Healing a Fractured World

January 1, 2006
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Daniel Septimus, editor of MyJewishLearning.com, interviews Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Sir Jonathan Sacks, about his new book.

Daniel Septimus: In regards to the responsibility you write about in your book, To Heal A Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, are there distinctions between the Jewish community’s responsibility toward its own and toward the wider world?

Jonathan Sacks: Surely. No one doubts that there is a principle of kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba-zeh, all of Israel is responsible for one another. One of the real hidushim, novel teachings, of the book is that if you were to ask, is there a principle of kol bnei adam areivim zeh ba-zeh, all of humanity is responsible for one another – is there some equivalent of human collective responsibility, if you were to ask any halakhic expert – he or she would say “no” instantly because it doesn’t exist in the literature. What I tried to do was look through the entire literature and see a source here and a source there that might say there is [such a responsibility]. And therefore, I don’t know if anyone’s ever said that before within Orthodoxy. It was clearly assumed in some of Rav Soloveitchik’s writing, but he never explained why it was assumed. I’m not sending all the Jews in Britain out to Africa to make poverty history or to Thailand to rebuild after the tsunami, but I did devote my television program to the Jews who went to Africa and Thailand. It’s very important that we keep a reasonable balance between our commitment to one another and our commitments to the wider human enterprise.

DS: If biblical faith demands protest, what does biblical faith demand today?

JS: I see biblical faith in Jim Wolfensohn, just ex-head of the World Bank; Jeffrey Sachs, the world’s top economist of poverty; and others who refuse to accept the poverty of one billion human beings – 30,000 children who die every day of treatable diseases. That’s their protest. I look at Robert Winston, Britain’s most famous doctor, an Orthodox Jew and leading fertility specialist; he takes on the story of Sarah, Rivkah, and Rachel, who were unable to have children, and through in vitro fertilization, stem cell research, he’s on the cutting edge. And there are a thousand photos on his wall, his nachas wall, of a thousand women he helped have children. Jewish justices like Hazel Cosgrove, the first woman judge in Scotland. When I asked her what made you become a judge? She answered, tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice, justice you shall pursue. When she reads Tanakh, she reads justice, justice pursue. I want to take those role models and recreate for the 21st century some way of telling those hasidic stories about ordinary Jews who were not rabbis and gedolim and saints, but ordinary Jews in ordinary situations and just tell their stories.

DS: Forgive me for being so particularistic. But are the ben adam li-havero [commandments between man and man] and ben adam li-makom [commandments between man and God] distinct paths? Are they a single path?

JS: When the sages said at the opening of the Torah portion Vayera, “Gidola hakhnasat orhim li-kabbalat pnei ha-shekhina,” is hospitality different from receiving the divine presence or is it the same?

DS: So, if someone, as a Jew, was only the most hospitable person in the world, are we happy?

JS: I am. That’s why God chose not an elite of the righteous; He chose a whole people in its rich diversity. Jeffrey Sachs came to England and spoke in St. Paul’s. I don’t know why we couldn’t arrange a shul, but in St. Paul’s 5-6,000 people came to hear him – very few Jews. How many Jews would go to St Paul’s Cathedral? But when I sat down with Jeffrey and asked what drove his work for Live Aid, he said two words: tikkun olam. I’m trying to connect and do public dialogues with Amos Oz, Steven Pinker, George Steiner, other secular Jews. I try to get them to reconnect. I’m not trying to make them frum. I’m just trying to get them to map their life on the Jewish map. They are a bit of the jigsaw. If Hashem only wanted hasidim, he would have sent us a Satmar Rebbe, not a Moshe Rabeinu. And some people give by their learning and some by their davening [prayer] and some by their hospitality and some by their philanthropy. We can only approach Hakadosh Barukh Hu [God] as a total community.

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