Morality: Restoring the Common Good
in Divided Times
Jonathan Sacks (Basic Books, $38, 366 pages)
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks died last November, and his latest and presumably last book, Morality, was published shortly beforehand. It is message to all, Jew and gentile alike. He opens arguing that: “Societal freedom cannot be sustained by market economics and liberal politics alone. It needs a third element: morality, a concern for the welfare of others, an active commitment to justice and compassion, a willingness to ask not just what is good for me but what is good for ‘all of us together’.” This is obviously true, but it needs to be said at a time when the political Right seems obsessed with the freedom in economic sphere and the libertarian Left and libertarian Right is obsessed with various personal freedoms. He warns, “lose morality and eventually you lose liberty.” Rabbi Sacks says that “we are undergoing the cultural equivalent of climate change” and the damage being done to the social order could reach a tipping point from which we cannot be rescued.
Morality is sweeping in its scope. The scholar delves into a wide range of theologians, philosophers, and sociologists, and the preacher distills them into readable morsels. He talks about the movement away traditional wisdom based on concrete goods (loyalty, reverence, respect) toward the “relatively abstract ideas” of the Reformation, Enlightenment, and 19th century radicalism. Rabbi Sacks acknowledges the contributions to moral and ethical thinking from various faith traditions and philosophies, but he clearly and correctly understands that the moral code necessary for the West to succeed is the Biblical morality of love: love of God, love of neighbour, and love of stranger. “To begin to make a difference, all we need to do is to change ourselves,” he writes. “To act morally. To be concerned with the welfare of others. To be someone people trust. To give. To volunteer. To listen. To smile. To be sensitive, generous, caring.” Rabbi Sacks is clear that this common decency is necessary not merely because it is nice, but what is commanded of us as children of God.