Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l and Globalization

In the late 1990’s and the early 2000’s, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks as Chief Rabbi was invited to world forums on economics, the environment, education, interfaith and globalization. These conferences were meetings of world thought leaders seeking to give direction to political leadership. At the time, Sacks was a master of the form advocating in his speeches for a moral climate to be created because free markets are not moral, and the goal of profits does not lead to responsibility or human dignity. In 2003, he penned an article “Global Covenant: A Jewish Perspective on Globalization,” in John H. Dunning, Making Globalization Good: The Moral Challenges of Global Capitalism (OUP, 2003) which contains a summary of his many speeches from this era, a good article to use as an overview of his general philosophy of this era. 

Before turning to the article, let us start with a few basics on Rabbi Sacks’ thought. At university, Sacks read liberal moral philosophy-Mill, Hobbs, Hume, Locke, Whitehead, and Isaiah Berlin- writing his dissertation on Jewish moral thinking, eventually reworked into parts of his later books such as To Heal a Fractured World. In the 1980’s, he was deeply influenced by the communitarianism of Michael Waltzer, Michael Sandel, Alister Macintyre, and Charles Taylor. These thinkers, seeing the problems of individualism and the lack of clear moral directives for society saw the answer in a return to the structures of the Bible, religion, community, and the social realm. None of them advocated a return to a fundamentalist religion or even necessary to organized religion, rather they held that without a social group and sacred texts, one had no moral force to reign in liberal atrophy and anomie.

In the 1990’s, Sacks himself wrote about the breakdown of family, schools, morals, and society He advocated the need for all us to be a good covenant that would teach us responsibility and caring. Not just the Jewish covenant, but any good covenant. For example, he was the only Jewish advocate for the UK retaining the Anglican church as the official church of the UK because it was a good covenant to breed responsibility and a just society. Sacks himself was the product of a proper Anglican secondary school. Instead, the UK dropped the established church. Sacks was also against multi-culturalism because we need a standard culture in order to assume moral responsibility.       

In the 1998-2002 era, the issues were globalization and capitalism. Samuel Huntington believed in a clash of civilizations, while Sacks followed Thomas Freidman (The Lexus and the Olive Tree) and Benjamin Barber (Jihad vsMcWorld) who believed in the power of the market to temper the clash. On the issue of capitalism, Sacks used the critics of unchecked capitalism such as Naomi Klein (No Logo), George Soros (Open Society), Michael Waltzer (many works) and Zygmunt Bauman (Globalization). In many of his positions, Sacks was close to his contemporary Prime Minister Tony Blair, who converted to Catholicism upon leaving office and set up an organization for solving global problems as part of an interfaith program.

One of Sack’s major contributions to Jewish ethics is the extension of local ethics to the global level. I can talk about the mizvah not to waste things (bal tashit) but personal action alone will not save the world until one directly addresses the structural changes and governmental regulations needed to save the environment. On many issues, he was the first Orthodox rabbi to make a leap to a global imperative.

In the blog post below, I will deal with this one article. I am not giving an overview of his entire thought. I am not covering his early writing as a teacher, his many books, or his thoughts on Jewish identity, or his apologetics for religion, or his recent books on the Torah parasha. They each deserve their own treatment. This article does not convey the full range of Sack’s thought. But it does deal with an aspect shown more at the international forums than in the Jewish community. When I had the privilege to meet with him in his office, I was invited as an international interfaith speaker, not as an educator.

I have selected paragraphs from the article and added brief commentary before the quotes. I lectured on this topic many years ago when the article first appeared. Spelling have been changed to American from British to please my online programs.

Global Covenant: A Jewish Perspective on Globalization

Sacks connects contemporary issues to Biblical stories, which he will describe later in the article, as a means of addressing issues with narrative that dramatizes the contemporary issues. In this case, he uses the Phoenicians to address globalization.

International  commerce, practiced extensively by the Phoenicians, goes back almost to the dawn of civilization.

