Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, was a brilliant philosopher and a scholar of sweeping proportions, including Torah and other wisdoms. He was also a stunning orator and a deeply compassionate man. I like to think of him as my adoptive ideological grandfather.
I only discovered Rabbi Sacks’ works a few years ago, and when I did, it was like striking gold. I couldn’t believe it had been here all along, and I had not known. He had this rare ability, along with Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, of blessed memory, to take bulky, unwieldy, abstract ideas, and make them utterly and simply accessible to Jew and non-Jew alike. Whenever I read his writings, I have the same reaction: “Oh! It’s really that simple. Who knew?”
His latest book, Morality, published in 2020, and apparently written even as he suffered from the cancer that would take his life, is one such example. All while quoting and analyzing philosophers such as Socrates, Kant and Nietzsche, alongside authors, academics, psychologists, economists, politicians, and rabbinical sages throughout the ages, Rabbi Sacks makes the following simple point: as a society, we have moved from a “We”-centered society to an “I”-centered society, and that’s where everything has broken down.
One example of this is how we help the downtrodden — a very Jewish mandate. In the past, it was the responsibility of society to help one another, whether that took place within families, neighborhoods, or faith communities such as synagogues and churches. But, Rabbi Sacks asks, what happens when civil society grows weak and all that is left is the market (capitalism) and the state (government)?
He says: That is when people begin to make demands of the state that the state cannot satisfy. The state cannot create strong families or supportive communities. It cannot provide children with stable and responsible parents. It can finance schools, but it cannot create inspiring teachers. It cannot generate the work ethic, self-control, and resilience that are vital if individuals are to escape the vicious circle of poverty and unemployment and lead lives of happiness and hope.
The state is about power. Families and communities are about people. They are about personal relationships and lifting one another from depression and despair. When these are lost from civil society, they cannot be outsourced to the state. The state is and must be impersonal. Therefore it cannot help when the damage is deeply personal… Whether in churches, friendly societies, trade unions, or ethnic enclaves, people helped one another at a local level, in often life-changing ways.
Faith communities and local neighborhoods are a lost art. The most famous neighbor of all, Fred Rogers, lived in a community where people knocked on each others’ doors to say hello and visit, whereas we text each other before we call to politely see if it’s convenient. When’s the last time you popped over to your neighbors’ just to say hi and see if they were okay? When did we outsource compassion and humanity?
Human-to-human inspiration and assistance seem to be at an all-time low, and not just because of the global pandemic. We increasingly rely on technology to get us directions, restaurant recommendations or gift ideas — all things we used to have to talk to an actual human for. We value independence and autonomy, self-reliance and self-help. But actually, when I am low or down, I cannot help myself. I need another wise and compassionate human being to “self-talk” me down from my anxiety or malaise. Even a drowning lifeguard cannot save himself.
So maybe, suggests Rabbi Sacks, our society should be thinking more about interdependence over independence, other-reliance over self-reliance, other-help over self-help. Maybe each one of us, in our little bubbles, can be a lifeboat for someone. At the very least, we must try.