Interview on NPR’s ‘Interfaith Voices’

November 19, 2015
interfaith voices post

In November 2015, NPR posted:

On Friday, 13th November we sat down with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to talk about his new book, Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence.

We had no idea how timely this book, and our conversation, would become; just hours later, terrorists from the self-proclaimed Islamic State unleashed a series of mass shootings and suicide bombings on multiple sites in Paris.

The former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain helps us understand what draws people to religious violence and how it can be stopped.

NPR Presenter:

Why would God create a world to which tragedies like Paris could happen? It's not so much why does God do things, but when is God, what are the moments in which God is present.

Maureen Fiedler:

Today, as the world reels from a string of attacks linked to a group that calls itself the Islamic State, we're taking a break from all the day-to-day reporting to draw from a deeper well.

Rabbi Sacks:

My hope is that we will see that human beings worship God in many different ways and that God actually loves diversity.

Maureen Fiedler:

Two of the world's most beloved spiritual leaders, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Rabbi Harold Kushner, join us to offer words of solace and wisdom as the world mourns.

We begin with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain. We happened to interview him just hours before the attacks on Paris, and we talked about his new book called, and this is kind of amazing, Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence.

Let's zero in on the contemporary fundamentalist violence that we see with this group called ISIS or the Islamic State. Is that violence, in your view, coming out of a religious conviction of some kind, or is it a recruitment tool to cover an ethnic or political goal?

Rabbi Sacks:

ISIS quite clearly has a political goal. There's no doubt about that. It seeks to, and in fact claims to have reestablished the Caliphate, which is really a political entity whose last appearance was the Ottoman Empire that was disbanded in 1922. So it has political goals, but ISIS is beginning, middle, and end a religious movement, profoundly religious. It is deeply based on the Quran and the Hadith. It has a very clear sense of living near the end of time, the final victory of God over the enemies of God. And its aim by establishing the Caliphate is to establish Islam as a major power in the world. So as all the people who've studied ISIS, or even the few people who have lived with it make clear, it is a deeply, deeply religious movement.

Maureen Fiedler:

And a lot of people looking at it to say, "Where did it come from?" Because even 10, 15 years ago, you couldn't find something called ISIS. Why did it arise now?

Rabbi Sacks:

I think what happened was after the defeat of Turkey in the First World War, Turkey went through this, it was the first Islamic country to go through this deep secularisation. And along with it went something called secular Arab nationalism, which brought secular rulers to power in Egypt, in Syria, in Iraq, indeed in Iran as well. So what we are seeing now, partly as a result of the Arab spring and the complex turbulences that that set emotion is what is called a religious counter-revolution. It's a profound disappointment with secular nationalism to deliver open government, equality, prosperity.

I think ISIS and Al-Qaeda and similar groups are driven by a deep sense of humiliation, "We want to raise the standing of Islam in the world. And since the secularists failed, let us succeed by going back to the way Islam was in the days of Muhammad himself, back in the seventh century, back in the sixth century."

Maureen Fiedler:

And by recreating the Caliphate?

Rabbi Sacks:

Yeah.

Maureen Fiedler:

Now, even a lot of young Europeans and young Americans, a few of them anyway, are leaving home to join ISIS. And I have to say, this is a real mystery to me. What do you think attracts young people to join this fundamentalist and indeed violent group?

Rabbi Sacks:

A search for meaning, a search for belonging and identity, and a sense of wanting to make sacrifice for something bigger than them. It is very curious. I mean, these people are not very often driven by poverty or oppression. The British kids who go and join ISIS in Syria do not particularly come from poor families. They've had a good British education. Britain does not marginalise any religious group. And so, it's a puzzle to everyone. But these are young people who feel, "I want to belong to something. I want to dedicate my life to something. And even give up my life for something."

