For the Life of the World / Yale Center for Faith & Culture

Rabbi Sacks on Etching Everyday Existence with the Charisma of Holiness / Jonathan Sacks & Miroslav Volf

Episode Summary

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was a British Jewish Rabbi, philosopher, politician, and author of more than 30 books. In this conversation, Miroslav Volf interviews Rabbi Sacks about Jewish perspectives on human flourishing, joy, sabbath, and the deeply communal and particular nature of Jewish faith as a witness to the common good. Rabbi Sacks died on November 7, 2020. May his memory be a blessing.

Episode Notes

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was a British Jewish Rabbi, philosopher, politician, and author of more than 30 books. In this conversation, Miroslav Volf interviews Rabbi Sacks about Jewish perspectives on human flourishing, joy, sabbath and work, and the deeply communal and particular nature of Jewish faith as a witness to the common good. Rabbi Sacks died on November 7, 2020. May his memory be a blessing.

This episode starts with a 12-minute reflection and memorial from Miroslav Volf, followed by a 40-minute conversation with Rabbi Sacks.

For a video of the full conversation, click here: 

Show Notes

About Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Sacks is the author of over 30 books. His most recent work, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times (2020), was a top ten Sunday Times bestseller. Past works include: Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence; The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning; The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, winner of the Grawemeyer Prize for Religion in 2004 for its success in defining a framework for interfaith dialogue between people of all faith and of none; To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility; and A Letter in the Scroll: On Being Jewish, winner of a National Jewish Book Awards in 2000. Rabbi Sacks was knighted by Her Majesty The Queen in 2005 and made a Life Peer, taking his seat in the House of Lords in October 2009. He died on November 7, 2020.

Episode Transcription

Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. For more information, visit

Jonathan Sacks: For a life to go well means following the call of God, as articulated in Mosaic Law, which is a way of etching everyday life with the charisma of holiness. Well, how do you take an ordinary life and imbue it with the sense of the transcendence? The product of the life well lived is joy. 

Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity. 

Miroslav Volf: I'm Miroslav Volf with Yale Center for Faith & Culture. On November 7 this year, we lost one of today's most prominent, and I think most compelling religious leaders—Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. He was only 72 years old. His death is a loss, not only for the Jewish people, but also for the world. I think it would be right to say that he was a true son of Abraham, himself blessed and a blessing to the nations.

But his death is also a loss to me personally. I have known him for many years and memories of time spent with him at conferences, of having a meal at his home, of riding together in a tuk-tuk as we went shopping for traditional Indian kurta in Amritsar. All these are indelibly etched in my memory.

In this episode, we wanted to broadcast a conversation I had with him in 2015. We spoke about the Jews vision of seeking life that is worthy of our humanity, of following Mosaic Law, which he described as the etching of everyday life with charisma of holiness. As I seek to honor his life here, I want to give you a sense of extraordinary breadth of his activities, as well as highlight important convictions of great relevance for us today. 

As a rabbi, he was obviously an interpreter of the scriptures. And he was exceptionally good at it. I benefited immensely from his published weekly readings on the Jewish Bible, especially his comments on key passages of Genesis and Exodus. But Rabbi Sacks was not just superb interpreter of Scripture. He was also an impressive religious philosopher. You may want to look up some of the public debates he had with some of today's most vocal critics of religion, such as Richard Dawkins. He was also a public intellectual deeply concerned with the common good. Judaism, he believed and I quote him here, "is a protest against what the world is in the name of what the world ought to be." And he was as effective as anybody I know in his role as advisor to political and economic leaders. 

In his activities, he embodies what he has called the "Jeremiah option." Rabbi Sacks saw himself as belonging to a distinct religious minority. And as such, he saw himself as having a two-fold task. First was to affirm the distinctness of his own faith and of the faith and of the way of life of his community. But at the same time, he sought to contribute to the common good. Now this Jeremiah option was formulated in contrast to the so-called "Benedict option," which goes back to the philosopher, Alistair MacIntyre, and was later embraced by Pope Benedict XVI.

