The Challenge to Faith in the 21st Century
Rabbi Sacks delivers the University of Dallas’ 2014 Eugene McDermott Lecture
Watch Rabbi Sacks delivering the University of Dallas’ 2014 Eugene McDermott Lecture entitled “The Challenge to Faith in the 21st Century”.
Good evening. My name is Tom Keefe, I’m the president of the University of Dallas. On behalf of the Jewish Federation, the Dallas Institute, and the University of Dallas, it’s my privilege and pleasure to welcome you tonight. Tonight, welcoming our keynote speaker, will be the mayor of Dallas, Mike Rawlings. Mike Rawlings has proved himself to be a courageous and inspiring leader who fulfils the mission of the McDermott Lecture of presenting a vision of what a great city can look like in this new country. Again, on behalf of the University of Dallas, I’d like to welcome you to the McDermott Lecture and I’d like to introduce the mayor of Dallas, Michael Rawlings.
Mayor Michael Rawlings:
Thank you, President Keefe, for those nice words and also for being president of this important university for the City of Dallas. Since its founding in 1956, the University of Dallas has been a wonderful asset to the city and the citizens of Dallas. The university has always been dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom and educating its students so they can develop the intellectual and moral values that prepare themselves for life and work. For nearly 60 years, the university has taught students how they can act responsibly for the good of their family, their city, their community, and their church. It has been named one of America’s best colleges in the annual rankings of Forbes, Princeton Review, and one of the highest percentages of the National Merit Scholars among all Catholic universities in this country. That’s something important to me since I was a graduate of a Catholic university.
It’s open to the faculty and students of all faiths, and it supports their academic and religious freedom without discrimination. It’s dedicated to helping people enrich their lives through the wisdom of the humanities. And with that in mind, the university established the Eugene McDermott Lectureship in 1974 to honour the memory of the late Dallas scientists and civic leader. And tonight, the university brings you one of the world’s visionary spiritual leaders. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, regarded by many as the greatest living spokesman of the wisdom of Judaism, its relevance to the modern world, and its connection to other religion. Rabbi Sacks served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. He was knighted by the Queen of England in 2005 for services of the community and to the interfaith relations.
He’s received 16 honorary degrees, including a doctor of divinity, given to him by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey. He holds distinguished professorships at New York University, Yeshiva University, and King’s College in London. He’s also a frequent contributor to the Times of London and the BBC. And he’s an award-winning author of 25 books, including Faith in the Future, Community of Faith, and Future Tense: Jews, Judaism, and Israel in the Twenty-first Century. A courageous man because he takes on a topic about a fractured world, something that’s relevant to all of us in the United States, as world citizens, and yes, here in Dallas, Texas. Please welcome Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.
Mayor Michael Rawlings, I was going to say Your Worship the Mayor, but apparently, in Dallas, you don’t worship mayors. But in this case, I think you really should because, Mike, you have done great things for this great city. And you have truly understood the wisdom that Jews and Chinese share, which is this, if you plan for a year, plant rice, if you plan for a decade, plant a tree, if you plan for a century, educate a child. It is through the school system that you will change this world. And, Mike, you are doing that today and we wish you blessing and success in all your endeavours. To President Thomas Keefe, you have created, you preside over one of the great, great universities. I cannot tell you what a wonderful welcome I have had. And it is such a privilege to be invited to deliver this McDermott Lecture. And of course, we send, in absentia, our warmest blessings to Margaret McDermott, bless her, young at 102. And may you continue to be a blessing to us all.
Friends, let me tell you, before I begin my topic tonight, just why I’m so moved. For a Catholic university to invite a Jew to give a lectureship shows a generosity of spirit, which is truly moving. And I want to tell you a story, if I may, I hope this will be intelligible to non-Jews as well as Jews. But they tell a story about a Jewish guy who moves into a new town, he’s never been there before, and he wants to find out where the local synagogue is. And he goes to the local synagogue and is warmly welcomed by everyone. And the atmosphere is wonderful until they get to this part of the service where we read from our sacred text, when we read from the Torah. And you may know this, some Jews have a custom of sitting while this takes place and some have a custom of standing while this takes place. Immediately the Torah reading began, half the congregation stood, half of them sat, and they started yelling and screaming at one another.
