“Europe is in Danger of Losing Its Soul”

In Memory of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

On 7 November 2020 the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Jonathan Sacks, died. In its obituary the German magazine “Jüdische Allgemeine” quoted Ephraim Mirvis, the present British chief rabbi who said that the world has lost “a Torah luminary and intellectual giant who had a transformative global impact.” The World Jewish Congress wrote: “A theologian of extraordinary intellectual depth and moral conviction, Rabbi Sacks was a riveting orator and brilliant author who brought the timeless teachings of Jewish scripture to both Jews and non-Jews alike, fusing Jewish tradition with modern thought.” 1

In the Israeli newspaper Haaretz Anshel Pfeffer wrote on 9 November that Rabbi Sacks “personified the contradictions and limitations of Modern Orthodoxy, especially in the Diaspora – not being frum (traditional) enough for the ultra-Orthodox; too cautious for non-Orthodox Jews; and too foreign for Israelis.” At the end of his article, Pfeffer quotes the Israeli philosopher and author Micah Goodman, an admirer of the former chief rabbi, who said that “in his philosophical writing over the last 15 years, Rabbi Sacks transformed from being just a Jewish theologian to becoming a major Western philosopher, without losing his Jewish patriotism in the process.” 2

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, paid tribute to rabbi Sacks: “Chief Rabbi Sacks was a most eloquent proponent of some of the greatest truths of humanity, so often forgotten.”

On 12 December 2011 rabbi Sacks gave a lecture at the Gregoriana University, invited by Cardinal Kurt Koch. At the time, the Euro debt crisis has been ongoing for two years already. The title of rabbi Sacks’ lecture was “Has Europe Lost Its Soul?” 3 It was on the market resp. capitalism as it is practiced today in the western world, and on the potential of correction that were available in Europe from its Jewish-Christian tradition.

We summarize this lecture in the following (quotations from the lecture are italicized in quotation marks).

* * * * *

Rabbi Sacks structured his observations and reflections into three focal points:
1. Market economy and democratic capitalism have religious roots.
2. The market tends to undermine the very values that generated it.
3. What can be done? “The future health of Europe, politically, economically, and culturally, has a spiritual dimension. Lose that, and we will lose much else besides. To paraphrase a famous Christian text: what will it profit Europe if it gains the whole world yet loses its soul? Europe is in danger of losing its soul.”

The radical change in the relationship between the Catholic Church and Judaism that was set up by “Nostra Aetate” has allowed for a “face-to-face”-dialogue. The time has come now to transform it into a way of a “side-by-side” partnership. For meanwhile the two opposing parties are no longer the Catholics/Christians on one side, and the Jews on the other side. The situation is rather like Jews and Christians on the same side with “increasingly, even aggressively secularising forces” on the other side.

Despite all the differences between Judaism and Christianity, Sacks identifies enough common ground on which the market economy could develop over the centuries in Europe with its Judaeo-Christian history and not elsewhere.

* The “biblical respect for the dignity of the human individual …. The market gives more freedom and dignity to human choice than any other economic system.”
* The “biblical respect for property rights” that was against the ancient view that rulers considered the property of a tribe or nation as their own and handled it accordingly.
* The “biblical respect for labour.” We serve God through work (six days a week) as well as through rest (on the seventh day). Therefore “job creation, in Judaism, is the highest form of charity.… By our labour and inventiveness, we become, in the rabbinic phrase, ‘partners with God in the work of creation.’”
* But “the most important thing about the market economy is that it allows us to alleviate poverty.… The rabbis favoured markets and competition because they generate wealth, lower prices, increase choice, reduced absolute levels of poverty, and extend humanity’s control over the environment, narrowing the extent to which we are the passive victims of circumstance and fate. Competition releases energy and creativity and serves the general good.”

However, capitalism has its limitations. Although it might generate wealth, it is not a system for distributing wealth. Therefore, the Bible already provides a “structure of welfare legislation” by introducing the Shabbat, and with the jubilee year as the ‘climax’. But this structure is based on its voluntary nature. “The concept of welfare … is Judaic in origin and flows ultimately from the same generative principle as the free market itself, the idea that every individual has dignity in the image of God and that it is our task to develop social structures that honour and enhance that dignity.”

