‘… never waste a crisis’

So Rabbi Sacks:

Every crisis, for Jews, is chevlei leida, something new is being born.

And that is why, when crises happen, we as Jews have to lead the world to a better place, and that is the challenge I want us to accept, individually and as a people.

And how do we do it? The answer is … by starting, each one of us, individually and collectively, a Jewish journey, a Jewish journey that will help change us and help change the world.

What is a Jewish journey? The answer is contained in the opening words of the parsha, of the portion of the Torah we read just yesterday in our synagogues, the first recorded syllables of Jewish time, when God says to Abraham and Sarah, Lech lecha, “Begin a journey, get thee out,” me’artzecha umimoladetecha umibeit avicha “From your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house.” And so began the world’s oldest, longest, and greatest journey of all, and we have to move on that journey to the next stage.

What do we learn from those words to Abraham and Sarah at the beginning of Jewish time? Three things.

Number one, uniquely Judaism begins with a journey. With two journeys. With Abraham’s journey from Mesopotamia, and with Moses and the Israelites’ journey from Egypt …

To be a Jew is to help heal a broken world. We are the people who don’t stand still. We are the people for whom life is a journey to a world of justice and compassion and healing, which is not yet, but which we will not cease until we help bring it about. And that is the first thing we learn from Abraham and Sarah, that we as people have to journey and travel and grow.

Second thing, Lech lecha. What do those words literally mean? We translate them as Get thee out, leave. But the Chasidim pointed out that the words Lech lecha literally mean, “Get to yourself.” Become the person that you really are. Have the courage to be different. Have the courage to do the Jewish deed. The really great Jews are the ones who are unashamed to be Jews and to do the Jewish deed …

And the third message has to do with the politics of the world. The world is moving into a new and dangerous phase that I call the politics of anger. And the politics of anger comes from where? It comes from fear …

What makes people despair? Let me tell you what makes people despair. We think to ourselves, “How can I change the world? How can I make a difference? There’s only one of me, there’s seven billion people out there. I am no more than a wave in the ocean, than a grain of sand on the seashore, than dust on the surface of infinity.”

But I want you to think of this: Tell me, who is the most influential human being who ever lived? To be honest, there’s only one candidate, and that is Abraham, because today, literally or metaphorically, the people who consider Abraham to be their ancestor in faith are 2.4 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, and a few of us, most of whom happen to be in this room today …

Chevra [Friends], this one individual, or these two individuals, Abraham and Sarah, think about it, they ruled no empire, they commanded no army, they performed no miracles, they delivered no prophecies. All they did was heed the call of lech lecha to begin a Jewish journey, and to define for all time what it is to be a Jew.

And these are what we learned from Abraham and Sarah: To be a Jew is to be true to your faith, and a blessing to others, regardless of their faith. And that is the greatest message of healing that the world needs to hear in the 21st century, and we have to deliver it.

Friends, that was all I was gonna say, until I suddenly realized there’s one thing, in addition, I probably ought to say.

Tell me, when you’re looking at journeys – you know how long it took us to get out of the station in Washington today? – everyone’s going one way, right? Now, tell me, are there more people queuing in America to go to Iraq, or queuing in Iraq to go to America? Where do people travel? They travel from poor countries to rich ones. They travel from low civilizations to high civilizations. What was the highest civilization in the days of Abraham? Mesopotamia, Ur Kasdim, where he came from. Everyone else is trying to get in, he’s leaving with Sarah. What was the highest civilization in the days of Moses and the Israelites? Answer, the Egypt of Ramses the Second. Everyone else is trying to enter, Moses and the Israelites are trying to leave.

We are the world’s contrarians. Everyone’s going that way, we’re going the other way. So let me make a simple suggestion. You know as well as I do, that when the world is united, Jews are divided, right? Now the world is divided, let’s us do the opposite thing and show that we are united …

So when, out there, there is despair, let us bring hope. When out there there is hurt, let us heal. And when out there is division, let us show that we are enlarged and not diminished by our differences. Let us show the world what it is to stand together and respect one another.

Therefore, I say this, never waste a crisis. Never stand still. Go out there, continue the Jewish journey, and be a blessing to the Jewish people, and to the world.

You can read the rest here.

As so many leaders of religious communities and religious organisations (including theological colleges) make the turn inwards towards, in my tradition, an ecclesiocentricism characterised by idolatrous efforts directed towards self-preservation and self-propagation, Rabbi Sacks bears witness to another – a better – way. So too does brother Dietrich: ‘the church is church only when it is there for others’. May the State of Israel too hear that word, and so follow the way that Sarah and Abraham walked, and so ‘be true to [the] faith, and a blessing to others, regardless of their faith’.

‘Never waste a crisis’.

Jonathan Sacks on antisemitism

Sir Jonathan SACKS

Readers of this blog will know of my deep admiration, gratitude, and respect for the work of Jonathan Sacks. He is among those few contemporary religious leaders who, in my judgement, diagnoses and communicates back to a wide public desperate for wisdom the maladies of our time, and does so with piercing soberness and profound hopefulness.

