Not in God’s Name

This weeks newsletter is a review of “Not in God’s Name’ by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. The subtitle is, ‘Confronting Religious Violence’ – a very timely subject. We cover some of the issues raised by Rabbi Sacks – if you want a more detailed view of the issues, get the book, it’s worth reading.

Rabbi Sacks writes, ”They {science, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state} are among the the greatest achievements of human civilization and are to be defended and cherished. But they do not and cannot answer the three questions every reflective individual will ask at some time in his or her life: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? It is religion or philosophy that must answer these questions. He notes, ‘The world’s great faiths provide identity. They offer meaning, direction a code of conduct and a set of rules for the moral and spiritual life in ways that the free market, liberal democratic West does not. The Abrahamic monotheisms in particular offer individuals a sense of pride and consequence.’ On this basis he concludes that, ‘The twenty-first century will be the start of an an age of desecularization.’

Will this desecularization be one of tolerance or one in which radicalized religious groups try to terrorize and destroy those who disagree with them. Rabbi Sacks sees the danger in terms of altruistic evil and pathological dualism. Pathological dualism means demonizing the other. Dualism sees the world in terms of them (evil) and us.(good).It crops up in religions – with the dual being an independent evil power – notably in Zoroastrianism and in the Dead Sea scrolls that talk of Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. Once we see the other as demonically evil, it then becomes a virtuous act to destroy him. There is no personal gain. This is altruistic evil.

Is there any hope of removing the hatred between groups? Rabbi Sacks, turns to the book of Genesis to show that what is often thought of as the hatred between Isaac and Ishmael and between Jacob and Esau is not really the case. In fact, at the end of the day there is an acceptance of each by his brother. Our sages analogize the reconciliation of Isaac and Ishmael to a peaceful coexistence between Jew and Muslim. Although I find Rabbi Sacks’s theoretical framework of sibling rivalry unconvincing, that does not invalidate the points that he makes.

A reading of the story of Jacob and Esau shows a reconciliation between them at their final meeting. God’s choice of Jacob does not imply a rejection of Esau. In contemporary terms, there is room for more than one monotheistic religion. There is a place for both Judaism and Christianity. (Rabbi Sacks does not explicitly equate Esau with Rome and the Catholic Church.)

So how do we make religion a force for peace rather than than the driving force of altruistic evil? Rabbi Sacks addresses this issue in Chapter 15. His critique of Western democracy is that it has lost its moral values. ”Faced with a culture of individualism and hedonism, it is not surprising that young radicals, eager to change the world, turn elsewhere to express their altruism, even if it involves acts that are brutal and barbaric….That is why the West must recover its ideals.’ That’s the job of religion, but it is easier said than done!

Pope Francis (one of our favorites and a real friend of the Jews) put it elegantly in 2013,’But this experience {religious} must face the daily vanity, the poison of emptiness that insinuates itself into our society based on profit and having (things), that deludes young people with consumerism, Young people are particularly sensitive to the emptiness of meaning and values that surrounds them. And they, unfortunately, pay the consequences. True wealth is the love of God, shared with one’s brothers, that love that comes from God and makes us share among ourselves, and makes us help one another. He who experiences this does not fear death, and receives peace of heart.’ Another call for the restoration of moral values in the West.

The sad corollary of the centrality of moral values is that a military victory over ISIS will not solve the problem of Islamic terrorism. Rabbi Sacks puts it beautifully, ‘Wars are won by weapons, but it takes ideas to win a peace.’

He finds hope for the development of religious tolerance in recent history – pointing to the recent popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis I- who have exorcised the hatred of Jews from the Catholic Church. In our lifetimes, there has been a historic revolution in the relation between Jews and Catholics! But at what cost? If getting rid of Jew hatred requires a holocaust and the disappearance of Jewish communities from most of Europe, maybe Jew hatred is preferable.

Today the problem is not the Catholic Church. Rather it is the element in Islam that preaches altruistic evil. Rabbi Sacks’ effort to see progress in that area is forced. He points to a few heroic individual acts of Muslims rather than to any institutional changes. What is his prescription for change in Islam? He writes,’What then must we do? We must put the same long-term planning into strengthening religious freedom as was put into the spread of {Muslim}religious extremism. Radical Islam was a movement fuelled by Western petrodollars, used by oil producing countries {Saudi Arabia} to fund networks of schools, madrassahs, university professorships and departments dedicated to Wahhabi or Salafist interpretations of Islam……We must train a generation of of religious leaders and educators who embrace the world in its diversity and sacred texts in their maximal generosity’. A lovely exhortation but just who are the ‘We’ who will train a new generation. Nobody else has any good answers for dealing with Islamic terrorism.

For me, the highpoint of the book is the tolerance that Rabbi Sacks preaches. It is becoming a rare commodity in the orthodox community. Rabbi Sacks opens chapter 12 of the book stating, “Never say, I hate, I kill, because my religion says so. Every interpretation needs wisdom. … Fundamentalism reads texts as if God were as simple as we are. That is unlikely to be true.’

So how do we deal with religious texts that say kill others? Rabbi Sacks deals with several of these difficult texts in our Torah and Prophets and notes that there are similar texts in Christianity and Islam. One striking example is the biblical command to destroy the seven nations who inhabited Canaan in the time of Moses and Joshua. Our sages nullified this command by simply declaring that the seven nations no longer existed. The dispersal of populations through the entire region by Sennacherib, the King of Assyria, made it impossible to categorize anyone as belonging to these nations.

Our sages also reinterpret Joshua’s campaign to conquer Israel. Maimonides writes {quoting from Rabbi Sack’s book}, ‘No war, either permitted or obligatory (such as a war of self defense) may be initiated without first offering terms of peace…Joshua sent three messages before entering the land: the first, ‘Whoever wishes to flee, let him flee,’ the second ‘Whoever wishes to make peace, let him make peace’, the third, ‘Whoever wishes to make war, let him make war’.

As for Amalek, of whom the Torah writes, ‘blot out their memory from under heaven’, Maimonides writes that their population was uprooted and the command to destroy them is nullified as was the case for the seven nations. In dealing with Amalek, Rabbi Sacks missed the opportunity to bring in one of the most profound statements in the Talmud. My late wife pointed it out to me. Sanhedrin 96:b – ‘The descendants of Haman studied {alternatively taught} Torah in Bnei Brak.’ What a profound statement and what more constructive way could there be to blot out the memory of Amalek. It is not Amalek that must be destroyed but its behavior and beliefs, its memes must be blotted out. (Haman is considered to be a descendant of Amalek.) In these few words, our sages summarized much of what Rabbi Sacks argues in 288 pages.

Just as we have problematic texts, there are equally problematic Christian and Muslim texts. Just as we respond to attacks on our texts by referring to our interpretations, we must learn the Christian and Muslim interpretations of their texts before attacking them.

Why do I reject the framework of sibling rivalry as being the great driving force of Genesis? Consider the story of Isaac and Ishmael. The rivalry in that story is clearly between Sarah and Hagar and it requires considerable contortions to make the rivalry of Isaac and Ishmael central. The deep truth of the stories of the patriarchs is that the matriarchs make the important decisions.

To buttress his argument on the significance of sibling rivalry, Rabbi Sacks turns to the myth of the brothers Romulus and Remus. After arguing over where their city should be built, Romulus kills his brother Remus and founds the city of Rome. Rabbi Sacks is very selective in his references to mythology. The primal myth of Greco-Roman civilization is one of conflict between father and son – indeed conflict between grandfather, father and son. It starts with Uranus who is castrated by his son Kronos. Kronos in turn swallows each of his children at birth after learning that he was destined to be overthrown by one of them. Through a ruse, Zeus (Jupiter), the son of Kronos, is saved and Zeus later overthrows Kronos. That’s Oedipus in spades.

Rabbi Sacks also invokes Freud in claiming the primary importance of sibling rivalry. He writes, ‘The irony is that Freud himself knew the significance of sibling rivalry and felt it deeply, but seems to have been so obsessed with the Oedipus complex that he failed to give it its due weight.’ Occam’s razor suggests that Freud thought the Oedipus complex was the more significant.

The low point in the book is on page 248. where Rabbi Sacks writes, ‘Its peculiar power is that penitence defies entropy, the law that all systems lose energy over time.’ Please Rabbi Sacks, systems do not lose energy over time. Energy is always conserved.

In short, I found ‘Not in God’s Name’ a delight to read. It stimulated a lot of thought on my part. What more can you ask from a book?

About the Author
Richard Chasman, 1934-2018, was a member of the Modern Orthodox community in Chicago. Professionally, he was a theoretical nuclear physicist. Richard, who described his perspective as "centrist," wrote a newsletter for more than 20 years called "Chovevai Tsion of Chicago," on subjects of interest to the Modern Orthodox community.