In this profound and moving talk, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks examines the psychological and historical dimensions of religious violence. Beautifully and succinctly, he explains the conditions necessary to produce religiously-motivated violence and shares his views on how to end it. This fresh take on the status of global religion in an age characterized by deep misunderstanding between faiths reveals a different path to peace.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Well, it’s a wonderful honor and a great privilege, and you all have had the opportunity to look at Rabbi Sacks’s new book. And we’ve been trying to have Rabbi Sacks here for several years now, and we were finally able to work out our schedules. He is a man in great demand, as you can imagine, around the world, but we’re thrilled that he has found time to be with us at the Faith Angle Forum.
Rabbi Sacks has 16 honorary degrees. Prime Minister Tony Blair called him” an intellectual giant. He has a doctorate from King’s College in London, his undergraduate with Cambridge. He is the author of numerous books. He is the retired Chief Rabbi of Great Britain. But most importantly, he is our next speaker at the Faith Angle Forum.
Rabbi, thank you so much for joining us. We’re delighted. Now, before you speak, let me just say the book comes out in late June. Everything he is saying this morning is on the record, but we are going to hold the transcript, Rabbi, until after the book comes out. Thanks for coming.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: Friends, Michael, friends, it’s been such a privilege to be in your company. I always say that to defend a country, you need an army, but to defend a civilization, you need education, and today our great educators on the issues of the day are our great journalists, and you are the defenders of our civilization. I salute you all and may all you do be blessed.
Michael, thank you so much for bringing us together and guiding our deliberations with such grace. We say in Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” but no Jew was ever a sheep.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: And I don’t think any journalist was either, so for shepherding us so graciously through these last 2 days, Michael, we thank you and bless you and may you and the Faith Angle Forum and the Ethics and Public Policy Center continue to be a blessing to us.
Friends, let me begin with a story, one of my favorites, because I am ‑‑ I was professionally, before I became a rabbi, a philosopher. I love this story about the English philosopher who was invited to give a lecture on metaphysics and epistemology to the University of Beijing. Not being fluent in Mandarin, they arranged for an interpreter, and he came and entered the lecture hall in front of 1,000 students, began his lecture in English and stopped after 2 sentences for the translator to translate, but the translator waved him on and said, “Carry on and I’ll tell you when you need to stop, when I need you to stop.”
He continued for 15 minutes, at the end of which the translator held up his hand and said four words to the audience, and then waved him on. The same happened after 30 minutes and the same after 45, and after an hour the translator turned to the lecture hall, said three words in Mandarin, and they all graciously stood up and left the hall.
The lecturer went over to the translator and said, “I’m awestruck. I’m amazed. I’ve just given a very, very complex lecture. How did you manage to compress it into so few words?” He said, “It was easy. After 15 minutes, I said, ‘So far he hasn’t said anything new.’”
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: “After 30 minutes, I said, ‘He still hasn’t said anything new.’ After 45 minutes, ‘I don’t think he is going to say anything new.’ And after an hour,” he said, “‘I was right, he didn’t.’”
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: So one way or another to venture to say something new on such a tired and over-exhausted topic as the connection between religion and violence is hazardous and even hubristic, but the reason I want to do so this morning and in the book is very simple, because after over these past 14 years since 9/11, I’ve tried to read almost everything that’s been written and listened to as much as I could, and I’ve been very disturbed at the superficiality of the responses, you know.
One of the advantages of an Oxford education is it gives you a way of being rude terribly politely.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: So my favorite academic insult is one academic about another: On the surface, he’s profound, but deep down he’s superficial.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: So we’ve had three basic responses. Response one, the Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, et al., response of religion is the source of violence or a source of violence, and therefore if you want to get rid of violence, the first thing you have to do is to get rid of religion.
There is the second religious response, which says violence has nothing to do with religion. Violent men exploit religion, they use it, they manipulate it, but that religion per se has nothing to do with violence.
And the third response, which is, “Our religion is terrific, it’s their religion that’s the problem.”
Now, each of those is palpably false. First of all, the idea that religion is the primary driver of violence is very easily refutable by the standard work on warfare, Philips and Axelrod’s classic Encyclopedia of Wars, that covers 1,800 wars in the course of history and shows, just incidentally, that only 10 percent of them were fundamentally driven by religion. So religion is not the major cause of violence in history.
Secondly, the idea that religion has nothing to do with violence is equally absurd because, as we heard yesterday from those wonderful presentations from Bernard and from William and from Graeme Wood’s piece in The Atlantic, to understand the violence of ISIS, you have to understand its religious basis, and indeed its religious textual basis, and how religious texts are interpreted.
And, thirdly, “Our religion good; their religion bad,” does neglect or overlook a rather tragic history because Judaism and Christianity gave rise to violence of not dissimilar intensity in their time.
In fact, I think a clock has ticked in the history of the three Abrahamic monotheisms, and that clock says that in the 15th century of an Abrahamic monotheism violence explodes in the form of religious civil war. It happened in Judaism in the first century, if we are to believe Josephus, that the inhabitants of the besieged Jerusalem were more intent on killing one another than killing the Romans outside. That’s around 1,500 years into the history of Judaism. It happened in Christianity in the 16th century with the Wars of Religion following on the Reformation. That’s around 15 centuries into the history of Christianity. And on the basis of that magnificent wide sample of two, I predicted in 2002 that the 21st century would be the century of civil war within Islam, and I don’t think that was wrong. And I was very interested to hear from Graeme Wood yesterday that indeed one of the main apocalyptic texts of Islam predicts that the 15th century of Islam will be the century of the apocalypse.
So in a sense, all the Abrahamic monotheisms have faced it at the same stage in their development. So it’s not, “Our religion good; their religion bad,” it’s that our religion got the bad out of the way before the other lot.
So, therefore, all three I think are simply not deep enough, and therefore what I want to do this morning very briefly is to ask three questions. Number one: What is the relationship between religion and violence? Number two: What is the relationship between monotheism and violence? And number three: What is the relationship between the three Abrahamic monotheisms and violence? And those are separate questions.
So let’s begin with the first. I don’t know if you’ve seen the wonderful film about Alan Turing called The Imitation Game. You know, when Benedict Cumberbatch, who is slightly socially challenged, is told by Keira Knightley, a splendidly attractive mathematician, but I’m a rabbi, so I didn’t notice that.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: And she’s telling him, “You’ve got to be a bit more human.” So he does this thing of trying to be human and he tries to tell a joke, and this is the joke he tries to tell. Two men in a jungle. They hear a lion approaching. The first looks around for a place where they can both hide. The second starts putting on his running shoes. The first says to the second, “You’re crazy. What are you doing? You can’t run faster than a lion.” And the second replies, “I don’t need to run faster than the lion, I just need to run faster than you.”
That is the joke, but the point is that this actually is key to understanding, not Alan Turing, but Charles Darwin, and the reason is that Charles Darwin was puzzled, and quite explicitly and famously puzzled, by the following thing. We see in these two characters, the first one is the altruist, he’s concerned with saving both of them, the second is the survivalist, he just ‑‑ it doesn’t matter what happens to the other guy as long as he survives, and Darwin rightly saw that it’s the guy who puts on the running shoes that survives, it’s the altruist that gets eaten by the lion, and therefore over time the gene for altruism should get extinct because the survivalists survive and the altruists risk their life for others and therefore disproportionately don’t hand on their genes to the next generation.
So this was a major, major problem for Darwin, and, of course, he found the answer and writes it in The Descent of Man and the whole thing became taken up again with sociobiology and evolutionary psychology in the late ’70s to the present on the evolution of altruism.
And Darwin’s answer, translated into modern terminology, is that we hand on our genes as individuals, but we survive in groups. And it is altruism that allows us to form groups, without which we would not survive.
“Violence stems from identity and groupishness, not from religion, and the only connection between that and religion is religion is the most powerful creator of groups that humanity has ever devised, and to this day it is more powerful than race, than the nation-state and than political ideologies. It is no accident that religion has emerged as so powerful a force in a globalizing age.”
And that then explains how human beings have both a propensity for altruism ‑‑ compassion, care, empathy, sympathy, all this stuff ‑‑ and at the same time, a propensity for violence and evil. They are born at the same time, they derive from the same source, which is that we, in order to survive, both cooperate and compete. We cooperate in order to compete. We are altruistic towards the members of our group, and we are aggressive to the members of other groups, and that makes us both angels and demons at the same time, angels to the guys like us, and demons to the guys not like us. And that is the source both of virtue and of violence. Virtue and violence are not opposed, they come from the same thing.
So the real question that then arises is, how did humans ever suspend their natural egoism, their natural survival instinct, long enough to form groups in the first place? To which there is a threefold answer, a progressive deepening or widening.
The first one, of course, was given by J.B.S. Haldane when asked, “Would you jump in the river to save your brother?” and he replied, “No, but I would jump into the river to save two brothers or eight cousins.” This, of course, you risk your own life because your brother shares half of your genes, and your cousin, one-eighth of your genes, and this became, as you know, through William Hamilton in the 1960s developed into the theory of kin selection.
So the first principle of altruism is we’re altruistic to the people in our family because we share genes with them. It was the second question that has raised all the interest over the last 30 years in sociobiology or whatever it’s called nowadays, and that is, how do we form altruistic engagements with people who are not genetically related to us? And that, as you know, was solved by something called the iterated prisoner’s dilemma. The prisoner’s dilemma tells us that two individuals acting in their own interest will achieve an outcome that is bad for both of them, individually and collectively. That is because they don’t trust one another. But if they repeatedly encounter one another, eventually they learn to reciprocate, and because they both benefit from this. So human groups depend on the evolution of trust, and the end result of trust is that I do something for you because I expect you to do the same for me, known as tit-for-tat or reciprocal altruism.
Now, the problem with reciprocal altruism is you have to remember who you’re dealing with. Did the guy for whom you are thinking of making a sacrifice do the same for you in the past? Is he or she trustworthy? And that needs a lot of memory space. You know, my smart phone has a lot more memory than I do, so I have an inferiority complex vis-a-vis my iPhone, but we use up a lot of memory.
And there’s an Oxford anthropologist called Robin Dunbar who has worked out on the basis of brain size that you can calculate by the size of a brain of a particular life-form how big the natural or the largest possible group is, and for humans it works out at 150. Is that right? That’s the Dunbar coefficient, which has proved ‑‑ I happened to be giving this lecture to the senior military staff in Sandhurst, and the chaplain got up and said, “Oh, you know what, we have exactly 150 chaplains in the British Army. If you have an intake of 150 kids in a school per year, they will all know one another. Beyond that, they won’t know one another and there will be an impersonal atmosphere in the school.”
So reciprocal altruism will get you friendship with more than your direct relatives, but it puts a limit on 150 or so, so it only works for hunting-gathering clans or for tribes or for villages. What happens when the first large groups emerge, i.e., cities? Without cities, no civilization. And that is when religion appears, religion in the sense of formalized structures, of myth and ritual, with temples and a priesthood. Religion appears with the first cities. Religion solves the problem of trust between strangers, which cannot be done on the basis of kin and it cannot be done on the basis of reciprocal altruism. Religion creates moral communities, something that Durkheim understood very clearly, and without that, there would be no civilization.
Now you can state the connection between religion and violence. We are violent not because we are religious, we are violent because we are social animals, because we form groups. And every group formation both unites and divides: it unites the people like us and it divides us from the people not like us; every I is defined in relation to a them.
So violence stems from identity and groupishness, not from religion, and the only connection between that and religion is religion is the most powerful creator of groups that humanity has ever devised, and to this day it is more powerful than race, than the nation-state and than political ideologies. It is no accident that religion has emerged as so powerful a force in a globalizing age.
