I HOPE I still have the courage to acknowledge the Judaic DNA strain in my faith, for my spiritual genes are the umbilical thread that links me today through Christianity, through Judaism, to that figure in indiscernible antiquity — the prophet Abraham.
I can never become a Jew. As a human being, though, I ought to have the humility to accept that the words of a Jewish rabbi can hold meaning even for me, two notches along the Semitic scale.
A person whose writings many have long admired was Dr Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom. Necessarily orthodox because of his position, but in spirit uncommonly liberal, Dr Sacks could be described as a modern Martin Luther without the remonstrance, or perhaps Nelson Mandela without the scars of incarceration. Dr Sacks belonged to that miniscule Jewish community worldwide, which the American Milton Himmelfarb once described as “smaller than a statistical error in the Chinese census”.
Dr Sacks, in his book The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilisations (2002), explained that while archaic “Judaism was able to conceive of a universal God, but not yet of a universal faith …[it] remained a pluralistic and therefore tribal faith. It was trapped into the parochialism of antiquity”. In its sequel, To Heal a Fractured World (2005), he makes an observation that carries a telling resonance amongst Muslims and Christians: “More than other faiths, the religion of the Hebrew Bible is written in the future tense. Ancient Israel was the only civilisation to set its golden age in not-yet-realised time.”
Dr Sacks’ writings will survive as beacons for those floundering in doubt.
Dr Sacks recognised that “nothing has proved harder in the history of civilisation than to see God, or good, or human dignity in those whose language is not mine, whose skin is of a different colour, whose faith is not my faith and whose truth is not mine”. As a community leader, Dr Sacks recalled the “time, when people lived in close, ongoing contact with neighbours, creating networks of shared meaning and reciprocal duty. Nowadays we live anonymously among strangers whose religious, cultural and moral codes are different from ours”.
To reinforce his proposition, he marshalled an unlikely support — Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s Prince Consort. One is surprised at Albert’s prescience when, at the opening his brain-child ‘The Great Exhibition’ in 1851, he said: “The distances which separated the different nations and parts of the globe are rapidly vanishing before the achievements of modern invention, and we can traverse them with incredible ease … thought is communicated with the rapidity, and even with the power of lightning.” This could almost have been a quote from Bill Gates.
Every year, as the Nobel prizes are announced, there is a wave of self-recrimination amongst the Muslim community. One drew this comparison: “Although Muslims constitute more than 23 per cent of the world’s population [,] only 12 Nobel laureates have been Muslims, whereas 193 of the total 855 laureates have been Jewish.”
There can be only one explanation: Education. Dr Sacks talks of the importance given to education over a millennium ago: “Already in the third century the rabbis ruled that any Jewish community that failed to establish a school was to be excommunicated.” He added: “Education in Judaism, though, is active, not passive. It is about honing the mind, sharpening the intellect, through question and answer, challenge and response.” Clearly, obedience and repetitive ritual do not earn Nobel prizes.
Dr Jonathan Sacks did not live long enough (he died on Nov 7 this year) to see his perceptive teachings permeate throughout his community. Nevertheless, his writings will survive as beacons for those who flounder in the darkness of doubt. His definition of social responsibilities is concise: “Rights are passive; responsibilities active. Rights are demands we make on others; responsibilities are demands others make on us.” His definition of leadership is equally pithy: “A good leader creates followers. A great leader creates leaders.”
Dr Jonathan Sacks’ humanism went beyond the fissures created by generations of introspective Muslims, Christians and Jews. Addressing them, he asked: “Can we create a paradigm shift through which we come to recognise that we are enlarged, not diminished by difference?”
What would Sacks have made of the now-you-see it, now-you-don’t rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia? As a Britisher, he would have sided with the ghost of Arthur Balfour. As a social pragmatist, he would have agreed with Edmund Burke: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.”
Are we in Pakistan mature enough to be enlarged by our differences with others, or are we still expecting doors to open inwards? Sacks offers us the advice of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: ‘The door to happiness opens outwards’.
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, December 3rd, 2020