Rabbi Lord Sacks: ‘Selfishness will not protect us from coronavirus’

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Rabbi Lord Sacks: ‘Selfishness will not protect us from coronavirus’

Francine Wolfisz meets the former Chief Rabbi to discuss his new book, Morality, which argues that society may have 'hit a crisis moment'

Francine Wolfisz is the Features Editor for Jewish News.

Has society hit a crisis moment? Former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks explores this issue in his new book, Morality © Blake-Ezra Photography
Has society hit a crisis moment? Former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks explores this issue in his new book, Morality © Blake-Ezra Photography

Related story: Lord Sacks ‘still shakes’ at memory of near-drowning 50 years ago

It’s a sobering thought, but has society reached a point where we no longer help each other? Think of Brexit, when disagreements brought Parliament to a standstill, of our disquieting ease at publicly shaming people on social media or, more recently, panic buying caused by coronavirus fears, with little regard for ensuring there will be enough food left for the vulnerable.

It’s enough for Lord Sacks to conclude we may have “hit a crisis moment” – but now is the perfect time for change.

The former Chief Rabbi dissects the issue in greater detail in his latest book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, which is published today (Thursday).

At its core, the much-respected 72-year-old argues “we have moved very largely from a ‘we’ society to an ‘I’ society”.

Sitting opposite Lord Sacks in his comfortable north-west London home, the award-winning author reveals how we came to a point that he now describes as “the cultural equivalent of climate change”.

He explains: “There have been three successive waves of causation. Number one was the social revolution in the 1960s and was about whatever works for you.

“Number two was the economic revolution of the 1980s, when greed was good and self-interest fuelled the economy, and number three, the latest wave, is the technological revolution, which has put the focus on the self through social media.

“So, we’ve been very good on individualism, but much less good on collective responsibility. It’s all been wonderfully liberating, but at the same time we are now beginning to count the costs.”

At the time of writing his book, coronavirus wasn’t even worthy of a mention in a footnote, but recent headlines of people attempting to escape from quarantine or getting into physical fights over toilet paper somehow seem acutely pertinent. Sacks appears contemplative as he nods his head in agreement.

“We have the example of Alla Ilyina, a Russian woman who escaped from quarantine and posted her story on Instagram saying, ‘I have a right to my freedom’, but freedom is collective, not individual. If we purchase our freedom at the cost of someone else’s, the result is not freedom.

“So I think coronavirus is going to test our capacity to work for the benefit of others.

“This situation of putting up with personal inconveniences for the sake of public safety is going to challenge and force us to realise that selfishness is not going to protect us.

“We have to work for the good of the whole if we’re to prevent this becoming an epidemic.”

Rabbi Lord Sacks’ new book: Morality

In other examples of where individuals focus on themselves, rather than others, Sacks refers in his book to the rise of egoism and how “politics has become about personalities instead of about policies”.

A later chapter focuses on how social media has allowed people to publicly shame one another without even being in their presence – and, importantly, see the impact of their words.

“Not being in someone’s presence actually allows you to be much nastier than you would be in their presence,” he concludes.

“When you’re there face to face, you realise you’re in the presence of another living, breathing human being with feelings and vulnerabilities and that automatically limits your behaviour.

“You don’t even have to exercise willpower, as we are hardwired to limit aggression in our speech and our body language. That’s what’s called civility.

“Electronic media gets rid of all that, so you don’t get to see the other person flinch or cry. When it becomes viral, you get this sort of ‘cancel ‘culture, where somebody actually becomes a non-person. It’s a new low in public incivility.”

Focusing on one’s own needs isn’t just selfish – it can also lead to loneliness, warns Sacks in another of the book’s chapters, although he acknowledges that “religions do community pretty well – and I think we do it as well as anyone – if not better”.

He tells me: “An awful lot of people in Britain are living alone, and we know that loneliness can be as dangerous to health as obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

“I think it’s really an indictment of our society that so many people are living alone, but that’s sadly what happens when for 50 years you look down on the institution of marriage. It’s also what happens when you fail to value the extended family or the local community.

“There’s this little village in Sardinia where there are more centenarians than anywhere else in the world. Why? Because they are never alone and the best way of growing old well is to live in a culture where old age is valued. But, sadly, today that’s not always the case.”

Former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks with Jewish News’ Francine Wolfisz.

Morality is not, however, just a disheartening indictment on society – there is hope ahead, if we just refocus on our collective responsibility, argues Sacks.

“I don’t want this book to be prescriptive,” he says, “but we should all be taking a moment to stop and see the totality of what has been missing. Let’s re-engage with the ‘we’, not just the ‘I’.

“You hope that some people will read this book and say that’s right, and will work for a charity, join a congregation or go into politics to serve, rather than have people serve them.

“All you need to do is change some minds and you begin to change your generation.”

  • Morality: Restoring The Common Good in Divided Times by Jonathan Sacks is published by Hodder, priced £20 (hardback). Available now


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