[Unedited verbatim transcript]
Lisa Breger: Good evening Chief Rabbi, ladies and gentlemen and welcome to the fifth in the Chief Rabbi’s lecture series on faith. My name is Lisa Breger and I’ll be chairing this evening’s proceedings.
The subject for this evening’s discussion is “Jewish identity: The Concept of a Chosen People”. After the talk the Chief Rabbi has agreed to take a few questions. So, without further ado, it gives me great pleasure to present the Chief Rabbi, Professor Jonathan Sacks.
The Chief Rabbi, Professor Jonathan Sacks
Friends, I suppose I could summarise what I have to say tonight and what I have been trying to say in these lectures and in the books I have been writing recently with that lovely story about the two Jews in a coffee bar in Vienna. One is reading the local Jewish Press; the other is reading the notoriously anti-Semitic journal Der Stürmer. The first one says to the second one: “What on earth are you reading this anti-Semitic rubbish for? It’s full of anti-Semitism!” The second one, with a big smile, says, “Look. You read the Jewish Press. What do you read? Jews having rows with one another: people assimilating; marrying out; the Jewish community falling apart. I read this magazine, Der Stürmer. What do I read? Jews are controlling the media. They’re on the economy. They’re in control of the universe. If you want good news, go to the anti-Semites!”
So what I am really trying to say is: let us not have to go to the anti-Semites for the good news about our faith. But that does mean getting straight about what we truly believe. Therefore, tonight I want to come to the idea which is surely the most controversial of all Jewish ideas, the one that I will argue is perhaps least understood. That idea that we say in our blessing over the Torah: Asher bochar bonu micol ha’amim venosan lanu es toraso. Or we say in our amidah for the Festivals: Ata bekhartanu micol ho’amim. The concept of a chosen people.
It is fair to say, I think, that no idea is more deeply rooted in Jewish consciousness and that no idea has been more embarrassing to modern Jews. One can even say that much of what has happened to Jewry in the past 200 years – the assimilation, the outmarriage – is what I call ‘the flight from particularity’. The escape from this difficult and very opaque concept of ‘being chosen’. We have about it a deep ambivalence.
So, what I want to do tonight is what I have been trying to do each time: to engineer a paradigm shift to see whether we can see a very, very familiar idea, about which enormous amounts have been written, in an entirely new way – and whether we can, in fact, break the hold, the dichotomy, of old ideas. Our point of entry is going to be, as it has been for all of these lectures, a particular kind of philosophical thought. That which we associate with ancient Greece, above all with Plato.
What I am going to say this time, as on all previous occasions, that the fundamental truths of Judaism, its radical message to the world, simply cannot be translated into that language. Therefore, the more we try and understand Judaism in the cognitive categories of western thought, the more we will fail. We will fail to understand what makes Judaism so distinctive a voice in the conversation of mankind. And, what is more, I think we will not only fail to hear what that voice is saying to us, but I think humanity will fail to hear what that voice is saying to it. And we will fail to do what I think we are about, which is to be a counter-voice in the conversation of mankind: God’s question mark against the conventional certainties of an age.
So, let’s begin with the Platonic moment, a great moment in human thought, in many ways a beautiful moment, in many ways even a spiritual moment and the moment we associate with Bethius [?] (is it?) – or if not Bethius then, more recently, that wonderful young man called Alain de Botton – did you see his television series? – what is called the ‘the consolations of philosophy’. And of all those, the greatest consolation of philosophy is the one provided for us by Plato. Here it is.
We are aware of the fact that all around us – and, what is more, even within us, life is in a constant state of flux and change. Nothing stays where you put it. You know, Elaine and I always felt this about Hong Kong. You know, most cities stay where you put them. Every time we went to Hong Kong, they’ve knocked down a Hilton or a this and that. Nothing stays the same for very long. We are born. We grow. We mature. We die. And, what is more, the world around us is infinitely complex. No two snowflakes are the same. No two genomes are the same. And how, amidst such a complex, diverse and ever-changing world will we ever get something that lasts, something that stays put, something which presents a stable resting place for the human mind? How can we know anything if things are so complicated? How can we make sense of the chaos of reality? How can we find truth that is timeless?
To this, Plato gave one of the world’s great answers, an answer which is has inspired philosophers and indeed mystics ever since. Here it is. It occurs, you know, in his great book The Republic. It is called “The parable of the cave” and it goes as follows. Imagine, he says, a group of people who have been imprisoned in a cave. They are chained so that they cannot turn around because the opening of the cave is behind them, and the sun is shining behind their backs. Therefore all they see is passing shadows on the wall. They think that is all there is because they never saw anything different. One of them then escapes, goes out into the sunlight and sees the world for the first time and then realises that what he has taken for reality until now is just shadows on a wall.
So it is, says Plato, when it comes to the world we perceive with the five senses. This empirical solid world. That is just shadows. That is not real. We see a world full of tables and chairs and flowers and trees and all sorts of nice things. They are all different. They are all ephemeral. We think that is the reality. It isn’t so.
What is real is not the thousand different kinds of table – but the one idea, the one concept, the one form of a table. What is real is not the zillion different kinds of snowflakes, but the idea of a snowflake. If we look at the idea of what he called the form as opposed to the matter, the physical stuff – the idea – then we would get something that is real. Then we would get to what is universal behind all these different phenomena. Then we would find truth that never changes, that is timeless. And, therefore, Plato’s vision of reality, the world of forms reached by the mind is the consolation of philosophy. It is our escape from this world of change into a world of eternity and timeless truth.
That has been one of the most influential ideas of all, in all western civilisation, that the search for knowledge is the search for a truth that is universal and a search that is timeless. I am not going to talk about timelessness and time tonight. I am just going to talk about the universal. In the modern world that has influenced science, philosophy, ethics, our very concept of knowledge. The search for truth is the search for the universal.
Now I am going to say that as far as that concept is concerned, I have no problem with it at all as it applies to science, as it applies to inanimate objects – even to biology. There is no such thing as – there never was – there never will be – a Jewish science, for instance. A Muslim science. A Christian science. There is no such thing. Science really is universal. It really is. And we have a word for that universal human knowledge in Hebrew. It is a biblical concept. That word is chochma. Chochma is universal knowledge accessible to everyone. We make a blessing over a secular scientist – the same blessing whether he is a Jew or non-Jew, religious or secular – because what that scientist, he or she, represents is chochma, the knowledge that is universal.
However, Plato set in motion an intellectual line of thought which dominated the western world, particularly in that age that we call the ‘Enlightenment’. The Enlightenment was the search for universal rules, not only in science but also in culture and also in ethics. Does anyone know what Immanuel Kant’s famous ethical principle was? Anyone been through the ‘Groundwork to the Metaphysic of Morals’? They don’t make titles like that nowadays, do they?! You remember what Kant said? – The test for a moral principle is universalisability. If you can wish that everyone followed that rule, then you would be moral. – Yes?
