The Contemporary Task of Judaism
A Bar Ilan Lecture
On 7th June 2018, Rabbi Sacks delivered a keynote lecture at Bar-Ilan University entitled “The Contemporary Task of Judaism”.
Please forgive me, but my enormous thanks to this wonderful university and its incredible team from its President, Ari Zaban, to its wonderful rector, Dr. Faust, to the incredible Jewish Studies team which is one of the finest in the world. And to, of course, Dr. Daphna Levin and the Levin Foundation for making this possible.
This is a great university. It is very special to me because it combines what I call the right and left hemispheres of the brain and what I call ‘Limudei Kodesh’ and generates creativity from that encounter.
Your Jewish Studies are terrific, but I congratulate you on your immense growth, your recent partnership with the United Nations on research into nanotechnology, your wonderful discovery of a new facial serum which although it won’t stop us getting older, will stop us looking older.
You’re into quantum computing. Einstein’s greatest mistake was to say, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” It turns out He does play dice with the universe to make it so much more interesting for us and all in all, I salute you for your incredible achievements and wish you ‘bracha v’hatzlacha bechol mas’aseh yedeichem’. May you long continue to flourish into the future.
Friends, I wonder if I could share with you the story that goes way back to the assimilationist tendency among Diaspora Jews.
And the story is told of the very, very assimilated Baron de Rothschild in France whose wife, the Baroness was about to have a child. And he was playing poker with his friends downstairs and they heard a cry from upstairs, “Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu!”
The Rothschild’s friend said, “Rothschild, go up and see your wife, she’s giving birth.” He said, “Now is not the time.” They carried on playing cards and then five minutes later, they hear a cry, “My God, my God.” They said, “Rothschild go up, your wife is giving birth.” He said, “Not yet.” They play for another five minutes. After five minutes, his wife cries out, “Gevalt.” He says, “Now is the time.”
Now I call that the Gevalt Theory of Jewish Identity. And it is alive and well today because if you ask people around the world, “How is the Jewish world? How is the State of Israel?”, what do we hear? Antisemitism has returned, Israel is isolated, the Argentinians are not even willing to play football with us, everyone’s upset that Jewish creativity has worked out how to imitate a chicken and win the Eurovision Song Contest. Diaspora Jewry are assimilating, Israeli Jewry is secularising. This I call the Oy Vey Theory of Jewish Identity. I kvetch, therefore I am.
I want to propose a different theory of Jewish identity which says the following, and we already heard a little bit of it from the Hebrew introduction to To Heal a Fractured World – LeRapeh Olam Shavur. That Jews have been around a long time and we have been to virtually every place on the face of the earth, but I venture to suggest that never before in the almost 4000 years of our history have we had simultaneously independence and sovereignty in Medinat Yisrael and freedom and equality in the Diaspora. We may have had one at one time or other and then the other, but never both at the same time. And this surely calls for a new and confident response by way of Jewish thought, and that is what I want to set as a challenge for the future tonight.
I’m going to just mention what I consider a curious incident. You remember Sherlock Holmes says to Dr. Watson, “I call your attention to the curious incident of the dog at night.” And Dr. Watson said, “But the dog did nothing at night.” And Sherlock Holmes says, “That was the curious incident.”
I want to call attention to another curious incident, actually three of them. Let me begin with this curious incident. We know the Medinat Yisrael has just celebrated its 70th birthday. I have just celebrated my 70th birthday. I could say now na’ar hayiti v’gam zakanti, but Israel stays young. But the fact is that the Zionist Movement was productive of more varied and ingenious and inspiring utopian forms of thought than perhaps any other in Jewish history.
We had Herzl seeing Zionism as a cure for antisemitism, Pinsker seeing it as the normalisation of the Jewish people, others seeing it as the Ir Miklat, the city of refuge for Jews everywhere. We had Ahad Ha’am seeing it as a form of cultural renewal. Aaron David Gordon seeing it as a renewal of our contact with the land in a Tolstoyan sense. We have Berdeshevsky seeing it as kind of a Nietzschean self-assertion. We had David Ben-Gurion seeing it as a return to history after 2000 years. We had Rav Kook seeing it as Atchalta De Ge’ulah. Everyone was thinking utopias and Baruch Hashem, most of them, most of them came true, but all of that was before the birth of the state in the last 70 years. Where has been the new vision of Zionism? That is the curious incident.
Why was there so much productive thought in anticipation and now Baruch Hashem, we live in the reality, the miracle of the reality, me’et Hashem hayta zot, he niflat be’eineinu. Where is the new vision? Where is the new thought about what Jewish life could and should be? That is the first curious incident.
