Activism and Social Responsibility

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LESSON PLAN

Activism and Social Responsibility lesson plan cover

A suggested lesson plan outline for incorporating these resources into a single 60-minute class.

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Summary

In this unit you can find resources and texts which explore the values of responsibility and activism in Jewish thought, and specifically the thought of Rabbi Sacks. As well as texts from the writings of Rabbi Sacks, you can also find classic Jewish sources, other contemporary Jewish voices, and some broader secular texts to enrich the way you teach this concept in your classroom.

There are many resources provided here for the teacher to choose from when building a lesson or series of lessons on this topic (there are far too many to be included in one lesson only). If you only want to dedicate one lesson to the topic, then a suggested lesson plan for a sixty-minute lesson is provided which can be used to explore the classic Jewish texts and initial writings of Rabbi Sacks only.

Age: The resources and lesson plan can be adapted by the educator to a wide range of ages, from middle school/key stage 3 (11 years old) upwards, but this unit is most appropriate for high school ages (15-18 years old).

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Create postcards with all of these quotes on, or print them from here (PDF) or here (PowerPoint), and display them around the classroom (hung on the walls or laid out on the floor). Ask your students to find the one they find most inspiring or important to them, and ask them to explain how this helps them with the task of “becoming partners with God in the work of creation” and “co-authors with God of the world that ought to be.

Rabbi Sacks ends the book he wrote on responsibility with a list of things he has learned over the course of his life. He introduces the list with the following paragraph:

I have spent much of my life thinking about life, observing people, reading books, searching for teachers and exemplars, trying to distinguish between what ultimately matters and what merely seems to matter at the time. I make no claims to wisdom, but this I have learned:

  • that each of us is here for a purpose
  • that discerning that purpose takes time and honesty, knowledge of ourselves and knowledge of the world, but it is there to be discovered. Each of us has a unique constellation of gifts, an unreplicated radius of influence, and within that radius, be it as small as a family or as large as a state, we can be a transformative presence
  • that where what we want to do meets what needs to be done, that is where God wants us to be
  • that even the smallest good deed can change someone’s life
  • that it is not the honours we receive that matter, but the honour we give
  • that what counts is not how much wealth we make but how much of what we have, we share
  • that those who spend at least part of their lives in service of others are the most fulfilled and happiest people I know
  • that there is no greater gift we can give our children than to let them see us sacrifice something for the sake of an ideal
  • that religions reach their highest levels when they stop worrying about other people’s souls and care, instead, for the needs of their bodies
  • that no religion that persecutes others is worthy of respect, nor one that condemns others, entitled to admiration
  • that we honour the world God created and called good by searching for and praising the good in others and the world
  • that nothing is gained by less-than-ethical conduct. We may gain in the short-term but we will lose in the long, and it is the long-term that counts
  • that moral health is no less important to the quality of a life than physical health
  • that a word of praise can give meaning to someone’s life
  • that, putting others down, we diminish ourselves; lifting others, we lift ourselves
  • that the world is a book in which our life is a chapter, and the question is whether others, reading it, will be inspired
  • that each day is a question asked by God to us
  • that each situation in which we find ourselves did not happen by accident: we are here, now, in this place, among these people, in these circumstances, so that we can do the act or say the word that will heal one of the fractures of the world
  • that few are the days when we cannot make some difference to the lives of others
  • that virtue does not have to be conspicuous to win respect
  • that the best do good without thought of reward, understanding that to help others is a privilege even more than it is an opportunity
  • that cynicism diminishes those that practise it
  • that self-interest is simply uninteresting
  • that it is not the most wealthy or powerful or successful or self-important who make the greatest difference or engender the greatest love
  • that pain and loneliness are forms of energy that can be transformed if we turn them outward, using them to recognise and redeem someone else’s pain or loneliness
  • that the people who are most missed are those who brought hope into our lives
  • that the ability to give to others is itself a gift
  • that we can make a difference, and it is only by making a difference that we redeem a life, lifting it from mere existence and endowing it with glory
  • that those who give to others are the closest we come to meeting the Divine presence in this short life on earth   
  • that the best way of receiving a blessing is to be a blessing
  • and that if we listen carefully enough – and listening is an art that requires long training and much humility – we will hear the voice of God in the human heart telling us that there is work to do and that he needs us.

Rabbi Sacks concludes the list (and with it the book) with the following:

‘Good represents the reality of which God is the dream’, wrote Iris Murdoch. ‘In dreams begin responsibilities’, wrote W. B Yeats. Judaism is the guardian of an ancient but still compelling dream. To heal where others harm, mend where others destroy, to redeem evil by turning its negative energies to good: these are the mark of the ethics of responsibility, born in the radical faith that God calls on us to exercise our freedom by becoming his partners in the work of creation. That seems to me a life-affirming vision: the courage to take the risk of responsibility, becoming co-authors with God of the world that ought to be.

To Heal a Fractured World

Sharing a fate: Passengers in a boat

  • Read Vayikra Rabbah 4:6
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Core Questions

  1. Why doesn’t the person have a right to make a whole under their seat?
  2. Why is this a good metaphor for life?
  3. Can you think of a modern application of this principle?

Our next act can change the world

  • See Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, 3:4
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Core Questions

  1. Is there such a thing as a totally evil person or a totally good person?
  2. Do you think Rambam is being literal when he puts this much weight on one act?
  3. What do you think his goal of this halacha?

Do not be a bystander

  • Read Vayikra 19:16
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Core Questions

  1. What is a bystander?
  2. How is this modern language similar to the language used by the Torah?
  3. Do you think this verse is only referring to a case where your fellow’s life is at risk?

Esther Takes Responsibility

  • Examine Esther 4:12–14
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Core Questions

  1. Why was Esther reluctant to take responsibility and step into this role?
  2. What was Mordechai’s argument that convinced her?
  3. How can this episode speak to you in your life?

If I am only for myself, what am I?

  • Read Pirkei Avot 1:14
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Core Questions

  1. According to Hillel, is it bad or good being “for yourself”?
  2. How do we find a balance between these two things?
  3. What do you think the meaning behind the final phrase is and how does it connect to the first two parts of the mishnah?

Completing the task

  • See Pirkei Avot 2:16
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Core Questions

  1. Is it not a failure if you don’t complete the task?
  2. Is failure a bad thing? Can it be good?
  3. Why might this be the most important piece of advice for leaders and activists?

A Palace in Flames

  • See Bereishit Rabbah 39:1

See here a full exploration of this source in The Thought of Rabbi Sacks

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Core Questions

  1. What does the palace represent?
  2. What do the flames represent?
  3. What is humankind’s calling with regard to the palace in flames?

Chosen Nation, but Chosen for What?

Examine the following three sources:

  • Shemot 19:4–6
  • Isaiah 43:10
  • Isaiah 49:6
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Core Questions

  1. What does the word segulah actually mean?
  2. What do you think the verse means? What is the connection between being a segulah and a ‘kingdom of priests’?
  3. What does being a ‘light to the nations” mean and how does it connect to the term segulah?

In Chapter 10 of To Heal a Fractured World, Rabbi Sacks traces the birth of the development of the concept of responsibility in the Torah, culminating in the national mission of responsibility given to the descendants of Abraham. Excerpts of this chapter together with the sources from the Torah can be found below.

The Bible begins with four stories: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, and the Tower of Babel. What are they about? Why are they there? The story that dominates the Bible – God’s covenant with the children of Israel and its tempestuous history – does not begin until Genesis 12 with God’s call to Abraham to leave land, home and his father’s house. What then is the function of the first eleven chapters? To what genre do they belong? They are more than history. They represent a search for meaning in history. They are, in fact, a philosophical drama in four acts, a sustained and tightly constructed exploration of the concept of responsibility.

