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10 Questions with Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

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In partnership with TorahCafe (www.torahcafe.com), Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks recorded a series of 10 short videos in answer to some of the most often asked questions of Judaism (and faith in general).


 

Question 1: What are the basic beliefs in Judaism?

Transcript of Question 1: What are the basic beliefs in Judaism?

Famously, Moses Maimonides listed 13 principles of Jewish faith, but the Tashbatz, (Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran), came and reduced them to three.

If you look very carefully at the siddur and many other aspects of Judaism, you will see those three are the key “boxes” of Jewish faith into which Maimonides’ 13 principles can fit. They are Creation, Revelation, and Redemption.

Belief in the universe as God’s work, the Torah as God’s word, that’s creation and revelation. Now, when we apply revelation to creation, the result is redemption, because Jewish history began with God redeeming the Jewish people from slavery to freedom.

The challenge ever since that God has given us is to create a free society of justice and compassion that respects the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human individual. So Creation, Revelation, and Redemption are the three principles into which all the other more detailed principles fit.


 

Question 2: How do you know there is a God?

Transcript of Question 2: How do you know there is a God?

The key principles of Judaism, (Creation, Revelation, and Redemption), provide us with three pathways in which to encounter God. So let’s first take Creation. One of the greatest scientists of our time, Lord Martin Reese, former astronomer, Royal President of the Royal Society, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, one of the greatest scientists in the world, in his book, Just Six Numbers, points out that the entire existence of the universe depends on six mathematical constants which have to be so precise that the probability of any combustible source of energy coalescing around those six constants is almost infinitesimally small.

The universe is finely-tuned for the emergence of life. It could not have happened by mere chance. Equally, the emergence of life itself from inanimate matter is both inherently mysterious and goes against one of the fundamental principles of entropy, which is that the world is gradually, any system is gradually losing energy and order. Now, biology works in the exactly opposite way, from very simple organisms to ever increasing organisms of self-organising complexity. So, if that didn’t have an intelligent Creator, we would have no way of understanding it at all.

If you look at creation, you realise why it was that Francis Collins, who headed the human genome decoding project began it as an atheist and ended it as a religious believer. If you look at creation, the simplest explanation, and I don’t know of any other for its fine-tuning for the emergence of life, is an intelligent Creator. You don’t need to invoke doubtful concepts like intelligent design. There’s just no other way of explaining how it happened to be like that.

Secondly, in terms of Revelation, the Torah: Look at Judaism. Jews are a tiny people, 14 million perhaps, in the world today. And yet, so powerful were the ideas of Torah that they inspired two other great religions, each of which took a part of Judaism, not the whole of it, but see themselves as worshipping in the God of Abraham. That comprises 2.4 billion Christians and 1.6 billion Muslims, far more than half the people alive today.

Now, how was it that a man, Abraham, who lived almost 4,000 years ago, who commanded no armies, ruled no empire, performed no miracles, uttered no world-changing prophecies, yet his lessons are so and true and eternally valid that they have persuaded more than half the world’s population? There is not a single human being who has ever lived who had a greater influence. If that is not proof, through history, empirically, of the truth of revelation, I don’t know what is.

As for Redemption, the great open societies of the West were built in the 17th century by people deeply immersed in the Hebrew Bible, whether they be John Milton and John Locke in England, or the great Calvinists in Scotland or in Holland, or the Puritans who made their way in the 1620s and 1630s to America. These were all people inspired by Torah to build free societies with the respect for human dignity and rights. That is the clearest form of redemption that we’ve had. Every redemptive movement that has succeeded, (and there have been plenty that failed like the Russian revolution, the French revolution, which were essentially secular movements), every redemptive movement that’s brought freedom to human beings and to human society has been based on the Torah, usually very explicitly.

So whether we look at Creation or Revelation or Redemption, that can be, I think, no doubt that these things are all Divine. They are the three ways that point us to God.


 

Question 3: How can the Torah be trusted?

Transcript of Question 3: How can the Torah be trusted?