The second curious incident is this: Just 50 years ago, there was real dialogue between the university and the world of the yeshivot. Think of the late Aaron Lichtenstein for instance, hatzal, who was a professor of English Literature, but one of the great gedolim of our time in machshava and halachah.
We think, also of blessed memory, Zichron Livrachah, the former President Rabbi Manny Rackman of Bar Ilan University who was a professor of law and a Rabbi and a great Ben-Torah… or my own Rabbi, l’havdil ben chaim l’chaim, who is celebrating his 90th birthday tonight… my own Rav, Rav Nahum Rabinowitz, of Yeshivah in Maale Adumim who was a professor of mathematics at the University of Toronto. Today the universities are strong, the Yeshivot are strong, but the connection between them is very weak.
I once said there’s a rare form of cerebral lesion in which the right and left hemispheres of the brain are both intact, but the corpus callosum that joins the two of them together is damaged. The result is a dysfunction of the personality. Today the right and left hemispheres of the Jewish brain are both intact, but the connection between them is broken. We are suffering a collective cerebral lesion and that is the second curious incident.
And the third curious incident is this. I am guilty, as many of us are, in taking enormous pride in the number of Jewish Nobel Prize winners. I love this. We have a wonderful atheist in England called Richard Dawkins. Do you know this man? A wonderful, wonderful man. I love him dearly. You know, I call him the leader of His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, and I’ve done some public conversations with him, but we began with a private conversation and I said Richard, “You believe that religion makes you stupid right?” He said, “Exactly.” I said, “In that case, how do you account for the fact that Jews have won 26% of Nobel prizes in physics, 27% in chemistry, 38% in economic?” He said, “Is that right? Really? How many are you?” “Up to 0.2 of 1% of the population of the world.” He thought for a minute and he said, “You know what, Jews must be different.” He goes around saying this. He really does. He’s very sweet.
He said to me, “How come?” I said, “Because the first thing a Jewish parent teaches a child is “Mah Nishtanah”, how to ask questions.” No other religion teaches kids to ask questions, they teach kids not to ask questions.
The physicist Isidor Rabi, when he won the Nobel Prize, said: “My mother made me a physicist. Because all the other kids came back from school at the age of five and their parents asked, “What did you learn in school today?” Of course my mother said, “Izzy, did you ask you good kasha [question] in school today?” My mother made me a scientist.”
I tell Richard Dawkins and all the others that we’re different but of course, I fail to disclose the truth: that 99% of those Nobel Prize winners are either completely estranged from their Jewish heritage or actively hostile towards it with some notable and wonderful exceptions, but that’s the general rule now.
The historian, I don’t know if you read his book, A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson. He has a wonderful phrase. He says, “Rabbinic Judaism was an ancient and highly effective machine for the production of intellectuals.” That’s what he writes. The fact that we have lost for the last two centuries 99% of our finest intellectuals, that is a tragedy, that is a curious incident.
A few weeks ago I was sitting doing an interview part of the BBC series I’m doing on the moral challenges of the 21st century. I was sitting in the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard speaking to the man I think is the world’s greatest sociologists Robert Putnam, Mr. ‘Bowling Alone’. We’re having this conversation about social capital. In the middle of this conversation, he suddenly says “You know what? I was a Lutheran and Lutheranism is all about the individual in connection with God but Judaism is about community and that’s why I converted and became Jewish.”
And how is it that non-Jews sometimes see the beauty of our faith and our own finest moments fail to see it? That is a curious incident.
Now I know all three of these curious incidents have complex historical causes but none of them make sense in the world where I repeat for the first time in a very long time, we have independence and sovereignty in Israel and freedom and equality in the Diaspora. This is something new. This is something on which you make a shehechiyanu. This is a new challenge and it is a challenge of Jewish thought as much as it is a challenge of Jewish life.
Jews over-achieve but Judaism under-achieves, because we don’t put that energy into making our limudei kodesh as creative as some of our sciences and human sciences. And I hear at night, when I cannot sleep, “Kol Dodi Dofek!” HaKadosh Baruch Hu is saying, “What more do you want? I have answered almost every prayer your Bubbes and Zaydes and theirs ever prayed for. What more do you want?” Now is the time for a renaissance in Jewish thought. Ad kan hakafah harishonah. End of part one.
