We went last night to hear a conversation between Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel and the Chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks. Very interesting, although it actually turned out to be Prof. Sandel interviewing Rabbi Sacks, rather than an actual conversation; I had been looking forward to the two of them digging into a topic — perhaps justice? — more mutually.
I didn’t take notes — it was not an open-laptop sort of event — but here are some highlights, filtered through my own interests and my faulty memory.
Rabbi Sacks began by saying that the theme of his new book, Future Tense, is that the current Jewish self-narrative is flawed. We see ourselves as history’s victims. We need instead, he said, to see Judaism as we did until relatively recently: not as a burden but as a privilege. He followed that up with a discussion of the theme of his book The Dignity of Difference (in the UK, he said, no one reads books, but they read book titles, so he tried to compress the message to four words), perhaps to forestall the assumption that that privilege is unique among all religions (which is the common understanding by non-Jews of what Jews mean by “chosenness.”)
Rabbi Sacks is an orthodox Jew with a highly pluralistic and urbane attitude. Indeed, pluralism was at the heart of his remarks last night. He referred several times to The Dignity of Difference and talked about universalism of the Enlightenment as an error: The differences among us should not be dissolved into a universal humanity, but should be maintained as a source of dignity and identity even while recognizing some universal imperatives. Across these lines we need to learn to talk with respect and with openness. (He thinks that America now is the home of engaged, passionate moral debate, whereas Europe and England are old and tired. Prof. Sandel urged him not to watch TV if he wants to preserve that illusion.)
Judaism, he said, is a religion of conversation. He said it is the only world religion for which all the sacred texts are anthologies of arguments: the Bible tells of conversations between Jews and G-d, and commentary is all arguments among the Rabbis.
Later he said that we should not be afraid to talk with those who radically oppose our ideas because we should have confidence that we will not be changed by them; that struck me as at odds with the idea of openness. Later still he said (quoting someone) that wisdom is the ability to learn something from everyone. Put these together and you get a realistic idea of openness: Openness to learning something, but no realistic expectation that the Jew will be convinced by the Nazi.
Faith for Jews, he said, is more or less the opposite of how the term is generally taken. It does not mean having confidence in one’s beliefs, but doubting them. [Many Christians would agree.] Jewish faith, he said, exists in the dissonance between seeing how the world is and how it should be. That is why, he later added, Jewish faith binds Jews to the Jewish law: The task is not to hold a set of beliefs but to heal the world. There is no Jewish faith without that.
I was therefore glad to hear that the Rabbi’s next book will be a response to what Prof. Sandel called the “fundamentalist atheism” of Dawkins and Hitchens. Sandel asked why their attacks on religion are of such broad appeal. Rabbi Sacks said that it’s because religion has been presenting its worst face to the world, that of intolerant fanaticism.
Prof. Sandel asked — to a murmer of approval from the crowd — whether Jews are too intolerant of differences among Jews. The Rabbi said yes, that we need to respect one another as Jews even across the wide spectrum of observance and belief. He also said that the incivility of Israeli politics is extremely dangerous. He said that the Jews have lost their homeland three times in their history, and in every case it was because we were squabbling among ourselves. He thinks the only hope for Israel’s future is to embrace plurality among Jews and among all who live in the area. We need to learn to live together. (He did not go into detail about what that would mean politically.)
Rabbi Sacks ended by, in response to an audience question, talking about the importance of Jews appreciating culture other than their own. He declared his love of Shakespeare and of Beethoven’s late string quartets [good choices! :)] Trying to describe their beauty, he was for the first time that evening at a loss for words.