day afterwards you are given a reception by a leading figure in Israeli public life whom I won’t name for obvious reasons. Anyway, I was given a reception in my honour and in the speech – which luckily was in Ivrit so that my parents couldn’t understand what he was saying, he said the following, this very senior figure in Israeli life – he said: “I see that the Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Sacks, has been given his award for chinuch torani bagolah – for Jewish education in the Diaspora. Chinuch torani zeh yoter tov mi klum – Torah education is better than nothing but – . And he then delivered a diatribe against religious education.
When I came back to London I had breakfast with the Israeli Ambassador and I said, “Kavod HaShagrir, now I understand why it is that after 4,000 years the Hebrew language still does not have a word which means ‘tact'”. [Laughter]
Now I find these things interesting. Why? Because actually, what these stories are obviously saying is that not everything that you can say in one language can you translate into another. But I want to say that that is not a little point: it is a terribly big point. It really is a big point. If you really want to know the difference between one culture and another, one civilisation and another, look at the words that in one language exist and that cannot be translated into another language.
Let me just give you a ‘for instance’. Take that second example. The fact that Hebrew does not have a word meaning ‘tact’. Incidentally, would you be surprised to know that the Hebrew language does not have a word that means ‘understatement’?
Now listen to this. Let me float a hypothesis to you. Here’s the hypothesis: that the longer a nation has enjoyed uninterrupted sovereignty, the more the word for ‘no’ in that language sounds like the word ‘yes’.
(Are you with me?) For instance, you know that there is a special kind of English. Do you remember that programme from years ago called “Yes, Prime Minister”? There is a special kind of English called ‘Sir Humphrey talk’. Do you know what I mean? If he thinks the Prime Minister, say, is about to launch on something totally crazy, he says, “Courageous, Prime Minister.” If he thinks you are totally wrong, he says, “Up to a point, Prime Minister.”
In other words, countries that have survived for a long time as self-governing entities learn how to apply the oil of politeness to the friction of human conflict. They could not have survived without it. If they had not had it, they would have split apart. It is, therefore, very significant indeed that Hebrew does not have a word for ‘tact’ or for ‘understatement’ or for ‘circumlocution’. And that is because the Jewish people have spent most of their history not exercising power.
(Are you with me?) They never needed to keep a people together as the sovereign state. In other words, this little thing turns out to be a very big thing. Because, if you look at Jewish language you will see that a fundamental question is being asked of Jewish history and of Jewish existence in the State of Israel right now. That is this: can Jews develop the kind of civility, the kind of tact, the kind of diplomacy, the kind of “soft answer [that] turneth away wrath”, which will allow Jews in the State of Israel to disagree without splitting apart.
That seems to me probably the biggest question facing the State of Israel right now, today. In other words, one word can be missing from a language and that tells us something very deep if we keep chasing and pursuing and pursuing. Ok? (Are you with me?)
So far, so good. I now want to tell you in advance what I want to do in these lectures.
There was a very great book, written in the early ‘sixties by an American philosopher, T. S. Kuhn, called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In this book, T. S. Kuhn introduced a phrase into the language which is an extremely important phrase: a ‘paradigm shift’. You are familiar with the phrase, yes? A paradigm shift.
Here is Kuhn’s theory. Everyone used to think that what scientists do is that they observe the world and, on the basis of that observation, they come up with theories. That is what is called induction: learning from observation. Kuhn said that, no, it doesn’t work like that at all. What scientists do is they begin with a theory. They begin with a preconception as to what the world looks like, how one thing links to another, and then they see if the facts fit the theory. If it is a good theory, most of the facts fit it. But some do not. Some don’t. And so long as the theory prevails, the bits that the theory doesn’t explain are kind of ignored or explained away. There are a few odd things.
Eventually, however, somebody notices that those exceptions that the theory does not explain are actually centrally important and invents a new theory which accounts not only for the facts that we always understood but for the bits on the side that we didn’t understand. That is what happened when Einsteinian physics took over from Newtonian physics; when Darwinian biology took over from earlier theories. Scientists looked at the bits that didn’t fit in. And when you look at the bits that don’t fit in, then you are open to a paradigm shift. And a paradigm shift is a radically new theory which revolutionises the way we look at the world.
And that is what I want to try and do tonight and in these six lectures: develop a radically new theory which is in fact a paradigm shift in our understanding of Judaism. Let me give you, for instance, two little examples which all of us, I suppose, must have noticed at some stage or other and which do not fit into any theory that I know of about Judaism. Ok? I want to give you two bits of Judaism that we are all familiar with which no theory explains. Can you handle that?
Let me ask you a simple question? When should we do teshuvah? When?
[Inaudible answers from audience.]
Well, the conventional answer would be: we have ten days beginning at Rosh Hashanah culminating in Yom Kippur known as the Asseret Yamei Teshuvah – the Ten Days of Teshuvah. Right? So there is a bit of the year dedicated to teshuvah. However, you are absolutely right. Every single day, at least on weekdays, three times a day, we say, “Slach lanu avinu ki chatanu, mechal lanu malkeinu ki fashanu.” “Forgive us, we have sinned.” We ask for tshuvah.
The Gemara says, “Adam nidon bechol yom“. We are judged every single day.
So here is a very simple question, ok? Why is it, if teshuvah should be on every day of the year, do we set aside these ten days of the year for it? (Are you with me?) That is a very simple question. Ignore it. I will come to it. It will turn out to be deeply significant in the end. No theory explains why, if teshuvah is right every day, we should have these ten days specially set aside for it.
Let me ask you a second question. What is the favourite occupation of Jews? [Inaudible answers from audience.]
Eating? Oh my goodness! Discussing? My goodness me, you must mix in polite company. Arguing? Schon. Years and years ago, there was a series, I think on the BBC, of all the world religions called The Long Search. The guy, who was not Jewish, came to the Judaism programme and was obviously in a state of shock and he called this programme The Holy Argument.
Now this is a very, very interesting thing. If you think about it, what is the Gemara? Every Jewish text, every rabbinic text, consists of the following. Rabbi X says this; Rabbi Y says that. Not only in the text itself of the Gemara, but you will know if you have ever studied a page of Talmud that outside the text there is another kind of argument going on between Rashi (French, 11th century) and his children and grandchildren known as the Ba’alei Tosafot. So there is another argument going on around the argument in the Talmud which is around the argument in the Mishnah and surrounding that, in the small print and all the surrounding volumes, are arguments about the arguments about the arguments.
Take a standard text of the chumash, the classic Jewish text called Mikraot Gedolot which will have a little bit of biblical text and around it an ongoing argument. There is Rashi’s reading of the verse. There is his grandson Rashbam’s reading of the verse. There is Ibn Ezra. There is Ramban. There is Hizkuni. There is Radak. There is Sforno, etc. etc. That page of Torah is an ongoing extended argument. If you were to describe the religious literature of rabbinic Judaism, the best description I can come up with is that it is an ‘anthology of arguments’.
Not only that. Well, we call those arguments. What do we call those arguments in Judaism? Machlokot leshem shamayim. Arguments for the sake of heaven. And I don’t know of any other literature of any kind – I don’t even know of any other books that are printed in that typography – not even the Arden Shakespeare has Rashi and Tosefot like that! You know what I mean? They have already sorted out the arguments before they write the commentaries.
