MS. TIPPETT:You know, I start in this place with everyone I interview, whoever they are. If they’re a quantum physicist or a theologian. And I just wanted to hear something about the particular spiritual background of your childhood. Did you have a devout Jewish upbringing?
RABBI SACKS: I was the oldest of four boys. My father, who had come to Britain as a refugee from Poland at the age of six, had to leave school at the age of 14, so he never had an education — not Jewish or secular. My mother had to leave school at the age of 16. So my parents didn’t know that much. What they did have was a great love for Judaism. And, you know, I tend to think that’s the greatest gift you can give a child. Wordsworth said it beautifully. “What we love, others will love, and we will show them how.”
RABBI SACKS:No, actually. In 1990, the BBC asked me to give the Reith Lectures. They’re given once a year. There are six lectures on radio, first given by Bertrand Russell in 1948. I was only the second religious leader to give them, and I called them “The Persistence of Faith.” It was probably the first response to Francis Fukuyama’s vision of the end of history. You know, the Berlin Wall had fallen, Soviet Union had collapsed, end of Cold War. Everyone was seeing what he foresaw as the, you know, seamless spread of liberal democracy over the world.
And I said no, actually. I think you’re going to see faith return and return in a way that will cause some problems because the most powerful faith in the modern world will be the faith most powerfully opposed to the modern world. So that was in 1990, the year before I became Chief Rabbi. Nothing that’s happened since has surprised me, though it has saddened me. Religion is a great power, and anything that powerful can be a force for good or, God forbid, for evil. But it’s certainly fraught and dangerous and needs great wisdom and great — if I can use this word — gentleness.
MS. TIPPETT:And so I’d like to draw you out on how Jewish experience and Jewish tradition — you know, what resources and vocabulary that might bring to this global moment, which is not merely uncertain, but certainly marked by change, which is stressful for human beings. One of the ways you’ve talked about that, not uncontroversially, is about the approach you see deep within Jewish tradition to difference.
RABBI SACKS:Yeah. It seems to me that one of the things we most fear is the stranger. And at most times in human history, most people have lived among people who are mostly pretty much the same as themselves. Today — certainly in Europe and perhaps even in America — walk down the average main street and you will encounter in ten minutes more anthropological diversity than an 18th-century traveler would have encountered in a lifetime.
So you really have this huge problem of diversity. And you then go back and read the Bible and something hits you, which is, we’re very familiar with the two great commands of love: Love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might; love your neighbor as yourself. But the one command reiterated more than any other in the mosaic box — 36 times, said the rabbis — is love the stranger. For you were once strangers in the land of Egypt. Or, to put it in a contemporary way, love the stranger because, to him, you’re a stranger. This sense that we are enlarged by the people who are different from us — we are not threatened by them — that needs cultivating, can be cultivated, and would lead us to see the 21st century as full of blessing, not full of fear.
Oh, sure. I mean, you take — you know, I’m really not very good at sort of operating machines, so I fall back on that old aphorism, “When all else fails, read the instructions.”
MS. TIPPETT:Right. [laughs]
RABBI SACKS:And here we are reading those instructions afresh through the eyes of quantitative and experimental science and discovering what the great traditions of wisdom were saying three or 4,000 years ago. We now know that it is
- doing good to others,
- a network of strong and supportive relationships, and
- a sense that one’s life is worthwhile, are the three greatest determinants of happiness.
And, you know, somehow or other, against our will sometimes, we are being thrust back to these ancient and very noble and beautiful truths. And that we can now do so in a fellowship — awkward, perhaps, and embarrassed — between religious leaders and scientists and social scientists.
RABBI SACKS:Yeah. Well, let’s not try to describe this as 21st-century radical theology. It always helps if we can locate it in sacred texts. So for me, here is a moment where the hero of the Book of Exodus is a young man called Moses and the villain of the Book of Exodus is somebody called Pharaoh. But it’s Pharaoh’s daughter who, at great risk to herself, saves the life of this young baby who she knows immediately is a Hebrew baby, that she says so, and she knows her father has decreed that every male Hebrew child shall be killed. So at great risk to herself, she takes this child into her home and brings it up. So now we have the daughter of the biggest villain of the book who is responsible for the saving of the life of the hero. Now if that doesn’t challenge our paradigms, I don’t know what does.
