Rabbi Sacks on cancel culture, morality and Israel’s missed opportunities

By Laura E. Adkins

(JTA) – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain, has written dozens of books about religion and politics – but he also believes that mixing the two leads to “terrible politics and even worse religion.”

It’s a tough line to toe, especially when you’ve just written a book highlighting the decline of fundamental values in society that for most of human history have been inextricably linked to religion.

In Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, Rabbi Sacks makes the case that society has undergone what he calls “cultural climate change,” in which individualism has eroded collective morality. As with meteorological climate change, he argues, there are forces fueling a dangerous shift – he points to social media as a leading one – but there is also time to avert disaster.

The way to become moral, Rabbi Sacks writes, is both simple and a great challenge: “We need direct encounters with other human beings. We have to be in their presence, open to their otherness, alert to their hopes and fears, engaged in the minuet of conversation, the delicate back-and-forth of speaking and listening.”

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) spoke with Rabbi Sacks, Great Britain’s chief rabbi from 1991 to 2013, about how that vision squares with “cancel culture,” how Israel embodies the ethos he wants to advance (and how it doesn’t), the role of religion in morality and other issues raised in his book, which will be released on Sept. 1.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

JTA: Your new book argues for moving from an “I” to a “we” mindset. What are some guidelines for engaging with those that we love who also espouse views that we find harmful?

Rabbi Sacks: Dealing with people who espouse views different from our own – isn’t that the typical Jewish family? Other people have conversations, we have arguments. But with “cancel culture,” we’re losing a sense of being able to talk to the people with whom we disagree.

I think this extraordinary thing that Judaism brings into the world – of course, nowadays everyone associates it with Christianity – but it’s Judaism who says God is our father, is a relative. Some people have God as a friend; we have God as family. The first thing that God tells Moses to say to Pharaoh is that Israel is his firstborn son. And God relates to us even though we have views that he regards as abhorrent.

That is the existential nature of family – that there are certain loves that are unconditional, even while you reserve the right to argue strenuously against those views. It’s really disturbed me, you know, that people nowadays say the views are more important than the family. That’s a real error of priorities.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of Jewish peoplehood. It doesn’t seem clear that there are so many things that unite the Jewish people today in terms of central values that all Jews can agree on. Does the Torah even have a clear, singular morality in your view, or some common threads we can all agree on from the beginning?

When it comes to talking about Jewish unity or Jewish peoplehood, talk is cheap. I think you have to walk the talk. And that’s why, for instance, I’ve always had public conversations with people who really reject every single thing that I stand for.

One of them was the late Amos Oz, the novelist. Another is Steven Pinker. Steven is the thinking person’s atheist, right? And I love Steven. We feel this bond of Jewishness between us.

And I have that with David Brooks of The New York Times, or the American philosopher Mike Sandel, or Robert Putnam of Harvard. These are people with whom I have a real bond, despite the fact that their approaches to Judaism are often totally and absolutely different from mine.

You have to have these conversations, in public as well as private, and show it can be done. And I think it makes an impact when it’s done.

When Jonathan Haidt wrote The Coddling of the American Mind, his publishers asked me to help him launch the book. So, we had a big event in the West End of London. And one of the panelists at the event, a professor of Black studies, kept saying, very adamantly, that Britain is built on and inextricably entwined with racism, colonialism and genocide.

This is a fairly alienating thing to say. Most of the audience members knew that they weren’t personally racist or genocidal. And after half the evening, I said to myself, this is just plain boring.

So, I turned to him directly and I basically said, “Look, if I had been born in the circumstances in which you were born at the time when you were born, I think I would have the same attitudes as you have. How can we take that anger and do the anti-fragile thing, turn those negative energies into positive ones? Let us see if we can think through from those attitudes toward a better future.”

Some individuals in the audience told me that there was a palpable shift in the audience at that point. They actually noted that instead of these two sides hurling abuse at one another, it was a little moment in which somebody showed he was willing to cross the divide and enter into the mindset of somebody who thought that I was a racist, a colonialist and a committer of genocide. So, I just sensed the power of saying, “OK, guys, let’s get beyond this. Let me try and understand the world through your eyes. And let us see if we can walk forward together.” And I don’t see enough of that being done in today’s world.

You have written that cancel culture has gotten out of control. But it is often legitimate anger and grievances that motivate the impulse to suppress individuals or ideas. What is a better model for dealing with anger and grievances, especially when debate of the kind you described isn’t possible?

