Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with international religious leader, philosopher, and respected moral voice Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (@RabbiSacks). Rabbi Sacks was the chief rabbi of the UK and Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013 and the recipient of the 2016 Templeton Prize, in recognition of his “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” He has been described by HRH The Prince of Wales as “a light unto this nation” and by former British prime minister Tony Blair as “an intellectual giant.” He is an award-winning author of more than 30 books, including Not in God’s Name. His new book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times , recently became a bestseller in the UK and is now available in North America.
Rabbi Sacks is a frequent and sought-after contributor to radio, television, and the international press and a renowned public speaker, and he has degrees from both Cambridge and Oxford universities, as well as 18 honorary degrees. He was knighted by HM The Queen in 2005 and took his seat in the House of Lords in October 2009. Born in 1948 in London, he has been married to his wife Elaine since 1970. They have three children and several grandchildren.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors.
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Tim Ferriss: Rabbi Sacks, welcome to the show.
Rabbi Sacks: Tim, great to be with you.
Tim Ferriss: I’m so thrilled to finally connect. I have pages and pages and stacks and stacks of questions for you. We’ll see how much we can get to. And I wanted to start with a perhaps unusual starting point, and that is asking about yellow ties. I found, under the category of strange habits, a note from your wife of 50 years in The Times UK, “he always wears a yellow tie when he’s due to give important speeches or on special occasions.” So I wouldn’t expect you to wear one right now, but is there any truth to that statement? And could you elaborate, if so?
Rabbi Sacks: A hundred percent. Tim, I always used to wear silver ties. This kind of dignified thing that ministers of religion do. And I had a huge, but huge collection of silver ties. Then at a certain point in time, I’m not sure whether it was 2016 or a little earlier than that, the world began to fall apart. And that was when I realized that part of my job was not just to speak or to write, but to cheer people up. And I think Little Miss or Little Mr. Cheerful has to be colored yellow. So I thought, “Wearing a yellow tie cheers people up.” And by and large, consciously or subconsciously, it does.
However, I also do something else. I must have about 50 yellow ties. But when I’m doing a really, really difficult speech, I will wear a yellow tie that was given to me by a very close friend. My friends, noticing that I wear yellow ties, tend to make a present of a yellow tie. And when I feel I am wearing something that a friend gave me in love, it just makes the speech so much easier.
But can I tell you, Tim, about the yellow tie that I wore when you and I did TED together in Vancouver three years ago?
Tim Ferriss: Yes, please.
Rabbi Sacks: There’s a kind of rehearsal for TED Talks about a month in advance. It takes place in Chelsea in New York in Chris Anderson’s apartment. And just before me, there was a gentleman practicing his speech, a gentleman called Ray Dalio, who’s been on your show, I think.
Tim Ferriss: Indeed.
Rabbi Sacks: Ray is the head of the world’s largest hedge fund, I think. And Ray, who is a hugely wise and brilliant and a successful man and a very open man, was absolutely devastated. He was in a state of real nerves during the rehearsal. So I was shaking as I went up to deliver my speech. And I delivered my rehearsal.
And Chris Anderson at the end said, “Jonathan, I liked the speech, but what about the tie?” Because apparently no one wears a tie at TED. I said, “Chris, I have read the instructions and I have met you halfway. You will see that I am not wearing long, dangling earrings. Isn’t that good enough?” Anyway, eventually, Chris and I reached a compromise, which was that I would wear my yellow tie for my TED speech and as soon as that was over, I detied and remained tieless for the rest of TED.
Tim Ferriss: I so enjoyed meeting you at TED. And I just have to share a quick anecdote, which is somewhat similar. So, at TED itself, I remember they had constructed — they called it something like the Zen Room or the Relaxation Room, which was basically the on-deck circle for the next few speakers by the stage. And I went out there to relax at one point because of the namesake. And I remember, I think it was Gary Kasparov and a few other icons were just sweating bullets. And I said to myself, “If I try to relax here, I’m going to have a complete nervous breakdown.” And so I just shuffled off to some corner to prepare. What a day that was. Seems lifetimes ago.
The next hop is going to be a bit nonlinear, of course, because that’s the way these conversations tend to go. I’d like to revisit a line from your profile. And thank you so much for answering so many questions for Tribe of Mentors, my last book. And the question was about your purchase of a hundred dollars or less that has most positively impacted your life in the last, say, six months. And the answer is interesting, but not as interesting as the line that explains it. So your answer at the time was “Without a shadow of a doubt, buying noise-canceling earphones.” Bose, in this case. And the line that I wanted to explore is “These are the most religious objects I’ve ever come across because I define faith as the ability to hear the music beneath the noise.” And I had never heard or read anyone define faith that way. And I don’t know if that definition has changed for you, but could you speak to what you mean by that, and how you arrived at that, perhaps?
Rabbi Sacks: Incidentally, you’ll call me back on that, Tim, because I felt bad about it from that day to this because actually, noise-canceling earphones cost a little more than a hundred dollars. So I will give you one that really only costs $10. But what I mean is this, when we look at what happens to us, so much of it is noise, stuff that happens and doesn’t seem to add up or make sense in any way. Somebody once asked Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister in the 1950s, “What is the biggest challenge of being Prime Minister?” And he replied, “Events, dear boy. Events.”
So there’s so much going on. And you are buffeted by this wind, this whirlwind of swirling pressures. And life can come to seem, as the book of Ecclesiastes calls it “Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless.” Faith is the ability to go deeper than that and to sense the real wonders, the miracles that surround us.
The very existence of the universe is unbelievably improbable. The very existence of life is even more improbable. The most distinguished mathematician in Britain, Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal and the President of the Royal Society, once gave me his book called Just Six Numbers in which he argues that the entire existence of the universe depends on six improbabilities. And when you sense the majesty of existence, of life, of beauty, of nature, of the human person, of love, of becoming a parent, those are the things we tend to miss because we’re so preoccupied by the noise. And if we could find a way of generating a noise-reduction system in our minds, we would actually see and sense the beauty of life.
Now, I once said to Richard Dawkins, whom I regard as a beloved friend, but he is a pretty angry atheist. And I once said to Richard, “Richard, your problem is you are tone deaf. You can’t hear the music.” And he replied to me. He gave me a lovely reply. He said, “Yes, it’s true. I am tone deaf. But there is no music.” So there we are. I think that’s the difference really between Richard and myself, that I can hear the music.
And that music, you’ll find in the book of Psalms. You’ll hear that music in great poetry in the sonnets of Shakespeare. You’ll hear that music in Beethoven and in Schubert. And I love it. And it’s mystical. And it’s terrific. And I find that wearing those noise-canceling earphones, it’s not just good on planes; it’s really good for meditation.
