Contextualising the Canon: Arguments for the Sake of Heaven

Emerging Trends in Traditional Judaism

Arguments for the Sake of Heaven with Jo Greenaway aftsoh

To coincide with the republication of several of Rabbi Sacks’ earlier works, we are sharing essays to provide valuable context for readers, shedding light on when and why each book was written, and offering insights into the themes contained within them.


Arguments for the Sake of Heaven

By Joanne Greenaway, Sacks Scholar and Chief Executive of LSJS

In recent days we have witnessed the incredible unity and strength of the Jewish people, perhaps more than in living memory. But in recent months our seemingly insuperable differences, political and religious, were all too apparent.

Published thirty-three years ago, Arguments for the Sake of Heaven documented a course that led directly to the schisms that emerged. With tremendous foresight and clarity, Rabbi Sacks outlined the rifts and developments from the 1800s that led the Jewish people to splinter into factions and “set the scene for the tense and intense drama that is Judaism’s contemporary dialogue between its commanding past and its as yet uncharted future.”

He lamented an orthodoxy that had turned inwards for self-preservation, strengthening itself but absolving itself of any responsibility for the wider community. He articulated the compelling need for a broad tent orthodoxy with Torah as “the constitution of the whole Jewish people”. He presented a vision of a people which rather than containing argument, celebrates it as “perhaps the highest form of religious expression” in line with the great rabbinic tradition. In argument, he said “the many voices that comprise Knesset Yisrael, the collective community of Israel, were orchestrated into the choral symphony called Torah.” This more inclusive Torah is, in his view, closer to its “covenantal ideal”. He acknowledged that divisions that took a century to create would not be healed immediately but require a slow process of moving towards tradition: a tradition that “finds a home for many voices and where many voices find a home”.

Rabbi Sacks’ call was for Jewish leaders and thinkers to “rise above the rhetoric of Jewish unity and reinstate the Judaic tradition of argument”, giving unity a meaningful basis, that of “argument for the sake of heaven” which he said was “a more cogent model than Jewish unity”. However, there are “preconditions” for those wishing to enter that argument. He explained that it “proceeds through text and interpretation. It presupposes a certain depth of Jewish education” which, all, irrespective of denomination, can engage with, putting them in dialogue with the Jewish tradition “the only common language we have”.

The book was originally published in the UK as Traditional Alternatives, in anticipation of an international symposium spearheaded by Rabbi Sacks while Principal of Jews’ College. He gathered a stellar line-up of Jewish thinkers to debate key issues facing the Jewish world. The symposium catapulted Rabbi Sacks to global Jewish leadership as a thinker and scholar. In this fertile period prior to his Chief Rabbinate, his writings show an intense pursuit of rigour and desire for Anglo Jewry to be forward thinking, at the cutting edge of Jewish thought. He lamented the fact that, whilst Anglo Jewry’s strength was institutional, it was not intellectual and had produced no “great thinkers or outstanding halachists… no Samson Raphael Hirsch or Chatam Sofer, no Chafetz Chayim or Rav Kook”. This work surely began to redress that balance and place him as a rightful heir.

In his analysis he identified several key tensions that continue to resonate – the issues of conversion and the question of ‘Who is a Jew?’, an identification of religious authenticity with extremist positions, whether religious groups should be represented by political parties, the connection between the state and the messianic process, and the relationship between Judaism and Israeli society. These dilemmas, he notes, resist definitive resolution but, “as Rabbi Akiva said, this too is Torah and we need to learn.” This serves as a timely reminder that we must learn to live with, and even celebrate those tensions.

This is a radical text and one that continues to be relevant and urgent in exploring the future of the Jewish people and the issues affecting its destiny. In bookending his analysis through the prism of a family whose children reflect complex Jewish identities – righteous and rebellious, committed and indifferent, learning and indifferent, affirming and assimilated – he makes a compelling case to celebrate our diversity and conceptualise the Jewish people as one beautiful and indivisible unit.

“To be a Jew,” he says, “is to be a member of a family.” This message has never meant more.