Thoughts On “Not In God’s Name”, The Latest Book From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

I recently finished reading Not In God’s Name, Rabbi Sacks’ book on the topic of religious violence, and his propositions in attempt to resolve it. Rabbi Sacks, apparently, has been working on this book (at least in some capacity) for the last 12 years, and I’ve been waiting for my copy for the last 8 months, ever since it was announced and released in Britain. As was to be expected from things out of Rabbi Sacks’ study, it was well worth the wait, and was an engaging, challenging, intriguing, intelligent, enjoyable read.

For one, I found myself constantly ear-marking pages, and highlighting various sentences, paragraphs, and sometimes even full pages. The book is full of useful information, and is the sort of thing that you’ll no doubt want to keep on your shelf for future reference.

In speaking with a friend of mine — a man who is perhaps one of the largest fans of Rabbi Sacks on planet Earth; and who has, as such, read just about every word the man has ever written — we came to realization that at this point in Rabbi Sacks’ career, so much of what he writes is repetitious. Much of what Rabbi Sacks has been publishing as of late can be skimmed, more than read, if you’re somewhat that keeps somewhat current with Rabbi Sacks’ writings. You know, he has his many, well-articulated points, and he sort of recycles them throughout his different areas of influence (books, speeches, radio shows, etc.). Indeed, Not In God’s Name is no different. There were a number if paragraphs that were straight-up copy-and-paste jobs from elsewhere in Rabbi Sacks’ liturgy. This is not so much a bad thing — often key points have to be repeated and really hammered home in order to have an impact. And if Rabbi Sacks has already perfectly articulated incredibly important points elsewhere — and he certainly has — why re-write them? Again, it’s not so much a bad thing as much as it just made reading this book go faster (if, again, you’ve read, or heard, much of Rabbi Sacks before).

The book is broken up into 3 parts. The first part discusses where violence in the world comes from, and how it intersects with religion. In the course of a few chapters, Rabbi Sacks makes an absolutely compelling argument that violence is not at all an outgrowth of religion, but rather, very often, the other way around. Religion, as it were, becomes a tool to increase violence and war. But considering that humans naturally form groups, and break into Us and Them, violence is a natural part of our world — religion aside.

Surely, I am not doing the argumentation justice. Nor do I want to. You should read the book. As a Jew living in this time, it’s a crucial thing to read. Written for the general public — it is absolutely not directed (only) at Orthodox Jews — it is a critical work to arrive on the scene now, what with all the “new Atheists” championing their claims of how disastrous, violent, and dangerous religion is. The first part of Not In God’s Name is a direct response to these claims, and while I am no doubt biased, I honestly feel that Rabbi Sacks comes out ahead. Modern atheists largely point at the Middle East to back their claim. But with studies, statistics, history, logic, and reason on his side, Rabbi Sacks takes on, and very much rebuts, the claim of religious violence head on. And these are arguments that a Jew living in the 21st century should absolutely be equipped with. If for no other reason than for Part 1 alone, Not In God’s Name is a must read for all.

And then you arrive at Part 2, in which Rabbi Sacks promises to offer radical reinterpretations of the opening few chapters of Bereishis in order to show that the Bible, and thus God, very much loves all people on Earth, and does not want us to fight. He speaks a lot about sibling rivalry, and shows how the stories in Bereishis are meant to bring out our sympathy for those on the “loosing side” of things. The thrust of Part 2 is very much to show that Jews, Christians, and Muslims were never meant to fight. We each have our own, respective positions in the world. And while the Jews might be “chosen”, that doesn’t change the fact that we are all “brothers” and are meant to get along well with one another. Such feelings of sympathy, empathy, and love — even, and especially, for those not “chosen” by God — clearly emerge from Rabbi Sacks’ readings of the Bereishis narratives.

Indeed, I do not think that Rabbi Sacks re-readings of Bereishis are so radical at all. He addresses the stories of Cain and Hevel, Avraham and Yishmael, Yaakov and Eisav, and Yosef and his brothers. I’ve heard shiurim and lectures from Rabbi Sacks on these very stories in the past — and Part 2 of Not In God’s Name is very much just a written version of these lectures. Many of them appear to absolutely be pshat in the stories, and many points that Rabbi Sacks makes are also made by Rishonim. Perhaps his readings of these texts — as they are indeed not literal — is radical to Islam or Christianity. But to Judaism? I didn’t find them radical at all. Which is a good thing — it was the claims of “radical re-readings of Bereishis” that made me a touch nervous about the book in the first place. Instead, I think we just got very compelling pshat explanations. True, Rabbi Sacks certainly stretches things a little bit — and makes a couple of assumptions, as we all do, along the way — in order to really drive home his point. I’m not sure that things are always as crystal clear as Rabbi Sacks presents them, but by and large, it’s hard to say that Rabbi Sacks’ readings of these texts is anything other than correct. It was beautiful to read, and offers great clarity and appreciation for these stories we have heard so many times. And, of course, drives home Rabbi Sacks’ point that there was always meant to be peace between the Abrahamic religions.

Part 3, finally, is a wrap-up of sorts. Rabbi Sacks reiterates and clarifies many points he made previously. He also offers advice and optimism towards the future in which we could, in theory, find peace amongst the three major religions of the world. It already happened between Christians and Jews — why can’t Islam, eventually, be a part of this as well? It simply requires an understanding of how violence starts, and an understanding that literal, “fundamentalist” approaches to the text of the Bible are actually against proper tradition and the “fundamental” approach to religion they claim to represent.

The book did a very good job at what it set out to do. I need not harp on that point. Go get yourself a copy and read it. Like The Great Partnership before it, I think it is necessary reading for any thinking person on the planet. Really.

The one issue I have with the book, though, is that of pluralism. Rabbi Sacks repeatedly makes the point that there is a global covenant between God and all men (which would include Christians and Muslims), and then a smaller covenant made just with the Jewish people. As such, all humans are beloved in the eyes of God, and a part of His creation and ultimate plan (in so many words). Non-Jews are not to be hated or looked down upon, and so forth. This much is clear, and this much I absolutely agree to, without hesitation.

But a global covenant is one thing. Idolatry is another. Christianity is idolatry. And both Christianity, and Islam, from a Jewish perspective, are false. From a Jewish perspective, one cannot believe in Islamic law and philosophy — that the Torah has been falsified (and so on). And more so Christianity, which certainly believes in the falsification of the Torah, in addition to violating the laws of idolatry vis-a-vis Jesus. From a Jewish perspective, these things must be declared false and wrong. Certainly, this would not allow us to hate or look down upon practicers of other religions, but it would allow us to declare them misguided or inaccurate. According to Judaism, the proper service of God is either, if you are a Jew, to observe all the laws, or if you are not a Jew (that global covenant we’ve spoken so much about), to follow the seven Noahide laws. But nowhere is it considered acceptable to practice another religion! How could it be? If Judaism is the “truth”, as we believe, then by definition all else is false. Christianity and Judaism are mutually exclusive. They cannot both be write. One is true, and one is false. (Or I suppose both could be false; but they cannot both be true.) To say otherwise is pluralism, something Judaism has never believed in. To say otherwise is absolutely not Orthodox. And this issue — the issue I most hoped, and was pretty sure, Rabbi Sacks would address in the book — is not addressed at all in Not In God’s Name. Which is disappointing, but also makes me wonder what Rabbi Sacks’ true position on the issue is.

A global covenant is fine. We believe in that. But it is the Noahide laws. Not Christianity or Islam. I understand, as this book so nicely argues, that we should all embrace each other in love all the same, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is difficult — it not impossible — to accept from a Jewish perspective that Muslims or Christians are also fulfilling the will of God all the same as well.

That issue of pluralism aside, Not In God’s Name is highly recommended reading for all, and is a worthwhile addition to anyone’s library.

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