Christians in these Benedict options, Christians who want to preserve their faith, should kind of segregate themselves into enclaves to some degree from larger societies, so as to be preserved in the purity of their way of life and their own message. In contrast, the Jeremiah option goes back to the injunction of the prophet Jeremiah to the people of Israel: 

they were to seek the welfare of the city where I God have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf for in its welfare, you will find your welfare. 

I have come to know Rabbi Sacks best through his interfaith activities. In these activities too, he combined deep commitments to his own Jewish faith with concern for peaceful coexistence in a pluralistic world. One of his most recent books, titled Not in God's Name, he argued that and I quote him here, "The greatest threat to freedom in the postmodern world is radical, politicized religion." It is important to pay attention to this claim today as we observe how much damage and how much division politization of religion is causing in the U S and in many other parts of the world.

But it's important also to keep in mind that as a public intellectual, he also insisted that saying no to politicized religion does not mean to give up on politically engaged religion. And he pursued this engagement in a very sophisticated and effective way, as I mentioned earlier. In an interview about the book, he said: "In this book, I meant to encourage a recruitment and inspiration of a new generation of religious leaders—Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, you name it—that they make space for one another in coexistence and mutual respect. This book is a long-term call to all the faiths to make space for the religious other." 

And a similar theme as making space for the religious other comes to fore in one of my favorite books of his, which was written shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attack. The title of that book names its main thesis. It is The Dignity of Difference. Difference, he argued in this book, is not a defect of existence that somehow ought to be annihilated, kind of pushed into uniformity. To the contrary, difference is the fundamental feature of life and it has dignity that is worthy of preservation. But it's not just the main thesis that I appreciate about the book important as this main thesis is. I also appreciate his courage to change his mind under criticism about one of the central claims of that book. Now in the original edition written in 2002, he wrote: 

"If truth, religious or scientific, is the same for everyone at all times, then if I'm right, you're wrong. If I care about truth, I must convert you to my point of view. And if you refuse to be converted, be aware. From this flowed some of the great crimes of history and much human blood. All religions," it seems Sacks is claiming here, "have their own truths. And these have dignity and demand equal respect. If we fail to believe that and give them equal respect, we will cause a great deal of harm."

I hear later in a response to criticism, he came up with a second edition of the book and he recast his position. "Every person," he argued in that book, "indeed every stranger we encounter has equal dignity and we should respect their dignity even when we withhold respect from some of the key claims of their religion, and even when we cannot respect their behavior." Some saw in this a compromise he was forced to make facing criticism from his own community. I, in contrast, saw in this an expression of humility, willingness to publicly self-correct, also his ability to be and to act as an organic intellectual, an intellectual rooted in a particular community and from the resources of the community, speaking both to that community and to those who are outside.

One of Rabbis Sacks' deep convictions expressed in the title of that book was that we encounter God in the face of the strange. Now I believe that there can hardly be a more important conviction for us today. Today in the US, we're profoundly divided. Today in the world as a whole, each nation is screaming "we first." And each person, so it would seem, is insisting "me first," "I first." In such an environment, I believe we need to rediscover the other human being who is a stranger to us. To rediscover them is sacred, which is to say that we need to come to believe that in encountering them, we are encountering God. I believe that at this moment at least, this is the most important legacy of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. And this legacy consists in this belief that we encounter God in the face of the strange. This legacy consists not only that he in fact believed that, but that he defended that conviction with great passion and extraordinary intelligence.

Thanks for listening, friends. And may his memory be a blessing. 

Rabbi Sacks, it is a tremendous honor to have you here with us today. 

Jonathan Sacks: Great to be with you. 

Miroslav Volf: In this course that we teach, Life Worth Living, we differentiate three different dimensions of what we describe formally as life worth living. One is life going well. The other one is life being led well. And the third is somehow life also feeling good. So let's start with the first one. For life to go well for us, what kinds of circumstances do we need as human beings? 

Jonathan Sacks: Well, to be honest, I think Judaism would focus on the second question first because the Jewish story tends to begin with life not going well. So, you've got Abraham at the beginning of the Jewish story, being told to leave everything that makes him comfortable and feeling he belongs: his land, his birthplace in his father's house. You have the great national story of the Jewish people set in Egypt. The Israelites are enslaved and so on. So Judaism tends to be a journey from life not going well, through to the question: What can we do? How shall we live? How can we rescue something from tragedy? Judaism tends to be about turning bad circumstances into some kind or form of blessing. 

Miroslav Volf: And this is the promise to Abraham. You will be blessed and the nations will be blessed to you. Would that be part of what it means for life to go well? 

Jonathan Sacks: Yeah, I suppose really the great metaphors arising out of Abraham's life and Moses life. Abraham is the archetype of following the call, and being willing to journey to an unknown land. In fact, that's one of the most beautiful lines in the Bible in Jeremiah chapter two, when God says to the Israelites who have hitherto been seen as a fairly fractious and rebellious bunch. He says, "I remember the love of your youth, the kindness of our betrothal that you are willing to follow me through an unknown, unsown land. So, for Abraham, it's following the call. For Moses and the Israelites, it's following the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night across the wilderness. 

So I think the first metaphor about a life worth living is the life worth living in Judaism is a journey. It's not a state of being. Judaism is about walking, about the way, about following the call of God. And of course, once we get to Moses and Jews as people, not just as a family, that comes to the second element, which is core to this, which is divine law. 

Miroslav Volf: It fleshed out the call. It fleshed out how it might look like in the daily life of a community. 

Jonathan Sacks: Exactly. So, how do you bring heaven down on earth? There are some religions which see us as here on earth trying to climb to heaven. And Judaism is exactly the opposite. So that, for instance, you have these two acts of creation in the Bible, in the Mosaic books. God creates the universe; the Israelites create the sanctuary, the portable temple. And the Bible allocates something like 20 times as much space to the Israelites building this little portable sanctuary as it does to God creating the universe. So I tend to think of the Bible, which is the formative document of Judaism, not as man's book of God, but God's book of man. And so for a life to go well means following the call of God as articulated in Mosaic Law, which is a way of etching everyday life with the charisma of holiness.

Miroslav Volf: That's a wonderful phrase: etching the everyday life with the charisma holiness. That means everyday life is given significance, is given weight, is given... 

Jonathan Sacks: Yeah, it's a very remarkable structure, if you read the mosaic books. Eating becomes part of the code of holiness. Here are the foods you can eat here, the foods you can't eat. You shall eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord, your God. So eating is a form of divine thanksgiving, but is a code of holiness. The same applies to the sexual life between man and woman. Again, Leviticus 18 and 20, a very intricate code of investing that love between husband and wife with a sort of discipline or structure, and turning it into prose, into kind of religious poetry. I think that's the Jewish genius. Take an ordinary life in ordinary circumstances and make that a home for the divine presence. 

Miroslav Volf: So, the code isn't about dos and don'ts, primarily. It's about that too. The code is about discovering in this particular activity the presence of God and therefore what heightening both the significance and enjoyment of that activity. Food becomes more than food. Sex becomes more than sex. Ordinary things of life are more than they are, right? 

Jonathan Sacks: Yes, exactly so. How do you take an ordinary life and imbue it with the sense of the transcendent? 

Miroslav Volf: So contrary to, say, some of the critiques of religion, I think something happening in the kind of trail of Nietzsche, where transcendence it is not just that you have this resentment against the world and invoked in transcendence, but also somehow transcendence bleaches out ordinary life of its significance. Typical example that people give, Dante is being led through paradise by Beatrice, and Beatrice finally leads him in the presence of God, and then this great love that motivated the entire epic poem, kind of disappears in the love of God. People think those who are oriented toward God somehow devalue the life of this world, including the precious things like our loves. But you're saying something exactly opposite. 