Tim Ferriss: So I want to tie up one tiny loose end before I go to my next related question, but you said, “I’ll give you one that costs less than $10.” What is the purchase of less than $10? Is there something else that is positively impacting —
Rabbi Sacks: Yeah. An absolutely fabulous thing: a book light. I love them and I’ve got lots of them now. A book light allows me to read anywhere at night. It allows me to go around the house without switching the lights on and hence waking up. It allows me to read without waking my wife, Elaine. It’s a perfect, perfect — form and function. It’s absolutely magnificent. Less than $10. Very easy to recharge. And my book light is the joy of my life.
Tim Ferriss: Beautiful. And we will explore books in many capacities in this conversation, I suspect. You mentioned earlier that part of your job, or you view part of your job, is cheering people up. And I want to unfurl that a bit because I think there’s a lot there. You also have already mentioned, and I brought up, music. You seem to have been sensitive, you have been sensitive to music, literal music, since a very young age. And in one of the many different articles that I read prior to this conversation, I found a quote, which you can please feel free to correct, but the quote to you reads as follows. “There’s a sadness in Jewish music, a kind of minor key that I heard when I was two or three years old.” And then it went on later, “It’s an existential sadness that I can’t eliminate, however hard I try. That’s probably what allows me to communicate with people who are unhappy.” So first, I always like to ask, does this sound like something you said or does it have truth to it? And if so, could you expand on it?
Rabbi Sacks: The first two to three years of my life, we didn’t have our own home. We lived with my grandparents. And my grandfather, who was a businessman, he had a wine shop, also actually owned a synagogue. It was a very tiny, little synagogue, but it was just down the road from where we were living. And that was my first experience of synagogue life.
And I imagine that almost every single person in that synagogue was a refugee. I mean, this is early 1950s. They’d come in from the war. My late father’s family, and he, himself, came from Poland. So you had people who had been through the most searing experiences, had encountered absolute dislocations. In some cases, lost their families. In all cases, were struggling to make themselves at home in a new land. My father’s favorite line from the Bible was Moses calling his son Gershom saying, “I’m a stranger in a strange land.” And that’s what my father felt.
And you could hear that sadness in the music of the synagogue. And it was my first encounter with music, my first encounter with synagogue music, with music as prayer. And I find it there in most Jewish music. Not all Jewish music, but most of it. And it comes from century, after century, after century of suffering. Now, of course, you can break out beyond that, but it’s just there. I don’t know.
I don’t know if you feel it in those three great Jewish musicians of the 20th century, the late Leonard Cohen, and to some extent, Bob Dylan, and to some extent, Paul Simon. Not really. You don’t really feel it. But I feel it still in things like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin. There is a powerful note of sadness there that, to my mind, is part of the signature of being Jewish.
Tim Ferriss: Do you find that sadness in you to be enabling, more enabling, or disabling in your ability to help others and to affect change in the world?
Rabbi Sacks: 50 years ago, I met and married — well, 52 years ago, I met; and 50 years ago, I married Elaine. And Elaine is the most — she is sunshine. I mean, that’s just what she is. And we were completely different people. I actually said this in TED. I said that I recognize somebody who’s totally and absolutely different from me. And I said, “It’s the people not like us who make us grow.” So, without Elaine, I might have become a very sad human being, a depressive human being. But to be married to somebody that profoundly positive, not in a superficial way at all, but somebody just affirming of life and always seeing the positive possibilities of any situation. Nothing ever got Elaine down. And it was that relationship, that love, that marriage that kept me from being overwhelmed by the sadness.
Tim Ferriss: You’ve mentioned before, and I think, in some respect, this is on a similar theme of sort of transmuting pain or sadness into something useful in the world. You’ve mentioned that one of the most inspirational books you’ve read is The Choice. This is a book that fewer people will recognize compared to, say, some of Viktor Frankl’s work. But could you please describe The Choice and why it is meaningful to you?
Rabbi Sacks: Well, this book came out not that long ago. I don’t know how many years ago. Maybe four or five years ago, I don’t know. But it came out, and I didn’t recognize the name at all. And here was another Holocaust book. And there are tens, and maybe hundreds of thousands, of them. And I try and read some, but I can’t possibly read all. But this was getting such positive reviews. It became a bestseller in the States and then actually became a bestseller here in Britain as well that I thought, “I must read this.”
And as I read it, I could not believe what I was reading because this was Edith Eger’s first book. And she was 90 years old. And she was, in essence, a female Viktor Frankl. Not quite Viktor Frankl in the sense that Viktor Frankl already worked out his entire response to evil and to grief while he was in Auschwitz. It took Edith some years to come to terms with it. She had to go back there. She had to wrestle with it. But she did eventually wrestle with it, and became a psychotherapist like Viktor Frankl, and then helped people cope with situations of the kind that she had coped with in the concentration camps.
And what Edith actually went through, which is more than Viktor Frankl did, was not just Auschwitz, but the death march immediately after the Germans left Auschwitz. They forced any prisoner who could walk to join the death march. And most of them died on the way. And read her account of that. She was actually kept alive only by the fact that her sister was there and two of them kept their respective spirits up. But I mean, it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone surviving those kind of horrendous conditions and that kind of evil. And yet, somehow, she worked it through and she used that experience to work through the pain, the fears, the anxieties of other people.
And essentially, her philosophy was very, very simple, and not unlike Viktor Frankl’s, which is whatever happens to us, we always have a choice. We always have a choice as to how to see ourselves in relation to what’s happening to us. Nobody can take away our mind. Nobody can take away how we define the situation. And it is that choice that’s the very essence of human freedom, liberty, and dignity.
And, of course, in the book, she talks not only about her experiences in Auschwitz, but how she used those to deal with her patients on the West Coast in the United States. I found this an astonishingly inspiring book. Just when you thought there was very little new to be learned from the Holocaust, here was the story of this extraordinary woman.
Tim Ferriss: I’ve enjoyed following you over the years since we first met. And I also came into this interview feeling quite insecure in a sense, because I have, on one hand at, at one end of the spectrum amongst my friends, people like Sam Harris, who I love dearly, a great friend. On the other end of the spectrum, I have deeply religious friends, but I know very little about religion. I don’t self-describe as someone who is particularly religious. How did you become a rabbi? How did you choose to become a rabbi? I understand the family background, but I’m looking at some of the notes in front of me, and I don’t know if this is accurate, but it seems that you perhaps thought at some point that you were going to become an economist or a lawyer. How and why become a rabbi?
