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Rabbi Sacks: Extremism is hitting all the world faiths

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013, is a global religious leader and philosopher. Author of more than 25 books, Rabbi Sacks has published commentaries on the Jewish daily prayer book and holiday machzorim. His 2015 book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, addresses religious extremism and violence committed in the name of God.

Rabbi Sacks spoke in Toronto at Glenn Gould Studio on March 15 and at Shaarei Shomayim Synagogue March 16.

What spurred you to write Not in God’s Name?

I began writing it a very long time ago. I published a book on the first anniversary of 9/11 called Dignity of Difference, and at that time, I wanted to explore more deeply the tensions that lead people toward religiously motivated violence.


So in 2002, I began Not in God’s Name. It turned out to be very difficult, and I put it aside three years later. Then, in the summer of 2014, there was all of the ISIS-related violence and I decided to bring the manuscript back out. I felt there was this new chapter in the horrific story of religiously motivated violence in the 21st century, and it seemed so important that I felt I had to write about it. I went back to the manuscript and rewrote the book completely.

Why do you believe that the 21st century has seen a surge of religious extremism and violence?

I think what’s happening in the Middle East reflects a failure in many places of secular, nationalist politics. In Syria, Iraq, Egypt, even in Turkey, we see the failure of secular nationalism. It failed because the regimes in these places were corrupt, essentially, and in many cases, sustained by rather brutal dictators. It takes a long time to create a culture of freedom, and I don’t think leaders like Hafez Assad, Moammar Gadhafi or Saddam Hussein tried, because they wanted to maintain a grip on power.

In the end, you can’t sustain this. Now, we’re seeing a really toxic mix of religion and politics in the region. The language is religious, but the objectives are all political.

How do the tensions between the three Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Islam and Christianity – contribute to violence and political unrest?

In Not in God’s Name, I argue that the three Abrahamic faiths all have sibling rivalries written into the stories each religion tells about itself. And the relationship between the faiths is similar, say, to the relationship between Jacob and Esau or Isaac and Ishmael or, at worst, Cain and Abel. We’re talking here about ancient theologies, but it’s because we have to be honest enough to recognize that we’ve never really worked through our religious differences as faiths. We’ve never really delved into our relationships in the sacred texts.

To what extent do you see interfaith discussion as part of the solution to increased religious violence?

I think we may need something stronger than interfaith discussion, though we certainly do need it. Interfaith discussion is, “I tell you what I believe, and vice versa, and we’re nice to each other.” We need more than that: we need a side-by-side approach, which is, “I don’t mind what you believe, and vice versa, and we realize that we face a problem that we can only solve by working together.”

In the same vein, regarding the problem of religious violence, I don’t think we necessarily need theological dialogue to address it, but all the faiths need to recognize that we can solve this problem if we all work together. This is more of a grassroots approach, whereas formal, interfaith dialogue tends to be very elite.

Much of the current unrest in the Middle East (other than in Israel) stems from conflicts occurring within divisions of Islam, and not so much between Muslims, Jews and Christians. Can you speak to that?

True. But at the moment, Christians are also being ethnically cleansed from large parts of the Middle East. And there is profoundly anti-Israel rhetoric being disseminated on university campuses and throughout the world. Much of what I say in the book has nothing to do with Sunni and Shiite divisions – I think a non-Muslim is well-advised not to write about this subject. You can’t deal with everything in one go. Thousands of books have dealt with looking at extreme forms of radical, political Islam since 9/11 happened. I wanted to try to say something new.

Do you think religious violence across the Abrahamic faiths tends to stem from misreadings of the Old and New Testaments and the Qur’an?

I argue that people who read these texts and practise violence are misreading them. I do argue for a new reading of these texts. But it’s very easy to misread them, because there are violent passages in all of them: in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Qur’an. I think we all have dangerous texts. All of us do, including atheists.

What are examples of how these religious texts have been misunderstood?

The central part of the book is a new reading of all the stories of sibling rivalry in Genesis. I’m looking at Genesis because it features stories common to Jews, Christians and Muslims – all three speak about Abraham. So what I’m posing is, can we carefully read these stories in a new way? And most people who’ve read my book say, “I may not agree with everything you say, but yes, I can see there is a new way of reading these stories.”

With regard to Judaism, to what extent and where are you seeing extremism occurring?

We’ve had a real problem with this at various points in Jewish history. In the book, I focus on situations in the first century when Jews inside the besieged Jerusalem were busier killing each other than the Romans outside of it. I focus on this moment in Jewish history just as I focus on the 17th century when I look at Christianity.


I’m not looking at the contemporary Middle East. I’m stepping back and saying, “Let’s look at the unexorcised ghosts in our religious texts.” I think the book would be impossibly controversial if I tried to look at contemporary issues. I’ve tried to give it some historical distance.

You say that religion needn’t be the root of violence, but part of the solution. How can this be brought about?

I seriously believe that a precedent was set by the Vatican II, in 1965, when it decried persecution against Jews. This redefined the Catholic Church’s relation to Jews. Whereas for centuries, Jews and Catholics met with animus and a lack of understanding, today they meet as friends. So if one can make that change between Jews and Catholics, maybe similar changes can be made between Judaism and Islam, and Christianity and Islam. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.