Book review: “To Heal a Fractured World” by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

This book felt like it came out of nowhere like a revelation. I first encountered the name Rabbi Sacks in a blog post on By Common Consent or Times and Seasons, I forget which, with a quote that caught me off guard with its profundity:

“DO YOU believe,” the disciple asked the rabbi, “that God created everything for a purpose?”

“I do,” replied the rabbi.

“Well,” asked the disciple, “why did God create atheists?”

The rabbi paused before giving an answer, and when he spoke his voice was soft and intense. “Sometimes we who believe, believe too much. We see the cruelty, the suffering, the injustice in the world and we say: ‘This is the will of God.’ We accept what we should not accept. That is when God sends us atheists to remind us that what passes for religion is not always religion. Sometimes what we accept in the name of God is what we should be fighting against in the name of God.”

I think Rabbi Sacks was paraphrasing something else, but I looked up his Goodreads profile and added a few books of his to read later. To Heal a Fractured World happened to be the first I had time to read.


I have had the profound joy of discovering the depth of the Jewish faith from another earlier author, Abraham Heschel. I have read his The Prophets and God in Search of Man. As a Latter-Day Saint, I grew up with a respect for the Jewish faith as fellow believers, but I feel like there was always a tainted assumption that they were the inheritors of the tradition of the Pharisees: snobbish in their religion, stuck in limits imposed by a religion of ritual, limiting the number of steps you can walk on the Sabbath. But the Book of Mormon seems to promise that, not to worry, one day they will recognize Christ as the Savior. In other words: I had a serious problem. I had painted a caricature of the Jewish faith, that I feel is, to some extent, still very widespread. Rabbi Sacks points this out in a chapter of his book:

One of the cruellest misrepresentations of Judaism is the claim that it is not a religion of love – despite the fact that the two great commands of love, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might’ (Deut. 6:5) and ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Lev. 19:18), both come from the Mosaic books. Judaism is a faith suffused with love, but infinitely transcending man’s love of God is God’s love of humankind.

After reading Rabbi Sacks, I increasingly find that Judaism already contains most of everything I value in my Christian faith, and more, it contains many things for which I have holy envy, to use Krister Stendahl’s term. I will try to write about only a few of those gems here, and leave the rest for you to find yourself.

A Faith of Protest

Rabbi Sacks begins his book with a challenge to Nietzsche’s assertion that religion is “the opium of the masses.” Religion is meant to be an appeasement to help the poor and unfortunate deal with their suffering and accept the status quo. To the contrary, says Rabbi Sacks, faith is a protest, a protest to God about why there is suffering in the world:

Judaism is not a religion that reconciles us to the world. It was born as an act of defiance against the great empires of the ancient world, Mesopotamia and Egypt, which did what he accused all religions of doing – sanctifying hierarchy, justifying the rule of the strong over the weak, glorifying kings and pharaohs and keeping the masses in place. In the Bible God removes the chains of slavery from his people; he does not impose them. The religion of Israel emerged out of the most paradigm-shifting experience of the ancient world: that the supreme power intervened in history to liberate the powerless. It was in and as the voice of social protest that the biblical imagination took shape.

Certainly, there is a type of faith that does teach us to be accepting of suffering, and I also think, to some extent, this is necessary. Not to accept suffering, but to be able to go on despite it: how we respond. And that leads to the next point: an ethics of responsibility.


The central idea of Rabbi Sack’s book is that we become responsible. In this sense, I felt a connection between some of the ideas of the 20th century existentialist philosophers and Rabbi Sacks’ ethics of responsibility. From The Existentialist Cafe:

Existentialists concern themselves with individual, concrete human existence.

They consider human existence different from the kind of being of other things have. Other entities are what they are, but as a human I am whatever I choose to make of myself at every moment. I am free

and therefore I’m responsible for everything I do, a dizzying fact with causes

an anxiety inseparable from human existence itself.

But Rabbi Sack’s responsibility has a different flavor. It removes a lot of the angsty-ness of it all. I can’t quite describe how, because all the suffering in the world is still there. Perhaps the best word is hope? Faith is built on hope, and that will always be there.

