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The world lost a much-loved spiritual leader and international voice for religious freedom on the weekend with the passing of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, 72. In tribute to Rabbi Sacks’ manifold contributions to the life of faith, Convivium is republishing the interview with him conducted by our co-founder, Father Raymond de Souza, at a gala Cardus evening in March, 2016.
On March 15, 2016 Cardus hosted the 2016 Templeton Award winner Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, together with Convivium editor-in-chief Fr. Raymond J. de Souza. A riveting conversation unfolded in front of a packed Glenn Gould Studio audience, in the heart of Toronto. Below is the edited transcript from this memorable evening.
Father Raymond de Souza: Congratulations on the Templeton Prize and welcome to our Hill Lecture Series. The Templeton Prize comes at the end of a very distinguished career, but the Templeton Prize highlights the relationship between religion, often, and science, which we'll talk about later in our conversation, but particularly, there's a focus on this question of religious violence. Although it honours a lifetime of scholarship, it does come on the heels of your most recent book, Not In God's Name. Maybe we'll begin with that. There have been a lot of books, especially since 9/11, about interreligious cooperation, faith and violence, and so forth. What sets yours apart would be that it's an explicitly theological and biblical approach to the question. Why did you decide to write this book and particularly from an explicitly theological—and, if I could say, biblical—point of view?
JS: There's absolutely no doubt that the process began when together with the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, chief rabbi of Israel, leading imams, and gurus throughout the world, we stood together at Ground Zero during the World Economic Forum in January 2002 and offered our prayers at the spot. That was when I just felt, with overwhelming power, the two faces of religion. On the one hand, the wreckage of 9/11 and 3000 lost lives, and on the other hand, religious leaders from around the world praying together and respecting one another and soul touching soul in prayer. I suddenly realized that religion is fire and fire warms, but it also burns, and we are the guardians of the flame. I resolved then and there to write a book as a Jewish response to 9/11 and our global responsibilities in the 21st century. I wrote it to be published, as it was, on the first anniversary of 9/11. It's called The Dignity of Difference. It's a controversial book, but I thought you had to take risks when the stakes are so high.
At that time, I realized that was the beginning, not the end, because I had to go more deeply into theology. A year earlier, in the summer of 2000, the United Nations gathered together 2000 religious leaders from all over the world, to something very modestly entitled the Millennium Peace Summit. You can tell how successful we were: One year later, we got 9/11. I spoke at that conference. I also realized the religious leaders are quite similar across all the faiths, were quite good at giving sermons and quite bad at listening to them. One after the other got up and said, in effect, "The world needs peace. Our religion promotes peace. Therefore, if everyone was of our religion, the world would be at peace."
I suddenly realized that wasn't the solution. That was the problem. I suddenly realized that the real problem is that when we are thrown together in this global and interconnected age, can we make theological space for the other, the one who is not of my faith, the one who stands outside my circle of salvation? That is the real hard theological work and we'd better do it or else. Because our powers of destruction are so great and if religion is—as it undeniably is—part of the problem, then we are called on, I think, by God Himself, to make it part of the solution also. That's when it began.
RDS: The heart of the book, Not In God's Name, is an examination of the roots of conflict between factions, parties, communions, and you root it in the sibling rivalries that are so dominant in the Book of Genesis. Why that's interesting, if I might summarize for those who haven't read the book, is that you say that if all Muslims thought that we should be Muslim or all Christians thought everybody should be Christian or Catholic or Protestant, that wouldn't solve the problem. The Muslims come after the Christians and replace, supersede, or displace them, and Christians after Jews; but you go back and say that right in our foundational Scriptures, at the very beginning before there's anybody else, within the bosom of the family there's conflict.
You talk about how Cain and Abel, and how the younger usurps the place of the older. Abel over Cain, and later Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over his brothers. And that's the dynamic where you locate the seeds of rivalry, long before there are Christians and Jews and Muslims, . We'll get to what you see as the seeds of reconciliation afterwards, but when did you happen upon this insight?
JS: We're talking about the five sibling rivalry stories in Genesis: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and the two sisters, Leah and Rachel. I read them the way everyone reads them, on the surface, sibling rivalry. But then, when you're looking at the roots of violence, and our world has become very violent—whole swaths of the surface of this planet are imploding in a black hole of violence, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, you name it—you start looking at the roots of violence.
One of the most interesting discoveries I made was about Sigmund Freud, who is famous for seeing the roots of violence in terms of the Oedipus complex: fathers versus sons. He was actually very aware that the real root of violence was sibling rivalry. Whenever Freud talks about sibling rivalry, his writing becomes red hot. His biographers were all interested in this. Why, since he saw this, didn't he make that the centerpiece of his system? I found it really interesting.
The story is this and it's told by most of his biographers. Sigmund Freud was the only boy in a family of girls. He was thoroughly spoiled and then something terrible happened. His mother, without consulting him, had another baby, and this time, it was a boy, a young baby called Julius, and young Freud did not like this at all. The new child was a serious usurper of Freud's role as most favoured child in the family situation. It seems that the very young Freud harboured some rather malicious thoughts towards his brother.
