The Ethics of Responsibility
One of Judaism's most distinctive and challenging ideas is its ethics of responsibility, the idea that God invites us to become, in the rabbinic phrase, his 'partners in the work of creation'. The God who created the world in love calls on us to create in love. The God who gave us the gift of freedom asks us to use it to honour and enhance the freedom of others. God, the ultimate Other, asks us to reach out to the human other. More than God is a strategic intervener, he is a teacher. More than he does our will, he teaches us how to do his. Life is God's call to responsibility. That is the theme of this book.
More than any previous generation in history, we have come to see the individual as the sole source of meaning. The gossamer filaments of connection between us and others, that once held together families, communities and societies, have become attenuated. We have become lonely selves in search of purely personal fulfilment. But that surely must be wrong. Life alone is only half a life. One spent pursuing the satisfaction of desire is less than satisfying and never all we desire. So it is worth reminding ourselves that there is such a thing as ethics, and it belongs to the life we live together and the goods we share - the goods that only exist in virtue of being shared.
That is one of Judaism's enduring insights. To give an example: in 1190 Moses Maimonides, the greatest rabbi of the Middle Ages, published The Guide for the Perplexed, the most challenging work of Jewish philosophy ever written. In it he addresses the most exalted themes of religious thought - the existence of God, the limits of human knowledge, the problem of evil and the reasons for the commands. It is a formidably difficult work. Yet in its closing chapter he summarizes his teachings with a quote from Jeremiah:
This is what the Lord says:
'Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom
or the strong man boast of his strength
or the rich man boast of his riches,
but let him who boasts boast about this:
that he understands and knows Me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight',
declares the Lord. (Jer. 9:23-4)
I find it moving that at the end of his journey through intellectual space, Maimonides is drawn back to this simple affirmation of kindness, righteousness and justice. We cannot know God, Maimonides implies ('If I could understand him', one Jewish writer said, 'I would be him'), but we can act like him. Within the limits of human intelligence, we can climb at least part of the way to heaven, but the purpose of the climb is the return to earth, knowing that here is where God wants us to be and where he has given us work to do. Judaism contains mysteries, but its ultimate purpose is not mysterious at all. It is to honour the image of God in other people, and thus turn the world into a home for the divine presence.
Maimonides lived what he taught. More than most, he valued solitude and meditation. He writes of it eloquently. Only when removed from the stresses and cares of the world, he says, can the soul soar in intellectual union with the Author of being. Yet he lived the latter years of his life as a physician (he was doctor to the Sultan in Cairo and had an extensive practice in his town, Fostat) and as a communal leader, consulted by
Jews and non-Jews alike. The acknowledged head of Egyptian Jewry, he answered questions sent to him by communities throughout the world. When the Provencal scholar Samuel ibn Tibbon wanted to visit him to seek guidance on the translation of the Guide from Arabic to Hebrew, Maimonides wrote him back a letter describing his typical week, in which he rarely had time to take a meal, let alone discuss technicalities of translation. It is a moving glimpse of the life of the great philosopher, spending his time healing the sick, guiding the members of his community, studying and praying with them, concerned no less with their bodies than with their souls.
When the disciples of the greatest Talmudist of the late nineteenth century, R. Hayyim of Brisk (1853-1918), asked him to define the task of a rabbi, he replied: 'To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor'. Constantly in debt, he gave most of his salary to the poor. In the winter he would leave his wood store unlocked so that the poor of the town could take the fuel they needed, without the embarrassment of having to ask. When the lay-leaders of the town complained that this was costing them money, he replied that he was saving them medical expenses, since otherwise he would be forced to sit in the cold and catch pneumonia. It was impossible, he said, for him to light a fire in his own home if he knew that, in other homes, the poor were freezing.
Judaism is a complex and subtle faith, yet it has rarely lost touch with its simple ethical imperatives. We are here to make a difference, to mend the fractures of the world, a day at a time, an act at a time, for as long as it takes to make it a place of justice and compassion where the lonely are not alone, the poor not without help; where the cry of the vulnerable is heeded and those who are wronged are heard. 'Someone else's physical needs are my spiritual obligation', a Jewish mystic taught. The truths of religion are exalted, but its duties are close at hand. We know God less by contemplation than by emulation. The choice is not between 'faith' and 'deeds', for it is by our deeds that we express our faith and make it real in the life of others and the world.
Jewish ethics is refreshingly down-to-earth. If someone is in need, give. If someone is lonely, invite them home. If someone you know has recently been bereaved, visit them and give them comfort. If you know of someone who has lost their job, do all you can to help them find another. The sages called this 'imitating God'. They went further: giving hospitality to a stranger, they said, is 'even greater than receiving the divine presence'. That is religion at its most humanizing and humane.
So too is its insistence that the ethical life is a form of celebration. Doing good is not painful, a matter of dour duty and a chastising conscience. There is a Hebrew word, a key term of the Bible, for which there is no precise English translation: simhah, usually translated as 'joy'. What it really means is the happiness we share, or better still, the happiness we make by sharing. One of the great statements of individual dignity and responsibility, Judaism is also an intensely communal faith, not simply a matter of the lonely soul in search of God, Plotinus' 'the flight of the alone to the Alone'. It is about sharing what we have, seeing possessions less as things we own than things we hold in trust, one of the conditions of which is that we use part of what we have to help others. That is not
self-sacrifice. If there is one thing I have heard more often than any other from those who spend part of their time in service to others, it is that they gain more than they give. They do not want to be thanked; they want to thank. Lifting others, they find that they themselves have been lifted.
