What Jonathan Sacks Saw in America

Meir Soloveichik's tribute to the late chief rabbi and his legacy, in America and Europe.

In the 1830s, a French aristocrat named Alexis de Tocqueville authored Democracy in America. He wrote this book for his own countrymen, to help them understand that curious experiment in democracy unfurling across the ocean. Of course, the work has proven to be an inexhaustible source of instruction not only for his intended French audience, but for America itself. In our times, Lord Jonathan Sacks, a British peer and former chief rabbi of the Commonwealth, authored The Home We Build Together, which like Democracy in America, is a tribute to the United States. He further reflected on the unique nature of American society in many other works, including in his commentary on the Haggadah—the liturgy that orchestrates the ceremonial Passover meal—and in many of his reflections on the parashah, the weekly portion of Torah that Jewish communities study all over the world. Not since Tocqueville has a foreigner seen the United States with such clear eyes, and written about it in such an insightful way. These writings have greatly impacted me, as a Jew and as an American; and as the Jewish people marked the shiva and shloshim, the traditional seven- and thirty-day periods of mourning for Rabbi Sacks, it was in these writings that I found myself especially moved to appreciate his significance. The British peer and rabbi imparted to me the meaning of America.

Speaking to my community, America’s oldest congregation, in the week following his death, I noted that Sacks’s shiva coincided with the 400th anniversary of the event in which he located the beginning of the American story. On November 11, 1620, the newest arrivals to Massachusetts Bay affixed their names to the Mayflower compact, in which they pledged “solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another” to “covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick.” For Sacks, this moment marked America as unique. The settlements that would one day become the United States were inspired at the moment of their very birth by the Hebrew Bible, and therefore would forever be, in their very makeup, different from other nations around the world. He wrote:

American society is different because from the Pilgrim Fathers onward it was based on the concept of covenant as set out in Tanakh, especially in Exodus and Deuteronomy. The early settlers were Puritans, in the Calvinist tradition, the closest Christianity came to basing its politics on the Hebrew Bible. Covenantal societies always represent a conscious new beginning by a group of people dedicated to an ideal.

A covenant is a political compact that is about more than self-interest; it is done in dedication to an ideal, binding the parties together in the presence of God. The institution of a covenant entered America with the Pilgrims, and continued in the days of Puritans, who were so inspired by the Bible’s ideas that they not only adopted its political forms, but even named their children and their towns with words from the text.

Rabbi Sacks did not think—and of course, it isn’t historically the case—that the arrival of the Pilgrims marked the founding of America. But like Tocqueville before him, Sacks saw that the ideals at the heart of American political culture could all be traced back to these covenantal origins. Commenting on a passage in Deuteronomy, the most political book in the Torah, Sacks suggested that “what is extraordinary about America is that this deeply theological way of speaking about national purpose did not end (as it did in Britain) with the 17th century.” In the best of American inaugural addresses and civic celebrations, he continued, leaders of the United States spoke of a freedom that was “biblical rather than libertarian: a matter less of rights than responsibilities, not the freedom to do what one likes, but the freedom to do what one ought,” portraying America as “the promised land to which successive generations of immigrants have come to find freedom from oppression and build, in John Winthrop’s famous phrase, ‘a city upon a hill.’” America thereby illustrated that it had learned from the Bible that a society that does not perpetuate its ideals cannot sustain and does not deserve its freedom.

It is for this reason, Rabbi Sacks commented, that Moses commanded the laws pertaining to generational transmission at the very outset of the Exodus, before any other laws more immediately necessary for political order and national survival. To a modern political thinker this may seem strange: one might have thought that Moses, on the cusp of the most important political liberation in the history of the world, would speak to the Israelites about political structures that would govern the newly liberated nation. Instead, he speaks about parents and children: “And thou shalt tell thy son in that day saying: it is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.”

Moses, Sacks argues, “fixed his vision not on the immediate but on the distant future, and not on adults but children. In so doing he was making a fundamental point. It may be hard to escape from tyranny, but it is harder still to build and sustain a free society.” The Jewish people ritualized this wisdom and developed it into the elaborate Passover meal, in which parents transmit to their posterity the story of the origins of national liberty, its ultimate meaning. In so doing, the elder Jewish generation nurses the seedbeds of the younger generation’s freedom. And “civil religion,” Sacks wrote, “has the same relationship to the United States as Passover does to the Jewish people.”

It is first and foremost not a philosophy but a story. It tells of how a persecuted group escaped from the old world and made a hazardous journey to an unknown land, there to construct a new society. . . . It is no accident that the founders of America turned to the Hebrew Bible, or that successive presidents have done likewise, because there is no other text in Western literature that draws [on] these themes. . . . Israel, ancient and modern, and the United States are the two supreme examples of societies constructed in conscious pursuit of an idea.

But Rabbi Sacks did more than admire America: he recommended the covenantal idea to the West at large. In a moving reflection in First Things, Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, described how Rabbi Sacks addressed the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops. He was, Williams remarked, “the first Jewish speaker to be invited to this event.” There, Sacks “spoke precisely about covenant, and transformed the word for us.” The bishops weren’t the only ones to be so moved by Sacks’s wisdom. Tony Blair, Britain’s former prime minister, seemed to me on the brink of tears on the occasion of Rabbi Sacks’s shloshim. Reflecting on his moments studying the Bible with his friend, Blair, a religious man who has since converted to Catholicism, clearly saw Sacks as his rabbi.

