Pedagogy of difference: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and education

The educational import of Rabbi Sacks’s open but religiously grounded social philosophy comes down to one simple truth: To know oneself.

Pope Benedict, Jonathan Sacks 311 (photo credit: (L’Osservatore Romano/Reuters))
Pope Benedict, Jonathan Sacks 311
(photo credit: (L’Osservatore Romano/Reuters))
 Like many others, my work has been deeply influenced by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I had the privilege of meeting him twice, once at a London conference on Jewish identity and a second time at a Cambridge University lecture on science and religion. I was overwhelmed by his eloquent ability to negotiate the dynamic complexities between traditional Judaism and academic philosophy. But the real impact of his ideas on my work came when I read his wonderful little book, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations. In that book, Sacks challenged what he called “universal monotheism.” According to this view, not only is there one true God, but also only one proper way to worship that God, which ought to be imposed, by force or violence if necessary, on those who either do not recognize this universal divinity or do not follow the correct cannons of worship.
Sacks referred to this interpretation of monotheism as the “ghost of Plato.” It reflects Plato’s absolutist politics according to which the true nature of justice should permeate all discourse in a well-ordered society, including schooling at every level. The idea that society should serve a universal understanding of truth and goodness made its way through medieval thought into several influential interpretations of Christianity and Islam, and later into modern political ideologies of both the Right and the Left. It has also impacted several streams in Jewish life, both political and religious, although as Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Sacks refrained from drawing this conclusion and even famously altered some of his text to accommodate critics.
This attitude has devastating consequences for how one conceives public deliberations in diverse societies and an education that would enable participation in those deliberations. It justifies, even encourages, inculcation in belief and unbelief through an especially aggressive form of what educational philosophers call indoctrination, instruction that undermines moral agency, rather than through nurture, formation, persuasion, or education. Religious educator John Hull referred this indoctrinary attitude disparagingly as “religionism,” which entails cultivating devotion to one faith by debasing another, a critique that can be applied with equal concern to several nonreligious worldviews as well.
Plato’s universalistic understanding of society also generated a uniform conception of the person to be educated, which has reverberated across the generations. Sacks, on the other hand, held that the Hebrew Bible offers an alternative concept of humanity. To be human, on this account, is to be a reflection of God – different, not the same; special; unique; singular; in a word, holy. But to be like God in the biblical sense is not to be a god as understood in the ancient Near East. As portrayed in Exodus, for example, the Egyptian Pharaoh saw himself as entitled to enslave others because he thought that the universe was centered on him. The biblical view, on the other hand, is expressed in the first chapters of Genesis, according to which every human being is a mirror of the Divine. Hence, the quintessential expression of one’s holiness is to be found in acknowledging and preserving the uniqueness of others, not in centering on the self.
The consequence of this conception of personhood is what Sacks called “particular monotheism.” In this view, although there is one God, there may be multiple ways to worship that God, provided adherence to the principles of basic decency found in the seven Noahide laws. This is the position of classical Judaism according to Sacks. In principle, this inclusive attitude might even embrace those who refrain from formal worship or faith in God altogether, on the condition that each person’s dignity is recognized. Treating people as if they were created in God’s image is counted by many sages as equivalent to faith in the Divine.
Cultivating such an other-centered yet unique sense of self requires an education grounded in dialogue within and among communities. Such an education fosters a robust individuality, encumbered in a tradition that is at once capable of inspiring a sense of obligation toward others, yet also able to engage others whose sources of inspiration and obligation may be very different than one’s own. This sort of rooted openness can be cultivated through two complimentary pedagogies. One initiates into particular faith traditions, cultures or worldviews. The other juxtaposes one position to another. I have called the first “pedagogy of the sacred” and the second, “pedagogy of difference.”
Pedagogy of the sacred is concerned with initiation into a worldview that can form the basis of one’s primary identity. This entails the acquisition of cherished ideals through instruction in a vision of how to live a good life – its languages and history, stories, songs and dances, customs and ceremonies, and beliefs, values and practices. Clearly, faith traditions constitute one important option for such an identity-shaping worldview; but nonreligious ethical orientations can also serve this role. These worldviews outline a curriculum for discovering worthwhile lives within learning communities devoted to visions of a higher good that are prepared to engage alternative perspectives in dialogue. I have called them “intelligent spiritualties.” But how is it possible to generate such a dialogue?