So that is the connection between religion and violence. It’s bleak, it’s indirect, but it’s real.
Second question: What is the connection between violence and monotheism? And here we were having a fascinating discussion this morning over breakfast about the Dead Sea Scrolls. I’m not quite sure why, but it was ‑‑ oh, the Biblical Museum.
And here I want to go back to this fascinating serendipitous co-discovery or dual discovery of that library of texts in Qumran that we know as the Dead Sea Scrolls and this other library of texts discovered just 18 months earlier in the desert in upper Egypt known as the Nag Hammadi manuscripts. It is fascinating to look at these two collections, one of a Jewish sectarian group beginning in around the second century BCE, the other, a collection of Coptic manuscripts from the third or fourth century, but Coptic translations of Greek texts at least two centuries earlier.
What makes these two manuscript finds fascinating, even though they are separated by a couple of centuries, and one group was Jewish and the other group was Christian, is that both groups were dualists, they believed that there is a fundamental conflict, a cosmic conflict, between the children of light and the children of darkness. There are two forces operative in the world: the God, or the good God; and the Devil, Satan, the Demiurge, the Prince of Darkness, et cetera, et cetera. There’s an ontological divide ‑‑ you are either good or bad, light or dark, good God or enemy of God ‑‑ and there are no shades of gray whatsoever.
So this is an interesting discovery because dualism is clearly incompatible with monotheism. So here were Christians and Jews completely not connected with one another both embracing a theology that was not possible within the basic doctrine of their belief. We know that dualism came into Judaism from Iran from Zoroastrianism and in Christianity from Greek Gnosticism, it came from different places.
But the question is: What makes a monotheist a dualist? And the answer is unbearable cognitive dissonance. We and our people have done everything God asked of us, and he promised us that if we did that, we would be rewarded, and we did everything he asked, and instead we’re suffering, we’re defeated, we’re surrounded by powers greater than us, we are humiliated. And when bad things happen that are so off the script or off the piste or whatever it is, it is easier to blame the bad stuff on a force other than God than to attribute it to God himself.
It takes a real cognitive breakdown for a monotheist to become a dualist, but that’s what it is, when it becomes easier to say somebody or something is doing this to us and it’s not this is a result of what we ourselves have done.
Now, the dualists in Qumran and in Nag Hammadi were quite ‑‑ I’m sure quite nice people who wouldn’t have harmed a fly, but dualism does have its pathological form when it becomes active and when it begins to feel that there is confrontation, this apocalyptic confrontation, between God and the greater or the lesser Satan is imminent. It then becomes pathological and probably the most dangerous doctrine ever invented. Let me explain why.
We have a moral sense. That wonderful man who was professor of criminology at Harvard for all those years, James Q. Wilson, I’m sure you’ve read his book The Moral Sense. It’s a terrific book. There is, of course, Adam Ferguson, David Hume, Adam Smith, and all these people, the Scottish Enlightenment. We have a moral sense that stops us killing innocent aid workers or selling women as slaves or turning children into suicide bombers. There’s something in us that stops us doing this, whether it’s oxytocin or mirror neurons or whatever neuroscience you want to give to it, we have a moral sense that stops us doing evil.
And the power of dualism is that it disables, neutralizes, paralyzes the moral sense, allowing us to commit evil with an easy conscience, and it does so in three ways. Firstly, it encourages, indeed forces, you to demonize your opponents. Dualism is that: you’re either totally good and with us or you’re not, in which case you’re not remotely good, you’re not even human. To the Hutus in Rwanda in ’94, the Tutsis were “inyenzi,” cockroaches. To the Nazis, Jews were vermin, lice, gangrenous limbs, a cancer in the body of Germany to be scientifically removed. The first thing that dualism does is it demonizes your opponents. There is no gray here, there is no chiaroscuro, there is no light and shade; your opponents are evil, and they are opponents of God himself.
The second thing it does ‑‑ and this in one way is even worse ‑‑ it turns you, by self-definition, into a victim, and a victim does not bear responsibility for the acts he or she commits. The acts are taken in self-defense, “These guys are trying to kill my people and therefore I must kill them. That’s what God wants me to do. It’s the decent thing to do.” Once you’re a victim, somebody forced you to do it, it wasn’t your free and responsible choice.
And, thirdly, it then leads you to commit ‑‑ and forgive the paradox of this phrase, but it is essential to my argument ‑‑ altruistic evil, committing evil in the name of God or in the name of high ideals. I documented in terms of Nazi Germany, which was a completely secular scenario, or Stalinist Russia, or Mao Tse-Tung’s China, or what have you, Pol Pot’s Cambodia. There is nothing deeply religious about it, but dualism is very scary and it gives rise to demonization, victimhood, and altruistic evil. It allows you, as we heard chillingly from Bernard yesterday, for a poet to say that burning a human being alive is doing God’s work. That is altruistic evil.
And, therefore, the presence of dualism in a monotheistic culture is a second sign, is a sign of severe and critical cognitive breakdown. This is not business as usual. Dualism appearing in a monotheism is a danger signal to the world.
And now I want to ask the third question. What is the relationship between violence and the Abrahamic monotheisms? And here I refer to the two people who are most insightful on this whole subject: Sigmund Freud and a Freudian whose work I hope is familiar to you, called Rene Girard. You’re familiar with, yeah? G-I-R-A-R-D. So Rene Girard, who was a French anthropologist and literary theorist but taught in America and wrote the key text on violence and religion. The key modern text was published in ’76, I think, called Violence and the Sacred. He wrote lots of other books, The Scapegoat, Things Hidden Since the Birth of the World ‑‑ Creation of the World, and many other books, but the key text is Violence and the Sacred. That’s Rene Girard. Girard was a Freudian.
Now, Girard and Freud said a wonderful thing, very, very arresting, they said it isn’t religion that creates violence, it is violence that creates religion. And this is a very arresting insight. Freud, as you know, believed that the primal source of violence is the Oedipus complex. The children of the tribe gang together and they kill the father, the alpha male, and then they regret it, and that’s the birth of the conscience, the voice of God, as the return of the repressed. So it is that violence that creates the religion.
Rene Girard held the same theory but had a slightly different reading of the primary source of violence. And what’s really interesting to me because I love psychoanalyzing Freud ‑‑
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: ‑‑ is to realize that Freud saw this and repressed it. It is absolutely fascinating. Because Sigmund Freud was the
eldest boy in the family, and when his mother became pregnant and gave birth to a son called Julius, when Freud was 2 or 3 years old, Freud resented ‑‑ do you know that phenomenon when a new sibling arrives, you know the thing? And Freud really, really resented it, and whenever sibling rivalry comes up in Freud’s work, he speaks with a burning passion saying we do not realize how fundamental is this venomous hatred of this interloper who’s just upstaged us in the affection of the mother. And Freud really wished Julius weren’t there, and Julius died at the age of 17 months. And it seems that Freud felt guilty about this for the whole of his life.
And although Freud ‑‑ whenever he talks about sibling rivalry, he just becomes incandescent. He repressed it from making it the centerpiece of his system. It was Adler who actually put sibling rivalry in place of the Oedipus complex, and Girard does likewise, only he calls it mimetic desire, but it’s the same kind of thing. And we know that actually sibling rivalry is a more potent source of violence, whether you read the Bible, or you read Greek myth or Roman myth or even Egyptian myth, it’s there, Romulus and Remus, and the whole of the Bible is full of it. I mean, Genesis is full of it: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Leah and Rachel, you name it, it’s there. Genesis is a set of variations on the theme of sibling rivalry. As Hamlet put it, “A little more than kin and less than kind,” the Shakespearean Crossword clue.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: And that is the relationship between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: sibling rivalry. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are not just three different religions, like Buddhism and Zoroastrianism and Bahai. They are sibling rivals.
In the Pauline letters, Paul does this extraordinary thing. He’s talking to this nascent Christian community, which has not reached any kind of self-definition, the Gospels haven’t been written, the Council of Nicaea is still, you know, nearly three centuries away, there is no doctrine, there is no religion called Christianity. But what he does is he says, brothers, sisters, we are Isaac, the Jews are Ishmael, we are the children of Sarah, the Jews are the children of Hagar, we are Jacob, the Jews are Esau. He uses these sibling rivalry narratives in Genesis to define Christianity’s relationship with Judaism.
We owe to Rosemary Radford Ruether, who wrote the classic text Faith and Fratricide on this in the 1970s, but you’ll see the text in my book. Islam comes along and does to Christianity pretty much what Christianity did to Judaism only slightly differently, the descent goes through Ishmael, not through Isaac, and the Jews knew this, but they falsified the Hebrew Bible. This means that Jews, Christians, and Muslims, in their foundational narratives, have constructed themselves as sibling rivals, and that means conflict, it means violent confrontation is written into the script. If you are my brother, I must either conquer or convert or dominate you or kill you because you are standing between me and the claim which I feel is rightfully mine, namely, to Abraham or most loved child in the eyes of God; hence, the Crusades, the jihads, the pogroms, the massacres, the blood of human sacrifice through the ages.
Of course, there was politics involved here, I’m just talking, what is the religious dimension in all of this? What is the narrative? And Christians wrote Jews into their self-defining narrative, and Islam wrote both Jews and Christians into its self-defining narrative, and it is a relationship of sibling rivalry, which according to Girard, according to Adler, a deep down return of the oppressed, even according to Freud, is the primary driver of violence in human history. It’s not a minor thing; this is as major as it gets.
So now I come to the point: Why was this not seen as a problem in the past? Why for the most part were Jews, Christians, and Muslims able to live together in peace? Why has it become a problem now? And here I have to say what we already said yesterday, where we are today, we have been here before. There’s an immense deja vu quality to where the world is right now because we were here before in the 16th and 17th centuries in the aftermath of the Reformation, exactly the same factors at work, exactly what Bernard called yesterday the perfect storm. Number one, a revolution in information technology; in those days, printing. Number two, a widespread sense that the existing powers are corrupt. Number three, articulating that discontent in terms of a religious expression. Number four, that religion striving to return to the pristine purity of faith as it was at the beginning; and that’s what Luther and Calvin wanted, just as ISIS wants it now. Number five, a principled rejection of interpretation, all of history of interpretation in favor of sola scriptura, a direct unmediated encounter with the text. And, six, the ability through this revolutionary information technology change, an ability to circumvent and subvert all existing structures of power. Until printing, the power was in the pulpit, but once you could put out a million Bibles ‑‑ there were a million Bibles in private hands in 1640 in England, and there weren’t that many more than a million Englishmen in England, you know. So, you know, you don’t need to listen to what the vicar says in the pulpit because you can read it for yourself, and that was the Facebook and the YouTube of its day. That means you circumvent all existing power structures. That’s Moises Naim’s point in his book The End of Power. It’s that all of these things happened in the Reformation.
Now, a comparison with the 16th and 17th century tells us two things: one positive and one negative. The positive thing is this: what ended that century-plus of religious wars was the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 ending the Thirty Years’ War. And what wins wars? Weapons. But what wins the peace is ideas. And what really made the 17th century not just a cessation in hostilities but the birth of the modern, the creation of free societies, was a set of ideas that emerged through the horrors of religious warfare. What happened was major figures in the 17th century ‑‑ John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Benedict Spinoza ‑‑ some of them religious ‑‑ Milton was, Locke was ‑‑ some of them not religious at all ‑‑ Hobbes was probably an atheist, Spinoza was probably an atheist ‑‑ but whether they were religious or they were irreligious, they were in dialogue with the same text, the Hebrew Bible, alias the Old Testament. All four are in dialogue. Hobbes quotes it 647 times in the Leviathan. Spinoza is engaged and is in constant dialogue with the Books of Moses in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus.
