Rabbi Sacks was not a prophet. He was a realist, he was a pragmatist, he was a lover of humanity tempered by justice and humility.
He was a true scholar, both within the realm of Torah study and secular knowledge and thought. He looked into the Torah with curiosity, through the eyes of a simple student, seeking new insights, yet developed applications and lessons, that place him as a teacher on a global scale.
He applied the lens of an economist, philosopher, sociologist, anthropologist, political scientist, teacher, ethicist, futurist, historian, and used the never ending wisdom contained within the Torah, to illuminate his thinking and share it with everyone around him.
He sought to listen, to empathise, to be inspired by and to inspire everyone he came across and interacted with. He was unafraid to call out injustice.
He was close friends and colleagues with many world leaders and in fact royalty, yet he was interested in, and dedicated his life to, every person, inspiring humanity.
Rabbi Sacks continues to influence each and every student at Moriah College, who hear his insights through their teachers and educators. Each morning, they hold a piece of his teachings in their hands, as they pray using the Koren Siddur, which features Rabbi Sacks’ translations and commentary.
In 2017, Rabbi Sacks was the recipient of the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) highest honour – the Irving Kristol Award. The AEI presents the award annually to an individual who has made exceptional intellectual and practical contributions to improve government policy, social welfare, or political understanding.
In his keynote address at the award ceremony, Rabbi Sacks decried the culture that we see spreading across the western world, the culture of ‘Competitive Victimhood’. He spoke about the emergence of ‘Identity Politics’ based on smaller and smaller identities of ethnicity and gender, the politics of grievance, and a pet peeve of his, that he continuously exposed – the silencing of ‘freedom of speech’ within our universities and institutes of higher education, of anyone with a different view on campus being misconstrued as a microaggressor.
He spoke about how public discourse has been polluted by ‘fake news’, and the manipulation of social media; and he spoke about the emergence of the far right and far left in Europe and elsewhere.
Rabbi Sacks voiced his concern that the rise of “populist politics throughout the West is measurably at its highest levels since the early 1930s,” quoting Richard Weaver who once said “the trouble with humanity is that it forgets to read the minutes of the last meetings.”
He posited that the Torah is not just a spiritual or historical text but rather a political one. In fact, Rabbi Sacks revealed that he used to study with the former Prime Minster of England, Tony Blair, attending 10 Downing Street regularly, in the strictest of privacy. Mr Blair asked him: “Why is your book (referring to the Torah) more interesting than our book (referring to the New Testament)? ” Rabbi Sacks replied “it’s simple, in our book, there are more politics.”
Rabbi Sacks spoke about an extraordinary episode in the book of Samuel. When the people came to the Prophet Samuel asking him to appoint a king, Samuel, and G-d himself, feeling that it would undermine trust in them both, seemed to reject the notion and request. G-d asked Samuel to point out to the people that a king will tax them, and conscript their children, and that if they then still wanted a king, to give them one.
The commentators are puzzled. Does the Tanach show that Hashem is approving or disapproving of appointing a king? And why are they puzzled? The meaning of the narrative is quite simple explained Rabbi Sacks. The commentators were not political scientists, to decipher and discern the meaning of a highly politicised narrative. It’s a ‘Social Contract’.
“What happened in the days of the Prophet Samuel is precisely a social contract, exactly on the lines set out by Thomas Hobbes in ‘The Leviathan.’ People are willing to give up certain of their rights, transfer them to a central power, a king, a government, who undertakes to ensure the rule of law internally and the defence of the realm externally. In fact, Samuel I, Chapter Eight is the first recorded instance in all of history of a social contract.”
He went on to explain that this wasn’t the founding of the Jewish nation. The Jewish nation was founded 300 years earlier at the giving of the Torah on Mt Sinai. What is the difference? At Mt Sinai, it was a ‘social covenant’, not a ‘social contract’.
In a contract there’s an exchange that is to the mutual benefit of both parties.
