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The Legacy of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

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SUMMARY

In this special episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to Professor Jonathan Haidt about the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in honor of his yahrtzeit.

Rabbi Sacks had a profound impact on the Jewish world, with his eloquent words giving a voice to many. He has spoken at length about how to construct a good and meaningful life using Judaism, as well as about morality, consumerism, spiritual truth, politics, and antisemitism.

  • What is the value of commitment to Judaism?
  • How can Judaism contribute to our morality?
  • How can Judaism contribute to our community?
  • How can one keep faith in Judaism in the modern world?

Tune in to hear a conversation about the world of Rabbi Sacks.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt
The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt
Religion and the Rise of Capitalism by Benjamin Friedman

David Bashevkin:

Hello and welcome to the 18Forty podcast, where each month we explore different topic, balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities, to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month, we’re actually doing something a little bit unusual, because we’re in the middle of a topic, which is Shabbos, and we’ve never done this before, taking a break in the middle of a topic, which we’re of course going to come back to. Today we have a very special episode which is about exploring the thought of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks on his Yahrzeit, the 20th of Cheshvan, the Hebrew month of Cheshvan. We’ll hear from people who were influenced by Rabbi Sacks, and we’ll also hear some of the clips and ideas directly from Rabbi Sacks that I think influenced at least my approach to Jewish thought and Jewish ideas.

This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy, Jewish ideas and questions, so be sure to check out 18Forty.org, that’s 1-8-F-O-R-T-Y dot org, where you can also find videos, articles, and recommended readings. So allow me to begin with why exactly we’re taking off in the middle of a topic, I kind of pride myself on the fact that 18Forty is not celebrity driven, we don’t harp on just individual interviews, but we really try to explore a topic more holistically. We’ve never taken a break in the middle of a topic, and we are in the middle of a very important topic, namely Shabbos. So why are we stopping now to talk about Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks? I think it has to do with his unique contributions specifically to the underlying questions that we’re looking to explore on 18Forty, and that is the enduring value of religious ideas, and specifically Jewish ideas, particularly in the modern age.

I think we all live in a time where in many ways, we’re unmoored, we’re detached, we’re bereft from the normal perspectives, institutions, ideas that would shape our identity and thought in the contemporary world. We have begun to accelerate a great deal in our personal identities and in our lives, and I think many people are growing up and feeling increasingly isolated, anxious. And they’re looking around and finding, where are those big ideas where I could anchor my life? For some people, I think for many of our listeners, their religious lives provide a great deal of that. Sometimes we are lacking the language, we’re lacking some of the perspective to really appreciate how so many of the commitments, motions, rituals that we have in our everyday lives can really add value. How are they adding value?

It’s like that famous story of the two fish swimming around in water, and one fish asked the other fish, “How’s the water today?” The other fish responds, “What the heck is water?” Sometimes when we’re surrounded and we grow up in religious communities, it gets hard, and sometimes it hits people in their 20s, sometimes it’s in their 30s and 40s. They start to wonder like, where’s the value add? What has this contributed? How has it enriched my life? Even if you haven’t asked that question explicitly, I think there is gnawing doubt in the way that these questions are manifest isn’t always by a clear question. I think it sometimes can be manifested through a midlife crisis. It can be manifest through feelings of isolation, through anxiety, through a sense of fatigue in your communal religious commitments.

You just walk around and you feel like, I’m carrying this really heavy knapsack of these commitments and these institutions that are a part of my life, and you start to question implicitly, explicitly, where is the value add? I think there is no more articulate spokesman in the contemporary age than Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. I think his contribution really relates to two areas, and I think both areas for many, for many who grew up in this world, the questions that he address, we don’t always ask explicitly. They’re very broad questions, and they’re from a thousand feet up in the air. The questions that I think he addresses most forcefully and passionately are number one, what is the value add of religion? Why is this still relevant in the contemporary world? How do I explain or make sense of my need or even my skepticism about religious affiliation, and why does that actually contribute something to my life?

 

Secondly, I think he did that in a more specific way, about Judaism, about Yiddishkeit itself. I think overall, what he did was showing how in the particularism of religious commitment, of Jewish commitment, there are some very universal truths and universal benefits that emerged from them. Even if you don’t ask these questions explicitly, I think these are questions, particularly now, that we need the language for. I teach a class in Yeshiva University, where we discuss the fundamentals of Jewish thought and commitment. I always begin the class with a survey where I send out a survey to all of my students, some very basic questions. I can read some of them for you. I asked how would you describe yourself religiously, feel free to include as much or as little as you want but please be honest. I asked about doubting the existence of God. I asked about your understanding of the system of Halakha, grasp on Jewish history.

My final question that I always ask, because I really want the class to respond to these students’ struggles, questions, the final question is always, what do you think is the most fundamental question about Jewish life and observance? Please include questions, I always remind them, that you wish were explained more clearly over the course of your religious education. I always get, it’s always all over the map, but a consistent theme that I think the overwhelming majority of students ask is, “Why can’t I just be a good person? There’s so many details, so many commitments. Why can’t I just be a good person?” I think that’s a question that is borne out in many ways from modernity. The modern world, technology, the way contemporary Western liberal education works is really the embrace of the individual, of personal experience, of personal resonance.

When it comes to religious affiliation, you are being asked in many ways, being invited into a room where the primary heuristic, the primary value through which you interpret and find satisfaction is not just individual resonance. In many ways, it is connecting to a community. And the question really is, in the modern world, does that still make sense? What do we lose by discarding religion and what do we gain by embracing it? I think what Rabbi Sacks gave us more than anything else is the language to explain to ourselves and our co-workers and our family members, our children, the people in our lives but really, ultimately to ourselves, the nobility and the importance of religious commitment. What is the value add from embracing it and what do we lose when we reject it? I think in the contemporary world, we have so many choices.

We have so many possibilities of how we shape our identity, and sometimes at some point in people’s lives, they wonder, “Am I only doing this because of this cultural affiliation, that I’m part of this club? What is the value add, if I just walk away from this and find a different club?” I think that what Rabbi Sacks does so beautifully is number one, he explains the value and gives language to explaining the value of religious commitment, and then secondly, as we’ll talk about more in the outro, where is the value of Jewish commitment in particular. I don’t need to speak much more about this, and we do have a guest today, and I’m so excited to share my conversation with Professor Jonathan Haidt, which we will talk about more. Before we get to him, I don’t think it’s fair to have a tribute to the legacy of Rabbi Sacks, and there’s no one who is more articulate to talk about the thought and the legacy of Rabbi Sacks other than Rabbi Sacks himself.

