Jonathan Sacks has been Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth since September of 1991. He is the author of many books including The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations and Celebrating Life: Finding Happiness in Unexpected Places. In this substantive and elegantly presented work, Sacks depicts Judaism as a complex and subtle faith that takes seriously the ethics of responsibility in a time when political chicanery, corporate malfeasance, personal irresponsibility, and religious strife are rampant.
Sacks believes that we are partners in the work of creation and that we are here to make a difference: "The truths of religion are exalted, but its duties are close at hand. We know God less by contemplation than by emulation. The choice is not between 'faith' and 'deeds,' for it is by our deeds that we express our faith and make it real in the life of others and the world. Jewish ethics is refreshingly down-to-earth. If someone is in need, give. If someone is lonely, invite them home. If someone you know has recently been bereaved, visit them and give them comfort. If you know of someone who has lost their job, do all you can to help them find another. The sages call this 'imitating God.' They went further: giving hospitality to a stranger, they said, is 'even greater than receiving the divine presence.' That is religion at its most humanizing and humane."
With great clarity and moral force, Sacks discusses Judaism's key concepts of social ethics, justice, charity, love-as-action, sanctifying God's name, the ways of peace, and mending the world. Collective responsibility within the covenant of faith is as important as it is for humanity as a whole. This concept and practice is part of the monotheistic imagination and the challenges of being both holy and good.
The final chapters deal with the ingredients of a responsible life: redeeming evil, transforming suffering, practicing virtue, and incarnating dreams. Doing good and being kind are not onerous, but rather the outgrowth of faith and joy. Here is a Hassidic tale which illustrates the importance of charity in the scale of things:
"The Kaminker Rebbe once resolved to devote a whole day to reciting Psalms. Towards evening, he was still reciting when a messenger came to tell him that his mentor, the Maggid of Tzidnov, wanted to see him. The rebbe said he would come as soon as he was finished, but the messenger returned, saying that the Maggid insisted that he come immediately. When he arrived, the Maggid asked him why he had delayed. The rebbe explained that he had been reciting Psalms. The Maggid told him that he had summoned the rebbe to collect money for a poor person in need. He continued: 'Psalms can be sung by angels, but only human beings can help the poor. Charity is greater than reciting Psalms, because angels cannot perform charity.' " Jewish tradition even goes one step further: charity is required but the greatest act is one that allows an out of work person to become self-sufficient.
Sacks helps us to see the significance of the concept of "sanctifying the name" within Judaism. He writes: "We are God's ambassadors on earth. The way we live affects how others see Him. God needs us. The idea sounds paradoxical but it is true. Wittingly or unwittingly, the way we live tells a story. If we live well, become a blessing to others, we become witnesses to the transformative power of the divine presence. God lives within the human situation to the extent that we live his will. As a radio converts waves into sound, so a holy life translates God's word into deed. We become his transmitters."
Sacks hits high stride in his reflections on kindness, the redemption of small steps, the morality of hope, faith as living with uncertainty, the wrongheadedness of a victim culture, and the differences between a saint and a sage. To conclude, here is just one of many anecdotes that the author includes to amplify his point: "I once asked Prince Hassan of Jordan, shortly after the assassination of Israel's prime minister Yizhak Rabin, whether there was anything that might bring Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, together. Was there a bridge over the abyss? He answered, 'Our shared tears, our history of suffering.' That was a wise remark. There are 6,000 languages spoken today, but there is only one truly universal: the language of tears."