Rabbi Sacks: I’m an economist manque. There you are. 1968, when Simon & Garfunkel were counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike and they’ve all come to look for America. In 1968, the end of my second year at university, at 20 years old, I thought to myself, “I don’t know much about Judaism, about religion, but I do know there are lots of distinguished, distinguished rabbis.” And so I decided, in 1968, summer of, to take a plane to the States and buy a Greyhound bus ticket. Do they still do that kind of thing, Tim, now? It was a hundred dollars I remember —
Tim Ferriss: It still exists.
Rabbi Sacks: — a hundred dollars, unlimited travel. And I went around looking for America and counting the rabbis. Not the cars. And I met lots and lots of terrific rabbis.
The extraordinary thing was that almost all of them mentioned a name to me, which I hadn’t heard of before. And the name was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who was known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He was the head of a group of Jewish mystics called Lubavitchers. And they said, “You must meet him because he is the great leader of our time.”
So I tried to find out where he was. And his center was in 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. I went there. And I walked in. And I said to the first person I met, “I’ve come 3,000 miles to meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Could I please have an appointment?” He absolutely fell about laughing. He said, “Do you know how many thousands, tens of thousands of people are waiting to have a meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe? He’s got tens, hundreds of thousands of followers. And they all want to see him. And so come back next year or 10 years’ time and forget it.” So I said, “Well, look, I’m traveling around on this Greyhound bus, I don’t know where I’m going to be when, but I do know that I am going to be in Los Angeles because I have an aunt there, and I will be traveling there. So here is the phone number of my aunt. And if the Lubavitcher Rebbe finds that he can see me, please give me a call and let me know. And I’ll come back to New York.”
Well, I was staying with my aunt several weeks later in Los Angeles, in Beverly Hills, and Sunday night, the phone goes. And it’s somebody from Brooklyn saying the Rebbe can see you on Thursday night. Now, I really had to go. The only trouble is I didn’t have any money at all; I was a student. And the only way of getting from Beverly Hills to Brooklyn by Greyhound bus is to travel 72 hours, uninterruptedly. Which is exactly what I did, I do not recommend this to anyone. But I did travel for 72 hours, and I got to meet the great man.
I’m 20 years old. And here he is, the man with hundreds of thousands of followers, and we sat for 20, 25 minutes, and it was a life-changing experience. And the interesting thing was that he did not really let me ask him questions, he asked me questions. He was interviewing me. And he said to me, for instance, something like this: “How many Jewish students at Cambridge University?” I said, “I don’t know, but around 1,000.” He said, “How many Jewish students go to the Jewish Society, get involved in Jewish life?”
I said, “About 100.” He said, “You mean 90 percent are just completely disengaged?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “What are you doing about it?” And I, being very English at the time, started a sentence with the following words, “In the situation in which I find myself,” which is a really English way of saying, “Could you ask me something else, please?” And the rabbi, believe it or not, who was a very, very polite man, actually interrupted me in the middle of that sentence. And he said, “You don’t find yourself in a situation. You put yourself in a situation. And thereby, I think you should put yourself in a different situation.”
And this was absolutely mind-blowing. There were hundreds of people outside waiting for their interview. And here is this great man, essentially telling me to become a leader, which is the last thing in the world I wanted to be. And many years later, I said, “What I learned at that moment was that people thought of this great man as a religious leader with thousands of followers.” I said, “Yes, that’s true. But that’s the least interesting thing about him.” I said, “Good leaders create followers, great leaders create leaders.”
And that is what he did, at that moment. And that moment never left me. It changed my entire life. It didn’t change it immediately, it changed it slowly and gradually. But when you are told by one of the greatest spiritual leaders of the 20th century you are going to have to lead, and you’re going to have to lead because you are in that situation where you can do something, that did actually change my life.
Tim Ferriss: I have so many questions about just this exchange that we could talk about just this for the rest of this conversation. I promise I won’t do that, but let me begin with perhaps one that is on the mind of many listeners. You mentioned earlier in our chat being sent six elements or numbers in the improbability of the universe and so on.
Let’s talk about tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of followers, and the improbability of getting that phone call. Even if you have to speculate, maybe you asked him, maybe you found out later, maybe you never did, but how, or why do you think you got that phone call? It just seems so unlikely that that would happen.
Rabbi Sacks: I think the message got through to him that an English student from Cambridge University had wandered in to his center. I think he probably told his followers to get in touch with the organization in Britain. I think he got somebody to ask, “Have you heard of this guy?” And probably they replied, “Yes. We’ve met him once.”
Because I had met a couple of his followers in the University, in Cambridge. So I think actually he had followers all over the world. I think he stayed in very close contact with them. And it was clear that a couple of his followers in Britain had decided that maybe this 20-year-old had some gifts that this 20-year-old had no idea that he had.
Tim Ferriss: So he had a dossier coming in potentially to the meeting.
Rabbi Sacks: I will tell you, Tim, my life has been made by three or four, maybe half a dozen, friendships with people who believed in me more than I believed in myself. And I regard myself as really having been blessed by those friendships, because this is an extraordinary thing. If somebody thinks you can do something that you never believed you could do, I have a pretty negative self-image, but some people have actually believed in me, and they’ve befriended me. And they were the people who lifted me, really, on their shoulders to where I got to.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned that, and I’m going to butcher the pronunciation here, but the Lubavitcher Rebbe —
Rabbi Sacks: Perfect.
Tim Ferriss: That’s even remotely close. Thank you. Even for a yank, I’m doing pretty well. The art, what does that mean? Most people will have heard the word rabbi, R-A-B-B-I, if spelled and certainly in American English. What does Lubavitcher Rebbe mean? And what is the origin of that?
Rabbi Sacks: Well, Lubavitch was the —
Tim Ferriss: Designation.
Rabbi Sacks: Lubavitch was a town in Russia, a little village in Russia, actually, not that huge. Can I be the tiniest bit mischievous actually, Tim? When I first became a —
Tim Ferriss: Oh, please be wholly mischievous! Yes.
Rabbi Sacks: When I first became a rabbi, one of the members of my congregation said to me, “Rabbi, you’re a rabbi and the Hasidim, the Jewish mystics, have something called a rebbe. What’s the difference between a rabbi and a rebbe?” And I said, “The difference is this. When a rebbe speaks, maybe in front of 1,000 people, everyone believes that he is speaking just to them. When a rabbi speaks, maybe in front of 100 people, everyone is convinced that he’s speaking to the person next to them.” [laughter] Let me give you a little hint —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I got it.