The Torah is, we believe, 3,300 years old. And everything in the Universe has changed since then, at least everything in the human universe has changed since then. We’ve gone through unimaginable advances in science and technology and on our understanding of life and of the universe, physics, chemistry, biology. And yet the lessons of Torah remain eternally true.

No greater principle of equity has ever been put forward than tzedakah. That wonderful phrase, “loving-kindness”. The English language in 1535, when Myles Coverdale did the first English translation of the Hebrew Bible and discovered there was no English word that meant chessed. The idea that you find in the Torah, and then in Isaiah and Micah, that peace is an ideal. It was an idea that never really surfaced in Europe until the late 18th century when Immanuel Kant wrote about it.

So time after time after time, the great principles of the Torah have stood the test of time. And we don’t know of any other literature that has done just that. So when, for instance, I’m asked to advise the Government on an environmental policy, you turn to the Torah and you discover this is the first environmental legislation ever established.

The idea of bal tashchit [do not destroy], the idea of the shemittah year, (letting the land rest every seven years) and so on. Whether you look at child poverty, (I was asked by the British Government to launch their child poverty action programme), and of course children are absolutely the key elements in the book of Exodus, [and the] book of Deuteronomy. They’re all about teaching children and making the care of children your fundamental priority.

The only place in the Torah where a reason is given for the choice of Abraham, is that “I’ve chosen him in order that he will instruct his children to follow the way of the Lord.” So the Torah is the only document we know whose teachings remain as powerful, as relevant, and as universally forceful today, as they did 3,300 years ago.


 

 Question 4: How can the belief in God be reconciled with science, especially evolution?

Transcript of Question 4: How can the belief in God be reconciled with science, especially evolution?

Evolution, to the extent that we are persuaded that it is both true and an important truth, is in my view one of the most remarkably religious ideas ever developed in science. And the idea that it could lead to atheism, I find totally unintelligible, because it tells us the most remarkable thing, that the Creator made creation creative. In other words, not only did God create life, but He made life creative, such that it would continue to evolve to meet the changing challenges that happen when there’s a major change in the Earth’s climate, or the Earth’s vegetation, or what have you. And this is yet another sign that life was Divinely created.

One of the most unexpected discoveries when DNA was fully studied, (and this is a profoundly religious point), is that all life has the same basic structure. It is built on the same four letters, A, C, G and T of the genetic code. All life is one from the most primitive bacteria to the most sophisticated and brilliant human being. Nobody suspected this.

And as for the hint of evolution in the Torah itself, it is there in the very last word of the Creation story, in the third verse of the second chapter of Bereishit, when it says, “Ki vo shavat mikol m’lachto asher barra elokim la’assot.” [Genesis 2:3] “God finished on the seventh day all that He had created. “La’assot.” [Meaning] “to do?” It’s a superfluous word. If you look at the Hebrew, or look at the translation, there’s one extra word. It should say, “When God completed all that He had created.” What does it mean, “la’assot”? And the medieval commentators pointed out that the word “la’assot” means that God didn’t just create a static creation. He created a creation that would continue to evolve. So I think evolution itself is hinted at in the last word of the Creation account.


 

Question 5:  If you could ask God one question, what would you ask?

Transcript of Question 5:  If you could ask God one question, what would you ask?

 If I could ask God one question, and it is a question I actually ask God every single day it is Ribbono Shel Olam, what do You want from me? What is my task in the world?

I believe that each one of us is unique. I believe that each one of us has a task that God wants us to fulfil that perhaps no one else can do, because nobody else is just where we are with a position and the influence and the contacts and the friends that we have. And the great challenge in life is to know what God wants from us. Theology, philosophy and all the rest of it, God has given us if not the answers, at least the clue to the answers. That’s why our highest value is we study Torah, we look for the answer there in Torah. But the one question that God can’t write in a book but can only speak the word to each of us in our own singularity is, to tell us what He wants from us here now.

