Volume 15 Number 4
Food for the Soul
01 August 2002

James Hore-Ruthven discovers that Celebrating life by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks contains far more to engage the heart and mind than its size might suggest.

As one who tries to take time each day in quiet reflection, I know of few better ways of starting than by reading a chapter of Celebrating Life - finding happiness in unexpected places by Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth.

Celebrating Life consists of 58 chapters, none more than three pages long, each of which is a mini-homily. Chapter themes include: 'Faith, the undiscovered country'; 'Sifting hope from ashes'; 'When civilizations grow old'; 'The art of happiness'; 'Humour and humility'; 'Can we make moral judgements?'; 'The dignity of difference'; and 'Learning to love'. The book is full of anecdotes and there is plenty of humour. He describes humour as the first cousin of hope - 'What we can laugh at, we can face. What we cannot laugh at, we often deny.'

In Britain, Jonathan Sacks has won his way into the hearts of many who are not of the Jewish faith by his regular contributions to the Credo column in The Times. His father came to Britain at the age of five when his family had to flee persecutions in Eastern Europe, leaving school at 14 to help in his father's East London cloth business which did not do very well. Sacks says of his father, 'He gave us, his four boys, something precious. Not money or possessions. He gave us ideals. He gave us pride in what we were. He taught us how to love.'

At the beginning of his book, Sacks tells us of an experience on his honeymoon when he almost drowned. Unable to swim and with apparently no one in sight, he floundered out of his depth and felt himself sinking. A few moments later, someone picked him up and deposited him next to his wife. He was too shocked even to ask his rescuer's name. 'It was then I realized... that faith is not a set of theological propositions. It is something far simpler. It is not how we are, but that we are, that is cause for wonder and faith is the symphony on that theme.'

Exploring the theme of faith further, he tells the story of a Nobel physics prize winner whose mother, when he came home from school, would not ask 'what have you learnt today?' but rather 'what questions did you ask today?' This is what had made that man become a scientist.

'Religious faith,' says Sacks, 'has suffered hugely in the modern world by being cast as naïve, blind, unquestioning.... To me, this is a caricature of faith, not faith itself. What is the asking of a question if not itself a profound expression of faith? To ask is to believe that somewhere there is an answer. The fact that throughout history people have devoted their lives to extending the frontiers of knowledge is a moving demonstration of the restlessness of the human spirit and its constant desire to transcend, to climb. Far from faith excluding questions, questions testify to faith - that the world is not random, the universe is not impervious to our understanding, life is not blind chance.... A God who cared for creativity would not provide the answers. He would prefer a universe in which people asked the questions. When faith suppresses questions, it dies.' He describes the varied religions as 'the memory bank of our great moral traditions'.

In a chapter entitled, 'Having it all', Sacks tells the story of the man who wrote to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, asking his advice about how to become happier. 'I wake up every day sad and apprehensive. I can't concentrate. I find it hard to pray. I keep the commandments, but I find no spiritual satisfaction. I begin to wonder what life is all about. I need help'. The Rebbe simply ringed the first word of every sentence and sent the letter back. The disciple understood and began a process of recovery.

Sacks says that he has learnt most about happiness from having to speak at funerals. 'No relative ever asked me to say of someone that they dressed well, lived extravagantly, drove an expensive car. In my address, I had to paint a portrait, one that is true to life... but one that also summed up what he or she had meant to the people who were closest. I learned from those occasions that happiness is the ability to look back on life and say, "I lived for certain values, I acted on them and was willing to make sacrifices for them. I was part of a family, embracing it and being embraced by it in return.... I was part of a community, honouring its traditions, participating in its life, sharing its obligations. It is these things that make up happiness in this uncertain world."'

This 192-page book stirs the intellect, touches the heart and pricks the conscience. Every chapter is a gem.

'Celebrating Life - finding happiness in unexpected places' by Jonathan Sacks, Fount (Harper Collins) UK. ISBN 0 00 628172

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