How does one lead a good life? For decades, as chief rabbi from 1991 until 2013, and as one of the UK’s foremost public intellectuals, Jonathan Sacks has been preoccupied with this question. “There comes a point when you realise that we have gridlock,” he explained when we met recently at his home in Golders Green. “The problems are simply exceeding our capacity to deal with them. And at a moment like this you’ve got to step back”.
The result is a new BBC Radio 4 series: Morality in the 21st Century. In five episodes to be broadcast daily from 3 September, Sacks interviews what he calls an “A-Team” of global thinkers, including Michael Sandel, Melinda Gates, Steven Pinker, New York Times columnist David Brooks, AI entrepreneur Mustafa Suleyman and psychologist Jean Twenge.
Sacks cited three components of Western malaise: “The real hurt of the 2008 financial crash and the lack of remorse, or guilt, or shame by the people who were responsible for it”; “the loss of trust in institutions”; and the “epidemic of depression, anxiety and stress affecting teenagers today”.
To describe the West’s overarching failure, he referenced his concept of “outsourcing”.
“We have tried to outsource morality to the market and the state. The market gives us choices, the state deals with the consequences of those choices, and we don’t need to worry any more.”
Of the many intellectuals I have interviewed for the New Statesman, including the late Christopher Hitchens, Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Yanis Varoufakis, Sacks was among the most effortlessly erudite. At every turn in our hour-long conversation, he had a different book or philosopher – religious or secular – to cite. This trait, among others, helped forge close friendships with the similarly cerebral Gordon Brown and Rowan Williams.
“Take Richard Dawkins as a figure of our time; where do you find Richard Dawkins in the past?” Sacks remarked. “You find him in Lucretius, second century Rome, and you find him in Epicurus, third century BCE Greece.”
He continued: “And if you read the self-help books…They’re either advocating, like Yuval Harari’s new book [21 Lessons for the 21st Century], meditation, or – and Tim Ferriss [the US self-help author] is doing this – they’re all into stoicism.” Such philosophies, Sacks said, are merely designed to reduce “emotional damage” in a “meaningless universe” and “maintain sanity” in a “rotten world”.
By contrast, he argued, the Judeo-Christian tradition proceeded from the belief that “we can change the world, we can make it better. We don’t have to find a safe space and go and meditate. And it was that tradition, when it was released from the shackles of power with the Reformation, you’ve suddenly got a return to religion as a counter-cultural force.
“And then you suddenly get the West overtaking China because of this individual responsibility, this strong internalised moral code. What Nathan Glazer [the US sociologist] and others call the ‘inner-directed character’. This strong moral sense that drove the West at its highest points – and we’ve lost that because we got rid of it in the Sixties.”
And yet religions, to varying degrees, have been forced to adapt to new liberal norms, most notably the progressive expansion of women’s rights and gay rights. Where does Sacks now stand, for instance, on the question of equal marriage?
“These are difficult things because law is very central to Judaism – only God has legislative power. That’s what made [John] Milton, in particular, such a careful student of Deuteronomy, and the Jewish commentaries to it, because our Bible does not believe in the divine right of kings… You can’t relegislate, so all change in Judaism happens through interpretation, rather than legislation.”
Sacks recalled that shortly after he became chief rabbi in 1991, two groups asked to meet with him: Jewish gays and lesbians and Orthodox Jewish gays and lesbians. “I always felt those were two of the most moving meetings I had in my whole life because they were so honest and they said, ‘Chief rabbi, we understand you can’t give a blessing to us but there are things you can do and things we really need you to do.
“‘We need you to understand who we are and what we’re trying to do, we need you to not say hateful things about us in public, we need you to instruct your rabbis what it does to us were they to condemn us from the pulpit.’”
From this point onwards, all of Sacks’s statements on gay matters were sent in advance to the Jewish LGBT community and the chief rabbi would pointedly remark on Holocaust Memorial Day that it was not only Jews who were sent to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps.
But Sacks pragmatically maintained: “You can’t be on the cutting edge of the brave new world because you are keeping faith with a very ancient past. But I do think that we negotiated that almost better than any other religious group did because they had the courage to come and see me first.”
And yet, as he did at several junctures in our discussion, Sacks explicitly detached religion and morality. “This programme [the Radio 4 series] is not about religious ethics, it’s about ethics. I have never believed that if God does not exist then everything is permitted,” he said, refuting Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov.
