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Futures 38 (2006) 626–632

Book reviews

Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, Continuum,

London, 280pp, £16.99

Speaking at a recent event on the chances of peace in the Middle East, Britain’s Chief
Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, could be heard praising a book by a moderate Islamic scholar. After
discussing the thesis of the work (on the compatibility of Islam and democracy) he cautioned
that the author ‘may yet be forced to put out a revised second edition’. This comment, which
elicited appreciative laughter from the audience, was a joke at his own expense. By
questioning the reception of a moderate voice within the Islamic world he was also alluding to
the forces of intolerance in his own community. A few years ago the Chief Rabbi published a
book of balance and moderation, The Dignity of Difference (subtitled How to Avoid the Clash
of Civilizations), which examined the role of Judaism within the context of other world
religions. Following its publication there was, amongst certain sections of Anglo-Jewry, an
outcry (almost certainly from people who had not bothered to read his work), thus a book
about tolerance fell prey to intolerance and its author was obliged to put out a revised second
edition excluding the offending passages. Then there was another outcry. If the first edition
angered The Right then his accommodation in the second edition angered The Left. Poor Chief
Rabbi. As the representative of a small but diverse and extremely argumentative community,
it seemed he could please nobody. Indeed, ever since Sacks took over the post of Chief Rabbi
from Lord Jakobovits in 1991, his tenure has been mired by bouts of unsolicited controversy
and blows dealt to him by those on both the left and right of his constituency. This, I suppose,
lands him squarely on the middle ground, a place from which it might surprise his critics to
measure their distance.
On the other hand, as his recent knighthood confirms, the Chief Rabbi has been an highly
successful ambassador of British Jews. In his official capacity he has appeared regularly on
television and radio, written weekly columns in the press, published a prolific outlay of well
received books and established strong ties and friendships with politicians, royalty, and the
leaders of other faiths. He has also gone further than any previous leader of British Jewry in
representing not only Jewish interests but Jewish insights in the public arena, bringing, as he
says, “a Jewish voice [to] the conversation of humankind”. Yet this is precisely what has proven
so thorny. When, as the saying goes, ‘two Jews, three opinions’, the idea that one man can speak
with a singular “Jewish voice” on behalf of roughly 280,000 is bound to get him into some
hot water. Every time he represents “Jewish insights” there will be those who claim that he is
misrepresenting them.
One does not become a rabbi in order to enter politics, but by the time one has become Chief
Rabbi politics is the name of the game. Nor is Jonathan Sacks a ‘natural’ politician. When, for
example, in an interview with Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland in 2002, he registered
a mild critique of Israeli policy towards Palestinians, so incendiary did it appear to some that
there were outright calls for his immediate resignation. This in turn prompted Freedland to write
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a follow up article calling on all “advocates of peace” to “rally to his side” or “no mainstream
leader will ever dare raise his voice again.” Whereas, that kind of rallying-around was not what
Sacks wanted, and he evidently regretted the politicisation of his deliberately understated
remarks. It was not in the “raised voice” of the polemicist that he wished to express himself, but
rather, as he told Freedland, in “a still, small voice”, such as (one can take it on good Biblical
authority) reaches many more ears.
Little wonder, then, that, as Michael Lerner (editor of Tikkun magazine) puts it: “his new
book veers away from anything that could vaguely be construed as cutting edge or critical of the
organised Jewish community’s politics”. For politics, with its raised voices, is precisely what he
is fighting shy of. If the Chief Rabbi has tended to take a conciliatory stance and so faced
accusations of weak leadership, it is because he is profoundly wary of polarisation within the
community. Some of the worst periods in Jewish history, he warns, have been heralded by Jews
squabbling amongst themselves.
The latest book, To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, is an exposition of
Jewish ethics, which relies on a collation of sources, both religious and secular, including forays
into philosophy, sociology, history, psychology, film, literature and so on. There is no doubt that
Sacks, who has a Cambridge degree in philosophy, is a thinker, but, given the representative
nature of his office and the furores surrounding some of his earlier pronouncements, he may not
quite enjoy the status of a free thinker. Unless his “still, small voice” is a subtle one. For the
avoidance of polemics does not alter Sacks’ oft repeated claim that the Jewish faith is
“revolutionary” in its mission to say “truth to power”. And his frequent citation of the great
medieval rationalist, Moses Maimonides, as someone who “hated controversy” but was
“unafraid to take challenging stances, intellectual or communal”, clearly indicates where he
wishes to situate himself. Maimonides suggests an excellent role model for Jewish leadership
because of his worldliness (he was a physician), his exemplary interfaith relations, his
unequivocal endorsement of secular learning (he was an Aristotelian) and a philosophical genius
that tended towards the restatement of basic ethical precepts. “I find it moving”, Sacks writes,
“that at the end of his journey through intellectual space, Maimonides is drawn back to [the]
simple affirmation of kindness, righteousness and justice.” And so it is that, at the end of Sacks’
intellectual journey (or the one he makes here), one arrives at a series of bullet points in a similar
vein. All of which begs the question: to whom is this book addressed? After all, doesn’t everyone
agree that we should feed the hungry, visit the sick, welcome the lonely and love our neighbours
as ourselves?
Maybe so—but a common consensus concerning values leaves no shortage of ethical
underachievers. “What does it take to make people moral,” Sacks asks, “given all the
distractions, temptations and alternatives”? And: “what difference does religion make to the
moral life even if we concede that you don’t have to be religious to be moral?” These questions
seem to imagine a largely secular readership. Readers who not only doubt that religion is
necessary for morality, but suspect that religion tends more towards the bad than the good. For
which reason Sacks claims to have written this book: “because I am troubled by the face that
religion often shows to the postmodern world. extremism, violence and aggression.” Here, in
other words, is a defense of faith addressed to “the postmodern world”; a world which takes
place between the two poles of moral relativism and religious absolutism; and a world in which
faith is troubled less by heretics that by its own believers. Religion may well have ‘returned’
in recent years, but it has done so with such force that Sacks is moved to quote Yeats’ famous
628 Book reviews / Futures 38 (2006) 626–632