Rabbi Sacks: The word rabbi means “my teacher.” So a rabbi teaches, he instructs, he educates. Whereas a rebbe, the Jewish mystics had a much more sort of a powerful image of the rabbi as leader, as somebody who could actually order them to do things; go and live in this country, go and do that, in that particular job of work. So they endowed their leaders with enormous authority of a kind that never existed before in Jewish tradition. And that is what a rebbe is. A rebbe is a sort of all-powerful leader of a sect of Jewish mystics.
Tim Ferriss: How would you explain what a mystic is? Whether within the Jewish tradition or more broadly?
Rabbi Sacks: One of the Rebbe’s disciples said to me, when I first went to a study at the rabbinical seminary, having come straight from studying philosophy at Cambridge and Oxford, he said, “You know the difference between you and us? You look at the universe and you say, ‘The universe exists. Does God exist?’ We look at the world and we say, ‘God exists, but does the universe exist?'” In other words, a mystic believes in the reality of things that we see as vague, as mystical, as spiritual, and so on and so forth. Believes in the ultimate reality of the depth, if you like.
Tim Ferriss: Do, or I should say, are mystics as they are in some instances, considered to have direct experiences of the divine? Or experience of experiences of transcendence? Is that a prerequisite for being considered a mystic in the Jewish tradition?
Rabbi Sacks: They do, but of course they do it in a very, very specific way. Mystics tend to have experience of the divine as an element, as a dimension. They’re quite different, for instance, from prophets who experience the divine as a voice, as a call, as a charge. So mystics, they tend to screen out the more material elements of life and resonate, as you know, I’m sure you’ve engaged in meditation and so on. I mean, mysticism is generally a meditative discipline.
Tim Ferriss: We were discussing earlier if these core, say handful, of mentorships or relationships that have bolstered you. And through which you found confidence that you didn’t perhaps initially possess in yourself. We’ve covered perhaps some of the highlight stories, I’d love to talk about a challenging time.
And this is something that you mentioned in Tribe of Mentors, it’s the period following the publication of The Dignity of Difference. And there were calls for your resignation, headlines in the newspaper, “Archbishop of Canterbury and Chief Rabbi accused of heresy.” Can you please explain what happened and why it was controversial?
Rabbi Sacks: Dignity of Difference was my response to 9/11. 9/11, I suppose, shook all of us, shook the whole world. But one thing that happened was that the World Economic Forum that’s normally held at Davos was held that year in January 2002, I think, in New York, out of solidarity with the people of New York. And I was there, I used to go to the World Economic Forum. And on one of the days, we went as religious leaders to Ground Zero, which was still smoking away.
And the Archbishop of Canterbury was there, Chief Rabbi of Israel was there, gurus from India, imams and so on. And we all gave prayers at Ground Zero. But actually standing there at Ground Zero and seeing the sheer enormity of what happened there, left a huge impact on me. And I suddenly realized, here is religion as hate. And here are we standing with Archbishop of Canterbury, with imams, with gurus.
Religion is love, religion as mutual reconciliation. And I said to myself, “This has got to be the big choice of the 21st century.” And I set myself to write a book that would be published on the first anniversary of 9/11. And given that this was the very end of January 2002, I said, “I must publish a book and it must be the strongest possible statement that I can make. Stronger than it has ever been made before, of the need of religions to make space for one another. We can no longer predicate ourselves on defeating, converting, or eliminating the religions that are not ours.”
And I really felt the time, the moment, required that. It did not require conventional gestures of sadness and grief. Of course, they were there and they were done, and then were done well, but this needed something new and important. So the book I wrote, and it did indeed appear on the first anniversary of 9/11. So I wrote it at great speed, was far and away, the most radical I had written up to that time. It was not the most radical I’ve written.
I’ve subsequently written a book called Not In God’s Name that is much more radical. But people do not associate radicalism with chief rabbis, or religious leaders. We are there to defend the faith. We’re not there in any way to challenge the faith. And I felt, I’m sorry, I’ve got to take that risk. Well, the book was published. People realized quite how radical it was.
And obviously people felt that I had gone too far. I don’t think I went too far at all. I mean, looking back in retrospect, it’s absolutely ridiculous to think I went too far. But I had to face the fact that a lot of rabbis, a lot of my own rabbis felt just that. So that —
Tim Ferriss: What about it led them to feel that you went too far? Could you give us a few examples? Or an example?
Rabbi Sacks: I will tell you exactly the key sentence. The key sentence was “No religion has a monopoly on truth,” right?
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Rabbi Sacks: In order to satisfy everyone, because I didn’t want to take the book out of circulation, I agreed to do a second edition. And in the second edition, I wrote the following sentence, “No religion has a monopoly on wisdom.” And the rabbi said, “Oh, wisdom, that’s fine. Oh, that’s okay.” So we were able to resolve every single issue with the book. It took me three hours to make the necessary changes. And we brought out a second edition and that was the end of it.
Don’t forget, Charles Darwin brought out a second edition of Origin of Species for the same reason. His book also created controversy. So in the end, we came through, it’s just, when you’re in the full heat of it, it can be a little bit unnerving; especially when you realize that your wife and children are affected by this. And that’s a really tough one because they didn’t vote for it, if you know what I mean.
But in the end, we came through; it was okay. I made two phone calls to rabbis senior to me, older than me, and wiser than me. And I said, “Was I okay?” And they both said yes. And the second that I heard that support from them, one in Israel, one in America, I realized I was fine. I didn’t need to worry about it at all. And there is one piece of wisdom that I would share with you, and there is an American Christian minister who wrote a book called The Purpose Driven Life. Have you come across this at all, Tim?
Tim Ferriss: I’ve heard the title. Yes. I don’t recall the author off-hand —
Rabbi Sacks: His name is Rick Warren, and it has sold over 30 million copies. It’s a remarkable achievement. But it has one of the best opening sentences in any book I know, right up there with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. And this is the opening sentence: “It’s not about you.” That is a very powerful sentence.
The second I could understand that this is not about me, this is about people’s anxieties, this is all the trauma of 9/11 and so on and so forth, the second I had two friends say “You’re okay,” I was able to get through the rest, and it turned out, actually, to be quite minor.
Tim Ferriss: Was the “You’re okay,” so reassuring because it was an indication that all will be okay in the end? And it was a reassurance from people with broader experience of life. Or was it, “You’re okay,” in the sense of “We support you?”
Rabbi Sacks: Oh, neither. Neither.
Tim Ferriss: Neither.
