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Rabbi Sacks discusses why religion is too often used as the justification for violence against God's children

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Blake Ezra Photography

The first time I met Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, we were in Rome on a gray autumn morning. We made for an odd couple: a Jewish rabbi and a Mormon at the heart of the Catholic world.

It was last November. Rabbi Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, had just given a tour-de-force lecture at an interfaith summit on marriage at the Vatican. Drawing on anthropology, sociobiology, philosophy and biblical exegesis, he passionately defended what he called “the most beautiful idea in the history of civilization: the idea of the love that brings new life into the world.”

At that time, we found ourselves walking together under Bernini’s magnificent colonnade in order to avoid the drizzle, discussing his cautious optimism for what could emerge from that historic conference.

It is now almost one year later. The setting is far less auspicious. I am in a noisy hotel coffee shop in mid-town Manhattan. Scattered newspapers in the hotel lobby carry images of violent confrontations in Jerusalem between Israelis and Palestinians and border guards in central Europe confronting Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

Once again, I am visiting with Rabbi Sacks. But instead of the goodness and beauty of marriage, we are talking about religiously motivated violence.

The issue is disturbingly relevant: How is it, and why is it, that religion — an ethical framework with unparalleled power to bind unrelated people together in bonds of mutual identity, trust and support — is frequently used as the justification for violence against God’s children?

Like other vital questions that have come into Rabbi Sacks’ penetrating gaze, he has attempted systematically to identify, contextualize and explain. His insights are now captured in one of this decade’s most important books: “Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence,” (Schocken Books, 305 pages, $28.95)

Rabbi Sacks has more than a score of books to his name, and this, like much of his work, draws from across academic disciplines to find the right tool for the questions asked. Is violence a natural extension of religion? Rabbi Sacks looks at hard data and finds that contrary to popular belief, a minority of wars involve religion.

Read more: Religious liberty honoree Rabbi Lord Sacks builds bridges among faiths

But that is less than satisfying to the rabbi, who finds the instances where religion is indeed the cause for violence to be most troubling. His book explores how the great Abrahamic monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) have found themselves, at various points throughout history, as the source of inhumane violence, and often through internecine conflict. How is it that the name of a universal God can be invoked in violence against God’s own children?

Here Rabbi Sacks turns to evolutionary psychology and game theory to show how religion responds to the problem of violence. A shared ethical framework of faith can provide the basis for cooperative behavior that spans kin groups (that have an evolutionary basis for cooperative behavior), and that spans small communities of repeated interaction (that have a rational basis for cooperative behavior because of the rational gains from reciprocity).

But even as faith can broaden the scope of moral commitment of one to another, it can also divide the world sharply into “us” and “them.” According to Rabbi Sacks, these divisions can devolve into “pathological dualism.” And when dualistic, us-versus-them thinking becomes widespread and pathological, it “makes you dehumanize and demonize your enemies. It leads you to see yourself as a victim. And it allows you to commit altruistic evil.”

What on earth is “altruistic evil”? According to Rabbi Sacks, it is “killing in the name of the God of life, hating in the name of the God of love and practicing cruelty in the name of the God of compassion.”

Consequently, “Not in God’s Name” explores how to defang altruistic evil in the 21st century. It concludes with a passionate call for meaningful interreligious cooperation that will provide a new cultural defense for justice, compassion, nonviolence, tolerance and religious pluralism.

But it is how Rabbi Sacks gets to that conclusion that makes “Not in God’s Name” such a worthwhile read — especially for those who closely identify with an Abrahamic faith. Instead of making an appeal to individual rights and autonomy (the way one would in a standard treatise on Western political theory), Rabbi Sacks demonstrates how these seemingly liberal democratic aims can be derived from a very careful reading of Genesis.

So I asked him, why the extended biblical exegesis? And his answer came, almost the way it comes in Genesis itself — less through precept than through stories.

One reason to focus on scriptural text: Deep faith begets deep appreciation for other faiths. “When I was growing up,” said Rabbi Sacks, “there were not that many Jewish schools. So I went to a school that was an Anglican Church school in London called St. Mary’s, and my high school was called Christ’s College. In both of those schools, there were a considerable number of Jewish children. And because they took their faith seriously, they took our faith seriously.”

Rabbi Sacks tells how he played a role in leading the devotional services of the Jewish students at his school, and then shares a formative experience. The Anglican headmaster summoned him to his study, sat him down and said, “Sacks, teach me something about Judaism.”

