Religion & Liberty Online

Life in exile: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on ‘creative minorities’

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recently passed away from cancer at the age of 72, completing a rich life and establishing a legacy as one of Judaism’s leading public intellectuals. As former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and a member of the House of Lords, Sacks had a unique ability to weave together Jewish insights across a range of intersecting areas – from philosophy and theology to economics and politics – leading to a distinctive moral witness amid the rise of secularization.

When he received the Templeton Prize in 2016, Sacks argued that the future of the West was highly dependent on such a witness. For Sacks, Judaism and Christianity offered the best hope for addressing the challenges of modernity, serving as “joint witnesses to the power of an ethic of love, forgiveness, and the sanctity of human life.” Standing together, each could provide a productive contrast to the creeping passivity and moral ambivalence of the age.

“What emerged in Judaism and post-Reformation Christianity was the rarest of character-types: the inner-directed personality,” explained Sacks in his Templeton speech. These are “the pioneers, the innovators, and the survivors,” who have the wisdom and wherewithal to properly steward their freedoms and cultivate healthy hearts and homes from the ground up. “They do all this, because they have an inner moral voice,” he continued. “Some call it conscience. Some call it the voice of God.”

In his Erasmus Lecture at First Things in 2013, Sacks outlined an even clearer vision for this prophetic role, pointing to the story of Jeremiah as an example of “counterintuitive” faithfulness in a society that was otherwise torn between accommodation or domination.

“It is possible to survive in exile with your identity intact, your appetite for life undiminished, while contributing to the wider society and praying to God on its behalf,” Sacks explained. “Jeremiah was introducing into history a highly consequential idea: the idea of a creative minority.”

Just as Jeremiah sought the peace and prosperity of his city despite its culture, we, too, can offer love and creative service to those who do not fully understand our motivations or goals. Even when surrounded by antagonists, we can sow seeds of life and destiny across our cultural spheres.

“You can be a minority, living in a country whose religion, culture, and legal system are not your own, and yet sustain your identity, live your faith, and contribute to the common good, exactly as Jeremiah said,” Sacks argued. “It isn’t easy. It demands a complex finessing of identities. It involves a willingness to live in a state of cognitive dissonance. It isn’t for the fainthearted. But it is creative.”

The term “creative minority” first appeared in English historian Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History but was used more recently by Pope Benedict XVI, who built on Toynbee’s concept to describe a vision for Catholicism in modern, secularized Europe.

But while Sacks aligned his usage rather closely with the pope’s, encouraging unity among Jews and Christians in such efforts, he offered a qualified critique of Toynbee, who disregarded Judaism’s prominent role in shaping Western civilization. In doing so, Sacks argued, Toynbee also missed a key Jewish contribution to our notions about creative minorities.

For Toynbee, such minorities served as seasonal “problem solvers” in broader cycles of civilizational glory and decline, beginning as spunky upstarts who eventually achieved a sort of “dominant minority” status. But what if they were never meant to achieve “dominant” status in the first place?

Within Christianity, “there is a Hellenistic voice and a Hebraic one,” Sacks observed, and Christians would do well to be wary of the former. Whereas the Hellenistic voice tends toward the “universality of truth” (e.g., Toynbee), “the Hebraic voice speaks about the particularity of love and forgiveness and about the differences that make each of us unique and that make human life itself holy” (e.g., Jeremiah).

Leaning into that Hebraic dimension, what if we saw our status of creative minority as a way to bear witness to the truth with particular love, rather than as some path to wider cultural preservation or political dominance? “What if [our creative minorities] believed they had heard God calling on them to be a creative minority that never sought to become a dominant minority, that never sought to become a universal state, nor even in the conventional sense a universal church?” Sacks asked. “What if they believed that God is universal but that love – all love, even God’s love – is irreducibly particular?”

In our current political and cultural climate, this has significant implications, particularly for those who believe that the prevailing regimes of the day have a definitive effect on the health of our nation. Rather than despairing over the losses of particular forms of political control, we ought to embrace our minority status as the calling it has always been – “not for the fainthearted,” but firmly grounded, profoundly resilient, and constantly creative in its approach to loving our neighbor.