You want to be the first to get to the kiddush? Fine. But that’s passion. That’s desire. That’s interest. If you want everyone to be the first at kiddush – then you’re being moral. (But then you’d never get anything to eat, so – !) For Kant, if it is universal, it’s moral. If it’s not universal, it’s not moral, it’s not ethical.
Or for the utilitarians – Bentham, James Mill, father of John Stuart, Godwin – all these people, the utilitarians, they were searching for one simple principle that applies to all ethical situations, all people, all times, all countries, a simple principle called ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. If an action satisfied that, that was ok. What this was was an attempt to apply the rules of science to human culture and to ethics. How could we take this chaos of different norms, codes, conventions and make them, as it were, scientific. The answer is: Find that which is universal.
Of course that was the dominant strand in 19th century anthropology. The very concept of progress. The concept of progress is that cultures move from the primitive to the sophisticated insofar as they move from the particular to the universal. Particular is bad. Universal is good. Particular is primitive. Universal is advanced, civilised, cosmopolitan, rational. And it seems to make sense, doesn’t it? How do we develop our sympathies, for instance, as we grow up? The first people we relate to, the people closest to us – our parents. Gradually it extends to friends, then gradually to the community, then gradually to a society, then gradually to mankind. That is how we grow: from the particular attachments that we have to our family, to the universal attachments that we have to humanity.
Or that principle: ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’ – whatever that means! (I throw that in so that you get some classy Latin here while you’re at it!)
But what applies to the individual also applies to cultures as a whole. We begin with things called ‘tribes’. Then we move to city states. Then we move to federations of city states. Then we move to nations. Then we move to international relations. The more sophisticated, the more universal we become. That, therefore, is the Platonic moment which dominates the modern world in the form of enlightenment. That is the move from the particular to the universal. The particular is the beginning. The universal is the culmination. Anyone of you who wants to read more about it – I wrote a chapter on it in The Politics of Hope. I can’t remember which chapter, but there you are.
Now I am going to make my first radical statement, which is obvious once you’ve said it. The only trouble is that I never saw anyone say it before. Here it is. The Hebrew bible tells a story. It’s a very well-known story, but what is interesting about it and what we should have noticed but we never did is that it is exactly the opposite story! It is the counter-narrative of western civilisation. It is the anti-Platonic story.
Here it is. What is the theme of the bible? What is the bible about? [No response from audience.] It’s a slightly ridiculous question, isn’t it? A guy once found himself stuck with nothing to read but the telephone directory and eventually concluded, “Not much plot – but what a cast list!”
The theme of the bible obviously is the story of the Jewish people, the children of Abraham and Sarah. The people of the covenant. The people whose name is Israel. It is about a particular people. One people in particular. However, as you know, the bible doesn’t begin there. How does it begin? It begins with an anomaly, a thing that doesn’t seem to make any sense if we are trying to tell the story of one particular family. It begins not with a people in particular, but with humanity as a whole. It begins with those archetypal characters of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, Babel and its builders. Those are stories which are about universal human themes and their characters are universal archetypes. They are about humanity as a whole. Nobody Jewish in the first 11 chapters. You want to get away from yidden? Read the first 11 chapters of the bible. There is nothing Jewish there at all.
It is the universal themes. Adam and Eve: the story of human freedom, hence the freedom to disobey. Cain and Abel: the story of sibling rivalry, of human responsibility. Are we our brother’s keepers or aren’t we? The story of the flood, which is about what Hobbes calls the state of nature, the war of all against all when there is no system of law. The covenant after the flood, the brit bnei Noach, the first universal moral code. All of those things are universal. They have got nothing to do with the Jewish people whatsoever.
Therefore, the bible begins with the universal and then it moves to the particular. It actually is telling us that in a certain sense the particular is more fundamental, more real, than the universal. The key, of course, is the Tower of Babel. What is the story of the Tower of Babel? This incredible story of technology. You know, they – the Babelites, whoever they are – these people on the plain in Shinaar, they make this great breakthrough in technology. What is the technological breakthrough? Bricks! They learn how to make bricks. Have nilevaneh levanim venisrafa lesreifah. The first manmade building materials in history – and all of a sudden they get big ideas. ‘We made this technological breakthrough. We’re masters of the universe. Having made manmade building materials, we’ll create a totally manmade human environment – the polis – the city state where we will be invulnerable. The hubris of civilisation. The attempt to create a universal order – all humanity was – safah ekhat, dvarim akhadim. Everyone spoke the same language, had the same vocabulary.
This idea of the universal human civilisation – and that is where God says “No”. That is not human. That is ultimately inhuman. At that point, God comes in, intercedes, takes away their language and, from that moment, humanity is divided into a multiplicity of languages, faiths, cultures, civilisations. Diversity. And that is where we are now. I once gave a broadcast, many years ago, on ‘Thought for the Day’. You know you say things on ‘Thought for the Day’ because you reckon that nobody you really know is going to listen. Either they are fast asleep or they’re in shul davening shachris. Whatever it is. So you say whatever you say. So I was giving a little speech about Babel and the multiplicity of languages and that actually we are enriched by the fact that there are many languages and many different ways of saying things. I got letters from about 17 people, each of whom ran a local branch of the Esperanto Society, saying: Rabbi Sacks, Did you not know the curse of Babel has been lifted. – To which I replied that the great thing about universal languages is that nobody speaks them!
So that is God saying that there is no universal language. There is no one ultimate truth for humanity. From then on there are going to be diversity in culture, in civilisation and so on. And it is at that point when mankind is de-universalised, de-constructed, that God chooses not man in general, not humanity in general, not Adam, not Cain, not Noah, etc. He chooses somebody in particular. He chooses Avraham and Sarah, who do not represent all of humanity, who are just one couple, one family, ultimately one tribe – a bunch of tribes, a nation – who will remain distinctive, singular, particular, an am segulah, a particularly cherished people. As Balaam put it in am levadad yishkon – people that dwells alone. As Haman said, negatively: yesh no am ekhad mefuzar umefurad bein ha’amim. A singular people dispersed amongst all the peoples.
There is that lovely set of adjectives by Gerard Manley Hopkins, “counter, original, spare, strange”. And what we have just discovered in the simple fact that we all know, is that here in the bible is a counter-narrative. A narrative that runs in exactly the opposite direction to Plato. A journey which is not from the particular to the universal but from the universal to the particular. The bible regards the universal as somehow ‘beneath’, more primitive than the particular, and that is a very, very strange fact – even though everyone knows it. And it is so strange that I just want you to reflect for a moment on two things that should be capable of telling us how strange it is.
You know that Judaism is the world’s first monotheism. Is it the only monotheism? It gives rise to – Christianity, and then to Islam. And you know that both of them consciously acknowledge their debt to Judaism, Christianity through Tenach – what is called in Christianity the Old Testament; Islam, to Avraham and Sarah. They trace their descent through Ishmael. But one way or another they consciously acknowledge their debt to Judaism. They are variations on a theme, whatever.
However, it is interesting that whereas both Christianity and Islam took over monotheism from Judaism, they did not take over from Judaism its single most striking feature – which makes it structurally rare. And, for all I know, structurally unique in the monotheisms of the world. Possibly Sikhism is that, but I don’t know. But that is a much more recent phenomenon. And here it is – that Judaism is a particularist monotheism which neither Christianity nor Islam is.
Let us state what that means. Number one: the God of Judaism is the God of the whole world. But, number two, the faith of Judaism is not the faith of all the world. It never was intended to be. This is very remarkable. Christianity and Islam were both universal monotheisms. They said that since there is only one God, there is only true religion and, therefore, that there is only one way to find salvation. ‘Be one of us!’ Extra ecclesium non est salus – ‘Outside the church no-one is saved’. That is logic. Only one God; there is only religion. I just told you that Judaism is not logical. It is dialogical. It’s a different kind of approach to reality all along. That is why Judaism is unique amongst monotheisms in saying chassidei umot olam yaysh lahem chelek le’olam haba – You don’t have to be Jewish to get to Heaven. (It helps – but you don’t have to be Jewish!) One way or another.
I’m sorry. You will forgive me for being slightly cavalier here, but I love that remark that Ted Turner made when we were together in the United Nations and he upset at least 2,000 religious leaders – which is a singular achievement, actually. He bounced on the stage and he said, “When I was a kid I used to go to Sunday School.” He was brought up in the Bible Belt. He’s a Southern Baptist. And he said, “We used to go to Bible School. They used to tell us that all of us are going to Heaven. The Catholics ain’t going to Heaven. The Muslims ain’t going to Heaven. And sure to heck the Jews ain’t going to Heaven. So I thought to myself, Hell, Heaven must be a pretty lonely place!”
Anyway, we do not believe that you have to be Jewish to get to Heaven. The great of the nations of the world, the righteous, the pious, have a share also. In other words, Judaism is not an exclusive religion. It leaves space for others. Or – and here let me put it a bit more radically – again, I haven’t heard it said before but here it is. In Judaism – and I don’t know if this is true in any other faith – but in Judaism, God is bigger than religion. If there is only one God, and there are many faiths, many paths to His presence, God is bigger than religion. I have to say that that is a very profound remark, an extremely profound and important one.
So the first strangeness about this fact of Jewish particularity is that it makes Judaism different from Christianity and Islam: Judaism has no desire to go an convert the world. The second is this: historians are so convinced that the inexorable movement of humanity is from the particular to the universal that when they came across this religion called ‘Judaism’, which has a universal God but a particular faith, they actually described it in the following terms. ‘Judaism is a transitional phenomenon in human culture.’ First of all you had tribal religions, each of which had their god or gods. Tribal religions. Then you had Judaism, which is a sort of national religion. And then, later on, you had the more sophisticated religions – Christianity, Islam – which are about all of mankind.
So Judaism, according to many historians, is a kind of interim thing on the way to universalism. And I am going to tell you that this is absolutely and fundamentally wrong. It cannot be the case. It is not that Judaism somehow preceded the birth of universalism which gave rise to Christianity and Islam. Judaism wasn’t born before universalism. Judaism begins with universalism. That is the story of the first 11 chapters of the bible. That is the story of the covenant with Noah. That is the universal faith. But that, we say, is only the beginning, not the end. It is not the ultimate achievement. Far from being a stage on the way to a universal creed, Judaism is actually a protest against universal creeds. And why it should be a protest against them we’ll discover in a little while.
Now I want to explain to you why Judaism was so opposed to the Platonic universe. Do any of you remember a painting by Raphael, The Academy of Athens? Do you know this picture? It’s one of the great paintings. It has Plato and Aristotle having a little mootel [chat], you know. They’re reading the haftorah and they’ve popped out for the kiddush! Whatever it is. And Plato is sort of pointing up and Aristotle is pointing down, and it’s ‘nice’. Raphael: The Academy of Athens.
You see Plato is pointing up there to the world of form, so Aristotle is pointing down there to the world of diversity and empirical reality. Judaism is a rejection of that dichotomy. The first and fundamental thing in Judaism is this miracle by which the one God up there, the perfect Unity, creates a world down here of almost infinite diversity. That is what is interesting to Judaism. There is a reality up there where everything is one and universal – but that is God’s reality. I told you along: in Judaism, there is God’s reality and there is our reality and Judaism makes space for both. Up there, it’s God’s reality. That’s not ours. Our reality, down here, the world of which veyar elokim ki tov – the world which god looked at and said was good – that is the world of variety, of diversity, of difference.
What is real for Jews, we who find God down here, is not the one Platonic concept of a leaf – but the 250,000 different kinds of leaf that there actually are. What is real to us is not some Chomski and universal language, but the 6,000 different languages that currently exist. We now know through our understanding of DNA that all of life, from the simplest microbe to a shul board meeting, all come from the same basic source, the same genetic origin. It is only a tiny variation in DNA that differentiates us from the primates and gives rise to Shakespeare’s sonnets, let’s say.
God, out of these simple little building blocks, four letters of the genetic code, all of which derive from a single origin – the miracle for us is not so much the Unity of God but the diversity of the world He has made. That is our reality! That is our real. Plato says the opposite. That’s all shadows. It’s all illusion. We say: No! For us, reality is down here. For us, our greatest aspiration is not what it was for Greek religions, for the Gnostics who gave a certain coloration to a certain strand in Christianity. For us, the greatest thing is not to escape from this reality of life down here on earth into some mystical splendour or some Nirvana. For us, the greatest achievement is to escape into reality, to actually immerse ourselves in this world with all its infinite difference. To grasp reality you cannot, says Judaism, escape from it in the Platonic way. You have to enjoy it down here.
This is terribly metaphysical. Can I explain to you how a wonderful gentleman who was a professor (I think he is now retired) at Columbia University, called Sidney Morgenbesser. I don’t know if any of you have come across him? Sidney Morgenbesser is a philosopher. He’s also an absolute scream, you know. One of these Jewish geniuses. Somebody was once giving a logic class in Cambridge, pointing out the logic asymmetry between negation and affirmation, and pointed out that two negatives make a positive but that two positives don’t make a negative. Sidney Morgenbesser, at the back of the room, said, “Yeah, yeah.” – (Sorry, this is a philosopher’s joke. You need a doctorate to decode that.)
Anyway, so what did he do? He wanted to show his students that Plato’s theory of forms was not correct. I mean
‘shmeissed by Aristotle’ – but here is Plato
shmeissed by Sidney Morgenbesser! He takes his philosophy class into a nice Jewish restaurant in lower East Side and a waiter comes up to him and says, “What would you like to order?” And he says, “Waiter, I would like to order soup.” And the waiter says, “Well, yeah, we have chicken soup. We have pea soup. We have borscht. We have minestrone. What kind of soup would you like?” And he says, “I don’t want any of those kinds of soups. I just want soup!”
Q.E.D. I mean – if Sidney Morgenbesser had only been there in Athens, the whole world would have been different. If you want to enjoy soup you’ve got to have the empirical soup down here which is always soup of one kind or another kind. You cannot eat soup which is Platonic soup, which is the universal idea of soup.
