Not In God’s Name | Notes & Reflections

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. Schocken Books, 2015. (305 pages)

I: Bad Faith

1. Altruistic Evil

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction. – Blaise Pascal

Religion in the form of polytheism entered the world as the vindication of power. Not only was there no separation of church and state; religion was the transcendental justification of the state. Why was there hierarchy on earth? Because there was hierarchy in heaven. Just as the sun ruled the sky, so the pharaoh, king or emperor ruled the land. (3)

It was against this background that Abrahamic monotheism emerged as a sustained protest. (4)

Abraham himself, the man revered by 2.4 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims and 13 million Jews, ruled no empire, commanded no army, conquered no territory, performed no miracles and delivered no prophecies. (4)

That idea, ignored for many of the intervening centuries, remains the simplest definition of the Abrahamic faith. It is not (4) our task to conquer or convert the world or enforce uniformity of belief. It is our task to be a blessing to the world. The use of religion for political ends is not righteousness but idolatry. It was Machiavelli, not Moses or Mohammed, who said it better to be feared than to be loved: the creed of the terrorist and the suicide bomber. (5)

We need a term to describe this deadly phenomenon that can turn ordinary non-psychopathic people into cold-blooded murders of schoolchildren, aid workers, journalists and people at prayer. It is, to give it a name, altruistic evil: evil committed in a sacred cause, in the name of high ideals. (9)

There are acts so alien to our concept of humanity that they cannot be justified on the grounds that they were the means to a great, noble or holy end. (10)

Only in fiction are the great evils committed by caricatures of malevolence: Darth Vader, Lord Voldemort, Sauron or the Joker. In real history the great evils are committed by people seeking to restore a romanticised golden age, willing to sacrifice their lives and the lives of others in what they regard as a great and even holy cause. In some cases they see themselves as ‘doing GOd’s work’. They ‘seem happy’. | That is how dreams of utopia turn into nightmares of hell. (10)

Much has been said and written in recent years about the connection between religion and violence. Three answers have emerged. The first: Religion is the major source of violence. Therefore if we seek a more peaceful world we should abolish religion. The second: Religion is not a source of violence. People are made (10) violent, as Hobbes said, by fear, glory and the ‘perpetual and restless desire for power after power that ceaseth only in death’. Religion has nothing to do with it. It may be used by manipulative leaders to motivate people to wage wars precisely because it inspires people to heroic acts of self-sacrifice, but religion itself teaches us to love and forgive, not to hate and fight. The third answer is: Their religion, yes; our religion no. We are for peace. They are for war. (11)

| None of these is true. As for the first, Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod surveyed 1,800 conflicts in the Encyclopedia of Wars and found that less than 10 percent involved religion at all. (11)

The second answer is misguided. (11)

The third is a classic instance of in-group bias. (11)

First, in the seventeenth century, came the secularisation of knowledge in the form of science and philosophy. Then in the eighteenth century came the secularisation of power by way of the American and French Revolutions and the separation–radical in France, less doctrinaire in the United States–of church and state. In the nineteenth century came the secularisation of culture as art galleries and museums were seen as alternatives to churches as places in which to encounter the sublime. Finally in the 1960s came the secularisation of morality, by the adoption of a principle first propounded by John Stuart Mill a century earlier–namely that the only ground on which anyone, including the state, is justified in intervening in behaviour done in private is the prevention of harm to others. (12)

What the secularists forgot is that Homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal. (13)

Science, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state have enabled us to reach unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence. They are among the greatest achievements of human civilisation and are to be defended and cherished. But they do not and cannot answer the three questions every reflective individual will ask at some time in his or her life: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? These are questions to which the answer is prescriptive not descriptive, substantive not procedural. The result is that the twenty-first century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning. | Religion has returned because it is hard to live without meaning (13)

Undeniably, though, the greatest threat to freedom in the post-modern world is radical, politicised religion. It is the face of altruistic evil in our time. (14)

What printing was to the Reformation, the Internet is to radical political Islam, turning it into a global force capable of inciting terror and winning recruits throughout the world. (17)

Weapons win wars, but it takes ideas to win the peace. (17)

The seventeenth century was the dawn of an age of secularisation. The twenty-first century will be the start of an age of desecularisation.

| The twenty-first century will be more religious than the twentieth for several reasons. One, as we have seen above, is that in many ways religion is better adapted to a world of global instantaneous communication than are nation states and existing political institutions.

| Second, as we will see in the next chapter, is the failure of Western societies after the Second World War to address the most fundamental of human needs: the search for identity. (18)

The third reason has to do with demography. (19)

Worldwide, the most religious groups have the highest birth rates. (19)

If we do not do the theological work, we will face a continuation of the terror that has marked our century thus far, for it has no other natural end. (20)

Wars, [Mois´s Naím] says, are becoming increasingly asymmetric, large armies against smaller, non-traditional ones. They are also being increasingly won by the militarily weaker side. (20)

Why has this happened now? Because the world is changing faster than at any time in history, and since change disorients, it leads to a sense of loss and fear that can turn rapidly into hate. (21)

Broadcasting…being replaced by narrowcasting…fragments a public into a a set of sects of the like-minded. (21)

The Internet also globalises hate. … A provocation somewhere can create anger everywhere. Never has paranoia been easier to create and communicate. It is easy to portray an unintentional slight as a deliberate insult if you are communicating with people thousands of miles away who have no means of checking the facts. (21)

Even at an everyday level, the Internet has a disinhibition effect: you can be ruder to someone electronically than you would be in a face-to face encounter, since the exchange has been depersonalised. (22)

Civility is dying, and when it dies, civilisation itself is in danger. (22)

To put the argument of this book as simply as I can: there is a connection between religion and violence, but it is oblique, not direct. (23)

…the very texts that lie at the root of the problem, if properly interpreted, can provide a solution. This, though, will require a radical re-reading of those texts, through an act of deep listening to the pristine voice of monotheism itself. (24)

What made this book possible is knowledge of the transformation that has taken place when Jews, Christians and Muslims face one another in their full humanity. (24)

2. Violence and Identity

This is, in essence, the human dilemma. Which comes first. Altruism or survival? The common good or individual self-interest? Are we, under the skin, saints or sinners, angels or demons, moralists or Machiavellians? …we are both. It is the central ambiguity of the human situation. (27)

We often suffer from akrasia, the weakness of will. So we become good people the way we become good tennis players or violinists, through practice until the behaviour we aspire to becomes natural and instinctive. Being moral means acquiring the habits of the heart we call virtue. (28)