You can find God in the other side, and that is something the Bible is doing quite a lot. After all, there’s only one perfect individual — well, perhaps two, if you like — in the whole Bible and neither of them is Jewish. One is called Noah and one is called Job and neither is Jewish. Noah comes before Judaism. Job is what I call every man. Then you look at all the prophets of ancient Israel, and they spent a lifetime preaching to the Israelites, and nobody listened. God sends one prophet, Jonah, to non-Jews, the people in Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s traditional enemy, the Assyrians. Here, all he does is say five Hebrew words, one English sentence: “In 40 days, Nineveh will be destroyed.” And they all repent. So it turns out that non-Jews are better at listening to Jewish prophets than Jews are.
MS. TIPPETT:[laughs] Right. So there is this paradox, this very interesting recurring threat of otherness and …
RABBI SACKS: The Bible is saying to us the whole time, don’t think that God is as simple as you are. He’s in places you would never expect him to be. And, you know, we lose a bit of that in English translation. Because, when Moses, at the burning bush, says to God, “Who are you?” God says to him three words: “Hayah asher hayah.” And those words are mistranslated in English as “I am that which I am.” But in Hebrew, it means “I will be who or how or where I will be,” meaning, don’t think you can predict me. I am a God who is going to surprise you. And one of the ways God surprises us is by letting a Jew or a Christian discover the trace of God’s presence in a Buddhist monk or a Sikh tradition of hospitality or the graciousness of Hindu life. You know, don’t think we can confine God into our categories. God is bigger than religion.
Romney’s main complaint in the piece is that Donald Trump is a mercurial and divisive leader. That’s true, of course. But beneath the personal slights, Romney has a policy critique of Trump. He seems genuinely angry that Trump might pull American troops out of the Syrian civil war. Romney doesn’t explain how staying in Syria would benefit America. He doesn’t appear to consider that a relevant question. More policing in the Middle East is always better. We know that. Virtually everyone in Washington agrees.
Corporate tax cuts are also popular in Washington, and Romney is strongly on board with those, too. His piece throws a rare compliment to Trump for cutting the corporate rate a year ago.
That’s not surprising. Romney spent the bulk of his business career at a firm called Bain Capital. Bain Capital all but invented what is now a familiar business strategy:
- Take over an existing company for a short period of time,
- cut costs by firing employees,
- run up the debt,
- extract the wealth, and
- move on, sometimes
- leaving retirees without their earned pensions.
Romney became fantastically rich doing this.
Meanwhile, a remarkable number of the companies are now bankrupt or extinct. This is the private equity model. Our ruling class sees nothing wrong with it. It’s how they run the country.
Mitt Romney refers to unwavering support for a finance-based economy and an internationalist foreign policy as the “mainstream Republican” view. And he’s right about that. For generations, Republicans have considered it their duty to make the world safe for banking, while simultaneously prosecuting ever more foreign wars. Modern Democrats generally support those goals enthusiastically.
There are signs, however, that most people do not support this, and not just in America. In countries around the world — France, Brazil, Sweden, the Philippines, Germany, and many others — voters are suddenly backing candidates and ideas that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago. These are not isolated events. What you’re watching is entire populations revolting against leaders who refuse to improve their lives.
Something like this has been in happening in our country for three years. Donald Trump rode a surge of popular discontent all the way to the White House. Does he understand the political revolution that he harnessed? Can he reverse the economic and cultural trends that are destroying America? Those are open questions.
But they’re less relevant than we think. At some point, Donald Trump will be gone. The rest of us will be gone, too. The country will remain. What kind of country will be it be then? How do we want our grandchildren to live? These are the only questions that matter.
The answer used to be obvious. The overriding goal for America is more prosperity, meaning cheaper consumer goods. But is that still true? Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones, or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy? They haven’t so far. A lot of Americans are drowning in stuff. And yet drug addiction and suicide are depopulating large parts of the country. Anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot.
The goal for America is both simpler and more elusive than mere prosperity. It’s happiness. There are a lot of ingredients in being happy:
Above all, deep relationships with other people. Those are the things that you want for your children. They’re what our leaders should want for us, and would want if they cared.
