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Finding a Moral Compass in Challenging Times

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On 21st March 2017, prominent New York Times columnist David Brooks and Rabbi Sacks held a public conversation at 92nd St Y in New York entitled ‘Finding a Moral Compass in Challenging Times’. The conversation was not just intellectually stimulating but an amusing one as well. This event was co-presented with The Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University and endowed by Francine and Abdullah Simon z”l.


TRANSCRIPT:

David Brooks:

Welcome Rabbi Lord Professor. I’m sort of trying to figure out what to call you. Rabbi, your Lordship… I think I’m gonna go-

Rabbi Sacks:

I’ll tell you, I gave up on Lord in America years ago, because whenever we show them our passport at immigration, the guy on the desk always says, “Good to see you Mister Lord.” So I kind of gave up on that and I think we’re between friends, okay David?

David Brooks:

Well, I’ll call you Rabbi. You call me your Lordship.

Rabbi Sacks:

Okay.

David Brooks:

So we’re supposed to have a conversation. And I guess in the spirit of that my first question: How’s it going? No. I’ll try to start with something a little more deep. But we’re gonna talk about all things. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a great book called Man … Human … I think it’s Human Nature-

Rabbi Sacks:

Moral Man … which one?

David Brooks:

Well he wrote one called, something like ‘Human Nature and All Its Aspects’, which I like ’cause it covered a lot of ground. And we’re gonna cover a lot of ground. And I wanna start with a quotation from your last book, which is on sale, a sentence which I quoted in a column on the book, which is “We are in an age where we have a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.”

Rabbi Sacks:

Yeah.

David Brooks:

And that’s sort of an underlying statement for a lot of things that are happening in the world. I just wanted to ask you what you meant by that.

Rabbi Sacks:

We have, I think, created these extraordinary structures, the four great structures of the modern age; science, technology, the market economy, and liberal democratic politics, all of which extend our powers and our choices, but which don’t tell us how to use those powers or make those choices. Science tells us how but not why. Technology gives us power but doesn’t tell us how to use that power. The market economy gives us choices but doesn’t tell us which choices to make. And the liberal democratic society gives us freedom to be whatever we choose but refrains, deliberately, from telling us how to choose. Meanwhile, we have deconstructed all those frameworks in which human beings found meaning in the past. You spoke so eloquently this morning in your column in the New York Times about the idea of a shared story.

Now, I always thought Americans had a shared story. And it was only recently that Americans told me, “Well, we stopped teaching that to our kids for the last 20 years.” When you lose a story, you lose meaning. And just before that, I read a book on science and religion. And it said, “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.” So as we have deconstructed religion and elevated science in its place, we can explain so much. But as for meaning, we’ve lost it. And I think we are meaning-seeking animals so something essentially human has been lost.

David Brooks:

Now, I have a formulation that I’ve become fond of in the last week. When you get a society that’s as messed up as parts of ours have become, it’s not only economic, but it’s an intellectual problem. And the way I phrased it, which is a little pat, but I hope a decent formulation, is that we’ve made three philosophical mistakes. We chose Jeremy Bentham, when we should have chosen Viktor Frankl, which is to say we treated ourselves as if we were organised around pleasure and pain, when we’re really organised around meaning. We chose René Descartes when we should have chosen Augustine. We think we’re primary cognitive creatures, when in fact we’re emotional and longing creatures. And we chose Thomas Hobbes when we should have chosen Martin Buber. That we think of ourselves as individuals, when in reality all of life is encounter, is relationship. And that we’ve become too individualistic, when we should be more communitarian, too cognitive when we should be more emotional, and too utilitarian when we should be more moralistic and meaning. And so, I don’t know what you think of that formulation, but-

Rabbi Sacks:

It’s brilliant, as always.

David Brooks:

Yes. Thank you. I was hoping you’d say that. But I guess if you’re a 25-year-old, or a 55-year-old, or a 75-year-old, and you’re wondering what your purpose is, what your meaning is, the first thing I notice among such people and especially young people, is a great deal of fragility. There’s a great Nietzsche phrase, “He who has a why to live for can endure any how.” And if they don’t have a why, then when things go bad, everything begins to fall apart. And so my question is how, if you’re at any age and you feel lacking in meaning, how do you find it?

Rabbi Sacks:

How do you find meaning? I think you have got to go to the people who preserve meanings. Now that’s one of the things that religious groups should be doing. What you were really saying in your column today is that we’ve lost what used to be called – [the Exodus narrative] – and Robert Bellah in Beyond Belief was the guy who identified the Exodus story as the American narrative – the thing is you have to find the story and you have to find the people who continue to tell this story. And that’s really tough. I remember beginning in 1994, believe it or not, I was consulted by successive Secretaries of State for Culture in Britain as to how Britain should be celebrating the Millennium. Now go figure, as they say, the Millennium was the two thousandth anniversary of the birth of Christianity.

So I kept saying, “Guys listen, it’s your birthday party. I come along to say ‘Mazel Tov’. You don’t need to consult me on the programme or the seating arrangements.” But they said, “No, no. Tell us. Tell us.” So I said, “Well look, tell the story. Tell the story of what it is to be British.

