The Roots of Religious Extremism

Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Jonathan Sacks

Former Chief Rabbi, United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (United Kingdom)

Walter Mead

Distinguished Scholar in American Strategy and Statesmanship, Hudson Institute; James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities, Bard College

Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, discusses root causes of religious violence and the transformative power of interfaith understanding for resolving conflict.   

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative.

MEAD: All right. Well, let’s settle down and get started. As you all know, at the Council they try to keep all the meetings ending exactly on time. So if we start off late we’ll be losing a chance to converse with one of the most interesting minds out there.

Everybody has Rabbi Sacks’ biography so I’m not going to go over that. He is, both in the United States and the United Kingdom, one of the both leading public intellectuals and representatives, if I can say so, of communities of faith. That’s a vocation that was once a very common and an important one in both the U.S. and the U.K. In recent—in the last generation or so we’ve seen fewer people playing that role. It’s an important role.

And I’m glad that Rabbi Sacks has done what he’s done. And the contribution he has to make, I think, are not just for members of one particular religious community or indeed of any—of all religious communities but are of burning importance to people of all faiths and of no faith. So whatever your own faith situation is, you are welcome here. And I think you’re going to find something interesting tonight.

The rabbi has a new book out. Do we have copies available for sale? They are—yes, we do. And where are they? Ah, they’re back on the back table. So it’s possible that he might even be willing to autograph these books at a later date. So I hope you’ll take a look at that.

One of the things, when I published my first book, that my publisher told me is always go into bookstores and offer to sign all the books you can find. You know about this? Yes. Everyone knows this, because once you’ve signed it, it counts as damaged goods. (Laughter.) And the bookstore can no longer return them for a credit to the publisher. So every one you sign is sold.

All right. I don’t think Rabbi Sacks has to do as much of that as I do now to move his books. I certainly hope not. I’m still out there till midnight, you know. All right. This book is looking at one of the most troubling and perhaps the most important phenomena of our day, which is an upsurge not only in religion but in violent religion, or at least violence done in religion’s name.

I don’t think anybody would have thought that the 21st century was going to be an era of growing religious conflict. But I don’t know if some of you saw this. Last week there was a picture of the imam of the chief mosque at Mecca who was firing an artillery gun in the general direction of Yemen as part of—to emphasize the religious nature of this conflict. At the same time, I believe the patriarch of Moscow has now blessed the Russian participation in the war in Syria as a holy war.

These are phrases we thought we would not be hearing again. So I want to ask Rabbi Sacks, what’s happening? Why has this come about again?

SACKS: Well, I think that Freud called it the return of the repressed. And that’s what we’re seeing, because I think already in 1831-32 Alexis de Tocqueville was writing in “Democracy in America” that every self-respecting 18th century intellectual thought religion was dying or dead. And he pointed out that unfortunately the facts don’t match up to that at all. And 180 years later we’re still there, being surprised by this phenomenon.

Religion will never disappear because there are three questions every reflective human being must ask or will ask: Why am I here? Who am I? And how then shall I live? And none of the systems that create modernity—the liberal democratic state, the market, science or technology—aspire to answer those questions. And we know that, you know, after the great age of reason in the 18th century that search for identity returned and took non-religious forms, whether it was the nation-state or the race or the economic system—three secular substitutes for religiously based identity.

The nation-state gave us two world wars. The race gave us the Holocaust. And the system gave us Stalin and the gulags. So, one way or another, religion is an elemental part of the human condition.

But the real issue is this. The last time we had—we faced an era of wars of religion, 17th century, in many ways very similar to our situation now. Number one, a massive discontent with the powers that be; number two, that political discontent taking a religious form; number three, that sense that we will cure the ills of society by returning to religion as it was in its pristine days right at the beginning; and the fourth element, which is the essential element, which is a revolution in information technology—today the Internet, YouTube, social media; in those days with Martin Luther, the printing press.

That revolution in information technology allows groups that would otherwise have been extremely marginal to outflank the existing powers. So if you are relying—if you’re the Roman Catholic Church relying on the priest giving his sermons in church every Sunday, you get outflanked by the printing press turning out hundreds of thousands of copies of the writing of Martin Luther. Likewise, al-Qaida and ISIS were able to outflank any national government by using the global media and using them with extreme dexterity. ISIS—you ask the guys in Google and YouTube. They will tell you ISIS are actually the most accomplished users of this.

But there was one thing that’s crucial here. What happened in the 17th century is that serious human beings sat down and read the religious texts that were dividing Christian from Christian and devised a solution on the basis of those texts; Milton, Hobbes, Locke and Spinoza, all of them in dialogue with the Hebrew Bible, out of which they essentially arrived at the separation of religion from power.

So they could leave the hard texts, the texts that lead people to murder other people, intact and say we will solve the problem by depriving religion of power. That led to four centuries of secularization, which we’re just really reaching the end of. The trouble is we are now in an age of decentralization. And those texts, with all their potential for violence, are still there. And that’s why in the book I say we’ve got to go back to those texts and see if we can read them another way.

MEAD: One of the things you talk about in the religion—in the book, and it’s something that has long fascinated me, is the nature of Abrahamic faith and how, in some ways, it reduces conflict but in others it may sharpen conflict. And I’d be interested—I think people here might like to hear what do you mean by the difference between Abrahamic religion, polytheistic religion, and has polytheistic religion changed? The Hinduism and the Buddhism of today might not be the same as sort of some of the classical pagan religions.

SACKS: Well, Hinduism is certainly changing today. But, you know, the psalm says how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to live together, to which any student of history will add, and how rare, because the worst arguments are arguments within the family. And that is the interesting point.