The ones who were standing were saying, “You ignoramuses, don’t you realise that while the Torah’s being read, you have to stand?” And the ones who were sitting saying, “You heretics, don’t you know when you read the Torah, you have to sit.” It was pandemonium. This went on for several minutes and then the reading was over and good order continued. The next week he came, the same thing happened and the next week, and he was being driven mad by this internal fracas, this controversy within the community. The community didn’t have a rabbi, so he went to the nearest town that had a rabbi. He found an elderly sagacious rabbi surrounded by volumes of Jewish law with a long beard.
And he said, “Rabbi, you’ve got to help me because is it true that when you read from the Torah, you have to sit?” And the rabbi stroked his beard and shook his head and said, “No, that is not the tradition.” So he said, “Rabbi, in that case, is it Jewish law that when you read the Torah, you have to stand?” And the Rabbi thought and shook his head and said, “No, that’s not the tradition.” So the man said, “Rabbi, you got to help me out here because in my synagogue, half of them stand and half of them sit and they’re all screaming abuse at one another.” And the rabbi smiles and says, “Yeah, that’s the tradition.” Friends, given that that has been symbolic of the relationship between different faiths for so many centuries, you at the University of Dallas are breaking with that tradition. And I thank you for your generosity of spirit in which you’ve asked me to address you this evening.
This evening, I want to ask a very simple question, and here it is, does anyone know, if you look at the book of Exodus, what is the first question Moses asked God? Anyone know? I’ll tell you what the second question was, “Who are You?” But the first question Moses asked God, if you see in Exodus chapter two, the first question is, [inaudible 00:09:23] “Who am I?” Now, obviously, in one sense, Moses is saying, “Who am I to be worthy of this extraordinary mission of taking an entire nation to freedom?” But I wonder if in another sense, Moses isn’t asking the very same question that many of us must ask of ourselves as we see all the problems facing humanity on this planet in this 21st century. We, each of us, are only one, and there are 7 billion people on the face of this planet. What difference can we make?
We are, each of us, only a wave in the ocean, a grain of sand on the seashore, dust on the surface of infinity. What difference can we make? And it is here that I think the Judeo-Christian tradition, correct me if I’m wrong, I’m going to give you a Jewish proposition, but I’m sure it’s one that Christians share, is at its most extreme opposite to this idea that we are, each of us, individually insignificant. Here is a statement taken from our great 12th-century philosopher and Rabbi Moses Maimonides in the third chapter of his law of repentance. And it is based on the Talmud, several centuries earlier than that. And here it is. He says that each of us is judged by the majority of our deeds. If the majority of those deeds are good, then good things will happen to us. If they’re bad, bad things will happen. And so it is for a city, for a nation, and for the world.
And then he writes this, “Each of us, therefore, should, throughout the year, every day of our lives, see the world and our lives as if they were evenly poised between good and bad. And our next act could tilt the balance of our lives and the balance of the world.” What Maimonides is saying is that each of us can change the world, heal some of its fractures. And what I want to do this evening is to tell you how I have tried to understand that through some of the lives that I’ve encountered and reflected on and see what it might mean for each of us to change the world. And I want to begin with a story about a man who, in truth, I’d never heard of a mere two years ago, but when I heard of him, I was very, very struck by his story.
I don’t know if you remember the Olympic Games, did you watch them in 2012, they were in London? Did you see any of those Olympic Games? And what perhaps you didn’t see because it didn’t get so much coverage on American television, but it was watched globally was the thing that happened immediately after the Olympic Games, the Paralympic Games. It was quite extraordinary to watch these athletes, many of whom were paraplegic, who were able, nonetheless, to achieve such triumphs of the human spirit. And in Britain, as many people watch the Paralympics as the Olympics themselves. And just before the Paralympics began, the BBC showed an hour-and-a-half documentary about the man who created the Paralympics, an Orthodox Jewish man called Dr. Ludwig Guttmann.
