27 November 2020

Why the liberty craved by ‘me’
can be sustained only by ‘us’

Patrick Comerford

One of the two prayerbooks that I regularly use for prayers and reflections on Friday evenings is the Authorised Prayer Book, edited by the former Chief Rabbi, the late Lord (Jonathan) Sacks.

Jonathan Sacks and Archbishop Rowan Williams stand as the two great, towering, intellectual and philosophical minds in England during the last number of decades.

Lord Sacks died earlier this month (7 November 2020), and is a tribute to his international intellectual standing as a moral philosopher, with more than three dozen acclaimed books to his name, that he received a full-page obituary in last weekend’s edition of the Economist.

The obituary recalls how, for Lord Sacks, ‘Keeping Sabbath was an ideal way to achieve work-life balance.’ The Festivals and High Holy Days are reminders of a shared tradition and history, the ‘we’ not the ‘I’. ‘Above all, out of the suffering endured by Jews for centuries, Judaism had distilled hope. Every crisis gave birth to opportunity. The world could be changed not by force, but by ideas.’

In a reworking of the concept of tikkum olam, ‘Every man and woman had a duty to care for others, and thus to recreate the bonds that held society together. “I” had to give way to “we”. Out of great crises – climate change, coronavirus – that chance might come. Ideally, religion could drive this change.’

In his last book, he called for a shared morality: agreed norms of behaviour, mutual trust, altruism and a sense of ‘us-all-together’. The liberty craved by ‘me’ could be sustained only by ‘us’.

The Economist recalls how on a visit to Auschwitz, as Jonathan Sacks wept and asked, like so many others, where God had been in the Holocaust, he seemed to hear the answer: ‘I was in the words.’ The words were ‘You shall not murder.’ If human beings refused to listen to God, even He was helpless. But if much of the noise that humans made could be cancelled out, ‘they might hear more of what He was saying.’

Shabbat Shalom.

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