An international religious leader, philosopher, award-winning author and respected moral voice, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was awarded the 2016 Templeton Prize in recognition of his “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” Described by H.R.H. The Prince of Wales as “a light unto this nation” and by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as “an intellectual giant,” Rabbi Sacks is a frequent and sought after contributor to radio, television and the press both in Britain and around the world. Since stepping down as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth – from 1991 to 2013 – Rabbi Sacks has held a number of professorships at academic institutions including Yeshiva University. He currently serves as the Ingeborg and Ira Rennert Global Distinguished Professor at New York University. Rabbi Sacks has been awarded 17 honorary doctorates including a Doctor of Divinity, and is the author of more than 30 books.
I sat down with him recently to discuss some of the most burning questions on my mind on the relevance of ancient religion in the modern world. Here is our discussion:
Josephs: How can people balance faith with rational thinking? Faith with modern mores? People call religion the opiate of the masses. What is our best response to people who are struggling?
Sacks: Well, it was a pretty Jewish guy who said that. Carl Marx was the grandson of a rabbi and the great grandson of rabbi. It is completely untrue about Judaism. Judaism is not a form of opium. It doesn’t tranquilize you from seeing the suffering and injustices of the world, otherwise Jews would not have produced. Judaism is not a religion of acceptance, but one of protest. It doesn’t accept the world as it is unlike virtually every other religion known to me. Which is why you find Jews disproportionately engaged in changing the world. As lawyers fighting injustice, teachers fighting ignorance or doctors fighting disease, economists fighting poverty, therapists fighting depression and despair. So Karl Marx’s idea of religion as an opiate to the masses simply doesn’t apply to Judaism.
But you asked two different and separate questions – let’s take them one by one: Judaism and rational thinking. In Judaism we celebrate rational thinking. There were two cultures in antiquity which formed what we known as Western rationality. One of those was the tradition of ancient Greece, of Athens – of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. And the other one, earlier than that, was the monotheism of Judaism, of Moses and the prophets. Both of those cultures did what we call “demythologization.” They cured humans being of myths. Of the idea that the world is controlled by unpredictable and capricious forces who are trying to destroy us because we make too much noise. So Judaism was actually at the time a move toward Western philospophy.
The editor of the London Times and Chairman of Governors at the BBC, William Rees Mogg, a Catholic, said, “One of the gifts of Jewish culture to Christianity is that it has taught Christians to think like Jews. Any modern man, who has not learned to think as though he were a Jew, can hardly be said to have learned to think at all.” Nietzsche was the most brilliant philosopher and was opposed to Judaism. However, he thought that Jews and Judaism were the most rational ways of thinking anywhere. He said, “Consider Jewish scholars in this light, all of them have a high regard for logic. That is, for compelling voice of reasons. That with that they are bound to win, even when they encounter race and class prejudice against them.” He’s saying that they have the ability to reason. He then goes on to say, “Incidentally Europe owes the Jews no small thanks for making people think more logically and for establishing cleanlier intellectual habits. Wherever Jews have won influence they have taught men to make finer distinctions more rigorous inference and to write in a more luminous fashion. Their task was to bring a people to listen to reason.” And that was written by one of the biggest opponents of Judaism, but he never accused us of being irrational.
Josephs: What about for the person who wants to believe, but can’t believe in the things he can’t see or prove or touch?
Sacks: We are living in a culture that is more secular than any has existed in the two thousand years. This secular culture has an over estimate of the power of reason. And it was Jews who pointed this out. Freud taught us that many of our fears are irrational. Daniel Kahneman, the great economist won the Nobel Prize for economics for showing that even when it comes to economic decisions, which we would think would be the most rational space, actually humans beings are irrational indeed. So anyone who thinks that the only way to get through in life on pure logic and rationality is going to fail to understand at least 50% of human behavior. Judaism needs to deal with things beyond the scope of reason. That’s what makes it a much more humanizing force than strict logic. Strict logic brought the French revolution which brought the reign of terror. Which brought hundreds of thousands of people dying. We are more than simply rational animals.
