By Rabbi Zvi
September 17, 2010
(I write this as a Jew, an Orthodox Rabbi, and as a graduate in Roman, Saxon and Mediaeval Archaeology from the University of Cambridge)
Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks cites the Pope in his recent op ed
in the Times:
“Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present.” People had come to see parenthood as a burden. When a society cannot summon the energy to give birth to new generations, it is losing the will to live. Europe, he said, was beginning to resemble the last days of the Roman Empire. Its technology and trade might still be strong but its values, culture and faith were fading fast.
The Chief then cites the same decline of our civilization as follows:
A clock has ticked in the history of every civilization, leading first to growth, affluence and power, then to hedonism, individualism and decline. Will Durant, who with his wife Ariel spent forty years writing The Story of Civilization, summed it up well. Religion is always a major force in the early stages of a civilization, but it is eventually enfeebled by scepticism. “The intellectual classes abandon the ancient theology and – after some hesitation – the moral code allied with it.” Cultural elites become anticlerical. Personal behaviour, no longer shaped by religious teaching “deteriorates into epicurean chaos.”
What utter nonsense! The Pope, fulminating at the decline in moral values in today's less Christian society, conveniently ignores the fact that it was a Christian Western Roman Empire which declined and fell. It had been Christian since Constantine converted to Christianity in 312CE. It was not for some 160 years that the Roman Empire fell - the last Roman Emperor was Romulus Augustus, who was deposed by one of his German mercenaries. It was by then a Christian Empire, with the Church at its centre.
Could the Chief Rabbi, in agreeing with the Pope, be arguing that Christian values were at the heart of the collapse? It seems that, just as with matters economic in some of his previous writings, the Chief has really not got his facts straight. Anyone who has studied Systems and Empire Collapse, will realize that the collapse of the Roman Empire was far more complex than a failure in moral fibre, and indeed the piety of the early Church Fathers who for 160 years built their religion in the heart of the failing Roman Empire can hardly be impugned. They were devout Christians, possessing many of the values which we promote in Judaism.
The study of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has come on a long way since Gibbon published his famous book between 1776 and 1788. "The Decline and Fall" is known for the quality and irony of its prose, its use of primary sources, and its open denigration of organised religion. That Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks sees fit to use ideas taken from Gibbon is not surprising (it is a fine literary work) but muddle-headed, and typically self-defeating. He, like the Pope, should know better than to cite a work, the premise of which is antithetical to their whole raison-d'etre! Gibbon himself argues that Christianity weakened the civic-mindedness of the Romans. However Gibbon largely ignores the fact that for some 1000 years the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire continued under Christian Emperors. Indeed, many scholars today would argue that Christianity united the Roman Empire.
In fact this article illustrates the flabby thinking of Sacks' vision of the world. Sacks' image of a decadent West falling into decay, like the decadent epicurean Roman Empire, has more in common with sensationalist films or the narrative played out on extreme Islamist websites than the reality of today. Fulminations at the destruction of society have been the constant refrain of evangelizing preachers for hundreds of years - one need merely read Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress to see how the snares of decadence have always been blamed for the decline of our world or culture. In fact the West is at its apogee. That is the very reason why so many people wish to move here - to benefit from our medicine and high standard of living, our lifestyle, the freedoms which we have. So much for our decadence. Our own British Empire declined and fell as the result of our standing up for (amongst other things) the supreme moral values of human life and dignity, against the evil immoralities promoted by Fascism and the Nazi regime. We lost our Empire (and our own Empire fell) as a result of World War II - perhaps the most moral and ideological war ever fought in human history. We lost it because we ceased to be willing to impose our rule through the bullet and the bayonet, and thus the decline of our old empire is nonetheless behind the cultural and ethical legacy which has shaped today's world. We lost it as a direct result of what Churchill termed "our greatest hour".
By getting into bed with the Pope and aping his world view, our own Chief Rabbi has forgotten that it is this free, Western, world which has allowed us, as Jews, unprecedented religious and civic freedoms. His nostalgia for the old days is born of a desire to re-ghettoize us, as a community. He conveniently forgets that the very freedoms which today allow (for example) gay men to have civil partnerships, and which have taken away the stigma of single-motherhood (none of which any Orthodox Rabbi could enthuse over) have, despite their "decadence" allowed us as Jews to feel more free in today's society than at any other time in our history. Perhaps this is why authoritarian figures like the Chief Rabbi and the Pope feel that their world is so threatened. In the face of this kind of freedom, we need leaders who cater for us more effectively, rather than pyramidal figures who tell us what we should be doing and how we should be behaving. Gone are the days when a simple "Thou Shalt Not" was enough to control the populace. The world where the Chief Rabbi or the Christian High Priest were followed without a second thought is long gone. Clearly the challenge is felt - and regretted. It would be well to thank God that we live in such free times, rather than reacting to them with a knee-jerk rejection. The challenges of modernity need a good response, instead of looking backward to the bad old days, when all the isolated minorities in society found life so much harder. Positive leadership should seek to enable us all to make a good Jewish life in the free, challenging world of today, retaining our Orthodox beliefs and practice, whilst reveling in the freedom we have to be a Jew today. We cannot all live in a ghetto. Jews should feel comfortable living and engaging in today's Britain, rather than casting regretful looks over their shoulder at a receding memory. I know where I would rather live.