Rabbi Jonathan Sacks speaks at the European Union on Sept. 27, 2016. Photo courtesy of European Union 2016 - European Parliament/Pietro Naj-Oleari

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on clearing scriptural minefields and building interfaith friendships

DURHAM, N.C. (RNS) Rabbi Jonathan Sacks made a name for himself as chief rabbi of Great Britain for nearly a quarter-century, a time of great tumult that included the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the influx of millions of Muslims into Europe and the ongoing pressures to absorb and assimilate newcomers into a mostly secular society.

As chief rabbi from 1991 to 2013, he stressed an appreciation and respect of all faiths, with an emphasis on interfaith work that brings people together while allowing each faith its own particularity.

[ad number=“1”]

His two books, “The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations” and “Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence,” were well-reviewed, and last year he was awarded the Templeton Prize

This week, he visited Duke University to deliver two public lectures and meet with scholars, students and clergy. He also took the time to talk to RNS.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What led you to take on the issue of religiously motivated violence?

I was shaken like other people by 9/11. I stood at Ground Zero among the wreckage with the archbishop of Canterbury, imams from the Middle East and gurus from India. I said this is going to be the battle of our generation, and I resolved to write a book on it because you have to think it through. That book was called “The Dignity of Difference.” I began almost immediately a deeper book, which I rewrote four times, “Not in God’s Name.” So it’s a combination of 15 years of thinking about this.

[ad number=“2”]

How have the political changes of the past year in Europe and the U.S. informed your thinking?

Britain's former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, left, speaks during a news conference after being awarded the 2016 Templeton Prize as Jennifer Templeton Simpson, granddaughter of John Templeton, watches in London on March 2, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Paul Hackett

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

What we’re facing here is a whole series of interlinking factors. First, there’s a wave of counterrevolutions in the Islamic world — revolutions against secular nationalism, a process set in motion in Iran in 1979.

Undergirding all of this is one of the great revolutions in world history: the revolution brought about by the internet, by instantaneous communication. This is a revolution at least as great as the invention of printing. It’s affecting Western economies. It’s behind the presidential elections in the U.S. It lies behind the Brexit vote. It lies behind the politics of anger in the West. In any movement of epoch-making change there are winners and losers. The losers feel people are not taking them seriously, and then there’s the rise of populism. Populism is the politics of the strong leader.

And then there is a third phenomenon, and one is loath to use the phrase, which is the sense of the decline of the West. You see that in particular in the fraying of families and communities, which leaves whole swaths of people without the traditional networks of support. You’re dealing with three big crises. When they come together, it’s the perfect storm.

[ad number=“3”]

How does religion play into it?

In the Middle East and elsewhere, political protest is taking religious form. We haven’t seen that in the West since Martin Luther. The great rows in the 16th and 17th centuries were religious rows. The cliché is right: Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. The West has forgotten what religious revolution looks like. Religion isn’t something you do just in the home or in a house of worship. You can sometimes take it to the street, and we’ve forgotten how dangerous that can be.

You’re meeting with clergy this week. Is there any one message you want to convey to them?

Pope Benedict XVI, left, receives a gift by Lord Jonathan Sacks, center, then chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, during a private audience at the Vatican on Dec. 12, 2011. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Osservatore Romano

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Yes. We all have hard texts in our sacred scriptures that have been the source of estrangement, hatred and violence. For the past few centuries we haven’t worried about those texts because for the past few centuries no one has taken religion seriously outside the home and the house of worship. But now religion has become a factor in world politics. We have not yet cleared the mines from the minefields. There are hard texts in each tradition which me must confront and ask ourselves, ‘Can we reinterpret those texts to allow us to live peaceably and respectfully with people of other faiths?’ That is a job only Jews can do for Judaism, only Christians can do for Christianity and only Muslims can do for Islam. But sometimes the sight of someone in one faith wrestling with that faith can empower you to wrestle with another faith.

For me, it was reading about how the Catholic Church wrestled with itself in the 1960s. Pope John XXIII set Nostra Aetate (the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions) in motion. It changed the relationship between Jews and Catholics. Today Jews and Catholics meet as friends. If you can do that after the longest history of hatred the world has known, that empowers you as a Jew or a Muslim to wrestle with your faith.