Ok. So that is reason one we reject it, because we say it is a matter of faith, it is a matter of fundamental orientation, if you like, that for us the real is down here. Even though we believe in a reality up there, this is our reality and God recognises and mandates us to make this empirical world our reality. Number two: something much more fundamental. I can never remember (because I go round saying so many things to so many people on so many subjects) whether I’ve told you this before. But it’s nice when God does His shadchanus bit. He arranges marriages and, not only that, he creates the bride as well. You remember how Adam and Eve in the Garden in the Eden (I’ve spoken about this in a different context in another lecture), but Adam is looking at his wife and he says
Lezot yikareh isha
Ki mi’ish lukahah-zot.
I’ll call her isha – woman. You remember what then happens? You know the history of a Jewish marriage. This is all on Friday afternoon. Somehow on Friday afternoon God manages to create Adam, create Eve, they see the fruit of the tree, they eat it, they all blame the others, each and everyone blames everyone else, and the result is aus Eden – Paradise lost. However, I don’t know whether I pointed out to you two little verses which are so fascinating that I don’t know why people don’t notice them.
Right at the end, when God has cursed the serpent, cursed Eve, cursed Adam, sent them all out of Paradise, at that moment it says: vayikra ha’adam et shem ishto Chava ki he hayeta aym kol chai: Man called the name of the his wife Eve for she was the mother of all living. And at that moment something magical happens. The next verse says: Vayad elokim lahem kutnot or – God made for them garments of skin. And Rabbi Meir translated that with an aleph instead of an ayin – garments of light – and He clothed them. A beautiful tender gesture. What has happened? I will tell you exactly what has happened. Adam has learned to grow up. He has learned that his wife is not ish – woman in general – but Chava, this person in particular. He stopped giving her a noun, a generic name. He has given her a particular name because he recognises that she is unique and not just a generic category.
And therefore we have to formulate the following axiom – and this is terribly important. To be human is to love as human beings love. Human beings love by loving the particular, not the universal. When we really love our husband, our wife, our children, our friends – we love what is unique about them. That is what makes human life irreplaceable, what makes each human life of inestimable and infinite value. Love is the ability to move from the universal to the particular: from woman to Eve; from noun to name.
A good parent, a real parent, will not love his or her children generically. First of all, the most fundamental distinction of all, we may love all human beings but we don’t love them all the same. There would be something very odd about us if we loved our children and other people’s children in exactly the same way. There would be something wrong with us. Sure we want to love everyone’s children. But there will always be something special about these particular children who are my children. And, what is more, we will not be good parents unless we love each of our children individually, because each actually is special.
So love is inherently particular. And I have got to tell you that because the Enlightenment – Kant, Hume, the works [?], the rationalists, Godwin – because the Enlightenment couldn’t understand particularity, because it was only interested in what is universal, the Enlightenment couldn’t understand the family. There is no writer in the whole of the Enlightenment who understands the family. Montesquieu said:
“I would be wrong if I preferred my children to the citizens of my town. I would be wrong if I preferred my fellow citizens of the town to the citizens of France, and I would be wrong if I preferred my fellow citizens of France to my fellow citizens of the universe.”
For heaven’s sake! Montesquieu must wrong there – because if we don’t love those people who are close to us in a special kind of way, then we cannot understand what it is to have a family. Let me put it simply. Just answer me the following question: a fire breaks out, God forbid! There are three people in the room. Two of them are adults, strangers. The third is your child. Who do you save? I hope you would save your child. For heaven’s sake. But you do understand that categorically , according to almost every ethical theory of the Enlightenment, you would have done wrong. You save two adults instead of one child: you contribute to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Now what kind of crazy theory is that?! I don’t know – but people believed in it for an awful long time and they still do now.
Or, to put it more bluntly and more brutally: in Nazi Germany, in the Soviet Union, you were expected to put the greatest good of the greatest number first and therefore it was expected of children that they would inform against their parents and have them sent to prison if they were hostile to the State. That was what was expected of people. That is, in fact, what happened and that is what convinces us that these were inhuman regimes.
So what I am telling you here is the second point. That Judaism is telling us something very profound. That as we move from the universal to the particular, from things in general to this thing, this person, we are moving from the inhuman to the human; from the impersonal to the personal; from the world of science to the world of humanity. And from this I want to deduce an axiom. If, as we believe, God is a person – and all of my lectures are dedicated to spelling out the implications of that – if God is a person, then it must follow that if God loves, God loves as a person loves namely each of us precisely for our differences. Each of us for what we uniquely are. Each of us because what makes us unlike other people. If that is true, then God must love not universality but particularity: the thing that makes you different from me; or our faith different from someone else’s faith.
Now that is a very profound and human truth. But I search for it in vain in other religious systems and the fault must be mine. But there it is. I find that very profound. That is the second great anti-Platonic statement of Judaism, that if the domain of science is the primacy of the universal over the particular, then the domain of humanity – personhood – is the primacy of the particular over the universal. That is a very powerful and important truth.
Now, listen! I want to make a third truth which is even more dazzling. You know that there is another structural, unique feature in Judaism? And it goes like this: in every other religion, every other cultural system that I’ve come across, there is basically one ethical code. Sometimes there are internal varieties in that ethical code. For instance, they tell me that in Bali there are about five different ways of saying ‘Good morning’ depending on which caste the person you are talking to belongs to. Is that true? Don’t disillusion me! There are all sorts of differences, internal, regional variations: caste hierarchy; regional accents in any system. Don’t you love that wonderful Yorkshire translation of the bible that goes – instead of saying “God says: Let there be light”, it says in the Yorkshire bible: “First oop there were nobbut God and He said: Eh, lad, turn the bloody light on!”
Look, there are all these internal differences but every ethical system known to me is basically a single ethical system. Judaism is the exception because, as you know, Judaism has not one moral religious code: it has two. What are they? What are the two codes, the two covenants? I am thinking of the two different phases: one after the Flood, one at Mount Sinai. The one after the Flood was sheva mitzvos bnei Noah – the Noachide code, God’s code with all humanity, seven commandments. And the other, the Sinai code, his covenant with the Jewish people, 613 commandments – an impressive number! Right! Now here are two different codes, and they are very different. One: a code for all humanity. Two: a code for the Jewish people.
Now I never understood this. I never fully understood until I read the writings of a very, very remarkable thinker, one to whom I am personally indebted in many ways, the political philosopher at Yale (I think) called Michael Waltzer. I don’t know if you’ve come across him. Michael Waltzer is a political philosopher, one of the ‘greats’, one of the real ‘greats’. He, through a whole series of books, but especially in one very simple, little book which I am going to refer to, called Thick and Thin, put forward the following idea. Here it is. Michael Waltzer is a secular Jew and he was not saying this Jewishly – but a very wise man.
