Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' Prescription for Hope in Troubled Times
As we approach Thanksgiving 2021, Americans are continuing to face a public health “plague”, social strife, political polarization, a contested national presidential election, economic hardship. It is a time of great uncertainty and peril. This current state of the nation is occurring within a political and cultural landscape in which the people of the United States are embroiled in a fundamental struggle that has accompanied the nation in various intensities since the first settlers landed on the shores of the continent. At this point in our national journey, Americans are increasingly divided over our national aims, our shared identity, our core values, and our future prospects. We are living in troubled times and there doesn’t seem to be a hopeful way forward. It is against this gloomy picture of our national health that I found the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ reflections on our current state and suggestions for a national ritual infused with meaning to be a ray of light in our dark times. Before his untimely death on September 7th, 2020, appearing on the popular Tim Ferriss Podcast promoting his book Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, the Rabbi articulated a plan to address the challenges facing citizens in democratic governments in general and the US in particular.
Building on the experience of Passover and the important role it plays in the preservation of the Jewish People through the ages, Rabbi Sacks suggested three things that together can contribute to enhancing the common good and the shared American identity: a national story, a national ritual, and the empowerment of young people with the opportunity to make the world better.
Over the past few years, colored by my work as a clinical psychiatrist, I have been intrigued by the importance of a shared identity, the need for meaningful rituals for national cohesion, and the importance of an action plan as a treatment for that pathology within the US body politic. It is not as if there are no national holidays that originated with civic meaning and aim to foster and enhance American democracy. These national holidays, designed to call attention to the institutions and ideals the nation holds sacred, have largely become times for recreation and family gatherings devoid of any of the content that can serve as a unifying common ground. In keeping with Rabbi Sacks’ suggestions, I’m building a national ritual, reflecting the American creed, that aims to include a shared national story, rituals, and activities that bridge the many divides that separate us. The Civic Ritual of Thanksgiving will be launched into the body politic as a “prototype” and will invite fellow citizens to build on their own personal experience. The ritual draws from the Jewish holiday of Passover. The structure of a shared meal and story has been transmitted from generation to generation through the millennia. This ritual can serve as a framework for telling the national story of “We the People”, as well as reconnecting and passing on the principles and vision that has been at the core of our experiment in democracy and individual freedom.
A national story
The United States of America has a complex national story. It is a complicated and contested tale of revolutionary enlightenment as well as unimaginable brutality and bigotry. It is a remarkable story of the odyssey of the people of the United States of America that includes Native Americans-Indigenous People, settlers, pilgrims, subjects, colonists, slaves, immigrants, and marginalized persons. It is a historical journey of a people who have been on a continuous, troubled journey driven by the myth of E Pluribus Unum, out of many, one, the motto adopted by the founders of the Republic when they formed a union of the thirteen states. It is a story of diverse people, separated by religion, race, national origin, and gender evolving into an inclusive body politic that is driven by the vision of the Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the hearts and minds of generations since. A vision that proclaims that
“We hold these truths to be self-evident. That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”
A central part of the Civic Ritual of Thanksgiving is the development of a shared narrative that builds on existing material associated with the vision of the United States, and provides a framework to individualize the story including individual, familial, community and other aspects of the participant's identity as part of “We the People”. The evolving personalized document recognizes the unfinished and complex state of our body politic and our individual roles within it. It offers a safe container for difficult communications and to promote empathy, knowledge, and dialogue that celebrates different opinions and beliefs.
A national ritual
The Civic Ritual of Thanksgiving borrows heavily from the structure and function of the rItual associated with Passover, the Seder, and the Haggadah, the tale of the Jews on their path from slavery to freedom. The process established is meant to be a skeleton for an evolving, crowdsourced journey to establish a meaningful Americanism ritual. The highlight of the process is the invitation to exploration and reflection while creating a space for allowing all voices to rise and be heard. Similar to the intention of the Seder which is to have the participants enter the mindset as if they were slaves in Egypt, liberated and later given their holy bible at Mt. Sinai, the Thanksgiving ritual invites the participants to imagine being part of the British King’s subjects at the time of the colonies and to actively participating in the ratification of the newly constructed constitution.
In addition to incorporating the national story in a format and depth that is suitable for the participants, the ritual includes suggestions for establishing the intention for being present during the ritual, questions that are explored, themes of gratitude, recognition of current plagues confronting us, engaging in activity to recognize our brokenness and the narrow places we inhabit at this point in American history. It is a ritual that is transmitted from generation to generation, empowering the younger participants to continue the journey to freedom and justice.
The ritual is rich with songs and food that have become part of the American landscape as well as maintaining space for personalized variation. The framework aims to be modular to allow personal, family, cultural and other features of importance to be included.
Empowerment of young people with the opportunity to make the world better
Collective, shared narratives and rituals that reflect the tapestry of “We the People” serve as an important adhesive for national cohesion. Yet that is not enough. The Passover story and ritual recognizes the importance of the generational transmission of the values and principles that are at the core of the Jewish people. The young generation is invited to be active in remedying injustice and to actively engage in the pursuit of a better world. The Civic Seder Ritual offers an opportunity to explore the challenges confronting us currently and more importantly pose an existential threat to future generations. Building on the vision of the declaration of independence, that all of us are created equal, and the constitutional framework that is central to the architecture of the body politic/ civil society, citizens across the nation can join together to discuss strategies to solve problems impacting the entire nation and work to unite across regions, religions, and ideologies. Using a framework and format that promotes communication and dialogue, aided by digital technology, moderated by a representative nonpartisan organizing body, citizens can educate ourselves to counter the excitation of passions by politicians and other representatives of factions, hold political parties accountable not only during election time by engaging with them utilizing tools of active citizenship, take to the streets to petition the government when it doesn’t represent us. We can jointly confront the plagues that threaten us including systemic racism, climate change, inequality as well as the COVID 19 pandemic that is ravaging the country, or the Opioid Epidemic.
"These are the times that try men's souls," wrote Thomas Paine, in a 1776 pamphlet at the height of the American Revolution. The same can be said of our current times. At Thanksgiving, many of us will for the first time be apart from loved ones isolated within the COVID19 environment. More Americans are concerned about the future of our democracy.
Despite the challenges the current times pose, we the citizens must recognize that we are not condemned to be punished by the plague of COVID 19, the racial uprising and continued systemic racism, the political divisiveness, the inequality, and threats to the climate. This Thanksgiving offers a tremendous opportunity. Building on the late Rabbi Sack’s remedy for our troubled time, we invite our fellow Americans to engage in co-creating a national story and a ritual that encompasses cultural richness, the tapestry of “We the People”. To consider what they can do to reclaim their role as citizens. We draw on the inspiration and the passion that drove the revolution in the 1770s, and the dedication of the founders who drafted the US Constitution that laid the architecture for our nation. At the conclusion of the Constitutional convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin, one of the signers, was asked “What have you brought us, Dr. Franklin?” A republic if you can keep it” he replied. Unfortunately, the constitution didn’t come with a citizen user guide. This Thanksgiving, we can all commit to not only keep our republic but move it along to its full potential, “a more perfect union’.