Religion - a path to responsibility

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in the passage below, manages to sum up one of the essential reasons that I became a rabbi – to participate in the project of creating society that fosters personal and communal responsibility. In many ways, I find this passage the antidote to the problems outlined in today’s New York Times piece, The Go Nowhere Generation.

[Thanks to Rabbi Judy Schindler for getting me Rabbi Sacks’ book: The Ethics of Responsibility]


Here is the passage:

The first eleven chapters of Genesis are not a mere series of historical narratives. They are a highly structured exploration of responsibility. They begin with two stories about individuals, Adam and Eve, then Cain, followed by two stories about societies, the generation of the Flood and the builders of Babel. The first and last – the tree of knowledge, the tower – are about the failure to honour boundaries: between permitted and forbidden, heaven and earth. The inner two are about violence, individual then collective. They constitute a developmental psychology of the moral sense. First we discover personal responsibility, or freedom to choose. Then we acquire moral responsibility, the knowledge that choice has limits; not everything we can do, may we do. Later we learn collective responsibility: we are part of a family, a community and society and we have a share in its innocence or guilt. Later still, we realize that society itself is subject to higher law: there are moral limits to power.

            All of this is prelude to the appearance of Abraham, who does not emerge in a vacuum. His life is a culmination of all that has gone before. The first words of God – ‘Leave your land, your birthplace and your father’s house’ – are a call to personal responsibility. Abraham is commanded to relinquish everything that leads human beings to see their acts as not their own. The call to Abraham is a counter-commentary to the three great determinisms of the modern world. Karl Marx held that behaviour is determined by structures of power in society, among them the ownership of land. Therefore God said to Abraham, ‘Leave your land.’ Spinoza believed the human conduct is given by the instincts we acquire at birth (genetic determinism). Therefore God said, ‘Leave your place of birth.’ Freud held that we are shaped by early experiences in childhood. Therefore God said, ‘Leave your father’s house.’ Abraham is the refutation of determinism. There are structures of power, but we can stand outside them. There are genetic influences on our behavior, but we can master them. Abraham’s journey is as much psychological as geographical. Like the Israelites in Moses’ day, he is travelling to freedom.

            Abraham exercises moral responsibility by entering into battle, in Genesis 14, to rescue (not his brother, but his brother’s son) Lot. He is his brother’s keeper. He scales the heights of collective responsibility when he prays for the inhabitants of Sodom even though he knows, or suspects, that for the most part they are wicked. He reaches ontological responsibility in the trial of the binding of Isaac, by recognizing the primacy of the divine word over human emotion and aspiration. In each case Abraham responds, and in so doing points the way beyond the failures of previous generations.

            It is now clear why the biblical story does not begin with Abraham. Responsibility is not a given of the human situation. On the contrary, it is all too easy to deny it. It wasn’t my fault (Adam). I don’t see why I shouldn’t do what I wish, not what I ought (Cain). I am responsible for myself, not for others (Noah). We are answerable to no one but ourselves (Babel). The journey to responsibility is long, and there are many temptations to stop short of the final destination. But in the end, there is no real alternative if we are to live our full humanity. Adam loses paradise. Cain is condemned to wander. Noah declines into drunkenness. Babel is left un-built. Responsibility is the condition of our freedom, and we cannot abdicate it without losing much else besides.

            But the story does not end there…Why does it continue? If Abraham is a culmination, what more is there to say? The answer is that humanity is not comprised of individuals alone. We cannot live alone, nor can we create alone. We are social animals. That is why God’s covenant with Abraham must be succeeded by another and more extensive order. Only a nation can build a society, and only a society can bring the divine presence into the public square: its economy and politics, its shared life and collective history. Genesis is about individuals. In the first chapter of Exodus, we encounter for the first time in connection with Abraham’s children the word am, ‘a people’. The question to which the rest of the Pentateuch is an answer is: How does a people, a nation, acquire responsibility?