The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning

The Chief Rabbi's new book displays his qualities of curiosity and tolerance even as it balances science and religion

By Stephen Frosh, July 4, 2011
Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks: appealing to  his real, wider constituency

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks: appealing to his real, wider constituency

By Jonathan Sacks.
Hodder and Stoughton, £17.99

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks is an unusual type of public intellectual. He is an outstanding teacher, with enormous personal authority; a more than prolific author; a source of advice for leading politicians; a moralist, a biblical and talmudic scholar and a philosopher.

It is hard to move from his presence untouched, and one suspects that there are many people who would report that contact with him has served for them in the way that his own contact with profound Jewish thinkers (notably Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and the Lubavitcher Rebbe) served for him. He writes about this, "I have sought God in people - people who in themselves seemed to point to something or someone beyond themselves."

Pointing beyond oneself is perhaps the most evocative theme of his new book, the key defining feature of a worthwhile life. Indeed, though Chief Rabbi Sacks presents the book as an engagement between science and religion, its moral, intellectual and literary force rests on those many passages where we glimpse a deeply thoughtful person seeking "meaning", as he would put it, or perhaps, as I think of it, trying to shape an intelligent and humane response to a universe that always teeters on the edge of senselessness.

On the evidence of The Great Partnership, the Chief Rabbi can perhaps be described as a "conservative radical". This is not the same as a radical conservative - we have had rather too many of them, and the radicalism with which they impose their "conserving" tendencies destructively on all and sundry are effectively criticised in this book.

The Chief Rabbi is a clear articulator of the trouble that such extreme conservatism brings, in religion as well as outside it. Several times, for example, he notes the dangers of religious extremism as well as of secular forms of intolerance and totalitarian political systems; his preferred position, the one I see as "radical", is that of moderation as an active embrace of multiple voices and alternative standpoints.

His willingness to engage with arguments from all sides, to try to think them through openly and often to leave them unresolved, is not a product of appeasing indecisiveness but rather of a principled adherence to what he sees as - and convincingly argues to be - the tradition that Jewish thought should be constantly striving and critical.

The conservatism, on the other hand, is as one might expect: a tendency to lament various kinds of breakdown (social ties, generational transmissions, idealised family forms) and a sense that the best period of history has now gone and our uncertain future risks being one of decline.

Set against this, however, is a hope that humanity might be genuinely helped in these rocky times by the reconciliation of science as "explanation" of the world that reveals its extraordinary, unimaginably improbable complexity, with religion's capacity to turn people outwards so they can find purpose in their lives. The Chief Rabbi's formula for coexistence here is a pithy one: "Science is about explanation. Religion is about meaning".

There are some faults in this book that make it seem as if it might have been written too quickly, even if the ideas in it have been pondered at length. One is the use of neuroscience to ground the argument in a left-brain (science) - right-brain (religion) distinction that is unconvincing and does not do justice to the complexity of Sacks's thought.

Another is a slightly confusing hybridity that rests between scholarly analysis and popularising simplification (the presence of an appendix but lack of an index perhaps reflects this uncertainty). The "conservative" judgments are too sweeping for my taste. But this is a serious work, a real book in which there is sustained argument and a willingness to take a stance that will not sit easily with some religious traditionalists, but will offer something to the wider readership of those trying to make sense of things, a wider readership that is so much the Chief Rabbi's real constituency.

Stephen Frosh is Professor of Psychology at Birkbeck College, London. His latest book is 'Feelings' (Routledge)

Last updated: 2:52pm, July 4 2011