Part two. I want to argue that now is quite specifically an Eit Ratzon. A time of great favour, an opportunity for Jewish thought and the reason is this:
Number one follows immediately from what I’ve said. I was in a very poignant moment, 5th of November, 1995 I think it was, flying to Israel for the Kevura of Yitzchak Rabin (Zichron u’verachah) and I was sitting between John Major and Tony Blair.
John Major was at that stage Prime Minister and Tony Blair was the leader of the opposition. And Tony Blair said something very poignant. He turned to John Major and he said, “You’re Prime Minister. I’m leader of the opposition. A Prime Pinister wakes up in the morning and says, “What shall I do today?” The leader of the opposition wakes up in the morning and says, “What shall I say today?””
For thousands of years, Jews woke up in the morning and said, “What shall I say today?” We were the leader of the opposition. When did we have power? When did we have sovereignty? When did we have atzma’ut? The Jewish returned to history. The Jewish returned to power. The whole miracle of Medinat Yisrael [the State of Israel] means that the very context of Jewish thought has changed.
For 2000 years, when Jews thought, they created a world in here, in the mind, in the heart, in the soul. For the first time, now, thanks to Medinat Yisrael, we can think and try to create a world out there in the Rishut Harabim. And that is really significant.
It means that, and it is the challenge that Sof Ma’aseh B’machshavat metchilah. We have to think first what kind of world we want to create for our grandchildren not yet born. Jewish thought becomes practical in a way that it hasn’t been for 2000 years. We are no longer sitting on the sidelines of history watching the others playing the game. We are in the arena. That is the first thing.
Number two. What is our first glimpse of Yaakov Avinu [Jacob our forefather]? He’s holding on to Esav’s heel. That for me is the image of Jewish thought in the past. We never made the game. We simply played a game created by others.
Read Philo, he is responding in essentially Hellenistic categories to a Hellenistic world. You read Moreh Nevuchim. He is essentially responding to a world created by the Islamic intellectuals and philosophers of his age based on their recovery of the Neo-platonic and neo-Aristotelian traditions. The Jewish thinkers of the 19th century and beyond, Herman Cohen, Rabbi Yitzchak Breyer, even Professor Shia Liebovitz, are commenting in some way on Immanuel Kant, Franz Rozensweig, Heigel. We are holding on to someone else’s here.
Today I say with total confidence, we have no need for that. Western civilisation itself the Enlightenment project is in deep crisis. Steven Pinker of Harvard would not need to have written a book called Enlightenment Now, his latest book, if enlightenment values were not under threat.
I know Steven and we’re good friends and he felt the threat to enlightenment values there is a clear sign all over the intellectual world of the West that the values and thought patterns of the establishment are crumbling. And I have to say despite the complex relationship between Jews and the Haskalah that there are certain values of the Haskalah that are very important and even very ruchni from a Jewish point of view as well market economy, liberal democracy, human rights. These are not things we should take lightly. There are achievements that we have to preserve and right now, Jews do not need to be Yaakov anymore. We can be Yisrael ki-sarita im-Elohim ve’im anashim vatuchal. We have been there. We have lasted. We have survived. We survived the rise and fall of Greece. We survived the rise and fall of Rome. We will survive the rise and possibly the fall of the Enlightenment. And we are still here in full strength. We don’t need to think on anyone else’s patents.
Right now, it’s not just that we need the world, which we do, but the world needs us. They need us to think deeply and authentically and then to share our discoveries with them and that is what we’re supposed to do.
You know, Israel creates some of the most wonderful technological advances in the world. My personal favourite, my ruchni favourite of all is a little app that many of you will know called Waze. Waze has done more for Shalom Bayit than any other invention. Do how many marriages fell apart because he shouted at her. “Why didn’t you look up directions?” And she shouted at him, “Why didn’t you stop and ask somebody?”
Do you think it would have taken Moishe Rabbeinu forty years in the wilderness if he’d have had Waze? But we are the world satellite navigation system. That is what we are in Am Israel.
We told the world through the 2.4 billion Christians and the 1.6 billion Muslims and the other secular humanists who do right, we showed them a Derech Bamidbar and we need to do so again.
Number one, this is a special time for us because we are in the arena of history and number two, because we need not feel inferior to any other Western intellectual tradition because we are strong and they, right now, are undergoing their own crisis of confidence.
Number three, I really and truly believe that that is what we are here for. You know, Heinrich Heiner the Jewish poet who converted to Christianity and on his deathbed, you know, they asked Heiner, “Are you worried where you’re going to go?” in the Olam Habah? and he said, “God will forgive me. It’s what he does for a living”, you know?