Jonathan Sacks: It is extraordinary. If you read the Bible, it's an extraordinary library of books, the Hebrew Bible, composed over a period of minimum of a thousand years from the earliest books to the latest books. And you'll find a deeply religious people that almost doesn't talk about the afterlife at all. It just talks about life down here. What is it to do? What is it to work? What is it to love? What is it to construct an economy? What is it to build a politics around the presence of God in your midst? It is relentlessly this worldly. Search for God tomorrow, He's here today. Then search for Him up in heaven and He's down here on earth, or at least as in Jacob's dream, there's a ladder that connects heaven and us. 

Miroslav Volf: So we have started with a call of Abraham, a transcended call upon our lives with Mosaic Law. And I think we have edged ourselves slowly to not just life being led well, but to fundamental elements of life going well. We are with food. We are with sex. We are building a community and the economy and so forth. So that element of life going well is structurally important to Judaism as well. 

Jonathan Sacks: Absolutely. And, somehow or other, there is this extraordinary passage in Deuteronomy, which lists the curses, 98 of them, if you don't obey God. And you work out what's brought all these on, what terrible sin of the Israelites committed. And the Hebrew says, all this is happening because you did not serve God with joy and goodness of heart out of the abundance of all good things. So the product of the life well lived is joy. 

Miroslav Volf: So if we take this in our categories of three dimensions, would you describe joy as a kind of affect, an affective side of human life?

Jonathan Sacks: It is. But, what is really interesting is the secondary place of happiness in Judaism. And even happiness, like eudaimonia, is not quite the right word, but a private feeling. Joy in Judaism is always done in the company of others. So it's not a private emotion that I feel. It's a kind of shared celebration.

So joy appears in the Mosaic books, in the context of husband and wife, and love, and family. It occurs in the context of society. Whenever you are celebrating, make sure that you include within your celebrations the widow, the orphan, the levite, and the stranger. So it's an open embracing kind of joy. You wrote a book called Exclusion and Embrace, and we're very much into the embrace and against the exclusion because everyone's got to feel included for a joy to be a really Jewish joy. So it's a kind of shared thing. It's interpersonal. It's also moral in that it's open and welcoming the stranger. And it is, in a sense, just taking life itself, and saying that is the greatest gift of God. So whether our external circumstances, terrific, or they're quite meager, and nonetheless, you sit and you rejoice. 

Miroslav Volf: And you rejoice over some kind of a good, right? When I think of great songs of joy in the Hebrew Bible, deliverance from the slavery in Egypt, there is a huge celebration that happens and that's ritually enacted. So it's a celebration of a good that has been experienced. 

Jonathan Sacks: Yeah. It's a celebration of the move from slavery to freedom. What I think is really at the heart of Judaism—the sense of God as somebody very close. This is not a philosopher's God. This is a God who takes us by the hand and leads us through the sea, and steers us through the wilderness. This is a guardian into whose hands we entrust our spirit. The Hebrew word for divine presence is in secular language, the next door neighbor. So this is God as our next door neighbor. In all the language, God is father, God is husband, whatever you like. This is all non-metaphysical language. It's all a feeling of being very physically close to God. 

Miroslav Volf: So joy is tied to this complex state of closeness. It's joy over God's presence, but over God's presence as a certain, almost, state of affairs in the world. 

Jonathan Sacks: Yeah. If you start with the assumption of Genesis 1, that every one of us, regardless of color culture, creed, or class, is in the image and likeness of God. So if you're celebrating with your friends and you're doing so in a joyous manner, in a sense, all our particular points of light joined together and create a moment of an epiphany of the divine presence. So the idea of being close to God is not opposed to being close to other people. It's something that happens when you're close to other people. 

Miroslav Volf: Abour three, four weeks ago or so, I was in Jerusalem and on the Shabbat, I went for a Shabbat meal. I went to my good friend alone. It was a rabbi and we had a meal together. And, after the meal, he took a book of a rabbi from Jerusalem and then read to me about the significance of the Sabbath. And what struck me in that book is connection between Shabbat and joy. 

Jonathan Sacks: Yeah.