There is no book like a Mikraot Gedolot. Or like a Talmud. Or like a volume of Shulchan Aruch. But what is more: there are not only arguments for the sake of Heaven. What is totally unique, I think – please correct me if I’m wrong: I’ve never come across it in any other literature – is the argument with Heaven itself. After all, Abraham argues with God. Moses argues with God. Jeremiah argues with God. So does Job. And the question is not just: why do Jews argue? I suppose everyone argues. The question is: why is argument central to the Jewish experience? Why is it the very structure of Jewish thought? Why is argument the standard form of a Jewish response to anything?
Now is there any answer to that? Do you know why?
So here is a central feature of Judaism that nobody explains. Just as Newtonian physics didn’t explain the bending of light or the maximum speed of light which the Michelson-Morley experiment established and thus established Einstein’s relativity theory, there were bits that Newtonian physics couldn’t explain. There were bits that pre-Darwinian biology couldn’t explain about the origin and diversity of the species. So there are bits of Judaism like argument, like having special days for special things, which nobody explains.
I think I am familiar with the literature. Nobody explains. What do we do with these two phenomena? What I would call the phenomenon of the Jewish calendar and the other phenomenon of the Jewish conversation.
The fact that Judaism, according to its standard theories, fails to explain things like this, tells me that we need a paradigm shift in our understanding of Judaism. Here it is in advance. Let me explain to you my view.
Western civilisation is the product of two immensely powerful civilisations. On the one hand, ancient Greece. On the other hand, ancient Israel. Athens and Jerusalem. The worlds, respectively, of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle on the one hand and of Avraham Avinu, Moshe Rabbeinu and the Prophets on the other.
They are two very different cultures and we have always assumed that they were more or less translatable into one another. That ancient Greece and ancient Israel are two ways of talking about fundamentally the same things. Why did we assume this? I will tell you why we assumed this? Because European culture is based on Christianity which became, after the conversion of Constantine in 327 CE, the dominant cultural force in Europe, and Christianity is a synthesis of the two. Its birthplace was in Israel but its area of activity was in Greece and Rome, the Hellenistic world. So we had a culture based on Christianity which brought together the world of ancient Israel and the world of ancient Greece. So we thought that it is all translatable, one into the other.
However, though the first Christians were indeed Jews, what is deeply significant – and I am not sure how many people have really understood this – is: in what language are the first Christian texts? They are all in Greek. From the very beginning, Christianity – although it had Jewish bits to it – was expressed in the language of Greece. And that has influenced Western civilisation to this very day. At the very heart of our civilisation is an unacknowledged and unresolved tension between the Greek bits and the Jewish bits, and the dominant bits have been the Greek bits.
Now it is not simply that in Judaism there are lots of words that cannot be translated into Greek. That is simple. I want to say much more than that! That the deep structure of Jewish thought cannot be translated into the dominant categories of western thought. That western thought is based on a Greek model which is quite different from the Jewish model. And because we did not realise this, we thought Judaism was much more simple, tamed, domesticated than it actually is.
Actually, Judaism is very different indeed. So much so that every time we use words like ‘faith’ or ‘knowledge’ or ‘truth’ and we think we know what they mean, actually they mean something different in Judaism to what we think they mean when we translate them into English. They do not mean what we think they do.
To enter the world of Judaism, we have to learn a new language, a new thought system, a new way of entering the world. That is what I want to do in these six lectures: to say something new as radically new as I think it is possible to say about a tradition that we thought we knew all about. Can we learn to listen to Judaism’s distinctive voice? Can we hear what is untranslatable about its thought patterns? Can we hear it saying new things to us?
That is my introduction. Now let me begin and I am going to begin at the beginning. At the beginning of the beginnings. Bereishit bara Elokim – “In the beginning, God created.” Now I want to introduce you to a problem which some of you will be familiar with. It is the opening chapters of the book of Bereishit that formed the context, the impetus, to one of the great works of Jewish thought in the 20th century.
Does anyone know what I’m referring to here? Which great work starts with Bereishit 1 and Bereishit 2? Does anyone know? [Inaudible answers from audience.] Soloveitchik. Indeed. Rav Soloveitchik of blessed memory, his famous essay published in 1965, The Lonely Man of Faith. Rav Soloveitchik begins with a problem and I am going to begin with the same problem although, as you will see, I will analyse it rather differently from him.
Here it is. And for those who haven’t read the essay, just concentrate very carefully because we probably read this so many times but we never noticed it before. The Torah does not contain one account of creation. The Torah actually contains two accounts: one in Bereishit chapter 1, the other in Bereishit chapter 2. And they are different accounts almost to the point of contradiction.
What is Bereishit chapter 1? Bereishit chapter 1 is surely one of the most influential texts in all of history. God speaks: the universe comes into being. God says, “Let there be -” and there was and God saw that it was good. That chapter of 31 verses changed the course of the human imagination. For the first time, God was seen not in nature but radically above nature, transcending it, beyond it altogether. All the ancient literatures of the world have a creation myth in which the god of the sky does battle with the god of the sea or the gods do battle, etc. etc. Marduk, Tiamat. You know all this stuff, I am sure. We have read all the heretics. Is that right? I am sure you have!
And all of that is missing from this incredible stately progression whereby the universe unfolds without conflict, without tension, as a result of God’s creative word.
Bereishit chapter 1 created the revolution in human thought that is technically known as demythologisation. Ridding the world of myth. According to the greatest sociologist of all time, the 19th century thinker Max Weber – who was not a particular fan of the Jews – western civilisation, western rationality is born in Bereishit chapter 1 where human beings, for the first time, explained the world without myth.
However, Bereishit chapter 2 is very different. It’s got a different feel about it. Instead of this vantage point of the universe as a whole, we now find ourselves, at the beginning of Bereishit chapter 2, in the Garden of Eden. And God suddenly appears to us as much more close, much more intimate, much more concerned with the human situation. We see Him taking a mass of earth, of clay – afar min ha’adamah – and forming out of it the first human being, and breathing into adam the breath of life – nishmat chayim.
Then, of course, like any other Jewish parent, the Almighty starts worrying. His son isn’t married yet. You know the kind of thing!
You know the famous interfaith joke about the medical ethics question? When does life begin? The Catholics say: Life begins at conception. The Protestants say: At birth. The Jews say: When the children have got through graduate school and when we have got einkelech [grandchildren]. You know, that’s when life begins!
Now, what Rav Soloveitchik points out and what you will see immediately if you look at Bereishit chapter 1 and Bereishit chapter 2 is that there are major differences, almost contradictions, between the two accounts. First, the question: how is man described in Bereishit chapter 1? He is tzelem elokim. He is the ‘image of God’. Something majestic.
How is man described in Bereishit chapter 2? Afar min ha’adamah. ‘Dust of the earth.’ That is a radically different view. The height; the depth.
Number two: What is mankind commanded to do in Bereishit chapter 1? Milu et ha’aretz vekivshuha. ‘To fill the earth and conquer it’ – subdue it; learn how to control it. Master it. What is mankind commanded to do in chapter 2? Almost the exact opposite. God plants him in Eden le’ovdah ule’shomrah. ‘To serve it and to protect it.’ Quite the opposite kind of mandate.
Thirdly, male and female: how are they created in chapter 1 of Bereishit? Simultaneously. Zachar unekevah bara otam. Simultaneously. God creates man and woman in His image. Whereas, in the second chapter, a quite different story. It is only after man has been created and God says, “Lo tov lihayot adam levado.” “It is not good for man to be alone,” and God has brought all the animals to Adam to see what he would call them, to see if he found a mate. “Velo matza ezer kenegdo” “And he did not find a mate.” And only after then, is woman created. So, were they created simultaneously or not? Seriatim? What were they? Again, the two chapters disagree.
