The ethics of responsibility. For life to have meaning, we need to stop pursuing our own interests and learn to share. Giving is what makes us human. This is a message common to all religions, writes Ziauddin Sardar

To Heal a Fractured World

Jonathan Sacks <em>Continuum, 288pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0826486223

Jewish folklore tells the story of the lamed-vovniks, a group of 36 hidden righteous people. The very world exists and survives because of the good deeds these people do, but they themselves do not realise they are special. The lamed-vovniks are ordinary types: blacksmiths and woodcarvers, peasants and illiterates who sit at the back of synagogues, unable to read the prayers.

Jonathan Sacks wants to revive this tradition. It is easy, he suggests, to look up to superhuman heroes and recount their stories of piety, self-sacrifice and good deeds. The essence of our humanity, however, is that we are fallible, infected with doubt, inclined to despair, vulnerable to desire. It is the good deeds of ordinary people that confirm our humanity, that lift us above the monotonous and the commonplace.

To Heal a Fractured World is full of narratives of lamed-vovniks, ordinary people whom Sacks has encountered and who have inspired and moved him. He recounts these anecdotes not to entertain - though they are entertaining - but to illuminate his answer to the simplest and most profound question of all: what is the meaning of life?

The loss of meaning, Sacks argues, is a product of modern thought. From Marx and Freud to neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, western thought has systematically undermined responsibility. We have no choice, we are constantly told, because of economic forces, our unconscious, or our genes. Yet, at the same time, we live in a world that presents us with endless choices. We want to have it both ways, and so we end up confused and cynical. Our obsession with individuality and self-interest further erodes personal and collective responsibility.

Life can become meaningful, Sacks argues, only if we give it purpose, direction and a sense of responsibility. Why do we act? Because we choose. We choose because we form intentions. We form intentions because we are free. And because we are free, we have responsibility. Freedom is both a gift and a challenge. It has value only when we respect it and enhance it individually and collectively. And when we exercise it with responsibility. "The best answer I know to the meaning and meaninglessness of life", writes Sacks, is "the ethics of responsibility".

The ethics of responsibility must be based on the idea of God. For Sacks, faith and justice are a united whole. Those who insist that God exists necessarily believe that there is justice. But we need to differentiate between divine justice - "justice from the perspective of one who knows all, sees all, and considers all: universe as a whole, time as a whole" - and our own humble efforts. Trapped in time and space, we cannot see things from the divine perspective. Even if we could, it would only make us worse human beings. This is why those who invoke the justice of God are, according to Sacks, condemned by God himself.

Instead, we need a concept of justice that is compatible with our human limitations and capabilities, and that we can understand - a justice that is expressed solely in terms of human deeds. Faith and deeds are two sides of the same coin: it is through our deeds that we express faith, give meaning to our lives and make meaning real in the lives of others and the world. Faith, therefore, cannot be passive. It is an active and continuous protest against a world from which justice is absent, that is structured to perpetuate misery and suffering, and which elevates greed and ego above altruism. "The single greatest protest against such a universe is monotheism," declares Sacks.

Justice based on faith as protest has a number of components. It is retributive: disputes are settled by right rather than might. It is distributive: the means of existence are distributed equally. And it is based on charity. To receive without reciprocating is a kind of death, Sacks suggests. To live is to give. This notion alone, he argues, is enough to defeat cynicism and fatalism about the human condition.

Sacks is undoubtedly a profound thinker, and his book is a joy to read. Nevertheless, his ethics of responsibility presents a number of problems. The first is the definition of ethics itself. Sacks distinguishes ethics from morality, defining the latter as a universal principle that shapes our relationship with strangers and humanity in general. Ethics, on the other hand, is focused firmly on our relationship with our own community - which makes it sound rather provincial. Yet although Sacks apparently derives his ethics from Judaism, there is actually nothing parochial about it. These are not principles specific to Judaism, but universal principles as defined and explicated by Judaism.

Many of the Jewish thinkers whom Sacks admires and quotes frequently and fervently, such as Maimonides, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Saadiah Gaon al-Fayyumi and Abraham Ibn Daud, wrote in Arabic and were heavily influenced by the work of early Muslim thinkers. Maimonides, for example, was highly inspired by the metaphysics of Abu Nasr al-Farabi and Ibn Sina; Ibn Gabirol leaned towards Ibn Arabi and the Sufis of Andalusia. While these Muslim thinkers worked in the Islamic idiom, they saw their thought in universal terms. How we treat ourselves determines how we treat all others. That is why they deliberately based their ethics on a humanism that was universal. I suspect that the great Jewish thinkers whom Sacks invokes would support this position.

Sacks also claims that while religious faiths are incommensurable, the goodness that results from religious experience can be shared by all. This position is illogical. If religions are genuinely incommensurable, then there can be bad and good religions. What is there to say that "bad religions" will produce "goodness" that can be shared by us all? This stance is problematic not least because Sacks told us in an earlier book, The Dignity of Difference (2002), that religions can be commensurable provided they give up their individual claims to exclusivity. Religions, he has argued, should move forward to a notion of universal Truth, which is greater than all of them, but which they all partly share in their individual ways.

Indeed, I find nothing really incommensurable between Judaism, as outlined in To Heal a Fractured World, and my own understanding of Islam. Almost all the Judaic concepts Sacks refers to - such as hassad, love and kindness - have Islamic counterparts. The Islamic notion of adl is exactly the same as Judaism's notion of justice, defined by Sacks as "charity, love-as-action, sanctifying God's name, 'the way of peace' and 'mending the world'". Islam, like Judaism, is a religion of protest and "sacred discontent". To be a Muslim is to ask questions, just as "to be Jewish is to learn how to question". No wonder To Heal a Fractured World often reads as if it is as much about Islam as it is about Judaism.

None of these criticisms, however, should detract from the significance of To Heal a Fractured World, which is powerful, timely and full of profound insights. "Life alone," writes Sacks, "is only half a life." It is not just that life is demeaned by the perpetual pursuit and satisfaction of desires, but that satisfaction is never all that we desire. Life acquires meaning only when we begin to share; the good life exists only in the virtue of being shared. It is through sharing and living together that we shape an ethics of responsibility, which not only gives meaning to our lives but actually answers the question of what our lives mean.

What could be more profound than that?

Ziauddin Sardar's Desperately Seeking Paradise: journeys of a sceptical Muslim is out in paperback, published by Granta