Religion, Morality and the Financial Industry: An Interview With Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks

"We are caught in the perennial tension between the drive to good, and instinct to self-preservation that sees everyone as a means to our ends."
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Few religious leaders have such a universal appeal and global authority as Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Sacks has been Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth since September 1991, was knighted by the Queen in 2005 and made a Life Peer, taking his seat in the House of Lords, in 2009. He has written 24 books, his most recent being "The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning," which was published this year.

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks is beginning a speaking tour in the United States. (See below for locations and dates). I had a chance to speak to Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks about his understanding of the role of religion in developing a sense of morality in our globalized world.

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush: What is the role of religion in developing a moral sense?

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks: We have a natural moral sense. I do not want to suggest that you have to be religious to be moral. We have always had these two imperatives that take us in conflicting directions. There is the drive for survival and there is the drive for cooperation -- the altruistic element.

Charles Darwin understood this, and we are beginning to pick up on this in evolutionary psychology and also in neuroscience. We pass our genes on as individuals but we survive in groups, and groups only survive on the basis of altruism. So we are caught in the perennial tension between the drive to good, and instinct to self-preservation that sees everyone as a means to our ends.

So we all have a moral sense, the question is, what are the settings or environments that strengthen that sense and allow us to combat some of the more destructive human instincts. Religion is always focused on that question. It's not that we need to be religious to know what is good, but we need to be religious in order to be educated in the habits of the heart that lead people to be moral. And we know those habits have to be inculcated by constant practice, which we do in religion through prayer and ritual. They need to be cultivated in community, and today religions are the strongest, maybe the only really strong communities that we have left.

And so I think religions make people better able to act on the moral sense.

Where do you see the role science can play in understanding how religion develops a moral sense?

Well there has been a lot of neuroscience recently on talent, from Malcom Gladwell's Outliers to Matthew Syed's Bounce. And they tell us that talent is a matter of what they call "deep practice." Malcolmn Gladdwell says you've got to put in 10,000 hours. But what is religious ritual if not deep practice?

Take all the protests around the world about bankers and financiers. Let's imagine that you or I are working as head of a bank, or investment company, and we are faced with the possibility of a massive financial gain that may increase the risk for the people we serve or for the public at large. How do we weigh that up in our minds? At that crucial moment of decision, do I say it's 'me first', or, 'I have responsibilities to others who put their trust in me.'

It is at that critical moment of decision that all sorts of things come to play, the kind of people you are in community with, the kind of expectations they have of you, and you have of them, the kind of stories we tell one another and we learned from our parents and we teach our children, and those things make all the difference to the way we decide.

When I first became Chief Rabbi 20 years ago, one of the first things I did was to set up the Jewish Association of Business Ethics. It involved leading business people and financial journalists working through ethical dilemmas, and now we take this program to schools, Jewish and non-Jewish equally, the end result is building up a community of business people and financial experts who have ethical expectations of one another. And that can make all the difference when it comes to the crunch.

We have had such a crisis in the leadership of financial institutions. What do you think went wrong? I guess I'm wondering if what you're saying actually works?

Well, there is no counterpart in the United States to what I've done here, and it's very bad news that there is no counterpart.

You had less moral failure on the part of financial leaders in Great Britain?

I think our people in Britain have a normative expectation of ethical conduct. I was in Goldman Sachs (in London) just a few weeks ago as part of their regular ethical seminars for their top leadership. They have an informal arrangement that every one of their senior leadership team give 10 percent of their income in charity.

And there is no parallel effort in the United States?

I don't know, but everyone is saying to me: "We don't have what you have in Britain. Could you bring it over here?" I think it made a difference. And the crucial issue is: Where is the moral constraint? Is it external or is it internal? What went wrong in both Britain and America is that the external constraints, the financial regulation authorities, are not enough and we know that they are not enough.

Because then the game becomes how to circumvent them?

Of course, the guys who are making the money are making more than they guys who are regulating. So I would predict that the cleverer guys are the ones who work out the ways of avoiding the regulations rather than the ones who are implementing them. And that's actually what happened and why external constraints never work. You need the voice of God within the human heart. Because unless you're going to stop yourself, nobody is going to stop you -- until it's too late.

You said earlier this is not necessarily a religious thing. How do you talk about a moral sense if it is not the "voice of God"?

I'm saying that we in the religious community have taken the lead in creating a normative community of business people and financiers who have ethical expectations of one another. It's done by creating the standards that people expect of one another if they are part of the community.

And this leads to a discovery in a different area that Robert Putnam made in his book "American Grace." He points out that it's not so much what you believe that makes the difference; it's being part of a community. Science Nobel Prize winner Niels Bohr had a horseshoe over his door, and he was visited by a fellow scientist, who was amazed and said: "Niels, surely you can't believe in that superstitious nonsense." And Niels responded: "Of course I don't believe in it, but the thing is, it works whether you believe in it or not."

That is what Robert Putnam was saying about community, and it is what I am saying about community: It works whether you believe in it or not. In the end, our business ethics association works because the leading business people had an influence over their peers and said: We have power, therefore we have responsibility.

Where is the prophetic voice within this? How do we understand the moral sense of outrage that a lot of people are feeling right now mostly around inequity?

A couple of weeks ago we had our holiest day, Yom Kippur. It is a day on which almost every Jew is in synagogue, whether they are believers or non-believers. It's a heavy day. Who ever heard of a Jewish holy day without food? And yet Yom Kippur is a 25-hour fast, and it comes to the middle of the day and you are feeling extremely hungry and self-righteous and then we do our prophetic reading which is always Isaiah 58, in which Isaiah says:

"Is this the kind of fast I've chosen? Only to bow your head and lying on sack cloth and ashes. Is that what you call a fast? Is not this is the kind of fast I have chosen: To lose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke; to set the oppressed free and break every yoke, is it not to share your food with the hungry, and to provide the poor with shelter -- then your light will break forth like dawn."

You can't walk into synagogue without that hitting you between the eyes. With wealth comes responsibility. We believe that what we possess we don't ultimately own. God is merely entrusting it to us. And one of the conditions of that trust is that we share what we have with those who have less So, if you don't give to people in need, you can hardly call yourself a Jew. Even the most unbelieving Jew knows that.

It seems like you have an interesting ability to speak to the strengths of the different political points of views.

Well, I like to say that it is pre-political.

The Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is currently in America and Canada as part of a speaking tour. He will be speaking in the following cities: Chicago (Oct. 26), Boston (Oct. 27), New York (Oct. 28-31), Washington D.C. (Nov. 1-2), Toronto (Nov. 2-6). For more details, or to subscribe to the Chief Rabbi's mailing list, please email

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