Book Review: Celebrating Life: Finding Happiness in Unexpected Places (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)

Book Review: The Continuing Triumph of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Jonathan Sacks, Celebrating Life: Finding Happiness in Unexpected Places (Continuum Books, 2004)

by David Shasha

With the US publication of his masterpiece The Dignity of Difference in 2003, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks emerged as a Modern Orthodox thinker and public intellectual whose Hebrew humanism was one that actually served to make a real difference in the minds and hearts of his readers.  In an Orthodox Jewish world that has unfortunately descended into vapid mindlessness and incestuous infighting, Rabbi Sacks continued a tradition which began back in the days of Se’adiah Gaon and Maimonides: He looked deeply at Judaism from the prism of universal civilization and was able to immeasurably improve the quality of both his Jewish vision as well as provide a decisive moral uplift to the common culture that we share as members of the human family.

The Dignity of Difference, as its title implies, was a plea in the post-9/11 world to assert the primacy of a dignified humanity in the face of the dehumanizing and debilitating scourge of depersonalization and the very real costs of human violence and civilizational anarchy that has been unleashed by parochial politics and religious fanaticism. 

Rabbi Sacks was unwilling to point fingers at any one group and equally unwilling to vilify humanity as has now become all-too-common among religious people of all stripes.

Young children in my Jewish community have been wearing kippot that say in Hebrew Ani Oheb Kol Yehudi, I Love All Jews.  Such a public pronouncement serves to announce to the world that Orthodox Judaism has become an intolerant and xenophobic and racist faith.  When I open up an Orthodox journal or newsletter and see the word “tolerance” appear, I have come to expect that the article will be discussing ways for JEWS to get along with one another.  When the word “tolerance” appears in a Jewish context the word loses any sense of its true universal meaning within the Jewish tradition of Religious Humanism.

We can draw a line from the great Sephardi humanists of the Middle Ages to the seminal rabbis of the modern age such as Sabato Morais, Elijah Benamozegh and Eliyahu Hazzan.  Religious Humanism was once limited to the Sephardic sector only and has had very few exponents on the Ashkenazi side.  We can in the contemporary period proudly point to the great religious genius of modern Judaism Abraham Joshua Heschel who was able to synthesize the scholasticism of Maimonides and the mystical hermeticism of his Hasidic forebears into perhaps the most far-reaching and profound amalgamation of humanistic Judaism that we have absorbed in the contemporary period.  But the insightful legacy of Heschel has been missing from mainstream Orthodox Jewish thought.

Coming out of the Orthodox tradition, Jonathan Sacks has had great obstacles to overcome.  He has found himself at the receiving end of some very brutal attacks from the Orthodox community in both the UK as well as the US who have tried to have him removed from his position as Chief Rabbi.  But Sacks’ optimism has yet to waver.  And in his new (the book has just been published in America, but was first published in the UK back in 2000) and brilliantly executed book Celebrating Life, a collection of 58 short essays whose origin was in the Credo column in the Times of London, Sacks has written what is surely the most bracing and cogent popular treatise on religion and modern life that we now possess.

Wisely bypassing the dispiriting controversies that now pollute both religious and secular discourse, Sacks discusses the issues that matter most in our lives: he addresses faith, pain, the family, hope and hopelessness, what unites us, what divides us, charity, compassion, everyday politics, science and technology, the marketplace, and the many details that comprise who we are as human beings.  Different in tone and style than The Dignity of Difference, Celebrating Life is a book of profound and moving affirmation that dazzles with its sense of wonder and amazement for the world that we live in.  It is a book that embraces the values of the modern world, but forcefully maintains that the truths of religious tradition must form a seamless part of our own self-understanding.

Rabbi Sacks presents the reader with numerous examples of the confluence of science and technology within a religious framework.  He argues eloquently that science bereft of religion turns science into an arid and soulless exercise which promotes a vapid narcissism and has led to an increase in our collective anomie and sense of cultural malaise:

Why, if things are so good, are they so bad?  The shortest, simplest answer is that we have lost our way.  We have focused on the how but not the why.  In achieving material abundance we have begun to lose our moral and spiritual bearings.  In achieving technical mastery we have lost sight of the question – to what end?  Valuing science at the expense of ethics, we have unparalleled knowledge of what is and unprecedented doubts of what ought to be.

Rather than eviscerating the value and the uses of science and material progress as would be the common approach among those of an Orthodox persuasion, Sacks tacitly sees the great good of science and technology but has sought to insist that religious feeling and behavior must be a part of our lives as human beings.

The book distinguishes itself by the marvelous way in which Sacks writes serves to invite the reader – and here we can say that there is no discrimination between the religious and the non-religious reader – into a religious world that Sacks terms “counter-cultural”; the world of modernity has by and large rejected religious tradition and the values of religion as it mercilessly marches on to accumulate ever more THINGS.  In his discussion of how he would prepare a eulogy he states a profound truth:

No one ever asked me to say of someone that they dressed well, lived extravagantly, took fabulous holidays, drove an expensive car or had a good time.  I never heard anyone praised for being too busy at work to find time for their children.  Our ordinary, instinctive sense of happiness is saner and more humane than the story told by the media and advertising columns.  It suggests that happiness is not the pursuit of pleasure or the satisfaction of desire.  Instead, it is inseparable from living well.  It is a moral concept, and it is made in those places where morality matters – the family, the congregation, the community – where we are valued not for what we earn, or what we can buy, or the way we cast our vote, but simply for what we are and what we do.