And I think… you know, to think is what is we do for a living. Theophrastus, the disciple of the Aristotle, when he was asked, “What are the Jews?” replied, “They are a nation of philosophers.” And I think that is a very beautiful thing, we are the people. We’re just launching now, we were just with President Rivlin this morning, Rabbi Benny Lau and myself, because we’re going to launch this 929, we’re going to launch it in English and make it a global thing. I thank President Rivlin for his full support. It’s a beautiful project. They said, “Say something about Bereishit, you know, just to launch the thing.” It’ll be in August, I think, we’re launching it. And I said, “How did how does the Torah tell the story of creation?”
Listen to this: The story of creation, the most powerful creation narrative in all of the history of literature says repeatedly “Vayomer Elokim “Yehi”, Vayaar Elokim ki tov.” God creates the universe with words. We are a religion. Yeah, we have holy places. We have holy people. We have holy times, but primarily, we are people of words. A people of holy words. And just as God creates the natural universe with words, we create or, God forbid, de-create the social universe with words. We are the people who know that words, concepts and ideas matter. We are the people who consistently throughout history have thought our way out of tragedy and found through our own internalised ways, some new pathway of hope. My great-grandfather Reb Aryeh Leib Frumkin, made alia in 1871. I am a fourth-generation yereid, but I hope to be back here sooner than later. I really do.
And he became a bit of a chalutz, I mean he was a Litvishe Rav, but after the pogroms in Russia in 1881 and laws in 1882 realised that Aliya was no longer for, you know yechidei segulah. It was an important legacy, an important imperative for the Jewish people as a whole and he became a kind of chalutz. He built the first house in a yishuv whose early settlers had left because they caught malaria. It was a malarial swamp by the Yarkon River. And the name they gave it, I think is very beautiful, will tell you what the chalutzim were like. They had this malarial swamp and it was clearly an emek achor, a valley of trouble, and they remembered the Prophet Hoshea who said “I will turn a valley of trouble into petach tikva, into a gateway of hope.” That’s why they called it Petach Tikva. And that has been the Jewish genius throughout.
Where everyone else sees a valley of trouble we open a Petach Tikva, and in a world of failed and failing States of extremism and divisivness in politics, not only here in the Middle East but even in Europe today and even in the United States today, we owe humanity the opening of the Petach Tikva and what begins in words and ideas in the mind can become a reality through Medinat Yisrael.
Those are my three reasons for saying this is an et ratzon, Our return to history, the crisis of Western enlightenment values, and number three, it’s what we are here for. We are the people whose job it is to be the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind.
And finally, let me just give you some examples of what I mean. Number one, let me turn to political theory for one moment. Back in 1993, we had a terrible case in Britain. Two ten-year-old boys he murdered a four-year-old child sent shockwaves through Britain. I wrote a little piece about it in the London Times. The next day we had a phone call from the Prime Minister from 10 Downing Street, could the Chief Rabbi come and sit with the Prime Minister? That is how our relationship began. Nothing to do with my being Chief Rabbi but because people were turning to Torah for a little guidance.
I sat for the first time with the Prime Minister, he said to me, “Jonathan, what do I do about crime?” I didn’t want to tell him that Hakadosh Baruch Hu asks Himself that question every single day. I said, “That’s a really good question, Prime Minister.” But it did make me think, you know, once I was being called on for advice on government policy, which lasted from then until the end of my Chief Rabbinate, I thought maybe, maybe I ought to kind of try and know a little bit of what I was talking about.
I try to avoid that in general, but to know what you’re talking about does help sometimes, especially if you’re advising others. I spent the next three years studying political theory, just to see, I mean I had a day job as Chief Rabbi but I wanted to know is there something distinctive about the Jewish approach to politics? Other than the sheer vindictiveness, I mean, and I discovered there was. And I have argued, I’ve written a couple of books about this, that there’s something unique about Jewish political theory in Tanach, and I want just briefly to recapitulate it, if you don’t understand it now we’ve done this as a little, what do you call it, whiteboard animation video. It’s called the Politics of Hope. It’s on YouTube, and on our website or on Facebook. It’s six minutes, you’ll understand it. I’ll do it three minutes, you won’t have a clue.
