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Rabbi Sacks speaks on “A Life Worth Living” at Yale University

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Dr. Miroslav Volf of The Yale Center for Faith and Culture interviewed Rabbi Sacks during his recent visit to Yale University. The interview focused on the vision of the good life in the Jewish tradition, as part of the 2015 Yale College Life Worth Living course.

Transcript:

Dr Volf:
I’m here today with Lord Jonathan Sacks, professor at three universities, New York University, Yeshiva University, and King’s College London. He is the Chief Rabbi Emeritus of United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth and he’s one of the most influential religious leaders today along with figures like Dalai Lama or Pope Francis, and a major public intellectual. Rabbi Sacks will be a guest this afternoon in Life Worth Living seminar here at Yale University. We are here to talk about his work, and yes, also about life, about what does it mean to live a life that is worth living. Rabbi Sacks, it is a tremendous honour to have you here with us today.

Rabbi Sacks:
Great to be with you.

Dr Volf:
In this course that we teach, Life Worth Living, we differentiate three different dimensions of what we describe formally as life worth living. One is life going well for one. The other one is life being led well. The third is somehow life also feeling good. Let’s start with the first one, life going well. What needs to be there for life to go well for us? What kinds of circumstances do we need as human beings?

Rabbi Sacks:
To be honest I think Judaism would focus on the second question first, because the Jewish story tends to begin with life not going well. You’ve got Abraham at the beginning of the Jewish story being told to leave everything that makes him comfortable and feeling he belongs, his land, his birthplace, and his father’s house. You have the great national story of the Jewish people set in Egypt, the Israelites are enslaved and so on. Judaism tends to be a journey from life not going well through to the question what can we do, how should we live, how can we rescue something from tragedy? Judaism tends to be about turning bad circumstances into some kind form of blessing.

Dr Volf:
And this is the promise to Abraham?

Rabbi Sacks:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr Volf:
You will be blessed, and the nations will be blessed. Would that be part of what it means for life to go well?

Rabbi Sacks:
Yeah, I suppose really the great metaphors arising out of Abraham’s life and Moses’ life, Abraham is the archetype following the call and being willing to journey to an unknown land. In fact, that’s one of the most beautiful lines in the Bible in Jeremiah chapter two when God says to the Israelites who have hitherto been seen as a fairly fractures and rebellious bunch. He says, “I remember the love of your youth, the kindness of our betrothals, like you were willing to follow Me through an unknown, unsown land.” For Abraham, it’s following the call. For Moses and the Israelites it’s following that pillar of cloud by day, and fire by night, across the wilderness.

I think the first metaphor about a life worth living is the life worth living in Judaism is a journey. It’s not a state of being. Judaism is about walking, about the way, about following the call of God. Of course once we get to Moses and Jews as a people, not just as a family, there comes the second element which is core to this, which is divine law. Here is a nation-

Dr Volf:
It’s kind of fleshed out. The call fleshed out how it might look like in the daily life of a community.

Rabbi Sacks:
Exactly. So how do you bring heaven down on earth? There are some religions which see us here on earth trying to climb to heaven. Judaism is exactly the opposite. For instance, you have these two acts of creation in the Bible, in the Mosaic books God creates the Universe, the Israelites create the Sanctuary, the portable Temple. The Bible allocates something like 20 times as much space to the Israelites building this little portable Sanctuary as it does to God creating the Universe. I tend to think of the Bible which is the formative documented Judaism, not as man’s book of God, but God’s book of man. For a life to go well means following the call of God as articulated in Mosaic Law, which is a way of etching everyday life with the charisma of holiness.

Dr Volf:
That’s a wonderful phrase, etching the everyday life with the charisma of holiness. That means everyday life is given significance, it’s given weight, it’s elevated.

Rabbi Sacks:
It’s a very remarkable structure. If you read the Mosaic books eating becomes part of the code of holiness. Here are the foods you can eat. Here are the foods you can’t eat. You shall eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your God, so eating is a form of Divine thanksgiving. But it’s a code of holiness. The same applies to the sexual life between man and woman. Again, in Leviticus 18 and 20 a very, very intricate code of investing that love between husband and wife with a discipline, a structure, and turning prose into religious poetry. I think that’s the Jewish genius, take an ordinary life in ordinary circumstances and make that a home for the Divine Presence.