A week or so ago he was in Brussels speaking at a conference at the European Parliament on ‘The Future of the Jewish Communities in Europe’. His address was titled ‘The Mutating Virus: Understanding Antisemitism’. While I think that Rabbi Sacks has partially misjudged (for reasons I need not articulate here) the source of much of the antipathy towards the State of Israel, particularly from those in the West, I do think he’s right about antisemitism, racism, and prejudice, and possibly about Europe too. Here’s a snippet from that address, and below is the video:

The hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews … Antisemitism is not about Jews. It is about anti-Semites. It is about people who cannot accept responsibility for their own failures and have instead to blame someone else … The appearance of antisemitism in a culture is the first symptom of a disease, the early warning sign of collective breakdown. If Europe allows antisemitism to flourish, that will be the beginning of the end of Europe …

If there is one thing I and my contemporaries did not expect, it was that antisemitism would reappear in Europe within living memory of the Holocaust. The reason we did not expect it was that Europe had undertaken the greatest collective effort in all of history to ensure that the virus of antisemitism would never again infect the body politic. It was a magnificent effort of antiracist legislation, Holocaust education and interfaith dialogue. Yet antisemitism has returned despite everything … If this continues, Jews will continue to leave Europe, until, barring the frail and the elderly, Europe will finally have become Judenrein.

How did this happen? It happened the way viruses always defeat the human immune system, namely, by mutating …

Anti-Semitism is a form of cognitive failure, and it happens when groups feel that their world is spinning out of control. It began in the Middle Ages, when Christians saw that Islam had defeated them in places they regarded as their own, especially Jerusalem. That was when, in 1096, on their way to the Holy Land, the Crusaders stopped first to massacre Jewish communities in Northern Europe. It was born in the Middle East in the 1920s with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Antisemitism re-emerged in Europe in the 1870s during a period of economic recession and resurgent nationalism. And it is re-appearing in Europe now for the same reasons: recession, nationalism, and a backlash against immigrants and other minorities. Antisemitism happens when the politics of hope gives way to the politics of fear, which quickly becomes the politics of hate.

Sound familiar?

You can read the whole address here.

 

The Danger of Outsourcing Morality

Jonathan SacksSome characteristically thoughtful words here from Jonathan Sacks in his acceptance speech for the Templeton Prize:

A free society is a moral achievement. Without self-restraint, without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habits of heart and deed that we call virtues, we will eventually lose our freedom … At some point the West abandoned this belief …

Morality itself was outsourced to the market. The market gives us choices, and morality itself is just a set of choices in which right or wrong have no meaning beyond the satisfaction or frustration of desire. The result is that we find it increasingly hard to understand why there might be things we want to do, can afford to do, and have a legal right to do, that nonetheless we should not do because they are unjust or dishonourable or disloyal or demeaning: in a word, unethical. Ethics was reduced to economics … [And] having reduced moral choice to economics, we transferred the consequences of our choices to politics.

And it seemed to work, at least for a generation or two. But by now problems have arisen that can’t be solved by the market or the state alone …

You can’t outsource conscience. You can’t delegate moral responsibility away …

But the West has, in the immortal words of Queen Elsa in Frozen, “Let it go”. It has externalised what it once internalised. It has outsourced responsibility. It’s reduced ethics to economics and politics. Which means we are dependent on the market and the state, forces we can do little to control. And one day our descendants will look back and ask, How did the West lose what once made it great?

Every observer of the grand sweep of history, from the prophets of Israel to the Islamic sage Ibn Khaldun, from Giambattista Vico to John Stuart Mill, and Bertrand Russell to Will Durant, has said essentially the same thing: that civilisations begin to die when they lose the moral passion that brought them into being in the first place. It happened to Greece and Rome, and it can happen to the West. The sure signs are these: a falling birthrate, moral decay, growing inequalities, a loss of trust in social institutions, self-indulgence on the part of the rich, hopelessness on the part of the poor, unintegrated minorities, a failure to make sacrifices in the present for the sake of the future, a loss of faith in old beliefs and no new vision to take their place. These are the danger signals and they are flashing now.

There is an alternative: to become inner-directed again. This means recovering the moral dimension that links our welfare to the welfare of others, making us collectively responsible for the common good. It means recovering the spiritual dimension that helps us tell the difference between the value of things and their price. We are more than consumers and voters; our dignity transcends what we earn and own. It means remembering that what’s important is not just satisfying our desires but also knowing which desires to satisfy. It means restraining ourselves in the present so that our children may have a viable future. It means reclaiming collective memory and identity so that society becomes less of a hotel and more of a home. In short, it means learning that there are some things we cannot or should not outsource, some responsibilities we cannot or should not delegate away.

We owe it to our children and grandchildren not to throw away what once made the West great, and not for the sake of some idealized past, but for the sake of a demanding and deeply challenging future. If we do simply let it go, if we continue to forget that a free society is a moral achievement that depends on habits of responsibility and restraint, then what will come next – be it Russia, China, ISIS or Iran – will be neither liberal nor democratic, and it will certainly not be free. We need to restate the moral and spiritual dimensions in the language of the twenty-first century, using the media of the twenty-first century, and in ways that are uniting rather than divisive.

One can read the full lecture here.

[Image: source]