An Exclusive Interview with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

ON MORALITY AND CORONAVIRUS 

Sitting by his computer in the loft-come-office of his North London home, in his tieless white shirt and rimless glasses, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks had agreed to talk to me about his new book, Morality, in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, and the greatest challenges facing humanity in the 21st Century. He began by reflecting, “Genesis begins the human story with isolation. And God steps in and helps us out of that isolation.”

Sacks’ latest book, Morality, was published in the UK in March 2020. Ever- fascinated by his expansive perspectives, I had pre-ordered the book, and it arrived promptly the following day, thanks to billionaire Jeff Bezos and his team at Amazon Prime. I read the book that week, but it wasn’t until a few months later, in preparation for my interview, that I noticed just how timely its messages had been. For a book whose first chapter describes loneliness and social isolation, whose primary concern is ‘cultural climate change’: the movement from ‘We to I’, and whose suggested remedy is a return to the covenant of cooperation and collective responsibility held up by a moral code, I quipped to Rabbi Sacks that these words had been somewhat prophetic in their timing. 

Offering him the chance to reflect on the book post-Corona, he began by saying, “You know, life is with people, life isn’t with Zoom! I love Zoom, but what was the first thing God says about human beings? ‘It’s not good for us to be alone’.” (Genesis 2:18)

He continued, “There were some conspicuous examples of people who acted according to what they thought was right for them without thinking what was right for others in the nation.” On the other hand, he noted the exceptional ‘We behaviours’ that had come to our rescue in our time of need, “The medical teams, the nurses, the delivery people, the people who kept the supermarket shelves full; all the ‘We people’ suddenly made life possible and I do hope that going forward we will recognise them much more than we did until now. Because the We people do not tend to be the best paid people in society and yet they deserve to be.” 

ON COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY

When pressed on how to find the balance between individual identity and communal responsibility, he answered me with a story. On a cold evening in the early 2000s, Rabbi Sacks and his wife Elaine sat at their dining table with an esteemed guest, discussing his particular area of expertise: the Jews. Their guest was Catholic historian, Paul Johnson, who had written the acclaimed book “A History of the Jews”. Rabbi Sacks was keen to determine what had most impressed Johnson about the Jews. Johnson’s reply was telling, “Somehow or other, you have successfully combined the concept of individual responsibility and collective responsibility”.  

Rabbi Sacks was no stranger to these ideas. In his 2015 book, Not in God’s Name, he made the observation that the West had become the most individualistic era in all of human history. He wrote, “Its idol is the self, its icon the ‘selfie’, and its operating systems the free market and the post-ideological, managerial liberal democratic state. In place of national identities we have global cosmopolitanism. In place of communities we have flash-mobs. We are no longer pilgrims but tourists. We no longer know who we are or why.”  

As he sat there at his dining table, pondering the words of Paul Johnson, he thought to himself, is this what Hillel the Elder meant when he famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?” (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14)). 

Rabbi Sacks looked up into his webcam directly at me and said thoughtfully, “For us, the tzibbur [community] and the yachid [individual] go hand in hand, you can't have one without the other. And we should be aware that the ability to maintain that balance is very rare indeed.” He paused, and said, “Somehow, during the pandemic when we're all in our bubbles, there’s not a single shul that I can think of that was not finding ways of helping those who needed help.”

ON EGOISM

This idea, of ensuring our focus is aimed at others, is essential in achieving a healthy society, but also in acquiring a healthy sense of self. Rabbi Sacks smiled and noted, “My favourite passage for the first-person singular is the second chapter of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). Remember, King Solomon is talking about all the things he builds and acquires. And what happens as a result of that that attitude? All he can say is ‘it's all meaningless.’”

Rabbi Sacks had another story to back up that claim. In the summer of 1968, he had his first private meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994). Just before his turn to enter came, one of the hassidim in 770 Eastern Parkway, the Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters, told him a story that had just taken place. Somebody wrote a letter to the Rebbe. It read, “I need the Rebbe’s help. I am very depressed. I am very low. I find little meaning in any anything. I do mitzvahs and I don't feel it. I pray but I can't concentrate. I need the Rebbe’s help.” Rabbi Schneerson gave him the most perfect reply and it didn't take a single word. He put a circle around the first word of every sentence “I”, that was the problem. And as Rabbi Sacks told me, “If every sentence begins with the word I, of course you're going to be depressed and miserable, because life is about more than I.”

