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English Review - Jonathan Sacks

Building bridges between Jewish tradition and current affairs

Who was Jonathan Sacks, and what can we learn from him today? During a new lecture in the Radboud Reflects sequence ‘Current Thinkers’, Marcel Poorthuis, professor of Interreligious Dialogue at Tilburg University, addressed these questions. Poorthuis, who is also a board member of the PaRDes Foundation for Jewish wisdom, is introduced by Liesbeth Jansen, program creator at Radboud Reflects. After a quick check, it turns out that the small group of people physically present at the lecture hall complex of Radboud University is equally divided between those who are already quite familiar with the figure and work of Sacks, and those who are less familiar, but all the more interested to learn more about this famous British philosopher and theologian. Supported by a selection of books and a couple of slides depicting vivid portraits and biblical scenes, Poorthuis gave a 45-minute lecture, which was also livestreamed online. Afterwards, he answered some questions from Jansen and the audience.

Jonathan Sacks: orthodox rabbi and public intellectual

Who was Jonathan Sacks? By highlighting a select number of biographical facts, Poorthuis paints a picture of a man who tried to unite his position as an orthodox rabbi with that of a public intellectual. Usually, these two roles reinforced each other, as can be seen in the large oeuvre Sacks has left us, which includes both commentaries on the Torah and books on a variety of other topics such as ethical and moral life. Throughout this oeuvre, Poorthuis remarks, the point of departure has always been that behind the veil of miracles and divine reassurance presented in the Bible, there resides an appeal to human freedom and responsibility. However, combining a traditional Jewish background with a call for a certain morality was not without tension, Poorthuis notes: although some of Sacks’ friends for example were liberal Jews, he refrained from attending the funeral when one of them died. Combing these threads, Poorthuis sketches a somewhat sobering image of the man Jonathan Sacks, who, he emphases, is not just a ‘philosopher’ or ‘theologian’, but rather a Jewish ‘thinker’ who always surpassed these traditional categories.

Three sources of inspiration

In order to illuminate the place of Sacks in the Jewish tradition and to gradually move towards the central topic of his lecture –the scapegoat – Poorthuis briefly discusses three of Sack’s major sources of inspiration.

The first one is the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the spiritual leader of the ultraorthodox Hasidic movement within Judaism, who encouraged Sacks to go into the world to disseminate the message of the Hebrew Bible. The second is Yosef Eliashiv, leader of the Misnagdim, which is a Talmud-oriented Jewish movement opposing Hasidism and emphasizing rational discourse and the importance of moral norms. Poorthuis explains that by uniting these two sources of inspiration, Sacks was able to gather broad support within Jewish religion.

The third central figure for understanding Sacks, Poorthuis continues, is the philosophical anthropologist René Girard, who is famous for his theory of mimetic desire. Poorthuis explains this theory by means of the biblical story of Jacob and Esau. The rivalry between the two brothers, he notes, is incited by the desire of Jacob to imitate, or be Esau, whom he knows is about to receive the birthright from his father Isaak. In order to show that the mechanism of mimesis is still at work today, Poorthuis points to the role of influencers and to the idea of bonusses, which exist only by virtue of mirroring my salary increase with that of others. For Girard, memetic desire leads to rivalry, and ultimately to scapegoating, where one or more individuals are banned from a group in order to ‘purify’ it.

Animal and human scapegoats

Where does this notion of a scapegoat come from? Drawing on the work of Sacks, Poorthuis reminds us of a Jewish ritual, to be performed on Yom Kippur, which involves two goats: one to be sacrificed, and one ‘scapegoat’ to be send into the desert as a symbol for the exemption of human sins. Now what we witness today, Poorthuis remarks, is a reversal of this ritual: it is no longer the animal that is sacrificed instead of the human – a revolution in the days when human sacrifices were the common practice -, but the human who has again become the scapegoat and is ‘sacrificed’.  According to Sacks, such mechanisms of human scapegoating are present everywhere, both inside and outside of religions. Within religious traditions, fundamentalist groups apply a kind of extreme group altruism excluding – and scapegoating – many. This tendency is  in fact an inherent danger for every religion. However, the original contribution of Sacks, Poorthuis says, is that he believes this danger can also be overcome within religion itself, for example by embracing those who are already outside or at the margins of society.

Scapegoating and victimization

Another form in which the ancient idea of the scapegoat is still operative today, Poorthuis proceeds, is in clinging to the role of the victim: something he sees for example in the present discussions on slavery and in the MeToo-movement. Without wanting to disregard the severity of these ‘delicate’ issues, Poorthuis emphasizes that continuously dwelling on them can also lead to new forms of discrimination in which for instance white men become the scapegoat. Refusing to leave a state of victimhood behind, whilst denying others the ability to understand their position, he argues, animates divisiveness. At this point, Poorthuis reads a quote from a book by Sacks, which suggests that victimizing can sometimes be repressive rather than emancipatory. Two final examples of present-day scapegoating provided by the theologian are what he calls the return of the pillory, as public figures are quickly condemned via social media, and populistic leaders such as Trump, who combine victimhood with blaming others for collective problems.

A current thinker

So what can we learn from Jonathan Sacks today? The answer to this question is summarized by Poorthuis when he explains his personal fascination for the Jewish thinker. The special thing about Sacks, Poorthuis remarks, is that he was very much present in the public sphere, at the risk of being wrong, which, for him, is the task of a good thinker. By continuously building bridges between the Jewish tradition and current affairs, Sacks was able to expose particular mechanisms that are still at work our present-day society.

Lucas Gronouwe