So I really strung together some clips that resonated for me with first anchoring the language of the value of religious commitment. Rabbi Sacks first addresses, in this first clip, and these are from many different places, but I think he really addresses a very basic question of why religion is going to be relevant even with modernity, even with all of the possibilities in the world that we have now, even in this movement that we see in computer science and in Bayesian reasoning and hyper-rationality, which we’re going to unpack a great deal more in a future series. What is the staying power of religion in the contemporary age? And in this interview, Rabbi Sacks really explains how religion answers questions that secularism in the modern world will never be able to do.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:

The 21st century is going to be more religious century than the 20th was and religion is surprisingly still alive and well. Why is that? It is because the four great institutions of the modern age, science, technology, liberal or democratic politics, and the market economy, cannot answer the three fundamental questions that every reflective human being will ask. Number one, who am I? Number two, why am I here? Number three, how then shall I live? Human beings are meaning seeking animals and the search for meaning is constitutive of our humanity and religion is the greatest heritage of our meanings. Therefore, I don’t believe that we have to hide ourselves away in sectarian forms of religious organization, either segregated from the world, or sometimes in the case of angry fundamentalists, in an adversarial stance towards the world. I believe we can be in the world with confidence, that faith still has a role to play in society and in what it means to be human.

David Bashevkin:

At the heart of Rabbi Sacks’ approach to religious life and religious commitment is not just about unlocking your personal truth and your personal purpose, but it’s really expanding what self purpose is all about and expanding your sense of self. I think one of the great tragedies of contemporary life is that we become very hyper-focused in a very small window of what a sense of self even is, and we look at it as, it’s just me and it includes very little else. And I think that so much of what religious commitment and religious community does is expand your sense of self, and gives you a methodology that is different than what science and chemistry and technology provides, all of which are essentially important, particularly now because it’s accelerated so much. Religion gives you a different methodology, which is not just about finding a personal truth, but how to build off of a collective truth of a people. This is how he explains about the value not just of religion, but of family and community, and the morality that emerges when you expand that sense of self.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:

Tell me this, if you have a certain amount of knowledge or influence, or love, and you share that with nine others, how much do you have? Do you have less? You have more. Why? Because wealth and power are in the short term zero sum games. The more I share, the less I have. Love or influence or knowledge or friendship are social goods, and those social goods, the more I share, the more I have. They are not zero sum games. They’re nonzero. They multiply. Why? Because they are the arenas, not of competition, but of cooperation. Where do you find them? You find them in families, in communities, in congregations, in charities, in voluntary associations, in all of those places. You are not a lonely self in pursuit of self-interest. You are a member of the family, the community, you care about the we. That is what makes a family or a community, you are there for others, they are there for you. They are the way in which we’ve become literate in the emotions and the habits of the heart that constitute morality. Morality is what happens when we subordinate self-interest to the common good. Where we care about others, not just ourselves. And those places are the places where we speak the emotional and practical language of we.

David Bashevkin:

Still for many when it comes to religious life, I think they’re left with the question of religion makes you very myopic, very jingoistic, xenophobic, that it’s all about the in group, and you only care about them. What I’ve always found extraordinarily remarkable about Rabbi Sacks is giving a language that I think is foundational to Jewish thought, but he does it with such elegance and beauty, which is how really embracing a particular identity, a particularist identity, a particular religious community, it does not close doors to the outside world but actually gives you a greater sense of empathy and sensitivity to understand and to reach out to the wider world. I think over here, what he’s really advocating for is an identity that is anchored in empathy, and this is how he explains it.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:

So when you tell a story and your identity is strong, you can welcome the stranger, but when you stop telling the story, your identity gets weak and you feel threatened by the stranger, and that’s bad. I tell you Jews have been scattered and dispersed and exiled for 2000 years, we never lost our identity. Why? Because at least once a year, on the festival of Passover, we told our story and we taught it to our children and we ate the unleavened bread of affliction then tasted the bitter herbs of slavery, so we never lost our identity. I think collectively, we’ve got to get back to telling our story, who we are, where we came from, what ideals by which we live. And if that happens, we’ll become strong enough to welcome the stranger and say, “Come and share our lives. share our stories, share our aspirations and dreams.”

David Bashevkin:

Similar to the criticism of religion kind of fostering this very small-minded worldview, which I think it’s actually quite the opposite, it’s a more expansive and appreciation of what it means to really love, what it means to really be connected to something outside of yourself. Self-transcendence doesn’t just mean connecting to God. It also means being able to connect to others, being able to connect to the wider history. I think another issue that people have with faith, with religious communities, with Jewish communities, is their emphasis on, certainty the way that religious communities seem to be so sure of everything. I think Rabbi Sacks says, what I think so many of us know intuitively is that actually what faith communities really foster is not an embrace of certainty but an ability, a faith based ability to continue and confront, even in doubt, specifically through doubt.

I actually think it’s outside of religious communities where your ability to confront doubt, the unknowability of the world of existence is actually, they shy away from it. They don’t really have an approach or be able to live with meaning and purpose in the same way that religious communities provide, in many ways. This is how Rabbi Sacks explains the beauty of what faith communities provide in terms of their courage and commitment, specifically and deliberately that is forged through doubt itself.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:

The whole of life is facing the unknown, because even though we can look up to the heaven and see a hundred billion galaxies, each of a hundred billion stars, and we can look within us at the human genome, with its 3.1 billion letters of genetic code, we can know everything. But there is one thing we will never know: what tomorrow will bring. We face an unknown and unknowable future. That means that every single course of action we take, every commitment has its underside of doubt. It’s the ability to acknowledge that doubt and yet say, nonetheless, I will take a risk. That is what faith is, not the absence of doubt, but the ability to recognize doubt, live with it, and still take the risk of commitment.

David Bashevkin:

I am a moderator of a Facebook group which facilitates dialogue between the religious Orthodox Jewish community and people who were raised in that community but then left. People leave for a host of different reasons, we’ve spoken about this in the past, but many people leave because they’re looking for a worldview that is based on a very sequential rationality that can be explained from point A to point B, and they want a worldview that is built very steadily and firmly. And I think that unfortunately, they are mistaken. I don’t think that a worldview necessarily follows so sequentially and so easily, and a methodology, which you may find in computer science and other areas of mathematics, is not all that helpful in constructing meaning in your particular life. I think Rabbi Sacks did a really beautiful job about talking about the human condition and the way the human condition needs a certain religious search and quest for meaning itself. Here is his discussion of how that search for meaning is so essential for the very heart of our human condition.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:

I mean, for me, the transformative moment was engaging with a man I never had the privilege of meeting. His name was Viktor Frankl. Viktor Frankl was a young psychotherapist working with university students, and then Hitler comes to power and he’s in Auschwitz. His whole life, his everything has taken from him as it was taken from everyone. And he had this and question, what do I do in a situation like that? He dedicated himself in Auschwitz to giving people the will to live. He did so as he says in his great book, Man’s Search for Meaning, by persuading one individual after another that they had a task in life, which they had to survive Auschwitz in order to complete. One had a child waiting for him in Canada, another had written a series but not completed a series of travel books and had to complete the series.

Somehow or other, that very profound idea of being called to something was what he saw as the central human condition, the search for meaning, and based his whole school of psychotherapy after the war, logotherapy, on it. Frankl says in many of his books, that call has to come from outside the self. That is what previous ages called God. So meaning can’t come solely from within the self. Meaning is always a call from outside the self. That I suppose is what we mean by the spiritual dimension, that God is not someone we invent. God is somebody who calls to us. And I think people search for that, because the lonely self is an unbearable place to be.