And, fourthly, very significantly, the name of God is different in the two chapters. In chapter 1 of Bereishit, God is described as Elokim. In chapter 2 he is described as Hashem Elokim. The four-letter name of God. The Tetragrammaton.
So we have different sequence of creation, different moods. Four contradictions between the two narratives. What do we do with those contradictions?
Obviously one way, which was taken in the 19th century by people called biblical critics, was to say, “What’s the problem? There’s actually no problem because these two chapters were written by different people at different times.”
Now that for me, I have to say – and we will have a lecture dedicated to that theme – is just a category mistake. It is just seeing the thing in the wrong way altogether. Biblical criticism fails to read the text as a text. It reads beyond the text to say: Well, let’s forget about the text, what can we learn about the people who wrote it. And that is a mistake.
For instance, you imagine three people reading a novel by Dickens. Let us say Hard Times or David Copperfield. One is a psychiatrist who reads David Copperfield to learn that Charles Dickens was screwed up by his parents when he was young, etc. etc. Standard psycho-analytical interpretation. (It’s not only Jews who have parents. Don’t forget!) [Laughter] One of them is a social historian who reads the work to find out what were the social conditions of the working class in Victorian England. A third one, a cultural historian from America, reads it and says, “A typical ‘DWEM’ book”. Is that what it is called in America now? ‘DWEM.’ Dead, white, European, male? Forget it. It’s off the curriculum!
So each one reads out of the text what they want to discover beyond the text. His background, the social class, the power structures. Ribbono shel Olam! Read the text! Forget about what’s behind the text! And how much more so, indeed more so than any other text known to civilisation, do you have to read the text in the case of Tanach where the Torah actually says – and it says it right at the beginning – that the text is the ultimate reality, that language is reality. How does God create the world? Through words. God creates the world by saying, “Baruch she’omar” “Blessed be He Who spoke.” Vehaya olam. “And the world came into being.” Words, for Jews, are the ultimately creative thing. And, therefore, reading the Torah, we have to read the words. Not tear it up into pieces and say, “That belongs here; that belongs there.” We have to read the text, not the pretext or the context.
So, that way of dissolving the problems – saying there is no problem because it was not all written by one person – that is absolutely failing to understand the nature of the problem, which is: how do we understand this very contradictory set of chapters?
Well, let’s take the Rashi option. Why are there two different accounts of creation according to Rashi? Look, Rashi is a beautiful classic Jewish commentator and he says something typically beautiful. He says this – and of course this is the standard rabbinic interpretation. Rashi says that the word Elokim – God’s name, Elokim – means midat hadin, the attribute of justice. The word Hashem means God’s attribute of mercy. Why were there two accounts of Creation? Because originally God created the world under the attribute of justice but then He saw that the world cannot survive on justice alone and, therefore, God had to create it all over again, joining to justice His attribute of mercy. Hence the two creations.
It is a beautiful, beautiful analysis. And I think it is true – but it is not the plain meaning of the text.
What does Rav Soloveitchik, who raised this question, answer? He answers in the following way. There is a lovely existentialist drama here. Here we are – there are, in fact, two types of human personality. Soloveitchik calls them ‘majestic man’ and ‘covenantal man’. I am sorry – can this include ‘woman’ as well? I mean, don’t take it amiss: Soloveitchik was writing before political correctness. So ‘majestic woman’ and ‘covenantal woman’ as well.
Anyway, the point is that the majestic personality seems to control the world; the covenantal personality seeks to experience the world. The majestic personality is the scientist, if you like, and the covenantal personality is the poet, if you like. And we are both. So, says Rav Soloveitchik, in a magnificently brilliant interpretation, Genesis 1 describes majestic humanity. The image of God; the person who can control and dominate the world. Genesis 2 describes covenantal personality who knows we are only dust of the earth and who is there to serve and protect the world. And we are both. Hence that is why there are these two chapters: because they are both true and they are both part of who we are. And I think that is deeply profound and moving and true.
However, I am still left with my question: what kind of literature begins with a contradiction? You open a novel. What kind of novel is it in which chapter 2 counter-states what is written in chapter 1? What kind of literature begins with a contradiction? That is my question.
Here I want you to step back for a moment and I want you to think of certain critical moments in human civilisation when human creativity bursts through all the existing conventions and creates something radically new. When that happens, you have an explosive mix because, initially, this new creation is shockingly incomprehensible to people and people feel scandalised.
Can you think of some examples – from the world of art? A famous one, right? In 1874, what happened in Paris? The first Impressionist exhibition. All the painters in that first exhibition had been turned down by every art gallery. All the reviews – scandalised. What is this kind of stuff? This is painting?!
A second, famous, example: the famous first performance in 1913 of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre de Printemps -The Rite of Spring. Total pandemonium in the concert hall. People boo, hiss, cheer. You know – it’s like a Labour Party Convention. [Laughter] Anyway, there it is. So a riot takes place.
When Stravinsky breaks the boundaries of music, when Monet breaks through the boundaries of representational art, initially people find this shockingly unintelligible. But, of course, by now we know what those things were and those things taught us to see the world in a new way, to hear the world in a new way. So that a Monet exhibition in the last few years will attract massive crowds and ditto Stravinsky.
I want to concentrate on two other such moments that, to me, strike me as deeply, deeply interesting. Here is the first. It is set in Paris in the years 1907 to 1914. During those years, two painters – one called Picasso, one called Braque – developed a kind of painting known as Cubism. Cubism is a revolution in art. Maybe not a permanent one, but it’s an interesting one and I really want to explain why this is. It is more of a revolution than Impressionism.
Impressionism already moved art from trying to depict things as they are or as we suppose them to be, to trying to depict things as how we see them. In other words, to move art from what is to what seems. That is Impressionism. But Cubism goes further – and I need to explain to you, and I need you to understand: what is Cubism? Cubism did something extremely important. This will turn out to be crucial to our whole understanding of Judaism.
Cubism broke with the convention which had been common to virtually all representational art. Here it is: when you look at a painting, what do you see? You see the world from a particular point of view. The point of view of the painter. The point of view of an ideal observer. You are standing in a different world from the painting – which is on two dimensions of canvas. You are standing here, in a different mode of reality, in a different metaphysical space from the painting itself, and you are the detached spectator. You are, hypothetically, where the artist was when he painted the scene. You are the ideal observer. Right?
That is what representational painting is – from Greeks through the Middle Ages, through to the Impressionists. It is a representation of reality from a point of view. A point of view in which the observer is in a different universe from that which he observes. There is the picture and here we are looking at it: detached, static, fixed. A single point of view.
Now what did Cubism do? It exploded that convention. Because, in fact, how do we perceive the universe? We don’t actually come to know physical objects by standing here and gazing at them in reverential silence. How do we come to know things? We walk around them. We feel them. We kick them. You know! We look at things from one angle, then another angle and then, eventually – and we do this particularly when we are children – we get a feel from how it looks from this angle, that angle, side on, front on. We feel it and we get the texture. And what Cubism did was to put all those multiple perspectives together on a two-dimensional canvas. To say: Look, it is out of this jumble of impressions that we construct our sense of the reality of things.
Cubism abandoned the fiction of an ideal observer. That’s Cubism.
I want to take a second moment – and you will know this a lot better than I do because I don’t watch a lot of cinema. However, there is one moment which, for me – you probably know example how wrong I am on this – but there is one moment that for me, when I was a little kid (although it was made before I was born: I’m not that old!) was a decisive moment in the history of the cinema. I am sure you have seen this: Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Do you remember the point early on in the film where a reporter is trying to dig up the details of Kane’s private life and goes to see his ex-wife who is now a singer in a very seedy rundown bar. Do you remember? The camera sort of pans across, up through the front of the bar, up through the rather broken and half-working neon sign, through the neon sign, across the roof and down a skylight into the bar.