There are times when cancel culture-type attitudes are entirely appropriate. They are a very, very brutal weapon, but sometimes you need that if you’re absolutely going to change attitudes.

I think the response to the issue of sexual harassment was entirely justified, for example. I think the Black Lives Matter protest against the killing of George Floyd, apart from the rioting, which I think had all sorts of strange people getting involved, was justified.

I think anger is sometimes a necessary weapon. The Rambam rules that anger is never justified, ever. But, he says, sometimes it is permitted to look as if you’re angry. [Laughs] Because that is the thing that makes an impact on people.

When anger erupts in a body politic, there is quite often a justified cause. But then the political domain has got to take that anger and deal with it very fast.

You have to acknowledge that there were certain cultures of systemic sexual harassment. You have to acknowledge that there were terrible instances of police brutality. Those things have to be acknowledged and then immediately dealt with through the political process. Because anger exposes the problem but never delivers the solution.

When discussing the erosion of the traditional family structure and the revolutions of the 1960s, you write, “No one certainly wants to go back to the narrow prejudices of the past. … But our compassion for those who choose to live differently should not inhibit us from being advocates for the single most humanizing institution in history.”

I think a lot of people remember the 1960s, particularly in America, not for the erosion of the family structure but for civil rights for Black Americans, and women’s rights, and freedom of speech on college campuses, and the ways in which bucking traditional structures led to rights for people that didn’t necessarily have them before.

Is there a way to balance changing the status quo and fighting for individual liberties with maintaining our collective values and responsibilities? Or is there kind of a back-and-forth swing that has to happen?

Balance is a concept understudied in political theory, and actually, balance is an art, not a science. Madison wrote about factions in The Federalist Papers; we’re sort of seeing this today. The architects of the American Constitution were being guided by Montesquieu’s ideas on separation of powers. And I have argued that the Hebrew Bible sets up the first system of separation of powers.

In all other ancient civilizations, the head of the state was the head of the religion, without exception. The king in Israel is essentially emasculated: He has no religious powers and he has no legislative powers. The king was not the high priest, and the high priest wasn’t the king.

The anger goes to the prophets, who were very angry people. Just read a page of Amos or of Jeremiah – these are angry, angry people. And somehow or other, between these three forces – the king who’s the head of the government, the high priest who is head of the religious establishment, and the prophet who is the voice of righteous indignation – handling that balance is very subtle. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

One of the very best histories of the Jews ever written is The History of the Jews by Paul Johnson – a very religious Catholic. How come this man knows so much more about Judaism than most Jews do? So, when I became chief rabbi, I had him for dinner and asked him what he learned from all his years of study of Judaism.

He told me, “There have been highly individualistic cultures in history – you know, like Athens or second-century Rome or today in the West. There have been highly collectivist cultures – like the Soviet Union or China. But nobody I know has succeeded in combining the two the way Judaism has. You teach people individual responsibility, and you teach them collective responsibility.”

And I thought that was a stunning remark from somebody completely outside. Of course, he was also paraphrasing Hillel, who said, “If I’m not for me, who will be?” – individual responsibility. And “If I’m only for myself, what am I?” – collective responsibility.

Judaism is a kind of tightrope walk between the I and the we. And although I didn’t talk too much about Judaism in the book, the book is really driven by that sense of how subtle that balance is. It’s not easy, and it’s not self-evident at all.

You say that the state has replaced some social institutions as we’ve moved away from a “we”-oriented society. What do you mean by that, and what do you think is the ideal balance between outsourcing our collective responsibilities to the state or central authority that we’re placing trust in, and also building institutions that do not rely on the state? Is there a way to rebuild these institutions we’ve lost when we’ve become used to outsourcing so much of that responsibility?

For me, the classic example is the period between 1820 and 1850. You had a very individualistic culture and enormous social dislocations. The move from farms to towns and cities in America and Britain, the move from working on the land to working in the mines and factories.

You had a lot of family dislocation as young people, usually young men, made that journey to the town without any kind of family structure. There was a lot of children born out of wedlock, and a lot of drunkenness and violent crime. In 1820, it wasn’t safe to walk the streets of London at night.

But in the United States and in Britain between 1820 and 1850, there was a complete remoralization of society done mainly through religious charities. Somehow or other, these charities became agents of social transformation. Drunkenness, illegitimacy, crime and violent crime all declined from 1850 to 1950.

Could a return to a collective morality, a “we” mindset, be accomplished today? I don’t know.

Political scientist Robert Putnam takes the view that it’s the people who give and are involved in churches and synagogues that are the main drivers of altruism in America today.

