The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations

The 2007  Kenan Distinguished Lecture in Ethics

In 2007, Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks delivered the Kenan Distinguished Lecture in Ethics, in which he addressed the ways in which religions can be a source of peace rather than conflict. The lecture was held at Duke University.

Rabbi Sacks:

Mr. President, friends, it is a great honour to be with you. Mr. President, you were very kind about the Archbishop of Canterbury, but last month I got an honorary Doctorate from the Jesuits, and that really was a first. I want to thank President Richard Brodhead for the privilege of being invited here, of meeting you, and having the chance to speak, and to listen. My thanks to Professor Noah Pickus and the Kenan Institute for Ethics, to Rabbi Michael Goldman, head of Jewish life here at Duke, to my beloved friend, who I think is all of your beloved friend, Joel Fleischman. Special, special thanks to the Kenan family, to Mrs. Betty Kenan, which has done so much to promote the place of ethics here at Duke and elsewhere, and to the administrators of the trust.

And, friends, Duke is a remarkable institution and that fact shines through all the material that I've read. You are serious, thoughtful, reflective, respectful. You care about ideas, especially about moral and spiritual ideas, and the virtues that you need if the life of the mind is to honour its responsibility to society and to our world. Duke has, I gather, been through some tough times recently, and you will emerge from those tough times at the end of it all stronger than you were before, because of the courage and the honesty with which you have confronted those tough times and the issues they raise.

I'm sure you know the famous story of the legendary CEO of IBM, the late Thomas Watson. You remember there was, in the early days of IBM, an employee who made a very big mistake which cost IBM twelve million dollars, and he heard that he was summoned to the head of the company, and fully realized he was about to be fired, and came in and said, “Mr. Watson, you're right, I just cost the company twelve million dollars, I know you're gonna fire me, and I understand why.” And Tom Watson replied, “Fire you? We have just spent twelve million dollars educating you!” And if you take difficult moments as learning experiences, and if you do so as a community, as a fellowship of joint responsibility, then you will grow. And therefore, I say you should be proud of how Duke has fared, and will continue to fare, under the leadership of President Brodhead, and may you continue to be blessed in the years ahead.

Friends, we are living at quite an extraordinary juncture of history. We have seen murderous conflict, bordering on civil war, in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have seen an Iran dedicated to, as its president says, wiping Israel off the map, God forbid, in rapid pursuit of nuclear weapons. We have witnessed something close to genocide in Darfur. We have seen terror wrecking societies in Lebanon and in Gaza. Major conflicts in Somalia, in Chechnya, North China, and there are today threats of terror hanging over virtually every country in the world. At this moment, the trial is proceeding in London of six terrorists who tried, and failed, or at least are accused of trying and failing, to create a series of suicide bombing, six of them a mere two weeks after the suicide bombings of 7th July 2005. We've seen countries as robust as France and Holland rocked by the politics of anger. We have even seen the two great leaders of the free world, your president, George W. Bush, and our prime minister, Tony Blair, losing the confidence of at least part of their publics, and we face the possibility of America going in one direction, Europe in another, and Russia in a third, and we have no idea where the world is going, except that it's going there very fast.

Three years ago I shared a platform with a great historian of Islam, Professor Bernard Lewis. Somebody asked him, “Professor Lewis, what is going to happen in Iraq?” And he replied, “Well, I'm a historian, so I only make predictions about the past. What is more,” he said, “I am a retired historian, so even my past is passe”.

But we do not even know the narrative. We don't know what story we are in. We don't even know what metaphor is appropriate. To take only the most obvious case, the one metaphor that has dominated most of the talks since 9/11, the concept of war on terror. Well, we know what war used to mean. Number one: something that took place between identifiable groupings, usually nation-states. Two: between identifiable people combatants. Three: in an identifiable place called a battleground. Four: within agreed conventions. And five: if it was a war you had some way of knowing when it has ended. None of those apply to the present set of conflicts, and that adds to our sense of confusion and unease.

We do know this, however, beyond any shadow of doubt: that religion is at the absolute heart of it. Every suicide bombing, every terror attack, the killing of Theo van Gogh in Holland or Daniel Pearl in Karachi, the language of al-Qaeda and the President of Iran, and the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah, are accompanied by messages – some written, some videoed, some broadcast on the Internet – each one of which is profoundly religious, unmistakeably so. And that means that we have to stop and take stock. As your president has reminded us, this is not what we thought was going to happen. Why has it happened, and what is its consequence?

I’m going to answer that question very fast, forgive me, because I don’t have that much time. I remember there was an American professor at Harvard called Daniel Bell, is that right? And Daniel Bell came over to the London School of Economics, not far from where we are. And the British academic scene is slightly different from the American one, and somebody asked him, “Professor Bell, what do you specialize in?” And he replied, “I specialize in generalizations”. So you will forgive me if I generalize, but here it is. Here it is. We should understand what is happening in terms of the technological change that is taking place, and we know from many studies, and many scholars, that the most profound of all technological changes are those that change the way we record and transmit information.

In Professor Walter J. Ong’s very striking phrase, the move from oral cultures to literate cultures, he said writing restructures consciousness. And actually, if we take a very global tour of human history, we will see that there have been four key moments in the history of literacy. Number one: the birth of writing, simultaneous with – and constitutive of – the birth of civilization. It takes place in Mesopotamia with cuneiform, shortly thereafter in Egypt with hieroglyphics, and that gives rise to civilization, and indeed to a particular kind of consciousness which we will call the cosmological imagination.

Revolution two: the birth of the alphabet, which takes place somewhere either in what is today's southern Israel, or more likely in the Sinai desert, probably around the turquoise mines of Serabit. And the alphabet is created there in roughly the age of the Patriarchs at exactly the right time for the Israelite slaves and for Moses. And the alphabet gives rise to the Book, which gives rise to the people of the Book. It creates monotheism, or it allows monotheism to emerge. Indeed, it allows all those transformations almost across the world, which Karl Jasper's called the ‘Axial Age’.

Third, the birth, the invention of printing, which turns out to be decisive for the spread of the Reformation. Don't try and start a revolution on the principle of sola scriptura – only consult the Bible – if the only Bibles that exists are handwritten on parchment by scribes, too expensive for you to buy, and even if you could, you couldn't read them because they're in Latin, and they are the property of the local church. It is only when printing is invented that ordinary individuals can afford books, that they can read them in the privacy of their home, that they can read them in the vernacular in their own language, and thus Reformation and all the revolutions that went with it (the spread of literacy, the birth of the concept of the individual), all of these followed – growth of science, the division of labour, the free market.

So there have only been three revolutions in this technology of the word, and each one of them was a major turning point in the history of civilization. We – you and I – are living through the fourth: the Internet, the email, satellite television, instantaneous global communication, all the way up to the latest Apple gizmo – the phone that does everything else for you. You had that launched here, yeah? Isn't that why we all have children and grandchildren, so that somebody can explain to us what podcasting means?

And there it is, the fourth great revolution. And as you would suspect, it is affecting Islam. Because if the second revolution affected Judaism (people of the Book, the birth of the Bible), and the third printing affected Christianity (the Reformation), then predictably the fourth would affect Islam, the youngest of the three Abrahamic monotheisms. And of course, the irony of the current situation is quite simple. The intellectual foundations of political Islam, or what is called Islamism, were laid in Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood, and fought out today most bitterly in Iraq. So by one of the great ironies of history we are back where we began: in Mesopotamia, in Egypt, between the Tigris and the Euphrates, and by the banks of the Nile.

And the question is, therefore, is there anything we can do in this world where conflict anywhere suddenly becomes conflict everywhere? All of a sudden, Danish cartoons, or a single sentence in an academic lecture by the Pope, lead to demonstrations throughout the world. Today, in your paper, we are reading about our English television program called Big Brother because they were rude to an Indian lady on British television. I mean, who watches British television, for heaven’s sake? But there it is – demonstrations in India. Instantly the most local problem goes global, and that is a situation in which conflict becomes absolutely inflammatory, and where the result is a series of violent confrontations throughout the world. And I must tell you that looking at the world today, the words that most frequently resonate in my mind are the words the Bible attributes to God before the flood: “And God regretted that He had created man on earth, and it grieved Him to His very heart” (Bereishit 6:6).

And yet in all of this, one question has haunted me. Have we actually confronted the problem at all? We have looked every which way – at Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran; we've looked at psychological explanations, economic ones, sociological ones, political ones; the latest theory, the demographic theory that any country where 15 to 29 year olds are in excess of 30% of the total population there is violence – every explanation, except one. There is no question that in the self-perception of the participants, what counts is the religious issue. This is a religious issue as far as one side of the conflict is concerned. And therefore, it will need some religious revolution within Islam to resolve it. Just as it needed a religious revolution within Judaism in the days of Moses from family to nation to resolve that conflict, just as it needed a religious revolution in Europe after the Reformation to resolve the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. And therefore, in some sense, you and I are bystanders.

