Let me just give a little context here for our blog readers: when I heard about the terror attack in Barcelona on Thursday, I checked in on Josep to make sure he and his loved ones were okay. As I pointed out then, it was a bit of a weird, if not unexpected (see the last line of that post), role reversal. Josep was safe, but understandably feeling pretty fed up with the state of affairs, and we discussed the situation a little. Over the course of the conversation I mentioned that I’d been reading a book by one of my favorite Jewish leaders of our time, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. (And here’s a shout-out to my friends Shimon and Mandy Detwiler, who not only lent me their copy, but also graciously excused me for spending a large chunk of last Shabbat at their home with my nose buried in it instead of paying attention to them.)
I had been thinking I might write a blog post about the book when I was done reading, and Josep said I should write one so he doesn’t have to read the whole thing. 😛 And, well, I finished the book yesterday morning, so here we are.
But I’m going to say again, Josep, that I really don’t think I can do it justice. The ideas Rabbi Sacks discusses are very complex and nuanced, and they just don’t work as soundbites–as befits any really wise and thoughtful discussion of this topic. I still recommend reading the whole thing. And to that end, I shall hereby announce that other thing we discussed: Josep’s Reading List! This is a new page on the blog website that will feature a list of titles I have recommended to you over the years–including links to my short stories at the end–for your convenience and that of our blog readers who happen to be bookworms like us!
Now, back to Not in God’s Name.
The main goal of the book is not necessarily to explain why religious violence happens, but to provide a theological approach to confronting this phenomenon. The book seeks to answer these difficult questions: “Does the God of Abraham want his disciples to kill for his sake? Does he demand human sacrifice? Does he rejoice in holy war? Does he want us to hate our enemies and terrorise unbelievers?”
Now, I say these questions are difficult knowing that you, and the vast majority of Westerners, do not think of them as difficult at all. Of course the God of Abraham doesn’t rejoice in holy war or want us to hate people or terrorize our enemies! I think Rabbi Sacks is trying to help Westerners understand, however, that the fact that they see that answer as a given is part of the problem.
Modern Westerners don’t understand what drives Muslims, Christians, or Jews to interpret our holy texts in a way that drives us to violence. They solve this problem by saying: well, what these terrorists are practicing isn’t real Islam. What the Christians did during the Crusades wasn’t real Christianity. What Yigal Amir and Baruch Goldstein did wasn’t real Judaism. In fact, religion has nothing to do with it, they would argue: “People are made violent, as Hobbes said, by fear, glory and the ‘perpetual and restless desire for power after power that ceaseth only in death’… It may be used by manipulative leaders to motivate people to wage wars precisely because it inspires people to heroic acts of self-sacrifice, but religion itself teaches us to love and forgive, not to hate and fight.” I, myself, have expressed a similar view.
Rabbi Sacks points out the problem with this approach: “When terrorist or military groups invoke holy war, define their battle as a struggle against Satan, condemn unbelievers to death and commit murder while declaring ‘God is great’, to deny that they are acting on religious motives is absurd. Religions seek peace, but on their own terms. This is not a recipe for peace but for war.”
It may seem obvious to a Westerner that God wants us to be peaceful, and religious people from all three Abrahamic faiths will points to key texts in our holy books that support this: “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18); “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44); “If anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or to spread mischief in the land–it would be as if he killed all mankind…” (Qur’an 5:32)
But it is just as easy to find texts in those and other religious sources that seem shockingly intolerant and violent. I’ve seen memes about such verses from the Qur’an and the Bible all over social media. For the most part, we have traditional interpretations that moderate the ideas expressed in these verses, but extremists have been interpreting them differently for centuries. Who am I, as a Jew, to say which interpretations of Islam are the “correct” ones? And who’s to say that my interpretation of “Blot out the memory of Amalek” is correct, while Baruch Goldstein’s interpretation of it was incorrect? Just because something “feels better” or aligns better with modern humanist doctrine doesn’t mean it’s true.
