Book Review: The Great Partnership, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks; Part I – Philosophy
One summer day in my childhood I returned from swimming with my grandfather to his house where I was staying. Waiting at the front door were two smiling missionaries. It didn’t take long for my grandfather to start arguing, “You expect me to believe in G_d? In a being who sits alone with no company? An unsexed being?” The missionaries smiled and moved on, while my grandfather and I went in to unload the dishwasher while my grandfather apologized for being an atheist while encouraging me to have my bar mitzvah. Later in life, it would irk my grandfather quite a bit when I became Torah observant.
Yet his argument is, I think, somewhat correct. The Rosh Hashana machzor [prayer book] speaks of the “King who sits in solitude” and this is one of many philosophical questions that that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks answers. In fact, he explains the whole opening of the Torah itself is about relationships. One would expect a G_d-given rule book to start with the rules … open with the 10 commandments maybe. Nope. After a very short, terse, and in Rabbi Sack’s view, non-literal exposition of the creation of the world, we find thousands of words on relationships.
Relationships taught in the Torah include man’s relationship with the Creator; meaning, that the Creator does not sit along with no company – we are like the bride, the children, and the partner with the Creator in the creation. This includes relationships between fathers and sons (e.g. Abraham and Isaac), brothers (Yaakov and Eisav), sisters (Rachel and Leah), neighbors, bad inlaws (Laban), bad rulers (Nimrod), and so on. This is such a large part of creation and Torah and understanding G_d that, as Rabbi Sacks posits, this is why the Torah is written this way.
From there, Rabbi Sacks covers a wide range of philosophical topics that I wish I read when I became Torah observant because, much of what I wrote in my first posts where I describe my process of choosing a Torah way of life, Rabbi Sacks describes with quotes reference to some of the great philosophers. In fact, I’d guess that, excepting for the posts about kosher travel, half the posts on this blog are encapsulated in Rabbi Sacks’s book.
For example, Rabbi Sacks talks about man’s search for meaning. He states that meaning is always outside the system. A rat running through a maze does not see the meaning behind why he running through the maze. Yesterday, I witnessed a college student with her iPad having children play a “game”. She didn’t disclose that she was running some sort of psychology experiment on the kids, and while I watched it and saw all the questions, only she who is running the experiment posing as a game really knows the meaning behind it. This, as Rabbi Sacks quotes, is the essence of Iyov [Job]. There are a whole lot of questions, but not a whole lot of answers.
So when philosophers search for meaning, they do so in two ways; in a world with an ultimate meaning and purpose and in a world without. Camus cannot accept that there is a G_d and his in depth search for meaning results in, what Rabbi Sacks describes as, “Sisyphus comes to enjoy pushing the stone up the hill to have it fall back down and do it again.” That is, there is no meaning, just the system. Camus says find ways to like being the rat in the maze. On the other hand, Tolstoy says there is a G_d and finds meaning outside the system. Rabbi Sacks says that meaning is always outside the system. I agree.
Finally, Rabbi Sacks comes to King Solomon and Kohelles [Ecclesiastes]. It’s an entire book that Jews read every Succos, on a holiday where we are supposed to be joyous for eight days … yet it opens with the famous line, “futility of futility.” Discussing every pleasure known to man from a “been there, done that” perspective and trying to find meaning, the book closes with what is really meaningful … none of what you do in life matters expect for serving the Creator and following the guide book, the meaning being outside the system.
[On a side note, after reading this book I began listening to the English version of Tolstoy’s “What I Believe” available on YouTube. it’s eight hours. In short, he guts Christianity and re-translates / re-interprets it to be an extreme form of pacifism that is not practiced by the governments who enforced it through killing through his day. In the one reference to Judaism I came across, he states that Jews believe in the Torah from Moses and that’s a whole and complete belief that he can’t find reason to argue with, though he is very clearly a Christian believer.]
At other times Rabbi Sacks implies, sometimes more recognizably so than others, that it doesn’t matter so much if there is a G_d, but that society is changed based on whether it is one that is G_d fearing or not. (A midrash says similarly, stating something like, “if they would forget Me but remember my Torah…”) R’Sacks uses overly safe language to describe this, stating that a society without G_d won’t remain “exactly the same.” Of course it won’t remain exactly the same, but his examples go further than that, including the oppression of a Catholic adoption center in the United States because they will not consent to homosexual partners adopting. This is the opposite of liberty and allowing those to have choice in their beliefs, for which he compares to being “French.” After all, he is British and the British have a long history of mocking the French. The French, he says, had an abrupt revolution and changed things dramatically … and failed in doing so. The British way, he tells us, is to move slowly.
When religious faith goes, five things happen, gradually and imperceptibly. First there is a loss of belief in human dignity and the sanctity of life. This is not immediately obvious, because the new order announces itself as an enhancement of human dignity. It values autonomy, choice and individual rights.”
So what of religious oppressors? He has no love for that either. He describes that his debates with atheists (of which his PhD mentor was one); he agrees with almost everything they say. Further, those who have done things in the name of G_d things that are amoral are just as bad to him as to an atheist.
The cure of bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure of bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.
He rails against the Christian form of stoic G_d who has hell fire ready for us upon our death and dualistic right vs. wrong, us vs. them sorts of philosophies which come in both religious and atheistic forms. An example: he states that the first suicide bombers were secular Tamil tigers in Sri Lanka, the Muslims only copying them. On the other hand, he praises the Muslims for their faith, which, save for the unfortunately large and growing extreme dualistic elements is far better than the results of society with no moral basis whatsoever. He fears for the direction Europe is going, finding that will be much worse and points to, of course, the holocaust.
Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind. – Albert Einstein
The book, after all, is called “The Great Partnership” between science and religion. Rabbi Sacks quotes Einstein (above), and shrugs off contradictions between science and religion with a great, “meh.” His answer is something like, “So the Bible isn’t literal after all. Let’s move on.” His training is in philosophy, not in hard sciences, but more on this in part II.