Here it is. We have a famous episode in Shmuel Aleph, Perek 8, where the people come to Shmuel and ask for a king. ‘You’re great but your kid’s not so great and we would like a king.’ And Shmuel gets very upset and Hashem knows he’s upset and He says, “Don’t worry. Don’t be upset. They’re not rejecting you, they’re rejecting me.” It’s the only moment in Tanach when Hashem speaks like a Jewish mother, you know? ‘Don’t worry, I’ll sit here and suffer, you know? ‘
And then Hashem says to Shmuel, “Tell them what’s going to happen and if they still want a king, give them a king.”
Now as Shmuel warns them, mishpat hamelech Then they’ll take your sons for his chariots and your daughters for his kitchens and all the rest of it. He’ll take the best of your lands and so on and so forth. The people say “no we still want a king“ and Hashem says, “Give them a king.”
Now commentators on this didn’t really work out … It’s a very puzzling passage because either the Torah is in favour of monarchy or it’s not in favour of monarchy. If it’s in favour of appointing a king, if it is a simple positive command, then why does God say that in fulfilling that command, they’re rejecting him?
And if monarchy is not approved of by the Torah, why does God say to Shmuel, “Give it to them anyway”? And there are various resolutions to this through the history of Jewish thought. However, the most powerful one by a million miles was given by the 19th century Galician Talmudic scholar Rav Zvi Hirsch Chajes in his little book Torat HaNevi’im in which he says that what is happening in chapter eight of 1 Samuel is a social contract. Exactly of the form described by Hobbes in the Leviathan and to some extent by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in which the people agreed to give up certain of their rights in return for a centralised power that will ensure the rule of law within them, and the defence of the realm from without.
And that is mishpat hamelech. Shmuel is telling them what they will have to give up in order to have this central power. And “are you willing voluntarily to do it?” And the people say “yes”. That chapter in Sefer Shmuel Aleph is the first recorded incident of a social contract, exactly as described by Thomas Hobbes. Thomas Hobbes being the birthplace of the modern theory of the State.
What is interesting, what is unique, is that that moment was only the second founding moment in Israel’s political history, not the first. The first took place centuries earlier where Moshe Rabbeinu and Am Yisrael stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and made a covenant with God. God having invited them ‘v’atem tihiyu li mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh’, [meaning], ‘I will make you a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation’) and He commands Moses to make that offer to the Israelites. And three times the Israelites agree, ‘kol asher amar Hashem na’aseh’, they said in chapter 19, chapter 24 and finally they said ‘kol asher amar Hashem na’aseh v’nishmah’. Three times they agree to it and that is a covenant, which preceded the social contract of the state.
And what is the difference between a contract and the covenant? You have a contract, imagine, you have a contract with your mechanic to mend your car or with your plumber to to unblock the drains. You know, I had a friend in Yerushalayim, who used to say to me, “I have a plumber, his name is Mashiach. I await him daily and he never turns up.”
You know, you make a contract for a specific purpose, he’s following his self-interest, I’m following my self-interest. We do an exchange. He has a service that I want. I have the money that he wants. We do a deal and there’s nothing more. We’re two self-interested individuals who make an exchange for mutual gain.
A covenant is not like that. A covenant is like a marriage. Two ‘I’s come together to be a we. A covenant is something in which two or more parties, each respecting the independence and dignity of the other, come together to form a bond of loyalty and love, to do together what neither can do alone. And that is what happened at Har Sinai. And if we ask, “What is it that God cannot do on his own?” The answer is simple: God on His own, cannot live within the human heart. That needs our consent.
Covenants are transformative. Contracts are merely beneficial. Contracts are about interest. Covenants are about identity. And the result is that Judaism, unlike any other political system I know, (although the American system comes very close to it), has this dual founding. The social covenant that creates a society and a social contract that creates a state. That is elite political theory.
I wrote a couple of books on this. Whenever I speak about this political theory, there is enormous interest from non-Jews, from the British government, from American think tanks. It is taken very seriously. Here in Medinat Yisrael, we need to develop that unique political theory.
You know that President Rivlin has spoken about the four minorities in Israel, the chilonim, the dati’im leumi’im, the charedim and the Palestinians who have no shared narrative. That means there has to be a renewal of the Covenant. You do that. The Covenant was renewed by Moses at the end of his life, in parshat Nitzavim. By Joshua in chapter 24 at the end of his life. By Josiah, by Chizkiyahu Hamelech, Yeshayahu Hamelech, by Ezra and Nechemiah in Nechemiah chapters 8 and 9.