ON STORYTELLING 

This got me thinking that on an individual level we can all do our best to be less focused on our own personal needs, but what about on a communal or national level? Surely religious groups or political entities must, by definition, be primarily concerned with the needs of their community. How do we navigate divisions between groups and begin, as the tagline of Morality reads, ‘restoring the common good in divided times’?

For Rabbi Sacks, the answer always lies in the traditions and teachings of Judaism. He said, “The situation is really serious; that Britain and America have fallen apart in different ways over Brexit and over the 2016 presidential election. You know how we do this as Jews? We do it on Pesach: we tell our story, and it is part of what makes all of us Jewish.”

He continued, “Seder night is the world's oldest way of maintaining a sense of national identity. You know what it is to be a Jew because you eat the bread of affliction and taste the bitter herbs of slavery.” 

ON NATIONAL IDENTITY

In fact, Rabbi Sacks sounded the warning to other nations on this very point in his 2007 book, The Home We Build Together, which is about creating a collective story and a national identity, despite the fact that we are culturally and religiously diverse. That book made its mark, with two Prime Ministers, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, remarking that the book helped shape their thinking on these issues.

Rabbi Sacks opined, “Britain and America have failed to tell their story.” He did find some solace in the attempts of the acclaimed playwright, Lin-Manuel Miranda, in his Broadway musical, Hamilton. He said, “It tells the story of one of the founding fathers of America, Alexander Hamilton, in an incredibly modern way, using rap music for instance. And a lot of the characters, like Washington and Jefferson, are either black or Puerto Rican. He has made this incredibly inclusive and it's the classic American story but told in such a new way that it really is remarkable!” Rabbi Sacks suggested this should be compulsory viewing for every school in America. 

The identity of a group is granted to those who tell their own story. Rabbi Sacks was keen to point out that, “Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th Century philosopher, says quite simply that Moses was the greatest political leader who ever lived because he endowed people with an identity that it kept throughout thousands of years of exile and dispersion.” 

ON BLACK LIVES MATTER

Perhaps with a strong sense of identity such as this, the rioting this summer in America may have been avoided. He suggested, “You would not need people rioting to say black lives matter. Black lives do matter! So make sure that you have a way of showing this to the nation at least one day every single year without fail.” 

Rabbi Sacks, true to his beliefs, has suggested to Prime Ministers that Britain make Remembrance Sunday into a national day of Britishness. By televising a live BBC production in the Royal Albert Hall, where the morning would be about remembering those who fought in the wars and lost their lives, and the afternoon would focus on peace and the future, we can pass on the flame of our heritage to our children. 

ON TWITTER, WILEY AND HATE SPEECH

The words we use about ourselves are the key. We can convey our sense of identity by describing our shared story over and over again. In fact, words have been the subject of every media outlet in recent weeks and months. The discussion about where to draw the line between freedom of speech and hate speech re-emerged when British grime artist, Wiley, had his Twitter account suspended and eventually deleted, after a 24-hour antisemitic rampage. Rabbi Sacks was emboldened enough by this, as were we at Aish UK, to boycott Twitter and Facebook to mark his protest. I took the opportunity to ask his thoughts on freedom of speech and his answer was emphatic. He said, “We all have freedom of driving, but we do not allow dangerous driving. So it's no inhibition on freedom of driving to say you cannot drive in such a way that endangers others.” The same, he says, it true for speech, “We are totally and unconditionally committed to freedom of speech, but not to hate speech, because you cannot use speech to harm other people in other groups.” 

We face a unique problem in the 21st Century with keyboard warriors hiding behind their screens, feeling emboldened to say what they want, even if it is harmful to others. Rabbi Sacks likened hate speech to the Jewish idea of lashon hara and used this as an example of how to deal with its perpetrators. He remarked, “Lashon hara has to be brought to public attention. In biblical times the consequence of hate speech was being afflicted with tzara’at (leprosy); because when you try to speak ill of someone anonymously and in private, the public must be made aware.” 