Dr Volf:
The code isn’t about dos and don’ts primarily. It’s about that too. The code is about a kind of focusing this, a kind of discovering this particular activity, the presence of God and therefore what heightening the both significance and enjoyment of that activity. Food becomes more than food. Sex becomes more than sex. Ordinary things of life are more than they are. Right?

Rabbi Sacks:
Yeah, exactly so. Exactly so. How do you take an ordinary life and imbue it with the sense of the transcendent?

Dr Volf:
This is so contrary to say. Think of some of the critiques of religion, I think something happening in a trail of Nietzsche where transcendence is not only … that it’s not just that you have this resentment against the world and invoked in transcendence, but also somehow transcendence bleaches out ordinary life off its significance. A typical example that people give, Dante, being led through paradise by Beatrice and Beatrice finally leads him in the presence of God. Then this great love that motivated the entire epic poem disappears in the love God. People think those who are oriented toward God somehow devalue the life of this world, including the precious things like our lives. But you’re saying something exactly opposite.

Rabbi Sacks:
It is extraordinary. If you read the Bible this extraordinary library of books, the Hebrew Bible composed over a period minimum of a thousand years from the earliest books to the latest books. You’ll find a deeply religious people that almost doesn’t talk about the afterlife at all. It just talks about life down here, what is it to do, what is it to work, what is it to love, what is it to construct an economy, what is it to build the politics around the presence of God in your midst. It is relentlessly this worldly. Don’t search for God tomorrow. He’s here today. Don’t search for him up in heaven. He’s down here on earth. Or at least as in Jacob’s dream there’s a ladder that connects heaven and earth.

Dr Volf:
We’ve started with the call of Abraham call, a transcended call upon our lives with the Mosaic Law, and I think we have etched ourselves slowly to not just life being led well, but to fundamental elements of life going well, we’re with food, we’re with sex, we’re building a community here and an economy and so forth. That element of life going well is structurally important to Judaism as well.

Rabbi Sacks:
Absolutely. Somehow or other there is this extraordinary passage in Deuteronomy which lists the curses, 98 of them if you don’t obey God. You work out what’s brought all this, what terrible sin have the Israelites committed. The Hebrew says: tachat asher lo-avadeta et-Hashem Elokecha b’simchah uv’tuv layvav meirov kol [meaning], all this is happening because you did not serve God with joy and goodness of heart out of the abundance of all good things. (Deut. 28:47) The product of the life well lived is joy.

Dr Volf:
If we take this in our category of three dimensions, would you describe joy as a kind of affective side of human life?

Rabbi Sacks:
It is. But what is really interesting is the secondary place of happiness in Judaism and even happiness like eudaimonia is not quite the right word but a private feeling. Joy in Judaism it’s always done in the company of others. It’s not a private emotion that I feel. It’s a shared celebration.

Joy appears in the Mosaic books in the context of husband and wife and love and family. It occurs in the context of society. Whenever you are celebrating make sure that you include within your celebrations the widow, the orphan, the Levite, the stranger. It’s an openly embracing kind of joy.

You wrote a book called “Exclusion and Embrace” and we’re very much into the embrace and against the exclusion, because everyone’s got to feel included for joy to be a really Jewish joy. It’s a shared thing. It’s interpersonal. It’s also moral in that it’s open and welcoming the stranger. It is in a sense just taking life itself and saying that is the greatest gift God. Whether there are external circumstances terrific or they’re quite meagre, nonetheless you sit and you rejoice.

Dr Volf:
You rejoice over some kind of a good. When I think of great songs of joy in the Hebrew Bible, deliverance from slavery in Egypt, there is the huge celebration that happens and that’s ritually enacted, so it’s a celebration of a good that has been experienced.

Rabbi Sacks:
Yeah, it’s a celebration of the move from slavery to freedom. It is a celebration really of what I think is really at the heart of Judaism, the sense of God as somebody very close. This is not a philosopher’s God. This is a God who takes us by the hand and leads us through the sea and steers us through the wilderness. This is a God into who’s hands we entrust our spirit. This is a God who’s … Well the Hebrew word for Divine Presence, Shechinah, is (in secular language) the ‘next-door neighbour’. This is God as our next-door neighbour. All the language, God is Father, God is Husband, whatever you like, this is all non-metaphysical language. It’s all a feeling of being very physically close to God.

