The Dignity of Difference

On Yom Kippur in Mishnaic times, our ancestors would push a goat — a symbolic sin – off a nearby cliff. In England, we tend to do this to our chief rabbis. During recent times, the reason has been an injudicious remark to the press about Israel government policy. This in turn provokes a demand from Israel to Anglo-Jewry to rid themselves of this turbulent priest, which then causes communal grandees to rally round their beloved chief rabbi.

Such theatre involved Immanuel Jakobovits 20 years ago, and during recent weeks it has starred the present incumbent, Jonathan Sacks who was being his latest book, a Jewish answer to Samuel Huntingdon’s Clash of Civilisations.

Unfortunately a British chief rabbi has to fill many roles: independent thinker, conformist macher, defender of the faith —and the Jewish equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the eyes of the great British public. It is not an easy job, and Jonathan Sacks must ask himself each morning: ‘Who am I supposed to be today?’ It is therefore all the more unfortunate that the latest controversy has overshadowed a very interesting book

It confronts the incredible changes which globalalisation has inflicted on the world — and the reaction to it. It asks: is the clash of civilizations inevitable? – especially after 11 September — and what can be done about it. When the pace of change exceeds the ability of human beings to adapt, people feel that they are losing control of their lives. Sacks argues that ‘anxiety creates fear, fear leads to anger, anger breeds violence and violence — when combined with weapons of mass destruction — becomes a deadly reality.’ Religion and its leaders can play a vital role. It can be a source of discord, he suggests, but it can also be a form of conflict resolution.

Evangelical religion — Islam as well as Christianity — has been viewed as the answer to the side-effects of global capitalism which Sacks defines as “its inequities, its consumerism and exploitation, its failure to address widespread poverty and disease, its juggernaut insensitivity to local traditions and cultures, and the spiritual poverty that can go hand in hand with material wealth.”

Sacks further argues that it is conservative religious movements, the movements of reaction to modernity, that lead the masses. But he is equally convinced that it is within this arena that “the struggle for tolerance, coexistence and non-violence must be fought.” Judaism is ideally placed to wrestle with such complex problems since the prophets of ancient Israel were the first to speak of a God who transcended national boundaries. Moreover, Jews as an international people were the first to experience a global dispersion.

Judaism, he suggests, stands in contradistinction to all the great civilizations. It is a particularist monotheism which believes in one God, but not in one religion or one culture or even one truth. “The God of Abraham is the God of all mankind, but the faith of Abraham is not the faith of all mankind.”

Sacks proposes that God has made a covenant with the whole of humanity, but He has commanded the Jews to be different In order ‘to teach humanity the dignity of difference.” It is the unity of God that has created the diversity of religions.

Western religions have been conditioned by Greek philosophy – haunted by Plalto’s ghost. This has given rise to five universalist cultures: Greece, Rome, Christianity, Islam and the Enlightenment. They brought much to the world, but they aiso extinguished ancient customs and cultural differences. The sixth universal order, Sacks argues, is the era of globalization — the media, the multinationals, the Internet.

The Bible commences with the universal and progresses to the particular. In Sacks’s eyes, it represents the great anti-Platonic narrative in Western civilisation.

Judaism in all its particularism resisted the temptation to conform, and goes beyond a tribalism which denies rights to the outsider, or a universalism which only grants tights if the outsider conforms and assimilates. Sacks writes that “Judaism was born as a protest against empires, because imperialism and its latter-day successors, totalitarianism and fundamentalism, are attempts to impose a single truth on a plural world, to reduce men to Man, cultures to a single culture, to eliminate diversity in the name of a single socio-political order.

All heady stuff, but Sacks is no religious Bolshevik, more a liberal conservative who believes in the efficacy of the market economy. But he has many questions about the moral dimensions of the market as a global age. He thus tackles tzedaka and compassion, the imperative of education, civil society and its institutions the problem of environmental sustainability. All this suggests capitalism with boundaries such that it doesn’t inflict too much damage — similar to Jabotinsky’s approach of capitalism with a human face in the 1930s.

Such a belief in the supremacy of the market despite its flaws reflects Sacks’ own background, more the middle class Mizrachi than the workers’ Hapoel Hamizrachi. Sacks argued that the rabbis favoured the free market and open competition because they generated wealth, lowered prices, increased choice,” But did the rabbis have any option in the times in which they lived? The universalism of the Enlightenment produced an attempt to challenge such hierarchies, to produce a level playing field for all, which not only             the paternalism of the employees but also that of the rabbis. Clearly the egalitarianism of the religious kibbutz network would not fit it into this imagery. In the same breath, Sacks talks about the flight from Reaganomics and Thatcherism. This is all very New Labor (if it’s New,’ it must be good) with its potent ‘mixture of admiration for big business and need for social amelioration.

Sacks places great emphasis on listening to the other — ‘the greatest single antidote to violence is conversation.’ It all sounds very rational. If only.

This approach is underlined – despite the recent controversy — by a passing reference to the Israel-Palestine conflict: a few lines in a 200-page book. The solution is two states, “roughly coinciding with existing centres of population, an agreement about Jerusalem and holy sites so that each has access to places important to them, joint supervision of shared resources such as water, and an international accord about the future of displaced refugees.”

All suitably well intentioned — and vague. But does this mean the division of Jerusalem or not? One discerns a cry for peace and a yearning for a solution, albeit deliberately not spelled out.

This book is far more interesting for its discussion of faith and philosophy than for its determination of concrete politics. Perhaps this is the task of rabbis, to explain and guide rather than to rule and legislate. Jonathan Sacks writes well; every sentence counts, but the space behind the grandiloquence always leaves room for interpretation. It is this ambiguity which wins him as many admirers as detractors.

Jerusalem Post 6 September 2002

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