The following transcript is of Rabbi Sacks’ Sir Isaiah Berlin Memorial Lecture, delivered in Hampstead Synagogue on 16th June 2003.
I count it a great privilege to deliver this Sir Isaiah Berlin Memorial Lecture. It is my tribute to a man I hugely admired and whose thoughts very much influenced my own – all the more to do so in this Synagogue of which he was a member for so many years, in the presence of Lady Aline whose graciousness gives an aura to this evening which no-one else could give and in the company of his step-son, Peter Halban. Tonight we honour one who conferred immense honour on the Jewish community and on British academic and intellectual life.
Sadly, I came to know Sir Isaiah toward the end of his life. Only once, in Cambridge thirty-five years ago, did I attend a lecture of his, hearing that remarkable voice which was able to speak in a torrent of words with unparalleled erudition in labyrinthine sentences delivered at lightning speed — I could not listen as fast as he could talk. There was only one Sir Isaiah Berlin. I discovered this by chance in the early 1990s when I asked what had happened to the concept of wisdom in public life. I asked many people at random, Jewish and non Jewish, to name a sage in Britain. They all gave the same answer. Instantly they replied, Sir Isaiah Berlin. When I asked them for a second, they couldn’t think of one. That is a measure of the esteem in which he was held and which he so richly deserved.
He had a wonderful self-deprecating humour. I love the story he once told, of the taxi driver who said to him, “You’re Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher, aren’t you? I don’t think much of philosophers. I had that Bertram Russell in the back of my cab one day and I said ‘Lord Russell, you’re a philosopher. What’s it all about then Guv?’ – and do you know, he couldn’t tell me.” I think it was Isaiah who coined my favourite academic put-down: “On the surface, he’s profound, but deep down, he’s superficial.”
I will never forget our last encounter and non-encounter. In 1997 I had published a book called The Politics of Hope, in which I argued that Isaiah Berlin was right in 1958 – when he delivered his inaugural lecture as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford, the famous “Two Concepts of Liberty” – to see that greatest threat to liberty at that time was totalitarianism. But almost forty years later, I wondered whether there might not be another threat, this time not external but internal, the collapse of our structures of solidarity, of families, communities, traditions and voluntary organisations that sustained liberal democracies in the past, giving them what de Tocqueville and later Robert Bellah called “habits of the heart”. I discussed the idea briefly with Sir Isaiah, and he asked me to send him the book.
Some months passed and, not having heard from him, I phoned him at his home in Oxford. Lady Aline answered and said “Chief Rabbi, we have just been talking about you”. I asked, “In what context?” She replied, “Isaiah has just asked you to officiate at his funeral”. I said, “pe pe pe” – not an Oxford degree like PPE, but an old Yiddish way of averting the evil eye — but Isaiah did die just a few days later. I did officiate at his funeral in Oxford and then later at that quite unique memorial service in the Hampstead synagogue. Some time later, his biographer, Michael Ignatieff, came to our home for a conversation about Isaiah and wondered why he had insisted on an orthodox Jewish funeral. I said (and wrote in The Times), that Sir Isaiah may not have been a believing Jew but he was a loyal Jew – and that is no small thing.
Tonight I go further and say that the word emunah, usually translated as “belief”, actually, in biblical (as opposed to medieval) Hebrew means, not “faith” but “faithfulness” or “loyalty”. That was Sir Isaiah.
Tonight, therefore, we honour a faithful and loyal Jew who brought pride and honour to his people. What I want to do tonight — and what I was unable to do in his lifetime — is to ask in very broad terms what the relationship was between his philosophical concerns and those of Judaism itself, and then to focus on one detail in his work, perhaps the most important in his whole constellation of ideas – an idea on the face of it quite contrary to Jewish belief but which I will argue is not so. My question will be whether Sir Isaiah’s work might not lead us to see something in Judaism that we may have overlooked. It might even be, and this will be my final suggestion, that it is this aspect of Judaism that we discover in and through Sir Isaiah’s work, that speaks most powerfully to the world as it presents itself to us in this tense and conflictual age. Is there something in Sir Isaiah’s work that might guide us away from a clash of civilisations?