Sigmund Freud fully understood that the prime driver of violence between human beings is not necessarily the Oedipus complex. It’s actually sibling rivalry. Freud actually repressed this for reasons that his biographers have pointed out. Whenever he talks about sibling rivalry, he talks about it as the driver of human violence. But he did not personally make it the centerpiece of his system.

And Ernest Jones and others who wrote the biographies pointed out that Sigmund Freud was the only boy in a family of girls. He was spoiled rotten. And then, without consulting him, his mother had another boy. Young Sigmund was not pleased at all when young brother Julius arrived and thought rather unkind thoughts about young Julius. Julius did not survive to celebrate his first birthday. And it seems as if Freud felt a kind of irrational guilt about this for the rest of his life. Otherwise he might have made sibling rivalry the centerpiece of his system.

What I document in the book is how sibling rivalry is built into the relationship between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Sibling rivalry is the theme of the book of Genesis—Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and the two sisters, Leah and Rachel. So Jews know of these stories of sibling rivalry. But what they don’t often know is what the Pauline epistles then did with those stories in terms of Christian self-identity.

I point out that in the letter to the Galatians, one of his earlier letters, he in essence says to the Galatians, who are Gentile Christians, you don’t need to keep the biblical law, because he said Abraham had two children, one by the slave woman, Hagar, and one by the free woman, Sarah. And the Jews are still slaves to the law, so they are Hagar’s child, Ishmael. And we, who are free, are Sarah’s child, namely Isaac. So Christianity came and turned Jewish self-understanding upside down. They thought we’re Isaac. And the Christians said, no, we’re Isaac; you’re Ishmael. Of course, what Islam did is, as you know, traced the descent directly through Ishmael as the bearer of the covenant. And why does the Bible say it’s through Isaac? Because Jews falsified the Bible.

The end result is that Judaism, Christianity and Islam have built sibling rivalry into their most basic narratives of identity. And that is why the relationship between them has been fought and actually potentially murderers at times, because if I am right, you must be wrong. But you are standing between me and what I most desire, namely to be the favored child of Abraham, and therefore, ipso facto, the favorite child of God. So it means that you’re standing in my way. And that builds in potential violence. And the trouble is that, from time to time, potential violence becomes real.

MEAD: I wonder, too—that’s a very good point—but also that if we think about Abrahamic monotheism—the idea is that there is a single creator of the world, and therefore there is a single morality, which is different from a lot of polytheistic traditions. There is one right and one wrong and one right way to live, and everybody needs to do it.

SACKS: Yes and no.

MEAD: I mean, that’s less true in the Jewish variety of Abrahamic monotheism. But Islam and Christianity both see themselves as world-embracing, world-transforming, converting faiths.

SACKS: It’s really difficult. If you believe one God, one truth, one way, it’s quite difficult to make room for anyone who chooses a different way. And that’s problematic. So what I’ve been trying to do in my work, and I certainly do in this book but I’ve tried to do consistently, is to show there is another way of reading those primary texts, because the way Jews read the texts is that God makes one covenant with Noah, and through him with all humanity, and then makes a covenant with Abraham, and through him with one family.

So Judaism has built both universality and particularity into its structure in a way that Christianity and Islam didn’t do. They have a different logical form. But because we share those texts and some of those understandings, it is a way of saying—and I’m translating that general narrative of Genesis—that our shared humanity precedes our religious differences.

Now, what I wanted to do was to show people how a Jew can wrestle with this, because I’m not going to tell a Christian or a Muslim how to wrestle. Those have to come out of those specific faiths. But if you do that wrestling with the texts, as I’ve done, then you do say to other people, well, you know, this is my way of doing it. I know you will have a Christian way or a Muslim way of doing it. But we must do it, because somehow or other we have to live together despite our religious differences and, as I believe, enlarged by those differences, not threatened by them.

MEAD: Mm-hmm. Obviously you spend—you point in the book that one of the major sources of violence today, religious violence, is in fundamentalist forms, particularly of Islam, although there are certainly other religions. And you point to the massacre in Rachel—the patriarch’s cave in Hebron is an example of Jewish—

SACKS: Sure.

MEAD: —religious violence. And one, alas, doesn’t have to look far to find Christian examples as well. We have the Rohingyas, Muslims. Everybody’s suffering, but there seems to be a particular sort of size and trajectory to various forms of Islamic violence. What’s your reading? Why is that happening? And what should be done?

SACKS: It’s a complex issue. But, I mean, fundamentalism is the attempt to move from text to application without interpretation. And when you do that, you do violence to the text, because you do need that mediating thing called interpretation. Now, of course, both Christianity and Islam have major schools of biblical exegesis—Islam’s four schools of jurisprudence and Christianity’s, you know, four levels of meaning and so on and so forth. You know, these are really paralleled in all three monotheisms.

So what we need to get back to is interpretation. And the thing that really drives fundamentalism into violence is this phenomenon that I call dualism. Dualism is the oddest thing imaginable in monotheism. I always thought the occupational hazard if you’re a monotheist is you could either become an atheist or a polytheist. But I didn’t think you’d become a dualist. But we do know, as I point out in the book, both from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Qumran sect, and from the Nag Hammadi manuscripts, the Gnostic gospels discovered just two years earlier, not that far away from the Dead Sea Scrolls, that there were Jewish groups and there were Christian groups who believed that humanity was in a war of the children of light against the children of darkness.

And Judaism and Christianity had to fight against their own dualisms. And right now that dualism is there to be found in the theology of al-Qaida and ISIS and, you know, the greater and the lesser Satan. And Islam, which is a very pure monotheism, is certainly capable of fighting that dualism. But when you resolve all the complexity in the world into us the good guys and them the enemies of God, the agents of Satan, then you try and simplify everything, because the complexity of the world is creating the kind of cognitive dissonance that you can’t bear.

