From the September 11th attacks in the United States to the recent horrors in Paris, San Bernardino, Orlando, Nice, and Berlin, our world continues to be plagued by religious violence. Numerous political, diplomatic, and military approaches have been tried in futile attempts to stem the violent tide, but none has succeeded.
Enter Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, and his new book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, released in the United States just before the November 2015 Paris attacks. With the march of ISIS across the Middle East and with ISIS-inspired terrorism afflicting Europe and the United States, Not in God’s Name is one of the most timely and necessary books by a major religious leader to appear in decades.
Rabbi Sacks’s earnest assertion is bold and true: the solution for religious violence must come from religion itself. To read Not in God’s Name is to be led on an engaging journey through Rabbi Sacks’s vast erudition, which encompasses history, philosophy, theology, psychology, neuroscience, cultural anthropology, and evolutionary biology. Yet the stakes of the journey are not merely intellectual—they are life and death, war and peace, and the survival of humanity itself.
The Dangers of Literal Fundamentalism
Every religion has certain “hard texts,” says Rabbi Sacks—texts that, if taken literally, command their adherents to commit violence in the name of God. Rabbi Sacks’s solution for religious violence lies in the power of interpretation: each religion must engage in the hard task of reinterpreting these texts so that they are no longer read literally. “Living traditions constantly reinterpret their canonical texts,” Rabbi Sacks writes. “That is what makes fundamentalism—text without interpretation—an act of violence against tradition.”
The most salient fact about a sacred text is that “its meaning is not self-evident . . . Every religion must guard against a literal reading of its hard texts.” Just as the first- and early second-century rabbis chose to see spiritual and intellectual battles as the only wars worth glorifying, Rabbi Sacks proposes that today’s violent religionists must undergo a similar transformation in their conception of military valor. If religious believers sincerely begin to read their hard texts in softer ways, the problem of religious violence, Rabbi Sacks believes, will gradually wear away over time as new, non-literal interpretations of these texts become normative.
Citing the teachings of Isaiah and Micah, Rabbi Sacks argues that though religion has had a violent past, the ideals of our religions compel us to move away from violence and toward peace. Rabbi Sacks’s reference to the trajectory of the Bible is crucial: though the Bible’s origins are bathed in blood, the theological vectors of the Bible—and later rabbinic interpretation—urge its adherents to glorify peace instead of war.
Rabbi Sacks defines the problem of religious violence as one of “altruistic evil”: evil committed in a sacred cause, in the name of high ideals. This calls to mind Christopher Hitchens’s critique of religion’s capacity for making intelligent people do what no normal, moral, ethical person would do. When people are driven to such a state, they are captive to what Rabbi Sacks calls “pathological dualism.” This theological malady strikes at times of existential crisis and can cause dualists to view themselves on the side of the Good. Since they see all others as being on the side of Evil, they are compelled to commit acts of violence against the forces of darkness so that the world can be made safe for the forces of light. When a third toxic element—the historic “sibling rivalry” between the three great monotheistic brothers—is mixed with altruistic evil and pathological dualism, believers become motivated to kill in the name of the God of life, to hate in the name of the God of love, and to wage war in the name of the God of peace.
In place of the tendency to view the world in a dualistic, Manichean light—a tendency embodied by the archetypal biblical tales of sibling rivalry—Rabbi Sacks urges a reaffirmation of monotheism that is not only theological but ethical. That is, in place of seeing the world as divided between friends and enemies, we should view the world as essentially unified. Within such a reoriented religious worldview, “enemies” are merely strangers whom one has not yet learned to love in the way that one has learned to love one’s friends. To say that this is easier said than done would be a vast understatement. Yet it is essential. As Rabbi Sacks writes,
To be free, you have to let go of hate. . . . You cannot create a free society based on hate. Resentment, rage, humiliation, a sense of victimhood and injustice, the desire to restore honour by inflicting injury on your former persecutors—sentiments communicated in our time by an endless stream of videos of beheadings and mass murders—are conditions of a profound lack of freedom. What Moses taught his people was this: you must live with the past, but not in the past. Those who are held captive by anger against their former persecutors are captive still. Those who let their enemies define who they are have not yet achieved liberty.