What were the dominant themes of his work? There were three. The first was his eloquent and impressive defence of freedom, in respect of which he will be ranked – along with two others who came to this country fleeing persecution, Sir Karl Popper and Friedrich Hayek – as one of the giants who made the case for liberty in the 20th century more powerfully than any of their contemporaries. Sir Isaiah wrote an extraordinary chapter in the story of British liberty whose earlier contributors included Milton, John Locke and John Stuart Mill.
Second was the theme chosen by his literary executor, Henry Hardy, as the title of one of the volumes of his collected essays, namely The Power of Ideas. Isaiah believed that history is not simply the play of blind causes. It is not governed by causal necessity as Spinoza thought, nor inexorable economic forces as Marx argued, nor by biological or socio-biological imperatives as Darwin’s followers have maintained. Sir Isaiah was not a determinist. He believed that human action is not simply a response to a situation, but a response to how we perceive and interpret the situation – and that depends on the ideas we bring to bear on it. Hence the power of ideas is connected with the concept of human freedom and thus ultimately with a free society.
Third was his conviction that ideas have a history. I was talking recently to another philosopher, Jonathan Glover, now Professor of Medical Ethics at King’s College, London, who had been a student of Sir Isaiah. He reminded me of the gust of fresh air that Sir Isaiah breathed into Oxford in the 1950s and 1960s. That was one of the most arid periods in British philosophy, dominated by linguistic philosophy in which it was argued that you could solve, or dissolve, philosophical problems simply by clarifying what words mean. This was philosophy almost without a sense of history. And here was Isaiah Berlin speaking with intimate knowledge of writers most of us had never heard of, let alone read: Belinski and Bakunin, Herder and Herzen, Ficino and Furier. There is a line in Hallel (Psalm 118:5): “I called to God from my confinement, and He answered me with expanses”. That is what Isaiah gave Oxford philosophy in those days. He was the man who rescued British philosophy from its parochialism and showed that ideas are not timeless; they are set in time.
It seems to me that these three ideas are not accidentally connected with the Jewish values Sir Isaiah carried with him, consciously or unconsciously, despite the fact that he never explicitly related them to Jewish sources. Let us consider them in the reverse order.
The idea that history is a central category in understanding humanity mirrors his understanding of Jewish identity itself. He wrote: “All Jews who are at all conscious of their identity as Jews are steeped in history. They have longer memories, they are aware of a longer continuity as a community than any other which has survived”. He quotes a lovely line from Alexander Herzen to the effect that “Slavs have no history, only geography.” The Jewish people, he said, suffer from the opposite affliction. We have all too much history and all too little geography. The historical dimension was what Isaiah most identified with as a Jew.
Second, the power of ideas: his whole work was a kind of commentary to the famous line from Zechariah, that we achieve the great human victories “Not by might, nor by force but by My spirit, says God”. It is not too much to say that Jewish history is the supreme example of a people sustained by ideas — exile and redemption, covenant and destiny, justice and compassion. Indeed, Jews survived as a nation for almost two thousand years without any of the normal attributes of a nation: shared territory, an overarching political order, a common culture or the same language of everyday life. Jewish history depended on the existence of a set of shared ideas, the hopes begotten by those ideas and the practices in which they were expressed.
As for freedom, if there was one ritual which Sir Isaiah cherished above others it was the Pesach seder, Passover evening with its narrative of freedom. Judaism is a faith which began and is sustained annually in the reminder of what the lack of freedom feels like: the bread of affliction and the bitter herbs of slavery. So there is a strong degree of kinship, elective affinity, family resemblance between the work of Isaiah Berlin and the tradition of which he was a part.
That is my first observation. Now I want to focus on a specific detail of his work to which he himself attached great significance and in virtue of which Noel Annan said that Sir Isaiah “seems to me to have written the truest and most moving of all interpretations of life that my own generation made”. It is this aspect which led John Gray, in his book Isaiah Berlin, to write that “Berlin’s liberalism — which is, if I am not mistaken, the most profoundly deliberated and most powerfully defended in our time, or perhaps in any time — diverges radically from those that have dominated politically philosophy in the post-war world”. This is the idea to which Sir Isaiah gave the name pluralism ” and which he tells us he became aware of through his readings of Machievelli, Vico, Herder and Herzen.