Julius died before his first birthday and it seems as if Freud repressed a sense of irrational guilt throughout his life that he had thought bad thoughts about his brother and his brother had died. I suddenly realized that if Freud knew that sibling rivalry was the primary driver of human violence, the Hebrew Bible certainly knows that because almost the entire theme of Genesis is sibling rivalry. There's a drama that unfolds in five acts. If the Hebrew Bible and Sigmund Freud agree, then you sit up and take notice. I psychoanalyzed Freud. And as I once said, psychoanalysis was once dismissed as the Jewish science because everyone except Jung was Jewish. And I always said, "If you're not Jewish, who needs psychoanalysis?" At that moment ...
RDS: I had thought we wouldn't do rabbi jokes tonight.
JS: At that moment, when I suddenly saw that the fundamental theme of the Hebrew Bible is how we confront violence. The Hebrew Bible is really a story about the sovereignty of right over might. Genesis does this by being very blunt about these sibling rivalries. Even as soon as I started thinking about these stories, it suddenly dawned on me to look at these stories and eliminate everything except the last scene in every case. Last scene in the story of Cain and Abel: Abel is dead. Last scene of Isaac and Ishmael: they're standing together at their father Abraham's grave. Last major scene of Jacob and Esau: after years of conflict they meet, they embrace, they kiss, and they go their separate ways. Last scene of Joseph and his brothers, the last chapter of Genesis: forgiveness and reconciliation.
It was clear that those sibling rivalry narratives in Genesis are not simply variations on a theme. They describe an upward curve, moving from violence to forgiveness. I suddenly realized there's more going on in Genesis than meets the eye and that is when I reread all of those narratives and realized we might have here the answer to the sibling rivalry that in a macro scale has poisoned relations between Jews, Christians, and Muslims over the centuries.
RDS: We're going to come back to the resolution of those rivalry stories, but I'd like to just step aside to ask you to address something specifically to Christians and Jews. Christians who are inclined to think about the enduring significance of Judaism often turn to St. Paul and the relevant verses of St. Paul are that to the Jews belong the covenants, the promises, the prophets, etc. and that the promises of God are irrevocable, and therefore, there's a living covenant—not a dead covenant or a covenant to be set aside. That's where most Christian energy on Jewish-Christian theological exchange takes place. You highlight some other verses that most Christians, I think, don't give a lot of attention to, which is that St. Paul uses the story of Ishmael and Isaac to speak about the relationship of Judaism to Christianity in a way that you find, as a Jew, troubling. Could you maybe sketch that out and say a little concerning how St. Paul should be read in that way?
JS: My guess is Romans 11, that you're quoting from, became a key text probably only after Nostra Aetate, so that wasn't always used ...
RDS: Maybe just to explain, Nostra Aetate was the ...
JS: The Vatican II statement on relations between the Catholic Church and other faiths, most notably the Catholic Church and the Jews, set in motion by one of the great figures of faith in the 20th century, whom I salute as a man of vision and courage, Pope John XXIII. It was completed under Paul VI in 1965 and this document, Nostra Aetate, almost overnight transformed the relations between Catholics and Jews from one of estrangement to one of brotherhood and mutual respect.
Paul is really working out the question, "Who am I?" Paul was a Jew, as he keeps telling us often, but don't forget Paul founded the Gentile Church and he needs to explain to his Gentile Christians who they are in the Abrahamic family. He's not worried about himself. He's born into the family. But what makes Gentiles part of the covenant with Abraham is his concern. And so in Galatians, he contrasts the Jews, who are under the slavery of the law, with Christians who are free. He says that's like Abraham and his two wives, Sarah, who is free, Hagar, who is a slave. It's the Jews who are the children of Hagar, i.e. Ishmael, and it's Christians who are the children of Sarah, i.e. Isaac.
About 20 years later, when he's writing to the Romans, he gives a different analogy. He says that Jews and Christians can have the same parents, but then Jacob and Esau had the same parents. They were twins. Rebekah, while the twins are struggling in her womb, goes to God and says, "Why am I suffering?" God says, "There are two nations in your womb and the older will serve the younger." Paul, obviously, says to his audience, "Of the two of us, Judaism and Christianity, who are the younger? Obviously, we the Christians are the younger. Therefore, we have now become the chosen one. We are the children of Jacob, whereas the Jews, who are the older, are Esau."
Paul, therefore, builds his Gentile Church on those Genesis narratives and does so for reasons I'm not going to criticize at all. He's wrestling with the problem of the Gentile Christian identity and doing so in a way that he had to do it, but without being fully conscious what this would mean throughout the centuries. He was telling a story about Christian self-identity that forced Christians into a relationship of sibling rivalry with Jews. That is part of the long history—the long tear-stained history—of Jewish-Christian relations throughout the Patristic Age and all the way through the Middle Ages. It may be that Christians are not fully aware of this, but some very bold Christian theologians have written very strongly about it.