MEAD: My impression just historically of how Christianity got to some kind of tolerance of other forms of Christianity initially, and then of other traditions, was not so much that people thought better of it as that, you know, all of the various leading sects exhausted themselves in a bitter centuries-long struggle to achieve domination and then only slowly and painfully came to the realization this wasn’t going to happen, at which point they began a process of theological reflection.

I mean, there have certainly been people like Erasmus and others who, even before the wars, said can’t we get—can’t we go straight to tolerance? But in terms of as a kind of a strong current of socially influential, powerful thought, it was the consequence of religious war that did this. Are we stuck in repeating that kind of cycle today?

SACKS: Well, the Dictionary of National Biography in Britain says about one of my predecessors, the late Chief Rabbi J.H. Hertz, that he never despaired of a peaceful solution to any problem once every other alternative had been exhausted. (Laughter.) So exhaustion has much to be said for it. (Laughter.)

But actually what’s really interesting is what kind of exhaustion. And here it is. I believe that when one group is fighting its enemies, they never reach exhaustion. The exhaustion happens when they find they’re fighting their friends. Judaism became much more pacific after Joseph—after the experience in the first century that Josephus describes so powerfully, that the Jews inside the besieged Jerusalem were more busy killing one another than the Romans outside. And at that point the rabbis said that’s enough. When Jew kills Jew, this is not what God wants.

The Crusades did not cause Christianity to break out into tolerance. But the wars of Catholic against Protestant in the 16th and 17th centuries did. And that’s why there is no doubt that the eventual outcome of what’s happening in the Middle East, of Muslim against Muslim, moderate against radical, Sunni against Shia, et cetera, et cetera, it will be the same thing. There will be a formal or de facto or de jure separation of religion from power. And the question is, how do we make that happen sooner rather than later?

The outcome is virtually certain. But one doesn’t know how many lives will be lost between now and then. You know, my favorite Yiddish prayer translated into English goes, dear God, I know you will help me. But do you think you could please help me until you help me? (Laughter.) So what I’m trying to do in this book is try and shorten the distance between now and then.

MEAD: And what would you suggest are the best ways to do that? What could people like us, sitting in a Council on Foreign Relations room far off from the madrasas of Pakistan or what have you, what should people like us be doing?

SACKS: I think the answer is very simple. You know, I say to—I mean, we really work on this in Britain in good interfaith relations. I see this as absolutely fundamental to religious leadership nowadays. And I always say to my friends in the Muslim community and other communities—the Sikhs, the Hindus—let us export a message of coexistence from Britain to the Middle East rather than import a message of conflict from the Middle East to here.

If you are caught up in the vortex of religious passion, you cannot really develop a strong and powerful moderating voice. Therefore, you have to cultivate a strong and visionary religious leadership in the centers that lie outside the conflict zones, and hopefully then build the teachers of a new generation. That is what makes the United States and Europe so very, very important. And can we salute Senator Joe Lieberman and Hadassah? And we thank you for joining us and we thank you for all you’ve given the United States.

So that’s what I think. I think here, where America has succeeded for so long, in such an extraordinary way, of getting different ethnic and religious groups to coexist. It’s here that we need to educate the leaders for the next generation and we’ll find a different way.

MEAD: It’s certainly interesting that in Catholic history the experience of living in the United States and seeing the Catholic Church flourish, even, you know, separated from any kind of secular authority and so on, actually helped inspire the reforms of Vatican II and the emphasis on religious liberty, freedom of conscience, that’s now a centerpiece of Catholic thought.

SACKS: I think the work of John Courtney Murray and people like that were very, very important for Catholics. And, you know, we’re able to do things in the Jewish community that quite possibly we couldn’t do right out there in Israel or the Middle East today. And so I think the opportunity is actually here. We may feel a long way from the conflict zone, but we are much closer to the possibility of a solution here that we can then parachute in there in the fullness of time.

MEAD: All right. Well, on that very hopeful note, and I think very sage one, it’s time for me to stop leading the conversation and to open the floodgates here. This session is, I should remind everybody, on the record. And when I call on you, please remember that a question is a short phrase that—short sentence or group of sentences that would normally end with a question mark if you were punctuating it. And please wait for the microphone to come to you. Identify yourself. And then have at it. So yes, back here.

Q: Rabbi Sacks, my name is Galen Guengerich.

I’m interested in your return to the text. And I’m particularly interested in your sense of the challenge represented in the different traditions by return to the text, in particular the very different form of text that is present in the Muslim tradition as compared to the Jewish and Christian traditions.

Anyone, even a, shall we say, fundamentalist believer in Judaism or Christianity, can look at the text and understand that it was assembled over a period of time by various authors, et cetera. The form of the Quran is very different—first person, mind of God. And it seems to me that it represents a very different kind of challenge to accomplish the sort of more universalist approach that you are advocating. Could you comment on that challenge?

SACKS: Obviously I wouldn’t even want to dream of suggesting how Muslim scholars chart that way forward. But you’re absolutely right. There is a fundamental difference between the Jewish-Christian conversation and the Jewish-Muslim conversation. And that has to do with the fact that Jews and Christians in the Middle Ages shared a text, as Jews and Muslims did not share a text or Christians and Muslims did not share a text.

So although these encounters, especially the Jewish-Christian one, were fought—they took the form of public disputations—nonetheless, there were conversations about the meaning of this text. As the Jewish-Muslim conversation—or it was actually the other direction, the Muslim-Jewish conversation—tended to be around philosophy, around the Kalam and the great Muslim philosophers Averroes, Avicenna, and so on, with whom Maimonides is in dialogue and with whom then Aquinas is in dialogue.

