What's the difference?
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Date: October 2002

Jonathan Sacks

Chief Rabbi Professor Jonathan Sacks.

"Religion creates hate when it sees 'the other' as threatening. It creates reconciliation when it sees 'the other' as enhancing."


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks talks to Christopher Nield about his new book Dignity of Difference for surefish.co.uk. To read Christopher's review click here.

fish: The title of your book suggests that the 'dignity of difference' is the way to avoid 'the clash of civilisations'. Can you explain what you mean by these terms, and what causes the tension between them?

JS: Civilisations clash when one seeks to impose itself on another. The five examples I gave were ancient Greece (the Alexandrian empire), Rome, medieval Christianity and Islam and the European enlightenment. The sixth is the one we're living through -- global capitalism and its attendant culture, which Benjamin Barber graphically described as "McWorld."

The dignity of difference is the opposite principle -- that no civilization should seek to impose itself on others, because (like biodiversity) difference enlarges our world, and any loss of difference diminishes it. What I call the dignity of difference is a principled anti-imperialism, cultural as well as military.

fish: You quote Jonathan Swift's observation that we have 'we have just enough religion to make us hate one another but not enough to make us love one another'. How can religion create so much hate, yet at the same time be such a powerful force for, as you say, 'conflict-resolution'?

JS: Since the Second World War -- especially in the wake of the Holocaust -- religions for the first time began talking seriously to one another. That was one of the most important developments in modern civilization.

However, this has not gone very far. It has happened mainly in the West, mostly between Judaism and Christianity, and even there has not really touched the grass roots. So there is much work to be done.

I have tried in the book to give a religious justification for valuing religious difference – taking as my proof text the first 12 chapters of Genesis, in other words from creation to Abraham, the background that the three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) share.

Religion creates hate when it sees 'the other' as threatening. It creates reconciliation when it sees 'the other' as enhancing. Far too little use has been made of religion as a conflict-resolution resource.

fish: In many ways, your book is a meditation on the book of Genesis. It's almost as if we have to go back to our very origins to understand the hyper-modern. For you, why does Genesis seem so relevant to today?

JS: Genesis is the world's first and greatest 'global' text. Its early chapters are about the human situation as such: about creation, freewill, responsibility, and sibling rivalry. Globalisation is one of the forces (there are others: environmental ethics and the decoding of the humane genome, for example) that are making us go back to first principles and ask: what are we, what are our responsibilities to others and to the natural world, what constitutes freedom for all, not just some, and what are the moral implications of the equality of persons under the sovereignty and in the image of G-d?

This is not the first time Western civilization has been forced to go 'back to the Bible'. The seventeenth century was another, especially in Britain and America. It happens when we feel ourselves in the midst of epoch-making change, which is our state today.

fish: You state that there is a difference between God and religion, and no single faith is or should be the faith of all humanity. Isn't this close to relativism? Is it a problem for you as a Rabbi if people take you, or mistake you, for a relativist?

JS: I am not a relativist. The simplest example I can give is language. English, French, Italian and German are different ways of describing reality. Each has its own character. There are things we can say in one that we cannot say in another. None threatens the existence of the others. None diminishes the dignity of the others. The great faiths are like languages.

I am (not a relativist but) a particularist. The Noahide covenant is Judaism's universal code; the covenant at Sinai is its particularist code. Judaism is a particular faith in a universal G-d. This is a difficult idea but an exceptionally important one.

fish: You describe two simultaneous, yet opposite, cultural forces in the world today: globalisation and tribalism. One is pulling us together while the other is pushing us apart. How do we resolve this dilemma?

JS: The art is to combine global responsibility with respect for local cultures. One of the great examples in the past was the Ottoman empire, which tended to respect the integrity of the many different religions and cultures under its ambit. The World Bank, under James Wolfenson, is trying very hard to establish parameters for developmental aid which goes with the grain of local cultures instead of obliterating them.

fish: You argue very strongly that the market economy is the best way for alleviating poverty; and yet the gap between rich and poor is wider then ever. What's needed is tzedakah, or social justice. What would global capitalism with a conscience look like?

JS: Two of the best examples I cited in the book were Jubilee 2000, a programme of international debt relief based on the biblical idea of the Jubilee Year, and the current programme to extend education to every child on the planet (113 million children are still denied this basic right).

The world's advanced economies still spend too little of their GNP on international aid. They must do more. At the same time, that aid has to be properly distributed, with transparency and accountability.

fish: In the Hebrew Bible you find a key source of ecological awareness: like Adam we are trustees of earth on behalf of God. What are your thoughts on the recent World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg?

JS: I'm not sure how much these global summits achieve. They are often too big, too politicized, too confrontational. That was certainly the case with the now notorious Conference against Racism at Durban last year. Yet if they achieve only a heightened awareness of a problem, they do some good. Certainly the environmental movement, which gained momentum in the 1970s, has changed the thinking of politicians and publics throughout much of the world.

fish: One of the most bizarre and beautiful ideas in the Hebrew Bible is that the creator of the universe would stoop to make a covenant with an individual, Abraham and later his people. It is this idea of covenant that concludes your book. Why is it so vital?

JS: Covenant is one of the most remarkable and distinctive ideas of the Hebrew Bible. It tells us that what matters is not what exists, but the relationship between persons. It suggests that a free society is one in which citizens share a moral code, an ethical vision, and a bond of mutual responsibility. It is a way of constructing relationships on the basis, not of power or monetary exchange, but of shared obligation. It tells us that beings as utterly disparate as finite mankind and infinite God can none the less share a moral universe. It creates space for a multiplicity of relationships.

Covenantal thinking is quite different from that developed by the ancient Greeks, which has tended to dominate Western civilization for the past 2,000 years. It defines faith (emunah) not as a mode of knowledge but as the kind of relationship that generates trust. Apart from ancient Israel, it had an enormous influence on the development of the United States, whose founding fathers were steeped in the Hebrew Bible. It is, I believe, an idea for our time.

> Read the review of Jonathan Sacks' book

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