Hi there. Before we begin, some very quick news, a new offering of solace and sanity. We're calling experience poetry. It's it on being dawg and it's live. Now, listen, watch, read, dwell short form and deep dives for any time of day, any kind of day. Go to on being dawg, get tethered and be recharged. Support for on being with Krista Tippett comes from the Fetzer Institute, helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world, Fetzer envisions a world that embraces love as a guiding principle and animating force for our lives, a powerful love that helps us live in sacred relationship with ourselves, others and the natural world.
Learn more by visiting Fetzer, dawg. I'm Krista Tippett. Up next, my unedited conversation with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who died on November 7th, 2020. He was one of the world's deepest thinkers on religion and modern challenges. There is, as always, a shorter produced version of this, wherever you found this podcast. World War II. Gosh, you're right. That's great. Oh, oh, oh, yes, yes, yes. I been I'm I'm still got seat right where you are.
I'd like you to sit here. All right. This is ridiculous. I just want to make it sound like, oh, you just sit here on CNN because I was trying to explain nobody I know I saw her used to be our intern.
And I, I, I don't know what Chris's title is. We can't be technical director. Oh, you're right. So what do we have anywhere?
Like something I could. Yes. Or something I could set this on. That's a little more.
Just go to three little one lifestream in the center and to say I'm impressed. No, no, it's you.
You have no ideas of what this wonderful world is and what you have only one camera.
Yeah. I don't know what the American people would be.
You know, you need right.
Shots. Yeah. And one of them. So you're asking the question and the camera's on you.
So when it's all over, you have to still me nodding, say, oh nodi.
Oh yes, I've done that because I hate television for that reason it's someone got shot through to the concept. So we don't do this. We don't believe in that. Yeah. Yeah it's my laptop.
Yeah. OK, sure thing. And then it's terrible for us.
That's why I do radio. But then right then they're turning me into an intelligent person who always has cameras on them.
Right. Right, right, right, right, right, right. OK, so what sort of stuff are we going to be talking about?
You know, what I really want to delve into is are the just the kinds of things you've been writing since 2001.
Oh, fantastic trends and navigating difference.
And that's why I come to America.
It's I want to talk about things. Yes.
It looks like I want to talk about things you think and read and and speak about all the time. So nothing nothing hard. Yes, OK, OK, great. So how are we doing this? I mean, is this going to go out significantly, attitudes or.
Yeah, well, we're live streaming this. We've offered our listeners the opportunity to watch this live conversation. Oh, I see. But then we will turn it into an hour of radio, which will be edited and scripted and broadcast sometime in the next month. OK. And we will keep you apprised of all of that.
Very interesting. So you put it on the web. Oh, gosh. Right. Well, you know that podcasting has also changed everything for us. It is really going to change. So we have a we have a global audience.
I think I think both the iPad in one way and some television computer interface and the other is going to blur the line completely between podcasting and television. Mm hmm. And it's going to make life very interesting. I think so, too. Yeah. What do you think, Chris Tarrant, can we get one more minute? All right, I don't I don't want us to start talking about anything interesting at this point, because you want to wait. I don't want to waste it.
What year did you become chief rabbi?
September one, 1991. All right. 19 years and a bit. All right. And, you know, the first 19 years of the hardest. But after after about 18, we sort of get the hang of it.
You just tell us when it is actually such a gift to have a long, long ride. Mm hmm. You make all your mistakes. You work out how it's done. Mm hmm. And then, you know, you're still you live into it. Yeah.
They don't give either because everyone in the room to turn off cell phones and other potential noise making devices, including rabbis.
Yeah, I'm definitely religiously annoys me.
And that's why I don't interview many religious authorities, as I told you.
OK, you guys tell us when. When. OK. All right. You know, I start in this place with everyone. I interview whoever they are, they're a quantum physicist or or a theologian. And I just wanted to hear something about the spiritual background of your childhood. Did you have a devout Jewish upbringing?
I was the oldest of four boys. My father, who had come to Britain as a refugee from Poland at the age of six, had to leave school at the age of 14. So he never had an education, not Jewish or secular. My mother had to leave school at the age of 16, so my parents didn't know that much. What they did have was a great love for Judaism. And, you know, I tend to think that's probably the greatest gift you can give a child.
Wordsworth said it beautifully. What we love, others will love, and we will show them how.
Oh, oh, oh, oh. You're soft, but wonderful. All right.
And then so did you surprise yourself? Did you surprise your family by becoming a rabbi yourself?
It was a surprise to all of us that I had absolutely no intention of becoming a rabbi. I went to university to study economics and then philosophy. But in my first year, the six day war happened. Now, we don't know in retrospect, we can't understand in retrospect quite how tense that was. The build up to it was in the three or so weeks before. In that June of 1967, it did look as if Israel was surrounded and was about, God forbid, to suffer some horrendous defeat.
And we born after the Holocaust felt I think all Jews around the world felt that was a real possibility, God forbid, of a second Holocaust. And then, of course, the war happened with astonishing speed and there was a sense of exhilaration. But, you know, I had been really shaken up by this and I sort of began very slowly and over the years to delve more and more deeply into the question of what it wants to be a Jew.