They showed this film called The Best of Men, which told the story of his life. I have to tell you, this was one of the most hope-filled films I have ever seen. It was even better than The Shawshank Redemption. And it was called The Best of Men. And I’m going to tell you the story that it told. Ludwig Guttmann was raised, born in an orthodox Jewish family in Germany, and by 1933, he had become one of Germany’s leading neurosurgeons. But of course, in 1933, Hitler came to power, 1935, all Jews overnight dismissed from all the professions. And he was able to carry on working for a period of three or four years in a Jewish hospital, but as 1939 came, he realised that it was not safe for him to stay in Germany for any longer. And so he came to Britain. And after a while, the British government discovered what an extraordinary figure it had in its midst in this Dr. Guttmann. And in 1943, they asked Guttmann to create in a hospital about 50 miles outside of London called Stoke Mandeville Hospital to set up the first ever dedicated unit for treatment of paraplegics in Britain. And he did beginning in January, 1944. What Guttmann saw absolutely horrified him. The paraplegics in Stoke Mandeville were all young men who’d received major injuries during the war. And somehow the doctors assumed that since they would never be able to walk again, they didn’t have any prospect of life. So they were all kept heavily sedated, horizontal in their hospital beds. And the average life expectancy of these men all in their early 20s was between three and six months.
Guttmann instantly decided that this could not continue, and he proceeded to do a series of extraordinary things to give them back their lives. The first thing he did was he cut their painkillers in half because that was keeping them sedated and it hurt. Then he got them to sit up in bed and it hurt. And then he started getting a gym instructor in to throw basketballs at them and they had to catch it and it hurt. And the nurses and fellow doctors of Guttmann at Stoke Mandeville thought this man was simply cruel. And they summoned him to a disciplinary hearing. And the BBC recreates this whole thing and one of Guttmann’s colleagues, a British doctor, looks at Guttmann and says, “These men are moribund cripples. Who do you think they are?” And Guttmann looking him in the eyes says, “Who do I think they are? The best of men.”
And he continued the treatment. He got them out of their beds into wheelchairs, and it hurt. He got them out of the hospital ward into the garden, and it hurt. Then he started getting them to play games, throwing basketballs at one another. And then he had a brain wife. He got the doctors and nurses to sit in wheelchairs and play games with the paraplegics. Who do you think won? And that was the moment when Guttmann realised that they’re being able to win against the doctors and the nurses gave these people for the first time ever, the will to live.
And so he expanded the games and involves other local hospitals. And then he made a national games. And then in 1948, the first ever parallel Olympics, the origin of Paralympics. And in 1960 it was 1968, was recognised officially by the International Olympic Committee as the Paralympics. And as we sat watching these 4,000 athletes from 140 different countries watched by tens of millions of people around the world, we saw how one man gave a whole section of the community of humanity back their lives. And I asked myself the following question, what was it that a German Jew who had escaped to Britain under Hitler, what was it that allowed him to see what other medical figures of his time didn’t see? And I suddenly realised that that was what he saw. He had the personal experience for the previous six years of living under regime that saw him as less than human, as somebody who was in another kind of way, a moribund cripple.
And Guttmann knew that he was as good as them. He knew, I am human, I have a future, not just a past. And so he was able to see in these paraplegics who had been regarded as kind of subhuman with no future ahead of them, he was able to see their humanity and touch it. And that is the first principle that we learn from biblical ethics. There is something very remarkable about the Mosaic books in Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy. We all know when we talk about the great commands of love, love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. Love your neighbour as yourself, but we forget that there is another command stated in one form or another, no less than 36 times in the Mosaic books, which is, you shall love the stranger.