To Heal a Fractured World, p. 135

Act I

Act I is set in the Garden of Eden: Adam, Eve and paradise. Around the first couple lies the rich profusion of the created world. One thing alone is forbidden, the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This is a notional constraint, a warning at the beginning of human time that not everything is permitted. There are boundaries, transgression of which is evil. Hence the appearance for the first time of the word ra, ‘evil’, in a creation account dominated by the word ‘good’. Needless to say, it is to this tree that they are drawn. ‘Stolen water’, says Proverbs 9:17, ‘tastes sweet’. They eat; their ‘eyes are opened’; they feel shame. What is fascinating is their reaction: see Genesis 3:8-12

The first human instinct is denial. The man blames the woman. By implication he blames God as well. It was, after all, he who made her, he who decided that ‘It is not good for the man to be alone’. We hear for the first time a proposition that has undergone many transformations but always with the same conclusion. ‘I am not responsible. I am not to blame.’ The fault may lie in our stars, our socioeconomic class, early childhood traumas, the configuration of our genes or the several other varieties of determinism, each of which denies the freedom of human action. Adam is guilty of what Jean-Paul Sartre called bad faith, the self-deception that we are objects not subjects, acted on by forces outside our control. Not to be outdone, the woman repeats the strategy: see Genesis 3:13

She too declares herself innocent, the victim not the perpetrator, the deceived not the self-deceived. The Bible describes this as ‘hiding’. When Adam and Eve hide themselves among the trees they are acting out a psychological state: shame seeking concealment.

Something highly significant is taking place in this narrative. Before the woman had been formed, God had told the man: see Genesis 2:16-17

Only on the most superficial reading is this about a tree, or sexual knowledge. It is about the birth of the ethical life. For the monotheistic mind, the world is not what it was in myth: a place of magic and mystery, spirits and demons, gods and demigods, hostile powers and ever-present dangers. Man and God confront one another from immeasurable distance but also in unprecedented immediacy. God is more than a power. He is a voice: conscience…

The story of Adam and Eve is not primitive science. It is an elegant statement of the first principle of ethics, which is that freedom generates a new kind of law. Scientific laws describe, moral laws prescribe. Scientific laws predict what will happen, moral laws tell us what ought to happen. Only a free agent can understand a moral law, and only a free agent can break one. This, the Bible intimates, is never without consequences – for which we are responsible. That is the knowledge conveyed by the fruit of the tree. To break a law is to taste forbidden fruit and know that one has strayed into the territory called ‘evil’ however harmless the first steps are.

This is what Adam and Eve simultaneously experience and deny. The first beings to discover freedom, they are also the first to feel what Erich Fromm called ‘the fear of freedom’. Freedom is fearful, precisely because it involves responsibility. It is comforting and comfortable to live under someone else’s tutelage and power; to be able to say, ‘It wasn’t my fault’; to look elsewhere for deliverance. The knowledge that there are laws you can break, and for whose breach you bear the guilt, is the exile from Eden, the loss of childhood and innocence; and that is never without pain. Hence the depth and originality of the story is not that Adam and Eve sinned (sin is rarely original) but its insight into the psychodynamics of self-deception. Their first instinct is to deny that they were acting freely at all. They deny personal responsibility.

To Heal a Fractured World, pp. 135-136

Act II

With the second act, the human drama descends into tragedy. Two human children, Cain and Abel, have been born and with them, sibling rivalry – one of Genesis’ recurring themes. They both bring offerings to God. Abel’s is accepted; Cain’s is not. Why his was not accepted will become clear in the course of the narrative. Cain is indignant. He ‘was very angry and his face was downcast’. God, reading his thoughts, responds: see Genesis 4:6-7

This is a speech that connects precisely with the previous act. Adam and Eve denied personal responsibility. God tells Cain that such denial will not be accepted. Besides which, it is not true. Yes, there is temptation and what the sages called the ‘evil inclination’. Those who act under its sway may claim to be powerless to resist, but they are wrong. Sin is not irresistible: ‘It desires to have you, but you must master it.’ God closes this route of escape. For Cain there can be no denial of freedom or personal responsibility. Nonetheless, Cain kills Abel: see Genesis 4:9

Cain does not deny personal responsibility. He does not say, ‘I could not help it. The blame lies elsewhere.’ He denies something different, namely moral responsibility. He acted, and acted freely, but he sees no reason why he should be held to account for what he did. He is not his brother’s keeper.

Adam claimed that his will was powerless before the world as it acted on him in the form of his wife. Cain believes the opposite, that the world is powerless before his will. We are entitled to do what we choose to do, and conscience does not impose constraints…

Cain thinks of religion in a way that is both ancient and very modern. It is there to serve us. We are not here to serve it. In mythic cultures, religious ritual is a way of placating, appeasing or manipulating the gods – getting them to do, in other words, what we want them to do. The idea that someone might offer a sacrifice to God and hear the answer ‘No’ is deeply shocking to Cain – and that is why his sacrifice is rejected. Cain has performed all the right moves, only to discover that God is not a force to be cajoled or a power to be placated. God sees the heart, and refuses to be manipulated…

Having failed to impose his will on God, Cain inflicts it on Abel in the most ultimate form, by murdering him. Cain does not fear freedom. To the contrary, he relishes it. What he fears is someone else’s freedom: the freedom of God to say No. He takes his revenge by denying Abel the freedom to be. That is what is wrong with the will to power. I purchase my freedom at the cost of yours. Why should I accept constraints on my behaviour? Why should I not do as I wish? The answer is, of course, that this cannot but result in conflict, bloodshed and tragedy. That, ultimately, is why morality exists, whatever we take to be its source. Only if my freedom respects yours can we create a non-tragic human world…

Cain denies neither his deed nor the freedom with which it was performed. What he denies is accountability: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ For him, there is no ‘I ought’ to countermand ‘I want’ or ‘I will’ – no voice beyond choice, no authority beyond emotion and desire. Cain refuses the terms of morality itself, its otherness, its givenness, its unyielding insistence that there is something to which the will itself is subject, a reality by whose constraints we are bound and which we did not choose. Cain denies, not personal, but moral responsibility.

To Heal a Fractured World, pp. 137-140

Act III

Act III brings us to Noah and the Flood. The case of Noah is one of the strangest in the Bible. We are introduced to him in terms of unrivalled praise. He is ‘righteous, perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God.’ Yet the last glimpse we have of him is unforgettable and tragic: see Genesis 9:20-23

Noah, the hero of humanity, has become Noah, the embarrassment to his children. Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge; Noah drank from the fruit of the vine, the tree of oblivion, of not-knowing. Adam and Eve were naked and ashamed. Noah is naked and unashamed. It is his two sons who are ashamed to look on him.

The moral ambiguity of Noah is already subtly signalled in the announcement of his birth. Lamech, his father, calls him Noah, saying ‘this one will bring us relief [yenachamenu] from our work and from the hard labour that has come upon us because of the lord’s curse upon the ground’ (Genesis 5:29). There is something not quite right here. The root n-ch-m does not yield the name Noah but Menachem. The name ‘Noah’ comes from the word that means ‘to rest’. Complex resonances are being set up. Noah is the man who rested when he should have acted, for when disaster threatens the world he saves himself and his family; no one else. The biblical text also contains a wordplay lost in translation. Noah’s Hebrew name, the two letters n-ch, is an exact reversal of the word ch-n, ‘grace, favour’, a key word in the story: ‘Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord’. Noah’s grace is ambivalent, his life a reversal. Most significantly, the word used by Lamech at Noah’s birth, n-ch-m, reappears later in the story with the opposite meaning to that which Lamech intended: see Genesis 6:6

N-ch-m turns out to be a contronym. It means ‘relief’ but also ‘regret’, comfort but also discomfort. Noah does bring relief from man’s work, but it is the release found in death. Not only did Noah fail to lift ‘the Lord’s curse upon the ground’ but lived through the worst curse of all. Noah’s greatness was also his weakness. Noah (‘rest’) stood still. By contrast, Abraham begins his service of God by moving, leaving home and travelling to a distant land. Noah’s gift was that, living through a time of widespread evil he was not affected by it. He was unmoved. But he was also unable to grow. The Jewish sages heard in the phrase ‘righteous in his generations’ a subtle criticism. Relative to his generation, he was righteous, but in absolute terms he was not.