And I think very often, I mean, you feel this in Europe. Europe has rather lost its classic Judeo-Christian ethic. So what you get is a lot of stuff driven by the market and by consumerism and by advertising, and people don't want that. They want something much more meaningful. And if the good guys aren't offering it, then they will get it from the bad guys.

Maureen Fiedler:

So how do you reach out to these young people or to those who are involved in this religious extremist movement?

Rabbi Sacks:

I did not write this book to turn extremists into moderates. I wrote this book to give courage and confidence to the moderates to remain moderates and not become extremists. And that is terribly important, because right now, the voices that are the loudest and the angriest and the images that dominate the airwaves of not just television, but the social media, Facebook, YouTube, and so on, are angry and extremist and violent voices and violent images. And it's as if the moderates have been devoiced.

Now, the moderates are a huge majority in Islam, but they don't always find people speaking up for them. So I said, "Well, what can I do? I'm not a Muslim, but on the other hand, I know Muslims," like Akbar Ahmed, who is a tremendous humanitarian and an outstanding ambassador for all that's good in Islam. And I wanted to say to people like Akbar, people like the Archbishop of Canterbury, who's also working for peace between faiths, let us go out there and make young people feel that if we really want to seek altruism, let's do it by bringing people together instead of driving people apart.

Maureen Fiedler:

And of course, that's sort of the quintessence of your interfaith dialogue that you've had with folks that are Muslim or Christian or probably a dozen other faith traditions over your years, if I'm not mistaken.

Rabbi Sacks:

Yeah. And I wanted in the book to give a sense of the drama here. Because if you just take the Bible, the first two human children perform the first recorded religious act, they bring an offering to God. And the end result of that is sibling rivalry, and Cain kills Abel. So the Bible's very honest with us. It's telling us at the beginning. Don't think religion is always peaceful. People, when they get really upset, can use religion to justify violence. And no doubt, Cain was saying, "God, if you didn't like my first offering, which was just a grain offering, I'm going to bring you a human sacrifice. I'm going to kill my brother." And God has to say to Cain, "Your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground." God had to protest.

And so, what I'm really saying is just look at this drama. Don't think religion is easy, "All I need to do do is have faith and everyone else have faith and we'll have peace in the world." No, it's a drama. There are the better angels of our nature and the worst angels. And sometimes we tell ourselves that God is speaking to those worst angels, and he isn't.

Maureen Fiedler:

And you cover a lot of sibling rivalries in your book, the ones that are in the scriptures, like for example, Esau and Jacob, and Leah and Rachel, and what are the important lessons from these sibling rivalries, which we see all through the scriptures there? What can they teach us about religion and violence? What's the essence?

Rabbi Sacks:

Well, the very greatest scholar on these themes just died a couple of days ago, and that was Professor René Girard, a Frenchman who taught in America, and published back in the 1970s a very, very important book called Violence and the Sacred. And he said the primary driver of human violence is basically sibling rivalry.

Did you ever see two young children, and one of them gets a new toy? The other one immediately wants it. Now, they never wanted it before, but because he has it, I want it. And they start fighting. And that is where violence is born. Of course, we dress it up a bit more when we're grown up, but it's the same basic drive. This wanting what somebody else has or wanting to be what somebody else is. That is sibling rivalry. And Girard said that that is the basic source of most human violence.

Now, if you look at the Book of Genesis, you will see that Genesis absolutely agrees. Here we have four stories of rivalry between brothers, Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. So when you first read Genesis, it looks as if we are destined to fight. But actually, if you read Genesis carefully, as I've tried to do in the book, you'll see it tells a different story.

And the simplest way of explaining this is to say, "Look at the last scene in each case." The last scene of Cain and Abel, Abel is dead. The last scene in Isaac and Ishmael, they're standing together at Abraham's grave. The last scene of Jacob and Esau, they meet, they kiss, they embrace, and then they go their separate ways. The last scene in Joseph and his brothers, forgiveness and reconciliation. So the Bible is telling us an upward curve, and it's telling us that sibling rivalry is not inevitable. It does not have to end in bloodshed and tears, because we need to move from Cain and Abel to Joseph and his brothers, where there can be forgiveness and reconciliation even after some of the worst quarrels and real animosity.