But bystanders can make a difference. In truth, Judaism drew on elements of the culture around, even if reacting by reacting against them. It was formed by Abraham’s experience in Mesopotamia, by Moses growing up in Egypt. They left their mark even if Judaism defined itself in opposition to them – nonetheless, that was part of the background against which Judaism was born. Christianity drew on Judaism. Islam drew on both of them. So in fact, the great Abrahamic monotheisms have not lived in watertight compartments; they have influenced one another. Indeed, the movement then began in the opposite direction, because Islam, as you know, in the 10th, 11th, 12th centuries was then able to rediscover the great classical tradition – the Neo-Platonic and Neo-Aristotelian position, through Avicennism, through Averroism, and from there it came into Judaism through Moses, Maimonides, and from there into Christianity through Thomas Aquinas – and therefore there is an interconnection between all three Abrahamic faiths.

And therefore we are not entirely bystanders, there is not nothing that we can do. And indeed we hold matters very much in common. All three – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are self-consciously about literacy, about the word. They are, all three of them, religions of holy words, of sacred texts. They are peoples of the Book. And more interestingly enough, their narratives are interwoven. The Jewish story is part of the Christian story. The Jewish and Christian stories are part of the story of the Qur’an.

And that, therefore, is why tonight I want to do something with you. I'm going to go back to texts because that is where it all began – in sacred texts. And therefore because time is short and the subject is long, I'm going to do one simple exercise with you tonight. I want you to come with me on a little journey to see and hear how potent it is to listen to sacred texts, and how revealing it can be. And I'm going to deliberately take two stories which I hope most of you are familiar with, two stories that are very fraught indeed in themselves, and equally fraught in their historical resonances. I'm talking about the story of Isaac and Ishmael in Genesis, and the story of Jacob and Esau. These are two key narratives. There is a historian, Yosef Yerushalmi – I don't know if you're familiar with his work. He wrote a book about Freud called ‘Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable’, and he asked a question of Freud. He said, why, Freud, in your ‘Moses and Monotheism’, the last book you ever wrote, why throw out your psychological study of the human individual and of society as a whole? Did you focus on Oedipus, the rivalry between fathers and sons? Surely if you looked at the rivalry between Judaism and Christianity and with Islam, the real fraught relationship is not father and son, it is sibling rivalry. That's what Jews, and Christians, and Muslims are – siblings fighting one another. And it was a good point.

He didn't go further than that point, but I do. Because if we look at the roots of sibling rivalry in the Abrahamic monotheisms, there they are – in the stories of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau. And indeed, they kind of seem to contain within them the history of everything that followed. The story of Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau – both of them are stories in which the younger usurps the older. And maybe that is actually what happened in history: Judaism displaced the older civilizations of Egypt to Mesopotamia. Christianity claimed to displace Judaism. Islam claimed to displace both. Each one of them is a retelling of that story of sibling rivalry, and the younger displacing the older. And if that is written into our sacred texts, is it written into our histories? Are we destined to fight forever, as those brothers did? And that is what I want to ask tonight.

I want you to follow me in a thought experiment. Wallace Stevens wrote a wonderful poem called ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ – can I ask you to join me in five ways of looking at a biblical narrative?

First reading: two stories – what happens on the surface? If you were telling somebody who never heard of those stories what happens, I suspect you would tell them roughly this. Some differences, but very similar. In both cases, two sons are born. In the case of Isaac and Ishmael, to two different women at two different times; in the case of Jacob and Esau, the same woman at the same time, but in both cases the law of primogeniture is overturned. in the oracle that Rebecca receives, “rav ya’avod tza’ir” (Bereishit 25:23), which we will translate for the purposes of the present moment as “the elder will serve the younger”. The younger is chosen to continue the Covenant (the younger, Isaac, the younger, Jacob) and the elder (Ishmael, Esau) is in effect sent away, ceases to be part of the story. That is the first reading, the reading everyone knows.

Now, read it a second way. How would you tell the story, this time not summarizing it, but telling it from the vantage point of the two fathers? Then it becomes a different story. Do you remember, Abraham loved Ishmael. When God said, “No, you're going to have another child”, Abraham begged, “lu Yishma’el yichiyeh lefanecha” (Bereishit 17:18), let Ishmael live before you, let him! Why do I need another one? When Sarah eventually said, send this child away, “vayera hadavar me’od b’einei Avraham al odot b’no” (Bereishit 21:11), it hurt Abraham, because Ishmael was his son. Abraham loved Ishmael. And as for Jacob and Esau, the text is explicit. Isaac loved Esau “ki tzayid b’fiv”, “there was venison in his mouth, and Rebecca loved Jacob” (Bereishit 25:28). From the second you read the story from the point of view of the fathers, it's a different story. All of a sudden the real beloved are not Isaac and Jacob, they are Ishmael and Esau.

