Letter of Support from Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks
When we established this blog, I wrote to the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Lord Sacks. He is surely one of the greatest living rabbis and one of the greatest living Jewish philosophers/thinkers/leaders, so, I asked him what he thought were the major tasks for the next generation of Jewish philosophers. We are thrilled and honoured to have received this response, which I post below.
Dear Sam, Dani and Aaron
What a wonderful idea: a Jewish philosophy blog. Where blogs fit in the genealogy of philosophical thought, I’m not sure. Are they a continuation of the Socratic dialogue by other means? Are they – bearing in mind Franz Rosensweig’s reservations about the nature of those dialogues – what he sought by way of the “new thinking,” namely a genuinely open conversation that changes its participants in unpredictable ways as it is taking place? Or are they simply musings in the manner of Nietzsche or Schopenhauer, or for that matter Wittgenstein?
It may be that blogs will produce new forms of thought. Walter J Ong, in his Orality and Literacy, wrote that “writing restructures consciousness”, and I believe this. New modes of communication change not only how we communicate but also what we communicate. They change the way we think. And I believe that, as Jews, we need to change the way we think.
Which brings me to the question you ask: what should the next generation of Jewish philosophers be thinking about and writing about?
To that I have no doubt. As I argued in one of the chapters of Future Tense, we need to understand the world in order to transform the world. The three great principles of Judaism are creation, revelation and redemption. Creation is the relationship between God and the world. Revelation is the relationship between God and us. When we apply revelation to creation the result is redemption. We are called on to change the world.
We are not called on to convert the world. How then do we change the world? By contributing to it what we uniquely are, thus giving what only we can give.
Avishai Margalit distinguishes between an i.e. philosophy and an e.g. philosophy. In Judaism, the Noahide covenant is the i.e.; the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants are the e.g. We are called on, that is to say, not to be the only way of finding and serving God, but to be a compelling example to others who will find their own way — inspired by us but not imitating us.
This means that we must so construct our thought – our philosophies of Judaism, if you like – in such a way as genuinely to engage with the world. That is what I find in very short supply. We are not short of Torah in our time – Torah that operates within a closed, self-contained, self-referential system. But Torah that engages with the world – that could be read by, understood by, appreciated by the world – of that I find little.
One of the great inspirations in my own work was the writing – the immense lifework – of the late Prof Daniel Elazar on Jewish political thinking, that is to say, the politics of covenant. Other inspirations have been cognitive psychotherapists like Aaron T. Beck and Martin Seligman. Then there was the late David Daube who showed, in his great book Biblical Law, published in 1947, how law and narrative were interwoven in the Torah. There have been many others.
But the overwhelming majority of what passes for Torah today does not speak to the world, in a language comprehensible to the world, taking into account the current state of knowledge of the world, and thus has nothing to say to the world.
Judaism really is different, as I have argued in many books, including my latest: The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning. I use the metaphor – it is only a metaphor – that the thinking that emerged in Greece on the fifth century BCE was left brain, as contrasted with the thoroughly right brain thinking of the prophets of ancient Israel.
Judaism focused and should still focus on what makes a person a person and not the object of scientific knowledge. From that much else follows, from the theology of Tanakh, to the epistemology of personal knowledge (the phrase belongs, of course, to Michael Polanyi), to the kind of political philosophy that honours persons as persons, and so on.
This is a genuinely philosophical enterprise – it is not simply theology – and in my view the only one worthy of the name of a Jewish philosophy, that is, not Greek, not Cartesian, not Kantian, not shaatnez or kilayim, a forbidden mixture of things that don’t belong together, but a genuinely systemic philosophy of (to use John MacMurray’s phrase) Persons in relation.
And yes, it would involve biblical exegesis, and perhaps aggadah and halakhah, but it would have to stand on its own authority, as intellectually compelling even without prooftexts. And – to state a personal prejudice – it should also be readable and intelligible. I say this because I am British, therefore in the great empiricist tradition, but also because that is what the prophets of Israel did: they spoke in language intelligible to the people (see on this both Moshe Greenberg and Michael Walzer). As Jeremiah in effect said: only a prophecy that is testable is worthy of the name. The same applies to philosophy.
In short, I urge the next generation of Jewish philosophers to help me and others understand what it is to think distinctively as a Jew. To quote a non-Jew, former editor of The Times, William (Lord) Rees-Mogg: “One of the gifts of Jewish culture to Christianity is that it has taught Christians to think like Jews. Any modern man who has not learned to think as though he were a Jew can hardly be said to have learned to think at all.” Or to quote Nietzsche: “Wherever Jews have won influence they have taught men to make finer distinctions, more rigorous inferences, and to write in a more luminous and cleanly fashion.”
I will be right there beside you, because I intend doing my own share of the intellectual work that so badly needs to be done. And for all those wondering whether in a 4000 year old tradition, which more than most has given rise to generation after generation of thinkers, each of whom has added his commentary to the tradition, is there still work to be done? Are there still ideas to be clarified? Is there still a philosophy to be written? The answer is unequivocally, manifestly and urgently: yes.
So, with every good wish and with great expectations, I send you my blessings.
Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks
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