Something happened to the cinema at that point. Namely – and maybe it happened before: this is just the point I can date, Citizen Kane, 1941 – what happened is this. That cinema liberated itself for that moment from the conventions of the theatre. In other words, until then a lot of movies – not all – were like theatre only on film. But the mobile camera liberated cinema from the conventions of the theatre.
I just want to remind you and remind ourselves what happens when you are sitting in a theatre watching a play. When you sit in a theatre watching the play, all the action is taking place in a world that exists on the stage. You are in a different world. Even though you are entering into the reality of the drama, you are not actually part of that world. You cannot suddenly interrupt in the middle of Othello and say, “He’s telling a lie, for heaven’s sake!” – and change the plot to a happy ending! You cannot do that! Because the play is in one dimension of reality. You are in another dimension of reality and you are in a fixed vantage point: the point of view of the gods. You are seeing the play as a detached observer. A detached observer that can see and hear everything but cannot influence events.
In other words, what Orson Welles did when he moved the camera was to break the convention of a static observer. He suddenly allowed us to see things from a moving point of view.
Or, if I can give a slightly different example and an equally powerful one. What Tom Stoppard did in a different way in his first play, which you must have seen: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a metaphysical conceit in which, as it were, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is happening but you are watching it from the back of the stage. You are watching it from the point of view of two characters who, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, are off the stage most of the time and who, in Tom Stoppard’s play, are on the stage most of the time. That is showing you reality from a second and conflicting perspective.
In other words, all of these – Cubism, Orson Welles, Tom Stoppard – are rejecting the conventional way of representing reality from a single perspective: from an ideal observer who is detached, who can see what is going on, but is outside the reality of what is going on. That point of view which the American philosopher Thomas Nagel calls The View from Nowhere. The view of total detachment, and that is broken by Cubism and mobile cameras.
I now want to explain to you what is happening in Bereishit chapter 1 and Bereishit chapter 2. Bereishit chapter 1 and chapter 2 are the same events seen from two different perspectives: one from the point of view of the universe; one from the point of view of mankind. Bereishit 1 and 2 are to linear narrative what Cubism is to representational art.
Bereishit 1 and 2 are the same events seen from two particular points of view: the first from God’s point of view, the second – set in Eden – from a kind of human eye level point of view. Or, to put it slightly differently, in the terms of the great 11th century philosopher Yehuda Halevy, terms popularised in the 20th century by Martin Buber: what we see in Bereishis 1 is Elokim, i.e. God is an ‘it’; Elokim is the force of forces, the ‘first cause’, the ‘big bang’, the unfolding of the universe in terms of ‘it’, in terms of physical, scientific forces. That is Elokim.
Hashem, says Yehuda Halevy, is the proper name of God. It isn’t a noun. It is the proper name of …
[End of Tape 1, side A. Some words missing when tape turned over.]
… and that second chapter has got nothing to do with causes of the universe. It has got to do with relationships. It has got to do with the existential loneliness of the human being. And about the discovery of another person. Only now, in the 21st century, having come through what we have come through, knowing that there was something called Cubism, for instance, only now can we begin and go back and understand what an extraordinary technique the Torah was using!
I don’t know if, in the 19th century, they could have understood the Torah like that because they did not have an obvious model for the same story told two times from different perspectives. I don’t know if any of you listen to chamber music, but you surely know that it was Bartok’s quartets, in the 20th century, that allowed people to go back and understand for the first time Beethoven’s late quartets that were written a century earlier. It was only the experience of Bartok that made us understand what Beethoven was trying to do all those years before.
I have tried to explain to you that Torah, like Cubism, breaks with the convention of a single point of view. However, I don’t want to stop there because we are beginning to sense something very significant. Something momentous, something unexpected – and here it is. Here we are in Bereishit 1 which introduced to the world a totally radically new concept of God. God as vast, as transcending the universe, as infinite in scope. Unlike anything in nature. What would we have expected such a concept to create?
Obviously we would have expected this concept to have created the total devaluation of anything else. Compared to God, compared to the biblical God, we are infinitesimal, insignificant specks of dust on the surface of eternity. That is what we would have expected.
In actual fact, the exact opposite occurs. Because what God speaks to us in Bereishit chapter 2 is the exact opposite of the insignificance of humanity. Bereishit 2 focuses on one human being who is centre stage and absolutely fills the action. His name is Adam. We see and we feel things through his eyes – not through God’s eyes. In chapter 1 we saw things through God’s eyes. He says, “and there was – and there is”. In chapter 2 we see through his eyes. We see him lonely. We see him searching. We see him not finding. We actually see him wake up and see a woman for the first time. You know what he does at that point. He says the first poem on record:
Zot ha’pa’am – This time [I have found]
Etzem mi’atzamei – bone of my bone
Basar mibasari – flesh of my flesh
Lezot yikarei ishah – she shall be called ‘woman’
Ki mi’ish lukahah-zot – because she was taken from man.
We see, we feel, his joy of discovery. We actually are seeing through the immense significance of one human being. In other words, with Bereishit 2, by God giving us not only the point of view of God on creation, but the point of view of man on creation. In Bereishit 2 we are about to see an extraordinary phenomenon: that God who speaks to us through the words of Torah is God who makes space for mankind. Who takes human beings seriously. Who confers legitimacy, dignity, on the human point of view – which is the point of view from which the narrative of Bereishis 2 is told.
Now that is an incredible thing. What is equally important is the God as we see him in Bereishis 2 is not a detached observer. He is not there in the centre of the universe, big bang, ordering the bits and pieces to distil themselves into a universe. He is anything but a detached spectator. There He is, caring for man, shaping him, breathing into him, planting him in a garden, worried about his loneliness. He is becoming a shadchan. You know: “Have I got a lovely girl for you!” The whole stuff!
I tell you, there is a book. My French is terrible so I haven’t read it. It’s on my shelves. It’s conversations with the previous Chief Rabbi of France, Rabbi Sirat, and it bears a lovely title. Here it is: La Tendresse de Dieu. The Tenderness of God. Read chapter 2 of Bereishit and that is what you will see. The tenderness of God.
I hope you are following what I am saying. Here is an immense, world-transforming phenomenon in the narrative technique of Bereishit. Yes, the Bible in chapter 1 gives us the point of view of God – which you would have thought is all you need. But chapter 2 says: No, it isn’t all you need: you also need the point of view of humanity. And God enters that world. And in that world he confers dignity and integrity on the human perspective of things, even though it is partial, fragmentary and finite. God has created space for human beings.
Now already shadowed here, in the very opening chapters of Bereishit is a famous idea that didn’t come into Judaism for another 3,000 years, the Kabbalistic idea of tzimtzum in which God effaces Himself to make room for human beings but also (and please listen carefully to this) – a psycho-analytic theory in Bereishit 1 and Bereishit 2 utterly and polar opposite to the psycho-analytical theory of Freud.
Remind ourselves. Where did Freud get his psychoanalysis from? What was his inspiration? [Inaudible answers from audience.] Jewish middle-aged women? No, no, no, no. No, no, no, no! He got it, as you know, from the classic text of Greek literature, Sophocles’ play Oedipus. It is very important for you to understand that Freud’s psycho-analysis is Greek not Jewish. Even if he did have Jewish parents, it is Greek psycho-analysis.