There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. – Darwin, The Descent of Man

We are social animals. We hand on our genes as individuals, but we survive only in groups. (29)

Supremely, this is the evolutionary advantage of Homo sapiens. We are the most effective of all life forms in creating and sustaining groups. (30)

We co-operate and we compete. We co-operate in order to compete. (30)

They divide as they unite. Every group involves the coming together of multiple individuals to form a collective Us. But every Us is defined against a Them, the ones not like us. The one without the other is impossible. Inclusion and exclusion go hand in hand. (31)

Altruism plays a major role in survival of the group. Whether natural selection operates at the level of the individual or whether there is such a thing as group selection has been and remains a hotly debated topic within biology. But there is no doubt that the survival of individuals depends on the willingness of members to the group to take risks and make sacrifices for the good of the group as a whole. That is the biological function of the better angels of our nature. (31)

It is neither secularism nor religious belief that makes us what we are, the curious mixture of good and bad that can lead us to the moral heights or the savage depths. It is our groupishness. (32)

The birth of the city posed a different and much greater problem: how do you establish trust between strangers? (35)

This was the point at which culture took over from nature, and religion was born–that is, religion in the sense of an organised social structure with myths, rituals, sacred times and places, temples and a priesthood. (35)

The early religions created moral communities, thus solving the problem of trust between strangers. (35)

We are good and bad because we are human, we are social animals and we live, survive and thrive in groups. Within groups we practise altruism. Between them we practise aggression. Religion enters the equation only because it is the most powerful force ever devised for the creation and maintenance of large-scale groups by solving the problem of trust between strangers. | Violence has nothing to do with religion as such. It has to do with identity and life in groups. (39)

If, then, violence has to do with identity, why not abolish identity? Why divide humanity into a Them and Us? Why not have just a common humanity? This, after all, was the utopian hope of prophets like Zechariah who imagined a time when ‘The Lord will become king over all the world. On that day the Lord will be one, and his name will be one’ (Zech. 14:9). A world without identities would be a world without war.

| There have been three major attempts in history to realise this dream, and it is immensely important to understand why they failed. The first was Pauline Christianity. (39)

The second attempt was the European Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. (40)

The age of reason was succeeded by Romanticism and the return of the old gods of nation and race. (40)

The first two attempts were universalist: a universal religion or a universal culture. The third attempt, the one we have been living through for the past half-century, is the opposite. It is the (40) effort to eliminate identity by abolishing groups altogether and instead enthrone the individual. (41)

In place of national identities we have global cosmopolitanism. In place of communities we have flash-mobs. We are no longer pilgrims but tourists. We no longer know who we are or why. (41)

As Eric Hoffer noted in The True Believer (1951) and as Scott Atran has shown in his study of suicide bombers, Talking to the Enemy, individuals join radical movements to alleviate the isolation of the lonely crowd and become, however briefly, part of an intense community engaged in the pursuit of something larger than the self. (42)

We have seen in this chapter how altruism leads us to make sacrifices for the sake of the group, while at the same time leading us (42) to commit acts of violence against perceived threats to the group. Good and bad, altruism and aggression, peace and violence, love and hate, are born together as the twin consequences of our need to define ourselves as an Us in opposition to a Them. (43)

3. Dualism

Judaism and Christianity are both monotheisms, but the Qumran sectarians and those of Nag Hammadi were dualists. They believed not in one power governing the universe, but in two. (46)

[via: But didn’t all Hellenized Christians and Jews believe in “two powers?” (e.g. Ephesians 6)]

Violence may be possible wherever there is an Us and a Them. But radical violence emerges only when we see the Us as all-good and the Them as all-evil, heralding a war between the children of light and the forces of darkness. That is when altruistic evil is born. (48)

Dualism is what happens when cognitive dissonance becomes unbearable, when the world as it is, is simply too unlike the world as we believed it ought to be. (48)

It has become one of the taken-for-granted clichés of Western culture that the God of the Old Testament is the God of law, letter, justice, retribution, vengeance, anger, flesh and death. The God of the New Testament is the God of faith, spirit, forgiveness, grace, forbearance, love and life. But this is pure Marcionism and, in Christian terms, heresy. The essence of Christianity as articulated by Paul and the Gospels is that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New are the same God. His love is the same love. His justice is the same justice. His forgiveness is the same forgiveness. That is why the Old Testament is part of the Christian canon. (51)

Dualism comes in many forms, not all of them dangerous. There is the Platonic dualism that differentiates sharply between mind and body, the spiritual and the physical. There is the theological dualism that sees two different supernatural forces at work in the universe. There is the moral dualism that sees good and evil as instincts within us between which we must choose. But there is also what I will call pathological dualism that sees humanity as itself radically, ontologically divided into the unimpeachably good and the irredeemably bad. (51)

That is what monotheism asks of its followers: to think of God as both a father and a judge. A judge punishes, a parent forgives. A judge enforces the law, a parent embodies love. God is both, but it is hard to think of both at the same time. | That explains the human tendency to lapse into dualism even when you belong to a monotheistic faith. Dualism resolves complexity.

[see Richard Beck and Sara Taylor, ‘The Emotional Burden of Monotheism: Satan, Theodicy, and Relationship with God’, Journal of Psychology and Theology, 36.3, 2008, pp.151-60. The Emotional Burden of Monotheism.pdf]

But what if monotheism requires the ability to handle complexity? (53)

[via: To see others as both evil and good, to believe that love can suppress fear and nurture the good in all of us. et. al.]

Pathological dualism does three things. It makes you dehumanise and demonise your enemies. It leads you to see yourself as a victim. And it allows you to commit altruistic evil, killing in the name of the God of life, hating int he name of the God of love and practising cruelty in the name of the God of compassion. (54)

Once you can identify an enemy, reactivate a chosen trauma and unite all factions in fear and hate of a common threat, you activate the most primitive part of the brain, the amygdala with its instant and overwhelming defensive reactions, and render a culture susceptible to a pure and powerful dualism in which you (56) are the innocent party and violence becomes both a justified revenge and the necessary protection of your group. (57)

[via: I wonder if this is more chicken/egg.]

The first stage is dehumanisation. (57)

The second stage is establishing victimhood. (58)

Vamik Volkan notes, dualists tend to combine ‘paradoxical feelings of omnipotence and victimization’. On the one hand we are masters of the universe; on the other we are the devil’s slaves. (59)

Defining yourself as a victim is a denial of what makes us human. We see ourselves as objects, not subjects. … Blame bars the path to responsibility. (61)

[via: Blame is “disempowering.”]