What was Noah’s failure, according to the classic commentators? Told that there would be a flood and that he should build an ark, he busied himself in the labour. The text goes out of its way to emphasise his obedience, stating no less than three times that Noah did ‘exactly as God had commanded him’. Throughout the whole of the narrative – the warning of the deluge, the building of the ark, the gathering of the animals, the beginning of the rain – Noah says nothing. The silence, in contrast with the dialogues Adam and Cain have with God, is unmistakable.

Noah’s failure is that, righteous in himself, he has no impact on his contemporaries. He does not engage with them, rebuke them or urge them to mend their ways. Nor does he pray for them, questioning the justice of the Flood, as Abraham was later to do for the people of the cities of the plain. Jewish tradition judged him unfavourably. Noah, the sages said, walked with God whereas Abraham walked ahead of God (‘Walk ahead of me’, says God to Abraham, ‘and be wholehearted’). In Jewish folklore Noah became a tzaddik im peltz, ‘a righteous man in a fur coat’. There are two ways of keeping warm on a cold night: buying a fur coat or lighting a fire. Buy a coat and you keep yourself warm. Light a fire and you keep others warm also. Noah, the righteous man, fails to exercise collective responsibility.

You cannot survive while the rest of the world drowns, and still survive. After the Holocaust, the phenomenon was given a name: survivor guilt. Noah is the first intimation in the Bible that individual righteousness is not always enough. You may not be silent while others suffer. ‘Do not stand idly by the blood of your brother’, the Bible later commands (Vayikra 19:16). ‘How can I stand and watch disaster befall my people?’ pleads Esther to the king (Esther 8:6). To be moral is to live with and for others, sharing their responsibility, participating in their suffering, protesting their wrongs, arguing their cause…

Noah, who saves himself and his family by building an Ark against a flood of rain, is the opposite of Joseph who saves an entire region by building storehouses against a lack of rain. Noah’s ark contrasts with the ark in which Moses is saved as a child (the Hebrew word tevah is the same in both stories). Moses, who three times in his early years intervenes when he sees injustice, is the antitype of Noah. These resonances are not accidental. They are part of the Pentateuch’s tightly structured moral narrative. Noah exemplifies the truth that responsibility extends beyond the self. ‘It is not good for man to be alone.’ We are part of society, sharing its rewards when it does well, its guilt when it does wrong. Noah fails the test of collective responsibility. One who saves only himself, even himself he does not save.

To Heal a Fractured World, pp. 140-142

Act IV

Act IV, the Tower of Babel, is a text of extraordinary compactness. The story takes a mere nine verses, and is packed with wordplay and literary allusion, mostly lost in translation. Two of the key words, for example, are ‘brick’, the first man-made building material, and ‘confuse’, God’s act of confounding the language of the builders so that the project is never completed. The two Hebrew words are mirror images of one another: the Hebrew for ‘brick’ is l-v-n, for ‘confuse’ is n-v-l. The reversal of letters mirrors God’s inversion of the builders’ plans. They wanted to build the city so that they ‘would not be scattered over the face of the earth’, but the result was that they were ‘scattered over the face of the earth’. They sought ‘to make a name for ourselves’ and they succeeded, but the name they made, Babel, became a symbol not of creation but confusion.

Wordplay is essential, also, to understanding what their sin was, which is not stated explicitly in the text. The narrative begins and ends with a phrase containing the word ha-aretz, ‘the earth.’ It begins, ‘The whole earth had one language’ and ends, ‘From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth’. Within this frame, there is continuous phonemic play on the words sham, ‘there’, shem, ‘name’, and shamayim, ‘heaven’. Sham and shem together appear seven times. The word shamayim, ‘heaven’, appears at the key point of the narrative: ‘Let us build a city with a tower that reaches heaven’. Babel is a story about the relationship between heaven and earth. Specifically it echoes the first verse in the Bible: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ Babel is what happens when human beings, in full exercise of their creative powers, attempt to build cosmopolis, the city as manmade-universe in which they, not God, rule. Once again, Nietzsche comes to mind: his madman who announces the ‘death of God’ adds, ‘Must we not ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it?’
One of the keywords of the first chapter of Genesis is the root b-d-l, ‘to distinguish, separate, impose and respect order’. It occurs five times in the course of the chapter. The universe God creates is a place of carefully calibrated harmony, each object and life-form in its appropriate domain. One word is repeated at each stage: ‘good’ (it appears seven times in the chapter). At the end of creation, immediately prior to the Sabbath, God ‘saw all that he had made, and behold it was very good’, meaning: each thing was good in itself, and very good in relation to all else. The goodness of the world in Genesis 1 is ontological and ecological. It depends on respect for boundaries – in a word, order.

The opposite of order is Babel – ‘confusion’. The builders of the Tower defy the principle stated in the book of Psalms: ‘The heavens are the heavens of the Lord; the earth he has given to the children of mankind’ (Psalms 115:16). The Hebrew word averah, like its English equivalent, ‘transgression’, means ‘straying across a boundary, entering forbidden territory’. A sin is an act in the wrong place, a failure to honour the boundaries and constraints that form the deep structure of the universe. It is a failure to engage in havdalah, the cognitive act of knowing the difference between one thing and another and what belongs where. In a ceremony of great beauty, Jews start the week, as the Sabbath ends, with a ceremony known as havdalah. God invites us, his ‘partners in the work of creation’, to begin each seven day cycle as he did, by making distinctions. Aspiring to make their home in heaven, the builders of Babel failed to honour the distinction between man and God.

Their punishment precisely fits the crime. By creating disorder, they inherit disorder, an inability to communicate with one another and thus engage in the collaborative activity on which all human achievement depends. By dishonouring language – God creates the world with words, because words create order, classifying and labelling distinctions – their language is dishonoured. They believe that their tower will reach heaven (the actual ziggurat at Babylon, to which the story refers, was a seven-storey structure some 300 feet high). In a pointed touch of irony the text says that God had to ‘come down’ to see it. To the builders, it looked tall. To God it seemed insignificant. There is humour here: God laughs at man’s hubris. By aspiring to reach heaven it by technological prowess rather than moral conduct, the builders of Babel discovered that not only do we fail to reach heaven. We lose our compact nature, our unity, on earth.

Babel is a profound commentary on the human desire to take the place of God. The word ‘responsibility’ comes from the word ‘response’. It implies the existence of an other who has legitimate claims on my conduct, for, or to, whom I am accountable. The Hebrew equivalent, achrayut, derives from the word acher, meaning ‘an other’. Responsibility is intrinsically relational. The ethical is never private. In biblical terms it is a matter of covenant between two parties, God and humanity, both of whom enter into certain undertakings toward the other. H. Richard Niebuhr defines the biblical ethic of responsibility as the principle: ‘God is acting in all actions upon you. So respond to all actions upon you as to respond to his action.’

Babel represents the failure of ontological responsibility, the idea that we are accountable to something or someone beyond ourselves. Fired by their technological breakthrough, the discovery of man-made building materials that made tall, multi-storeyed buildings possible, the men on the plain of Shinar attempted to construct a self-sufficient universe (an artificial holy mountain) in which man is accountable only to himself. There is no Other beyond nature to whom we are answerable and by whom we are judged…

To Heal a Fractured World, pp. 142-144

The first eleven chapters of Genesis are not a mere series of historical narratives. They are a highly structured exploration of responsibility. They begin with two stories about individuals, Adam and Eve, then Cain, followed by two stories about societies, the generation of the Flood and the builders of Babel. The first and last – the tree of knowledge, the tower – are about the failure to honour boundaries: between permitted and forbidden, heaven and earth. The inner two are about violence, individual then collective. They constitute a developmental psychology of the moral sense. First we discover personal responsibility, our freedom to choose. Then we acquire moral responsibility, the knowledge that choice has limits; not everything we can do, may we do. Later we learn collective responsibility: we are part of a family, a community and society and we have a share in its innocence or guilt. Later still we realise that society itself is subject to a higher law: there are moral limits to power.