“This means a willingness to be true to our tradition without seeking to impose it on others or judging others harshly because their way is not ours,” explained Sacks, “a loyalty combined with humility that allows us to stay true to our faith while being a blessing to others, regardless of their faith.”

Success will not be determined by comfort and convenience, nor will it be achieved through cultural conformity or the consolidation of power. The core purpose of such a call is not to seek protection from the powers that be, nor is it meant to stir up solidarity during “lonely times.” Rather, it is to point the way back to truth, goodness, and beauty.

“I believe Jews and Christians can and should work together to promote the values that we share and that we believe truly are universal,” Sacks concluded, “the sanctity of life as the gift of God, the dignity of the human person as the image of God, the covenantal virtues of … fairness, justice, love, and compassion.”

The whole speech is well worth taking in. To distill some of the key insights, I have provided select excerpts of the speech below.

Three beliefs that make “creative minorities” possible:

Only a unique configuration of ideas made Jeremiah’s vision possible. The first idea was monotheism. If God was everywhere, then he could be accessed anywhere, even by the waters of Babylon.

The second was belief in the sovereignty of the God of history over all other powers. Until then, if a people were conquered, it meant the defeat of a nation and its god. For the first time, in Jeremiah’s telling of the Babylonian conquest of Israel, the defeat of a nation is understood as being accomplished by its God. God was still supreme. Babylon was merely the instrument of his wrath. A people could suffer defeat and keep its faith intact.

The third was the belief that God kept His faith intact. He would not break His word, His covenant with Israel, however many times Israel broke its covenant with God. He could be relied on to honor his promise, just as he had when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. In the future, as in the past, he would bring his people back to their land.

Three ways Jewish minorities have stayed creative in exile:

The first was internal. It was in Babylon, for example, that the Torah was renewed as the heart of Jewish life. We see this clearly in the pioneering work of national education undertaken by Ezra and Nehemiah when they returned to Israel. And it was in Babylon again, a thousand years later, that the masterwork of rabbinical Judaism, the Babylonian Talmud, was compiled. The encounter with Christianity in the Middle Ages led to the flowering of Jewish Bible commentary. The meeting with medieval Islam begat Jewish philosophy. Every exile led to some new form of religious expression.

Second, Jews were cultural mediators between their host society and other civilizations. Through trade, for example, they brought to the West many of the inventions of China during the Middle Ages. Maimonides occupied an important role in bringing the Islamic rediscovery of Plato and Aristotle to the Christian world, becoming the bridge between Averroes and Aquinas.

Third, when in the modern age Jews were admitted for the first time to the cultural mainstream of the West, they gave rise to a remarkable number of architects of the modern mind. Among those of Jewish descent, if not of religious affiliation, were Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Einstein, Wittgenstein, Durkheim, Lévi-Strauss, and many others.

Four distinct approaches to cultural engagement:

First, it can accommodate to secularization: the way of religious liberalism.

Second, it can resist it, sometimes violently, as religiously extremist groups are doing in many parts of the world today.

Third, it can withdraw into protected enclaves, much as we see happening in certain groups within Orthodox Judaism. This is a powerful strategy, and it has strengthened Jewish Orthodoxy immensely, but at the price of segregation from – and thus loss of influence on- the world outside.

The fourth possibility, to become a creative minority, is not easy, because it involves maintaining strong links with the outside world while staying true to your faith, seeking not merely to keep the sacred flame burning but also to transform the larger society of which you are a part. This is, as Jews can testify, a demanding and risk-laden choice.

The risk of regressing into a ‘dominant minority’:

The majority, recognizing that the minority has opened the gate to success, proceeds to imitate it. The nation, now at an advantage relative to others, flourishes, eventually expanding to become an empire, or what Toynbee calls a “universal state.” But this never lasts forever.