Now this is odd. Are fathers irrelevant to the narrative? Tell me, why was Abraham chosen to be the originator of the Covenant? In the only text in the whole of the Bible where it says why God chose Abraham, in Genesis 18, it says, “ki yedativ lema’an asher yetzaveh et banav”, I have chosen him because I know he will instruct his children afterwards that they will keep the way of the Lord (Bereishit 18:19). Abraham was chosen as a father. What does the word ‘Abraham’ mean, by the way? Av ram, mighty father. Or when his name is extended, av hamon goyim, father of many nations. Abraham is chosen because he's a father. So suddenly we realize the vantage point, the perspective of the father is important to this narrative. But read the story from the father's point of view, from Abraham's point of view, from Isaac's point of view – it's the opposite story. That's the second way of reading the narrative.

Now, third way of reading the narrative. Cancel out everything except the emotional impact. Where are your sympathies drawn? Do you remember the two chapters where Sarah has sent Hagar away to the wilderness, first time when she's pregnant, second time when she's had Ishmael already, and we see Hagar alone, abandoned in the desert. We see her with Ishmael, who's going to die, and she hides him under a bush, and she's weeping. Who are our sympathies with? With Sarah? No way! Our sympathies are with Hagar and with Ishmael. There is no way of reading it any other way.

If you look very carefully at Genesis 21 and 22: Ishmael being sent away (Chapter 21), the binding of Isaac (Chapter 22). They are parallel narratives. In both of them, Abraham almost loses a son. But compare their literary structure, their literary tonality. 21, with Hagar and Ishmael about to die, the whole language is emotive, we identify with them. In Genesis 22, no emotion at all. You've read the famous essay by Erich Auerbach in ‘Mimesis’, ‘Odysseus’ Scar’, there's no emotion in the whole story of the binding of Isaac. We cannot read this narrative other than by identifying with Hagar and Ishmael, instead of with Sarah and with Isaac.

Think in your mind about the great deception scene when Isaac is old and blind, and he's about to bless Esau, and Jacob – by his mother's prompting – dresses up in Esau’s clothes and pretends to be Esau. Who are your sympathies with in that narrative – with Jacob and Rebecca, or with Isaac and Esau? There's no way your sympathies can be with Jacob. Remember, again, the emotive language: Isaac, when he realizes the deception has been perpetrated on him, trembles violently; Esau lets out a big cry. We see father and son holding one another, trying to comfort one another. Our feelings are drawn to them. So in terms of emotional impact, again, our emotions are not with Jacob and Rebecca, but with Isaac and Esau.

Now, this is extraordinary. I mean, it is so extraordinary that the rabbis could only live with that chapter by, as it were, creatively rereading and rewriting it in the process that we call Midrash. So now we have two narratives, critical narratives, in which the surface reads one way: Isaac is chosen, Ishmael apparently rejected; Jacob is chosen, Esau is apparently rejected. But underneath that narrative, this counter-narrative that runs in the opposite direction which subverts the surface narrative, in which first we see through the eyes of the father, and then we listen to the events and their emotions, and we identify not with the chosen but with the rejected – with Ishmael and with Esau.

Now, let's read the narrative a fourth time. This time, asking, what is the final scene? We think in the story of Isaac and Ishmael, Ishmael has been sent away. That's it, goodbye Ishmael, no longer part of the story. But actually, in the final scene, what do we see? Isaac and Ishmael standing side by side at the grave of their father. How did that happen? We thought there was no contact between them. I won't tell you how it happened – that's a long story and I haven't got time. But there it is, reconciliation.

What about Jacob and Esau? There is no buildup in the entire Bible as powerful as the buildup to the meeting between Jacob and Esau after they've been separated for 22 years. You remember Esau swearing to kill Jacob, and Jacob hears he’s coming with 400 men, and he is terrified. “Vayira Yaakov me’od vayetzer lo” (Bereishit 32:8), he is terrified and distressed, and he sends gifts, and he offers prayers, and he divides his camp into two, and he wrestles with an angel – it’s the biggest buildup in the Bible. What happens? The biggest anticlimax. They meet, they kiss, they embrace, they go their separate ways. They’re friends. Those not the endings we expect. They don't follow the narrative logic. And again, we ask, what is going on here? And if we stay with this fourth reading, looking at the last scene in which we see the brothers, then if we look carefully we will see that there is a bigger pattern here.