All of this is a prelude to the appearance of Abraham, who does not emerge in a vacuum. His life is a culmination of all that has gone before. The first words of God – ‘Leave your land, your birthplace and your father’s house’ – are a call to personal responsibility. Abraham is commanded to relinquish everything that leads human beings to see their acts as not their own. The call to Abraham is a counter-commentary to the three great determinisms of the modern world. Karl Marx held that behaviour is determined by structures of power in society, among them the ownership of land. Therefore God said to Abraham, ‘Leave your land.’ Spinoza believed the human conduct is given by the instincts we acquire at birth (genetic determinism). Therefore God said, ‘Leave your place of birth.’ Freud held that we are shaped by early experiences in childhood. Therefore God said, ‘Leave your father’s house.’ Abraham is the refutation of determinism. There are structures of power, but we can stand outside them. There are genetic influences on our behaviour, but we can master them. We are shaped by our parents, but we can go beyond them. Abraham’s journey is as much psychological and geographical. Like the Israelites in Moses’ day, he is travelling to freedom.

Abraham exercises moral responsibility by entering into battle, in Genesis 14, to rescue (not his brother, but his brother’s son) Lot. He is his brother’s keeper. He scales the heights of collective responsibility when he prayers for the inhabitants of Sodom even he knows, or suspects, that for the most part they are wicked. He reaches ontological responsibility in the trial of the binding of Isaac, by recognising the primacy of the divine word over human emotion and aspiration. In each case Abraham responds, and in so doing points the way beyond the failures of previous generations.

 It is now clear why the biblical story does not begin with Abraham. Responsibility is not a given of the human situation. To the contrary, it is all too easy to deny it. It wasn’t my fault (Adam). I don’t see why I shouldn’t do what I wish, not what I ought (Cain). I am responsible for myself, not others (Noah). We are answerable to no one but ourselves (Babel). The journey to responsibility is long, and there are many temptations to stop short of the final destination. But in the end, there is no real alternative if we are to live our full humanity. Adam loses paradise. Cain is condemned to wander. Noah declines into drunkenness. Babel is left unbuilt. Responsibility is the condition of our freedom, and we cannot abdicate it without losing much else besides.

To Heal a Fractured World, pp. 144-146

A Palace in Flames

Avraham sees a palace. The world has order, and therefore it has a Creator. But the palace is in flames. The world is full of disorder, of evil, violence and injustice. Now, no one builds a building and then deserts it. If there is a fire there must be someone to put it out. The building must have an owner. If so, where is he? That is the question and it gives Avraham no peace…

From time immemorial to the present, there have always been two ways of seeing the world. The first says, There is no God. There are contending forces, chance and necessity, the chance that produces variation, and the necessity that gives the strong victory over the weak. From this perspective, the evolution of the universe is inexorable and blind; there is no justice and no judge, and therefore there is no question. We can know how, but we can never know why, for there is no why. There is no palace. There are only flames.

The second view insists that there is God. All that is exists because He made it. All that happens transpires because He willed it. Therefore all injustice is an illusion. Perhaps the world itself is an illusion. When the innocent suffer, it is to teach them to find faith through suffering, obedience through chastisement, serenity through acceptance, the soul’s strength through the body’s torments. Evil is the cloak that masks the good. There is a question, but there is always an answer, for if we could understand God we would know that the world is as it is because it would be less good were it otherwise. There is a palace. Therefore there are no flames.

The faith of Avraham begins in the refusal to accept either answer, for both contain a truth, and between them there is a contradiction. The first accepts the reality of evil, the second the reality of God. The first says that if evil exists, God does not exist. The second says that if God exists, evil does not exist. But supposing both exist? Supposing there are both the palace and the flames?

. . . Judaism begins not in wonder that the world is, but in protest that the world is not as it ought to be. It is in that cry, that sacred discontent, that Avraham’s journey begins . . . the easy answer would be to deny the reality of either God or evil. Then the contradiction would disappear and we could live at peace with the world. But to be a Jew is to have the courage to refuse easy answers and to reject either consolation or despair. God exists; therefore life has a purpose. Evil exists; therefore we have not yet achieved that purpose. Until then we must travel, just as Avraham and Sarah travelled, to begin the task of shaping a different kind of world . . .

What haunts us about the Midrash is not just Avraham’s question but God’s reply. He gives an answer that is no answer. He says, in effect, ‘I am here,’ without explaining the flames. He does not attempt to put out the fire. It is as if, instead, He were calling for help. God made the building. Man set it on fire, and only man can put out the flames. Avraham asks God, ‘Where are you?’ God replies, ‘I am here, where are you?’ Man asks God, ‘Why did you abandon the world?’ God asks man, ‘Why did you abandon me?’ So begins a dialogue between earth and heaven that has no counterpart in any other faith, and which has not ceased for four thousand years. In these questions, which only the other can answer, God and man find one another. Perhaps only together can they extinguish the flames . . .

God gives His word to man, and man gives his word to God. God teaches, man acts, and together they begin the task of tikkun olam, ‘repairing, or mending, the world’. They become, in the rabbinic phrase, ‘partners in the work of creation’.

Radical Then, Radical Now, pp. 54-56
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Core Questions

  1. What does the palace represent?
  2. What do the flames represent?
  3. What is humankind’s calling with regard to the palace in flames?

A Blessing to Others

To be a Jew is to be alert to the poverty, the suffering, the loneliness of others. Karl Marx called religion ‘the opium of the people’. No religion is less so than Judaism. Opium desensitises us to pain. Judaism sensitises us to it.

No Jew who has lived Judaism can be without a social conscience. To be a Jew is to accept responsibility. The world will not get better of its own accord. Nor will we make it a more human place by leaving it to others – politicians, columnists, protestors, campaigners – making them our agents to bring redemption on our behalf. Life is God’s question; our choices are the answer.

To be a Jew is to be a blessing to others. That is what God told Avraham in the first words he spoke to him, words that four thousand years ago set Jewish history into motion. ‘Through you,’ He said, ‘all the families on earth will be blessed.’ To be a Jew is not to ask for a blessing. It is to be a blessing. Judaism is about creating spiritual energy: the energy that, if used for the benefit of others, changes lives and begins to change the world. Jewish life is not the search for personal salvation. It is a restless desire to change the world into a place in which God can feel at home. There are a thousand ways in which we help to do this, and each is precious, one not more so than another.

When we give, when we say, ‘If this is wrong, let me be among the first to help put it right,’ we create moments of imperishable moral beauty. We know how small we are, and how inadequate to the tasks God has set us. Even the greatest Jew of all time, Moshe, began his conversation with God with the words, ‘Who am I?’ But it is not we who start by being equal to the challenge; it is the challenge that makes us equal to it. We are as big as our ideals. The higher they are, the taller we stand.

From Renewal to Responsibility
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Core Questions

  1. How is this text connected to the Midrash of the Palace in Flames, found above?
  2. Some people dodge thir responsibility to mend the world. Who do they believe should do the job?
  3. What does it mean to be a blessing to the world? Are we fulfilling this task?

Role Model Nation

That is the meaning of ‘a holy nation’. The holy, in the Bible, simply means God’s domain – those points in time and space at which His presence is peculiarly visible. That is what Yeshayahu means when he says of Israel: ‘You are My witness – declares the Lord – that I am God’ (Isaiah 43:10) . . . There is no assertion in the Bible that the Israelites are inherently better or more moral than others. Their vocation represents not a privilege but a responsibility. It confers no material advantages, only the religious life itself . . .