Rabbi Sacks: Neither. These were people far to the right of me, much more conservative than me. But they understood that what I said was perfectly within the parameters of Jewish belief. Here is a principle, Tim, that I hope your listeners will think about, because it’s one of the most powerful life tools that I’ve ever come across.
What happens when you’re in a situation in which you have done something that has generated widespread disapproval? How do you deal with that? And I thought about this long and hard, and eventually, I came up with a principle, which has been a lifesaver to me, and which makes a great deal of sense. It says, “Win the respect of people you respect, and you can forget the rest.”
Tim Ferriss: I’m writing that down for myself. Win the respect of people you respect, it’s an excellent reminder.
Rabbi Sacks: There are 1,000 people saying you’re wrong, but if the two people that you respect say you’re right, you can ignore the 1,000 people.
Tim Ferriss: What was the opening line that you mentioned in The Purpose Driven Life? Could you repeat that line for a moment, please?
Rabbi Sacks: “It’s not about you.”
Tim Ferriss: This seems to segue nicely to a number of things that I’d love to discuss with you. And in one of the constructs, or more frameworks, I’m not sure if that’s the right label that I’d love to have you introduce listeners to is the I/we construct, right? Not about you, it’s not about the I. And there are probably 100 different avenues into discussing this, but feel free to take whatever you think is a good starting point.
Rabbi Sacks: Yeah. I always, when I want to explain things, talk about the joke that Benedict Cumberbatch makes in The Imitation Game, when he’s playing Alan Turing.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, great movie.
Rabbi Sacks: And Keira Knightley tells him, “Go and tell them a joke, show them you’re human.” And so he goes along and he says, “There are these two explorers in the jungle and they suddenly hear a lion roar. And one of them starts looking for a place where both of them can hide. And the other one starts putting on his running shoes. And the first person says to the second person, “You’re crazy. You can’t run faster than a lion.” And the second one turns to the first one and says, “I don’t need to run faster than the lion. All I need to do is run faster than you.” So now this is where Darwin arrived at, that natural selection, where there’s competition for scarce resources, where you have to outpace others in order to survive, came to the conclusion that it’s the selfish guy, number two guy, who is putting on his running shoes, who will survive the lion. Whereas, it’s the first guy, the altruist, who’s looking for a way of saving both of them, who gets eaten by the lion.
So the ruthless survive and the altruists go extinct. That was Darwin’s conclusion. And Darwin was sharp enough to see that that conclusion is simply not true. Because, in every single society that you ever find, it is the altruists who are admired. So how did altruists survive at all, when natural selection seems to favor the egoist? And eventually, Darwin found a solution. He didn’t write it in Origin of Species, he wrote it in his book The Descent of Man. And he said, “Any tribe whose members were altruistic, who were always willing to come to the aid of one another, would be stronger than any tribe whose members were not altruistic.” Or, as we would put it today, we pass on our genes as individuals, but we survive as groups.
Groups only exist when we put the we before the I, when we accept collective responsibility for the common good. There is no other way of survival. And since we are social animals, since our existence depends on being in groups, we need altruism in order to survive. Most traditional societies have made space for egoism and for altruism, for self-interest and for collective interest, the common good.
So the self-interest is, today, in the market where we are competing for wealth, and in politics, where we are competing for power. There, it’s all about the I. But there’s such a thing as family, or community, or congregation, or charity, where we are there not to compete, but to cooperate, to function as a collective we.
Now, what has happened in the last 50 years is that the market is still strong. The state and politics is still strong. But families, communities, congregations, and the rest have become weaker than they once were. And the end result is that we have too much I and too little we. It’s all gone out of balance. And that is to say that we have pushed, in the West, radical individualism simply too far. What does radical individualism look like? I don’t know. Are you into soccer in the States, Tim?
Tim Ferriss: Well, I used to play soccer, and then spent time in South America where it’s a religion. So I think I’m more exposed to it than most. Some Americans care about soccer, but we tend to view our football as something you throw around by hand. But please continue with soccer, since the audience is international.
Rabbi Sacks: Just imagine you have a soccer team that contains the 11 greatest players in the world, but they’re all radical individualists. That team will never win a single match. Because soccer is made by your ability to put the team ahead of the individual player. And imagine an orchestra of radical individualists. The result will not be music, but will be noise.
So whenever I takes over from a place that should be about we, you get catastrophe. Now, Tim, look at this catastrophe. And I’m surprised not more people have noticed it. Two of the countries that have done worst in the world in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19 have been the two most individualistic societies in the world today, the United States and the United Kingdom. The United States, far more infections than anywhere else, far more fatalities than anywhere else. Britain, a terrible record of fatalities per million of the population, and a terrible record of economic collapse.
Now you ask yourself why these two countries, which were the greatest defenders of liberty in the 20th century, Britain and America, have become the worst at dealing with a catastrophe like coronavirus. And the answer is they have too much I and too little we. It is the countries that maintain that balance, like South Korea, like Taiwan, like Singapore, like New Zealand, like Germany. Those are the countries that have coped really well.
When you have a country that is all I, for instance, you have political leadership that keeps saying, “I, I, I,” instead of saying, “We, we, we,” a relationship that can sometimes be very damaging indeed to the social fabric. So I think, as time has gone on, the book that I wrote about this, which of course I finished writing just before the pandemic, has become more and more relevant to where we are, and where we ought to be aiming to be in the future.
Tim Ferriss: So the book is Morality, subtitle, Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times. And I know you are a student of history, avid student of history, studier of history. And I can’t speak to the feeling, the sentiment in the UK. But, in the US, I would say there’s a lot of fatalism and nihilism at the moment, certainly including many people who are well-educated, who feel that you can’t put the toothpaste back in the toothpaste tube. And we are just on the descent in the lifespan of a collapsing empire. That is, I would say, the feeling that that is very pervasive here.
And I would love to know, in your studies, to your knowledge, are there any examples of reversing the trend, steering back away from the precipice, and reverting back to or reinforcing more we versus I? Or is that an unstoppable, one-way trend that really can’t be stemmed?
Rabbi Sacks: Tim, I want to introduce you to a Jewish way of thinking about things.
Tim Ferriss: You’re the perfect person to do it.
Rabbi Sacks: Forget the word inevitable. It doesn’t exist. Forget it. Delete it. Search and delete. We are going to come up, in a few weeks’ time, to the Jewish High Holidays, right? We’re going to have Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
And we are going to do the weirdest thing. Listen carefully. We are going to say a prayer, which goes, “On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, it is written. And on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, it is sealed.” Who will live, who will die, who will prosper, who will suffer. The late Leonard Cohen actually made a song about this, based on this, called Who By Fire.
