“To Heal a Fractured World” by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – A Review

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that “the twenty-first century confronts humanity with challenges and scope that seem to defy solution.”[1] (264) A brief perusal of any national newspaper will quickly verify the truth of this claim: regional conflict has kept millions of Yemenis in a state of famine, migrant children suffer atrocities in American detention centers, and Christian worshippers in Sri Lanka are attacked during mass on their holiest day of the year. The world, as the title of Rabbi Sacks’ book suggests, is fractured. This fracturing, however, is not unique; the world has always been “broken” in one way or another, what might be unique in today’s situation is the amount of fracturing present in societies that once seemed to be quite unified. In the American context this fracturing is especially prevalent along political and racial lines, with many suggesting that the exposing—not cause—of the fracturing that was underlying society was the 2016 elections. With this fracturing of society there is an increasing loss of sense of responsibility—not just for global issues—that has always been the case—but for the issues that people in our own society and communities struggle with. Although To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility was written more than a decade before our current political context Rabbi Sacks’ words address the very situation we are in today. His book is a call to responsibility based on the principles of Judaism. “God,” Sacks says, “trusts us and empowers us” to take responsibility not only for ourselves, not only for our own communities, but for the life of others in the world. (12)

One thread that runs through Sacks’s book is the idea of tikkun olam, i.e. “mending or perfecting the world.” (72) The basis for this concept goes back Rabbi Isaac ben Solomon Luria, the Spanish Jewish mystic, who pondered the Zohar. One of Luria’s contributions to Jewish theology (and by way of Moltmann to Christian theology) was the concept tzimtzum, the contraction of God into himself to leave space for the world. (74) Sacks explains that according to Luria when God created the world he “could not leave it devoid of his presence. He therefore sent forth rays of his light…This light was, however too intense for its containers, which thereby broke, scattering fragments of light throughout the world.” (74–75) With these fragments of divine light scattered throughout the world, our task—the task of tikkun—is “to gather up these fragments wherever they are, healing a fractured world.” (75) How does one go about healing a fractured world? Sacks suggests that we can begin this process by taking seriously Judaism’s key concepts of social ethics, namely “justice, charity, love-as-action, sanctifying God’s name, the ‘ways of peace,’ and ‘the mending of the world.’”(14) Another distinctive aspect of Judaism which Sacks argues will encourage us to “mend the world” is it’s sense of responsibility, in fact, he says, “responsibility” is the Pentateuch’s “greatest overarching theme.” (135) The Pentateuch, mostly by way of the failures of its characters, teaches that human beings have personal responsibility, moral responsibility, collective responsibility, and ontological responsibility (i.e. “responsibility to something or someone beyond ourselves”). (144) Another distinctive aspect of Jewish theology that underlies the call to responsibility is Judaism’s high value for human initiative in the divine-human initiative dynamic. God rarely acts unilaterally; yes, “Jewish history begins in miracles, but culminates in human responsibility.” (160) Like a child who begins by needing her parents’ help but eventually matures to the point where she can be responsible for taking the initiative, the Hebrew Bible and the teachings of the Rabbis emphasize that God wants Israel to mature to the point of independent responsibility for the world.

How shall Israel, and anyone else who desires to heed God’s call to responsibility for the world exercise this responsibility? Afterall, the immense scale of some global issues can seem overwhelming. Sacks’s answer to that question might seem simple, despite its simplicity, it remains a difficult task: Do good whenever God asks us to do good. Redemption of the world, or the gathering of the divine light which was fractured throughout the world begins with small steps; “God does not ask us to save the world…instead God asks us to do what we can when we can. We mend the world one life at a time, one act at a time, one day at a time.” (266)

