Thought Leader: Jonathan Sacks

March 6, 2013

As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and spiritual head of the United Synagogue, the largest synagogue body in the UK.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you for taking part in this project.

JONATHAN SACKS: Great to be with you. It's a wonderful project.

DEVIN STEWART: We start out with a description with these interviews. When you look out at the world today, what do you see? What is unique, especially from a moral perspective?

JONATHAN SACKS: I think what's unique about our current global situation is the immediacy with which we encounter people whose views of the world are radically different from ours. You have postmodern cultures and premodern cultures all connected, really, by this global web of communication. That whole situation, which is the human situation in most places most of the time, whereby you lived among the presence of people who were pretty much like you, that no longer exists.

It is the problem of dealing with cultural difference. And the new media seem to make us transparent to one another, but actually we're anything but.

The second thing, I think, is this concept of contagion. One episode can set off a chain of consequences, like the Arab Spring, for instance. One very simple episode, through Google, through Facebook, through the social media, can set in motion a chain of consequences.

So what we are seeing here is chaos theory applied to the human condition. A minor eventthe beating of a butterfly's wingcan set in motion a tsunami. That which was the sort of geographical and atmospheric metaphor has now become the human reality. One conflict, very localized, here, can go global, can go viral.

It is that difficulty with dealing with difference and, at the same time, the sense that any little local incident can set off a global conflagration.

DEVIN STEWART: What are the moral implications of these two trends? Also, do you think things are getting generally worse or better?

JONATHAN SACKS: I think we are living in a situation today for which the closest analogue would really be the period after the invention of printing. We're living in the aftermath of a revolution in information technology. If you were to look back now at the 15th, 16th, 17th centuries, would you say things were getting better or things were getting worse? We look back and we say, on the one hand, that led to the growth of literacy, to the rise of science, the birth of the individualall those things that we call the birth of the modern. But at the same time that these were happening, what else was happening was wars of religion throughout Europe for a century and a half.

So if you were living in the thick of things, you would probably say things were getting very much worse, certainly during the Thirty Years' War in the first half the 17th century. Looking back, we could say things were really getting better.

So I don't think there is any easy way of describing an axial age such as we're in at the moment.

DEVIN STEWART: You have talked about your concern about consumerism in the world today and modern life. Is that a defining characteristic of the world?

JONATHAN SACKS: I think there are different ages in which different disciplines or spheres of human existence dominate. There were ages in which religion dominated, ages in which politics dominated, ages in which science dominated. We are probably in an age in which the market and its values are dominant.

The truth is that the market depends on morals that are not generated by the market. The market can actually erode those valuestrust, integrity, honesty, accountability, and so on. So when market values prevail at the cost of all else, all sorts of bad things begin to happen. For instance, what happens to the concept of loyalty in a market culture? You buy it, use it, throw it away. When you have a market culture, you can start applying that to human relations, and then marriages become "buy it, use it, throw it away, and begin again."

When any one sphere predominates, it can have bad effects throughout the system. And today I think the market is doing that.

DEVIN STEWART: Part of our project is to identify a global ethic, to examine what that might mean. It's really about looking at shared values across cultures. Does a global ethic mean anything to you? If so, what is it?

JONATHAN SACKS: I think Chomsky, in his early days, in linguistics, made this important point: Although there are lots of different languages6,000 of them at the momentthey all share what he called a depth grammar.

I would call a global ethic the depth grammar of the multiple systems that different cultures have for ordering their common life. Michael Walzer described it in terms of a thin universal morality and thick local moralities. [Editor's note: Check out Michael Walzer's Thought Leaders interview.]

Probably the concept of justice is the most global of those ethics. We are in a situation in which, since 1948 and the United Nations Universal Declaration, human rights have tended to be a key universal value, though my view is that rights without responsibilities don't constitute a moral system.

So there is a thin ethic that we all share because we are all human, we all have bodies, we all grow old, we all grow sick, we all need food and shelter. And those things do generate a sort of depth grammar of the human condition. But that translates into many different languages of morality.

Are we at about the right level of abstraction and incomprehensibility?

DEVIN STEWART: Crystal-clear.

JONATHAN SACKS: Crystal-clearyou don't know what an insult that is. I'm joking.

DEVIN STEWART: It's meant to be a compliment.

Do you want to talk about these 6,000 languages? Does it lead to a Babel? What is the interaction of these various languages, as you put it? Do you want to describe the various conflicts that come about?