“Let me tell you how, as a Jew, I feel about your telling the story: Britain was, once upon a time, the world leader in antisemitism. It invented the blood libel, in Norwich in 1144. It had one of the worst and first massacres in Europe in York in 1190. In 1290, it became the first European country to expel its Jews, which was then followed by virtually every other European country for the next two hundred years until the Spanish and Portuguese expulsion. And in the modern age, Britain has become the most tolerant of countries towards Jews. So there’s a narrative there, however you tell it. I’m just telling you from my perspective.” And none of them, for six years, knew what on earth I was talking about. It got so bad. You would have thought, wouldn’t you David, that on the two thousandth anniversary of Christianity, they would have allowed the Archbishop of Canterbury to say a prayer.

Do you know what? You discover at moments like this who runs Britain. And it’s not the government and it’s not the Royal family. It’s the BBC. And they said, “No. Forget about it, Archbishop, this is not televisual.” And so the best they allowed him was a little prayer at 7’oclock in the evening, five hours before the stroke of midnight. And he was in despair, George Carey. And he said, “I’ve been to the government four times, the BBC five times, and they’re all saying no.” So it happened that I did this thing on the BBC. It’s a little religious reflection on the morning news programme. [Thought for the Day]. And as I was about to leave the radio studio, I could hear they were having a debate between a politician and a Bishop on whether there should be a Christian prayer on the Millennium. So I stayed in the studio, listening on my headphones. And the guy who was doing the interview, he saw I was sitting there, and he signalled to me, “Do you want to join in?”

Now when a Bishop and a politician are having an argument, can a Rabbi possibly stay out? So I said, “Yes”, so after the Bishop and the politician had had their argument, the presenter said, “And the Chief Rabbi is still with us in the studio. What do you think, Chief Rabbi? Should there be a Christian prayer at the Millennium?” I said, “Look, the Millennium is the 2,000th anniversary of Christianity. Not to have a Christian prayer is stark-raving bonkers. I, as a Jew, am free to pray in Britain in this Christian country. Shall I not fight for the right of Christians to have a prayer?” The next morning, the Archbishop of Canterbury phoned me up and said, “Jonathan, you did it!” So, if it took a Rabbi to get a Christian prayer…

[Laughter]

So, it’s not just that we’re forgetting the narratives, we’re actively jettisoning them and abandoning them. And you are absolutely right, that the key figure here is Viktor Frankl. To find meaning in life is to find the will to live. And if you can do that Auschwitz, you can do it anywhere. And we lose that, we lose everything.

David Brooks:

One of my favourite scenes is in that book, Man’s Search for Meaning, is he’s talking about a young lady who’s dying in the infirmary. And she says to him, “I’m glad fate has hit me this hard because until now I didn’t take spiritual life seriously.” And then he’s talking to her and she says, “The only friend I have here in the loneliness of my infirmary bed,” or really her death bed, “is a tree.” And she says, “This tree often talks to me.” And so Frankl says, “Well, what does the tree say?” And she says, “The tree says to me, ‘I am life. I am life. I am eternal life.'”

And so even in a death bed in a concentration camp, there’s some taste of transcendence. And almost in a way, she says it, almost a taste of joy. And one of the things that struck me, I’ve just been thinking about this recently, is how people who are in prison, some of them anyway … and I’m thinking of Nelson Mandela or Dostoevsky or Václav Havel or Frankl, when they have everything else taken away, they get down to this meaning and the inner dignity, and I guess the spirituality and the soul.

Rabbi Sacks:

For me, there’s a critical moment in the story of Natan Sharansky. Just before he was sent to prison by the KGB, Avital, his wife, gave him a book of Psalms. And the KGB understood that a Jew gets strength from a book of Psalms, so they confiscated it. Took him three years, an international campaignand three years to get it given back to him. The trouble was, he couldn’t read Hebrew. But Natan was, and is, a great mathematician and a chess player. So he decided to treat Hebrew as a code to be broken. And he gradually, word by word, letter by letter, gradually pieced together some understanding. And finally, he could read a whole sentence. And he came across this sentence from Psalm 23, one of the great sentences in all of literature, “Gam ki eilech b’gey tzalmavet…”  “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me.”

And Natan, who was not a particularly religious, writes that “I felt as if God were saying those words straight to me in prison.” And of course, he chose those words as the title of his autobiography, Fear No Evil. So somehow, you know, there is something in the book of Psalms especially, I think, “Mi’ma’akim…”, “from the depths I cry to you O Lord” (Psalm 130). Somehow, King David in the book of Psalms became the poetry of redemption from despair. And you know, there’s an English guy, he was the BBC’s arts correspondent and then it’s political correspondent, called Andrew Marr, (not Jewish), and he wrote once in an article many years ago saying, “Jews always have stories for the rest of us.” It was a lovely article saying Jews had contributed, excelled in every sphere he could think of except two: rap music and Morris dancing.