And eventually, years later, really many years later, I began to study for the rabbinate, not intending to be a rabbi, but just to get deeper to the roots of this faith and this four thousand year old tradition.
Mm hmm. And that eventually led you to this, to the vocation?
Yeah, I. I did also meet some quite great rabbis, sadly no longer alive. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who was the great thinker of the grand jury, but in particular Rabbi Menachem Endlessness and the Lubavitcher who was one of the great, great leaders of modern times. And he was the one who actually told me to become a rabbi. And I respected him as a man of global vision. And so I did it.
And I wonder if when you became chief rabbi in 1991, if it would have surprised you. So there you were the last years of the 20th century, if it were to surprise you that at this point, ten years into the 21st century and even just a few years into the 21st century, religion had risen so utterly to the surface of global life?
No, actually, in 1990, the BBC asked me to give a very famous series of lectures called The Reith Lectures there given once a year, six lectures on radio first given by Bertrand Russell in 1948. I was only the second religious leader to give them, and I call them the persistence of faith. It was probably the first response to France's Fukuyama's vision of the end of history. And I think the Berlin Wall was. Fallen Soviet Union and collapsed.
End of Cold War, everyone was seeing what he foresaw as the, you know, seamless spread of liberal democracy over the world. And I said, no, actually, I think you're going to see faith return and return in a way that will cause some problems, because the most powerful faith in the modern world will be the faith most powerfully opposed to the modern world. And we call that series of lectures the persistence of faith, which was a way of saying, you think faith has gone.
You have no real idea how forcefully it's going to come back. So that was in 1990, the year before I became chief rabbi. Nothing that's happened since has surprised me, though it has saddened me. Religion is a great power and anything that powerful can be a force for good or God forbid, for evil. But it's certainly fraught and dangerous and needs great wisdom and, you know, great if I can use this word gentlewoman's.
I also think you're very articulate about the positive reasons that that faith persists and in fact, that religious traditions have a new vitality, both for good and for ill. You know, you you talk about how and I think that that this is all intensified by the complexity of the 21st century. Economic systems create problems that cannot be resolved by economics alone. Yeah, politics creates problems that cannot be resolved by politics alone. And globalisation brings that to a whole new level.
Well, you know, there's this very strong feeling that you get that God never sets as problems that can't be solved. You know you know, we are you know, each year we tell the story of Abraham and that call from God to leave his home, his land, his father's house and travel to a land, which I will show you, I call it, you know, the journey into insecurity. And it's been pretty insecure for Jews for 4000 years.
We're still on that journey. And bad things happen. Very unexpected things happen. I'm always struck. A lot of people are struck by the history of Jewish suffering. I am struck by the history of Jewish recovery from suffering. What gives the people the strength to keep on going? And it is that feeling that you can face the future without fear if you know you are not alone. It's that famous line. In some 23, though, I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me.
That, I think, is the positive reason for faith in the 21st century. We can handle anything so long as we have the humility to know that we are answerable to something much greater than ourselves.
And so I'd like to draw you out some more on how Jewish experience and Jewish tradition, you know, what resources and vocabulary that might bring to to this now to this global moment, which is not merely uncertain, but certainly marked by change, which is stressful for human beings. One of the ways you've talked about that, not uncontroversially, is about the approach you see deep within Jewish tradition to different.
Yeah, it seems to me that one of the things we most fear is the strange and at most times in human history, most people have lived among people who are mostly pretty much the same as themselves today, certainly in Europe and perhaps even in America. Walk down the average main street and you will encounter in ten minutes more anthropological diversity than an 18th century traveler would have encountered in a lifetime.
So you really have this huge problem of diversity and you then go back and read the Bible and something hits you, which is we're very familiar with the two great commands of love, love God with all your heart and soul and all your might love your neighbor as yourself. But the one command reiterated more than any other in the mosaic box 36 times, said the rabbis. Is love the stranger for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt or to put it in a contemporary way, love the stranger because to him you're a stranger.
And this sense that we are enlarged by the people who are different from us, we are not threatened by them. That needs cultivating can be cultivated and would lead us to see the 21st century as full of blessing, not full of fear.
I mean, one thing that I'm struck by in conversations I have with scientists, with neuroscientists, with clinical psychologists, first of all, is how scientists studying virtues that that their traditions have kept alive virtues of compassion, altruism and empathy and forgiveness. And one of the things that science is now able to demonstrate biologically is that it is when we are able to see the other, to see the welfare of the other as somehow linked to our own, that that we're able to rise to these to these moral ideals.
And in that context, you know, when I I think that these teachings that have been that are ancient, that have been cultivated, the source of conversation across generations brought forward a time of of how to honor the stranger, to love the stranger, that they're that there's no more critical virtue.
And and I wonder, you know, and again, it's it's not an easy thing to talk about.