Israel’s role is to be an example: no more, no less. That is how Rambam’s son Avraham interprets, in his father’s name, the phrase ‘a kingdom of priests’:

“The priest of any congregation is its leader, its most honoured individual and the congregation’s role-model through whom they learn to follow in the right path. [In calling on Israel to be ‘a kingdom of priests’ it was as if God said to them], ‘Become leaders of the world through keeping my Torah, so that your relationship to [humanity] becomes that of a priest to his congregation, so that the world follows in your path, imitates your deeds and walks in your ways.’”

To Heal a Fractured World, pp. 65–67

God, the creator of humanity, having made a covenant with all humanity, then turns to one people and commands it to be different in order to teach humanity the dignity of difference. Biblical monotheism is not the idea that there is one God and therefore one truth, one faith, one way of life. On the contrary, it is the idea that unity creates diversity. That is the non-Platonic miracle of creation. What is real, remarkable and the proper object of our wonder is not the quintessential leaf but the 250,000 different kinds there actually are; not the idea of a bird but the 9,000 species that exist today; not the metalanguage that embraces all others, but the 6,000 languages still spoken throughout the world . . . Judaism is about the miracle of unity that creates diversity.

The Dignity of Difference, p. 53
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Core Questions

  1. How is being a “role-model nation” fulfilling the Jewish call to responsibility?
  2. Is it enough just to “be different” to show humanity about diversity?
  3. According to these texts, what does it mean to be a “Chosen People”?

The Morality of Responsibility

The beautiful thing about morality, though, is that it begins with us. We do not need to wait for a great political leader, or an upturn in the economy, or a new mood in society, or an unexpected technological breakthrough, to begin to change the moral climate within which we live and move and have our being. In the opening chapter, I described our current situation as one in which we have outsourced morality to the market and the state. But morality in its truest sense cannot be outsourced. It is about taking responsibility, not handing it away. All it needs is for us to think about the ‘We’, not just the ‘I’, and immediately we change the tenor of our relationships.

Morality, p. 310
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Core Questions

  1. Why can’t the state (government) ensure society is moral?
  2. How can you as an individual make a difference?
  3. Why do we have a responsibility to think about the ‘we’ and not just the ‘I’?

The Divine Call to Responsibility

There is Divine justice, and sometimes, looking back at the past from a distance in time, we can see it. But we do not live by looking back at the past. More than other faiths, the religion of the Hebrew Bible is written in the future tense. Ancient Israel was the only civilisation to set its golden age in not-yet-realised time, because a free human being lives toward the future. There is Divine justice, but God wants us to strive for human justice – in the short term, not just the long term; in this world, not the next; from the perspective of time and space, not infinity and eternity. God creates Divine justice, but only we can create human justice, acting on behalf of God but never aspiring to be other than human. That is why He created us. It is why God not only speaks but listens, why He wants to hear Abraham’s voice, not just His own. Creation is empowerment. That is the radical proposition at the heart of the Hebrew Bible. God did not create humankind to demand of it absolute submission to His all-powerful will. In revelation, creation speaks. What it says is a call to responsibility.

To Heal a Fractured World, p. 23

It is impossible to be moved by the prophets and not have a social conscience. Their message, delivered in the name of God, is: accept responsibility. The world will not get better of its own accord. Nor will we make it a more human place by leaving it to others – politicians, columnists, protestors, campaigners – making them our agents to bring redemption on our behalf. The Hebrew Bible begins not with man’s cry to God, but with God’s cry to us, each of us, here where we are. ‘If you are silent at this time’, says Mordechai to Esther, ‘relief and deliverance will come from elsewhere . . . but who knows whether it was not for such a time as this that you have attained royalty?’ (Esther 4:14). That is the question God poses to us. Yes, if we do not do it, someone else may. But we will then have failed to understand why we are here and what we are summoned on to do. The Bible is God’s call to human responsibility.

To Heal a Fractured World, p. 28

In the Bible, when God revealed Himself to Abraham, Jacob and Moses, He began simply by calling them by name. Their response – at once the most primal and profound – was simply to say, Hineni, ‘Here I am.’ Life is God’s question. We are His answer. It may be a good answer or a bad one, but it is the only answer there is. God does not need to know, or be assured by us, that He is God. He needs to know that we hear His call, that we are ready to rise to His challenge, and that we are willing to take into our own hands the responsibility with which He has entrusted us, empowered and given strength by that very trust itself.

To Heal a Fractured World, p. 268
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Core Questions

  1. Why can’t we just rely on God for a just society? Why do we need human justice as well?
  2. Where in the Torah do we see God’s call to human responsibility?
  3. How will you say Hineni today?

The Birth of Responsibility

The first eleven chapters of Genesis are not a mere series of historical narratives. They are a highly structured exploration of responsibility. They begin with two stories about individuals, Adam and Eve, then Cain, followed by two stories about societies, the generation of the Flood and the builders of Babel. The first and last – the tree of knowledge, the tower – are about the failure to honour boundaries: between permitted and forbidden, heaven and earth. The inner two are about violence, individual then collective. They constitute a developmental psychology of the moral sense. First we discover personal responsibility, our freedom to choose. Then we acquire moral responsibility, the knowledge that choice has limits; not everything we can do, may we do. Later we learn collective responsibility: we are part of a family, a community and society and we have a share in its innocence or guilt. Later still we realise that society itself is subject to a higher law: there are moral limits to power.

All of this is a prelude to the appearance of Abraham, who does not emerge in a vacuum. His life is a culmination of all that has gone before. The first words of God –

‘Leave your land, your birthplace and your father’s house’ – are a call to personal responsibility. Abraham is commanded to relinquish everything that leads human beings to see their acts as not their own. The call to Abraham is a counter-commentary to the three great determinisms of the modern world. Karl Marx held that behaviour is determined by structures of power in society, among them the ownership of land. Therefore God said to Abraham, ‘Leave your land.’ Spinoza believed the human conduct is given by the instincts we acquire at birth (genetic determinism). Therefore God said, ‘Leave your place of birth.’ Freud held that we are shaped by early experiences in childhood. Therefore God said, ‘Leave your father’s house.’ Abraham is the refutation of determinism. There are structures of power, but we can stand outside them. There are genetic influences on our behaviour, but we can master them. We are shaped by our parents, but we can go beyond them. Abraham’s journey is as much psychological and geographical. Like the Israelites in Moses’ day, he is travelling to freedom.

Abraham exercises moral responsibility by entering into battle, in Genesis 14, to rescue (not his brother, but his brother’s son) Lot. He is his brother’s keeper. He scales the heights of collective responsibility when he prayers for the inhabitants of Sodom even he knows, or suspects, that for the most part they are wicked. He reaches ontological responsibility in the trial of the binding of Isaac, by recognising the primacy of the divine word over human emotion and aspiration. In each case Abraham responds, and in so doing points the way beyond the failures of previous generations.

It is now clear why the biblical story does not begin with Abraham. Responsibility is not a given of the human situation. To the contrary, it is all too easy to deny it. It wasn’t my fault (Adam). I don’t see why I shouldn’t do what I wish, not what I ought (Cain). I am responsible for myself, not others (Noah). We are answerable to no one but ourselves (Babel). The journey to responsibility is long, and there are many temptations to stop short of the final destination. But in the end, there is no real alternative if we are to live our full humanity. Adam loses paradise. Cain is condemned to wander. Noah declines into drunkenness. Babel is left unbuilt. Responsibility is the condition of our freedom, and we cannot abdicate it without losing much else besides.

To Heal a Fractured World, pp. 144-146
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Core Questions

  1. Why does the Torah begin with the 11 chapters before Avraham?
  2. How does Avraham model responsibility in contrast to all who went before him?
  3. How can we emulate his model?