RDS: Would you say, then, that a good way for both Jews and Christians, but especially Christians, obviously, to read St. Paul is to look at the Galatians account, to look at Romans 8 through 11, and to see what's being worked out there is precisely a working out of the Abrahamic identity of the Gentile Christians and in a working out, there are things that are picked up and emphasized for the purpose at hand and other things that are not denied or rejected, but underemphasized. Would that be a fair way to read those texts?
JS: 100%. You see, Paul, having said all that, comes back in Romans 11 and says what you began by saying, so you can see that Paul did not want to create animosity between Christians and Jews. He wanted to tell his Christian Gentile Church that you, too, are part of the Abrahamic family. But that doesn't mean that Jews cease to be. Now if Abrahamic monotheism has a message that is revolutionary, it is that God chooses this one lonely individual and then a family and then a nation, who are small, vulnerable, who have to travel through the wilderness, who get enslaved in Egypt.
This is the age of the first great empires of the world, the Mesopotamian city states, the Assyrian Empire, the empire of Egypt of the Pharaohs. You had these huge empires and here is God coming and saying, "You know what? You don't need to be an imperial power or an emperor to be loved by Me. And my symbol of love will be this lonely man Abraham and his beloved wife Sarah and their longing for a child. That is where I am in the love between Abraham and Sarah and their longing." So the Abrahamic faith will always speak powerfully to people and say you may think you're small and insignificant, but actually, God has set His love upon you. That is what made Jews so passionately Jewish and what makes Christians and Muslims so passionately devoted to their faith.
The trouble is, we read that language because it's so human, God is our parent and He loves us. The trouble is that when you are a human child… (And I am one of a family of four boys my mother wanted a girl, so we were probably a great disappointment to her, so I know about sibling rivalry. This is where I came in in the world.)The trouble is, you keep thinking about God as a human parent and what makes sibling rivalry sibling rivalry is that you're competing for this scarce resource of parental attention. If mom is looking after my brother, she's not looking after me, so I feel thoroughly threatened or neglected. When you do that, you allow human conflict to enter this sacred domain. What I've said is sibling rivalry is built on the logic of scarcity. There's only so much of something to go around. In the animal kingdom, there's only so much food to go around. That's why the firstborn chick gets first and you then get the pecking order because the number one is a bit older.
RDS: Ah, that's where it comes from, pecking order.
JS: That's where it comes from because there's sibling rivalry among animals. Don't think humans are the only people who have it. There it's a matter of life and death. I want my fair share of the food, but before I'm going to let the younger chicks have anything to eat. There it's a matter of survival. In humans, the scarce commodity is parental attention, but God doesn't work through the logic of scarcity. God embraces all of us, so I'm really delivering a message in the book of radical monotheism that I think would make sense to everyone who sees themselves as part of the Abrahamic family. I tried to create a kind of Abrahamic theology that worked whether you're Jewish, Christian, or Muslim.
RDS: Essential to being a Jew is the acceptance of God's election, that God elects some that He chooses, that He chooses the ones the world would not choose, that there is a chosenness, and that's emphasized in the sibling stories. Your contention in the book is that chosenness doesn't imply rejection. You said the long history of Christians and Jews and Muslims reading salvation history is that in choosing one, God rejects the other. How is it that if that is the incorrect reading, it predominated, at least in your account, for so long?
JS: It's pretty obvious. When Jews read the Bible, they read the Bible in the company of other Jews. When Christians read the Bible, they read it in the company of other Christians. When Muslims read the Koran, they read it in the company of other Muslims. So we're great and the other lot are terrible. That is the logic of identity. Identity means I am part of a thing called we, who are defined in opposition to the people called them. Identity is always in opposition to somebody, so when we are reading our sacred narratives, we're telling ourselves we're the great guys. We're the heroes of our story.
Not until quite recently did Jews, Christians, and Muslims ever read those texts in the company of one another, so those readings never emerged. You always read them the straight way. We're the chosen people because we're children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That's how Jews read them. That's how Paul showed Christians they could read them. Islam works a slightly different way by tracing the lineage through Ishmael and saying Jews actually falsified the Bible to make it look as if it passed through Isaac.
Until relatively recently, people of different faiths never read their sacred texts in the company of people of other faiths, so they never really thought what would it be like to be Esau reading the story of Esau and Jacob or what would it be like if I see my ancestor as Ismael and Abraham throws him out or Sarah throws him out because she doesn't want him mixing with my son Isaac? We never sat and read those texts in the global, interconnected context that we now have to read them.
RDS: If I may challenge that, if you were to read the texts just as Jews and you read that Cain's sacrifice was not accepted, preferred, and Abel's was accepted, you can say it doesn't mean that Cain's was rejected, so I can work with that. But when you come to Jacob and Esau, the language is very strong. God does not simply not accept Esau. I think the term is that God "hates" Esau, so leave aside the fact that ...
JS: Hang on, hang on, hang on, hang on one sec, Ray! Let's get our biblical chronology here. That sentence, God hates Esau, comes from Malachi at the last of all the prophets, at least 1000 years in real time, nearer 2000 years after the story of Jacob and Esau, so that's a very, very late line in the Hebrew Bible, highly specific to the political circumstances of the Israelites against the Edomites. But go back and read Genesis 27. You know this story.
