Interview at the Kyiv Jewish Forum
Virtual Conference 2020
Rabbi Sacks was interviewed at The Kyiv Jewish Forum 2020, co-organised by the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine and the Jerusalem Post Group. The Forum brings prominent Jewish leaders from Israel and around the globe in a virtual conference to discuss and debate complex world and regional challenges facing the Jewish community. The presenter is Yaakov Katz, Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Post.
We are honoured to have with us today Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and one of the world’s leading and most respected moral voices. Rabbi Sacks, I want to start with you with this period that we’re in today. It’s been six months, over six months, since this virus has completely changed the world as we know it. What’s the lesson in all of this for mankind? What should we as a people be contemplating during this period?
First and foremost, it has taught us how very vulnerable we are. In those words of Rev Nachman of Breslov, kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tzar me’od, life is a very narrow bridge. This tiny, little mutant virus has laid low the entire world. And we were thinking, in the words of Psalm 30, ani amarti b’shalvi, bal amot l’olam [Ps. 30:7], I’m secure against everything, I’m part of the most technologically advanced civilisation the world has ever known, I am secure. We suddenly realise we are not secure. Number two, we have experienced the essential unity of human fate. Everyone has been exposed to the same danger. Almost every country has adopted the same policies. There are no boundaries that this particular virus recognises, and therefore this should lead us to a sense of the unity of the human condition. I’m not sure that it will, because I don’t think our political leadership is necessarily up to it, but we should have seen how all humanity is one.
I think the third thing is something basically Jewish, which is: instead of looking back and lamenting the past, the most important thing we have now to do is to focus on healing and the future. And I know that labs in Israel have been doing this. They have been in Oxford, here in Britain. We really have to – God has given us the ability to cure many and most diseases, and we now have to do it here.
Rabbi, in your most recent book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, which came out just recently, you make the case that society has undergone a cultural climate change. And tying into what you had just said, it’s also about in which this changes where individualism has been eroded, individualism has taken over and has eroded collective morality. How does this tie in also to what we’re seeing right now? People care more about themselves, they care less about the collective. This is also part of what we’re experiencing.
A hundred percent. There was a Catholic historian called Paul Johnson who wrote a book called A History of the Jews, one of the best histories of Jews ever written. And I wondered how this Catholic had come to learn so much more about Judaism than most Jews know. And Elaine, my wife, and I invited him for dinner one time, many years ago. And I said, “Paul, you must have spent years studying Jews and Judaism. What most impressed you about them?” And this is what he said. He said, “There have been many individualistic cultures in history, fourth century BC Athens, second century Rome, the contemporary West. There’ve been many collectivist cultures in history, Soviet Union, Communist China.” He said, “I only know of one case that managed both at the same time, and that is Judaism. It teaches individual responsibility and collective responsibility.”
Now, that was the insight of a Catholic looking from the outside. Of course, what he was doing was giving a translation of Hillel’s famous dictum, im ein ani li, mi li, If I’m not for me, who will be. But uchshe’ani l’atzmi, mah ani? If I’m only for myself, what am I? [Pirkei Avot 1:14] Western civilisation was built for four centuries, the history of freedom, on a balance between the “We” and the “I”, the “competitive I” and the “cooperative we”.
However, in the last 50 years we’ve lost this. You can actually see this in a brilliantly simple way. There is something called a Google Ngram. A Google Ngram is a search that Google do of the entire literature that it has digitised. It has everything published, for instance, in English, since 1800s. So you can just rapidly such that entire literature for the appearance of certain words. And if you ask it to explore the balance between the word “I” and the word “we”, it stays in balance from 1800 to 1964. Suddenly in 1964, the “I” starts rising rapidly and the “we” starts declining. And that’s when we became an “I society”.
Interesting. How does this play out, though? And I think it does play out all over the place, on social media, in politics, our education system, the cancel culture that we see now. How can we avoid disaster? How can society regain the moral compass that it once had? You mentioned 1964. I don’t know if that’s the cutoff point, but we once had the sense of working together, being unified, working as a collective. We no longer have that. And we see that the way people fight, the mud-slinging that goes on across the board. Is there a hope?
Sure. First of all, there’s always a hope. I call Judaism, “the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind.” Hope is our specialty. Is there a hope? Well, it’s very interesting. What happened through this pandemic was the most curious – I don’t know if anyone noticed this – the most curious empirical test of “I versus we” ever, because already in March, it was announced that wearing masks did not protect you against others, but it did protect others against you. So wearing a mask was a measure of altruism. It said you cared about others as much as you cared about yourself. Now, you can go around the States, you go around Britain, and you see how many people voluntarily wear masks. And the answer is very few. They see it as an infringement of personal liberty. Those societies have become the most “I” societies in all of history, and it’s showing in mask-wearing.
But you can see it much more dramatically. And that is, if you look at the countries that have done well with the pandemic and the countries that have done badly, Britain and America are amongst the worst in the world.
America has 6 million people infected, 190,000 deaths, both of them far and away the worst in the world. Secondly, Britain has one of the highest rates of deaths per million in the population, along with one of the highest economic falls, 21% drop in economics, which is the worst in Europe and almost the worst in the world. So these great civilisations, America and Britain, the countries that fought for and won freedom in the 20th century, are now among the world’s worst because they’ve forgotten the “We”.
Now, I hope that when you write books like this and people write articles in The Jerusalem Post, or what have you, if you speak loudly about it and tell them, “This is the problem,” you can recover a sense of “We”. Because right now, for instance, matters in America are so fraught that I have friends in America say they fear civil war.
