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Interfaith Inform: September 28, 2021
Kaufman Interfaith Institute


Interfaith Insight
Doug Kindschi
Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
Acting for self, or acting for others
“We’re all in this together” or “I am free to be myself”: the choice between these two approaches to life is the central theme of the first two chapters in Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ latest book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.

[Note: The Kaufman Interfaith Institute’s book group is discussing this book each week throughout the fall and my Insights will frequently highlight ideas from the chapters that we will be discussing. If you want to join the discussions, we have opened a new group that will meet Thursday evenings. To sign up for this new Zoom discussion group click here.

He notes that a soccer team or an orchestra will not succeed if they do not work together when each person just does his/her own thing. He makes his point with a Jewish joke about the Yeshiva University rowing team that was losing all their races. So, they sent one of their members to observe the team from Harvard University.  He came back to report to the team saying, “You won’t believe it. You know what we do. They do the exact opposite. They have eight people rowing and only one person shouting instructions!”

Our society has moved further away from doing things together as the quest for individual freedom becomes more isolated and focused on “doing our own thing,” having our own “facts,” and listening to an increasing cacophony of voices in the broadcast, cable, and internet social media. Our desire for individual freedom is undermining a shared sense of a common morality.

“Morality,” Sacks writes, “at its core, is about strengthening the bonds between us, helping others, engaging in reciprocal altruism, and understanding the demands of group loyalty.”

He points to one of the important contributions of religion to the preservation of our society as a whole. We have begun to lose “that strong sense of being there for one another, of being ready to exercise mutual aid, to help people in need, to comfort the distressed and bereaved, to welcome the lonely, to share in other people’s sadness and celebrations.”

While we find comfort in the small groups of people who think as we do, we are losing the broader commitment to the common good for our larger communities, our country, and the needs of the world.

In the second chapter titled “The Limits of Self-Help,” Sacks tells the story of his honeymoon at a beach in Italy when his inability to swim and lack of knowledge of the local language, brought him to the point of panic. Watching others, he assumed that it was shallow quite a ways out, so he ventured out walking in the water.  But as he began to return, he found himself in deep water and kept going under. In his words, “I was sure this was the end. As I went under for the fifth time, I remember thinking two thoughts. ‘What a way to begin a honeymoon.’ And, ‘What is the Italian word for Help?’”  

He notes that he did survive, else he “wouldn’t be writing about it now.”  Someone saw him “thrashing about, swam over, took hold of me, and brought me to the shore. He deposited me, almost unconscious, at the feet of my wife. I was too shocked to do or say anything. I never found out his name. Somewhere out there is a man to whom I owe my life.”   

Self-help has its place -- “God helps those who help themselves” -- but we also need community and the commitment to help each other. Sacks concludes, “The pursuit of the right and the good is not about self but about the process of unselfing, of seeing the world for what it is, not for what we feel or fear it to be, and responding to it appropriately.”

Let us see the larger community as we respond to the needs of our nation and the world. It is the basis of morality, seeking the common good. 

Interfaith ArtPrize Walking Tour

Interfaith Imaginations: Have you ever wondered what others think about art at Art Prize? Do they experience it the way you do? Do you crave authentic conversation over a shared experience? Join us for a Walking Tour of Art Prize on Wednesday, September 29, at 6 pm

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For an archive of previous articles
click here.
For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see this week's Ethics and Religion Talk column hosted on The Rapidian.