Isaac, who is old and blind, wants to bless Esau before he dies, asks Esau to prepare some venison for him. Rebekah overhears this. She already had the oracle that the elder will serve the younger. She knows the younger, therefore, is the chosen. That's Jacob. She prepares the venison. She dresses Jacob up in Esau's clothes and tells him to take the blessing. Then Jacob comes in and Isaac is perplexed. "Who are you, my son?" he says. "I am Esau, your firstborn." "Are you really Esau? You sound like Jacob. Let me feel you." He feels this rough skin that Jacob is wearing and says the hands are the hands of Esau, but the voice is the voice of Jacob and he's still not sure. Then he blesses him. Jacob leaves. Esau comes in and is there one word in the entire text that tells us what the feeling of Abraham was or Isaac? It's fraught with background as Erich Auerbach once said. We have no idea. There's not one word on Abraham's emotion or Isaac's emotion, but when Esau comes in and Isaac suddenly realizes that he has been deceived by his youngest son, it says, "Isaac trembled very greatly. Esau let out a loud and bitter cry."
Now English is so polite, our language, that you can't really feel the force of the Hebrew. Those are the most emotive passages in the entire Mosaic books. Nowhere is emotion described with such overwhelming power. I challenge anyone to read Genesis 27 and not sympathize with Esau. You can't read it and sympathize with Jacob. There's no way, so we can see that we have here a very complex narrative because on the surface, Jacob was the chosen one and Rebekah was right to take the blessing and all the rest of it. That's the surface narrative. If you really listen and say who is this narrative forcing us to sympathize with, it forces us to sympathize with Isaac loving Esau. You remember Esau begs, "Haven't you got one blessing less for me," and he finds a blessing for him.
22 years later, they meet again, and this time Jacob is terrified for his life. You remember the scene at night, when he's wrestling with an angel and he wins the battle and gets a new name? The next morning, he bows down to Esau seven times! If you've just defeated an angel, you don't bow down to your twin brother seven times. He calls him Adonai, my Lord. He calls himself a servant. When Esau says, "What are all these flocks you've sent to me?" Jacob says, "Take my baruch atah. Take my blessing."
Now I don't know why biblical commentators have not understood what's happening in that chapter. In that chapter, Jacob is giving Esau the blessings back. You remember from the dew of the heaven and the fat places of the Earth, material blessings wealth, and be Lord over your brothers and let your brothers bow down to you. Dominance and power. Jacob takes those blessings 22 years later and gives them back to Esau. Now this is not the way you read the narrative in the past, am I right?
JS: It's not the way any of the commentators read the passage, but suddenly, I realized that's what's going on. The Bible is forcing us to sympathize with Esau to say that Jacob was wrong to take that blessing. That was never the blessing Isaac meant for him. Wealth and power are not the covenantal blessings. The covenantal blessings are land and children. Isaac gave those to Jacob with
Jacob dressed as Esau, so look at the Bible and you see it's constructed as an extraordinary complex story because it means one thing on the surface and another thing beneath the surface. It wants us as kids to accept there's such a thing as sibling rivalry, but when we're grown up, to realize the Bible is telling us a much deeper message. I honestly believe that if you go back to the biblical text and read it the way I've read it in the book, you will say, "You know what? That's actually what the Bible is saying."
RDS: We would see, I think more commonly in terms of sympathizing with the wronged party, in the story of Ishmael and Isaac, that's very clearly written in a way to make the reader sympathize with Ishmael and ignore ...
JS: You can't not. Genesis 21, the water has run out. It's the heat of the day. They're in the desert. Ishmael's about to die. Hagar sits away because she can't bare to look. There's no way you can read that chapter and not sympathize with Hagar and Ishmael and not with Sarah and Isaac. This is an extraordinary narrative and it is forcing us to realize that sibling rivalry is not what God wants of us.
RDS: One of the dynamics that you bring out of these stories, which relates to Jews before Christians, and Christians before Muslims, chronologically, is the dynamic of the elder and the younger and that the elder would, by rights, be the one senior and then the younger one displaces and usurps. In the Catholic world, one of the great moments in this, you mentioned Nostra Aetate of 1965, but in 1986, John Paul went to the Great Synagogue, the first time a pope had gone to a synagogue. It was a very historic meeting, and when he went there it was a very emotional gathering. He used this phrase about the Jews, "our elder brothers in the faith," which given the history—tear-stained history, as you mentioned—resonated greatly and was massively well received both by Catholics and, especially, Jews.
Some 20 years later, Benedict, who was a biblical scholar and theologian in his own right, makes his own visit as pope. He offers a playful, but serious correction to John Paul because he said, "When we read the biblical stories, the elder brother gets the short end of the stick, so let's not say our elder brothers in the faith, but our brothers." How does that dynamic play out because it does seem very clear that the younger one is the favoured one, favoured by God, it seems.
