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Friday, November 28, 2014

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Essays reflect values central to Rabbi Sacks’ teaching

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It is a pleasure to note the publication in January of Radical Responsibility: Celebrating the Thought of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, edited by Michael J. Harris, Daniel Rynhold and Tamra Wright. The book consists of an introduction and afterword by the editors, and 13 impressive essays written by intellectuals, most of them modern Orthodox Jews. Every essay is worth reading, and I apologize in advance for the fact that I will not be able to mention all of them in this short review.

The book honours Rabbi Sacks who is celebrating his 65th birthday this week and will soon complete his term as chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. He has discharged his duties as chief rabbi admirably, teaching a version of Orthodox Judaism that engages with modernity in a meaningful manner.

On a recent trip to Canada, Rabbi Sacks attracted large crowds who found his words eloquent and uplifting. His appearance here with the great Canadian public intellectual Prof. Charles Taylor, retired from McGill University, showed his commitment to pluralism, even to the point of engaging with sincere Christian intellectuals. Both Taylor and another Catholic thinker, Alasdair MacIntyre, have contributed essays to this volume.

This new book honours Rabbi Sacks by reflecting many of the values that have been central to his teaching, and it does not shy away from honestly addressing some of the thornier tensions between western and Jewish values.

Prof. Michael Broyde’s contribution raises the morally troubling distinction that Halachah (traditional Jewish law) makes between returning a lost item to a Jew or to a gentile, offering moral arguments for the distinction.

Prof. Joshua Berman addresses one of the more disturbing chapters of the Bible, Joshua Chapter 7, the story of Achan. Berman’s essay begins by quoting a British Bible critic who wrote: “The story [of Achan] projects a portrait of a deity who is cruel, petty and vengeful… It is difficult to find within the story of Achan’s sin any residual merit or moral lesson… [it exhibits] painful savagery.” Berman’s close reading of the chapter rises to the moral challenge, showing that the chapter promotes values with which modern people can identify.

A number of the essays in the book deal with human autonomy. Prof. Jacob J. Schachter’s essay sets up the issue: we in the West live in a world that values human autonomy above almost every other value. We like to feel that the choices that we make on moral issues are “autonomous,” i.e., that they come from within us. On the other hand, Halachah is often described as being based on “heteronomy,” the belief that the way that I behave ought to be based on obedience to a source outside of me, specifically God who is commanding me to behave as He legislates, not the way that I feel to be correct. Schachter argues that the oft-discussed problem is really a false dichotomy as Halachah leaves room for and encourages autonomy in many ways.