This is where pedagogy of difference comes into play. It involves instruction from or about worldviews other than one’s own. The former encourages students to learn lessons from one tradition or another that might be applicable to their lives; the latter refers to studying a worldview from the outside, so to say, phenomenologically, as it might be experienced by the faithful, or culturally, in its historical or political context. Pedagogy of difference exposes students to alternative perspectives, beyond those into which they have been initiated through pedagogy of the sacred. One learns to critique, not only according to the internal standards of traditions to which one is heir or with which one has chosen to affiliate but also according to the criteria of at least one alternative, if not more. Each orientation is strengthened, not weakened, in this sort of critical dialogue, through a process of mutual learning.
The point of such an engagement is the same for both faith-based and common schools, the one serving a single religious community (such as state religious schools in Israel or Jewish day schools abroad) and the other a community of communities that encompasses multiple approaches to belief and unbelief (such as state general schools in Israel and abroad). It is to empower students with an inquisitive attitude toward the worldviews to which they are heir or with which they choose to affiliate and to promote respect for perspectives deeply different from their own. This is accomplished by subjecting all perspectives to critical scrutiny, both from within and without, in ways that are appropriate to the educational setting in question.
This application of Sacks’s theology of difference to education has far reaching consequences for policy and practice at all levels. In contrast to pedagogy of the oppressed associated with Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, which tends to homogenize cultures in a multicultural classroom in order to equalize power relations, pedagogy of difference reflects the spirit of value pluralism associated with British political philosopher Isaiah Berlin. This spirit demands respect in school for various cultures, traditions, and worldviews without diminishing their distinctiveness. Pedagogy of difference also embraces the other-centered humanism associated with French phenomenologist Emanuel Levinas. This ethic calls us to take responsibility for others with the response of the Hebrew prophets: “hineini – here I am, ready to serve,” precisely because, not in spite, of their differences.
For example, funded by the European Commission of Higher Education and in collaboration with institutions of higher learning in Spain, Lithuania, Romania, Czech Republic, United Kingdom and Georgia, the University of Haifa coordinated initiatives at Gordon Academic College of Education, Achva Academic College and Sapir Academic College in a project entitled “DARE: Developing Programs for Access of Disadvantaged Groups of People and Regions to Higher Education.” Following Sacks’s To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, this project used pedagogy of difference to promote access to higher education for marginalized populations, including cultural minorities and disabled students. It demonstrated that each group offers important new perspectives to the diverse conversations of higher education.
Similarly, with support from the Templeton World Charity Foundation, a team of researchers at the University of Haifa and the Technion are exploring dialogue between science and religious education in Israeli high schools – secular and religious, Jewish and Arab – using pedagogy of difference. In keeping with Sacks’s The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, this project is particularly important at a time of pandemic when religious communities around the world experience tensions between cherished faith commitments and the role of science in protecting public health.
Finally, in partnership with the Office of the Chief Scientist of the Education Ministry, a University of Haifa research team is examining this sort of dialogical pedagogy in the middle-school curriculum according to the spirit of Sacks’s most recent book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times. Through interdisciplinary learning and teaching in the arts and humanities, this project will prepare students to draw on multiple and even conflicting sources of value and truth to address complex social problems such as those arising from the pandemic. 
The educational import of Rabbi Sacks’s open but religiously grounded social philosophy comes down to one simple truth: To know oneself, one must engage others in dialogue, but to properly engage others, one must also know oneself. And through this engagement, one bears witness to the presence of God, in this world and toward the next.
May his memory be a blessing!
The writer is professor of philosophy of education at the University of Haifa and president of the Religious Education Association. His book Reimagining Liberal Education: Affiliation and Inquiry in Democratic Schooling (Bloomsbury, 2015) grounds pedagogy of difference in Sacks’s thought.