Dr Volf:
So joy is tied to this complex state of closeness. It’s joy over God’s presence, but over God’s presence as a certain almost state of affairs in the world.

Rabbi Sacks:
Yeah, if you start with the assumption of Genesis 1 that everyone of us regardless of colour, culture, creed, or clause is in the image and likeness of God, so if you’re celebrating with your friends and you’re doing so in a joyous manner, in a sense all our particular points are joined together and created a moment of, an epiphany of the Divine Presence. The idea of being close to God is not opposed to being close to other people. It’s something that happens when you’re close to other people.

Dr Volf:
About three four weeks ago or so I was in Jerusalem. On the Shabbat I went, for Shabbat meal I went to my good friend Alon who’s a Rabbi and had a meal together. After the meal he took a book of a Rabbi from Jerusalem and read to me about the significance of the Sabbath. What struck me in that book is connection between Sabbath, Shabbat and joy. I always thought of Shabbat as many other things. But tied to work, the sixth day you should work and then no work on Shabbat. But the point that was being made was it’s the end not so much of work but the end of striving and celebrating what is. That was a discovery for me.

Rabbi Sacks:
God creates the universe in six days and then he rests. We try and become his partners in recreating or improving the universe for six days. For six days we’re partners. We’re side by side. On the seventh day we too rest. As Judah Halevi, 11th century philosopher, put it, it is as if you’re a guest at God’s table. He’s the host, we’re the guests. We’re all no longer striving. We’re just celebrating one another’s company. That is why the Sabbath plays so central part in this idea of a life worth living.

Because there have been many, many utopias in history. The word ‘utopia’ means no place. I think the Sabbath is in one sense the most remarkable of all utopias because it’s utopia now. One day, in seven we’re there, we’re back in the Garden of Eden, we’re back close with God, we are actually doing our dress rehearsal for the extended version to come at some time to be announced. It’s a kind of dress rehearsal utopia, and it’s real and it’s now.

Dr Volf:
It’s very interesting. I was reading. Just around that same time I was reading some of Augustine. Augustine of course appropriates as the New Testament does too the Shabbat imagery for the eschatological hope and then Augustine speaks about Sabbath as being kind of the end of all our desires, and all our desires aligned in the right way if they’re aligned toward that Sabbath. That resonates with that you’re saying right now.

Rabbi Sacks:
Also it’s kind of … Was it Van Gennep or Victor Turner who spoke about liminal space, when you’re neither there nor here, you’re just in the middle? When society disappears and community arises, and the difference between society and community is, society is hierarchical but community is all of us as equals together, bonding together.

In the bible that’s the 40 years in the wilderness. Hosea calls that a honeymoon between God and His people. It was fairly troubled and argumentative honeymoon, but it was a honeymoon because they felt that God was very close. I think that is what the Sabbath is, is this time out of time, eternity in the midst of time, this liminal space.

Because the thing about the Sabbath it not only don’t you work. You can’t ask anyone to work for you. Every hierarchy is suspended. Even your domestic animals can’t work for you. We’re all back in the Garden of Eden, no hierarchy, no dominance, no power relationships, and just celebrating the good of being, of being in God’s being.

Dr Volf:
You’ve also written as far as I remember of social conditions, not just communal intentionalities and practises associated with the Sabbath, and that for that dimension of life worth living the Shabbat is that you need a certain social states of affairs to be the case for that to be celebrated really well. How does our personal life worth living fit into the larger way in which we organise the society as a whole?

Rabbi Sacks:
Obviously the biblical project is a social project, it’s the construction of a society built on justice and compassion, on social inclusion, on welfare so that the poorest are not excluded. You have that elaborate structure of the seventh year and the jubilee year when all property returns to its original owner, so that the inequalities that tend to build up in any economy are level once every seven years or once every 50 years in slightly bigger way.

You can’t ignore that social justice element that environs you. That’s the task of the six days. But since we’ve never fully completed that task we renew our being together on the Sabbath which feeds into the rest of life. Because if you’ve sat with somebody and made kiddush, the blessing over the wine, and you’ve broken bread together, and you’ve established that fellowship, you can’t really go often exploiting the day afterwards. It’s that crucial rhythm of Jewish life that links the transcendental and the social and political.

I just think incidentally this is quite an important thing. I want to say the Greeks had a logical imagination. Jews had a chronological and dialogical imagination, because there’s certain states of being that you need to enact at certain times but not the whole time. You can’t have a life that’s all Sabbath until the end of history. That is the end of days.

Now when you haven’t really worked out outside of the Bible any way of factoring in these biorhythms of a life worth living, it isn’t as a constant state, it’s got to have these things factored in, and not through some personal time planning app on the iPhone. Because in Judaism happiness and joy are not personal, they are communal. You have to have everyone resting on the same day and pretty much in the same way, so there’s the communal dimension.

Dr Volf:
In some ways what’s true of joy that it is a communal thing in Judaism, that might be true also if I’m hearing you rightly also of life worth living in general. It’s not simple. Obviously individuals can strive and they can richen, their lives can get weight, but it’s in a sense almost incomplete in its own. There’s a communal project.

Rabbi Sacks:
It’s very striking in the Hebrew, because Hebrew is rather more elemental language than English. But you hear this litany of the seven days of creation: And God said, “Let there be,” and there was, and God saw that it was good. You hear the word good seven times in Genesis 1. Then suddenly you hear in Genesis 2 the words “not good”, which only appear twice in the all Mosaic books. It says “It is not good for man to be alone.”

You have a critique of our whole contemporary secular order. It was very interesting because a great Jewish theologian in America, Rabbi Soloveitchik once wrote an essay called “The Lonely Man of Faith.” It struck me when I first saw even the title. I thought, “Nobody’s ever written an essay like that before,” because in Judaism the man of faith and the woman of faith are not lonely. I mean, I once called faith in Judaism the redemption of our solitude.

Dr Volf:
Makes sense. Now you wrote also that Judaism is a demanding religion. I think you somewhere wrote that it is one of the most demanding, if not the most demanding religion. Indeed that was the reason why you commented it in part. It may be hard, but what reasons, what resources, what motivations does one have to follow the path, to be part of this project of life worth living?

Rabbi Sacks:
Yeah, this sense of being close to God is the summum bonum of Judaism I think. You feel like throughout the prophetic books. You feel it throughout the Song of Songs. You feel it throughout many of the psalms, somehow this sense of being, “From the depths I cry to you, Lord,” this sense of being distant from God as almost unbearable.

That closeness to God is how it works out. But really and truly it’s a combination of three beliefs in Judaism. Judaism I would say is framed by three beliefs: creation, revelation, redemption. Those are the three fundamentals. God creates the universe. He at Mount Sinai reveals His will for the people He has chosen as the people of whom He will be the exclusive sovereign. That’s the first nation under the sovereignty of God. Hence, the profound ambivalence in Judaism towards monarchy, a human king, and even the profound ambivalence about the limits of politics, because really and truly Judaism is a kind of utopian anarchy. I mean, we just live together under God and we don’t accept anyone else as the ruler.

Revelation is the code of God’s will, directed to us as His particular people, even though He is the God of everyone and loves everyone. When you apply revelation to creation the result is redemption. The journey towards that perfect society is the one that began with Abraham and still nearly 4000 years later we haven’t completed.

Dr Volf:
In some way if I am listening rightly what you are saying from the closeness to God to these three elements of Judaism it almost sounds as if this way of life is its own reward attachment to God, closeness of God, is its own reward. You can justify it, or you ought not justify it on account to some other greater good that it might do to you, or something of that sort. Is that what you’re saying it or something?

Rabbi Sacks:
That’s certainly what I’m saying. It comes out of this. Judaism is a religion of protest really. It’s a protest against the world’s first great empires. You have this in a sense that critique is there in Genesis 11 the Tower of Babel which we read is the first totalitarianism. Then you get Egypt. What’s wrong with Egypt is it’s a society in which one human being is treated as God and a lot of human beings are treated as slaves.