But do you have an experience of of in your conversations and in your work and presence as chief rabbi this year are something of a new conversation starting where you can, in fact, offer these virtues to the 21st century in a new way? You find people receptive to this.
And I'm sure I mean, you take you know, I'm really not very good at sort of operating machines or computers or things, you know, those clever things that we need our grandchildren to tell us how they work. And so, you know, having tried to make a machine work for three hours totally without success, I fall back on that old phrase. And when all else fails, read the instructions.
Right, OK. So, you know, when all else fails, science is finally shown us to the distress of some scientists that religion might have got it right all along. And here we are reading those instructions afresh through the eyes of quantitative and experimental science and discovering what the great traditions of wisdom were saying three or four thousand years ago. We now know that it is doing good to others. A network of strong and supportive relationships and a sense that one's life is worthwhile are the three greatest determinants of happiness and not at all what the culture out there is telling us, you know, how much we earn, how much we own, what we buy, where we go for holidays and, you know, somehow or other against our will.
Sometimes we are being thrust back to these ancient and very noble and beautiful truths and that we can now do so in a fellowship, awkward, perhaps, and embarrassed between religious leaders and scientists and social scientists and different kinds of religious leaders right across traditions as well. Totally.
I mean, the thing that really for me changed my life, as I said in one of my books called The Dignity of Difference, it was standing at ground zero, you know, a couple of months afterwards, in January, while it was January 2002, together with the Archbishop of Canterbury and religious leaders throughout the world. And we were looking at this wreckage, the sheer harm that hate can do.
And yet at the same time, we were here, we were from many of the world's, if not most of the world's faiths in friendship, fellowship and shared prayer. And I just saw how clearly that is. Those are the terms of the equation. Are we do we go that way or do we go this? And since then, I have really made the effort I think we all have of going out, not just to Christians. I'd had a good relationship and a strong one with them, but with Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhist, Jains or Astrium by the whole range of the world's religious expressions.
And in each one you find that they have an enormous gift. Many perhaps to give the whole human project. So I'd like to talk about the ideas that you brought forward and the dignity of difference and I think have continued to develop ever since. You know, I remember a very, very intelligent, excellent American journalist, commentator after September 11th, 2001, you made a statement that what those events demonstrated was that in order for the three monotheistic religions in particular, to survive and be constructive members of society in the 21st century, they would have to relinquish their exclusive truth claims.
And I think that sounded like it made a lot of sense to many people. The case you make in the dignity of difference is also aimed towards the traditions being constructive parts of the 21st century. But you take that in a different direction. So let's talk about how it is possible in your imagination to retain the essence, the the truth claims of Judaism and and also, as you say, honor, the dignity of difference, understand oneself to be enlarged rather than threatened by religious others.
I use metaphors, you know, each one may be helpful to some and not to others. One way is just to think, for instance, of of the of the of biodiversity.
The extraordinary thing we now know, thanks to Crick and Watson's discovery of DNA and the decoding of the human and other genomes, is that all life, everything you know, all the three million species of life and plant life all have the same source.
We all come from a single source.
Everything that lives has its genetic code written in the same alphabet. Unity creates diversity. Hmm. So don't think of one God, one truth, one way. Think of one God creating this extraordinary number of ways, 6800 languages that are actually spoken. Don't think there's only one language within which we can speak to God. That's one way.
Another way, for instance, is to try and get people to break away from the logic of zero sum games. You know, if I have a thousand dollars and I decide to share it with nine other people, I only have a tenth of what I began with.
If I have total power, decide to share it with nine other people. I only have a tenth as much as I began with. The more I share, the less I have. But when it comes to love. Doesn't work that way or trust or friendship or even knowledge. The more I share, the more I hope you see, one of the things that led the monotheisms into some quite difficult territory is to say, this is zero sum. This, you know, if I want all God's love and he really can't belong to anyone else, I don't think the logic of scarcity applies to God.
I don't think it applies to a human parent. What kind of parent would it be who could only love one of their children? And yet, yes, OK. Something like. Does everyone have a cell phone on that could be receiving text? Christine, so I left my cell phone in my room.
I was a good girl from Cape. And said cell phones need to be off. So sorry that I can't use my phone, so that's. So make sure what we get here is great stuff. Thank you. So so, you know, one one thing I've actually just recently discussed with an evangelical Christian leader on my show is the fact that the word that has come forward in American political life, that came forward after the 1960s when we began to have genuine pluralism, was this notion of tolerance, which I don't think goes nearly far enough for religious people.
I know in Britain, a word that has become problematic is this notion of multiculturalism. I mean, you really raised the stakes in what we're talking about here with echoing what you just said to me. You know, you've you've asked and the dignity of difference. Can we hear the voice of God in a language, a sensibility, a culture not our own? Can we see the presence of God in the face of a stranger? Yeah.
Well, here, let's let's not try to describe this is 21st century radical theology. It always helps if we can locate it in sacred texts. And so for me, you know, here is a moment where the hero of the Book of Exodus is a young man called Moses. And the villain of the Book of Exodus is somebody called Pharaoh.
