Freedom Requires Virtue, and Virtue Requires Belief

July 26, 2016 | Jonathan Sacks
About the author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan 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.

Mourning the West’s deteriorating memory of the past, Jonathan Sacks warns against losing sight of the founding principles on which liberal democracy rests. These can be found both in European and in Jewish history:

Lacking memory we have forgotten one of the most important lessons to have emerged from the wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries and the new birth of freedom that followed. Even to say it sounds antiquarian, but it is this: a free society is a moral achievement. Without self-restraint, without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habits of heart and deed that we call virtues, we will eventually lose our freedom. . . .

At some point the West abandoned this belief. . . . It took me years to work out what had happened. Morality had been split in two and outsourced to other institutions. There were moral choices, and there were the consequences of our moral choices. Morality itself was outsourced to the market. The market gives us choices, and morality itself is just a set of choices in which right or wrong have no meaning beyond the satisfaction or frustration of desire. . . .

Jews and Judaism survived for 2,000 years after the destruction of the Second Temple, having lost everything on which their existence was predicated in the Bible: their land, their home, their freedom, their Temple, their kings, their prophets and priests.

The explanation . . . is the precise opposite of outsourcing: namely the internalization of what had once been external. Wherever in the world Jews prayed, there was the Temple. Every prayer was a sacrifice, every Jew a priest, and every community a fragment of Jerusalem.

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