Miroslav Volf: And, I always thought of Shabbat as many other things, but kind of tied to work. Six day you should work and then no work on Shabbat. But the point that was being made was it's the end not so much of work, but the end of striving, and celebrating what is. That was a kind of discovery for me. 

Jonathan Sacks: God creates the universe in six days, and then you rest. We try and become his partners in recreating or improving the universe for six days. So for six days we're partners. We're side by side. On the seventh day, we too rest. And as Judah Halevi, our 11th Century philosopher, put it, "It is as if you are a guest at God's table." He's the host; we're the guests. And we're all no longer striving and we're just celebrating one another's company. And that is why the Sabbath plays so central a part in this idea of a life worth living because there have been many, many utopias in history, and the word "utopia" means no place. So I think the Sabbath is in one sense, the most remarkable of all utopia because it's utopia now. One day in seven, we're there. We're back in the Garden of Eden. We're back close with God. We are actually doing our dress rehearsal for the extended version to come at some time to be announced. So it's a kind of dress rehearsal for utopia and it's real and it's now. 

Miroslav Volf: It's very interesting. I was reading just around this same time. I was reading some of Augustine, and Augustan kind of appropriates, as the New Testament does too, the Shabbat imagery for the eschatological hope. And Augustine speaks about Sabbath as being kind of the end of all our desires. And all our desires aligned in the right way, if they're aligned toward that Sabbath. Then that kind of resonates with what you're saying right now. 

Jonathan Sacks: Was it Van Gennep or Victor Turner who spoke about liminal space, when you're neither then or here, you're just in the middle? And when society disappears and community arises, the difference between society and community is society is hierarchical, but community is all of us as equals together, bonding together. And in the Bible, that's 40 years in the wilderness. Hosea calls that a honeymoon between God and his people. It was fairly troubled in argumentative, but it was a honeymoon because they felt that God was very close. And I think that is what the Sabbath is. It's this time out of time, eternity in the midst of time, this liminal space. 

Because the thing about the Sabbath is not in don't you work, but you can't ask anyone to work for you. Every hierarchy is suspended even your domestic animals can't work for you. So we're all back in the Garden of Eden—no hierarchy, no dominance, no power relationships and just celebrating the good of being, of being in God's being.

Miroslav Volf: You've also written, as far as I remember, of a kind of a social conditions, not just communal intentionalities and practices associated with the Sabbath, but for that dimension of life worth living the Shabbat is that you need a certain social states of affairs to be the case for that to be celebrated really well. How does our personal life worth living fit into the larger way in which we organize a society, the society as a whole? 

Jonathan Sacks: Obviously the biblical project is a social project. It's the construction of a society built on justice and compassion, on social inclusion, on welfare so that the poorest are not excluded. You have that elaborate structure of the seventh year and the Jubilee year when old property returns to its original owners, so that the inequalities that tend to build up in any economy are leveled, once every seven years or once every 50 years in slightly bigger way. So you can't ignore that social justice element that environs you, and that's the task of the six days. 

But since we've never fully completed that task, we kind of renew our being together on the Sabbath, which kind of feeds into the rest of life. Because if you've sat with somebody and made kiddish the blessing over the wine and you've broken bread together, and you've established that fellowship, you can't really go off and exploit him the day afterwards. So, it's that crucial rhythm of Jewish life that links the transcendental and the social and political. 

I just think, incidentally, this is quite an important thing. I want to say the Greeks had a logical imagination; Jews had a chronological and dialogical imagination because there's certain states of being that you need to enact at certain times, but not the whole time. So you can't have a life that's all Sabbath until the end of history. That is the end of the days. We haven't really worked out outside of the Bible any way of factoring in this kind of these bio rhythms of a life worth living. It isn't a constant state. It's got to have these things factored in and not through some personal time planning app on the iPhone because in Judaism, happiness and joy are not personal, they are communal. So you have to have everyone resting on the same day, and pretty much in the same way. So there's that communal dimension. 

Miroslav Volf: So in some ways, what's true of joy, that it is a communal thing in Judaism, that might be true also, if I'm hearing you rightly, of life worth living in general. Obviously, individuals can strive and they can richen. Their lives can get weight. But it's in a sense almost incomplete in its own, right? There's a communal project. 