But it's Pharaoh's daughter, who a great resta self saves the life of this young baby who she knows immediately is a Hebrew baby that she says and she knows her father is decreed that every male Hebrew child should be killed. So at great risk to herself, she takes this child in and brings it up so that we have the daughter of the biggest villain of the book who is responsible for the saving of the life of the hero. Now, if that doesn't challenge our paradigms, I don't know what does.
You can find God in the other side, and that is something the Bible is doing quite a lot. After all, you know, there's only one perfect individual, well, perhaps two, if you like, in the whole Bible. And neither of them is Jewish. One is called no one is called Jope or neither is Jewish and never comes before Judaism.
Job is what I call every man. So, you know, and and then you look at all the prophets of ancient Israel and they spent lifetime preaching to the Israelis and nobody listened. God says one since one prophet Jonah to non Jews, the people in Univer, the capital of Israel's traditional enemy, the Assyrians. Here, all he does is say five Hebrew words, one English sentence in 40 days and then never will be destroyed and they will repent.
So it turns out the non Jews are better at listening to Jewish prophets than Jews.
Right. So there is this paradox at this this very interesting recurring thread of of otherness Bible. The Bible is saying to us the whole time, I don't think that God is as simple as you are. He's in places you would never expect him to be. And, you know, we lose a bit of that in English translation because when Moses at the burning Bush says to God, Who are you? God says to him, three words. Yeah, yeah.
And those words are mistranslated in English as I am, that which I am. But in Hebrew it means I will be who or how or where I will be.
Meaning don't think you can predict me. I am a God who is going to surprise you. And one of the ways God surprises us is by letting a Jew or a Christian discover, discover the trace of God's presence in a Buddhist monk or a Sikh tradition of hospitality or the graciousness of Hindu life. You know, don't think we can confine God into our categories. God is bigger than religion.
And at the same time. And I think he would say it as an end rather than a but there is also a special relationship that is that is evident in those texts and a covenant that is particular to the Jewish people. And and even as you honor the dignity of difference, you you are upholding the dignity of that particularity. So talk to me about how how theologically, how you bring those things together, how they are not a contradiction by being what only I can be.
I give humanity. What only I can give it is my uniqueness that allows me to contribute something unique to the universal heritage of humankind, and I sum it up the Jewish imperative very simply, and it has been like this since the days of Abraham to be true to your faith and a blessing to others, regardless of their faith. And so I thought about Heschel when I was reading you also, and I thought you did well, at least maybe you do mention Heschel and all that I looked at.
You didn't in particular talk about his his idea of depth, theology and mystery as something that, in fact, at the depths even of orthodoxy is something that religious people have in common, because there is a big mystery to what you're saying is true.
There's there's something there beyond what our categories can comprehend. And it is in that margin of mystery that we have to place the relationship of the other with God. I understand my relationship to my late parents, but I can't ever really understand my brother's relationship. Each relationship was so private and our relationship with God is private. But it doesn't mean to say he doesn't have relationship with other people, other languages, other traditions. And we will never understand that.
And yes, I didn't particularly study Heschel. I did meet him as a young man. I mentioned I met too much. I also met him at the same time. I just kind of discovered after I'd written Dignity of Difference, somebody said to me, well, go, go and read Heschel. And I could see there was a real kinship there. Mm hmm. Yeah. Um, now I think that I know that there that what you're saying, it has been difficult for some of your fellow fellow Jews in Britain that that the dignity of difference was going to be a religious leader.
If you say something was difficult for people who follow you, you know, you've got to challenge them and be challenged by them.
You know, you have to listen when they say, uh, chief rabbi, you're going too far or too fast for us to follow. And then you say, OK, we'll slow it down, but I want you to come with me. I will not allow myself to be a lone voice within Judaism. Mm hmm. And so, you know, we slowed it down a little. But my rabbis today are or actively engaged in reaching out beyond the Jewish community in May in cultivating good relationships.
Is that new as that has that deepened, expanded in this last decade is total much more of that.
It became a real I mean, we came in in Great Britain.
It became an imperative for me after 9/11, but it became an imperative for us after seven seven our own terrorist incidents in 2005 subways and in the subway stations. And there was a real fear that the backlash against, you know, the Muslim community in Britain would be terrible. And actually there wasn't a backlash because we had put in at the top some real effort across the faiths. And there was a feeling in Britain, I think people sense this, that we work very closely together.
But once that had happened, we realised that we had to take this down to street level and really get the local communities to work on it. And so we've worked on it. And together with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the head of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Archbishop Vincent, there course we do this with the other faiths and we lead from the front on this.
You know, there there's an irony in the fact that your your theology has been so embraced and welcomed by other religious leaders and more controversial in your own tradition. And yet I think that's a very common irony of the twenty first century alongside all of these other things. We're saying there's a sense in which on some levels, interfaith encounter is easier. Yeah, of course, that you know, that a lot of I'm speaking for the United States. A lot of the most bitter divisions are within denominations.