Maureen Fiedler:

One sentence in your book seems to put the question of violence very succinctly, and I'm quoting here, "Dividing the world into sinners and saints, the saved and the damned, the children of God versus the children of the devil is the first step down the road to violence in the name of God." What then is the first step down the road to peace?

Rabbi Sacks:

Well, if you look very carefully at the Bible, one thing is so clear to me, everyone in the Bible is a mix of light and shade. If you think of a really not very nice guy, Pharaoh, who enslaves the Israelites and orders their male children to be killed. But even Pharaoh, who's not a nice man at all, has a daughter who rescues Moses, adopts him, gives him his name, so even Pharaoh can give rise to this incredibly righteous daughter. So we're all a mix of light and shade.

Now, that it seems to me is one of the biggest contributions monotheism ever made to the world. If there's only one God, then he created light and darkness. And if each one of us is in his image, then we too are a mix of light and darkness, and we have to listen to God to know which is the light and which is the darkness, and choose the light and avoid the dark. And that I think is what monotheism is all about. It's about one God, one humanity.

Maureen Fiedler:

And so, let me apply that to a specific place, because your book focuses on nonviolence among those with differences. What does this say to you about the relations in Israel and Palestine today? Which is certainly one of the most troubled areas on Earth.

Rabbi Sacks:

I would say to Israelis, "You believe as I believe in the Hebrew Bible, and it says, 'Don't oppress the stranger because you know what it feels like to be a stranger.' So put yourself in the position of a young Palestinian and feel his or her pain."

And I would say to the Palestinians, "Put yourself in the position of a young Israeli, whose ancestors grew up in this land, who were exiled from it, who have now returned, and who, while they were exiled, suffered some of the worst persecution ever known to any people on the face of the Earth. Don't just think about your own pain. Think about the other person's pain."

Right now, Israelis are thinking about their pain, Palestinians are thinking about their pain, and they are not thinking good thoughts about one another. All we have to do is to do that very difficult thing. I don't say it's easy at all, of role reversal. And all of a sudden, you might just train a young generation with the necessary breadth of mind and strength of moral courage, finally, to make peace.

Maureen Fiedler:

We are talking to the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. He joined us in the studio last Friday, just hours before the attacks on Paris to share his latest book, which I had no idea would become so immediately relevant. It's called Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence. Stay with us.

I'm Maureen Fiedler. Welcome back to Interfaith Voices. Today, we're talking to a special guest from across the pond, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain.

Before the break, we were talking about his latest book, Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence. And next, we're shifting gears to talk about other topics touching Judaism in England and America. Let's get back to our conversation now.

Now, I want to ask you a couple of slightly different questions. You've been living in New York City as I understand it recently as a professor. And New York, as you have probably gathered, is often viewed as the Jewish Mecca in the United States. What differences have you noticed between American and British-Jewish culture?

Rabbi Sacks:

Well, it's interesting. American Jews are much more self-confident than British Jews. And because there are so many Jews in New York, you kind of feel there's a Jewish atmosphere out there. And the other thing you feel about New York is that there are a lot of Irish as well, and a lot of Italians, and a lot of Chinese. So you get a more active ethnic mix in New York, which makes it very exciting.

In Britain, of course, where we have far fewer Jews and we're a much smaller percentage of the total population, we probably have to strive a little bit harder to make our voice heard. But I love New York for being New York and I love Britain for being Britain. I mean, I don't think everything has to be the same to be beautiful. Each one is beautiful in its own way.

Maureen Fiedler:

And although the United States is far from perfect on a whole lot of scores, it does seem to have, at least if you listen to the news, a bit better intercultural and interfaith relations than Britain or the rest of Europe has. Why do you think that is?