Covenants can be renewed, that’s the incredible thing about the Jewish political tradition. We know British politicians and American ones know that covenant is an essential idea they have to take seriously if they are to reunite their deeply divided populations. But this is a Jewish idea. You won’t find it anywhere else. It’s not in Plato. It’s not in Aristotle and it’s not in any of the modern political thinkers. Now that we have stated an independence, let’s see a renewal of Jewish political philosophy and let me say this: that I learned this from an Adam Gadol who taught here at Bar-Ilan University. The late professor Daniel Elazar of Blessed Memory, who wrote all the standard texts on this. And Bar-Ilan should be aware that their contribution to political thought, Jewish political thought, is immense because of his work and the work of all those who continue there. So that is the first thing.
Number two: Let me give you an example from psychology or psychoanalysis. I mean psychoanalysis, of course, it’s the Jewish monopoly, isn’t it? All the early psychoanalysts were Jews, Freud, Adler. What was his name? Otto Rank, whose real name birth name was Otto Rosenberg. Melanie Klein, you name it, Jung was the token ethnic in all of this, but otherwise every psychoanalyst was Jewish. I say this is no coincidence because if you’re not Jewish, who needs a psychoanalyst in the first place?
Now, I love all of these people. I am not going to take one iota away from the revolutionary impact of Freud and everything he did, but I do argue that in one sense, Freud and his followers were using a very Greek model. Oedipus Lius. This is a very Greek myth-based narrative of the human condition and the result is, Freud’s essentially tragic vision of humanity. Not a million miles away from Spinoza’s vision of humanity. And this is fine and it’s valid and it’s powerful and it’s creative and it’s original, but it’s not the last word on the subject.
And the reason that it isn’t the last word on the subject is because of the work of three outstanding psychotherapists, two of whom are still alive and still, Baruch Hashem, working, the late Viktor Frankl of Blessed Memory, founder of logotherapy. The l’havdil ben chaim l’chaim Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive behavioural therapy, about whom my Covenant and Conversation is about this week. And Martin Seligman, the inventor of positive psychology and he has made such an impact that they brought him to Britain to come into schools. Can you imagine Brits wanting to be happy? This is the most counter-intuitive thing I’ve ever come across. I mean, we take great pride in being the most miserable nation on earth and it’s a very beautiful sight to see but even they invite Marty Seligman.
Now the thing about Frankl and Beck and Seligman is these are essentially hope filled psychotherapists that built on the pursuit of meaning that built only on actually, I’m embarrassed to say this, please don’t say it in my name, but what they are is secular versions of the Alte Rabbi, Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi…Sefer Tanya] He held, as they hold, that if you change the way you think about the world, you will change the way you feel about the world. And if that changes, the way you act in the world will change also. And that brings back human destiny into human hands again and ceases not as the playthings of fate of Moira or Ananke that the Greeks believed in this blind inexorable fate.
And this is really, really powerful and as I say, for instance, I did a bit of cognitive behavioural therapy on this week’s parshat hashavuah. The m’raglim [the 10 spies], they had never met Aaron Beck, so they do all the cognitive mistakes that Aaron Beck’s talmid David Burns has done on these cognitive misreadings. You know, catastrophic thinking, the worse always happens, the either/or thinking, it’s either black or white, it’s either totally impossible or totally possible and an inability to see nuance.
I mean, Jews should see nuance, right? Two Jews in the Heim used to meet and one would say, “Nu?” And the other one would say, “Nu, nu?” And the other one would answer “Nu, nu, nu.” And that’s how we get the word ‘nuance’.
I mean, I’m not going to spend anymore time on this but if you have a chance to see my English Covenant & Conversation this week, you’ll see we go through all the David Burns categories of cognitive errors and you’ll see that all of them apply to the 10 spies.
I believe that this is not an unimportant thing because I think we still need to preserve a concept of human dignity, human freedom and human uniqueness b’tzelem udemut Elokim, because increasingly, people are going to ask in the 21st century: with the development of artificial intelligence and super intelligence, what is it that makes us human?
Yuval Harari ask at the end of Homo Deus, is it intelligence or is it consciousness? If it’s intelligence, he says, we’re lost already. And the truth is, that Yuval Harari uses this phrase in Homo Deus. In retrospect, we may appear as no more than a minor ripple in the cosmic data flow.
Now if that’s how we think of humanity, we are not going to save humanity, but these therapists have told us and reminded us in contemporary secular terms, what it really means to believe that we really are b’tzelem udemut Elokim, because like God, and like only Him, we can imagine a future that never has been, and actually act together to bring it about. And those things are important.
Number three, ethics. Have any of you studied ethics? This used to be my subject and so I get a bit technical here but the most important book of ethics published in my lifetime was written by a man called Alisdair McIntyre. It was called ‘After Virtue’. Alisdair McIntyre argues that the enlightenment project failed. The great project of the enlightenment to find a secular basis for morality.