Now there are several ideas here that we have to disentangle. One is that not all values are compatible. This is a difficult idea to grasp, but he expressed it powerfully and clearly. We cherish equality. We value freedom. But you cannot maximise both at once. If you pursue equality, as in the case of Soviet Communism, you sacrifice much freedom. If you pursue freedom, through free market capitalism, you lose a large measure of equality. It was his great insight that the values to which we subscribe, do not exist in harmony. They are in conflict.
The second insight, following on from the first, was that this applies not only to values and individual ideals but also to systems of ideals, to cultures and civilisations. Sir Isaiah attributes this idea to Herder: “Herder,” he wrote, “laid it down that every culture possesses its own centre of gravity; each culture has its own points of reference; there is no reason why these cultures should fight each other . . . but unification was destruction. Nothing was worse than imperialism. Rome, which crushed native civilisations in Asia Minor in order to produce one uniform Roman culture, committed a crime. The world was a great garden in which different flowers and plants grew, each in its own way, each with its own claims and rights and past and future. From which it followed that no matter what men had in common . . . there were no universally true answers as valid for one culture as for another.”
From this he concluded: “What is clear is that values can clash — that is why civilisations are incompatible.” Sir Isaiah foresaw and diagnosed the clash of civilisations long before that phrase entered our consciousness. He says: “These collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are. If we are told that these contradictions will be solved in some perfect world in which all good things can be harmonised in principle, then we must answer, to those who say this, that the meanings they attach to the names which for us denote the conflicting values, are not ours. We must say that the world in which what we see as incompatible values are not in conflict is a world altogether beyond our ken; that principles which are harmonised in this other world are not the principles with which, in our daily lives, we are acquainted; if they are transformed, it is into conceptions now known to us on earth. But it is on earth that we live, and it is here that we must believe and act.”
In other words, any attempt to impose a single vision of the good on the world, or even on a single society, is fundamentally untrue to the human condition and leads to massive and unacceptable loss of liberty. Now Isaiah Berlin saw this as a radical discovery because it suggested that all great monistic visions, whether philosophical like Plato’s, or religious like the Christianity and Islam of the Middle Ages, or secular like fascism and communism – all were false and dangerous. The best we could hope for is a modest kind of politics, one in which we do not seek to implement an ideal but in which we grant people maximum freedom to pursue the different and conflicting ideals that constitute the human situation.
What kind of politics would that be like? On this, one of his most important disciples, John Gray, wrote another book, The Two Faces of Liberalism. “Liberalism has always had two faces. From one side toleration is the pursuit of an ideal form of life. From the other it is the search for terms of peace amongst different ways of life. In the former view, liberal institutions are seen as applications of universal principles. In the latter, they are a means to peaceful co-existence. In the first, liberalism is a prescription for a universal regime. In the second, it is project of co-existence that can be pursued in many regimes.” In recent times, the most famous exponent of the first view was John Rawls; of the second, Isaiah Berlin. Gray calls this second approach, modus vivendi liberalism.
What is the difference between Rawlsian liberalism and modus vivendi liberalism? Rawlsian liberalism says, in effect, that people may have different religious convictions but they do not bring them into the public square. When you enter the political domain you speak a common language that Rawls calls “the language of public reason”. One of the best examples of this was the rule recommended by nineteenth century German Jews, “Be a man in the street and a Jew at home.” Religious commitments are private. In the public domain we all speak the same language, suppressing our differences. This can lead to quite contorted psychologies. I am reminded of the comment made by the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach who used to say about the American students he met: “If someone says, I am a Catholic, I know he or she is a Catholic. If they say, I am Protestant, I know he is a Protestant. If someone says, I’m just a human being, I know he’s a Jew.”
There is, however, another conception, an older one, namely that religious convictions or cultural commitments are not things you leave behind when you enter the public square. They are part of who and what we are, in the street, the polling booth, even in Parliament. If so, then the public square will be an arena of real and intractable conflict. Whether we speak of voluntary euthanasia, stem cell research, cloning, animal welfare, environmental ethics or any other of the myriad issues that concern us, public debate will be disclose substantive conflicts for which there is no neutral decision procedure, and the best we can hope for is not that we will agree but that we will get along. We will establish, not a consensus but a modus vivendi, a way of living peaceably together.