So it’s my guess that the conversation, the Jewish-Muslim conversation, would be more philosophical and less specifically textual. But what I really wanted to show in the book is that there are ways of rereading biblical narrative that are not contrived in any sense and which make people say, ah, I never thought of it that way. Should I just give an example if that makes sense?

MEAD: Please. Please.

SACKS: Here’s a very simple example. We’ve just had the Jewish New Year a month ago. And on the first day of the Jewish year we read Genesis 21, which begins with the birth of Isaac. It’s a wonderful moment, and incidentally, a very profound theological statement, because we believe the Jewish New Year is the anniversary of creation, of the Big Bang. And I rather like the idea.

You know, Stephen Hawking said at the end of, you know, “A Brief History of Time,” if we had a unified theory of everything we’d know the mind of God. And I reply, no, the Jewish way says you don’t need to be an astrophysicist to understand the mind of God. You just need to be a parent. (Laughter.) Or as one Jewish mother said, now that I’ve become a mother I can relate to God much better because now I know what it’s like to create something you can’t control. (Laughter.) So instead of talking about the birth of the universe we talk about the birth of a child. And I think that’s very profound.

But you know what then happens. Sarah sees Ishmael mocking or something or other, and she says to Abraham, drive out this slave woman and her son. And we then see Hagar and Ishmael sent out into the desert under the blazing sun. Their water runs out. Ishmael is dehydrated. He’s about to die. Hagar can’t bear to look and sits away at—(inaudible).

And I ask people, when you read that chapter, with whom are your sympathies? You cannot read that chapter and fail to sympathize with Hagar and Ishmael. That’s how it’s written. You must empathize with them. And yet the gist of the story says it’s Isaac who is chosen, Isaac who’s going to continue the covenant. It turns out that this apparently simple narrative is very complex indeed. It’s got a surface narrative. Isaac is the one. But it’s got a depth narrative, what I call the concealed counter-narrative, that forces us to have empathy with the other.

And I suddenly realized—and that’s not only true about that narrative; it’s true about all the other sibling rivalry narratives, as I show in the book—and I certainly realize what the Bible is doing. It is actually assuming that the fundamental driver of violence in the human condition is, as Freud and Girard said it was, sibling rivalry. After all, the first religious act of worship leads to the first fratricide. Cain kills Abel. So the Bible doesn’t hide that connection between religion and violence and God’s dismay at it.

But then I ask, why is there sibling rivalry? Because there are limited amounts of parental attention to go around. You know what it’s like. You know, you spend too much time with this one. Dad. You know what sibling rivalry is like. So that’s why I enjoy being a grandfather so much more than maybe sometimes being a father. But our children—anyway, enough of that. (Laughter.)

So at the end of the day, I suddenly realized the Bible is giving us a narrative that almost could have been written for the 21st century. And it says, guys, you have been misreading these narratives, because whereas human attention may be a finite and limited quantity, to suppose that God’s love is finite and limited doesn’t make any sense at all. So it turns out that the Bible is actually a highly structured narrative where we read the same story as children and then as adults and we hear something new when we read it as adults. And it turns out that if God’s love really is infinite, if every one of us is in his image and likeness, if his tender mercies are on all of his works, as Psalm 145 says, then it turns out that for God to love me, he doesn’t have to hate you; for God to choose me, he doesn’t have to reject you.

So these narratives turn out actually to be a way of subverting sibling rivalry and allowing brothers and sisters to live together in peace. Now, when you tell an account like that even to secularists, let alone to Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, whoever, they say, oh, yeah, you know, didn’t think about it in those terms. And I have found that although this is a very Jewish thing, reading a biblical text, we are talking about human universals that can sometimes sway people. But in the strict technical terms of your question, yes, I think the Jewish and Christian conversation with Islam may be slightly more philosophical than strictly textual. But there is such a language to be had, yeah.

MEAD: Okay. Yes.

Q: My name is Barius (ph), Syracuse, New York.

I have a question to you on the roots of fundamentalism. I’m originally from Sudan. Would you say that somehow ideology plays a part in the way people interpret their religion, either moving out of X on purpose—because we have cases whereby there are people who are very intellectual. They know texts, whether Islam, Christianity. But they’re deliberately going against what their religion is all about, but for political or ideological reasons. How do you combine those two elements? Because, as you know, in Sudan we fought for over 20 years and we lost a lot of people in the name of God.

SACKS: Yeah.

Q: So how do you—how can you explain that in terms of text, interpretation of text, but the use of ideology or religion as ideology? Thank you.

SACKS: There’s absolutely no doubt that the politics of identity here are very important. You know, there’s us and there’s them. And it’s a very human thing to feel good about the guys like us and to feel threatened by the them. And people can use that kind of potential for division to exacerbate differences between different groups who may in the past have lived together quite peaceably for a long time.

That’s clearly what happened in the former Yugoslavia. Milosevic, Karadzic and so on drove wedges between Serbs, Croats and Muslims who had actually coexisted for a long time just by speaking to people’s fears, and then turning to history or text or what have you to do that. And, you know, when this happens, when people use religious sentiments to deepen conflict, they are clearly playing with fire. It’s incredibly powerful. And the reason is that peace depends on something that in politics is a virtue but in religion is a vice; namely compromise.

So once a political conflict has been invested with religious dimensions, it becomes almost insoluble. So people who have an interest, ideological or other, in deepening conflict, they will use religion to deepen and make conflicts almost insoluble. And when that happens, you just need to avail yourself of religious figures who are respected but stand outside the conflict zone to say, no, these are not the right texts and this is not the right reading of those texts.