What role can interfaith dialogue take?

I distinguish between two kinds of interfaith engagement: what I call face to face and side by side. Face to face is interfaith dialogue. As a religious leader, I encourage even more side by side. When you’ve got Jews and Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus removing graffiti from buildings or getting drug dealers off the street, that’s side by side. When you do that, you take it from the very elevated level of interfaith dialogue to the street level of neighbors. You get them working side by side and they become friends. Friendship sometimes counts for more than interfaith agreement or understanding. Friendship is deeply human. Let’s say there were, God forbid, riots in Birmingham. The fact that laypeople in that community are friends can stop that from happening very fast. Local friendships are very powerful.


  1. “Love your neighbour as yourself,” help them to share in Christ’s blessings by becoming a Christian.

  2. So, does this involve stalking the forced convert, making sure they stay in lock step with the rest of the flock?

  3. The Rabbi makes very thoughtful arguments that at least may temper our level of conduct even when we disagree. But we should be able to engage in a civil manner without necessarily reinterpreting scripture to achieve that end. The Rabbi speaks of “hard texts,’ I prefer the concept of hard truths expressed compassionately.

  4. “The [Templeton] prize has been criticized: British biologist Richard Dawkins said in his book The God Delusion that the prize was given ‘usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion’ ” — Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Templeton_Prize

    What a closed-minded, disrespectful, antitheism-sowing, antiatheism-reaping, anti-coexistential jerk.
    If only Mr. Dawkins could face, say, Tony Perkins on WWE Raw:

    “When that much matter and antimatter are brought together, ah yes…”
    — Lt. Commander Montgomery Scott, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”

  5. “When you’ve got Jews and Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus removing graffiti from buildings or getting drug dealers off the street, that’s side by side. When you do that, you take it from the very elevated level of interfaith dialogue to the street level of neighbors(sic).”

    Whether intentionally or not the exclusion from the list of people of no-faith (and as he knows full well more than half the population of Britain claims no religious allegiance) is reminiscent of the fact that inter-faith is sometimes interpreted as a weapon to maintain some kind (any kind is better than none) of religious observance. After all the first need is to have a cake to cut, squabbles over who gets how much cake depend upon there being a cake to fight over don’t they?.

  6. “Love your neighbour as yourself,” How arrogant and self-aggrandising that saying is – in whatever context, religious or not – what it says is “be perfect like me”.

    I prefer “Do whatever you will provided that it hurts no-one” Not always possible of course but an attitude that encourages consideration for others rather than self-justification.

  7. “Men of Israel,” he said, “and you God-fearing Gentiles, listen to me.

    “The God of this nation of Israel chose our ancestors and made them multiply and grow strong during their stay in Egypt. Then with a powerful arm he led them out of their slavery. He put up with them through forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Then he destroyed seven nations in Canaan and gave their land to Israel as an inheritance. All this took about 450 years.

    “After that, God gave them judges to rule until the time of Samuel the prophet. Then the people begged for a king, and God gave them Saul son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, who reigned for forty years. But God removed Saul and replaced him with David, a man about whom God said, ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart. He will do everything I want him to do.’

    “And it is one of King David’s descendants, Jesus, who is God’s promised Savior of Israel! Before he came, John the Baptist preached that all the people of Israel needed to repent of their sins and turn to God and be baptized. As John was finishing his ministry he asked, ‘Do you think I am the Messiah? No, I am not! But he is coming soon—and I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the sandals on his feet.’

    “Brothers—you sons of Abraham, and also you God-fearing Gentiles—this message of salvation has been sent to us! The people in Jerusalem and their leaders did not recognize Jesus as the one the prophets had spoken about. Instead, they condemned him, and in doing this they fulfilled the prophets’ words that are read every Sabbath. They found no legal reason to execute him, but they asked Pilate to have him killed anyway.

    “When they had done all that the prophecies said about him, they took him down from the cross and placed him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead! And over a period of many days he appeared to those who had gone with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to the people of Israel.