When dehumanisation and demonisation are combined with a sense of victimhood, the third stage becomes possible: the (61) commission of evil in an altruistic cause. (62)

The belief in one God meant that all the conflicting forces operative in the universe were encompassed by a single personality, the God of righteousness, who was sometimes just, sometimes forgiving, who spoke at times of law and at others of love. It was the refusal to split these things apart that made (63) monotheism the humanising, civilising influence that, in the good times, it has been. (64)

Who is a hero? (asked the rabbis)

One who conquers himself.

Abraham and Isaac pass off their wives as their sisters. Jacob deceives his blind father and takes his brother’s blessing. Moses loses his temper. David commits adultery. Solomon, wisest of men, is led astray. The Bible hides none of this from us, and for a deeply consequential reason: to teach us that even the best are not perfect and even the worst are not devoid of merits. That is the best protection of our humanity. (64)

[via: This in contrast to a “dualistic hermeneutic” that only divinizes Bible stories and people.]

4. The Scapegoat

We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another. – Jonathan Swift

Antisemitism is important because it illustrates more clearly than any other phenomenon the psychological and social dynamic of hate. (70)

So by what psychological mechanism do rational human beings come to believe in fantasies? (72)

René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (1972).

Girard’s thesis is that the most effective way by which the two (74) groups can end the cycle is by killing a third party, one who…stands outside the feud, and whose death will not lead to another cycle of retaliation. (75)

By sacrificing the outsider, a revenge killing has taken place, so both sides can feel that justice has been done, but in such a way as to stop the cycle since the victim is not a member of either of the contending groups. Hence Girard’s contentions that, first, the primal religious act is human sacrifice; second, the primal sacrifice is the scapegoat; and third, the function of religion is to deflect away internal violence that would otherwise destroy the group. (75)

However, the particular combination of conspiracy theory and substitute victim involved in the creation of a scapegoat requires a difficult mental feat. You have to be able to believe at one and the same time that the scapegoat is both all-powerful and powerless. If the scapegoat were actually powerful, it could no longer fulfil its essential function as the-victim-of-violence-without-the-risk-of-reprisal.  You do not choose a lion or a crocodile as your sacrificial victim, since if you do, you are more likely than it is to land up as the victim. But if the scapegoat were believed to be powerless, it could not plausibly be cast as the cause of our present troubles. … The simultaneous presence of contradictory beliefs is a sure sign of the active presence of a scapegoat mechanism within a culture. (76)

The term ‘transubstantiation’ was first used by Hildebert de Lavardin, Archbishop of Tours, around 1079, and the doctrine itself was formalised by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. It is precisely between these dates that the Blood Libel appears. (81)

When people accuse others of seeking to control the world, it may be that they are unconsciously projecting what they themselves want but do not wish to be accused of wanting. If you seek to understand what a group truly intends, look at the accusations it levels against its enemies. (83)

What makes antisemitism central to the argument of this book is that when it becomes violent it represents the first and clearest sign of a civilisation in crisis. (84)

Dualism becomes lethal when a group of people, a nation or a faith, feel endangered by internal conflict. (84)

At work in this whole process is the basic principle of group dynamics. We saw in chapter 2 that we are naturally inclined to favour members of our group and fear members of another group. One result is that in almost any group, the greater the threat from the outside, the stronger the sense of cohesion within. … Our most primal instincts of bonding within the group occur when it confronts an external enemy. | That is why ruthless politicians, threatened by internal discord, focus on and sometimes even invent external enemies. (85)

The murder of Jews is only one result. The real victims are the members of the host society itself. The hate that begins with Jews never ends with them. No free society was ever built on hate. (85)

And when the violence is over, the problems remain, since the scapegoat never was the cause of the problem in the first place. So people die. Hope is destroyed. Hate claims more sacrificial victims. And God weeps. (86)

5. Sibling Rivalry

Violence is born in what [Girard] called memetic desire (from mimesis, meaning ‘imitation’). | Mimetic desire is wanting what someone else has because they have it. This is behaviour we often see in children. (87)

Mimetic desire is not just wanting to have what someone else has. Ultimately it is wanting to be what someone else is. … Girard then suggested that one of the prime sources of strife is not between father and son but between brothers: sibling rivalry. (88)

This is the first point. The primal act of violence is fratricide not parricide. Sibling rivalry plays a central role in human conflict, and it begins with mimetic desire, the desire to have what your brother has, or even be what your brother is. (90)

It is now clear why Judaism, Christianity and Islam have been locked in a violent, sometimes fatal embrace for so long. Their relationship is sibling rivalry, fraught with mimetic desire: the desire for the same thing, Abraham’s promise. (98)

…the opposite of a trivial truth is a falsehood, but the opposite of a profound truth may be another profound truth. (99)

Despite their structural differences and internal complexities, all three Abrahamic faiths seek to build their home on the same territory of the mind–one reason why they have so often competed for the same territory on earth: the Holy Land and the sacred city of Jerusalem. They are competing brothers. Each must therefore see the other as a profound existential threat.

| At the heart of all three faiths is the idea that within humanity there is one privileged position–favoured son, chosen people, guardian of the truth, gatekeeper of salvation–for which more than one candidate competes. The result is conflict of the most existential kind, for what is at stake is the most precious gift of all: God’s paternal love. One group’s victory means another’s defeat, and since this is a humiliation, a dethronement, it leads to revenge. So the strife is perpetuated. Its most famous biblical expression is the oracle granted to Rebekah while suffering pain in her pregnancy. She went to ‘seek the Lord’, and was told:

Two nations are in your womb,
And two peoples will separate from within you;
One people will be mightier than the other,
And the elder will serve the younger. (Gen. 25:23)

We can now sum up the argument. Violence exists because we are social animals. We live and find our identity in groups. And groups conflict. They fight over the same resources: food, territory, other scarce goods. That is our nature and it leads to all that is best and worst about us: our altruism towards other members of our group, and our suspicion and aggression towards members (100) of other groups. Religion plays a part in this only because it is the most powerful source of group identity the world has yet known. | Every attempt to find a substitute for religion has resulted in even more violence. (101)

The idea that we can abolish identity altogether by privileging the individual over the group is the West’s current fantasy an it has led to the return of religion in its most belligerent form. (101)