He says that there are two kinds of moral codes. One is thin; one is thick. The thin one, which consists of very few procedural rules, relates to how we relate to strangers. The thick moral code is how we relate to friends, the people who are part of our community, part of our system. A thin moral code generates international relations, i.e. relationships between states rather than within states. It’s the language, for instance, in which are written some of the great declarations of human rights: the very abstract; the very procedural. A thick morality is the things that you and I know: the things that make us into a community; the things that make us share practices, allow us to construct morality actually through living it. And those thick moralities – Jewish morality, the morality of Jane Austen, the morality of the chivalric mentality of the Middle Ages, etc. The morality of a Prussian soldier – those thick moralities are what actually makes morality live. They connect us to a particular group of people, a set of practices, shared beliefs and so on and forth. Thin moralities, says Michael Waltzer, may be important at times – conflict resolution and so on – but they can never form the texture of daily life. It is thick moralities, the real concrete, particular moralities that are the substance of the moral life.
Now look: I cannot say it as remotely as well as Michael Waltzer can, so let me read this to you slowly. Here is what he says:
“Societies are necessarily particular because they have members and memories. Members with memories, not only of their own … [some words lost when tape turned over] … … memory practices, no familiar life ways, no festivals, no shared understanding of social goods. It is human to have such things. But there is no one human way of having them. At the same time, the members of all the different societies, because they are human, can acknowledge each other’s different ways, respond to each other’s cries for help, learn from each other and, sometimes, march in each other’s parades.”
Now, look, that’s Michael Waltzer, Thick and Thin. Read the book. It’s brilliant. But Judaism is the only religion, the only cultural system I know that makes this fundamental distinction. Very much a distinction relevant to the late 20th century, early 21st century – between a thin morality, sheva mitzvos bnei Noach – seven Noachide laws – and the thick morality that creates Jewish life, the 613 mitzvos.
Now I just want to point out to you how very real are these two different moral systems. Let me just give you a ‘for instance’ because when I talk about the Noachide law, I am talking about something a little bit abstract. But what about Moses’ early life? Moses’ early life. What happens before Moses meets God in the burning bush? Three episodes. You know what they are? Number one: he sees an Egyptian hitting a Jew and he intervenes. Next day: he sees two Jews fighting.
(Nothing changes, does it? You know the first words ever said to Moshe Rabbenu? – Mi samcha le’ish sar veshofet aleinu? – Who on earth appointed you as our leader? – and this guy hadn’t even become a leader of the Jewish people and already they were criticising him. I know what it feels like!)
Anyway. Jew versus Jew. Third encounter: daughters of Jethro, in Midian. They’re at the well. Shepherds are driving them away. Moses comes and drives the shepherds away so that Jethro’s daughters can take water. Now look at the structure of that. First one: non-Jew against Jew. Second one: Jew against Jew. Third one: non-Jew against non-Jew.
You have to have all those three episodes before we understand what kind of guy Moses is. Moses believes in universal justice, not particular justice. Justice is a human universal and as he is as bothered by inhouse conflicts between Jew and Jew or by non-Jew against non-Jew, he has not grasped the universal concept of justice – which really is a universal category. I want you to see that concept of universal morality in Judaism is as real as the very thick morality that describes the relations between Jew and Jew.
Here’s the second one. Here’s a good one. We have a principle in Jewish law for the last 3,000 years, fundamental to Judaism. It became part of international law, I think, in 1948 as a result of the Nuremberg trials. The principle is: ayn shaliach ledvar aveira – that it is no excuse, it is no defence, to say “I was only obeying orders”. Immoral orders should not be obeyed. That is the principle of civil disobedience which became very much part of Martin Luther King and the black civil rights movement. And historians of civil disobedience trace the birth of the concept to the 19th century American thinker Henry Thoreau.
Now, let me ask you: first instance of civil disobedience in history? [Responses from audience – inaudible.] Where was an immoral order not obeyed? The midwives! Exactly! The Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah who didn’t obey Pharoah’s command to kill every male child. I have to tell you that if somebody erects a statute to human liberty and justice, it should be a statue of Shiphrah and Puah. They were the two first people in history who practised civil disobedience, who said that the law of God takes precedence over the law of human beings.
I am now going to ask you a very simple question. According to Tenach, I’m not talking about Midrash, I’m not talking about commentaries, according to the plain sense of the biblical text, were Shiphrah and Puah Jewish or not? We haven’t got a clue. And listen, listen carefully. What are they described as in the bible? – Hameyaldot ha’ivriot. – Look at that brilliant and quite deliberate ambiguity. What does hameyaldot ha’ivriot mean? It could mean ‘the Hebrew midwives’, or it could mean ‘the midwives of the Hebrews’ who were themselves Egyptian. Some of our commentators say they were Hebrew, some that they were Egyptian. Luzatto and others say they were Egyptian. You understand? On this point, the Torah is actually deliberately leaving this question vague. A very deliberate – I don’t believe any ambiguity in the Torah is accidental.
Why? Because here are these two heroines and they are performing a fundamental axiom of justice and it doesn’t matter at all whether they are Jewish or not. Because justice is universal; injustice is universal. It doesn’t matter who it is committed by; who it is committed against. You have to fight injustice. So there, is another way. All that clustered at the beginning of the Book of Exodus, telling us that justice is universal. Whereas for other things, like welfare for instance, the welfare legislation of the bible is very much a particular. There are duties that Jews owe other Jews because we are all part of one big family, etc. etc. So you see that the Torah really takes it fundamentally seriously that there are two ethical systems: one in which the key word is justice, which is universal, the Noachide covenant – and the other which is very particular, the 613 mitzvos that make up Judaism.
So I don’t know of any other system known to me where we have a thin universal morality, a thick particular morality and it is the particular morality that, as it were, gives colour and vividness to our moral life. So that is it. The Jewish story is the anti-Platonic story. We move not from the particular to the universal, but from the universal to the particular. We do this all the time. It is actually implanted in Jewish consciousness.
Give me a prayer where we move from the particular to the universal? [Inaudible response from audience.] Grace after meals. Who said that? Absolutely. First paragraph: hazon et hacol. We thank God for feeding everyone. Then we say, nodeh lecho – eretz chemdo tovah – ve’al britcho … Then we thank God for all the stuff He has given us. But first we thank God for all He has given everyone. Universal, then we move to the particular.
Brachos before krias shema. What is the first bracha? Makes the universe, renews the day or brings light. The universe. Second blessing? Ahava raba, ahavat olam. God’s particular relationship with the Jewish people.
The amidah. What’s the first prayer? Ata chonein le’adam da’at umelamed le’enosh binah. The first prayer is for universal human wisdom. Then we ask for particular Jewish knowledge – hasheveinu ovinu letorasecho. That’s the next paragraph. First give us universal chochma – wisdom, belongs to everyone. Then we ask for Torah.
Jewish mind moves from the universal to the particular, not the way that Plato’s mind works. And that is the three reasons why we reject Plato – because for us the fundamental reality of creation is diversity. Second, because the fundamental fact about humans is their uniqueness, their irreplaceability and that is what makes love human. And thirdly because the moral life has to be lived in particular communities with particular rituals, specific memories and a particular identity. That is why we reject Plato. That is why we say God loves particulars.