David Bashevkin:

There is no bigger question and harder question for anybody to answer, particularly now, is finding a purpose in life. I think the whole world is going through this now, particularly after COVID, where we’re seeing massive exits in the workforce and labor forces. And we live in a world now where we want that personal satisfaction in all areas of our lives, not just in our family lives, in our professional lives, in ways that which I don’t think previous generation insisted upon. I think there’s something very beautiful that in contemporary life, people are looking for satisfaction throughout their lives, not just when they come home, not just over the weekend, not just on Shabbos but they want satisfaction, even in their work lives. And I think that this quest for purpose in our lives has actually both become more acute, people want it more, and also at the very same time, because we have so many possibilities, and the ability to find purpose is always forged through choice and commitment, it has actually become far more difficult. We have so much more access to so many more careers, jobs, which is job changes, and people being able to find purpose in their lives. Though we need it and want it so much more, in so many ways, it’s become more elusive to really live that purposeful and fulfilled life. Rabbi Sacks in such an articulate way addresses, what does it mean to find purpose in your life?

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:

If you want to find your purpose in life, think about the following sentence: where what you want to do meets what needs to be done. That is where God wants us to be. So many of us have passions, and if you don’t have a passion, take time out to discover it. Dream a lot, fantasize a lot. Think what really would be a life you would really live for. Keep your dreams. Joseph dreamt dreams, a Jewish leader is one who dreams dreams, and that’s what you want to do. In the meanwhile, there’s a world out there, and that world has needs for some things, and not others, at some times and not others. Somehow or other, you have to connect to that world. That is why I say your purpose in life comes when those two things meet: what you want to do and what needs to be done. For each of us, it’s different, but it’s when they come together that you will know your purpose in life.

David Bashevkin:

Finally, I think more than anything else, what Rabbi Sacks contributed to religious discourse is addressing what I think is this lingering feeling of modernity, which is feeling nomadic in our very lives. Usually we use the term “nomad” to describe somebody who is lost in a desert, lost in a forest, lost in a country, and they’re wandering throughout this country and they’re trying to find a home. They’re trying to find a place where they can live. That’s a geographic Nomad. That is somebody who is wandering through space. I think that the difficulty of contemporary times is not so much nomadic, that feeling of wandering, that feeling of being a nomad in space, I think it’s the feeling of being a nomad in time. It’s that, in some ways, technology has accelerated developments, and life begins to just move so much faster nowadays that you wake up and you were 26 and then boom, you blink your eyes and now, you’re in your mid 30s, in your early 40s.

Those comforts of the world that you found so anchoring in your own personal identity move and evolve so much quicker. I think in many ways, and there are a lot of studies on this, this is why nostalgia has become so much more of a prized possession in contemporary age. If you open up any social media, any internet, nostalgia for the 90s, I don’t know, nostalgia for the early 2000s. This lingering feeling of we’re moving so quickly and where am I, where’s my sense of self, as the world accelerates so quickly, and it feels like years are dripping by and culture is changing so quickly. We’re looking for some anchor in time to give us not the sense of placelessness, which is the nomad in space, but to give us some anchor in time itself. I think what Rabbi Sacks articulates so beautifully is how to address this nomadic feeling in time itself.

That we’re moving so quickly and we look for 90s nostalgia, remember Seinfeld and Friends and tamagotchis and yo-yo crazes? I don’t know, whatever decade you grew up in. But there is this lingering feeling that we need to look towards nostalgia to find some anchor in who we are. I think this is how Rabbi Sacks articulates the beauty and the majesty of religious affiliation and religious ideas, that they anchor us in religious stories, not just in the contemporary moment, but they connect us both to the past and to the future. This addresses in so many ways, I am having difficulty articulating it myself, but it’s a feeling that I know to be true in my own life, that it feels like you are wandering through years and decades and you’re looking for some prism to create meaning in the very journey of your life, not through space.

I grew up in Long Island and now I live in Teaneck. I don’t feel as placeless as I once did. I visit Israel. I feel like we have a homeland in many ways. I think the nomadic feeling that I look to address in my own life is I’m wandering through time. I’m trying to connect myself to some larger story that connects me to my past and also bridges me to my future. I think in many ways, Rabbi Sacks is this brilliant spokesman for how religious ideas and religious affiliation give you these stories and ideas, they give you a sense of purpose and meaning through time itself.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:

Stories tell us what narrative, what drama we are part of. They connect us to the people who came before us. They connect us to the battles the people who came before us had to fight for freedom. So they ensure that we don’t take freedom for granted. I think one of the most important connections is that story that you refer to in the book of Exodus, it’s about escaping from Egypt, but the story as it culminates in the book of Deuteronomy tells us that freedom is a moral achievement. So that connection with the past and where we came from, a story connects us horizontally to the people who tell the same story. Coming from a family of four boys, and being the eldest, I always had a really terrible time every Pesach, because it’s okay being the chacham, the wise son, but I have to think which of us brothers is the wicked son and which is… forget it. So I kind of reinterpreted that whole thing. Think about it. The Haggadah is telling you something simple. You can be completely different, but you’re sitting around the table telling the same story, though interpreting it differently. So stories connect us to one another horizontally in the present as well as vertically through time.

David Bashevkin:

Aside from the way that stories connect us together in the present and the past and how identity is forged through that, I think Rabbi Sacks adds a second dimension when he talks about our vertical and horizontal identity through time itself, and the stability and meaning that religious communities allow us to create through these horizontal and vertical identities.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:

First of all, I want to agree with Richard that you do not have to be religious to be moral. I would never be partied to such a claim. We know that people who save lives, often at risk to their own during the Holocaust, some were religious, some were secular. I think the only thing they had in common is that they took for granted that they had to do what they had to do, because that’s what a human being does. I think their moral sense is common to all us and it’s tremendously important not to let people say you have to be religious to be moral. Secondly though, I quoted in the book the evidence here, because Robert Putnam, the professor of sociology at Harvard, did all the research on this. He came up with this extraordinary finding, as you know, that in America, it may not be true in Britain, although he tells me it is in Britain, that religious people are more likely to give to charity, more likely to do voluntary work, more likely to help a neighbor with housework, more likely to help somebody with a job, more likely to get involved in civic and voluntary associations and so on. His finding was that religion is the predictor of all these things, of altruism, more than any other factor, age, income, educational level or ethnicity. But he said, and I think very wisely, that in his view, this has got nothing to do with religious beliefs and everything to do with the power of religion to create communities. In other words, Richard is right in saying that we may not need religion to know what to do, but it’s that constant rehearsal, in ritual, in prayer, and in community, that encourages people to do what they know they ought to do.

Moderator:

This sounds like a Darwinist argument that religion has survived because actually it provides something for human survival.

Richard Dawkins:

I suspect that my earlier point that the century or the decade in which we live is going to be more important in any case.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:

I agree with you up to a point Richard, and here I would only say that one of the great things of religion, although you don’t have to be religious, but religion has traditionally done this, is stood up against the zeitgeist when the zeitgeist has been leading us dangerously down the wrong road. That’s the prophetic imperative, the person who stands up and says, “Look, I think we’re going down the wrong road. A, we’ve become too consumerist and materialist as a society. B, there’s too much inequality. Some people making much too much and many people are suffering as a result.” I think to stand up against the zeitgeist is one of the great things religion has done. It’s done for all of us really. I think that’s one of the good things that it’s done.