Group identity need not lead to violence, but there is a mutant form, pathological dualism, that divides the world into two–our side, the children of light, and the other side, the children of darkness. If there is evil in the world, it is because of Them, not Us. (101)

If there are internal resistances to such murderous and suicidal simplifications, they can be overcome by the invention of the scapegoat. Paranoia will do the rest. This is the politics of hate, and large parts of the world in the twenty-first century are awash with it. (101)

The first religious act, Cain and Abel’s offerings to God, leads directly to the first murder. God does seem to have favourites. There does seem to be a zero-sumness about the stories. It is no accident that Jews, Christians and Muslims read these stories the way they did.

| But what if they do not mean what people have thought them to mean? What if there is another way of reading them? What if this alternative reading turned out, on close analysis, to be how they were written to be read? What if the narratives of Genesis are deliberately constructed to seem to mean one thing on the surface, bu then, in the light of cues or clues within the text, reveal a second level of meaning beneath? (103)

II: Siblings

6. The Half-Brothers

Identity is based on narrative, the stories we tell about who we are, where we came from, and what is our relationship (108) to others. (109)

…displacement narrative. In almost all societies where birth order has a bearing on rank, the oldest (usually male) child succeeds to the role occupied by the father. Here the order is reversed. (109)

Only a superficial reading yields the conclusion: Isaac chosen, Ishmael rejected. (109)

Ishmael, says God to Abraham, ‘is your offspring’, while Isaac will be ‘called your offspring’. The former promises worldly greatness, the latter covenantal responsibility. (11)

Hagar was herself an Egyptian (Gen. 16:3). There is a subtle hint here that to some degree the experience of the Israelites at the hands of the Egyptians will mirror the Egyptian Hagar’s experience at the hands of Sarah. (112)

One feature is particularly noticeable. In general, the Hebrew Bible is highly reticent in telling us about people’s emotional states. We do not know, for example, what Noah’s reaction was when he heard that all life was about to be destroyed by a flood, or Abraham’s feelings when told to leave his land, birthplace and father’s house. By contrast, both scenes involving Hagar are etched with drama. The first paints a vivid scene of Hagar alone in the desert, close to despair, then comforted by an angel. The second is unmatched for its emotional intensity.

| To understand the significance of this, we have to realise that Genesis 21, the sending away of Ishmael, is a parallel passage to Genesis 22, the binding of Isaac. In both, Abraham undergoes a trial involving the potential loss of a son. (114)

The story of the binding of Isaac is notable for its complete absence of emotion. (115)

By contrast, the episode involving Hagar and Ishmael is saturated with emotion. Hagar weeps: ‘Then she went off and sat down nearby, about a bow-shot away, for she said to herself, “Let me not see the child die.” As she sat, she lifted up her voice and wept’ (21:16). Ishmael weeps: ‘God heard the boy crying’ (21:17). There is a pathos here that is rare in biblical prose. There can be no doubt that the narrative is written to enlist our sympathy in a way it does not in the case of Isaac. We identify with Hagar and Ishmael; we are awed by Abraham and Isaac. The latter is a religious drama, the former a human one, and its very humanity gives it power. (115)

Instead–and this is fundamental to understanding Genesis–what we have is a subversion of myth, a consistent frustration of narrative expectation. (116)

Myth belongs to a universe bounded by nature. The gods live within, not beyond, the world. What counts in myth is strength, power, force. What makes myth tragic is its realisation that nature ultimately defeats the strongest. We are dwarfed in its presence, undone by its caprice. The choice of Isaac instead of Ishmael has many dimensions, but they all share one feature: they are a refusal to let nature have the final word. (116)

Intimated here is one of the most striking themes of the Pentateuch. God chooses those who cannot do naturally what others take for granted. (117)

At the first critical juncture for the covenantal family–the birth of its first children–we feel for Sarah and Isaac. She is the first Jewish mother, and he the first Jewish child. But we also feel for Hagar and Ishmael. We enter their world, see through their eyes, empathise with their emotions. that is how the narrative is written, to enlist our sympathy. We weep with them, feeling their outcast state. As does God. For it is he who hears their tears, comforts them, saves them from death and gives them his blessing. Ishmael means ‘he whom God has heard.’. (118)

…long before the birth of Islam, many rabbis in the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods, from the first century CE onwards, were called Ishmael, hardly likely–indeed impossible–if Ishmael were a rejected figure in Judaism. The force of the Midrash is greater still in light of one striking fact: that in the Bible, Abraham does not bless Isaac. God does, after Abraham’s death, but he himself does not. One ancient Jewish tradition states explicitly: ‘Abraham did not bless Isaac because he did not want Ishmael to feel resentment against him [Isaac]. (123)

At the core of the Bible’s value system is that cultures, like individuals, are judged by their willingness to extend care beyond the boundary of family, tribe, ethnicity and nation. (123)

On the surface, the story of Isaac and Ishmael is about sibling rivalry and the displacement of the elder by the younger. Beneath the surface, however, the sages heard a counter-narrative telling the opposite story: the birth of Isaac does not displace Ishmael. (123)

7. Wrestling with the Angel

Three times, Isaac expresses doubts–giving Jacob three opportunities to admit the truth. He does not. Far from glossing over the morally ambiguous nature of Jacob’s conduct, the text goes out of its way to emphasise it. (128)

Names in the Bible, especially when given by God, are not labels but signals of character or calling. (131)

[re: Gen. 28:3-4] The earlier blessing spoke of wealth (‘the dew of the heavens and the richness of the earth’) and power (‘Rule over your brothers’). The later blessing speaks of children (‘make you fruitful and increase your numbers’) and land (‘the land God gave to Abraham’). This is what transforms our entire reading of the story. | Children and a land are the covenantal blessings. They are what God promised Abraham. (135)

One fact stands out about Jacob’s early life. He longs to be Esau. (136)

The keywords of the Jacob story–face, name and blessing–are all about identity. (137)

It is now clear exactly what Jacob was doing when he met Esau twenty-two years later. He was giving back the blessing he had taken all those years before. The herds and flocks he sent to Esau represented wealth (‘the dew of the heavens and the richness of the earth’). The sevenfold bowing and calling himself ‘your (137) servant’ and Esau ‘my lord’ represented power (‘Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you’). Jacob no longer wanted or needed these things. His statement ‘I have everything‘ means ‘I no longer need wealth or power to be complete’. He says explicitly what he is doing. He says, ‘Please take [not just my gift but also] my blessing.’ He now knows the blessing he took from Esau was never meant for him, and he is giving it back. (138)

‘And Jacob emerged complete‘ (Gen. 33:18)

[via: ויבא יעקב שלם]

The face that is truly ours is the one we see reflected back at us by God. That is t he meaning of the priestly blessing ‘May God turn his face towards you and grant you peace‘ (Num. 6:26). (138) Peace comes when we see our reflection in the face of God and let go of the desire to be someone else. (139)

Re-reading the text, we now discover that the words with which the Jacob-Esau story begins are deliberately ambiguous. They may mean either ‘the elder shall serve the younger’ or ‘the younger shall serve the elder’. … An ambiguous supernatural message is not a prophecy but an oracle. (140)

The prophet warns; he does not predict. Tomorrow is made by our choices today. Time, for the prophets, is not the (140) inexorable unfolding of destiny but the arena of human freedom in response to the call of God.