JS: 100%, but it takes a pope to point out that a pope made a mistake, so I couldn't possibly comment on that. However, I will give you my own personal answer, which is, as I mentioned, my mother had four boys at four-year intervals, and I am the oldest. I decided long ago that each successive brother of mine was more chosen than I was and I've just been trying to fight back ever since.
RDS: Not at the end of the book, but at the concluding part of the heart of the book on the dynamics of sibling rivalry, you say, "What if it turned out to be God's way of saying to us, all of these stories—what He said to Cain, that violence in a sacred cause is not holy, but an act of desecration?—What if God were saying, 'Not in My name,'" Such a suggestion sounds absurd. Jews, Christians, and Muslims have been reading these stories for centuries. Is it conceivable that they do not mean what they have always been taken to mean?
You say it's not as absurd as we think because the answer you gave earlier, we're used to reading them from within our own tradition. What you're offering is not entirely novel—it's quite well-demonstrated where the resources for this are in the book—but how has this been received in the months the book has been out and especially in the Islamic world, where at least today, this needs to be heard, this argument is being worked out in a very dramatic fashion?
JS: Look, since 9/11, there have been thousands of books written on this subject of radical religion, terror, radical Islamism, and so on. It's all very parti pris. You can't read those books and not work out who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, and where you are speaking from. I tried to write a book that would make sense to Jews, to Christians, and to Muslims. I've been overwhelmed by the positive response of Christians to the book, but I've been no less moved, deeply moved, by the response of Muslims to the book.
A Muslim whom I greatly respect, Irshad Manji, wrote a beautiful review of the book for the New York Times. Akbar Ahmed, who is head of Islamic studies at the American University in Washington and a former Pakistani High Commissioner of Britain, loved the book and we did a beautiful public conversation in Washington. I think that's on the web for anyone who wants to see it. Just last week, Elena and I hosted 20 leading Muslim laypeople in Britain who've taken it on themselves to mentor young Muslims and they too had read the book and responded, really wanted to come and talk and be guided as to a way forward.
One of the things that has happened not only in Islam, but obviously most pointedly in Islam, is the radical voices have been the loudest and the most noticed. Every religion has to do the work for itself, but sometimes, you can help people in another faith by saying, "Look, guys, I can't do Islamic theology for you, but I can tell you how, as a Jew, I understand these narratives, which are part of my faith and they're also part of your faith." Those stories are retold in the Koran and the Hadith and they're part of the faith of Islam.
Sometimes, just as Jews, we're inspired by, for instance, Kierkegaard and his wrestling with the self and the leap of faith; or Reinhold Niebuhr who is a Christian and a public intellectual. There were Jews who felt empowered by them, so I felt that if I can do this, I'm empowering moderate Muslims to feel that they are not alone. Here's a scholar in another faith who is holding out a hand of friendship to us. I think that was the Muslim response. Here is somebody helping us to understand what it is to be a moderate in a world of religious extremes and what it is to do so not from a secular or relativistic or pluralistic point of view, but from a point of view of somebody who is directly reading sacred texts and doing so in a very religious way. That's why this is a religious book. I deliberately put God in the first and last sentences of the book so that you could not take this as just a book of political or sociological theory or psychology. I think Muslims respond to that because they are very profoundly driven by faith.
RDS: In my own commentary on these subjects I've often that the answer to a bad theology is a good theology. It can't be no theology. What is your expectation, hope, of your argument resonating in much of the Islamic world proper? Do you have any indication of that?
JS: Look at what is happening today in the Islamic world. The primary casualties of the conflict within Islam are Muslims. Muslims are dying at the hands of their fellow Muslims, whether across the Sunni-Shia divide or the radical-moderate divide or tribal divides. Muslims are being slaughtered in thousands and tens of thousands. In Syria, we've seen millions upon millions of refugees and 475,000 deaths. Muslims here are caught up in a horrendous internal set of struggles. We, as Jews, have known those internal struggles ourselves. Christians have known those struggles. Europe was scarred by Protestant against Catholic violence in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. You're not alone here. We know what it is to be caught in that kind of conflict and here, from our historical experience, is a way out of that conflict. I really feel that there are Muslims who realize that they are doing great harm to their fellow Muslims. Can there not be a way out?
RDS: As Chief Rabbi of diaspora Jews, one of the distinctive marks of your tenure was that you became a voice in English-British common life. But for politicians, for police, etc. to speak about this question of radical Islamist violence. We had yesterday, in Toronto, a stabbing. The police chief was describing the information he had. It was a young man, apparently quite unstable, but he had stabbed 2 military officers and the police chief reported that he was doing it in the name of Allah. The police chief said something very interesting. He said, "I don't want to do any Islamophobia nonsense, and I don't want to talk about this being an Islamic thing.”
Again, some years ago, when the Toronto 18 were arrested, it was a very well-known incident when the RCMP described the 18 men, all of them young Muslims, as being drawn from the broad strata of Canadian society. Clearly what was animating this decision was the desire not to inflame tensions, which I think would be a noble thing. We saw earlier this month in Cologne, after the New Year's Eve riots, that the police chief tried, at first, not to mention the religious dimension of it and then when it seemed that he was concealing, he had to resign or was forced into retirement. It's a very difficult thing to figure out how to speak about religiously inspired violence. What's your advice?