So that is the perfect statement of fatalism. It’s going to be written over the next 10 days, and there’s nothing you can do about it. And then precisely two minutes later, the entire synagogue erupts with the words, “But prayer, penitence, and charity avert the evil decree.” Nobody ever accepts any verdict as final in Judaism. We completely throw out the concept of inevitability.
I’ll tell you, Tim, one of the most moving things I ever heard is — the BBC, The British Army, liberated the extermination of Bergen, the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, in April, 1945. And they sent a young journalist called Patrick Gordon Walker to do a program, a broadcast, from Bergen-Belsen, just a couple of days after it had been liberated. The people there were walking corpses. And this was one of the most horrendous scenes people had ever seen. But the BBC Radio recording of that still exists.
And the prisoners, the survivors, can be heard singing a song. And the song they’re singing is Hatikvah, the song that became, three years later, the national anthem of the state of Israel. Hatikvah means “the hope.” Here were people who just, just, just managed to survive in a world of corpses. And at the Gates of Hell, they were singing about hope. That is what Judaism is about. We never, ever, ever give up hope. And we never accept anything as inevitable.
Now, let me answer your question directly. The last two times we had a situation as devastating as this pandemic were 1918 — First World War and the Spanish Flu pandemic — and 1945, the end of the Second World War. They could not have been less alike. In 1918, people didn’t change. They went on with an I-centered society. They created what we know as the Roaring ’20s, with wild dances and wilder parties. There were these huge economic inequalities. And people tried to blot out the memories of what had happened by going back to partying, and were just concerned about themselves.
The result of that was the great crash of 1929, the Great Depression of 1930, the rise of Nazism and fascism throughout Europe. And a mere 21 years after the war to end all wars, the world was at war again. That was 1918. It failed to move from I to we.
The world after 1945 was completely different. It really did move from I to we. In Britain, there was the 1944 Education Act, which extended further education to everyone in society, a real major breakthrough against class divisions. Came the National Health Service, universal health care, came the welfare state. In America, you had the GI Bill. You had all sorts of measures to help those people who had made sacrifices during the war.
America produced one of the most imaginative schemes ever, in the Marshall Plan, through which America extended loans to every country in Europe, including Germany itself, to rebuild their shattered economies. What was the end result of that? 75 years of peace. So it can be done. The last time it was done was in 1945 to 1965. The I society of the 1920s became the we society of post-World War II. And it can be done again. I would give you other examples from the 19th century, but I hope that’s enough to be going on with.
Tim Ferriss: You have used the term cultural climate change. Can you define that for people, please?
Rabbi Sacks: Cultural climate change is when the ecology, the environment, the air, the temperature changes. But we very often don’t notice it at once. It took a very long time for people to notice global warming and climate change. There is a brilliant professor of sociology at Harvard University called Robert Putnam, whom I regard as the world’s greatest sociologist.
And Robert Putnam introduced me to the concept, which I hadn’t come across before, of a Google Ngram. A Google Ngram is a way that you can search for literature that Google has stored electronically. They’ve made copies of virtually every book published since 1800. So you can actually search that literature. And, for instance, find out the relative salience of different words over time.
And what Robert Putnam discovered was that the word I and the word we appear more or less in tandem, around the same sort of level, from 1800 until 1964. 1964, suddenly the I begins to predominate over the we. And when you see something like that, you begin to realize you’re in a state of cultural climate change. Is that a good enough example, or would you like others?
Tim Ferriss: It is. It is a great example. And one of the questions that comes to my mind is — I suppose, on a lot of minds listening to this, and that is what can we do? In countries where rugged individualism has been prized, has been rewarded, when the counter examples, say, whether in China, in other locations, reflect thousands of years of, in many cases, collective thinking, ancestor worship, etc., what can we do?
There are individual acts, I would imagine, shifts of perspective. And then there are perhaps larger scale actions we can take. But what would you like to see us do, whether individually or collectively?
Rabbi Sacks: I think a whole series of things, but let me give you some examples. One thing that Britain took seriously, and America took much more seriously, was the concept of national identity. There was a kind of initiation that you went through in the States, in schools, where you learned what it was to be an American, what were the key dates, who were the key people, and so on and so forth.
I once pointed out there’s fascinating experience to walk around the monuments in Washington, and then walk around the monuments in Britain. If you walk around the monuments in Washington, you go to Lincoln Memorial. On the one hand, you’ve got the Gettysburg Address, on the other, the second inaugural. You look at the Jefferson Memorial with screeds of text on marble tablets. You look at the Roosevelt Memorial with those six spaces, one for each decade in public life, with the key quotes, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” You look at the Martin Luther King Memorial, with well over a dozen of his most memorable lines.
And I suddenly realized, in America, monuments are something you read. Now, go to Parliament Square in London, and you will find that Nelson Mandela gets three words, or two words, sorry: Nelson and Mandela. Winston Churchill wrote as many memorable sentences as anyone in the English language, gets one word: Churchill. In Britain, monuments aren’t things you read. But, in America, they are. Why? Because America had to integrate successive waves of immigration. So they had to read the American story. They had to live the American story. They had to make it their own story.
The second you have a strong national identity, then you have a strong basis for saying “We are all in this together; we all have collective responsibility for the common good.” Now, around 2016, just before the presidential election, I was privileged to win quite a big award in the States, presented in the Kennedy Center in Washington. And I mentioned this story. And after I came down and got my award, people said to me, “Well, you know, we used to do that. But we have stopped telling the story now, because we’re embarrassed to tell the story.”
And the moment I heard that, I realized that America was in deep trouble. Because there is no way you can generate we within society without a strong sense of we all belong together. All you do is you dis-aggregate and fragment the culture. And the end result is that people like Black Lives Matter and all the others feel they are not fully part of this society. This society doesn’t fully recognize and respect them. And you can’t live with it. So, first things first, tell the story. And I was just thinking, can it really be done?
And then my beloved number one daughter, who has clearly divine insight here, decided two years ago or three years ago that she was going to buy Dad a birthday present of tickets for Elaine and myself to go and see Hamilton the musical. And I suddenly realized what it was: to retell the American story in a new and very inclusive way. So full marks to Lin Manuel Miranda for something that is very creative, in expressing the we in a new way. So that’s the first thing, tell a national narrative. And I fear I’ve gone on too long. I’m happy to tell you the other stages, but challenge me if you like.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, please do. No challenge top of mind, at the moment, so please, please continue.