Rabbi Sacks should be commended for the moral vision he lays out in this book. As I have already mentioned above, our communities seem more fractured than ever. This fracturing even affects institutions that are working hard to mend broken relationships, e.g. Fuller Seminary. The fractured state of Fuller, especially when it comes to issues of racial reconciliation is already well documented, as is Fuller’s attempts to heal these divides. One wonders whether the pain that exists among the community at Fuller would be alleviated if Sacks’ ethics of responsibility were put into practice. What if the community took seriously the concept of collective responsibility, shared fate, and mutual responsibility? Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai said of Israel that “if one is injured, they all feel the pain.” (93) What if we had the capacity to really feel one another’s pain? Rashi explains that “All Israel are responsible for one another in relation to the fulfillment of the commands.” (93) What if we as a community took responsibility for ensuring that we fulfilled Jesus’ command to love well? Rabbi Solomon of Karlin said that “the greatest yester hara [inhibition against doing good] is that we forget that we are children of the King.” (253) What if we took seriously this aspect of our Christian identity? Would taking these ideas that Sacks mentions seriously help to mend the fracturing of our community? Surely they would. Despite providing a vision for bringing healing to our world Sacks’s moral vision suffers from one significant absence, namely the absence of an in-depth discussion of structural evils. Rabbi Sacks focuses—primarily, although not exclusively—on the individual good deeds we can perform. These good deeds, like the story of the man who rescued individual Starfish on a beach, can make all the difference for the person who is affected. Yet, using the Starfish illustration again, once the tide comes again the Starfish will once again be stranded on the beach, and the person who is affected by the good deed will once again suffer from the problems that arise from broken structures. An ethic of social responsibility requires much more than good deeds simpliciter, it requires good deeds done in such a way that can affect the structures of society.

Additionally, Rabbi Sacks should be commended for his extended discussion of collective responsibility. Quoting Karl Jaspers who distinguishes between metaphysical guilt and moral guilt Rabbi Sacks provides reasons for thinking that we are responsible for the acts of those that we are covenantally related to. (114–127) His discussion of a Jewish understanding collective responsibility might serve as a helpful starting point for Christian theologizing about the nature of atonement. For those who advocate for a penal substitutionary understanding of atonement perhaps it is this sense of collective responsibility that allows Jesus to be a penal substitute. Sacks speaks of a covenant of human solidarity. Perhaps because Jesus bears a human nature (and a divine nature) Jesus is considered to be part of the covenantal human community (in addition to the community that composes Israel). As part of that community, it might be the case that Jesus can bear the metaphysical—as opposed to the moral guilt—for the sins of humanity. Such an account bears some similarity to the story of Akhan Joshua 7. There, the entire community, i.e. all those who are covenantally related, bear responsibility (metaphysical guilt) for one person’s sin even though only Akhan himself bears moral guilt. Thus, the entire community is liable for the consequences of one person’s sins. We should be clear that the entire community is not punished, because punishment can only leveled against those who are liable to be censured for he action, rather the entire community bears the penal consequences for Akhan’s actions.[2]

Finally, Rabbi Sacks should be commended for the way that he emphasizes the integration of spirituality and social responsibility. He quotes a Jewish mystic who said, “someone else’s physical needs are my spiritual obligation.” (5) The idea that actions by which we take responsibility for the suffering and needs of others are actually spiritual actions is an idea which might be foreign to certain segments of evangelical Christianity. Certain segments of evangelical Christianity have ignored tangible physical needs because such things supposedly pale in comparison to eternal spiritual needs. This mindset reveals a gnostic tendency that, while not full blown Gnosticism, devalues the importance of embodiedness. Perhaps it is Judaism’s strong sense of embodiedness and the goodness of creation that encourages Jews to care for physical and not just spiritual needs. (Dr. Jen Rosner, Lecture Week 3) Thankfully, due to study of the Hebrew Bible and the metaphysics of human nature contained in its pages, Christian scholars are increasingly seeing how important the body actually is in the Bible.[3] With the help of scholars of the Hebrew Bible and the voices of Jewish leaders like Rabbi Sacks perhaps Christians can recover the importance of our bodies and thereby reintegrated the practices of alleviating physical needs and spirituality.

In writing To Heal a Fractured World Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has provided Jews and other religious people (and to a certain extent those without a faith) much to think about. If readers were to appropriate his call to responsibility for others, then perhaps we could take some steps towards cultivating a kinder and more charitable world.


[1] All in text citations refer to Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility (New York: Schocken Books, 2005).

[2] Building upon Feinberg’s work on the expressive function of punishment, Murphy, explains that punishment has four necessary and sufficient conditions:

1) Punishment is hard treatment.

2) Punishment is imposed by an authority who may legitimately impose hard treatment.

3) Punishment is for a failure, i.e. one is subjected to punishment for failing to conform to some standard.

4) Punishment expresses condemnation of the wrongdoer.

If these four conditions are correct, then given (4), punishment is non-transferable because one cannot express condemnation of someone who has not done anything worthy of condemnation. Mark Murphy, “Not Penal Substitution but Vicarious Punishment,” Faith and Philosophy 26 (2009): 255 – 56.

[3] See John Cooper’s Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) for one example of how evangelical scholars are increasingly beginning to argue against a very strong dichotomy between our material and non-material aspects.

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