Rabbi Sacks puts the argument of the book as simply as he can in these words: “There is a connection between religion and violence, but it is oblique, not direct.”
So what is that connection, and how should we, as religious people, approach it?
Altruistic Evil and Pathological Dualism
The question of why people commit any kind of violence is something we have discussed in other (off-blog) contexts in recent months. Rabbi Sacks, of course, delves a lot deeper, drawing on the writings of philosophers, psychologists, and scientists exploring this question. Looking at humans from a purely evolutionary standpoint, it makes as much sense for humans to be violent toward each other as for lions to be violent toward hyenas. Being altruistic and compassionate toward members of our own group has a distinct evolutionary advantage, because we are much more likely to survive if we cooperate; but we are also wired to be hostile, even violent, toward other groups, since they compete with us for resources and may threaten our survival. This is human nature.
Rabbi Sacks brings up two key phrases to help us understand religious violence. The first is altruistic evil. He defines this as “evil committed in a sacred cause, in the name of high ideals”. As we discussed off-blog, it takes more than poverty and desperation for people to murder innocent women and children who are not actively threatening them. For people to do this, they must be driven by a belief that those innocent people really are a threat to them–through their mere existence. The easiest example to draw upon, of course, is Nazi Germany. The Nazis drew on the anger and unrest of Germans after their defeat in WWI, and desperation and poverty were certainly a part of that, but the main thing that drove them to commit genocide was the deeply held belief that the Jews had corrupted the natural order of the world. They believed they needed to kill us–all of us–to bring about their idea of utopia. The same is true of Daesh and other manifestations of radical Islam. These people believe that their values, their culture, their way of life, are under existential threat, and the only way to protect these things is to kill every man, woman, and child who represents or somehow perpetuates the destructive forces that threaten them–from Mosul to San Diego.
The second key phrase is pathological dualism. Dualism is a worldview that divides the world into two opposing forces: “children of light” and “children of darkness”. Rabbi Sacks brings historical examples of people from Christianity and Judaism adopting dualistic theologies. In these worldviews, the “children of light” represent God’s will in the universe, while the “children of darkness” represent some other, evil force that must be destroyed or overcome for God’s will to be victorious. This is, of course, strictly opposed to the basic concept of monotheism. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” There is no force in the world that can challenge or defeat God. Believing otherwise is heresy according to the prevailing mainstream view in all three Abrahamic faiths. However, Rabbi Sacks points out, movements that believed in this view emerged during times of despair and disillusionment. Dualism is an easy way out of the difficult question of Divine justice. How can a just God have done something that seems so unjust? Dualists answer by saying that it wasn’t God at all; it was the Satan, or some other force that is fighting God. They can’t hold the idea that a God who is purely good could also be responsible for bad things that happen. It’s a simplistic, black-and-white way of thinking.
Dualism is not only expressed in theology; it is expressed in completely secular contexts as well. The Nazis were also dualists. Their world was divided into desirables and undesirables. There were no shades of gray. There was no acceptance of the idea that people are complex and each individual should be judged on his or her own actions and merits.
This dualistic view of humanity does not only express itself today in places like radical Islam and white supremacism. I see it on the liberal left, too. I see it on my Facebook feed when friends write things like, “If you voted for Trump, please unfriend me”. If you are so disgusted by the “other side” that you no longer wish to engage in conversation with someone based solely on a political decision they made last November, you are expressing a dualistic worldview. And that’s without even getting into BDS and the pathological demonization of Israel that has become a pet project of the left. To many people on the left, saying I’m an Israeli settler is basically the same as saying I’m a Nazi–and that confession is likely to inspire a similar response: disgust, horror, and a complete unwillingness to see me as a person in my own right with some views they may strongly disagree with. That is pathological dualism. To those people, I am an irredeemable child of darkness.
