Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is not only a creative theologian but one who is both remarkably prolific and consistent. While the claim of prolificity is unassailable, that of consistency was recently challenged by Dr. Alan Jotkowitz in a respectful critique (link). I believe that a stylistic point resolves, in one fell swoop, nearly all the questions Dr. Jotkowitz poses.
Dr. Jotkowitz raises four main difficulties regarding R. Sacks’ theology:
- R. Sacks claims that all religions are equally true, which is difficult to uphold within Orthodox Jewish tradition
- An over-reliance on Scripture, with explanations that contradict rabbinic interpretations
- R. Sacks explicitly rejects pluralism within Judaism. If all religions are equally true, why not all Jewish denominations?
- R. Sacks opposes multiculturalism’s equality of culture but favors equality of religions.
I believe that the key to R. Sacks’ theology is recognition that he is a global religious figure. He speak not only internally, inspiring and instructing Jews, but also to the broader public. Necessarily, he speaks differently to different audiences. When speaking to Orthodox Jews, he invokes Talmud, commentaries and codes. However, when addressing gentiles, particularly Christians, he primarily utilizes a common language — the Hebrew Bible — and avoids legal niceties that outsiders to Orthodox Judaism find foreign to theology.
II. Speaking to the Nations
When speaking to gentiles, as R. Sacks does in The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, he mentions the Noahide code but only briefly (pp. 20, 54 & 57). Of course he believes all humans are bound by it, and hence its prohibition against idolatry, but his goals in this book are not furthered by overemphasizing it. He is speaking to the nations of the world and using Christian terms like “faith” (meaning religion, not specific beliefs) and telling them that they can follow their own tribal paths to God (as long as they fall within the boundaries of the Noahide covenant).
All of those religions contain some truth and, figuratively, God speaks to all people. R. Sacks is not, to my reading, saying that every truth claim of every religion is true or that every (or any) sacred religious text is divinely revealed. He is merely saying that God cares about every human being and manifests Himself in their lives. When they feel God’s presence, they are genuinely experiencing a religious moment. And perhaps, even stronger and following the Rambam’s view in Mishneh Torah (Hilkhos Melakhim 11:4), God providentially directs the founding and spreading of those religions.
III. Pluralism and Noahides
This book is not the place to assert the unique place of Judaism and its sacred texts. R. Sacks is speaking to the vast majority of the world about the vast majority of people and their relationships with God. All religions within the Noahide covenant that uphold universal values are equally true but those that contravene the Noahide covenant and universal values are invalid. In contrast, within the Mosaic covenant only one religion — Judaism — can be true. Pluralism is an aspect of the Noahide covenant. Within the Mosaic covenant, however: “Orthodoxy is defined in terms of truth and authority, not interpretation and option. This fact cannot be translated into pluralism” (One People, p. 151).
And even within the Noahide covenant, beliefs that undermine universal values of community and family or that otherwise endanger society are invalid. “There are indeed moral universals — the Hebrew Bible calls them ‘the covenant with Noah’ and they form the basis of modern codes of human rights. But they exist to create space for cultural and religious difference…” (The Dignity of Difference, p. 20). “[L]iberalism in its modern guises, and still more in its postmodern one, denies that there is such a thing as a shared moral code” (The Home We Build Together, p. 5). Failing to recognize this, and thereby risking society’s collapse, is multiculturalism’s fatal error.
IV. Theology of the Stranger
While we already explained why, in certain books, R. Sacks portrays his religious thought almost exclusively through Scripture, I’d like to address an important example that Dr. Jotkowitz raises. Over many books, R. Sacks develops a theology of the stranger. He returns again and again to this theme, which he argues is essential to the Jewish outlook. Dr. Jotkowitz correctly points out that “[t]he verses he quotes, according to the Oral Torah, refer exclusively to a stranger who is a full convert to Judaism (ger tsedek) or at the very least some[one] who agrees to follow the seven Noahide laws and live peacefully under Jewish sovereignty (ger toshav)” (p. 61).
R. Sacks is well aware of this and, in a text directed toward Jews that Dr. Jotkowitz overlooks, explains his approach within the traditional framework of Talmud and commentaries. In Covenant & Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible (Exodus, pp. 179-186), R. Sacks quotes two passages from Bava Metzi’a and from Ramban and Or Ha-Chaim in his analysis of the moral obligation toward strangers. If I understand correctly, his main basis for generalizing these commandments is that the Torah is commanding Jews how to properly treat strangers who live among them. In a settled land of Israel, the only strangers who may live among us are converts and gerei toshav. However, the lessons from these commandments refer, at the very least in spirit, to the way any native population should treat strangers living in its midst.
R. Sacks is only human and may be guilty of inconsistencies and errors. However, I fail to see how Dr. Jotkowitz has successfully critiqued R. Sacks’ theology, nor, for that matter, do Dr. Marc Shapiro’s criticisms ring true. In the posts linked below, I explain some issues in more detail and show where the revised edition of The Dignity of Difference differs from the original.