Challenging Times: Review of Not in God’s Name by Rabbi Sacks

There is a general consensus that terrorism is the great global threat for the foreseeable future. Talking heads in the media, experts of all sorts, are long on explanation and short on solutions.

Is there any policy or approach, in addition to whatever military action needs to be taken, that can alter the course of events?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tackles this question in his most recent book, Not in God’s Name. The book needs to be read and discussed at all levels of society. Anyone who persists in following the argument will be greatly rewarded.

Sacks first explains how communities and faith groups have come to hate one another throughout the ages, and then does a critical reading of the Bible that is stunning in its novelty and insight. Its message is one of hope and possibilities.

First and foremost, he dismisses the claim that religion is actually the cause of dissension and violence. He points out that most wars in history have nothing to do with religion, but rather with power, territory and glory. In fact, the secularisation of society has caused a disorientation in which the lack of meaning, purpose and moral identity leaves a vacuum eagerly filled by violent, radical fundamentalism. He argues that the answer does not lie in the absence of religion, but rather a perspective on religion that Sacks claims has been present in the texts all along but largely ignored.

Rabbi Sacks proceeds to do a radical rereading of Biblical texts that is breathtaking in its imaginative scope. The sibling rivalry that leads to such intense hatred — Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers — is seen as reconciled in each and every case and leading to a “society-as-a-family” that permits a much more positive understanding of relationships that are usually portrayed as negative and destructive.

In fact, in this reading, Genesis shows that sibling rivalry and conflict may be inbred in the human condition but can be subdued. The only way to overcome hatred and the notion that the Other is evil is through role reversal. Once one sees the Other through the eyes of the Other, then sympathy and even compassion can arise.

Sacks calls biblical ethics “a prolonged tutorial in role reversal”. Even readers familiar with the Biblical text will find his reading illuminating. Ishmael is not vilified, he is humanised. We are supposed to feel his pain. Jacob and Esau’s sibling rivalry is defeated with their reconciliation. Joseph and his brothers are the most complex and developed example of the thesis as their animosity is overcome and their relationship repaired.

The ultimate conclusion is that the Bible seems to be talking about division but is really demonstrating the way to reconciliation and peace. However, religion needs two things: it needs to give up power for the sake of influence, and it needs to turn to an interpretative tradition instead of a fundamentalist one. Imposing one point of view through the barrel of a gun is counterproductive and ultimately futile.

The only way out of this morass is through an acknowledgment of our common humanity, and the understanding that we are blessed and “to be blessed, no one has to be cursed”. We all live only by the grace of God. All of us.

Isn’t this too ethereal, too high- minded, too impractical? No, says Rabbi Sacks and he uses the example of the reconciliation of Judaism and Christianity. The recent Popes and their writings have completely reversed two thousand years of hostile teachings and practice. All is far from perfect, but the change is nothing less than dramatic and inspiring.

He leaves us with two prescriptions. Since we need ideas to win the peace, he proposes that a generation of religious leaders and educators be trained “who embrace the world in its diversity and sacred texts in their maximal generosity” and that there be an international campaign against the “teaching and preaching of hate”.

If Sacks is heeded, this would be the beginning of a process of thought and development that could be the dawn of a new era.

Dr. Paul Socken is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Waterloo

About the Author
Paul Socken was on the faculty of the University of Waterloo (Canada) for 37 years where he chaired the Department of French Studies and established the Jewish Studies programme.
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