I found Blair’s reflection redolent with meaning, as some of Rabbi Sacks’s best reflections on faith and politics emerged from these private study sessions with Blair. At a public conversation at Yeshiva University’s Straus Center, Rabbi Sacks describes how Blair had opined to him, “Jonathan, I’ve come to the boring bit of the Bible.” Sacks replied: which boring bit of the Bible have you reached, Prime Minister? Said Blair, “That stuff about the tabernacle at the end of Exodus. Does go on a bit, doesn’t it?” Indeed it does. After all, as Rabbi Sacks noted, the Almighty brings the entire universe into being in only 34 verses, whereas it takes more than 600 verses to describe the erection of the tabernacle.

What wisdom is to be found in such a baroque description of the Tabernacle? Rabbi Sacks’s immediate answer was pithy and profound: if a difference exists between the brief creation in Genesis and the lengthy construction of Exodus, it is because it is easy, effortless, for the Almighty to create a home for man; it requires extraordinary effort for man to make a home for God. But it was only afterward, he told me, that he began fully to understand what the Tabernacle truly teaches us. The purpose of the Tabernacle, it would seem, is sacrifice and cultic ritual; but if so, then the proper place for its construction to appear would be in Leviticus, where the laws of sacrificial ritual are delineated. If the Tabernacle is described in Exodus, it is because its central lesson is political.

[T]o turn a group of individuals, or diverse tribes, into a nation, they must build something together. It was built out of difference, each a distinctive contribution. Some brought [metals], others jewels, others their skills and time. . . . How do you turn a group of people into a nation? God’s answer was dazzling in its simplicity. You get them voluntarily to create something together. A nation is built by building. . . . The tabernacle represents integration without assimilation. Because we are not the same, we each have something unique to contribute, something only we can give.

The understanding of society that emerges from these passages is, in Rabbi Sacks’s words, “the home we build together,” and the Tabernacle story teaches that we need not deny our differences to join ourselves in covenant as one nation. Biblical Israel is of course unique, but Rabbi Sacks argued that this message could inspire other nations as well.

The question, sacksof course, is how resonant Rabbi Sacks’s message is today. Tony Blair may be a religious man, but as Rabbi Sacks shared, the prime minister’s Bible sessions with the chief rabbi were kept secret because in Europe political leaders know not to speak openly about faith. Indeed, he wryly noted, Tony Blair’s spokesman Alastair Campbell offered a famous reply to the press’s inquiries about the prime minister’s faith: “We don’t do God.” What about the political culture in the United States? To what extent do we still “do God” on these shores?

In the face of the dominant secularism of the West, Rabbi Sacks persisted as a witness to his faith. What kept him going? Rabbi Sacks mentioned to me that he tried to read Tocqueville at least once a year, and I believe that he, the 21st-century Tocqueville, turned to the 19th-century Tocqueville for inspiration and hope. In one of the most famous passages in Democracy in America, the author puzzles over the fact that “philosophers had a very simple explanation for the gradual weakening of beliefs: religious zeal was bound to die down as enlightenment and freedom spread.” In a free America, however, this did not seem to be true. “It is tiresome,” he wrote, “that the facts do not fit this theory at all.”

Tocqueville offered an answer to this conundrum, but Rabbi Sacks put forward a suggestion of his own. Religion survives, according to Sacks, “because it answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?” To be human is to seek meaning, and that is why even modernity has not destroyed faith. The great achievements of the modern age—science, technology, liberal democracy, and the market economy—have given us innumerable benefits, but they do not help us answer these questions. And since these questions nonetheless persist, Sacks wrote, “we will always find ourselves turning to religion.”

In this way, Rabbi Sacks teaches us how, in the face of biblical forgetfulness, not to despair. The Jewish notion of hope, he was wont to remark, is very different from optimism: “Hope is the faith that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope.” As I noted in Commentary, the time may be ripe for a “1620 project,” an attempt to rediscover how Hebraic ideas impacted America. In this endeavor, it is an extraordinary fact that it is the eloquence of a British rabbinic member of the House of Lords that will help us do so.

Reflecting to my community on the life and legacy of Rabbi Sacks on the week in which we marked the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival, I suggested that we ourselves engage in thanksgiving for all Rabbi Sacks has taught us, and prayed that we seek as a society to continue to perpetuate his teachings. We are deeply saddened by the loss of this great teacher, but it is he who would remind us to be also inspired by what he has taught, and to focus on what we can achieve in the future: “Judaism,” he wrote, “is the principled rejection of tragedy in the name of hope.” May his memory be a blessing, as it no doubt will be, so long as we continue to learn from his words.

This essay was originally published in Mosaic.

Meir Soloveichik's tribute to the late chief rabbi and his legacy, in America and Europe.

Meir Soloveichik's tribute to the late chief rabbi and his legacy, in America and Europe.