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.
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. It is this ethic of responsibility that is the best answer I know to the meaning and meaningfulness of a life. It is what the world needs from us in the twenty-first century.
The concept of an ethic of responsibility was not at all natural, nor can we take it for granted. It came about through intellectual discoveries, revolutionary in their time and still challenging today. Judaism has distinctive beliefs, not the least of which is the way in which God empowers us to exercise our freedom, under his tutelage, to create a social order that, by honouring human dignity, becomes a home for his presence.
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. The story of the Flood, which was read recently in Jewish communities around the world, tells of how God was grieved by the evil men do to one another, and of how he tore up the script of that chapter of humanity to begin again a righteous man named Noah. The surprising denouement of that story is that God himself regretted what he had done and vowed never again to ask of humanity more than it can reasonably fulfil. God neither destroys the world, nor does he give up on his hopes for humankind, but he knows it will take time. That is what hope is in Judaism: a refusal to give up on your deepest ideals, but a refusal likewise to say, in a world still disfigured by evil, that the Messaiah has yet come, and that world is saved. There is work still to be done, the journey is not yet complete, and it depends on us: we who now all too briefly stride upon the stage of time.
Immanuel Kant famously defined morality as the universal imperative: ‘Act only on a maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.’ Perhaps that is what morality is to the mindset of reason. There are surely universal imperatives. We all know them. Don’t murder. Don’t injure the innocent. Don’t rob or steal. Don’t lie. Those are the rules we learned as children, and if we failed to learn them, others quickly taught us. The interesting part of the moral life, the grown-up part, comes not in universals but particulars. It speaks to me, here, now: this person, in this situation, at this time. It knows my name. It calls to me, not to the person next to me. It says: there is an act only you can do, a situation only you can address, a moment that, if not seized may never come again. God commands in generalities but calls in particulars. He knows our gifts and he knows the needs of the world. That is why we are here. There is an act only we can do, and only at this time, and that is our task. The sum of these tasks is the meaning of our life, the purpose of our existence, the story we are called upon to write. God’s call is almost inaudible. I translate the biblical phrase, ‘a still, small voice’ (1 Kings 19:12) as ‘the voice we can only hear if we are listening’. But it is there, and if, from time to time throughout our lives, we create a silence in the soul, we will hear it.
There is no life without a task; no person without a talent; no place without a fragment of God’s light waiting to be discovered and redeemed; no situation without its possibility of sanctification; no moment without its call. It may take a lifetime to learn how to find these things, but once we learn, we realise in retrospect that all it ever took was the ability to listen. When God calls, he does not do so by way of universal imperatives. Instead, he whispers our name – and the greatest reply, the reply of Abraham, is simply hineni: ‘Here I am’, ready to heed your call, to mend a fragment of your all-too-broken world.
The above text is an edited extract from “To Heal A Fractured World” used with permission by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.
One of the foremost religious and social thinkers of our day, Jonathan Sacks is Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. He is the author of numerous books including Celebrating Life, From Optimism to Hope, To Heal a Fractured World and Dignity of Difference, for which he won a Grawemeyer Award in Religion. He can be reached on twitter @chiefrabbi and on facebook. Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is a monthly blogger for Ask Big Questions.