You have to challenge that and say you are using religion for political purposes and not for what religion is all about. It’s very hard to do, because in the heart of conflict moderation is exceptionally difficult and is seen as weakness and betrayal instead of seen as bringing about a peaceful resolution. So it’s really, really tough. And when that happens, you need people in the conflict zones to be in serious contact with people outside who can say, no, this is not what our religion really teaches.

MEAD: Back there.

Q:  Me?

MEAD: Yes.

Q: Hi.

MEAD: Please wait for the mic.

Q: Oh, I’m sorry. Thank you.

(Comes on mic.) Hi. My name is Denise Fletcher. And I thought your insights were fantastic.

I have a question—really, I think, two questions. One is, in the sibling-rivalry theory, where does Jesus Christ fit in? And the second question is what happened recently, in the last 10 years, 20 years, other than Iraq invasion, that may have led to some of this conflict that we’ve observed? Was there a trigger point? Thank you.

SACKS: Say it—

Q: Was there a trigger point?

MEAD: In the last 10 years to make religious war more—

Q: And 20 years, to this extreme fundamentalism.

SACKS: Yeah. I mean, you know, I don’t look at it in depth in the book. But, you know, at pretty much the same time Mike Walzer of Princeton, the political theorist, brought out a little very slim book in which he points out that what we are seeing throughout the world is we saw in the ‘40s, really, a series of secular nationalisms emerging, not only in the Middle East but in India, Pakistan, et cetera, and a little before then, of course, in the ‘20s in Turkey, a conscious secularization as countries—you know, as, you know, the withdrawal of empire and decolonialization, the secular nationalisms grew up because people said if we want to become modern, we’ve got to do it the western way. We have to secularize politics.

The end result has been a degree of disappointment that the promise of that secular utopia never really materialized. And that was a clear problem in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, in Syria under Assad, to some extent in Egypt under Nasser and so on. And what we are seeing now is a series of religious counterrevolutions. And, you know, I think that’s well—he analyzes the case of India; the case, to some extent, of Israel, which was born very much—David Ben-Gurion very powerfully wanting to secularize Jewish identity in Israel. And it’s happening everywhere. So we’re seeing this religious counterrevolution. And that means religion has become a political force.

Now, I said the end game is religion has to give up power in order to have influence. That’s the end game. But how do we get from here to there? And that does mean trying to wrestle with those texts that have suddenly become relevant. You know, they were buried there for thousands of years, and suddenly now people wanting a real simple solution to a complex world and certainty in the place of doubt and all the rest of it, turning to those texts for very simple answers and coming up with very violent interpretations.

So that’s what’s happening—a series of religious counterrevolutions fueled by disappointment at secular nationalisms.

The role of Jesus in all this is really—I really wanted to leave that out of things, because what makes Paul so interesting is his use of those Genesis texts and the whole thing of the understanding of the messianic age in Judaism and Christianity is something altogether different. And on this, you know, I cannot do better than quote the late professor of political philosophy at Harvard, the late Robert Nozick, who wrote the following—that when the messiah comes, he will be met by a delegation of Jews and Christians who will say, welcome, messiah. It is really good to have you here. Oh, and by the way, is this your first coming or your second? (Laughter.) And he said I advise him not to answer the question. (Laughter.)

MEAD: Now you’re making me think of the story where the cardinal comes in to see the pope and says, your holiness, I’ve got good news and bad news. What’s the good news? Jesus is back. What’s the bad news? He’s in Salt Lake City. (Laughter.)

Bishop Donovan.

Q: Herbert Donovan, Episcopal Church.

Rabbi, thank you so much for what you’ve said. The secretary of state, a distinguished person whom many of us admire and appreciate his efforts, says today that he’s looking at perhaps heading toward Israel and Palestine to try to influence, from the American point of view, some effort to try to bring some peace.

Given what you’ve been saying today, I can’t help but feel there are some things that he needs to keep in mind. What would be those things? What would you say to the secretary of state as he heads over that he needs to be aware of if he’s going to bring some American peace efforts to the fore?

SACKS: Well, you know, I thought the speech of President Rivlin at the opening of parliament, of the Knesset just a couple of days ago, was genuinely statesmanlike, just calling on religious leaders, Jews and Muslim leaders, not to incite but to do the opposite, that Jerusalem is the city of peace, that it is only by building peace that we build a future for our children and our grandchildren not yet born. I thought that was a genuinely statesmanlike remark that sought to bring healing.

Once there are terrorist events, the tensions can rise very, very dramatically. And so, you know, Dan of my office who’s accompanying me said to me, in essence, really why don’t you walk the talk? Because I talk about religious leaders from outside of the conflict zones, as you talk of the secretary of state, bringing a healing message. So I think we just shot a video on our iPhone and are currently uploading it. I don’t—we only have young people to—because they understand what button to press, you know, in these complicated machines. I’m still suffering from an inferiority complex from knowing that my phone is smarter than I am.

So—but I think what you try and do is you try and cool tensions. You must, must do this. And how do you do this? By making it clear through what you say, and even through your body language, that you can hear the pain on both sides. And that is vital.

Q: (Off mic.) Thank you.

SACKS: Yeah.

MEAD: Yes. Back here.

Q: I’m Robert Fletcher.

It seems easy to look at the Middle East and other areas in Asia where we see religious violence taking place. But if you think in terms of religious fundamentalism, we can look around the planet in places where there are not violent conflicts and see that fundamentalist versions of religion are the dynamic parts. And the more middle-of-the-road versions are kind of suffering from an establishment arterial sclerosis and are losing market share rapidly, whether it’s in the United States and Latin America, in Korea, in other places.

