If you are one of those people who feels like cheering when the Radio Four broadcaster says that Dr.Jonathan Sacks is giving the “Thought For The Day”, you will want to own a copy of his new book, “The Home We Build Together”.
The Chief Rabbi offers a devastating critique of multiculturalism, which he says is gnawing away at the foundations of our democracy; and endangering the very liberal values which spawned it.
Dr.Sacks believes that in post-modern Britain we have lost our national identity and this is, in part, because we have no common story to bind us together.
He contrasts the absence of a common British narrative with the way in which the Hebrew people faithfully retell their Exodus story around their Passover tables; and the way in which Americans, recall the safe passage of their founding fathers and the values on which their constitution was founded.
Dr.Sacks has always been big on the importance of story telling and at the heart of his argument is the belief that we need to tell our children the story of their family, their community, their nation: that without their story they cannot embrace their identity.
Anyone familiar with the New Testament Parables knows how compelling good stories can be – bringing to life abstract ideas and concepts. Rabbi Sacks opens his argument with a story of his own.
He asks his readers to imagine three different scenarios each involving the arrival of a hundred strangers who have been wandering around the countryside looking for a place to stay.
The first one hundred are greeted warmly. Their host gives them empty rooms and tells them to stay as long as they wish. Everything is done for them but they remain as guests in someone else’s home.
The second one hundred wanderers have plenty of money and they are welcomed at a hotel. Theirs is a purely contractual relationship with the hotel’s owner; but so long as they don’t disturb the other guests they are told they can stay for as long as they wish.
The third one hundred are welcomed by the mayor and the civic leaders. There is no house or hotel available but the community does offer some land, building materials and help with the labouring. Their offer is: “Let us do this together.”
These three parables offer three different ways of thinking about society and identity. The first two scenarios lead to ghettoes and isolation, the third to integration and a genuine exchange of gifts. And says Jonathan Sacks, “Society is the home we build together.” His powerful critique also contains a brilliant analysis of our rights based culture and the exaggerated emphasis that has been placed on personal autonomy. He says that he is not a liberal – because he believes in his accountability before God – but he does believe in liberal democracy: and that the contemporary case for liberal democracy is “inadequate to the challenges that face it in the twenty first-century…Freedom needs a stronger defence than those currently on offer” With breathless ease he rehearses the arguments for democracy and for freedom – particularly citing Aristotle, Plato, Bentham and Mill. More contemporaneously, significant influences have included Sir Isaiah Berlin, Ernst Gellner, and Bernard William, and he quotes the Catholic thinkers, Jacques Maritain, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Novak. He writes approvingly of Burke’s “small platoons” and of Alex de Tocqueville’s belief that we become more virtuous simply by participating in the affairs of a free society . De Tocqueville passionately believed that democracy was vulnerable to individualism ; that when the State arrogates to itself ever more responsibilities it saps the citizen of his desire to participate. That in turn undermines a democracy. Jonathan Sacks tells us that his purpose in writing this book is not a religious one and, indeed, his arguments do not stand or fall on willingness to embrace theism. However, the richest seams of all, in this wonderfully articulate and highly readable book, are the ones that remind us of his own story: his Judaism and the experiences of the Jewish people. Whether he is describing the reasons why the Jews decided to go against God’s advice and to choose a monarch to replace their collective leadership, or examining the reasons why, despite centuries of persecution, the Jewish nation retained its identity, or contrasting the different approaches of a prophet and a rabbi, or introducing the non Jewish reader to Moses Maimonides or Hillel, Jonathan Sacks both enriches us while providing an architect’s plan and drawing from which to start building a home together. It is from his understanding of the Old Testament that he draws a clear distinction between social contract and covenant: “Social contract creates a state; social covenant creates a society. Social contract is about power and how it is to be handled within a political framework. Social covenant is about how people live together despite their differences. Social contract is about government. Social covenant is about coexistence.” Social covenanting is ultimately about the common good – and it is that principle that will ensure that the house stands. Houses built on anything else will be like the first of those two houses described in another famous story- the house built on sand was washed away while the house built on rock withstood the elements. In among these three themes – a reworking of national identity; a forging of a new social covenant; and an outpouring for the common good – are all the characteristics we need if Britain is to withstand the elements.
Jonathan Sacks “The House we Build Together – Recreating Society” (Continuum, 2007).