David Bashevkin:

When I was looking for a thinker, a leader who could reflect on the life and legacy of Rabbi Sacks, there was no shortage of choices, but I particularly found so moving, and maybe this is just in my own life, the way Rabbi Sacks opened up a doorway to appreciate religious commitment, particularly in the entire world, meaning not just in the Jewish community, but for the world at large, and how much religious ideas and religious thinking really contribute to society. That is why I am so excited to share with you my conversation with Professor Jonathan Haidt. Professor Jonathan Haidt is the professor of ethical leadership at NYU Stern School of Business. He has written so many books that have influenced me personally, that I use in my classes, The Righteous Mind, The Happiness Hypothesis, The Coddling of the American Mind.

His books are so important because they really address the erosion of contemporary society. Now, I’ll be absolutely clear, as he says himself on the interview, Professor Haidt is Jewish, but he’s also an atheist. What I find so remarkable about him is how his ideas in an academic sense and to a broader outside world articulate something very similar to what Rabbi Sacks was saying. I am so appreciative to his works because what Professor Haidt does in such a remarkable way is really make the case for how religious thinking, religious communities, religious commitment, is not some antiquated bug that holds society back from our collective actualization, but it’s actually very much a feature of societal growth and progress, and how in many ways religious thinking and religious affiliation unlock so much of the potential of contemporary civilization.

I did not expect that Professor Haidt would agree to be interviewed. He is extraordinarily busy. He is an author of books that have sold I’m sure millions of copies. His videos on YouTube have millions of views. And when I emailed him, I was not surprised that I got the following auto response, and I’m going to read it to you because it is hilarious. It reads as follows: “Jonathan Haidt is on sabbatical through December 2021. At the insistence of his lawyers from Random House, Haidt has entered a writer’s protection program. He has encased himself in an electronic bubble and cannot emerge until he hands in a way overdue book manuscript for three stories about capitalism, the moral psychology of economic life. Email can enter the bubble and he will read your message, but he is only permitted to send three emails out of the bubble each day, and any that expressed a willingness to read any attachment or talk to anyone will automatically be deleted by The Program,” capital T capital P, “unless, you’re a student at NYU Stern or a first degree relative.”

I am not a student at NYU Stern, and I am not a first degree relative. Of course, the email is followed up with a smiley face because it was written with a great deal of humor and tongue in cheek, which I appreciated, but I didn’t expect a response. I am so gratified and moved that in fact, he did respond after the auto reply came in and willingly agreed to talk today about Rabbi Sacks’ legacy and contribution to society and religious thought. Without further ado, our conversation with Professor Jonathan Haidt.

So this is extraordinarily exciting that we have the opportunity to hear reflections on the life and legacy of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks from someone who has been an incredibly articulate spokesman, I think, in many ways for morality and religious affiliation in the contemporary age, and that is Professor Jonathan Haidt. I think I’m pronouncing your last name correctly but I’m only 50% sure.

Jonathan Haidt:

No, it’s Haidt, not hate.

David Bashevkin:

Okay, good. Good. So I’m going to begin with a curious question. I emailed you a little while ago and you have a very curious auto reply, which basically says from your publisher, you’re on sabbatical this year, you’re working on a book, and you said you are not responding to anything right now. So my question is, why did you take the time now to speak with me today?

Jonathan Haidt:

Well, first, the autoresponse is an attempt to use humor to recognize what we’re all experiencing, which is that we’re all deluged with email. The barriers to communication are so low that we’re totally overwhelmed. So I set expectations very, very low, I have left people to think that I’m never going to respond, and then, I actually don’t limit myself to three responses a day, but I can respond to only those that really matter. And this one really matters because Rabbi Sacks really touched my life, changed my thinking. I also studied the emotion of awe, and when you meet a person of great wisdom, there is a feeling of awe, and then when you get to know him, a feeling of gratitude. So yeah, awe and gratitude are pretty good reasons for me to respond to an email.

David Bashevkin:

That’s extraordinarily kind and the humor was not lost on me. I was really cracking up every time I sent you a message. You’re the professor of ethical leadership at NYU. Maybe you could tell us a little bit how you even came to interact and know Rabbi Sacks.

Jonathan Haidt:

So I’m a social psychologist who studies morality, and that originally meant how morality varies across cultures and countries, but then I began to study how morality varies across the political divide, which in America was beginning to grow in the early 2000s. So I started studying political polarization. Now I also studied morality. I’m a Jewish atheist, like most American Jewish intellectuals it seems, but I’m one of the relatively few who concluded that actually, religion was an absolutely crucial part of the development of civilization, society, a stable moral order, decency, rights, and so much else. So I’m relatively pro religion, I’m very pro religion. Not all religions, not all manifestations, but I think that religion is widely misunderstood by secular atheists.

So I’ve been writing since 2007, basically, in defense of religion. So for all these reasons, I kept hearing about Rabbi Sacks, and people would tell me, “Oh, you’ve got to meet this guy. Oh, you’ve got to read his work.” I would read occasional articles. And then I think it was around 2015, he had a year long affiliation with NYU. He spent time going back and forth between London and New York. And I moved to NYU in 2011. Now that year, I happened to miss him. I was on sabbatical in Asia. But we began trying to meet each other. We finally did meet in New York City. We had a lovely afternoon tea in which we talked about everything, and that’s where I began my intellectual love affair with him. Then, I think it was maybe 2017, we shared a stage in London at IQ Squared, talking about speech and cancel culture and a variety of things, and a very civil debate with two other people. So that’s how I got to know him.

David Bashevkin:

So I was wondering, maybe you could articulate a little bit more, because your writings and work have had an incredible impact on me. I am religious, I am involved as a religious educator, and I find that it’s strange to describe somebody who self identifies as an atheist to be somebody who has influenced my religious thought. I really think that you’ve done that for so many, a spokesman of sorts for what religious affiliation provides. Maybe you could tell us a little bit, because I think it relates to so much of Rabbi Sacks’ work. You were not always this way. You had mentioned that you were much more adversarial and suspicious of religious affiliation. So what changed exactly?

Jonathan Haidt:

Yeah, so I’m the absolute stereotypical mid 20th century American Jew. That means my grandparents were born in the old country, Russia and Poland. My parents were born in America, in the Bronx and Brooklyn. They made it up from poverty. I went to an Ivy League school. I was on the left. I was an atheist. Part of my identity was being Jewish but that was a cultural thing, like you can be Italian without being Catholic. Right after my bar mitzvah, I remember, my bar mitzvah, I was not an atheist, by 14 or 15 I was. I was an atheist in the sense that a lot of scientific kids are, like you think religion is about, did God create the world, or is it some other thing? If it’s not that God created the world, well, then you have to be an atheist because God isn’t et cetera, et cetera.

So I was on that track, I was generally hostile to religions, in part from having a Jewish heritage and thinking Christianity in particular persecuted the Jews. It was only after I went to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, and I chose morality as my topic, and I began to study morality from every possible angle. I read history, economics, psychology, sociology. I became totally fascinated with this amazing human ability to co-create a moral matrix out of nothing. We can get people together. You put a bunch of people who don’t know each other on an island with nothing, and the only way they’re going to survive is if they figure out how to cooperate, and they’re going to create a moral matrix, a network of norms and processes and meanings. So it’s only once I studied morality that I began to realize, “Holy cow, religion evolved. Religion is part of human nature just as much as language or aesthetics or play.”