You know the story of Oedipus. And Freud made this, as I am sure you know, the basis not only of his human psychology but he also made it the basis of his theory of religion in a book he wrote called Totem and Taboo and here it is. This is the theory. This is Greek tragedy. This is Sophocles. This is Oedipus. Here it is. Here is a world in which father and son compete for the same space. That space is only big enough for one of them. Therefore, Laius, Oedipus’s father, attempts infanticide on his son by abandoning him as a baby and the son, who grows up to be Oedipus, commits parricide – kills his father, not knowing that he is his father.
It is a particular view of the universe in which father and son are antagonistic and they cannot both live together. And Freud saw this as the basis of religion, human civilisation, the works! The very essence of the Jewish vision is exactly the opposite! Of a father called God Who makes space for His children, i.e. us. And of we, His children, who make space for God – by listening to His word, called the Torah, by speaking to Him, called ‘prayer’, and by doing His will, called ‘mitzvos’. The world of ancient Greece, which Freud turned into psycho-analytical theory, is diametrically opposed to the fundamental premise of Bereishit 1 and Bereishit 2 in which Father and son, parents and children, make space for one another.
Now I want to go further. I said the Torah breaks with certain conventions. Conventions of representative art, of narrative and of theatre. Those, of course – art, theatre: painting pictures, drama – they were the two great art forms of which civilisation? (Apart from the West End, now, okay?) Ancient Greece. Representational art. Portraits, paintings, architecture and drama.
Now I want to say this. Here we get into the crunch. The core of Greek culture is not art. It is a discipline called philosophy. Josiah Royce said, probably accurately, that the whole of western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. There it is. Now here is philosophy, and philosophy itself – which is the master discipline of Greek civilisation – has its own master discipline which is called logic. And the fundamental principle of logic is what is called the ‘law of contradiction’. The law of contradiction says that a statement and its negation cannot be true at once. They cannot be both. This table is brown and it is red all at once: it cannot be both. Tuesday night and Friday morning. Although by the time I have finished it may well be!
You know the famous joke? The three ministers of religion are getting together and they are talking about the power of prayer and the miracles that happened to them. The Catholic says, “I was in a village when all of a sudden the flood waters came and I was about to be swept away. I prayed and, by a miracle, there was water to the right of me and water to the left of me but in the middle, where I was, was dry land.” And the Protestant says, “That’s nothing. I was in a place and the building caught fire and the flames were leaping and I prayed to God. There was fire to the right of me and fire to the left of me but where I was was safe.” And the Rabbi say, “Fah! That’s nothing! I was walking along a street one Shabbos. I see in front of me on the pavement a thousand pounds. I pray. A miracle happens. It’s Shabbos to the right of me, Shabbos to the left of me but where I am it is Wednesday! [Laughter]
I take that back. It is an anti-Semitic joke. Anyway – those things only happen in jokes.
But in reality, says logic, you cannot have Shabbos and Wednesday at once. That’s the law of contradiction. Now I want you to understand that the law of contradiction, the world of logic, is like the world of representative painting. It is a two-dimensional universe. You could imagine, for instance, a vast chessboard, as big as the world, with every possible question on it and, as human knowledge increases, we can put on it a white chequer to say it is true, a black chequer to say it is false. You could get all of truth on a two-dimensional flat plane. That is the world of Greek logic. Two-dimensional reality. Ok? Why is this? There it is.
I am pushing you very hard. This is deep stuff. But, anyway – for the Greeks, that is what the gods were. That is what truth was. Gods were people who observed the world from a distance, as an audience observes a drama from a distance, as a visitor to an art gallery looks at a painting from a distance. Detachment. Flat reality which you see. And that is the Greek concept of knowledge and truth. Ok?
And Judaism rejects that. Judaism rejects that. Because truth for us is not flat. It is not two-dimensional. And very often it is not a matter of either true or false. And here I am trying to explain the key proposition which I analyse here, that in Judaism the law of contradiction does not apply! Two conflicting propositions may both be true! It just happens to depend on where we are standing and what is our perspective. How do things look from where we stand?
And I can explain this idea to you very simply. In terms of an aphorism, I can explain it to you in words and I can explain it to you in the form of a diagram which, Nicole, you are going to show people. Here it is, first of all, in the form of words. Listen very carefully to some very wise words by a Nobel prize-winning scientist, Niels Bohr. He said the following: “The opposite of a simple truth is a falsehood. The opposite of a profound truth is very often another profound truth.” This particular fascinating diagram I owe to a psychotherapist – a very interesting man who died not long ago and who was a survivor of Auschwitz. He founded a new school of psychotherapy. His name was Victor Frankel. (I don’t know if you are familiar with him.)
Here we are. Can you see up there? There’s a cone, a cylinder and a sphere. Ok? Three different three-dimensional objects. You shine a light down on all three onto a two-dimensional surface, and what do you see? Three identical zones. In other words, what look like the same in two-dimensional reality are in fact different in three-dimensional reality. (Are you with me so far?)
Look at this one. You have got a cylinder and if you shine a light down on it from the top, you see a circle. You shine a light across and you see a rectangle. Now can something be a circle and a rectangle at the same time? The answer is: No. That is a contradiction. However, the answer to that contradiction is very simple. It looked like a contradiction because we were trying to see it in two dimensions. If you can see it in three dimensions, then the contradiction disappears.
Now that is what Judaism is. It embraces both sides of what looked like a contradiction. They only look like a contradiction because we think the world is two-dimensional and Judaism is concerned with three and four-dimensional reality.
Now I can explain the point to which I have been driving all along. Judaism rejects the law of contradiction. It therefore rejects the system of Greek logic. It therefore rejects the basis of western thought. Because, western thought tries to see everything in terms of two dimensions: either it is true or it is false. And all we have is one perspective! That is what Judaism rejects. There is always more than one perspective. And Judaism regards that as fundamental to the nature of reality. If I am standing here, the things look different from what you see if you are sitting there. We are seeing the world from different perspectives and Judaism wants to confer dignity on how the world looks to me and how the world looks to you. The world is an irreducible multiplicity of perspectives.
There is, in other words, the view of Hillel. But there is also the view of Shammai. There is the view of Jacob. But there is also the point of view of Esau. There is the point of view of Adam. There is also the point of view of Eve. And, ultimately, there is the point of view of us down here and there is the point of view of God up there.
Judaism is an attempt to do justice to the fact that there is more than one point of view; more than one truth. And that is something that you cannot translate into the structures of western thought. It is as unintelligible in those categories as Cubism was to people who had never seen a Picasso before.
Now supposing you and I see things differently. We have different perspectives on reality. Is that it? Finito? What can we do under those circumstances? Well, we can talk. Right? We can converse. You can tell me how the world looks like to you. I can tell you how the world looks like to me. We can have a conversation. We can, through that conversation, learn what it feels like to be different. Man can learn what it feels like to be a woman. An adult can learn what it feels like, all over again, to be a child. Man can begin to enter into a dialogue with God.
One way of bridging the distance between two perspectives is through conversation and through dialogue. Another way is very simple. You can look at the world from two different perspectives at two different times. This week I can enjoy myself speaking from the platform. Next time I can ask you to give the lecture and I can sit in the audience. So I an adopt your perspective so long as I do it at a different time. And now I reach my proposition. Here it is.