This was the kind of politics Sir Isaiah believed in. He was convinced that we could never create an ideal society in which all our multiple visions of the good were simultaneously realised. His favourite quotation in this context was the sentence he attributed to Professor R. G. Collingwood’s translation of a line by Immanuel Kant, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” I add, as a footnote, that I suspect Kant himself was here quoting the Bible — Ecclesiastes 1:15, “That which is crooked cannot be made straight.”
If this is indeed the case, it seems to call into question one of Judaism’s greatest ideas, namely, of the Messianic Age. We do believe that one day there will be a perfect world; yet if Sir Isaiah is right, there cannot be. There are two ways of reconciling the apparent contradiction. One is to say that Sir Isaiah Berlin helped us understand why, in answer to the question, Has the Messiah yet arrived? the Jewish answer is always “Not yet.” (A friend of ours in Jerusalem calls his plumber Messiah: he awaits him daily but he never comes). The other is to say, like the 3rd century rabbinic sage Shmuel, that “The only difference between our time and messianic time is that the Jewish people will no longer be under the dominion of other nations”, in other words, there will be no miraculous transformation of nature, but rather that Jews will return to their land and live at peace with their neighbours – about which we pray that this be possible and that it comes to pass speedily in ours days.
It is here, however, that I want to make a fundamental point. It is well known that the prophets of ancient Israel were the first to conceive of peace as an ideal. That was a revolutionary proposition in an age of epic heroes, military virtues and glory won on the battle field. As fate would have it, it was an earlier Isaiah, not the philosopher but the prophet, who gave voice to the great words engraved in imagination of the West:
They shall beat their swords into plough-shares,
Their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war any more.
Isaiah’s younger contemporary, the prophet Micah, quoted those words (Isaiah 2, Micah 4) and added some of his own, so prescient of Sir Isaiah’s idea:
They shall sit, every man under his vine and under his fig tree,
And none shall make them afraid,
For the mouth of the Lord of the Hosts has spoken.
For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its God,
But we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever.
This is perhaps the earliest anticipation of pluralism in history (to be sure, Micah does not have in mind pluralism as we understand it today: Rashi and Radak interpret the verse to mean that the other nations were wrong. But his vision remains beatific). Let us call this, the prophetic vision of peace. However, and this is my central argument this evening, what is fascinating is that Judaism pioneered not one concept of peace but two, and they are quite different. The first was prophetic. The second appeared much later, at around the first or second century CE, after the destruction of the Second Temple. The rabbis gave it the name darkhei shalom, “the ways of peace”.
What in practice does this second doctrine require? The sages declared, “We should provide sustenance for the poor of idolaters as well as the poor of Israel. We must visit the sick of the non-Jewish community as well as those of the Jewish community. Just as we have an obligation to see to the burial of a Jew, so must we do likewise for a non-Jew. We pay obituary tributes to one, not of our faith, who has died as we do for one of our own faith who has died. We must allow members of the idolatrous cultures among whom we live to gather food set aside for the poor, namely, the corner of the field, the forgotten sheaf and so on.” All of these rules were ordained because of “the ways of peace”.
It is important to understand precisely what the rabbis were referring to. They were addressing the situation in which Jews found themselves as a minority in a predominantly non-Jewish society. They were not speaking about what the Bible refers to as a ger toshav, “a resident alien”, a non-Jew who lives within a Jewish state. To fall within this category, an individual was required to keep the seven Noahide laws, one of which is a prohibition against idolatry. The “ways of peace” belong to a post-biblical environment, but their strength lies in their inclusivity. They are not restricted to non-Jews with whom we agree on basic principles of morality; still less do they refer to Christians and Muslims (Maimonides regarded Islam as a pure monotheism; Jacob Emden held the same view about Christianity). The “ways of peace” apply even to idolaters, in other words those opposed to everything we believe. None the less, we have welfare responsibilities to them. We have to provide them with food when they are hungry, support them when they are poor, visit them when they are sick, and comfort them when they are bereaved.