JONATHAN SACKS: I think probably the Enlightenment was hung up on the idea of a universal languagephilosophy and science, reason and observation. But the thing about universal languages is that nobody speaks them. There was this attempt, various attempts, at creating a single language. Therefore, that is, I think, not the way to go.

The way to go is to say that in a complex world all of us must be bilingual. We must have our own language of identity and another language to allow us to communicate with the people not like us. I use that metaphor, for instance, for the diverse societies of Europe at the moment. There has to be a first language of shared citizenship and a second language of identity, which is very often today not so much ethnic as religious. So I have to be able to say what it is to be a Jew and what it is to be British. Those are really, in a sense, two languages.

So I think the answer is not one single universal language, but being bilingual, recognizing that there's one language in which we feel at home, but there's another language in which we relate to strangers.

DEVIN STEWART: How do we promote a robust, healthy sense of identity and also bilingual communication? How do we go about doing that?

JONATHAN SACKS: We have to strike a balance between what, in my view, are splitting somewhat apart. The contemporary world has a global elite, who jet around and meet other members of the global elite. They're all cosmopolitan, and they are all, in that sense, hostile to identity. They're a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and if it's Tuesday, let's do Buddhism or let's get back to New Age or let's all be ecological. There's this kind of global bricolage of lots of people being at home.

One of our sociologists, Zygmunt Bauman, calls it the difference between being a tourist and a pilgrim. The global elites are tourists. They don't make pilgrimages.

I think there's a growing gap between the global elite, who are at home everywhere, because they are not at home anywhere in particular, and the people on the ground, who very often are very local and treat the "other" as a hostile and threatening other. It's the West or the Great Satan or you name it. So I think, actually, we're splitting between the people who try and speak a universal languagethe elitesand the people who are very, very local and monolingual. I think that's a dangerous split in our society at the moment.

DEVIN STEWART: That dangerous splitwhat's at stake? What could happen from that split?

JONATHAN SACKS: What's at stake is, the elites meet on top of a Swiss mountain or in some five-star hotel and they make world peace, and then they bring back their results to their constituents, who promptly go and wage a little local war. Unless you realize the strength and passion that people on the ground attach to local identities, then you're going to think that world peace is much easier than it actually is. So you have a constant set of high expectations which are never fulfilled.

DEVIN STEWART: World peace is one of the topics we're going to get to, but before we get to that, would you say that this tension is the greatest ethical challenge facing the planet today or is there something else?

JONATHAN SACKS: There are huge other ethical tensionsnumber one, this idea that you can have markets without morals, that the market itself will weed out the dishonest and so on. It's manifest that the financial crisis of 2007-2008 was the result of the failure, not only of the market, but even of regulatory authorities, to see some very, very dangerous and rather self-seeking action on the part of some banks, for instance.

You have a situation today where global corporations find it quite easy to locate production in one part of the world, distribution in another part of the world, and pay taxes in a third part of the world which, for tax purposes, is probably better if it's extraterritorial. All of these are creating huge problems of the responsibility of corporations to local communities. So that's another one.

Then you take the whole environmental issue. We used to think in terms of ethics as, what's right or wrong is usually judged in terms of the direct consequence of our actions. You cheat somebody or you're violent to somebody; there's an immediate connection between action and consequence. So you know right, wrong. But what happens when the consequences of our actions may have an effect only in 10 years' time, and that only in combination with another million or billion people failing to use unleaded fuel, let's say?

The whole moral equation has become incredibly difficult, whether in terms of space or in terms of time. The moral community is now spread out across the world. Consequences are now long-term and not short-term. All in all, we have not yet evolved moralities that can really solve these problems.

Take utilitarianism. Look at the consequences. Does utilitarianism tell you to look at the consequences tomorrow or in 25 years' time? Utilitarianism can't answer that question.

I don't know of a single moral code that allows us to deal with some of the complex issues today.

DEVIN STEWART: If there's no single moral code, is it a synthesis of many or is it something that's still over the horizon?

JONATHAN SACKS: I would say a pretty good place to start, if we could get agreement, is, of any course of action, to ask, how will this affect my grandchildren not yet born? If we can say that, despite everything that has happened, we still have children and we still feel responsibility for them and we still feel a responsibility for our children's childrenby the time they are grown up, we may not be hereif that is still common and elemental to the human condition, then I think we can at least begin by using that as a moral principle that would focus everyone.

