Rav Sacks – Digitally Remastered Ba’al Mussar

Celebrating Life: Finding Happiness in Unexpected Places by Jonathan Sacks. London, Harper Collins. 192 pages. £ 8.99In encounters with the late Oxford don, Sir Isaiah Berlin, the British Chief Rabbi, Dr. Jonathan Sacks was regularly rebuffed with comments such as “When it comes to God, I’m tone deaf.” Berlin’s counter-attack was to question how Sacks, a trained philosopher, could be a believing Jew? To which Sacks’s response was “if it helps, think of me as a lapsed heretic!”

Despite the witty response, the question of heresy does not arise in this collection of therapeutic homilies and stories of wisdom for the general reader, both Jewish and non-Jewish, but the importance of questioning does. Thus, the book has been distributed to Jewish students who have just gone up to university in Britain, in case they might discover alternative “happiness in unexpected places.”

Throughout his lifetime, Sir Isaiah insisted on being the sort of Jew that he wished to be – and he did not want to be defined by others. Jonathan Sacks recognises this and the inadequacy of appending labels such as “secular” or “religious” to someone such as Berlin, whose Jewishness was all pervasive. Instead, he differentiates between religion and spirituality. “Spirituality is the poetry of the soul, religion the prose.” Yet, as he implicitly recognizes, there are many who distinguish between religious belief and religious culture. Indeed, in the Diaspora at least, there are Jews who devoutly attend synagogue for reasons of identity and a sense of belonging, as well as – or in opposition to – religious belief. There are Diaspora Jews who, like Sir Isaiah, love the poetry of the Pesach seder, yet do not warm to the prose of Judaism.

The stories are well-crafted and the insights that Jonathan Sacks attempts to provide are directed at promoting traditional Jewish values as a means of warding off the corrosive effects of contemporary society. Hence the title Celebrating Life; Finding Happiness in Unexpected Places. It depicts Judaism as a structural lifestyle for maintaining one’s balance when all around are seemingly losing theirs. What is on offer is conventional, the nuclear family, the rock of faith, the trust of marriage, the happiness of children, the trauma of coping with loss, the importance of friendship. Sacks describes all this in sophisticated terms.

He convincingly places the blame of the decay of moral intuition on relativism, using a quote from Rousseau to good effect. He offers an anchor of stability in difficult times. No doubt there will be some, among the teenagers who received this book, who will yearn for such a framework – they may even be in the majority. Yet there will be others who will ask “all well and good, essential and central, but surely there must be more to life than this?”

The Russians have a saying that someone at twenty who is not a Communist has no heart, but someone at forty who is still a Communist, has no head. Given the sense of Jewish individualism, many students embrace Tikkun Olam – the traditional Jewish imperative to make the world a better place.

Sacks effectively bypasses this. He suggests that reality can only be changed from within, through personal growth, and quotes Rabbi Israel Salanter.

“When I was young, I wanted to change the world. I tried but the world didn’t change. Then I tried to change my town, but the town didn’t change. Then I tried to change my family, but my family didn’t change. Then I realized: first, I must change myself.”

The founder of the Mussar movement did indeed concentrate on personal self-improvement, but it was done as a means to counteract the attractions of the revolutionary movement – including embryonic Zionism – which sought to rid Russia of tyranny, and to improve the lives of all its citizens, including the Jews.

Many young Jews deserted the yeshivot in Lithuania because they viewed them as passive where anti-Semitism was concerned, and eagerly accepting of life’s tribulations.

Too many rabbis accepted what is, while their students sought what ought to be. This book, in a sense, is Salanter digitally remastered for the class of 2000. It is Judaism as soothing, comforting and secure within the bosom of the Jewish family, good citizens who always do the right thing.

This book talks volumes about the effects of societal decay, but little about the causes. Working on oneself is an important lifetime occupation, but it can also become a distancing mechanism from comprehending the need for social justice. Perhaps it is the role of spiritual leaders not to be political, but taking a moral stand requires directness, clarity and often the small still voice of the prophets.

Sacks often argues that you do not have to abandon your critical faculties if you are a religious Jew.

As he notes “Faith is not certainty. It is the courage to live with uncertainty. It is not knowing all the answers.” Yet, as he has displayed in the past, there is a degree of faith in choosing not to accept some explanations over others, because they could conflict with core principles. Perhaps it is a question of selectivity in the uncertainty, some things are more uncertain than others.

One of Sacks’s favorite sages is Shimon Ben Zoma.Ben Zoma’s universal questions are: “Who is honored? Who is strong?” And the answers given, rightly impress: “He who honors mankind” and “he who controls his passions.” But it is perhaps Ben Zoma’s answer to “Who is wise?” – “he who learns from everyone” which serves as a yardstick for Sacks’s aspirations, and distances him from those on orthodoxy’s right.

His important comment that “Faith is at its best when it becomes a counter-cultural force; when it has no power, only influence; no authority except what it earns,” is a spiritual height which the religious parties in Israel in their present mood, would only gaze upon – and ridicule in their lack of comprehension.

In the introduction, Jonathan Sacks is described as “an establishment figure within and outside the Jewish community.” Indeed, there is something quintessentially English about this book, with hardly a mention of Israel.

The cry for a return to normality and moral safety may indeed evoke a reaction from the many who have been anaesthetized by the tabloid society, but there are also the few who need something more than the comforts of suburbia, Jewish-style.

The Haskala (Enlightenment) was a call to the Jews to return from the margins of history, to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and seek to repair the world. It does not need to be in opposition to traditional Judaism, and it should not be downgraded or omitted.

Jerusalem Post 6 October 2000

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