Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
Looking to a new year with a warning and a hope
The past year has been a rollercoaster for most of us. On the health scene, we have gone from fear of the pandemic to a sense of relief that it was nearly over, and then back to a new caution and fear coming from the delta mutation. The political scene is still unsettled while the hoped-for phased conclusion of the Afghan war turned into a chaotic scene as Kabul fell in days rather than months. Floods, fires, and dangerous storms intensified as a result of climate change threatening as never before. The hope for a new normal is beginning to be the fear that what still lies ahead could be anything but “normal.”
This week, our Jewish friends celebrate the new year in their religious calendar with Rosh Hashanah, followed by a time of reflection and repentance as they move into Yom Kippur. Academic calendars begin the new year of classes while churches and other groups begin the post-Labor Day restart of programming. (Check out the events for September here)
Our interfaith efforts also begin a “new year” of events and programs starting this month. We begin the month with the annual Interfaith Memorial Service, the 3rd season of our high school Kaufman Interfaith Scholars program, an interfaith ArtPrize walking tour, and our book group beginning its discussion of the new book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.
Sacks’ analysis begins by describing a “cultural climate change” that threatens democracy itself. Within the past half-century, we have experienced a shift from “We” to “I” with results that could destroy our society and our ability to work together. It has resulted in a loss of trust in public institutions as well as its leaders. It led to extremism in our politics, lack of shared knowledge, and an inability to address major issues like global change and income disparity. Identity politics has abandoned its focus on the nation as a whole while replacing it with what is best for my group, for those who share my identity.
Sacks describes three basic systems required for a functioning society: the economy, about the creation and distribution of wealth; the state, about the legitimization and distribution of power; and a moral understanding as “the voice of society … the common good that limits and directs our pursuits of private gain.” While the market economy and the state tend toward selfish pursuits, “Morality” he writes, “achieves something almost miraculous, and fundamental to human achievement and liberty… It creates trust. It means that to the extent that we belong to the same moral community, we can work together without constantly being on guard against violence, betrayal, exploitation, or deception. The stronger the bonds of community, the more powerful the force of trust, and the more we can achieve together.”
Morality is critical to a successful society since it broadens our perspective and helps us see that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. Without a shared morality and with everyone in it for themselves, the rich and the strong will tend to use their power, in the market and in the political arena, to exploit the system for their own benefit.
Rabbi Sacks called for a renewal of our shared sense of morality in order to humanize the forces for wealth and power. He writes, “When we move from the politics of ‘Me’ to the politics of ‘Us,’ we rediscover those life-transforming, counterintuitive truths: that a nation is strong when it cares for the weak, that it becomes rich when it cares for the poor, that it becomes invulnerable when it cares about the vulnerable." It is a call for the future of democracy and a call to “recover that sense of shared morality that binds us to one another in a bond of mutual compassion and care.”
His analysis of our current condition may seem to be negative, but Sacks is not predicting what will happen. He is a prophet who is warning us what will happen if we don’t heed the warning. He is optimistic that we can change. He notes that predictions succeed if they are correct, but prophesy succeeds when what is warned does not happen.
It is up to us all to heed the warning and seek the greater good as we move from the “I” to the “We.”