To create and inhabit a society where everyone is given their full measure of human dignity is the image of God, is the setting for a life in which you feel close to God, not only in the mind or the soul or the emotions, but when you go out into the street, especially with the honesty and integrity of commercial and political relationships in the state and also that serenity of the Sabbath where everything stops and in the still quiet at the heart of creation you hear and feel the presence of the creator. It’s a complex mix of the individual, the communal, and the social. Well-being is really all of those things being in some kind of alignment. Beyond that there’s no further need for justification.

Dr Volf:
So that that way of life understood in such communal as well as personal way kind of justify itself by its beauty, by its attractiveness, or whatever that might be.

Rabbi Sacks:
You can trace that throughout history, because there were an awful lot of occasions when people said to Jews, it happened under Christianity, it happened under Islam, not always, not even often, but enough to be part of character, convert or die, convert or be expelled, convert or be persecuted. With very few exceptions the vast majority of Jews did not convert. Somehow when every blandishment was offered and whenever every threat was uttered most Jews at most times actually felt being Jewish matters to me more than anything else.

I conclude from that empirically that Jews found this closeness to God in the company of your fellows is the summum bonum and you don’t seek for anything else. Certainly when it comes to the search for wealth or power we have this wonderful subversive book of Ecclesiastes, the man who had it all and can only conclude by saying meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless. I mean I think that’s the best critique of the consumer society and individualism that I’ve ever read. He was a man who knew it all, had it all, and says in the end, “In the end the most important things are sweet is the sleep of a labouring man and see life with the woman you love,” which is curiously enough the same conclusion that the rather godless Jew Sigmund Freud arrived at as well, work and love.

Dr Volf:
Especially if one sees the life worth living as its own reward and if it is demanding but still having its own reward. What happens when one fails? It’s a tough road to follow. I mean Abraham had a tough road to follow.

Rabbi Sacks:
Everyone fails.

Dr Volf:
Everyone fails in the small or large ways.

Rabbi Sacks:
There are no perfect characters in the Bible. When there are people who are pretty close to perfection and they’re only two, one is called Noah and the other one is called Job, it turns out to be not very good news to be almost perfect because God is going to put you through some fairly tough situations.

There’s this sharp distinction in Judaism between divine perfection and human imperfection, which means that God very soon learns to forgive. Judaism is a religion of forgiveness. God empowers us to fail. Look how many times Moses fails in his life. Look how many times the Israelites fail. You have this great drama of Moses after the people, a mere 41 days since they received, made their covenant with God at Mount Sinai they make a Golden Calf. I mean this is the shock horror of all anti-climaxes. Moses goes up. Moses comes down and smashes the Ten commandments and the tablets of stone and then goes back up and says, “God forgive them, if not block me out of the book here,” this really challenging thing where Moses secures Divine forgiveness.

At that point something interesting happens what makes Weber called the routinisation of charisma, where Moses experience up the mountain becomes part of the annual ritual in Judaism called the Day of Atonement, which in the Temple times was mediated by the High Priest. But for the last 2000 years it’s just us talking to God and asking for His forgiveness. We have these 10 days beginning with the New Year, culminating 10 days later in the Day of Atonement, which are the 10 days of penitence, when we look over our lives, we apologise for the things we got wrong, we try and make amends with people we’ve offended.

Judaism is a profound religion of apology and forgiveness. In fact, Alain de Botton who is an atheist wrote a little book recently called “Religion for Atheists,” in the first chapter he says, “Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. It’s such a good idea, I think we should have four of them a year.” I think that constant access to divine forgiveness is what empowers us to strive and yet to fail, and then get up and try again.

Dr Volf:
Striving and failing is part of the story of a people and of a person with God. But in that story also God seems not only to forgive, God seems to chastise as well. There is a kind of punishment side to things. What is the role of punishment?

Rabbi Sacks:
The role of punishment really is to try and make sure that we don’t do the following deal, I’m going sin, I’m going to apologise, and I’m going to be forgiven. I’m sure you know the recent research they got at the book by Norenzayan called “Big Gods.” There’s been empirical research on do people become kind if they believe in a punishing God or a forgiving God, and the paradoxical answer is that if they believe in a punishing God they’re kinder, more forgiving, and more law abiding. If they believe in a forgiving God they feel they themselves have got to punish and they become less kind.