Eventually the minority, having enjoyed success and power, ceases to be creative. It then becomes a dominant minority, in power not because of what it is doing now, but because of what it did in the past. At this point, social breakdown begins. Since the minority can no longer justify its position, it alienates the majority, or what Toynbee calls the proletariat. There is schism. The internal majority may then find solace in religion by creating a universal church. The external proletariat, outsiders who were once in awe of the established power, now lose their fear of it and engage in acts of violence and terror, giving rise, in Toynbee’s phrase, to “a bevy of barbarian war-bands.” Time, says Toynbee, “works on the side of the barbarians.” When this happens, breakdown has become disintegration.

And so it goes. In Toynbee’s judgment, “of the twenty-one civilizations that have been born alive and have proceeded to grow, thirteen are dead and buried … seven of the remaining eight are apparently in decline; and … the eighth, which is our own, may also have passed its zenith.”

How creative minorities can stay creative, despite the allure of power:

What if [creative minorities] knew that truth and power have nothing to do with one another and that you do not need to rule the world to bring truth into the world? What if they had realized that once you seek to create a universal state, you have already begun down a road from which there is no escape, a process that ends in disintegration and decline? What if they were convinced that in the long run, the real battle is spiritual, not political or military, and that in this battle influence matters more than power?

What if they believed they had heard God calling on them to be a creative minority that never sought to become a dominant minority, that never sought to become a universal state, nor even in the conventional sense a universal church? What if they believed that God is universal but that love – all love, even God’s love – is irreducibly particular? What if they were convinced that the God Who created biodiversity cares for human diversity? What if they had seen the great empires conquer smaller nations and impose their culture on them, and had been profoundly disturbed by this, as we today are disturbed when an animal species is driven to extinction by human exploitation and carelessness?

What if these insights led a figure like Jeremiah to reconceptualize the entire phenomenon of defeat and exile? The Israelites had betrayed their mission by becoming obsessed with politics at the cost of moral and spiritual integrity. So taught all the prophets from Moses to Malachi. Every time you try to be like your neighbors, they said, you will be defeated by your neighbors. Every time you worship power, you will be defeated by power. Every time you seek to dominate, you will be dominated. For you, says God, are my witnesses to the world that there is nothing sacred about power or holy about empires and imperialism.

Three ‘sustained assaults’ against the Judeo-Christian ethic:

First is the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing currently being carried out against Christians throughout much of the Middle East and parts of Africa. I think of the Christians who have fled Syria, and of the eight million Copts in Egypt who live in fear; of the destruction of the last church in Afghanistan and of the million Christians who have left Iraq since the 1990s …

Second is the return of anti-Semitism to many parts of the world today, a complex anti-Semitism that includes Holocaust denial, the demonization of Jews, the return in modern guises of the blood libel, and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the attempt in Europe to ban circumcision and shechitah, in effect making the practice of Judaism impossible – not to mention the anti-Zionism that leads otherwise good and decent people to call into question Israel’s right to exist, much as Toynbee did in his day. That this should have happened within living memory of the Holocaust is almost unbelievable.

The third concerns the West itself, which has already gone far down the road of abandoning the Judeo-Christian principles of the sanctity of life and the sacred covenant of marriage. Instead, it places its faith in a series of institutions, none of which can bear the weight of moral guidance: science, technology, the state, the market, and evolutionary biology.

How Christians and Jews can support each other in a secularized society:

The Judeo-Christian ethic will not return until the fracture at its heart is healed, the fracture that is the long estrangement between Christians and Jews and that has caused so many persecutions and cost so many lives …

I believe Jews and Christians can and should work together to promote the values that we share and that we believe truly are universal: the sanctity of life as the gift of God, the dignity of the human person as the image of God, the covenantal virtues of tzedek, umishpat, chesed, ve-rachamim; fairness, justice, love, and compassion. Let us stand together in defense of the ecology of human freedom: the loving, stable family uniting parents and children in a bond of loyalty and care and supportive communities built on the principle of chesed, or caritas.

The time has come for a new meeting of Christians and Jews, based simply on the fact that a church that sees itself as a creative minority in the Jeremiah sense has made space for the existence of Jews and Judaism in a way that was not fully articulated before.


Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.