Wrestling with humanity

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s ‘Not in God’s Name’ tackles head on the phenomenon of religious violence.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (photo credit: BLAKE EZRA PHOTOGRAPHY)
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Make no mistake about it: Jonathan Sacks is eloquent.
When the former British chief rabbi appears on National Public Radio, he skillfully defends the values dear to him and holds his own with any interviewer – displaying his erudition in a most accessible way. In person he also commands an audience with his clarity of focus and expression and ability to rustle up relevant quotes on the spot.
But like anyone else, Sacks’s eloquence can extend only to those subjects on which he is an expert.
His most recent book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, has three sections. The first is a straightforward review of current events and history, with an analysis that sets the stage for the latter half of the book. This section, however, would have been better if it had been written by an expert in the field, instead of a synthesis from even the most brilliant of writers.
To explain why Judaism rejected dualism for monotheism, Sacks writes movingly of how monotheism is “turning what would otherwise be war on the battlefield into a struggle within the soul.”
“Not the clash of titans on the field of battle but the quiet inner drama of choice and will, restraint and responsibility.”
He continues by emphasizing the value to the Bible of creating flawed characters and portraying them as such. Why do we need to know of Moses’s temper and David’s adultery? “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.”
Sacks attempts to create a theologically based counter-narrative to the one created around the world – and seen germinating in Israel over the last few months – of the need for violence to intervene to solve modern problems. He believes those who advocate violence are misreading religious texts, and if they correct their understanding, they will act differently.
The questions Sacks asks and answers here are important ones.
“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, but then, in the light of cues or clues within the text, reveal a second level of meaning beneath?”
Regarding the story of Cain and Abel, he writes: “What if it turned out to be God’s way of saying to us 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?”
Sacks goes on to make a persuasive and important case for why we should see the Bible as he does. He writes, “Isaac has been chosen for a specific destiny, but Ishmael has not been rejected – at least not by God.” He continues by saying that this continuity of relationship with Ishmael – and the fact that “Ishmael is not vilified... that is the masterstroke of the narrative. Despite the fact that Abraham, Sarah and Isaac are the heroes of the story as a whole, in the two crucial scenes in the desert our imaginative sympathies are with Hagar and her child.”
Sacks is to be commended for taking his voice of moderation to such a large and important religious problem – that of violence carried out supposedly to further divine ends.
He does a wonderful analysis of multiple biblical texts, teaching readers that “[the Hebrew Bible] is forcing us to see that the Other, the outsider, the one who stands outside our circle of salvation, is also human – that to be human is a mix of good and bad – and to wrestle with that fact as Jacob wrestled with the angel.”
Not in God’s Name
recently won a 2015 National Jewish Book Award in Modern Jewish Thought and Experience. But that does not mean, like the biblical heroes it discusses so well, that it is not without flaws.