Contextualising the Canon: Tradition in an Untraditional Age


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.

Tradition in an Untraditional Age

By Prof. Daniel Rynhold, Dr. Mordecai D. Katz Dean, Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, Yeshiva University

Tradition in an Untraditional Age occupies a unique place in Jonathan Sacks’ oeuvre. Published in 1990 when he was Chief Rabbi-elect, it is in large part a collection of diverse papers that Rabbi Sacks had written in the fifteen years prior, with a section on “Topics” including Jewish-Christian dialogue and the Holocaust, and one on “Thinkers” – taking in both those who would continue to exert a marked influence on his thought (most notably Joseph Soloveitchik) as well as those who would subsequently feature sparingly, such as Franz Rosenzweig. Yet, in addition, Rabbi Sacks tells us that reading these older papers led him “to reflect on the progress of Orthodox thought since emancipation” (p. xi), prompting him to write the new chapters which comprise the first part of the book, entitled “Responses to Modernity.” As we will see, this combination of older papers and new material affords us a glimpse into both what might have been and what actually came to pass.

Revisiting the work with the benefit of hindsight, three facets make a particularly strong impression. The first, proposed by Rabbi Sacks in the Introduction, is the move from Jewish philosophy - as the endeavor to reconcile opposing systems of thought, which reached its apotheosis in medieval times but was confined to an ivory tower elite – to that of advancing Jewish thought, which aims for “a coherent statement of what it means to be a Jew at this particular juncture of history” (p. xvii). This echoes a shift noted by one of the central thinkers in the book, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, for whom, as Rabbi Sacks perceptively notes, “it was not secular knowledge, encountered in the University of Berlin, that caused … searing distress, but secular man” (p. 48). In a contemporary world where for he and his readers the legitimacy of secular knowledge was no longer in question, Rabbi Sacks was aware that the pressing issues, once academic and theoretical, were now practical and existential, such that “it was within the personality of the believer that the battle had to be fought” (p. 35), not the halls of academe.

This brings us to the second facet. For ironically, it is in this book that we see Rabbi Sacks engaging in the very work that does engage Jewish philosophers. Here we find Rabbi Sacks as a critical reader of thinkers ranging from Samson Raphael Hirsch and Martin Buber to Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik. Rabbi Sacks’ masterful analyses of his chosen subjects are evidence that he could have followed his academic muse had he so chosen. Indeed, the first scholarly analysis of Soloveitchik’s thought to appear in the then leading journal of Modern Orthodoxy, Tradition, “Alienation and Faith,” appears here as written by Rabbi Sacks when he was twenty-five years old (!), assessed as recently as 2023 as “an acute, philosophical rigorous analysis” by the Soloveitchik scholar Professor Lawrence Kaplan in the 40th Anniversary edition of his translation of Halakhic Man. Additionally, in the chapter on Soloveitchik’s early epistemology - a review essay of The Halakhic Mind – Rabbi Sacks presents, in characteristically deft and highly readable terms, a penetrating analysis of Soloveitchik’s most difficult work, posing for the first time to my knowledge the critical questions that needed to be asked of it. But ultimately, this purely academic path, much as it could have been trodden, was “the path not taken.”

And so, to the third facet, and what maybe remains most significant about the book. For while still producing scholarship that would have sat comfortably in the academy, and just as professionally speaking he was about to leave that world, we also see the transition to becoming the global spokesman for faith-based reason that we all came to know. Building on his masterful expositions of the thought of others, Rabbi Sacks proceeds to craft his own ideas out of these foundations. Some had been signaled in his first book, while others contain the germ of thoughts that would develop into central themes of his mature work.

One such idea emerges from his analysis of Soloveitchik in particular, who famously characterized faith as “exceptionally complex, rigorous, and tortuous” (Halakhic Man, 141, n. 4). As Soloveichik writes in Lonely Man of Faith, “Abraham and Moses . . . the Biblical knights of faith lived heroically with this very tragic and paradoxical experience.” Rabbi Sacks would explicitly reject this view of Jewish faith much later, in his 2005 book To Heal a Fractured World, writing: “Jews never coined a word that meant ‘tragedy’ in the Greek sense …. Judaism is the principled rejection of tragedy in the name of hope” (p. 177). Yet the seeds of this view were sown right here in 1990.

In the 6 opening chapters written for this book, Rabbi Sacks looks at various Orthodox Jewish responses to modernity, before turning to his own analysis. While attempts to define Modern Orthodoxy were de rigeur in the 1990s, they can appear a little dated today. To an extent Rabbi Sacks, despite his own (Jewish) endorsement of a version of Alasdair MacIntyre’s view of living traditions as containing “divergences and arguments” (p. 113), begins to break away from such definitions here anyway. Indeed, he suggests that there is “no unitary, permanent ideological or institutional expression of the relationship between Judaism and its contemporary environment” (118). More importantly, acknowledging that “the conflicts of consciousness between Jewish tradition and secular modernity are many and deep” Rabbi Sacks writes that though there cannot be a “synthesis” between Jewish tradition and modernity, people have thus drawn the mistaken conclusion that “the project of modern Orthodoxy is destined to failure.” But in Rabbi Sacks’ eyes “The analysis is true, but the conclusion is false” (p. 108). For despairing of Judaism’s ability to speak to and participate productively in the contemporary world while “understandable … remains a failure of trust” (p. 133). The life and fate of Jewish faith could not be a tragic one for Rabbi Sacks, even then, and here in embryonic form we see the opening for his own hopeful vision, a vision with which Rabbi Sacks would subsequently engage the world at large – and not just the academy - to the great benefit of Jew and non-Jew alike.

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