And so, since I am not going to be able to get up to heaven in this life and actually ask Him that question, I will continue to look, and to listen, until I sense I know what it is that I am here to do.

I think that’s the best question anyone should ask God.


 

Question 6: What does the term ‘Chosen People’ mean?

Transcript of Question 6: What does the term ‘Chosen People’ mean?

In the 19th chapter of Sefer Shemot in the parsha of Yitro, God summons the people to Mount Sinai and gives them a remarkable offer. In the Rabbi’s phrase, he invites us to become God’s partners in the work of creation. And He says to the people, “You have seen how I have brought you out of Egypt, on eagles’ wings, and brought you close to Me. And now, if you so choose, you will become an am segulah, a people specially close to God. And you will be “v’atem tih’yu li mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh”, “you will be to Me a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation” [Exodus 19:6]. In other words, God asked us to be His ambassadors down here on earth, which is probably the most challenging vocation anyone has ever been given. It doesn’t mean that we’re better than anyone else. It doesn’t mean that we’re worse than anyone else. It means that the task to which we have been summoned is just different.

Some nations in the history of humanity have given the world the idea of beauty, or of science, or of philosophy, or of music. It has been our task always to be God’s witnesses in the world. If you study Jewish history, you will time and time again, in century after century, and in multiple and variegated ways, Jews have always been a kind of people who testify in themselves to something greater than themselves. Jews have always done extraordinary things because they were challenged by God to do this very tough task of so acting as to bring humanity to see the universe as God’s work and the Bible as God’s will.

God wants us to be the people who are true to our faith, while being a blessing to others regardless of their faith. I once put it by saying, “Jews are the people who are the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind.” That’s what we were chosen for, and it seems to me that I can think of no higher vocation.


 

Question 7: What is the purpose of Life?

Transcript of Question 7: What is the purpose of Life?

What is the purpose of life? That’s a very good question. In one sense, between us and God, the purpose of life is to create spaces in which the Divine Presence rests: Whenever we reach out to another human being in love; whenever we do what God does; “Somech noflim v’rofeh cholim umatir  assurim,” “Support the fallen, heal the sick, give freedom to those who are confined and bound, imprisoned”; Whenever we are “Oseh mishpat la’assukim”, when we “do justice for the oppressed”; When we are “noten lechem larayvim,” when we “give bread to the hungry” [Psalms 146:7]; Wherever we bring hope, or love, we create a space in which a little fragment of heaven comes down to earth.

And that seems to me to be the fundamental purpose in life. I think people who live that way live extraordinarily meaningful lives. And somehow or other, even though no life is without its trials and its temptations, and its failures, and its sadnesses, and occasional almost moments of despair, nonetheless, if you dedicate your life to bring God into the world through love, through justice, through compassion, and through forgiveness, you cannot but help to live a life full of meaning, which ultimately is a life filled with joy.


 

 Question 8: What do Jews believe about the afterlife?

Transcript of Question 8: What do Jews believe about the afterlife?

Jews believe about the afterlife that it’s going to be wonderful, but please don’t let’s have it yet. That is the really important thing about Judaism.

Read through the whole of Tanach, the whole of the Hebrew Bible from beginning to end, and you will find that the references to the afterlife are almost infinitesimally small. The references are there, but you really have to search for them.

Judaism is an extraordinarily this-worldly, this-life focused religion. That’s extraordinary because all the religions of the ancient world were religions obsessed with the afterlife. That’s what the great temples and pyramids of Egypt are all about. This life is a place of struggle and pain and all sorts of agonies. It’s when you die and you go to heaven, then you find serenity.

Now, Judaism does not deny that; but it does say if justice is to be done, it’s to be done down here on Earth. If we are to come close to God, if we are to really grow as human beings, if we’re going to make a difference to the world, then let’s do it here, here and now, not in some other world, in some other life.