Jonathan Sacks: It's very striking in the Hebrew because Hebrew a rather more elemental language than English. But you hear this litany of the seven days of creation and God said, "Let there be," and there was, and God saw that it was good. So you hear the word "good" seven times in Genesis 1. And then suddenly you're hearing in Genesis 2 the words "not good," which only appear twice in the whole Mosaic books. And it says it's not good for man to be alone. So you have a critique of our whole contemporary secular order. It was very interesting because a great Jewish theologian in America, Rabbi Soloveitchik, once wrote an essay called "The Lonely Man of Faith." And it struck me when I first saw even the title. I thought nobody's ever written an essay like that before because in Judaism the man of faith and the woman of faith are not lonely. I once called faith in Judaism the redemption of our solitude. 

Miroslav Volf: Makes sense. Now you wrote also that Judaism is a demanding religion. I think you somewhere wrote that it is one of the most demanding, if not the most demanding, religion, and indeed, that was the reason why you commended it in part. So it may be hard, but what reasons, what resources, what motivation, does one have to follow the paths to be part of? 

Jonathan Sacks: This sense of being close to God is the summum bonum of Judaism. And you kind of feel that throughout the prophetic books. You feel it throughout the song of songs. You feel it throughout many of the psalms. Somehow this sense of being—from the depths, I cried to you, O Lord—this sense of being distant from God is almost unbearable. And so, that closeness to God is how it works out. 

But really, and truly, it's combination of three beliefs in Judaism. Judaism, I would say is framed by three beliefs: creation, revelation, redemption. Those are the three fundamentals that God creates the universe. He at Mount Sinai reveals His will for the people He has chosen as the people of whom He will be the exclusive sovereign. That's the first nation under the sovereignty of God, hence that profound ambivalence in Judaism towards monarchy, a human king. And even the profound ambivalence about the limits of politics because really, and truly, Judaism is a kind of utopian anarchy. We just live together under God and we don't accept anyone else as the ruler. So revelation is the code of God's will directed to us as his particular people, even though He's God of everyone and loves everyone. And when you apply revelation to creation, the result is redemption. And the journey towards that perfect society is the one that began with Abraham and still nearly 4,000 years later, we haven't completed 

Miroslav Volf: In some way, if I'm listening rightly what you're saying from the closeness to God to the kind of these three elements of Judaism, it almost sounds as if this way of life is its own reward. Attachment to God, closeness of God is its own reward. You can't justify it or you ought not justify it on the account of some other greater good that it might do to you or something of that sort. Is that what you're saying? 

Jonathan Sacks: That's certainly what I'm saying. Judaism is a religion of protest. It's a protest against the world's first great empires. So you have this, in a sense, that critique is there in Genesis 11, the tower of Babel, which we read as the first totalitarianism, and then you get Egypt. And what's wrong with Egypt is it's a society in which one human being is treated as God, and a lot of human beings are treated as slaves. So to create and inhabit a society where everyone is given the full measure of human dignity is the image of God, is the setting for a life in which you feel close to God not only in the mind or the soul or the emotions, but when you go out into the street, especially with the honesty and integrity of commercial and political relationships in the state, and also that serenity of a Sabbath where everything stops and in the still quiet at the heart of creation, you hear and feel the presence of the creator. So it's a complex mix of the individual, the communal, and the social. So wellbeing is really all of those things being in some kind of alignment. And beyond that, there's no further need for justification. 

Miroslav Volf: So that way of life understood in such a communal as well as personal way, justify itself by its beauty, by its attractiveness or whatever that might be.

Jonathan Sacks: And you can sort of trace that throughout history because there were an awful lot of occasions when people said to Jews—it happened under Christianity and happened under Islam, not always, not even often, but enough to be part of our character—convert or die, convert or be expelled, convert or be persecuted.

