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Inside Sources: Rabbi discusses healing a bitterly divided society

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks holds a press conference, at the Vatican, Monday, Nov. 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks holds a press conference, at the Vatican, Monday, Nov. 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) Andrew Medichini AP

SALT LAKE CITY —  Divisions in society have gone too far, but with some mutual self-respect the healing can begin, a rabbi and spiritual leader says.

Distinguished religious leader, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, joined Boyd Matheson, opinion editor at the Deseret News, on Inside Sources to discuss the need for a cultural climate change, limitations to self-help and respecting people you disagree with.

Sacks is a British Orthodox rabbi, philosopher, theologian, author and politician. He served as the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013.

Rabbi on healing cultural climate change

Boyd noted the United States is experiencing evidence of climate change as fires rage along the West Coast.

Observing culture, Rabbi Sacks said he began to notice many things turning south with society.

“Isolation, loneliness, depression. Social media and their impact on people’s moods. The whole ‘woke’ concept. The cancel culture. . . Whichever direction you look, it looks as if things are going wrong,” he said. 

Climate change can bring extreme heat or cold, drought or flooding, which are all symptoms of the same things, Sacks said.

Disconnection and disconnect in society today, he said, are all symptoms of a cultural climate change happening in Western liberal democracies.

“When you live alone, the chances of depression are enormously raised,” Sacks said, adding that isolated living is the equivalent of obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Self-help limitations

“So many people are just weary. Cultural climate change has created a weariness,” Boyd said. “A lot of people talk about the answer being in self-help. And you say there is a limit to self-help, and that there’s a better approach to overcoming that weariness.”

In his book, Rabbi Sacks relates one of the scariest moments of his life. Fifty years ago, he and his new wife were honeymooning off the coast of Italy. He was struck by the beauty of the scene.

“I must go into the sea,” he told his wife, Elaine. 

One problem, though: He had never learned how to swim.

Sacks looked out 100 yards and saw people standing knee-deep in the sea. He told Elaine that he would be fine wading out 100 yards as long as the water was knee-deep.

After walking out 100 yards, he turned around and started to walk back. 

“Within less than a minute, I found myself out of my depth,” he said. “I absolutely could not swim. There was no one near me. There were a few people bathing, but they were a long way away. I remember going under for the fifth time. I remember saying to myself ‘What a way to begin a honeymoon.'”

He said someone saw him flailing in the sea and dragged him unconscious to shore and deposited him at Elaine’s feet.

“What would self-help do in a situation like that?” he asked.

Sacks added that the most difficult problems people face can’t be solved alone.

“The Talmud says a prisoner cannot release himself from prison,” he said. “Someone who is depressed can’t release themselves from depression.”

He stressed that the most transformative moments of a person’s life are when someone enters that person’s life.

Covenant vs. contract

A contract is something two or more people engage in for self-interest.

For example, Sacks said, a customer exchanges money with a mechanic for repairs to the customer’s vehicle. Both parties’ self-interests have been met.

But a covenant, he said, is exactly like a marriage.

“In other words, it’s two individual I’s saying let’s become a collective we,” Sacks said. “That is not about self-interest, that is about a new identity.”

Respecting the other person

“We live in this time that is very divided,” Boyd said. “But we know it is against the laws of nature and nature’s God that the storm blows forever. It comes and then it passes. What is the path to move that storm out and get to better days and that new identity that you talk of?”

Sacks said the first thing is to respect the people who disagree with us.

“We may completely differ on almost everything, but you’re a human being and I respect that,” he said. “And I hope you respect the fact that I am a human being.”

“There’s too much arguing going on,” he said.

“You can’t have a conversation — let alone a relationship or a friendship — with someone who disagrees with you politically, and as citizens, we just have to get past that,” Boyd said.

Rabbi Sacks said one of the most beautiful relationships he has had in his life was with atheist Amos Oz — Israeli writer, novelist, journalist and intellectual.

“All of the divisions that currently exist in society have gone far, far too far,” Sacks said.

“I’m not saying it’ll be easy to reverse any of them. It won’t be. But there is none of them that cannot be reversed because all it really needs his openness, respect and a willingness to honor views of people not like your own.”


Rabbi Sacks will join Wheatley Institute at BYU for a free online conversation Thursday and discuss his award-winning and newly released book, “Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.”

Visit the Inside Sources Facebook page for more information.


Memorable quotes from the conversation with Rabbi Sacks

“If there is one thing that the great institutions of the modern world do not do, it is to provide meaning.” 

“Science tells us how but not why. Technology gives us power, but cannot guide us on how to use that power.”

“The market gives us choices but leaves us uninstructed as to how to make those choices.”

“The liberal democratic state gives us freedom to live as we choose, but refuses to guide us on how to choose. The result is the 21st century has left us with a maximum of choice but a minimum of meaning.”

Inside Sources with Boyd Matheson can be heard weekdays from 11:00 a.m to 12:00 p.m. on KSL NewsRadio. Users can find the show on the KSL NewsRadio website and app.