However, I can’t stop there even though I jolly well ought to. I’ve got to tell you – it’s pretty obvious. You are going to ask me the question. God is singling out one particular nation from many may show how nice it is to be particular, which is great if you’re chosen. But what about all the people there who aren’t chosen, right?
Listen. Let me ask you a very simple question. We’ll do this very quickly. Here is a scene. Sarah has asked Abraham to send Hagar away. Abraham gets terribly upset because Hagar has given birth to his child called Ishmael. Vayera hadavar me’od be’aynei Avraham al odot beno. Now tell me – you remember what happens? – she goes out into the desert. She’s carrying him. It’s hot. There’s no water. He’s about to die. She puts him under – whatever it is. Tell me, when you see that scene, when you read that scene, who are your sympathies with? Hands up. Abraham? Sarah? Ishmael? We get a vote for Ishmael. Ok. Stay there for a moment.
Esau comes in. He’s just made the venison. He’s just about to give it to his Dad, Isaac, who is just about to give him the blessing. And he comes in and Isaac says: Rebono shel olam, what’s going on? You know, I’ve just given the blessing. – And Isaac trembles. And he says: Your brother came and he’s taken your blessing. – And Esau cries a deep and bitter cry. Tell me, who are your sympathies with at that moment? Are they with Jacob? They’re with Esau, ok?
Let me ask you another question. Jacob meets a young lady, name: Rachel. Works for her for seven years. He’s so much in love it feels like a few days. He gets married to her. The next morning he wakes up. Hinei he Leah. Right? It’s Leah. Ok. Fine. They then have a little bit of an argie-bargie, Laban and Jacob. You know? “You deceived me!” Jacob saying this in this way? That’s exactly what he did to Esau. That’s the rule. As you do, so you will be done to. So Lovon says: Lo ya’asei kayn bimkomeinu – It’s not the kind of thing we do in our place, to put the younger before the elder.
Tell me, who is God’s sympathies with in this one? Jacob? Laban? Rachel? With Leah. And how do we know that? Because He gives her children. Vayar elokim ki senuah Leah – He sees that Leah is rejected and He gives her children.
Do you hear what I am saying? In every case where there is a chosen one – Isaac against Ishmael, Jacob against Esau, Rachel against Leah – God takes the side of the unchosen. When human beings choose, then they choose x – meaning they reject y. When God chooses, He does not reject y. He is constantly telling us – Gam hu! – he also will be blessed. He also will become a great nation. – Go and read it! God is actually, through the extraordinary literary finesse of the Torah making us see that the one who is rejected is not rejected.
Do not think that God choosing one people means He rejects every other people. Absolutely not! That was never our way. And that why, again and again and again, God, the prophets say, is not our God only. There are other people who worship God. Any non-Jews who do rather well in the bible by way of worshipping God? Yitro – gives Israel its first governing system. Malchi-tzedek – in the days of Abraham – melech shalem – vehu cohen le’ayl elyon. He was the priest to the most high God. Job. Was Job Jewish? Probably not. According to the Sages, most people thought not. Malachi? From the rising of the sun to its going down – gadol shmi bagoyim – My name is great amongst the non-Jews. Right?
Non-Jews get a pretty good press in the Torah. Let me give you a proof of this. Of course, any kind of today’s news will give you pretty good proof of it, but here it is. God sends one prophet to the non-Jews, called Jonah. Right? Jonah is told to prophecy. How many words does Jonah say to the people of Nineveh? Five. Ok? Od arba’im yom veNineveh ne’ephachet. – Jonah says five words to these non-Jews. What happens? They repent. Everyone repents. Five words from a prophet – they’re non-Jews. They listen, they repent.
Tell me: did any prophet of Israel ever get this result? I mean, there are 60 chapters of Isaiah, 50 chapters of Jeremiah – anachtige Tag! – you know! In Judaism, we do not believe that God puts down non-Jews. On the contrary! Because the fact that He chose us does not tell us that He rejects anyone else. Please, that is, [?] attributing human things to God.
And, finally – my final question: why on earth did He choose us? Do you want the real answer? I’ll tell you. When God chose the Jewish people, He was not opting for a quiet life. However, you want another, more philosophical explanation. Here it is. You will find it in my book Radical Then, Radical Now. Here it is. I am absolutely serious. I’ll tell you. God chooses those whom the world rejects. That is why He chose us.
In the ancient world, power and position went to the firstborn. That is why God always chooses the younger rather than the elder. Cain instead of Abel. Isaac instead of Ishmael. Jacob instead of Esau. Moses instead of Aaron. David instead of all his brothers.
In the ancient world, power went to the strong and the many. The Jewish people always was a tiny people. Ki atem hame’at mi kol ho’amim. You were the smallest of all peoples.
The world chooses the strong. God in His … [?] knew, He chose the people who knew themselves, the lo bechayil, velo beko’ach, ki im beruchi. That we don’t survive on strength or power but by God’s spirit.
I have to tell you, it says in the Torah that Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations. Noah walked with God. – We know why God chose Noah. None of those words are used in the context of Abraham. None of them.
God chooses whom the world rejects. He chooses the marginal, the nomads, the few, the young. People who, whether in their own land, from then to today, to live in Israel is to live in a tiny country surrounded by big empires at the juncture of three continents. Israel always was a tiny people surrounded by big neighbours.
Secondly, in the Dispersion, we were a minority – disempowered and scattered through the world. It is the people who are vulnerable, who are exposed, who are at risk. On them, God shows His special love. That is why the treatment of the Jews in history has always been a litmus test of the humanity of any age. It is why the Jewish story has always been a great narrative of hope because it is the story. And that is why it spoke to the founding fathers of America who were trying to set up something against the British. Why it spoke to the black civil rights activists who were trying to create a space for themselves in America. Because the Jewish story was always of a people who were vulnerable, small, weak, exposed, afraid – and yet who never lost hope. And, as a result, never ceased to be.
That is why the Jewish story, in its unique particularity, is the human story in its universality. If we would have been everyone in general, we would never have been somebody in particular. And if we hadn’t somebody in particular, we would never have a message for humanity in general. I have got to tell you: I know that my most personal, individual books that I write out of the experiences that are unique to me are the ones that speak across the boundaries to non-Jews as well as Jews. It is in our particularity that we discover our universality – and with this I come to the crux.
I said that the confrontation in the ancient world was between ancient Greece and ancient Israel. And that is what is fundamentally at stake in our human situation. Do we go with the civilisation, with ancient Greece, with the Enlightenment that values universality? Or do we go with the Jewish vision that focuses on particularity, on what makes us different from one another? And that is the question.
As follows, it translates in the question: Is what is true for us ipso facto also true for everyone else or not?
What Israel discovered, and what Greece never understood, is that the ancient civilisations amongst which Jews grew up were full of empires: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome. All of them were empires. Judaism begins with two journeys: Abraham moving away from the empire called Mesopotamia, moving away from the empire in the days of Moses called Egypt. Judaism began life, and continues to this day, as a protest against empires and imperialism.