We have four stories in Genesis of rivalry between brothers: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. Ask, what is the final scene in each case? Cain and Abel: murder – Cain kills Abel. Isaac and Ishmael: reconciliation – stand together in grief when their father dies. Jacob and Esau: more than reconciliation – they meet, they embrace, they kiss. Joseph – more even than that. His brothers tried to kill him. What does he say? “Ve’atem chashavtem alay ra’ah Elokim chashvah l’tova”, you tried to do evil to me, but God meant it for good (Bereishit 50:20). I forgive you. The scene of human forgiveness that is the paradigm of all human forgiveness in the Bible. And only when we have that scene in Genesis 50, can Genesis reach closure.

So you can see there is a progression here – that sibling rivalry, which began in fratricide, ends in forgiveness. And we actually can see that there is a story being told in these four narratives, a story in four movements. And it's an important one, because it tells us sibling rivalry is not written into the script. Conflict is not endemic to the human situation. Don't think that brothers must fight. It isn't so. And Genesis tells of a progression from conflict to conciliation.

And now I'm going to ask you to read the story the fifth way. I'm going to ask you how Christians read the story, and how Muslims read the story. Read Galatians, Chapter 4, and you will discover the Jews who I thought, being Jewish, were children of Isaac, turn out actually to be children of Ishmael. Paul says, look, the Jews are the children of the slave woman, they're slaves to the law, so they must be Hagar's children. And Christians are free, and therefore they must be the children of the free woman, Sarah. So it turns out that there's a role reversal going on here. And then you read Romans 9, and Irenaeus, and you discover that Christians are the true heirs of Jacob, and Jews are the children of Esau. And we discover when we read the Qur’an that all along it was Ishmael who was chosen, and Isaac who wasn't.

And the second we understand that, we are very close to the roots of a theological conflict that poisoned relationships between the three faiths for close to 2,000 years. All three faiths acted as if the surface narrative is all there is: the younger brother displaces the elder. And therefore, the younger religion must displace the elder. Christianity displaces Judaism, Islam displaces Christianity, and we have the surface narrative enacted again and again. And then, the second we discover that, something astonishing becomes clear. Namely, that the Bible is actually speaking directly to our condition today. It is saying, the surface narrative is not all there is. There is hope. There is reconciliation. Cain and Abel are not the last word in sibling rivalry, they are the first word. And Genesis cannot end until sibling conflict reaches a revolution in an act of forgiveness, an act of “shevet achim gam yachad”, in the language of the Psalms (Tehillim 133:1), of brothers living together. Until that image is the closing scene we have of our shared history, of brothers living in peace together. And this is achieved by a literary device astonishing in its complexity and its subtlety.

And actually, we now begin to realize something that maybe we never realized before about the book of Genesis. You see, Genesis is to Judaism what Plato and Aristotle are to philosophy. And they're dealing with the same kinds of issues. And therefore we ask, why was it that Jews did not choose the Greek way of writing philosophical texts? Why is Genesis not a philosophical text, but instead a set of narratives? Why did Jews and the Bible choose to tell truth not as system, but as story? And to that, I believe the answer is very deep indeed.

One question hovers over the whole of Western civilization: how is it that all that philosophy, all that enlightenment, all that liberalism, emancipation, all the work of Lessing, all the work of Kant, did not prevent a Holocaust? How was it that ordinary, sane, decent human beings were able to stand by while genocide was taking place? And the truth is that whether we see morality as based in universal imperatives like Kant, or in moral emotions like Hume, or in impartial spectator like Adam Smith, or utilitarian considerations like Jeremy Bentham, that will not stop us killing our fellow human beings if we persuade ourselves that our fellow human beings are less than human beings. If we think of them as lice, as vermin, if we think – as Hutus thought of Tutsis in Rwanda – that these are inyenzi, cockroaches, if we think of our fellow human beings, those who disagree with us on matters of faith, as the infidel, the Antichrist, the unbeliever, the unsaved, then all the ethical systems in the world will not stop us from killing our fellow human beings.