Rights vs. Responsibilities

The ethic of responsibility structures Judaism’s entire approach to the world. An obvious example is that biblical ethics is constructed in terms of responsibilities, not rights. Does this make a difference? Are rights not simply responsibilities seen from another point of view? ‘Thou shalt not murder’ creates a right to life. ‘Thou shalt not steal’ creates a right to property. The obligation to administer justice creates the right to a fair trial, and so on. That is true, but it omits one feature insufficiently alluded to in discussions of law.

Responsibility cultures are sustained tutorials in human freedom. They locate change ‘in here’ rather than ‘out there’. They do not see the individual as powerless, caught in a vast swirl of forces beyond our control. Instead they understand that change requires effort, and great change requires collective effort. Therefore I must search for ways through which I can establish co-operation with others, trusting them and earning their trust, so that we can work together for common goals while respecting one another’s freedom and dignity. A society that honours rights will be one that encourages responsibility.

The Home We Build Together, pp. 132-133
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Core Questions

  1. What are the differences between rights and responsibilities?
  2. Is the Torah more concerned with rights or responsibilities?
  3. What happens to society if it only focuses on rights and not responsibility?

The Politics of Responsibility

A covenantal politics is, by definition, a politics of responsibility. It is created by an act of commitment. The people undertake to abide by a moral code, pursue a moral vision and create a society built on justice, compassion and respect for human dignity. This is not a side-effect, something that happens along the way. It is the foundational act of a covenantal society – what Philip Selznick aptly describes as a ‘self-conscious moral order’. It happens when a nation ‘under God’ resolves to take fate into its own hands and build a society on the basis of something other than wealth or power. It is, to quote Selznick again, ‘an act of faith and resolve, a self-defining commitment’…

At the heart of covenant is the profound realisation that society is what we make of it. The way things are is not necessarily the way things ought to be. Covenant is born when a free people question the established order and conclude that there is a better way. They seek to create a society that refuses to divide humanity into rulers and ruled, those who command and those who obey. It is a collective moral undertaking on the part of ‘We, the people’, all the people, rich, poor, weak, strong, powerful and powerless alike. It says, in effect: there is no one else to do it for us, and we can achieve together what none of us can do alone. It is built on the idea that we are individually and collectively responsible for our future. We each have a part to play. Covenant is the conscious decision to create a society in the light of shared ideals.

Covenant is politics with a purpose. It sees history as a journey – long, slow, fraught with setbacks – toward a destination perhaps never finally reached but glimpsed from afar. It recognises that we are fallible, frail, prone to every kind of moral failing, but it refuses to give way to cynicism or despair. It is built on faith of an unusual kind. A religious way of putting it would be to say that it is faith that God has faith in us. God empowers us to become ‘his partners in the work of creation’. A secular way of saying it is to refuse to believe that Homo homini lupus est, ‘man is a wolf to his fellow-man’ is the last word about the human condition. One of the great exponents of covenant politics, the late Robert F. Kennedy, said in his tribute to the assassinated Martin Luther King, that the aim of politics is ‘to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world’. It is the combination of high ideals together with a candid acknowledgement of human weakness that is the common factor in prophetic Judaism, seventeenth century Calvinism, and the biblical strand in early American politics.

The Home We Build Together, pp. 123-124

The idea that covenantal politics is an expression of human responsibility may sound odd to those who recall its religious roots. Is not the biblical narrative precisely based on not exercising human responsibility but instead on leaving fate to God? Was it not He who brought his people to freedom, divided the sea, led them across the wilderness, and gave them with manna from heaven and water from a rock? In fact, however, it is just this story that most powerfully explains why human responsibility is essential. In the early years of their history, when God did everything for the Israelites, they remained in a state of arrested development. They quarrelled, were ungrateful and rebelled. They displayed all the signs of a dependency culture.

Slowly over the centuries, the miracles became rarer. The people suffered division, defeat and exile. Eventually in the days of Ezra and Nechemiah the people of their own accord renewed their covenant with God, and from then on they never worshipped idols again. The story of the Hebrew Bible as a whole, extending across a thousand years in real time, is of the progressive withdrawal of Divine intervention and the transfer of responsibility to human beings.

The politics of responsibility was born when the transcendence of God allowed people to see the relativity, the man-made quality, of all social structures. The only thing that satisfies the prophetic imagination is a society of free individuals, each respecting the non-negotiable dignity of others, who come together in freedom to pledge themselves to work together to build a gracious, just and compassionate world. That is our task. God does not do it for us. He teaches, guides, warns, instructs, inspires, gives us strength when we weary and hope when hope seems lost, but he does not do the work for us. Instead, the Creator calls on us to create. The Shaper of history summons us to shape history. 

A covenantal society is a moral community, future-oriented, goal-directed, whose citizens are on a journey toward a destination. That does not mean that people agree. To the contrary, Americans fought a civil war over the question, does the phrase ‘all men are created equal’ include blacks? Does it permit slavery?  Covenantal societies are argumentative societies. What they share, though, is their emphasis on responsibility, personal, mutual, reciprocal and collective. As Judaism’s second century sages put it: ‘All Israelites are responsible for one another.’ It is we, together, who make society.

It is this combination of personal and collective responsibility that gives covenantal societies their energy. They enlist their citizens. They generate ideals. They see us all as co-builders of the social order. That is the egalitarian thrust of the biblical phrase ‘a kingdom of priests’. All ancient societies had priests, but they were a minority, an elite. A kingdom of priests is one in which all bear the burden, all are guardians of the collective conscience. Covenant democratises responsibility. It creates active citizens. It is a politics of empowerment. It sees society as the home we build together.

The Home We Build Together, pp. 124-125
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Core Questions

  1. What is the difference between a contract and a covenant?
  2. How do these differences relate to the differences between rights and responsibilities?
  3. How can we make our community and society covenantal and not just contractual?

To be a Jew is to be asked to give, to contribute, to make a difference, to help in the monumental task that has engaged Jews since the dawn of our history, to make the world a home for the Divine presence, a place of justice, compassion, human dignity and the sanctity of life. Though our ancestors cherished their relationship with God, they never saw it as a privilege. They knew it was a responsibility. God asked great things of the Jewish people, and in so doing, made them great.

Ten Paths to God, Unit 10: Responsibility, opening text

Physical strength needs numbers. The larger the nation, the more powerful it is. But when it comes to spiritual strength, you need not numbers but a sense of responsibility. You need a people, each of whom knows that he or she must contribute something to the Jewish, and to the human story. The Jewish question is not, What can the world give me? It is, What can I give to the world? Judaism is God’s call to responsibility.

Ten Paths to God, Unit 10: Responsibility, opening text

One of the most remarkable features of Judaism – in this respect it is supreme among religious faiths – is its call to human responsibility. God wants us to fight our own battles. This is not abandonment. It does not mean – God forbid – that we are alone. God is with us whenever and wherever we are with Him. “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me” (Psalm 23:4). What it means is that God calls on us to exercise those qualities – confidence, courage, choice, imagination, determination and will – which allow us to reach our full stature as beings in the image of God.

Covenant & Conversation: Exodus, p. 120

The first humans lost paradise when they sought to hide from responsibility. We will only ever regain it if we accept responsibility and become a nation of leaders, each respecting and making space for those not like us

Lessons in Leadership, p. 297

The road from slavery to freedom is as long or short as it takes for people to develop the habits of responsibility for their and their children’s future

Covenant & Conversation, Numbers, p. 83

One of Judaism’s most distinctive and challenging ideas is its ethics of responsibility, the idea that God invites us to become, in the rabbinic phrase, his ‘partners in the world of creation’. The God who created the world in love calls on us to create in love. The God who gave us the gift of freedom asks us to use it to honour and enhance the freedom of others

To Heal a Fractured World, p. 3

The Bible is more concerned with cultivating habits of responsibility than merely prescribing rights. Rights are legislated by states. Responsibility is created by society. You cannot have one with the other. A system of rights must be accompanied by a culture of responsibility.