He said really the enlightenment came up with three options. There was David Hume and the Scottish enlightenment, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson and others who said that morality is based on the moral sense, our emotions. We have feelings of empathy and sympathy and compassion and fellow feeling and those are the basis of morality.
Immanuel Kant who held a deontological approach to ethics. Ethics as a matter of duty and the categorical imperative, which we can arrive at through reason. And then Jeremy Bentham who said forget about reason, forget about emotions, look at the results of what we do. Utilitarianism, does our act produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number?
McIntyre argues not that these views are wrong but that they are completely incompatible with one another and the result is we can never make a moral decision because we never have a way of preferring a Humian or a Kantian or a Benthamite solution to any problem, hence all moral argument is interminable.
Now, thus far Alisdair McIntyre, a genius and somebody that I regard as one of the gedolim of our time. But I beg, and this is the first time that I’ve ever said this in public, to disagree with him. He’s a Catholic, he’s entitled to be pessimistic, you know? Original sin… it’s okay. We’re not like that. We’re much more cheerful and I want to propose something that will solve McIntyre’s dilemma.
I don’t know whether you ever noticed this but Tanach contains, at the very least, three completely different moral voices. Completely different. And I will call them very simply, Torat Kohanim, the priestly voice, Torat HaNevi’im, the prophetic voice and Torat Melachim, the kingly or royal voice. These are three different voices in Tanach. And they are three different mindsets and they use different vocabularies and they see the world in different ways.
The Kohanim see the world…the key verbs for the Kohanim… are l’havdil or lehorot. Havdallah is a priestly activity, making divisions. And lohorot is a priestly word. That is why Torah tells us that the priestly voice is the predominant one in the Chumash.
The key polar opposites for the Kohen are Kodesh and Chol, Tahor, Tamei. And a Kohen lives in a world of what I call sacred ontology. If you haven’t got a clue what that means, neither have I. Don’t worry about it, let’s move on.
The Nevi’im operated on a different kind of vocabulary. The key words for the Prophets, as men will remind themselves six times a week, are tzedek, mishpat, chessed and rachamim. Those are the key prophetic words. They are into not what is holy and unholy, they are not into boundary maintenance and putting everything into its right boxes. They’re into personal relationships. Our personal relationship with Hashem, our personal relationship with our fellow human beings. That is the mindset.
And they talk in different languages. When Prophets speak about redemption from sin, they use the verb lashuv. T’shuvah is a prophetic word. When kohanim talk about sin, what do they talk about? Kaparah and taharah. They use a different vocabulary for atonement and purifications, different conceptions of what t is. Of course, Chazal came along and combined them into a coherent world view but in the Biblical age, they were different.
What is Torat Melachim? The answer is chochmah. The key word for kings is wisdom. Wisdom is universal. Wisdom is about Elokim, not about Hashem. It’s about God, Creator of the universe, it’s not about Hashem, with whom we have an interpersonal dialogue. Chochmah is about reason, rather than revelation. Chochmah is the voice in Sefer Mishlei, in Sefer Kohelet, in Sefer Iyov, in some of the Psalms. It is a different world altogether. And the incredible thing is, that Tanach is a conversation scored for those three voices. It is a study in moral complexity.Now, this is interesting.
And they exist to this day. Halachah is the world of Kohanim. Aggadah is the world of the Prophets in a post-prophetic age. Jewish philosophy is Torat Melachim. It is the universals of the Jewish faith.
And the fascinating thing is that if you translate this back into secular terms, you will see that Torat Kohanim is Kantian. It’s about our duties. It’s about the categorical imperative. It’s about deontology. Torat Neviim, which is about tzedek and mishpat and chessed and rachamim, is exactly like David Hume and Adam Smith’s account of morality which is about our feelings for, and relationships with, other humans. It’s about moral emotions. And Torat Melachim is the world of Bentham. A king has to decide on a policy which has the best possible consequences. Doesn’t matter about your emotions and it doesn’t matter about your duties. It’s what is best for the people as a whole. Kohen Melachim are Benthamite utilitarians.
It turns out that Alisdair McIntyre’s belief that if you have three different moral voices, your whole world collapses is not true. We’ve had those three different voices in Judaism for 3000 years and our world hasn’t yet collapsed. That you can actually have a theory of moral complexity.