Sibling rivalry is defeated the moment we discover that we are loved by God for what we are, not for what someone else is. (141)

The choice of Jacob does not mean the rejection of Esau. (142)

Before Jacob could be at peace with Esau and with himself, he had to overcome mimetic desire, abandon sibling rivalry and learn that he was not Esau but Israel–one who wrestles with God and never lets go. (143)

8. Role Reversal

In retrospect it is as if the entire book, from Cain’s murder of Abel, has been leading to this denouement, where brothers learn what it is to resolve conflict, be reconciled, make space for one another and forgive. … Genesis was about the birth of the covenantal family. Exodus is about the birth of the covenantal nation. (144)

The message of Genesis is that love is necessary but not sufficient. (145)

It follows that the most profound moralising experience, the only one capable of defeating dualism, is to undergo role reversal. Imagine a Crusader in the Middle Ages, or a German in 1939, discovering that he is a Jew. There can be no more life-changing trial than finding yourself on the other side. (152)

The whole thrust of Genesis is that God scales down his demands to the point where they become liveable, rather than a code for saints. When we sin, all we have to do is acknowledge that we have sinned, express remorse, and resolve to act better in the future–in short, that we repent. (153)

What is perfect repentance? It occurs when an opportunity presents itself for repeating an offence once committed, and the offender, while able to commit the offence, never the less refrains from doing so, because he is penitent and not out of fear or failure of strength. – Maimonides

What Joseph is doing is, in effect, taking his brothers through the experience of teshuvah, change of heart. (154)

The three dramas of sibling rivalry have all ended on a note of reconciliation, each time at a more profound level. With Isaac and Ishmael, it is implied. … With Esau and Jacob, the brothers meet and embrace as friends, but they part and go their separate ways. With Joseph and his brothers, the entire process of reconciliation is told in painstaking detail. The issue is not forgiveness: 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. Forgiveness is easy, repentance–true change of character–is difficult. Yet it is repentance, moral growth, on which the biblical vision depends. (156)

Few things have been denied more often, and more variously, than human freedom. Fate, the Greek concept of anake, is in the hands of the gods or the stars: so thinkers have argued since the birth of time. (157)

[via: fate : ανακη : stars : predestination : determinism]

Against this the Bible predicates its faith–God’s faith–in freedom. … The Hebrew Bible is the West’s key text of human freedom–and more than it tells the story of man’s faith in God, it tells the story of God’s faith in humankind. (157)

His statement, ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good’, shows the power of a religious vision to reframe history, liberating ourselves from the otherwise violent dynamic of revenge and retaliation. In a real sense, then, freedom extends to more than our ability to choose between alternative futures. It includes the freedom to reshape our understanding of the past, healing some of its legacy of pain. (157)

Genesis is about failure and learning from failure, discovering that we can change. Jacob discovers this after a long night of wrestling with the angel. His sons discover it after a long period of suspense and fear. In learning, they enact the greatest of biblical themes: the defeat of tragedy in the name of hope. (158)

It happens through role reversal. The most fundamental fact about consciousness is that I cannot feel someone else’s pain. I can only feel my own. This is the source of the human tendency to divide the world into brothers and others, kin and non-kin, friends and strangers, the ‘Us’ to whom I belong, and the ‘Them’, the Other, to whom I do not belong. That is why the covenantal family, the children of Israel, begin their collective life as a nation in Egypt, as slaves, so that they will know from the inside what it feels like to be on the other side. | That is what Joseph is forcing his brothers to do. He is educating them in otherness through role reversal. (158)

The way we learn not to commit evil is to experience an event from the perspective of the victim. (158)

[via: I am my brother’s keeper, (השמר אחי אני).]

contronym, one word with two contradictory meanings. In English, the word ‘sanction’ can mean both a permission and a prohibition. ‘Fast’ can mean immovably stuck or moving quickly. ‘Cleave’ can mean to cut in two or to join together.

[via: cf. Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue]

9. The Rejection of Rejection

Jacob, fleeing from one sibling rivalry, has just unintentionally created another. (162)

God saw that Leah was hated [senuah] … (Gen. 29:31)

The commentators wrestled with this difficulty: they read senuah [שנואה] not as ‘hated’ but as ‘less loved’. Yet, though the text is semantically impossible, it makes psychological sense. Leah, less loved, felt rejected. The words ‘God saw’ mean that God identified with her sense of humiliation. (163)

If we look at the eleven times the word ‘love’, ahavah, [אהבה] is mentioned in the book of Genesis, we make an extraordinary discovery. Every time love is mentioned, it generates conflict. (165)

Abrahamic monotheism is predicated on love for profound theological reasons. In the world of myth the gods were at worst hostile, at best indifferent to humankind. In contemporary atheism the universe and life exist for no reason whatsoever. We are accidents of matter, the result of blind chance and natural selection. The Hebrew Bible by contrasts tells us that we are here because God created us in love. God’s love is implicit in our very being. (166)

Where earlier the wickedness of the human heart had been a reason to destroy the earth, it now becomes a reason not to destroy it. God forgives, pre-emptively. Divine justice has given way to divine mercy. In making his covenant with Noah, God rejects rejection.  (168)

If one thing is clear from the narratives we have analysed, it is that God feels the plight of the rejected. The narrative genius of Genesis is precisely that it forces us to undergo role reversal. We don’t just see the world through the eyes of the chosen. We identify with Ishmael, (168) Esau, Leah, the people on the other side of the equation, and we cannot but identify with them if we listen to the text with an open heart. (169)

There is nothing predictable or one-dimensional about any of these characters. They are studies in moral complexity. (169)