And in Exodus 23, it explains why: [Hebrew], you know what it feels like to be a stranger. You were once strangers in the land of Egypt. Guttmann, I think embodied that extraordinary sense. In Western philosophical thought, Kant thought that you get morality from rationality, humour from emotion, Bentham from establishing the consequences. Guttmann knew that you get your morality from your ability to project yourself into somebody else’s situation, role reversal. You know what it feels like to be a stranger. And when that happens, you take the bad things that happen to you for six years under Hitler and you turn them into good things and you redeem evil and you bring back the blessing of life. That was how Guttmann changed the world for a whole section of humanity. That is number one.
The second person I think of, I didn’t know Guttmann, as I say, I watched the film and I was then able to speak to his children by phone and speak to various friends of mine who remembered him from those days. But the second person I want to tell you about tonight is somebody I did know. There was a very great Jewish figure called Marx. Are you familiar with this? I don’t mean Karl Marx, I mean Harpo Marx, any of you remember this? Do you know this guy with a white hair who never said anything full of mischief? This was David Baum. He was a dead ringer and an absolute clone of Harpo Marx. David Baum, whom I knew was the leading paediatrician in Britain. Early in his career, he made a number of advances that had simple technical devices like pasteurising mother’s milk and things like this that had significant impact in reducing rates of infant mortality throughout the world.
David set up the Royal Society of Paediatricians and was its honorary life president. David was a religious Jew who lived in Bristol in the south of England. And David being the kind of man he was having put childcare on a new basis in Britain, decided that wasn’t good enough. And so he went successively to Brazil, to Ethiopia, and to Thailand. In all of those countries, he completely revolutionised childcare. Then he went to Moscow under a previous McDermott lecturer, Mikhail Gorbachev, if I’m not mistaken, and helped him rebuild childcare facilities in Moscow. Gorbachev travelled all the way to Bristol to receive an honorary doctorate from David Baum’s hands. And it was in 1999 during the NATO campaign in Kosovo when 300,000 [inaudible 00:23:01] Albanians became refugees. And David wanted to prepare for their return.
And he was raising money to build a childcare facility in Pristina while he did a sponsored bicycle ride in the course of which sadly he experienced the heart attack that took him from us at the young age of 59. David Baum was a religious Zionist. David lived in Bristol, but specified in his will that he should be buried in Rosh Pina, which is in the Galilee, which he was. And I mentioned this because the last project that David lived to see completed was a state-of-the-art childcare facility for Palestinian children in Garza. He said, that is the kind of Zionist I am. I want Israeli children to have a future and I want Palestinian children to have no less.
David worked across the faiths and across the ethnicities. At his memorial service, there was a nun called Sister Helen. And he had helped Sister Helen build the first ever child’s hospice in Britain in Oxford. And Sister Helen told the story of how David invited her to his son’s bar mitzvah. And Sister Helen said, “David, what shall I wear?” And she reported David’s reply, “Come in your habit. God will enjoy that.” But the thing David spoke about to everyone, and I did a kind of mini-documentary on him for the BBC and we found a video of him telling this story was the story he told, which wasn’t his. It’s a famous story by anthropologists called Loren Eiseley, you probably heard it. But this was the story that he lived by.
It tells the story of how an old man is walking along a beach one morning and he sees a young man standing by the seashore picking up starfish and throwing them back in the sea and the old man goes to the young man and says, “Young man, what do you think you’re doing?” And he says, you, “I’m throwing these back into the sea because if they’re left out in the sun, they will die.” And the old man says, “There are hundreds of them. You can’t throw them all back. And besides which even if you do throw them all back, they’re more on the next beach and the beach after that. How can you make a difference?” And the young man lifts up the starfish in his hand and throws it into the sea and says, “To that one, I made a difference.” That is how David lived.
