Rad­i­cal Respon­si­bil­i­ty: Cel­e­brat­ing the Thought of Chief Rab­bi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Michael J. Har­ris, Daniel Ryn­hold, Tam­ra Wright, eds.
  • Review
By – July 1, 2013

In hon­or of Rab­bi Jonathan Sacks’s six­ty-fifth birth­day and his retire­ment from the posi­tion of Chief Rab­bi of the Unit­ed Hebrew Con­gre­ga­tions of the British Com­mon­wealth, a col­lec­tion of thir­teen orig­i­nal essays by out­stand­ing schol­ars in var­i­ous dis­ci­plines are pre­sent­ed to him in this vol­ume. In his pub­lic lec­tures, pre­sen­ta­tions in the media, week­ly essay appear­ances on the inter­net, and in twen­ty-eight vol­umes that he has either authored or edit­ed begin­ning in 1990, Rab­bi Sacks has served as a most pro­lif­ic and pro­found spokesman to both the Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish world, in Eng­land and abroad, artic­u­lat­ing a vision that he describes as Torah VeChachmah.” In one of his lyri­cal expla­na­tions of this con­cep­tion of the sophis­ti­cat­ed inter­ac­tion between tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish ideas and over­all wis­dom asso­ci­at­ed with the clas­si­cal and con­tem­po­rary world, he writes, Chochmah is where we encounter God through cre­ation; Torah is how we hear God through revelation.” 

The four sec­tions of Rad­i­cal Respon­si­bil­i­ty reflect the main foci of Rab­bi Sacks’s thought and writ­ings: Jew­ish Ethics and Moral Phi­los­o­phy; The Pur­suit of Jus­tice; Reli­gion and Con­tem­po­rary Soci­ety, and Lead­er­ship. While most of the essays’ authors are well-known schol­ars who work pri­mar­i­ly in Jew­ish fields, for exam­ple, David Schatz, Joshua Berman, Binyamin Lau, Moshe Hab­ber­tal, Michael Broyde, Men­achem Kell­ner, Jacob J. Shac­ter, David Berg­er and Avi­va Got­tlieb-Zorn­berg, it is notable that four aca­d­e­m­ic lumi­nar­ies who have made their mark in oth­er areas, Alas­dair Mac­In­tyre, Michael Walz­er, Charles Tay­lor, and Ronald Heifetz, asso­ci­at­ed respec­tive­ly with the fields of moral phi­los­o­phy, polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, clas­si­cal phi­los­o­phy, and lead­er­ship stud­ies, are also rep­re­sent­ed. Each sec­tion of the book begins with an essay com­posed by one of these men, all indi­vid­u­als who have sig­nif­i­cant­ly influ­enced Rab­bi Sacks’s thought, and who in turn wished to demon­strate their respect for and appre­ci­a­tion of the Chief Rab­bi by par­tic­i­pat­ing in this tribute. 

As Rab­bi Sacks has done in his own work, bring­ing into con­ver­sa­tion the worlds of Jew­ish and gen­er­al thought, each indi­vid­ual essay, as well as each group of essays can be read as artic­u­la­tions of a sim­i­lar out­look, i.e., com­par­ing and con­trast­ing Jew­ish thought, texts, and law, on the one hand, with the realms of phi­los­o­phy, social sci­ence, pol­i­tics, legal stud­ies, and psy­chol­o­gy on the other.

It is par­tic­u­lar­ly mov­ing to see how many of the authors’ essays cite key pas­sages from Rab­bi Sacks’s writ­ings as jump­ing-off points for their own thought­ful explo­rations, in effect mak­ing Rad­i­cal Respon­si­bil­i­ty a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the Talmud’s metaphor for the giv­ing of the Torah in Shab­bat 88b — with every utter­ance, sparks flew in dif­fer­ent direc­tions, inspir­ing diverse thoughts and ideas in all those who were present. I am sure that read­ers will have a sim­i­lar expe­ri­ence upon read­ing this stim­u­lat­ing collection.


Yaakov (Jack) Biel­er was the found­ing Rab­bi of the Kemp Mill Syn­a­gogue in Sil­ver Spring, MD until his retire­ment in 2015. He has been asso­ci­at­ed with Jew­ish day school edu­ca­tion for over thir­ty years. R. Biel­er served as a men­tor for the Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty Look­stein Cen­ter Prin­ci­pals’ Sem­i­nar and he has pub­lished and lec­tured exten­sive­ly on the phi­los­o­phy of Mod­ern Ortho­dox education.

Discussion Questions