This, argues Rabbi Sacks, is the precursor to dehumanization. The next logical step is that the “children of darkness” must be defeated, or destroyed. It is not a very long road from there to altruistic evil. To deny that your own group is capable of reaching this point is classic in-group bias. “Almost invariably people regard their group as superior to others. Henry Tajfel, one of the pioneers of social identity theory, showed how deeply this runs in even the most trivial of groupings. In one experiment he divided people into groups on the basis of the mere toss of a coin, yet they still rated the members of their own group as more likeable than the others, despite the fact that they had never met one another before and knew that they had been selected on a purely random basis. Groups, like individuals, have a need for self-esteem and they will interpret facts to confirm their sense of superiority.”
There are, and always will be, extremists in our midst who are willing to commit altruistic evil. The question is whether we, as a group, allow that to happen–and perpetuating a pathologically dualistic worldview is one way we enable it.
“Yet we are still missing a piece of the puzzle,” writes Rabbi Sacks. “The phenomena we have described thus far–identity, splitting, projection, pathological dualism and the scapegoat–are general. They could affect anyone… They help us understand violence but not the fraught relationship between the Abrahamic faiths… What is it that brought Jews, Christians and Muslims, spiritual children to a common father, to such animosity for so long?”
To answer this question, Rabbi Sacks devotes a major chunk of the rest of the book to exploring the concept of sibling rivalry. Historian and philosopher René Girard argues that violence is born in something he termed mimetic desire–wanting to have what someone else has because they have it. Mimetic desire is why, when one child is given a toy or a snack, suddenly all the other children around want the same thing. This phenomenon is all too familiar to me as the mother of three boys! We have a natural desire to have what other people have. This desire can lead to violence. Girard argued that we can see this most clearly in the natural jealousy siblings have for one another; how siblings not only desire to have what the other has, but on a deeper level, to be what the other one is. This, says Girard, is one of the primal sources of violence.
All one needs to do is glance at the first book of the Bible to see this idea reflected in Scripture. Genesis is basically a meditation on sibling rivalry. The first murder is a fratricide: Cain murders Abel out of jealousy. Every step along the way from Abraham to Joseph involves a story, or several stories, about sibling rivalry. Rabbi Sacks points out that the most essential disagreements between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism can be reduced to an argument over Abraham’s blessing: who was chosen? Who is most worthy of God’s love? But this problem, Rabbi Sacks argues, obviously started long before Christianity or Islam ever came about. The problem is documented very clearly in the book of Genesis itself. Isaac was chosen over Ishmael (or Ishmael over Isaac in the Qur’an); Jacob over Esau; Rachel over Leah; Joseph over his brothers.
But what if, ventures Rabbi Sacks, we have all been reading these stories wrong?
What if, on close inspection, the Scripture is telling us a different story entirely?
He devotes Part II of the book to exploring that question, through a careful analysis of the text of Genesis. This was the part that really blew me away. Because those stories had always bothered me on some level. It always seemed so unfair. Why should only one of the brothers be chosen to receive God’s blessing? Is it really true that Ishmael and Esau were unworthy? Wasn’t Joseph kind of an insufferable brat who got what was coming to him?
Does God Play Favorites?
I’ve already passed the 2,000-word mark on this post and I obviously will not be able to recount Rabbi Sacks’s entire analysis of Genesis. I want to focus on just one of those stories that spoke to me most deeply: that of Jacob and Esau.
The story I learned as a child went something like this: Jacob was the kind and gentle twin, and Esau was the wild, hairy, and course one. I mean, look how stupid he was–he sold his birthright for some lentil stew! But for some reason Isaac–who was blind, perhaps spiritually as well as physically–favored Esau, while Rebecca, who was clearly in the right, favored Jacob. Jacob then stole Esau’s birthright and his blessing, at the encouragement of Rebecca, and that’s how he became the father of the chosen people.
What Rabbi Sacks points out about this story totally blew my mind. Jacob didn’t actually need to “steal” any blessing. The blessing Isaac was going to give to Esau was never meant for Jacob. Isaac blessed Jacob-dressed-as-Esau with power and wealth. He later blessed Esau himself with a similar blessing. As Jacob was leaving to flee his brother’s wrath, Isaac gave him yet another blessing–a blessing to inherit the land of Canaan, and to have many children.