    “And now we are here to bring you this Good News. The promise was made to our ancestors, and God has now fulfilled it for us, their descendants, by raising Jesus. This is what the second psalm says about Jesus:

    ‘You are my Son.
    Today I have become your Father.’

    For God had promised to raise him from the dead, not leaving him to rot in the grave. He said, ‘I will give you the sacred blessings I promised to David.’ Another psalm explains it more fully: ‘You will not allow your Holy One to rot in the grave.’ This is not a reference to David, for after David had done the will of God in his own generation, he died and was buried with his ancestors, and his body decayed. No, it was a reference to someone else—someone whom God raised and whose body did not decay.

    “Brothers, listen! We are here to proclaim that through this man Jesus there is forgiveness for your sins. Everyone who believes in him is made right in God’s sight—something the law of Moses could never do.

    Acts 13:16-39

  8. Not interested 2,000 years ago, not interested now.

  9. We’re not interested in your version of “blessings.”

  10. It wouldn’t be my version. It would be Christ’s version. Blessings Arb

  11. Christ said “be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect”. Matthew 5:48

  12. He also told us to ask “Our father which art in Heaven” to “lead us not into temptation”.

    Do you think that
    a) leading us into temptation is possible if God is perfect? – if so we should lead other people into temptation in order to be perfect as well, shouldn’t we? or
    b) God wouldn’t lead us into temptation but wants us to think he might?

  13. The greater the level of fundamentalism the lower the odds for interfaith, tolerance and civility.

  14. Right after I was baptized, the church biddies didn’t waste time on going after me. I bailed at 14 and was working full time on Sundays by 18. Never looked back.

  15. Well, I consider myself somewhat fundamentalist in my approach to faith. To take things on a fundamental basis is framed negatively in the present usage, but that is a misapplication of the true definition of the term. I strive diligently to be civil, tolerant and open to interfaith dialogue, without altering my fundamental beliefs.

  16. You use the word “test”, allegedly Jesus used the word “temptation”. Either way we mean deliberately, with prior thought, creating or allowing a situation in which someone may, unnecessarily, fail; perhaps by doing wrong either to themselves or to another. This may be a physical wrong or, if you are so minded, a spiritual wrong. Either way harm and/or failure is believed to be possible.

    Being perfectly good means, amongst other things, caring for other beings. Caring means protecting from harm; not deliberately imposing it. Deliberately causing, encouraging or permitting harm is bad. Anyone or thing which is bad is not perfectly good. QED

  17. Give…www.biblehub.com….no sarcasm intended whatsoever.
    If you want to understand it, look up James 1. Gives a perfect description of your query.

  18. Looked it up – Sorry Sandi – it’s utter nonsense.

    Having said that it’s probably as good a load of nonsense as I could have come up with when I was inside the bubble.

    Think about it – Your God (you believe) created a universe and populated it with creatures whom he knew would suffer physical and emotional torments. Some would live their short lives in perpetual hunger, some would be eaten alive by parasites, some drowned or asphyxiated by “acts of God”, some would be so mentally damaged as to hurt themselves as well as others, arthritis, dementia, cancer, polio etc. etc. etc.. He knew all this and he still went ahead. He was so selfish he, for whatever reason, set the torture chamber in motion. Eventually he wiped out almost all his creation but ensured that his act of mass murder would be ineffective because he deliberately left the problem (people) intact enough to repeat the cycle. Then he ordered genocide and approved of rape and slavery before deciding that he would (temporarily) kill his Son-persona just so that he could justify eternal torment for most of the lab-rats he made.

    If such a being were remotely possible you might be justified in calling it perfect – but not good. Compared to the litany of evil he has deliberately caused a little bit of temptation would almost be minor. Temptation to murder, to rape, to physically or emotionally destroy – kids stuff really – but still certain evidence that your god is not good.

    You won’t see it, you can’t see it, because your ability to question the rationality of Christianity is long gone. That’s why religion is so dangerous to morality and to humanity – someone will give you a few empty phrases (as you passed on to me above) and the horrific, wicked reality of your conviction will be lost in an uncritical subservient mixture of relief and belief.

    And the saddest thing of all – I have absolutely no doubt that you genuinely believe that you are right.

Leave a Comment