Time to Renew the Covenant Says Chief Rabbi
01 October 1996

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks exposes two approaches to the problem of living together

The climax of the four-day seminar at Caux on `Faith, moral values and the future' was the Jubilee Lecture by Dr Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. In a talk crackling with insight and humour, Dr Sacks made a plea for Western society to return to the spiritual values which undergird true liberty.

According to the Bible, `it is not good for man to live alone', stated the Chief Rabbi. `The trouble is it is also very difficult for human beings to live together. How do we move from unbearable isolation to some sort of tolerable association?'

Sacks detailed two approaches to this problem. One, first expounded by the seventeenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in The Leviathan, saw the basis of society as a `social contract', under which, in the interests of survival, warring individuals handed over power to a central authority. `The Hobbesian story sees us as atomic individuals, motivated by self-interest, and forming relationships on the basis of contracts.' This theory was the basis of political society.

Sacks contrasted this approach with the Biblical concept of a `social covenant'. In the Hebrew Bible, it was only after the creation of woman (ishah) that man pronounced his own name (ish). `Until this point man has been called adam, ``that which is taken from the earth''. Now for the first time he calls himself ish, ``man-as-person''. Man must first pronounce the name of the other before he can know his own name. He must say ``thou'' before he can say ``I''. Relationship precedes identity.'

While the hero of Hobbes's thesis was `the naked individual', the central figure of the Biblical story `is not ``I'' but the ``we'' of which I am a part - the family, the community, society understood as an extended family, and ultimately humanity itself.' This approach was the basis of civil society.

In recent centuries, Sacks maintained, Hobbes's view had predominated - and overflowed its rightful sphere. `Increasingly we speak of marriage as no more than a contract; parenthood and childhood as sets of conflicting rights and powers; and communities as no more than interest groups.' This was a significant, and dangerous, change in the intellectual landscape.

Today, however, this imbalance was shifting. `Slowly we are beginning to realize that the Hobbesian story is only one half of the truth. Neither the free market nor the liberal democratic state can survive in the long run without internalized constraints which prevent us from doing certain things which it may be in our advantage to do.' Not only religious leaders, but also political analysts, had begun to call for a moral renewal.

`Morality,' he continued, `is civilization's greatest attempt to humanize fate.' It undergirded the networks of support which provide security and hope in a world of increasing uncertainty. `This vision leads us to see our lives not as the play of vast, impersonal forces, but as a series of choices between good and evil. It reminds us that the acts we do make a difference.'

The 49 days between the Jewish feasts of Pesach (which celebrates the Exodus from Egypt) and Shavuot (which celebrates the day the Israelites received the Ten Commandments) represented an important journey, concluded Dr Sacks. `Liberation from slavery is only the beginning of freedom. Without a moral code a people may have gained release from oppression but they have not yet acquired the constitution of liberty.

`The 20th century has been an Exodus century. Its greatest stories have been the fight against slavery and the liberation from tyrannical regimes. But beyond that lies the covenant that shapes individuals into families, families into communities and communities into a society of shared responsibility. That is why I hope the 21st century will be the century of renewing the covenant.'

In response to questions, the Chief Rabbi welcomed the progress towards new understanding between Jews and Christians in the last 50 years as `the greatest single sign of hope for our future'. `For 1,700-1,800 years we have been divided by mutual suspicion and hostility,' he said. `It took perhaps the worst tragedy in human civilization, the Holocaust, to make us search for a new relationship.'

He explained that Jews believe that God made a covenant with all humanity, regardless of creed, after the Flood, and that he has also made separate covenants with each faith. Just as one language is not diminished by other languages, so one faith is not diminished by the existence of other faiths. In Jewish belief, `every faith is its own separate path to the Divine Presence'.

He quoted an ancient rabbinic teaching which says that when God mints every human being in his image, they all come out differently. `We have to recognize that somebody can be in God's image even though he or she is not in our image.'

There was no way to change the world without changing human hearts, the Chief Rabbi said. `That is what has been happening here at Caux for 50 years. When we listen with the listening that comes from the heart and we speak with the words that come from the heart, then there takes place the great conversation in which, beneath the words, we hear the music of the Divine Presence. Then a miraculous thing happens. We begin to change.'

Unless stated otherwise, all content on this site falls under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence 3.0