“To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility,” by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, is a beautiful book. Although it bears one significant flaw, noted below, first it must be said that this is a lucid, lovely, rich, and bracing work. It presents the essence of Judaism as a call to human responsibility, and does so in a way that should make Jews proud of the subtlety and power of our legacy.
Rabbi Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth
, is trained as a philosopher and has a particular interest in political institutions. This leads him to take a wider view of the Jewish role in the world than the purely individual.
The theme of Rabbi Sacks’ book is responsibility, or as he puts it, cleverly, “response-ability”--the ability to respond. When the nothingness shows through, when the cracks widen, what is our role? Sacks begins by outlining responsibility as a call: it is something that makes urgent demands on us in our modern age. Judaism insists that we see the world as a constant demand upon our attention and action: Rather than an opiate, religion is characterized by "sacred discontent, dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Much modern preaching is infected with the strange assumption that we must tend to our own moral growth but not with the ills of society. As Rabbi Sacks makes clear, there is no absolute separation between the ethical individual and the just society. Just as there is strife in the individual life, so there is in the world. While most people are attuned to the difficulties of their own lives, however, it takes unusual ethical penetration to understand the “brokenness” of the world around us.
When Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great kabbalist and mystical master known as the ARI, talked about a “broken world,” he was speaking of more than the shattered soul; he was pointing to cracks in the foundation of things. Paul Valery, the French poet, offered a kindred metaphorical spin when he said "God made the world from nothing. Sometimes, the nothingness shows through." In other words, both the poet and the mystic understand that just as there are gaps and pains in our souls, so there are in the world, and this imperfection seems somehow built into the nature of creation.
Religion should cultivate an uneasiness with the injustice of the world, Rabbi Sacks argues. And Judaism is a tradition of dissatisfaction with the broken state of things. The theme of his book is responsibility, or as he puts it, cleverly, response-ability—the ability to respond. When the nothingness shows through, when the cracks widen, what is our role?
Sacks begins by outlining responsibility as a call: it is something that makes urgent demands on us in our modern age. Judaism insists that we see the world as a constant demand upon our attention and action: Rather than an opiate, religion is characterized by "sacred discontent, dissatisfaction with the status quo." He quotes Maimonides: "We have never seen or heard of an Israelite community that does not have an alms fund." The presence of such a fund argues for the side of religion that does not simply encourage people to accept the inequalities of the world, but calls them to address it. Responsibility entails individual acts of goodness and social remedies.
The mitzvot, or commandments-‑tzedakah (charity), hesed (loving kindness), honoring God‑-are all ways of expressing the need to fix what has gone awry. Humanity is morally impelled by a reality greater than the individual ego. He quotes H. Richard Neibuhr, the Protestant theologian: "God is acting in all generations upon us. So respond to all actions upon you as to respond to his action." For Sacks, this means that everything that happens is in some way God's doing. So respond to everything as though it were ultimately from God. Every proximate cause points to the ultimate cause: This is the claim of transcendence on the human soul. When you answer the beggar in front of you, you are responding to God. The eight ball thinks it is responding to the cue ball, but really it was the carefully aimed stroke that initated motion.
In the book’s third section, "The Responsible Life," Rabbi Sacks tries to answer the question of what it can mean to enact this responsibility to transcendence for both individuals and societies. He enumerates many moral lessons and reprises them in a convenient summary at the end of the book. So, for example, he tells us that each day is a question God asks of us, that each religious tradition is worthy of respect, that it is not wealth but giving that shapes our moral character, and that ultimately, immorality is a loss in this world, not a gain. When stripped of the surrounding homiletics, they seem banal, but in fact they are beautifully developed in the text.
At the heart of this book is a glaring absence, however. We might call it the refusal to grapple with falsification. If Judaism is so rife with such beautiful ideas, instruction, ethical guidance, why do Jews so often misbehave? Is human misadventure purely a function of our riven natures—half good, half bad—or is Judaism too in need of some examination and reconstruction? Some of the most learned and observant Jews prove themselves among the least tolerant. Is that an aberration? Why should those who know the tradition best not invariably be shaped into gentle, moral souls?
The refusal to examine oneself is often a sympton of defensiveness. Perhaps Rabbi Sacks’ feels that those who are not favorably disposed toward Judaism should not be given ammunition. After all, to quote a rabbi about the failings of Jews would be quite tempting for those who are so inclined.
But still, one closes the book wondering: if this is Judaism, how can it sometimes elicit the opposite in its adherents? How does this faith sometimes produce people who cannot look beyond themselves? When Rabbi Sacks speaks of the embracing nature of Jewish ethics, one is put in mind of the learned rabbis who insist that non-Jews have a different type of soul, or that victims of terrible tragedies brought the suffering upon themselves by lack of observance or belief. Both of these ideas have recently been enunciated by very traditional rabbis in Israel and in the United States, who continue to be looked upon with reverence. Such perspectives–in one case devaluing non-Jews, and in the other devaluing those within the Jewish community who are less observant--are radically at odds with the concept of responsibility enunciated in this book, and it would have been good to hear Rabbi Sacks discuss this and similar issues.
Without question, the Jewish ethical legacy has served as a powerful imperative for righteous action. Rabbi Sacks quotes Gen. Sir Michael Jackson, head of NATO forces in Kosovo, who told him that Pristina’s Jewish community took charge of the city's 23 schools. A crucial task, the general told the rabbi, since the revival of the school system was essential to the community’s reconstruction. How many Jews were there in Pristina, the capital and largest city in Kosovo? Eleven.
This is a beautiful example of the responsibility Rabbi Sacks encourages. For all that some of its spokesmen may distort Judaism’s central messages, a tradition that could impel such moral concern speaks eloquently to our world.
As we are increasingly victim to ethical balkanization, to people thinking only of their own group or faith or community, religious leaders like Rabbi Sacks need to remind us that we are all kin. We live in a world desperately in need of healing.
This is a book full of wisdom, drawn from Judaism, about that process. Rabbi Sacks writes clearly, with erudition in service of ideals. I fear the people who most need this book will not read it; but they—and we—should.