What we find in these rabbinic texts of the second century is a strong form of modus vivendi liberalism, a set of principles of how to live graciously with people whose beliefs and way of life are incompatible with ours. Despite these profound differences, we must engage in common citizenship, contributing to their, as well as our own, common good. Hence the momentous difference between the prophetic and the rabbinic concept of peace. The prophetic vision is a utopian peace, one that will come about it the end of days (what Fukuyama, following Hegel, called the “end of history”). The rabbinic vision is non-utopian. It is peace for an unredeemed world, one tailored to fit the crooked timber of humanity.
Where does this idea come from? The rabbis derived it from the verse, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace” (Proverbs 3). That is its textual warrant. Historically, however, it was born in the painful experience of exile. It emerged because Jews, having in the biblical era lived in their own land, were now dispersed minorities in pagan cultures. Definitive in this context was the letter written 2,600 years ago by the prophet Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon and Egypt: “Build houses and settle down, plant vineyards and gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and have children. Seek the peace of the city to which you have been exiled. Pray to God on its behalf, for in its peace, you will find peace; in its prosperity, you will find prosperity.”
There is one other phenomenon of which the rabbis were acutely aware, namely the conflict of values. To take only the simplest example, there is often a conflict between peace and truth. When angels come to visit Abraham and Sarah and they Sarah (who was 89 at the time) that she would have a child, she laughs and says, “Now that I am withered, shall I have the joy of motherhood? Besides which, my husband is old”. When God reports this to Abraham, He says, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, How can I have children when I am so old?” — discreetly omitting the second half of the sentence where she complains that Abraham is old. From this and other sources, the rabbis concluded that there are times when peace takes precedence over truth.
At the Memorial Service for Sir Isaiah, I quoted the remarkable midrash about how, “when God was about to create mankind, the angels disagreed as to whether this was wise or not. The angel of kindness said, Create humanity because human beings do kind deeds. The angel of truth said, Do not create humanity, because human beings tell lies. Generosity said Create, because human beings are often generous. Peace said Do not create, because they are full of strife. What did God do? He took truth and threw it to the ground.” There are times when (absolute) truth must be sacrificed for the sake of peace. This is a midrash on precisely Sir Isaiah’s philosophical theme. On earth, values conflict; and if man is to be created, it must be on earth, within its parameters and possibilities.
The rabbis understood this very clearly. Our world and its history thus far are non-utopian. There are values that are intellectually incommensurable and practically incompatible. We must therefore, at times, make a painful choice, deciding which of two values takes priority. The sages quite clearly chose peace over truth, even though they loved truth with every fibre of their being. Without peace, there can be no society; and without society, there can be no human pursuit of truth for we are (on this, Judaism concurs with Aristotle) essentially social animals.
Let me quote in this context a much later – nineteenth century – sage: this time, not another Isaiah but another Berlin, R. Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, known as Netziv (1817-1893), head of the famous yeshiva in Volozhyn. Netziv’s comment is directed to the episode in which Moses’ father-in-law Jethro sees him judging the people alone, and tells him that what he is doing is “not good”. He should establish a hierarchy of delegated authority – heads of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens – so that “you will be able to stand the strain and all the people will come to their place in peace” (Ex. 18:23). Netziv’s question is simple. Delegation would clearly help Moses to bear the strain, but how would it create “peace” for the people?
His answer is fascinating. In Jewish law, a judge may propose mediation instead of a strict judicial hearing. The difference is that in a judicial hearing, one of the parties wins and the other loses, whereas a mediated settlement allows both parties to feel that they have achieved a satisfactory outcome (the discussion can be found in B. T. Sanhedrin 6b). The strict application of law aims at truth; a mediated settlement aims at peace. A judge, however, can only opt for mediation if he does not yet know the full facts of the case and has not yet reached a verdict. Moses, the supreme prophet, instantly knew who was in the right and who in the wrong, and could therefore never propose mediation. Delegating most of the cases to lesser mortals, his was thus enabling more mediated settlements and thus bringing peace to the people. Here too, truth and peace are seen as sometimes incompatible values, between which the Jewish preference is for peace.