Although his work was monumental in scale, he believed that you bring redemption, one starfish, one life at a time. And that to me is also an incredibly important second message. We have in the Bible a utopian vision of peace, famous vision that Christians and Jews share the vision of Isaiah Chapter 11, the wolf will lie down with the lamb. Never happened yet except for the zoo in Los Angeles where the wolf lies down with the lamb and a visitor comes along and ask the zookeeper, “That’s amazing. How did you get the wolf to lie down with the lamb?” And the zookeeper says, “It’s easy. You just need a new lamb every day.” So we have utopian visions of peace. But Jeremiah sent a letter to the exiles, you’ll find it in the book that bears his name in [Jeremiah] chapter 29, and he tells them, settle down. There are the exiles in Babylon and by the waters of the Babylon, they sat and wept as they remembered Zion, and they said, “How can we sing? The Lord sung in a strange land.”
And Jeremiah says, “Settle down, marry, build homes, and work for the welfare of the city and pray to God on its behalf, for in its peace and prosperity, you will find peace and prosperity.” Jeremiah created a method that a principle that was established by the rabbis, they called it darchei shalom, ways of peace, which means that Jews abound to support non-Jewish poor as well as Jewish poor, visit people who are sick of any faith when they are visiting their fellow Jews who are sick and so on. This idea of non-utopian peace, a peace of small steps that doesn’t suddenly see the world transform, but helps us day by day inch a little closer to redemption. That was David Baum. He was able to see that you save the world one starfish at a time. And then I think of an American lady whom I knew a little, who tragically died this year. There was a beautiful obituary of her in the New York Times at the end of January this year. She lived in Manhattan and her name was Anne Heyman. I don’t know if you know that name. Not that many people have heard of Anne. Anne was a mother who was spending her time bringing up her children. She had been assistant district attorney for Manhattan.
But she was just a housewife. She was watching television one day in 2004, and it was a film about 10 years on from the massacre in Rwanda. That massacre was one of the worst quantitatively and inhumanly that humanity has yet witnessed. 800,000 Tutsis and their friends murdered in 100 days, most of them by machete.
And this documentary, 10 years on, was telling the story of all the orphans. It was a nation of orphans. Anne was watching the television and she said to herself, this is what she told me when she told me her story, she said, “I was watching the television seeing all these orphans, I said to myself, “Anne, you’re Jewish, we’re supposed to do something when we see something like that.” And so she sat and thought, and she remembered that the state of Israel began with a lot of orphans who had lost all their family in the Holocaust, and Israel had built youth villages for those orphans. There was a tremendous youth village up in the Galilee called Yemin Orde. So she got on the phone to Haim Perry, who runs that youth village and said, “Haim, I need your help.” She remembered a great, great Jewish doctor, the person who sadly died just I think, four days ago.
I don’t know if you’ve heard the name of Reuven Feuerstein, who lived and worked in Jerusalem but inspired people around the world. Was the world’s greatest expert in dealing with severely damaged children. Children born with major brain damage. He came to Israel from a Romania, dealing with traumatised orphans of the Holocaust.
She involved Haim Perry and Reuven Feuerstein and these various people, and lots of Jews from Israel, many of them children of Holocaust survivors or Ethiopian orphans, and together with the Joint Distribution Committee in New York. They built a youth village for 700 orphans in Rwanda, teaching them everything from computer skills to how to grow avocados.
They called it the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. Agahozo means, my Rwandan isn’t that great, it means healing broken hearts. And I thought to myself, what an extraordinary, extraordinary gesture. The Psalm says, that God heals the broken-hearted and ministers to their wounds. If you look up Agahozo-Shalom on YouTube, you will see a video of this incredible Israeli youth village in the middle of Rwanda. And you will hear the testimony of the people who helped build it. The children of Holocaust survivors were saying, “Our parents cried and the world wasn’t listening. Shall we not listen when the orphans of Rwanda cry?” And the Ethiopians are saying, “We were orphans and somebody looked after us. So now it’s our turn to look after others as we were looked after ourselves.”