Rabbi Sacks: Okay. Okay. Number two, once you’ve got the story, what next? What next is you need the ritual and the day in the diary. Jews have kept their identity for longer than any other people, and done so under the more adverse circumstance of being a tiny minority, a cognitive minority, in exile. Why did they do it? Because they have a day in the year called Passover, where they tell the story and hand it on to their children. John Jacques Rousseau thought this was the most remarkable political achievement ever. So you need the day and you need the moment when you tell this story.
I had the privilege of working with — we used to talk these things through with four prime ministers, with John Major, with Tony Blair, with Gordon Brown, and with David Cameron. And we really, really looked at this. How can we get this moment, in which we enact the ritual of being all that together? Now, in Britain, in November, we have something called Remembrance Sunday, which is about remembering the people and the sacrifices made in war. It’s very moving. The Queen comes, all the royal family, all prime ministers, present and previous, and everything. Everyone is there, just outside 10 Downing Street. It’s televised. It’s huge.
And I said, “Why don’t we take this day, and divide it in two, so that the morning is about war and the past, and the afternoon is about peace and the future?” And you join them together by getting the elderly generation to hand the candle, the flame on across the generations to young people. And that way we could find a new and inclusive way of including young people from all the ethnic groups and all the religious groups. And it would be a celebration of Britain as a future, not just as a past. We would have the day there in the diary and would be televised and so on. It never got there. I don’t know why. But you need not only the story. You need the date in the diary and you need the ritual.
And then thirdly, and this is far and away the most important, you need to empower young people. The way to teach young people how to be moral is to just send them to disaster zones, to people who need care, and empower them, show that you believe in them the way the Lubavitcher Rebbe believed in me. Because once you empower people and you give them the opportunity to make the world better by their altruism, they learn that much more powerfully by doing it for themselves than by getting a lecture on it.
So you put those three things together: a national story, a national ritual, and empowerment of young people for something, a little like national service, and you would bring back the we immediately.
Tim Ferriss: This is such an important subject. I’m so thrilled that you’ve penned this book. And while we still have a little bit of time, I’d love to hop from empowering to perhaps an aspect of empowering or at the very least not disempowering, although you can recontextualize, if you like. I know you have written, I believe in this most recent book about safe spaces, cancel culture, free speech. Is there anything that you would like to say on these subjects?
Rabbi Sacks: Yeah. There is nothing less safe than safe space. I was, I told you, rather inspired by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. And I became, as a graduate student in Cambridge, quite religious. My postgraduate, my doctoral supervisor was Sir Bernard Williams, widely regarded as the most brilliant man in Britain and the leading philosopher in the world of his generation. And Bernard Williams was a lapsed Catholic and a ferocious atheist — and a brilliant atheist. And here he is talking to a young man with a beard and a velvet yarmulke. It was crazy. And in all the time we were together, never once did he ridicule my beliefs. Not once. All he wanted to do was “Could I make them coherent, lucid, consistent?” That’s all.
And my goodness, me. The fact that I was being tutored by somebody who regarded every single thing that I believed as superstitious nonsense, but who was totally courteous to me, and genuinely so, it went deep down. That was safe space because it meant I could face the world knowing that there are lots of people who will disagree with me, and I am completely unafraid, because I sat with a guy much more intelligent than any of them, whose views were much more opposed to mine than any of them, and we were able to talk respectfully. And I realized what is safe space? A place where you listen respectfully to the views of those who disagree with you, because you know in return they will listen respectfully to your views, even though they’re opposed to them.
Safe space means that courteous discipline of respectful listening, which is being shredded and defiled in too many universities today. What they are doing is creating very, very unsafe space. You know, there’s an interesting thing that lots and lots of kids say. Is this true in the States? In Britain it is. Lots and lots of young children have peanut allergies. Have you come across it?
Tim Ferriss: True in the US as well.
Rabbi Sacks: Yeah?
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Rabbi Sacks: You know, there’s one —
Tim Ferriss: True in the US.
Rabbi Sacks: There’s one country in the world where kids don’t have peanut allergies, and that is Israel. Because the most popular snack in Israel contains peanuts. So because they’re exposed to it from very early on, they develop immunity to it. And because at university, we are exposed to views that challenge our own, we develop immunity to it. And that is what makes us strong and healthy and safe. And people are going to go through our university system thinking that the world is a place where if you protest long and loudly enough on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook, you can cancel out any view with which you disagree. Not only are you destroying the most important element of civilization, which is the collaborative pursuit of truth, but you are also potentially ruining those young people.
You have to make them intellectually robust and don’t carry on with what you’re doing, because frankly what you’re doing is an outrage. And I do believe that universities are so important to the health of a society that the guardians of those places should show a lot more courage.
Tim Ferriss: Now there’s a saying that is in some notes from, I believe, this new book, “Audi alteram partem.”
Rabbi Sacks: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And I’m not up to speed in my Latin. I’m assuming that’s Latin.
Rabbi Sacks: That’s great.
Tim Ferriss: “Hear the other side.”
Rabbi Sacks: [crosstalk 01:15:41]
Tim Ferriss: Thank you. And following that, and please correct me if I’m getting any of this incorrect, but no institution that denies a hearing to the other side can be a vehicle for justice.
Rabbi Sacks: Yeah. It’s a principle of Roman law: “Listen to the other side.” There’s a story I tell actually that perhaps I could repeat from the book. It’s from the Talmud and from tractate Ketubot. It tells of two study partners. One was called Rabbi Yochanan and one was called Resh Lakish. And they used to discuss Jewish law every day. And then Resh Lakish died. And the rabbis were really worried about Robbie Yochanan who was a very important rabbi of the third century, because they thought that without his study partner, he would go into a depression and die. So they said, “We have to find him a study partner to cheer him up.”
And so they sent him Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat, who knew the whole literature backwards and forwards. And whenever Rabbi Yochanan expressed an opinion, Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat would say, “There is a source that supports you.”
After two days of this, Rabbi Yochanan started tearing his hair out and saying, “Resh Lakish, come back. They’ve sent me this guy, who whenever I say anything says, ‘You’re right.’ Do you think I don’t know I’m right? Do I need him to tell me I’m right? But when you were here Resh Lakish, every time I would express an opinion, you would show me 24 reasons why I was wrong, and I would have to find 24 reasons to show I was right. And the end result is that you grew, and I grew. So please take this man away.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it’s — it reminds me of a concept called red teaming that a lot of the best investors also use. And I think that investment here is just a metaphor for life. And that is, they will in say partner meetings or otherwise, we can get into the etymology of it, which is military, but having your partners, your colleagues do their best to attack your beliefs systems position assumptions, and only once they’ve been thoroughly, thoroughly stressed tested, can you truly understand your position and can you truly have confidence in your position. There are a number of other things in this new book that struck me. I’m looking, I’m picking and choosing and cherry picking a little bit here, like a monument in the United States, of course, but “Free society depends on the dignity of dissent.” I think the phrasing of that is so important. And later on, “But resist with all your heart and soul any attempt to substitute power for truth and stay far from people, movements, and parties that demonize their opponents.”