There  are many positive changes of globalization but there are many negative ones as well, especially the poverty and disruption left in its wake.

But there are changes in degree which become changes in kind. The sheer speed and extent of advances in modern communications technology have altered conditions of existence for many, perhaps most, of the world’s six billion inhabitants. The power of instantaneous global communication, the sheer volume of international monetary  movements, the  internationalization  of processes and products, and the ease with which jobs can be switched from country to country have meant that our interconnectedness has become more immediate, vivid, and consequential than ever before.

But globalization also carries effects that are perceived as deeply threatening, especially to traditional cultures. Jobs become vulnerable. Whole economies are destabilized. Inequalities within and between nations grow larger, not smaller. One- fifth of the world’s population subsists on less than a dollar a day. Throughout Africa and parts of Asia, poverty, disease, and hunger are rife. Developing countries find themselves vulnerable as never before to sudden economic downturns, currency fluctuations, and shifts in production, leaving behind them vast swathes of unemployment.

Religions teaches us to look beyond the tribe and nation toward a universal God of justice, righteousness, peace, and human dignity. Judaism is one of those universal voices.

Francis Fukuyama (1999: 231–45) points out, it was religion that first taught human beings to look beyond the city-state, the tribe, and the nation to humanity as a whole. The world faiths are global phenomena whose reach is broader and in some respects deeper than that of the nation state.

Judaism is one of those voices. The prophets of ancient Israel were the first to think globally, to conceive of a God transcending place and national boundaries and of humanity as a single moral community linked by a covenant of mutual responsibility (the covenant with Noah after the Flood). Equally, they were the first to conceive of society as a place where ‘justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a never ending stream’ and of a future in which war had been abolished and peoples lived together in peace. Those insights remain valid today.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all endow life with human dignity, All three give us freedom, volition and choice to make the world a better place, to dream and hope for a better tomorrow. The religions teach us a moral view so that we use technology and globalization for good and not for bad. (He never directly addresses the parts of religion, especially his Judaism, that do not use religion to increase human dignity).

Our hopes are not mere dreams, nor are our ideals illusions. Something at the core of being responds to us as persons, inviting us to exercise our freedom by shaping families, communities and societies in such a way as to honor the image of God that is mankind, investing each human life with  ultimate  dignity. This view, shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, sees choice, agency, and moral responsibility at the heart of the human project. We are not powerless in the face of fate. Every technological advance can be used for good or evil. There is nothing inevitably benign or malign in our increasing powers. It depends on the use we make of them… Our aim must be to maximize human dignity and hand on to future generations a more gracious, less capricious world.

In an age of globalization, we care more about the creation and patenting of ideas, rather than production. Intellectual skills count more than modes of production, hence education is a fundamental human right in order to compete in the new global economy.

The labor content  of manufactured goods continues to fall. Huge profits go to those who have ideas. To an ever-increasing degree, multinational enterprises (MNEs) are outsourcing production and peripheral services and becoming, instead, owners of concepts: brands, logos, images, and designs (Klein 2001). In such an age, immense advantage accrues to those with intellectual and creative skills. Education, not merely basic but extended, becomes a necessity, even a fundamental  human  right. Investment in education is the most important way in which a society offers its children a future.

God made humans in His image of creativity and as His partner in creation. This is achieved through education. Just as education in Judaism in both the Biblical and rabbinic worlds meant a greater democratization of knowledge, so too the personal computer and internet lead to greater democratization of knowledge. Just as Judaism made education a primary duty, our primary duty in an age of globalization is to ensure an education for all and that everyone on earth have access to information, knowledge, and skills. (Note that he footnotes to Bill Clinton and George Soros)

By making mankind in His image, the creative God endowed humanity with creativity, giving us the mandate to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ and inviting us to become, in the rabbinic phrase, ‘God’s partners in the work of creation’. Specifically—following through the possibilities raised by the invention  of the alphabet—Judaism made education  a primary religious duty.

