Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, received the 2010 Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Life, the twelfth time the annual prize has been awarded. As leader of the largest synagogue in the United Kingdom, and chief rabbi of the mainstream British Orthodox synagogues, Sacks has encouraged “mutual respect, responsibility, and remembrance in public life.” Educated at Cambridge, Oxford, and King’s College London, Sacks received his rabbinic ordination from the London School of Jewish Studies, and Etz Chaim Yeshiva. He received the Jerusalem Prize in 1995 for his contribution to diaspora Jewish life, and was knighted by Her Majesty The Queen in 2005. He was made a Life Peer and took his seat in the House of Lords in October 2009, where he sits on the cross benches as Baron Sacks of Aldgate in the City of London.
Sacks’s lecture, “Covenant and Hope in Civil Society,” addressed the importance of sustaining a culture of hope, in which the Jewish understanding of covenant plays a central role, against a culture of tragedy or easy optimism. According to Sacks, the Bible reflects an understanding that “the social contract creates a state, whereas the social covenant creates a society.” Two thousand years ago, the Jewish people lost their social contract with the fall of Jerusalem. But the Sinai covenant established between God and Israel in Exodus 19 remained, holding them together as families and communities across geographic and linguistic barriers. “If you ever doubted the power of ideas, just think of this: without the idea of covenant, the Jewish people would have ceased to exist after the Roman conquest.”
This understanding of social covenant has dwindled in the West. Yet contractually based state and market systems that rely on competition have not solved the relational problems of civil society. “If all we can think about is the state and market, and we can’t think in covenantal terms…then families will fracture, communities will atrophy, and society itself will fragment—which is what has been happening for the last fifty years in Europe,” Sacks said. “Of the three systems that dominate the West—politics, the free market, and technology—not one can answer the three great questions: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?” Civil society, on the other hand, can respond to these questions, making it the “natural habitat” of hope, which is “born in families, sustained in communities, told in narratives, and expressed in prayer.”
Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) was a prominent and controversial figure in the Calvinist renaissance at the turn of the twentieth century in The Netherlands. The Kuyper Prize is awarded each year through the gift of Dr. Rimmer and Mrs. Ruth de Vries to a scholar or community leader who has contributed to the development of Reformed theology, particularly as it bears on matters of public life.