This most, most, beautiful project is something that just somebody ordinary who didn’t have any particular skills or training in this area, just immediately thought of, on watching one television documentary. I have to say that there’s a very important truth that gestures like this, and of course you will know others, taught me. I don’t know if you ever noticed this, but what is the Bible about? The Hebrew Bible is about one man, Abraham and his wife Sarah and their children who became the children of Israel. That’s what it’s about. But the Bible doesn’t begin with that. It doesn’t begin with one family that became a tribe, that became a nation. It deals for its first 11 chapters with archetypes of humanity as a whole. With Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, Babel and its builders.
Only with Genesis 12, does it narrow down to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. What is the Bible telling us? It seems to me it is very clear. It is telling us that our common humanity precedes our religious differences. That is what God is telling us in those 11 chapters. It is that common humanity that leads people like Anne, and obviously, I’ve been away so I haven’t been able to send my condolences. Some of you will know of the British pop singer, Bob Geldoff, who sadly lost his granddaughter, I think it was. Yes, that’s correct, his daughter, sorry. His daughter, Peaches.
Are you familiar with Bob Geldoff? He did the first Live Aid back in 1984. I once did an interview with Bob for television, and I was trying to get at him. I was saying, “Bob, what made you go and try and fight famine throughout the world? What was it? You heard the call of God?” He said, “No, I was angry.” “You mean sacred discontent?” “No, I was just angry. Nothing sacred about it at all.” And I was trying to get Bob to dig into his religious motivations, and I failed completely, until just as he was getting up. We’d been talking on camera for an hour. I said, “Bob, just imagine there’s probably someone out there watching this programme who might just be the next Bob Geldoff. What would you say to him or to her?”
And certainly, all the anger disappeared, and he quoted Tennyson, “Come friends, it’s not too late to build a newer world.” And I thought, that is what it takes. A willingness to say these bad things in the world don’t have to be there. Together we can build a newer world. That was Anne Heyman. Anne taught me how one individual with enough energy and drive can create a little project that changes lives with a moral beauty that leaves you breathless. But then I think of another lady whom I knew whose name was Sue Burns. Sue, whose story I tell in my book, To Heal a Fractured World, was the person with the most serene smile I have ever met in my life.
It was odd because Sue was the most handicapped person I ever met in my life. She had a terrible, debilitating bone disease, which basically caused all her bones to dissolve. So Sue was condemned to live the rest of her life, which was in any case, not going to be very long, completely horizontal. There was no way she could even be strapped into a wheelchair. And this woman had the most beatific smile of any human being I’ve ever met. So I asked Sue’s carers, “What was it about? How is this woman who has been more handicapped than anyone I ever saw before, able to smile?” And they told me the story. This was in the 1980s before really the internet was reeling. Computing was still not that great. But they told me this, that when Sue suffered this disease, she said to herself, “If God is doing this to me, he must be doing it for a reason. There must be something he wants me to do that I can only do with this illness in this condition.”
And Sue thought about it, and she suddenly realised there must be a lot of people like Sue in the country. So she had a computer and an internet attached to her hospital bed. And through that, she searched for and found all the other fellow sufferers, and she became their guide, their friend, their mentor, their advisor. She kept in touch with all of them. She gave them the will to live. Sue was incredibly self-effacing about all of this. When people made a fuss of her she said, “This is nothing. This is just what we have to do.”
Sue became the first person ever to receive an award, an MBE, from her Majesty, the Queen in Buckingham Palace horizontal. They had to wheel her in front of the Queen in her hospital bed. And of course, typically Sue, she said when she came out, “Of course, this was nothing to do with me. This was all for my fellow sufferers. And I was delegated to receive this reward on their behalf.”
Sue never lost that beatific smile, including the last meeting we had when she phoned me up and said, “Chief Rabbi, I just want to say something to you, do you mind popping in?” I popped in and Sue told me with the same smile on her face, that she was about to die. And suddenly, I realised she had taught me so much. This extraordinary woman.
