Shortly after last month’s terror attack in Paris, Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Joann Sfar posted a cartoon on Instagram stating: “Friends from the whole world, thank you for the #PrayForParis, but we don’t need more religion! Our faith goes to music! Kisses! Life! Champagne and Joy! #ParisIsAboutLife!”
The implication, of course, is that religion is to blame for the attack, so let’s put our faith in music, kisses, life, champagne, and joy instead. It’s a widespread sentiment; in today’s troubled world, religion is part of the problem, not the solution. And religious violence has fueled this
sentiment. Rabbi Sacks’ new book, Not in God’s Name, is subtitled Confronting Religious Violence—not explaining it, rationalizing it, or denying it, but confronting it. In doing so, Rabbi Sacks also confronts the idea that religious violence nullifies the value of religion itself, or that it is in any way an inevitable part of religion. Instead, he argues that religion provides the alternative to violence, and he does so through a detailed re-reading of the foundational texts of Genesis that is deeply Jewish, but has universal implications.
I should note that Sacks is a traditional, or modern Orthodox, rabbi, who served for over twenty years as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth. He’s also one of the most prominent Jewish voices of our day.
Before Rabbi Sacks takes the reader on this new journey through the narrative of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he defines what he considers to be the heart of “the Abrahamic faith”(pp. 4-5).
It is not our task to conquer or convert the world or enforce uniformity of belief. It is our task to be a blessing to the world. The use of religion for political ends is not righteousness but idolatry.
This is a simple idea, and clearly stated, so why is it so widely ignored and perverted? Sacks provides a compelling explanation that draws upon the insights of anthropology, history, sociology, and family dynamics, as well as Torah. He cites Freud, and the Freudian-influenced anthropologist Rene Girard, to support his claim, “It is not religion that gives rise to violence. It is violence that gives rise to religion” (pp. 74-75). Of course, from a Torah perspective, we’d see this as a limited explanation. Revelation gives rise to religion of the Abrahamic variety that is at the center of Sacks’ discussion. But Girard’s approach has the advantage of recognizing the power of group identity and cohesion, which requires a scapegoat to absorb the violence that would otherwise destroy the group. The sacrifice of the scapegoat, Girard argues, is foundational to human religion. Girard also recognizes the primal sibling rivalry, competition for the love and affirmation of the father, which prevails between religious groups to this day.
In response, Sacks argues that the very stories that have been used to reinforce sibling rivalry among the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (which together comprise more than half of humankind) provide the way out of sibling rivalry. Not in God’s Name is realistic in naming Islamist groups today as the violent expression of this sibling rivalry, which must be stopped, by military force if necessary. But it is also realistic in arguing that military force alone won’t solve the problem. The three Abrahamic faiths are locked in a fierce sibling competition for the father’s favor and affirmation, which Sacks identifies as “Abraham’s promise.” Today’s Islamist extremism is fueled by a sense of being deprived of that promise, of being outshone by a triumphant Christian West, and more recently by a resurgent Jewish Israel. They seek what Sacks calls “the revenge of the rejected” (p. 109). ISIS and all the other expressions of Islamist terror must be defeated militarily and politically, but this alone will not create peace. Sacks argues that peace will require a new self-understanding among the Abrahamic siblings, enabled by a new reading of the Abrahamic stories.
Let’s consider one example, the story of Ishmael and Isaac.
Abraham sires Ishmael through Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid whom she has given to Abraham for this very purpose. The pregnant Hagar flees Abraham’s camp because of Sarah’s harshness toward her. The angel of the Lord intervenes and provides the unborn Ishmael his name, which means “God hears,” because “the Lord has listened to your affliction” (Gen. 16:11). Years later, after Isaac is born to Abraham and Sarah, Ishmael and Hagar are driven out of the camp at Sarah’s behest. In this second flight, Ishmael is given promises that echo those given to Isaac, although Isaac, not Ishmael, is the one who will carry forward the legacy of Abraham (Gen. 21:13, 17-18). Ishmael is not the chosen one, but he is also not rejected, for “God was with the lad” (21:20). Rabbi Sacks points out that in both stories, the narrator’s sympathies seem to lie with Ishmael and his mother. In the end, Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father Abraham after he dies (Gen. 25:8-9). In this story, within the text of Torah itself, we can discern the counter-narrative to the zero-sum competition for favor that drives sibling rivalry—particularly the sibling rivalry between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
For Messianic Jews one of the prime values of this book is in its treatment of Scripture. Some Messianics may be uncomfortable with the extent to which Sacks draws upon Midrash and other Jewish sources. I believe, however, that he provides a model for interpreting our holy texts, which we might need to modify, but should not ignore. A generation ago Messianic Jews encountered misunderstanding and even hostility as we sought to practice our faith in Yeshua within a Jewish cultural and religious framework. Today, the same misunderstanding and hostility are stirred up simply by our faith in a personal God and an authoritative Scripture. Outright and evangelistic atheism is on the rise, fueled by the image of religious violence. Messianic Jews often fall into a defensive position, adopting narrow readings of Scripture that serve to reinforce pop atheism’s dismissal of our beliefs. The Tanakh does indeed contain many scenes, and indeed many apparent justifications, of violence in the name of God. Rabbi Sacks doesn’t shy away from such passages, but provides sound interpretations of their meaning and application for today. In doing so, he models a creative and up-to-the-minute, and yet reverent, reading of Scripture that we’d do well to emulate.
The creativity of Jewish readings of Scripture doesn’t diminish the authority and power of the text itself. Indeed, it depends upon a respect for the actual wording of Scripture and thrives on a close reading of the narrative. Our ultimate exemplar, of course, is Messiah Yeshua himself. His command to love our enemies undermines religious violence at its root. Sacks sees this as “a supremely beautiful idea” but not very “liveable” in the real world. What he misses is that our Messiah’s instruction arises from the same kind of creative and relevant reading of Torah—texts like Exodus 23:5 and Leviticus 19:33-34—that he himself champions. Rabbi Sacks calls us to a reading of Scripture that promotes peace instead of violence, a reading strategy that’s fitting for those who profess to follow the Prince of Peace.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (New York: Schocken Books, 2015).
The opening citation by Joann Sfar is borrowed from Rabbi Paul Saul’s recent commentary on Parashat VaYetse, “The Holy Power of Imagination.”
I make the same observation as R. Sacks concerning the Ishmael story in “An Ethical Window: Framing a Messianic Jewish moral perspective,” in First Steps in Messianic Jewish Ethics (Hashivenu, 2013). I can supply an electronic copy upon request to email@example.com.