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Remembering Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z''l

 

Since his untimely and tragic death last Shabbat, thousands of tributes have been written remembering Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l, a leader of unparalleled stature and influence in today’s Jewish community and beyond. Each tribute speaks to the special relationship and impact he had on individuals, organizations, and communities. His passing is truly a tremendous loss not only to the Jewish community, but to the world. In my opinion, the best way to pay respect to Rabbi Sacks, especially during his shiva, is to study his torah. Therefore, I share with you two of his short essays that I find very meaningful - “Why I am a Jew” and “The Politics of Hope” - followed by a collection of inspiring quotes from R. Sacks’ books. May his memory always be a blessing.

Blog #1:

The deepest question any of us can ask is: Who am I? To answer it we have to go deeper than, Where do I live? or What do I do? The most fateful moment in my life came when I asked myself that question and knew the answer had to be: I am a Jew. This is why.

I am a Jew not because I believe that Judaism contains all there is of the human story. I admire other traditions and their contributions to the world. Nor am I a Jew because of anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism. What happens to me does not define who I am: ours is a people of faith, not fate. Nor is it because I think that Jews are better than others, more intelligent, creative, generous or successful. It’s not Jews who are different, but Judaism. It’s not so much what we are but what we are called on to be.

I am a Jew because, being a child of my people, I have heard the call to add my chapter to its unfinished story. I am a stage on its journey, a connecting link between the generations. The dreams and hopes of my ancestors live on in me, and I am the guardian of their trust, now and for the future.

I am a Jew because our ancestors were the first to see that the world is driven by a moral purpose, that reality is not a ceaseless war of the elements, to be worshipped as gods, nor history a battle in which might is right and power is to be appeased. The Judaic tradition shaped the moral civilisation of the West, teaching for the first time that human life is sacred, that the individual may never be sacrificed for the mass, and that rich and poor, great and small, are all equal before God.

I am a Jew because I am the moral heir of those who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and pledged themselves to live by these truths for all time. I am the descendant of countless generations of ancestors who, though sorely tested and bitterly tried, remained faithful to that covenant when they might so easily have defected.

I am a Jew because of Shabbat, the world’s greatest religious institution, a time in which there is no manipulation of nature or our fellow human beings, in which we come together in freedom and equality to create, every week, an anticipation of the messianic age.

I am a Jew because our nation, though at times it suffered the deepest poverty, never gave up on its commitment to helping the poor, or rescuing Jews from other lands, or fighting for justice for the oppressed, and did so without self-congratulation, because it was a mitzvah, because a Jew could do no less.

I am a Jew because I cherish the Torah, knowing that God is to be found not just in natural forces but in moral meanings, in words, texts, teachings and commands, and because Jews, though they lacked all else, never ceased to value education as a sacred task, endowing the individual with dignity and depth.

I am a Jew because of our people’s passionate faith in freedom, holding that each of us is a moral agent, and that in this lies our unique dignity as human beings; and because Judaism never left its ideals at the level of lofty aspirations, but instead translated them into deeds which we call mitzvot, and a way, which we call the halakhah, and thus brought heaven down to earth.

I am proud, simply, to be a Jew.

I am proud to be part of a people who, though scarred and traumatised, never lost their humour or their faith, their ability to laugh at present troubles and still believe in ultimate redemption; who saw human history as a journey, and never stopped traveling and searching.

I am proud to be part of an age in which my people, ravaged by the worst crime ever to be committed against a people, responded by reviving a land, recovering their sovereignty rescuing threatened Jews throughout the world, rebuilding Jerusalem, and proving themselves to be as courageous in the pursuit of peace as in defending themselves in war.

I am proud that our ancestors refused to be satisfied with premature consolations, and in answer to the question, “Has the Messiah come?” always answered, “Not yet.”

I am proud to belong to the people Israel, whose name means “one who wrestles with God and with man and prevails.” For though we have loved humanity, we have never stopped wrestling with it, challenging the idols of every age. And though we have loved God with an everlasting love, we have never stopped wrestling with Him nor He with us.

I admire other civilisations and traditions and believe each has brought something special into the world, Aval zeh shelanu, “but this is ours.” This is my people, my heritage, my faith. In our uniqueness lies our universality. Through being what we alone are, we give to humanity what only we can give.

This, then, is our story, our gift to the next generation. I received it from my parents and they from theirs across great expanses of space and time. There is nothing quite like it. It changed and still challenges the moral imagination of mankind.

I want to say to Jews around the world: Take it, cherish it, learn to understand and to love it. Carry it and it will carry you. And may you in turn pass it on to future generations. For you are a member of an eternal people, a letter in their scroll. Let their eternity live on in you.

 

Blog #2:

In recent years societies in Europe and America have become far more divided. The gap between left and right has become deeper. There’s been a rise in populist parties of the far right and far left. The extremes are growing and the centre ground is being abandoned. This is the politics of anger. Why has it happened and can we create a different kind of politics: the politics of hope?

