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Morality: Restoring the common good in divided times by Jonathan Sacks

03 July 2020

Robin Gill considers the latest contribution of a conservative moralist

RABBI Lord Sacks has been an immensely articulate public voice in Britain for the past three decades. He was appointed Chief Rabbi in 1991 at the age of 43 and remained in that demanding leadership position until 2013. His 1995 book Faith in the Future attracted readers and admirers well beyond Judaism, and was followed especially by his Reith Lectures published in 2005 as The Persistence of Faith.

Arguing from a conservative theological and moral stance (probably a prerequisite for a Chief Rabbi), his wide reading, clear prose, and generous ecumenism have won him many friends and admirers. This ecumenism was well in evidence in his 2002 book The Dignity of Difference, despite attracting criticism from some of his own ultra-orthodox. His courageous and passionate 2015 book Not in God’s Name: Confronting religious violence also made a similarly eirenic contribution to people across faith traditions. In British public life, his religious significance has been huge.

Does this new book (Comment, 20 March) add anything? Probably not for those of us who have followed his writings and broadcasts over these three decades. At 365 pages, it is longer than most of his other books, but many of its ideas have been articulated by him on numerous occasions before (and are repeated several times in this book). Some of his Jewish anecdotes and jokes are all too obvious, his use of stories from the Hebrew Bible is remarkably pre-critical (as Chief Rabbi, he needed to avoid Old Testament critical scholarship), and his summaries of classical philosophers are seldom sustained at any length or depth. For many academics, all of this will be irritating, but for his wider readership it will probably enhance his much-deserved reputation as “a defender of all religions, arguing that belief in God is the solution, not the cause, of global conflict” — a quotation, on the back cover, from The Times (1 August 2015).

This new book is divided into five sections. The first three (lasting to page 231) focus on what Lord Sacks sees as the dysfunctional features of modern society: loneliness; obsession with self-help; media hostility; fragmenting families; amoral markets; consumerism; fragile democracies; post-truth; victimhood; and, especially, a cultural shift from “we” to “I” . . . or perhaps simply “me, me”.

The fourth section focuses more specifically on philosophy and religion, arguing at length that those philosophers of the 20th century (and before) who claimed that there was nothing objective about morality and that religion offered it no credible basis were themselves profoundly wrong. His deep Jewish faith offers him an alternative perspective (articulated at length in his earlier books) that morality matters and has an objective basis.

It is this basis that he sets out in the final, brief section. He argues, particularly, that the Jewish concept of covenant and the Catholic concept of the common good, together, offer a radical alternative to the individualism that he detects in modern society. Some readers may be disappointed that this section is not the longest. Perhaps he will write that book in the future — with fewer woes and more wows.


Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent and Editor of Theology.


Morality: Restoring the common good in divided times
Jonathan Sacks
Hodder & Stoughon £20
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