Well, if you remember, a few years later we had a very religious rap musician called Matisyahu. So I said, “Andrew, it’s the Morris dancing next.” And I think we should recognise that somehow the Jewish story is the West’s meta-narrative of hope. So I don’t mind how people appropriate it and make it their own, but it becomes very important for us not to lose that story and the hope that it gives rise to.

David Brooks:

I always considered the Beastie Boys, the ‘Maimonides of rap music’.

Rabbi Sacks:

You have to spell that out. I need a Rashi and Tosefot on that!

David Brooks:

So we’ve been talking gradually about a search for meaning, or loss of stories. And I’d like you to connect that to the world at large. We’re in a world where we have Donald Trump, we have Brexit, we have the rise of terrorism. We have a rise of a sort of populism around the world, and maybe a loss of faith in institutions. Is there a connection between this deeper underlying loss of meaning and all the big trends we see around us?

Rabbi Sacks:

Stories tell us what narrative, what drama, we are part of. They connect us to the people who came before us. They connect us to the battles the people who came before us had to fight for freedom. So they ensure that we don’t take freedom for granted. I think one of the most important connections is that, that story that you referred to in the book of Exodus is about escaping from Egypt. But the story as it culminates in the book of Deuteronomy tells us that freedom is a moral achievement. So that connection with the past and where we came from, a story connects us horizontally to the people who tell the same story.

Coming from a family of four boys and being the eldest, I always had a really terrible time every Pesach, because it’s okay being the chacham, the wise son. But I have to think which of the brothers is the wicked son and which is the, you know, forget it. So I kind of re-interpreted that whole thing. But think about it: The Haggadah is telling you something simple, that you can be completely different, but you’re sitting around the table telling the same story, though interpreting it differently. So stories connect us to one another horizontally, in the present, as well as vertically through time. And they also involve a responsibility to the future.

Now, we’ve lost all of that. We have delegated memories to our smartphones. My phone knows a hell of a lot more than I do. In fact, it regularly gives me an inferiority complex, though I’m not sure if you have in America quite the same extremely English guy I have on my smart phone, the English Siri.

David Brooks:

You have a male voice?

Rabbi Sacks:

I have a male voice with a very English accent, who speaks exactly like Sir Humphrey in Yes, Prime Minister. (This is true.) I said to it one day, “Siri, tell me, who do you really love?” He replied, “This is about you, not about me.” So I said, “Siri, tell me, does God exist?” (This is absolutely true) Siri replies, “It’s all a bit of a mystery to me.”

See now, we’ve delegated our memories away to our computers. We no longer have face-to-face encounters. We have electronic encounters. We can talk across the universe, but we can’t talk to our next-door neighbour. So, one way or another, all those connections that gave us meaning, to the past, to the present and to the future, we’ve somehow abandoned them thinking that all of these things can be done by systems. But they can’t. Systems are procedural, they’re not substantive. They don’t tell stories. They don’t give meaning. And without meaning, I think, you can have a very thin morality, but not that thick texture which makes a moral community.

David Brooks:

I’m wondering if you would have had a spiritual crisis if Siri had told you, “God does not exist.” Would that have …

Rabbi Sacks:

Pardon? What?

David Brooks:

If your phone had told you there was no God, would you have had a spiritual crisis.

Rabbi Sacks:

I would have sat down and given it a whiskey. I would have been a Chabadnik to my Siri, don’t worry. I would have converted it instantly.

David Brooks:

I want to push you on how we connect stories to our actual lives. When we make lives, we are making commitments to … We’re betting our lives on certain propositions, whether we’re devoting it to a country, whether it’s to a shul, whether it’s to a church. How do we connect, say, the Exodus story? What do we learn? What do we take away from that story that’ll give us a concrete moral guidance?

Rabbi Sacks:

Listen, here’s the beginning of the Exodus story. Moses tending his sheep on the mountain, sees the Burning Bush. His second question to God is, “Who are you?” But his first question was “Mi Anochi?, Who am I?” You see, the first Jew with an identity crisis but not the last. And you know, on the surface, he’s asking, “Who am I to be worthy of this great task?” But deep down, he’s actually asking, “Who am I? After all, I was brought up as the adopted child of an Egyptian princess. I bare the name that she gave me. So on the one hand, I’m Prince of Egypt. On the other hand, the rest of my life, I’ve spent as a Midianite shepherd with my father-in-law Yitro. So, am I a Midianite? Am I Egyptian? And you’re asking me suddenly to lead the Jewish people?”

So, he’s asking a very real question. And I think to myself, “How did he turn down that life of wealth and power as an Egyptian prince, or peace and quiet as a Midianite shepherd?” And then, I look at the story and I look at these words from Exodus, chapter two, “Vayigdal Moshe” (Exodus 2:10), Moses grew up, “VaYitze El Echav”, and he went out to his brothers, “Vayara besivlotam”, and he saw their suffering. And I suddenly knew in my heart, that’s why he accepted the mission. When you see your people suffering, you can’t walk away. And that was a life-changing insight for me from that story, because it wasn’t easy – I’ve gotta tell you, it’s not easy being a leader of Jews. I don’t think it’s easy being a leader of anyone. But of Jews, it’s really hard. You say, “The Lord is my shepherd.” But no Jew was ever a sheep.