And how, precisely, can one let go of hate? Only, says Rabbi Sacks, by relinquishing the “will to power” and by embracing the “will to life.” We must come to terms with the fact that God, and not human beings, is the owner of all there is, rejecting the fallacy of Cain that led to the first act of religious violence in biblical history. Only then can our will to power—our desire for ownership over more and more things, people, and goods—diminish, and our will to life—our desire to cultivate the greatest godly gift of all, the simple fact that we have breath in our bodies—increase. This was the truth that Abel realized. That is why, in Hebrew, “Abel” is “Hevel,” which literally means “breath”—Abel treasured his breath, his life. By contrast, Cain treasured ownership (“Cain” in Hebrew is derived from the biblical root “to own”) and power. The key to letting go of hate—and the urge to commit acts of violence in the name of God—is to let go of the will to power and embrace the will to life, the desire to live and let live in the name of the God of life.
The Superman Syndrome
Friedrich Nietzsche, for whom Rabbi Sacks occasionally has unkind words, can actually be quite helpful in helping us define the problem of religious violence. Religious doctrines that teach their followers that they are superior to others instill within their adherents a destructive collective superman syndrome; they come to think of themselves as Übermenschen, and this makes them willing to ride roughshod over the lives of others.
As Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov explained:
An extraordinary man has the right . . . to decide in his own conscience to overstep . . . certain obstacles, and only in case it is essential for the practical fulfillment of his idea (sometimes, perhaps, of benefit to the whole of humanity). I maintain that if the discoveries of Kepler and Newton could not have been made known except by sacrificing the lives of one, a dozen, a hundred, or more men, Newton would have had the right, would indeed have been in duty bound . . . to eliminate the dozen or the hundred men for the sake of making his discoveries known to the whole of humanity.
In my view, if we are to counter the superman syndrome that plagues radical religion, we need religious teachings of radical pluralism. New doctrines and theologies must be advanced, as Rabbi Sacks did in the first edition of The Dignity of Difference, and as Rabbi Irving Greenberg did in For the Sake of Heaven and Earth, which teaches that no one religion is superior to another, and no single human being—all of whom are created in the image of God—is superior to another. Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Sikhism, and Bahá’í faith all offer equally legitimate paths toward a connection with the divine. And just as each human being is unique and irreplaceable, so is each religion unique and irreplaceable; each of these religious cultures has its own unique covenant with God, and to eliminate one is irreparably to destroy the pillars of theological diversity on which our world stands.
Rabbi Sacks would disagree with me here. In Rabbi Sacks’s rereading of the Genesis stories of sibling rivalry, he asserts that “God may choose” Isaac and Jacob, but “does not reject” Ishmael and Esau. He strongly implies that, though Esau (the representative of Christianity in rabbinic thought) and Ishmael (Islam) are also loved by God, they are not considered the spiritual equals of Jacob (Israel):
Not accidentally are our sympathies drawn to [Esau], as if to say: not all are chosen for the rigours, spiritual and existential, of the Abrahamic covenant,
but each has his or her place in the scheme of things, each has his or her virtues, talents, gifts.
Ishmael’s and Esau’s gifts, writes Rabbi Sacks, are material wealth, while Jacob’s is spiritual. Biblically, this is an appropriate reading. Yet theologically—and ethically—I find it highly problematic, for it implies that Jews, not Christians or Muslims, are the ones who are “chosen” for spiritual wealth, while Christians and Muslims, though they are “not rejected” and are given material wealth, are nonetheless not cut out “for the rigours, spiritual and existential, of the Abrahamic covenant.”
In my view and in the view of other proponents of radical pluralism, such as Rabbi Irving Greenberg, any theological interpretation that implies, even in the slightest way, that another faith is any less chosen than our own must be unequivocally rejected. All it takes is the harboring of even the faintest feelings of spiritual or existential superiority to give rise to a recrudescence of the pernicious spiritual superman syndrome that we are working so hard to squelch.
Irrespective of my objections, the obvious challenge of this book is whether the world’s two largest monotheisms will heed the words of a theologian who is not of their faith. The problem is especially acute considering that the core of Rabbi Sacks’s interfaith theology rests on his rereading of Genesis. It is a theology that may be accepted by Jews, and perhaps Christians, but what about Muslims, for whom the Bible is not their scripture, and for whom Genesis is non-canonical?
Rabbi Sacks has laid a solid foundation (albeit with a few cracks that can easily be shored up) on which an enduring interfaith theology may be built, but it is only that—a foundation. If other theologians do not come along and complete the building, the theological structure that makes for peaceful interfaith relations will be a mere dream passing in the night. The onus is now on us—priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, and theologians—to turn the fleeting dream of a peaceful house of world religions into a durable, lasting reality.
Daniel Ross Goodman is a writer, rabbi, and PhD-candidate at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) of America in New York, and is studying English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.