Why the Highest Form of Charity is to find Someone Else a Job

May 12, 2005
the times logo1

© Jonathan Sacks, 2005.

Extracted from To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, by Jonathan Sacks, prior to Continuum International publishing the book in May 2005.

Secular culture tends to under-emphasise responsibility. The entire thrust of modern thought, from Marx to Freud, from neuroscience to evolutionary psychology, has been to undermine the idea that we act because we choose. The result is paradoxical. On the one hand our age holds out to human beings an unprecedented range of choices. At the same time the very idea of choice has become opaque. We are what we are because of economic forces, irrational drives, genetic determinism, or the blind struggle of our genes to replicate themselves into the next generation, with or without our knowledge and consent.

When things go wrong, it is rarely our fault. Something or someone else is to blame: poverty, discrimination, a difficult childhood, the educational system, psychological abuse, the media, the government, junk food, or any other of the proliferating varieties of exculpation. An employee, fired for consistently showing up late to work, sues his employers on the grounds that he is the victim of “chronic lateness syndrome”.

Such a culture is grounded in a range of scientific disciplines that has given us a deeper understanding of the causal processes behind human action. But taken to an extreme, it turns us into objects, not subjects. We become done-to, not doers; passive, not active. Locating the cause of our condition outside ourselves, we become chronically dependent on others, lacking the ability to break free from circumstance and become masters, not slaves, of our fate.

This is not to argue against compassion, which stands at the centre of the biblical vision of a good society. What it suggests, however, is that compassion itself must be guided by a duty to help the victim to recover his or her capacity for independent action.

I once spent a day at Sherborne House, a centre for young offenders in London. The people I met — average age: 18 — had been committing crime for the previous eight or ten years. Yet by no stretch of the imagination could they be called evil. They had come from broken, often abusive, families. They had suffered violence, often from stepfathers. They were victims of circumstance. It would be easy to say that they should have exercised self-control, yet, knowing their family histories, it was hard to see how they could have learnt it. They had a strong sense of morality: when I asked them what kind of father would they like to be when they had children, their answers were moving and passionate. They wanted to give their children everything their parents had not given them, especially time and care. When I asked the director of the centre what local communal networks of support they would have when they left, she looked blank. There were none.

There is a famous African proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child.” The young men of Sherborne House never had a village. They had not even had the consistent attention of their own parents.

What is striking about Judaism is not just its emphasis on responsibility, but its insistence on elaborate support structures. Its welfare provisions sustain people going through hard times. The idea that the highest form of charity is to find someone a job speaks volumes about its understanding of human dignity — people do not want to be dependent. Rights are passive, responsibilities active. Rights are demands we make on others, responsibilities are demands others make on us. A responsibility-based culture exists in the active mode. It emphasises giving over receiving, doing not complaining. Rights are the result of responsibilities; they are secondary, not primary. A society that does not train its citizens to be responsible will be one in which, too often, rights-talk will be mere rhetoric, honoured in the breach not the observance.

David Baum was a paediatrician, one of the finest in Britain. He developed new techniques of child care. Among them were the “silver swaddler” he invented to protect premature babies, and the technique he developed for pasteurising human milk. He worked tirelessly to create the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, and became its first President.

Not content to confine his work to Britain, he went to Brazil, Ethiopia and Thailand and helped doctors there to improve levels of child care. He did the same in Moscow, as a result of which he became a friend of President Mikhail Gorbachev. He was deeply concerned with the fate of refugee children during the 1999 war in Kosovo, and it was in the course of a sponsored bicycle ride to raise money to build a health-care centre there that he suffered the heart attack that killed him at the tragically young age of 59.

He used to tell a story that summed up his attitude to life. An old man was walking on the beach at dawn when he noticed a young man picking up starfish stranded by the retreating tide, and throwing them back into the sea one by one. He went up to him and asked him why he was doing this. The young man replied that the starfish would die if left exposed to the morning sun. “But the beach goes on for miles, and there are thousands of starfish. You will not be able to save them all. How can your effort make a difference?” The young man looked at the starfish in his hand and then threw it to safety in the waves. “To this one,” he said, “it makes a difference.”

David loved that story because he knew that we do not have to redeem the world all together in one go. We do it one day at a time, one person at a time, one act at a time. A single life, said the Sages, is like a universe. Save a life and you save a world. Change a life and you begin to change the world.

God is all powerful and all good. But there is injustice in the world. One or other of these statements must, it seems, be false. Either God cannot prevent injustice, or He can, but chooses not to. If He cannot, He is not all powerful. If He chooses not to, He is not all good.

The alternative is that there is no injustice, and what seems to be wrong from our limited perspective is in fact right if looked at from a wider or more long-term point of view. These — or so it seems — are the only alternatives: to deny the power or goodness of God, or to deny the existence of unjustified evil.

The first view, that of Karl Marx, says simply that there is no God. There is therefore no reason to expect that history will be anything other than the tyranny of the strong over the weak. This is a world of Darwinian natural selection. The strong survive. The weak perish. All else is illusion, wishful thinking. There is no justice because there is no judge.

Against this, the second voice says No. God exists. There is a judge, therefore there is justice, and what seems to us injustice is not ultimately so. Those who suffer do so because they are being punished for their sins. Or it may be that suffering is not punishment for past vice but preparation for future virtue. It cures us of our pride. It teaches us strength and courage. It gives us sympathy with those who suffer, a sympathy we could not have, had we not suffered ourselves.

These are the conventional alternatives and there seems to be no other. The first belongs to modern secular cultures. The second is most associated with the two great monotheisms that separated from Judaism and went into independent orbit: Christianity and Islam. Judaism rejects both. Its answer is not difficult, but it is revolutionary.

God exists, therefore there is justice. But it is divine justice — justice from the perspective of one who knows all, sees all, and considers all: the universe as a whole, and time as a whole, which is to say, eternity. But we who live in space and time cannot see from this perspective, and if we did, it would not make us better human beings but worse. To be a parent is to be moved by the cry of a child. But if the child is ill and needs medicine, we administer it, making ourselves temporarily deaf to its cry.

A surgeon, to do his job competently and well, must to a certain extent desensitise himself to the patient’s fears and pains and regard him, however briefly, as a body rather than as a person.

A statesman, to do his best for the country, must weigh long-term consequences and make tough, even brutal decisions: for soldiers to die in war if war is necessary; for people to be thrown out of jobs if economic stringency is needed.

Parents, surgeons and politicians have human feelings, but the very roles they occupy mean that at times they must override them if they are to do the best for those whom they are responsible. To do the best for others needs a measure of detach- ment, a silencing of sympathy, an anaesthetising of compassion, for the road to happiness or health or peace sometimes runs through the landscape of pain and suffering and death.

If we were able to see how evil today leads to good tomorrow — if we were able to see from the point of view of God, creator of all — we would understand justice but at the cost of ceasing to be human. We would accept all, vindicate all and become deaf to the cries of those in pain. God does not want us to cease to be human, for if He did, He would not have created us.

We are not God. We will never see things from His perspective. The attempt to do so is an abdication of the human situation.

© Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World, 2005.