Note also that Genesis contains a powerful argument against the second step: seeing yourself as a victim. That is precisely what the first humans do. … By the end of Genesis, however, Joseph, who really was a victim, refuses to define himself as such. (170)

…sibling rivalry may be natural, but it is not inevitable. (170)

Genesis is not simply a work of history, or a cosmology. It is a subtle, multilayered philosophical treatise constructed in the narrative mode. It represents truth-as-story rather than truth-as-system, and it does so for a profoundly philosophical reason: it is about meanings, and meanings cannot be conveyed except through narrative–by a plot that unfolds through time, allowing us to enter the several perspectives of its dramatis personae and sense the multiple interpretations (narrative and counter-narrative) to which stories give rise. (171)

Biblical consciousness is chronological, (171) not logical. (172)

This is God’s reply to those who commit violence in his name. God does not prove his love for some by hating others. Neither, if we follow him may we. (173)

III: The Open Heart

10. The Stranger

This is something moral philosophy has failed adequately to confront. Since Plato, thinkers have explored the many factors that make us moral: knowledge, habit, virtue, empathy, sympathy, rationality, intuition. Yet we saw how all these things failed in Germany in the 1930s, and not only among the masses but even among some of the greatest minds of the day. That is the power o dualism to subvert and anaesthetise the moral sense. If we divide the world into the children of light and the children of darkness, we are capable of dehumanising and demonising the Other, seeing (179) ourselves as a victim and committing altruistic evil. Dualism is alive and well in parts of the world today, it has a religious source, or at least speaks a religious language, and it is leading to terror, brutality, civil war and chaos on an ever-widening scale. | The Hebrew Bible, in the narratives we studied, was confronting this fact at its roots, forcing us to enter into the humanness of the Other. (180)

A humanitarian as opposed to a group ethic requires the most difficult of all imaginative exercises: role reversal–putting yourself in the place of those you despise, or pity, or simply do not understand. (183)

Note that these commands [Exod. 22:21; 23:9] are given shortly after the Exodus. Implicit in them is the radical idea that care for the stranger is why the Israelites had to experience exile and slavery before they could enter the Promised Land and build their own society and state. (184)

Note also how the Hebrew Bible speaks not primarily of knowledge, reason or emotion, but of memory. (184)

Even at their greatest moment, the Israelites know that they are strangers in a land not their own. In this extraordinary intertextual arch, from Abraham through Moses to David, from Israel’s earliest prehistory to its summit as a sovereign power, we hear the same unchanging message: the people of the covenant will be strangers (186) at home, so that they are able to make strangers feel at home. Only thus can they defeat the most powerful of all drives to evil: the sense of being threatened by the Other, the one not like me. (187)

The best way of curing antisemitism is to get people to experience what it feels like to be a Jew. The best way of curing hostility to strangers is to remember that we too, from someone else’s perspective, are strangers. Memory and role reversal are the most powerful resources we have to cure the darkness that can sometimes occlude the human soul. (188)

11. The Universality of Justice, the Particularity of Love

In the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civilizational clash, Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous… Imperialism is the necessary logical consequence of universalism. – Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

Identity is inescapably plural. (190)

…the stories of the Flood and Babel are precisely matched accounts of the two great alternatives: identity without universality and universality without identity. (191)

There was ‘continual fear, and danger of violent death’. That is precisely the Bible’s description of life before the Flood. When there is no overarching rule of law, the world is filled with violence. (192)

…the unity of language at the beginning of chapter 11 was not natural but imposed. It is describing the practice of the world’s first empires. … Babel is a critique of imperialism. (192)

The connection is too pronounced to be accidental [Gen. 11:4 & Exod. 1:10]. Babel, like Egypt, represents an empire that subjugates entire populations at the cost of their distinct identities and liberties. If the Flood is about freedom without order, Babel and Egypt are about order without freedom. (193)

When a single culture is imposed on all, suppressing the diversity of languages and traditions, this is an assault on our God’ given differences. (193)

The Hebrew Bible is a unique attempt to find a way out of the dilemma by showing how the unity of God can co-exist with the diversity of humankind. (194)

There is justice, and there is love. Justice is universal. Love is particular. Justice must be detached, impartial, applied equally to all. Love plays no part in it. (196)

[via: I’m not sure I agree…]

A chosen people is the opposite of a master race, first, because it is not a race but a covenant; second, because it exists to serve God, not to master others. A master race worships itself; a chosen people worships something beyond itself. A master race values power; a chosen people cares for the powerless. A master race believes it has rights; a chosen people knows only that it has responsibilities. The key virtues of a master race are pride, honour and fame. The key virtue of a chosen people is humility. A master race produces monumental buildings, triumphal inscriptions and a literature of (198) self-congratulation. Israel, to a degree unique in history, produced a literature of almost uninterrupted self-criticism. (199)

A chosen people is not a master race but its opposite: a servant community. That is why Jewry has always been attacked by–because its existence is an affront to–those who see themselves as a master race, an imperial power, or sole guardians of God’s truth. (199)

There is no single, simple system that will honour both our commonalities and our differences. … That is why the Bible sets out two covenants, not one: one that honours our common humanity, the other that sanctifies diversity and the particularity of love. And the universal comes first. You cannot love God without first honouring the universal dignity of humanity as the image and likeness of the universal God. (200)

Genesis 1 is about the self, Genesis 9 about the human Other. One who is not in my image is nonetheless in God’s image–that is the basis of GOd’s covenant with Noah, a universal requirement of all cultures if they are to honour God who gave us life. … Those who murder God’s image in God’s name commit a double sacrilege. (202)

The effect of reading this story at this most sacred of times forces one into a sense of humility. For all the natural pride we feel in being part of our group–the people of the covenant, a holy nation–we are brought face to face with the fact that others may sometimes respond to the word of God better than we do. (204)

If we were completely unalike, we would be unable to communicate. If we were completely alike, we would have nothing to say. (205)

What if the God of the crusaders, the terrorists, the inquisitors, the witch-burners and the jihadists were also the God of their victims? What if one could not, with absolute certainty, rule out that possibility? (205)

12. Hard Texts

One who translates a verse literally is a liar. – Rabbi Yehuda, Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 49a

As a general rule, though, the application of every ancient text to another age involves an act of interpretation, and there is nothing inherently religious about this. It is a central problem in secular law and jurisprudence, deliberated over in every Supreme Court. How is a law enacted then to be understood now? (209)

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. – Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act 1, scene 3.

