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Credo: ‘We must reach out to the entire world’

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To coincide with Yom Kippur, The Times published the Chief Rabbi’s first ‘Credo’, in which he examines the concept of moral responsibility within the Jewish tradition and considers how our responsibility to look after ourselves naturally extends to other people.

‘Judaism’s challenge is to reach out to the entire world’

“The Yale psychologist Paul Bloom says he’s against empathy. He’s not against morality, kindness, love, being a good neighbour, doing the right thing and making the world a better place. But he thinks that if you want to be good and do good, then empathy is a poor guide.

Why should this be? In an obvious sense, feeling for others is fundamental to our moral instincts. Professor Bloom argues that empathy is easily biased and is usually confined to the evidence immediately before our eyes. That means that caring for our families, our neighbours or our co-religionists is often just a sublimated form of caring for ourselves. We can feel generous and virtuous while blithely ignoring 99 per cent of the world.

A cooler and more consistent analysis, one that can process facts and figures before arriving at conclusions, might find the spontaneous promptings of empathy wanting. Bloom points out that people can train themselves to respond compassionately to the needs of others without arousing empathy as a result of perceiving and mirroring the distress of sufferers before their very eyes.

Judaism champions a “seize the day” philosophy. Our moral sense must begin with our valuing ourselves, but must never end there. We extend our concern from the self to the many, from the personal to the political. Our ultimate challenge is to reach out to the entire world.

‘Our moral sense must begin with our valuing ourselves, but must never end there’

On the fast of Yom Kippur, which takes place today, we examine our souls and confess our faults and shortcomings. Even though our self-examination is intensely personal, the language of our prayers is intentionally plural: “We have sinned, we have been iniquitous.” This is an exercise in reaching beyond ourselves, even when we are drawing up an account of what each of us will take responsibility for. We confess our faults in a long acrostic list covering every letter of the Hebrew alphabet, including a number of sins I am glad to say I personally have never sampled, but I bow my head in contrition on behalf of others who have.

Jewish tradition also includes the challenging paradox of a prayer in which we ask God not to answer a prayer.

In ancient times Yom Kippur was the only time of the year when the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. The holiest man in the holiest place in the holy city on the most sacred day of the year had a unique opportunity to offer a special brief prayer to God. He concluded with the words: “And do not hearken to the prayers of travellers.”

Why? The answer is that people who are on the go, travellers and tourists, invariably pray for sunny weather. If God listened to such prayers, which are offered on every day of the year, there would be no rain. Our food supply and economy would be ruined. Consequently, the High Priest pleaded to the Almighty: please don’t listen to the prayers of travellers.

‘Jewish tradition includes the challenging paradox of a prayer in which we ask God not to answer a prayer’

The message here is profound. We must of course look after ourselves, our personal health and our welfare. The biblical imperative “Love your neighbour as yourself” means that love of yourself is the basis of your kindness to others. However, anyone who carries responsibility — and that means us, and our governments, as well as God — must be mindful of the needs of society as a whole and the environment of which we are a part.

We must consider carefully what to hope for, where our energies and aspirations are to be invested, where both care and action are to be concentrated. In so doing, we must be guided not by whether we shall have an easy day’s journey today, or by the instant emotional satisfaction of responding to an appeal that tugs at our heartstrings. We need a plan for moral behaviour, not a series of instinctive responses to affecting stimuli that we happen to encounter.

The High Priest’s words remind us to tackle the challenges that confront us with the careful forethought and hard graft of farmers, not the whimsical short-term preferences of tourists.”