Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes a case in his new book, Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence (Schocken, Oct.), that violence in the name of religion stems from misreading the Book of Genesis. Casting a new look at God’s relationships with Abraham's sons Jacob, the patriarch of Judaism; and Ishmael, the patriarch of Islam, Sacks describes what he calls a “sibling rivalry” between the monotheistic religions. PW caught up with the Chief rabbi emeritus of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth to discuss the misunderstandings that pose deadly threats today.
Not in God’s Name describes how religious violence, especially between Jews and Muslims, is rooted in “an intense sibling rivalry.” Can you explain more about that and how your research pointed to it?
Obviously, whenever you get civilizations that are very different innately, they clash, but somehow there’s been a particular depth and tenacity and bitterness between the three Abrahamic monotheisms that really cried out for explanation. Once 9/11 happened, I realized we had to look at all three Abrahamic monotheisms. We had to travel back more deeply, and perhaps less theologically and simply more humanly, to the kind of narratives that have shaped Jewish, Christian, and Muslim understandings—the stories they tell themselves about where they came from, [which] all trace back to Abraham. I realized that if I wanted to develop a theology for the 21st century, I had to go back to the Book of Genesis. Sibling rivalry is the central theme in Genesis, so there seems to have been awareness from the very beginning.
Why has no one ever given a new reading of these Genesis narratives before?
The answer is because when people read the narratives before, Jews were reading them among Jews, Christians among Christians, and Muslims among Muslims. So they could live with the fact of the “chosen son” and this “rejected son,” and [fundamentalists think,] “we are the chosen son, [the other religions] are the rejected one.” What I discovered beneath the surface is all of these narratives have a concealed counter-intuitive narrative which we can only really see when we become mature enough to make space for people not like us. Once you think about it deeply enough, that God’s love is subject to a law of scarcity makes no sense at all.
Where do you think the solution lies to the strife between Jews, Christians, and Muslims?
I think we have to begin now to raise a new generation of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders whose theology is based on what I called the principle of plenitude rather than the principle of scarcity, and who therefore do not feel threatened by the other and who are able to take our shared narratives and build on those a framework—theologically, not just politically—of generous coexistence.
What is one thing you want readers to take away from Not in God’s Name?
That being in favor of peace, coexistence, and mutual respect is not a kind of compromise. It is not an act of secularization; it is what God is calling us to do right now. This is a religious imperative as much as it is a secular one. And so I’ve tried to speak to people of faith to say God is calling us to the most difficult challenge we have ever faced. Jews have learned to live with other Jews, Christians with other Christians, Muslims with other Muslims, now we have to learn to live with difference, with people whose faith is radically different than ours. That means we have to go back to those earlier Genesis stories where brothers do not have to be enemies.