The Voice of Judaism in the Conversation of Mankind

Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks

Jonathan Sacks is Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations on the Commonwealth, 

which is headquartered in London. He is the author of The Dignity of  Difference (2002). 


A significant portion of my work is involved with other faiths. I cherish the relationships I have made. Successive archbishops of Canterbury and Cardinal Archbishops of Westminster have become close personal friends. The same is true of leaders of the Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and other religious communities in Britain and throughout the Commonwealth. These relationships have been important. They have allowed us, as religious leaders, to stand visibly together at times of tension and trial, of which there have been many in recent years.

        More than this, I have made a conscious effort to communicate a Judaic perspective on contemporary issues to the British public as a whole, through radio, television, national newspapers and my books - five of which have been serialised in the national press. Each year, shortly before Rosh Hashanah, I produce a television programme on BBC, done (at the BBC's request) explicitly as a message to the nation as a whole, not just to the Jewish community.

        The Jewish community is less than one half of one per cent of the population of Britain, but I have been overwhelmed at the reception of my work, from religious Christians, Muslims and others, including those of no faith at all. In so doing, I have been driven by two biblical mandates: "through you shall all the families of the earth be blessed," and, "for this is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations."

        It may therefore come as a surprise that I believe Rabbi Soloveitchik was right in his essay, Confrontation, and that I have taken it as my guide throughout. To be sure, he used the word "incommunicable." I prefer the word "incommensurable." This term will be familiar to readers of the late Sir Isaiah Berlin 

        The great faiths constitute different languages of perception, imagination and sensibility. They are only partially translatable into one another. This is a matter of degree. The various Latin- based languages have something in common, as do the Semitic tongues, ancient and modem. The same applies to religions. The Abrahamic monotheisms are more closely related to one another than they are to the mysticisms of the East.

        Nonetheless, each is distinct. Each has its own resonances and nuances of meaning. There is, after Babel and before the end of days, no universal meta-language. This means that there will be some things we will never fully understand because they can be said only in a language which is not our own. If this applies to individual concepts, how much more so to the absolute and infinite Other, who can by definition only be partially compassed by any language at all.

        There are at the same time things that are profoundly held in common. They are in no small measure constitutive of the human situation. We are vulnerable, therefore we need protection. Human life, in particular, is sacrosanct. Each person is unique, therefore irreplaceable, therefore deserving of safety, and indeed dignity. Our interests and desires conflict; therefore we need justice and the rule of law.

        Children, of whose future we are the guardians, need the care of families, which in turn requires an honouring of the marital bond. Private property is an essential barrier between families and individuals on the one hand, and the ever-intrusive power of the state on the other; so theft is not just wrong but also a threat to freedom and personal  dignity. We are dependent on the earth and its environment; thus it too needs protection.  We share certain capacities and genetic endowments with animals, in particular the  capacity to feel pain; so they too merit protection against needless cruelty, let alone the  destruction of biodiversity. The worship of one aspect of reality at the expense of others  has historically led to conflict and oppression. It follows that the only thing worthy of  unconditional respect is the totality-of-all.

        Jewish readers will recognise these concerns. They form the contours of the Noahide laws. Other religions will have their own ways of reaching these conclusions.  What matters is not how they reach them, but that they reach them (I follow here the  Yemenite manuscript reading of the text in Maimonides, Hilkhot Melakhim 8:11 and the concept - Maimonides' own - ofchakhmei umot olam).

        This is an idea familiar to liberal political theory. The late John Rawls called it an "overlapping consensus." It was also well expressed by the Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain:

        Thus it is that, men possessing quite different, even opposite metaphysical or religious outlooks, can converge, not by virtue of any identity of doctrine, but by virtue of an analogical similitude in practical principles, toward the same practical conclusions, and can share in the same practical secular faith, provided that they similarly revere, perhaps for quite diverse reasons, truth and intelligence, human dignity, freedom, brotherly love, and the absolute value of moral good.

        We must therefore maintain a sharp and clear distinction between the human and temporal creed which lies at the root of common life and which is but a set of practical conclusions or of practical points of convergence - on the one hand; and on the other, the theoretical justifications, the conceptions of the world and of life, the philosophical or religious creeds which found, or claim to found, these practical conclusions in reason. (Man and the State, 111)

        This is a distinction not identical with, but also not far from, that proposed by Rabbi Soloveitchik.

        Another way of approaching it is to be found within Judaism itself. According to Maimonides, mitzvoth bein adorn la-Makom (commands between man and God) require a blessing. Those between persons (bein adorn le-chavero) do not. Following a suggestion of Rabbi Yitzhak Reines (he put it somewhat differently, but the point is the same), the reason for the distinction is that for commands between the person and God, the essential element is the intentional act (peulah). That intention must be made explicit in the form of a blessing, which constitutes a mental dedication of the act as one of service to God. As for commands between persons, what is essential is not the intentional act but its effect (niphal); thus no declaration of intent is necessary. Joining together to ameliorate the human condition is the meta-mitzvah "between man and man" and thus is unaffected by the specific religious reasons that lead us to acts of compassion and generosity, or the several narratives of which they are a part.

