Healing a Fractured Psyche: An Interview with Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks


Recently I sat down with British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to discuss his new book, To Heal A Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, and the positive, but critical, review I wrote about it for JBooks. Rabbi Sacks is no less impressive in person than he is on the page. He is charming, exceedingly intelligent, and—for someone who's spent so much time with politicians—surprisingly candid.

As it turned out, the least interesting parts of the interview pertained to my criticism. I challenged Rabbi Sacks for ignoring ethically difficult texts like Maimonides' ruling that one need not save a drowning gentile. But Rabbi Sacks was adamant that this tradition is "seriously irrelevant," as it would never normatively be applied to non-idolaters. Though I believe the existence of texts likes these undermine Rabbi Sacks' presentation of Jewish ethics, I was happy to drop the issue after the Chief Rabbi assured me he would write a future book on the subject.

More fruitful was the conversation Rabbi Sacks and I had about the nature of Jewish responsibility. In his plea to bring the ethical and the devotional back together, Rabbi Sacks envisions a Jewish community that is diverse in its strengths and priorities. People are different, thus the way they live as Jews—as good Jews—will be different.

In his previous book, The Dignity of Difference, Rabbi Sacks sketched out a radically open approach to other religions, but he has been accused of being less tolerant of non-Orthodox Jews than he is of people of other faiths. The words captured below may subdue some of this criticism.

In regards to the responsibility you write about in this book, are there distinctions between the Jewish community's responsibility toward its own and towards the wider world?

Surely. No one doubts that there is a principle of kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba-zeh, all of Israel is responsible for one another. One of the real hidushim, novel teachings, of the book is that if you were to ask, is there a principle of kol bnei adam areivim zeh ba-zeh, all of humanity is responsible for one another—is there some equivalent of human collective responsibility, if you were to ask any halakhic expert—he or she would say “no” instantly because it doesn’t exist in the literature. What I tried to do was look through the entire literature and see a source here and a source there that might say there is [such a responsibility]. And therefore, I don’t know if anyone’s ever said that before within Orthodoxy. It was clearly assumed in some of Rav [Joseph] Soloveitchik’s writing, but he never explained why it was assumed. I’m not sending all the Jews in Britain out to Africa to make poverty history or to Thailand to rebuild after the Tsunami, but I did devote my television program to the Jews who went to Africa and Thailand. It’s very important that we keep a reasonable balance between our commitment to one another and our commitments to the wider human enterprise. It's a matter of balance you don't give precise mathematical proportions to.

I can't speak for England, but why do you think it is that in America the Jews who tend to go work for the outside world are the non-Orthodox communities, the AJWS in Sudan, United Jewish Communities down south after the Hurricane, and so on?

In the 19th century, Jews made a particular formulation, framed things in a particular way and maybe it was inevitable. There were the universalists and there were the particularists. The universalists who in those days talked about the Jewish vision, a light to the nations, etc, etc, were by and large inclined to downplay the bits of Judaism that made us different. And the particularists—whether they were the Hasam Sofer, Reb Shimshon Raphael Hirsch—tended to disengage from the general public in order to intensify Jewish life. So it's: Are you a particularist? Are you a universalist? So that's why the tikkun olam guys are all over there [in the non-Orthodox camp]. And here [within Orthodoxy] they're all into daf yomi [the practice of studying a page of Talmud each day], etc. So I'm trying to shift the paradigm and I'm trying to say that's a false dichotomy.

What do we do as a community, on a practical level, to integrate this vision?

I'll give you an example, and I may even have it in the book, I can't remember. I was sitting very near the beginning of my Chief Rabbinate with a few guys in Anglo-Jewry, the great and the good, who wanted to know: Who is this guy?  And when I finished my remarks about Jewish renewal, Jewish continuity, all this stuff, a guy said: I applaud your vision Chief Rabbi, but what could you do with a wicked old sinner like me? And this man was Sir Peter Taylor, later Lord Taylor, who was already one of the finest judges in Britain and became the Lord Chief Justice that's at the head of the Supreme Court.

This is a famous judge who had done extraordinary things to review and change the British judicial system, to make it much more user friendly, more accessible to the poor and so on. So I said, "Sir Peter, I cannot stand here and listen to Sir Peter Taylor be insulted, even though by himself." The Talmud says "Kol dayan she-dan emet lamitato—every judge who delivers a true verdict—naaseh shutaf li-Hakadosh Baruch Hu bi-maaseh bereishit—becomes a partner with God in the works of creation." They don't say that about rabbis, they say that about judges. So what I'm really talking about here is how do we reintegrate those two bits of our being, the bit that wants to make a difference to the world and the bit that goes to shul and keeps kosher and learns daf yomi. I'm really trying to heal our fractured Jewish psyche as well as our fractured world.