Of course you wrote very movingly at the end of your book on “Exclusion and Embrace” about Divine vengeance, and you made the same point that somehow when you feel that a great wrong has been committed if you can ask God to take vengeance it means you don’t have to.

Dr Volf:
But nonetheless this moral order it’s taken seriously by you as well as by presumably the wider society then in that-

Rabbi Sacks:
It’s taken very seriously and in the end although all the Prophets, Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, Job, they all had problems with the Divine justice of this world, how come the wicked prosper, how come the righteous suffer, that’s the key question in Judaism. It’s not brushed away by anyone. It’s the question raised by the heroes and heroines of faith.

But at the end of the day God does forgive even His enemies. This is the drama of the Book of Jonah. Jonah is sent as a Prophet to Nineveh which is the military centre of Israel’s enemies, the Assyrians. Jonah knows what’s going to happen. He’s going to preach for repentance. They’re going to repent. God’s going to forgive them. He does not want God to forgive His enemies. He runs away and then you have the little drama with the boat, the fish, the whole story and he can’t escape, so he goes to Nineveh and says, “In 40 days Nineveh will be destroyed.” They all repent and God forgives them all and Jonah sits down and wants to die. “I knew you were going to forgive them God. You made me look like a fool. You said in 40 days Nineveh will be destroyed and you see, you haven’t destroyed it.”

Punishment is a threat rather more than it’s a reality. I think history bears it out. There’s some pretty nasty empires that tried to destroy Jews and the Jewish people, and they are no more and we’re still here. Although there have been rocky moments for faith I think in the end, Psalm 92 just describes it, “The wicked flourish like grass, but like grass they get mown down, the righteous are like a cedar tree which seems to do nothing but eventually grows tall.”

Dr Volf:
Max Horkheimer after the World War Two has written this small book, I think translated into English but I don’t know the English title. Sehnsucht nach dem ganz Anderen, kind of the longing for the other, meaning of the divine, just so as to right the injustices of the world so that torture will not eternally triumph over the victim.

Rabbi Sacks:
But it’s very clear in the Bible what’s the work of God and what isn’t the work of God. As soon as prophecy ends you find Jewish law being much less punitive, I mean much more pacific, as if they realise they can only really wager a war against your enemies if God tells you to you, and if you don’t have Prophets anymore and we didn’t after Haggai, Zecharia, and Malachi in the Second Temple times then you just don’t do that sort of thing anymore. You pray to God and then you try and make peace with your enemy.

Dr Volf:
We have covered a big range of topics from the call of God upon our lives all the way to dealing with the failures and to respond adequately to this call.

Rabbi Sacks:
I think if I were to sum it up I would say that the man who got closest to this, oddly enough since he wasn’t religious, was Viktor Frankl. Viktor Frankl was a psychotherapist who went through Auschwitz who tried to give people the will to live and then after the liberation of Auschwitz founded a school of psychotherapy based on his experiences there and he called it ‘The Will to Meaning’, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning.’

I think that’s what Judaism is. It’s a search for meaning to say that somehow or other history is not just, or Joseph Heller of “Catch-22” called the trash-bag of random coincidences blown open in the wind. I think for me the image, I wrote a book called “A Letter in the Scroll” because the holiest thing is the Torah scroll which is the five Mosaic books hand-written by quill on parchment still to this day. I think of meaning in Judaism is just each of us is a letter in the scroll. Now all meaning is expressed in words and all words are written in letters, but a letter on its own has no meaning. It has to combine with other letters to make a word, other words to make a sentence, other sentences to make a paragraph, and other paragraphs to make a story.

I think Judaism, the meaningful life, the life worth living is the life suffused with meaning. I’m a little element of that, but I have to join to others to make a family, and my family has to join with others to make a community, and the community has to combine with others to make a people, and that people has to connect with all previous generations to continue that story.

In the end all life is worth living because God is the God of life, and Moses’ great final command was choose life. But what really makes a life worth living is a life suffused with meaning. When you see your significance as a letter in the scroll because the Torah scroll missing one letter is invalid, so are you invested with huge significance, but it’s not just on your own. It’s with horizontal relationships with other people and vertical relations with the people who came before us.

Dr Volf:
What a perfect way to end our conversation. Thank you very much.

Rabbi Sacks:
Thank you.