So if we want to win the battle of the 21st century, the battle for peace, not the battle over war, we have to come up with ideas, and we haven’t done it yet. After 14 years, we haven’t done it yet.
I was listening in the early years, I stopped listening after a while, so maybe I missed something, because all the leading politicians were saying this is a battle of ideas as much as it is of weapons, and so I waited to hear the ideas, and there were two of them: one was freedom, one was democracy. I have to say if I wanted to convince the leader of ISIS, those are not necessarily the two words I would choose. I don’t know what freedom means in a religion whose highest value is submission, and I don’t know what democracy means when you believe the will of God trumps the will of man. These are two words that are really showing that you haven’t even read Stephen Covey’s Seven Secrets of Highly Effective People: first strive to understand and then to be understood.
You know, there’s a Jewish theory of communication. The Jewish theory of communication is good communication is when you feel better for having said. You know, forget whether anyone heard you or they persuaded anyone, “I got that off my chest, I told him what I ‑‑,” you know, “So freedom, democracy, we told those ISIS guys,” you know.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: This is not a way to wage a battle of ideas. Forgive me. Now, the first thing we should learn from the history of the Thirty Years’ War and the Treaty of Westphalia is we have to get serious about ideas, and we haven’t yet.
But the second, a negative thing, is this: you see, what came out of those thinkers in the 17th century were five really magnificent ideas, I mean, superb, you know. I mean, I’m sure they all have their place in heaven for it, but they defined our world. Number one, social contract, or what the American Declaration of Independence calls deriving their authority from the consent of the governed, which is a principle of Islam as well. Don’t forget, no compulsion in religion.
Number two, the moral limits of power.
Number three, human rights. Rights are born in 17th century, the word is born in the 17th century.
Number four, liberty of conscience.
Number five, the doctrine of toleration.
Now, those five principles that in the 18th century became in slightly different ways in America and France the separation of church and state, or the separation of religion and power ‑‑ it took a century to get from the 17th to the 18th, I suppose, it always does ‑‑ but those principles will undoubtedly be the final outcome of the inner turbulence within Islam, but we may have to wait for a century before that happens.
“All the leading politicians were saying this is a battle of ideas as much as it is of weapons, and so I waited to hear the ideas, and there were two of them: one was freedom, one was democracy. I have to say if I wanted to convince the leader of ISIS, those are not necessarily the two words I would choose. I don’t know what freedom means in a religion whose highest value is submission, and I don’t know what democracy means when you believe the will of God trumps the will of man.”
I want you to understand what happened as a result of the way Western intellectual history developed in the 17th century. It meant that people were able to stop religion doing harm because they deprived it of power, which is a consummation devoutly to be wished. I see this as a religious leader: never give a religious leader power, never. But depriving religion of power meant that the religions themselves never had to exorcise the heart of darkness in their sacred texts. The end result is you give religion power, it can go back and do the same old nasty, bloody, destructive, murderous things that it always did. Depriving religion of power meant that theologians didn’t have to do the theological work.
Now, the trouble is that the 17th century solution is not going to work in the 21st century. The reason is that the 17th century was the beginning of an age of secularization which has lasted four centuries until now; the 21st century is exactly the opposite, it’s the beginning of an age of desecularization. Religion is seizing power; they’re not yielding power. So what worked in the 17th century is not going to work now. It’s not going to be good enough to say religion should relinquish power when actually religious groups have seized power. You are, we are, going to have to do the theological work that was not done four centuries ago. What space does Judaism, does Christianity, does Islam, make for the other, the other within my faith ‑‑ Sunni or Shia or Sufi ‑‑ the other beyond my faith ‑‑ the Jew and the Christian or the Christian and the Muslim? We have to develop a theology of the other, which has not been done in any of the Abrahamic monotheisms thus far, and we are paying the price for the theological work that was not done four centuries ago.
So I want to sum up what I’ve said, that there are connections between religion and violence in general with monotheisms and with the Abrahamic monotheisms in particular, and they have to do with dualism, with sibling rivalry, and, of course, the thing I didn’t have time to touch on, that sense of apocalypse, wanting to bring the end of time in the midst of time, which makes everything much more urgent.
And that is the process that I have tried to start in this book. This is a theological book. It’s not philosophical, historical, political; it is a religious book. It’s an attempt to show, number one, that the key text foundational to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam can be read a different way. I go through all the sibling rivalry narratives, and I show that beneath the surface narrative in each case is a concealed counternarrative, and I just haven’t got time to tell you what that is, but I’ve reread the texts, the key texts, and I have not ‑‑ and et cetera, et cetera. And I’m reading them literally, I’m not giving some fancy liberal critical historical reading of the text, I’m doing so as an unreconstructive fundamentalist. Those texts can be read differently and must be read differently if we’re to survive the 21st century.
Secondly, I am trying to attempt quite a big theological project, which is, can we construct something called Abrahamic monotheism which is a kind of foundational level on which you build the structures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam? Is there such a thing as Abrahamic monotheism before we get to our differences? Can we establish in those protean texts a set of agreements?
And clearly what I’m doing in this is appealing to Jews, Christians, Muslims to stand together, to reason together, for the sake of our humanity, and not to do so in secular terms for the sake of freedom or democracy but to do so in religious terms for the sake of God and his image, humankind.
I’m trying to create a new movement, if you like. Just as Wahhabism and Salafism was a movement in Islam, just as Luther and Calvin started movements within Christianity, just as the Hasidic movement was a new movement in Judaism in the 18th century, can we start a new movement in the 21st century that occupies the moral and theological high ground that is not defending any religious or secular status quo, that is saying here is God calling on us in the 21st century to heal the ills and cure some of the self-inflicted injuries of humankind? Can we climb higher than Al Qaeda and ISIS and speak to the better angels of our nature? Can we see a new reading of the sacred texts common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?
So I am not arguing on secular grounds of liberal democracy, that’s the 17th and 18th century solution. I am not calling the Quran a human document that should be subjected to historical criticism; that’s the 19th and 20th century solution. I want a 21st century solution for a 21st century problem, and we’re not there.
I have watched the moral relativism of the West render the West utterly incapable of defending its own values, let alone inspiring idealistic young Muslims. You know, I mean, a culture that can produce bumper stickers saying the guy with the most toys, when he dies, wins, is in my view not going to attract the great and the good, but heaven help us if we can’t think of something better than jihad, and to do so in terms of Islam itself or what is common between us as Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
Now, I found yesterday morning very shattering, I have to say, because if you listen carefully to Bernard and William and you’ve read Graeme Wood’s wonderful article in The Atlantic, then you will have heard from them three things.
Number one, ISIS is a religious phenomenon and just thinking of it as a political one alone will not help us understand it.
Number two, it is essentially rooted in religious texts; therefore, we are going to have to read religious texts and not see those as irrelevant or epiphenomenal.
And number three, yes, ISIS will self-destruct, but then like all those films that I never managed to stay awake through, Terminator 4 or 17 or something, you know, once they’ve destructed, they reassemble themselves and reappear in some new guise.
So we’re not going to get rid of ISIS that fast. It may self-destruct, but it will come back again with new names in a new form breathing fire and inventing yet new brutalities. And I do not want us to be in the position of the guys in eighth century Spain saying, “Guys, chill.” It’s an awful long way from Spain. And the guys who are coming our way are not the Umayyads either.
So this is a real and standing challenge. I see it as the great intellectual and moral and spiritual battle of the 21st century, and we have to fight it, and I’ve tried to show one way it might be done.
I thank you again for the graciousness of your invitation, the generosity of your attention, and all I would say is I hope if you have a chance, do try and read the book. I don’t normally ask people to read my books, I really don’t, I say just buy it and stick it on the shelf ‑‑
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: ‑‑ but in this case, I make an exception because I think there is a real religious issue here that cuts a hell of a lot deeper than same-sex marriage in the United States. The future of the Middle East is at stake. The future of Africa is at stake. I fear the future of Europe is at stake. I fear, even worse, the future of religion is at stake. And we have to think long, see large, and plan ways of creating a world or help get us closer to one in which our grandchildren can be safe and in which we do justice to God and to his image in humankind.
Thank you very much indeed.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Amen.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Well, I think that’s the first time we’ve actually clapped after a presentation. Thank you so much, Rabbi. I’ve got about 10 names already on the list, and I see other hands going up. David Rennie and then Michelle Cottle.
DAVID RENNIE, Economist: What’s in it for Islam to do what you want? I mean, isn’t the problem is that they could say, “Well, that’s the classic cry of the older brother, to say, ‘Oh, look, we can get along. Look how big you’ve grown. We can get along’”?
DAVID RENNIE: But, you know, they’re the younger brother and they have plans. So what’s in it for them?
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: All I can say, David, is my own experience over 22 years. I was astonished, frankly astonished, by the warmth of reception that I got from Muslims in Britain for the stuff that I was broadcasting and the stuff I was writing in the Times. They read my books. Somehow they spoke to them.
I made a point every so often of doing a television film where I showed the Muslim community in Britain in a very positive light. On one occasion I showed ‑‑ made a little documentary about a group of high flyers in the city called City Circle. These were young Muslims who really wanted to be British and really were reaching out and doing community work in their own communities.
On one occasion, I took Judea Pearl, father of the late Daniel Pearl, the murdered Wall Street Journal journalist, together with Akbar Ahmed, who at the time was the Pakistani High Commissioner ‑‑ Daniel Pearl was murdered in Karachi ‑‑ we took them to a Muslim school and a Jewish school. We did a lot of this stuff, and I was in the middle of giving a talk to the City Circle of this group of very intense young Muslims, and one of them put up his hand and said, “Rabbi Sacks, could you possibly stop being Chief Rabbi and become Chief Imam of Britain?” and I said, “No, thank you; I’ve got problems enough already.”
So all I can say is when you deliver a message that seems to resonate with so many profoundly Islamic values and it’s breathing a different air from the Jihadist message, it is my experience that there are serious young Muslims for whom that resonates, but you have to speak with absolute humility and absolute respect, and you have to speak in a deeply religious language that they can relate to, and I don’t know how often people go and do that. You know, they’ve been demonized and insulted, they’re feeling very defensive.
So all I can say, David, is when you try it, you get a response. Now, you’re not trying to change the extremists, no way, I mean, don’t even try, but there are so many young altruistic Muslims who are waiting for a better voice. And I salute those incredible, incredible courageous women mainly, like Wafa Sultan and Irshad Manji and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but a lot of young Muslims can’t relate to that because that’s really critical of Islam, and these are people who are staking territory a long way from the faith.
And, therefore, David, all I can do is speak from personal experience, that my work has resonated with young Muslims in a way that I personally never even expected, never expected.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: I think David has a quick ‑‑
DAVID RENNIE: Quick response. I can see where that works in Europe, where a Muslim’s job is to live in a European country, so if you can help them live in a European country, but you seem to be describing a global problem which needs a global solution. Is there anything that the other faiths can do to help Islam globally? And what’s in it for them globally?
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: The chance of Islam ‑‑ you know, I mean, here you’ve got a situation, you know, supposing you think the reason that we’re really doing badly is because America has got an awful lot of witches, you know, and so you make a good job of killing all the witches, and you discover that America isn’t doing any better. There must come a time at which people discover that the Jihadist Islamist regimes are not delivering freedom, prosperity, a voice in self-governance, they are not delivering any of the things that would gain Islam respect in the world. The world, after 50 years of seeing beheadings, is no longer watching the videos anymore. You have come, you have conquered, and you have done absolutely nothing for us.