And with very few exceptions, the vast majority of Jews did not convert. So somehow when every blandishment was offered, and whenever every threat was uttered, most Jews at most times actually felt being Jewish matters to me more than anything else. And so I conclude from that, empirically, that Jews found this closeness to God in the company of your fellows is this summum bonum and you don't seek for anything else. 

And certainly when it comes to the search for wealth or power, we have this wonderful subversive book of Ecclesiastics, the man who had it all, and can only conclude by saying "meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless." I think that's the best critique of the consumer society and individualism that I've ever read. So, he was a man who knew it, all had it all, and says, "In the end, the most important things: sweet is the sleep of a laboring man and see life with the woman you love"—which is curiously enough, the same conclusion that that rather godless Jews, Sigmund Freud, arrived at as well. 

Miroslav Volf: Especially if one sees the life worth living as a kind of its own reward and if it is demanding, but still having its own reward. But what happens when one fails? It's a tough, tough road to follow. Abraham had a tough road. 

Jonathan Sacks: Everyone fails. 

Miroslav Volf: Everyone fails in a small or large way. 

Jonathan Sacks: There are no perfect characters in the Bible. When there are people who are pretty close to perfection and there are only two, one is called Noah and the other one is called Job, it turns out to be not very good news to be almost perfect because God is going to put you through some fairly tough situations. So, there's this sharp distinction in Judaism between divine perfection and human imperfection, which means that God very soon learns to forgive. So Judaism is a religion of forgiveness. God empowers us to fail. 

I look how many times Moses fails in his life. Look at how many times the Israelites fail. So you have this great drama of Moses after the people—a mere 41 days since they made that covenant with God on Mount Sinai, they make a golden calf. This is the shock horror of all anticlimaxes. Moses goes up—Moses comes down and smashes the 10 commandments and the tablets of stone. And he goes back up and says, "God, forgive them; if not, blot me out to the book you have written." 

This really challenging thing where Moses secured his divine forgiveness, and at that point, something interesting happens, what Max Weber called the routinization of charisma. What Moses experienced up the mountain becomes part of the annual ritual in Judaism called the Day of Atonement, which in temple times was mediated by the high priest. But for the last 2000 years, it's just us talking to God and asking for His forgiveness. So we have these 10 days, beginning with the new year, culminating on the 18th, 10 days later in the Day of Atonement, which are the 10 days of penitence. When we look over our lives, we apologize for the things we got wrong. We try and make amends with people we've offended. And, Judaism is a profound religion of apology and forgiveness. 

In fact, Alain de Botton, who is an atheist, wrote a little book recently, called Religion for Atheists. In the first chapter, he says, "Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is such a good idea. I think we should have four of them a year!" So I think that constant access to divine forgiveness is what empowers us to strive and yet to fail, and then get up and try again. 

Miroslav Volf: Striving and failing is part of the story of a people and of a person with God. But in that story also, God seems not only to forgive; God seems to chastise as well. There is a punishment side to things. What is the role of punishment? 

Jonathan Sacks: The role punishment really is to try and make sure that we don't do the following deal: I'm going to sin; I'm going to apologize; I'm going to be forgiven. I'm sure you know the recent research, the book by Norenzayan, called Big Gods. There's been empirical research on "do people become kinder if they believe in a punishing God or a forgiving God?" And the paradoxical answer is that if they believe in a punishing God, they are kinder, more forgiving, and more law abiding. If they believe in a forgiving God, they feel they themselves got to punish and they become less kind. Of course you wrote very movingly at the end of your book on exclusion and embrace about divine vengeance. And you made the same point that somehow when you feel that a great wrong has been committed, if you can ask God to take vengeance, it means you don't have to.

Miroslav Volf: But nonetheless, this moral order is taken seriously by you as well as by presumably the wider society. 

Jonathan Sacks:  It's taken very seriously. And in the end, although all the prophets—Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, Job—they all had problems with the divine justice of this world. How come the wicked prosper? How come the righteous suffer? That's THE key question in Judaism. It's not brushed away by anyone. It's the question raised by the heroes and heroines of faith. But at the end of the day, God does forgive even His enemies. 