So why do you go through all that aggravation? Because there’s the story of Moses. He could have had a life of ease and affluence, or a life of peace and quiet. Instead, he has 40 years of ‘tzoras’ [aggravation and suffering]. And yet, having failed at everything he really set his heart on – he never got to enter the Promised Land – nonetheless, he became the most important Jew that ever was. Now stories like that speak to you. They create possibilities that you don’t naturally see in the world around you. They offer an alternative universe where meaning matters, more than success or as you so eloquently put it in The Road to Character, where the eulogy virtues outweigh the resume of virtues.

David Brooks:

Let me ask you about one episode in that story, which to me is about institutions, and that’s when Moses kills the Egyptian soldier. And it seems like a revolt, and it seems like an act of mercy because the Egyptian soldier is mistreating a Jew. And yet, he’s not rewarded for that moment. He’s suspected even by fellow Jews. And he’s exiled for that. Now to me that’s a story of a revolt or an act of compassion has to be within law. And it teaches us when we’re called to do something, to do it within an institution, within a higher obedience, and not to think it can be on our own. Am I misinterpreting that?

Rabbi Sacks:

Well look, I mean, the thing about Moses is, he sees injustice, he acts. He doesn’t wait. And therefore, I think you’re right. Law is unnatural to him. You remember the first thing he says to God when God says, “Lead the Jewish people.” He says, “Lo ish davar anochi” (Exodus 4:10) I’m not a man of words. I’m a man of heavy speech and heavy tongue. Why does God choose somebody with a stammer? Because He wants people to know that the words coming from Moses’ mouth aren’t Moses’ words. They come from a source higher than him. And why does He choose Moses, the man who acts outside of the law, to deliver the law? Because that’s the last thing you expect from a Moses.

So, it seems to me … and that, of course, is why Abraham and Sarah can’t have a child. After Sarah dies, Abraham has six more kids. It’s an extraordinary fact. Why did He keep them waiting for so long? Because He wants you to know from the first moment, that a child is the gift of God. Somehow the Jewish people, always small, always contentious, were the people who in themselves testified to something bigger than themselves. And I think that’s what the story is about.

David Brooks:

You mentioned this book I’d written. And it’s a book about ten individuals who at 20 were kind of pathetic, but by 70 had become magnificent. And I wanted to know how they did it. And the essential thing I came away with in that book was that they had found their great sin, and that they’d worked on it all their life. And they’d waged an internal drama against their own sinfulness. And that was the path to character. There were two things I think I got wrong, one major thing I got wrong in that book. The first thing, what I didn’t notice until after it had been published, was that all these ten characters had amazing moms. Their dads were “eh”, but their moms were amazing. And the second thing they did, was not only they had an internal drama, but they were incredible at making long and very loyal commitments.

And it was that act of covenant-making that really marked their personalities. And I’ve come to think that that book was too individualistic, and that the key to a moral compass is the capacity to make covenants. And I’ve been thinking about it, that I think we make four or five big covenants in our life; most of us to a spouse and family, to a faith or philosophy, to a community, to a vocation, and to our friendships.

And the fulfilment of our lives depends on how well we choose those commitments and how well we execute upon them. But you’re someone who’s written very eloquently about covenant. And we live in a world, as you said at the very beginning, of individual choice. So I wonder if you could tell us, what is a covenant and how do we think about it and the role it plays in our lives?

Rabbi Sacks:

A covenant is significantly different from a contract. In a contract, two people with needs come together to do a deal in which each benefits the other. Somebody comes to service my car and I give them some money for it. We are both … neither of us is substantially changed by that. But we both benefit. A covenant is something quite different. It’s like a marriage. It’s when two people come together as separate “I’s”, to become a “We”, and to pledge to one another in loyalty and faith from this, to achieve together what neither of us can achieve alone.

And the thing about covenant is it’s a free act on both sides. I know the Rabbis said that when God made the covenant with the Israelites at Sinai, He suspended the mountain over their head and said, “Guys, you have a completely free choice.” So yes, and that’s fine, saying, “Now, I’m gonna drop the mountain on you.” That’s the Talmudic reading on it. But it was a free choice. You see that God tells Moses to offer the people the deal, and it’s not until they all say yes, that He goes ahead and says the Ten Commandments.

So, a covenant is a way of building freedom into a mutual pledge of commitment. Covenant is a very, very unusual form of language. You know the most striking thing about the Bible is God creates the world with words. God said, “Let there be.” And there was. And there was an Oxford philosopher called John Austin, JL Austin, who spoke about what he called ‘performative utterances’, the worlds we make with words.

And Nietzsche in the Genealogy of Morals, and Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, were the people who fully realised that the most creative use of language is to make a promise, because a promise creates something that wasn’t there before, mainly an obligation. And a covenant is a mutual promise. And that demands faithfulness on both sides. And that demands, as you rightly say, just hanging in there, because a covenant means “I’m not gonna walk away when the going gets tough.” So that’s covenant.

Jewish mothers is another matter entirely. Can I share with you a story about Jewish mothers?

David Brooks:

You would be the first from this stage, I’m sure, but go ahead.

Rabbi Sacks:

Just bearing in mind your column this morning. In 2005, her Majesty was sweet enough to give me a knighthood. And this was the best thing that ever happened to me because nothing I ever did in my entire life gave my mum such Nachas. I don’t think she was remotely interested in me, but she got to meet the Queen in Buckingham Palace. And it was a “Mechaya” like nothing else. It vindicated the whole thing. Of course, we then got into the problem with being a member of the stiff-necked people, which is if you’re a stiff-necked people, you find it very hard to bow down. Jews will, on occasion, on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, bow down to God, but to no one else.

So the whole “Mordechai lo yichrah ve lo yishtachaveh” (Esther 3:2), Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman. And so we had a real problem when it came to … because you gotta kneel when you receive the knighthood. And Buckingham Palace were terrific about this. This part is a true story, David. They actually made me a frame that they wheeled in as I was about to receive the knighthood, so I could lean on it and incline 20 degrees from the perpendicular without actually kneeling down. It’s on the video. You can see it. That was how I received my knighthood. Of course the Queen, at that point somewhat quizzically, turned to Prince Philip and said, “Why is this Knight different?”

David Brooks:

“Lord Jonathan the Leaner.” I have a trivia thing I learned. I don’t know why I’m saying this now, but it struck me as interesting, which was, somebody asked me the trivia question, “Which human being in history has been seen in person by more people than anybody else?” My first guess was the Queen. But it turns out the right answer Mick Jagger, because he’s been on tour for all this time. Now I would feel remiss if I didn’t bring up the name of our President. And we’ve talked about a moral compass, and nothing brings that closer to mind. And so, I just wanted to get your reflections on what’s happened in this country, which you have come to visit quite a lot and got to know pretty well.

Rabbi Sacks:

David, when Sir Humphrey was asked a question, he would always reply, “I couldn’t possibly comment on that, minister.” And I say that to you, I’ll tell you why. I’m being very blunt and very candid. I’ve written – and I believe this – that the mix of religion and politics is toxic. And I made a self-limiting vow never ever to get involved in party-political divisions. And I never broke that rule. And although I sit on the British Parliament in the House of Lords, I have, in all the years I’ve been there, never once voted because I asked for a voice, not a vote. And so I step back from it. But I do feel, both in America and in Britain after the Brexit vote, the sense of an injured country that needs healing. And I think we all have a job of healing to do. I think you, with your great passion, but at the same time, you know, I’ve been following your columns all the way through this, and your journeys through the flyover states.

David Brooks:

That’s not how we like to call them, by the way.

Rabbi Sacks:

But I’ve been watching the way that you are dealing with matters that engage your moral passions at the most visceral level. But at the same time, you have written with grace and wisdom and great human compassion. And I think that becomes terribly important. It’s very easy to take sides in politics. It’s very easy to stand and condemn the people that you don’t agree with, or political choices that the country made that you would not have made. But somehow or other there has to be something that holds us together. Now you know and I know that the two great institutions of the modern world, the market economy and the liberal democratic state, are ways of dealing with material goods, wealth and power. And both of those are zero sum games. So as a result, the more wealth you have, the less I have. The more power you have, the less I have. So they mediate conflict. But they are arenas of conflict, which means that a country needs a third thing, whatever that is. It’s family, it’s community, it’s congregations, neighbourhoods, civil society.

And that’s what America needs right now. It does not need another angry voice. It needs a period of healing. And I’m afraid I’m just not gonna be tempted into answering your question as a result.

Let me just tell you the last big press interview I did as Chief Rabbi, it was years and years and years ago. But a guy came to me from one of the nationals and he asked me … (This was at the height of the Dianna/Camilla thing. Remember?) And he interviewed me for two hours, and we got through all the questions. I was just breathing a sigh of relief. And he was just getting up to leave, and he said, “Oh by the way Chief Rabbi, if Charles and Camilla were Jewish, would you marry them in your synagogue?”

And I replied, and he printed my reply verbatim, “They wouldn’t have made me Chief Rabbi if I couldn’t avoid answering questions like that.”

David Brooks:

Before I get to the audience. Let me push back on that a little. We used to have – and we talked about this over the phone a little while ago – we used to have public intellectuals like Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Buber, and Reinhold Niebuhr, and they spoke with some moral authority and frankly some religious authority, but they did get involved in public affairs. I don’t know if they did partisan endorsements, but they certainly were heavily involved in the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement and other movements. And so it seems to me, when we think about which religious figures are public intellectuals in that way, outside of you, it’s really very hard to think of anybody.