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.
.presumably to demonstrate that he not only understands but sympathises with the sentiment
That a religious leader would wish to distance himself from fanaticism is hardly surprising,
however, it is rare for a figure from the world of orthodox Judaism to make an intervention of this
kind. Judaism is non-evangelical, so why would Britain’s Chief Rabbi write a book of Jewish
ethics for an ecumenical audience? Well, in part because Jews have not remained insular out of
choice. For 18 centuries living in the Diaspora they had no civil rights, no vote and no public
‘voice’, whence the Talmudic injunction: “Just as one has a duty to say what will be heeded, so
one has a duty not to say what will not be heeded.” So we can count it as a positive sign that
Britain today has a Chief Rabbi who believes the time has come when a still, small Jewish voice
might be heard. To which he adds his own proviso: “No one should seek to impose his or her
religious convictions on society, but we should seek instead to bring the insights of our
respective faiths to the public conversation about the principles for which we stand and the
values which we share.”
Yet despite Sacks’ assurance that 21st century Jews are invited to join in the conversation,
there remains something slightly disingenuous about his closing remark: “This has been a
religious book, a Jewish book, and I make no apologies for the fact.” For it would be hard to deny
that this is a work of apologetics and that, as such, it shares a common thread in the history of
‘religious, Jewish books’. We can go as far back as Philo amongst the Greeks or Josephus
amongst the Romans to discover Jewish rituals (such as circumcision or kashrut) explained in
terms (e.g. of health/hygiene) to flatter the cultures they inhabited. And even internally a
tradition requires its adherents to turn apologist in order to preserve the truth and relevance of its
scriptures over time and change. Frank Kermode has noted the ancient rabbis’ hermeneutic
creativity in their efforts “to eliminate or make acceptable what had come to be unintelligible or
give offense.” Deciding, for example, that “an eye for an eye” must be a metaphor for monetary
reparations. Pacific interpretations of this kind have enabled the faithful to evolve and thus evade
the perennial bugbear of fundamentalism.
Apologetics need not be such a sorry word. Nonetheless, with the rise of existential theology
it did go out of fashion. Consider Fear and Trembling. Kierkegaard’s powerful reckoning of
Abraham renders the apologist an opponent of true faith. The Kierkegaardian “knight of faith”
must resist the “ethical temptation” to provide moral justifications for his actions. He inhabits the
realm of the absurd, beyond reason or explanation, where he must keep silent: “The moment I
speak I express the universal, and when I do not no one can understand me.” Removed from a
world that cannot comprehend him he wanders alone in an altogether different reality. When, in
the eyes of God, he performs a sacrifice, in the eyes of man he commits a murder.
Distinguishing between the ethical and religious spheres, Kierkegaard also revealed how
they might become enemies of each other—a striking insight in the light of recent world
events. And it is against this same backdrop that Jonathan Sacks has penned his response
to the incomprehensible “suicide bombers, religiously motivated terrorists and preachers of
hate of whatever faith”, by choosing instead to represent a very different faith whose
“ultimate purpose. is not mysterious at all”. This faith is “intensely communal”. Its ethics
are “down to earth”. It urges a celebration of life, as in the Talmudic comment: “in the world
to come a person will have to face judgement for every legitimate pleasure he denied himself
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in this life”. Ethics are portrayed as a guide to happiness, “to the life we live together and the
goods we share - the goods that only exist by virtue of being shared”.
Sacks extols a very different Abraham too. “In Judaism”, he writes, “faith is a revolutionary
gesture”. So the Abraham who challenges God when He decides to wreak vengeance on the
inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah becomes the religious ideal because the faith he initiated
“strove for justice in human terms.” By the same token, Job is prized above his comforters: “the
comforters who defend the justice of God are condemned by God himself because He asks us not
to take his part but to be human.” Noting the temptation of every faith towards theodicy, Sacks
illuminates, through close readings of Biblical and Talmudic passages, a deeply humanising
prejudice within the tradition. “If we were able to see how evil today leads to good tomorrow”,
he warns, “if we were able to see from the point of view of God, creator of all - we would