These are things that all human societies do, and the key for me, was reading Emile Durkheim, the sociologist, in graduate school and then later. That’s where I began to see that religion is not about belief. You read Sam Harris and the new atheists and it’s all about, “Well, people believe x but x is not true. Therefore, religion is not true.” What Durkheim teaches us is that religion is about belonging. Religion is this trick, this technique, this amazing ability to create communities out of individuals. If you can’t do that, you can’t have a society. So the big question from modernity, and this was why Durkheim was writing about this in the 19th century and 20th, as formal old style Pope, Catholic Church, as formal religion fades out, can we have some sort of a good, stable social structure to replace it?

In theory yes, but in practice, it’s a lot harder than atheists realize, and that is something that really drew me to Rabbi Sacks. So I think Rabbi Sacks, like you, you consider yourselves religious Jews. I don’t know what your relationship is with God or what your beliefs are, but what happened to me was I sort of left the militant atheist side, and I joined, it’s not really a team, but sort of the pro religion atheist side, just as a sociological, as a social scientist, I think religion is incredibly important, widely misunderstood, and it is a repository of wisdom. My first book was called The Happiness Hypothesis. One thing I learned is, oh my god. The ancients knew nothing about chemistry and physics, like there’s no reason to read them today. But if you want to know how to live, don’t read popular magazines today.

They’re full of garbage except, quote, the ancients. The ancients basically understood social relationships, consciousness, forgiveness, sacredness, and sanctity. All these things that religions are experts, religions are sort of codified expertise of different segments of humanity. So, in that way, I am an atheist who really tries to show the value of religion, and what I found is that I am very welcome. Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, and Jews. Haven’t had much contact at all with ultra Orthodox Jews, but certainly Reform Jews and even Conservative often welcome me as a speaker and like to talk with me and I like to talk with them.

David Bashevkin:

I’ll let you know, they for sure have had contact with you. I know really throughout the Jewish community, your work, particularly as it relates to the intersect of politics and religion, and morality, that cholent of sorts, if I may, has definitely animated so many people’s thought. A curious side question just because you mentioned it. Do you remember your bar mitzvah parsha? I’m always curious.

Jonathan Haidt:

I don’t know. No, I really don’t. I mean, I was born October 19th and my bar mitzvah was within a few weeks of that. I think it might have been from Leviticus. It might have been something, it wasn’t one of the beautiful stories. I think it was just like laws and rules.

David Bashevkin:

Got you. Got you.

Jonathan Haidt:

I do not remember it.

David Bashevkin:

Okay, that’s fair. So let me ask you this. I have really two follow up questions. The first is, maybe you could articulate, in the modern world, I think a lot of people struggle, and what so much of Rabbi Sacks’ project was was really discussing the value add of religion in the modern world, because people can look around, why not just be a good person? Why not just follow your moral intuition? What do you think we lose as a society when religious social networks are discarded and looked at with suspicions? What do we stand to lose?

Jonathan Haidt:

So there are two classes of things that we lose. One is sort of internal consciousness and experience, which is much richer if you can draw from religious insights. The other is more sociological about constraints and stability. So I’ll start with the consciousness. If you’re perfectly rational, you would say, why should I keep the Sabbath holy? I mean if I feel like taking a day off, I will, but if I don’t, why should I? You might say, “Well, why would I fast on Yom Kippur? Why would I do any of these other things? I mean who does it help?” So if you take a perfectly utilitarian, practical, mechanistic view of life, you generally will be blind to the value of this, let’s call it even irrational stuff. Here’s the thing, the human mind, the human animal is incredibly irrational, religious, symbolic, story based, pattern matching. On top of all of that, that this 500 million year old brain that we have, we do have the ability to think logically and rationally, but we’re not very good at it.

It’s a very new ability, and if you say, let’s take this conscious rational thing and let’s make that the whole of the mind, and let’s ignore the other 99%, boy, will you be dissatisfied in life. So, just for example, here’s a beautiful quote, and preparing for my talk with you this morning, I just went back over some notes. I have in my Evernote file, I have a Rabbi Sacks file from my conversations with him. So here’s this beautiful quote that I wrote down and pasted in, and I actually keep this more in my like personal reflection file. He says, this is actually talking about love and relationships. He says, “Hence the life changing idea: if you seek to make love undying, build around it a structure of rituals, small acts of kindness, little gestures of self sacrifice for the sake of the beloved, and you will be rewarded with a quiet joy, an inner light that will last a lifetime.”

This is extremely good relationship advice, especially for men. Heterosexual men, if you are married to a woman, don’t be just like, totally logical and rational. Think about the relationship and people’s feelings and what you’re showing about how you value the person. Sure, you could do this just by deciding to do it, but part of religious wisdom is that when you give life a structure, and you ground the structure, even if it’s in commands of God, this can end up having all kinds of benefits that you don’t realize if you try to be just rational and utilitarian. So that’s just an example of the first point of our, just our experience as embodied creatures is richer if we draw on religious traditions, even if you don’t believe in the tradition, that’s the amazing thing.

The second category I mentioned is more sociological, not psychological. That is the idea that, so you can either see people as being basically good and society corrupts us, and this is a view that’s more common on the left, this is John Jacques Rousseau, or you can think of people as being basically sinful but we need society to restrain us, and this is more a view that’s popular on the social conservative on the right. This is more of a view of Sigmund Freud and of just more conservatives who believe we need law and order, we need religion, we need the family. The truth is usually in between, although speaking as a social psychologist, I’d say it’s a little more on the right. That is, if you try to have a society based on Rousseau, it’s almost guaranteed to fail. Whereas if you have tried to have a society based on, we need more structure and constraints on freedom, you have to have freedom, but you also have to have some constraints. This is basically what Durkheim believed.

Durkheim if you had to say politically, he would be central left, but boy, you read him and it’s really more a prescription that’s appealing to the center right. And I think that’s again, I see just so much Rabbi Sacks and Emile Durkheim. The two of them radiated deep thought and intellect wrapped up with a feeling of heart or love or a desire for a good society. So, a lot religious ideas are necessary to have that kind of structure. Now, the challenge in modernity is, how do you have that religious structure when everyone doesn’t share a religion? I mean, it was easy in the days of old when there was no intermarriage, and Jews have always lived near other people, and Christians always had others in their midst. So it’s not like, we have a long history of coexisting next to other people, but as we see in India or other places, like we say, you guys have your court system, like there’s a court system for Muslims and a court system for Hindus.

We’ll keep it totally separate. But modern liberal, secular societies such as the UK or the USA can’t do that. We have to share a legal system, we generally encourage living together, intermarrying, all spaces should be open to all, and that’s really, really hard. And Jonathan Sacks was possibly the deepest thinker about that, in the late 20th and early 21st century.

David Bashevkin:

So allow me to ask because you mentioned an Evernote file, I have a similar way of organizing my thoughts and interactions with others. I’m just curious, are there other things in that file, recollections with Rabbi Sacks, that you would feel comfortable sharing?