Rabbi Sacks:

The fact is there are major public issues that we have to get involved in; the millennium development goals, the issue of child poverty, which became huge in Britain because of the number of single parent families, it’s created 3.4 million children living in poverty.

Gordon Brown actually had me launch his Child Poverty Action at one point. So there is an enormous amount of political stuff that you get involved in because you know that it’s not partisan because it’s a humanitarian issue. And I just don’t know why there aren’t more people out there. I’ll be honest. I think to some extent religious figures have found it terribly difficult to find a language to speak to a thoroughly secular age. Whereas, when I was broadcasting for the BBC, from day one I knew I was speaking to an audience … (The Jewish community is less than half a percent of the population of Britain.) So I was speaking to an audience 99.5 percent of whom weren’t Jewish. So you kind of developed a language. And I found it quite easy to do. And I think we need more, I really do, because we do need figures who stand a little bit on the outside and can say, “Look guys, without being partisan on this, this is what our humanity, our compassion, our search for meaning, and our search for a narrative of hope demands of us, that we take a stand on this.”

David Brooks:

Okay. We’ve come to the part of the evening where I continue to ask my questions while pretending I’m reading off these cards. No, these are legitimate questions. I can share them with people afterwards. “How can one lead an authentic Jewish life if one does not believe in God?”

Rabbi Sacks:

You know, there was a British sociologist called Grace Davie, who argued that [in] Britain, where 80 percent of the people declare themselves to be Anglican, but less than 2 percent ever go to church. She called this believing without belonging. And I suddenly believed that Judaism is a matter of belonging without believing. So I think just going to shul is terrific. And if you only go for the Kiddush that’s okay by Hashem, believe you me.

David Brooks:

“Should Israel be held to a higher moral standard than other nations?”

Rabbi Sacks:

I think Israel should hold itself to a higher moral standard. I mean, let’s be absolutely blunt. I don’t know how anyone in a country that small, that vulnerable, that exposed to a missile overladen Hezbollah and Lebanon, and a Hamas in the south, and an Iran seeking nuclear weapons with the express desire to eliminate Israel from the map … I don’t know how any country can do more than just stay strong to survive. So the fact that Israel is strong, remains creative … you saw the report this week on the World Happiness Index, Israel comes number 11 out of the countries of the world, way ahead of the United States, way ahead of the United Kingdom. So I won’t hear anything against Israel from the outside. But at the same time, Israel has searched for all these years, for a century now, for another voice, a duet, because peace is a duet and not a solo.

But at the end of the day, I find among young Israelis a real burning idealism that I don’t find among young people in Europe. I’ll be honest with you. I think it’s the fact that they all have to serve in Tzahal [the IDF]. It gives them a very strong sense of collective responsibility. I mean I find young Israelis among the most impressive young people anywhere in the world. And you know, what did Herzl call his novel about Israel? Altneuland, [meaning] The Old New Land. There’s no city more anciently engraved in all of our minds than Jerusalem. When Time Magazine did a list of its top five emerging centres of high-tech, number one was Jerusalem. So somehow or another Jerusalem continues to combine the oldest of the old and the newest of the new. And I don’t think Jews will ever stop demanding a higher standard of themselves.

And out of that comes great heart-searching, great soul-searching, but nonetheless a people who’ve earned my admiration and I think should earn the admiration of the world.

David Brooks:

Now, we had a conversation at the Skirball Centre down at NYU two years ago. At that time there was a lot of coverage, at least, of antisemitism in Europe. And you were greatly alarmed by it. Has the situation eased in your view or is it steady state?

Rabbi Sacks:

No, it continues. I had to deliver probably the strongest speech of my life in the European Parliament just six months ago. And I gave a very stern warning. I said, “Look, if antisemitism continues, Jews will leave Europe. Europe will finally become ‘Judenrein’, and there will be a stain on the moral fabric of Europe that all eternity will not erase.”

So I think Europe has got to stand up to this. And the reason is quite simple. The hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews. And that is why antisemitism should be a concern of all of us, not just of Jews. I am bothered by the fact that it continues to rise throughout Europe. Here in America, despite all the alarm, you have had 60 odd hoax phone calls to JCCs, and some gravestone desecrations. Let me be straight with you, that doesn’t register on the Richter scale. Do not get alarmed. Jews remain the most admired and respected group in the whole of America.

The main thing is, when people say, “What should we do about antisemitism?” I say, “Your five year old child or grandchild will tell you that if you get it to sing you the song it learned in cheder. That wonderful line from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, “Kol HaOlam Kulo, Gesher Tzar Meod”. “Life is a very narrow bridge.” There’s no such thing as an easy life. And the main thing is never to be afraid.”

There was a story, which I share with you, a true story, that in the late 80s under Gorbachev, under Perestroika and Glasnost, Jews were free for the first time in 70 years to live as Jews. Trouble was that anti-Semites were free for the first time in 70 years to be anti-Semites. And there was a resurgence of antisemitism.