And it makes me think as a student of history or sometimes student of history myself, I try to read as much as I can, that things in excess often become their opposite, right? So without stress testing, freedom fighters become tyrants, things become their opposite. And it’s very easy for someone who starts with what they deem good intentions to forcibly suppress opposition and forget that forcible suppression of opposition is perhaps the defining characteristic of fascism. And it’s terrifying. It really is terrifying. And I am glad that you’re speaking to all these points in the context of moving from I to we, which is sort of by definition inclusive, if that makes sense.
Rabbi Sacks: You know the founders of America, and indeed the founders of liberty in the modern world, the John Miltons and John Lockes, the Thomas Jeffersons, the Washingtons, and of course, that wonderful man, I mean, and Madison and so on, Federalist Papers, they were about separation of powers, about faction, about not vesting full power in this institution or that, but forcing people to maintain a delicate balance.
Now you have too much we, you get China and you lose freedom. You have too much I, and you get the States and Britain today, which have just gone a little too far. Maintaining the balance between I and we is not easy. It’s a constant challenge. And it seems to me that we just took our eye off the ball and an imbalance suddenly appeared. And all of a sudden things that I took for granted forever, I can no longer take for granted, like the fact that liberal democracy is here to stay and is the default condition of human affairs. And you suddenly realize it isn’t so, that actually our situation today, certainly in Britain and America, is quite delicate, and truth is, we’ve all got to play our part.
When you feel that something as tiny as that original instance of coronavirus was able to sweep across the world, and that of course is a kind of medical example of what people call the butterfly effect, the chaos theory that the beating of a butterfly’s wing in the Philippines can cause a tidal wave on the West Coast of America.
But I profoundly believe the other way round as well. I once, in a book, called it the chaos theory of virtue, that every good deed we do somehow has an impact on people. It changes them for the better. They pay it forward. And although we may not realize it, the good we do is contagious just as the bad we do is. And therefore we can each make a positive difference to this. And perhaps it’s only we, the people, who can do it.
Tim Ferriss: Hear, hear. It strikes me it’s much easier to destroy than to create. And there is perhaps a natural entropy to many of these systems, and it takes effort. It takes effort to keep things on the rails. And, yeah, I think it’s a good time to measure twice and cut once. And it brings to mind one of the quotes, which is from you. There’s an ellipsis in the middle because there’s more to this statement, so I don’t want to shortchange it, but “The single most important distinction in life … is to distinguish between an opportunity to be seized and a temptation to be resisted.”
I feel like you have illustrated throughout your career the ability to pause and reflect before taking action. Not that you always do that. Of course, you’re human. But it seems like that is good medicine for our times and circumstances right now.
I know we only have a few minutes left for very good reasons, and I want to give just a teaser for a potential round two with you before we go to some closing comments, but in the course of doing homework, I came across something I wanted to ask you. How long did you date your now wife before getting engaged or proposing?
Rabbi Sacks: I think it was three weeks. It certainly wasn’t four. It certainly wasn’t four.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. So we’re going to bookmark —
Rabbi Sacks: She’s the most unlike me I have ever encountered. And this summer, despite lockdown, we celebrated our golden wedding. So there you are.
Tim Ferriss: Congratulations. Congratulations. And perhaps next time, we’ll also have you tell us more about the ritual of reading the 10 plagues in the Passover service, which as someone who’s really not been exposed to any of this, I found beautiful. And in fact, maybe that is a decent inclusion for this conversation. If you have just a few minutes more, do you think that is worth mentioning or describing for people? Or should we hold that for a round two?
Rabbi Sacks: The spilling drops of wine on the Passover night, as we tell the story of the Exodus and as we read the 10 plagues, has many different explanations. So this one is certainly not the only explanation. But one explanation was that we shed tears for the Egyptians who died during that period, because we take no pleasure in the suffering of our enemies and we do not rejoice in the victims of our victories.
And I think that’s a really important thing to do. Somehow or other to say to yourself, “Okay, I’m Jewish, but what about those Egyptians? They weren’t responsible for Pharaoh. They weren’t responsible for the slavery. And yet he had driven the country to the brink of disaster.” And I think that kind of role reversal, do you know what I mean, Tim?
Tim Ferriss: I do.
Rabbi Sacks: Where you think your way to your enemy, and suddenly realize that your enemy is human like you are and has a point of view as you do, although it’s not the same point of view. It’s very difficult and very challenging, but it is very powerful.
The contemporary example that comes to mind is that what do you say to Csanád Szegedi? There was a leader of the Jobbik Party in Hungary, the antisemitic party in Hungary. His name was Csanád Szegedi, and he was a fully fledged antisemite, but he had some enemies within the party and they decided to see if they could dig up any embarrassing fact in his background. And lo and behold, they discovered that this guy, unknown to him, his grandparents had died at Auschwitz, that Hungary’s leading antisemite was a Jew.
Well, I mean, today, this is a religious Jew who spent his life — a new life — fighting antisemitism. But it just shows how powerful it can be if you suddenly think yourself into a different situation. And if we were capable of that, we would rid the world of a great deal of violence.
Tim Ferriss: Rabbi Sacks, it is always such a pleasure. I’ve greatly enjoyed all of our interactions. I hope we may have many more and share a cup of tea perhaps at some point in person post-pandemic, or when things get under more control.
The new book, which I highly recommend people check out, is titled Morality, subtitle, Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times. I can think of nothing more important right now than embracing this and shifting from I to we, not necessarily from one extreme to the other, but certainly further along the spectrum towards a collective we. People can find you at rabbisacks.org, @rabbisacks on all social, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube. Is there anything else that you would like to say before we close for today?
Rabbi Sacks: Yeah, of course. I want to thank you, Tim, for writing the most wonderful books, for asking the most unbelievably engrossing questions, and as I told you, for doing a little video for my son, who is your biggest fan and who introduced me to your work since when I have become your biggest fan.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you so much. I really appreciate you, I appreciate what you’re doing in the world, and I appreciate your time today. And for everyone listening, we will have complete show notes linking to everything, including the new book, any resources, people who were mentioned at tim.blog/podcast. Thank you again, Rabbi Sacks. May we have many more conversations. And to everyone listening, thank you for tuning in.
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