As with the invention of the alphabet and printing, so with the personal computer  and the Internet: what makes them  so significant an  enhancement  of  human  possibilities is their contribution to the democratization of knowledge, and thus ultimately of dignity and power (Friedman 2000).

Education is still far too unevenly distributed. A hundred million children worldwide do not  go to school. There are twenty-three countries—mostly in Africa, but they include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Haiti—in which half or more of the adult population are illiterate. In thirty-five countries— including Algeria, Egypt, Guatemala, India, Laos, Morocco, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia—half or more women cannot read or write.

The first and most potent global intervention, therefore, is to ensure that every child has access to information, knowledge, and skills. The model here is the Bolsa-Escola scheme in Brazil that provides subsidies to poor families provided that their children attend school regularly. School participation  in Brazil has risen, as a result, to 97 per cent of the child population  (Soros 2002: 37, 84; Clinton 2001).


Modernity valued progress over anything else. But this lead to an impoverished social world of our family community, voluntary organizations, neighborhood groups, and religious congregations. They are the places where we operate based not on profit and utility but on love, loyalty, faithfulness, mutuality, and a sense of shared belonging. These are the places where we learn about responsibility and morals. These are our covenantal relationships. This is his communitarianism. Notice he uses the term covenant to mean communities of responsibility, not revelation or covenant with God. His book Politics of Hope was 1999, where he first presented his communitarian views.

One of the dominant metaphors of modernity has been the idea of competition as the driving force of progress… What we and others have argued is that this is an impoverished view of our social ecology. It omits ‘third sector’ institutions like the family, the community, voluntary organizations, neighborhood groups, and religious congregations which have in common that they are larger than the individual but smaller than the state. Their significance, and it is immense, is that they are where we learn the habits of co-operation, whether we describe it as reciprocal altruism or social capital or trust. Families and communities are not arenas of competition. To use the vocabulary, I developed in The Politics of Hope, they are places where relationships are covenantal, not contractual. They are based not on transactions of power or exchange, but  on love, loyalty, faithfulness, mutuality, and a sense of shared belonging. They are less about the ‘I’ than about the ‘We’ in which my ‘I’ becomes articulate, as a child of this family, that history, this place, that set of ideals.

Sack uses the critiques of society by Schumpter, Putnam, and Walzer showing that social bonds have broken down and we are now in Putnam’s phrase “bowling alone” instead of building community and civil organizations. We no longer feel bound to build democratic union with a large number of others in our fragmented multi-cultural world. Bear in mind that Walzer is a progressive social democrat, not a conservative. Sack answers that Judaism has always valued family, synagogue, and school and not individualism or state-building and political power..

It  was Joseph Schumpeter, in  Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy,  who pointed out that market based-capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction. It ‘creates a critical frame of mind which, after having destroyed the moral authority  of  so many  other  institutions,  in  the  end  turns  against its own’ (Schumpeter 1947: 143). The combined power of the state and the market causes third  sector institutions  to atrophy. Marriage and the family become fragile. Communities disintegrate. Attendance at places of worship declines. Voluntary groups become more fragmented and ephemeral. We prefer, in Robert Putnam’s phrase, to go ‘bowling alone’. The result is that it becomes ‘very difficult for any individual to find any stable communal support, very difficult for any community to count on the responsible participation of its individual members’. This, argues Michael Walzer, ‘works against commitment to the larger democratic union and also against the solidarity of all cultural groups that constitute our multi-culturalism’ (Walzer 1992:11–12).

The Judaic emphasis on third sector institutions hardly needs spelling out. For two millennia, without a home, sovereignty, or power, Jews and Judaism survived and flourished on the basis of three foundations: the family, the synagogue, and the school.

The modern West is too individualistic but some developing countries are too centralized which also works against the building of covenantal associations.

