A Tribute to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Brett G. Scharffs is Director, International Center for Law and Religion Studies and Rex E. Lee Chair and Professor of Law, BYU Law School

This morning, November 8, 2020, I awoke to the sad news that Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks had passed away at age 72 from cancer. This is a man I have deeply admired for many years. We at the International Center for Law and Religion Studies join the chorus of voices from around the world in paying tribute to this remarkable voice for human dignity and religious freedom, and especially for his powerful testimony against the evil of anti-Semitism.

Rabbi Sacks served for 22 years as the Chief Rabbi of the Orthodox Jewish Community in Great Britain and the Commonwealth. For many years he presented a three-minute “thought for the day” on BBC Radio, which gave him an influential platform.

He was an outspoken critic of anti-Semitism. If you have never heard him speak before, a good starting place is his speech to the European Parliament on the importance of eradicating anti-Semitism.

Rabbi Sacks wrote more than 30 books including, most recently, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, published earlier this year. He spoke at Brigham Young University via Zoom on September 17, 2020, about this book, delivering the Truman G. Madsen Distinguished Lecture. You can find it online.

In this book, Rabbi Sacks addresses the gradual erosion of morality in society, which he notes, has to be bad news. Citing the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, he observes that their central message is that a society flourishes to the extent that its members care for and about one another. This he said is the essential foundation of society.

It is really hard to get that message across in Europe, he said, because it has become so secular. One way of framing this is to note that there has been “cultural climate change.” Extreme heat and cold, drought and flood—these are the result of an erosion of the natural ecology. If you look carefully at what is happening in our social world – identity politics, cancel culture, fake news—all have in common the fact that they are all about a climate change where we are thinking more about “me” rather than “we.” We need to think about the things that bind us together into a mesh of interlocking moral obligations. We need to be concerned about “climate change” in our moral ecology.

In this book, Rabbi Sacks goes through a litany of contemporary problems and shows what they all have in common—too much emphasis on “I” and too little emphasis on “us.” He cites research by the Harvard sociologist, Robert Putnam, who did a word frequency analysis, known as a Goggle Ngram, that surveyed virtually everything published in English since 1800. Over the last two hundred years, there has been the nearly equal frequency of the words “we” and “I”—at least until 1964. Here there is a stark turning point, and from that moment on, we get less “we” and more “I.”

To illustrate this change, in his BYU conversation, Rabbi Sacks contrasted two photos of The Beatles, the first of them crossing Abby Road in 1969. Perhaps, you can picture it in your mind’s eye. They are dressed similarly, they are walking in unison, stride for stride, and are happy together, as a “we.”

A year later there is another photo taken in 1970, also at Abbey Road, the studio where they recorded their final album together, “Let It Be.” In this photo, in contrast, Rabbi Sacks said, they are all dressed very differently, they are looking miserable, clearly unhappy with each other. The last song The Beetles recorded together at the Abbey Road Studio, by George Harrison, was called, “I, Me, Mine.” This later became the title of George Harrison’s autobiographic memoir, I Me Mine. I had never heard this song until I listened to it this morning on my computer: “All through the day, I Me Mine, I me mine, I me mine. All through the night: I Me Mine, I me mine, I me mine.” It is repeated ad nauseam: “I I Me Me Mine. . . .”

These words were quite literally, as well as symbolically, the end of The Beetles.

Rabbi Sacks then shared the advice he has for young people to help stop the unraveling they see around them.  All groups depend, he said, upon “habits of competition” and “habits of cooperation.” What we have at the moment are two arenas for competition—the market (for wealth) and the state (for power). These are creative and dynamic forces.

But all groups also need arenas where they learn habits of cooperation, each of us learns to take the interests of others as seriously as we do our own interests. If we lose these habits of cooperation, Rabbi Sacks warns, then society will eventually unravel. He contrasted the idea of a social contract (which is based upon mutual self-interest) with the idea of a social covenant  (which is about our identity, and which transforms us). The example he cited is marriage, where we make covenants of love, loyalty, and fidelity to our spouse.

In reflecting upon the challenges of the year we are enduring, without mentioning his own cancer, Rabbi Sacks simply said, “When something bad happens in my life, I don’t just ask, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ Rather, I ask, ‘What does God want from me here and now? What does this situation make possible?’” The pandemic, he noted, made it possible for him to finally speak at BYU, something he said he had been wanting to do for more than 20 years, but the distance had been too big an obstacle.

At the end of their conversation, Professor Paul Edwards, the Director of the Wheatley Institute, asked Rabbi Sacks to conclude with a benediction. I was taken aback because this is not something we are accustomed to seeing at the end of an academic lecture. Without missing a beat, Rabbi Sacks bowed his head and began praying. Among other things he said,

“Dear Lord, teach us to listen to one another; teach us to value one another; teach us to inspire one another; teach us to love one another. . . . May we grow in love of you.”

Amen. God bless you, dear Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks.