Joe Biden must lead in Jonathan Sacks’ spirit
Some days the news moves so quickly that time seems to slow down. Saturday was one such day, with news networks finally calling the Presidential race for Joe Biden after days of waiting. Delirium ensued in major U.S. cities, along with denial in the White House. But there was another update that felt like a punch in the gut: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the U.K. and prolific author, speaker, and teacher, passed away from cancer.
Something more significant than chance links these two stories: Never has the United States been more in need of the wisdom of Sacks’ vision. As he leaves the stage, this is precisely the moment his ideas should take center stage. If a Biden Administration can lead in Sacks’ spirit, the Vice President’s words that “a time to heal” has arrived will be justified. If not, the divisions to come will make the upheaval of the present look like child’s play.
While Sacks wrote broadly on Jewish and general subjects, his most enduring interest was in how to build a caring and cohesive society that harnesses multicultural diversity but does not fall prey to tribalism and fragmentation. One of his most important books is called “The Home We Build Together,” in which he grapples with how to honor particularity but also create a society that know what it’s about, and offers a coherent vision of its values. Written in the 1990’s about English society, it anticipated the centrifugal effects of identity politics and racial divisions that have only accelerated, especially after a summer of torn down statues and street protests and debates over whether America is irredeemably racist. How do we make a house with rooms enough for all of us, but fireproof enough to ensure that it doesn’t burn down?
Another book, “The Dignity of Difference,” was about how ideologies need to commit to pluralism, even when they consider themselves to be absolutely true. As Rabbi Sacks often said, “If everyone thinks the same thing, there is nothing to say. If everyone always argues, no one can hear anything.”
The hardening of Woke dogmatism on the left and Trumpian misinformation on the right, all baked in a Twitter stew that generates more heat than light, often claims dignity as its first casualty. Sacks’ admonition that “We encounter God in the face of the stranger” is urgently needed after a political season in which we more than ever have become alien and distorted to one another.
Sacks’ last book, released in September and entitled “Morality,” asked how we can rebuild a culture animated by purpose when so much has become fragmented and relativized, when our wisdom and vision has been sliced and diced to only accompany our tribe. If we have no common language, we all dart around in the ruins of the Tower of Babel scattered and divided, incapable of taking on the big and bold projects of building that raise our eyes to the heavens. But if we lose our accents completely, we lack the nuances that give us prophets and artists, dissidents and revolutionaries against the status quo.
A line from Sacks that has continued to resonate is his observation that “in an age of fear, moderation is hard to find and harder to sustain.” Many of us hope that the election results have found us a measure of moderation, although we should have no illusions about how difficult it will be to sustain. Sacks often spoke of the difference between contract and covenant: The former is transactional, the latter a matter of values and commitments. The sooner we can start thinking and speaking the language of the latter, the more we will see in our politics the image not only of ourselves, but of the Divine.
Our political leaders matter, but Sacks believed that the society that elects them does, too — the citizens who vote them in and out of office. If we are to “heal,” as Biden wishes, the matter of decency that lies at the heart of Biden’s appeal will be a crucial part of the treatment plan. It is easy to laugh at but must be at the heart of whatever American covenant emerges in the years to come.
Sacks’s ideas speak to all who want to be partners in a better society, but they speak with particular urgency to those of faith, for whom the pull of parochialism and insularity exert special force. The balance between the truth and pluralism, chosenness and community, is bound to swerve during times of upheaval. Religious violence in France and tensions here over Covid-19 restrictions ensure that the question of who we are will continue to be punctuated with a troubling question mark, and that we will continue to Sacks’ work with the hunger of people certain only in the knowledge that things must be better than they are.
Ari Hoffman is a contributing columnist at the Forward, where he writes about politics and culture. He is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at N.Y.U., and his writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Tablet Magazine, The New York Observer, and a range of other publications. He holds a doctorate in English Literature from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford.