Volume 19 Number 1
We're All Responsible
01 February 2006
CHIEF RABBI Sir Jonathan Sacks' new book is called To Heal a Fractured World (Schocken, 2005). The sub-title-The ethics of responsibility- attracted me, as it cuts across the culture of the West which holds 'my rights', consumerism and 'the market' to be all-important.
CHIEF RABBI Sir Jonathan Sacks' new book is called To Heal a Fractured World (Schocken, 2005). The sub-title-The ethics of responsibility- attracted me, as it cuts across the culture of the West which holds 'my rights', consumerism and 'the market' to be all-important. I, like many others, would like to see more emphasis given to spiritual values, to 'my responsibility to make things different'.
Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, describes Judaism as an 'intensely communal faith. If one Jew sins, the whole people are in guilt.'
Sacks' deep knowledge of the Torah highlights the problems of a secular society which feels 'we can manage well enough without God'. This results in an emphasis on 'my rights' rather than 'our responsibility' and on 'my importance' rather than 'care for the other'. Sacks quotes Rabbi Hayyim of Brisk (1863-1918), who said responsibility is 'to redress the grievances of those abandoned, to protect the dignity of the poor and to save the oppressed from the oppressor'. Hayyim gave most of his money to the poor and allowed free access to his wood-pile, so the poor could heat their homes.
'We are here to make a difference,' says Sacks, 'to make the world a place of compassion and justice, seeing possessions as things we hold in trust to help others. Those who serve others tell me: "We get more than we give".'
He writes of the distinction between the urgent and the important. 'Happiness, rather than pleasure, honours the important, not the urgent. Studies show that having a purpose in life is a sure way to happiness. To be able to say: I was part of a family, a community, ready to help others, sharing its griefs and joys. Not asking what I could take but what I could contribute. That someone's spirit was lifted, poverty, injustice, loneliness were relieved, is near the meaningfulness of life.'
He quotes Robert Kennedy, speaking in 1966, 'Each time someone stands up for an ideal, acts to improve the lot of others, strikes out against injustice, a tiny ripple of hope is sent out. Combining a million ripples of energy and daring, builds a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.'
Sacks refers to the respect between Ansell Harris, a British Jew who set up a refuge for children fleeing Nazi Germany and went on to become treasurer of Oxfam and of Jewish Aid and International Development, and the Muslim philanthropist, Lord Bhatia. 'A passionate Jew and a committed Muslim: what brought them together? When they saw disease, poverty, despair they acted without asking who was suffering. They saw God's image in the face of a stranger, the cry of a starving child.'
He quotes authorities as diverse as the Christian Father Zossima and the secular existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre to support the contention that we are all responsible for each other. 'We must use whatever influence we have. If we succeed, we have made a difference. If we fail, we have honoured our obligation, doing what we could.'