But our leaders don’t care. We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule. They’re day traders. Substitute teachers. They’re just passing through. They have no skin in this game, and it shows. They can’t solve our problems. They don’t even bother to understand our problems.
One of the biggest lies our leaders tell us that you can separate economics from everything else that matters. Economics is a topic for public debate. Family and faith and culture, meanwhile, those are personal matters. Both parties believe this.
Members of our educated upper-middle-classes are now the backbone of the Democratic Party who usually describe themselves as fiscally responsible and socially moderate. In other words, functionally libertarian. They don’t care how you live, as long as the bills are paid and the markets function. Somehow, they don’t see a connection between people’s personal lives and the health of our economy, or for that matter, the country’s ability to pay its bills. As far as they’re concerned, these are two totally separate categories.
Social conservatives, meanwhile, come to the debate from the opposite perspective, and yet reach a strikingly similar conclusion. The real problem, you’ll hear them say, is that the American family is collapsing. Nothing can be fixed before we fix that. Yet, like the libertarians they claim to oppose, many social conservatives also consider markets sacrosanct. The idea that families are being crushed by market forces seems never to occur to them. They refuse to consider it. Questioning markets feels like apostasy.
Both sides miss the obvious point: Culture and economics are inseparably intertwined. Certain economic systems allow families to thrive. Thriving families make market economies possible. You can’t separate the two. It used to be possible to deny this. Not anymore. The evidence is now overwhelming. How do we know? Consider the inner cities.
Thirty years ago, conservatives looked at Detroit or Newark and many other places and were horrified by what they saw. Conventional families had all but disappeared in poor neighborhoods. The majority of children were born out of wedlock. Single mothers were the rule. Crime and drugs and disorder became universal.
What caused this nightmare? Liberals didn’t even want to acknowledge the question. They were benefiting from the disaster, in the form of reliable votes. Conservatives, though, had a ready explanation for inner-city dysfunction and it made sense: big government. Decades of badly-designed social programs had driven fathers from the home and created what conservatives called a “culture of poverty” that trapped people in generational decline.
There was truth in this. But it wasn’t the whole story. How do we know? Because virtually the same thing has happened decades later to an entirely different population. In many ways, rural America now looks a lot like Detroit.
This is striking because rural Americans wouldn’t seem to have much in common with anyone from the inner city. These groups have different cultures, different traditions and political beliefs. Usually they have different skin colors. Rural people are white conservatives, mostly.
Yet, the pathologies of modern rural America are familiar to anyone who visited downtown Baltimore in the 1980s: Stunning out of wedlock birthrates. High male unemployment. A terrifying drug epidemic. Two different worlds. Similar outcomes. How did this happen? You’d think our ruling class would be interested in knowing the answer. But mostly they’re not. They don’t have to be interested. It’s easier to import foreign labor to take the place of native-born Americans who are slipping behind.
But Republicans now represent rural voters. They ought to be interested. Here’s a big part of the answer: male wages declined. Manufacturing, a male-dominated industry, all but disappeared over the course of a generation. All that remained in many places were the schools and the hospitals, both traditional employers of women. In many places, women suddenly made more than men.
Now, before you applaud this as a victory for feminism, consider the effects. Study after study has shown that when men make less than women, women generally don’t want to marry them. Maybe they should want to marry them, but they don’t. Over big populations, this causes a drop in marriage, a spike in out-of-wedlock births, and all the familiar disasters that inevitably follow — more drug and alcohol abuse, higher incarceration rates, fewer families formed in the next generation.
This isn’t speculation. This is not propaganda from the evangelicals. It’s social science. We know it’s true. Rich people know it best of all. That’s why they get married before they have kids. That model works. But increasingly, marriage is a luxury only the affluent in America can afford.
And yet, and here’s the bewildering and infuriating part, those very same affluent married people, the ones making virtually all the decisions in our society, are doing pretty much nothing to help the people below them get and stay married. Rich people are happy to fight malaria in Congo. But working to raise men’s wages in Dayton or Detroit? That’s crazy.
This is negligence on a massive scale. Both parties ignore the crisis in marriage. Our mindless cultural leaders act like it’s still 1961, and the biggest problem American families face is that sexism is preventing millions of housewives from becoming investment bankers or Facebook executives.