JS: If I went to the doctor and he examined me and he said, "I know exactly what's wrong with you. The only trouble is that I can't tell you what it is," I'd have a little problem finding a cure. We have to be able to speak about these things because if you can't name it, you can't begin to address it. I know France has had this policy all the way through known as laïcité, so they can't talk about it in public. Now has France solved its problem? The truth is that France probably has this problem as acutely as any country in Europe, if not more so.
This failure to talk about it is really quite serious, but on the other hand, politicians can't do it on their own. You and I know that when politicians are reticent in speaking about religion, there's something good about that because that's what modern liberal democratic states are about. Religion is spoken about by religious leaders and politicians stick to politics. The confusion of religion and politics is very dangerous, so I've always felt that the politicians need our help.
When I was chief rabbi, for instance, I did a lot of work with the Muslim community. I used the television programs I used to make for the BBC, not just to show Britain the positive face of the Jewish community. On several occasions, I took the opportunity to show the positive face of the Muslim community because they didn't have somebody who was making television programs. We were able to do that, so I think everyone knew when I speak about Islam, I speak about a faith for which I have the highest respect and for individual practitioners of that faith who are close personal friends.
When we talk about radical political Islam, we know what we're talking about, a minority phenomenon in the world of Islam, but which is in great danger of radicalizing Muslim youth. The people most worried about the radicalization of young Muslims in Britain today is their parents. They are terrified and since they are very often immigrants and their children, who've become radical, were native born in Britain, very often they feel that their kids don't really respect them, so they have an issue of authority. It's a very delicate issue and people have to know that we are fully respectful of Islam as a faith and the moderates within it, but at the same time, we must not refuse to name the problem, which is radical political Islam and that does not make us Islamophobic.
Did anyone have any problem talking about radical Jews or radical Christians? We're honest about that and I think freedom needs honesty.
RDS: One of the points that really struck me in reading the book is that you deal with these sibling rivalry stories and you point out that there's a reconciliation that takes place more or less explicitly. Of course, with Joseph and his brothers it's almost complete, but you distinguish that there are two things that are going on. The entire process of reconciliation is told in detail. The issue is not forgiveness, you say. Joseph forgives his brothers without their asking for it, without their apology, and long before he tells them who he is. The issue is repentance. This really struck me. You said, "Forgiveness is easy. Repentance, true change of character, is difficult. Yet, it is repentance, moral growth, on which the biblical vision depends." I never thought that through, the distinction between the two, but forgiveness, if I've been assaulted against, offended against, I can forgive. Repentance I can't do. Repentance is for the offender to do.
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RDS: I don't think really either of them are easy, but you make that not just an offhand comment, you say repentance is central to the biblical vision.
JS: Exactly so. Supposing somebody has done me a great deal of harm, really injured me. I regard the resentment I feel towards them like I regard my heavy suitcases before the invention of these wonderful four-wheeled suitcases, what is politely known in Jewish circles as schlepping. You ever schlepped a heavy suitcase? That's what it is to go through life feeling resentment towards the people who harmed you. Why should I let you ruin my emotional life? So I forgive you. I have thus liberated my own emotional life. That's great for me, but you, I don't give a damn about. I just don't care enough about you to feel ill will toward you.
That is dismissive. That is cheap forgiveness. The real forgiveness that counts is when I know that you understand just how deeply you harmed me. I want you to know that you did me wrong and you have seen that and you have changed, not because I don't want you to do it to me again. I've forgiven you. It's because I don't want you to do it to anyone else again. When that happens, repentance has happened, because responsibility has been accepted.
Now Germany was the architect of the Final Solution, the Holocaust. Germans, after the war, wrestled with and accepted responsibility and they deeply repented. Today, the only growing Jewish community in Europe is in Germany because whatever happened in the past, Germany has done repentance. It really has. There are other countries that were complicit in the Holocaust that, to this day, don't see themselves as the perpetrators, but as the victims. Those countries have not done repentance and in those countries, anti-Semitism is as alive and well today as it was in the 1930s.
Now let me be blunt with you. I forgive everyone because judgement belongs to the Almighty. To be perfectly honest with you, He does it better than we do. I don't harbour resentment against anyone, but if forgiveness is to cut really deep, it goes to the people who have repented and those are the people who see themselves as responsible and not just as the victims of somebody else.
RDS: I want to turn for a moment, and talk about this book called The Great Partnership, which was written four or five years ago on faith and reason, God, science, and the search for meaning. There are many things about it that we could pick up, but what struck me is you present the text that we've been talking about as a charter of freedom, in a certain sense. You actually take up the passage to Cain, "Then the Lord said to Cain, 'Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted, but if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door. It desires to have you, but you must master it.'" Genesis 4:6 and 7.
You say here, at the very beginning, is Cain. He's free. He has a choice to make and in this relationship between faith and science, you say science, the world of prediction, the world of order, the world of repetition, doesn't leave room for freedom in the same way as the Hebrew Bible. "It is no accident," you write, "that freedom occupies a central place in the Hebrew Bible, but only a tenuous place in the annals of science." If I were to tell my students on campus that religion, biblical religion, is the great friend of freedom and science is its limiting factor, they would be astonished.
