The moral vision that made Lord Sacks a great leader

He was able to translate the timeless values of Torah into language that could reach secular society


In 1993, Prime Minister John Major sounded the alarm. Old certainties, he said, were crumbling, traditional values were falling away and Britons were feeling bewildered. We needed a moral revolution; a return to “old core values”.

But Major’s Back to Basics policy was short-lived. It crumbled amid a series of scandals which exposed the hypocrisy of the moralising MP’s. Since then, religion and morality have largely been no-go areas, as Tony Blair’s adviser said, “We don’t do God!” This was the situation until Rabbi Sacks found new ways to address morality and religion culminating in his final book, Morality.

Rabbi Sacks proudly and confidently did God. His haggadah, his prayer books and his brilliant Bible commentaries are studied by Jews across the globe. He wrote books that tackled our most divisive issues; such as how to stop assimilation and mend the tensions between different denominations of Judaism. These books presented a moral vision and they established his credentials as a great thinker and an outstanding spokesman for traditional Judaism.

But Rabbi Sacks was never satisfied with being a modern Orthodox leader. He saw bigger problems in the world which he could not ignore. Prime ministers and presidents were paying attention to his ideas, which showed that they resonated beyond the boundaries of the beit midrash. He felt obligated to draw on his deep faith, his vast religious and secular knowledge and his outstanding oratorical skills to initiate conversations about changing the harsher realities of 21st-century life.

Opening a global conversation on moral values, Rabbi Sacks faced the problem of how to share religious ideas in a secular age. The rabbis of the Talmud foresaw some of the difficulties. They discussed what they would do if the Torah was forgotten. All agreed it would have to be restored.

Rabbi Hannina said he would use his own intellectual acumen to reconstruct it. Rabbi Hiyya said he would engage in every stage of preparing parchment to create manuscripts to teach children the lost texts; arming them with the knowledge to rebuild their communities (Bava Metzia 85b).

Recreating the existing Torah is one thing, broaching its most sensitive subjects with a sceptical, secular audience who grew up without religion. A religious revival in the West was not imminent, so Rabbi Sacks couldn’t wait around for a time when people would relate to religious rhetoric.

When dealing with such problems, the sages of the Talmud sent scholars out to the market “to see what the people do”. Rabbi Sacks searched the modern marketplaces to uncover how people think and speak. His sensitive listening enabled him to create discourse around morality which his audience could relate to without ever feeling that they were being preached at, patronised or missionised.

One beautiful example quoted in the book came shortly before Rosh Hashanah when Rabbi Sacks realised that although repentance is a familiar term for traditional Jews, for secular people it’s a foreign concept.

Preparing his New Year’s television broadcast, the rabbi was determined to explain this central Jewish value in a way that would be meaningful to an overwhelmingly secular audience. To achieve this, he filmed his programme in a drug rehabilitation centre where he showed how heroin addicts battle and break their self-destructive habits — a modern mode of repentance and a perfect introduction to the subject.

In writing about morality, Rabbi Sacks adopted similar tactics. Taking his religious messages, he converted them into the languages of sociology and philosophy. The book avoids lengthy quotes from holy scriptures, instead the proof texts are drawn from sociological surveys and philosophical tracts which make sense to the modern, secular mind.

Teaching religious ideas in secular terms might seem like an odd thing for a rabbi to do, but the Torah’s values are not only expressed in the canon of religious writings. They are also found in nature. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan taught that: “Even if the Torah had not been given, we would still have learned modesty from the cat, honesty from the ant and fidelity from the dove” (Eruvin 100b).

People who don’t read the Bible can gain some insight into God’s will from His creations. But there is a catch. While many creatures have inspirational instincts, not all do. Presumably, our morals should not lead us to imitate the predatory hyena, the thieving magpie or the blood- sucking black widow.

Selecting our values from nature can be challenging, but as the commentators point out, now that we do have the Torah, its scholars have the criteria for establishing moral standards. A great Jewish leader is one who can take those timeless values and translate them into language that is accessible to the next generation. Rabbi Sacks did just that.

Gideon Sylvester is the United Synagogue’s Israel rabbi


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