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An Orthodox and Original Viewpoint, 27 Jan 2008
At a time when religion is being claimed as a justification for killing, peace-loving people of faith are on the defensive. Fundamentalist or orthodox religiosity has acquired an especially dangerous reputation. In this fraught context, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that orthodox religion could be, not only harmless, but a force for world peace. As chief rabbi of the mainstream Orthodox synagogues of Britain, Sacks speaks from deep within his own tradition, and his voice is worth listening to. His hope is to contribute to a "global conversation" in which voices of all religions, and of those with no religion, take part.
Sacks is not limited to ideas from his own tradition. He quotes many different classical and contemporary thinkers. Yet, appropriately in his attempt "to bring a Jewish voice" into dialogue with others, Sacks returns again and again to the Hebrew Bible. This is a wise choice: even today, the Bible is the source of many core assumptions in cultures with a Christian heritage. Most people, though, remain unfamiliar with Jewish perspectives on the Bible, rooted in the nuances of the Hebrew text and the experience of the Israelite people confronting an invisible God.
The heart of Sacks' Biblical argument is that the God of the Israelites is the universal God, but the religion of the Israelites is not a universal religion. The people of Israel are "chosen" and given their own set of laws, not given to other nations; yet the Bible assumes that the God of Israel is the God of other nations as well. (The inhabitants of Nineveh in the Book of Jonah are among many non-Israelites who trust in the one God.) Therefore, Sacks concludes, Biblical monotheism teaches not uniformity, but diversity. "God is God of all humanity, but no single faith is or should be the faith of all humanity" (p. 55).
This insight is part of a far-reaching philosophical argument. Plato, a founding figure of Western philosophy, believed that the surface details of everyday experience, different from moment to moment and from person to person, are mere shadows of the unchanging, universal truth. The universal is far more important than the "particular", the earthly reality which is marred by differences. Many philosophers and mystics have shared Plato's outlook, but Sacks insists that the particular is at least as holy as the universal. This is the message of the Biblical idea of the "chosen people": "God... turns to one people and commands it to be different in order to teach humanity the dignity of difference" (p. 53). Without quite acknowledging it, Sacks is allying himself with postmodernist thinkers who have attempted, over the last several decades, to question claims of universality wherever they occur. His hope is to nourish a religious world-view with no room for intolerance, coercion, or terrorism.
Readers may wonder to what extent Rabbi Sacks is representative of Jewish thinking. His method of working out ideas by interpreting texts, especially from the Bible, is classically Jewish. His thoughts, however, may meet with a more critical reception among his coreligionists than elsewhere.
Judaism, like many religions, is divided into orthodox and liberal streams. Liberal Jews, while likely to agree with many of Sacks' conclusions, may note with dismay that his many references to interfaith dialogue celebrate his encounters with Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists, but never with fellow Jews of non-Orthodox persuasions. Sacks himself suggests early on that he hopes to engage an Orthodox readership. Since much of the dynamism of religion is in orthodox movements, he says, "it is here that the struggle for tolerance, coexistence and non-violence must be fought" (p. 18). But from an Orthodox viewpoint, his way of quoting the Bible carries little weight. What does carry weight is tradition, the teachings of great rabbis from ancient, medieval and modern times. Sacks rarely cites traditional Jewish teachings; he takes liberties with those he does cite; and some of his interpretations of Scriptural verses ignore well-established traditions about their meaning. Those few adherents of Orthodox Judaism who may embrace intolerance and even violence will have valid reasons, from their own religious perspective, to dismiss Sacks' arguments.
In the end, Rabbi Sacks, despite his Orthodox credentials, is not so much a representative of Judaism as a creative, engaged thinker working with the resources at hand. For the rest of us, his voice is not only worth hearing but may be an inspiration to join in, drawing on our own resources whatever they may be, in the vital, necessary activity of "global conversation".