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by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

In 1551 the English diplomat and scholar Sir Thomas More, living in the reign of King Henry 8th wrote a book called Utopia. It’s a word he invented based on ancient Greek, meaning nowhere.

Now 500 years later it has come to mean the perfect place, a place that doesn’t exist, but we aspire or dream of. It is a critique of the forms of government, religion, and other forms of human control and flows the ancient style of a very civilized conversation between different points of view.

More concludes that many of the Utopian ideas the book describes, such as methods of making war and belief in communal property, seem absurd. But he would like to see some aspects of Utopian society put into practice in England, though he does not believe that will happen.

What is Utopia? Why are we fixated on the idea? Why do rival dogmas as to how to reach perfection not only persist but are getting fiercer by the day? And is it a Jewish concept too?

We are living at a crucial time in human history. Quite apart from the now obvious threat of Global warming, we face challenges as crucial as the great upheavals of power and authority that have always rocked human society. From the collapse of the ancient empires to those of our times. To the humanitarian crises of Communism, Fascism, and the rise of Chinese, totalitarian communism. And precisely at this moment the West has lost its moral and political compass and is flailing around desperately to stay on its feet. We had thought to have ended cruel dictatorships, but not only have we failed to prevent dictators such as Putin, Assad, Maduro, the Cuban Oligarchy, and Xi who appear to be gaining the upper hand or at least surviving for longer than expected.

To make matters worse so called free democratic societies are being torn apart internally by rival dogmas that seek to impose their values on each other in what was supposed to be a world of live and let live.

The Economist July 8th p.35 has an article pointing out that China has not only a very different vision of democracy and culture but is busy resurrecting the old Third World hatred of the West. And like Russian communism, is oblivious to its failures and corruption.

Mr. Xi and state media argue that the declining West's insistence on defending an international-rule-based order amounts to chauvinism. They compare Western governments fussing about multi-party elections, independent courts, and free speech, to religious missionaries telling people which God to worship They dismiss diversity and attempt to impose a Western model of democracy. That is their Utopia.

But for all the Communist Party’s warm words about seeking harmony, not uniformity, its vision of peace puts order before and at the expense of individual rights. And we know where that leads, to 1984 Dystopia.

America is far from perfect. It has made enormous mistakes time and time again. The amazing thing is that it never gets things right! I remember the novels that we used read that highlighted American hypocrisy. The Greene Novels The Quiet American was published in 1955. And Our Man in Havanah in 1958. As well as The Ugly American by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States 1980 and the constant hectoring of Noam Chomsky. And yet, for all its failures around the world, as well as the racism and prejudice, where do most migrants choose to brave harsh dangerous conditions to come to? And what other country just lets them all through?

Life on earth was never perfect. The rabbis even said that it would have been better were we not born altogether. Yet they also told us to just get on with it and do our best! We have our equivalent of Utopia too, except it is not Nowhere, it is Somewhere. It is making the best out of what we have got. And yet the human mind yearns for perfection and so it comes up with the idea of Messianism and tweaks it every time the Messiah refuses to come. Except it is not the same as Utopia.

Some argue that our concept of messianism is superior because it is based on a Covenant which is superior to the secular value of Rights. I think that is apologetics. We Jews have rarely adhered to our Covenantal obligations however much we like to preach them. And more of this next week for Tisha B’Av.

Maimonides ( Laws of Kings 12:1-2 ) said that the messianic era was not a magical wonderland, but the freedom to act according to our own values without governments getting in the way.

How prescient! Yet the Talmud offers two options. Either we work to make it happen or else only Divine Intervention will get us to see sense. I’d rather rely on the first.


Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.


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