Rosh Hashanah 5779

Why the world needs Rosh Hashanah

On Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the days in between, we enact one of Judaism’s most powerful yet unfashionable beliefs — that our lives individually and collectively have a moral dimension.

We may live most of the year as if what matters is success or fame or power or wealth. But on these holy days, we come together in the synagogue to stand before God and acknowledge two altogether deeper truths — that we are the good we do in the world, and we are accountable for the bad we did or the good we failed to do.

This year, courtesy of the BBC, I had a rare chance to discuss these beliefs with some of the finest minds in the world. In the course of making a series of programs on moral challenges of the 21st century, I met leading philosophers, thinkers, innovators and philanthropists, as well as high school students from across England. What they had to say was powerful, important, and necessary.

The thesis I wanted to test was that, for the past 50 years the West has been engaged in a fateful experiment that we can do without a shared moral code. Words that once guided us — like “right,” “wrong,” “ought,” “should,” “duty,” “obligation,” “loyalty,” “virtue,” “honor” — now have an antiquated air about them, as if they came from an age long dead.

Instead, we’ve outsourced morality to the market and the state. The market gives us choices; the state deals with the consequences; but neither passes any kind of judgment on those choices. So long as we don’t directly harm anyone else, we are free to do whatever we like.

This was experienced at the time as a huge liberation. We were freer to be whatever we choose to be than humans had ever been before. But we can now count the costs in broken families, loss of community, a rise in depression, teenage suicides and loneliness, a loss of trust in big corporations and governments, the new tribalism of identity politics, and the vitriol that passes for communication on the internet. A shared morality binds us together. Lose it and people find themselves vulnerable and alone.

Anyone familiar with the Hebrew Bible could have predicted this. It’s the story told by the prophets time and again. We hear it in Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Without a deeply internalized sense of collective responsibility for the common good, society begins to fracture and fragment. We move from a world of “We” to one of “I” — the private pursuit of personal desire.

The result, in contemporary terms, is irresponsible banks, greedy corporations, exploitative politics, sexual predators, and neglected children. There’s nothing in our nature to make the rich care for the poor, or the powerful for the powerless.

That’s why we need morality, to help us care for the good of all of us together, not just each of us on our own.

The prophets said that the end result of such a society would be defeat and despair. Well, we don’t have prophets any more. But listen to this list of titles of recently published books in Britain and the United States — How Democracy EndsThe Death of DemocracyCan Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?Why Liberalism Failed; The Retreat of Western LiberalismThe Strange Death of Europe; and The Suicide of the West. These are endless variations and secular updates of the warnings of the Hebrew prophets.

Virtually all the people I interviewed had a powerful moral message. Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson talked about the importance of accepting personal responsibility and the dangers of seeing yourself as a victim. Jonathan Haidt, the American social psychologist, spoke about how the politics of victimhood is threatening free speech on university campuses. Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam talked about how the breakdown of families and communities is robbing at least a third of Americans of social mobility.

British economist Noreena Hertz made the case for a more moral approach to capitalism. Jean Twenge, the world’s leading expert on the impact of social media, was scary when she charted the rise of depression among today’s teenagers. New York Times columnist David Brooks spoke eloquently about how we’ve focused too much on the “resume virtues,” the skills we need for career success, and too little on the “eulogy virtues,” the habits of character that bring meaning and grace into our lives.

Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel reminded us that politics has an inescapable moral dimension. Neuroscientist Steven Pinker urged us to follow facts not feelings. DeepMind’s Mustafa Suleyman explained how we need to build ethics into the development of artificial intelligence, and Nick Bostrom, the man who warned the world about the dangers of superintelligence, cautioned against creating technology we can’t control.

On the other side of the equation, Melinda Gates and Heather Templeton Dill, heads of two of the world’s leading philanthropic foundations, were inspirational, speaking of the power we each have to change other people’s lives for the better. The teenagers on the program were no less eloquent in talking about their moral heroes and role models, and their fears and hopes for the future.

The bottom line of all of this is that society needs more than the free market and the liberal democratic state. It needs us to accept moral responsibility for our own lives and for the common good. That truth has been in eclipse for half a century, but the strains are beginning to show. We have already seen the first tremors of the alternatives — populism, identity politics, the culture of victimhood, and the rise of the far left and far right — what I call the politics of anger.

Long ago Jews pioneered the alternative — the politics of hope. Hope is born when we dedicate ourselves individually and collectively to justice, compassion, the sanctity of life, and the dignity of the individual. That is what we are summoned to do on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. God does not ask us to be perfect. He asks us to try our best to love Him, our neighbor, and the stranger. And when we fail, as we all do one way or another, He asks us to acknowledge our failures and try again.

From the dawn of our history, Judaism has been driven by a moral passion, God’s command to Abraham to “teach his children to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.” That passion is, in the long run, the only thing capable of sustaining a free society. Without it, every superpower in history, after a period of affluence, eventually declines and falls. The Jewish message was rarely more relevant than now. Or, as we put it on these holy days, penitence, prayer, and charity give us the chance to begin again and avert the evil decree.

For Rabbi Lord Sacks’s BBC Radio 4 series podcasts, ‘Morality in the 21st Century’, see here. The series includes extended interviews between Rabbi Sacks and contributors.