These values transcend the parochialism of religious specificity, but are impossible without the construction and maintenance of communities of faith.  Deftly avoiding the traps that imperil modern religious writing – and have created the vapidity of the “Tuesdays with Morrie”/Oprah/New Age spiritualist phenomenon that has very little to do with intelligence and real moral substance and more with a superficial adoption of the “right” values to coat empty lives with a false patina of political correctness – Sacks has adopted the principle of the great French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and has laid out religion and religious values as a “Difficult Freedom” that challenges the believer to link her actions to a system of belief and human foundationalism that sees all humanity as inextricably linked in both a historical as well as a social manner.

The steely determined INTELLIGENCE of Rabbi Sacks continues to impress and to inspire us in its overwhelming profundity.  By contrast, wherever we turn we are faced with religious leaders who lead by setting their faith communities in ISOLATION from the world.  These religious leaders find that it is far easier and far more effective in the short run to gather in their adherents and ignorantly shut them off from what goes on around them.

The “magic” panacea of Celebrating Life for the intelligent and perspicacious reader which separates it from the run-of-the-mill books of this sort is that it does not fear to face the challenges of the world and does not shy away from the pain and tribulation that we face each and every day.

Sacks relates that the genesis of the book was in the tortuous period that followed the death of his beloved father, a man whose own life was lived with dignity but with the frustration of the obstacles that we all face as we try and conquer our demons and live up to our challenges:
He did not do very well.  I do not think he had a mind for business.  I remember days, many of them, when I went to the shop to keep him company and never saw a single customer.  Nor did he make friends easily.  He was a man of austere moral principles and he could never bear the compromises of everyday life.  I do not know how he stayed sane, knowing the chances he might have had in another life, the opportunities that did not come his way, the education he missed.  He had a fine mind.  He loved music and painting and literature, but he was always conscious that he was self-taught.  Yet I never heard him complain.  That was the odd thing.

In many ways Celebrating Life is a book that seeks to both investigate and answer that very question: WHY did he not complain?

The answer is not as either the religious fundamentalist or the religious skeptic would have it. 

The fundamentalist buried deep in the bowels of the irrational and mired within the corrosive xenophobia and ethno-religious hatred that leads to civil dysfunction and human violence would simply turn the pain into joy and elide the very difficulty of the struggle that we face as human beings. 

The skeptic would question the very coherence of life itself and deny that there is hope in believing in God and His relationship to humanity.

Rabbi Sacks takes both the pain and the hope and merges them in a way that never serves to violate our rational sense of intelligence and humanity.  He refuses to condescend to the reader preferring to trust in the reader’s innate intelligence and ethical integrity.  He does not present his father’s struggle as a Divine punishment, but shows the fortitude of his father as a manifestation of the difficulty of existence and the courage that life often demands of us. 

The plain truth of life is not whitewashed over or elided in Sacks’ writing.  He tells the TRUTH, as painful as it may be, but he refuses to give into despair and negativity.  His sense of HOPE accepts the negative aspects of life, but insists that in the social construction of webs of community and of family and friends that we generate the very fundamental religious mechanisms that anchor a healthy society.

Celebrating Life is a profound book that speaks in very simple and elementary terms understandable to each and every one of us regardless of our level of education and intellectual sophistication.  It takes the moral principles of the Monotheistic tradition and translates those principles into a sensible plan for the modern individual who is trying to keep afloat in the confusing and often-times relentless civilization that we now live in.

When advising a man who was getting married to a girlfriend who has recently converted to Judaism on his obligation to take on the Sabbath obligation of rest, Sacks tells us:

A few weeks before the wedding, he came to see me.  He wanted to thank me, he said: “at the time, I was angry.  But now I understand that you were right.  I used to be a workaholic: I worked seven days a week.  Keeping the Sabbath has changed my life.  Now I have time for my wife and our child.  We have acquired friends, and they too have enriched our lives.  Today we are part of a community, which we were not before.  One day in seven we have time to celebrate, reflect and give thanks for what we have.  The work still gets done, but now I have time for the things that matter.  Thank you.”

Such a tale is what we Jews call Kiddush ha-Shem, a sanctification of God’s name.  But Sacks never presents these wonderfully inspiring and deeply moving stories of both regular people and prominent members of government and civil society as merely sanctimonious episodes that lack the depth of knowledge that makes life richly complex and deeply challenging to us as human beings.  He continues to accept the ambiguity and multiplicity of the human experience and asks the reader to stop diminishing that complexity and plurality by forcing us to look inside into our very own core being and extract the rational principles of morality and ethics that have been encapsulated within our religious texts and traditions.

Celebrating Life is perhaps the only contemporary book that I can think of that marries a spiritual religious discipline with a profound scholasticism.  It is not a book of arrogantly preachy pronouncements.  It is lucidly and simply written for a mass audience and although its many stories of faith, hope and charity fit neatly into the “self-help” genre that now plagues our literary marketplace, the philosophical breadth and the overarching concern for the coherence of our complexity as members of modern society that the work displays makes it the ideal meeting place of the quotidian and the brainy.

Where The Dignity of Difference took on the HUGE issues that we face in terms of World politics and the BIG philosophical questions that have been addressed by thinkers since the age of Plato and Aristotle, Celebrating Life tells a far simpler story – but in an equally literate and profound manner.

Celebrating Life is yet further evidence that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks stands alone among modern theologians in his eloquent espousal of a Religious Humanism that brooks no compromise in either religious or secular terms.  It is a fitting companion to his earlier writings and will stand proudly in our libraries as a testament to the power of the spirit of Man and God.

The book is required reading for anyone who thinks and feels about the things that are closest to us as human beings.

David Shasha