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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Editor's note: The following is a transcript of the interview conducted by Deseret News editor Paul Edwards with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

Deseret News: I’ll begin with the same question that President Barack Obama recently asked the novelist Marilynne Robinson: Why it is that “folks who take religion the most seriously are sometimes also those who are suspicious of those not like them?”

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks: The Oxford philosopher, John Plamenatz, pointed out that the doctrine of the liberty of conscience was born in the 17th century, which was one of the most religious centuries in the history of Europe. So how do you get a very intensely religious age coming forward with those fine principles? How do you get from intense religious faith to liberty of conscience, doctrine of toleration and human rights? And the answer is, it is a very short step from saying “My faith is the most important thing there is, therefore everyone must share my faith,” to “since faith is the most important thing there is, everyone should be free to pursue his or her own faith.” It is one small step.

But I saw that step in my own childhood. When I was growing up there were not that many Jewish schools. So I went to a school that was an Anglican Church school in London called St. Mary’s, and my high school was called Christ’s College.

In both of those schools, there was a considerable number of Jewish children. And because they took their faith seriously, they took our faith seriously. At Christ’s College half the students were Jewish.

And in those days — and I think it is still true — that by an act of English law, every school had to have a daily act of worship. Because it was a Christian school and didn’t have any Jewish teachers, there was no one to take the Jewish assembly. So we were put into groups and we finished our homework.

But when I was about 16 years old the headmaster realized this was in breach of legal requirements because finishing our homework did not constitute and act of worship. So he called the Jewish boys to organize their own assembly. And there was a Christian master just to make sure nobody misbehaved. So that’s how I learned to speak in public.

And after I had given what the master at the back of the room deemed to be an interesting religious reflection one morning, the headmaster the next day called me into his study, and he said ‘Sacks, teach me something about Judaism.’ I thought, there was a man of faith who was able to make a space for my faith. So in a micro scale I saw what Plamenatz saw happening on a macro scale in the 17th century. And it clearly happens.

I was very close personally to the Archbishops of Canterbury and the Cardinal Archbishops who head the Catholic Church. Close personal friendships. And that happened because they were deeply religious and we were able to talk a common language despite the abyss, in a sense, between our beliefs. A common language really brought us together. And that is the art of communicating with Muslims.

Islam is a very profound faith which has resisted secularization more than any faith I know. To talk seriously with a Muslim you have to talk religion, not secularism. Then you establish communication.

I have never made an effort to penetrate into either Christian or Islamic theology per se. I believe that something so intrinsically personal about faith that it is very hard for somebody of one faith to fully appreciate another faith. And I don’t say that lightly, because I’ve spent a lifetime doing some of this cross-border communication. But I know there is something about Christianity and Islam that will always escape me. And I know that there is something about Judaism that will always escape a Christian or a Muslim. And I’m talking about some of the greatest scholars in the world.

In order to just do “Not In God’s Name,” I had to send it to the kind of people I sent it to. Tom Wright is probably one of the greatest scholars on Paul today. Robby George at Princeton is an outstanding Catholic public intellectual. They significantly made me change the book. So I only look at the way they treat “the other.” That’s really what I look at.

DN: How do you think Muslims will receive the arguments found in “Not in God’s Name”?

Rabbi Sacks: Now all I can talk to you about is effects. There was a meeting of lawyers the day after the book was published in Britain and it was being addressed by a Jewish lawyer who happened to be a well-known figure in the Jewish community. He was the lay head of the Jewish community. And at the end of his remarks he said, “By the way, there is a book you should read. Rabbi Sacks has just brought out a new book called 'Not In God’s Name.'" There was a Muslim lawyer in the room. He opened his briefcase and he took out a rather tattered copy of “Not In God’s Name.” And he said, “Everyone must read this book!”

When I spoke about these issues in the Houses of Parliament, there was a Muslim there — he was the first person to come up to me — again with a dog-eared copy of “Not In God’s Name.” The book had only been out a few days. He was the first person to ask me to sign his book.