What I’m saying is that we have to provide, working together, a roadmap whereby religious individuals can write a narrative for the 21st century that actually delivers instead of merely terrorizing and intimidating. And don’t think you can produce these new theologies from an epicenter of the conflict. No new theologies have ever come from the epicenter. You know, the most insightful revolutionary Christian theologian in the 19th century was living in Denmark, of all places, and I know Denmark is the center of civilization as we know it ‑‑
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: ‑‑ but I don’t think Kierkegaard had too many people to talk to, you know. If you ask, where did the rabbis who first conceived of a return to Zion as a practical proposition, they did not come from the centers of Jewish life, they came from margins, from countries with small Jewish communities. New thinking always comes from the periphery, from the borders, from the outliers, and it never comes from the epicenter, and they’re the ones who might just pick up on such an idea.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Okay. Michelle Cottle.
MICHELLE COTTLE, National Journal: I want to go back to your discussion about dualism. I mean, obviously, there is a big chunk of fundamentalist Christianity, including the faith that I was raised in, where Satan still plays a pretty significant role. So we’re talking about a not insignificant chunk of people here. How troubled are you by that? I mean, these days it’s not a violent religion, but it does have that kind of dualism ingrained in it still.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: And psychologists have shown that believing in Satan helps you have a more relaxed relationship with God. So it’s all good stuff. The trouble is it’s total heresy. I mean, do forgive me here, I don’t want to preach Christian theology to you, but, you know, I say in the book hardly ‑‑ I really, really, really upset Richard Dawkins. I love Richard Dawkins, he’s terrific, you know, and we’ve done some wonderful conversations together on television. He got really upset when I said, “Richard, you’re a Christian atheist, not a Jewish atheist.” Yeah? I mean, you know what a Jewish atheist is; right? You know, I mean, you know, about 95 percent of us actually are, you know, I hope I’m not, but ‑‑
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: ‑‑ you know, you’re Jewish, you eat matzah on Pesach, you eat cheesecake on Shavuot, you’re a good Jew, but most of them, you know, are not great on religious belief. And Grace Davie, the sociologist in Britain, calls Christianity in Britain believing without belonging. I define Judaism as belonging without believing.
So Richard Dawkins said, “What do you mean? What do you mean?” I said, “You begin Chapter 2 of The God Delusion with the sentence, ‘The God of the Old Testament is the nastiest character in fiction.’” I said, “Only a Christian uses the phrase ‘the God of the Old Testament.’ It doesn’t exist outside of Christianity.”
Now, there was a gentleman called Marcion who argued that the Old Testament should not be part of the Christian canon because the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament. He was deemed by Christianity to be a heretic. Marcionism is heresy in Christianity. Yet not a week passes without my reading in some book or some article “the God of the Old Testament, who is the God of vengeance.” Forgive me, but Christianity is predicated on the idea that the God of the New Testament is the God of the Old Testament: his love is the same love, his justice is the same justice, and his forgiveness is the same forgiveness.
So I have a problem with Christian heresy, with Islamic heresy, and with Jewish heresy, but so far I’m still working on myself, you know, and I wouldn’t be critical, but I try to hint to you that it takes major crisis, and it happens only rarely and once every several centuries, for dualism that for the most part is entirely quietist and benign. The Gnostics didn’t wage war against anyone. The Qumran sect wanted to live in peace and quiet. These were quietist movements, there was nothing aggressive about them whatsoever. It takes massive cognitive breakdown, massive humiliation, you feel that your entire world, your people, and your belief system have been humiliated. This is what Christianity felt with the rise of Islam and gave rise to the Crusades and to several centuries of real witch hunting and blood libels and heaven knows what. Yeah?
It happened with Germany after their loss in the First World War, the punitive conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, mega-inflation in the 1920s, the weakness of the Weimar Republic. So you need all sorts of factors to come together. It only happens once in every many, many centuries. That’s why I called it pathological dualism as opposed to dualism per se, which exists in many varieties, most of which are not harmful at all.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Nina Easton, you’re next.
And, people, I forgot to remind you, it’s okay ‑‑ isn’t it, Rabbi? ‑‑ for them to go ahead and tweet some what you’re saying. Am I correct?
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: I think so, yeah.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Yeah, tweet away, people.
NINA EASTON, Fortune Magazine and Fox News: That’s a challenge.
NINA EASTON: First of all, Rabbi, thank you for that breathtaking presentation, and I intend to make sure that my 21-year-old Jewish atheist son gets your analysis about organized religion’s role in violence, since he blames it for all. So it’s good thought food for him.
I do a podcast at CSIS on global affairs interviewing women on global affairs called “Smart Women, Smart Power.” I’ll give it a plug, iTunes podcast. A couple weeks ago I interviewed Farah Pandith, who has been at the top at the White House under Bush and at the State Department under Hillary Clinton as outreach to the Muslim community. She has spoken to young Muslims all over the world and has a really good flavor for, you know, this identity crisis that we’ve all talked about, and she makes a point ‑‑ we’ve kind of made the point here ‑‑ that the message has to come from within the community and particularly with the rise of the secularization, our secular language, we don’t speak the spiritual language that connects with young Muslims, and everybody keeps asking, “Where are those voices? Where are those moderate Muslim voices that can appeal particularly to young people?”
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: I mean, the question you ask is “the” question, and it’s so powerful that ‑‑ you know, I started writing this book 12 years ago, and many, many times I just put it down because at the end of the day it is only Muslims who can move Islam, it is only Jews who can move Judaism, and Christian ‑‑ nobody can do it for anyone else. It’s just that I discovered that when you can see somebody doing it in another religion, that’s very empowering if you want to do it in your religion. Are you with me?
So, you know, I know this is before my time, but I’m pretty sure that the sight of somebody like Reinhold Niebuhr, for instance, in the States will have inspired many Jews to talk to the problems of our age.
I explained yesterday that I do quite ‑‑ I did at any rate, and I still do quite a lot of broadcasting in Britain, that’s broadcasting for BBC to an audience that 99.5 percent of which is not Jewish. So I’m trying to make my message available to people. And there is no way I’m going to try and tell Christians how to think Christianly, or Muslims in Islam, or something. All you want to do is to provide somebody with a role model saying, “Look, there’s a guy doing it in his faith, let’s do it in mine.”
Can I give you a story which I found really gobsmacking, you know? Here it is, this is May, June, I can’t remember exactly when, 2002, Her Majesty ‑‑ and we all wish mazel tov, too, on her new great-granddaughter ‑‑ was celebrating her Golden Jubilee, and she gave a tea party for all the faiths in Britain. So there were hundreds of us from all the different faith communities there, there were Jews, Christians, Muslims, the Buddhists, the Sikhs, the Hindus, the Jains, the Zoroastrians, and the Bahai, and I’m sure some others that I didn’t notice, and you know what May 2002 was? This was with suicide bombings at their height. The suicide bombing had just taken place at the beginning of Passover at the Park Hotel in Netanya, killing 29 people, injuring another 150. Ariel Sharon had launched this campaign, and there was one word on everyone’s lips, “Jenin.” Do you remember? So Jewish-Muslim relations were at an all-time low. And at this reception, a rather fierce-looking Muslim came up to me and said very aggressively, “Are you the Chief Rabbi?” And I said, “Yes.” He said, “My wife wants a word with you.” And I assumed, you know, she is going to give me a hard time about Israel and et cetera.
She came up, a lady enveloped in a hijab, and said, “Chief Rabbi, I just want to thank you for your book A Letter in the Scroll.” Now, A Letter in the Scroll is a book about Jewish pride. It’s a totally non-universalistic book. It’s about what it is to be Jewish, and here a very religious Muslim woman was thanking me for this book. And I suddenly realized that if you can deliver a presence that is cogent and dignified as a religious individual in a very secular culture, you actually empower and give a certain strength and encouragement to people of all religions, and that is why I am doing what I’m doing, not because I want to say anything about Islam, but just to say, look, here I am as a Jew, as an orthodox Jew, as an ex-Chief Rabbi, I am going to say some stuff that is very challenging for my own guise because I am rereading ‑‑ the middle bit of the book is rereading a series of sacred texts that are actually constitutive of what it is to be and feel Jewish, and I’m reading them in a completely new way. The last time I did this I almost got excommunicated, which for a Chief Rabbi is pretty impressive.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: In fact, this was in 2002, and Rowan Williams had just been chosen to be Archbishop of Canterbury, and he had just one week before attended a Druid service, which did not please many of his congregation, who thought that was paganism, and there was a headline in the Guardian, which I should have cut out and kept because these things probably do not appear too often, and the headline said, “Archbishop of Canterbury and Chief Rabbi accused of heresy.”
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: So I thought that was probably good really.
So, you know, when people see you take risks to open yourself up with an embrace and say, “I don’t believe in sibling rivalry, and, as a Jew, believe that you, as a Christian, and you, as a Muslim, have equal dignity in the eyes of God and equal love for him and from him,” then I am taking a risk that I hope will embolden those young Muslims who will rise to the fore, but they will do so in protected environments. It’s so much easier for them to do so here in the States than in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, or anywhere else, and that’s where they will come from, and they will be the path blazers.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Okay. EJ Dionne and then Will Saletan.
EJ DIONNE, Washington Post: Thank you for your talk. By my lights, you’re doing God’s work here.
But I wanted to ask you whether ‑‑ how credible is this argument to people who are not essentially theological liberals? In a way, I think listening to you, the question is: A, are you actually reading out the particularities of each of these traditions? A friend of mine used to refer to fishy dialectics as everything-is-everything view of religion. And are you reading out the particularities? And, yes, you are going back to the scripture, but are you really simply reading a kind of post-Westphalian liberalism into the scriptures? Now, I have no problem with that, I think it’s actually a useful project, but I wonder how persuasive that is, not only to Muslims, but also to either fundamentalists or quite conservative, you know, certainly Christians or Muslims. So that’s Question A.
And Question B is, how does your argument fit into just war theory? Because any of us who believe in just war believes that violence can be justified, and we repair often to ‑‑ Niebuhr you mentioned is certainly a believer in just war, and we end up repairing Christians, Jews, and Muslims to ‑‑ particularly it’s a Western idea, so we’ll say Christians and Jews ‑‑ to a philosophical defense of violence.
And so I would love you to deal with this problem of sort of what I see as a theologically liberal project that I’m sympathetic to, but that I’m not sure is persuasive to those who don’t buy into the premise. And then the second on just war. And again thank you for this witness.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: EJ, first of all, I’m not a theological liberal, no way.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: I mean, there is no way I could be mistaken for one, and the reason I ‑‑
EJ DIONNE: Maybe you’re a secret theological liberal.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: I’m not even a secret theological liberal. I wish I were, but I can’t, and that’s the end of it.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: As Chief Rabbi for 22 years, I was not only a voice, a voice for Judaism and the wider society, I was technically in, in very real terms, head of the Rabbinical Court. At least three of my four co-judges were what you would call ultra-Orthodox, and I made sure ‑‑ once we tripped up on this, but I made sure that they read the manuscript of this book. So this has been read, not by liberals, but by ultra-Orthodox readers before I put it out. I also had it read by some pretty good Christian scholars, by Robert P. George at Princeton, by Richard Burridge, Dean of Kings, but specifically because there is some Pauline stuff in it ‑‑
EJ DIONNE: And by?
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: By N.T. Wright. You know, at St. Andrew’s, the world’s leading ‑‑ at least in English ‑‑ expert on the theology of Paul. And I floated it past Ed Husain, as a Muslim, because I wanted to speak ‑‑ I think I have to speak to fairly, you know, open-minded Muslims. This is not liberal theology at all. And in order to deal with this, EJ ‑‑ I mean, this is a long story ‑‑ I had to introduce a paradigm shift into the way we think about Judaism, and I introduced it in a four-word phrase, which became the book I wrote in response to 9/11. It was published on the first anniversary of 9/11. It’s called The Dignity of Difference. And the work that somebody did on my theology, they titled it Universalizing Particularity.
