Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth until 2013, has brought his formidable skill and learning to the vexing issue of why inter-group violence takes place and how we can stop it. His most recent book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, draws on philosophy, literature, psychology, history and, of course, Jewish texts to provide his “theory of everything” on the subject.
Rabbi Sacks explains that being in a group makes our lives more secure because of in-group altruists – people who are willing to help us even when they get no direct benefit. But the cost is our human tendency to look down on outsiders, which can even lead to “altruistic evil” – destroying the “other” in the belief that such violence benefits our own group. Whatever the costs and benefits of group membership, Rabbi Sacks believes that attempts over history to replace it with universalism or individualism have always failed.
Religion has indeed motivated groups to act violently against others, but so have nationality, ethnicity and ideology. Rabbi Sacks’ major targets are anti-Semitism and Islamist jihadism, which arise out of ideology and/or religion, and which dehumanize the out-group. He encourages people to stop seeing the “other” as dangerous and to practise “role reversal – putting yourself in the place of those you despise, or pity, or simply do not understand.”
Rabbi Sacks argues for a Jewish approach to group identity and “the other.” Judaism combines belief in a universal God – thus parting ways with the ancient polytheists who saw gods as confined to national territories – with belief that not everyone has to be Jewish – thus parting ways with traditional Christians and Muslims, who see their religions as ultimately for all humankind. He believes Jews are thus more able to feel positively toward non-Jews, since we see all humanity as governed by the same God, but we do not feel the need to convert gentiles to Judaism.
Much of the book is a careful reading of the biblical stories about brothers who did not get along, particularly Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau. These characters are often seen as symbolizing the three Abrahamic religions.
Rabbi Sacks argues that Genesis teaches that it is difficult for brothers to get along, but it can be done. The fact that one brother of each pair is ultimately chosen to carry on the tradition does not imply a rejection of the other. The moving descriptions of the pain of Ishmael (God hears his cry in Genesis 21:17) and of Esau (whose anguish is described sympathetically in Genesis 27:33-34) teach us to recognize their humanity. In Exodus, two brothers and a sister (Moses, Aaron and Miriam) are able to work in harmony, as the Bible desires.
I found Rabbis Sacks’ ideology moving and attractive, but I had problems with some of his methodology. He encourages Jews, when thinking about the characters in Genesis, to study the stories without the later layers of rabbinic interpretation.
“In the biblical text itself, Abraham breaks no idol, challenges no polytheist, seeks no disciples.” Esau in the biblical text may be tempestuous, but he is not violent, and we easily identify with his pain. Later Jewish tradition taught that Abraham despised polytheism and Esau was murderous. “Esau hates Jacob,” the classical rabbis teach (e.g., Rashi’s comment to Genesis 33:4), meaning that the descendants of Esau will always hate the Jews. Rabbi Sacks prefers to focus on the biblical narrative itself which, he asserts, is more tolerant.
When Rabbi Sacks comes to biblical law, he does the opposite. He acknowledges that biblical laws about destroying the Amalekites or Canaanites appear to be murderously intolerant. But he argues that rabbinic tradition toned them down and essentially read them out of existence.
The Canaanites, the rabbis teach, no longer exist. Amalek, Rabbi Sacks says, is now just a metaphor. Rabbi Sacks is correct that many rabbis think this way. But as Robert Eisen has showed in his The Peace and Violence of Judaism: From the Bible to Modern Zionism (reviewed in these pages in 2012), it is possible to find both peaceful and violent teachings in all periods of Jewish writing, including in the Bible and classical rabbinic literature.
Rabbi Sacks’ cherry-picking of liberal approaches is understandable, even laudable. But he fails to mention that some contemporary rabbis, not just rabbis on the extreme fringe, still promote the less liberal teachings of our tradition.
To give some current examples, the website of Rabbi Shlomo Amar, chief Sephardi rabbi of Israel from 2003 until 2013, promotes the negative understanding of the biblical Esau, including its wider implications. Rabbi Amar quotes the “Esau hates Jacob” proverb, explaining that: “Even in places where anti-Semitism is unknown and it seems that people like Jews, realize that this is simply a lie.” Rabbi Amar does not view historical or contemporary Esau as worthy of the compassion that Rabbi Sacks encourages.
Similarly, the chief rabbi of Afula is currently promoting a minor wording change in the Chanukah song, Maoz Tzur, praying that God drive Ishmael (Arabs? Muslims?) into perdition. Unlike Rabbi Sacks, some rabbis still teach that Amalek is real.
Sadly, intolerance exists not just among anti-Semites and Islamist jihadists. With the respect that Rabbi Sacks commands, it’s disappointing that he didn’t devote some of his book to confronting the intolerance of some of our contemporary religious teachers.
Rabbi Sacks fights nobly and eloquently for a tolerant Judaism and a tolerant world. Let us hope that both Jews and gentiles listen to his timely message