DEVIN STEWART: We have a portrait of Andrew Carnegie right here behind us. As you know, he founded our place about 100 years ago. On the Centennial, we like to look back at the past 100 years, but also look to the future. What would you like to see happen in the future?

JONATHAN SACKS: To my mind, the keyand I speak religiously, but I think this extends beyond the religiousis human dignity. At the end of the day, economic growth means you take people out of poverty. Medical advance means you take people out of being powerless in the face of incurable disease. The web and the Internet and global communication and the falling cost of computing means that you begin to move to ever higher expectations of universal literacy and universal access to knowledge. All of these things enhance human dignity.

To my mind, the key sentence in Western civilization is in Genesis 1, when God says, "Let us create man in our image, according to our likeness." Every single human being, regardless of color, class, or creed, is of infinite worth. That's how I judge everything. It seems to me that every technological and economic advance can be used to enhance human dignity or diminish it, by going to low-wage economies, child labor, and all the other abuses.

So to my mind, I would love to see in the next century human dignity enhanced across the world, for everyone.

DEVIN STEWART: In order to achieve thatwe like to talk about leadership, which is another major focus of Andrew Carnegie. What does moral leadership mean to you?

JONATHAN SACKS: To my mind, the best example is what Moses does, according to the Bible, in the last month of his life. We think of Moses as a figure of great drama, the liberator, the lawgiver. He's the one who gets the Israelites out of Egypt, who divides the sea. He's the mediator between the people and God. But, actually, it's in the Book of Deuteronomy, set in the last month of his life, that he speaks to the next generation and lifts their eyes to the furthest horizons of expectation. He's looking in the distant, distant future. He is acting as an educator.

In Judaism, we don't call Moses the lawgiver or the liberator. We call him Moshe Rabbeinu, "Moses our Teacher."

So I see moral leadership in terms of raising people's heights, extending their horizons through education. Great leaders are great educators.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you. I think Andrew Carnegie would agree with that statement. It's fantastic.

As you know, Andrew Carnegie was also a big advocate of world peace. Is it possible or is it illusory? What is it?

JONATHAN SACKS: Judaism has two concepts of peace. There's the famous one, the vision of Isaiah of the lion and the lamb lying down together.

I heard of a zoo in which this actually happened, the cage with the lion and the lamb. A visitor to the zoo says to the zookeeper, "How do you manage that?"

He says, "It's easy. You just need a new lamb every day."

That is what I call utopian peace, when we're all benign and nobody is violent. That's utopian peace. That's what in Judaism we call the Messianic Age.

But Jeremiah, in the 29th chapter of his book, sends a letter to the Jewish exiles in Babylon and says, "Although you're in exile, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which you have been exiled, because in its peace and prosperity, you will find peace and prosperity."

That was turned by the rabbis into a code called Darchei Shalom, the "Ways of Peace," which say, for instance, you visit non-Jewish sick as well as Jewish sick, you give charity to non-Jewish poor as well as Jewish poor what today we would call good community relations.

That is peace for an unredeemed world. It's non-utopian. It's done at a neighborhood level. It's saying that although we're very different, we all contribute to the common good.

So I think that non-utopian peace is something that historically happenedthe Al-Andalus of La Convivencia, when Jews, Christians, and Muslims actually lived pretty well together in the 11th and 12th centuries. There have been moments in world history where civilizations didn't clash.

So I think the non-utopian world peace is achievable. The utopian one must remain a hope. I think we are lifted by hope, but I wouldn't expect it tomorrow morning.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you so much, Chief Rabbi.

The last question is, how do you think about accountability? Who is accountable for the things you talked about? How would you advise people to get involved?

JONATHAN SACKS: To my mind, the key phraseand it is a key phrase of American politics; Barack Obama used it as the key phrase of his second inauguralis "we the people." That is a vision that is born, really, in the Hebrew Bible and the concept of covenant. It's not the government who is responsible. It's not the prime minister or the head of state. It's all of us together. The rabbi said, "We are all responsible for one another."

It is that adoption of responsibility on the part of each of us to do what we can to ensure good order and virtuous conduct, not only amongst ourselves, but amongst those with whom we have influence. I think the worst thing that happens is when responsibility is delegated away. When it's delegated away to leaders, then leaders can't really lead, or at least they don't tend to lead in a benign way. So it's when responsibility is devolved and defused, when we can really say we the people are responsible, individually and collectively, that's when you get free societies. That is when you get collective grace.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you so much, sir.