The world has lost a great man in the death of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks at the weekend. I last met him in London in early March just before Covid-19 lockdown restrictions were imposed. He had just published a new book Morality and was as full of energy and ideas as ever. Lord Sacks – who died of cancer at the age of 72 – has left a considerably body of work behind and his towering intellect will inform debates and discussions for decades to come.
As we sat in his living room, he asked me almost as many questions as I asked him. He had the rare ability for a man of such learning and thought to genuinely listen to other people. Here was I sitting with a philosopher of phenomenal stature, and yet he was asking me questions as if I could offer a fresh insight on issues that he has spent decades mulling over, writing about and lecturing about.
Sense of humour
Rabbi Sacks also had the self-depreciating sense of humour of a man who was comfortable in his own skin and had nothing to prove to everyone. He loved ideas, and he loved to hear from people who had different ideas to him. He was unashamed of his Judaism and his unshakable belief that Judeo-Christian values have something vital to bring to the world. But there was nothing exclusive about his thinking – he used to often describe the task of creating society as the home we build together.
Not that he was a blind follower of ideas like multiculturalism – he believed passionately that society rested on shared values and that these shared values were important to a healthy society. That’s why he was such a strong supporter of marriage. Again and again he pushed politicians to embrace the evidence that strong families make strong societies and that – all things being equal – marriage offers the best possible outcomes for children.
Rabbi Sacks was a colossus, but his thought and philosophy was not for lofty debate alone – he sought to apply it in a way that would help make the world a better place.
In recent years he diagnosed a selfishness in contemporary culture that is wreaking havoc. He told me in March that he believe that the culture of self-help has gone too far.
“Self-esteem, self-respect, self-fulfilment, self-actualisation, the selfie – almost everything in today’s culture is about me,” he said.
He remained upbeat in his advice for young people: “Just realise that an important part of life is co-operation, not just competition. That what often matters is not just self-interest, but the common good. And that we are stronger when the ‘we’ is strong. So, any football team of 11 divas is not going to win its matches, but any football team that really works as a team is going to win its matches. So, every time there is a really strong sense of the team being bigger than the player, that is when you get the moral sense.
“Do a search and replace operation in your mind, and every time you see the word ‘self,’ delete it and write ‘other’. So instead of self-esteem, other-esteem. Instead of self-respect, other-respect. Just do that, and you’ll find that you will be much happier, your relationships will improve, and you will feel that your life is meaningful in a way that it wasn’t before,” he insisted.
It’s surely worth a try during lockdown, and certainly beats another failed loaf of banana bread.
May his memory be a blessing.