What makes the present moment different is precisely what made the Reformation different in Christianity: the emergence, at roughly the same time, of a back-to-the-text-as-it-was-in-the-beginning religiosity, together with a revolution in information technology that allows the radicals to bypass conventional means of communication: church sermons in the age of printing, local imams and community elders int he age of the Internet. (210)

Fundamentalism emerges when people (210) feel that the world has been allowed to defeat the word. They, by contrast, are determined to defeat the world by means of the word. (211)

…one cannot ignore the literal meaning of a biblical text. Whatever else a verse means, it also means what it says. (216)

Judaism survived through it scholars, not its soldiers. More than six centuries separate the prophet and the rabbi, but what they held in common was spiritual maximalism and military minimalism. They were not pacifists but they were realists. They knew that the real battles are the ones that take place in the mind and the soul. They change the world because they change us. That is the wisdom the zealots do not understand: not then, not now. (218)

Each person carries part of the potential meaning of the text. (218)

In fact, fundamentalists and today’s atheists share the same approach to texts. They read them directly and literally, ignoring the single most important fact about a sacred text, namely that its meaning is not self-evident. It has a history and an authority of its own. Every religion must guard against a literal reading of its hard texts if it is not to show that it has learned nothing from history. (219)

Hard texts are a challenge to the religious imagination and to our capacity to engage in covenantal listening to God’s word as we seek to build a future that will honour the sacred legacy of the past. | The word, given in love, invites its interpretation in love. (219)

13. Relinquishing Power

Power buries those who wield it. – Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86b

What Jews discovered when they had lost almost everything else was that religion can survive without power. Instead of the Temple they had the synagogue. Instead of sacrifices they had prayer and charity. Repentance, the direct turning of the heart to God, took the place of the high priest’s service on the Day of Atonement. In place of the nation state, they had communities scattered across the world yet united by a covenantal (222) bond of mutual responsibility. Jews became the world’s first global people. (223)

The rabbis achieved what kings, priests and prophets failed to achieve in the course of a thousand years of biblical history. … A minority everywhere, they kept their identity intact, becoming the only significant minority in history to survive without assimilating to the dominant culture or convert to the majority faith. (223)

…no religions relinquishes power voluntarily. Second, it does so only when the adherents of a faith find themselves fighting, not the adherents of another religion, but their own fellow believers. (224)

You do not learn to disbelieve in power when you are fighting an enemy, even when you lose. You do when, with a shock of recognition, you find yourself using it against the members of your own people, your own broadly defined creed. (225)

Violence is what happens when you try to resolve a religious dispute by means of power. It cannot be done. Trying to resolve ultimate issues of faith, truth and interpretation by the use of force is a conceptual error of the most fundamental kind. Just as might does not establish right, so victory does not establish truth. (225)

Talking to clerical leaders, he [Alexis de Tocqueville] found ‘that most of its members seemed to retire of their own accord from the exercise of power, and that they made it the pride of their profession to abstain from politics’. The result was that although religion took no part in government, it was ‘the first of their political institutions’, providing the moral base of civic society, what he called its ‘habits of the heart’. It created communities, strengthened families and motivated philanthropic endeavours. It lifted people beyond what he saw as the great danger of democracy–individualism, the retreat of people from public life into private satisfaction. Religion strengthened the ‘art of association’, the underlying strength of American society. Relinquishing power, religion was able to avoid the inescapable danger of those who wear the mantle of politics:

The church cannot share the temporal power of the state without being the object of a portion of that animosity which the latter excites. In proportion as a nation assumes a democratic condition of society and those communities display democratic propensities, it becomes more and more dangerous to connect religion with political institutions … The American clergy were the first to perceive this truth and to act in conformity with it. They saw that they must renounce their religious influence if they were to strive for political power, and they chose to give up the support of the state rather than share in its vicissitudes. – Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Monotheism allied to power fails. (227)

The degree of unity aspired to in a total society is incompatible with human freedom and the right to disagree. Politics should be the mediation, not the suppression, of conflict. (228)

The world of politics is essentially polytheistic in the sense that every centre of power, however small and insignificant it may be, has a tendency to posit itself as an absolute entity in the world, regardless of the simultaneous existence of other centres which deem themselves equally absolute. – Eric Voegelin, Order and History

The most disastrous form of politics associated with the Abrahamic faiths is apocalyptic politics, the politics of the end of days. (231)

Apocalyptic politics is the search for revolution without transformation, change without the slow process of education. It uses power in place of persuasion, daggers instead of debate. It simplifies the issue of truth to the most elemental choice: agree or die. It is the longing for the end of time in the midst of time, the search for redemption now. That is why it suspends the normal rules that restrain people from murdering the innocent. (233)

Religion is at its best when it relies on strength of argument and example. It is at its worst when it seeks to impose truth by force. (234)

[Averroës’] words hold true for religion as well … It is not proper that we despise the words [of our adversaries], but rather we must draw them as close as we can .. Therefore it is proper, out of love of reason and knowledge, that you should not summarily reject anything that opposes your own ideas, especially so if your adversary does not intend merely to provoke you, but rather to declare his beliefs. Even if such beliefs are opposed to your own faith and religion, do not say [to your opponent], ‘Speak not, close your mouth.’ If that happens, there will take place no purification of religion.

On the contrary, you should, at such times, say, ‘Speak up as much as you want, say whatever you wish, and do not say later that had you been able to speak you would have replied further’ .. .This is the opposite of what some people think, namely, that when you prevent someone from speaking against religion, that strengthens religion. That is not so, because curbing the words of an opponent in religious matters is nothing but the curbing and enfeebling of religion itself…

When a powerful man seeks out an opponent in order to demonstrate his own strength, he very much wants his opponent to exercise as much power as he can, so that if he defeats him his own victory will be more pronounced. What strength is manifested when the opponent is not permitted to fight? … Hence, one should not silence those who speak against their religion…for to do so is an admission of weakness. – Maharal, Be’er haGolah, Jerusalem, 1972, pp. 150-51.