Showing obvious appreciation for the gesture even decades later, Rabbi Sacks said: “I thought, there was a man of faith who was able to make a space for my faith.” He said this experience embodied for him an important conceptual move that lies at the heart of religious toleration.

“How do you get from intense religious faith to concepts like liberty of conscience, the doctrine of toleration and human rights? The answer is that it is a very short step from saying, ‘My faith is the most important thing there is, therefore everyone must share my faith,’ to ‘since faith is the most important thing there is, everyone should be free to pursue his or her own faith.’ It is one small step.”

So, the rabbi continues, it is important to speak candidly of his own faith, but in a way that “makes room for the other, and the other may be Christian or Muslim or a Buddhist or a Jain or Zoroastrian or an atheist.”

“Making space for the other is what I see at the very core of Abrahamic monotheism. It is the absolute otherness of God. So I talk in those terms — not in highly secular terms about individual rights and autonomy (which doesn’t make any sense to a Muslim — it wouldn’t make any sense to most Christians either). Don’t talk about autonomy. Talk about God, the image of God, making space for the absolute other. And then you communicate. And Muslims really respond to this.”

In “Not in God’s Name,” one of the “candid discussions” of his own Judaism comes in the form of an extended interpretation or exegesis of the sibling rivalry narratives in Genesis: Ishmael and Isaac; Esau and Jacob; Leah and Rachel; Joseph and his envious brothers.

For anyone, like myself, who has struggled to understand why the prize of the Abrahamic covenant should come at such a high cost to Hagar and Ishmael, or as a reward to the outright deception of Rebekah and Jacob, Rabbi Sacks’ detailed analysis is must reading. And it comes with such powerful, counter-intuitive conclusions I dare only hint at them.

Why the focus on sibling rivalry? Because, says Rabbi Sacks, it is an undeniably powerful motivator in the natural world. We see it in the literal pecking order of birds. We see it in the great tragedies (e.g. Hamlet). And for the rabbi, “sibling rivalry” is at the heart of the often violent struggle between Abrahamic religions.

“If I want something very badly which I feel I am entitled to, and you are standing in the way, the relationship between us is going to be fairly fraught.” He continues, “So therefore if the most important thing for me in the universe is most favored child of Abraham — because that then makes me most favored child of God — and you are standing in my way, then I have to get rid of you. I have to get rid of you!”

“If I want to hold on to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, I have to deny any right to you. I have to deny there ever was a temple. I have to say you falsified your sacred scripture. And over that, people fight wars. People are fighting right now as we speak.”

Rivalry is rational behavior in a world of scarcity. But what Rabbi Sacks drives home through both his textual analysis and a thorough review of the Judaic oral tradition is that when it comes to God’s love, none of Abraham’s progeny faced a world of scarcity. God’s love is not a scarce resource, it is an economy of plentitude. As he writes in the book, “Sibling rivalry is defeated the moment we are loved by God for what we are, not for what someone else is. We each have our own blessing. Brothers need not conflict. Sibling rivalry is not fate but tragic error.”

Inasmuch as the great Abrahamic faiths are captive to a false narrative of sibling rivalry, Rabbi Sacks suggests that the way beyond conflict just might appear from his deft and subtle reading of Genesis that asks readers to acknowledge the overwhelming abundance of God’s love for all his children.

Giving us a needed corrective to a superficial reading of Genesis is not the rabbi's only prescription for healing our world. For example, he also takes issue with the false promises of secularism, noting how contemporary individualism has led to “the atomization of society, the collapse of the traditional family, the erosion of community and the loss of national identity.” This has contributed to “the counter-reaction of religious extremism among those who still seek identity and community.” But he does note how Genesis, through narrative, extolls the virtues of the laws and moral order that permits families and communities to flourish.

As we conclude our visit — which included delightful anecdotes about his personal interactions with Tony Blair when he was prime minister, Natan Sharansky, the Israeli human rights advocate, and Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Cantebury — Rabbi Sacks’ irrepressible optimism bursts through. “What I see in the world today is the politics of fear. Religious leaders have a duty to construct the politics of hope. … I see faith as the great antidote to fear.”

A complete transcript of his visit with Rabbi Sacks can be found online at

Paul Edwards is the editor and publisher of the Deseret News.

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