Muslims came up to me to me to thank me for my book about Jewish pride. I wrote the book “Letter in the Scroll” for Jews. It doesn’t make sense for anyone else. It was serialized in the London Times. I said to the non-Jewish editor at the Times, “Why are you serializing this book? Jews are less than half a percent of the population of Great Britain.” And he replied, a non-Jew, “Because you are our chief rabbi.”

When you speak candidly of your own faith — but you make room for the other — and the other may be Christian or Muslim or a Buddhist or a Jain or Zoroastrian or an atheist — making space for the other is what I see at the very core of Abrahamic monotheism. It is the absolute otherness of God.

In Abrahamic monotheism it’s not that you mathematically reduce the gods from a lot to one. It’s that you introduce the idea that God transcends the universe. An absolutely “other.” Add to that Genesis 1 — that we are all in His image, the otherness of God leads you to make space for the otherness of human beings. I see that as the core insight in Abrahamic monotheism.

So I talk in those terms — not in highly secular terms about individual rights and autonomy (which doesn’t make any sense to a Muslim — it wouldn’t make any sense to most Christians either). Don’t talk about autonomy. Talk about God, the image of God, making space for the absolute other. And then you communicate. And Muslims really respond to this. And I’m overwhelmed by it sometimes.

I teach at New York University. Each year NYU brings over the top 25 students from the universities of the United Arab Emirates. I meet them. I am the first Jew they have met. Every single one of those 25, each time, has sent me a handwritten personal letter thanking me for the meeting, because I talk to them about Islam means to me, what I have learned from Islam. One false note would destroy that conversation. It has got to come from deep within.

Personally for me, Islam gave us that extraordinary stream of thinkers like Avicenna and Averroes and, the first people to integrate Neo-Platonism and Neo-Aristotelianism and bring it back into general discourse after the Dark Ages. And Judaism owes Maimonides to that; and Christianity owes Aquinas to that. When you tell Muslims that they start opening up.

DN: Your extended exegesis of the Genesis sibling rivalry stories says something vital about God’s love to those who accept the Hebrew bible, but I don’t think Muslims accept those same accounts.

Rabbi Sacks: The reflection of these stories in the Islamic texts is the key. They see the covenant as descending through Ishmael and they hold that the Jews falsified the Bible. So Jews and Christians share a text. Jews and Muslims never shared a text. So that made the Jewish-Islamic encounter different in kind from the Jewish-Christian one. The Christian one was always “here’s a text and this is how Jews read it.” The Islamic one never was about that. And therefore the maximum conversation with Islam came through philosophy, through Averroes and Avicenna in the 11th and 12th century.

DN: How would you try to make a modern reader, with only passing familiarity of Genesis, care about these ancient sibling rivalry narratives?

Rabbi Sacks: If I want something very badly which I feel I am entitled to, and you are standing in the way, the relationship between us is going to be fairly fraught. Let’s imagine its during the oil crisis of the 1970s and I really need to see an aging parent and the local station has just run out and it’s the last gallon left and we pull in at almost the same time.

And this is really important to me — because I don’t just want this gallon for any old purpose — my mother is dying and I have got to get there. And you are just about to put the nozzle in your car. You are standing in my way. And therefore, right now that is the most important thing in my life. To get it I have to get you out of the way.

That is really the story of Hamlet. Claudius wants the crown. His brother is the king. To get it he has to get rid of his brother. That is the story of sibling rivalry.

There is something in bird behavior called the pecking order. The first little chick that’s born is a little bigger and stronger than number two and more so than number three and therefore that bird will protect its right to first go at the food supply. Because if I don’t get enough food I may not last the winter. So it’s a matter of survival. Number two knows that if number one eats most of the food not enough is going to be left for me and I’m going to die. So I’m going to have to get him out of the way. Sibling rivalry exists in the animal kingdom.

Harvard University Press published a book on this in 1995 using that wonderful phrase from Hamlet, “A little more than kin and less than kind.” So sibling rivalry exists.