Viktor Frankl, quotes Kierkegaard, a statement that I have never been able to locate in Kierkegaard after many Google searches. But he writes, the door to happiness opens outward. If you take your pain and use that to sensitise yourself to the pain of others, you can turn even the worst curse into a blessing. That was what Sue taught me. She changed the world for so many of her fellow sufferers. We will never forget her.
Now, I’ve told you four stories, and you may think each of these individuals was remarkable, and somehow or other we are just very ordinary by comparison, we’re not that kind of people. And therefore, let me end with a story that moved me very much when I first read it. It was a story written by somebody called Stephen Carter.
Stephen Carter is a man who wrote a book called Civility. I was very interested in this book and I read it. In the middle of the book, he tells a story, which really, really hit me. He tells the story of, “Am I right in thinking that Washington was once quite a racially segregated city? Is that possible?” He tells the story of how in 1966, when he was about 11 years old, he and his family moved and became the first Black people to live in a hitherto totally white neighbourhood.
And he says, “And we sat, my brothers and sisters and I, on the front porch the first morning after our arrival, to see how we would be greeted.” And he writes, “We weren’t. Nobody looked at us. Nobody said anything. It was as if we weren’t there. And I thought to myself, we should never have moved here. We will never belong here. We have no place here.” And he writes, “As I was thinking these thoughts, a cheery woman walked by on the other side of the street, her hands laden with shopping, and gave us a big smile. She disappeared into her house over the road. Five minutes later, came back with a big tray full of cookies and drinks and brought them over to us and said, “Welcome, how lovely to have you here in the neighbourhood.” Carter writes, “That moment changed my life. It taught me that maybe I do belong here.”
Carter was then already, 10 years ago when he wrote this book, professor of Law at Yale University, said, “That moment changed my life. It taught me I do have a place here.” He said that lady, who also died sadly very young, her name was Sara Kestenbaum. He said,” That lady… it was perhaps not an accident that she was a religious Jewish lady because he writes, he’s a Lutheran himself, he writes, “Because Jews have a word for this. They call it chessed, which means kindness, especially to strangers and especially when it’s hard.”
And I, without thinking what I was doing actually, once told this story. I happened to be a scholar-in-residence in the synagogue in Georgetown, in Young Israel, Georgetown, in Washington and I had no idea what I was… I had no idea that people came up to me afterwards and said, “Yeah, Sara Kestenbaum was a member of this synagogue. We didn’t know that story before, but yeah, that’s the kind of thing Sara Kestenbaum used to do.”
I suddenly realised that that is what Maimonides is telling us. You see, the rabbis said, “[Hebrew].” One life is a like universe, in which case, change one life and you begin to change the universe the only way we can, one life at a time, one day at a time, one act at a time. I suddenly realised it took no more than a smile and a welcome and a drink and a cookie and that changed somebody’s life.
I thought about this and my mind went back to when my late father of blessed memory died. See, my father, being very honest with you, did not have an easy life. Came over to England when he was six or seven years old as a refugee from Poland. Had to leave school at the age of 14 to help earn a living to help support the family. The result was he never had an education, not secular, not Jewish. He was never able to really fulfil himself. And though he never complained, I, as his eldest son, could feel his pain.
Now, when Jews lose a parent, we do something called we sit shiva. We sit as a family for seven days and are comforted by people come and visit. As I sat shiva for my late father, all sorts of people who had known him years and years earlier would come and sit with me and tell me of acts of kindness my father had done years, decades ago, even in many cases before I was born.
When I was hearing all these things, I was inwardly weeping. I was thinking to myself, “Why didn’t you tell him that while he was alive? It would’ve made his pain so much less to have known that he was appreciated.” Then I suddenly realised that that is what life is. We never know the impact we have on others.