The ethic of responsibility is the best answer I know to the meaning and meaningfulness of a life. When I first became a rabbi, the most difficult duty I had to perform was a funeral service. New to the position and the people, I often hardly knew the deceased, while to everyone else present he or she had been a member of the family, or an old and close friend. There was nothing to do but to get help from others. I would ask them what the person who had died meant to them. It did not take long before I recognized a pattern in their replies.
Usually they would say that the deceased had been a supportive husband or wife, a loving parent, a loyal friend. They spoke about the good they had done to others, often quietly, discreetly, without ostentation. When you needed them, they were there. They shouldered their responsibilities to the community. They gave to charitable causes, and if they could not give money, they gave time. Those most mourned and missed were not the most successful, rich or famous. They were the people who enhanced the lives of others. These were the people who were loved.
This reinforced for me the crucial distinction between the urgent and the important. No one ever spoke, in praise of someone who had died, about the car they drove, the house they owned, the clothes they wore, the exotic holidays they took. No one's last thought was ever, 'I wish I had spent more time in the office'. The things we spend most of our time pursuing turn out to be curiously irrelevant when it comes to seeing the value of a life as a whole. They are urgent but not important, and in the crush and press of daily life, the urgent tends to win out over the important.
Happiness, as opposed to pleasure, is a matter of a life well lived, one that honours the important, not just the urgent. This has been confirmed by many recent research studies. One showed that life satisfaction increased 24 per cent with the level of altruistic activity. Another discovered that those who had more opportunities to help others felt 11 per cent better about themselves. Several studies have shown that the best predictor of happiness is the sense that you have a purpose in life. Those who hold strong spiritual beliefs are typically satisfied with life, while those who have no spiritual beliefs are typically unsatisfied. People who feel responsible for their lives express one-third more life satisfaction than those who feel they lack control. When subjects were asked to choose any of twenty different factors contributing to happiness, there was only one no one chose: financial status. People who own the most are only as happy as those who have the least, and half as happy as those who are content with what they have. The desire to give is stronger than the desire to have. This alone is enough to defeat cynicism and fatalism about the human condition.
Happiness is the ability to say: I lived for certain values and acted on them. I was part of a family, embracing it and being embraced by it. I was part of a community, honouring its traditions, sharing its griefs and joys, ready to help others, knowing that they were ready to help me. I did not only ask what I could take; I asked what I could contribute. To know that you made a difference, that in this all-too-brief span of years you lifted someone's spirits, relieved someone's poverty or loneliness, or brought a moment of grace or justice to the world that would not have happened had it not been for you: these are as close as we get to the meaningfulness of a life, and they are matters of everyday rather than heroic virtue. Machiavelli famously said that it is better to be feared than to be loved. He was wrong.
Social responsibility needs reaffirmation because it has become problematic in recent times. What links me to children starving in Africa, or the victims of an earthquake in India? What, for that matter, implicates me in the fate of the unemployed, the homeless, the poor in my own society, my own neighbourhood? For one thing, the problems are too vast for my acts to make a difference. We have grown used to delegating such responsibilities to governments, in return for which we pay taxes - substituting politics for ethics, law for moral obligation, and impersonal agencies for personal involvement. As a result, ethics has tended to turn inward, becoming a matter of personal choice rather than collective responsibility. There was a time when people lived in close, ongoing contact with neighbours, creating networks of shared meaning and reciprocal duty. Nowadays we live anonymously among strangers whose religious, cultural and moral codes are different from ours. By what duty or right do we share a responsibility for their fate?
Some of the complexities of contemporary ethics were first signalled by Hans Jonas in his The Imperative of Responsibility. In previous generations, he argued, people had a fairly clear sense of the connection between act and consequence, between what they did and what happened. Today's challenges are not like that. Global warming is not the result of one person using leaded petrol or an aerosol spray, but of billions of acts distributed throughout the world. The effects of environmental damage caused by the destruction of rain forests or over-exploitation of non-renewable energy sources may not be apparent during our lifetimes. Where then is my responsibility? My acts are less than a drop in the ocean of humanity. What I do or refrain from doing has an infinitesimal effect on the rest of the world. What duties do I have to something as amorphous as humanity in general, as inanimate as nature, or as intangible as generations not yet born? Any simple notion of responsibility is inadequate to such problems, which is why religious responsibility - responsibility to the infinite in terms of space, eternal in terms of time - can sometimes be more cogent than secular alternatives (not, I hasten to add, that religious individuals are more environmentally active than their secular counterparts: we all know the problem and we all try to help). James Lovelock was forced to have recourse to the pagan earth-goddess Gaia to construct a compelling environmental ethic. I do not think we have to travel that far.
Another and deeply ironic turn has been the impact of the various social and natural sciences on our sense of human freedom. The entire thrust of modern thought, from Marx to Freud, from neuroscience to evolutionary psychology, has been to undermine the idea that we act because we choose, choose because we form intentions, form intentions because we are free, and because we are free, we have responsibility. The result is paradoxical.
Copyright © 2005 by Jonathan Sacks. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.