So it seems to me this fundamentalist shift, if we can separate it from the violent manifestations. I’d be interested in your thought as to what’s causing that.

SACKS: What’s causing the fundamentalist shift?

Q: Yes.

MEAD: Why is the dynamism more fundamentalist forms of religion and less in the—

SACKS: Do you know those scenes in the Steven Spielberg movies where you’ve got somebody driving a car and somebody driving another car and somebody’s trying to go from one to the other and his head is in one car and his feet are in the other car? You know those scenes where they—and the cars are getting further and further apart. So that is really what happens with religion and secular culture.

So long as the religious car and the cultural car are going pretty much in the same direction at roughly the same speed, you can have your head in one and your feet in the other and you’re okay. But if they start diverging into really radically different trajectories, you are in trouble. And you’re either with that car or you’re with that car, but you can’t hold them together anymore.

What happened in the 17th century, as I say, is a four-centuries-long process of secularization of the West. In the 17th century it took the form of the secularization of knowledge—Newtonian physicians, Cartesian philosophy. In the 18th century it took the form of the secularization of power, whether in terms of the First Amendment in America or the—you know, the French revolutionary declaration des droits de l’homme de le citoyen.

In the 19th century you had the secularization of culture so that museums, art galleries, concert halls began to take the place of houses of worship in which we experience awe and the sublime and so on. Hegel said modern man has substituted reading the daily newspaper for morning prayer. I read my daily newspaper and that makes me want to pray, so I didn’t have that Hegelian dialectic. (Laughter.)

And then, finally, we get to the 20th century. Having secularized knowledge, power, and culture, we suddenly moved to the secularization of morality with, you know, stands on whatever it is—abortion, same-sex marriages, assisted dying, euthanasia, and so on—in which the West is moving towards really the essential morality of, let’s say, second-century B.C. Greece or second-century Rome.

And each century the distance between the two cars is getting greater and greater until finally it’s very hard to keep them together. So you get the liberal theologians going in the car driving culture and secular morality. You get the fundamentalists going off with that other car. And the guy’s trying to hold the thing together in the middle, no longer really able to do so. And that’s really what’s happening right now.

Q: Why are so many people jumping from one car into the fundamentalist religious car?

SACKS: I tried to indicate, you know, we can live—it’s the great contribution of the late Viktor Frankl. I’m sure—you know, the psychotherapist who survived Auschwitz and wrote a book about his experiences there and formed a school of psychotherapy on the basis of what he calls man’s search for meaning. And religion has always been the most profound answer to our search for meaning.

My previous book on religion and science called “The Great Partnership,” which is a big book, but I managed to summarize it in two sentences, goes as follows: Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean. And that is what people are becoming fundamentalist about. Yes, science can explain everything except meaning. And Viktor Frankl’s discovery in Auschwitz was we can’t live without meaning. And that is why people are turning to religion or returning to religion.

MEAD: Yes, in the back.

Q: Hi. Bruce Knotts, director of the Unitarian-Universalist U.N. Office.

Actually a previous discussion here at the Council on Foreign Relations mentioned that Islam—actually, the question was Islam needs a reformation. And the answer was Islam is going through a reformation, with all of the violence and tumult of the Christian Reformation. What are your comments on that?

SACKS: I think that’s exactly so. I mean, I think, you know, the revolution in Islam--(chuckles)—is Lutheran; you know, back to the pristine text. Let’s get rid of all the stuff between us; sola scriptura. You know, I think that’s really what’s happening. It’s become really terribly violent. And it’s really very, very worrying, especially for Muslims, who are the primary victims of this.

You know, I think, you know, Christians in the Middle East are living at great risk to themselves and they’re, by and large, leaving. But it’s the Muslims who are caught in the middle of this. And our sympathies and our feeling must go out to them. And I think the time has come for us to say, you know, that Islam has been where it needs to be, because between the 8th and 12th centuries, especially in Al-Andalus, where the world of Islam created the most tolerant environment in the Middle Ages—it wasn’t liberal democracy in the modern sense, but that didn’t exist. I mean, that’s completely anachronistic to suppose that it would have been possible then.

But that did create that moment of Convivencia, as they call it, of that golden age for Jews and—for Jews, Christians and Muslims living together. So they’ve been there before. I pointed out in the book, I think, that the first religious argument, religious argument for freedom of speech, for the right to dissent, comes from Avicenna, the great Muslim philosopher. It then gets taken up a couple of centuries later in the name of Avicenna by the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague. Then, half a century later, it gets taken up by Christian John Milton in Areopagitica, and two centuries later is given its secular-humanist reading by John Stuart Mill in his essay on liberty.

So here’s a centuries-long conversation about the right to dissent and to challenge, which begins with a Muslim thinker. I mean, so Islam has these incredible resources. It’s been there before. It doesn’t have to invent it out of new cloth. And it just needs to reclaim that great tradition that made it, in that wonderful book by Maria Rosa Menocal—she called it the ornament of the world. And Islam can become the ornament of the world because it’s been there. It knows from its own history how it’s to be done.

MEAD: Yes.

Q: Hi. I don’t know if I need a microphone, but Jacqueline Mahman (ph), Friends Seminary.

You spoke about exporting a message of peace to the Middle East. And I wanted to know if you had an example of when that has worked in history. And if you don’t have an example, or as a separate question, how would that work? And how would you bring people in the Middle East to that table?