In Britain, it’s difficult. I used to discuss this a lot with our prime ministers who served during my time as chief rabbi – John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron. And somehow or other, there was resistance at the civil service level. The civil service did not want to see the state retreat and allow space for local communities. So, I worked at that very hard. I mean, I wrote a book about it called The Politics of Hope. I worked very hard at it, and somehow or other, it got sabotaged each time. It’s a shame.

According to the 2013 Pew Study of Jewish Americans, 22 per cent of American Jews identify as Jews of no religion; 62 per cent say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15 per cent say it is mainly a matter of religion. People in general are more secular than in the time periods you just described. What does a secular shared morality look like, and is it possible to build or rebuild moral societies that want to see themselves as divorced totally from religious values?

I think you need to put together a number of things. And they’re quite difficult to put together. These are the things which I’ve invested a lot of time.

No. 1 is a national narrative. There has to be a way of saying, “What does being British mean to me or what does being English mean to me?” And, of course, in recent years, all that’s happened in that score, frankly, has been an awful lot of films about the First and Second World Wars. You’ve got an endless number of films about Churchill and Dunkirk and a brilliant film called “1917.” And you know, that is not the way.

In the U.K., we have something called Remembrance Sunday. Every year in November, the queen and all the royal family comes, the prime minister and all past prime ministers come, all of the ambassadors, all the heads of the armed forces and all the religions come together. We remember the people who gave their lives in the world wars and other conflicts. It’s a big national thing – a huge televised event.

And I sat with Gordon Brown when he was prime minister and I said, “You know, prime minister, all you have to do to create a Britishness Day is to divide the day into two. Let the morning be about war and the past, and the afternoon be about peace and the future. And at midday the old generation hands over the flame to the young generation, and then you do a little ceremony which celebrates being British and celebrates being decent human beings. You wouldn’t need to add a date to the calendar, but you would instantly create a national narrative.” It didn’t work out.

In contrast, I was terribly thrilled when, as a birthday present, our daughter bought us tickets to go and see “Hamilton”! And I thought, that’s how it’s done! The next time I manage to get to New York, we’re going to see Lin-Manuel Miranda. I wrote him a note saying he has shown how to tell the national narrative in a new and radically inclusive way.

So, you need a ceremony and a national narrative to create a sense of identity. And then you need to do something. The best example today is the State of Israel – everyone either serves in the army or in national service.

Because the best way of educating people to be moral is to give them responsibility. Let them do something that is going to affect other people and improve other people’s lives.

So, you will still find today in Israel, despite the fact that Israel is a deeply fractured society, a sense of genuine altruism which comes from the army and national service. If you put all of those things together, you could do a brilliant thing, and it does not involve giving anyone any lectures.

There’s no “thou shalt not.” It is, look, we are empowering you to go and help these elderly people, these poor people or these people sleeping on the streets at night. And they learn instantly what it is to be moral, and the more it is learned by doing the better.

Did you follow the controversy around actor Seth Rogen and his recent comments about Judaism? He basically said that he felt very bitter about his Jewish education growing up because he felt “lied to” about Israel and how it was built. Why is it that the Israel you just described is not really the Israel in the minds of so many young [North] American Jews?

Israel has not always taken its own presentation seriously enough. I had this conversation for a very long time, until I stopped having it.

The Oslo peace process broke down on Sept. 29, 2000, after the late Ariel Sharon went on his walk on the Temple Mount. And there was a Palestinian uprising rather mischievously described, inaccurately, as the Al Aqsa Intifada. Now I had assumed – I think everyone assumed – that Israel had conceded so much during the Oslo process, especially in its closing stages, that if the peace process broke down, Israel would be given the benefit of the doubt.

In British media, it was not given the benefit of the doubt at all for even one day. By the beginning of October, the media were overwhelmingly anti-Israel, blaming it for the failure of the peace negotiations. This was serious – it was serious!

And yet, Israel was doing nothing to counter this. Nothing at all.

During those years, Israel sent Britain three ambassadors who couldn’t speak English. In December 2000, I personally took, as chief rabbi, a group of people – journalists from the Times and the BBC – to Jerusalem to see it for them themselves. A chief rabbi should not be called on to be doing the work of the ambassador for the State of Israel. That’s not what a religious leader is. And it’s a ridiculously, ridiculously mistaken decision on behalf of Israel for the last 20 years.

Because if, like Seth Rogen, you’re interested in tikkun olam, and making the world a better place, I think you’d find it hard to find better examples of that than young people in the State of Israel.