The free market resp. capitalism would have the possibility to direct “self-interest to the common good,” it makes itself a moral principle and thus “becomes an ideology in its own right.”

At the time of this lecture, the consequences of the financial crash of 2007/08 were still having a strong impact and the Euro Monetary Union was in a deep crisis. This rose the question of responsibility and controllability in international companies and made evident the complete lack of those voluntary measures that “honour and enhance” human dignity. The Italian philosopher of history and law, Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) formulated the pattern of such a development: “People first sense what is necessary, then consider what is useful, next attend to comfort, later delight in pleasures, soon grow dissolute in luxury, and finally go mad squandering their estates.”

But the problem is much older. Rabbi Sacks said: “This was said first and most powerfully by Moses long ago. The theme of his great speeches in the book of Deuteronomy is that it is not hardship that is the real trial, but affluence. Affluence makes you complacent. You no longer have the moral and mental energy to make the sacrifices necessary for the defense of freedom. Inequalities grow. The rich become self-indulgent. The poor feel excluded. There are social divisions, resentments, injustices. Society no longer coheres. People do not feel bound to one another by a bond of collective responsibility. Individualism prevails. Trust declines. Social capital wanes. When that happens, you will be defeated.”

A look at contemporary society shows the undesirable developments and their consequences even in children and adolescents. But there has been a potential for correction over the centuries, which is still present in the Judaeo-Christian tradition today. On the Jewish side, there are five features of this tradition, which are “largely shared by Christianity.” They have this potential for correction because they were “not constructed on the basis of economic calculation.” They are areas in which the market and its laws should (must) not intrude:

First the Sabbath: it is “the boundary Judaism draws around economic activity,” it is the day where everything is about “things that have value but not a price.” “It is the one day in seven when we stop making a living and instead simply live.”

Second: marriage and family: “If Jews have survived tragedy, found happiness, and contributed more than their share to the human heritage, I suspect it is because of the sanctity with which they endowed marriage and the way they regarded parenthood as their most sacred task.”

Third: Jews “were the first civilization to construct, two thousand years ago, a universal compulsory education, communally funded, to ensure that everyone had access to knowledge. … Jews did not leave education to the vagaries of the market. They made the market serve the cause of education.”

Fourth: the concept of property: “Deeply embedded in the Jewish mind is the idea that we do not ultimately own what we possess. Everything belongs to God, and what we have, we hold in trust.”

Fifth: the Jewish tradition of law. It provides the framework within which Jewish creativity can unfold itself, that means, it provides boundaries, so to speak, to this creativity.

These features are part of the “holy”, which is “the domain in which the worth of things is not judged by their market price or economic value.” The advanced economies of today are in danger because the market destroys its very foundations.

“What can we do, we who, because we have faith in God, have faith in God’s faith in humankind? There is a significant phrase that Pope Benedict XVI has often used: creative minority …. So, my proposal is that Jews and Catholics should seek to be creative minorities together. A duet is more powerful than a solo. Renouncing any aspiration for power, we should seek to encourage the single most neglected source of energy in a consumer-driven, profit-maximising society, namely the power of altruism.”

What would be necessary to put this proposal into practice?
* business leaders who understand and “teach that markets need morals” and know “that conscience is not for wimps;”
* all “things that have value but not a price” must be restored “to their rightful place in society;”
* the principle of Sabbath should be reanimated because it sets limits to the market;
* the relativism that cheats us into believing that there is no right and wrong, has to be given up.

Therefore, the conclusion of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is::

“Stabilising the Euro is one thing, healing the culture that surrounds it is another. A world in which material values are everything and spiritual values nothing is neither a stable state nor a good society. The time has come for us to recover the Judeo-Christian ethic of human dignity in the image of God. When Europe recovers its soul, it will recover its wealth-creating energies.”

1. https://www.worldjewishcongress.org/en/news/the-world-jewish-congress-mourns-the-death-of-rabbi-lord-jonathan-sacks-11-6-2020.

2. https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/.premium-1948-2020-the-contradictions-of-rabbi-jonathan-sacks-1.9296650.

3. https://rabbisacks.org/has-europe-lost-its-soul-transcript-of-lecture-delivered-at-the-pontifical-gregorian-university-rome/.