July 19, 2001
Judaism Through Adversity
"A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World's Oldest Religion" by Jonathan Sacks. (The Free Press, $25.)
Gently, gracefully, thoughtfully, Jonathan Sacks unfolds an emotionally compelling argument for Jews to reclaim and engage with traditional faith, traditional texts and traditional acts. Wisely, he eschews philosophic reasonings: Jews teach by words, with words, through stories, songs, psalm, exegesis. Logically constructed arguments cannot convince one of religious veracity nor demonstrate a revealed truth.
"No unified field theory will ever finally settle the question of whether or not the universe was created by a personal God.... [Faith] is neither rational nor irrational. It is the courage to make a commitment to an Other, human or divine."
For the past two generations, rabbis have labored unceasingly to convince hesitant and distracted Jews to reaffirm and re-engage Jewishly.
Sacks, chief rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth and an accomplished teacher and author, knows that his work, as commendable as it is, will not convince all. Written as a wedding gift to his son Joshua and daughter-in-law Eve, "A Letter in the Scroll" encapsulates Sacks' personal Jewish commitment.
Sacks makes bold claims for Judaism: From the covenant spring the glories of western political thought -- personal autonomy constrained by communal concern, democracy limited by moral vision, capitalism restrained by the demands of social justice. Sacks presents a Jewish political vision both profoundly conservative and profoundly radical.
The social institutions in which we live both constrain and protect our freedom. History teaches that a rush toward a utopian liberty invariably results in authoritarian oppression and murder. Nevertheless, day-to-day social ills demand redress and a direct and personal response. Only when rooted in traditional family structure and committed to traditional obligations, and responsibilities, will we be able to express unequivocally the triple demands of mishpat (defined by Sacks as "roughly, justice-as-reciprocity" ), tzedek (social or distributive justice) and chessed (covenantal love).
The political engagement Sacks stresses stands as an important counterweight both to the self-involved mysticism and the easy political liberalism that dominate much of American Jewish discourse. He clearly implies that Jews must live as Jews in public political discourse. That public Jewish politics, however, is not the same as the political positions of either party.
"Judaism was the idea that God, in His lonely singularity, might reach out to an individual, then to a nation, in its lonely singularity, proposing a partnership whereby, deed by deed, and generation by generation, together they might fashion a living example of what it is to honor the humanity of God and the image of God that is the human person."
This deep mystical image draws us into the fundamental enterprises of Jewish life: study, prayer and acts of covenantal love. From these suppositions, Sacks teaches that an axiom of democratic spirituality is: "Since knowledge is power, and the distribution of power is the central concern of politics, then the distribution of knowledge is the single greatest issue affecting the structure of society. It was not on the streets or behind the barricades but in the house of study that the rabbis achieved the three great ideals articulated in the French Revolution: equality, liberty and fraternity."
With that, Sacks would have us reclaim our spot in the bet midrash, the house of study.
Marring this otherwise insightful work, however, is the absence of women: The traditional rabbinic endeavor Sacks describes could be construed to empower the men. With rare and notable exceptions, women as a whole did not have a place in the bet midrash. Having once been caught in painful denominational cross-fire, criticized by English Haredim for his participation in the memorial service for the late, renowned Reform rabbi (and Holocaust survivor) Hugo Gryn, perhaps Sacks purposefully ducked a difficult and painful issue inside Orthodox circles.
This failing does not fatally damage his work. Equally at home with classic rabbinic texts or 20th-century philosophy, Sacks exemplifies the very best currents (and common failings) of Modern Orthodox thought. He calls with success for all Jews to engage, and re-engage, with the tradition and texts that have shaped our past and inform our present. Fittingly, this book won the 2000 National Jewish Book Award for Jewish Thought. This is a book every serious Jew should take seriously.