The second comment of R. Berlin is closer still to Sir Isaiah’s concerns. It occurs in the context of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). That narrative begins, “Now the whole world had one language and shared words.” What, asked Netziv, is wrong with that? To the contrary, the passage seems to emphasise the unity of the builders, and unity is surely a good thing. Netziv’s answer is original and insightful. Babel, he intimated, was the first totalitarian state. There was nothing wrong with its builders sharing a language. But the phrase “shared words” implies an imposed uniformity of belief. In a manner reminiscent of Aristotle’s critique of Plato’s Republic, he argues that the suppression of diversity of viewpoints is not the making, but the destruction, of society.
Finally, let me cite his most striking observation. It is made in the Introduction to his commentary to the Book of Genesis. In the course of his remarks Netziv notes the difference between the First and Second Temples, both of which were destroyed. At the time of the First Temple, says Netziv, the Israelites were guilty of grave sins. At the time of the Second, they were “righteous and pious people who laboured in the study of the Torah”. What then brought about its destruction? The answer he gives is that “They suspected anyone they saw worshipping G-d in a way different to theirs, of being a heretic and a sectarian.” They were not able to tolerate diversity in the service of G-d. It is an observation that would have delighted Sir Isaiah. Religious intolerance is something neither Berlin, in their different ways, could endorse.
So, to summarise: there are two concepts of peace in Judaism. The prophet Isaiah envisioned a utopian peace, when the wolf will live with the lamb. But there is also a more modest, non-utopian peace to which rabbinic Judaism gave expression, one based on good citizenship, neighbourly relations, and the attempt to create a society and a common good together with people who believe everything that you hold false or mistaken. That is modus vivendi liberalism, what the sages called darkhei shalom, the liberalism of an irreducibly plural society. I hope therefore that I have shown how the thought of Sir Isaiah Berlin was part of a longstanding Jewish tradition, one of whose great voices was the prophet Isaiah, and another was a Rabbi Berlin. To be a member of the Jewish people is to be part of a faith of great internal diversity: of Hillel and Shammai, Abaye and Rava, Rashi and Maimonides, the Vilna Gaon and the Baal Shem Tov, and what the sages called “arguments for the sake of heaven.” It is also to be part of a people accustomed to living with external diversity, between Jews and non-Jews, monotheists and non-monotheists, and yet striving, none the less, to create a state of civil peace through modus vivendi liberalism. These were values about which Sir Isaiah cared passionately and which he expounded with such eloquence.
Sir Isaiah himself was very careful to distinguish between two words, monotheism and monism. He opposed the second, not the first – and it is monism (what in another context I have called “the attempt to impose a single answer on a plural world”), not monotheism, that is dangerous. Judaism is not monist. We do not hold that there is only one way to reach God, despite the fact that we believe that there is only one God. My argument has been that the rabbinic idea of darkhei shalom is a genuine and thus far unexplored resource as to how, in practice, we might enact a form of modus vivendi liberalism, and how we might construct a free and gracious social order amongst people of profoundly differing beliefs, as well as a peaceful world order despite the danger of a clash of civilisations.
To quote Sir Isaiah himself, toward the end of his essay, “The Pursuit of the Ideal”: “Of course, social and political conditions will take place; the mere conflict of positive values alone makes this unavoidable. Yet they can, I believe, be minimised by promoting and preserving an uneasy equilibrium which is constantly threatened and in constant need of repair — that alone, I repeat is the precondition for decent societies and morally acceptable behaviour, otherwise we are bound to lose our way”. That is the case I have argued, tonight and in several of my books, as my tribute to Sir Isaiah Berlin.
Let me end with another quotation, this time from his 1952 radio lectures, republished recently as the book, Freedom and its Betrayal: “The essence of liberty has always lain in the ability to choose as you wish to choose, because you wish so to choose, uncoerced, unbullied, not swallowed up in some vast system; and in the right to resist, to be unpopular, to stand up for your convictions merely because they are your convictions. That is true freedom, and without it there is neither freedom of any kind, nor even the illusion of it.” That is the freedom for which he became the great spokesman. It is also the freedom for which Jews throughout the ages fought, and not a few died: the freedom to be different, to be iconoclasts, challenging the idols of the age, whatever the idols and whatever the age; the freedom to be a counter-voice in the conversation of mankind. To that great story, Sir Isaiah Berlin added an illustrious chapter. May his memory be a blessing.