“Standing on the shoulders of giants”. These words are inscribed on the edge of each two-pound coin. It’s a quote taken from a letter written by Sir Isaac Newton to Robert Hooke-Newton expressing that his work was built on the knowledge of those who had gone before him. I believe Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was one of the giants of his generation.
When I reflect on the life and faith of Sacks, I can only conclude his work left us culturally and intellectually better off. I have found standing on his shoulders a privileged position and vantage point in beginning to understand the world a little better. Equally, however, he was a great thinker because he too stood on the shoulders of other giants; his pursuit of understanding was not confined to just his faith tradition. He was willing to listen to and learn from others, even other religions. His website expressed his desire to help future Jewish leaders to “deepen the conversation between Torah [Hebrew Bible] & the wisdom of the world”. And Sacks, being an example, drew much learning from the collective wisdom of the world. Each week, usually on Friday, my phone would ping. It was a short podcast from Sacks. His voice always had a soothing timbre to it. As I listened, I would imagine him in his almost iconic navy-blue suit, white shirt and gold tie tied with an impeccable Windsor knot. His greyish-white beard would meet this knot and draw your eyes up to a pensive, yet considerate face; his narrowing eyes, focused – almost lion-like. These podcasts were a dose of insight and wisdom. These bitesize pearls so often discerned and diagnosed some aspect of life and culture. Sacks had an ability to synthesise wisdom from different perspectives, diffracting it through the lens of his sacred text, the Hebrew Bible, and often bring it to bear on current trends. Last year, just before Yom Kippur – the holiest day of the year for Jews that focuses on repentance and forgiveness – I remember one thought-provoking message. It conveyed the necessity in our often hostile society to heed the message of forgiveness embodied in this religious day; but how this kind of tolerance was being forgotten in the current climate of cancel culture where militant ideology was edging out the opportunity of personal redemption.
This is what Rabbi Sacks did time and time again; he took ancient wisdom – sometimes forgotten wisdom – and showed its relevance in a fast-changing and forgetful world. He often asked questions about how we survive the challenges of such a world, especially in our times of political turbulence. For this Sacks had a powerful antidote: know your identity. It sounds simple but one of his more brilliantly expressed monologues on this idea is beautifully illustrated in an animation entitled, ‘Why I am a Jew’. “The deepest question anyone can ask is, who am I?”, Sacks begins. He realised identity is something derived from the big stories we buy into. For Sacks, his identity was derived from the story of the Judaic tradition; a story that he explained has “shaped the moral civilisation of the West, teaching that human life is sacred, that the individual may never be sacrificed for the mass, and that rich and poor, great and small, are all equal before God… This is my people, my heritage, my faith. In our uniqueness lies our universality. Through being what we alone are, we give to humanity what only we can give. This then is our story”. Identity was crucial in giving Sacks meaning, purpose and a place in the world. And yet, he knew different peoples have their different stories. Here Sacks was notably different as a religious thinker; he saw he could benefit from the patchwork of other stories: “I admire other religions and civilisations and believe each has brought something special into the world…”. He was not exclusive. He knew where he was going but he made room for others. And he saw others – other perspectives and traditions – as valuable and necessary. This gave him an appeal few other orthodox Jews could achieve.
He took this approach to politics also, expressing it well when he took the stage for a TED Talk in 2017. In his insightful speech, the spiritual leader gave three ways to move from the politics of “me” to the politics of “all of us, together”. Sacks believed this shift in lifting our eyes beyond the horizons of our own tribes was important because, as he put it, “it’s the people not like us that help us to grow”. However, his solution to get to this position was counterintuitive: “I think collectively we’ve got to get back to telling our story, who we are, where we came from, what ideals we live by”. You, like me, may ask, how so? Surely, telling our own story just makes us more tribal and less likely to learn from others? Sacks disagreed, adding, “When you tell the story and your identity is strong, you can welcome the stranger. But when you stop telling the story, your identity gets weak and you feel threatened by the stranger”. I hadn’t thought of it that way before. But Sacks wasn’t finished; he had a criticism for us: “In the West, we’ve stopped telling the story of who we are”. Maybe we have.
If Sacks is right – that knowing our identity is essential in an ever-changing world, and that this knowledge makes us more able, not less, to learn from others – then the inevitable question is, what’s our story?
As we embark on a new year, still reeling from the contortions Covid has placed on our lives, we would do well to consider rediscovering our story – our identity – the big truths about life and spirituality. Who are we? Where did we come from? What ideals do we live by? And maybe, in rediscovering the answers to these questions, we can gird ourselves for the uncertainties that inevitably lie ahead in 2021 and, more so, learn from others along the way.
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