And we begin to understand the immense project the Bible is undertaking, which is to tell us a series of stories which seem to say one thing on the surface, but actually say something quite different beneath. And what they say beneath is the single most important thing in the whole moral life, and we can only achieve that through narrative, which is to see the world through someone else's eyes. To be able to put ourselves in someone else's situation. And whose situation do we need to put ourselves in? Not the chosen, but those who seem to be rejected. That is what the Bible is making us do: to see reality through the eyes of Ishmael and Hagar, to see the reality through the eyes of Esau, to see reality through the eyes of the two individuals that everyone looks down on, and then realize that they are human too. That they were loved by their fathers. That they too were blessed by God. That when Esau and Ishmael cry, God hears. That when they chose another way which is not ours, that too is precious in the eyes of God.

And it is only when we can do that role reversal – which is only achieved through narrative, not through philosophical systems – it is only when we can enter the mind of the other, that we can save ourselves from inhumanity. It is only when Jews, Christians, and Muslims see the world from the point of view of the ones who are not them; it is only when they begin to understand Isaac, and Ishmael’s and Esau’s – or Muslims’ or Christians’ – hopes, and pains, and fears, and prayers; it is only when we do role reversal that we become human, and we can no longer deny the humanity of those unlike us.

And that is what the narrative complexity of Genesis is asking us to do. And only when we do that, when we see the world from our enemy's eyes, from the ones we think are rejected, only then have we reached the spiritual depths that God is calling us to through His sacred word, through Genesis, the text shared by all three faiths. And only when we do that will we know that we cannot – we may not – kill in the name of the God of life, or wage war in the name of the God of peace, or hate in the name of the God of love, or practice cruelty in the name of the God of compassion.

Friends, what I've tried to do this evening is give you a little glimpse of how we might relate to religious conflict religiously. Because in the short term, battles are won by weapons, but in the long term, they are won by ideas, and religious battles are won by religious ideas. Let me tell you something. Secularization began in Europe in the 17th century, not when people stopped believing in God – they didn't stop believing in God. What they stopped believing was in the ability of the people of God to live peaceably together – and that is where we are today. Peace will only come to our world when the children of Abraham learn to live graciously together. And if that can happen as it has between Jews and Christians after 2,000 years of estrangement, if today we can meet as friends in mutual respect, then it can happen between Jews and Christians on the one hand, and the world of Islam on the other. And it will take a long time, but it begins here, and it begins now. It begins in the way we read our texts.

But of one thing I am sure: even if we don't get as far as the middle of Genesis, even if we do no more than read and take seriously the first chapter of the Bible, if we read it with humility, then we know that one who is not in our image is nonetheless in God's image. One who is different still bears the trace of God who created difference. And if we knew that, we would know that anyone who kills in the name of God blasphemes the name of God, that whoever saves life in the name of God gives life to the name of God. I don’t know if religion has ever faced a greater challenge than it does in the 21st century, but God, who has set us this charge, has given us the strength – intellectual, moral, and spiritual – to meet it, and it begins here. Here, where the ideas of tomorrow are born, in the respectful conversations we have today, may God be with us, now, and in the years ahead, and may we prove worthy of the faith He has in us.

Thank you.

Noah Pickus:

Thank you. We have some time for questions. There are microphones on either side. If you’ll come down, the Chief Rabbi will handle the questions himself.

Audience member 1:

Baruch haba v’yashar ko’ach. It's an honour to hear you. I have a comment, savri, and also a question. My comment comes from a close reading of the final chapters of Bereishit that I did sitting shiva for my father two weeks ago, and I was struck by the final sibling reconciliation in Bereishit which is between the sons of Yosef, who never fight, and who receive the cross blessing, and so to me that seems like the final resolution – when there's actually no conflict to begin with.

Rabbi Sacks:

Excellent, really good. I agree.

Audience member 1:

And my question has to do with your focus on the progression of written language, which of course can only begin as a transmission of what is heard into what is written. And so my question to you is, is it possible that the way humanity needs to proceed now in order to generate peace among warring factions is based on a necessity for a revolution in consciousness and a semiotic revolution. I noticed that in Great Britain in 2005, the Parliament recognised British sign language as the natural language of deaf people, so there is in fact a movement somewhere to go beyond an oral and written language into a language of signs. And I think that in Deuteronomy there is also some indication that we might need to move in that direction, because Moshe Rabbeinu does not move beyond speaking to the people when he receives the Torah, or when he transmits the Torah, but after he's been in the presence of the Shechinah it's a vision that that separates him and moves him beyond, and not what he is has spoken or has heard. So that's my question to you, if you can comment on that please.

