The Column | Judaism’s message of radical hope

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Judaism and the Jewish people are credited with myriad achievements: bringing monotheism to the world, codifying moral behavior, outlasting those who would destroy us — to name but a few.

Here’s another, which I heard articulated last week by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Kingdom: Judaism as the voice of hope in history.

Not the voice of reason, or the voice of law, or even the prophetic voice of social justice, which is the role American Judaism has assumed this past century. Judaism’s fundamental contribution to society, according to Sacks, is replacing the classical world’s tragic view of history — “life in thrall to a Fate that doesn’t care at best and is hostile at worst” — with a worldview based on freedom, the belief in progress and the certainty that life has meaning.

Sacks, who has held his august post as the titular head of British Jewry for the past two decades, was in the Bay Area Nov. 26 at the invitation of the Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Law, Economy and Society at U.C. Berkeley. I couldn’t make it to his afternoon talk at the JCC of San Francisco, which was about the relationship between faith and science (the subject of his latest book, “The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning”). But I had the privilege of hearing his brilliant lecture that evening in Berkeley, one I left feeling both exhausted and energized — plus, the guy tells a mean Wittgenstein joke. (It involves a train.)

At the risk of oversimplifying his highly sophisticated and erudite argument, let me try to outline the gist. Sacks described the “revolution” of Abrahamic monotheism as, primarily, replacing the pagan world’s pantheons of humanoid gods and goddesses who ruled according to their whims with one God who “created the universe in love and forgiveness, so that we would love and forgive each other.” He posited the Jewish ethic of will and choice against what came before — the Greek ethic of character and fate. Western civilization, he said, is a combination of the two.

And the Hebrew Bible? Not a collection of morality tales emphasizing divine retribution and reward, but “the principled defeat of tragedy in the name of hope.” It is future-oriented, not cyclical. When Moses asks God’s name, God responds in active terms — ehiyeh sh’ehiyeh, I will be what I will be. This Hebrew God is in a constant state of becoming, along with the rest of the universe. And being in such a state confers upon God and, by extension, upon us, a radical freedom.

No one can know the future because it is not predetermined, Sacks continued. We are free, in God’ s image, to create the future, which must necessarily tend toward the good — because that is how God has created us.

Then Sacks said something I know I will repeat often: “Judaism is humanity’s faith in the future tense; the Jewish voice is the voice of an inextinguishable hope.”

That is a powerful statement. It is also a burden, for it demands effort, great effort. Hope, he said, is not the same as optimism, which he defined as “the naive belief that things will get better.” Given Jewish history, he pointed out, optimism is something Jews would be foolish to espouse. It is passive and accepting, whereas “hope requires us to work together to make things better.”

This is an approach anyone can embrace, whether or not one accepts the rest of Sacks’ particular Modern Orthodox theology.

Sacks has taken a lot of criticism over the years from a British Jewish community that is increasingly diverse in its politics and religious practice. In 1996, he was roundly criticized by liberal Jews for refusing to attend the funeral of British Reform Rabbi Hugo Gryn, and then equally lambasted by haredi Jews when he showed up at a memorial convening for the man. Similarly, haredi leaders came out against his 2002 book “The Dignity of Difference,” saying it suggested Judaism did not have a monopoly on the truth; liberals raked him over the coals for modifying his stance in a later edition.

You know what? I don’t care. I don’t live in Britain and, thank goodness, am not beholden to any chief rabbi. I therefore have the luxury of listening to Rabbi Sacks simply as a fellow Jew — and I thank him for the wisdom he imparts.


Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].