For our ruling class, more investment banking is always the answer. They teach us it’s more virtuous to devote your life to some soulless corporation than it is to raise your own kids.
Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook wrote an entire book about this. Sandberg explained that our first duty is to shareholders, above our own children. No surprise there. Sandberg herself is one of America’s biggest shareholders. Propaganda like this has made her rich.
What’s remarkable is how the rest of us responded to it. We didn’t question why Sandberg was saying this. We didn’t laugh in her face at the pure absurdity of it. Our corporate media celebrated Sandberg as the leader of a liberation movement. Her book became a bestseller: “Lean In.” As if putting a corporation first is empowerment. It is not. It is bondage. Republicans should say so.
They should also speak out against the ugliest parts of our financial system. Not all commerce is good. Why is it defensible to loan people money they can’t possibly repay? Or charge them interest that impoverishes them? Payday loan outlets in poor neighborhoods collect 400 percent annual interest.
We’re OK with that? We shouldn’t be. Libertarians tell us that’s how markets work — consenting adults making voluntary decisions about how to live their lives. OK. But it’s also disgusting. If you care about America, you ought to oppose the exploitation of Americans, whether it’s happening in the inner city or on Wall Street.
And by the way, if you really loved your fellow Americans, as our leaders should, if it would break your heart to see them high all the time. Which they are. A huge number of our kids, especially our boys, are smoking weed constantly. You may not realize that, because new technology has made it odorless. But it’s everywhere.
And that’s not an accident. Once our leaders understood they could get rich from marijuana, marijuana became ubiquitous. In many places, tax-hungry politicians have legalized or decriminalized it. Former Speaker of the House John Boehner now lobbies for the marijuana industry. His fellow Republicans seem fine with that. “Oh, but it’s better for you than alcohol,” they tell us.
Maybe. Who cares? Talk about missing the point. Try having dinner with a 19-year-old who’s been smoking weed. The life is gone. Passive, flat, trapped in their own heads. Do you want that for your kids? Of course not. Then why are our leaders pushing it on us? You know the reason. Because they don’t care about us.
When you care about people, you do your best to treat them fairly. Our leaders don’t even try. They hand out jobs and contracts and scholarships and slots at prestigious universities based purely on how we look. There’s nothing less fair than that, though our tax code comes close.
Under our current system, an American who works for a salary pays about twice the tax rate as someone who’s living off inherited money and doesn’t work at all. We tax capital at half of what we tax labor. It’s a sweet deal if you work in finance, as many of our rich people do.
In 2010, for example, Mitt Romney made about $22 million dollars in investment income. He paid an effective federal tax rate of 14 percent. For normal upper-middle-class wage earners, the federal tax rate is nearly 40 percent. No wonder Mitt Romney supports the status quo. But for everyone else, it’s infuriating.
Our leaders rarely mention any of this. They tell us our multi-tiered tax code is based on the principles of the free market. Please. It’s based on laws that the Congress passed, laws that companies lobbied for in order to increase their economic advantage. It worked well for those people. They did increase their economic advantage. But for everyone else, it came at a big cost. Unfairness is profoundly divisive. When you favor one child over another, your kids don’t hate you. They hate each other.
That happens in countries, too. It’s happening in ours, probably by design. Divided countries are easier to rule. And nothing divides us like the perception that some people are getting special treatment. In our country, some people definitely are getting special treatment. Republicans should oppose that with everything they have.
What kind of country do you want to live in? A fair country. A decent country. A cohesive country. A country whose leaders don’t accelerate the forces of change purely for their own profit and amusement. A country you might recognize when you’re old.
A country that listens to young people who don’t live in Brooklyn. A country where you can make a solid living outside of the big cities. A country where Lewiston, Maine seems almost as important as the west side of Los Angeles. A country where environmentalism means getting outside and picking up the trash. A clean, orderly, stable country that respects itself. And above all, a country where normal people with an average education who grew up in no place special can get married, and have happy kids, and repeat unto the generations. A country that actually cares about families, the building block of everything.
All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain, with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust and the undeserved—all of which eventually come into every lifetime. If only we could see these “wounds” as the way through, as Jesus did, then they would become sacred wounds rather than scars to deny, disguise, or project onto others. I am sorry to admit that I first see my wounds as an obstacle more than a gift. Healing is a long journey.
