On the rare occasion it happens, it’s inspiring to catch a rabbi in the act of being what a Jewish religious leader should be — namely a cohen or priest seeking to confront the world with the Torah’s image of what we all could be.
It’s possible to kvell over the British chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, for relatively superficial reasons — his Oxbridge education and manners, the gloss of secular learning and worldliness that comes from being, as he puts it, “a lapsed heretic” who gave up philosophy in favor of Judaism because philosophy at the time disdained the human need for ultimate meaning. You can also appreciate, as I do, the amazingly beautiful new edition of the Jewish prayer book, the Sacks Siddur, that he translated and commented upon for the Jerusalem publisher Koren.
More important about Rabbi Sacks is his incisive critique of secularism. A case in point would be a major speech he gave recently. I’ve alluded to it before based on a brief news article but have now read it in full. It’s a stunner.
Delivered to a public theology think tank in England, Theos, the 2009 Annual Theos Lecture, “Religion in Twenty-First Century Britain,” is not some angry diatribe against modernity. Nor is it only about Britain, or about Europe. Americans may not be as far down the road to nihilism and despair as Europeans are but we are making strides to catch up. Genial, charming yet forthright and unapologetic, Sacks states his case that it is religious culture that stands in defense of civilization from barbarism.
As frequently comes out in his writing, he’s a huge admirer of American democracy. Sacks mentions that he has a custom of reading Tocqueville on a yearly basis and quotes the French aristocrat and America-observer on the place of faith in a free society:
Liberty…considers religion as the safeguard of morality and morality as the best security of law and the surest pledge of the duration of freedom.
Sacks notes that “we would expect any society in which religion declines, in that society, civil society would decline. Families would become fragile, marriages would decline, communities would atrophy, society would cease to have a shared morality. And by those tests, 100 years later, Tocqueville got it exactly right.”
The test is Europe which, thanks to sub-zero population growth, is increasingly overrun by Islamic immigrants hostile to Western ideals. As in the United States where the most liberal, secular cities are also the most childless, where people have cats and dogs instead of kids, Europeans can’t see how parenthood with its sacrifices could possibly suit their jaded, leisured lifestyles.
Sacks cites the Greek historian Polybius who lamented the declining birthrate among his countrymen compared to that of rising Rome. “Europe is dying,” says Rabbi Sacks, just as classical Greek civilization was then — the 3rd century BCE, a time that was “intellectually the closest to our own — the century of the skeptics and the Epicureans and the cynics.” Polybius noted, “[T]he people of Hellas had entered upon the false path of ostentation, avarice and laziness, and were therefore becoming unwilling to marry, or if they did marry, to bring up the children born to them; the majority were only willing to bring up at most one or two.” That, of course, sounds hauntingly familiar.
One might add that Polybius attributed Rome’s growing strength to the public respect given to religion. The situation had reversed itself within a few centuries. With Christianity beginning to stir as a new faith in Europe, pagan Romans had succumbed to unbelief. In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon pointed to the “contagion of…skeptical writings” then popular, the “secret contempt” for the old religion, so that even “the [common] people, when they discovered that their deities were rejected and derided by those whose rank or understanding they were accustomed to reverence, were filled with doubts and apprehensions concerning the truth of those doctrines.”
The Roman birth rate took a long plunge, and the stage was set for the new religion, imported from the Levant, to take the place of the old. This too should sound familiar.
We face our own barbarians out of the East and a new contagion of fashionable writings that corrode faith. Rabbi Sacks frankly states, “The major assault on religion today comes from the neo-Darwinians.” Sacks is no Scriptural literalist, but he sees that trying to explain how complex life developed without reference to God is an invitation to atheism. He identifies as an “imperative for the future” the need of religion to make clear the “deeply religious implications” of true science. He gives DNA and the genome as an example and recommends to his audience a book I know well, Why Us?, by the Darwin-doubting British physician James Le Fanu.
The speech is one that I can imagine no American or Israeli rabbi delivering.
Which, perhaps, is less the fault of rabbis than of the rest of us. Sacks notes at one point that he has the opportunity to address regularly a very broad audience, almost entirely non-Jewish, when he delivers talks on BBC radio. He observes, perhaps exaggerating, that no Jew has spoken about his faith to such an audience since the days of Jonah.
Jonah, he jokes, had to say only five words to the Gentile people of Nineveh to prompt their repentance whereas the prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah “spent their whole lives preaching to Jews and nobody listened for a moment! ‘Who is this guy?’ So there we are.” Neither truer, no sadder, words on the subject could be spoken.