To be sure, the problem does not arise in the same way throughout the world. In some societies, most notably the liberal democracies of the West, individualism may have gone too far. In others—those that have not yet, or only recently, become democratized—it may not have gone far enough. Excessive centralization inhibits the growth of civil associations, just as excessive commercialization erodes them (Soros 2000).


Sacks defines tzedakah as social justice. He thinks the Biblical concept of tzedakah means the removal of barrios to human dignity, which includes the removal of poverty, tyranny, structural economic and social deprivation, lack of public facilities and intolerance. Sacks fined the definition of Amartya Sen valuable to define tzedakah, but Sen is a committed secularist who wants to solve the problems through dedicated government amelioration, while Sacks thinks we need a covenant to be responsibility to make these changes through government.  The entire message to remember that you were slaves in Egypt and not to oppress the widow, orphan and stranger was in order to create a society with poverty, persecution, and enslavement, a society unlike the oppressive slave owning society of Egypt.

What tzedakah signifies, therefore, is what is often called ‘social justice’, meaning that no one should be without the basic requirements of existence, and that those who have more than they need must share some of that surplus with those who have less. The view articulated in the Hebrew Bible has close affinities with Amartya Sen’s concept of ‘development as freedom’ meaning that freedom is not simply the absence of coercion but also the removal of barriers to the exercise of human dignity: ‘poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systematic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance or overactivity of repressive states’ (Sen 1999: 3)… The society with which the Israelites were charged with creating was one that would stand at the opposite extreme to what they experienced in Egypt: poverty, persecution, and enslavement.

Now to his strong statements about markets and morals, based on several prior essays he had written on the topic. The market is unfair and unequitable and will never fulfill the Torah requirement of tzedakah defined as social justice. The Bible assumes that we need a equitable distribution of wealth, possibility, and economic freedom. Sacks is therefore against the economic policies of Reagan and Thatcher which created greater inequalities removed many of the social safety nets. (Even though Chief Rabbi Jacobovits supported Thatcherism in his From Doom to Hope: A Jewish view of “Faith in the City” ) He is also against the outsourcing of production to developing countries here there are slave wages, child labor, and unsanitary conditions.

A free society cannot be built on mishpat, the rule of law, alone. It requires also tzedakah, a  just  distribution  of  resources. What  is clear—indeed taken  for granted by the Bible—is that an equitable distribution will not emerge naturally from the free working of the market alone.

Tzedakah is a concept for our time. The retreat from a welfare state and the financial deregulation and monetarist policies set in motion  by Reagonomics and Thatcherism have led to increased inequalities in both the United States and Britain.

Meanwhile, third world workers producing  the  goods  the  multinationals  sell do  so  often  under Dickensian conditions  involving child labor, unsanitary  factories, and  less- than-subsistence wages. As George Soros notes, ‘Markets are good at creating wealth but are not designed to take care of other social needs’ (Soros 2002).

Sacks acknowledges the critique by conservatives of the welfare state that it has the potential to lead to dependency, the opposite of human dignity. But he notes that Maimonides already taught that the highest form of tzedakah is to make someone self-sufficient. Despite this hierarchy of types of tzedakah, there are sometimes inequities so great that the only solution is periodic redistribution. 

One of the most profound insights of tzedakah legislation is its emphasis on human dignity and independence. Millennia ago, Jewish law wrestled with the fact that domestic welfare, like foreign aid, can aggravate the very problem it is intended to solve. Welfare creates dependency and thus reinforces, rather than breaks, the cycle of deprivation. Tzedakah therefore, though it includes direct material assistance (food, clothing, shelter, and medical aid), emphasizes the kind of aid that creates independence, as in Moses Maimonides’ famous ruling:

The highest degree, exceeded by none, is that of the person who assists a poor person by providing him with a gift or a loan or by accepting him into a business partnership or by helping him find employment—in a word by putting him where he can dispense with other people’s aid… (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor 10: 7). The supreme form of tzedakah is therefore one that allows the individual to become independent of other people’s aid.

The Bible is acutely aware that the workings of the free market can create, over time, inequalities so great as to amount to dependency and which can only be removed by periodic redistribution.

Sacks categorically concludes on the need for advanced economies to help eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, ensure universal education, combat treatable disease, reduce infant mortality, improve work conditions, and reconstruct failing economies. Sacks does not care if it is justified as compassion, social justice, or human solidarity. One should compare Sacks to a similar conclusion by Michael Walzer, writing as a Jewish thinker, who extends Maimonides’ laws of tzedakah to global tzedakah to eradicate poverty but is exacting to justify it specifically as tzedakah. See Michael Walzer, “On Humanitarianism: Is Helping Others Charity, or Duty, or Both?” (2011)

There can be no doubt that some of the economic surplus of the advanced economies of the world should be invested in developing countries to help eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, ensure universal education, combat treatable disease, reduce infant mortality, improve work conditions, and reconstruct failing economies. As with tzedakah, the aim should be to restore dignity and independence to nations as well as individuals. Whether this is done in the name of compassion, social justice, or human solidarity it has now become a compelling imperative. The globalization of communications, trade, and culture globalizes human responsibility likewise. The freedom of the few must not be purchased at the price of the enslavement of the many to poverty, ignorance, and disease.


On questions of the environment, Sacks criticizes modernity’s faith in open ended progress with limits and responsibilities.  The covenantal approach means that we need to assume stewardship for the environment. He appeals to the relgious literature of all faiths to help us. On the environment, he is reading the works on economics and globalization, not environmental theology.

Legislation governing the conduct of war forbade needless destruction of fruit-bearing trees, a principle expanded in rabbinic law to cover the entire range of wasteful consumption and environmental pollution… The human  covenant therefore signifies that we are, collectively, the guardians of the natural universe for the sake of future generations.

The sense of limits is one of the hardest for a civilization to sustain. Each in turn has been captivated by the idea that it alone was immune to the laws of growth and decline, that it could consume resources indefinitely, pursuing present advantage without thought of future depletion. Few have committed this error more consciously than the age we call ‘modernity’, with its belief that rationality, science, and technology would create open-ended progress toward unlimited abundance. In the words of Christopher Lasch, ‘Progressive optimism rests, at bottom, on a denial of the natural limits on human power and freedom, and it cannot survive for very long in a world in which an awareness of those limits has become inescapable’ (Lasch 1991: 530). Many of the world’s great faiths contain teachings of great wisdom on environmental ethics.


On the religions of the world, he already wrote an entire book called Dignity of Difference. The 1st edition of the book became the gold standard in interfaith and is still used by Muslim, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and others around the globe in Indonesia, Singapore, India, UAE, and across Europe. Quotes from the book are used in statements made at conferences and in interfaith motivational posters. This very morning, I saw a Muslim friend of mine in Singapore posting a quote from Sack’s book.

Sack’s position is that there is one universal God but each religion is it own particular covenant with God. Each religion, as a religion, has its own narratives and moral resources to bring us to God and to moral responsibility.

This essay, written a year after the publication of the book, and after the edition was censored to produce a second edition. The change made below from the first edition was that in the first edition it said that God sends prophets to all people to give them their own religion, and below it says that “Mankind  has spoken to God in many languages, through  many faiths.” He changed it from a divine plan to a natural quality of humanity. Paradoxically, it made his thought more naturalistic and liberal, in that, religions are more human than divine. He retained in this essay the idea that religions are not truth claims but stories of each religion’s self-understanding of their relationship with God.