So, therefore, if the most important thing for me in the universe is most favored child of Abraham — because that then makes me most favored child of God — and you are standing in my way, then I have to get rid of you. I have to get rid of you. If I want to hold on to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, I have to deny any right to you. I have to deny there ever was a temple. I have to say you falsified your sacred scripture. And over that people fight wars. People are fighting right now as we speak.

DN: So why not consider the source of that rivalry a superstitious belief in God? Why not seek peace by taking God out of the equation?

Rabbi Sacks: There is a human need to worship. And when people don’t worship God they do what Europe did in the 19th century: they find a substitute. They found three possible substitutes.

Substitute one: the nation state. They invested it with all the rituals of religion.

Number two: the economic system — Marxist communism.

Number three: the race.

Now all these things were backed by serious philosophies and pseudo-sciences. But in the 19th century, after the very rationalist 18th century, back came that return of the repressed — that passionate desire to worship something.

There is something profound in the human need to worship something bigger than me; something that will live when I die. And no civilization has been able to do without that, ever.

There was a massive attempt in 3rd century B.C.E. Greece to eliminate it — that is what Epicurus was about. To some extent the Stoics were about it, and the Cynics and the Skeptics. Third century B.C.E. Greece is a textbook example of saying “we don’t want to worship anything at all, we just want a little bit of pleasure and a minimum of hassle.”

And by the 2nd century B.C.E. it was “Goodbye Greece! Hello Rome!” That is a civilization in terminal decline, when my private personal pleasures and satisfactions are all that matter. So, other than a civilization in terminal decline, people need something to worship. And if they don’t worship God they will worship either the nation state, or the race or the economic system.

The nation state brought us two world wars. Race brought us the holocaust. The economic and political system brought us the Gulag and the KGB. So don’t tell me that religion is the problem. We’re the problem.

God created us in his image, but he also gave us freedom and he also gave us a physical body and I don’t think he was able to solve the problem.

DN: And yet you see a role for the state. In your book “The Home We Build Together” you seem to give a strong defense for democracy.

Rabbi Sacks: I make a defense of liberal democracy as against Athenian democracy. In Athenian democracy the individual served the state. In liberal democracy the state serves the individual and gives us the freedom to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I think that’s a defensible position for a religious person to take.

DN: What is your sense of the capacity of a liberal Europe to deal with a large influx of Islamic refugees. Can Europe actually build a house together?

Rabbi Sacks: Remember, the book was “The Home We Build Together,” not the house. The house is about where you live. The home is about belonging. The home is about who you are.

So to incorporate elements within a liberal democracy they have to accept liberal democracy. I’ve said in this book [“The Home We Build Together”] how I as a Jew accept liberal democracy. It allows me to live with people of very different beliefs from mine and it keeps the peace between us because I don’t attempt to impose my views on others and they agree not to force them on me.

So the question is, is Islam compatible with liberal democracy? I don’t know the answer to that. Clearly some Muslims can and some Muslims can’t. And the question will really be a theological question for Islam. Can a Muslim live with full integrity under a non-Sharia dispensation. Jews wrestled with it. And I say in [“The Home We

Build Together”] there were two critical moments in Jewish history.

One, Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Jeremiah 29 in the 6th century B.C.E. He says, “Seek the peace and welfare of the city.” And the other in the 3rd century B.C.E. in Babylon by the teacher called Samuel who said, “The law of the land is law.” In other words, we as Jews will recognize secular law as binding law.

And Jews never had a problem with that, but then we’ve had 26 centuries of learning to live as a minority. Many Muslims do not have the experience of living as a minority under a non-Sharia dispensation. And that will be the test as far as Europe is concerned, as far as anywhere is concerned.

DN: Much of this comes down to interpretation of important theological and scriptural texts. And how do you deal with “hard texts” with regard to religious violence — such as how the prophet Samuel castigates Saul for not utterly destroying everything?

Rabbi Sacks: Samuel lived approximately 31 centuries ago. Isaiah and Micah lived in the 7th and 8th centuries B.C.E. So we’re talking about some four centuries later, approximately. So when Isaiah 2 and Micah 4 say “they shall turn their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore,” Isaiah becomes the first person in all of human history to value peace as an ideal. That same voice did not emerge in Europe until Immanuel Kant wrote about perpetual peace in the late 18th century.

So the great religions are learning organizations. And it may be that at the beginning of our history, when we were faced with genocidal enemies we had to adopt the weapons of our enemies merely to survive. But then, people continued to reflect on that. And we can already trace this.

Don’t forget — Samuel anointed David after his failure with Saul. And you will remember what the Book of Chronicles says about David. Chronicles says that when David wanted to build the temple God replied “You shall not build a house for me because you have shed much blood.”

And David was fighting battles to protect the Israelites. That is what you would call a just war, for the most part. And yet the Book of Chronicles says, even someone who is involved in a just war cannot build a temple to a God whose ultimate aim is peace.

And as you know the person who built the temple, Solomon, is called in Hebrew Shlomo, which is the same word as “shalom,” which means peace. So Chronicles says that David could not build a temple because he had been involved in war, even though it was justified war, but his son who was called “peace” could build a house to the God of peace. So you can see that Judaism is learning again and again and again, and saying is what God said to us then what he really wants us to do now. Is he telling us something that we haven’t read to the depth yet? What, of what he has said to us, was for that time only and what is for all time? And that’s really the prophetic task of every generation.

DN: What are the mechanisms within the Jewish tradition that have provided that kind of ongoing learning?

Rabbi Sacks: Absolutely fundamental to Jewish faith is this concept of two Torahs, two guides for life. Number one, the written Torah, the Mosaic books from Genesis to Deuteronomy. The second is the oral tradition — of equal weight — which is the ongoing conversation of Judaism with its own texts. In “The Home We Build Together,” I put the textual exegesis in the middle of the book and made it quite small.

Can I tell the story about Tony Blair? Tony Blair is a very religious man. But his advisors never allowed him to speak about religion in public while he was prime minister. One of the things we used to do together was study the Bible. And I would never know in advance what he wanted to study because he read the Bible every night and it would be what he had read that previous night. So I had to improvise. And we discussed all sorts of books — Jeremiah, Job, Micah. On one occasion he said: “Jonathan, I’ve got the boring bit.”

And I said: “Which boring bit, prime minister?” He said, “You know, that bit at the end of Exodus about the building of the tabernacle. Does go on a bit, doesn’t it!” Well it does, I mean it takes all of the last third of the Book of Exodus — hugely detailed. Very long story — but it was out of that textual encounter that I suddenly realized that Britain and Europe’s problems with multiculturalism were actually Moses’s problems, because there were 12 different tribes. And there was a mixed multitude. And they kept complaining. And there was no sense of the common good. And everything God did didn’t seem to help matters. He brought 10 plagues against their persecutors. He brought them out of slavery to freedom. He divided the Red Sea. He sent them manna from heaven. He gave them water from a rock. He came down in person on Mount Sinai! And none of it changed the Israelites. They remained factious and fractious and worse.

And then finally he comes up with it: “Moses, you want to create a cohesive, responsible nation? Get them to build something for me.” And I suddenly realized: it is not what God does for us that changes us, it is what we do for God.”

And basically he gave them a task: build me a sanctuary, a tabernacle. And they all became builders. And they all had something different to contribute. Some gold, some silver, some bronze. Some of their time, their skills. Some of their weaving. Drapes. And I suddenly realized: that is the metaphor for a diverse society. And once I had written the book I suddenly discovered almost by accident that John Milton had used exactly the same analogy in the 17th century (somewhere in Areopagitica I think). So Milton uses the same thing.

So when you are bringing the timeless work of God to this particular time that intersection creates some new level of understanding of texts. And that, in Judaism, we call the oral law. And we’ve been doing it for pretty much 3,000 years.

