Book review: “Morality” by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

I was deeply saddened to hear when Rabbi Jonathan passed away this past month. I have reviewed books of his in the past (To Heal a Fractured World and Not in God’s Name) I picked up the last book he wrote Morality to turn a few thoughts to him.

Morality was a very appropriate book given the times, and Rabbi Sacks thought so as well even though he began writing it before the pandemic hit. The main thesis of the book is: morality is a collective endeavor that binds us to one another. There is no liberty without morality, no freedom without responsibility, no viable “I” without the sustaining “We”. The quote itself hits many of the tears in society right on the nose: a pandemic has made painfully clear our responsibility to one another, yet many fight against even the smallest efforts of collective action, all because it seems a loss of freedom.

A title like Morality perhaps raises one’s suspicions: is this going to have a self-righteous tone to it? One sectarian’s opinion of what is moral and what is not? Rabbi Sack’s acknowledges this throughout his book, as he struggles to identify how a diverse society in the 20th century grapples with a need for morality:

The contemporary world has given morality a rough ride. The word itself now evokes all we distrust most: the intrusion of impersonal standards into our private lives, the presence of judgment where judgment does not belong, the substitution of authority for choice. When a politician moralizes, we suspect that he or she is searching for an excuse not to pay for something. When a religious leader moralizes, we fear the imposition of certainties we no longer share, and we suspect that fundamentalism is not far behind. When a particularly newsworthy crime or social trend provokes ethical debate, it will not be long before voices are heard dismissing the conversation as “moral panic.” We have come to share George Bernard Shaw’s conviction that morality is one person’s way of disrupting someone else’s innocent enjoyment, or as H. G. Wells called it, “jealousy with a halo.”

Rabbi Sacks persuasively argues that morality is just as relevant, even needed today, because morality at its essence means collective responsibility. He walks you through 2000+ years of history, philosophy, religion, and science, and isn’t intimidated to engage with authors who either aren’t religious themselves or even antagonistic towards it. I do wish we as Latter-Day Saints were more adept at doing this, as I think we get overly defensive, just saying. There are Latter-Day Saint authors out there who did this well, but they are all pure academics. Lay Latter-Day Saints think you may flirting with apostasy if you quote a non-Latter-Day Saint spiritual leader or philosopher– or perhaps suggest that he’s probably a Latter-Day Saint in the spirit world by now! Sacks isn’t self-conscious about his Judaism, but he is confident that Judaism can shed light on today’s problems. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” I love how he weaves passages from Nietzsche, Rousseau, and Kierkegaard with passages from the Torah and Talmud. I only found one passage where Sacks got a little snarky when addressing Harari’s strong atheist sentiments in Homo Deus:

When someone says “X is really just Y,” you know to look out for oversimplification. Is a painting really just an assemblage of pigments on canvas? Is a Beethoven quartet really just a series of vibrating sound waves in the air? The words “really just” are used too often by scientists venturing into amateur philosophy, to claim that they alone understand the nature of reality: they are the new Gnostics, possessors of the secret wisdom. The claim is exaggerated and misleading. Reality is always bigger than “really just.”

One of the main threads of thought in Rabbi Sack’s book is that the market nor the state can solve all of society’s ills. This wasn’t an entirely new idea for me, as I had read Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed and Wiker’s 10 Books That Every Conservative Must Read. Deneen’s book had more of a pessimistic outlook than Rabbi Sack’s documenting the failures of the market and the state rather than proposing concrete solutions. But all three books draw on a common source for making the argument for community: Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Wiker and Deneen illustrate how it is in the community that we develop virtue and character, which Sacks also hits. But I felt Sacks addresses the why a lot more clearly from a theological standpoint: the state and the market rely on competition, while community is about commitment, even covenantal relationships.

Throughout his book, Rabbi Sack’s has a unique way of pairing two thinkers together to make a point. One of my favorite was his juxtaposition of Danish Christian existentialist Soren Kierkegaard with the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in order to illustrate two philosophical dangers:

Lose morality and eventually you lose liberty. That was received wisdom for centuries. How did it change? It began with relatively abstract ideas. There was a long period of reflection on the nature of the individual and the self, starting with the Reformation, continuing through the Enlightenment, and culminating in the nineteenth-century radicalism of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche…

In a dazzling and wholly original work, Either/Or, Kierkegaard sets out, in the form of two personae, two radically different modes of existence: the aesthetic, with its life of the senses, and the ethical, with its commitment to righteousness and duty. These constitute two different worlds of feeling and thinking; they amount to two different lives. Each is coherent and consistent in itself but radically incompatible with the other. Which, then, to choose? There are no criteria by which you could make a rational choice. All you could do was decide, nonrationally. You had to make a leap of faith. Not all values can be realized in a single life. The Platonic idea of the harmony of the true, the good, and the beautiful had been exploded beyond repair. In placing at the center of the moral life this essentially nonrational choice, not of what to do but of who to be…

Nietzsche was the first to proclaim that God is dead and we have killed him. So radical was the assertion that he put it in the mouth of an imagined madman in The Gay Science. But he was far more than merely an atheist. His view was that the entire Judeo-Christian moral heritage was nothing less than the revenge of the powerless against the powerful; the retribution exacted by slaves against their former masters. It was a sustained exercise in ressentiment. Everything we had come to think of as virtue, compassion, kindness, was in fact a way of caging, neutering the reality of human nature, which was, he believed, shaped and dominated by the will to power…

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche between them effectively destroyed the foundations of morality as they had been known in the West for many centuries, and each proposed in its place a profoundly personal, subjective vision of the moral life, in which choice was of the essence: not choice as it had always been known, between good and evil as defined by the prevailing culture, but rather to define good and evil themselves in an act involving the totality of one’s being. The “I” had become not just the principal character in the moral drama, but its author, the writer of its rules.

Sacks of course doesn’t agree with Kierkegaard’s or Nietzsche’s conclusions here, but is deeply vested in the idea that morality is necessary to maintain a free society. But he does so fairly, beautifully illustrating each author’s ideas clearly without trying to deliberately misunderstand, lampoon, or demonize them. I wish more discussion could be held like this.

Sack’s ends his book with an epilogue directly addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. He ends on the hope that we will emerge from this shared tragedy a sense of our shared responsibility to one another, that we will rediscover our interdependence and need for one another. It is a call to action that can only start from each one of us in our own communities.

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