Religion acquires influence when it relinquishes power. (236)

When a king dies, his power ends. When a prophet dies, his influence begins. – (paraphrase of Kierkegaard)

When religion divests itself of power, it is freed from the burden of rearranging the deckchairs on the ship of state and returns to its real task: changing lives. (236)

14. Letting Go of Hate

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain. – James Arthur Baldwin

To be free, you have to let go of hate. (238)

Deuteronomy contains the word ‘love’ more than any other of the Mosaic books. (239)

Do not hate an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land. (Deut. 23:7)

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. (242)

First you have to build the future. Only then can you revisit the past without being held captive by the past. (243)

Above all: never seek revenge. Do not believe you can rectify the past by avenging it. That way you merely succeed in perpetuating the past instead of healing it. (245)

…the belief that God will avenge wrongs spares human beings from having to do so. (246)

Killing your enemy does not bring your friend back to life. Yes, we must right past wrongs, apologise, atone, acknowledge people’s sense of suffering and grievance. Bu there is no perfect justice in history, only a rough approximation, and that must do. The rest we must leave to God. (246)

Religions are culture-shaping institutions, and they include not just a theology, but also an anthropology. What we believe about God affects what we believe about ourselves. (247)

Monotheism internalises conflict, whereas myth externalises it. (247)

When bad things happen to an individual or group, one can either ask ‘Who did this to me?’ or, ‘Given that this has happened, what (247) then shall I do?’ The first is the question a dualist asks, the second is the response of a consistent monotheist. So different are these questions that they generate two modes of being: respectively a blame culture and a penitential culture. The first focuses on external cause, the second on internal response. Blame looks to the past, penitence to the future. Blame is passive, penitence active. A penitential culture is constructed on the logic of responsibility. If bad things happen to us, it is up to us to put them right. When that is a culture’s response to tragedy, a profound dignity is born. (248)

[via: This is window/mirror. We can also ask both at the same time, however. Yes?!]

Never is someone else blamed for Israel’s troubles. This is what makes Judaism a religion of guilt. (248)

Dualism creates blame cultures. (248)

15. The Will to Power or the Will to Life

The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground – (Gen. 4:10)

So it was and so it is. The entire tragedy of religious history is foreshadowed in this drama. (252)

Abel represents human mortality–a mortality that comes less from sin than from the fact that we are embodied souls in a physical world subject to deterioration and decay. (253)

Cain in Hebrew means ‘to acquire, to possess, to own’. (253)

The first man, who, having fenced in a piece of land, said ‘This is mine,’ and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: ‘Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody. – Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

Cain represents the opposite: power as ownership, ownership as power. The Hebrew word Baal, the name of the chief Canaanite god, has the same range of meanings. The root means ‘to own, to possess, to exercise power over someone or something’. That for the Bible is the ultimate idolatry. Rousseau was right. Violence begins in competition for scarce goods, of which the first is land. (254)

Cain represents the idea that what I own gives me power. (255)

Losing its religious faith, the West is beginning to lose the ideals that once made it inspiring to the altruistic: reverence, loyalty, human dignity, the relief of poverty, public service, collective responsibility, national identity and respect for religious values while at the same time making space for liberty of conscience and the peaceable co-existence of more than one faith. … Altruism misdirected can lead to evil: that has been the thesis of this book. That is why the West must recover its ideals. (256)

My point is that we still have not understood what antisemitism is and the role it plays in the legitimation of evil. It is the first warning sign of a culture in a state of cognitive collapse. It gives rise to that complex of psychological regressions that lead to evil on a monumental scale: splitting, projection, pathological dualism, dehumanisation, demonisation, a sense of victimhood, and the use of a scapegoat to evade moral responsibility. (259)

Antisemitism is a sickness that destroys all who harbour it. Hate harms the hated but it destroys the hater. There is no exception. (261)

The real clash of the twenty-first century will not be between civilisations or religions, but within them. It will be between those who accept and those who reject the separation of religion and power. Those who believe that political problems have religious solutions are deluding themselves as well as failing to understand who Abraham was and what he represented. The confusion of religion and politics was what Abraham and his heirs opposed, not what they endorsed. (262)

It is unreasonable that any should have a free liberty of their religion who do not acknowledge it as a principle of theirs that nobody ought to persecute or molest another because he dissents from him in religion – John Locke

Wars are won by weapons, but it takes ideas to win a peace. (264)

We know that we are loved. That must be enough. To insist that being loved entails that others be unloved is to fail to understand love itself. (264)

Our common humanity precedes our religious differences. That must be the basis of any Abrahamic theology capable of defeating the false god of violence and the idolatry of the pursuit of power. (264)

Fundamentalism–text without context, and application without interpretation–is not faith but an aberration of faith. (265)

The highest truth does not cast its mantle over our lowest instincts–the search for power, the urge for conquest, the use of religious language to spread the aura of sanctity over ignoble crimes. These are forms of imperialism, not faith. (265)

Terror is not a justifiable means to an acceptable end, because it does not end. (266)

Gandhi and Martin Luther King preferred non-violent civil disobedience, knowing that it spoke to the world’s conscience, not its fears. (266)

Today God is calling us, Jew, Christian and Muslim, to let go of hate and the preaching of hate, and live at last as brothers and sisters, true to our faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith, honouring God’s name by honouring his image, humankind. (267)

— via reflections —

Now, if we could only get members of ISIS to read this book.

I have appreciated Sacks’s voice for years now, as a public intellectual, as a religious leader, and as an insightful human being. His thesis is well articulated, and one that helps the reader understand more deeply the nuances of our spirituality and psychology; we need more religion, not less, if we are to fight the violence done in the name of religion. Unsurprisingly, this religion is grounded in the monotheism of Abraham, and the stranger-loving ethic of Moses. Unsurprisingly, I found Sacks’s treatment of Paul lacking, and the absence of Jesus a significant lacuna in his treatment (especially in his chapter on The Scapegoat, citing René Girard, who is himself a Christian, and who ties the general concept of Scapegoat with Jesus). But these are minor, I suppose, given that Sacks is a rabbi, and I should withhold any harsh or unreasonable expectations.

As the world advances, I did wonder, while Sacks argues that religion is the most powerful form of group identity the world has ever known, and every substitute for religion has resulted in even more violence, this may actually not be true. Secular humanism is advancing, dispelling the mythologies of religion, and creating a shared humanity that is quite peaceful. Should this be considered a different “kind” of religion? Perhaps it is no religion at all. Is this a threat to Sacks’s thesis? “Threat” may be too harsh a word. Regardless, it’s important to note that the real factors that are causing a decline in violence in the world may be quite diverse (cf. Better Angels Of Our Nature).

The bottom line, however, is that the kind of socio-religious and culturally critical writing that Sacks is doing here is not meant to be primarily an argument for or against a particular analysis, but more for a particular posture of the soul, one that values and seeks the peace of humanity, grounded and established in an intellectually robust understanding of the world. For that, I commend to you this book.

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  1. Pingback: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century | Reflections & Critical Notes | vialogue

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