“I think anyone who says that without religion ethics is unviable is both conceptually and empirically wrong and morally unpleasant.”
Sacks, who was born in Lambeth in 1948 and became rabbi for the Golders Green synagogue in 1978, cited family, community and tradition as the three values that had guided him throughout his life. He recalled: “The New Statesman once asked me who are the most influential people in my life and I replied my late parents: my dad, who would rather lose a friend than compromise a principle, and my mother, who kept all the friends my father lost.”
With reference to the work of US political scientist Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone and American Grace, Sacks added: “Being part of a community– it doesn’t matter whether you believe or don’t believe – is the best predictor of altruism: from finding someone a job to letting someone cut in front of you in a traffic jam.”
Throughout the summer, as Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis has reached new heights, Sacks has refrained from comment. But on the day I visited him (26 August), he resolved that he could remain silent no more. After Jeremy Corbyn was revealed to have declared in 2013 of a group of British “Zionists” – “they don’t want to study history, and secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony either” – Sacks said: “The recently disclosed remarks by Jeremy Corbyn are the most offensive statement made by a senior British politician since Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. It was divisive, hateful and like Powell’s speech it undermines the existence of an entire group of British citizens by depicting them as essentially alien.
“We can only judge Jeremy Corbyn by his words and his actions. He has given support to racists, terrorists and dealers of hate who want to kill Jews and remove Israel from the map. When he implies that, however long they have lived here, Jews are not fully British, he is using the language of classic pre-war European anti-Semitism. When challenged with such facts, the evidence for which is before our eyes, first he denies, then he equivocates, then he obfuscates. This is low, dishonest and dangerous. He has legitimised the public expression of hate, and where he leads, others will follow.
“Now, within living memory of the Holocaust, and while Jews are being murdered elsewhere in Europe for being Jews, we have an anti-Semite as the leader of the Labour Party and Her Majesty’s Opposition. That is why Jews feel so threatened by Mr Corbyn and those who support him.
“For more than three-and-a-half centuries, the Jews of Britain have contributed to every aspect of national life. We know our history better than Mr Corbyn, and we have learned that the hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews. Mr Corbyn’s embrace of hate defiles our politics and demeans the country we love.”
Sacks told me that throughout his school years in Finchley he never once experienced anti-Semitism. The concept had mercifully receded from his mind. But this changed in the early years of this century. His youngest daughter, who was studying at LSE, returned in tears from an anti-globalisation protest. “It had turned into, first, a tirade against America and then against Israel and then against Jews and she had tears in her eyes and she said: ‘Dad, they hate us.’” In February 2002, Sacks gave his first-ever speech on anti-Semitism and immersed himself in literature on the subject. “Elaine [his wife] said: ‘What are you doing?! You’re either reading about the Holocaust or anti-Semitism. Read something cheerful for a change!’”
In Israel, Jews have been fiercely divided by the country’s new nationality law, which declares that the Jewish people have “an exclusive right to national self-determination” in the state, defines the development of Jewish settlements as a national priority and strips the Arab language of its official status.
“I’m not an expert on this,” Sacks confessed. “My brother is… he’s a lawyer in Jerusalem, he tells me that there’s absolutely nothing apartheid about this, it’s just correcting a lacuna… As far as I understand, it’s a technical process that has none of the implications that have been levelled at it.”
Sacks, who had returned that day from his nephew’s wedding in Jerusalem, contrasted the sight of Palestinian and Jewish children playing together with the fraught political state. “I’m afraid it is going to need a new kind of leadership,” he said. “The majority of Israelis, even though they’ve given up on peace, if there were even a single sliver of light somewhere, they’d come back to it, because Jews did not wish to come back to their land to make any other people suffer and that goes very deep in the Jewish heart.”
The former chief rabbi is consoled, however, by religion’s enduring relevance. He recounted the story of a lapsed Jew who contacted him about a new digital-free day her family had introduced: “We’re going to call it the Sabbath.”
Such customs, Sacks said, were “a way of saying that the commercial mindset can extend so far but no further”. He concluded: “If you really want to face the future without fear, make sure you’re carrying a bit of the past with you.”
This article appears in the 29 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How politics turned toxic