You have to search them out. But the social entrepreneurs in the State of Israel are amazing. Right now, they’re developing COVID-19 tests that work within seconds, they’re working on vaccines, goodness knows what – the Israel that I know is the Israel of total technological innovation in agriculture, in medicine and in artificial intelligence, in nanotechnology. That is the exciting Israel. Israel politics should be dealt with professionally and competently. But there is another Israel altogether that the world does not know. And it’s extraordinary.

I used to go every year with cantors and a choir to make concerts for victims of terror in the atriums of hospitals, and just to see Israelis and Arabs and Druze and Muslim and Bedouin and goodness knows what all being treated together was beautiful, but nobody is showing it. So, I’m afraid this has been a lost opportunity on the part of Israel. Israel has had some brilliant ambassadors. But in general, the world is pretty ignorant of the Israel that I admire, and that I’m sure Seth Rogen would admire if he were able to see.

A revered Orthodox rabbi said recently in an interview for a popular Orthodox publication that Jews should vote to re-elect [U.S.] President Trump out of gratitude for the things he’s done for the Jewish people. His comments upset some people and excited others. When is it appropriate for religious leaders to weigh in so specifically on political issues?

The division between politics and religion is absolutely fundamental. It’s one of the greatest things Judaism ever taught the world: Don’t mix religion and politics. You mix religion and politics – you get terrible politics and even worse religion. It’s an absolute and total outrage.

I have written I don’t know how many books about politics – The Dignity of Difference, The Home We Build Together, Not in God’s Name. Even this Morality book is a little bit about politics. And yet I have never, ever, ever taken a party-political stand — and not one member of my family, including Elaine, with whom I’ve just celebrated a golden wedding just a couple of weeks ago – knows how I vote. Nobody knows how I vote. I mean, I made an absolute point of making clear in public that I was close to the heads of the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats.

And I’m afraid I did not allow my rabbis to use the pulpit for political purposes either. And I can see that that is not the case in America. And I’m afraid American Jewry is making a big, big, big mistake. This is not a small thing. It’s a very, very big thing.

Politics is inherently divisive. And it was Alexis de Tocqueville who realized this by asking a lot of pastors and vicars and priests why they refrain from politics in their sermons. They said, “Well, politics is divisive, and religion should be unified.” They knew that as soon as you make religion political, it too will become divisive.

So, I’m afraid I have absolutely not the slightest shred of sympathy for anyone who, as a rabbi, tells people how to vote.

And if you want to see the corruption of politics by the admixture of religion, spend some extended time in Israel. I’m afraid Israel is wonderful in so many things, but its mix of politics and religion is a catastrophe and may one day threaten the very survival of the state. Because if you only have division and nothing unified, then I’m afraid a state cannot last.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about the pandemic and the disconnect that we’re all forced to experience these days. In a time when it’s dangerous to our health to come together, what’s the best proxy for connection or something we can be working on inside ourselves?

It seems to me that when you lose something temporarily and then get it back, you never take it for granted again.

We have lost that personal contact, that touch of two selves. The truth is we had taken it for granted. It turns out to be the single most important thing there is in life. In Genesis 1, the words “God saw that it was good” appear seven times. The first time the words “not good” appears is when it notes that it is not good for a human being to be alone.

So, we have to accept the pain of this temporary loss and say that we are never going to take social contact for granted or take it lightly again. And that essentially is what much of Judaism is. It’s about sanctifying the bonds between us, whether those be bonds of family or friendship or community.

It’s a much more social religion than most other religions. So that’s No. 1, to get through it. This is what we have to learn for when we eventually get up beyond it.

So how do you survive this? I’m sure you’ve read Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. He says that when he arrived in Auschwitz, he’s lost everything. The one thing he had was the manuscript of a book that he’d written. And the Nazis took it from him and destroyed it. He said that was the end of his life.

He realized that in order to survive, he had to do a reframe, a paradigm shift. He said he decided to see himself as a psychologist engaged in a major experiment. And that altered the way he felt about himself and everything that was happening to him.

You have to have a paradigm shift if you want to survive this very, very difficult moment in the world’s history. And the best paradigm shift I can think of is to say, “Ah, I’ve just been given a sabbatical!” That thing that I’ve been waiting all my life to do but I never had time for, they’ve given me a sabbatical!

That allows you to shift your paradigm and feel more positively about where you are at the moment – to frame it so that it has an end. Because sabbaticals come to an end. You can’t do this forever. And I think that probably is the best way of dealing with it.