Rabbi Sacks:

The answer's very simple, because America is one of those very few countries, incidentally, Israel is probably the only other one, that was populated almost entirely by asylum seekers. People came here to escape persecution. And the end result was that America did something very beautiful. It's actually something very religious. It's based ultimately on the Bible. It told a story which every incomer, every newcomer makes his or her own. Whereas in England, which didn't have many immigrants until around the 19th and 20th century, everyone is expected to know.

Maureen Fiedler:

I see.

Rabbi Sacks:

If you've got to ask, you don't belong. You're either born here or you're not really one of us.

In America, it is we the people who made a covenant with this land, and we're all collectively responsible for the future of America.

Whereas in England, there's a different political culture. We are loyal subjects of Her Majesty The Queen.

Maureen Fiedler:

Let's go back to Britain for a second. What's the state of antisemitism in Britain these days?

Rabbi Sacks:

The state of antisemitism in Europe as a whole is not good. And there are many Jews asking, "Do we have a long-term home here in Europe?" I like to feel that in Britain the traditions of tolerance are so strong that they are strong enough to defeat any little local incidents. So of course, there are occasional moments. But look, I grew up mainly among non-Jews, and I never experienced a single antisemitic incident in my life. Now, I know that's not necessarily true for our children and grandchildren, but I do think that Britain is robust enough to practise zero tolerance towards it and actually win.

Maureen Fiedler:

What can be done to prevent antisemitic incidents. Do you have any insights on that?

Rabbi Sacks:

Yeah. I always say Jews should never be left to fight antisemitism alone. The victim can't cure the crime. So it's become very important to me to get people to see that antisemitism is only an instance of a larger phenomenon. The hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews. It wasn't Jews alone who suffered under Hitler. It wasn't Jews alone who suffered under Stalin. And it won't be Jews alone who will suffer under ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

Therefore, what I've really tried to say is why were Jews hated, and the short answer is because they were different. They were non-Christians in a Christian Europe. And today, they are non-Muslims in a largely Muslim Middle East. But the truth is we're all different, and it's our differences that make us human. And therefore, I always say a society that has no room for Jews has no room for difference, and a society that has no room for difference has no room for humanity.

Maureen Fiedler:

What do you see as your hope for interfaith dialogue? Because you engage in this a great deal.

Rabbi Sacks:

My hope is that we will see that human beings worship God in many different ways, speak to him in many different languages, and that God actually loves diversity. The fact that we are all different must mean something. The fact that he created not one life form, but three million, not one kind of tree, but 250,000, not one language, but 6,000, means God loves diversity. And that really is what I gave the name, that to me sums up my belief, the dignity of difference.

Now, put all of that together with that life-changing sentence in Genesis, that God makes each of us in his image, what that means is that the biggest religious challenge is to see God's image in someone who's not in my image, whose religion and language and culture is different from mine. That's my hope and that's my faith.

Maureen Fiedler:

And that's what you've done, isn't it, as a major player in interfaith dialogue in Britain and beyond?

Rabbi Sacks:

I think that's what happens whenever two people meet across the boundaries between faiths and relate as human beings. Soul touches soul. And there is no barrier on Earth that can ultimately separate us in the face of love and forgiveness.

Maureen Fiedler:

And it's not very often that we have a religious person of your stature, Rabbi Sacks, in the studio. So maybe you could leave us with a word or a blessing for our listeners.

Rabbi Sacks:

Surely. We have many blessings in Judaism, but always, the last blessing is for peace because it's the thing we cherish most, but it's also, we know the thing that comes last, because it's the hardest of all. And therefore, many, if not all of our prayers end with these words, [foreign language]. He who makes peace on high, help us to make peace down here on Earth.

Maureen Fiedler:

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain for 22 years. He's also the author of 25 books, and his newest is a classic called Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence. Thank you so much for joining us today, Rabbi Sacks.

Rabbi Sacks:

Many thanks and continued blessing in all your work.