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July 04, 2006

To Heal a Fractured World - Jonathan Sacks

Posted by Harry Phibbs

To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility
by Jonathan Sacks
London: Continuum, 2005
Hardback, 16.99; Paperback, 8.99

Generally the contributors to Thought for the Day are so dire that I would switch from Radio 4 to some other station for its brief duration were it not for the practical difficulties of being in the bath at the time. But Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi since 1991, is an exception. While most contributors abuse the slot to offer some banal left wing secular smugness, Sacks uses it to discuss moral and religious matters.

I don't imagine many contributors to Thought for the Day have read Hayek. Sacks has.

Although Hayek described himself as a "professed agnostic", Sacks isn't too proud to use Hayek's arguments when they come in handy:

Hayek spoke of the "fatal conceit" that leads people to believe that "man is able to shape the world around him according to his wishes".

This brings disaster in its wake because of the law of unintended consequences. Things never turn out as we expect them to. By the time we realise it, it is often too late to repair the damage. Religious restraints, he believed, represent the restraints that work over time. The proof lies in the fact that they, and the situations to which they give rise, have survived. The "extended order" (his term for modern society) is preserved not by conscious planning but by respecting institutions and traditions, "many of which men tend to dislike, whose significance they usually fail to understand, whose validity they cannot prove".

Sacks is a powerful writer unafraid to draw on his personal emotions. Here he recalls the death of his father:
I was mourning for my late father when I learned what anyone who has sat shiva knows (in Judaism, we sit on low stools for a week - shiva - to mourn the death of a close relative, and it is the universal custom for family friends and community to visit the mourners during this period to give them comfort). People who had known him, in many cases before I or my father were born, told us of his kindnesses to them and the many things about him they admired: his integrity, his moral passion, his Jewish pride. It was then I experienced for myself what I had learned from all those other funerals at which I had officiated: That the good we do does live after us, and it is by far the most important thing that does.

I freely admit, there were times during those days when I wept, not just because he was gone but because he wasn't there to hear and know the impact he made on others. He had not had an easy life and beneath his radiant smile I sensed an enormous reservoir of pain.

"Why did you never say those things to him when he was alive?" I found myself thinking time and again. Yet that is the human condition and we all know it. Only rarely do we catch a glimpse of the difference that we make to other people's lives. Unless we are Mark Twain we never read our own obituaries. But it was then that I knew beyond scepticism or doubt that the greatest gift is to be able to give and the life we lead is measured by the good we do.

In a chapter denouncing Marx, Sacks deals with the claim that religion is an anaesthetic that encourages us to put up with injustice. Why does God allow bad things to happen? Why does he allow us free will? Because he wants us to be human. It's not that he doesn't care. Sacks try to explain with these analogies:
To be a parent is to be moved by the cry of a child. But if the child is ill and needs medicine, we administer it, making ourselves temporarily deaf to its cry. A surgeon, to do his job competently and well, must to a certain extent desensitize himself to the patient's fears and pains and regard him, however briefly, as a body rather than a person. A statesman, to do his best for the country, must weigh long-term consequences and make tough, even brutal decisions: for soldiers to die in a war is necessary; for people to be thrown out of jobs if economic stringency is needed.
Sacks explains the nature of Jewish solidarity which has been such a strength although also part of the explanation for anti-Semitism. History indicates that, with or without the state of Israel, the Jewish nation exists as a state of mind. Even in exile:
Jews continue to see themselves as a nation even though they had lost all visible bases of nationhood. The did so because of the essentially mystical vision that without even sovereignty, outside the land of Israel, and dispersed throughout he world, they remained "a single body and a single soul", moved by one another's pain, sharing responsibility for their collective fate. More than any other factor that belief preserved the Jewish nation through one of the deepest crises of its history, and preserves us today.
JFK said:
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
Sacks asks some pretty basic questions about God not because they are easy but because they are hard. Some of the answers are hard too, but they are worth the effort.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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