Now, this is quite complex stuff, but the last thing in the world it is, is theological liberalism. It is serious religious orthodoxy that takes religion seriously, that takes the fact that God creates diversity seriously. It’s very paradigm shifting, but there is no one I know who looks on me as a theological liberal. I’m the acceptable face of unreconstructed fundamentalism.
EJ DIONNE: Could I just press you on that? First of all, it’s fun for me to ask a question from the right, I suppose.
EJ DIONNE: When I sort of talk about theological liberal, what I mean in this case is someone deeply influenced by and who clearly believes in the fruits of the Westphalian settlement and has bought into a broadly liberal view of human rights and democracy. Now, that is already a big leap, that’s a philosophical leap. And so when I say “theological liberalism,” I mean, that you are deeply marinated in and affected by essentially what we’ll call Western culture and these Western democratic and human rights values, which inflect your theology, so ‑‑
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: But you are forgetting, EJ, you are forgetting how much that culture itself is indebted to Christianity, and it is indebted in particular to the encounter between Christians and the Hebrew Bible. I mean, you do understand that Milton is reading ‑‑ before he writes Areopagitica, he is reading Latin translations, not just of the Hebrew Bible but of the Talmudic Tractate Sandhedrin of Hilkhot Melakhim, the Laws of Kings and Wars, in Moses Maimonides’ great legal texts. He is quoting Rabbeinu Bechaye, a 13th century commentator, on Deuteronomy 17, on the right to criticize a king, that I didn’t even know about. I mean, Milton had read more rabbis than I had, you know. And there is a very good book on this, what’s called The Hebrew Republic by Eric Nelson, published by Harvard University Press in 2011, on the sources of the Christian Hebraists who became the sources of Milton, Hobbes, and John Locke.
John Locke’s argument in his A Letter Concerning Toleration that coerced consent is not consent is anticipated in the Quran, no compulsion in religion, 2:256.
The principle of free speech defended by John Milton in Areopagitica first appears in the 12th century Islamic philosopher Avicenna. So your thinking of these ideas as secular means forgetting their actual intellectual provenance, and there are real echoes of these doctrines in Islam, but they were sidelined, and, you know, I would be hugely thrilled to hear from Bernard why they were sidelined, when they were sidelined, but they are there in Islam, they are there in Judaism, and a lot of what we call fundamentalism, whether it’s Christian fundamentalism, Jewish, or Muslim, is pretty 20th century.
EJ DIONNE: I agree with that.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: You know. And as for just war theory, all I’m saying is that let’s reserve politics for the politicians. That’s all I’m saying. Just war theory is one thing that we can all agree on, all agree on. It is dualism that allows the brain, the mind, the conscience, to bypass all of that and include burning somebody alive or taking a 10-year-old girl as a suicide bomber and saying that’s doing the work of God. That doesn’t figure in anyone’s just war theory ‑‑ Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or secular.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: We’re going to take a short ‑‑ by the way, Rabbi, this has been so good, we’ve decided, ladies and gentlemen, to extend the Faith Angle through this evening ‑‑
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: ‑‑ and the Rabbi has agreed to stay with us all afternoon, and we’re going to let you stay up ‑‑ no, I’m just, of course, kidding, but this is wonderfully stimulating. I hate to even take a break because I want us to take a short break and come right back because we’ve got another list here.
This is wonderful. And so please 10 minutes, we’ll be right back.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Will Saletan and then Michael Gerson, and then I have others on the list.
WILLIAM SALETAN, Slate: So, Rabbi, first of all, I wanted to ask about the term “pathological dualism.” So on the one hand you describe it as pathological; on the other hand, it seems to have happened in every religion with regularity. And I think at one point you said that the dualism per se is pervasive for a reason, that it gives people a better relationship with God, it helps to explain this problem of misfortune. So is it really pathological? Is it pervasive?
I guess I’m torn between, on the one hand, your message of transcendence, which I find morally appealing and hopeful, but also, in a strange way, I find this sort of eternal recurrence that you describe intellectually compelling, that there is something in our nature that drives this kind of “I-them” and that that’s not going to be overcome easily and perhaps not as easily as even you would like.
And the other thing that I wanted to ask about is actually to follow up a little bit on EJ’s question about the post-Westphalian values. And I understand that you’ve said you’ve shown your work ‑‑ I mean, that you’ve had a good reception from some Muslims whom you’ve encountered or heard from, you’ve shown what you’ve written here to Orthodox Jews, to some Christians, but what evidence ‑‑ I mean, skeptically as a journalist, what evidence do you actually have that your religious version of ‑‑ it still feels to me like a version of these principles of, you know, it’s not necessarily described as equality and pluralism, but to describe when you talk about a theology of the other, when you talk about God creating diversity, what evidence do we have that the sort of Muslims who need to be persuaded will be more persuaded by that version than by the secular version of those principles?
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: Dualism, by and large, and certainly pathological dualism is very, very rare indeed in history. So what became known by the French historian Jules Isaac as The Teachings of Contempt, the writings of the church fathers in the fourth century, which are good really anti-Semitic literature, John Chrysostom is the classic example, but there are lots of them, the teachings that were very hostile to Jews were written in the fourth century, but one historian has called 1096 the beginnings of a persecuting society.
So all the doctrines that were dangerous were there in the fourth century, but they didn’t lead to systematic massacres of Jews until the Crusaders, on their way to the Holy Land, stopped in 1096, around this time of the year, and massacred Jewish communities in Northern Europe in Worms, Speyer, and Mainz, and Cologne.
So what happened in 1096? Yeah? Again, you know, there are ‑‑ there was a phenomenon called racial anti-Semitism that was born in Spain in the 15th century. Spain had its Jewish ‑‑ the Spanish Jewry had its Kristallnacht, it’s attacks on Jews and burning of synagogues in 1391. They were expelled from Spain in 1492. So they were living under persecution for 101 years.
As a result, many Jews converted. Some of them stayed Jewish in private, they were called the conversos or the Marranos, but many other Jews became sincere Christians and rose to positions of high prestige in Spanish society, and the Spanish Christians then found that they still hated them even though they weren’t Jewish anymore, they were now Christians, so they had to call them the new Christians as opposed to the old Christians. So in 1447 they introduced legislation called ‑‑ and my Spanish is nonexistent ‑‑ but it’s Limpieza de Sangre, Purity of Blood, legislation.
So racial anti-Semitism was born in Spain in the 15th century, but it appears in a virulent form in Europe in 1879. That is when a German journalist called Wilhelm Marr coins a new word, “anti-Semitism.” That word was born ‑‑ coined in 1879. So it had been latent. What makes a virus virulent? And you need a lot of factors, but it seems to me that the single most obvious common factor between Christianity in 1096, Germany in 1923, and radical Islamism today is a sense of humiliation, that, you know, you thought you were the best, and all of a sudden history has humiliated you, and I think that sense of humiliation is so evident in the Islamist or, you know, in the Muslim world today, it’s very real and it’s painful and it’s poignant.
So I was only able to find these three examples over 2,000 years of history, so I don’t think it’s kind of there in some virulent form all the time or that it ever gets to be terribly dangerous in non-crisis situations, I really don’t. I think this is really very rare, and I was fascinated to hear Bernard use that phrase, which resonated with me, the perfect storm. You’ve got to get lots of different factors happening at the same time. Yeah?
Now, absolutely, your sense of identity ‑‑ you know, I said violence comes from identity, and we’re always going to need identity. Yeah? There have been three attempts ‑‑ I hate to launch into this, but there have been three attempts in history to abolish identity, to say, “There is no us and them, there is only us.” I may have missed one or two, but I can only think of Pauline Christianity, there will be neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free man, man or woman, this is a universal us. So Pauline Christianity, which de-ethnicizes the church, is the first attempt to abolish identity. The second attempt was the European Enlightenment, the Age of Rationalism, a universal age of reason whose key document is Immanuel Kant’s essay Perpetual Peace and whose most famous expression is the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th, you know ‑‑ and my German is also nonexistent, but I’ll mention werden Brüder, whatever it is, you know, there is just us because we’re all a humanity of brothers and sisters. So those two are an attempt to create a universal us. And both of them failed in particular ways, and I don’t want to go into them.
We are living through the world’s third attempt, and I can’t think of a very good precedent for it, which is the attempt to abolish identity altogether, not in favor of the universal, but in favor of the individual. And you can’t sense this I think in America as acutely as we sense it in Europe. Europe has attempted to abolish identity. So if you walk through a cemetery, a Jewish cemetery, from the Victorian era, you will see on all the gravestones of the men, “A Proud Englishman and a Proud Jew.” That was their credo. Ask anyone today, “What is it to be a proud Englishman?” and they won’t have a clue. I tried doing it of serious ministers and prime ministers. Nobody knows, you know. We abolished, Europe abolished, national identities. Today it’s only the far right that believes in identity. So we are attempting to deconstruct identity in favor of the universal, and the icon of our age is the selfie. You know.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: Now, of course, this is what makes it so easy to recruit young Muslims to become Jihadists: we are hungry for identity. Starving a person of identity can be worse than starving them of food. And I don’t need to tell you, I’m sure you’ve read the whole literature on this. It was first set out actually by this longshoreman called Eric Hoffer and his book The True Believer.
You know, what creates the fanatic is this desire to merge with the group, and that happens if you have a pathological loss of identity. Now, Europe today is embarking on this almost unprecedented experiment of getting rid of identity altogether, but that doesn’t stop people hungering for it.
So, therefore, I go back to this question of the theology of the other. If we are inevitably going to have these multiple identities, there’s us and there’s them, it turns out that we are faced with not only a very modern problem but a very ancient one, and this is the way the rabbis put it. The Hebrew Bible, the Mosaic books, in one place, Leviticus 19 Verse 18 in one place says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” but in 36 places in one form or another it says, “You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” In other words, Genesis 1:27, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” means that the fundamental religious challenge is: Can I see the image of God in one who is not in my image, whose color, culture, and creed are different from mine? That is the theological challenge, and it’s there in the Bible.
And can I just add, William, because I didn’t really hint at how I go around rereading all these key biblical narratives?
Is everyone familiar, do you all know Genesis 27 where Jacob, at Rebecca’s bidding, dresses up in Esau’s clothes and steals the blessing? Now, every one reads this text, it’s one of the most famous texts in the Bible. I challenge anyone to read that text and not sympathize with Isaac and Esau. You cannot not sympathize with them, and yet it is Rebecca who apparently had that revelation that the elder shall serve the younger, and it is Jacob who is the ancestor of the Jewish people. The literary construction forces you to read against the grain. Yeah? This is a very, very odd narrative. We’re supposed to think Rebecca and Jacob are the heroes, but our sympathies must go with Isaac and with Esau, and this is not just rabbinic sermonizing.
Look at Genesis 22, the binding of Isaac. It does not tell you one word of what Abraham felt when God said, “Offer up your child.” Not one word as Isaac is slowly beginning ‑‑ we know nothing of their emotions. As Erich Auerbach said in Mimesis, it’s fraught with background, we haven’t got a clue, there is not one emotional word in the whole chapter. But you read Jacob and Esau, you know, Esau comes in and he lets out a great and bitter cry, and Isaac trembles violently. I mean, just read the prose. You have to identify with them.