“It's about not allowing people to hide behind a cloak of anonymity. This had one form 3,000 years ago, and it has other forms on Twitter and Instagram today. If you can hide behind anonymity, then social media has a ‘disinhibition effect’: you can be much ruder to people than you would be face to face.”

ON ANTISEMITISM

As someone who has led hundreds of students on Aish UK trips through the gates at Auschwitz, infamously emblazoned with the words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ or ‘Work Sets You Free’, I am acutely aware of the ever-evolving scourge of antisemitism. Throughout the ages, Jews have been blamed for all the world’s problems. At times, the Jews were thought to be too rich, owning and controlling global financial corporations and the media; at other times, we were too poor – a drain on the society and a peasant people to be despised as untrustworthy. Jews have been too rich, too poor, too right-wing, too left-wing, too powerful, too oppressed, and sometimes, just too Jewish. Since 1948, antisemitism has largely taken the form of anti-Zionism, but what will be its next evolution? Are recent online tweets an indication of the next metamorphosis of the world’s oldest hatred? 

On this, Rabbi Sacks commented, “I think what we are seeing on social media means that what previously might be said between a couple of people who've had too much to drink in a pub, or maybe shouted from the window of a passing car, are now entering the public domain.” However, he suggested, “That doesn't mean to say there's much more antisemitism today than there was in the past, we are just more conscious of it.”

The solution to him seems clear, “In an age of artificial intelligence, it is not difficult to construct algorithms to detect anti-Semitic or racist tweets and posts which can be identified and removed immediately. It is simply the companies themselves that have to take responsibility for doing just that.”

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks joining Prime Minister David Cameron for the lighting of the Chanukah lights in Downing Street

ON THE FUTURE

If so, I pressed, what will be the greatest challenge our grandchildren will face in the world of tomorrow? Rabbi Sacks paused to think, and said, “Mervin King, who was the governor of the Bank of England at the time of the 2008 crash, wrote a book called Radical Uncertainty. That is the biggest challenge our grandchildren are going to face.” He continued, “For most of history people have lived and died, and the world they see at the end of their life was recognizably the same world they saw at the beginning of their life. Today, the pace of change is completely unprecedented in all of human history and it's going to accelerate. Just imagine that a few years ago there was no such thing as Airbnb, there was no such thing as smartphones, there was no such thing as Google or amazon.com. Social media is not that old. These things have completely changed our world in the last 20 to 25 years.” 

“The world is going to continue to change very, very rapidly. We are going to add to the mix artificial intelligence, whose impact we really can't tell. We're in a situation where the world is changing faster than ever before, and all we can say is ‘expect the unexpected’. And that is going to be the challenge, because people can get used to all sorts of things. They can get used to poverty, they can get used to lockdown, they can get used to disease, but they can't get used to change. Permanent, relentless, ever increasing change.” 

Pope Venedict XVI, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, pictured in 2011 at the Vatican

I asked, how then, do we anticipate that challenge and best prepare for the unknown? He smiled, “All I can say is this: the greatest gift we can possibly give our kids is being Jewish. Jews have faced more uncertainty than any people in all of history. Throughout century after century, Jews did not know if they will still be here next year. Jews have known every kind of uncertainty and we survived the whole lot. Not only did we survive the whole lot but there is also something really unusual about Jews and Judaism; as it says in Exodus 1:12 ‘The more they were oppressed, the stronger they grew.’ That is what I call super-resilience. Resilience means you survive the pressures. Super resilience means you grow stronger with the pressures. That is really the gift we give our children. The gift of saying ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me’ (Psalms 23:4). 

Rabbi Sacks ended his thought with the following words, “Faith is not certainty, faith is the courage to live with uncertainty. Once you have that faith, you're going to handle all the changes. They will not defeat you; they will make you stronger, and that is the gift we really should be giving our grandchildren.”

- September 29th 2020

About the Author

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Rabbi Ari Kayser Rabbi Ari Kayser is the Director of Online Education and the Editor-in-Chief of Perspectives magazine. Ari leads the Aish Online team in producing a wide range of media and publications, including short inspirational videos, podcast series and developing online courses. He relishes the challenge of conveying authentic Jewish teachings into the language of the 21st Century. Aside from qualifying as a rabbi, Ari also has a BSc in Economics from UCL and certification as a professional cocktail bartender. His interests include backpacking across the world, writing poetry and meditation.

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