SACKS: In 2000—2001, 2001, Prince Hassan of Jordan and I sat with the then-archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, and asked him to undertake just such a mission to the Middle East, bringing Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders together in the Middle East, which he did. And he did very well. It was called the Alexandria process. And it was held in Alexandria and it was leading rabbis, imams, and Sheikh Tantawi who was one of the participants. And it did extraordinary things.

I mean, I met with an ex-Hamasnik who’d become a Palestinian peace activist. I mean, it was an extraordinary, extraordinary process, huge achievement. And I believe that we should not be surprised about this, because when religious people actually meet and get rid of all their (presupposite ?) texts, it’s a fraught process. But once it’s done, soul speaks to soul. And people who take God and the sacred seriously can find kinship cross barriers that you might think insuperable.

What actually foiled and frustrated that process is it had nowhere to go. It was not part of track two diplomacy. It didn’t mesh with any peace process. It didn’t mesh with any political process. And we see this time and again. I’m not going to name the organizations, but there are big international gatherings who, in the last 10 year, have said, oh, let’s involve some religious leaders. Let’s invite a hundred religious leaders from all over the world.

So the hundred religious leaders come along and they say, wow, they’ve invited us to this major policy forum. Great. Then they arrive and they find they’re put in one big room together and say, you know, you go sort your own problems out, you know. And they don’t mesh with anything. So they come up with a few declarations, have a press conference, and then everyone goes away. And they feel bitterly disappointed, because they have traveled a long journey to speak to people that they may have seen as ideological and political enemies, and they made friends out of enemies, and then they see that it doesn’t mesh with anything. And that’s crazy.

That’s not how the Northern Ireland peace process worked. I did the first interview with Tony Blair on BBC television after he was prime minister, and he—I got him to explain how his own personal faith helped in that Northern Ireland peace process. And he said for the cameras I think I was able to do that because I saw faith not just as part of the problem but as part of the solution.

And Tony Blair was unusual in that. By and large, politicians don’t really know what to do with religious leaders. They just don’t know. It’s a very awkward and embarrassing relationship. And we now need to situate religious leaders pretty much as the U.N. does with NGOs, as a parallel process that feeds into the political process. And when that happens, it’s doable. And it has been done. But it has not yet been connected with the political process. And it must now be.

MEAD: How do you get political leaders in the very secular West to take another look at the role of religion and faith in these practical problems that concern them? Because, as you said, they had four centuries of progressively separating politics and religion in the West.

SACKS: You take a situation like Britain. Britain is pretty much as secular a culture as you can find. But the fascinating thing is that ever-increasing numbers of parents want to send their children to religious schools. It’s absolutely fascinating; certainly true in the Jewish community, but it’s true in the Catholic community, in the Anglicans, in the Muslims, et cetera.

I think people want to feel our kids will recognize something bigger than them, that they will be given an ethos, a set of moral principles. They see the consumer society. They see the pursuit of material affluence. They see the drive to maximize profits as essentially corrosive. They see how marriage has fallen apart in the West. And they see the price children have to pay for that.

So there’s a huge desire for faith schools in Britain. Well, you can’t do that in the States because of separation of church and state. But in Britain it’s the government-funded schools. So all of a sudden politicians are having to realize that’s actually what moves people. And that’s when they bring us in.

I mean, I spent a fair amount of my life—I mean, it wasn’t very time-consuming, but it was an important part of my role as chief rabbi that I was in constant dialogue with a whole series of government ministers and four prime ministers. And they really wanted guidance and they wanted very frank conversations. And I found myself much more involved with politicians than I ever dreamed I would be. And I have to say that they were incredibly respectful and really themselves became part of the solution, not part of the problem.

But we had to be there to say certain things that they couldn’t say. Are you with me? We had to lead our communities, because if a politician tries to direct a religious community then they know—everyone knows that’s asking for trouble. So there was a lot of communication going on between government and religious leaders. It was cross-party. It was not party political. It was not political single-issue campaigning. It was good. And it was politics at its best, I think, in that sense of building civil society.

MEAD: Okay. Yes, on the side there. Yes, ma’am. Yes. Yes.

Q: Man or woman?

MEAD: Woman. Woman.

Q: This time? (Laughs.) Jill Schaeffer, New York Theological Seminary.

We have students who are judges, lawyers, policemen, coming to us not so much for religion but for a way of doing their jobs better. And this is a kind of challenge to us. I teach ethics—ethics for the street, ethics for professional life, with a religious basis, yes. But can you offer some suggestions on how we may do that better? They’re not so much coming to go into the church. They’re coming to do the work they do in the world better than they’re doing it now.

SACKS: Yeah. I mean, we absolutely find that. We were finding that top law firms, top management consultants, top investment banks, banks themselves, all coming to us wanting seminars on business ethics or professional ethics or what have you. I mean, we do a lot of that. I set up—the first thing I set up, actually, was the Association of Jewish Business Ethics, which almost immediately went way beyond the Jewish community. We constructed a national curriculum for all schools called Markets and Morals in which we did syllabuses and trigger videos. We got actors acting out case studies. We got our financial journalists to devise case studies that posed particularly rich kind of moral dilemmas. You know, do I do this? Do I do that? Where do my primary loyalties lie?

So we did a lot of that. We took it to non-Jewish schools. We took it into a national curriculum. I’m not sure where all that material is, because I find it—since I left office, it’s quite hard to get my hands on it. But it was a huge contribution. And it was fascinating how the most hard-edged business centers and banking centers and lawyers really took these issues very seriously and really wanted guidance. And it didn’t matter.

These were not Jewish people who were coming to get Jewish advice, because at the end of the day, if you’re looking for real common ground between the faith traditions, look at what we call the wisdom, the wisdom literature, because, you know, in terms of Hebrew Bible, it’s Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and so on. It’s the wisdom traditions in the various faiths. And the non-theistic faiths—you know, Confucianism, Taoism, and so on—it is those wisdom traditions that speak to the universals. And I think those great wisdom traditions have not lost their relevance today, and they continue actually to be very enlightening.