I liked how Sacks develops an ever-increasing circle of responsibility from the first 11 chapters of Genesis:

The first eleven chapters of Genesis are not a mere series of historical narratives. They are a highly structured exploration of responsibility. They begin with two stories about individuals, Adam and Eve, then Cain, followed by two stories about societies, the generation of the Flood and the builders of Babel. The first and last – the tree of knowledge, the tower – are about the failure to honour boundaries: between permitted and forbidden, heaven and earth. The inner two are about violence, individual then collective. They constitute a developmental psychology of the moral sense. First we discover personal responsibility, our freedom to choose. Then we acquire moral responsibility, the knowledge that choice has limits; not everything we can do, may we do. Later we learn collective responsibility: we are part of a family, a community and society and we have a share in its innocence or guilt. Later still, we realize that society itself is subject to a higher law: there are moral limits to power.

Social justice

While Rabbi Sacks doesn’t make any political points here, he does at one point mention the idea of social justice as an essential element of the collective religious life, as built into the Hebrew word for righteousness:

The word tzedakah is untranslatable because it joins together two concepts that in other languages are opposites, namely charity and justice. Suppose, for example, that I give someone £100. Either he is entitled to it, or he is not. If he is, then my act is a form of justice. If he is not, it is an act of charity. In English (as with the Latin terms caritas and iustitia) a gesture of charity cannot be an act of justice, nor can an act of justice be described as charity. Tzedakah means both.

It arises from Judaism’s theological insistence on the difference between possession and ownership. Ultimately, all things are owned by God, creator of the world. What we possess, we do not own – we merely hold it in trust for God. The clearest statement of this is the provision in Leviticus: ‘The land must not be sold permanently because the land is Mine; you are merely strangers and temporary residents in relation to Me.’ If there were absolute ownership, there would be a difference between justice (what we are bound to give others) and charity (what we give others out of generosity). The former would be a legally enforceable duty, the latter, at best, the prompting of benevolence or sympathy. In Judaism, because we are not owners of our property but guardians on God’s behalf, we are bound by the conditions of trusteeship, one of which is that we share part of what we have with others in need. What would be regarded as charity in other legal systems is, in Judaism, a strict requirement of the law and can, if necessary, be enforced by the courts.

The nearest English equivalent to tzedakah is the phrase that came into existence alongside the idea of a welfare state, namely social justice (Friedrich Hayek regarded the concept of social justice as incoherent and self-contradictory). Behind both is the idea that no one should be without the basic requirements of existence, and that those who have more than they need must share some of that surplus with those who have less. This is fundamental to the kind of society the Israelites were charged with creating, namely one in which everyone has a basic right to a dignified life and equal worth as citizens in the covenantal community under the sovereignty of God.

I had to check myself for a minute, because I have read Hayek, and I have a knee-jerk reaction when anyone mentions social justice. It has been used to justify a lot of bad social programs. But after reading Sack’s book, I feel like I am not doing nearly as much as I should be in terms of caring for my neighbor. Sacks doesn’t argue for social programs, but for a taking on a mantle of responsibility for my neighbor. Latter-Day Saints too are committed to such a vision, covenanting to keep the law of consecration. But we seem to have absolved ourselves of any feeling of bringing this to pass in our lifetime. In Joseph Smith’s day, the natural man was just too strong, and only in a society composed of the strongest of saints could such a society succeed. Sacks says this is wrong. You begin doing good in your own circle now, and that good will spread and grow. You are your brother’s keeper.

My sons have defeated me

Another element of Judaism that I feel we Christians could use is the element of dispute– even with God. I first found out this in Peter Enn’s book The Bible Tells Me So where he also expresses some holy envy for Judaism:

Even more so, the history of Judaism is a lively tradition of wrestling openly with scripture and coming to diverse conclusions about how to handle it. More so than the Christian tradition, Judaism embraces debate as a vital part of its faith. Disagreements are preserved (not silenced or marginalized) in official core texts of Judaism, like the Talmud and medieval commentaries on the Bible. Opposing opinions sit side by side as monuments to this wrestling match with scripture—and with God.

Sack’s takes as his prime example the story of Abraham, who confronted God’s justice in destroying Sodom and Gomorrah:

To be a father – implies the Bible – is to teach a child to question, challenge, confront, dispute. God invites Abraham to do these things because he wants him to be the parent of a nation that will do these things. He does not want the people of the covenant to be one that accepts the evils and injustices of the world as the will of God.