Rabbi Sacks:

Yeah, I thank you for adding the footnote in about Ephraim and Manasseh. The actual closure is reached later still, in Chapter 4 of Exodus, and for the first time, Moses and Aaron function as a team – they don't just live in peace, but they function as a team. And again, Moses is the younger and he gets the top job, and you would have thought that most elder brothers seeing their kid brother get the top job would be the tiniest bit jealous, and you will remember what the Bible says. God says, your brother Aaron is coming to see you, “v'ra’acha v’samach b’libo”, he will see you, and he will rejoice (Shemot 4:14). He will rejoice that his kid brother got to be number one. So it's actually Moses and Aaron – or if I may be both more biblically correct, and politically correct, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam – who actually reached the closure.

Secondly, there is indeed a revolution in communication called for, but it's not quite as complex as you suggest. You see, there's very, very good news about religious leaders, and there is very bad news about them. The good news is, they're all wonderful speakers. The bad news is, they're not all great listeners. I don't know if you've ever noticed, I have sometimes to give talks to religious leaders – I’m the rabbi of the rabbis. And so I know we can give sermons, but surely to goodness, we can't take them. And therefore there is a revolution, and it is signalled in the book of Deuteronomy where the word shema appears 92 times. It's a key word of Deuteronomy, and as you know, it is the first word of the key verse in the whole of Judaism: “shema Yisrael” (Devarim 6:4). And in the new prayer book which I've just completed, it’s just been published, I have translated “shema Yisrael” correctly: it does not mean “hear, Israel”, it means “listen”. What we need in the world today is active listening, and let others speak to us, and let us give them the gift of listening seriously to them. There is no mode of conflict resolution more powerful than focused listening, and that is what we need. Thank you.

Audience member 2:

If you were a diplomat today, how would you handle – with what you just spoke to us about – the problems between Israel and the Palestinians, or the conflict that America is involved in in Iraq?

Rabbi Sacks:

If I were a diplomat? Now you know why I'm not a diplomat. It's a good thought though, mind you. Why don't we send a chief rabbi into Gaza, and finally all the Palestinians will run over to the Israelis and say, “Guys, what do we do with this guy?” Maybe it is creative. Now look, I do actually seriously mean what I say, and it has small beginnings, and it is a long undertaking. But I don't know – and I love Israel with every fibre of my being – whether Israel has really listened to the Palestinians. Have the Palestinians really listened to the Israelis?

I have read as much as I can about the conflict, and it is a very, very difficult and desperate one, and that is why I believe that nothing can be lost by serious listening. I can't go into it in any more detail, but I am patron of a trust called ‘One Voice’ in which young Israelis and young Palestinians work together to try and create communication across the divide, using the latest email and internet technologies. Half a million Israelis, half a million Palestinians involved. It’s an extraordinary project. It bypasses the politicians; it works on the principle that ordinary people in the grassroots of local communities are more likely to reach a peace agreement with one another than political leaders are, because political leaders have positions to defend, and local communities just want to get on living.

And how far 'One Voice’ will go, I don't know, but Elaine and I did entertain at our house just a month or two ago two young Palestinians from Ramallah who really are working in this direction. And they don't like Israel one little bit, but they've got a life to live, and they don't want to see that go up in smoke. So I do actually believe in that communication. But I do believe that if you offer a hand of friendship across faiths, extraordinary things can happen.

And we've only just begun. Every year I make a half an hour program for BBC television – it's kind of a message from the Jewish community to the British public. This year, this last year’s September, I did it on the 350th anniversary of Anglo-Jewry, and, you know, it's a nice little program to make, and I thought, you know, look, while I'm making the Jewish community in Britain look good, let's do something nice for the Muslim community which does not often look good in the public domain. And so I included a section, 3-4 minutes, in which I spent a day at a Muslim community centre with a wonderful group of Muslims, young high fliers in the City, all in finance, called The City Circle. I came across them because the Muslim Council of Britain – as you probably have read – each year boycotts Holocaust Memorial Day, and I heard on the radio one young Muslim saying, “They’re wrong, we are going. We are not going to boycott it”. And I tracked them down, and I found they were this little group, and I invited them around, they came around to our house. I made friends with them, and I gave them this tremendous positive media coverage in my program. And we caught it a little moment, totally unscripted, and there it was, shown on television: a very religious eight-year-old Muslim girl with a hijab who had made me a little card. It said in English and Arabic “shana tova”, have a good New Year. This wonderful moment in television. Strange things happen.

