Rabbi Sacks Tidewater Community Book Club delves into Future Tense

by | Mar 14, 2024 | Other News

The inaugural session of the Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Community Book Club took place on Sunday, Feb. 25 at Congregation Beth El. Participants included congregants of area synagogues as well as those without affiliation. As part of the series, sponsored by the Simon Family JCC and Konikoff Center for Learning, each event is followed with an article to inform those unable to attend.

The first book in the six-event series was Future Tense: Jews, Judaism and Israel in the 21st Century. Written in 2009 and referencing past armed conflict in Gaza, it was a particularly appropriate beginning to the series considering the recent violence in Israel. A lively interactive discussion ensued, touching on the main themes of the book and its central premise calling for a Judaism engaged in the world. As Rabbi Sacks states, “We are in danger of forgetting who Jews are and why, why there is such a thing as the Jewish people, and what its place is within the global project of humankind.”

Future Tense challenges the narrative that Jews are destined to be hated and a people that forever shall dwell alone. For Sacks, this isn’t the Jewish story. If one believes they are alone, they will be. This attitude is inconsistent with Jewish self-understanding and turns Jews into victims. Ultimately it demoralizes and leads Jews to leave Judaism.

The book argues that without a positive vision, Jews will split apart. This unity requires a shared religious commitment, “Without the covenant of faith, there is no covenant of fate. Without religion, there is no global nation.” Sacks notes the paradox of Jewish continuity, “when it was hard to stay a Jew, people stayed Jewish, when it became easy to be a Jew, people stopped being Jewish.” Staying Jewish requires a level of connection beyond ethnic or culture identification. Maintaining an identity requires duty, commitment, and loyalty.

Highlighting both the unique and universal aspects of Judaism, Sacks writes “If the God of Israel is the God of all humanity, then you do not have to be a member of the religion of Israel to be in the image of God or blessed by God.” The tolerance of religious diversity is at the center of Judaism that values the “dignity of difference.” It also highlights Judaism’s focus on being the “voice of the other throughout history.” As he remarks, “The whole of Judaism is about making space for the other, about God making space for us, us making space for God, and about human beings making space for one another.”

The global rise of antisemitism makes it seem that there is little space for the Jewish people. Sacks discusses the mutating virus that is antisemitism. It started initially as an antireligious view of Judaism from early Christian leaders who embraced secessionism and considered themselves the new “chosen people.” In the Middle Ages, antisemitism morphed to target specific Jewish practice which was often characterized as demonic. This is best exemplified by the blood libel in which Jews were falsely accused of using the blood of murdered Christian children to make their Passover matzah. Following the enlightenment in the late 1800s, antisemitism assumed an anti-racial approach, culminating in the Holocaust. Today’s antisemitism has mutated once more as anti-Zionism, where Jews don’t deserve their own state, claiming that the existence of Israel is the source of all evil. Thus, every Jew is a legitimate target no matter where in the world they reside.

What is the right response to antisemitism? It is to live a life not of what “you are against, but what you are living for” – to lean into Judaism and not be afraid to be different. While antisemites may be the loudest voice, they are not the most numerous.

Despite the rise in hate, Jews are not alone. There continues to be significant public support for Jews and Israel in America, Arab countries want relations with the Jewish state, and a renaissance in Jewish-Christian relations has taken place over the last few decades. As the book explains, the fear that Jews are destined to dwell alone comes from the failure of three universalist dreams: European emancipation, Russian communism, and Secular Zionism.

Sacks explains why Israel is necessary and what a new vision of Zionism can be. The connection of the Jewish people and the land are inseparable and the foundation of numerous commandments. “Israel has taken a barren land and made it bloom again. It has taken an ancient language, the Hebrew of the Bible, and made it speak again. It has taken the West’s oldest faith and made it young again. It has taken a shattered nation and made it live again.”

The founding fathers of America were well versed in the Bible and looked to it as a source of inspiration to promote a society based on covenant. A contract is an exchange based on mutual benefit. A covenant is more like a marriage. “In a covenant, two or more individuals, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of love and trust to share their interests, sometimes their lives, by pledging their faithfulness to one another, to do together what neither can achieve alone. The relationship between the Jewish people and God is a covenant and Sacks elaborates on this model as the key to an effective Jewish society in the Jewish State.

The book concludes with a call for the Jewish people to engage in the world and unite Torah with chochma (wisdom). It is a call to action, to understand the world and bring the light of Torah out to improve it. As noted in the title, Future Tense, Judaism is a forward-thinking religion. The golden age of the Jewish people is yet to come.

The next book club is Sunday, April 28 at Temple Emanuel with The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning.

Craig Schranz is a physician and Norfolk resident with an interest in sharing the teachings of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks