The Chief Rabbi’s critical ideas

The editors of Radical Responsibility, a volume of essays published in honour of Lord Sacks, look at the influence of his teachings


The special contribution made by the thought of Chief Rabbi Sacks is that it not only continues the venerable Jewish philosophical tradition of maintaining traditional faith in the face of external intellectual challenges, but also moves beyond this tradition by showing how core Jewish teachings can address the dilemmas of the secular world itself.

What makes Lord Sacks’s approach so effective is that he is able to do this without any expectation of the wider world taking on Judaism’s theological beliefs.

Jonathan Sacks has written works, such as Crisis and Covenant, that address the modern equivalent of the theoretical theological questions that concerned his medieval forbears. He has written on the classical texts of the Jewish tradition in the Covenant and Conversation series and his Haggadah. He has written works that address how Judaism is to deal with its own difficulties in the modern world, such as One People? and Radical Then, Radical Now.

But perhaps the most important theme of his work for the world at large, the one that best embodies the message of torah vechochmah, is that the imperative today is to elucidate what faith means to those within the fold without losing hold of how that internal understanding of faith can affect those outside it.

However, this is expressly not to be carried out through a reduction of faith to a form of meaningless universalism. It is to be done in a manner that is proudly particularistic, and yet able to engage the world around it and contribute to its rebuilding in an age when many would have us believe that religious faith is the cause of its destruction.

A critique that has been directed at modern Jewish thinkers such as Buber and Emmanuel Levinas (1906–95), rightly or wrongly, is that their thought cannot be applied beyond the sphere of the individual to that of society. That is not a critique that can be levelled at Jonathan Sacks.

From The Politics of Hope through To Heal a Fractured World and Future Tense, through his articles in broadsheet newspapers across the English-speaking world and his television and radio broadcasts, the interest in civil and political society as a specifically religious concern is central to his work, but in a manner that is utterly opposed to the sort of theocracy or fanaticism that currently besmirches religion in the eyes of the world.

Lord Sacks is fond of saying that religion is an essential part of the human conversation. His thought therefore suggests to us that in a world in which, paradoxically, the more difference has become accepted, the more difference becomes a cause of strife, the role that religion can play, in each of its legitimate guises, is a matter for immediate and urgent engagement.

And it is the attempt to engage that paradox and find a way to neutralize it on which the Chief Rabbi has spoken, to members of all religions and to those with none. It is this combination of the inward-looking and the outward-looking that Jonathan Sacks brings to the forefront of his thought and our minds.

In writing of the need for Jews to recover faith, he notes that he searches not for “simple faith, not naïve optimism, but faith that [we] are not alone in the world” . It is a challenge to faiths to understand themselves on their own terms with an eye on how those terms can nonetheless form part of a global tapestry. It is an understanding of one’s own faith on one’s own terms, without any recourse to simple reductionism, in a manner that maintains its uniqueness without leaving it isolated, that Lord Sacks endeavours to formulate.

His work challenges religious thinkers to chart a new direction for religious thought that works towards a form of universalism in which they can simultaneously remain proud of their particularity. In the spirit of
this world-view, this volume is devoted to the overarching framework within which the Chief Rabbi grapples with the interaction of the universal and the particular – a framework that he calls torah vechochmah.

Torah, for Jonathan Sacks, represents the particularistic, inherited teachings of Judaism, while chochmah (wisdom) refers to the universal realm of the sciences and humanities. Framed in religious terms,
“Chochmah is where we encounter God through creation; Torah is how we hear God through revelation.”


A New Musar?

In tribute to the intellectual contributions of Jonathan Sacks, this festschrift has brought together essays on ethics, justice, religion, and leadership by some of the leading experts in these fields, with complementary essays on similar themes by prominent Jewish studies scholars whose work the Chief Rabbi admires.

Each section of the book reflects the value of bringing Jewish teachings and secular wisdom into dialogue with one another. Before concluding, we would like to explore briefly a specific new direction for further creative intellectual work inspired by Rabbi Sacks’s teaching.

Over the years, Rabbi Sacks has sometimes mentioned specific areas of secular wisdom which could fruitfully be studied together with Torah to generate new insights into both domains. One intriguing suggestion is that contemporary approaches to psychology, particularly cognitive behaviour therapy and positive psychology, could be combined with Torah to create a “new musar movement”.

In Future Tense, Rabbi Sacks notes that these approaches to psychology are more in keeping with the spirit of Judaism than Freudian psychoanalysis, which is based on the Greek myth of Oedipus, and presents an essentially tragic conception of human existence. The leitmotif of Judaism, by contrast, according to Rabbi Sacks, is hope; indeed, the Jewish task in the contemporary world is “to be the voice of hope in an age of fear; the countervoice in the conversation of mankind”.

Hope, however, must be distinguished from naïve optimism:

“One of the most important distinctions I have learned in the course of reflection on Jewish history is the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the faith that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope. Knowing what we do of our past, no Jew can be an optimist. But Jews have never – despite a history of sometimes awesome suffering – given up hope.”

What might a “new musar movement” or a contemporary “Jewish” psychology, rooted in hope, look like? After a brief introduction to traditional musar, cognitive behaviour therapy, and positive psychology, we will suggest ways in which such a movement could draw on Jewish thought and practice together with these approaches to psychology.

Musar is a Hebrew word meaning “instruction”, “discipline”, or “conduct”. The movement, which originated among non-Chasidic Orthodox Jews in Lithuania in the 19th century, was noted for its focus on the individual’s development of virtues or good midot (personal qualities), and, in particular, for emphasising the relationship between human beings at least as much as that between the individual and God.

Many stories are told that highlight the ethical sensibilities of Rabbi Israel Salanter and the other ba’alei musar (musar teachers). For example, Rabbi Salanter was once observed using only the bare minimum amount
of water to wash his hands in the ritual fashion. When a surprised student asked whether it wasn’t religiously preferable to wash more thoroughly, he replied, “Not at the expense of the water carrier”, who would then have a heavier burden to carry.

This focus on responsibility for the material well-being of other people as a central religious value is one of the hallmarks of Rabbi Salanter’s teaching, and has been translated into a contemporary philosophical idiom by Emmanuel Levinas as “the other’s material needs are my spiritual needs”.

Although musar still forms part of the curriculum in some Orthodox yeshivahs, and is undergoing a modest revival amongst progressive Jews as well, there is no doubt that its heyday has long since passed. The “new musar” would not necessarily use any of the same techniques as the old, but it would address some of the same questions: how can we best help ourselves and each other to change negative behaviours and to develop the midot the Torah demands of us?

In addition, as the Chief Rabbi has pointed out, the contemporary era necessitates an increased emphasis on interpersonal skills, particularly “listening, respecting, praising, mediating and finding lateral solutions offering a way beyond the zero-sum game of conflict”, and the new musar would need to help people develop these interpersonal virtues.

Finally, in the spirit of Jonathan Sacks’s writings, the new musar would aspire to be of relevance to both Jews and non-Jews, regardless of their level of religious observance.


Excerpted with permission from Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem.

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