I wrote a book called ‘A Letter in the Scroll’, it's a book of Jewish pride. Why any non-Jew would read ‘A Letter in the Scroll’ I have no idea, although it was serialised in the London Times. In May 2002, the Queen had her Golden Jubilee, 50 years. And as one of the nice things she did, she gave a little party in Buckingham Palace for the leaders of the various faiths in Britain. We have quite a lot of them: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Jains, Zoroastrian, and Bahá'í, to name the main ones. And they were all there, and it was very nice. And while we were waiting for the Queen to say a few words, a very, very religious Muslim guy came up to me, and said, “Chief Rabbi, my wife wants a word with you”.

Now, this is May 2002. If you remember what was happening in May 2002, the suicide bombings in Israel were at their very height. I did not know what to expect. And she came up to me, a very, very religious woman, completely covered by a hijab, and she said to me, “Chief Rabbi, I just wanted to thank you for ‘A Letter in the Scroll’, it meant a great deal to me”. That is a book of Jewish pride, and there is a Muslim woman to whom it spoke. 'Go figure', as you say in America.

When you break the paradigm, when you act not defensively, but generously, strange things can happen. And I do not think a 58-year-old political conflict can end overnight, but I do know that we need some new beginning of hope. And that is what I've tried to give you. Thank you.

Audience member 3:

Pardon me, I have one more thing. If I understood your thesis correctly, it's that empathy is going to save the religious world in the face of this fourth revolution. And I was wondering if there was a policy implication, so to speak. That is to say, can empathy be taught maybe in the current environment as different from the previous one.

Rabbi Sacks:

Let me give you a little example of something, of a moment when America did something very imaginative and very right. In 1944 – and forgive me, my knowledge of American history is very limited – in 1944, 1943-44, when American knew it was going to have to go into battle with Japan, a culture that it didn't understand at all, this was not merely a clash of civilisations but a clash with a civilisation, and they didn't understand at all. And the American government did something very strange and very beautiful at that time, and it has huge implications here.

It turned to academics. It turned to anthropologists. And it said to them, teach us what this people is like so that we can understand who we are dealing with, and how we should deal with them. As you know, one of the people to whom they turned was an anthropologist called Ruth Benedict. In 1946, she published the study that was based on what she did for the American government. It was called ‘The Chrysanthemum and the Sword’, one of the more remarkable tributes to empathy across cultures. What Ruth Benedict did for the government and for American policy was to realize and – I don’t fully understand this – the significance for Japan of the emperor, which is very difficult for Americans to understand. And she was able to tell the Americans, if you leave the emperor in place, then the Japanese can accept all sorts of conditions because their face will have been saved and there will be a visible sign of continuity, and you won't be humiliating them.

Now, that was when the government turned to the university and to intellectual disciplines in a deliberate policy of empathy, and the result was extraordinarily wise and sensible. I'm not sure if the same has been done in the current conflict. I am not sure. And that is why if it made sense in 1944, it makes sense in 2007. And what I'm talking about is hard-edged politics, not just softly configured pious hopes. First seek to understand, and then to be understood.

I was in the room this summer, end of July/beginning of August in Pebble Beach, with Arnie Schwarzenegger and Rupert Murdoch and all the guys, when Tony Blair gave his speech. He opened the conference, right? It was widely publicized, Tony Blair's speech in California this summer. And if I can summarize his speech, it was this: not only have we not won the war, we haven't even won the argument. We have not persuaded Islam of the benefits of freedom and democracy.

Let me be blunt with you: if I wanted to sit down with a group of Muslims, freedom and democracy would not be the first two words I would use. They are the language that I respond to, not the language that you respond to. First seek to understand, and then to be understood. The first thing you say to a Muslim is, what is the will of God? The second thing you say is, let’s sit and study texts. Believe you me, I know how you speak to Muslims, and you do not do so in secular language of any kind, least of all the language of liberal democracy. That does not mean to say we cannot communicate. We share many, many values indeed. So I think the cost of fighting this war with weapons and not with ideas, fighting it with missiles, not with words, not with understanding, has been very great indeed.

So although I know what I said sounds hopelessly idealistic, but it is also very realistic indeed, and that must be the way forward. Gordon Brown quite rightly said, our next Prime Minister (I think I'm not breaking any confidences) reminded us that during the years of the Cold War, the CIA invested money into academic institutions, into academic publications, because it fought the Cold War with ideas. And the time has come to fight the current confrontation with ideas. And I believe that it is urgent and important.

And if I have at least opened in your mind a possibility, then I will consider this visit well-spent, and thank you for the wonderful way in which you've listened and responded.