It turns out that the basic philosophical mistake, and it has been there from Plato to this day, is to think the moral life is simple when in fact, the moral life is irreducibly complex.
Can I be indiscreet for a moment? We came in late last night, and our flight was a bit delayed, so we watched a film. I hope this doesn’t shock you. Rabbis sometimes watch films. I don’t know if you’ve seen this film. Have you seen it? It’s called ‘The Post’.
Rabbi Sacks: It’s Steven Spielberg’s film. This is a film about a moral dilemma, right? It’s about Katharine Graham, the owner of the Washington Post and Ben Bradlee, the editor of the Washington Post. Should they or shouldn’t they publish the Pentagon papers supplied by Daniel Elsberg that told the story of the coverup of successive American governments and presidents of the failure of America in the war on Vietnam.
And the question was, should she or shouldn’t she publish? When the Supreme Court had already issued a junction against the New York Times, preventing them from publication.
Now, what do you do in a situation like that? Answer, you get Steven Spielberg to make a film about it. I mean, how do you make a decision like that, when you are risking your entire reputation and your entire life, where you are risking the future of the Washington Post and thus, the legacy that you were charged with continuing. You risk forfeiting the livelihood of every journalist who works for you. You risk landing up in prison, destroying not only your career but your reputation. Do you go ahead and publish, or don’t you?
Now, let us supply a simple introductory course in ethics. What does Kant tell us? What does Hume tell us? What does Bentham tell us? Well, Hume can’t tell us because [his philosophy is] ‘follow your emotions’. And what do your emotions say here? The answer is, they’re conflicting emotions, right? You’ve got a loyalty to your team and your paper but you’ve got a loyalty to the truth, so loyalty doesn’t help you. Forget Hume.
What about Kant? What are your duties? Well, you’ve got duties to the people who work for you, you’ve got duties to the public, you’ve got duties to the American government. You’ve got a conflict of duties. Goodbye Kant, he can’t help you.
Well, let’s turn to Bentham, let’s see what the consequences are. The essence of a dilemma like that is, you don’t know what the consequences are until you’ve made the decision, so the consequences can’t help you make the decision because you don’t know what they’re going to be. Goodbye Kant, goodbye Bentham, goodbye Hume.
None of those help. Why? Because all of them assume the moral life is simple. The moral life isn’t simple and Tanach is the clarion call to that. What you would do is you would get all the Kohanim, all the Nevi’im and all the Melachim into the room and let them argue together. Yeah, Descartes says, “I think therefore I am.” Jews say, “We argue, therefore we are.”
And who would win that argument? Tell me. Who would win that argument?
The Kohanim would say, “Hang on, I’ve got to look it up in Shulchan Aruch.” The Kings would say “besser nicht” but the winning voice would be the Prophet who says, “Speak truth to power.” And that’s what Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee did, and that is why a Jewish account of moral dilemmas is more true to life than any abstract, philosophical theory.
So there it is. It turns out that we do have something to say to the world as a whole, that’s intellectually new and challenging and it is the challenge I throw out to you.
I’ve tried to show how Jewish thought can make a contribution, not just to us as Jews but to the world. And we no longer need to be a footnote to Plato, or a commentary on Kant. We can do so in our own right. And I’ve tried to show how we can do this in political theory, in psychotherapy and in moral philosophy.
And yes, I know, Israel has other things to worry about. We know that only too well. There’s a battle to be fought with Hamas and Hezbollah and Iran, and that takes precedence over everything else and we know this but I want you to just think back, and these are my closing words, to 100 years ago in the trenches of the First World War.
Do you know what was happening there? What does Matthew Arnold call it? When ignorant armies clash at night? There are two armies trying to murder one another and in the trenches are two young Jewish guys. One is called Ludwig Wittgenstein. The other one is called Franz Rosenzweig. While everyone else is beating the hell out of each other, they’re both scribbling away on postcards. Ludwig Wittgenstein, in the trenches of the First World War, writes, on postcards, the book that became Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
Franz Rosenzweig, in the other trenches, is writing on postcards the book that became The Star of Redemption. I have to tell you, whether the choice is between two armies bent on killing each other and two Jews writing for philosophical masterpieces, I’m glad I belong to the Jewish people. Because what Jewish thought does, without minimising any of the pain or tears of the human situation, is to show us and to show the world that even from the gates of hell, you can find a path to heaven.
First you have to think it and then you live it. And that is our task. To Hakodesh Baruch Hu, and to the world. I simply say, Maher ehov ki va moed! Let’s get on with it, for the time has come.
Thank you very much indeed.