The starting point has to be the fact that for the past fifty years societies in the West have been dominated by two institutions, the state and the market – politics and economics, the logic of power and the logic of wealth. The state is us in our collective capacity. The market is us as individuals. And the great debate has been about which is more effective in creating a better future. The left tends to favour the state. The right tends to favour the market.

But what if this entire way of thinking leaves out something essential? We can see this by asking some simple questions. Suppose there’s an organisation in which you have total power. One day you decide to share it with nine others. How much power do you have left? One-tenth of what you began with.

Now suppose you have £1,000 and you decide to share that with nine other people. How much do you have left? A tenth of what you had before.

That’s because in the short term, power and wealth are zero sum games. If I win, you lose. If you win, I lose. In zero sum games, the more we share, the less we have. That’s why politics and economics, the state and the market, are arenas of competition.

But now suppose you decide to share with nine others not power or wealth but love, or friendship, or influence. How much do you have left? Not less. You have more; perhaps even ten times more. That’s because love, friendship and influence are social goods, and social goods are non-zero-sum games. If I win, you also win. With social goods, the more we share, the more we have. That’s because social goods are not about competition. They’re about co-operation.

We find social goods, not in the state or the market but in families, communities, neighbourhoods, voluntary groups and the like. And they’re essential to any human group because we are social animals, and what gives us our strength is our ability to co-operate as well as compete. A world with competition but no co-operation would be lonely, nasty, and fraught with conflict.

To understand the difference between these two kinds of interaction, we need to make a distinction between two ideas that sound similar but are actually not, namely a contract and a covenant.

In a contract, two or more individuals, each pursuing their own interest, come together to make an exchange for mutual benefit. So, for instance, when I buy something from you, you give me the item or the service I want, and in exchange I pay you. That’s a commercial contract, and that’s what makes the market economy. Or, I pay taxes in return for the services provided by the government. That’s the social contract, and it creates the state.

But a covenant is different. The simplest example of a covenant is a marriage. Two people, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of loyalty and trust, to share their lives, by pledging their faithfulness to one another to do together what neither can achieve alone.

A contract is about interests, but a covenant is about identity. It’s about you and me coming together to form an “us.”

The difference is huge. The social contract creates a state. But the social covenant creates a society. A society is about all the things that bind us together as a collective group bound to the common good, without transactions of wealth or power. In a society we help our neighbours not because they pay us to, or because the state forces us to, but simply because they’re part of the collective “us.”

We can now see why politics in the West have become more divided, abrasive and extreme. For at least a half century we’ve focused on the market and the state while ignoring the third dimension called “society.” We’ve focused on contracts while ignoring covenants. Our sense of competition is strong; but our bonds of co-operation have grown weak, as families and communities have fractured.

This can work for a while, during times of economic growth and peace, when most people feel that life is getting better for them and their children. But when they feel that life is getting tougher for them and their children, it all begins to go wrong. People see around them the zero-sum games of the market and the state. A few gain, many lose, and everything is about competition and self interest. That’s when you get the politics of anger.

The only real antidote is to renew the social covenant that says, we are bound by bonds that go deeper than self interest. We share an identity and a fate and we are collectively responsible for the common good. We need to remember that societies are strong when they care for the weak. They are rich when they care for the poor. And they are invulnerable when they care for the vulnerable. When we restore the social covenant, we defeat the politics of anger and re-create the politics of hope.

 

Blog #3: Inspiring Quotes by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

“For Judaism, the criterion of the good society is not wealth, power or prowess but the simple question: does it respect the individual as the image of God?”
◦ Radical Then, Radical Now (2004)

“Non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism, and they are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism.”
◦ Radical Then, Radical Now (2004)

“There is no life without a task; no person without a talent; no place without a fragment of God’s light waiting to be discovered and redeemed; no situation without its possibility of sanctification; no moment without its call.”
◦ To Heal a Fractured World (2007)

“You achieve immortality not by building pyramids or statues – but by engraving your values on the hearts of your children, and they on their theirs, so that our ancestors live on in us and we in our children, and so on until the end of time.”
◦ The Chief Rabbis’ Haggadah (2003)

“Making a blessing over life is the best way of turning life into a blessing.”
◦ Celebrating Life: Finding Happiness in Unexpected Places (2004)

“The very existence of Israel is as near to a miracle as we will find in the sober pages of empirical history.”
◦ Future Tense: Jews, Judaism and Israel in the Twenty First Century (2012)

“The supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.”
◦ The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (2003)

“Love is what redeems us from the prison cell of the self and all the sickness to which the narcissist self is prone – from empty pride to deep depression to a sense of nihilism and the abyss.”
◦ The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning (2012)

“The more friendship I share, the more I have. The more love I give, the more I possess. The best way to learn something is to teach it to others.”
◦ Celebrating Life: Finding Happiness in Unexpected Places (2004)