Greek thought is logical. Jewish thought is more than logical: it is dialogical and it is chronological. Because Judaism gives dignity to the multiple perspectives from which we perceive reality and, most importantly, I says that the truth is not only as it appears to God looking down from heaven. Truth is also how it seems to us down here on earth. And the only ways we can handle that are either by having a dialogue and conversation, or by having different perspectives at different times. That is the paradigm shift.
Here it is: my argument that Judaism represents a fundamentally different language from Greek on which western civilisation is built. And now you understand the points with which I began. How do we explain that Judaism is a religion of argument and that argument is for us something holy? The answer is obvious! Because argument is that point in which we live a reality which does justice to more than one point of view. More than one perspective. Hence, all the arguments on the page of a chumash. So we see them from the eyes of 11th century France and Rashi. We see them from Rashbam. We see them from Ibn Ezra in Spain in the 11th century. In the 12th century we see them from Ramban. We see the world, the text, from all those different points of view. The Gemara we see from the point of view of Rav and the point of view of Shmuel. Abaya Rava in the Mishnah. We see it from the point of view of Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yehudah. In the Bible itself, we see the point of view of God engaging in the dialogue with those who represent the point of view of humanity – called Abraham, called Moses, called Jeremiah, called Job.
Only a world view that had the validity of multiple perspectives could regard argument as the fundamental vehicle of truth. Therefore, dialogue occupies a role in Judaism that it does not occupy in philosophy. That is the first point. The second point: I still remember the first time I read The Lonely Man of Faith. There was Rav Soloveitchik explaining that on the one hand we are creative; on the other hand we are created. We strive to control the universe on the one hand. On the other hand we strive to revere and admire and respond to it. We are majestic. We are covenantal. And Soloveitchik explains that that two things are part of our personalities. They are in ceaseless conflict. They are in tension. We have got to live with that existential angst. And I thought to myself: Hang on. All he has said is true but he’s missed a fundamentally important point – which is that we do not all need psycho-analysts. We are not all in a state of constant existential tension. How does Judaism resolve the tension between us being creative and us being created?
Very simple. In the words: sheshet yamim ta’avod u’veyom ha’shevii tishbo. Six days shall you work – be majestic. The seventh day you be at rest and be convenantal. In other words, these two fundamentally different ways of looking at the world – Judaism does not see as a constant state of tension. It says: resolve them, not in the soul but in time! Give six days to that way of seeing the world. That is a profound truth. We are there to improve the world and not to take it for granted. But one day in seven, as a phenomenon of time, live this other truth! – which is not only that we are here to change the world but we are also here to revere, admire and praise God for creating the world.
In other words, the tension is resolved in terms of chronology, in terms of time, in terms of the Jewish calendar. And now you’ll understand why it is obvious – why even though it is true every day of the year that we are sinners and we should be full of remorse and we should do teshuvah, we cannot spend our whole lives like that. We set aside ten days of the calendar, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. And that is when we live that truth – even though it is true all the time. Because truths have other truths which we also have to live some of the time.
I have tried to give you an argument which is as revolutionary, I suppose, as some major paradigm shift. I have tried to explain to you that Judaism is a radically different way of experiencing reality from that which is held by the Greeks. That which is held today by western culture. That makes the whole language of Judaism radically new, radically different. Jews really did see the world differently. They had a different concept of truth, of knowledge, of faith – as I will explain in the course of these six lectures. And that means that Judaism is systematically untranslatable into the language of western culture. It is radically different and offers a radical alternative. What I call the ‘dignity of difference’. Respecting the point of view of somebody who is radically different from us. As we respect God’s point of view; as He respects ours. As Hillel respected Shammai and Shammai respected Hillel. It actually needs a whole different way of thinking from that which dominated the Greek world.
In other words, what Judaism has over and above a logical imagination – which we do not knock. It gives us a little bit of reality. The non-human bit of reality. Science. Philosophy. That’s all logical. Fine. But if you want to deal with human reality, the world as it seems to us as people in the image of God, for that you need more than logic. You need not a logical imagination but a dialogical imagination and a chronological imagination.
If I am right, then the whole enterprise which is called Jewish philosophy rests on a mistake. Judaism cannot be translated into the language of philosophy because Judaism is too subtle, too complex, too multidimensional to be translated into philosophy, that great Greek discipline. And the reason is that Judaism is the most heroic endeavour that I know to describe the world. A world in which God is real and we are real. In which the immensity of God doesn’t negate our integrity and our importance does not negate the reality of God. A world in which God makes space for us and our viewpoint and we make space for God, Who is radically unlike us, and for other people who are radically unlike us.
Judaism is an attempt to describe a universe in which a free God creates room for human freedom. A creative God who leaves room for human creativity. Judaism is the personal encounter between this perspective and that perspective; between the self and the other – whether the other is divine or the other is human. It is the most radical account ever given of the dignity of the human situation of freedom and creativity under the sovereignty of God. That drama can not be caught in a philosophical system, however you try. A philosophical system in the Platonic mode or the Cartesian mode. It cannot be done. Philosophy is a two-dimensional enterprise trying to capture the reality of a three-dimensional phenomenon.
In other words, Judaism is bigger than philosophy. It cannot be systematically thought. It can only be lived through two things: through dialogue and conversation and through time. The dialogue which we call ‘learning Torah’ and in time which we call ‘Jewish history’.
In short, for me, Judaism is the greatest story ever told of God’s love for a people – and taking us seriously. And our love for God and taking Him seriously. Can we build a world big enough for us to be free and creative and for God to be God? In order to do that, Judaism had to put forward one of the most revolutionary visions of reality ever recorded. I don’t know of any equivalent. I hope I’ve given you a little glimpse of how, in a very ancient tradition, we can still see things in a new way. Thank you very much indeed. [Applause]
Thank you very much Chief Rabbi. The Chief Rabbi has agreed to take a few questions so please feel free to raise your hand if you have a question.
[Aside from Chief Rabbi: What was he talking about? Right?!]
1st Questioner [Danny Berkowitz] :
… [inaudible – first words not into microphone]
…difficult to comprehend now … It probably isn’t possible to re-create experience with dialogue and conversation. They just don’t do it for me. Dialogue and conversation don’t re-create experience and without experience, I find it very difficult to put everything together really. I mean – how do we re-create Judaism – or everything that has happened through time to this point without being able to re-create the experience. I mean, we talk about it at the Seder. We talk about what we all went through, coming out of Egypt. But we cannot re-create that experience and then comprehend to our ability what Judaism is really all about.
Ok. Let me try and explain if I can. What I tried to do in this opening lecture was to give you an intellectual foundation on which we will be able to understand things a little bit differently from the way we did before. However, learn from the example you gave. The example of yetziat mitzrayim – the exodus from Egypt – zman herutenu – the time of our freedom.
We know that Socrates, Plato, Aristotle all wrote works of political philosophy. The most famous, Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics – and they go on through western thought all the way to Hobbs’s Leviathan, Locke’s two Treatises of Government, John Stuart Mill’s essays On Liberty and Considerations on Representative Government and so on. And all of them, insofar as they are philosophical, set forth a theory of the ideal society as a timeless truth. A timeless truth. Philosophy is not something that functions within time. Judaism sets it out in a quite different way. It has a quite different concept of time.
But here it is. Freedom begins at a particular moment in time. And that moment in time is called Pesach, the going out of Egypt. However, as you know, Jews did not immediately move from the going out of Egypt to a free society. First of all, they had to go through an experience seven weeks later of Shavuot, of the giving of the Torah. Why? Because a free society without law, in which everyone is free to do what they like, will be free for the powerful and anything but free for the powerless.