Right? Not just within Christianity writ large, but within the Presbyterian church, within the Southern Baptist Church. There are and there are Jewish corollaries to that. And we know that phenomenon. How does that go to guy goes?
Because only the most intense arguments are in the family. Right? You know that. And you know why it is? Because if you have an argument with. Stranger, the stranger can walk and therefore they never really get to that level of intensity if you don't want the stranger to war. But within the family, you're going to have the worst possible round with your brother or sister. And tomorrow and the day after, they'll still be your brother and sister.
So you can have a really bad ride without really threatening the relationship. And I assume that the human propensity to have arguments always fills the available space. So you have more space for it with those close to you. And yes, within the Jewish community, those arguments between orthodox conservative reform and secular Jews have an unusual intensity. So here is the way we resolve these arguments eventually and Anglo Jewry. And I think there will probably work. Well, they certainly would work for Jews anywhere in the world if people were minded to.
And what I say is this on all matters that affect us as Jews, regardless of our religious differences, we will work together regardless of our religious differences on all matters that touch on our religious differences. We will agree to differ. But with respect, so we all work together on interfaith fighting, anti-Semitism, on Israel, on welfare, Holocaust Memorial and so on. We work together across the denominations and there's certain things on which we recognize that we cannot work together.
But it is those areas where we do work together that allow us to build up a real personal friendship. And so I think what we've created in British Jewry is is pretty workable. And it takes all the steam and the passion out of things that took years to get right. But eventually it does work.
I mean, you've compared the beginning of the 21st century to the beginning of the 17th century Europe in terms of religion.
But I also think this is one of these remarkable moments where it's not it's not just religious change, it's change.
We are redefining challenge institutions, the definition of what it means to be human. So a lot of the most difficult rifts within US religious traditions have to do with moral issues. And I'd like to I think you've said some really and you've written some very interesting things about that that I just like to dig into. So you've said that the 20th century saw the collapse of moral language. Yeah. So in fact, even as we are forced to take up these very difficult, intimate conversations, I think that's an interesting observation.
We don't have as rich and complex a vocabulary as we need to say some more about that. What what happened to that moral language?
And well, you know, there were all these attempts to find a scientific basis for morality, and they gave rise to all sorts of theories like Carns idea that it's moral if you are willing to prescribe for everyone what you prescribe for yourself or Bentham had this utilitarian approach. What's right is what brings about the greatest happiness for the greatest number. And there were a lot of these quasi scientific or logical systems, and none of them worked, or rather they all worked for some cases, not for others.
And it turned out to be a lot more complicated than people thought. And people were arriving at real intractable moral disagreements. They finally said, well, in that case, they can't really be any moral truth out there or any single moral truth. So really, when I say this is good or this is right, I'm really just saying I like it. And that is when we move to moral relativism. Now, moral relativism seems to be the most tolerant form of morality.
You do what you want to do and I will do what I want to do. However, it actually leads to enormous intolerance because if there is no objective standard of morality, how am I going to show I'm right? And when that happens, it is the loudest, angriest, rudest voice that wins. And if you have noticed among atheists, for instance, some very angry, rude voice. Yes, stridency is both. Absolutely.
And they are the ones who accuse religion of being intolerant. Huh. So moral relativism is really bad. And today you'll find morality under the bookshelves. Inspirational self-help, you know, how do I meet my personal life goals and so on and all of a sudden morality. Has been all about me. There's something superficial about a lot of it. I mean, there's this great phrase, actually. This was someone else quoting you. You'd spoken of the devastation of our rainforests, of moral language.
Yeah. You also observed that the liberal democracies of the West have adopted mechanisms that marginalize moral considerations. Yeah, that's an interesting statement to tell me what you see there.
Well, a government nowadays in a liberal democracy will generally refuse to take a moral stand. So government then becomes a matter of management, really the branch of management, rather than enacting a vision that we share of the kind of world we want to create for our grandchildren. So, you know, politics becomes certainly in Europe, it's become very morally neutral. And when a politician in Europe, like Tony Blair used to do this and get criticised for it, a great deal, every time a politician makes a moral speech, you know, they used to call him an evangelist.
He's giving us a sermon, you know, which is a big insult in Britain, which is quite a secular culture. So politicians find it very, very difficult to make a moral statement. And if you dare to say that certain forms of family are better than other forms of family, then that's it. You're in exile for a lifetime.
But, oh, that gets into difficult territory about governments deciding what is moral and good.
Well, yeah, I'm not critical. I think you have these three great sectors in the modern world. One is called the state, one is called the market and the state and the market should not be making moral choices. But then they need to be counterbalanced by this third sector that we call the civil sector, the sector where we live as families, as communities, as friends, as members of a religious congregation, where we really do form relationships with people that are driven by clearly moral principles, by a sense of duty, responsibility, integrity, fairness, being there for others.
Now, those areas, if those areas are strong, then a politician will not do something that's immoral and a business person will want not just what's best for him, but best for his employees, best for his customers, best for the community in which his business is set. So you need a very strong third sector. And I think the real work that we have to put in is strengthening that civil society.
