British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks visited with Pope Benedict XVI last month in Rome and defended Europe’s Judeo-Christian heritage, including the “religious roots of the market economy and of democratic capitalism.” In a speech there, he urged that Jews and Christians to work together to “help Europe recover its soul.”
Separately, in a speech to the British House of Lords, Sacks denounced increasing persecution of Christians by radical Islam, warning that the “fate of Christians in the Middle East today is the litmus test of the Arab Spring.”
“If Europe loses the Judeo-Christian heritage that gave it its historic identity and its greatest achievements in literature, art, music, education, politics, and economics, it will lose its identity and its greatness,” Sacks warned during his Rome speech. “When a civilization loses its faith, it loses its future. When it recovers its faith, it recovers its future. For the sake of our children … we – Jews and Christians, side-by-side – must renew our faith and its prophetic voice.”
He critiqued Europe’s secularism and materialism while pointing out that biblical religion created the foundations of prosperous market economies. “When Europe recovers its soul, it will recover its wealth-creating energies,” he said. “But first it must remember: humanity was not created to serve markets. Markets were created to serve humankind.”
“We are very concerned obviously with the soul of Europe, I mean Europe was built on Judeo-Christian foundations, even the market was built on Judeo-Christian foundations,” Sacks told Vatican Radio. In his Rome speech, he described the West’s democracy and prosperity relying on biblical understandings of “dignity of the human individual,” respect for property rights and labor, job creation over charity, and creation of wealth so as to become “partners with God in the work of creation.” He noted that ancient rabbis “favored markets and competition because they generate wealth, lower prices, increase choice, reduced absolute levels of poverty, and extend humanity’s control over the environment, narrowing the extent to which we are the passive victims of circumstance and fate.”
Sacks quoted a Chinese scholar who realized why the West had surpassed once wealthier and technologically superior China centuries ago: “The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics.” The Chief Rabbi noted that Europe’s religious values had facilitated “hard work, industry, frugality, diligence, patience, discipline, and a sense of duty and obligation.” They created capitalism as a “moral enterprise” that “generated wealth, softened manners, tamed unruly passions, and diminished the threat of war.” Capitalism “enhanced human dignity, leaving us with more choices and a longer life expectancy than any generation of those who came before us.”
Sacks lamented that Europe is today “more secular than it has been since the last days of pre-Christian Rome” thanks to “aggressive scientific atheism tone deaf to the music of faith.” He suggested Jews and Catholics serve together as “creative minorities” to restore morals, culture and civic life. And he concluded: “The Judeo-Christian heritage is the only system known to me capable of defeating the law of entropy that says all systems lose energy over time.”
Sacks also has urged defending international religious liberty. “It is important that Jews, the British Jews, the European Jewish community stand in solidarity with Christians where they face persecution,” he told Vatican radio. In his speech to the British House of Lords, Sacks’ declared that “as a Jew in Christian Britain,” he was grateful to “this great Christian nation, which gave us the right and the freedom to live our faith without fear.” And he asked: “Shall we not, therefore, as Jews, stand up for the right of Christians in other parts of the world to live their faith without fear?” The Chief Rabbi quoted Martin Luther King, Jr: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
Both the speech in Rome and an article in the Times of London (that this article refers to as a speech to the House of Lords) are online and well worth reading.
For those who are uncomfortable with the phrase "Judeo-Christian," he says "Admittedly the phrase 'Judeo-Christian tradition' is a recent coinage and one that elides significant differences between the two religions and the various strands within each." And he goes on to point out the importance of the market system in Jewish thought:
There is, though, enough common ground to speak, at least here, of shared values. First there is the deep biblical respect for the dignity of the human individual, regardless of colour, creed or class, created in the image and likeness of God. The market gives more freedom and dignity to human choice than any other economic system.
Second is the biblical respect for property rights, as against the idea prevalent in the ancient world that rulers were entitled to treat property of the tribe or nation as their own. By contrast, when Moses finds his leadership challenged by the Israelites during the Korach rebellion, he says about his relation to the people, “I have not taken one ass from them nor have I wronged any one of them.” The great assault of slavery against human dignity is that it deprives me of the ownership of the wealth I create.
Then there is the biblical respect for labour. God tells Noah that he will be saved from the flood, but it is Noah who has to build the ark. The verse “Six days shall you labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God” means that we serve God through work as well as rest.
Job creation, in Judaism, is the highest form of charity because it gives people the dignity of not depending on charity. “Flay carcasses in the market-place,” said the third century teacher Rav, “and do not say: I am a priest and a great man and it is beneath my dignity”.
Equally important is Judaism’s positive attitude to the creation of wealth. The world is God’s creation; therefore it is good, and prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing. Asceticism and self-denial have little place in Jewish spirituality. By our labour and inventiveness we become, in the rabbinic phrase, “partners with God in the work of creation”.
Above all, from a Jewish perspective, the most important thing about the market economy is that it allows us to alleviate poverty. Judaism refused to romanticize poverty. It is not, in Judaism, a blessed condition. It is, the rabbis said, “a kind of death” and “worse than fifty plagues”. At the other end of the spectrum they believed that with wealth comes responsibility. Richesse oblige. Successful businessmen (and women) were expected to set an example of philanthropy and to take on positions of communal leadership. Conspicuous consumption was frowned upon, and periodically banned through local “sumptuary laws”. Wealth is a Divine blessing, and therefore it carries with it an obligation to use it for the benefit of the community as a whole.
The rabbis favoured markets and competition because they generate wealth, lower prices, increase choice, reduced absolute levels of poverty, and extend humanity’s control over the environment, narrowing the extent to which we are the passive victims of circumstance and fate. Competition releases energy and creativity and serves the general good.