Abraham was never blessed with power or wealth; he, too, was promised the Land of Canaan and children “as numerous as the stars in the sky”. Isaac meant to give Jacob Abraham’s blessing all along.
Jacob’s story is essentially the story of a younger brother who wanted to have what his brother had–to be what his brother was–and who eventually learned that that’s never what he was meant to be. It’s the story of a man who came to appreciate his own gifts and destiny, and then–in the climactic scene of reconciliation with Esau–essentially give back what he took, which he now understood was never meant for him. That is when his name symbolically changed from Jacob–“He who follows”–to Israel, “He who wrestles with God”.
Throughout this section of the book, Rabbi Sacks consistently shows that God’s “choice” of one sibling over another is not actually an expression of overall preference. The other sibling is also appreciated and blessed in his own right. Of Ishmael the Bible says explicitly that “God was with him”. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are chosen not for their superiority, but for their specific traits: the fact that they were not strong and self-sufficient like Ishmael and Esau were. God blessed Ishmael and Esau with power; he blessed Isaac and Jacob with responsibility.
In other words: no, God does not play favorites. God loves and blesses each one of us according to our unique abilities and traits. We don’t have to fight over God’s love. His love is infinite.
Realizing this is the key to overcoming our “Abrahamic sibling rivalry”–and, Rabbi Sacks emphasizes, we have already seen historically that this is possible. The Catholic Church has undergone a complete revolution in the way it relates to other religions and to Jews in particular in the past few centuries. In the wake of the Holocaust, some deep soul-searching on the part of the Christian world has led to a dramatic change in Jewish-Christian relations. “Today, after an estrangement that lasted almost two millennia, Jews and Christians meet much more often as friends–even (in the word selected by recent popes) ‘brothers’–than as enemies.”
Rabbi Sacks points out that one of the factors that seems to allow this to happen is the separation of religion from political power. We saw this in Judaism 2,000 years ago when the Hasmoneans lost power to the Romans; we saw it in Christianity with the secularization of the Western world in the last few centuries. I don’t know how or when it will be possible with Islam, but I have a theory: Islam is currently in its 15th century. Christianity wasn’t particularly tolerant in its 15th century. Maybe it’s just a matter of time and maturity.
What Then Must We Do?
“We must put put the same long-term planning into strengthening religious freedom as was put into the spread of religious extremism,” writes Rabbi Sacks. “Radical Islam was a movement fuelled by Western petrodollars, used by oil-producing countries to fund networks of schools, madrassahs, university professorships and departments, dedicated to Wahhabi or Salafist interpretations of Islam, thus marginalising the more open, gracious, intellectual and mystical tendencies in Islam that were in the past the source of its greatness. It was a strategy remarkable in its long time-horizons, its precision, patience, detail and dedication. If moderation and religious freedom are to prevail, they will require no less. We must train a generation of religious leaders and educators who embrace the world in its diversity, and sacred texts in their maximal generosity.”
“Most Western countries have anti-racist legislation that has proved virtually powerless against the vitriol spread through the social media. Education in many countries continues to be a disgrace. If children continue to be taught that non-believers are destined for hell and that Christians and Jews are the greater and lesser Satan… all the military interventions in the world will not stop the violence.”
In my words: we are not only fighting people. We are fighting ideas. We can kill people with guns and bombs; we can’t kill ideas that way. We need to fight ideas with ideas. We need to empower moderate voices to give young Muslims everywhere a hopeful, powerful, and peaceful alternative to extremism; an alternative that helps them preserve their identity and their values as Muslims without using hate, scapegoating, or dualism.
“Now is the time for Jews, Christians and Muslims to say what they failed to say in the past: We are all children of Abraham. And whether we are Isaac or Ishmael, Jacob or Esau, Leah or Rachel, Joseph or his brothers, we are precious in the sight of God. We are blessed. And to be blessed, no one has to be cursed. God’s love does not work that way.”
Stay safe, brother.