In a covenant Rabbi Sacks explained, “two or more parties, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of loyalty and trust to do together what neither can do alone. A covenant isn’t about me. It’s about us. A covenant isn’t about interests. It’s about identity.”
“The market is about the creation and distribution of wealth. The state is about the creation and distribution of power. But a covenant is about neither wealth nor power, but about the bonds of belonging and of collective responsibility. And to put it as simply as I can, the social contract creates a state, but the social covenant creates a society. That is the difference. They’re different things.”
Rabbi Sacks posed that Biblical Israel had a society long before we entered the land and long before we had a state. This is why the Jewish people have been able to maintain their identity as a Jewish nation for two thousand years despite exile and dispersion “because although they’d lost their state, they still had their society. Although they’d lost their contract, they still had their covenant.”
Modern society and freedoms require not just a state but even more importantly, we need a society built on strong conventional institutions such as marriages, families, shules and congregations, schools, communities, charitable organisations, and voluntary associations. These institutions buffer between the individual and the state and are essential for maintaining democracy and freedom.
Now we can say, observed Rabbi Sacks, that what has been going wrong in western society is that the social contract is still there, but the social covenant is being lost. Today, a huge volume of the western world is losing its commitment to the conventional institutions that stand between the individual and the state. In place of a culture of ‘collective identity’, freedoms and responsibilities, there’s a myriad of smaller identities based on every changing political and social agenda.
“Instead of a culture of freedom and responsibility, we have a culture of grievances that are always someone else’s responsibility. Because we no longer share a moral code that allows us, in Isaiah’s words, to ‘reason together’, in its place has come something called ‘emotivism’, which says, I know I’m right because I feel it. And as for those who disagree, we will shout down or ban all those dissenting voices because we each have a right not to feel we’re wrong”.
When we lose the conventional institutions, we believe that all can, and should, be solved by the state. But not all problems can be solved by the state.
What occurs at that point is that politics begins to indulge in magical thinking, he said. “So you get the far right dreaming of a golden past that never was, and the far left yearning for a utopian future that never will be. And then comes populism, the belief that a strong leader can solve all our problems for us. And that is the first step down the road to tyranny, whether of the right or of the left.”
The good news is that covenants can be renewed. Repeatedly we see this through the Torah and throughout Tanach and our Biblical narrative. We can renew the covenant of society, strengthening the institutions of family, rebuilding communities, shules and schools.
Rabbi Sacks noted that Mark Zuckerberg changed the mission statement for Facebook from ‘connecting friends’, to ‘building communities’. In fact, we need communities if we are ever to have true friends. Today, many of us have tens, if not hundreds, of friends on social media – but how many friends can you count on in an emergency? If we belong to a school, shule or community then we know we’re surrounded by real friends.
One of the critical ways to halt the decay of the social covenant is to change and help reframe the covenant in the eyes of our children. To enlist our children’s icons of stage, screen or sport to model and stand for our covenantal values. In fact, we need to inspire them with people who are willing to stand up and remind us that we’re all part of a collective responsibility for the common good.
“We need a culture of responsibility, not one of victimhood, because if you define yourself as a victim, you can never be free. We have to have people to have the courage to get up and say that earned self-respect counts for more than unearned self-esteem.”
The fundamental truth at the heart of the Torah, and similarly at the heart of free democratic western societies, is that “the state exists to serve the people. The people don’t exist to serve the state.”
These values that made our society great and free, provide hope, and by renewing our covenant we can renew hope. It is definitely not too late.
The words that Rabbi Sacks spoke in 2017 ring truer than ever today. He inspired us never to accept the status quo – to speak and express our ideas. Our job is to continue his trailblazing. His synthesis of scholarship values and morality, confronting and bettering our modern world for ourselves, for our nation, and for all of humanity.
May his memory continue to be a blessing and may his teaching continue to illuminate our lives and the life of humanity.
About the Author
Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler is the College Principal at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.