Jonathan Haidt:

Goodness. Yes. Yes. So I came to see, as a psychologist, as an academic, I came to see that this thing that I so valued about the academic world, which is debate and argument, my whole educational history at Yale in the 1980s, through graduate school, being an assistant professor at the University of Virginia, was all about arguing about ideas, which is fun. Nobody gets mad, it’s fun. That suddenly started getting rarer and more dangerous around 2011. I noticed that there were no more, that there was nobody right of center. If there is, they’re silent. And I got very concerned about the loss of viewpoint diversity in my field, in social psychology. I started, well, I ended up starting an organization called Heterodox Academy in 2015, because it wasn’t just psychology. It’s all over the academy.

It’s all the social sciences, the humanities. They’ve always leaned left, which is fine. You don’t need balance. But you have to have dissent, you have to have someone willing to question anything you say. Otherwise, you get orthodoxy, and then you get stupid, you get really, truly stupid, like low IQ. People are individually smart, you put them together in a group and they can’t figure anything out because if anyone says, “We’ll wait, maybe that’s wrong,” boom, they get assassinated. That’s where we are now in a lot of academic departments. You cannot question orthodoxies. So I came to this, just from what’s happening in academic world, and I began to read John Stuart Mill. And John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, chapter two, the part on freedom of thought, is the most brilliant thing ever written.

Well, in the Western tradition, I thought this is the most brilliant thing ever written. It turns out, obviously, Jewish Talmudic scholarship is based on the exact same idea, that iron sharpens iron and one man sharpens the wits of another. As Rabbi Sacks pointed out, okay, here’s some of the things I pasted in from him: “Judaism is perhaps uniquely a civilization, all of whose canonical texts are anthologies of arguments.” So it’s from Rabbi Sacks that I learned some of the classic stories that many of your listeners will know, about Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish and how they argued and argued and argued and after Resh Lakish dies, Rabbi Yohanan is inconsolable, and they give him a conversation partner who keeps supporting him saying, “Yes, Rabbi. You’re right, and here’s why,” and Rabbi Yohanan says, “No, I don’t want you to tell me why I’m right. I know I’m right. I want you to tell me why I’m wrong.”

Anyway, it was from Rabbi Sacks that I learned these really important stories of the Jewish tradition, and about how in order to be smart, in order to learn, in order to approach the truth, we must have challenge and dissent, and to do that, you have to have a social superstructure around it. If you have a debate partner, if you have… I’m sorry, what’s the Hebrew word, your partner in studying?

David Bashevkin:

A chavruta.

Jonathan Haidt:

Chavruta. Thank you. So if you have a chavruta, and you have thousands of years of tradition of this, then the arguments go well. But what happens in the last 10 years, what has happened to us, I believe, is that social media has knocked down the walls around everything. So there used to be a wall around, say, social psychology, we could have discussions. And maybe accountants had a wall around their profession, and lawyers had a wall around their profession. What’s happened in the last 10 years is social media has knocked down all the walls. So if I’m having a conversation with other social psychologists, it can end up on Twitter, and anything I say ever will be judged by the norms of Twitter. What that means is that if someone says something, I challenge them. Well, if someone is offended by that boom, I’m in trouble and it can just be a whole big mess and it takes weeks and weeks of my life.

So we are losing the social structures that surround productive disagreement, and we’re becoming stupid, really stupid as a society. Judaism, these religious ideas about the preciousness of argument are a bulwark against that.

David Bashevkin:

Allow me to ask and maybe this is too personal, you don’t need to answer if you prefer not to. I’m curious you did mention you’re not a believer in the conventional sense. I’m curious in what ways you are able to kind of follow your own advice and nourish the positive aspects of religious affiliation, you were raised Jewish, I’m curious if your transition from antagonistic to religion to somebody who while not embracing it, appreciates what it contributes. I’m curious of your own personal life if that led to any reorientation in the cultural practices or even thought of Judaism.

Jonathan Haidt:

Yeah, a little bit it has. So I have two children. So my wife is Korean American, not religious, and we have a son and a daughter, and when my son was going into third grade, we just moved to New York City a few years before, and when he was entering third grade, I realized it’s now or never. Either we join a synagogue and give him a Jewish education and he has a bar mitzvah, or he won’t. My wife was very supportive, and so we looked at synagogues, and we happen to have in New York City the only Korean American Jewish rabbi in the country, Angela Buchdahl. Her father is Ashkenazi Jewish, her mother is Korean. She chose to embrace her Jewish identity and she had to face a lot of discrimination growing up because back then, the American Jewish rows are all Ashkenazi, and if you don’t look Ashkenazi, who are you?

David Bashevkin:

Yeah.

Jonathan Haidt:

Buchdahl is just brilliant and welcoming. So we joined central synagogue, and my early idea was, I want Max to get a Jewish education, but I don’t care if he’s bar mitzvah, because from bar mitzvahs I’ve been to, it’s clear, a bar mitzvah is a religious ceremony. It’s not like a big Jewish birthday party. I mean, in the New York area, yeah, people spend the thousands of dollars, but if you listen to it, it really is a religious ceremony. So I said to my son and my wife, “Max, it’s really up to you. I want you to get a Jewish education but then, if you don’t want to have the bar mitzvah, that’s totally fine.” At 11, he chose to do it. Now, at 12, he really regretted that choice, because it was hard work, and he really wished that he had not done it, but he’s stuck with it and we had the bar mitzvah. It was amazing, and it really was a coming out of a young man.

Now, I’ve always thought that 13 is the worst possible age because it’s the one age when the boys are still little kids and the girls are beginning to hit puberty. So here was my son. He’s very small and physically little, looks young, and he’s not a man. But preparing for it, and going up and doing that, and then also, I talked also about some things he had done that were amazingly independent. They were a little scary, but they’re really independent. I realized at this bar mitzvah ceremony with all our friends and family flown in from different places, it really was a challenge that he had overcome with the witness of our friends and community. That’s the important part, and as a secular psychologist, I would have just said, “Well, Max needs challenges, go have challenges,” but no, it was the social part. That was really transformative.

That transformed his identity and who he was. And this again is straight from Durkheim: that we do rituals, not to understand things, we do rituals to change social relationships, and it worked. He really was much more mature, he became more mature on that day. So in that sense, no, I don’t believe in God any more than I did, but I do believe in religion and in Judaism a little more than I did before.

David Bashevkin:

I can’t thank you enough. I just want you to take one more look at your Rabbi Sacks file and see if there’s anything else that we can include memories that you have from your conversations with him. Curious what you write down. Sometimes it’s hard to decipher.

Jonathan Haidt:

Yeah. Gosh, are we really, this is the Yahrzeit coming up?

David Bashevkin:

The Yahrzeit is the 20th of Cheshvan, I believe, October 26th.