So I’m saying you can ‑‑ and I show this, it’s not rocket science here, that every one of those five sibling rivalry narratives has a surface reading, which you read as a child, and a mature reading, which you read as an adult, that points in exactly the opposite direction.
But God blesses Jacob, but he also blesses Esau. And Esau has a land, the land of Seir, before Jacob has the land of Canaan, and he has 12 kings coming, tribes coming from him, and all the rest. Esau’s blessings are in Genesis 36. Jacob’s blessings don’t come until 49, and they don’t even appear until after the Mosaic books are over. So the Bible is just more subtle in these narratives than we’ve guessed.
So again I say to EJ, yes, I am a product of post-Enlightenment liberal, et cetera, Western thought, but there is an enormous amount of complexity and depth there in the Bible, and for a good reason, because the Bible understands that sibling rivalry is the driver of inter-human violence, and therefore it wants gradually to educate us to see that God’s love is not a finite good such that competition for God’s love is a zero-sum game. In order for God to love me, he doesn’t have to hate you. Okay?
“The future of the Middle East is at stake. The future of Africa is at stake. I fear the future of Europe is at stake. I fear, even worse, the future of religion is at stake. And we have to think long, see large, and plan ways of creating a world or help get us closer to one in which our grandchildren can be safe and in which we do justice to God and to his image in humankind.”
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: I sense you have a follow-up to that, Will.
WILLIAM SALETAN: I was just going to say ‑‑ and I don’t mean to take the whole time with this ‑‑ but you can do that sort of reading with Islamic texts in a way that Muslims, those Muslims who need to be persuaded, are capable of being persuaded, would be persuaded?
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: One thing for sure, William, I wouldn’t even try. I really wouldn’t try. You know, I have enough respect for those great Islamic scholars who led the world in the 11th and 12th centuries, from whom Maimonides learned, from whom Maimonides’ son, Rabbi Abraham, learned, from whom ‑‑ they taught Maimonides. Maimonides taught Aquinas. They were leading the way.
So every intellectual resource that Islam needs I believe they have, but, you know, I defer to Bernard on this, I just don’t know ‑‑
Bernard, could you ‑‑ could you ‑‑ I mean, you’re the one who knows the answer to this. I don’t even pretend to know the answer.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Pull the microphone over, Bernard.
And then I have Michael Gerson and John Inazu up next.
BERNARD HAYKEL, Princeton University: Yeah, I mean, definitely Muslims have those resources, I mean, they have a brilliant philosophical tradition, theological tradition. Part of the problem is that those earlier traditions were defeated for internal reasons to Islamic history. It would require some archeology to resurrect them ‑‑
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: Yeah.
BERNARD HAYKEL: ‑‑ and that is the work that they would have to do, and so there is no question that they have those resources and capacities.
Could I ask a question? It’s sort of a nuts-and-bolts question about monotheism. Messianism plays a very important role inasmuch, politically, inasmuch as it defers a political project to the Messiah. So the wonderful thing I think in Judaism is that much of the nasty stuff, whether it’s to do with Amalek and so on is basically the Messiah comes and then God does his thing, and it’s his agency, it’s not ours.
Muslims, with the exception of the Shiites, don’t really have that. I mean, their political project is in the here and now. They need to kind of come to the same, I think, realization that Jews have come to and perhaps Shiites have come to, that essentially, you know, the Kingdom of God is for later, not for now. I wonder if you can speak to that from the Jewish perspective and whether there is any lesson to be had from Muslims in that internalization of wisdom really.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: Yeah, I have a wonderful friend. I wonder if I ‑‑ off the record.
Off the record
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: Back on the record here. I mean, as we know, Messianic speculation was rife among Jews in late Second Temple times, and Josephus tells us many of them.
Secondly, as we know from only internal Jewish evidence, Rabbi Akiva, the most famous and authoritative of the rabbis in the early second century, believed the Bar Kokhba, who mounted the rebellion against Rome in 132, was the Messiah.
So Jews were active Messianists in late Second Temple times, and the end result was two or even three monumental defeats: the great rebellion against Rome in 66, the diaspora rebellion in 115-117, and then the Bar Kokhba rebellion of 132, as a result of which they lost almost everything. That Jews and Judaism survived at all was a miracle that I don’t take for granted, I still wonder, how did they survive? And it was only after those three sustained cumulative defeats that they deferred the Messianic concept and put it into the future, and the late Gershom Scholem wrote about this in his book, The Messianic Idea in Judaism.
So Jews were active Messianists and they developed that “not yetness” after they realized how disastrous it is to attempt to live the apocalypse or bring the end of time in the midst of time, and my guess is that is what will happen in Islam.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Michael Gerson and then John Inazu and then Michelle Boorstein and Paul Edwards and Nadine and everyone else in the room.
MICHAEL GERSON, Washington Post: Rabbi, I just wanted to start by saying I think your theological task is essential, unavoidable.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Can you start over, Michael, with the microphone on?
MICHAEL GERSON: I think that your theological task that you’re defining is really essential, unavoidable, but maybe I’ll speak for freedom just a little bit. Your argument that 17th century answers are unresponsive to 21st century problems presents a particular problem for America in which 17th century ideals are in fact founding principles that are regarded as universal. And those principles, in fact, led America into the world in the 20th century in some rather difficult tasks doing some difficult things. And one of the reasons that American presidents talk about freedom and American ideals is because there is an alternative, which is viewing America as a normal nation with the kind of imperatives of Belgium and involving necessarily a higher tolerance for genocide and chaos and religious repression, pandemic disease, and a lot of other things.
There also seems to be kind of good evidence that liberal principles are associated with economic success, that there are sources of creativity necessary for modern capitalism. So if you look at, say, the Arab Development Report and what they talk about, a lot of what they talk about are the need for political reform in order to integrate in the global economy.
So I feel like a decline in confidence in those 17th century answers would in fact deprive the world of American engagement, would undermine human flourishing, and actually be a tremendous tragedy, maybe an unavoidable one, but a tremendous tragedy. So I wonder if you’re elevating the theological task and underestimating the political philosophic task, which is, in fact, also necessary in this?
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: Michael, I agree with you 100 percent, no question, it’s just that ‑‑ look, you know, the language you use depends on who you are talking to, and I had to become multilingual in many ways. So I have to use a non-confessional language when I am speaking in the public square or broadcasting in the House of Lords; I don’t use a confessional language. If I’m speaking in synagogue, I will be using proof texts. And I just know that there are, you know, 3 or 6 or 10 ways of defending freedom. All I’m saying is I would like to argue for freedom on religious grounds, not just on secular grounds.
We have just come through 4 weeks ago the Festival of Passover, which we call the Festival of Freedom, the Supreme Power in history intervenes in history to liberate the supremely powerless, and it was that journey from slavery to freedom that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin sketched out that summer of ’76 in Philadelphia when they were designing the Great Seal for the United States. Benjamin Franklin had the Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea, and we know by Egyptians, he meant the English, and by Pharaoh, he meant George III, and all the rest of it, and by the Red Sea, he meant the Atlantic, so we know that. And Jefferson was a tiny bit more diplomatic, had the Great Seal of God leading the Israelites through the wilderness in a pillar of cloud. Jefferson in his Second Inaugural in 1805, even though he is often thought of as a deist, says, I, too, shall need the help of that providence who led Moses and the Israelites across to the Promised Land. You know, so he himself is using the Exodus story, he himself is using religious language.
So I think the defense of freedom and American freedom, Jeffersonian freedom, is one of the great gifts of God to humanity, and in very religious language ‑‑ who was it? ‑‑ Herman Melville, White Jacket, we Americans are the bearers of the ark of the liberties of the world. And I see America ‑‑ and I’ve written books about this ‑‑ as America is the living example of a biblical covenantal political culture.
So all I’m doing is I’m not disagreeing with you, Michael, at all, the political task is there, I’m just trying to frame it in such a way that it becomes intelligible to somebody who wants to know where is God in all of this. Yeah? That is as far as freedom is concerned.
As far as economic liberty, I mean, you know, Psalm 127, when you eat the fruit of your hands, you will be blessed and it will be good with you, you know, unless you ‑‑ I know it’s not Robert Nozick, but it’s pretty close, you know, this is ‑‑
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: You know, I’m not suggesting that King David was a member of the American Enterprise Institute, but, you know ‑‑
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: ‑‑ you know, we do believe that the onus is ‑‑ you know, et cetera, et cetera. So I think the free market is another religiously defensible thing I think that Locke, John Locke, understood. For him, the three values were not life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; they were life, liberty, and property. And he’s not wrong, because private property is our great defense against tyranny. And that is why the prophet Elijah says to King Ahab, “You kill and you’re going to possess.” I mean, the sanctity of personal property ‑‑ when Moses is challenged, he says, “Whose ox have I taken?” Ditto prophet Samuel. So the insistence on private property as a defense against overintrusive government is a religious value in the Hebrew Bible.
So, yes, I mean, you know, I’m not making a party political broadcast here, but I am saying you can put that in religious terms.
And as for liberal democracy, which you didn’t mention, and I will mention, I do argue ‑‑ I can’t remember this book or another book ‑‑ but I do argue that a religious individual can relate a lot better to liberal democracy than Athenian democracy. You know, in Athenian democracy, the citizen serves the state; in liberal democracy, the state serves the citizen. And Athenian democracy, the polis is the embodiment of the true, the good, and the beautiful; whereas in liberal democracy, the polis represents a way of people with very different views living peaceably together. And when you’ve gone through Syria and Iraq, you can say, well, thank goodness for liberal democracy, that’s a consummation devoutly to be wished.
So I think you can give a religious defense of liberal democracy, free market economics, and freedom as a political value, and I see them as central to Judaism, and my guess is since Baghdad was a center of trade in the 10th century, was leading the world in many financial instruments and so on. So all those traditions, all of them, freedom, liberal democracy, and so on, are there in some form or another waiting to be excavated from the classic traditions of Islam.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Thank you. John Inazu.
JOHN INAZU, Washington University School of Law: (Off microphone) Mike Gerson’s question, there seems to be a missing actor in the discussion, which is the state, but I think once we talk about the state, there’s another lurking theological question, and that is going back to Hobbes. Hobbes is a double-edged sword, and you gave us the upside of his account, but the downside is that he and others bestow a kind of sacred authority to the state, and that’s a 21st century problem as well. So now I’m thinking of critiques from people like Paul Kahn or Stanley Hauerwas, Hauerwas, who says, “How is it that the United States of America and its flag can get American Christians to go kill Iraqi Christians?” So these are pretty serious, I think, theological questions.
And so my question to you is, in giving a religious response to religious violence, to what extent does religion have to account for the state as an actor, and then where are those resources, and are they particularized or is there a coherent collaborative resource that’s available?
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: Yeah, that’s a different book, and it’s important one, I wrote it, called The Politics of Hope, where I try and show that the key narrative in 1 Samuel Chapter 8, when Samuel is told ‑‑ you know, the people want a king, and Samuel gets very upset and says, “Oh, they’ve rejected me.” And God for once acts a bit like a Jewish mother and says, “Don’t think they’ve rejected you, they’ve rejected me.” And, you know.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: But he says, if that’s what they want, let them go ahead, if they like, complain. You know, so ‑‑
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: You know, and Samuel then says this will be the matter of the king you choose, he will take your daughters for this, and the best of your lands, and so on and so forth. And oddly enough, 1 Samuel 8 is a Hobbesian social contract. Samuel is saying to the people, are you willing to give up this and that right in order to create this Leviathan who will defend the country from enemies outside and maintain the rule of law within? You know, that is a social contract, and what really interested me is that that is the second foundational moment of Israel as a political ‑‑ as a body politic, not the first, because the first occurs in Exodus 19 and 20, the Covenant of Mount Sinai.