understand justice but at the cost of ceasing to be human. We would accept all, vindicate all, and
become deaf to the cries of those in pain.” To persuade the reader he crafts some beautiful
interpretations of Biblical verses, of which my favourite, from the Book of Exodus, is his
explanation as to why “Moses was afraid to look at God” (3:6): because “seeing heaven would
desensitise him to earth”. It is not the ethical temptation, in other words, but the mystical
temptation that so often betrays the religious life.
Sacks plays tribute to a religion of moderation in which faith is not a contemplative state but
an active principle—“it is by our deeds that we express our faith”—and thus continuous with its
ethics. The emphasis on practice invites some startling observations such as the Talmud’s
insistence that when a good deed is called for one mustn’t worry overmuch about the motives of
the one who performs it. A person who does the right thing, regardless of their motive, is to be
“regarded as perfectly righteous”, say the rabbis. As Sacks explains: “Kantian or Kierkegaardian
purity of will is irrelevant. We are not commanded to give to the poor primarily for the salvation
of our souls, but for the sake of the poor.”
The pragmatic concerns of the ethical life contrast with the sublime but lonely knight of faith
in popular conceptions of piety. For what social good can come of a person made so ecstatic by
religion that he or she can no longer participate in everyday affairs? Sacks infers from the sages a
simple antidote to religious excess: worry less about the state of your soul. And he notes that
Maimonides was prepared to elevate the figure of the sage above that of the saint, precisely
because the former is concerned with the perfection of society while the latter is concerned only
with perfection of the self. “If the religious voice has one thing to say above all others it is that
each of us counts”, says Sacks, but, at the same time, it would be wrong “to see the individual as
the sole source of meaning.” Everyone has a part to play, but they should play it within the
collective. The saint may be too ‘extreme’ an entity—unprepared or unable to make the
compromises and concessions that ‘living with others’ necessitates. The many “ways of Peace”
(Darkhei Shalom), said the sages, are even greater than the one way system of Truth.
Still, as refreshing as it may be to hear an orthodox voice preaching peace, compromise,
tolerance and reason, there is something distinctly unsexy about moderation. Moreover, doesn’t
such a “down to earth” ethics undermine Sacks’ further claim that what he has to say is somehow
“radical”? Not necessarily. Consider, for instance, the concept of tzeddakah; a Hebrew word
meaning both charity and justice. The English word charity, from the Latin caritas, figures as a
form of generosity and a kind of excess: giving is valorised not because one does but because one
does not have to. Tzeddakah, on the other hand, with its strict connotations of rightness and
justice, leaves no option. To be tzaddik is to be righteous or just, or even to avoid error. It argues
Sacks’ point that the ethical command is given because of “its effect on the world, on the other
person, not on the transaction in the soul between the agent and God.”
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The Jewish idea of tzeddakah can also be understood as the theoretical basis of the apologetic
approach. A comparison might be drawn between the role of the individual within society and
the role of the interpreter within the tradition. The rabbinic hermeneutic is surprisingly similar to
the hermeneutic “principle of charity” much discussed in analytical philosophy by the likes of
Davidson and Quine. The principle of charity (also known as “radical interpretation”) argues
that the interpreter should try to “preserve a reasonable theory of belief”. Davidson writes: “If we
cannot find a way to interpret the utterances and other behaviour of a creature as revealing a set
of beliefs largely consistent and true by our own standards, we have no reason to count that
creature as rational, as having beliefs, or as saying anything”. Therefore a “good theory of
interpretation. maximizes agreement”, since anything else can only lead away from reason.
“Charity is not an option”, says Davidson, it is, by reason, “forced on us”.
What is here called “radical” is simply the decision to assume the best rather than the worst.
In this way, by the principle of tzeddakah, the faithful interpret their tradition and the ethical
interpret society. I can only recommend the same approach to the reader of this “religious book”.
For there are, needless to say, many potential Judaisms, including some extreme possibilities.
Writing here as a nominally orthodox, British Jew represented by his office, I am therefore
grateful that this Chief Rabbi has chosen to speak in the name of a Judaism that is at once so
reasonable and so radical.

