To Heal A Fractured World | Notes & Review

Posted on August 21, 2009


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. To Heal A Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility. Schocken Books, 2005. (279 pages)

to heal a fractured world


Chapter 1: The Ethics of Responsibility

Being human means being conscious and being responsible. – Viktor Frankl

“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. … We have become lonely selves in search of purely personal fulfillment. 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.” (3)

“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.” (4) [VIA: This is perhaps why Jacob saw angels first ascending to heaven, then descending. (Genesis 28:12)]

“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 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’.” (5)

“The 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…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.” (6)

The desire to give is stronger than the desire to have.” (6-7) “Happiness is the ability to say:…I did not only ask what I could take; I asked what I could contribute.” (7)

“…ethics has tended to turn inward, becoming a matter of personal choice rather than collective responsibility.” (7)

“The entire thrust of modern thought,…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. … A conception of human life without responsibility fails to do justice to human dignity, and is no way to ensure our survival as a species. (cf. Greece)” (8)

“The only force equal to a fundamentalism of hate is a counter-fundamentalism of love. … The message of the Hebrew Bible is that serving God and serving our fellow human beings are inseparably linked, and the split between the two impoverishes both.” (9)

“The religious expressions of humankind (the holy) are incommensurable, but goodness — bringing blessing to lives other than one’s own — is as near as we get to a universal language. Poverty, hunger, disease are evils in any culture, and those who heal them are giants of the spirit.” (10)

“…telling stories is one of the best ways of making a moral point. … The Bible itself is one of the key examples of truth as story, as opposed to the more usual Western model of truth as system. What I love about Jewish stories is that they are mostly about ordinary people. They are not like myth, epic tales of larger-than-life heroes, gods who act like men or men who act like gods. If ancient Greece spoke about the virtue of democracy, Judaism speaks about the democracy of virtue — the good that is real because it is done by people like us.” (11)

“We absorb moral ideas the way we learn a language, unconsciously” (12)

“Behind the ethic of responsibility is the daring idea that more than we have faith in God, God has faith in us. Despite his frequent disappointments, he does not give up on us and never will.” (12)

“Judaism is a religion of protest, what Herbert Schneidau called ‘sacred discontent.’ (14)

Chapter 2: Faith as Protest

“Since this book is about religious ethics, we ought to confront at the outset the most compelling argument that religion is not a force for good.” (17)

“In the Bible God removes the chains of slavery from his people; he does not impose them. The religion of Israel emerged out of the most paradigm-shifting experience of the ancient world: that the supreme power intervened in history to liberate the powerless.” (18)

Regarding the story of Abraham and the “50 righteous” in Genesis 18, “The curiously reiterated phrases, ‘young and old’, ‘all the people’, ‘to the last man’, are intended to show us that as a matter of fact Abraham’s conjecture was false. There were not ten righteous people in the city. There was not one.” (19) Abraham is chosen “to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness [tzedakah (צדקה)] and justice [mispat (משפת)]. … In Judaism, faith is a revolutionary gesture.” (20)

“With monotheism a question was born. Why do the righteous suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people? Or, as the prophet Jeremiah later asked, ‘Why does the way of the wicked prosper?’ (Jer. 12:1).” (20) There seems to be only two alternatives to choose from: “to deny the power or goodness of God or to deny the existence of unjustified evil.” (21)


Posted in: Religion, Theology