Jonathan Sacks: A Jewish Thinker for the Contemporary Period

Excerpted from “Jonathan Sacks: An Intellectual Portrait,” in Jonathan Sacks: Universalizing Particularity (Leiden: Brill, 2014).

Chief Rabbi

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks represents one of the most important voices in current discussions that concern the place of Judaism – and, indeed, of religion more generally – in the modern world. While his vision emerges out of the sources of Judaism, Sacks’ inclusive and highly accessible approach insures that his writings reach a large audience within the general reading public. Although his earliest work dealt specifically with the problems besetting Judaism and its confrontation with modernity beginning in the nineteenth century, his more recent writings examine the importance of cultivating a culture of civility based on the twin notions of the dignity of difference and the ethic of responsibility. Responding to all of these issues, Sacks writes, simultaneously, as a rabbi, a social philosopher, a proponent of interfaith dialogue, and a public intellectual. In so doing, his vision – informed as it is by the concerns of modern Orthodoxy – is paradoxically one of the most universalizing voices within contemporary Judaism.

Although critical of secularism, Sacks is equally critical of religious extremism or radicalism, which represents no less of a roadblock to human diversity.

Sacks possess a rare ability to hold in delicate balance the universal demands of the modern, multicultural world with the particularism associated with Judaism. It is certainly no coincidence that Maimonides, the twelfth-century philosopher and halakhist, and Samson Raphael Hirsch, the nineteenth century “founder” of modern Orthodoxy, both figure highly in his writings. Equally at home in the world of philosophy and the Jewish tradition, thinkers as diverse as Plato, Judah Halevi, Friedrich Nietzsche, Menachem Schneerson, and Alasdair MacIntyre inhabit his intellectual world. This wide array of figures effectively becomes his conversation partners as he confronts both the promises and fractures inherent to philosophy. While drawn to the rationalism of philosophy, Sacks – having grown up in post World War Britain – is also highly critical that its universalism threatens the very existence of the particular and the diversity that informs it. If universalism represents one such threat to potential coexistence, its handmaiden is the cult of the individual, wherein the rights of the latter trumps those of the collective. In response to such threats, he argues that only an ethic that demands mutual responsibility, one that is connected to the idea of giving and belonging, can confront that which threatens contemporary society. Although critical of secularism, Sacks is equally critical of religious extremism or radicalism, which represents no less of a roadblock to human diversity.

What role does Judaism play in all of this? An examination of Sacks’ diverse oeuvre quickly reveals that he conceives of Judaism as a response, both intellectually and religiously, to the universalizing tendencies inherent to the West. This universalism incorrectly assumes that everyone is essentially the same. Judaism, perhaps more than any other tradition, has paid the price for this universalism over the centuries because it has consistently been perceived to undermine the West’s values. The result, as should be evident to even the most passive observer, is that Jews and Judaism have been made to conform, often violently, to the parameters that the West sets for itself in the name of universalism. As a Jew and as someone critical of the unchecked philosophical enterprise, Sacks resists such view. Although he will subsequently argue that, even though there may exist only one truth for all of humanity, the only way to access it is through the particularity of one’s own tradition. Whereas God exists for all of humanity, Sacks is fond of saying, only Judaism exists for Jews. Or, as he himself eloquently puts it, “The God of the Israelites is the God of all mankind, but the demands made of the Israelites are not asked of all mankind.”

Far from offering an insular philosophy of the tradition, Sacks conceives of Judaism as the intersection of the universal and the particular. Although he speaks to Judaism in all of its particularity, he is still able to articulate how this tradition is nevertheless able to speak to humanity in all of its universality.

Far from offering an insular philosophy of the tradition, Sacks conceives of Judaism as the intersection of the universal and the particular. Although he speaks to Judaism in all of its particularity, he is still able to articulate how this tradition is nevertheless able to speak to humanity in all of its universality. His is a Judaism that does not exist alone, but becomes a partner with God and other religions in the never-ending struggle for human dignity and social justice.

Social philosophy represents the reflection upon questions of social behavior, from the meaning of community to the social contract. In The Dignity of Difference (2002), Sacks makes the bold claim that, to face the pressing challenges of our time, we need not only the great religious traditions, but a way to bring their wisdom into dialogue with one another. Each tradition needs to find – not simply tolerate – the positive value in the diversity of the others. Again, we see the movement away from the idea that if religions simply adjusted and assimilated to the universal culture of secularism all troubles and internecine conflict would cease. Such a universal vision, as Sacks has shown in his other works, quite simply cannot be inclusive precisely because it refuses to tolerate difference and especially that which resists – intellectually, socially, culturally, religious – the so-called status quo. Universalism, and this is a leitmotif that runs through Sacks’ diverse writings, ignores the particulars of God’s created universe. Juxtaposed against this, he calls for dignity of difference.

Sacks builds on these observations in his more recent The Home We Build Together (2007). Therein, he contends that a large part of the problem facing both contemporary society and the refusal to acknowledge the dignity of difference resides at the foot of multiculturalism. Rather than lead to integration, he argues, multiculturalism has actually succeeded in creating further segregation. Instead of providing incentive to live together, multiculturalism has paradoxically provided the encouraged silence, something that has led to the concomitant refusal to get to know one’s neighbors. Rather than diminish tensions between various religious and ethnic groups, Sacks argues that multiculturalism has actually succeeded in exacerbating them.

By questioning multiculturalism as state policy, Sacks’ analysis forces us to ask: What is a society? What purpose does it serve? Is there such a thing as society? To begin to answer such questions, he argues that the modern nation state, in part influenced by a postmodern version of liberalism, increasingly denies the existence of shared moral code. The result is the emergence of the cult of the individual (e.g., individual needs, individual rights) that ignores the key concept of social commitment and belonging. Juxtaposed against individual rights, Sacks calls for a return to concept of the common good.

Rather than blame minorities for their refusal to conform to the larger culture in which they dwell, Sacks – himself the product of a minority culture within Britain – argues that we need to rethink the very idea of society and the myriad of interpersonal networks that comprise it. Unless this is done, he reasons, internecine conflicts in, say, the Middle East risk becoming internecine conflicts that play out amongst neighbors in London, New York or Montreal. The world, made smaller by technology, must be put together again with an ethic that appreciates and draws power from the diversity in its midst.

Hate is that which prevents us from accepting the other on his or her own terms. Just as God has made a space in his creation for humans, Jews must make space for the other and all of humanity must, in turn, make sense for one another. Because Judaism is not a religion of conversion, it has the potential – if understood properly – to become a model of coexistence for the rest of the world. Geographical coexistence is contingent upon theological coexistence.

Yet, and this is crucial for Sacks’ argument, Judaism – like every other tradition – risks misinterpretation with the result that it, too, can be mired in the clouds of obscurantism. At the beginning of One People?, Sacks remarks that “I do not believe that Jewish faith is the acceptance of myth. It is the constant battle against myth in the name of religiously conceived possibility.” Faith ought not to take us away from the world, but force us to make it a better place. Torah and wisdom form a double helix that comprises Judaism’s core. Observation, experience, and insight become the counterpart to the Torah’s divine word and revelation. One without the other produces either dehumanized scientism or religious fundamentalism.

This is connected to another major theme found within Sacks’ writings, that of the ethics of responsibility and the related role that Jews have in tikkun ha-olam (“the repair/restoration or the world”). In his To Heal a Fractured World (2005), he argues that humans are active partners with God in the work of creation. Life, therefore, should not be spent in the accumulation of material and sensual pleasures, but recognized as “God’s call to responsibility.” Juxtaposed against both the secular consumerization of society and religious fundamentalism, he seeks to promote the religious imperative of responsibility to others, to society, and to humanity. This imperative is found not just in Judaism, but is widely distributed in different traditions.

Following the lead of the great medieval philosophers, most notably Maimonides, Sacks contends that one cannot apply the Torah to the world unless one first understands the world. In order to address the world, and not hide from it, Judaism must reunite Torah and wisdom, the two interconnected strands of its existence. Only when these two features are reunited can Jews make the world a better place and, thereby, take up their place as a light unto the nations.

In one of his least “Jewish” books, The Politics of Hope (2000), Sacks further explores the importance of community and the social contract. Therein he juxtaposes liberalism with libertarianism. The latter has created the cult of the individual and, in the process, eroded a sense of the common good; instead, it has created a severe mistrust of social order and an erosion in institutions (e.g., the family, the faith community, the government) that have traditionally sustained this order. The former, on the contrary, envisages a civil society based on the realm of the public good. Sacks contends that it is only as husbands and wives, parents, friends, and citizens – not consumers – that we can make a positive difference to those around, thereby creating a common good regardless of religion, ethnicity, or other matters that divide us.

This focus on Torah and wisdom has led Sacks in recent years to look at the intersection of religion and science, a debate with massive ramifications that grows more loudly by the year. In his The Great Partnership, Sacks addresses all those individuals who argue that to believe in God or to practice religious faith are in error. He refers to these individuals as the “new atheists,” those who misunderstand both the true nature of science and of religion.

Rather than argue that religion and science represent two mutually exclusive ways of viewing the world, Sacks argues that they are compatible with one another, but only when they are both understood properly. Religion and science, on his reading, “are the two essential perspectives that allow us to see the universe in its three-dimensional depth.” Whereas science is interested in taking the world apart in order to investigate how it works, the goal of religion is to put things together and see what they mean. The first is an activity that is associated with the left hemisphere of the brain, whereas the second is the domain of the right hemisphere. Unless the two spheres are held in equilibrium, the results will be catastrophic. Science without religion produces a society that dehumanizes; religion without science produces myth.

Once again, Sacks’ interest in the religion-science debate is motivated by his role as a social philosopher. A society based solely on atheistic principles is one that stresses the individual and one that produces a view of the world that cannot imagine alternatives. Religion, on the contrary, is that which gives us both the faith and the courage to transform the world. Although writing out of the sources of Judaism, Sacks’ argument – as it should now be clear – is one that appeals to all the monotheistic traditions, especially those trajectories within each that are not afraid to engage the wider culture and to confront the intellectual challenges that face all of humanity.

The uniqueness of monotheism is that it endows life with meaning. Whereas science represents the search for explanation, it is religion that provides the quest for meaning. For it is religion, not science, that asks – and provides the answers to – the big questions: Who am I? What is the meaning of life? For what purposes are we here?

Perhaps it is only fitting that Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks have the last word. In his Future Tense, he sums up his life work in his typical eloquence,

I have argued for a Judaism that has the courage to engage with the world and its challenges. Faith begets confidence, which creates courage. That is how Jews lived in the past and should live in the future. For they are the people of the journey to a distant destination, begun by Abraham, continued by a hundred generations of ancestors, and it still beckons. Judaism is a faith in the future tense. Jews were and are still called on to be the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind.

Prof. Aaron W. Hughes
University of Rochester

Prof. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson
Arizona State University

Excerpted from “Jonathan Sacks: An Intellectual Portrait,” in Jonathan Sacks: Universalizing Particularity (Leiden: Brill, 2014).