JS: When I say that in Israel, the free God desires the free worship of free human beings, they say, "Are you mad?"
RDS: In Israel?
JS: In Israel, absolutely. It's a very paradoxical thing to say. The only possible justification for saying it is that it's true. Let me explain, and let me do it in a very simple way. Here are two things that sound very similar, but in fact, are diametrically opposed: a prediction and a prophecy. What is the difference? If a prediction comes to be, it has succeeded. If a prophecy comes to be, it has failed. Are you with me? Jonah is told by God, "Go and speak to the people of Nineveh," and he goes. Of course, with various marine forms of transportation, eventually he gets there and he delivers five words, I mean five Hebrew words, "40 days, Nineveh will be destroyed." Everyone listens. They repent. God forgives them and Jonah says, "God, I told You, You make me look like a schlemiel. I tell them in 40 days, they're going to be destroyed and here You are forgiving them."
Jonah doesn't understand the difference between a prediction and a prophecy. A prediction exists in a determined world. You've seen the causes. You can predict the effect. Scientific laws make it inevitable that that will be the result. A prophecy is delivered to free human beings who have the choice whether to heed the warning and repent or not to heed the warning and carry on doing as they're doing. If the prophecy happens, it has failed because a prophecy is a warning delivered to free human beings telling them you better change if you want to avoid those consequences. Only if we can take a standpoint outside the limited physical world of scientific causality have we got space for human freedom.
Now I actually believe, therefore, that the Hebrew Bible is the key text of freedom. We can see this in very simple terms. The Greeks didn't believe in freedom. The Greek literature is a literature of character and fate, so whatever Oedipus does or Laius does to frustrate the Delphic oracle, everything they do to avoid the inevitable outcome just makes it more likely. The end is predetermined. There's no freedom in Oedipus. That is the basis of the great contribution of the Greeks to human literature. They gave us the literature of tragedy.
Now let me ask you a question. Jews have suffered a fair amount in this world, so you would expect the Hebrew language, somewhere, to contain a word that means tragedy. Hebrew does not have a word for tragedy. When modern Hebrew was revived, you know what word they chose? Tragoidia. They took it straight from the word tragedy because there's no Hebrew word for it. Why? Because tragedy is the fated and inevitable end that you struggle against helplessly, whereas in Judaism, in the Hebrew Bible, which is literature of will and choice, there is no predetermined end, right?
We say on our High Holy Days, on Rosh Hashanah, it is written and the day of determined is sealed who will live, who will die. Then just as we start sounding like a bunch of Greeks, we say "but prayer, penance, and some charity avert the evil decree." Tell any Jew that he's got a fatal disease, he goes and gets a second opinion. We never give in to tragedy, therefore, the Greeks gave us a culture of tragedy. It's a beautiful and moving poetic culture. Jews gave the world a literature of hope. Hope is the principled rejection of tragedy in the name of human and divine freedom. In that freedom, we repent, God forgives, and the bad that might've happened is averted.
Now these are two completely different literatures. 6th century BCE Greece gave the world its two great left-brain disciplines, philosophy and science. To the extent that we are scientific, we have the Greeks to thank for that. Jews gave the world this literature of freedom and hope, ultimately, the faith that we share, the Judeo-Christian heritage—and those are the twin foundations of Western civilization—are a coming together of the Hebraic and the Hellenistic worlds. That is what Christianity did. It brought those two things together, begun by Paul. That is the significance of Christianity. It was the bringing together of those two classical traditions.
I wish I could summarize the book in one or two sentences. I can't. I tried hard. I can't, but if you want to avoid having to read 120,000 words on the great partnership, I can tell you it in two sentences. Here it is. Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean. It is the coming together of those two disciplines, the left brain and the right brain, the left brain of Greece and the right brain of Israel, mediated by Christianity, is what gave us the greatness of Western culture.
RDS: Very good. The organizers, who are my colleagues at Cardus, they have a script that's predictive, so we're going to inject a little prophecy into the evening here and I'm going to extend it by asking two last questions. One's a contemporary ...
JS: No Jew ever has a last question!
RDS: Introduced earlier this evening was our Ambassador for Religious Freedom, Andrew Bennett, who's a great friend of ours at Cardus, very well-respected in his work. The term possibly expires at the end of this month. We don't know. The new government hasn't announced what they're deciding. Most people think it's not going to continue because it hasn't been renewed at this late stage. What priority should religious freedom play in the foreign policy of, in this case, Canada, but the same would apply United Kingdom as well?
JS: I think religious freedom is under attack throughout the world right now. Religious freedom is article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and it is honoured in the breach, not in the observance. According to the latest United Nations calculations, out of the 193 member nations of the UN, 103 are violating religious freedoms. This is incredibly serious. Christians are dying throughout the Middle East and Africa because of it and Muslims are dying in their own conflicts that involve, sadly, some radicalization of Hindu nationalists, Sikh nationalists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, even Buddhists. We have forgotten that my freedom to live my faith must not be bought at the cost of your freedom to live your faith. Therefore, I think this is something absolutely fundamental at a global level, but at a local level, it's also under threat.