So Judaism believes that the afterlife is the place where souls, after the body reaches the end of its biological existence, are reunited with God. It’s kind of homecoming of the soul. “Tzaddikim yoshvim… ve’nehenim miziv HaShechinah” [Haggadah: Barech], “The righteous sit and are illuminated by the rays of the Divine Presence”; but Judaism remains a religion which, despite its belief in the afterlife, is almost obsessively focused on this life. That, to me, makes Judaism the healthiest and most life-affirming religion I know.


 

Question 9: Why do bad things happen to good people?

Transcript of Question 9: Why do bad things happen to good people?

This is the central question in Judaism. It is not asked by heretics. It is not asked by people on the fringes of faith. It is ours by the greatest heroes that faith has ever known. Abraham asked, “Hashofet kol ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat?” [Genesis 18:25], “Shall the Judge of all the Earth not do justice?” Moses asked, “Lamah haray’otah la’am hazeh?” [Exodus 5:22] “Why have You done evil, God, to this people?” Jeremiah says, ‘God, I know You always win every argument I have with you, but I still want to know why do the wicked prosper? Why do the righteous suffer?’ Habakkuk asked the same thing. The entire book of Job is dedicated to it. So that question is at the very heart of Judaism. And there are some questions to which the very greatest of the great don’t wish to know the answer.

One of the great rabbis of the 20th century, a totally remarkable individual called Rabbi Yekutiel Halberstam, the Klausenberger Rav, went through the Holocaust. He was in several concentration camps, including Auschwitz. During the Holocaust, he lost his wife and 11 children. All 11 children. The Klausenberger was an extraordinary man who vowed in the concentration camps, in this evil kingdom of death, that if he ever survived, he would dedicate the rest of his life to life itself, to healing life, to saving life. And he eventually brought his followers to Israel and built the Laniado Hospital in Netanya, dedicated to saving the life of whoever needs it, Jew, Christian, Muslim.

The Klausenberger was once asked, “After all you’ve been through, after losing your whole family, after surviving Auschwitz, do you have no questions of God?” And the Klausenberger replied, “Yes. I have questions. There are such deep questions that I know for sure that were I ever to ask them, God would invite me up to heaven to give me the answers Himself. And I prefer to be down here with the questions than down there with the answers.”

Now that is a very, very Jewish reply. If we found an argument that satisfied us as to why bad things happen to good people, we would be reconciled with bad things happening to good people. But because we have the question, and we don’t yet have the answer, we are not reconciled. And therefore we fight so that bad things do not continue to happen to good people. That is why you will find Jews disproportionately represented among doctors fighting disease, economists fighting poverty, teachers fighting ignorance, lawyers fighting injustice. Why? Because we refuse to answer the question “why do bad things happen to good people”. We [instead] try and create a world in which fewer and fewer bad things happen. And that I think is the Jewish way. Sometimes faith lies in the question, not in the answer.


 

Question 10: What is a Rabbi?

Transcript of Question 10: What is a Rabbi?

The word Rabbi is very interesting. It means ‘my teacher’. Now, there’ve been all sorts of leaders in the world: military leaders, political leaders, people who wielded power. There’ve been very rich people who wielded wealth. Judaism said, forget about power, that’s not the Jewish thing. Forget about wealth, that’s only a means to an end. What really matters in this world is human dignity. How do you reach human dignity? And to this, the Torah gives a radical answer. You achieve human dignity by allowing every person to fulfil their potential. How do you do that? By making sure that everyone has a good education. So Jews tried the most unusual experiment, inequality over undertaking.

To repeat, there’ve been many experiments to create an equal society based on equality of power. The result usually is anarchy. There’ve been others that saw themselves in terms of equality of wealth, communism, socialism, but they always collapsed. Judaism looks at equality in terms of equal access to education. Now, in such a vision of the world, the real heroes are the teachers. That’s why when we wanted to give Moses the highest accolade, we didn’t call him Moses the Lawgiver, or Moses the Liberator, or Moses the Supreme Prophet. We called him Moshe Rabbeinu; Moses, our Teacher. In Judaism, to be a teacher is the highest honour. And that’s why the best word we have is Rabbi, meaning my teacher.