This is the drama of the Book of Jonah. Jonah is sent as a prophet to Nineveh, which is the military center of Israel's enemies, the Assyrians. So Jonah knows what's going to happen. He's going to preach repentance. They're going to repent. God's going to forgive them. And he does not want God to forgive his enemies. So he runs away and then you have the little drama with the boat, the fish, the whole story. And he can't escape, so he goes to Nineveh and says, "40 days, Nineveh will be destroyed." And they repent and God forgives them all, and Jonas sits down and wants to die. 

"I knew you were going to forgive them, God. You make me look like a fool. You said 40 days Nineveh will be destroyed and you see you haven't destroyed it." So punishment is a sort of threat rather more than it's a reality. And I think history bears it out. There're some pretty nasty empires that tried to destroy Jews and the Jewish people and they are no more, and we're still here. So although there have been rocky moments for faith, I think in the end—Psalm 92 just describes it: "The wicked flourished like grass, but like grass they get moaned down. The righteous are like a Cedar tree, which seems to do nothing, but eventually grows tall." 

Miroslav Volf: Max Horkheimer, after the World War II, has written this small book, I think translated into English, but I don't know the English title. The longing for the other meaning of the divine, just so as to right the injustices of the world, so that torture will not eternally triumph over the victim. 

Jonathan Sacks: But it's very clear in the Bible what's the work of God and what isn't the work of God. And as soon as prophecy ends, you find Jewish law being much less punitive, much more pacific, as if they realize that you can only really wage a war against your enemies if God tells you to. And if you don't have prophets anymore, and we didn't after Haggai, Zachariah and Malachi in Second Temple times, then you just don't do that sort of thing anymore. You pray to God and then you try and make peace with your enemy. 

Miroslav Volf: We have covered a big range of topics from the call of God upon our lives, all the way to dealing with the failures to respond adequately to this call. 

Jonathan Sacks: I think if I were to sum it up, I would say that the man who got closest to this, oddly enough since he wasn't religious, was Viktor Frankl. Viktor Frankl was a psychotherapist who went through Auschwitz, who tried to give people the world to live, and then after the liberation of Auschwitz founded a school of psychotherapy based on his experiences there. And he called it The Will to Meaning, Man's Search for Meaning. And I think that's what Judaism is. It's a search for meaning, to say that somehow or other history is not just what Joseph Heller of Catch-22 called "a trash bag of random coincidence is blown open in the wind." 

And I think for me the image—I wrote a book called A Letter in the Scroll because our holiest thing is the Torah Scroll, which is the five Mosaic books handwritten, by quill, on parchment still to this day. And I think of meaning in Judaism is each of us is a letter in this scroll. Now all meaning is expressed in words, and all words are written in letters, but a letter on its own has no meaning. So it has to combine with other letters to make a word, other words to make a sentence, other sentences to make a paragraph, and other paragraphs to make a story.

So I think Judaism, the meaningful life, the life worth living, is the life suffused with meaning. And I am a little element of that. But I have to join two others to make a family. And my family has to join with others to make immunity. And the community has to combine with others to make a people, and that people has to connect with all previous generations to continue that story.

So in the end, all life is worth living because God is the God of life and Moses' great final command was “choose life.” But what really makes a life worth living is a life suffused with meaning when you see your significance as a letter in the scroll because this Torah scroll missing one letter is invalid. So you're invested with huge significance, but it's not just on your own. It's with horizontal relationships with other people. And vertical relations with the people who came before us. 

Miroslav Volf: What a perfect way to end our conversation. Thank you very much. 

Jonathan Sacks: Thank you.

Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School. This conversation featured the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks with theologian, Miroslav Volf. I'm Evan Rosa and I edited and produced the show. For more information, visit us online at New episodes drop every Saturday and you can subscribe through any podcast app. We hope you're enjoying the show and we hope that you'd consider supporting us. Three ways that you can do that are as follows: you can share the show with a friend by text or email and then I hope you talk about it; you can post it on your social feed; or you could open up Apple Podcasts right now, just after listening, to review and rate the show.

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