Just over twelve years ago, Sir Jonathan Sacks, as he then was, gave an address to the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops—the first Jewish speaker to be invited to this event. He spoke with all the energy and clarity he invariably displayed as a lecturer, and had a palpable effect on all. The atmosphere of the conference was a bit fragile—a lot of absentees, frustration on the part of many that we were not planning to pass resolutions, even a cynicism that the event was an exercise in evading unwelcome decisions. We were discussing the idea of an Anglican “covenant” to affirm the vision (and the limits) of our shared identity, often with more heat than light.
Jonathan (unprompted by the organizers) spoke precisely about covenant, and transformed the word for us. From the Jewish point of view, he said, a covenant could be a “covenant of fate,” a solidarity grounded in shared trauma and pain, or a “covenant of faith,” the free decision to risk mutual commitment and to be implicated in one another’s acts and sufferings. The unchosen common experience of slavery in Egypt was the foundation of one profound strand in Jewish identity; but only at Sinai, when Israel says yes to God’s invitation to seal the human side of the covenant, is the full nature of covenantal identity established, as the people make their promise to one another as they do to God.
He had spelled out some of this a year or so earlier in what is surely one of his best books, The Home We Build Together. In it, he explains how social solidarity cannot be secured just by the market, or just by the coercive authority of the state; it needs the conscious investment of covenanting with one another for the common good. This is significantly more than just a social “contract” because it presupposes a continuing sympathetic regard for one another, a willingness to make constant adjustments to maximize the well-being of the community as a whole. It needs attention, flexibility, and, above all, loyalty.
Rabbi Sacks transformed the notion of covenant for us. https://t.co/JxUZNWFUzi
— First Things (@firstthingsmag) December 1, 2020