‘Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence’

‘Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence’

Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, N.Y.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

In 2002, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks met with controversy when his recently released book, “The Dignity of Difference,” was condemned by several influential Orthodox leaders, including members of the religious court in London he led as chief rabbi. When he wrote “In heaven there is truth; on earth there are truths. No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth,” they felt that he denied the unique status of the Jewish people as a “chosen nation,” a position bordering on heresy. In response, Sacks backed down, rewording several key passages and including an apologetic preface in a second edition.

Having since retired from his position as chief rabbi and emerged as a global public intellectual, Sacks makes his sweeping counterargument in “Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence.” With characteristically dramatic flair he raises the stakes, shaping an innovatively pluralistic conception of a “chosen nation” into both a powerful condemnation of violence carried out to advance religious influence and a passionate argument that the very core of the Abrahamic tradition, encompassing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is universal empathy and respect for human dignity. In doing so, he recasts an arcane philosophic argument into a contemporary response to religious extremism.

The book’s central theological assertion is a dual covenant between man and God. Most fundamentally, the Noahide covenant emphasizes the universal value of humankind created in God’s image. On the other hand, the Abrahamic covenant speaks to a particular group’s own unique culture and tells the story of its relationship with the divine. Sacks tries to find a middle ground between tribalism, in which each group fights for domination, and universalism, in which those who do not conform to a single standard are discriminated against, or worse. Past readers of Sacks might see that this is essentially the same approach that he developed in “The House We Build Together,” a way to maintain a cohesive democracy in a multiethnic country made up of diverse cultural communities. This time, though, the language is explicitly religious.

Going a step further, Sacks asserts that the “chosenness” of Israel in the Bible is essentially a template for all groups and civilizations to follow. Abraham and his chosen descendants are not particularly powerful, wealthy, or influential, nor do they possess a “monopoly of virtue.” That God bestowed his love upon them actually demonstrates that any group or society can be blessed, so long as it recognizes that “common humanity precedes our religious differences.”

Sacks supports his claim with a rereading of the remaining narratives in Genesis, which commonly are understood as a series of triumphs by younger sons, who are “chosen” despite their inferior birth positions, and the corresponding rejection of older siblings despite their innate right to the succession. This zero-sum understanding, he argues, was necessary for strengthening Israel’s identity in its formative years, but was misused by Christianity and Islam, each of which claimed to be the younger child chosen over older, cast-aside siblings. In both cases, the result was interreligious violence.

NotInGodsNameBookCoverAs a result, Sacks asserts that the traditional understanding — the one supported by the London Beth Din 13 years ago — can not be considered valid today. In an interconnected, globalized world, it only can cause further conflict. Instead, he says, the 21st century summons us to formulate a new reading, in which Genesis actually builds toward the “rejection of rejection.”

Beginning with Abraham, each successive episode of sibling rivalry features ever more rapprochement between chosen and unchosen brothers. Ishmael and Isaac reunite to bury Abraham together, but never explicitly resolve their differences. Jacob and Esau do make their peace, but go off in separate directions. Finally, Joseph and his brothers are reunited and live out their lives as a cohesive family. Various statements by the classical rabbinic sources explore different aspects of Sacks’ reading. He blends them artfully to present a compelling case that although the Torah focuses on the chosenness of the Jews, it also repeatedly emphasizes that nobody actually is rejected.

In a similar vein, Sacks hails Nostra Aetate, the remarkable statement by the 1962 Second Vatican Council that changed long-standing Catholic doctrine by affirming the chosenness of the Church while also recognizing the Jews’ own covenant with God.

Much of Sacks’ analysis will be familiar to readers who have followed his work, particularly his “Covenant and Conversation” column on the weekly Torah portion. For those readers, “Not in God’s Name” will feel like a culmination of sorts, the explicit formulation and presentation of a comprehensive approach that Sacks has honed and sharpened over the years. For new readers, his approach will be bold and thought-provoking. As always, he is articulate, inspiring, and well-sourced, and includes extensive notes and bibliography.

That said, Sacks is shakiest when it comes to setting an agenda. Noting a global turn to religion in an age when secular society no longer provides a strong sense of identity, purpose, or meaning, he laments without explanation that the style of religion in the 21st century is so often “adversarial and aggressive.” To remedy this, he suggests an organized, well-funded, and long-term international campaign to promote the teaching and preaching of tolerant, pluralistic religious ideals such as the ones he lays out.

In contrast, as Karen Armstrong pointed out in “Fields of Blood,” her own book on religious violence, the way a society expresses itself religiously often is a reflection of how it perceives itself. By limiting his focus to the world of ideas and explicitly separating religion from state power, though, Sacks almost explicitly refuses to consider the extent to which religion is a natural language that expresses political, social, or economic conflicts. In a world still grappling, for example, with the demons of imperialism, colonialism, globalization, two world wars, and a cold war, large segments of the world understandably feel “adversarial and aggressive.” In societies that feel like objects, not peers, within stronger countries’ foreign policies, it stands to reason that belligerent, triumphalist religious teachings would be appealing. In this context, Sacks’ Noahide covenant, affirming the inherent dignity of all people, might be a good place for our politicians and business leaders to begin, as well as providing advice for our rabbis, priests, and imams.

Rabbi Avraham Bronstein writes often on contemporary politics and culture, Jewish thought, and their intersection. He was a rabbi at the Hampton Synagogue and Great Neck Synagogue and now lives with his family in Scranton, Pa.

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