I love this, because it seems so foreign to our own faith. Sure, we are encouraged to seek out revelation– Elder Eyring just talked to us in Seattle that we should seek out confirming revelation for everything the prophets and apostles teach. But the underlying assumption is, as a fellow Twitter-er pointed out, is that confirming revelation will always adhere to what the prophets have said: if you get a different answer, it’s probably Satan trying to get you, so pray harder. I don’t think this is so. I disagree with Elder Oaks who said “There is no loyal opposition.” I think there is, and there should be. I like what Jonathan Haidt says about the role of what he called “institutional disconfirmation”:

Each professor is—like all human beings—a flawed thinker with a strong preference for believing that his or her own ideas are right. Each scholar suffers from the confirmation bias—the tendency to search vigorously for evidence that confirms what one already believes.36 One of the most brilliant features of universities is that, when they are working properly, they are communities of scholars who cancel out one another’s confirmation biases. Even if professors often cannot see the flaws in their own arguments, other professors and students do them the favor of finding such flaws. The community of scholars then judges which ideas survive the debate. We can call this process institutionalized disconfirmation. The institution (the academy as a whole, or a discipline, such as political science) guarantees that every statement offered as a research finding—and certainly every peer-reviewed article—has survived a process of challenge and vetting. That is no guarantee that it is true, but it is a reason to think that the statement is likely to be more reliable than alternative statements made by partisan think tanks, corporate marketers, or your opinionated uncle. It is only because of institutionalized disconfirmation that universities and groups of scholars can claim some authority to be arbiters of factual questions, such as whether certain vaccines caused the rise in autism (they didn’t)37 or whether social programs designed to help poor children close achievement gaps with wealthier kids actually work (some do, some don’t).

I believe this can just as strongly happen in a church. I think we as church members have a responsibility to try to make the Church a better place. I loved this well-selected quote from the works of G. K. Chesterton in a sacrament meeting talk shared on LDS Brothers about loving the church means seeking to make it better:

“Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing — say [the church]. If we think what is really best for [the church] we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of [the church]: in that case he will merely cut his throat or [leave]. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of [the church]: for then it will remain [as it is], which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love [the church]: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved [the church], then [the church] would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; [the church] would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved [the church] as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, [the church] in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.”

So, to tie this back to Rabbi Sack’s book. He uses a story that I find absolutely profound: the rabbis were able to overrule the very voice of God: and God approved:

Most famous of the Talmudic episodes is the one in which, in the course of an argument with his fellow sages, R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus invokes the authority of heaven, which endorses his view (‘A heavenly voice was heard, saying, Why do you dispute the view of R. Eliezer, seeing that the law is always in accord with his opinion?’). At this, R. Joshua, one of the disputants, ‘stood up and protested, It is not in heaven [Deut. 30:12]’, meaning: we pay no attention to a divine voice, because at Mount Sinai, God himself had declared, After the majority must one incline [Ex. 23:2]. The sages outvoted R. Eliezer despite the fact that he had been supported by heaven itself. The denouement comes when Rabbi Nathan meets the prophet Elijah – seen by the sages as an intermediary between heaven and earth – and asks him what God said at the moment when the heavenly voice was outvoted: ‘ELIJAH: He laughed [with joy] and said, “My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.”’

I think there are things that need to change in the Church. I think we worry too much about how things are supposed to be, that we are willing to sacrifice the needs of individuals to doctrinal purity. This is dangerous. We need both conservative and progressive elements in the Church, so let us value both.

Noahidic covenant and law

The final thing I wanted to comment on for which I have holy envy is the perceived relationship Jews have with those outside of their faith, the Gentiles. Jews believe in two covenants: the one made with Abraham that applies to the Jewish people making them a holy nation, and the covenant made with Noah that applies to all men. In essence, Jews leave room in heaven for those outside of their faith. I find this deeply profound, and it leaves room to respect those outside of their faith without having any need to feel some kind of spiritual condescension.

Theoretically, Latter-Day Saints have something like this too: we have a form of universalism that all will be admitted to a kingdom of glory. But this doesn’t stop us from feeling like we are somehow better. We constantly assert that we are “the one truth Church.” I had a friend who left the Church because he couldn’t reconcile himself to this belief. I remember on my mission, our ward was invited to participate in an ecumenical communion, where different congregations would share the sacrament. Our ward turned down the effort, because everyone knows that only those who have true priesthood authority can bless the sacrament. I felt like despite that, we should have found a way to have interacted and responded positively to that invitation. I think we are lacking something here that Judaism has and that we should seek to recover.

I am deeply impressed by the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and I think this book will truly help us heal a fractured world. May we take the invitation to be responsible, to be our brothers keeper.

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