Jonathan Sacks is one of Britain’s most popular and respected moral thinkers and leaders. The former chief rabbi, now a member of the House of Lords, is a trenchant voice not just on the issues facing the Jewish community but our society as a whole. This week, for example, he spoke on a panel at the Margaret Thatcher Conference on Security – organised by CapX’s parent body, the Centre for Policy Studies – on whether the West has lost its moral purpose.
After he’d come off stage, I interviewed him for the CapX podcast about the “moral vacuum” in the West, how and why our communities are coming apart, and what we can do about it:
Lord Sacks on… building communities (8 mins 30)
“The Anglo-American idea of rights was based, really, on religious values and an attempt to create societies in which different types of Christians, and eventually non-Christians, could live together at peace. But over and above that, there was this huge body of voluntary associations. The charities, the local neighbourhood groups. The Labour Party was built on friendly societies and trade unions and so on. There was a huge network of those bodies between the individual and the state.
“This is what struck de Tocqueville when he went to America. He said, ‘On the slightest pretext in America, people form committees about things. You name a problem, America’s put together a committee.’ He called that the art of association. He rightly said that that constituted the apprenticeship of liberty.”
Lord Sacks on… the role of faith (12 mins 30)
“What Robert Putnam shows in his book ‘American Grace’ is that social capital is alive and well in America, and mitigates individualism, but it’s mainly found in religious congregations. He says clearly – and he tells me that he’s done the same research in Britain with the same findings – that what makes the difference is actually belonging to a church or a synagogue and going regularly.
“It doesn’t matter what you believe. You can be a total atheist, but if you go to church regularly, you will develop that social capital. You will help people out if they need a job, or somebody’s homeless, or somebody needs a loan. You’ll just get involved. The question is, can you replicate that without religious congregations? I don’t know.”
Lord Sacks on… becoming a public voice (16 mins)
“Within the Today programme, there is this very unusual thing called ‘Thought for the Day’, which is done by Jews, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, and all the rest. When I was asked to do it – and I started long before I was Chief Rabbi – I suddenly faced this problem. What is it to speak as a Jew to a public, 99.5 per cent of whom are not Jewish? I tried to find a precedent for this, and the only one I could find was the prophet Jonah who was sent to the people of Nineveh, and of course he tried to run away.”
Lord Sacks on… the growth of intolerance (18 mins 30)
“Britain today is a less tolerant society than the one I went to university in. Let’s take something that’s much less contentious [than anti-Semitism]: atheism. Today’s atheists are quite militant. But my doctoral supervisor, the late Sir Bernard Williams, was a profoundly committed atheist who never, ever did anything less than respect my faith. Of course, he challenged it. But he never rubbished it.
“What I learned at university is that university is a place where we give a respectful hearing to views profoundly different from our own. What’s happened at universities is political correctness, safe spaces… certain voices are excluded on the grounds that they may upset somebody.
“For me, a safe space is a place where I can listen to people whose views are completely opposed to mine without feeling diminished or threatened. I think this concept of safe spaces is actually a contradiction in terms.”
Lord Sacks on… the threat of extremism (25 mins 30)
“Back in 1897… Emile Durkheim – completely secular guy, but his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all rabbis – wrote a book called ‘Suicide’ in which he made the radical claim that in any society suffering anomie, that is a lack of agreed moral values, you will see the suicide rate go up.
“I don’t think Durkheim could’ve foreseen suicide taken the form of suicide bombers, but it follows from his theory. If you lack an agreed moral code within a society, you’re going to get all sorts of fringe phenomena that are not going to be good news. ”
Lord Sacks on… the effects of technology (31 mins)
“The Bay area in San Francisco and other Silicon Valley-type places are finally waking up to the fact that the late Steve Jobs refused to let his kids have an iPad. What they are discovering is that smartphones are destroying their kids’ capacity for sustained attention. They are robbing them of social skills. They can’t even make decent eye contact. At family meals, they are sitting with their smartphones under the table texting their friends.
“And what they’re doing, one family after another, is saying, ‘We are going to have a screen-free day.’ They have reinvented the Sabbath.”
Lord Sacks on… the greatest threat to the West (34 mins)
“I published a book in 1997 called ‘The Politics of Hope’. Forty years earlier, Isaiah Berlin had given his famous inaugural lecture at Oxford called ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. In that lecture, he saw as the greatest threat to freedom the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. My case was that the biggest threat now was not totalitarianism, it was the moral vacuum at the heart of those Western democracies. Because freedom, I believe, is a moral achievement.
“Sam Huntington makes the case in the last chapter of his book ‘The Clash of Civilizations’… In the last chapter he says the West should not seek to impose its values on the world. It should be content with seeking to impose its own values on itself.”
Lord Sacks on… the politics of hope (40 mins)
“I always make a distinction between optimism and hope. Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that if we work hard enough, together we can make them better. It needs no courage to be an optimist, only a certain kind of naivete. But it sometimes needs a great deal of courage to have hope.
“No Jew who knows our people’s history can be an optimist, but no Jew worthy of the name ever gave up hope. Of course I still believe in the politics of hope, and the alternative, which is the politics of fear, is very, very bad politics.”
You can listen to the full interview here – and please subscribe via iTunes (or any other podcast site) to get the latest episode every week.
You can also catch up with last week’s interview with David Willetts, our election special, or our previous interviews with John Curtice, Andrew Cooper, David Owen, Sue Cameron, Frank Field, Nick Cohen, Daniel Hannan, Peter Oborne and Nigel Lawson.