The Home We Build Together, p. 133

Rights are noble things, essential to human dignity, but without the widespread diffusion of responsibility they are undeliverable.

The Home We Build Together, p. 144

Be a leader. Walk ahead. Take personal responsibility. Take moral responsibility. Take collective responsibility. Judaism is God’s call to responsibility.

Answering the Call (Vayera, Lessons in Leadership, Covenant & Conversation)

The responsible life is a life that responds. The Hebrew for responsibility, achrayut, comes from the word acher, meaning “other.” Our great Other is God Himself, calling us to use the freedom He gave us, to make the world that is more like the world that ought to be. The great question, the question that the life we lead answers, is: which voice will we listen to? Will we heed the voice of desire, as in the case of Adam and Eve? Will we listen to the voice of anger, as in the case of Cain? Or will we follow the voice of God calling on us to make this a more just and gracious world?

Taking Responsibility (Bereishit, Lessons in Leadership, Covenant & Conversation)

When social conformity becomes our only standard, concepts like duty, obligation, responsibility and honour come to seem antiquated and irrelevant. Emotions like guilt, shame, contrition and remorse are deleted from our vocabulary, for are we not all entitled to self-esteem? The still small voice of conscience is rarely heard these days. Conscience has been outsourced, delegated away

The Great Partnership, p. 130

God is the call to human responsibility, the voice that we hear only if we first learn how to listen, the voice that summons us to act

The Dignity of Difference, p. 163

Jewish faith is not a metaphysical wager, a leap into the improbable. It is the courage to see the world as it is, without the comfort of myth or the self-pity of despair, knowing that the evil, cruelty and injustice it contains are neither inevitable nor meaningless but instead a call to human responsibility – a call emanating from the heart of existence itself.

Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 214

The story of the Hebrew Bible as a whole, extending across a thousand years in real time, is of the progressive withdrawal of Divine intervention and the transfer of responsibility to human beings.

To Heal a Fractured World, pp. 124-5

In the Bible, when God revealed himself to Abraham, Jacob and Moses, he began simply by calling them by name. Their response – at once the most primal and profound – was simply to say, Hineni, ‘Here I am.’ Life is God’s question. We are his answer. It may be a good answer or a bad one, but it is the only answer there is. God does not need to know, or be assured by us, that he is God. He needs to know that we hear his call, that we are ready to rise to his challenge, and that we are willing to take into our own hands the responsibility with which he has entrusted us, empowered and given strength by that very trust itself.

To Heal a Fractured World, p. 268

Faith is the call to human responsibility.

Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 97

The first thing we learn as children is that our acts are under our control (personal responsibility). The next is that not everything we can do, we may do (moral responsibility). The next stage is the realisation that we have a duty not just to ourselves but to those on whom we have an influence (collective responsibility). Ultimately we learn that morality is not a mere human convention, but is written into the structure of existence. There is an Author of being, therefore there is an Authority beyond humankind to whom, when acting morally, we respond (ontological responsibility).

A Drama in Four Acts (Noach, Covenant & Conversation)

We need people willing to stand up and say, rich and poor alike, we all have collective responsibility for the common good. And we need a culture of responsibility, not one of victimhood, because if you define yourself as a victim, you can never be free.

Receiving The Irving Kristol Award from the American Enterprise Institute

A covenant creates a moral community. It binds people together in a bond of mutual responsibility and care.

Morality, p. 326

A society of individualists is unsustainable. We are built for cooperation, not just competition. In the end, with the market and the state but no substantive society to link us to our fellow citizens in bonds of collective responsibility, trust and truth erode, economics becomes inequitable and politics becomes unbearable.

Morality, p. 271

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook

The love for people must be alive in the heart and soul, a love for all people and a love for all nations, expressing itself in a desire for their spiritual and material advancement… One cannot reach the exalted position of being able to recite the verse from the morning prayer, ‘Praise the Lord, invoke His name, declare His works among the nations’ (I Chron. 16:8), without experiencing the deep, inner love stirring one to a solicitousness for all nations, to improve their material state and to promote their happiness.

Abraham Isaac Kook, ‘The Moral Principles’ (Middot ha-Rayah). English version in Abraham Isaac Kook, The Lights of Penitence, Lights of Holiness, The Moral Principles, Essays, Letters and Poems, transl. Ben Zion Bokser (London: SPCK, 1979), p. 136.

The highest position in the love of people must be taken by the love of man, and it must extend to all men, despite all differences of opinion, religion and faith, despite all distinctions of race and climate… We must know that the point of life, light and holiness never moved from the divine image bestowed on humanity in general, and on every people and tongue, each according to its significance, and that this holy kernel will elevate all. Because of this point of life we wish for the total elevation that will affect the world, the light of justice and righteousness… the perfection of all that is created, and man and all his faculties first.

Musar Avikha, p. 96 and p. 98. Quoted in Yoel Ben Nun, ‘Nationalism, Humanity and Knesset Yisrael,’ in Benjamin Ish-Shalom and Shalom Rosenberg (eds.), The World of Rav Kook’s Thought, (Jerusalem: Avi Chai Foundation, 1991), p. 212.

Rabbi Ben-Zion Uziel

The settlement of the world [yishuvo shel olam] in its many ramifications is a precondition and vital need for our attaining our proper way in life… Each country and each nation which respects itself, does not and cannot be satisfied with its narrow boundaries and limited domains. Rather, they desire to bring in all that is good and beautiful, that is helpful and glorious to their national [cultural] treasure. And they wish to give the maximum flow of their own blessings to the heritage of humanity as a whole. Each [self-respecting nation] desire to establish a link of love and friendship among all nations, for the enrichment of the human storehouse of intellectual and ethical ideas and for the uncovering of the secrets of nature. Happy is the country and happy the nation that can give an account of what it has taken in from others, and more importantly, of what it has given to the heritage of all humanity. Woe to the country and nation that encloses itself within its own four cubits and limits itself to its own narrow boundaries, lacking anything of its own to contribute, and lacking the tools to receive from others.

Benzion Uziel, Hegyonei Uziel, vol. 2, pp. 109, 127

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein

When seeking to shape our personalities according to Torah values, we must relate to at least three levels of expectation and responsibility. These can be regarded as concentric circles, moving from the broader to the more specific:

1. the universal demands placed upon one simply as a human being;
2. the demands of a Jew;
3. the responsibilities of a ben-Torah, one who makes Torah study a central part of his life and embodies its values.

I wish to deal now with the first level.’ What are the basic, cardinal, universal values for which every person should strive? Let us open a Chumash (Pentateuch) to the chapter describing the creation of man and see what task was assigned to him. “The Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and to guard it.” (Bereishit 2:15)… God placed man (Adam) in the Garden “le-ovdah u-leshomrah,” to work or cultivate the Garden and to guard it. Here we have two distinct tasks. One, “le-shomrah,” is largely conservative, aimed at preserving nature. It means to guard the world, to watch it- and watching is essentially a static occupation, seeing to it that things do not change, that they remain as they are. This is what Adam was expected to do, and part of our task in the world is indeed to guard that which we have been given: our natural environment, our social setting, our religious heritage…

Here we have, then, two foci of our primary obligation: a) to guard, to have a sense of responsibility in relation to that which we have been given; and b) to work and to develop. Although Adam was commanded specifically to till and guard the Garden of Eden, I think that we would not be stretching things too far if we were to understand that this mandate applies far beyond that particular little corner of the Garden where Adam and Eve were placed. What we have here is a definition of how man is to be perceived in general: as a shomer and as an oved.