We lived through the experience of Pesach, Shavuos and the journey between which is called Succoth which represents that long period of wandering – what Nelson Mandela calls The Long Walk to Freedom. Because we see freedom as a story set in time. I will give you an example. The essence of the story of the going out of Egypt is that God acts and intervenes in history to liberate slaves. When, in the United States, was slavery abolished?
The 19th century. They fought a civil war over it. Ok? So here is an ideal, set out at the beginning of the human journey which takes 3,000 years to be realised. Why? Because, in Judaism, a free society begins at a particular moment in time but it’s a story, a journey, to which we slowly march but we make steady progress. The Torah begins with the statement (I just gave it to you) – God says, “Na’aseh adam betzalmeinu kedmuteinu.” “Let us make man in our image and our likeness.” A statement of universal human rights. When were universal human rights enacted? Anyone know? 1948. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. So here is something that took 4,000 years to enter the consciousness of the world. Judaism sees time – the chronological imagination – as essential to politics. We begin with an ideal but we only approach it over time, by constantly telling ourselves and our children and our grandchildren. And every so often moving a little bit closer through time. That is Judaism. Political philosophy as a story not as a philosophical system.
Now let me test this hypothesis. We have had three revolutions that constitute, between them, the modern world. There was, number one, the American Revolution. There was, number two, the French Revolution. There was number three, the Russian Revolution.
Now there was a difference between those three revolutions. The American Revolution was based on Tanach – on the Hebrew Bible. That is the book the first travellers in the Mayflower took with them. They even read it in Hebrew. They even got together to create a brit, a covenant, as they called it. The city built on a hill. Where was that? Was it Boston? [?] The new Jerusalem. George Washington described America as the “almost chosen land”. And all the rest of it. You know when Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin sat down to draw up the great seal of the United States in 1776, what did they draw? Benjamin Franklin drew Moshe Rabbenu leading the Israelites through the Red Sea with the Egyptians drowning. The Egyptians, in that case, being the British – as you will understand. And Thomas Jefferson, who was a bit more gentle, drew on the great seal of the United States the Israelites going through the desert led by the Pillar of Fire.
The American Revolution was based on Jewish sources and you can even hear them if you listen carefully enough to the Declaration of Independence in 1776 which says the following famous words:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed … with certain inalienable Rights, … amongst these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
That sentence comes out of Bereishis, chapter 1. These truths are not self-evident, guys. Most societies in most times have not believed in them or subscribed to them. They are only self-evident to somebody who knew Bereishis inside out. There is the American Revolution based on the biblical idea of political philosophy.
What was the French Revolution based on? A philosophical system. The philosophical system of Jean Jacques Rousseau. What was the Russian Revolution based on? A philosophical system by a guy called Karl Marx who really ought to have stuck to comedy! I really think so. [Laughter]
So you have two revolutions. The French and Russian built on philosophy, and the American Revolution built on a biblical view of humanity.
Now, please, examine those records. The American Revolution began in freedom and was sustained in freedom. The French and the Russian Revolutions began with dreams of Utopia and ended with nightmares of the suppression of human rights. I don’t know of any clearer proof that philosophical systems are the worst way to change the world, because they have no understanding of the dimension of time. Whereas the Jewish way of understanding the world – which understands that first we have the memory. The memory of the going out of Egypt. Secondly, we hand that memory on to every generation so that I as a child, and your children, your grandchildren, will taste the bread of affliction, will eat the bitter herbs of slavery and will not take freedom for granted. And, over time, we will move closer and closer to our destination which we call the Messianic Age, which we expect daily but we probably know will not arrive before Rosh Hashanah!
So, I have tried to explain how the Jewish view of a free society – which is your question about Pesach – is of a story, a journey, extended through time. How a philosophical view, whether Rousseau’s, or Karl Marx’s, or the worst of the lot, Plato’s republic – read Karl Popper’s famous book about Plato called The Open Society and its Enemies: Plato’s republic is a totalitarian state – and the philosophical systems just don’t do justice to human reality in the way the biblical system does.
I hope I have tried to answer you. Yes? Okay.
2nd Questioner [Mark Persoff]: If I can just … philosophy –
Chief Rabbi: Yes, yes. It’s good. I’m a philosopher. That’s what I do for a living.
2nd Questioner [Mark Persoff]: Hegel’s philosophy talks about thesis and antithesis leading to a new synthesis. That requires both dialogue, which as you pointed out is the key essence of the Talmud. It also requires time. Just as Judaism, both in its halachic context and hashkafic context has, if you like, coalesced round new truths – you know, Hillel and Shammai leads to a new truth in the Gemara. Similarly the Rishonim, Aharonim etc. etc. to the current day. Wasn’t Hegel postulating a similar idea, that both in the world of ideas and in the world of reality, you have truths. You have people who oppose those truths. Eventually that leads to a new reality around which the world coalesces. Is that really so different from the sort of thesis that we’ve put forward tonight?
That is a very good question, really good. Only I am tired and you are tired and it would take an hour to explain the difference [laughter] between dialectical thinking and dialogical thinking. But one day I’ll give you a lecture on that as well.
Hegel’s thinking is dialectical and Jewish thinking is dialogical and they are slightly different ways of thinking. I’m not a Hegelian. Marx was a Hegelian and I think that’s the refutation of Hegel. Hegel sees thesis succeeded by antithesis which supplants the past. We are never supplanting the past. We always keep it in mind and keep it in memory. We live with our past. We remember our ancestors. We are still at one with them. We are still at one with our grandchildren yet unborn. (You know what I mean?) Because we’re handing on the tradition to them. That’s a very different view of history in which we preserve the past and the future. That’s dialogical. We keep talking to our past and to our future. Whereas Hegel’s is dialectical in which every new mode of civilisation is built on the ruins of the past. (Are you with me?) So I think they are different.
3rd Questioner [Annabel Reis-Nadav]:
… [inaudible – not into microphone].
But the question is: how have we got it so wrong? How come there are so many divisions? There seem to be some things that some people understand to be fundamentally mutually exclusive. But how liberal can we be to try and understand others’ perspectives? To try and maintain this dignity of difference? Are there any limits as to how “liberal” we can be and, if so, what are they?
I threw at you tonight some of the more difficult ideas, most difficult ideas, I’ve ever had in my life. I did that not because I am an academic. I don’t think we’re allowed in Judaism to be academics. The Gemara says, as you know, in Kiddushin, Gadol hatalmud shehatalmud meivi leyedei ma’aseh. Why do we learn? Because learning leads to doing.
If I have articulated tonight the beginning of a radical new way of understanding Judaism, I am doing that in order to create the possibility of a radically new way of relating to our fellow Jews in the Jewish enterprise and to our fellow human beings in the human enterprise. And I am doing so, I hope, from a position of some philosophical depth that is going to the archaeological core, if you like, of the Jewish mind. We have been digging at the very foundations of the Torah.
I believe that things have got to a very bad state in the Jewish world. I really do. We are in a situation today when two weeks ago a Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel was put in cherem. The story didn’t quite come through in the British press because they reached a compromise before the papers went to press. But in Israel, we had this extraordinary thing of Rav Bakshi Doron, a Sephardi Chief Rabbi, put in cherem – excommunicated – by some of the greatest ashkenazi Torah Sages in the world. What have we come to? What have we come to?
We have a situation in which the State Comptroller of Israel, Miriam Ben-Porat, is arguing like Jackie Mason. Let’s get rid of Hatikvah. [Mimics Mason!] “Too Jewish.”
I mean – Ribonu shel olam! I never yet heard of the British Secular Society writing to The Times saying, “Let’s re-write the national anthem because God Save the Queen excludes all us atheists.” (Are you with me?)