Devorah Baum
5a Kenyon Steet, London, SW6 6JZ UK

Available online 2 November 2005


William Stanton, The Rapid Growth of Human Populations 1750–2000: Histories,

Consequences, Issues, Multi-Science Publishing Company, pp. 230 (Cvi), £25

William Stanton states that ‘All human history is of populations expanding when resources
are available and shrinking when they are not’, and he predicts that ‘population reduction will
begin as soon as foreign aid dries up’ and when basic ‘carrying capacity will become critical’. If
it is necessary to read the history of collective human reproductive mistakes in order not to repeat
them, or to avoid continuing to make them, then this is the book that should be read by all policy
makers who have anything to do with famine relief, foreign aid, fertility control education as
well as immigration/greenhouse gas emission. It offers a graphical record of recent population
growth as well as a brief verbal summary of the political history for every nation.
Stanton’s panoramic history takes us back to the transition from hunter-gathering to
agriculture about 10,000 years ago when he supposes that world population may have been
double the 2 million of 100,000 years ago. The Agricultural and Industrial revolutions in the mid
18th century, and the Green revolution in the mid 20th century increased the ability of society to
feed greater and greater numbers. He points out that before 1750 most of the world’s half billion
people lived on the edge of starvation, confronted with repeated famines, and 250 years later
almost five times as many survive in similar conditions. The increased food produced by the