Rabbi Professor Jonathan Sacks.
creates hate when it sees 'the other' as threatening. It creates reconciliation
when it sees 'the other' as enhancing."
Jonathan Sacks talks to Christopher Nield about his new book Dignity of Difference
for surefish.co.uk. To read Christopher's review click
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
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."
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'?
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
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
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?
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.
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.
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