Sara Kestenbaum could not have known that one day would change a young man’s life. And yet the truth is, as Shakespeare surely knew, that Mark Anthony was not speaking truth when he said, “The bad we do lives after us, the good is oft interred with our bones.” It is the good we do that does live afterward and it is the most important thing that does.
We will never know what difference we made to individuals, but believe me, we do make a difference to individuals and one act of kindness can change your life and that is within the reach of every one of us.
That I think, finally, is how you heal a fractured world. The five examples I’ve given you have, as you will probably have noticed, all involved acts that extend beyond the boundaries of faith, every one of them. These were acts of reaching out to others, way beyond the normal boundaries of faith. At every time we do an act of kindness to someone who is different from us in their religion, in their class, in their culture or their colour, we heal one of the fractures of the world. That is what God wants us to do.
There is a wonderful scientific theory. It’s supposed to explain things like weather systems, but I am convinced from its title, it was designed to describe Jewish life. It is called Chaos Theory and you probably know what Chaos Theory is. Chaos Theory says that very small acts can have large effects on complex systems so that, as the classic example goes, the beating of a butterfly’s wing in the South Pacific can set off a chain of consequences that cause a tsunami in Florida. We never know what effects our acts will have because acts of goodness are contagious. If we do good to others, I’m sure you’ve seen that wonderful film, Pay It Forward, the good we do to others causes others to do good to yet others.
So I described it in my book, To Heal a Fractured World, as my Chaos Theory of Virtue. Small acts have large consequences in interconnected lives and that is how we can change the world. Never ask, “Who am I?” The truth is that the mere fact that we are who we are tells us that God put us in this place, in this time, in this situation, with these gifts because there is something He wants us to do, some act of redemption that constitutes the reason we are here.
As I wrote in the book, “Where what we want to do meets what needs to be done, that is where God wants us to be.” If we attune our ears to the call of God, if we ask of any situation in our lives, “Why am I here? What does God want from me in this situation? What act of healing does He want me to perform?” then we can do the most extraordinary thing in all of human existence. We can turn pain into healing. We can turn estrangement into reconciliation. We can turn what looks like a curse into a source of blessing. That is how you heal a fractured world and that God has given all of us, whatever our faith and whatever our situation.
So I hope tonight I’ve given you a little insight into how we can all be agents of change in the world. When sometimes things don’t work out absolutely perfectly, then a sense of humour works as well and God allows us to survive even the bad things.
So let me end, since I’m here as this kind of lovely interfaith moment between myself and the University of Dallas, to tell you the true story, this absolutely true story of another interfaith moment, which was slightly less felicitous.
Way back in 1990, when I’d been chosen and not yet appointed as Chief Rabbi and George Carey had been chosen, but not yet taken up office as Archbishop of Canterbury, somebody discovered that we shared a passion. You have baseball, we have soccer. Somebody discovered that we supported the same soccer team, a team called Arsenal. I don’t know, has anyone heard of Arsenal? Yeah? So they said, “How would you like your first ecumenical gathering to be in our box in Highbury Stadium watching Arsenal play a midweek match for obvious religious reasons?”
So it happened, the Archbishop said yes, I said yes, and it was amazing. A flood-lit evening game, Arsenal playing Manchester United at Highbury Stadium, their home at the time and it was unbelievable. We were taken down to meet the players. We were taken out onto the holy ground of the turf itself and presented a check to charity.
The public address system announced that Arsenal had with them tonight the Archbishop Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi and you could hear the buzz go around the crowd. Whichever you play, where you play the theological wager, that night Arsenal had friends in high places, they could not possibly lose.
That night, and this is a matter of record, you can look it up, Arsenal went down to their worst home defeat in 63 years. They lost 60 at home to Manchester United. The next day, an English paper, newspaper or national, carried the story and commented as follows, verbatim. They wrote, “If the Archbishop Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi between them cannot bring about a win for Arsenal, does this not finally prove that God does not exist?”
The next day they printed my reply, which was very simple. I said, “To the contrary, it proves that God exists. It’s just that He supports Manchester United.”