The Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, addressed a plenary session at the recent Lambeth Conference on the idea of covenant. For a profoundly transformative way of thinking about what the role of religion might be today – even in our secular society – I encourage you to read the whole talk.
Here are a few gems…
…let’s begin our journey at the place we passed on our march last Thursday, in Westminster. It was such a lovely day that I imagine meeting up with my granddaughter on the way back and taking her to see some of the sights of London. We’d begin where we were, outside Parliament, and I imagine her asking what happens there, and I’d say, politics. And she’d ask, what’s politics about, and I’d say: it’s about the creation and distribution of power.
And then we’d go to the city, and see the Bank of England, and she’d ask what happens there and I’d say: economics. And she’d say: what’s economics about, and I’d say: it’s about the creation and distribution of wealth.
And then on our way back we’d pass St Paul’s Cathedral, and she’d ask, what happens there, and I’d say: worship. And she’d ask: what’s worship about? What does it create and distribute? And that’s a good question, because for the past 50 years, our lives have been dominated by the other two institutions: politics and economics, the state and the market, the logic of power and the logic of wealth. The state is us in our collective capacity. The market is us as individuals. And the debate has been: which is more effective? The left tends to favour the state. The right tends to favour the market. And there are endless shadings in between.
But what this leaves out of the equation is a third phenomenon of the utmost importance, and I want to explain why. The state is about power. The market is about wealth. And they are two ways of getting people to act in the way we want. Either we force them to – the way of power. Or we pay them to – the way of wealth. But there is a third way…
Rabbi Soloveitchik’s answer is that both are true, but they involve two different kinds of covenant. There is, he said, a covenant of fate and a covenant of faith, and they are very different things.
A group can be bound in the covenant of fate when they suffer together, when they face a common enemy. They have shared tears, shared fears, shared responsibility. They huddle together for comfort and mutual protection. That is a covenant of fate.
A covenant of faith is quite different. That is made by a people who share dreams, aspirations, ideals. They don’t need a common enemy, because they have a common hope. They come together to create something new. They are defined not by what happens to them but by what they commit themselves to do. That is a covenant of faith.
Friends, I stand before you as a Jew, which means not just as an individual, but as a representative of my people. And as I prepared this lecture, within my soul were the tears of my ancestors. We may have forgotten this, but for a thousand years, between the First Crusade and the Holocaust, the word ‘Christian’ struck fear into Jewish hearts. Think only of the words the Jewish encounter with Christianity added to the vocabulary of human pain: blood libel, book burnings, disputations, forced conversions, inquisition, auto da fe, expulsion, ghetto and pogrom.
I could not stand here today in total openness, and not mention that book of Jewish tears.
And I have asked myself, what would our ancestors want of us today?
And the answer to that lies in the scene that brings the book of Genesis to a climax and a closure. You remember: after the death of Jacob, the brothers fear that Joseph will take revenge. After all, they had sold him into slavery in Egypt.
Instead, Joseph forgives — but he does more than forgive. Listen carefully to his words:
You intended to harm me,
but God intended it for good,
to do what is now being done,
to save many lives.
Go on, read the whole thing....