I was privileged recently to hear Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speak at Trinity School here in New York. The former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Sacks is a major thought-leader who speaks and writes about religion, ethics, and society.
In his talk, Rabbi Sacks distinguished between what he called transactional relationships and covenantal relationships.
Transactional relationships are about giving and getting – a quid pro quo. They focus on the individual – what I might give, lose, or gain. To be sure some of these are social transactions: I pay taxes in return for a fire department, for instance. But most are individual transactions: the bank gives me a credit card and I agree to its terms; I pay tuition and expect a particular kind of education, perhaps even a certain kind of college acceptance.
The problem arises, Sacks noted, when our relationships are reduced to the transactional alone, an “I” and “me” centered way of being in the world that claims protection of self-interest as the highest good.
Instead, Rabbi Sacks asked us to consider the life-giving centrality of covenantal relationships, ones grounded in bonds of cooperation and mutuality that require us to rise above self-interest alone in order to advance a higher common good.
As Rabbi Sacks has remarked, “In a contract, you make an exchange, which is to the benefit of the self-interest of each… A covenant isn’t like that. It’s more like a marriage than an exchange. In a covenant, two or more parties each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other come together in a bond of loyalty and trust to do together what neither can do alone. A covenant isn’t about me; it’s about us. A covenant isn’t about interests; it’s about identity. A covenant isn’t about me, the voter, or me, the consumer, but about all of us together.”
In his opening remarks, John Allman, Trinity’s head of school, talked about seizing this moment to “renew and restore the school’s commitment to the common good” and to do so “with love and integrity.” Surely this is what we are all called to do as Episcopal schools.