I mean – we live and let live in Britain. God Save the Queen. Fine. I don’t feel excluded if your God’s different from my God. (Are you with me?) Whereas right now in Israel there are people in very high public positions who are saying, “Let’s get rid of the entire Jewish character of the state.” And that is becoming a political programme and I don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of it. We have a history which surely tells us that three times in our history we suffered exile. And do you remember why?
Exile number one. In Egypt. Because vayisne’u oto eihav velo yochlu ledabro leshalom. Because Joseph’s brothers hated him and couldn’t speak peacably to him. End result? They sell him into slavery in Egypt. End result? They themselves get sold into slavery in Egypt. That is the first exile in Egypt that lasted 210 years.
Second exile. After a mere three generations of kings, three generations – Saul, David, Solomon – the Jewish people splits in two: a northern kingdom called Israel, a southern kingdom called Yehudah, called Judah. Israel always was, in the old days and now, too small to survive if it were divided. And, therefore, if it was in danger when it was unified, how much more so when it was divided? The writing was on the wall from the very beginning and so, in due course, in 722 BCE, the northern kingdom gets conquered by the Assyrians. End result? Lost ten tribes. As you know, they wandered over the face of the earth and landed up here in Britain. As I’m sure you know, ‘Brit’ish’ means ‘man of the covenant’. [Laughter] London means ‘the lodge of Dan’ – and all the rest of it.
There it is. The northern kingdom gets defeated, destroyed. The southern kingdom, Judah, goes into exile into Babylon for 52 years. Churban bayit rishon. End of the First Temple. Destruction of the First Temple. The second great exile because Jews couldn’t live together.
You would have thought, after two exiles, they would have learned their lessons. Not only did they not learn the lessons. In the Second Temple the factionalism within the Jewish people, if anything, was even worse. There were Pharisees. There were Saducees. There were Essenes. There were political realists. There were Messianists. There were fanatics and zealots. There were political pragmatists. They nearly massacred – you know the Gemara in Gittin daf samech alef says that Rab Yochanan inside the besieged Jerusalem, who wanted to make some kind of peace and salvage a little bit from the destruction, was threatened with assassination. They had to sneak him out of Jerusalem disguised as a corpse in a coffin for him to be able to survive in his peace initiative. Josephus, who was an eyewitness of the Second Temple destruction, paints a picture of Jews inside the besieged Jerusalem busier fighting one another than fighting the Romans outside. That was the third exile and that lasted for almost 2,000 years.
You would have thought a people of history could learn the lessons of history. But we haven’t. We haven’t. And it terrifies me. It terrifies me. The mutual demonisation taking place today in Israel – between religious, non-religious, orthodox, non-orthodox, ashkenazim, sephardim, old Sabras, new immigrants – is horrendous. And that is why I have gone through this long and lonely search within he sources of our texts to see: Is this written into our destiny or is the Torah from the very word go trying to tell us something else.
If I can develop a philosophy which treats the other with dignity, I want to make it compelling to you and I want you to go and change the world.
We held a conference at my request. I worked on it for many years and we eventually did it in late May of this year, in Jerusalem, at the Hebrew University thanks to a wonderful benefactor from this country, Clive Marks. And thanks to the President of the Hebrew University, Menahem Magidor …
[End of Tape 1, side B. Some words lost before start of Tape 2.]
… from Israel and from 16 countries of the Diaspora. It was a wonderful thing. Everyone spoke. The only trouble was: not many people listened. [Laughter]
Therefore, I came away from that conference very perturbed. However, I will tell you something. I mean, we’re among friends. I will tell you something. I sneaked out for a couple of hours from the conference and we drove down to the midbar. I’d never been down there before, to a little town called Arad. In Arad lives a rather impressive Jewish writer called Amos Oz. Amos Oz is probably what they call the rebbe of the chilonim. You know what I mean? Of all the secular Israelis, he’s the sage. He’s the guru. He’s the wise man.
Having read most of Amos Oz’s books – fiction and non-fiction – it was clear to me that this is a man of formidable and impressive gifts, not only literary but also moral. And there he is – a secular guy. I’d never met him. I said: Let it be the case that a Chief Rabbi, an orthodox rabbi, shleps out for two hours into the wilderness to sit and visit Amos Oz without expecting Amos Oz coming to visit me. We talked for an afternoon. And it was a very beautiful conversation. Very beautiful. I gave him a book. I gave him my Politics of Hope. He gave me his book and he wrote in it, “Lerav Yonatan Sacks, ish kelevovi” – a man after my own heart.
Now something happened in the course of an hour or two of a summer’s afternoon in Arad. A religious figure and a secular figure met and spoke and found they could understand one another and respect one another. And then I thought: how many Orthodox Rabbis in Israel took the trouble to go out and speak to Amos Oz and not attempt to convert him? But, actually, attempt to do the only thing that is worthwhile, which is to listen to him. So, there was a little moment of hope. A little signal of tikvah. But you will hear what I am saying when I put this philosophy before you in very technical terms because my ultimate ambition is anything but technical and anything but theoretical. I can see the cracks beginning to appear.
And, excuse my saying so, but I do not believe that the concept of a Navi, of a Prophet, is intrinsically supernatural. What is a prophet? Well, I’ll tell you. Do you have – I’m sorry, I don’t do these things myself: Elaine does these things for me. You know, the house is falling down. Don’t ask a Chief Rabbi. But you know what happens. You get a surveyor to come along. There’s a little hairline crack. And the surveyor can tell you that in 20 years the house will fall down. It doesn’t need to be a supernatural prophet! The surveyor will tell you, or the garage mechanic will tell you that if you don’t change your oil in 3,000 miles your car will seize up. That’s what a prophet is! A prophet is a guy who sees the crack now and the collapse 20 years from now. Because the prophet is reading reality.
So, therefore, if I say that if I feel the call of prophecy – we all feel it, for heaven’s sake! This is not me. This is us. I see the cracks beginning to appear in Israeli society. And unless somebody stands up and shouts, bad things will happen. And bad things may not happen because that is not what we are allowed to do as Jews. So I tried to explain a philosophy which is built on the dignity of otherness which begins in the dignity an infinite God gives to an infinitesimal creature like us.
Thank you very much, Chief Rabbi. [Applause]
Sorry that we have to stop the questions there but may I remind you there is a box at the back of the room into which written questions can be placed. Where possible, these questions and answers from the Chief Rabbi will be posted on the internet or dealt with in future lectures.
Additionally, a written transcript of the lecture this evening can be viewed at the Chief Rabbi’s website www.rabbisacks.org
If you’d like to purchase one of the Chief Rabbi’s books, there is a selection outside in the foyer.
Just a brief list of thank-yous. Firstly, Chief Rabbi, thank you so much for your inspiring and entertaining words of wisdom. We all really, really enjoyed it. Thank you.
Special thanks to Nicole and Sara from the Chief Rabbi’s office for all their hard work. Thanks to the CST for ensuring our safety tonight and always. And a final thank you to you, to everybody for supporting this event and we hope that you enjoyed yourselves and that you will join us here, with your friends, for the Chief Rabbi’s next lecture which is on Monday 6th November and the title is “Judaism, Justice, and Tragedy – Confronting the Problem of Evil.“
We urge you to pre-book in the foyer for just £5 per lecture or at the discounted price of £20 for the remaining five lectures in the series.
Just finally: leshanah tovah tikatevu vetihateimu. May we be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life and have a happy new year. Thank you. [Applause]