And it does that come back to you, to this complicated notion of this dance between what is particular and what is universal. I mean, you know, you you said that the Bible argues that universalism is the first step, not the last step in the growth of moral imagination. We talked about this a minute ago. But but but that draw that idea out for me.
Look, you have the you have, for instance, the state. We are going to be pretty universal here because it's not going to help you very much if everyone is a moral relativist in terms of what side is going to drive his car, you know, I mean, OK, with me, we need a set of rules that everyone is going to follow. If we are to have a law governed society, the state is pretty universal. The market, you know, is pretty universal.
I cannot charge you a high price for a good because I think you can afford it. And, you know, I mean, you know, there are mechanisms there that make the relationship between buyer and seller not a particular one. That's called insider dealing if we try and do that. So the state and the market are areas where we kind of enter as universal human beings.
But it's the civil sector where I go to the local synagogue, but my neighbours are Christian and the people over the road are sick and, you know, there and the Hindus are celebrating Diwali and we go in and we enjoy it with them and we're celebrating Tabernacles and we invite them to come into our little booth, a little hut for our little sucker for for Tabernacles. And that is the area of plurality where we have many systems of meaning. And that is where I think we learn to get on with one another.
But I think you're also saying and this is a bit counterintuitive, let's say in American culture in the last century, that the most vibrant. Contribution to that plurality to civil society, in fact, is having a vital, strong particular identity. Yeah, that that that that in fact, of course, it depends on how it's expressed, but that that, in fact, is the best hope for.
It for the sake of universal, what is universal? Yeah, I mean, listen, I can't say honestly at my extreme age that I am seriously into rap music, but there's a Jewish Hassidic rap singer called Matisyahu.
You've come across him and he's not he's a he's a very Orthodox Jew with a big hat and his fringes hanging out. And he's got millions of young fans, most of whom aren't Jewish. Now, you can't get more particularistic Jewish than Matisyahu. He's so Jewish and everyone can relate to them, him Jewish or non Jewish, because, you know.
You know. Well, that's that's a distinctive voice. Um, and I think that's, for instance, why people relate to the Dalai Lama, because he's different from us.
You know, when I really when you really reach the very depth of particularity, when an Indian novelist is writing, you know, that is where all of us can relate to him. And that's the big part. It's a gift. It's a gift. It's a gift. You know, and I don't know why it is, but, you know, it's it's it's just, you know, and Isaiah comes along and he delivers his prophecies. So particular to that faith, that place that time.
And yet I call Isaiah the poet laureate of hope.
And you you know, at the height of of Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech, the very idea that he is quoting verbatim, two lines from Isaiah, Chapter 40, the King James translation. I can't remember it. I don't know so well in English. But, you know, I have a dream that one day every valley will be and every mountain laid out, all flesh will see it together. You know, I doubt whether Isaiah, 27 centuries ago in the Middle East could envisage that one day, you know, black civil rights activists will be moved by his words.
But it's the particularity of Isaiah that spoke to a Martin Luther King. It is. That's how we are as a people. You know, I don't know why it is how it is, but it's the authentic, the unique, the different that makes us feel enriched when we encounter it. And it's this bland, plastic, synthetic, universal, can't tell one brand of coffee from another brand of coffee that makes life flat, uninteresting and essentially uncreative.
So I wonder, is this one reason that so much of religious revival tends to happen at the conservative end of the spectrum?
At the orthodox end of the spectrum, yeah, because that's where these ideas are cultivated. That is where the flame burns at its most intense.
So talk to me about as an Orthodox Jew, as chief rabbi, you know, talk to me about some particularities, some specific virtues, teachings.
I mean, you've been getting at some of this you that you honor and that are at the heart of your faith that that you think are particularly important and relevant to offering up to our common life in the 21st century. Look, the two very famous Jewish festivals, Passover and Tabernacles, it seems to me, you know, people can really relate to those Passover where we meet as families. This is a very important service that takes place not in the synagogue, but at home.
We tell the story of how our ancestors were slaves. But we don't just tell this story. We reenacted we eat the bread of affliction. We taste the bitter herbs of slavery. We drink four cups of the wine of freedom. And we hand that story on to our children. And the story begins with questions asked by the youngest child around the table. Hmm. Now, you know, I would have thought that story, while I know that story speaks to Christians when they attend or they conduct a Seder service that is a universal that is speaks to anyone who knows what it is to be a slave or who needs to know what it feels like to be a slave so that they can be active in fighting the cause of people who are oppressed.
And that is another example of that story that, in fact, has been. Yeah, and it's had a particular impact on American history, but it also inspired liberation theologians in South America. And to some extent, Nelson Mandela is echoing the phrase when he calls his autobiography The Long Walk to Freedom. I mean, you know, that's an tabernacles to me, is is such a festival for the 21st century, and that won't be as familiar to many people.
So that is when we recall the 40 year journey through the wilderness when the Israelites had no homes that were just essentially like Bedouin, they were living in tents or shacks. So for seven days, we leave the comfort of home. We build that shack with only leaves for a roof. And so we're exposed to this heat by day, in the cold by night. And we just understand for seven days what it is to be homeless and how many of us, you know, in the West know what it feels like to be homeless.