We had cases in Britain where an airport worker was sacked for wearing a crucifix, where just now, a judge was dismissed for not being willing to give a child to adoption to same-sex parents, dismissed as a judge. I'm afraid I did say to a House of Commons committee a couple of years ago, I said, "Friends, I hate to bring up this embarrassing fact, but in 1620, some chaps got together on a boat called the Mayflower and set sail for America because they couldn't be guaranteed religious freedom in Britain and if you continue along the road you're currently continuing, I think I might book my passage on the next boat."
The United States of America was created in order to guarantee religious freedom. The entire revolution of the 17th Century—John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, John Lott, Benedict Spinoza—the entire foundations of Western freedom born then from four people, two of whom were religious. Milton was clearly a deeply religious man. John Lott was a Sicilian Christian. By most standards, Hobbes and Spinoza were seen in their day as atheists, yet all four of them are in dialogue with the Hebrew Bible. The Tractatus Theologico-Politicus of Spinoza is basically commentary to the Hebrew Bible. Hobbes quotes the Hebrew Bible 649 times in the space of The Leviathan. He is not in dialogue with Plato and Aristotle. He's in dialogue with the Hebrew Bible.
Out of their deep study of the Hebrew Bible, they came up with, to my mind, the five greatest ideas of the modern age "social contract, the moral limits of power, liberty of conscience, the doctrine of toleration, and, most important of all, human rights. Here were people of widely different faiths and backgrounds reading a sacred text and saying, "If we are to have the freedom to live our faith, we must guarantee others the freedom to worship other faiths." That is the basis of the modern liberal democratic West, so it is in danger even here. We need a stronger defense of religious freedom locally and globally and if that is a way of saying please make sure that there is a successor, than I'm willing to put that as a visiting scholar. Not that I want to get involved in Canadian politics. Jewish politics quite enough for me.
RDS: Speaking of politics, the United States, at the moment, is having a presidential race, and the most successful Jewish candidate ever to run for president is Bernie Sanders. He's had more success than any other Jew has ever had in the United States, but he's not very explicit about his Jewishness, so he was asked about this last week in one of the presidential debates. He gave an answer what he was very proud to be a Jew and he spoke about his family's history in the Holocaust.
That provoked a very interesting comment by a Canadian, Charles Krauthammer, who works in the United States, now for many years, as a commentator who's also Jewish; he said, "There are three answers to what makes one Jewish." He said, "One is Judaic practice. Second is what you might call broadly a social conscience, the tikkun olam, to repair the world, to contribute to the common fabric; and the third is related to the Holocaust." Krauthammer said that he respected and understood Sanders' answer, but he thinks that the millennial history of the Jewish people should not depend or depend too much on the answer that Sanders gave. He would've preferred one of the first or second answers. As the chief rabbi of a diaspora community, which is preoccupied, as all diaspora communities are, with what it means to be Jewish, what does it mean to hand on Jewish heritage to the next generation, where do you see the balance?
JS: One of the doyennes of Holocaust scholarship, one of the people who really did the early and path-breaking work, was a historian called Lucy Dawidowicz. Towards the end of her career, she came to the conclusion that perhaps she had succeeded too much. She said, "If we carry on like this, our children will learn about the Greeks and how they lived, about the Romans and how they lived, and about the Jews and how they died." She herself wanted us, while never forgetting the Holocaust, to emphasize the other dimensions of Jewish existence.
Now the people that I learned that lesson from most, and I learned most from these people, more than any of my other teachers, were the Holocaust survivors. It was the Holocaust survivors who did not spend all their lives looking back at the Holocaust with the most extraordinary moral and spiritual courage. They didn't even talk about their experiences, many of them, even to their spouses, even to their children, not for 50 years.
What did they do? They looked forward. They affirmed life. They built lives for themselves. They married and had children because many of them had lost all their families in the Holocaust and with absolute and exemplary faith, they placed their faith in life and the future, not death and the past. I learned that from them. So we must never forget the Holocaust, but being Jewish was not defined by Auschwitz. Let me be very blunt with you. To be a Jew, to be a child of Abraham, is to be true to your faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith. If we all just lived by those two principles, we would have a better and more hope-filled world. Thank you, again.
RDS: I promised two questions and I kept my promise. I'll just say as a word of thanks to Rabbi Sacks that one of the most extraordinary experiences I had, and that I didn't expect it, was when I was doing my theological studies in Rome, the best biblical course I took was not from my priest professors, who were the majority, but from an American Jewish layman, Dr. Leon Kass from Chicago, who taught a short seminar on the first 11 chapters of Genesis. I feel like tonight, in this conversation, I've returned to those happy days of that seminar back in '99, 2000. So Rabbi Sacks, thank you very much for your time and your wisdom. You're most welcome here. God bless.
JS: Thanks. Thank you. Thank you. That was fantastic.