Well, let me ask you on that point, Rabbi Sacks, your thoughts specifically about the upcoming presidential election. The situation’s on fire. We see images coming out of Portland or Kenosha, Wisconsin, or other places across the United States, a country that seemed to the beacon of hope and light, of democracy and freedom, that now is more divided maybe than ever before in history. And I think that from an Israeli perspective, we look at this also, and we’re concerned – has Israel become a political football in America today?
Yeah, you can’t let a country become fragmented and divided, because as Abraham Lincoln said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand”, cannot actually let this happen. And it seems to me that America is the one country, more than any other in the entire world, who based its politics on Tanach, on the Hebrew Bible.
It has taken the concept of covenant, brit, more seriously than any other country. It wasn’t the only one in the 17th century, but it did. The Mayflower Compact was a covenant. John Winthrop aboard the Arbella in 1630 was a covenant. You look through the American presidential inaugurals, they either talk about it or hint at a covenant, or they use some Jewish reference, like Clinton’s second inaugural: “We have come to the promised land. Let us make it a land of new promise.” What did Lincoln call the American people? “The almost chosen people”.
They model their history on us. And how did we, at the beginning of Jewish time, create a sense of unity? Number one, by having a story that we all share. That’s the story we tell on Pesach. And even though we have four children, wise, wicked, simple and can’t ask, and they all read it differently, nonetheless, they’re reading the same story. The first thing a nation has to do is have a story. Number two, it has to have a day in the year when it tells that story and it celebrates being Jewish or being American, the way we have on Pesach.
And thirdly, it then has to empower young people to do something to build that society in accordance with our ideals. And no country, I think, right now does that as effectively as Israel. Through Tzahal, through sherut leumi, every young Israeli somehow serves the Jewish people. And that makes young Israelis more impressive than almost any young people I encounter.
So on that note, what I want to ask you is about Jewish peoplehood, which I know is a topic that’s very close to your heart. You’ve spoken about and written about and worked for that for decades. But it seems that, sadly, today there is this maybe unprecedented divide between Jews of Israel and Jews of the diaspora. And one recent example of this was when the famous American actor, Seth Rogen, was quoted saying, “Israel makes no sense in today’s world.” What are your thoughts of this? Can we bridge that divide? Can we reach and impact the hearts of people like Seth Rogan? Or is that a lost cause today?
Well, I’m sure Seth Rogan is a lovely human being, and I’m sure he’s deeply wise, but I’m inclined to say, “Seth, stick to the acting.” Do something you know something about. I mean, for heaven’s sake, the Jewish people are a people. We have a history that is twice as old as the history of Christianity, three times as old as the history of Islam. And if you want to feel that history, live that history, then you have to go to the land where our people was born and where, in our living memory, it was reborn. If it’s not for the State of Israel and the Land of Israel, what are we? We are what? The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie? I mean, for heaven’s sake, there has to be something more serious than flip attitudes from somebody in New York.
Rabbi, we have one minute left and I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you, when this period of time of the month of Ellul, the Jewish High Holidays, what do you say to the millions of Jews around the world who will be celebrating these holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, of Succot, some of the most festive holidays in our Jewish calendar, in the confines of our homes, without synagogue, without family meals, without all of what these chaggim usually bring to us? What message can you give them of inspiration, of hope in this time?
Well, first of all, we are the most communal perhaps of all religions, so we’ve been hit hardest by this inability to be together. But Jews have been incredibly creative. We’ve done a lot of communicating by Zoom. It ain’t all gloom if you’ve got Zoom, that’s my position. And it’s been great because what Zoom does is recreate something that’s absolutely fundamental to Jewish life. The buzzword of our time will be globalisation. And for most people, it’s the newest of the new. But in truth, since the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews have been scattered right across the world, and yet they saw themselves and were seen by others as one people. They were the world’s first global people. And that’s what we have to do right now. It will be a moment when we’re going to have to celebrate Rosh Hashanah a little bit in the mind, not just in the flesh. The Torah gives two descriptions of Rosh Hashanah.
It calls it Yom Teruah, the day when you blow shofar. But in another part of the Torah it calls it Zichron Teruah, the day you remember the blowing of the shofar. And so if you are not able to hear the shofar, though I hope you will be able to, but if you’re not able, do what you can to remember and think about the places where Jews have blown shofar in the past.
I remember 1968 when I was in New York and heard the Lubavitcher Rebbe blow shofar. I will remember the time I took the Archbishop of Canterbury to Auschwitz on the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, and I blew shofar. You think of the refuseniks. You think of the Holocaust survivors.
Somehow or other, the shofar is a voice of penitence. By all means, it’s a sound of tears. But it’s also the sound of Jewish defiance. We have defied fate. That is what makes us the strongest people on earth and it is what makes us so important to the rest of the earth. May I wish all your readers in The Jerusalem Post, all the members of the Kyiv Jewish Forum, a special personal wish to Chief Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, and to Klal Yisrael everywhere, I wish you all k’tivah v’chatimah tovah, may it be a year of good, of blessing, of safety and of health for us all.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, it was a pleasure and an honour to have you with us today. Thank you very much.
Okay. Rabbi, great, thank you so much for being with us. We really appreciate it. And g’mar v’chatimah tovah, k’tivah v’chatimah tovah to you as well. Thank you.
Thank you so much.