So I kind of did a philosophical work on this called The Politics of Hope, which was never published in America, but the foreword to it is written by Gordon Brown, and was quite serious politics in Britain, is that Judaism has this dual founding, the social covenant at Sinai which creates a society, or to use the technical phrase, creates a civil society, and the social contract that creates a state. So you have this dual theory, which I can’t find in any political philosopher particularly. Yeah? The nearest to it is Tocqueville obviously. Hegel wasn’t that keen on civil society, and the Scottish Enlightenment Adam Ferguson talks about civil society, but there he’s using it in slightly different words.
So Judaism has a theory of society and a theory of state, and my argument in the book, and oddly enough, it became an election ‑‑ it wasn’t my intention, but it became David Cameron’s election campaign in 2010, “Small State, Big Society.” Yeah?
So that’s my reading of the biblical tradition, that Judaism is skeptical about the state because it’s skeptical about the coercive use of force. So wherever you can avoid it, you avoid it, and you avoid it by the field of voluntary association, which is society and the different languages. The logic of a covenant and the logic of a contract are different. And contract usually involves power, it’s certainly constructed in terms of the individual and self-interest. Covenant creates a “we”; contract creates a beneficial relationship between two “I’s.” So I set this out, so I’m not a great fan of the state.
But then Islam, you know, itself, as Bernard was hinting, actually gives a huge amount of weight to society, to civil society, institutions and does not particularly focus on the states. So I think I prefer what I call Jeffersonian rights to what I call French Revolutionary rights. Jeffersonian rights are rights that place a limit on the state; they are inalienable, they can’t trade them away for any benefits. So Jeffersonian rights are an argument for minimal government. Whereas the French Revolutionary Assembly, which begins with the words, “All men are born and remain equal in rights,” it does not say, “are created and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” So the French thing is a secular theory of maximal government, and the Jeffersonian thing is a religious theory of minimal government echoed when John F. Kennedy says in ’61 in his inaugural the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forefathers fought, that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.
Sorry, that’s a bit of a theological answer to a legal question, but does that make sense to you?
(No audible response.)
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: Yeah.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Okay. Paul Edwards and then Michelle and Nadine.
PAUL EDWARDS, Deseret News: Thank you so much for the wisdom you’ve shared with us today, Rabbi.
And I hazard to get into some discussion of scriptural text here with you directly, but ‑‑
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: Go for it.
PAUL EDWARDS: ‑‑ in thinking about ‑‑
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: Jews never converse, they just argue, so go for it.
PAUL EDWARDS: But I guess my question is about mechanisms for adaptation within a tradition. So when you look at the Hebraic tradition, what could have been a national monotheism, I think what’s very unique about it is from the very beginning, it’s an ethical monotheism, but it’s also a national monotheism that you have then with, say, the Deuteronomists or with Isaiah, a sense of universal application, that this goes well beyond this one nation, and so you have this opportunity with scribes, with prophets, with rabbinical schools, and so on, to argue and adapt over time, and we see various mechanisms within the Christian tradition as well where opportunities for scholarly debate and the application of reason to doctrine and so on that allows again for adaptation over time.
And the concern I have with the idea about, you know, somehow finding a way of harmonizing difference in the 21st century around religious ideas is, where are those mechanisms for adaptation? Where are there prophets? Where are there schools of thought that will allow that kind of interreligious adaptation if it’s necessary? And what would that look like? How would we think about creating something if we needed to?
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: So are you talking practically?
PAUL EDWARDS: Practically.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: Practically.
PAUL EDWARDS: Yeah.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: You know, I’m way, way out of my expertise here, but I get the feeling that what we call Wahhabi or Salafist Islam was not necessarily always the dominant voice in Islam. I get the feeling that Islam changed very dramatically in a relatively short space of time beginning, I thought, with 1973, but Bernard told me yesterday probably from the 1960s, a lot of funding of madrasas and institutions teaching Wahhabi Islam, so that what had been a fairly marginal force in Islam as a whole suddenly becoming a very dominant one, an extremely large constituency suddenly being, as it were, being devoiced. Like, for instance, African Muslims, most of whom were traditionalists rather than terribly doctrinal or ideologically driven, and the same. You know, so it’s been a sudden shift.
I don’t think, for instance, American Jews have yet woken up to the fact that if you do the actuarial projections, American Jewry is going to become a majority orthodox community a generation from now, which it hasn’t been since around 1880.
So a lot of this has got nothing to do with intellectual anything or religious anything, it’s just got to do with demographics, who are having the most children. You know, there is a guy called Eric Kaufmann who has published a book called The Righteous Will Inherit the World or The Religious Will Inherit Earth. He is very alarmed by it; he is not sympathetic to it. But, you know, I mean, I sometimes tease Darwinians. It’s a big mistake because Darwinian atheists are not known for their sense of humor unless you are the brunt of it.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: But, you know, I mean, I once said to some Darwinians, a real Darwinian should pray that as few people become Darwinian as possible because the more secular you are, the fewer children you have, and therefore you fail the Darwinian test of handing on your genes to the next generation, so you should work to make everyone a fundamentalist religious believer if you’re a real Darwinian.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: So you need a certain amount of sense of humor for that ‑‑
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: ‑‑ but one way or another, I think to myself one of the reasons we do not understand Islam and one of the reasons that it’s crept up on us so unawares is because ‑‑ and I learnt this from Bernard Lewis ‑‑ that Islam has a very capacious time sense. And I suddenly realized what was happening, why the West was failing to read certain things, because when you ask people in the West, “What’s the maximum attention span of a politician?” the answer is, “Until the next election,” which means 4 years in America and 5 years in Britain, whereas for the real Islamist, the minimum unit of currency is a decade, and so they’re flying completely outside our radar screen.
So if some oil-rich countries in the ’60s started seeding, you know, these plants of Wahhabi Islam all over Pakistan and elsewhere and took a really long-term approach to this, why on Earth are we not doing likewise? Why are we not creating schools for religious leaders of the future? Not Muslims, but, you know, places where Jews, Christians, Muslims, whatever, why are we not investing in creating a religious leadership for the next bit of the 21st century? Why are we not even doing what the CIA were doing throughout the Cold War, which is quietly sponsoring a battle of ideas? I mean, the Cold War produced really serious ideas, they produced Hayek, they produced Popper, they produced Isaiah Berlin. I mean there were prophets of liberty there and anti-totalitarianism, magnificent. Who is doing anything now?
We had a situation in Britain where I ‑‑ you know, the home office thought we’ll get five imams sitting down with five rabbis. I mean, that’s not serious. We have to start training and funding a generation of religious and political leaders and, you know, the voluntary sector, civil society, for the 21st century. I don’t know how you do it, but nobody is doing it. There is a little thing here and a little thing there.
I happened to be at NYU. In NYU, there is a thing called the Of Many Institute, it’s Jews and Muslims together. I myself created one when all this began. When we began to get real anti-Semitism on campus, I brought in, in March 2002, I brought in the Union of Jewish Students, and I said, “You are going to face a lot of anti-Semitism right now, and I want you to know that I am with you, we are with you, as a community. You will not be alone, so hold strong because we’re going to be with you. But I want you to do the least expected thing: I want you to start leading the campaign against Islamophobia.” I think in psychotherapy they call that paradoxical intervention. Do the least expected thing.
You know, when Islamists post videos of beheadings, they expect the West to overreact and the West, being terribly polite, do just what they’re expected to do, and, hence, they fall into the trap every single time. So do the least expected thing, and the least expected thing in the West is to think long.
We all know that John Maynard Keynes said in the long run we’re all dead. I wanted to add a little footnote: in the long run we have grandchildren whose future we are responsible for. So let’s think long and really bring together the best that we can find, religious and secular. I do not see this as a narrowly ghettoized religious project, the great humanist traditions, you know, of all kinds. But let’s do this, let’s create a Stanford, let’s create a Caltech, for the leadership of the future.
I devoted the whole of my Bible study things last year ‑‑ we’re just bringing it out as a book in September ‑‑ to leadership. I was essentially saying to young Jews throughout the world, guys, it’s no longer good enough as a Jew to go to synagogue and keep Jewish law, we’ve got to ‑‑ I need you to help lead the world in respecting the other and healing some of the fractures of our humanity. And I think we’ve got to encourage Christians, Muslims, to do this, and the great tolerant and broadminded secular humanists, and let’s think as long as those who created today’s Islamism were thinking. Yeah?
PAUL EDWARDS: Thank you.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Okay. Michelle Boorstein?
MICHELLE BOORSTEIN, Washington Post: Okay. Two questions. So one is ‑‑ and I know this will be in the book, so maybe you can find some way to give a couple little examples of when you talk about a new theological paradigm, we’re talking a lot about Islam. Can you give some example of what you’re talking about when it comes to Judaism and Christianity? It’s again looking at these Genesis stories of sibling rivalry, but is there some way you can explain what you’re asking non-Muslims to do?
And secondly, you mentioned that one dangerous thing is the paralysis of morality when people see themselves as victims, and I feel like that is so ‑‑ I don’t know if “rampant” is too loaded a word, but, I mean, we are just a world of victims basically right now. Are we in that right now? I mean, do you think that that’s one of the conditions?
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: Let me give you an example. You know, I mentioned yesterday that I have this lovely challenge of talking about something in the news from a religious point of view in the main British BBC news program, and when I first started doing this, I tried to find a precedent. You know, when did Jews sort of get up on a soapbox and start talking to non-Jews? Now, in America, you had A.J. Heschel, of course, but, I mean, in Britain, I mean, just thinking as a Jew, I had to go back to the prophet Jonah.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: And it was terrific. You know, he ran away, of course, but, I mean, actually I was so impressed because Jonah ‑‑ you know what Jonah said to the inhabitants of Nineveh, he said five words in Hebrew, “ôd ar’Bäiym yôm w’niyn’wëh neh’Päkhet,” “In 40 days Nineveh will be destroyed,” five words, and the end result is all the people of Nineveh immediately repent, as do the animals. Now, he went out to a non-Jewish public and said five words, and everyone listened, which really upset him because he was Jewish as well, so he wanted to die. He said, “They listened to me, God. I told you they would listen to me.” Jews can’t accept yes for an answer.
So, you know, and I thought to myself, you know, hang on, this is new, this is new. And then I thought to myself, you have every right to think if you’re heir to a 4,000-year-old tradition that everything that can be said has been said. And then I thought, has there been in 4,000 years of Jewish history through some of the biggest vicissitudes any people has ever known, ever been a time when simultaneously we had independence and sovereignty in the State of Israel and freedom and equality in the diaspora? And I suddenly realized there has never been a time in 4,000 years where both of those were true at the same moment. So Jews never had a situation in which they could speak to a wider public and expect anyone to listen. This is completely new.
So I had to develop a new language, and I did this by writing books of secular political philosophy like The Politics of Hope and The Home We Build Together, works of global ethics like Dignity of Difference, et cetera, et cetera, stuff on science and religion, written for non-Jews as well as Jews, and at the same time speaking to my own constituency by writing new commentaries to the Torah and to the Prayer Book and the festival prayer books. You know, I’m writing in a lot of different literatures to try and get people to see that you can, with integrity, communicate to non-Jews as well as Jews. Jews never had to do that.
I think you would be shocked if you translated most classic Jewish commentaries and posted them on a website for non-Jews to read because some of them are not terribly nice about Gentiles, as Christians would be shocked if they saw what the church fathers were saying about Jews.