Now, one of our Rabbis, an ultra-orthodox Rabbi from Manchester, had gone out to help rebuild Jewish life in Moscow. And a young Russian woman came to him, very agitated, said, “All my life, I never spoke about being Jewish. People didn’t talk to me about being Jewish. Now when I walk in the street, they shout at me ‘Zhyd, Zhyd.’ ‘Jew, Jew!’ What shall I do?” And the Rabbi, with the big black long black coat, the kippot, and a big black hat, and a long black beard, turned to the young lady and said, “You know what? I don’t think, looking the way I look, they think I’m an Episcopalian. And yet no one has shouted ‘Zhyd, Zhyd’ at me. Why do you think that is?” And the young woman thought, and then she replied, (and this reply is classic), she said, “They know that if they shout ‘Jew, Jew’ at you, you’ll take that as a compliment. If they shout ‘Jew’ at me, they know I’ll take it as an insult.” So I say the best way to deal with antisemitism is: walk tall as Jews.

David Brooks:

Okay. So from the global, we go to the intimate. “Your father inspired you to become the Chief Rabbi. What is the greatest lesson a parent can give a child?”

Rabbi Sacks:

I’ll be very honest with you. And I just did a little video on this. Last year, I had this enormous privilege, or luck not privilege, luck to win something called a Templeton Prize. Now this is a big ceremony in central Westminster, big occasion to make a speech. I worked on the speech for months. I delivered it. It fell flat as pancake… it fell flat as Matzah actually. And then, to my amazement, complete surprise, (we showed this, they caught this on video), my youngest daughter got up. I had no idea she was gonna make a speech. She delivered a speech. It was just stunning. It was beautiful. So all my friends said, “Yeah your speech was, you know … but your daughter Gila, oh wow!” And I suddenly realised the most important thing to being a Jewish parent is don’t even think of trying to inspire your children. Make space for them to inspire you.

David Brooks:

Very good. I don’t know if it’s a secret but I was a Templeton juror, so a little kickback would be in order.

Rabbi Sacks:

Oh wow! I’ll do the same for you one day.

David Brooks:

This goes back to something you had talked about: going to shul. “Can a more moral posture be encouraged through a more observant life? Does observance add more meaning?”

Rabbi Sacks:

Look, I tell you David, I think sometimes we suffer in the Jewish community a real disconnect. If it’s okay with God, you can be really not terribly nice to your fellow human being. And that is the disconnect that gave rise to one of our most important institutions, namely Prophets. They became the world’s first social critics. They became the people who spoke truth to power. They became the people who said to overbearing Kings, but [even to] corrupt Priests for heaven’s sake that unless you practise justice and mercy and walk humbly with your God, forget the rest.

So I think we, today, have a well-educated Jewish community, quite an observant … at least sections of the Jewish Community are more observant than I remember. But we haven’t really had a re-emergence of prophets.

It’s the biggest thing I worry about. And I fully understand, incidentally, why prophecy ceased when it ceased, because Prophets saw God in history. And when Israel came under Hellenistic control under the Greeks then the Romans, Israel ceased to be an independent player in the arena of history. With the birth of the State of Israel, Jewish people have re-entered history. So the thing that I’m really waiting for is the re-emergence of prophecy in Israel, in the State of Israel. But I think we need more Prophets in our time. And that, actually David, is what you do week by week in the New York Times.

[Applause]

David explained to me, (I am not terribly au fait with the nuances of American newspapers, but he explained to me), being his kind of voice in the New York Times was a little bit like being Chief Rabbi of Saudi Arabia. But you have been one of the Prophets of our time and I salute you.

David Brooks:

I thank you. I especially think back, and I think of my prophecy of the 37 columns I wrote, arguing, “Don’t worry, Donald Trump will not get the republican nomination.”

Rabbi Sacks:

But look at what you did after that. You travelled around and tried to understand why. And you got to the heart of the matter. And that is what makes you special.

David Brooks:

Well, thank you. Thank you. I wanna push back on the faith issue. You had said: go to shul, even if you just go for the Kiddush. But I think we’ve had two questions that touch on that. And you mentioned it that there’s a lot of observance, but not a lot of obvious faith.

Rabbi Sacks:

I really am very concerned about that. I think Jews came along and said something absolutely radical, which is, “Don’t put your faith in anything that is less than everything. A God not of this people, but of all people, not of this place, but of all places.” And I also think that just by conceiving of God alone – because all ancient myths are full of television soap operas between the various gods killing one another and all the rest of it. It’s House of Cards writ large – and suddenly you have this idea of a lonely God, whose only significant other is the human person. This not only gave God His transcendence, it gave us our unique dignity, that every one of us is in the image and likeness of God, that somebody who is not in my image, whose colour, culture, or creed is different from mine, is still in God’s image.

So although I made light of faith, ’cause I want people to come to shul, the truth is you can’t live without it. This is what made the West what it is.

I think we keep forgetting –  I mean, you rightly remind us of the guys – John Winthrop on the Arabella. But you know, we forget that the modern world was thought through by John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Benedict Spinoza, (our very own Epicurus) and those 17th century figures, two of whom were not conventional religious believers, Hobbes and Spinoza … but all four of them were in dialogue with Tanach, with the Hebrew Bible.

