Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Three Books, One Vision

I'd like to discuss three recent books by Maran Ha-Rav Ha-Kollel* R. Jonathan Sacks. They are political and, while religiously based, not texts of religious studies. Yet, they represent the way a religious thinker approaches real problems in the world.

If I am correct, he published the following books in their respective years:
The Dignity of Difference, 2002
To Heal a Fractured World, 2003
A Haggadah, 2003
From Optimism to Hope, 2004
Hebrew Daily Prayer Book, 2006
The Home We Build Together, 2007
Koren Sacks Siddur, 2009
Future Tense, 2009

Someone please correct me if I got details wrong. This is intended to be a list of the books he has published since 2002. I would like to discuss right now three of those books, the three that I think are the most political and least religious.

If you search the web for reviews of The Dignity of Difference, you will generally find discussions of interreligious tolerance and respect. I think this misses the main point of the book. I see the book as primarily an attempt to create a political agenda based on religious principles. A man who is an erudite Jew, a learned philosopher and a politically educated scholar put forth his ideas for political goals that will improve the world in this confusing and quickly changing twenty-first century.

His ideas were fairly broad, perhaps vague, but pointed in specific directions: moral markets, universal education, preservation of local cultures, environmental conservation. These do not make a complete political agenda but the brilliance of the book is not that it is a how-to guide for legislators but that the author analyzes the problems of contemporary society and points to specific issues that will solve those problems. The Dignity of Difference uses religion to analyze today's problems and propose general solutions.

The Home We Build Together addresses one specific problem: The breakdown of British (and all of Western) society. The solve this problem, R. Sacks builds on some core religious concepts to propose a sociological answer. His solution is, among other things, the (re-)creation of a national culture that everyone can embrace and take part in without discarding their personal identities and backgrounds. He proposes various practical methods of doing this, which can be summed up nicely by the book's title: When everyone works together toward a common goal and within the same narrative, there will be a unity born of common experience.

Future Tense does two things. The first is applying the idea of his previous book about Britain to the Jewish people in general and the State of Israel in particular. Jews/Israelis need to create a common narrative. They need to embrace a post-exilic goal that is shared by all and can lead to unity and a sense of joint purpose. Religion needs to be a force in society for all people and not a weapon of political parties.

The second is advocating a more open Orthodox Judaism, a middle ground between the religious particularists/isolationists and the secular universalists. Judaism needs to chart a middle course that embraces its history, beliefs and rituals but also reaches out to the world at large and attempts to influence its course.

In truth, this second idea is really an aspect of the first. As part of creating a national narrative, Judaism has to become a civilizing force, a power of enlightenment that guides the world and gives hope to mankind. If it succeeds in offering moral guidance to the world, Jews will flock to it and will embrace it, every person at his own level and in his own way.

* The Chief Rabbi of Britain is not called Ha-Rav Ha-Roshi like in Israel but Ha-Rav Ha-Kollel.

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