DN: I know you don’t presume to try to teach another religious tradition, per se, but given the struggle we now see within Islam itself, is there advice, counsel or wisdom you would like to share from your view of how societies can grow and learn together?

Rabbi Sacks: I have come to the conclusion, and I came to it many decades ago, that when one religion struggles with itself it is very very illuminating for other religions to see that process in action. When I look at probably the greatest Jewish thinker in American in the 20th century, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, it is absolutely clear to me that Rabbi S. learned a great deal from Kierkegaard, for instance, who is wrestling as a Christian in 19th-century Denmark. So you couldn’t get more remote from Rabbi S. But he enters into Kierkegaard’s wrestling and he comes out with a Jewish counterpart. He’s not Kierkegaard, but it’s that thing.

And what I discovered because for 22 years as Chief Rabbi of Britain I was relating to leaders and communities of all the other faiths — all of them — it was a major part of what I was doing. I found that very often Christians and Muslims would find that what I had to say was very helpful to them.

We used to have Sunday in Britain. And in the late 1980s it got deregulated so that shops could open. And I and my predecessor, the late Lord Jakobovitz were two of the most outspoken supporters of “Keep Sunday Special.”

Now it was very odd because it didn’t affect us at all. We do Saturday, you know. It’s a different thing. But we saw how important that holy time is to a culture as a whole. One day in which commercial values don’t predominate. So we saw Christians really appreciate it because we were giving them arguments; we were helping them.

Now we have been in Britain and America and Europe for a very long time, so Muslims turn to us, because they want to know how we handled things. “How did you maintain your identity in a culture the way you were a minority?” So it’s not some vague abstraction or a hope that I have that other religions will find this kind of analysis helpful. I know it, because I’ve seen it every time I do it.

When I first did that thing about Isaac and Ishmael, you know with the early reference to Islam, I wrote a little piece in the London Times, and a lot of Christian and Muslim leaders said, “Wow. I never saw it that way!”

So with all of these books I road test them first, in real life. So I road tested “Not in God’s Name” for years. God loves variety. There are 20,000 different kinds of tree. Why didn’t he simplify? You know, one tree is good. But there are 20,000! God talks to us, we talk to him, so why isn’t there one language? There are 6,000 different languages. Because every language has something you can say in that language that you can’t say as well in any other language. God loves diversity. And if that applies to physical things it certainly applies to spiritual.

For me, one of the most important lines of all is the opening of Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my salvation, who then shall I fear? God is the refuge of my life, of whom then shall I be afraid?"

Faith should banish fear. Fundamentalism is the religion of fear. You put up your defenses. You see the world as against you. I don’t read that in the Bible anywhere. I read: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for You are with me.” To me that was a very powerful work.

You know the Natan Sharansky story? He was one of the Refuseniks in Russia. The KGB threw him in prison for wanting to go to Israel. He was imprisoned for 12 or 13 years. He became very famous. He was a great mathematician and a great chess player. His wife was religious. He wasn’t. Before he was imprisoned by the KGB, she gave him as a last parting gift a little book of Psalms in Hebrew to keep his spirits up when he was in prison.

The KGB saw this and realized that this was going to give him strength, so they confiscated it. In the end he mounted a campaign, which became an international campaign, and after three years they gave it back to him.

The trouble was, Sharansky couldn’t read Hebrew. But he was a brilliant mathematician, so he treated Hebrew as a code, and eventually he broke the code and was able to decode the Hebrew book of Psalms.

And he tells the story in his autobiography of how he decoded this, and he was suddenly decoding Psalm 23 and he decoded those words: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for you are with me.”

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And at that point he had a mystical experience. He said, “I suddenly felt God was saying those words to me in prison.” And he called his autobiography, “Fear No Evil.” And he carries the Book of Psalms wherever he goes.

So, I see faith as the great antidote to fear. I wrote a book once called “The Politics of Hope.” Tony Blair received the first copy. Gordon Brown wrote the forward to the paperback edition. What I see in the world today is the politics of fear. Religious leaders have a duty to construct the politics of hope.