But we need to feel what it's like to be homeless because there are a billion people on the face of this planet who are pretty near as it gets to being homeless. So I think those speak with enormous power. And you see why, because they're not abstract ideas that you can deliver and lecture and expect everyone to understand. They are as concrete and specific as you get. And I think every religion has specifics like that.
Rituals, narratives, one one interfaith occasion we did years and years and years ago with African bishops. It was Orthodox rabbis and African bishops. And we did a lot of interfaith theology and we talked about all the stuff we had in common. And it was wonderful and very boring.
And I was thinking, you know, let's let's let's, you know, let's break through. So in the end, at the last last night, I said, let's just sit around a table and have some food and drink, and we are going to teach you our songs and our stories. And you were going to teach us your songs and your stories. And we went on until three or four in the morning. And I think we could have made world peace then.
And you didn't take that, did you? I wish I had. I did many years ago.
So we would put it on the radio. I remember having a conversation with a scholar who was actually Jewish.
She is the head of the Annenberg Chair for Religion at the Knight School of Journalism at the University of Southern California. And we talked about television. Yeah, talked about how there's kind of a renaissance of intelligent television in the United States right now. And she talked about how this is fulfilling this basic human need we have for stories that, in fact, a lot of good storytelling is going to happen when I don't know if it ever has before it's happening on television.
But she also talked about the Passover story as an example of this incredibly low tech story, but that it's power, that the proof is in the fact that it is has survived and flourished. And it is also a wonderful example of the power of a story.
And it receives a different it receives a different meaning in every generation. And so to think rituals. For instance, you know, in the days of Moses, the Sabbath was a way of giving liberty to slaves. Hmm.
But now think of what you and I are slaves to liberty from iPhones, iPhones or Blackberries.
I don't wish to be critical to any particular manufacturer.
So for 25 hours, you cannot get an email. Is that not liberty? So it's humanizing. It's you know, it's it's just giving you space for the things that are important but not urgent. So any real religious ritual is not just an abstract idea will receive new meanings with every passing age. You've made a statement that I love. I think it's audacious, the greatest single antidote to violence is conversation, speaking our fears, listening to the fears of others, and in that sharing vulnerabilities, in that sharing of vulnerabilities, discovering a genesis of hope.
Now, as someone who conducts conversation for a living. I love that statement. I wonder how you know that to be true. That the antidote to violence is conversation. Well, look, we've had. We have in Judaism this, you know, your listeners may find this hard to understand, especially in a religion where I'm promoting marriage and the family, we have a problem in Jewish religious divorce for reasons we need and go into a husband can withhold a divorce from a wife so that they may be civilly divorced and living apart.
But the wife is unable to to remarry. And she's really a living widow. We called a changed woman and I have to resolve those things. And in the end, the way we resolve them, the really hard cases is actually just by listening. And that listening gives each of the two parties the feeling that they are hard and once they're hard, they can then begin to speak what they really feel and then they can begin to realize that there are things they still care about in common, not perhaps enough to save their marriage, but certainly enough to remove the animosity from their divorce.
And it's extraordinary how a simple act of sitting around a table and speaking and listening can actually solve cases that prove insoluble both by the civil and the religious courts, likewise, in real conflict zones. You know, I've sat and spoke, talked to, you know, people who used to be Hamas terrorists, really, and have become peace activists just because they saw, you know, how how how much of a dead end they were getting themselves into.
And I just see so much effort at peacemaking taking place at the very elite levels where, you know, egos can be rather larger than they need be. And nobody really is willing to lose for the sake of long term winning for both of us. And sometimes I think what would happen if we generated real conversations at the grassroots level between the people whose lives are really affected. One of the most powerful groups for peace in the Middle East is a group of Israeli parents and Palestinian parents who've lost children.
Yeah, we've had a show about the bereaved families grieve. Yes, right. So that's that level of civil society where there's a different conversation taking place that is transformative. It doesn't yet transform that elite level. But do you see that as a possibility in Israel or in Syria?
It's known generically as trying to diplomacy. You you get various tracks taking place that feed into the political process. What has made them impotent up to and including now is that they don't mess with the system. They aren't trying to diplomacy. So they are great and they get nowhere because the politicians don't listen. They don't have to listen. We have not yet found a way of measuring the political society with the civil society. And that's a big challenge. It's doable.
But you are bringing two very different cultures together, one that is used to solving problems through power and one that knows that power is the worst possible thing you can bring to bear. So how you bring those two cultures together, I don't know. But you will have to in the long run. If you want to make peace, it's not going to remain optional.
I mean, there are all kinds of examples of it's true in American political life. I just this brought to mind a really striking exchange. I was present at the Bill Clinton. President Clinton has something called the Clinton Global Initiative, and he had convened a gathering there. Shimon Peres was presenting. Ehud Barak was present, I believe he wasn't on the panel, the prime minister Abbas as prime minister and the crown prince of Bahrain. But Shimon Peres said something.