There’s a wonderful neuroscientist named Antonio Demario who showed that if people acted purely rationally they would never ever be able to make a decision. Richard Dawkins is the world’s most famous atheist. I asked if he was an optimist. He said, “Of course.” I said, “where’s the evidence?” You cannot examine history or nature, every reason you give for being and optimist is the same one that someone would give for being a pessimist. David Hume said, you observe the sunrise for the one millionth time. You can’t prove that it will happen the 1m +1 time. Science is built on a leap of faith. Einstein said, “G-d doesn’t play dice with the universe.” We have an exaggerated belief in rationality. Actually it only answers a few questions. Not things like, why does music matter? Why does a sense of humor matter? Why do we bother to pursue justice? Why is it better to be a good person than an entirely selfish one? What is wrong with narcissism? All questions that cannot be proved rationally. I think people look at rationality with the same kind of superstition that primitive people look at religious faith. Frankly Judiasm is more subtle and complex than that because humanity is more subtle and complex than that.
Josephs: Let’s say we go into the Torah and find slavery, and mistreatment of women.
Sacks: How do we balance faith with modern values? The Torah is the first document ever to criticize the institution of slavery. Judaism was born when God entered history to liberate slaves. No god had ever been on the side of slaves before. No god had ever liberated slaves before. Judaism is the first step in abolishing slavery. And it began the abolition in a few ways. Every 7 years slaves would go free, and on the Jubilee year. But you weren’t allowed to have your slaves work for you on Shabbat. One day in seven ever slave tasted freedom. 1000 years after Moses was Aristotle, who believed some people were meant to be slaves. So Jews began the fight against slavery. Which the US didn’t achieve until 1865. And the man who led the charge to end slavery, William Wilberfort, did it based on the Hebrew bible. The Torah is a process. No culture change suddenly. There’s such a thing as a national culture and corporate culture. It’s tough, it takes time. When it comes to humanity as a whole it’s even harder and takes longer.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the Torah is radical where women are concerned. Women in Judaism were excluded from the priesthood and that’s a problem no question. And there’s a reason for it which doesn’t jive easily to modern ears. But women were prophets just as men. Deborah was a prophet. The matriarchs were prophetesses. And you have strong women in the Bible. Barak, the head of the ancient Jewish army went to Deborah for encouragements. A man turning to a woman. And had it not been for Miriam, there would not be a Moses, there would not be a Jewish people.
We have to look at where society was at the time. We don’t go back 3000 years and ask why Egyptians didn’t use cars. The cutting edge technology of their time was the horse-drawn chariot. It is anachronistic to ask why a 3300 year old document doesn’t meet today’s standards. That is why in Judaism we believe God empowered us to develop the Oral Law. are always working on the oral Torah which is an on-going and endless process, so that it can be the word of God for all time. The changes for the role of women in Jewish life the last century have been unprecedented in all of Jewish history Seminaries never learned Torah in advanced ways before 100 years ago. Today we have leading women Torah learners. I think the voice of women is finally being heard as it has not been for a very long time.
Josephs: What would you say, is the biggest challenge facing the Jewish people today?
Sacks: One, the return of anti-Semitism to Europe. Two, the delegitimization of Israel, BDS. Three the threats facing Israel – Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah. Then there are the internal rifts within Jewry, the internal rifts within Israeli society. But the biggest problem is the failure of Jewish identity. In the 2013 Pew Report, outside of Orthodoxy, we saw 71% of Jews are marrying outside of the faith. Then the 2017 Pew report showed that with Jews under 30, 53% declared themselves as having no religion. When we lose belief in ourselves, that’s the biggest problem.
Josephs: What about Jews who grow up observant but don’t see the beauty or meaning in it.
Sacks: Take a look at the video “Why I am a Jew” which we made to show the spirituality of being Jewish. We have made 10 4-5 minute videos on Jewish spirituality. I tried to convey what is the sound and the beauty of Jewish spirituality. We’ve under-achieved. That’s part of my work, to try to address that.
Josephs: How do we make the center stronger?
Sacks: You get extremism whenever the world gets so complicated that people find it difficult it to understand that people try to simplify it. You see it happening in all world religions. Whenever extremism has surfaced in Jewish life the result has been total disaster. The most famous case was in the late Second Temple period. It was almost the end of the Jewish people. Extremism is so un-Jewish it’s simply unbearable. Judaism is a subtle, complex, nuanced religion. It allows different voices. It is a conversation even more than it is a set of dogmas. And there is room for many voices in Judaism. Judaism is as complex as the human condition. How did the rabbis sit down and agree to include in Tanach such subversive works such as Koheles, Iyov and Shir Hashirim? It is such a shame to see it turned into a two dimensional plastic replica. Keep doing what you’re doing and I’ll try to keep doing what I’m doing. Never ever be discourage that you’re in a minority. Jews have always been a minority. Keep emphasizing the beauty, the spirituality and the subtly of our faith and you will bestow a great blessing on our people.