MEAD: Okay. Yes.

Q: Thank you very much. Does it work? Yes. Thank you very much, Rabbi Sacks. I’ve very much appreciated everything you’ve been saying. I have a—

MEAD: Can you introduce yourself? Sorry.

Q: Yes. I’m sorry. My name is Aza Khurram (ph) and I serve at the United Nations. And I work with making sure, over the last 11 years, that religion does have a role to play in the development and the politics of the U.N. system.

One of the lessons learned that I wish to share with you for your insights—and Professor Mead, please feel free to also contribute—we have succeeded in making it clear that religion has a role to play in the international policy arena. The problem is that at the same time that this message has now become more acceptable in this very secular multilateral arena, it is also the same time that what you refer to as the secularization of morality is being championed by certain groups and communities within the U.N. system, governments and U.N. agencies.

So there seems to be a clash, because not all the religious leaders who come on board have the same—for lack of a better word, have the same wisdom on the range of human rights issues that the U.N. sees itself committed to. So we find ourselves in a clash between those who, yes, can bring the peaceful to mediate certain dynamics, but some of these same religious leaders also have certain, again, for lack of a better word, very conservative positions on other issues and areas of human rights. It’s hard to reconcile them.

MEAD: Would you be talking about things like women’s rights and gay rights—

Q: Yes.

MEAD: —kinds of issues? Yes.

Q: Exactly. Yes. So the difficulty of reconciling that is also impeding us from being able to translate from the religion is important and religion matters at all times in all things to the political space. How would you advise us to deal with that, so to speak? Or what would your thoughts be on that? And again, Professor Mead, also feel free. Thank you.

MEAD: I yield to the rabbi. I’m a mere layman.

SACKS: Look, this single—this set of issues has the power to split a whole religion apart. I mean, you know, the Anglican communion over gay bishops and issues like that, initially over women bishops, almost split on this. And, you know, it’s a very painful process, holding together the American wing of the church with the African wing of the church. And it’s a really tough one.

And at the end of the day, that really does call for, you know, the kind of leadership that is able to bring people to embrace change without being conscious that they’re actually embracing change. And this needs a little bit of magic somehow. I mean, even the pope is not entirely without his critics on some of his stands. You know, and it’s a tough one.

I mean, let me give you a for instance, okay. Here’s an example. When I became chief rabbi—this is back in 1991, around ‘91-’92—the way sexual relations was being taught in schools became a big national issue. And there were real tensions; I mean, you know, gays interrupting the archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon, barricading around Westminster Cathedral—(inaudible)—Cardinal Hume, the head of the Catholics.

And, you know, just—I said for instance. You know, I’m an Orthodox rabbi. And we are, you know, as set in certain positions as, let’s say, the Catholic Church is. We can’t move anywhere on those. So, you know, among the first things we did was I sat down with the Jewish gays and lesbians. I then sat down with the Orthodox Jewish gays and lesbians. And because we sat down around our special—I had a very little round table, but a little bigger than this, and we call that our conflict resolution table. We had another long, narrow table which was our conflict management table. We didn’t aim for agreement. We just wanted to cool tempers. So we used that table when we wanted to cool. But when we wanted to resolve, we used this little round table.

So however many of us there were, we were sitting around this little table. And we sat around this table, and an extraordinary thing happened. Both groups came and said to me, you know, Chief Rabbi, we know you can’t give us a blessing. We know this. So we’re not asking for it. But we are asking for X, Y, and Zed. When you feel you have to speak about it in public or your rabbis do, please make sure that you are not unnecessarily hurtful, because our sensitivities—we are very vulnerable. We want you to give us a rabbinical counselor that we can go to for our members who are suffering; and all the rest of it—a long list of requests, every one of which was legitimate, because they were not asking me to change my position. They were asking me to understand their position and relate to them as human beings. And I thought—I felt very blessed by both of those encounters.

And then when I convened my rabbis and my religious judges, my dayanim, and I reported to them these conversations and told them that I felt they were entirely legitimate. They weren’t asking us to legitimate them but to understand them and to respect them and so on. And I have to say, all of my rabbis and my rabbinical judges understood completely. And so we were left as the only real religious group in Britain that never had a conflict with these gays and lesbians. And I thought that was a real victory for humanity. It wasn’t a victory for them. It wasn’t a victory for us. This was human beings talking soul to soul.

I think this is very much what Pope Francis is trying to do in his far more elevated way. And I think this is what you need religious leaders to do. People need, on conflicting—you know, people—the great souls, because they are expert listeners, are able to make both sides or many sides of a conflict feel listened to. And since the holiest Jewish prayer of all is called Shema Israel, which means listen, O Israel, I felt that one of my missions was to remind people of this, because there’s good news and bad news about the Jewish. The good news is we’re all pretty good speakers. The bad news is we are terrible listeners.

So, you know, I commend listening as high religious art. And maybe it’s the way we listen, not the way we speak, that may be the way of resolving some of these conflicts.

MEAD: Well, I think we can all hope that when we get invited to Rabbi Sacks’ house, it will be to the small round table and not the long, thin table. (Laughter.) And perhaps when we go to the great conference room above we’ll also be at the round table rather than the long table.

Thank you all for listening.

Rabbi Sacks, thank you. Terrific program. (Applause.)

And may I remind you that there are books in the back for those of you who aren’t fortunate enough already to have a copy. Great. Thank you.


This is an uncorrected transcript.


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