He's in his 80s now that was so striking to me. The premise of this conversation was a peace agreement has been reached. What happens the day after? So we were talking about that. They were talking about the day after that. Shimon Peres, who apparently spends a lot of time with his grandchildren, asking them to tell him how they see the world, said if we can reach this agreement, the young people are already connected. The younger they are, the more connected.
And that is also ultimately I mean, it's all it has the tool for that is technology. But it is about conversation. Right.
And it's about it is about conversation. And I think you is absolutely right. The real conflicts arise when our minds are focused on the past. We bring to bear a sense of grievance, injustice, victimhood, and we are then held captive by the past. If we could get Israelis and Palestinians to think simply. What would be best for their grandchildren?
We would move into a new frame of thinking, and yet I think what's so powerful about the Bereaved Families Forum is that you don't get to that vision for the future without without putting those not just those grievances, but that grief on the table. And it is the power of listening and of speaking one's truth and of one's experience being known that grief has to be heard. Yeah, it has to be heard by the other side. One of the most powerful rituals, it's astonishingly powerful, is in the Passover service when we read the Ten Plagues.
And it's our custom the 10 plagues, the 10 plagues that hit Egypt and we recite them. That's a different story from my blood, frogs, et cetera.
And with each one we shed, we spill a drop of wine. We shed a tear. Right. We shed a tear because for a moment we allow ourselves to think of the victims of our victories, the pain of the other side who were enslaving us. But they were still human and they were still suffering. It's when you can feel your opponent's pain that you're beginning the path that leads to reconciliation. Very good description. Oh, OK, just we just have a couple more minutes.
We will finish it for. Technology. Ready? OK. I've never seen a camera without a camera before. It's very interesting that one without somebody behind it, but the BBC doesn't do things this way. It's a very clever way. I don't know anything about it. I'm clueless, low tech.
We did a program about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel living with Arnold Eisen, who's the chancellor Jewish Theological Seminary. That was really wonderful to get into that. I don't think Heschel is as well known as he should be. OK, um, you know, I think that this institution, this office that you hold, the chief rabbi, is probably a probably new idea to many Americans. And it's an unusual institution which started, as I understand, in the 19th century Victorian Britain.
I just want to ask you, you know, tell me what have been some of the formative, perhaps surprising defining experiences you've had in these 19 years in this completely unique office?
We've seen a real transformation of the British Jewish community. We now have something like three times as many Jewish children going to Jewish schools as they did before I became chief rabbi. That's an enormous transformation. And in one lifetime, we've seen a cultural renaissance. It used to be a little bit staid. Now it's one of the most creative communities. And that really, I think, thrilled me because I did realize that one of the best forms of leadership is to make space for people to be creative, to give them safe space.
And that's led to a real renewal of Jewish life.
And how how has this experience and how have other experiences in this office? How have they changed you and your theology? You know, it's it's it's actually made me relax, really.
You know, I suddenly realized that are in real public office moments of stress that is so great that they kind of strip away all the surfaces and you get to bedrock of character and then you suddenly realize that it's not about you and it's not about popularity. It's about them and it's about God. And it's about, you know, your job is just to make it safe for people to experiment, to love, to forgive, to pray, to give.
And I think that's something you have to be going through a lot of battering to achieve. You know, no pain, no gain, I think is a Jewish sentiment, just as it is a Christian one. And I think you go through those years of challenge and trial and then you realize that, you know, the highest form of leadership is empowering others to lead.
Mm hmm. There's a a line of yours. I don't know if it's true to say that it's a famous line, but it feels kind of famous to me. And it might also please you. I think I first heard it in the quoted by a young Muslim interfaith leader, um, that when you compared the beginning of the twenty first century in terms of religious dynamics to Europe at the beginning of the 17th century, and this was in the dignity of difference.
And you said, but religion is not what the Enlightenment thought it would become mute, marginal and mild. It is fire and like fire, it warms, but it also burns. And we are the guardians of the flame. I think you've just described to me part of your function as a guardian of the flame. But I wonder also in closing, if you would talk to me about how what you see when you look at the world in terms of seeds, of a deeper moral and spiritual imagination emanating from your tradition and other traditions, where are you finding hope?
I think God is setting us a big challenge, a really big challenge. We are living so close to difference with such powers of destruction that he's really giving us very little choice. You know, to quote that great line from W.H. Auden, We must love one another or die. And that is, I think, where we're at at the beginning of the 21st century. And since we really can love one another. I have a great deal of hope.
You know, here it is a glorious world where we have mastered all the mysteries or as many as more than we ever thought we would have nature. But we have not yet conquered the mystery within ourselves. And that is the challenge God is sending us. And I believe that you can begin to see religious leaders coming together in a way they never did before with an openness to one another and they never had before. And somehow or other, the bigger the challenge, the greater we grow.
So I am full of hope. As we face the greatest challenge humanity ever has. Well, Rabbi Sacks, thank you so much for sitting down with me. Thank you.