The BEST: Bowling Alone

Johnny Solomon Tradition Online | January 28, 2021

Summary: Bowling Alone” is a metaphor for, and title of, Harvard social scientist Robert F. Putnam’s article (1995) and book (2000) which both analyzes and describes the increase in social disconnect, the diminishment of civic engagement and social capital, and the shift from“we” to “I” in the modern age.  Its subtitle, “The Collapse and Revival of American Community” strikes a pessimistic note in its assessment of the public square, while leaving open the possibility for repair.

Why this is The BEST: Even before surveying how the ideas found in Bowling Alone have informed and influenced the thinking of R. Jonathan Sacks, it is worthwhile noting that it is, quantitatively speaking, among the most regularly quoted books in his collected writings, with R. Sacks making direct reference to Bowling Alone in Celebrating Life (2000), The Dignity of Difference (2002), The Home We Build Together (2006), The Great Partnership (2011), and Not in God’s Name (2015). Moreover, not only does R. Sacks begin Morality (2020) by referring directly to Bowling Alone and its author, but Putnam actually wrote an approbation to this book. Given all this, the question I consider here is what was R. Sacks “doing” by familiarizing his readers with the research, ideas, and conclusions found in Bowling Alone?

To answer this question, I’d like to go back a full decade before the publication of Bowling Alone when R. Sacks, just prior to his being appointed as Chief Rabbi, delivered the 1990 Reith Lectures which were subsequently published in The Persistence of Faith (1991). Both in those lectures and even more pointedly in his Faith in the Future (1995), R. Sacks explored the relationship between family, community, and faith. As he wrote:

Faith, family and community are, I suspect, mutually linked. When one breaks down, the others are weakened. When families disintegrate, so too does the sense of neighbourhood and the continuity of our great religious traditions. When localities become anonymous, families lose the support of neighbours, and congregations are no longer centres of community. When religious belief begins to wane, the moral bonds of marriage and neighbourly duty lose their transcendental base and begin to shift and crumble in the high winds of change. That is precisely what has happened in our time and the loss, though subtle, is immense (Faith in the Future, 6).

As R. Sacks explained there, and as he repeated many times since, his intention as Chief Rabbi was to be a voice that helped restore “to our culture a sense of family, community and religious faith” (ibid., 7).

In the following years, the interconnectivity between faith, family, and community continued to be a central theme in his thinking, which was given further expression in The Politics of Hope (1997) where R. Sacks wrote that:

[T]o be good, we have…to recognize that my well-being, my ability to pursue even the most private of projects, my very sense of individuality and identity, depend on a network of social relationships which I have a duty to sustain, in whose maintenance I carry a participative responsibility. That is why families and communities are the matrix of the moral sense, for it is there that we learn the give-and-take of reciprocity, the demanding and offering of love and recognition, the ‘I’ and ‘Thou’ that frame the ‘We’ (241).

Then, in 2000, Putnam published Bowling Alone containing significantly more research than his original 1995 article, and rather than “suspecting” – as R. Sacks had previously written – that faith, family, and community are linked, Bowling Alone provided R. Sacks with the critical data and the sharper language (e.g., social network, social capital, and “we’re all in this together”) to explore the phenomena that had already been on his mind and agenda for the previous decade. This is why R. Sacks opens Morality by writing that: “Robert Putnam…has done more than anyone in our time to document the loss, in contemporary America, of social capital” (25).

When, in 2018, R. Sacks interviewed Professor Putnam (listen here), he referred to his work as “prophetic.” However, having noted how so much of what Putnam went on to prove in Bowling Alone had already been, for some time, so central to R. Sacks’ concerns and writing, it is demonstrative that R. Sacks, too, was prophetic, and this explains why Bowling Alone is such an important tool in understanding the thought of Rabbi Sacks. 

Rabbi Johnny Solomon is a teacher at Midreshet Lindenbaum and Matan, an editor at Mosaica Press, and an educational consultant. 

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