Jonathan Haidt:

See, I had no idea that he had cancer until he passed. And early in COVID, I guess he had a book out. He’s talking about the I/We dimension. And there was a beautiful interview that he did with somebody on the BBC, I forgot the presenter. I wish I had the quote but basically, he just talked about the way that the pandemic was shifting us as a society from the I side to the we side. He’s so nuanced about how, you need to move from, it’s not like we is right. You need to move from I to we and I to we and we to I. I would often quote, early on, I went to a lot of interviews around Coronavirus, and how it’s changing things. I would just quote Rabbi Sacks on that. I’ll just give one other example from around the same time. So the Queen had an address early on, an address to the nation.

That was just the most beautiful elevating invocation of British grit and British struggle from World War Two and her experience as a child to who we are now and we will meet again, she quoted Mulsanne. I’m getting all choked up just thinking about it, but I quote it because I put that together with Rabbi Sacks explaining to us this I/We dimension, and how the pandemic, and maybe more in the UK. In the US, we instantly went into us versus them.

David Bashevkin:

Sadly.

Jonathan Haidt:

It was, it happened to us in the US, but at least in Britain early on, I think, but Jonathan Sacks was a beautiful and elevating guide for a diverse country facing an unknown threat and challenge,

David Bashevkin:

I cannot thank you for your time. If you’ll permit me, I close all the interviews with three more rapid fire questions, if you’ll indulge me.

Jonathan Haidt:

I’ll give it a try.

David Bashevkin:

If you could recommend one book for somebody who is struggling to find purpose in their religious affiliation, they are looking to ground it in something. You already mentioned Durkheim and others. You can feel free to mention one of their works, but what is a book that you would recommend for somebody to really explore the nobility of their own religious affiliation?

Jonathan Haidt:

Well, I don’t have any good suggestions for you, if you already are leaning that way, but I think if you’re an atheist, if you are skeptical of religion, then I would actually recommend my own book, The Righteous Mind, especially part three. The third part of the book is on how morality binds and blinds. I have two chapters on why we’re religious and why it’s actually valuable. So for an atheist, I would recommend my book, especially part three. For somebody who already has more respect for religion or is already religious, I actually have no idea what to recommend.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, and I’m just turning around twice, because The Righteous Mind is right behind me on the top shelf.

Jonathan Haidt:

Yeah, I see it.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, that’s there, that little white book. My second question and this is, it’s funny that you’re on sabbatical. My question I always ask, if somebody gave you a great sum of money and allowed you to take a sabbatical, which clearly somebody was gracious enough in your life to allow you to do, and allowed you to write a book, what do you think that book would be about?

Jonathan Haidt:

I know exactly what it would be about because I’m on sabbatical to write a book about capitalism, and what moral psychology can tell us about capitalism, and it’s something I talked about with Rabbi Sacks, and that book was due in 2017, but it’s really late. So I’m on sabbatical to write it but the situation is so dire. What’s happening to our societies, what’s happening to teenagers with rising depression is so dire. I believe that social media is causing most of this, because it transformed the nature of social relationships in ways that very few people understand. So even I’m on sabbatical to write one book, I think we face such a dire emergency that I’m actually stopping work on that book, and I just signed a contract to write a different book called Life After Babel, How We Lost the Ability to Think Well Together.

It’s on the Tower of Babel story. God says, “Let us go down and confound their language, so that they may not understand one another,” and then he scatters humans so that we have all the different tribes and languages and we can’t work together, we can’t understand each other. My argument is, we largely rebuilt the tower by 2011, and 2011 was the peak year of techno optimism, human optimism. Everything was going to be great. Then, everything turned. Now, I think we are in severe danger of catastrophic collapse of liberal democracies. It’s a battle between the open and the closed society. I think Facebook is the greatest gift to China ever, and if open societies fail, I think it will be because of the fact that social media is doing what it does with no restrictions, no restraint. So that is what I’m devoting my next year to.

David Bashevkin:

I am so excited about that. I read about a month ago, Benjamin Friedman’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, which is about the early religious influences on Adam Smith. The whole time I was reading it, I was actually thinking, and I’m not just telling you this to flatter you. I was thinking about your work, where that book, it could almost be a sequel to that book about how we are still struggling with so many of those influences and negotiations, and those early formations of capitalism, and that second book that you mentioned is kind of the same side of that coin, and how social media and the way that we’re structured as a society can also erode so easily, unfortunately. My final question, this is a little bit of a softball, some may call it a hardball. What time do you usually go to sleep at night, and what time do you usually wake up in the morning?

Jonathan Haidt:

I usually go to sleep around 11, 11:30, and I usually get up around five. I always thought I was a night person, but when I wrote my first book, The Happiness Hypothesis, I read books on how to write, like how do people actually write a book, and a lot of people said, get up early, don’t take any meetings before noon. Do all your writing before noon. And then guess what, you’re done for the day. You can have lunch. You have all your meetings in the afternoon. But if you get up at five and you start working at 5:30 or six, and you have a few good hours, then everyone else can eat up the rest of your day, but you’ve actually done something.

David Bashevkin:

I cannot thank you enough and we are meeting, recording today before noon, so the fact that you are willing to come and speak particularly about the life and legacy of Rabbi Sacks means a great deal to me personally, to the legacy of Rabbi Sacks, and to all of our listeners. So thank you so much, Professor Haidt.

Jonathan Haidt:

Well, thank you, David. It’s an honor to honor him.

David Bashevkin:

I am so personally appreciative Professor Haidt for his willingness to take the time to talk about Rabbi Sacks and his legacy and his own work because I really do think there is an overlap about how religious community and commitment give us the tools to unlock not just our individual cells, but more importantly, and I think more essentially, particularly in Professor Haidt’s work, how to really create cooperative and collective communities. If you are not familiar with Professor Haidt’s work, I am urging all of our listeners, go out, get a copy of his books, particularly The Righteous Mind, which is so brilliant. Particularly nowadays, where there’s so much political divisiveness, I think he articulates so beautifully how we so often demonize the other side, the other political party, or the other political view, and how each political view in some ways is part of this larger hole that sadly has rapidly begun to erode in contemporary life.

I want to leave you with a clip from Professor Haidt’s TED Talk, which you should listen to in full, where he articulates, I think, so beautifully couched in the work of Emile Durkheim, the value of religion in the contemporary age.

Jonathan Haidt:

This idea that we move up was central in the writing of the great French sociologist, Emile Durkheim. Durkheim even called us homo duplex, or two level man. The lower level he called the level of the profane. Now, profane is the opposite of sacred, it just means ordinary or common. In our ordinary lives, we exist as individuals. We want to satisfy our individual desires. We pursue our individual goals. But sometimes something happens that triggers a phase change. Individuals unite into a team, a movement, or a nation, which is far more than the sum of its parts. Durkheim called this level the level of the sacred, because he believed that the function of religion was to unite people into a group, into a moral community. Durkheim believed that anything that unites us takes on an air of sacredness. And once people circle around some sacred object or value, they’ll then work as a team and fight to defend it.

David Bashevkin:

I find it deeply moving that somebody who openly admits that he is not a believer is such an articulate spokesman for the value and nobility of belief itself, which is why I am so appreciative to Professor Haidt for taking his time out, during a busy schedule, when he’s on lockdown, from his auto reply from his lawyers. He should not have been replying, but the fact that he did reply is a testament not only to his graciousness, but to the legacy and enduring value of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ work. Most of this episode has focused on Rabbi Sacks’ approach to religious commitment, but I wanted to kind of end the episode with something far more particular, which is Jewish commitment. People always ask me to recommend them a book, a something, why be Jewish nowadays? Why should we embrace this, very particular?