So, you know, this new situation in which every one of us walking down the high street of an average European city will meet more ethnic cultural diversity than an 18th century anthropologist would have encountered in a lifetime is forcing all of us to speak to the people who are not like us, and the end result is we’re learning that two things are equally important, our commonalities and our differences. I said if we were completely different, we couldn’t communicate, and if we were completely the same, we would have nothing to say. Yeah?
So all of this is forcing us as Jews and as Christians to talk in new ways because Christians never had to sit down with Jews and read Bible together, which is what they do in that, you know, Peter Ochs in University of Virginia and that thing ‑‑ what’s it called? I’ve forgotten what it’s called, you know, where Christians and Jews and Muslims read their sacred texts together.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Do you know what it is, John?
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: It’s called scriptural reasoning, and it’s done in the University of Virginia, it’s done in London in the ‑‑ oh, it’s in the City of London under the aegis of the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres. None of this happened before. So we’re all edging our way, inching our way. Yeah? You wanted classic ‑‑ I mean, but ‑‑
MICHELLE BOORSTEIN: I know you don’t want to preempt your book, I’m just trying to envision ‑‑ you know, I mean, the meat of what you’re talking about is sort of unspoken about here, which is what you’re positing in the book.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: Yeah.
MICHELLE BOORSTEIN: So, anyway, I just wanted ‑‑
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: But, I mean, at the end of the day, you know, my rabbis were very hesitant about this, you know, “We should be talking to Jews. What are we talking to the great big public for?” But little by little they began to understand in all sorts of ways, some of them quite negative and some of them quite positive. The negative was they realized that with all this ethnic tension in Europe, we are just going to have to be ambassadors for good community relations with the different faiths in our communities.
So not only did my rabbis in Britain become leaders in the field, the European rabbinate came to London to learn from us how they should be relating in Germany and France and so on and so forth with their other minorities and the majority. So the rabbinate bought into this, you know, that it had become increasingly inward turning, and we showed you could turn outward and it was fine.
But there were positive outcomes as well. So, for instance, you know, when I was Chief Rabbi of Britain I ran around almost nonstop for the first 3 or 4 or 5 years to every synagogue there was. By the end of that, I said to my wife, Elaine, “I think I’ve met every Jew there is who comes to synagogue. How am I going to relate to the Jews who wouldn’t be seen dead inside a synagogue?” You know? So how do you do this?
And that’s when I started broadcasting on the BBC, and that is when a Jew would walk into his office, let’s say a lawyer’s office, or surgery or something, and his non-Jewish colleague would say to him, “Oh, we heard your Chief Rabbi on the radio this morning. He was quite good; wasn’t he?”
So I turned the whole of Britain into outreach workers for the sake of the Jewish community in Britain. It was terrific. So they understood, you know, if we can share our faith with others without ever wanting to impose it on anyone, that’s good for us as well.
So I think once you do this and you are seen to be communicating with a wider public, some of it secular, some of it religious, but different from you, you gain thereby. Now, Christians have been in a majority for so long, they’re a bit out of practice with this, but when they sit down with Jews and Muslims and read, do their scriptural reasoning, together, they themselves are forced to ask the question: What does this text say if we imagine somebody very different from us reading it? You know, what would it have felt like to be an Amalekite reading God’s command to Moses to wipe out the Amalekites, you know?
So this kind of openness of discourse that we have to practice is forcing all of us into a reading of scripture that asks us to look at how that scripture looks like to somebody on the other side of the table. Yeah?
Number two: Are we defining ourselves as victims? Yeah. We are the world’s experts, Jews. I mean, we’re terrific, we are the world’s victims. And I have to say this is such bad news. Beginning, middle, and end, Jews get up and say because of our sins, we were exiled from our land. They learned to blame themselves. Now, that is psychically quite demanding, but we didn’t blame anyone else.
Defining yourself as a victim is, in my humble belief, fundamentally incompatible with Judaism. It is a denial of the freedom, the power of the will, that is the very beating heart of Judaism. I’m not prepared to speak for Christianity or Islam because they have their own integrity and their own theologies, but Jews never defined themselves as a victim, so why on Earth did we start doing so? And, yes, no people can come through the Holocaust and not be traumatized.
But we have a sense of humor. I was telling that story about Bee Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, you know, who was married to Irving Kristol, who told me they used to have a flat overlooking Central Park in New York. Of course, they had been living in Washington for many years, and Irving is sadly no longer with us. But Gertrude Himmelfarb told us that when her mother came to stay with them when they had this apartment overlooking Central Park, and they saw on Sunday morning all the joggers, and she said, “My mother asked me, ‘Who are they running away from?’”
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: You know, so, you know, yes, Jews get traumatized after the Holocaust, but I think we’ve got to cure ourselves of that. Okay, let’s accept the world hates us and let’s accept, as somebody said ‑‑ if somebody once gave everyone a crash course in the Jewish calendar, whatever festival it is, the story is, “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.”
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: You know, enough of this already, you know, let’s serve God with joy and let’s stop defining ourselves as victims because we aren’t, we are the masters of our future together with, you know, the grace of God. Defining yourself as a victim is the worst thing that happened to Judaism and the worst thing that could happen to any culture.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Nadine?
NADINE EPSTEIN, Moment Magazine: Slightly different question. In thinking about religion and violence, how do you address ‑‑ do you ever address violence against women? It’s something ‑‑ it’s a big part of religious violence.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: Yeah, of course, absolutely.
NADINE EPSTEIN: And how do you ‑‑
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: We created a shelter for battered women in our community, and we ‑‑
NADINE EPSTEIN: I mean, in your writing, in your book, in your ‑‑ you know, the interpretation of scripture.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: We try to educate our rabbinate into the reality of battered women and domestic violence because, you know, these were the kind of things Jews tended not to talk about, they tried to hide them and pretend they didn’t exist, and so, you know, I brought some of the women who were really doing these bold things. Every year I would send out ‑‑ we designated a special Shabbat, a special Sabbath, to remember, for every rabbi to talk about violence against women. We built a shelter for them, and we educated our rabbinate into how to recognize the signs and so on. So, you know, I felt this was an area we’re actually doing the practical stuff. Yeah, of course, I wrote about it, but I thought writing about this is not enough at all, we’ve actually got to create those facts on the ground to protect them.
NADINE EPSTEIN: And what about anti-gay violence? I mean, is that something else you’ve written about?
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: We haven’t encountered it.
NADINE EPSTEIN: Not in Britain?
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: No. In the Jewish community, no. I’m going to go off the record here because this is a very controversial topic, but I want to be very candid with you.
Off the record
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Now we’re back on the record.
Ana Marie Cox is up. And I think you’re the last one I have on my list, unless there is anyone else I missed.
ANA MARIE COX, GQ Magazine and The Guardian: Thank you again for this amazing profound ‑‑ at the top level very profound speech.
ANA MARIE COX: It was profound actually all the way through.
ANA MARIE COX: I hope my question can even come close. So I actually really appreciated a lot of the language about theology and religion and even diplomacy, you used examples from therapy and interpersonal relationships. And so when you were talking about kind of that Jews and Christians need to be self-critical of their own theology, develop their own way of theological justification for freedom, I thought of modeling, like that’s what ‑‑ you know, you’re supposed to model the behavior that you want from the person that you are in disagreement with. That’s sort of the short way of saying what you’ve said.
So we want to model freedom, we want to model the ability to be self-critical. I agree with that. That appeals to me as a liberal progressive. What do you do in a situation like the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the shooting the day before yesterday when the ‑‑ that is ‑‑ like the people that put on that show, that draw Muhammad show, I think if you asked them, they would say, “We’re modeling the behavior we want,” you know, “We’re modeling something that we think are the hallmark of freedom,” which is to be able to do and say whatever you want even if it’s offensive.
I ask this almost as a personal question because as someone who ‑‑ I always, I think like many journalists, I hate having to side with people who I disagree with. You know? Like the people that put ‑‑ I don’t agree with the people that put on that show, but the violent reaction to it sort of puts me in this place where I have to say, but my belief in the First Amendment comes before that. Do you have any kind of way of talking about that through the lens that you have?
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: Yeah. First of all, I think freedom of speech, you know, with the constraints of not incitement to hatred and so on, racial or religious, but freedom of speech is something we have to defend non-negotiably. I felt that where it all began. I mean, this is the great irony. It was 1989, a quarter of a century ago when we thought, or at least what’s his name, Francis Fukuyama thought, you know, end of history, there it is, the Berlin Wall fell, the Cold War comes to an end, the Soviet Union implodes, the spread of liberal democracy and market economics throughout the world, and it was that year, 1989, when a lot of stuff happened. Of course, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, but they started burning books in Bradford, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and I didn’t think you could be equivocal about that. Many of my rabbinical colleagues said they shouldn’t have burned the book, but he shouldn’t have written it. I think you’ve got to come off the fence on that, you have to defend freedom of speech full stop because, where does it end?
And as I said, it’s Avicenna who actually says ‑‑ and I can’t remember where he says it, but I read it in a 16th century (inaudible) that if you are convinced of the truth, of your position, you want your opponent to be as strong as possible. You know, the greater the freedom of speech, the greater confidence you show in the truth in which you believe. But at the same time, I have to say that I find it really and truly sick, that the most cogent criticism the West can mount of religious fundamentalism is ridicule.
Leo Strauss, who again ‑‑ let me be very blunt, I do not believe in mixing religion and politics. I read all the guys from all the ‑‑ you know, neo-Con, neo-Labour, neo-Democrat, you know, I cover all the bases, but Leo Strauss has a little essay called Philosophy and Law in which he says that in the end the philosophes of the 18th century discovered they couldn’t actually refute religion, so what they did was ridicule it, and that is real intellectual bankruptcy.
I mean, forgive me, why do you have to think it is some noble thing to mock the beliefs of sincere believers? I mean, that is as low as you get, and if that is where Western culture has got, then that’s a sorry state for Western culture. I mean, you know, I studied, I had the great privilege of studying under the late Sir Bernard Williams, who was as atheist as they came, a lapsed Catholic and a real principled atheist, but he was a dignified atheist.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: He was a good atheist. He was a bright atheist. He loved Nietzsche. I learned more from Nietzsche than from almost any other modern philosopher because at least he’s candid, he’s honest, he challenges you at every level.
So I think the kind of stuff, you know, the mocking of Christianity through the National Endowment for the Arts, and I won’t go through all this stuff, this whole culture wars stuff, I wish we had culture wars in Britain, I don’t, I say take that off the record, scrub it, I really don’t, but I wish people cared enough to have a culture.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: You know, all the believers just lie down and die, you know.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Yeah, have that on the record, that you wish we had it.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: So, yeah.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: For good reasons.
RABBI JONATHAN SACKS: You know, so, yes, I defend Charlie Hebdo and the freedom of speech and all the rest of it, but is this the best you can do? I think we deserve a better class of atheism than that. And I think the time has come to get serious without ever losing our sense of humor, but to get serious, and to say to Richard Dawkins and to say to E.O. Wilson and to say to Sam Harris and to say to, you know, the scientific atheists, “Guys, we are all going to have grandchildren, we all have an ecology to protect, not just a physical one, but a moral and humane and academic one. We need to defend freedom of speech on our campuses. You know, this is serious business, so stop making fun of religion and let’s start becoming allies in the defense of values that we share.” And that is the only way, because, I’m sorry, you are not going to win a victory over the bad guys by making fun of them; you are going to win a victory by having ideals that are simply more compelling, cogent, and noble than they have.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Well, on that note, ladies and gentlemen, join me in thanking Rabbi Sacks.
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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Ingeborg and Ira Rennert Global Distinguished Professor of Judaic Thought at New York University and the Kressel and Ephrat Family University Professor of Jewish Thought at Yeshiva UniversityRead Bio