Imperialism is the attempt to impose my truth, my culture, my way of doing things on you. And that is what Judaism came into the world to protest against. Judaism is God’s protest against empires. God says it is not so. No people is entitled to force its beliefs on any other people. ‘Down here, in the world that I made, there are many cultures, many faiths, many civilisations – each of which was made by Me, each of which therefore has its own integrity, its own gifts to humanity, its own contribution to make its own voice, its own language, its own character. I want,’ says God, ‘to communicate that truth to the world. Therefore I will choose one people, a small vulnerable people, not particularly righteous – in fact, very often particularly bolshie – and I will command that people to be different to show the world the dignity of difference. The reality of difference.’
That very principle that I have been striving for, in all these lectures – whether I spoke about the irreducible multiplicity of perspectives, whether I’ve spoken about making space for others, or whether I’ve spoken tonight about dignity of difference – all of them are ways of saying: Judaism is the truth of the unity of God but the diversity of mankind. We do not believe that e pluribus unum – out of the many come one. We believe that out of the one come many.
I’ll tell you when I understood how badly the world needs this truth. (With this I am drawing to a close: we’re in the final straight.) Last summer I spoke in the United Nations. Can you imagine 2,000 religious leaders, to a gathering of the United Nations modestly entitled ‘The Millennium Peace Summit’? You get 2,000 religious leaders together and you expect peace? I’ll tell you what I discovered. Religious leaders can give sermons but, surely to goodness, they can’t take them.
Anyway, I sat through many wonderful speeches all of which said the same thing: Peace is great; our religion believes in peace. Therefore, all you have to do is become like us.
And none of them understood – and they were among the world’s great religious leaders – that that ain’t the solution. That is the problem. I had to get up and talk about the dignity of difference, because peace is what we make with people who aren’t like us, who never will be like us, and have no reason to be like us. That is what Judaism tells the world – and there are not a whole lot of faiths telling the world. In fact we had a wonderful Indian guru who said, “Chief Rabbi, I would like you to be my keynote speaker in New Delhi” (The invitation just came through last week.) “at my counter conference.” The world conference of non-proselytising faiths – of which we are the only western example.
So, friends, too much of human history has been written in the blood of human victims who – because they were not like ‘them’, who didn’t live like ‘them’, who didn’t share ‘their’ faith – were regarded by ‘them’ as the infidels, the unredeemed, the subhuman. And that is why the single most important statement in the rabbinic tradition is that famous mishnaic teaching that when a human being makes coins in a mould they all come out the same. God makes every human being in his image and they all come out different. That is why each life, each culture, is a universe.
Friends, never before has this been more important than in the 21st century. We are about to face an era of globalisation and globalisation sweeps away individual cultures. It is imperialism of a cultural kind run riot. Local cultures will rise in rebellion and we will face what Samuel Huntingdon calls “the clash of civilisations” or what, in the 17th century, were called ‘the wars of religion’.
Never before have we needed to realise that we will only preserve our natural environment if we respect bio-diversity. And we will only preserve our human environment if we respect religious and cultural diversity. I know only of one idea adequate to such a world: the idea that emphasises both our shared humanity as one family under the parenthood of God, and the dignity of difference because every one of us and every culture and every faith is different and equally a way of God.
That idea, that God speaks to mankind in many different languages, and it is our task to respect those differences while being true to our own heritage, our own language, while making space for people who are different, that I think is the idea of particularity. And I think the world needs it now. Thank you. [Applause]
Lisa Breger: Thank you, Chief Rabbi. I think we’ve had a lot to think about but I’m sure that some people have also got some questions. We’ve got time for a few. We’ll take four altogether. Can you raise your hand, please, if you have a question. Sara has got the microphone, so if you can wait for the microphone and then say your name before you tell us your question.
David Slager: The whole thrust of your lecture was that the nations of the world embrace universality and we embrace particularity. But don’t we eventually graduate in the times of the Messiah to a more universal system? Don’t we dream of a world when people will look to us as being the source of a universal regime?
Chief Rabbi: That is a hundred per cent correct. I said that all Jewish prayers move from the universal to the particular because they talk about the world of now. There is one exception, a prayer that moves from the particular to the universal. Which prayer is that? [Response from audience: “Oleynu”] Oleynu. Exactly. The first paragraph of Oleynu is all about how God didn’t make us like everyone else. The second paragraph of Oleynu, as you say, looks forward to the reuniting of humanity when vehoyo hashem lemelech al col ho’oretz, bayom hahu yiheyeh hashem ehad ushmo ehad. That prophetic vision that at the end of days we will be one. There is no doubt, I think, that you’re absolutely right. We do hope that eventually those differences will merge. We hope that they will merge in a way that does not lead to hubris, to thinking we can displace God.
But I think the important thing about Judaism is that it is defined by the fact that whenever anyone asks a Jew anywhere, in any century, ‘Has the Messiah come?’ – the answer is always, ‘Not yet.’ So it is that ‘not yetness’ which on the one hand gives us hope but also makes us realise that we are not there yet. Which makes us aware that we live in an unredeemed world, a provisional world. And I think that makes Judaism much more open to the fact that there are differences, there are other cultures – from all of whom we can learn. So I think the Messianic age is essential to Jewish hope but I think the realisation that we are not there yet is what gives us our driving energy to work towards that time.
Yael Simon: Chief Rabbi, we use the term ‘the chosen people’ but yet, in our vocabulary, we effortlessly use the words ‘Jew’ and ‘non-Jew’ suggesting perhaps that there is ‘Jew’ and then everyone else is almost a negative identity as a ‘non-Jew’. How can you address this?
Chief Rabbi: I just did. It took me 75 minutes. I really tried so hard tonight to turn our conventional understanding upside-down in all sorts of ways. I said at the end of my book Radical Then, Radical Now that Jews did not write Shakespeare’s sonnets. We didn’t write Mozart’s symphonies. We did not design the formal perfection of a Japanese garden. I admire all those things. I am enlarged by them. I don’t believe a people secure in its own identity need ever negate or put down anyone else’s identity. I’ve really been fighting against what I think is a laziness of mind which has developed over the last hundred or two hundred years. And it comes in two shapes and sizes which appear to be opposite to one another but actually are two sides of the same coin.
One is a sense of Jewish inferiority and the other is a sense of Jewish superiority. They are both bad news. And I have been trying to explain how neither has a place in Jewish thought if we really wrestle with Jewish thought.
When I finish this glass of water I am going to make a bracha. Do you know what the bracha is? Boreh nefashot rabot – it begins – vechesronan. Now this is a very strange blessing. It means: God who creates many kinds of being – vechesronan – which means? Their ‘lacks’. Their inadequacies. It is the only blessing I know in which we thank God for giving us inadequacy. It is a very odd thing to thank God for. Why do we thank God for it? I’ll tell you: very simple. If I had no inadequacies (somebody would remind me otherwise) – if I had no inadequacies, I would never need anyone else. There would never be human society. It is the fact that I have hesronot – inadequacies. But the fact that God created nefashot rabot – many different kinds of human beings – that tells me that somebody else has what I lack. And somebody else lacks what I have. And that is why our coming together in friendship generates a win-win scenario. It’s good for both of us. That is why human society exists. And I wish we could understand this, because I’ve got to tell you: it is so rare a message in the history of world religions. It is a very rare message. It’s a deeply Jewish message.