        Judaism contains another idea, whose full explication is beyond the scope of this essay, namely darkhei shalom. This is an important concept because it is not predicated of Rawlsian liberalism, but harks back to an earlier idea, sometimes called modus vivendi liberalism. This asks us to perform acts of kindness to those with whom we have nothing theologically in common. That is what makes it so powerful an idea. In 2002, together with Prince Charles and the Archbishop of Canterbury, we launched a programme called Respect, through which the nine major faith communities in Britain undertook to perform acts of service - chessed- to those who belonged to another faith. It was a lovely project and showed how a rabbinic concept could be turned into a programme of practical action, and one that helped enhance the relationship between faiths. I believe it was fully consonant with the terms set out in Confrontation.

Beyond this, and not dealt with fully by Rabbi Soloveitchik in his essay, is what I call "the conversation of mankind" (the phrase is taken from the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott). Here, at least in the plural democracies of the West, the conversation is scored for many voices. None, within the conditions set by secular democracy, can claim a privileged position, but each has something to say, and surely we are the larger for being able to listen to these voices, though we will not agree with some, and may be profoundly distressed by others. Here, the Jewish tradition of "argument for the sake of heaven" (duly extended, if only metaphorically, to humanity as a whole) has much to contribute to an understanding of the relationship between conversation and truth. "Who is wise?" asked Ben Zoma, and replied, "One who learns from everyone."

That is precisely what I try to do when I share Judaic reflections with the wider society. I make it clear that these are Jewish thoughts, not binding on anyone who stands outside our tradition, but that they may find that they strike a resonant chord. Surprisingly often, they do.

What I tried to show in my book, The Dignity of Difference, is that there is a delicate balance to be struck between our commonalities and our differences. Put simply: if we had nothing in common, we could not communicate. If we had everything in common, there would be nothing to say.

I hope I have made it clear that I prefer the word "conversation" to the term "dialogue." Dialogue carries with it echoes of the great works of Plato, in which Socrates' interlocutor is ultimately shown not to understand what he has previously thought he understood. That is not a Jewish view of dialogue, but I do not have the space here to say why and how.

This I know: that the word emunah, definitive of Jewish faith, means loyalty: God's loyalty to humanity and His covenantal people, and our loyalty to Him. God does not retract His word; He does not abrogate His covenant. That proposition is at the very core of prophetic consciousness, arid the fact that the Catholic Church has acknowledged this truth must be a matter for profound thanksgiving, not only on the part of Jews, but by everyone who cares for the life of the spirit and the future of the human race.

No faith needs to convert the world to prove its credentials. The only thing that in the long run secures admiration for a way of life and a way of seeing the world is to act lovingly to others, unconditionally, seeking nothing in return.

Nor does a faith need to speak in universal terms to communicate universally. Quite to the contrary: our uniqueness is our universality. It was Shakespeare's use of sixteenth century Elizabethan English that allowed him to write poetry and drama that speak across almost all boundaries of culture. It was Beethoven's development of the specific conventions of symphonic form that enabled him to write music that will never cease to move the human heart. It is by being true to our differences that we make our unique contribution to the collective project of human existence on earth. There is no other way. If the Hebrew Bible taught only this, it would be sufficient. I call Judaism "the counter-voice in conversation of mankind."

Shortly after the events of 9/11,1 received the following e-mail from a stranger:

I am an American and a Christian and I work in San Jose, California. The events of September 11th traumatized me, as they did many around the world. The thought of death is scary but I was more frightened at the realization of abused, hungry, lonely and ill people, in every country, that I have forgotten. I am sorry I did that.

In the scary, sleepless nights that followed, I reflected on my life's purpose - how well I knew it as a child - and how I could recapture and live it. I knew I could only achieve that if I devoted myself once more to God and live the way he would want me to live. I prayed often but was apprehensive about going to church. I thought of you and your lectures and turned to Faith in the Future for help.

I found strength and understanding in what I read, especially that God has faith in us. This was a new concept to me. It made me take responsibility for my faith and it filled me with joy to think of faith as reciprocal.

I also understood the call to remember. Since I've read that, I have spent much time remembering my life and society and also the lives of others and their societies. I've remembered why I've made certain decisions in my life, like studying political sociology at university, and why. "Why" was to understand the Holocaust so that it never happened again. I made peace initiatives my career because of it, yet as my life got more comfortable, my passions lessened. Only through remembering have I come to realize that my skills and my time are needed to accomplish the goal I set out to achieve.

Finally, I took on board the importance of loving the stranger once again. I used to do that naturally, but I don't anymore. Now, I've reached out to many. I've started with my husband, family and colleagues and I'm now doing it again with the stranger (although there is much to be done).

So, why did I write to you? Well, forgive me for sounding melodramatic, but if I died that night, I would have died knowing my Lord again and remembering him. That is a great gift you've given. You reached out to the stranger, and that stranger was me.

Should I, a Jew, give thanks for having helped a Christian woman rediscover her faith? Should a Christian thank God for the opportunity of making a Jew a better, more believing Jew? Those are questions I long ago decided to leave to the world to come. In the meanwhile God has given us much to do, not least to learn to live graciously and generously together in a world that grows smaller every year.