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19 August 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 2:00pm

Jonathan Sacks’s vision of community

In his new book Morality, the former chief rabbi lays out his thoughts on populism, identity politics and the decline of the West.   

By Nikhil Krishnan

It has been seven years since Jonathan Sacks stepped down as chief rabbi, a position he held for 22 years. His tenure saw him occupy a prominent role in the public life of Britain, an articulate and sympathetic intermediary between the world-view of the Orthodox communities he represented and the increasingly secular society in which they lived. His new book draws on the substance of his series Morality in the 21st Century, broadcast in 2018 on BBC Radio 4.

Sacks’s subtitle sets out its ambitions: “Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times”. The divided times in which the book was written – populism, identity politics, the decline of the West – seem as foreign to the pandemic-ridden present as those times did to the sunny 1990s, when the Cold War (and, apparently, history) had ended and no one had heard of Osama bin Laden. It is a mark of Sacks’s seriousness as a thinker that his concerns have not been rendered trivial by events.

The book begins with a picture of what morality is, as distinct from the peculiar features of this or that moral system. What we learn when we learn to be moral is that other people are real, and that they make claims on us. To take those claims seriously is to realise that the existence of other people places limits on what we may do.

Short, punchy chapters take us through the things Sacks approves of (marriage, family, truthfulness, civility, altruism) and those of which he disapproves (drugs, social media, censorship, public shaming, safe spaces, narcissism, identity politics and the “culture of victimhood”). Unlike others who share his bugbears, Sacks offers more than the kids-these-days conservatism of the tabloid moralists. His complaints, ­unlike theirs, emerge out of a world-view that has more to it than petulance.

Sacks shuffles deftly between four personae. Sometimes he is the Cambridge philosophy graduate who can spot a logical fallacy at 20 paces. At other times, he is the high-minded intellectual historian, steeped in both the Jewish and the secular canon from Aristotle to Jordan Peterson. His treatment of non-religious writers shows an unfakeable seriousness that secular thinkers don’t often get from, or indeed give to, the religious. He drops every now and then into his rabbinical voice, one shaped by decades of being called on to offer hope at weddings and comfort at funerals. “I learned more about morality,” he writes at one point, “in my years as a congregational rabbi than I did at Oxford and Cambridge.” He is less compelling when he adopts the cadences of the contemporary “thought leader”. The argumentative care and the human warmth give way to TED Talk clichés, what feel like oft-told anecdotes, and potted accounts of psychological or social scientific experiments, none of which call his own world-view into question. In these moods, he has a weakness for formulations such as “pagan cultures experience meaning as fate… the great monotheisms… experience it as faith. Postmodern cultures, though, dismiss it as fiction” (his italics). Serious thinkers share equal billing with opinion journalists: Sacks is disappointingly tolerant of lightweights when they happen to agree with him.

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Of the anecdotes, those that work best are the wry ones, as when Sacks tells Richard Dawkins that he is “tone deaf. You can’t hear the music beneath the noise” – in other words, that Dawkins fails to see meaning beyond the scientific facts. Dawkins replies, “You are right, I am tone deaf. But there is no music.” As Sacks asks, reasonably enough, how could Dawkins possibly tell? But the pattern begins to wear, with a succession of thinkers reduced to sullen silence by Sacks, who always gives himself the last word.

Sacks’s world-view is, as he would be the first to admit, not new; “communitarian” is a perfectly good label for it. His opponent is usually one or another kind of liberal, eager to legalise drugs and criminalise politically incorrect speech, to replace marriage and family by something both temporary and contractual, and is relaxed about people getting filthy rich, as long as they pay their taxes to a modestly redistributive state. The trouble with liberalism, as Sacks sees it, is not its wrong-headed views but the basic picture of humanity from which those views stem. Godless materialists all, liberals have no room for truly selfless forms of altruism, for a conception of life’s meaning that goes beyond the drive for material acquisition, still less for a conception of the sacred – to put it more bluntly than Sacks does.

Throughout this even-tempered polemic, Sacks allows every now and then that the liberal too argues from moral principles, but they are swiftly dismissed as principles of the wrong sort. A representative example comes in the course of Sacks’s discussion of marriage and family. The usual beats are struck: metropolitan middle-class liberals who wanted sex without commitment weakened the laws governing marriage, thus producing a generation of broken ­children, many of them working class, to be brought up in violence and squalor.

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A few sentences acknowledge that the ­social radicals of the 1960s may have thought in rather different terms: “No one surely wants to go back to the narrow prejudices of the past – loveless marriages, ­authoritarian families, harsh parenthood and the rest. But our compassion for those who choose to live differently should not inhibit us from being advocates for… the family – man, woman and child…”

How satisfactory are these offhand caveats? What should we make of his nonchalant, unargued assumption that a defence of marriage is a defence of heterosexual ­marriage? Sacks is entitled to his views on same-sex marriage, views that put him at odds as chief rabbi with Liberal and ­Reform Jews, to say nothing of wider secular culture. But the quiet elision here somewhat undermines his claim to be providing a fair-minded survey of the political options.

Liberals have said fatuous and complacent things about family and Sacks is right to urge attention to the unforeseen consequences of rapid social change. But the responsibility cuts both ways, and there are times throughout this book when it is Sacks who sounds complacent. Is it enough to call for selflessness without some awareness that some of history’s greatest monsters were selfless in their cruelty – in other words, that to be selfless is not automatically to be humane? Is it enough to decry individualism without acknowledging the sorts of stifling community life, inimical to much legitimate human aspiration, from which individualism promised an escape? Finding a balance between these competing considerations – a genuinely difficult political question – needs a deeper engagement than Sacks manages here with the liberal enemy.

A more general question raised by the tone of this book is how Sacks conceives of the relation between his diagnosis of the problem and the solutions he advocates. What would it take, practically, to “restore” the common good when we are all so divided? The Catholic thinker ­Alasdair MacIntyre, whom Sacks repeatedly quotes with approval, famously ended his 1981 book After Virtue with the enigmatic assertion: “We are waiting… for another – doubtless very different – St Benedict.” The saint in question, the founder of the Benedictine order, was supposed to provide a model for “the construction of local forms of community” as a counterweight to the power of alienated, rationalistic capitalism.

Sacks is evidently in favour of some such thing but is no clearer than MacIntyre about what feasible mechanism there might be for getting from theory to practice. A remark of his former teacher, the philosopher ­Bernard Williams, also frequently quoted in this book, is exactly to the point: “Who is  supposed to be hearing this? Is there anyone who both needs to be told it and is in a position to make use of it?”

But perhaps Sacks doesn’t hope to change minds. It is possible that he addresses his exhortations to goodness and duty not (to quote Williams again) to “someone who probably will not listen to it, but to reassure, strengthen, and give insight to those who will”. The inheritor of a tradition with a long historical memory of loss, exile, death and mourning, Sacks has things to say that speak more directly to our present condition than anything in recent liberal thinking.

Reading Sacks on social division – between Leavers and Remainers, iconoclasts and defenders of statues – while an unforeseeable pandemic was producing a provisional and precarious unity, left me both fearful and heartened. We can take heart in the fact that his gloomy prognoses for the consequences of our society’s narcissism have not yet come to pass, that we remain capable of self-control and sacrifice. But the real test might be the one yet to come, when a society and an economy will have to be ­rebuilt, as after a war, by a people who do not wholly trust each other. 

Nikhil Krishnan is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Cambridge

Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times
Jonathan Sacks
Hodder & Stoughton, 384pp, £20