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Interfaith Inform: October 5, 2021
Kaufman Interfaith Institute


Interfaith Insight
Doug Kindschi
Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
Are we doomed to despair, or is there still hope?
“Morality is born when I focus on you, not me.”    

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks finds reason for despair in the current trends in our society but does not give up hope.  His analysis of our situation and his reasons for hope are the themes in his latest book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.

[Note: We continue the Insights following the chapters in his book currently being read by the Kaufman Interfaith Institute’s book group. We hope to open a new group that will meet Thursday evenings. To sign up for this new Zoom discussion group, click here.]

In chapters three and four, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks looks at the way social media and the fragility of family structure contribute to the solitary self. The internet has been remarkable in how it has enabled communication and direct contact around the world.  Since our book group was forced to go online in response to the pandemic, we now have participants from Muskegon, Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor, and Pennsylvania. Previous book discussions have included international participants as well. There has been, as well, a certain convenience in attending classes or religious services from the comfort of one’s home. For many, the ability to connect with family by internet and social media has been a great comfort as we have been separated not only by distance but also by health concerns.

Sacks, however, writing before the COVID pandemic, is concerned about the negative aspects of social media in his chapter titled “Unsocial Media.”  In recent months there have also been many news stories, and even congressional committees, looking into the algorithms that push users to more and more extreme versions of what they have shown an interest in. The goal is not to present balance, but to get the user hooked. There have been studies that show the negative impact on self-image of young people, leading some to depression and in extreme cases even suicide. The platforms encourage a type of addiction to the screen usually at the expense of true interaction with real personal friends.

Sacks notes that many of the creators of this technology, like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Evan Spiegel, founder of Snapchat, have put very tight limits on how much screen time their own children can spend on such media. Early on these developers understood the danger presented to children. He writes, “Social media have played a significant part of the move from ‘We’ to ‘I.’ In the world they create, I am on stage, bidding for attention while others form my audience. This is not how character is made, nor is it how we develop as moral agents. Morality is born when I focus on you, not me. … I learn to be moral when I develop the capacity to put myself into your place, and that is a skill I only learn by engaging with you, face to face or side by side.” 

He continues, “To be fully human, we need direct encounters with the other human beings. We have to be in their presence, open to their otherness, alert to their hopes and fears, engaged in the … delicate back-and-forth of speaking and listening. That is how relationships are made. That is how we become moral beings.”

In the next chapter Rabbi Sacks deals with the family and its changing character in the past few decades. Morality, and its basis in love, begins in the family between the parents and their sacrificial love and care for their children. He writes of the care and love he experienced from his own immigrant parents. “It was only,” he writes, “because of the effort and sacrifices of my parents that I was able to go to university at all.” 

Marriage is not just a passing passion, but a moral bond. It is different from a contract which is an exchange for mutual benefit.  It is a covenant where two come together, he writes, “each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of love and trust, to share their interests … (and) their lives, by pledging their faithfulness, to one another, to do together what neither can achieve alone.”

Sacks is concerned that this covenant approach is threatened by new sexual mores and selfish desires that have emerged as we moved from the “We” to the “I” society. In the profound changes that we have experienced, he writes, “Almost everything that marriage once brought together has now been split apart. Sex has been divorced from love, love from commitment, marriage from having children, and having children from responsibility for their care.”

While the analysis of our situation can be alarming, Sacks has not given up hope. Recognizing our situation is the first step in making the necessary corrections. He warns because he believes we can change. We must heed his warning and find our way back to what he calls the three great loves: love of God, love of neighbor, and love of the stranger. It is not too late.  

Interfaith Foodies

We are excited to come together on Monday, October 18, at 6:30 pm. Join us at Pind Indian Cuisine (241 Fulton St W, Grand Rapids). Please email Zahabia if you are planning to attend. 

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.