And what I have been trying to do in these lectures is to go back to the very basics of Jewish thought as I think Jewish thought has been encrusted, distorted, by all sorts of loose thinking. And it is horrendous that Jews should think – and, you know, some religious Jews think this – that secular Jews are somehow morally inferior to them.
One of the besetting risks of any faith – and we are not short of it – is self-righteousness. And that is very bad news. As a famous chassidic saying says: ‘In the name of the Almighty I prefer a rosho who knows he’s a rosho – I prefer a wicked person who knows he’s a wicked person – to a tzaddik who thinks he’s a tzaddik.” Are you with me? So what I’ve really been trying to is that I know exactly what you mean and I really have been fighting it for the course of this lecture. Because it is bad for us and bad for the world. I think that if we are true to ourselves, we will learn all sorts of things from other people. But we will never abandon our own heritage which is unique to us. Ok?
Jonathan Shine: You said towards the end of your lecture that Judaism is about not imposing our beliefs on others. It struck me that when Joshua took the people into Israel that the very conquering that he did for all those years was just that. So how do you fit that in to your picture?
Chief Rabbi: I have to give you my reading of that book. And my reading of it is not Rashi’s reading. It is Maimonides’ reading. And you will find this not in Maimonides’ commentaries but in his law code, in Hilchot Melachim – the last book of his code. According to Maimonides, it is not permitted to wage war with anyone, even of the seven nations. What we have to do is first offer peace. Only if peace is declined are we empowered to make war. Maimonides says that Joshua offered peace 31 times to those 31 kings. They all declined. I would have thought, when I first read that Rambam, many years ago, that it’s crazy. However, unfortunately, events in the last eight or nine months have shown that it isn’t crazy. People find it terribly tough to make peace with us because we are different. Because we don’t belong. We didn’t belong in Christian Europe and now we don’t belong in the Islamic Middle East. And I have to say – I think I said it on Holocaust Day – that a country, a region, that doesn’t have room for difference does not have room for humanity.
So, I read the story of Joshua very simply. Joshua did offer peace and it was repeatedly declined and therefore had to fight a war. Otherwise Joshua would indeed, with the Israelites, have lived peaceably with all the inhabitants of that land. All I can say is that historically it is terribly important to know that at a very critical juncture in rabbinic history, as you know, the rabbis rules that all those laws didn’t apply nowadays. We don’t know who the seven nations are. We don’t know who Moav is. We don’t know who Amalek is. All of those things apply to biblical history but not to post-biblical history. And therefore I don’t believe we have become a militaristic nation, even in the last 53 years. That’s as good an answer as I can give you – but the question you raised is a real one and it’s a difficult one.
Martin Sykes: Chief Rabbi, I am not sure I understood the use of a term that you were using. It seemed to me that you used it in two different ways. You talked about how, according to Plato, the search for truth is the search for the universal and this idea was taken on board by the Enlightenment, and this is fine for science. Yet towards the end you talked about lots of groups with their different truths and their own way to God. I am not quite sure I understand in what way you are using the term ‘truth’. You seem to be using it in two very, very different ways – [Interjection from Chief Rabbi: “Totally.”] – and I was wondering in what way then are they similar in order to use the same word?
Chief Rabbi: Let me explain. I’m sorry – I was going to read you that bit, but I was already twenty minutes over the time and still hadn’t got into the final straight. Here it is. In Greek categories, and these have become western categories, truth is a mode of cognition. It is a cognitive term. Yes? Truth is ontological. If I say a statement is true, I mean it corresponds to reality. And reality can only be one way: it can’t be multiple ways. Either Labour will win the election – (Did they declare it today? [Audience responds: Yes.] Oh, jolly good. Fine.) – So either they will or they won’t. Either it’s Thursday or it isn’t Thursday. I haven’t got a clue one way or another, etc. etc. It either is x yom le’omer or it isn’t. That is truth as ontological as mirroring the structure of reality.
In Judaism, religious truth is covenantal. And by covenantal I mean that religious truth is made out of an agreement between two parties, each of which give their word to the other and thereby pledge themselves to one another. If that is the case, then God can make multiple covenants with multiple people. Just as you and I, I hope, have those multiple moral relationships. It is one kind of relationship with our parents; one with our spouses; one with our children; one with our friends. We have multiple covenants. So God can make multiple covenants.
And therefore, emet in Hebrew is not a cognitive category at all. It is a moral category, and listen very carefully to these words which we say every morning at the end of the Shema – Emet veyatziv venachon ve kayam. In that sentence emet means truthful, loyal, faithful, to be true to your word. And that kind of truth is moral truth. It is not cognitive truth. So did you hear me correctly when I said that – do you want to come back?
Martin Sykes: I’m not sure that I understand exactly what you mean then by the scientific truth, because then presumably that at the time of Newton everyone thought that his physics were true, and the same with Aristotle, and then today we don’t believe them. So how could the scientific approach claim to be dealing with truth? Is that clear? How can a scientist know –
Chief Rabbi: As you know, all scientific truth, if we follow – you know, at the end of Gemara we make a siyyum and we talk about Rav… Bar Papa, this Bar Papa, and this one belongs to another Bar Papa called Sir Karl Popper who wrote a book called Conjectures and Refutations in which he said that a scientific hypothesis can never be conclusively verified but it can be conclusively refuted. Yes? And therefore, as you know, it was the Michelson Morley experiments that finally established that Einstein’s theory of relativity covered more phenomena than Newton’s laws, even though Newton’s remain true within a circumscribed phenomenon. Science works for more and more universality and, whenever we can, we test by seeing whether it predicts or doesn’t predict the outcome of a controlled experiment. And that is scientific truth. The Logic of Scientific Discovery, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – the first by Karl Popper the other by T. S. Kuhn – work them through.
Moral truth is something else. Moral truth is not something that is refuted by experience but it can collapse because one of us gives way. Somebody was expecting us to be there for them but we weren’t. We walked away. We said we don’t want to know. That is moral faithlessness. That is sheker. It means that either we don’t mean it now or that we didn’t mean it then. But we are not true to our word. In Judaism, there is a particular kind of emet which is moral truth, which is covenantal. It is not ontological. It is not a matter of facts. It’s a matter of obligations and commitments. And therefore there are those two kinds of truth. They are really not confusing because they are totally and absolutely different from one another. If other religions could conceive their truth covenantally instead of ontologically, then other religions would find it possible to make space for yet other religions. That is what a Protestant theologian like Paul van Buren is trying to do within Christianity and I think it is a very honourable thing.
So I hope, I’ve explained, there are two kinds of truth.
But there is one kind of clock and I’m afraid it’s beaten us.
Thank you for being a wonderful audience. Thank you very much.