Hobbes quotes it 649 times in the Leviathan. He’s not in dialogue with Plato’s republic or Aristotle’s’ politics. It was John Plamenatz, (I don’t know if you ever read his Man and Society. He wrote it in the ‘60s), he pointed out that liberty of conscious was born in the 17th century in the supreme ‘age of faith’. And he explained how it happened because it’s only a small step from saying, “True faith is the most important thing there is. Therefore, everyone must share the one true faith,” to saying, “Faith is the most important thing. Therefore, everyone should be free to live their own faith.”

So I think as we have grown scientifically, and Nietzsche saw this, the more our knowledge has grown, the more our powers have grown, the lower our self-estimation has gone. You know, after Copernicus, we were no longer at the centre of the universe. After Freud, we were not longer masters of our own drives. After Darwin, we became mere ‘selfish genes’, (not that Darwin would have ever said that.) So when people try to be more than just human, they become less than human. And I don’t think Western freedom can, in the long run, survive without the faith that gave birth to it in the first place.

David Brooks:

I want to push you one step further, which is it’s easy to start talking about faith and then talk about the Bible, and then it turns into wisdom literature as if it was a work of philosophy. But – and this is something Christians do very well, which is to describe the living experience of a loving God. And it’s something … one of the people I read a lot is Joseph Soloveitchik, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, and he at some point does describe how God feels to him. And it’s a bit aesthetic. And it’s very emotional. And one episode I’m thinking of – I can’t remember which of his books it’s in. His wife is ailing in the hospital and he tries to pray, but he just doesn’t feel God’s presence in the hospital.

So he goes back to his apartment to the smallest room in his house. And then he knelt down and he felt, he said, “I hugged God’s knees. I felt His presence like a soft loving hand. And He was right there beside me taking up no space at all.” And you get the sense of a very intimate small God, although he also allowed for a grand majestic God obviously. But – it seems to me Jewish writers often don’t talk about that intimate experience with the actual presence of God.

Rabbi Sacks:

That is exactly what we were reading about, as I decode it, last Shabbat in shul. When, in Exodus 33, the Israelites have just made a Golden Calf. In Exodus 32, Moses has prayed for the people twice, the second time very dramatically, “Forgive them and if not, blot me out of the book you’ve written.” And in 33, he is essentially saying, “God, the people need You close.” And that’s when God demands the construction of the Mishkan.

Now, that’s a very significant word, Mishkan, which we translate as Sanctuary, is the same word as the word Shechinah, the Divine Presence. But the Hebrew “Shachen”, actually means the next-door neighbour.

So you will see, if you go to any of the great mediaeval cathedrals, the vastness of God and the smallness of humankind. But go to the Altneuschul in Prague, or the Ari Shul or the Yosef Caro Shul in Safed. These are small shuls, and there you feel a closeness of God and the greatness of humankind.

I don’t know why it is that we’re embarrassed to talk about these things, but I’d be very candid with you David. There were times when I felt, when I had my dark night of the soul, and when I found it very difficult to hear Hashem, to hear Him. Because see, He speaks to me quite often. I don’t listen very often but He keeps trying to get through. And He keeps telling me, “Listen to your wife. Listen to your daughter.” But you know, I’ve had this constant constant conversation with Him since I was a kid.

And although I studied under some of the most well-known atheists of our time, I never once … I had crises of faith throughout my life, but never once in my life did I have a crisis of faith in God. I have had crises of faith in humanity many many times. And what brought me through was I suddenly realised that our faith in God is absolutely nothing compared to God’s faith in us. And if He has faith in us, can I possibly abandon it. But yeah, it’s when you get …

The Rabbis said, “Ein Shechinah shura lo mitoch atzvut velo mitoch atzlut” “The Divine Presence doesn’t rest in depression.” You ask why it is that Jacob, who was regularly in conversation with God, wrestled with the angels, saw the ladder between Earth and Heaven, how did God not tell him for 22 years that his beloved son Joseph was still alive? Maimonides says, “Because when you are in the midst of grief, you cannot hear the voice of God.” Grief gets in the way between you and God.

And that, for me, is what depression is all about. There’s a great big thick blanket between you and the Divine Presence. And therefore, when you want to rescue yourself from depression, you have to make that space for God to enter. I’ve always felt that, although it sounds very simple, it’s actually the most profound theological statement there is, of the Kotzker Rebbe, who asked his talmidim, “Where does God live?” And they kept looking at the Rebbe and saying, “What does the Rebbe mean, where does God live? Where does God not live? He fills the heavens and the earth.”

And he said, “My kindelech, you don’t understand. God lives where we let Him in.”

And I think the whole of Judaism should be about creating space within us to let God within. And when God is able to enter our consciousness, that is when we realise the most important thing, which is how trivial we are, and how important everyone else is. So that connection with God allows you to mend your broken connections with other human beings.

David Brooks:

That seems like the right place to end. Thank you.

Rabbi Sacks:

David, thank you.