So isn’t it enough to be spiritual? Isn’t it enough to just go to the top of the mountain and look up at the skies? It’s not an easy question to answer. I get questions all the time. I don’t think there is a better answer than Rabbi Sacks, and I want to give two of his answers, though there’s a great deal of overlap. The first I’m going to read, and the second, which we will conclude with, is Rabbi Sacks’ voice himself. I stumbled upon a section from his book, A Letter in the Scroll, because it was posted many years ago, probably over well over a decade ago in 2008, when it first came out. My dear friend and our previous guest, Rabbi Gil Student, posted it on his blog, Hirhurim, and he posted this snippet, which for me had such an enduring impact on the way that I look at my Jewish commitment. The language was so beautiful, and I think the imagery is something that I think about every single day, when it comes to my own religious life. I want to read it for you now in full.

“The Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement in the 18th century, said that the Jewish people is a living sefer Torah, and every Jew is one of its letters. I am moved by that image, and it invites a question, the question: will we, in our lifetime, be letters in the scroll of the Jewish people? At some stage, each of us must decide how to live our lives. We have many options, and no generation in history has had a wider choice. We can live for work or success or fame or power. We can have a whole series of lifestyles and relationships. We can explore any of a myriad of faith, mysticisms, or therapies. There is only one constraint, namely, that however much of anything else we have, we have only one life, and it is short. How we live and what we live for are the most faithful decisions we ever make. We can live life as a succession of moments, spent like coins in return for pleasures of various kinds, or we can see our life as though it were a letter of the alphabet. A letter on its own has no meaning. Yet, when letters are joined to others, they make a word. Words combined with others to make a sentence. Sentences connect to make a paragraph and paragraphs join to make a story. That is how the Baal Shem Tov understood life. Every Jew is a letter, every Jewish family is a word, every community is a sentence, and the Jewish people through time constitutes a story, the strangest and most moving story in the annals of mankind.”

This passage for me has always stuck with me, because I think the way that we approach life is sometimes as though successions of moments to be spent like coins, and sometimes we need to look at life as if it was a letter, and every moment was a letter, and linking together to create paragraphs and stories through the generations. There is no story that I am more grateful for, and there is no story that I think Rabbi Sacks articulated and gave us the language to appreciate better than the Jewish story. Here to conclude is Rabbi Sacks in his own words, explaining what that Jewish story means to him.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:

Why I am a Jew. The deepest question any of us can ask is, who am I? To answer it, we have to go deeper than where do I live or what do I do. The most fateful moment in my life came when I asked myself that question and knew the answer had to be, I am a Jew. This is why. I’m a Jew not because I believe that Judaism contains all there is of the human story. I admire other traditions and their contributions to the world. Nor am I a Jew because of anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism. What happens to me does not define who I am. Ours is a people of faith, not fate. Nor is it because I think that Jews are better than others, more intelligent, creative, generous, or successful. It’s not Jews who are different but Judaism. It’s not so much what we are, but what we’re called on to be. I’m a Jew because being a child of my people, I have heard the call to add my chapter to it’s unfinished story.

I’m a stage on its journey, a connecting link between the generations, the dreams and hopes of my ancestors live on in me, and I am the guardian of their trust now and for the future. I’m a Jew because our ancestors were the first to see that the world is driven by a moral purpose, that reality isn’t a ceaseless war of the elements to be worshiped as gods, nor history a battle in which might is right and power is to be appeased. The Judaic tradition shaped the moral civilization of the West, teaching for the first time that human life is sacred, that the individual may never be sacrificed for the mass, and that rich and poor, great and small, are all equal before God. I’m a Jew because I am the moral heir of those who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, and pledged themselves to live by these truths for all time.

I’m the descendant of countless generations of ancestors, who though solely tested and bitterly tried, remained faithful to that covenant, when they might so easily have defected. I’m a Jew because of Shabbat, the world’s greatest religious institution, a time in which there’s no manipulation of nature or our fellow human beings, in which we come together in freedom and equality to create every week an anticipation of the Messianic age. I’m a Jew because our nation, though at times it suffered the deepest poverty, never gave up on its commitment to helping the poor or rescuing Jews from other lands, or fighting for justice for the oppressed, and did so without self-congratulation, because it was a mitzvah, because a Jew could do no less. I’m a Jew because I cherish the Torah, knowing that God is to be found not just in natural forces, but in moral meanings, in words, texts, teachings, and commands, and because Jews, though they lacked all else, never cease to value education as a sacred task, endowing the individual with dignity and depth.

I’m a Jew because of our people’s passionate faith in freedom, holding that each of us is a moral agent, and that in this lies our unique dignity as human beings, and because Judaism never left its ideals at the level of lofty aspirations, but instead translated them into deeds which we call mitzvot, and a way which we call the Halakha, and thus brought heaven down to earth. I am proud simply to be a Jew. I’m proud to be part of a people who, though scarred and traumatized, never lost their humor or their faith, their ability to laugh at present troubles and still believe in ultimate redemption, who saw human history as a journey and never stopped traveling and searching. I’m proud to be part of an age in which my people, ravaged by the worst crime ever to be committed against a people, responded by reviving a land, recovering their sovereignty.

Rescuing threatened Jews throughout the world, rebuilding Jerusalem, and proving themselves courageous in the pursuit of peace, no less than in defending themselves in war. I’m proud that our ancestors refuse to be satisfied with premature constellations. And in answer to the question, has the Messiah come, always answered, not yet. I’m proud to belong to the people of Israel, whose name means one who wrestles with God and with man and prevails. For though we have loved humanity, we have never stopped wrestling with it, challenging the idols of every age. And though we have loved God with an everlasting love, we’ve never stopped wrestling with him, nor He with us. I admire other civilizations and traditions, and believe each has brought something special into the world. Aval zeh shelanu, but this is ours.

This is my people, my heritage, my faith. In our uniqueness lies our universality. Through being what we alone are, we give to humanity what only we can give. This then is our story, our gift to the next generation. I received it from my parents, and they from theirs, across great expanses of space and time. There’s nothing quite like it. It changed and still challenges the moral imagination of humankind. I want to say to Jews around the world, take it, cherish it, learn to understand and to love it. Carry it and it will carry you. And may you, in turn, pass it on to future generations. For you are a member of an eternal people, a letter in their scroll. Let their eternity live on in you.

David Bashevkin:

So thank you so much for listening to this very special episode on the life and legacy of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. His neshama, his memory, his legacy should all have an Aliya, tonight, the 20th of Cheshvan, on his Yahrzeit. It wouldn’t be a Jewish podcast without a little bit of Jewish guilt. So if you enjoyed this episode or any episode, please subscribe rate and review. Tell your friends about it. It really helps us reach new listeners and continue putting out great content. You can also, and this is a new part of our outro, so listen closely. You could also leave us a voicemail with feedback or questions that we may play on a future episode. You could leave it anonymously or with your name. To reach our voicemail box, the number is 917-720-5629. Again, that’s 917-720-5629.

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