Prophet and loss account

Books: David J Goldberg heckles the Chief Rabbi's suburban sermon
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The Politics of Hope by Jonathan Sacks, Cape, pounds 15.99

The temptation for clerics to add their two bits-worth in the political arena has a long, rarely happy history. Nothing daunted, the Orthodox Chief Rabbi has felt compelled to offer his diagnosis of the breakdown of contemporary society and the failure of Western liberal democracy. His book, he modestly tells us in its Preface, is "unique", and to be compared in its intent with Rousseau's The Social Contract.

Before considering whether Dr Sacks succeeds, it is worth asking what drove such a talented man to a project far removed from his usual sphere of concern. Two answers suggest themselves, neither particularly flattering.

The first is that the chief rabbi has a Vicar of Bray propensity for attaching himself to whichever political doctrine is modish. In the early Eighties he was a robust Thatcherite; come the caring Nineties, he was converted to the politics of compassion; nowadays, he is the very epitome of non-ideological New Labour, espousing the latest fad of "Communitarianism".

The second answer is about the prophet being without honour in his own community. The more his authority weakens within Anglo-Jewry, the more Dr Sacks is admired outside, especially by those godless Fleet Street hacks who love to build up the bright Jewish boy with his Cambridge Double First at the expense of the hapless Archbishop of Canterbury. So why not offer your prescription for moral rejuvenation to a respectfully attentive non-Jewish audience?

The Politics of Hope is, appropriately, something of a curate's egg of a book. For a start, it is much too loud for its thesis, more an extended series of sermons than a developed argument, and like most sermons, it could usefully be cut in half; but Dr Sacks is in love with words. They pour from him in torrents, repetitive, reiterated, regurgitated. Presumably, his editor was too much in awe to staunch the flow.

Also, like most sermons, it relies more on impressionist generalisations than hard statistics. Time and again we are invited to view a Hogarthian landscape of muggings, drugs, dysfunctional families, divorce, depressive illness, suicide, abortion, illegitimacy and falling educational standards.

There is something rotten in the state. What caused it? It was the Enlightenment's fault, for failing to distinguish between liberalism and libertarianism. The book's central chapters, on the Liberal Revolution, the birth of the Individual, and Moral Language, are very good indeed. Dr Sacks writes with succinct clarity and insight about the ideas of Locke, Hume and Hobbes. He is less fair on Kant, and dismissive about A J Ayer's logical positivism or Sartre's existentialism, but understandably so, given that for him the notion of individual autonomy, overriding traditional morality and leading to relativism, was where the rot started.

Having exhaustively catalogued the ills of modern society, what are Dr Sacks's nostrums, his politics of hope? They are modest indeed. He wants to restore de Tocqueville's "voluntary associations", those local fraternities of congregations, schools and businesses which give people a stake in running their communities. A vision once guided us - "that we loosely call the Judaeo-Christian tradition" - which emphasised the value of institutions and to which all broadly subscribed, "poor and rich alike, miners, labourers, politicians...fellows of Oxbridge colleges and children in the village school." These "mediating structures" need to be revived. They promote three qualities which are mentioned time and time again: "civility", "gentility" and "graciousness". All very well, but let us not forget that, like Mr Major's nostalgia for warm beer and village cricket, such a rosy idealisation was predicated on strict hierarchy and class inequality.

The primacy of marriage, family and education must also be re-asserted. Dr Sacks writes movingly of family life, a testament to the warmth of his own. Essentially, though, his is a dream of cosy suburban domesticity, the aspirations of Jewish Finchley made manifest. He is particularly fond of using Regent's Park, with its elegant terraces, neatly laid-out gardens and public and private spaces, as a metaphor for the well-ordered civil society. He concedes that it might sound "middle-class, middle-aged and prosaic", but family and community are at the heart of his blueprint for the new social equation.

It was Kierkegaard who dubbed Isaac "the bourgeois patriarch", in contrast to his father Abraham, who had been a "knight of faith". On the evidence of this book, Dr Sacks is the bourgeois prophet of hope for our times, the religious counterpart - ponder it, dear reader - to Tony Blair.

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