There are no easy answers to this dilemma but there is an instructive precedent. Judaism is that rarest of phenomena: a particularist monotheism. The God of Abraham, according to the Hebrew Bible, is the God of all humanity, but the faith of Abraham is not the faith of all humanity. So strange is this idea that it was not taken on by the two daughter monotheisms  to which Judaism gave rise, Christianity and Islam. These faiths are both universalist monotheisms, holding that since there is only one God, there is only one true religion, one path to salvation, to which ideally all mankind will be converted. Judaism believes otherwise: that there are many ways to serve God and that one does not have to be Jewish to do so. ‘The righteous of the nations of the world [i.e. non-Jews] have a share in the world to come’ (Tosefta, Sanhedrin 13).

Mankind  has spoken to God in many languages, through  many faiths. No language need threaten the others; none should supersede the other. Religious truth is not solely ontological (a matter of what is) but covenantal (a relationship between a specific group and God). Ontologies conflict, covenants do not.


Sacks is aware that many see religion as part of the problem. But he is adamant that religion as a moral covenant can give us a sense of responsibility. Civilizations must care for the poor, weak, and powerless. They must increase human dignity. This moral responsibility can be done by secular humanists and religious zealots who have denied it. But Sacks argues that for most of us, religion gives us our moorings. In none of his books does he directly address the large part of Orthodoxy that would not agree with his rejection of fundamentalism or his definition of Jewish moral responsibility.

The wisdom of the world’s religions may seem at best irrelevant, at worst dangerous, to a world driven by economic forces. In the West, especially Western Europe, society has become secularized. In the Middle East and parts of Asia it has witnessed a growth of fundamentalism that threatens economic development and political freedom alike. Whatever therefore the prospects for the future, religion seems part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Our  own view is that  civilizations survive not  by strength but  by how they respond to the weak; not by wealth but by the care they show for the poor; not by power but by their concern for the powerless. The ironic yet utterly humane lesson of history is that what renders a culture invulnerable is the compassion it shows to the vulnerable. The ultimate value we should be concerned to maximize is human dignity—the dignity of all human beings, equally, as children of the creative, redeeming God.

Is this a ‘religious’ insight? Yes and no. There have been secular humanists who have affirmed it; there have been religious zealots who have denied it.

Sacks concludes his essay with his definition of religion as giving us meaning. Sacks has always been deeply influenced by Victor Frankl and the importance of meaning in our lives. Religions form communities and tell narratives and perform rituals that dramatize the narrative. These give us as humans continuity with the past and a future oriented sense of meaning. Notice the absence of God, revelation, holiness, experience, or mysticism in his definition. (This definition is important also for his view of Judaism, which I may show in a follow up post.) 

We are also, uniquely, the meaning-seeking animal. We seek to understand our place in the universe. We want to know where we have come from, where we are going to, and of what narrative we are a part. We form families, communities, and societies. We tell stories, some of which have the status of sacred texts. We perform rituals that dramatize the structure of reality. We have languages, cultures, moralities, and faiths. These things are essential to our sense of continuity with the past and responsibility to the future.

Finally, Sacks advocates creating a global covenant to work for human rights, human dignity, and the common good.  He does not want a political entity such as the United Nations, but a covenantal agreement. But if you read the original documents around the forming of the UN such as those which supported The Universal Declaration of Human Rights by Rene Cassin, Jacques Maritain, and Elanor Roosevelt, one finds a similar vision.  

What we need now is not a contract bringing into being a global political structure, but rather a covenant framing our shared vision for the future of humanity.

That is at least a starting point for a global covenant in which the nations of the world collectively express their commitment not only to human rights but also to human responsibilities, and not merely a political, but also an economic, environmental, moral, and cultural conception of the common good, constructed on the twin foundations of shared humanity and respect for diversity.

Coda- This week Chief Rabbi Mirvis issued a statement that we cannot sit idly at persecution, we are “compelled to speak out” on the plight of China’s Uighur. Mirivis wants Jews to actively take up the cause and be involved. In contrast, Chief Rabbi Sacks did not pick up any political causes to get personally involved with.  He never exhorted his followers to put his ideas into practice through speaking out and protest. And this American election season, he advocated to not get involved in a partisan political opinion.

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