So if biblical faith demands protest, what does biblical faith demand today?

I see biblical faith in Jim Wolfensohn, just ex-head of the World Bank; Jeffrey Sachs, the world’s top economist of poverty; and others who refuse to accept the poverty of one billion human beings—30,000 children who die every day of treatable diseases. That’s their protest. I look at Robert Winston, Britain’s most famous doctor, an Orthodox Jew and leading fertility specialist; he takes on the story of Sarah, Rivkah, and Rachel who were unable to have children, and through in vitro fertilization, stem cell research, he’s on the cutting edge. And there are a thousand photos on his wall, his nachas wall, of a thousand women he helped have children. The Jewish justices that I mentioned. Hazel Cosgrove, the first woman judge in Scotland. I interviewed her for my television show. Hazel, what made you become a judge? Tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice, justice you shall pursue, she says for the BBC. She reads Tanakh, she reads justice, justice pursue. What I want to do is take those role models. One of them will speak to you or one of them will speak to me. It's a lot of different role models.

But are the ben adam li-havero [commandments between man and man] and ben adam li-makom [commandments between man and God] distinct paths? Are they a single path?

Well, work this one out. When the sages said at the opening of [the Torah portion] Vayera a couple of weeks ago "Gidola hakhnasat orhim li-kabbalat pnei ha-shekhina" is hospitality different from receiving the divine presence or is it the same?

So the question is: If someone, as a Jew, were only the most hospitable person in the world, are we happy?

I am. That’s why God chose not an elite of the righteous; He chose a whole people in its rich diversity. Jeffrey Sachs comes to England and spoke in St. Paul’s. I don’t know why we couldn’t arrange a shul, but in St. Paul’s 5-6000 people came to hear him—very few Jews. How many Jews would go to St Paul’s Cathedral? But when I sat down with Jeffrey and asked what drove his work for Live Aid, he said two words: Tikkun Olam. And I'm not sure how many American rabbis connect with Jeffrey Sachs. I was tempted to ask him: Jeffrey, how many rabbis do you know? What I'm doing is, I'm reaching out to this man. How many rabbis go and reach out to Amos Oz? But if someone had reached out to Amos Oz when he was 20, not in his mid-60s as he is now, Amos might have been one of the prophets of Israel, not unlike his biblical namesake. I’m trying to connect and do public dialogues with Amos Oz, Steven Pinker, George Steiner, other secular Jews. I try to get them to reconnect. I’m not trying to make them frum. I’m just trying to get them to map their life on the Jewish map. They are a bit of the jigsaw. If Hashem only wanted hasidim he would have sent us a Satmar Rebbe, not a Moshe Rabeinu. And some people give by their learning and some by their davening [prayer] and some by their hospitality and some by their philanthropy. We can only approach Hakadosh Barukh Hu [God] as a total community.

So then my final question is when can we borrow you for a decade or so?

Listen I've been so thrilled by the reception here. [But] it's obvious to me that the most important country for this book is Israel. There's no question about that. Israel needs it much more than American Jews. When I go to Israel. I go to Israel to do all sorts of stuff, but when I go to interact with Israelis I go as an academic not as a rabbi. They've got enough rabbis in Israel, they don't need one more. But the number of rabbanim who are willing to engage with the university gets fewer and fewer each year. So I think Israel is the country that we really need to worry about. And I just hope they're going to read this in Israel and if we have to translate it into Hebrew we will. Because I'm sure you've seen all these articles: Religious Zionism in crisis after the Gaza withdrawal. I made myself hoarse in 1997 for the 100th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress; 1998 Yovel Ha-Medina [the 50th anniversary of the State], just telling people again and again and again, the first task of Religious Zionism has been completed, you've made Medinat Yisrael. You've created a Jewish state. Now begin the second task, which is to create the Hevra Yisraelit, a Jewish society. I did not find many people willing to listen. Po vi-sham [here and there] one or two. It's curious. In Britain, I am asked regularly to advise the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, this minister, that minister, that's galus [the Diaspora]. In Israel, how often does the Prime Minister or the Deputy Prime Minister consult with a rav? That's a paradox. So I think the country that really needs this in Israel, but in truth I wish an Israeli would write it.