Last night Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks spoke at Eastern University, a Christian non-denominational school in suburban Philadelphia, to a packed audience of students which also included a large segment from a local modern Orthodox school, Kohelet Yeshiva High School.
The subject of the rabbi’s talk was: “Religion and the Common Good.” It was presented by the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good, the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University, along with the Tikvah Program and the Beit Midrash program at Kohelet Yeshiva High School.
Rabbi Sacks forcefully delivered his take not only on religion and the common good, but his view that religion is for the common good. He compared his views with that of philosophers such as John Rawls, who believed that there could be a language of public reason which all could share, “so long as religious conviction was left out.” Sacks also mentioned the anti-religionists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, both of whom view “religion not just as irrelevant, but also harmful.”
But for Sacks, once the public discussion begins to lose its mooring in religion, the strong sense of the common – as opposed to individual – good is lost. The focus then becomes, eventually, “what is in it for me, instead of what is in it for the common good.”
It is in such a society, Sacks said, that Hobbes’s realization of life as being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” is inevitable. For that is what becomes of a society based on a social contract, rather than on a societal covenant.
Rabbi Sacks explained that the first example of the social contract appears in First Samuel, when the people of Israel demanded a king. In the book, God told Samuel to explain to the people what kinds of liberties and rights they would have to give up in order to have a king, a centralized power, Sacks explained. The people, to their later regret, demanded one anyway.
On the other hand, Rabbi Sacks explained that the first example of a social covenant is also found in the Hebrew Bible. This was a pledge of mutual responsibility between the Jewish people and God. A covenant, as opposed to a contract, is an exchange, a pledge to do together what neither can do alone.
Rabbi Sacks described the United States as a covenantal society, and pointed out that virtually every U.S. president renews that covenant during their inauguration. A social contract creates what Rabbi Sacks called a “state,” in contrast to a true “society” which is created by a covenant.
“We the people,” are covenantal words, they are not ones expressed in a country such as England, or certainly any other monarchy.
Rabbi Sacks delighted the audience, delivering many “Jewish” jokes and Talmudic stories.
But the rabbi’s declaration that he hopes to be like the Lubbevitcher Rebbe: rather than have many followers, create many leaders, warmed the hearts of many. This announcement came in response to the last questioner of the evening.
Harris Finkelstein, of Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, mentioned that he has read many of Rabbi Sacks’ more than 25 books, and that he looks forward to receiving the weekly email from Rabbi Sacks with his take on the weekly Torah portion. But what, after having been chief rabbi of the United Kingdom for 22 years, “what could possibly be next?”
“I intend to spend the rest of my life with students, encouraging them to lead,” the rabbi said. “I want to support and encourage these students to do great things for others.”
RABBI SACKS TO BEGIN AFFILIATION WITH YESHIVA UNIVERSITY
His declaration last night was followed up by an announcement today that Rabbi Sacks has accepted a teaching position at Yeshiva University. The announcement was made to a small group of students, but YU said it will be releasing a statement next week in conjunction with the former chief rabbi’s office.
Lori Lowenthal Marcus
About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the U.S. correspondent for The Jewish Press. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools. You can reach her by email: Lori@JewishPressOnline.com
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