A. Lichtenstein, By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God, Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2016, pp. 1-3

Le-ovdah” is a mandate to go beyond the original state of creation. “Le-ovdah” is not meant simply to maintain the original standard; rather, we have been given the right and the duty to try to transcend it. While the former approach asserts that man was asked to maintain the world as God had created it, this answer claims that man was empowered and enjoined to create something better, as it were…

The extent to which this particular view is accepted depends on whether one adopts, to a greater or lesser degree, a humanistic perspective. Humanists talk a great deal about man placing his imprint upon the world, improving it, building it, and so on. When I say humanists, I am not talking only about secular humanists; I mean religious humanists within our world as well. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik and Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, for example, talk a great deal about the need for man to create…

A person who works is a partner to God in ma’aseh bereishit (creation). In this respect, he is imitating God. Usually we speak of imitating God by being merciful, or by performing acts of chessed (kindness), but the Midrash also tells us:

Rabbi Yehuda ben Rabbi Simon said: [The verse states,] “After the Lord your God you shall walk” (Devarim 13:5) … [What does this mandate of imitatio Dei entail?] At the beginning of the world’s creation, the Holy One occupied Himself first with planting, as it says, “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden” (Bereishit 2:8); so too, when you enter the Land (of Israel, occupy yourselves first with planting – and thus it says (Vayikra 10:23), ” When you enter the land and plant all fruit bearing trees. (Vayikra Rabbah 25:3)

Of course, the trees are symbolic of man’s contribution to this world, to nature -something which is planted by human agency, rather than something which appears spontaneously.

A. Lichtenstein, By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God, Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2016, pp. 8-13

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg

The Torah insists that there is an Ultimate Power. This world is not an accident; it came into being by the will of a Creator God. This God wants the perfection of the world and the triumph of life; God is on the side of humans. God cares and wants to help, but God wants humans to take power and responsibility as well. This concept is expressed most dramatically in the concept of brit. God entered’ into a covenant (a loving commitment) with humans. God will help, God will accompany, God will be involved in every aspect of this effort to perfect the world (the process of tikkun olam). But there must be an active human role in this battle. Human beings are partners with the Divine. God will not give us a perfect world on a silver platter; humans must take responsibility. In this conception, the process of perfection is a constant struggle – never ceasing, never “fixed”, never to be taken for granted. Ideally, this joint action-relationship steers us safely between the Scylla of human passivity in the face of suffering and the Charybdis of human arrogance that has generated the kind of runaway, megalomaniacal power that threatens the planet.

There is another powerful dynamic in the concept of brit. The covenant idea teaches that, ultimately, humans are not alone. Still, God is not blatantly manifest in the world, but must be discovered. God is not self-evidently present, but must be sought out behind-and within-the veil of reality. This hiddenness reflects not God’s lack of concern, but the way in which the Divine, lovingly, acting pedagogically as a great teacher, tries to evoke constantly increasing levels of human participation and human responsibility in the process of tikkun olam.

Biblically, the fact that God is not fully revealed is a characteristic of existence from the very beginning. However, God’s hiddenness-an expression of divine self-limitation-increases as humans become more capable and more powerful. This tzimtzum (self-limitation) is not an abandonment of humanity; it is for the sake of humanity…

In my view, this hiddenness is what the Kabbalah means by the term tzimtzum. Tzimtzum is a reflection not of the absence or weakness of God, but of God’s voluntary and loving self-limitation in order to help humans take full responsibility for their actions As time goes on, God’s increasing self-limitation means that humans take primary responsibility for the outcome of history and, thus, of the cosmic process as well.

I. Greenberg, Living in the Image of God: Jewish Teachings to Perfect the World, New York: Jason Aronson, 1998, pp. 46-48

The basic idea behind covenant is tikkun olam. God wants the perfection of the world. Rabbi Soloveitchik says (in Halachic Man) that, in creating the universe, God left it unfinished and flawed–to be completed by the human being. Kabbalah’s explanation is that the world, as it were, broke down in the process of creation. There are many ways of formulating this insight. The main point is that the world is unfinished; there are serious flaws and evils within the natural world and in human society. The human mission, the covenantal task, is to join with God in perfecting the world. That is the connection between brit and tikkun olam.

The human role to complete and perfect the world means that the human being’s own participation is critical to achieving a perfect world. Thus, one cannot be a full human being unless one becomes free, unless one becomes responsible. In the Garden of Eden story, God bestows Paradise on humans. But, in that setting, humans were immature, and the perfection was incomplete. Edenic humans never tasted temptation; they never struggled. God dreams of a human being in the image of God, functioning in freedom, taking responsibility for reshaping society to achieve universal justice and dignity. It is true that freedom can be used for evil as well as for good. Still, God is not going to force us to be good. In this partnership, God wants us to use our freedom to embrace the good maturely and voluntarily. Then we will use our growing power to work alongside God to perfect the world…

When we say that humans are going to play a central part in perfecting the world, what does this mean? There is sickness in this world. Some of it is natural sickness, caused not by human action, but by viruses or genetics, for example. The human capacity to develop medical power to cure fundamental diseases is a breathtaking expression of the human acting in the image of God. In correcting genetic defects, the human being acts as a full partner in perfecting the world. If we could measure volcano eruptions or anticipate earthquakes – these things are being worked on now-we could evacuate people in time, thus saving countless lives. In this way, we can upgrade the capacity of the world to sustain life at its fullest. Similarly, we can restructure society and its governing institutions not to oppress people, but rather to provide food and shelter for all the inhabitants. Thus, we perfect the world, making it more supportive of life. In this respect, through the covenant idea, Judaism truly understands that the Divine-human partnership opens the door to any and all possibilities.

I. Greenberg, Living in the Image of God: Jewish Teachings to Perfect the World, New York: Jason Aronson, 1998, pp. 62-64
icon the core idea

Core Questions

  1. How do these contemporary Jewish thinkers approach the value of the family in Judaism?
  2. How does this compare to the approach of Rabbi Sacks?
  3. Do you think they conflict, compliment, or add to the approach of Rabbi Sacks?

Responsibility is explored in several of the books of Rabbi Sacks, and he in fact wrote an entire book exploring Judaism’s approach to this, To Heal a Fracture World: The Ethics of Responsibility.

In the chapters listed below, the critical importance of both individual and societal responsibility for the building of a better healthier society is argued eloquently by Rabbi Sacks in several of his bestselling books.

Suggested Lesson Plan on Activism and Social Responsibility

The following lesson plan is a suggestion of how some of the resources contained in this unit could be incorporated into a 60-minute class period for a high-school age class. This will focus solely on antisemitism in the thought of Rabbi Sacks. If you wish to incorporate the broader secular sources and the other contemporary Jewish thinkers into your class, more than sixty minutes will be necessary.

hand globe social action responsibility protecting people society

Title: Activism and Social Responsibility

Download our 60-minute class for high-school age classes


Bet Nidrash on Activism and Social Responsibility

Having completed your study of this topic, you may wish to embark with your students on a “Bet Nidrash” on the topic, a practical project based on what you have learned and discussed. The term “Bet Nidrash is a play on the term Bet Midrash (study hall) replacing the word for study (Midrash) with the word Nidrash, which means “required” or an “imperative”. This suggests that one’s study should not be just for its own sake, but rather a means to an end, to improve oneself and the world around us.

Rabbi Sacks’ philosophy and writings were always focused not on the theoretical, but on the deeply practical. He urged for the ideas he wrote about to be implemented outside of the walls of the Bet Midrash, in the real world.

With your students leading the discussion and suggesting ideas, devise new ideas for a project in the wider community where they can be active and take a stand on local issues, national crises, and targeted areas. Identify local issues exist that need to be addressed. How can they improve society, even in seemingly small ways? How can they take the words of Rabbi Sacks and use them to make a practical difference in the community?

Ask them to draw up a proposal and, once approved, support them in following through and putting their plans into action.