If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become cynical, negative, or bitter. This is the storyline of many of the greatest novels, myths, and stories of every culture. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it—usually to those closest to us: our family, our neighbors, our co-workers, and, invariably, the most vulnerable, our children.
Scapegoating, exporting our unresolved hurt, is the most common storyline of human history. The Jesus Story is about radically transforming history and individuals so that we don’t just keep handing on the pain to the next generation. Unless we can find a meaning for human suffering, that God is somehow in it and can also use it for good, humanity is in major trouble. Because we will suffer. Even the Buddha said that suffering is part of the deal!
We shouldn’t try to get rid of our own pain until we’ve learned what it has to teach. When we can hold our pain consciously and trustfully (and not project it elsewhere), we find ourselves in a very special liminal space. Here we are open to learning and breaking through to a much deeper level of faith and consciousness. Please trust me on this. We must all carry the cross of our own reality until God transforms us through it. These are the wounded healers of the world, and healers who have fully faced their wounds are the only ones who heal anyone else.
As an example of holding the pain, picture Mary standing at the foot of the cross or, as in Michelangelo’s Pietà cradling Jesus’ body. One would expect her to take her role wailing or protesting, but she doesn’t! We must reflect on this deeply. Mary is in complete solidarity with the mystery of life and death. It’s as if she is saying, “There’s something deeper happening here. How can I absorb it just as Jesus is absorbing it, instead of returning it in kind?” Consider the analogy of energy circuits: Most of us are relay stations; only a minority are transformers—people who actually change the electrical charge that passes through us.
Jesus on the cross and Mary standing beneath the cross are classic images of transformative spirituality. They do not return the hostility, hatred, accusations, or malice directed at them. They hold the suffering until it becomes resurrection! That’s the core mystery of Christianity. It takes our whole life to begin to comprehend this. It tends to be the wisdom of elders, not youngers.
Unfortunately, our natural instinct is to try to fix pain, to control it, or even, foolishly, to try to understand it. The ego insists on understanding. That’s why Jesus praises a certain quality even more than love, and he calls it faith. It is the ability to stand in liminal space, to stand on the threshold, to hold the contraries, until we are moved by grace to a much deeper level and a much larger frame, where our private pain is not center stage but a mystery shared with every act of bloodshed and every tear wept since the beginning of time. Our pain is not just our own.
The Bible, in its entirety, finds a balance between knowing and not-knowing, between using particular and carefully chosen words and having humility about words, even though the ensuing traditions have not often found that same balance. “Churchianity,” by its very definition, needs to speak with absolutes and certainties. It feels its job is to make absolute truth claims and feels very fragile when it cannot. Then, we followers think we must be certain about things we are not really certain of at all (which is the beginning of the loss of faith)! This is a similar predicament that politicians experience, needing to project an image of self-assurance and confidence, even though we all know they’re faking it just like the rest of us. As Marcus Borg (1942-2015) and others suggest in The Emerging Christian Way, absolute correctness is the largely impossible task institutional Christianity has taken upon itself.  Organized religion is now crumbling beneath this impossible and false goal, it seems to me.
I understand the individual ego’s and the institution’s structural need for clarity, some basic order, and identity, especially to get us started when we are young. Religion then needs a key to unlock itself from itself—but from the inside, which many call the mystical or contemplative tradition. Most successful reforms come from using one’s own internal resources to self-correct. The words “mystery,” “mystical,” and “mutter” all come from the Indo-European root word muein, which means to “hush or close the lips.” We must start with humble, patient, wordless unknowing, sincere curiosity, or what many call “beginner’s mind.” Only then are we truly teachable. Otherwise, we only hear whatever confirms our present understanding.
Without such humility, religion has cried “wolf” too many times in history and later been proven wrong. Observe earlier authoritative Church statements on democracy, war, torture, slavery, women, treatment of Jews, revolutions, liturgical forms, the “Doctrine of Discovery” of the New World, the Latin language, and the earth-centered universe—to name just a few big ones. If we had balanced our “knowing” with some honest not-knowing, we would never have made such egregious mistakes. We could always prove whatever we wanted by twisting one line of Scripture. The biblical text was not allowed to change us as much as many Christians have used it to exclude and judge other people.